When I was little, I lived in a small house on 700 South Broadway, at the end of a long street of houses, on the edge of a hill overlooking a valley of train tracks.
On the steepest side of this hill, behind all the homes, was a scraggly wood that people used as a local garbage drop. Unwanted stoves, refrigerators, broken toys, found their final resting place here. Poison ivy grew everywhere. Chiggers thrived. So did hornets and bees and dense, thorny plants that cut open skin like a knife in soft butter. I loved this wood. I played there all the time.
Starving strays also lived on this hillside, and I wanted to rescue them all. My mom allowed me to keep one when I was four or five, a calico cat she named Fluffy. Fluffy’s fur was a rainbow, shades of grey mixed with tans. She was a smallish-sized cat, and I met her as a kitten.
Fluffy immediately became the love of my life. She went everywhere with me, even when I learned to ride a bike and pedaled far from home, Fluffy would come along with me, like a dog.
We played in the woods all the time. She knew all my favorite footpaths, my favorite hiding places, my favorite perches for taking in the view. I was King of this Hill, and Fluffy was my First General.
She brought me presents all the time, mostly black garter snakes. Fluffy would catch them alive and bring them to me, twisting and writhing, snared in her little mouth.
Whenever my mom saw this happen, she would scream and scream. Snakes terrified her. They fascinated me.
Fluffy’s gifts always slithered away, as soon as she bequeathed them to me. This was because picking up Fluffy excited me more than grabbing hold of a snake, even though I found serpents so interesting. Fluffy’s body would be hot hot hot, her muscles tensed, coiled, ready to spring, desperate to leap for that snake again, watching its long dark body wriggle away. “Damn it,” I could hear her say in my head. “There it goes.”
“Yes,” I would think to her. “There it goes.” Let it go.
Of the objects I liked to collect from the wood, some of my favorites were rusty spoons, which I used as dissection equipment. And my favorite things to dissect, as a child, were the bodies of birds. Armed with my rusty spoons, I opened up corpses in various states of decay, but I loved to find them in the earlier stages of death, when their bodies ballooned with gases and egg hatchlings, squirming and shifting with maggots.
Fluffy watched my work with intensity. She would sit crouched at my side, staring intently, as I cracked into desiccated muscle and ribs. From beneath the dark feathers and the thin, rotted skin, erupted a thick sea of maggots, shivering as they spilled to the ground like a milky rice pudding.
My younger brothers sometimes attended these dissections, and I taught them the wonders of decayed organs and maggots. Fluffy took great pride in this work, because she viewed all these dead birds as her kills. “Yes, I destroyed that,” she said all the time, in the haughty set of her shoulders and the lethal glint in her eyes. “I killed this bird. And that one. And that one. And that dead turtle you found. And that rabbit. I, Fluffy, killed them all just for you.” She saw herself as Death Incarnate, the Great Lion of Paradise, a vigilant shadow always stalking her prey.
Shortly after I turned nine, my family moved away from 700 South Broadway, to a new town down the road. I no longer lived on a hillside by train tracks, and my new neighbors didn’t like strays. They put out bowls of poison, to kill off unwanted cats, and I didn’t know anything of this danger. Fluffy must have taken a drink from one of these bowls, and she died, and I never found her body, never saw her again.
This was the first time I learned that God can cut open your chest, slice out your heart, and sew you back up again, good as new. The same way I cracked open those maggot-filled birds with my rusty spoons, such a procedure could be done with me.
I called and called and called for Fluffy. I searched for her everywhere, all the time. In the silent hours of night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I would kneel on the floor in the dark, with my ear pressed to the wall, imagining that the creaks and quiet pops of the house were the sounds Fluffy made, traveling the space between the beams holding drywall.
The Great Lion of Paradise was immortal, you see. My best friend couldn’t die. She roamed with me still, through the walls of the house.
In high school, at age seventeen, I dissected a cat in biology class. Female, and smallish, and thoroughly soaked in formaldehyde, she looked everything and nothing like Fluffy. In the eight years that had passed since I’d lost her, God had harvested my heart several more times, and I meditated over this corpse a great deal, as I wielded my scalpel and ticked off each task on my assignment checklist.
Months prior to enrolling in that biology class, I took a trip to Chicago, and spent a day with college students dissecting human cadavers. I stood without speaking and watched their day’s work, staring intently, and when they finished and zipped up the corpses back into their bags, I walked to the wide metal shelves mounted into the walls. The students filed out, but their professor left a few of the lights on for me.
I studied the glass jars holding various body parts, human fetuses, diseased sections of tissue, and eventually found myself before a large framed portrait of the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, who died in 1890. This information was not attached to his picture, but I already knew who he was, from books I had read. I gazed at him for a time.
Not far from this photo, I found a row of human hearts. I picked up each jar, measuring the weight in my hands. The entire room smelled of rot and formaldehyde, and I took comfort in being alone in this cavernous space, this shadowy lab full of bagged cadavers and jars, swathed in silence.
Beneath the cold glass in my fingertips, floating in that dense chemical, I felt those hearts beating. And maybe they were all mine, and this was where God had stored them, waiting for the day I would find them.
If I pressed an ear to the wall, I knew I would hear Fluffy. Scraping through the gap in the beams, beneath the drywall, letting me know she was there.