Animal: a living creature. —L. a breathing creature. —L. anima, breath
Some sort of canine, I reckon. My thoughts are pack-thoughts, I know that much. I’m all over the place all at once. There is other evidence, too. There is the sporadic, transformative heat, that salt-water slick between my tits in the night; there is this accumulating fur. There is the impulse to bite, and the insatiable, reckless hunger. There is the horniness, the excessive, wild suddenness of it. And there is the rage — rage so massive it’s outside me, nipping my neck, worrying me behind the knees. I swear I am turning into a wild dog.
In the last years I’ve written animals into my stories. Feral dogs tumble down into the subway system, a seal-woman flees her fishmonger husband, a deer is hunted through an urban park. These animals populate the city I live in, the city of Toronto, in Canada, the city that resides more in my mind than in real space. The animals are significant effigies, pulsing, moving. In this regard, they are mementoes, inserted to recall and repopulate and awaken. In All The Broken Things, the novel I published in 2014, a performing bear circumnavigates an area of Toronto where streams once flowed south to Lake Ontario.
As human dwellers encroach on animal territories, we are seeing more and more previously annexed creatures in the urban space: deer, coyote, fox, opossum. We have buried waterways to make room for our homes, but to bury is not to eradicate. The curatorial approach colonialists have historically taken to landscape, to First Nations, and to fauna is an open, haunting wound. If I disrespect the earth’s body, I do an egregious disrespect to my own body. I think this: a (money) machine was put in motion a few hundred years ago, one that plunders what it can and scarifies what it can’t — and no one remembers how to turn it off.
In a long meditation called The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida begins with the shame he feels as his pet cat gazes upon his naked body. He argues that the word “Animal” places the wordy human into a dangerous power position:
Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give. These humans are found giving it to themselves, this word, but as if they had received it as an inheritance. They have given themselves the word in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept: “the Animal,” they say… All the philosophers we will investigate (from Aristotle to Lacan, and including Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, and Levinas), all of them say the same thing: the animal is without language.
If I become a dog, I feel this will make me more me, not less me. I will have allowed something authentic to transpire in my mind. Let me explain:
According to Derrida, how we then locate those human-animals we do not wish to recognise as linguistically responsive, is by an appalling reconfiguration of those marginalised persons whose lives can be reduced, semantically, to the status of creature. Since “the animal” cannot legally be murdered, genocide becomes a kind of permissible “abattoir.” Incidentally, genocide can look like a manufactory, or it can look like a physical annexation, where that annexation is bound so that it can be forgotten, dismissed, or neglected. The words “reserve,” “reservation,” “internment,” and “refugee camp” come to my mind. I know that Hitler’s early inspiration for concentration camps came through readings of Western pulp fiction by Karl May, and specifically, through reading descriptions of American Indian reservations. I know that Australian Aboriginals were, until the mid-1960s, not counted as humans, and were managed through the same administrations that managed flora and fauna in Australia.
What is sweat? What is it to generate heat? I am soaked in my own production. I’m sure you find this repugnant. Woman plus body fluid plus words equals ew. But here’s what I am thinking: until we all begin to manage ourselves as integral to flora and fauna the earth will deteriorate. This corralling — of humans — tending at heart to be an economic decision — begins and ends in narrative, in the stories we reproduce. If we define ourselves as not-animal, and divided from the land, then it becomes much easier to manipulate (by metaphor, by exoticising, by othering) those persons and animals we wish to plunder or eradicate. The word “Animal,” then, is as important as any word to the current crisis to which the world has arrived. It is time we began to reclaim the animal that therefore we all are. We are fauna! I myself am a dog (although maybe I aim too high here — maybe I am a rat, a worm, a snail, a bacteria, a parasite). My deepest humility resides here. The hum of my true self is no less singular than the hum of the true self of one bee, one spider, one wolf, were we to get to know that singularity. Our hubris in thinking otherwise has led us astray.
Words have begun to lose their stability.
I pluck the black hairs from my chin. Something — a strand of blonde, long and wavy hair from each cheek — whiskers! It seems there is always more hair. This is a “symptom” of menopause, the biological change described by Wikipedia (and so, by everyone!) as the “opposite of menarche.” Completely wrong! In my experience, menopause opposes nothing. It is rather a continuum of increasing bewilderment. It is feral excess. Linearity blurs, and with it sense, and with it what we call rationality. Words have begun to lose their stability. I begin to speak and can’t locate nouns, the names for things. I’m trying to listen to this strange transformation. What is it telling me, what is it remarking upon? For instance, what is language without nouns? It is the indefinite that emerges. Language without nouns privileges the constant propulsive motion of verbs. Run, breathe, see, feel. Without nouns, language becomes seeking, becomes desire without object. Is this animal yearning? Folklore features bear-women, and seal-women, and all manner of story-women who marry or have sexual encounters with animals — beasts and snakes and frogs and wolves. They are not metaphorically devolving. They are admitting to their animal bewilderment. Their beautiful full selves. Selkies —seal-women — will abandon their human children to reunite with their animal selves. I myself am leaving human bounds. My hips are changing shape. I snarl when I feel my autonomy impinged upon. The smell of dog persists, too, and to mask it, I slather rose cream over my whole body.
My Dutch husband’s grandmother had tendrilling chin and moustache hairs — renegades that were beautiful because they expressed her in her entirety. She lived her life amid artists, philosophers, and writers, gave birth fifteen times. What aspect of my full integrity am I limiting by plucking, shaving, threading, waxing? “Just leave it,” my husband says. It makes me squirm to imagine leaving it grow, but I will say, there is pleasure in the wisps and jags of it, the secret coat, the hidden wild, the oily stink I imagine gathering.
In fact, the animals do talk. Of course, they talk! They have a language of gesture, of piss, of shit, of the rot they roll in, of tick, of grass, of body. Biologist Cam McTavish studies what are known as bear rub trees:
As remote camera technology improved, McTavish expanded his studies of what he once thought of as bear trees. He has now captured images of mule and white-tailed deer, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves, wolverines, martens, squirrels, wood rats and porcupines using the same trees. Some mark the trees with urine or by rubbing up against it. Others appear only to be “reading” the information on the trees with their noses. But one way or the other, the whole wildlife community seems to use many of these trees to pass on or to collect information (Bears Without Fear, Kevin Van Tighem).
Animals can talk, they just aren’t speaking to us. Or they are, but we aren’t patient or nuanced enough to listen. There is the story I heard recently about a man who had his face eaten by a fox. He’d been out hunting and was blowing a duck call. The fox made an honest mistake. There is the story of the hunter who was attacked by a deer. That one is on YouTube. There is the story of the feral dogs of St Petersburg who have learned to ride the subway. There is the cat who barks when she thinks no one is paying attention. These animals are significant. That is to say, they signify, and are wordy.
In the short film Tungijuq, the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq mutates from feral human —dressed as wolf — to elk, from human swimmer to seal, from predator to prey to consumer — eating herself. In the penultimate sequence of the video, the camera lens luxuriates on the slit body of a seal, a vaginal gape, filled with organ meat that Tagaq fondles before devouring.
This film is an experiment in meaning-making, in which all of life seems to converge into desire and, its correlative, fear. In this strange sequence a kind of truth can be found — to speak of hierarchy is senseless in a worldview in which we fully participate. We eat, we fuck, we reproduce, we kill, we are killed. When Tagaq sings she is animal. Fully free, fully smart, fully realised. The songs on her new album Animism—improvised, guttural, repetitive, unrepentant, and sung directly from the cunt — are my current soundtrack. Sometimes she emits the soft padding of a mouse in the walls of my brain, at other times, the darkest victimised rage screaming out to be heard. The last is the sound of an animal no longer willing to be annexed, corralled, or slaughtered hygienically, systematically. It’s a new story, it’s an old story.
On a screen behind Tanya Tagaq at her stunning Polaris Prize performance are the names of the eleven hundred or more murdered or missing Canadian Aboriginal women. Canada’s democratically elected prime minister, Stephen Harper, announced recently that a public inquiry into this issue “isn’t high on our radar, to be honest.” Eleven hundred people! In 2012, Harper refused to meet “nation to nation” with the chief of Attawapiskat First Nation, Theresa Spence, to discuss an omnibus legislation that sought to hide changes to bills that would weaken the sovereignty of First Nations people in Canada. Spence waited for Harper, in the nation’s capital city, Ottawa, enduring a six-week hunger strike in a teepee on an island about ten minute’s walk from Parliament. In a clear refusal to admit her singular power, her fullness as an entity, Harper would not make the short trip to see her. The animal in me burbles up, enraged, and this fury puts me outside, in precisely the wild exterior, the madspace of not-civilised, that all the Harpers of the world prefer me to be in. “The Animal”. In this regard, I am not of the machine. I feel my legs grow strong, ready to pounce, to attack. When I rip in, it will be bloody.
I have heard that Annie Pootoogook wanders somewhere in that Ottawa landscape — the landscape in which the prime minister keeps the murdered and missing Aboriginal women of Canada low on his radar. Annie Pootoogook is the lauded artist who won the Sobey Art award in 2006 for her drawings of contemporary life in Cape Dorset. Images of people watching Jerry Springer on TV, enjoying threesomes, of skidoos, polar bears and domestic abuse commingle in her work. When I first saw a Pootoogook drawing my heart skipped a beat. It seemed to be the opposite of much of the art I’d seen from the north — which is often beautiful formally, but more archetypal, more mythological. Pootoogook gave me the fleeting glimpse of her particularity. I gazed into something sublimely real. Since Annie Pootoogook’s meteoric success less than ten years ago, she has been selling her work on the streets of Ottawa, plagued with substance abuse and housing problems. I do not know Annie, or Theresa, or Tanya. But I have been agitated and awakened by them. They are working against the machine-with-no-off-switch. What does it mean to be “missing”?
I met with an old girlfriend the other day and told her I was writing an essay about menopause. She thinks this is brave. I tell her about the facial hair, and she recounts about her own moustache.
“It’s not that we are becoming like men,” I say.
“No, not at all. We are being reminded that we are animals.”
Now I am thinking that to fail at being human is to fail at being animal, at accepting, at embracing this. My disgust at my body is a deep failure. This reminds me of the machine that I imagined earlier. Its gears and clank. The machine has a built-in forgetting impulse. We forget how to stop the machine, we forget there is a machine, and then, we become the machine. The machine is what happens to us when we try to repress “the Animal.” The machine replaces that freedom, personhood — flora and fauna — with money. I do not think money compensates us for the loss we incur when we neglect the free, wild, animal interior space of our humanity.
My labia is sweating!
The heat my body has been generating these last months is incredible. I wake in the night, or am shocked into a kind of thought-paralysis in the middle of the day. It is only heat. But it’s not a heat that is easy to explain. I think of fission heat. It comes up into the skin of my legs and feels like hair standing on end in quickening waves over the whole surface of my body. Suddenly, there is a salty ocean of sweat behind my knees, between my breasts, in my genitals. My labia is sweating! It’s a burning heat, not like exercise heat, or sun-soaked heat. It’s alchemical, turning what into what I do not know. A bear pelt is attached to my skin. It comes with adrenal panic. I need to run, need my freedom.
All the animals are potentially human, in the old stories, and many of those animals who are not human can still talk. Red Riding Hood and the wolf have no trouble conversing. I wish I were better at communicating with my dog. I know Chester’s simple desires, the certain bark for water, the one for going out, and the song he sings when he wants us out of the room so he can sneak onto the forbidden couch. He knows something is up with me, though. I can see the careful way he is around me, how he defers by averting his eyes, and how he watches and watches. He lets me bite him, then yawns to relieve his anxiety.
In the circa 890 AD text, The Life of St Edmund by Ælfric, Edmund loses his head to marauding pagans. Lost in the bushes, the decapitated “speaking” head is protected by a wolf. That the head talks and that the wolf protects it are two of the several miracles defining Edmund as a Saint. The wolf is mutable as a metaphoric figure in the text, but can also be seen as a humanised animal, as real, protective and Christian. A Christian animal in 890 — imagine! We’ve come a long way, baby. By the time of the fourteenth century Gawain-poem, animals are only textual devices —metaphors — that Gawain fails to recognize as cryptic signifiers of danger. When the enchanted Green knight, Bertilak, gives Gawain the gift of boar meat in an epoch where there are no boars remaining (they’d been overhunted), Gawain fails the test of noticing that the boar meat must be a puzzle with some deeper meaning. He cannot read “the animal” as metaphor. He only sees the meat as meat. Three hundred years later, Shakespeare’s Iago will diminish the Moor Othello with animal epithets. It is Iago’s singular, voracious ambition that drives his interest in annexing Othello to “the animal.” Iago is the machine. He fails by failing in every way to be humiliated. I believe that humanity relies on the embrace of what is creature in us. But what is that? Can we even recall it after all these years of lying about it? It’s a smell, a bristle along the back of the neck, it’s sex, that feeling of impossible horniness, it’s the opposite of grammar, of word, of syntax. Lake swimming. Digging. Fear. Food. Shit. Snot. Well, the words carry the whiff of it still, don’t they?
Chester gets up to shake out his toy giraffe, snapping its neck. “Good hunting, Kaa,” I say, and he seems to get the reference, seems to know about Mowgli, and the simplicity of man cooperating with beast. He lets me growl and bite his snout. It’s cool between us. I bite my husband, too. He lets me bite down until I cast a trench the shape of my mouth into his skin.
“Even if it hurts?”
I bite again hard under his rib cage, and I bite his stomach.“
And I bite again hard just under his rib cage, and I bite his stomach, and then I say, “Go to sleep now, that’s all you get.”
In the morning, he says, “You’re perfect.”
And I don’t know what to say back. Jostling for attention are the part-recalled dreams of elderly men gambling at bingo and someone climbing a hill, and something about a flea-ragged kitten, a confusion of thought, and I don’t, I don’t, I don’t — can’t he smell me? I notice the dried spots of blood on the duvet cover, and squint. I did that?
“Yeah, you bit through my skin.”
“I’m sorry.” Before he heads off to work, I ask him if I look different. “Is there is anything weird?”
He says, “No.”
But I know everything is different. I know it in the way a person knows, a hunger in my gut, a tumult, the agitation of knowing. I keep close to the house, send the children out on errands and spend hours on all fours. Open the windows. It’s so damn hot, despite November. A gale couldn’t cool me. And when they are all back home, I’m upright, pretending to be the old me.
At night, my husband, coming in the door, says, “Hey, you look well.”
“I won’t know it when I am really changed,” I say. “But you will, though.”
“Why are you groaning?” he says, a strange look on his face that might be concern. “Is everything okay?”
It’s all I can do to rub myself up against him, try to make the gesture mean something. If I rub and rub, maybe I can find back the feeling. What did we used to call it?
We used to call it Love. Now, I think of it as Want. I feel a switch being flicked off, like that.
I push open the door, my husband’s mouth is agape, smiling. The blast of air, the shock of cold through my fur, and the sound — it stings at my ears — of a siren. I sing to it, and bound toward the gate. I press myself up against it, feel my throbbing body tense into a bundle. There is nothing better than adrenaline. There is nothing better than the shift of a chainlink gate as it soughs open. It is dinner and I am hungry but the sky the night the free place pulls me like a gut thread on fresh kill. Chester is with me! Come! Yes! I run, everything alive, everything that was outside me now inside me. The other canines are at the city limits waiting. They moan when they see me, and sniff, their snouts on the windstream. I’ve got my teeth, my nails. They admire the awful way I slice their meal, the ease with which I dig between the doe’s meat and her pelt.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #25. Get your copy now.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the novel All The Broken Things. Her recent short fiction has appeared in Granta magazine, The Walrus, and Storyville.