From the National Bestselling author of The Boat Runner comes a poignant, luminous novel that follows one family over decades and across the world—perfect for fans of the film Boyhood.
Western New York, 1978: Jamie, Lewis, and Connor Thurber watch their parents’ destructive dance of loving, hating, and drinking. Terrance Thurber spends this year teaching his children about the natural world: they listen to the heartbeat of trees, track animal footprints, sleep under the star-filled sky. Despite these lessons, he doesn’t show them how to survive without him. And when these seasons of trying and failing to quit booze and be a better man are over,
From the National Bestselling author of The Boat Runner comes a poignant, luminous novel that follows one family over decades and across the world—perfect for fans of the film Boyhood.
Western New York, 1978: Jamie, Lewis, and Connor Thurber watch their parents’ destructive dance of loving, hating, and drinking. Terrance Thurber spends this year teaching his children about the natural world: they listen to the heartbeat of trees, track animal footprints, sleep under the star-filled sky. Despite these lessons, he doesn’t show them how to survive without him. And when these seasons of trying and failing to quit booze and be a better man are over, Terrance is gone.
Alone with their artist mother, Catrin, the Thurber children are left to grapple with the anger they feel for the one parent who deserted them and a growing resentment for the one who didn’t. As Catrin withdraws into her own world, Jamie throws herself into painting while her brothers smash out their rage in brutal, no-holds-barred football games with neighborhood kids. Once they can leave—Jamie for college, Lewis for the navy, and Connor for work—they don’t look back.
But Terrance does. Crossing the country, sobering up, and starting over has left him with razor-sharp regret. Terrance doesn’t know that Jamie, now an academic, inhabits an ever-shrinking circle of loneliness; that Lewis, a merchant marine, fears life on dry land; that Connor struggles to connect with the son he sees teetering on an all-too-familiar edge. He only knows that he has one last try to build a bridge, through the years, to his family.
Composed of a series of touchstone moments, Tiny Americans is a thrilling and bittersweet rendering of a family that, much like the tides, continues to come together and drift apart.
- Harper Perennial
- March 2019
- 256 Pages
“Epic in scope, Tiny Americans is a poignant examination of the ties that bind a family, and how enduring those ties may be.” — Kathleen Barber, author of Are You Sleeping
“Devin Murphy is a writer who can do it all. With Tiny Americans, he gives us the Thurbers, some of the most complicated, most endearing, and most memorable characters I’ve ever read. The smallest details of their lives are vested, effortlessly, with enormous power and exquisite prose. I turned the pages, breathless, and yet the scope of the novel is nothing short of epic. When people say fiction is true, this is the kind of story they mean—wherever you are and whenever you read it, you’ll see that Tiny Americans is the thing that you needed.” — Nicholas Mainieri, author of The Infinite
“Absorbing and affecting, Devin Murphy’s Tiny Americans looks unflinchingly at a family’s early unraveling and tracks how such sorrow reverberates over the years. But in moments large and small, we also glimpse the characters’ great capacity for love and an aching hope for forgiveness and connection. A sweeping and powerful family novel.” — Bryn Chancellor, author of Sycamore
1. What are the central conflicts in the Thurber family and how do they influence the trajectory of each family member?
2. Which character became your favorite? Your least favorite? Was there a member of the Thurber family who resonated with you the most? How did your opinions of these people change through the book?
3. How has the notion of family changed for each of these characters? What does family mean to you?
4. How does the past play out in the lives of each of the Thurber children? Does this evoke a sense of the past as a living entity in your own life?
5. What kinds of love exist in the book and where? (e.g. romantic love, familial love, love of friends, for self, and love of the natural world)
6. How does the creative streak that runs through the Thurber family manifest itself? Is it a gift or a burden to have this need to create?
7. Why do you think the author chose to structure the book by jumping over large swaths of time to keep checking in on his characters as they evolve in their own lives? What was your favorite chapter?
8. This one family covers a lot of miles in their travels. Why do you think they feel the need to scatter? Lewis lives perhaps the most unconventional life working at sea. Why does he make this his career and what pitfalls and rewards come to him because of his profession?
9. How do the Thurber family dynamics evolve over the span of these characters lives? What events imprint themselves on these characters the most? Were any of the experiences the Thurber family members had to go through similar to your own life?
10. What role do secrets have in families? Do you feel that they are more likely to unite families or drive them apart? How does secret-keeping shape the Thurber family?
11. What might redemption look like for each of the members of the Thurber family?
12. Do you feel the title, Tiny Americans, accurately represents the novel? Why or Why not? Does the story of this one family say anything about America as a whole?
Jamie Thurber, 1978
In the fall of 1978, our father brought home a stack of books from the library on activities to do with us kids as an attempt to get himself sober. He had Taking the Kids Outside, The Dangerous and Exciting Backyard, old back issues of Seventeen and Boys’ Life magazines, and Boy Scouts training manuals. I was thirteen and my two little brothers, Lewis and Connor, were ten and nine. Of course we didn’t know it at the time, but from that point on, what he read the night before would be implemented the following morning as the day’s activities, and for a year this became his new parenting style.
“Today we are going to find the heartbeat of a tree,” he bellowed into our bedrooms on a Saturday morning in September. We were to dress and meet him on the front porch in fifteen minutes. Our father had traded with a truck driver fireworks from his shop for a contact microphone and headphones. He used to run his store like a pawnshop, trading goods that he’d bring home for himself or for us kids. We each took a turn wearing the headphones while he placed the microphone into the warped knothole of a hollow tree. “That’s the heartbeat,” he told us as the soft shivering sound snuck into our ears.
That calming sound momentarily soothed the coil of nerves that had gripped me since childhood, and that I could not seem to shake. By the third tree, my father was yelling at my brothers again—“Boys, quit your grab-assin’!”—and he handed me the microphone and tried to separate their wrestling match. “Come on. Sit and be patient like your sister,” he told them, and pointed to me sitting at the base of a large elm. I hunched closer to the tree like a dutiful daughter and let the rhythmic crackling and distant gurgling noises seep into my bones.
“The noises come from grubs nibbling away at the wood,” he said, but I was beyond his voice and was already convinced everything around me was alive.
From what I could tell, our father’s amped-up efforts at parenting began after my parents started going on their Wednesday night “dates,” which really meant marriage-counseling sessions in town. It was one of the only times they were consistently in close proximity. If they were both at home together chaos usually broke out.
“You’re not even listening, Terrance. Just listen for once, will you,” our mother yelled. “You were told to be a better listener.”
“Well, I was also told to tell you when you are being impossible to love, remember that?” he yelled back.
Then they’d quickly lash out at each other, going for the seams to tear the other down or reverting to a silence that wouldn’t break until our father became too agitated to sit still. Then he took us kids outside and gave us lists of things we needed to learn, as if he were trying to systematically force on us an interest in the world.
“You have to know the world you’re in to know who you are in the world,” he said. Then we moved on to learning a list of backyard bugs, which he was in a hurry to teach us, like something essential was on the line. This only made us anxious instead of satiating anything in him. We’d race one another to find millipedes, crickets, grasshoppers, and potato bugs, which I secretly envied for their ability to curl up in their instant armor.
That October, he woke us early and we spent a long weekend making a stone oven in our backyard out of used cinder blocks, red bricks, and clay we dug out of the river bank that bordered the far end of the cemetery. He never considered what it looked like to people driving by who saw us carrying industrial-strength black garbage bags laden with clay, and shovels slung over our shoulders as we crept out of the graveyard.
There was also our aborted attempt at a compost heap that flattened and spread out into a smelly brown splotch of eggshells, rinds, and earth in the far corner of the yard. We made jack-o’-lanterns and collected pine cones. Connor and Lewis chased the Canadian geese that populated the cemetery. They would get real close and run away when the birds raised their wings and hissed. We collected their feathers, which I dipped in ink and used to write out my homework. We did leaf and bark rubbings until we had imprints of almost everything in the woods on our thin white papers. I suspected this was all an attempt to keep us out of the house so our father wouldn’t have to go back inside and be with our mother.
My mother had her own obsessions. She was an artist and kept her studio in town, where she could often be found working on her sculptures and paintings. The paintings rotating on our walls correlated to whatever period she was in. My brothers brought several boys from their school to our house to stand at the shrine of Naked Women #17 during my mother’s “live art” period when our walls were fleshed with life-size drawings of nude people that she framed herself.
Then there was her fascination with Indonesian shadow puppets. She painted a large series of them using dark pastel acrylics. The puppets were solid-white reliefs against prismatic-colored backgrounds. They looked like Nefertiti-esque skeletons frozen in terrifying pirouettes. She brought those puppet paintings home one at a time. My father, brothers, and I stood around the walls with her, looking at what she had hung, wondering if we were supposed to interpret some kind of meaning she could not express any other way.
The shadow puppet she brought home that fall was the brightest. The white outline of the puppet was more demonic than the rest, as if the dark, silent shadow at the center of our lives had been emboldened to dance. I positioned myself between my brothers when she unveiled it.
“This is one of your best yet!” my father said.
“I like the colors,” Lewis said.
“Me too,” echoed Connor.
“This feels wonderful,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was talking about the painting itself or standing there with them all together, but my mother kneeled next to me and engulfed me in her arms.
“Thank you,” she whispered soft and warm into my ear, perhaps realizing I would forever remember her embrace.
Despite these few happy moments my mother shared with my brothers and me, neither we nor her art were quite enough to keep her rooted in our world. Whatever sadness haunted her kept its firm grip on her ankles and would not relent. So she kept herself steady by drinking, and by afternoon the drinking gave a lovely brightness to her face. From far away she looked like a blushing girl. It was only when you were very close that you noticed the faint explosions of capillaries just under the skin.
Over the course of the day she became more animated. Her German accent waned by lunch, so her voice trickled like smooth honey-water. By sunset, she was back to her thick, bitten-off syllables. Then, late at night, when she woke us up, I tried to understand her, really understand her, but it was almost always too difficult.
That November, she rolled onto my brothers’ beds cheering because the Buffalo Bills won their night game. From Connor’s bed to Lewis’s, she bounced and whooped, and I watched from the doorway as in their half sleep they got excited and joined her heathen celebration. But I never asked what they really thought once they were fully awake, and realized they had never seen her watch a football game, and that her cries of “We won. We won!” were nothing more than some mistimed attempt to connect with her sons.
The next day, our father waited for us at the bus stop after school, pacing around in anxious little circles with red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes.
“Come on, I want to show you something,” he said, and loaded us into the back of his old 1964 four-door powder-blue Oldsmobile—a large, boxy land yacht with one of the floorboards in the back seat rusted away, which allowed my brothers and me to watch the road fly past beneath our feet.
“Don’t put your feet in the hole!” he yelled.
Eventually my brothers learned to scoop up handfuls of gravel from the driveway before getting into the car. They dropped the pebbles through the hole and watched out the back window to see where they ricocheted.
He drove us to a pond south of town, on the outskirts of a horse farm. The trees along the road were posted with Private Property signs. He parked the car, and the three of us followed him into the autumn woods. There, he took a bucket and scooped it full of pond water so we could look at the life inside: pond skaters, dragonfly nymphs, pond snails, and whirling beetles.
“This is where the real life is out here,” he sighed to us. He had a magnifying glass that we used to find and collect frog eggs. When he found some eggs, we scooped them into a mason jar, which we took home to watch as the eggs slowly cracked open and the tadpoles grew bulbous foreheads, hind- and then forelegs, until we had a handful of frogs that needed releasing into our local stream.
In the evenings, I eavesdropped on my parents when they attempted sitting together on the back porch. They talked about the firework shop, painting, and the philosophy books my father brought home from the Olean Public Library. My father loved those books. He thought they were near sacred, and I’d listen to him talk about them from my window until my parents’ voices began to slur from their drinking. Then I’d listen for the call-and-response of their tiny mood swings and the endless surrenders they required of each other. I’d lurch into fitful sleep wishing I could stretch my arms out the window, down the side of the house, and rest a hand on each of their shoulders to calm them—to let them feel how much I loved them both.
It was after one of those heavy-drinking nights that turned into something heated, my mother came to find me in my sleep. She woke me by shaking my shoulders until I sat up and looked at her. It was one of the last moments where there wasn’t anything truly wrong between us.
“Don’t ever have children,” she said, looking me squarely in the eye. “Promise me you won’t ever have children.”
She was sullen, her words piercing through my sleep, and I saw her standing in the center of my life like a glass sculpture—translucent blue and desperately fragile.
I wanted to yell at her but swallowed those feelings because I didn’t know what hidden need was pulling at her to say those things. The trajectory of her day was always building upward to some manic excitement about one thing or another, always ending like some sort of fabulous Roman candle, flowing light for a few incendiary moments before leaving that phantom path in the dark where the tails of fire had been.
I could never fully piece together why my parents were the way they were. The facts were shadowy; my parents were shadowy; everything about our entire lives was blurry-eyed—her from Europe, him from Montana, both seeming just as far away. When I was feeling brave I’d ask about their earlier lives. When I asked my mother how she and my dad came to be married, she told me that they dated for a while first.
“Mostly we were fooling around,” she said. “Once, he came into my apartment, burst through the doors from outside, soaking wet from the rainstorm he’d marched through, and stood there with a giant smile on his face and stared at me like he was really happy with life and thrilled to find me standing there.”
“I mean it was my apartment!” she said. “Who was he expecting to be there?”
“Then he said he wanted to dance with me and came toward me. I didn’t want him touching me dripping wet like that, so I moved out of the way, took one step to the side, and the drunk fool goes crashing by me. Both of his hands smashed clean through the drywall in my hallway.”
She said all this like people were always showing up at her place, falling-down-drunk with inarticulate confessions of love, and crashing through walls like a cartoon character.
Because I never knew when my brothers were going to charge in, or when our father was going to call for me to explore the neighborhood, or when our mother was going to sneak in for one of her midnight sermons, I didn’t trust the privacy of my own bedroom. So I got into the habit of dressing warm and sneaking across the street at night to the cemetery to give myself what Charlie Rutkowski from school called “the old sticky finger.”
I went when it was late and would lean against one of the larger headstones set back from the road. I unbuttoned my jeans, and began rubbing myself until it felt like my body was lifting upward and floating.
In October, my father was hired to clear and remove the wood from a new property development near Chautauqua Lake, which he did with a backhoe, chain saws, and a rented flatbed semitrailer with an attached crane. He brought the big semi loaded with logs down through town and let a big blast of the truck’s horn go several times in succession in front of our house. I heard the horn and went running out.
On the street my father was in the big rig, the cab purring and lurching off the pavement. A drift of black smoke rising out of the chrome exhaust pipe, the disk lid popping up and down like a Pac-Man mouth belching fumes.
“Get your brothers and hop in,” he yelled.
He drove us through the south towns. On the empty country roads, he let us yank on the cord that made the horn blare, and that was how we made our entrance onto a large Amish settlement with horse-drawn buggies, large red barns, and fields with mounds of cut hay spread out like bedded animals. We paid no respect to the quiet of the countryside that belonged to the men with untrimmed beards hanging flat off their chins and the women in denim-colored dresses with white bonnets, who stopped and watched as we went screaming by. Thick children with broad, squared shoulders covered their ears, and I waved to them.
“Thatta girl,” my father said, but kept looking out the window.
I secretly watched his face as he drove, trying to decipher what he was thinking—how he felt about me at that moment.
At the center of the village there was an old sawmill where the Amish used draft horses and large levies hung from the barn to unload the felled trees.
“Let’s go have a look,” my father said, and led us to a kennel around the back of the barn. Dozens of large black Newfoundland dogs were separated by chain-link fencing. They were all giant to begin with, and each dog was also pregnant. Some had dark nipples hanging off their stomach like plump raisins.
“What is all this?” I asked.
“Where do you think those puppies at the pet store come from?”
“Can we have one?” Connor asked.
“Do you really want a pregnant dog?” my father asked.
“Well. Any dog,” Lewis said.
“No. These will get goofier and goofier the more they breed them.”
His answer didn’t surprise me. We had avoided pets since Lewis brought home his kindergarten class’s hamster over a school break and it clamped onto his tiny finger. He thought the animal was going to eat its way up to his knuckle. He slammed the clinging hamster against the paisley wallpaper as he ran from room to room, leaving blood splats until Mom finally dragged him into the bathroom, held his hand under the tap, and drowned the hamster.
The smell of freshly cut hay and dog urine hung in the air. The calls of men guiding the horses and the logs came from the back side of the barn.
When the logs were all unloaded my father handed the men who did the work a list of furniture he wanted built from the wood.
“I give them the wood. They make the furniture, and in return they keep the leftover lumber. Then I’ll sell the furniture at the store or back to whoever owns that big damn house being built,” he said.
Early that December, my father took us for a scavenger hunt at the dead-car junkyard. On the drive across town he stopped into a local bar called the Tavern, and we all went inside with him. The floors were linoleum, and my school shoes glided over them until they got stuck on something sticky. My chin barely cleared the padded leather saucer seats propped up on chrome poles bolted into the ground. No sunlight made it into that room, and the man behind the bar, a scrawny guy who had an overwashed red flannel shirt and a cigarette-ash-colored beard, looked like he’d never seen the sun in his life. Behind the bar was a fat boy Lewis’s age, named Lenwood Murry. He stopped washing the dishes, smiled, and waved at Lewis and Connor.
“Jesus,” the bearded man said to my father, pointing at the three of us sharp on his heels.
“Don’t worry. We’re just passing through.” My father pulled out a wad of cash from his wallet and slapped it onto the bar with his open palm. “This makes us square,” he said, then he had us all turn around and walk out the front door, into the sunlight that stung my eyes.
“What was that all about?” I screwed up the courage to ask him.
That’s when he reached down and gently wrapped his fingers around my neck and pretended to throttle me. My skin prickled at his winsome touch. “Look who’s turning into Miss Nosey,” he said, pecking my forehead before letting me go.
That same month we took a five-gallon work bucket out into the cemetery, toward the back part of the burial grounds. Our father had us make plaster casts of the animal tracks we had found. I filled a hoof indent a deer had made in the mud, Connor filled one that looked like it came from a small dog, and Lewis came back wearing one shoe and smiling with a plaster mold of his own left foot.
Our father put those plaster molds on our kitchen counter, where they shifted across the linoleum from one spot to another for weeks until he knocked them all to the floor while rooting around in the cupboard. He finally found a clear unmarked bottle that he held up and swirled in front of the light. He was frantic, and his forehead was dabbled in beads of sweat. The dark yellow liquid inside looked like pond scum. Then he shut his eyes and drank it all in one tilt without noticing me in the room.
As I watched him I could already see myself sweeping the plaster shards into a dustpan. Then I’d keep cleaning. All the deepest cupboards and closets. I felt a desperate need for him to pick me up the way he did when I was little, with one of those huge hugs where he spun through the room with me in his arms.
When he slammed the bottle down on the counter, he grunted and swung around like a giant animal. He froze and his hazel eyes widened on me as I watched the redness flush his face.
“Jamie!” he said.
I wanted to break all his fingers so he wouldn’t be able to hold a bottle. I didn’t want to stop there either. I imagined my mother’s fine fingers in my hand as well, bending them back until the bones crunched and her own bottle dropped, and that image settled onto my brain like an itchy scab.
Late that December through January, during a stretch of heavy snowfall, my parents avoided each other entirely. Our mother spent almost the entire month at her studio and, since his relapse, our father became even more regimented with his daily tasks for us. He had us excavate and build elaborate snow dens that we packed into solid ice by dumping buckets of water on top. He cleared the snow in the backyard, laid down a couple of blue tarps, and set large boards on their sides to form an enclosed rectangle that he flooded to make us an ice rink. My brothers hip-checked each other off the ice into the surrounding snow. Once, Lewis sent me flying into a snowbank. Before I could get up, I remember my father lifting me to my feet and wiping the snow off me.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said. Then he bent down and hugged me for a long time. “I’m sorry.”
As he hugged me I felt as safe as I ever had.
The next day, our father tied a toboggan to the back of his Oldsmobile and dragged the three of us behind the car through the cemetery’s iced-over gravel roads. My brothers and I held on to the person in front of us as we flew over the ice and snow, occasionally felt the grip around our waist loosen, and then let go, looking back to see whomever it was tumble out of view, a white rooster tail kicking up in our wake.
“Today we do birds!” our father said in late February, a library copy of Birds of North America in his hands.
Struggling through a deep hangover from another lapse, he marched us through the cemetery, hunting for the lift and twitch of purple martins and listening to the foreign language of birdsongs that floated on the air.
Then he wanted us to feed the birds in our backyard, so we built birdfeeders in our garage.
“I don’t like doing this wood stuff,” I complained while sawing a flat board along the lines he etched with a pencil for me to follow.
“Well, you’re going to learn it anyway. That way you won’t have to depend on anyone else to do it for you.”
At the height of our production we had eight birdfeeders mounted along our backyard’s fence. There were ruby-throated hummingbirds, starlings, sparrows, goldfinches, jays, and a few birds of prey ranging over from the creek and tall cemetery evergreens to our yard. The birds flitted from the feeders to our mother’s intricate sculptures on the lawn. One of those sculptures had three twelve-foot strips of curved iron secured on a pivot that kept them moving like waves.
Toward the end of winter, my father scattered fresh acorn squash and pumpkin seeds out for cardinals, and when those ran out there was always a fresh spray of store-bought seeds and sunflower hearts sprinkled on the new snowfall. After heavy snows we had to clean the feeders so the seed wouldn’t rot. We scooped out the wet and fetid pulp with our hands.
“You have to do this all the time. The birds are depending on you once you start feeding them,” our father told us. His words echoed in my head when I went out early one morning into a light snowfall. I’m not sure if I heard him or sensed him nearby, but when I turned back to the house I saw him up on the top deck. He was standing there naked and looking out at the cemetery. He didn’t see me, and I immediately moved back to the house in a quiet panic so as not to disturb whatever it was he was doing—watching over the birdhouses, hiding from our mother, or waiting for the cold to truly, finally wake him.
In March, our father decided to make a woodpile in the backyard and started splitting logs in an attempt to get back in shape. He took up jogging and jumping rope and stuck with those for a few weeks until the snow melted and he tired of both. Then he started having a few glasses of red wine with dinner because “it’s good for your health,” he said. Then he started buying the wine in gallon jugs and boxes with aluminum pouches stuffed inside that would deflate as he siphoned them down. Soon, the woodpile diminished, and he spent the time he’d been working out sitting at the kitchen table listening to a police scanner that a trucker who stopped by his store had sold to him. He sat for hours raptly tuned in to the garbled calamity of other people’s lives.
By the middle of March, there had been a lull in his ventures to the library to get new books on how to entertain us, and he rarely left his radio chair if he wasn’t at work. When we got home from school, he looked at us as if he were overwhelmed by our presence.
“Each of you go find me a spider in the house,” he said, like he’d spent all day behind the counter of the shop thinking this up, as if idle time were the worst thing we could have on our hands.
“Why do we have to do this?” Lewis asked.
“So you’ll know where they’re at,” our father said. He placed his open palm on the band of sunlight filtering into the room. Every inch of his calloused palm and fingers shone. Then he snapped his fingers into a fist. “Got it,” he said. “The light. I got it. It’s for you.” He lifted his hand over Lewis and pressed it onto his head. “Now you have it. Now you’re full of light to go into the dark and hunt spiders.”
“I don’t want to do that,” Connor said.
“Well. Want in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one gets full first. Now go on.”
That April my father tried to rally and finally did go back to the library for more books. We tried simple things, like going into the backyard and walking in the cemetery at night to watch the stars. We timed thunder and lightning to track a storm’s encroachment. We went looking for mad March hares, and saw how they stood on their hind legs and boxed each other in the early morning. He woke us up once to watch the sunrise and came to us again to watch the sunset that night. “That’s all the time you get in a day, to do what you want with your life,” he said. “Did you use it to the best of your ability?”
On our way home, we cut the stems of pussy willows, which Connor called “fuzzy berries” and swung in front of him as he walked as if he were blind.
“They’re the first life of spring,” our father told us. “They need to appear before everything else because their pollen is carried by the wind and if they bloomed later, the full spring foliage would block the spread of the seeds. Do you see? It all makes sense.”
Late one night in mid-May, we were driving with our father. My brothers were in the back seat dropping pebbles through the floorboard. From the passenger seat, I couldn’t see over the dashboard when we hit what our father described as a red flash. He got out and stood behind the Oldsmobile. The headlights were still on, but we couldn’t see what he was looking at. Then he bent down and picked something up, and when he got back into the car he said, “Look at this.” He sat back down and lowered a dead fox into my lap by its tail.
The fox molded against my legs. Its eyes were open, and its tongue hung out against my jeans. It took my everything not to scream, and I shut my eyes and felt my brothers’ hot breath as they leaned over my shoulders for a better look.
“She’s beautiful,” our father said.
The lower half of its muzzle was covered in a pure white fur that flowed down its throat and widened at the chest. The tips of its ears and tail, and all four legs, were glossy black, and the rest of it, from the crown of the head until the tail turned black, was a soft orange. The car filled with an overwhelming musk smell, and when I touched it there was a slick residue of filth on it.
“I’ll show you guys how to mount it in the morning,” he said, and put the fox in the freezer when we got home.
“We’re not the kind of people who keep unskinned animals in our refrigerator,” my mother screamed from the kitchen. She woke us all up that night when she got home from her studio. Her voice was heavy and mean, and made me spend the rest of the night wondering just what kind of people we were.
In the morning the frozen foods were still pushed to both sides of the freezer, but the fox was gone.
During a late May storm, it was raining so hard we were all inside together, and my brothers got each other so whipped up wrestling that they broke a lamp.
“What does it feel like right before you have a nervous breakdown? This has to be it; this is the feeling. You kids are driving me nuts,” our mother shouted, lifting her body off the couch, and shuffling us toward the foyer door. “Put those jackets on, all of you, jackets on and outside with yourselves. Get out. Go play in the yard,” she was pointing to our eight birdfeeders in the rain.
“It’s coming down pretty bad,” our father said. He’d been reading a library book about St. Augustine at the kitchen table and listening to the police scanner.
“Shut up, Terrance,” she snapped at him. Then she turned back to us. “Go and stand out there for a bit and soak it all in.”
The torrential rain was erupting the already-standing puddles in the grass, and as soon as we were in the middle of the yard our clothes were soaked through and slapped tight to our skin. The rain on our heads sounded like the magnified and pulsing heartbeats of a forest.
“A bunch of wet puppies,” she said as she shut the door.
The three of us stood there looking accusingly at one another through the veil of rain, then at the closed door of our home, with the sad, sunken figure of our father watching us from the big picture window in the living room, and our mother looking out from the small window above the kitchen sink, where a waterfall over the windowpane blurred her face.
“Today is flowers,” I can still hear our father yelling to us the next morning before we went out to find forget-me-nots, Queen Anne’s lace, and goldenrod. My brothers made weapons out of sticks and pegged each other with rocks and crab apples. Later they sought me out to show me what they had found while I was collecting caterpillars. Connor held a jar forward with a perfect leaf-green praying mantis perched on a twig and spun it in front of my nose to admire how precise a creature it was.
When my brothers tired of the mantis, I took the mason jar to the back steps of our house and studied it before opening the jar and letting it go.
“Tonight you are to become bat detectives,” our father said one June evening, handing us each a flashlight before he made us spend the night in a tent in our backyard, where the only sounds we heard were our parents hollering at each other.
“Be completely honest, and tell me—” our father screamed like there was an ax cleaving in half everything that was holding him together. Now I understand that his world was unraveling, that his marriage offered him no steady footholds and the natural world was the one place he felt centered, whole. In that year during which we had felt the strength of the rain, charted the sun’s course across a clear sky, and dug our naked fingers into the numbing snow, he had been trying to show us a path to seek refuge and a different language that might heal us, save us.
“Tell me—” our father screamed again.
I didn’t hear our mother’s answer, so I didn’t get the context of what they were fighting about. I tried to distract my brothers and lull them to sleep by pretending we really were outside to sleep beneath what we were told would be “a healthy swarm of bats.” But they knew better; we had been pushed away from my parents for years because of such fights. Fights that ripped us clean of our flesh and left only raw notes of nerve ends, such that we could not bear looking at one another any longer. Our vulnerability was too painful to see.
The next night, I stayed in the garage studio and my brothers opted to sleep outside again. And the night after that, too. For a week my brothers didn’t come back into the house. Together in that darkness, they must have finally caught up to me and what I already realized—that our parents were to be counted among the alcoholics, the toxin-fueled, the lost. This one secret of the world, we knew.