I’ve been thinking it’s time for an excerpt. This is from a chapter called “Law of the Jungle.” It was published last year in The Chattahoochee Review. I suppose it’s not surprising that there is a fair bit of animalia in a book called The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, but this chapter, in particular, investigates some of my fascination with the four-legged world.Now this is the Law of the Jungle— as old and as true as the sky; And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die. – Rudyard Kipling
They’d been tucked between the electric hued running shoes and the prim ballet flats: a pair of Coach wedge sandals the color of cognac. They were almost seventy percent off. And they were leather—which is why I shouldn’t have tried them on in the first place and why I’d been carrying them around for a good quarter of an hour trying to make up my mind whether to take them back to the shoe department or up to the register and accept that I was a hypocrite.
I’d been iffy about consuming pork since reading Charlotte’s Web as a kid, but the whole hog vegan thing was relatively new. And even though I hadn’t started for political or ethical reasons, they’d begun to bleed in. I’d search “vegan waffles” and end up reading that dairy cows bellowed for days when their calves were taken away or how chickens’ beaks were cauterized to prevent pecking in cages. I read that going vegan for a year had the same environmental impact as not driving your car for the same length of time. I felt virtuous. People ate animals and animals ate each other (and sometimes people) and maybe that was the natural order of things, but it felt good not to contribute to that particular brand of suffering.
I walked around Marshalls in a daze. I was feeling keenly the fact that in two days I’d be spending the weekend with my family at a cousin’s wedding. Impending family visits always make me want to buy stuff. It’s some kind of armoring. It wasn’t like this one purchase would undo all the good I’d done all year, I said to myself by the men’s tracksuits. What about that not driving a car statistic? I’m a disgusting, horrible person, I thought near the Burberry dog beds. Vain, entitled, colonizer, murderer! I was borderline hyperventilating which was kind of turning Marshalls into a Dali painting. Seriously, I thought, what kind of crazy person loses her shit over a pair of shoes? Just buy them or don’t. Stop having a panic attack. I felt sick. I got in line; I bought the shoes. I wore them to my cousin’s rehearsal dinner where the only vegan food was beer.
Emerson said, “First be a good animal.” Live in your body. Pay attention to what’s present and necessary. But being an animal is messy. It’s violent sometimes, brutal. Maybe, I thought in the Marshalls’ checkout line, I’m too soft. I’m too much rabbit, not enough wolf. Maybe if I were more bloodthirsty, I’d be more successful. Maybe I’d have written twenty books. I mean, what does a fucking rabbit have to show for itself anyway?
Maybe instead of going vegan, I should have adopted the paleo diet whose proponents advocate plenty of meat. One guy’s motto is, “Die biting the throat.” He’d like the video I found online of Polynesian women who kill octopuses by fishing them out of their coral holes and biting them between the eyes. I, on the other hand, had to stop frequenting my favorite cute animal website because the Humane Society started running an ad in the margin with an image of a sad-eyed pig in a crate. I couldn’t tolerate the misery in that pig’s eyes. I wish I were made of sterner stuff.
In my family, it was law of the jungle, eat or be eaten. Heed the rustle of brush, the scent in the air that tells you to run, the low growl that says you were born to have teeth in your throat. Predator and prey, fight, flight—the whole epic panorama unfolded. I’m done with it, now—I’m grown—yet ordinary things can trigger that same old panic: a scene in a movie, worrying I’ve said or done the wrong thing, buying a pair of shoes. Maybe the paleo guy is on to something. I need to get in touch with my inner wolf.
Sunday nights as kids, we watched National Geographic and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, programs that taught us that the world was brutal, and pretty much everyone gets a taste of that brutality. It was so emotionally complicated. I didn’t know whom to root for—the antelope running for its life or the lion—a kitty, after all, with roly-poly cubs, which needed to eat. It was awful, the way things were. But there was no sense in being a baby about it. And there was no sense in rooting for both. You could endorse both lions and antelopes in general, but you couldn’t champion a particular lion and the antelope he wanted for dinner. A lion wasn’t made to eat leaves and berries. It had to eat things with hooves and beating hearts. It had to crush windpipes, break necks, stun and gut and gnaw unrepentantly on the viscera of still breathing victims, no matter how much it clutched at the hearts of children watching in suburban TV rooms. Compunction, regret would make it impossible for the lion to survive.
I learned other things from animals, too. They demonstrated useful practices: surveillance, containment, quiet. I thought it might be possible, if I really applied myself, to crack the code of their secret languages. People in books had done it—Dr. Doolittle, Merlin, Pippi. I crouched on sidewalks and chirped to vagabond cats. I squinted at twilit telephone wires to make out which bird was warbling which song and if they were talking to each other. I rested my head on the barreled rib cage of my uncle’s enormous, semi-feral dog when he took a break from terrorizing the neighborhood. I listened to the seagulls that wheeled and shrieked above the ferry when we crossed the Vineyard Sound. I watched wolves and big cats in the zoo pad Morse codes of boredom and distress in loop after loop of their enclosures; I left handprints on the thick glass of the gorillas’ habitat. I thought, I’m sorry, as hard as I could. We see what we need to in animals. They show us ourselves. Our suffering, our fear, our wildness. I imagined all of them saying the same thing to me, the same word in clicks and shrieks and snuffling breath: Escape.
Every summer my mom, my sisters, Molly and Sam, and I drove to the Atlantic coast, stopping, en route, in the New England town where my grandfather and cousins lived next door to each other on a leafy street. The long highway that led there shimmered like charcoal in a grill. Sealed in the air-conditioned station wagon, we slid by green and white signs, picked salty M&Ms out of a Ziploc of trail mix and every few hours pulled off for gas, a pee and a Coke. I watched people at rest stops—eating, drinking, using the bathroom, taking care of the animal things they needed to do. The world was full of animals on two legs and four, on wings in the sky. The world was full of secret languages and pursuit and flight. Sometimes I’d dawdle, shift out of my mother’s view for an instant behind some large bottomed lady in Bermuda shorts or a man with a camera or milkshake and wait for the moment when my mother realized I was missing. I relished the panic that flitted across her face when she couldn’t see me in the crowd. She’d call my name, then, in a voice laced with fear, and I resented her—even more if people turned to look. My escape was small, surreptitious, unreal. It was easy to slip away, but I couldn’t stay gone. I had to get back in the car and back on the road with my mother and sisters, all of us swigging Cokes from icy, sweating cans.