TW: animal death, brief mention of a mentor's death
“Careful,” Margaret warned. “Don’t force the milk or he’ll aspirate.”
I held a syringe of milk formula to an orphaned squirrel’s mouth, his baby whiskers twitching around a rubber nipple. My left hand trembled so hard I thought he would slide right out of his swaddle. But Margaret didn’t notice this and moved on to another new volunteer, and I fed squirrels, hands steadying, until one escaped his swaddle and scurried up to perch on my shoulder. There he swayed, claws gripping, like he was unsure what to do now that he’d escaped, like he smelled the city on my skin beneath the wildlife center’s green apron.
Margaret brought an injured pelican in from the intake desk, a large fishing hook snarled through his beak and neck. The vet techs hustled him into an exam room, and I unlocked the aviary — temporary refuge of uninjured birds —its occupants cooing at the ratting door.
I had been on the other side of the intake desk before, injured birds trembling in a towel-lined cardboard box, handing them over to someone who knew better. Now I was the one who knew better. Hands that once scared wildlife now clasped around a grackle’s wings, soft, cautious, and moved it so its cage could be cleaned. Somewhere, Margaret and our most experienced vet techs were x-raying the injured pelican. I knew its brothers and sisters by their silhouettes above the sea shore, fish hooks glittering just beneath the surface, the smell of rotting plants.
This coast is their home, too. We remade ourselves modern and shimmering behind paned windows, but the natural world will not let us forget, twining between the outstretched fingers of our streets.
When the pelican died two weeks later from a persistent infection, I remembered the way he looked last time I cleaned the critical care ward – his fuzzy brown feathers, the gauze around his neck, head down. I knew then he’d die, smelled the future on him like he smelled the metal on me, and promised to do better next time, because there would always be a next time. I promised to let his brothers and sisters live gently on our skin.
When a squirrel is young, their skin is so perilously thin you can see the opaque line of milk in their stomach. More than anything, I remembered seeing the milk inside them, the way my hands trembled at the sight, and hearing Margaret tell me, over and over, “don’t aspirate them.”
Only locals know they’re here — two horses, one brown, one speckled beige and tan. I saw them once, two teenagers on their backs, galloping down the esplanade. Sometimes I even spotted the stables through the trees, overgrown branches hiding a roof that’s been caving in as long as I remember.
It’s so improbable, it must be seen to be believed, but this is a city of improbabilities. When you crash through the rotting backyard fences and almost fall into a still-wild creek flush with turtles, and hear whispers of the neighborhood overrun by peacocks, you start to believe. We feed the squirrels by hand on university campuses and in Menil Park, the pigeons alight in our bird seed palms. This city never learned to leave its fauna behind, our earth still clinging to us, vines like strings of pearls, and no matter how many bayous we pave over, the turtles and squirrels still settle on the knobs of our urban spines and breathe.
The corner of Harley Street was deafening with the scream of car horns and rush hour traffic; less a hundred feet to the west was the 610 Loop, one of our busiest freeways. But inside, Ambrosia taught me to play the harp, taught me the names of the seashells in her collection. Sometimes she gave me one if I played particularly well. One time she gave me a starfish, no bigger than the buttons on my jumper, and I treasured it like it was my own baby.
Ambrosia’s bookshelves, encrusted by shining piles of shells and brittle coral, and her yard, a memory of flowers past. When she died, I gathered my angel wings, my pear whelks, and my bay scallops; poured them into a vase where they held all I had left of her. She follows me still: in the moon snails that dot my bathtub, the conch on my windowsill, the cat’s paws that encircle my desk lamp.
But before she died, I was alone in her front yard after a lesson, filling the red pocket of my school uniform with crushed pecans and wrapping dandelion bracelets around my wrists, fingertips golden with pollen. Cars thundered into my ears while I cooed to the squirrels, brought palmfuls of pecans up to them; they ran from me. The insides of my ankles were gasoline-perfumed and I was not gentle enough to let something so small, skin so thin, rest upon my shoulder — not yet.
There are ghosts embossed upon this city’s natural artifacts, a city that has never once forgotten its roots, though it has tried. Every surface of me is as crusted over with natural artifacts and their ghosts as my city is. Squirrels swaying upon my shoulders, whiskers twitching; yellow-flowered vines ringing around my knuckles; ankles dusted with autumn leaves; and pelicans like jewels, like memories, like tears, spilling out my eyes. I wear them all while walking over the paved-over roads over the ghosts of forests long-gone. I reach out, soft, for Houston’s flora and fauna, and when it reaches back and covers me with loam, I know we are all home.