Terrible Little Animals

This story came runner up in a competition held by Word Hut and was originally published on their site .

Terrible Little Animals

Christ is crucified on a cross of lacquered shells on the mantelpiece of this house. His agony is greatly enhanced by the stiff ridges of lacquer and calcium at his back, mortifying him with the stale smell of the seaside. Someone has made this for the little figure, because he is a maker of offerings. He makes offerings for such things as do not thank him because they cannot, and not because they do not choose to.

All around him are the curls and wisps of smoke from his pipe. He has made ships out of shells, and spread glue over pieces of twine to make them taut like rigging. He combed beaches for shells of precisely the right size and curvature, won’t buy them by the bag. He admires shelled creatures, which learned before crawling from the sea to hide soft bodies in armour made of coral. We were not so clever, he thinks, and he is right.

Tobacco poisoning, from smoking all through the night, while beachcomber Jesus stared down at him with baleful eyes and asked: ‘Why have you cemented me?’ He doubled over in the shower, repulsed by the steam which rose off his skin and smelled like the tarry perfume of his pipe as his skin exhaled what his blood had seized and couriered into his vital organs, over eagerly. And again, coming into his room and smelling the smell of his jacket, his three shirts, each one, the pullovers, Christ, even his socks and his underwear, all freely exuding this scent which might kill him, because he was poisoned with it. He looked at himself in the mirror and he had gone yellow.

When he got back from hospital he began to set shells in cement around the door, then in the corners of the ceiling. Before long the shells were falling down the walls, and he went around with his cement and in a course of months he stopped the gaps between the drips composed of shells with still more shells until he had covered one whole room, and in time nearly all of his little flat with shells, and the pieces of shells. At that time we had not yet seen the other things which he had made of, the fat flightless birds and the curiously coruscated dogs and cats, not to mention the more abstract pieces, a gaping mouth with sharp teeth made of pointed bivalves, a great rose with a thousand petals still and fossilised like little ears, little roundels of cartilage, all cocked and listening.

By the time we came to rescue him, we saw how he had been trying to wall himself in all the way round. Why would you do this we asked him, how would you get out? And he didn’t know. He didn’t know his way around his own head that man, the way some people do. He knew a great deal, in some respects, about what had been in the heads of others, and even where in their head the thoughts might have been (he took, at one time, an interest in phrenology, and at another time in neuroscience. We had thought the shells would pass, as these pursuits had). But he had never learned to dwell on himself. He was wary of death, his mortality did trouble him, he saw in the mirror that archetypal skull beneath the skin, but he had never cracked back the hinge on a bone plate and had a good squint. Had never asked: why do I always do this, or that. Never responded, because of how I feel about these things or those, had this happen at such and such a time. And so we asked him about the source of the impulse to seal up, not just the door, but the windows, all possible sources of light, with shells embedded in cement, he did not know. He was also afraid, I suppose, to find out what had come unstuck in him, who took such pride in clean, modest suits and dapper politeness and good, but simple cooking for a bachelor and his occasional guests. I once sat at his table watched him drink enough to make two men stumble, but when he stood up, even his eyes were steady.

When it came to moving his stuff out of the flat when he died, what I found the worst were the terrible little animals which by that time covered all the shelves and were lined up along all of the skirting boards. Tiny teeth, made of shells, the fur whorled stiff with little points and the perfect spirals of shells, bright glass eyes in orange and yellow staring madly out of the mercilessly sharp definition of frames formed by the edges of shells.

He never became crab like himself. If anything he always seemed like one of the shyer kinds of deep sea mollusc. I thought of a sea slug’s great foot, tenderly feeling the contours of everything it encounters, both involved and mute. And occasionally, when roused, flashes of colour, spurts of ink. He once gave me, for a young birthday, a green beetle in a box. It was very dead, but he had unpinned it from its piece of labelled card, and put it in with leaves and twigs and a little dish. The box had been given a transparent lid with air holes. My mother was polite, but confused. A dead beetle (green and shining) in a box? But my father, the sibling more outgoing , the younger, better looking and more loved, put his arm around the shoulders of my uncle, and they both looked down at me, who did not notice, because I was staring down, captivated, at this beetle, green and shining.

My father: ‘Say thank you’

Me: (shifting the box a little, from side to side) ‘Thanks’.