Critical Thought: IN THE ZOO

In some ways, my writing practice has become impossible to separate from my visual art making experience. I tend to play with imagery from contemporary art, which may be something as seemingly tangential as the single light bulb hanging from the kitchen ceiling, a reference to many of Francis Bacon's paintings. In that way, I hope to both lead my readers back into the real world and towards other pieces of art and culture, as much as I hope that the reference registers in the reader's consciousness, and their knowledge of a Bacon painting's interior space informs the text and scene. Perhaps the more obvious art-related reference here is Doug Aitken's "Migrations" video installation from a couple of years ago, in which a number of wild animals are brought into direct tension with the built environment, when they are "released" into various motel rooms. For me, writing and creating visual art are equally about "making" and "unmaking," about "accretion" and "erasure"—this is a thought that has stuck with me since my grad school experience, and it's what I ended up focusing on for my thesis. The wife uses yarn to build up surfaces, she covers everything she can find in this kind of manic expressiveness. She is wild and lost and struggling and failing. The husband's strategy is the opposite: he digs into the very foundation of his house to expose the ground underneath, and is forced to deal with the lack of information or finality that he ultimately finds there. Both of these characters are "making art," though each follows a different process or current.

Matty Byloos's first collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss, was published in 2009 by Write Bloody Books. His work has been published or is forthcoming in: Everyday Genius, Housefire, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Stoked Volume 3, Bomb Blog's Word Choice, The Portland Review, among others. He is the editor and publisher of Smalldoggies Magazine, and co-hosts (along with Carrie Seitzinger) the Smalldoggies Reading Series in Portland, OR, where he lives and works. He is currently working on his first novel. Learn more about him at mattybyloos.com.

SOME OF THEM ALMOST GREW UP IN THE ZOO

1)
They laid the squirming infant down on his belly in front of the television and within moments, two things always happened. He calmed, raising his head toward the square of flitting light, and next, the crows pecked their way haphazardly into the room, dancing like popcorn into the tufts of dirty carpet around the boy's slowing body.


The couple returned to the kitchen to clean the dishes after dinner, and stared openly at the zebra out in the snow in their backyard, where it preferred to be. "Our zebra. He's really something," she said to him, said to the emptiness of the room all around them. Excepting the lightbulb that hung down a few feet from their heads, darkness had swallowed everything. Something had emptied out in their universe.


The zebra watched television with the family on some nights. He was obviously most interested in organized sports, especially the kind where athletes got to dress up in costumes and take turns, the way they did in figure skating or the Olympic Decathlon. He liked the steady progression of anything in motion.


He went to great lengths to display this satisfaction. He trotted through the sliding glass doors into the living room and hovered like a monument over the baby. The striped head wagged back and forth, each of his black eyes taking in the information from the screen, one image and one eye at a time.


Rows of eyelashes danced up and down like the fluttering of a bank of lights first turning on over an empty parking lot at dusk. They watched the animal. They shared its space. He watched the television.


2)
She had become, more than anything else, hardened. The way a symbol calcified through time, became more a series of integrated parts, each with their own individual meanings, maybe the way a toy doll fit together.


She was…motherhood, but too rigid and harsh in her definition, a parody of everything she had ever learned by watching earlier generations, or television depictions of family, or the crows and their natural order over each other as they belonged to the zebra and took shelter along the stripes on its back. This was most of their days.


3)
The four crows watched in silence as the couple laid the baby down on top of the zebra's head. The baby and the zebra were both asleep. The boy's shapeless, slackened body draped evenly over the animal like a folded up blanket over the arm of an old couch.


They both dreamt of snow, and didn't wake for hours.


4)
A special bulletin came on the news. There was a sinkhole opening up in the ocean. Neither of them was quite sure what to make of this. They'd never been to the ocean, didn't know anyone who had seen it, spoke the word out loud and felt its foreignness, or felt slightly embarrassed by it. People had abandoned the coasts en masse more than a generation before them. There were darker mysteries to deal with now. The zebra was standing in the backyard, looking in their direction, but not at them. Four crows sat in a jagged line along its back.


The news anchor seemed distressed. They were used to it by now, after the seven plagues. Someone was blaming a meteor this time. They heard something about the Chinese being involved. "They should be careful out there," he said to her. He meant the people on the ocean, who were now inside of it. "Safer here with the zebra," he finished.


"It was good of him to share this house with us, with the baby," she responded without blinking.


The news called out again for their attention: "The famous cruise liner named 'By Accident' as well as three other cruise ships have disappeared into the mysterious sinkhole. An untold amount of passengers are gone as well." The man reached for the remote, switched off the light coming at them from the box.


"That's funny," he said, picking up the sleeping baby in his hands. "Wherever they end up, technically, those people got there 'By Accident.' That's heavy." His face was motionless, described nothing.The child's eye twitched an uneven rhythm. The man stared into the boy's flat, soft face, trying to get the cadence of his son's eye to match up to the beat of his favorite song, but he had forgotten too much of it already. The boy was dreaming of a pile of dirt, of digging his small, square hands into its wetness.


In the dream, dirt got in his eye.


5)
She started to macrame after the plagues ended. It had come from somewhere far away, like a piece of mail from a country they had never been to, one they no longer recognized as legitimate, a piece of mail she probably never should have opened. But she did.


First, she made sweaters for the stemware. She started with the most complicated thing she could find. The crystal bulbs broke off in her hand the first few times, but eventually, they gave in and found themselves permanently entombed in yarn. Next were the dishes, and soon after that, everything in the kitchen cabinets.


The furniture, the television, every piece of kleenex, a stale donut, his running shoes, the baby's diapers, a carton of ice cream they'd never bothered to eat, both alarm clocks, her car keys, an envelope that sat helpless on the desk, a stamp that was once attached to the envelope, the desk underneath both of them, the mailbox with its red metal flag raised in alarm, the garage door, the shrubs outside the front window, the doorknob and the front door, all the books in the bookshelves and the telephone.


Everything in the zebra's house had its nature, its purpose, and also -- something to keep it safe. They were all clothed, all the time. The baby watched everything, trying to distill a lesson from it all.


When she started in on a macrame cover for the zebra, she hesitated. It felt like telling a lie, and she was embarrassed. She knew that it would never wear the zebra cozy. A week passed, and she finished it anyway. Few things remained un-macramed at that point. The life-sized yarn-zebra hung over the back of the couch like a forgotten blanket.


Two of the crows came inside and stood on it, planting their legs into the softness of the yarn, and then down into the frame of the couch below it.


6)
The zebra wore its stripes like a series of heavy black necklaces around its neck, an army of concentric circles that tightened around its limbs, descending further into lines no thicker than what a pencil would make on a blank white sheet of paper, until they spilled into narrow black hooves that somehow politely apologized to the snow on the ground with every successive step that he took.


7)
The man buys a shovel and when she is gone with the baby one day, he decides to pry up the floor in the living room. Removing the cover of yarn from the largest knife in the kitchen, he makes an incision in the carpet and pulls back the folds like he's removing clothes from a dead person. He saw this happen once, in a dream.


The wooden floor beneath was somehow covered in yarn. She had been there already. He clawed his way into the web of colors, creating an obscenity of information behind him. The wood eventually gave in just as easily as the carpet. He wrenched the shovel into the ground when he finally got to it, alone in the house for an uncertain amount of time.


The zebra stood next to him, their heads at eye level for a short while before the man's head sunk deeper. He had dug himself into a hole in the ground that was at least four feet, and even wider than that. A pile of dirt to his right rose up and then leaned back into the weight of the couch beyond it. He hit bedrock and the shovel made a sound that his mind sharply and unforgivingly turned into the word, mistake.

by Matty Byloos