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A Stranger Comes to Town

By
August 15, 2011

“He is a human animal—”
say the mothers, say the fathers. They nod
over afternoon coffee cups. Say the daughters
who have become mothers, who march their young sons
past storefronts where soldiers struggle through potato-flake snow.
It only rains here. The boys say,
“He’s a manimal,” and laughs.

*

A boy’s arm bends against breaking.
This is an evolutionary tactic,
like a sugar-baby’s glass-globe eyes,
like a marmoset’s ferocious grin.
Put a boy in a tugboat and he’ll pull
the horn. Put a boy in a gorilla suit
and he’ll scale the building.

Where are all the girls in this story? Don’t they
set out on journeys? Don’t they bang around in the surf?

*

For the stranger, a town can be an arrival
but not a destination.
Because he has not announced his intent,
no one notes his exact ETA. The town was once a hub
for textiles—reams of cotton fluttered from the rooftops
(indigo, beryl, ecru, cream)
and the river shot through banks of bourbon foam.
The stranger wears a hat, a nondescript shirt. A boy
hangs out the upstairs window and drops
handfuls of potato-flake snow.

*

An animal is not a human. An animal can see in the dark.
All day long an animal strives to feed itself. When it makes
a baby, it does not think of the baby as a smaller version
of itself, or as a continuation of its particular genetic imperative.
An animal has no pride in the mystery of its condition.
An animal feeds its baby, or it does not. An animal lives
through the winter, or it does not. An animal keens as it leaves
the weakening baby alone in the snow, runs back to it,
touches its muzzle to the baby’s skull. Eventually, an animal
will recover from this sorrow. Eventually, an animal
will leave its own body alone in a burrow of snow.

*

Once a young mother put her boy in the washing machine.
He was as dirty as boys get,
black with it, unrecognizable.

“I thought he was a licorice strip,”
she later explained, “a tar-baby,
a sprung umbrella someone left at the door.”

But he was boy, and for Christmas that year
his grandparents gave him whatever he asked for.
The mother of his mother—
she raised a girl, set her off on a journey—
carefully carefully dipped his socks in bleach.

*

When a stranger comes to town,
no one notices until he leaves.
In the rain, the town pulls against its stitches.

What was under his hat?
(a snout, a bristle)
What was under his shirt?
(a heart blue with gristle)

“What an animal,” say the mothers,
but they are talking about what he has left behind him.
Where have all the girl children gone?
They used to dance hatless in potato-flake snow.
The boys are a surly bunch.
Say what you mean, why don’t you?
Why don’t you?
Why don’t you?

What is it that keeps you from doing as you like?

*

A manimal has plenty of company. A manimal
is cognizant of his needs. A manimal looks in the mirror
and sees a definition of himself, an idea
that does not need to eat or breathe. When cornered,
a manimal appeals to the shared sense of societal belonging.
When it makes a baby, a manimal teaches that baby
to look in the mirror. A manimal sings little songs
as it walks, and is comfortable making objects
that mimic other objects:
blue rice like a waterfall,
paper cut like wings.
Alive-alive-o, a manimal sings. It still has a long way to go.

*

At the end of this lengthy tale an orangutan,
patiently listening, props her baby at her breast.
She climbs into a rowboat and pushes off from the dock,
paddles with her long-jointed arm, cradles
both what she has made and what she has encountered.
Her face does not show what she is thinking.
Her face is not meant to show what she is thinking.
She journeys in search of a more certain shore.

G

blackman.jpgSarah Blackman is the director of creative writing at the Fine Arts Center, a public arts high school in Greenville, South Carolina, and the co-fiction editor of DIAGRAM. Her most recent work is published or forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Conjunctions.

Homepage photograph via Flickr by Curious Expeditions

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