~3800 words, approx 20 min reading time
As a kid, I’d slipped inside animal minds plenty of times without really knowing what I was doing. Kittens left me milk-hungry and clingy for days. Puppies filled me with exuberant energy and the desire to gnaw on table legs. The chestnut pony, a wide white blaze splitting his face into two separate but equal halves, marked the first time I’d ever consciously tried to control another being.
The birthday girl was adorned in a dark blue sash―PRINCESS stencilled along in thick, golden letters―while dark hair buzzed around her head like a bulbous halo. I watched jealously from my vantage point on top of the monkey bars, as a big man in a collared shirt lifted the princess high into the air and settled her down onto the pony’s broad back. Her friends gathered around, cooing and fluttering, while adults tried to stem the tide of children. My parents had thrown me birthday parties before but nothing as cool as this.
The pony flicked its tail once, twice, and before I’d really made a conscious choice to do it. I was forcing my way into its juniper-colored pony-mind, and staring through oval pony-eyes at the noisy rabble. Small, sticky hands stroked his belly and legs in syncopated rapture. The pony’s mouth still tasted of apple slices; he looked around, hoping for more, while I felt a breeze comb through his mane, felt his hooves sink into soft, damp grass. Finding no apples, but sensing my presence inside his head and not sure how he felt about it, he gave a loud whicker. The kids nearest us flinched. Others laughed. The small weight on his back shifted and sharp pain spiked our sides. Go, horsie, go, the birthday girl’s shrill voice urged.
I winced, and tugged hard on the pony’s mind. No, wait. Go this way. I had a vague idea of guiding him over to the playground, where I could jump down onto his back and join the birthday girl in celebration, showing off the skills I’d learned when I went horse-riding once with cousin Eddie. Instead the pony stepped backwards, shaking his head in quick, panicked jerks. Through his eyes, my human body seemed very small and far away; a motionless figure on the monkey bars, perched like a gargoyle. Come on! I tugged harder, annoyed that he wouldn’t obey me.
Overloaded with instructions and alarmed by my presence, the pony reared, panicked. The taste of its fear was sharp, silvery, pliant. I was thrown back into my body a split-second before I hit the ground hard, in time to feel my wrist snap. Agony shot up my arm and chest like a comet, leaving a fizzy breathlessness in its wake. In the distance, above my shrieks, I could hear someone calling. “Damn horse broke its leg! How the hell―”
The pony and I screamed in unison until I passed out.
My parents never asked me what had happened. I guess they figured I’d slipped on the rungs like anybody might have done. I knew better than to try to explain myself―I’d done so once before, a couple of years prior, to blank stares, after falling off a trampoline in a neighbour’s garden. A blackbird, trilling a beautiful song, had distracted me. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that other people couldn’t see through the eyes of animals. Your imagination is a powerful weapon, my mother had explained, casting tight smiles over at the host family, watching my protestations with wary eyes. Best keep it to yourself.
Becky raised her head, tilting it sideways like a question. Good dog, I thought, and felt her tail thump the ground in response. Feeding off my excitement, she bounded to her feet and circled, looking for her new friend. People where, she thought. People no? She hesitated, one paw raised, tail slowing. Scare? Bad? Her ears pulled back. Bark? Bark now? A low growl rumbled through her chest.
Good dog, I insisted. I’m your friend.
Her ears raised again. Friend good! Good dog! Her tail thumped on the grass as she whined.
“―even listening to me, Olivia?” My mother touched my arm and I blinked, startled, to find her towering over me holding a glass of lemonade that sputtered like a failed firework. The colours of my own world seemed harsh and too-bright compared to Becky’s muted surroundings.
“Whose book is that?” she asked. “Doesn’t look like one of yours.”
I squinted; the name of one of my classmate’s was scrawled on the front cover. Not even the inside page, but the front cover, as if he was the co-author. “Yeah, I swapped with someone at school.” I must have picked it up by accident. I’d have to remember to return it on Monday, maybe try to slip it into his backpack without anyone catching me.
“Never give away more than you’re willing to lose,” she reminded me. “Not everyone can be trusted to return valuable objects, or to treat them with care.”
“Yes, Mum.” I let her ramble on about our weekend plans while I drifted back into Becky’s head.
In my small, high-ceilinged classroom, I saw through the eyes of a spider, dangling from an overhead pipe. I learned how to worry about building a web while girls passed notes in the back row, giggling to each other. Outside, a gardener dug up a flower bed and planted fresh rose bushes; the fuzzy, cotton-soft minds of worms chorused together in low song, occasionally cut off by a sharp, high shriek. In the surrounding trees and hedges that lined the playground, the minds of birds beat fast at acute angles, seeing in colours I didn’t even know existed.
My grades suffered. Teachers warned me to stop daydreaming. My parents, driven to despair, tried to bribe and then blackmail me into paying attention. Regardless of their offers, I couldn’t help it. A passing bee, bumbling against the window, could offer so much more excitement. A mind, however small, was always self-possessed, driven by some higher power. I wasn’t anything like a god to them. At best, I was just a hitchhiker; tolerated, as long as I didn’t interfere. I didn’t mind, though. They were the closest things to friends I had.
A plump rabbit, safe in the dim red knowledge that no predators could slip through the iron railings surrounding the school, sat brazenly on the concrete slabs outside the main door of the building; I nudged him towards the headmistress’ prized pansies, and indulged in his bunny joy.
Later, I learned that a few older boys—tired of skirting around the long fence to the school gates—found a rusted patch of fence at the back of the school and had broken a couple of slats off, creating a hole just big enough to slip through.
The rabbit, half-drunk on pansies, was too busy eating to notice the fox sidling up, using the rose bushes as cover. The first pounce maimed the rabbit, the sudden shock causing us both to freeze. The rabbit’s mind held desperately onto mine, the only thing it knew and trusted in the moment of terror. I struggled, only wrenching free as the fox’s teeth clamped onto the rabbit’s soft, furry throat.
The girl I shared a desk with started to scream.
My arms were covered in deep cuts, bleeding profusely through my white school shirt; the teacher slung me over her shoulder and ran to the nurse’s office while I dripped a scarlet breadcrumb trail behind her. “How did you hurt yourself?” the nurse kept asking, while my teacher repeatedly assured her that I had nothing in my hand at the time, not even safety scissors. “What happened?”
I couldn’t answer; I was shaking so hard that my teeth chattered. The rabbit was gone. I could no longer feel its mind. As the nurse wound bandages around my torn flesh, I promised myself I would never access another mind.
Puberty changed my perspective. After all, I’d been so young, so naive, when I’d first flitted into the pony’s mind. I was older now. Worldly. I knew and understood the true danger of hitchhiking. Rebellious hormones thundered through my veins, elongating my growing bones, and trumpeted a call to arms. Tension built inside me, tight and twanging, until I felt as if I would burst without an outlet. I needed to run, to snarl, to howl, but none of these things felt like appropriate human behaviour. The solution seemed obvious; I’d allow myself to join minds again, but this time I’d stick to predators where possible, to offset the risk of injury. I’d only merge with creatures who could fight back.
I’d thought predatory minds would be like knives, gleaming bloody and glowing hot. Instead they were cold and curled, like pencil shavings made of metal. They thought differently. Most of them reasoned, however dimly, working through several ideas before finding a solution. I hopped into a fox’s mind as he raked through discarded boxes behind a supermarket, looking for extra scraps of meat to feed his cubs.
I joined a feral cat on her midnight hunt, remaining poised and gargoyle-patient in the shadows for long minutes, while small furry bodies played and skittered around only a few feet away. Appreciating the lunge, the pounce, the satisfying snap of a neck, took time. The crunch of delicate bones between my teeth was a visceral pleasure while hitchhiking, but the memory never failed to send a shudder through my human body once I’d returned.
Some things couldn’t transcend boundaries. The realization brought with it an assortment of horrible feelings: a hollow, Easter-egg loneliness. A burnt-sienna resentment. A dry-drowning in inadequacy.
After I left school, I got a job stacking shelves in the local supermarket and moved out of my parents house. My father wandered around my tiny bedsit, knocking on plastered walls and checking window panes for draughts, pronouncing it sound as a pound. My mother lingered once he’d gone down to the car. “Are you sure about this, Olivia?”
“Yes, Mum.” I wasn’t sure at all, but I knew I couldn’t live at home forever. They’d begun to get concerned about the amount of time I spent ‘daydreaming’, and their constant―if well-meaning―questions were fraying.
“Okay, then.” She sighed. “I know all birds have to fly the nest sooner or later. You’ll be alright, won’t you?.”
“And you’ll ring if you need anything?”
She hovered in the doorway, biting her thumbnail—something I hadn’t seen her do since my gran had last spent a fortnight in the hospital. “Come over on Sunday and I’ll cook you a roast. Rare as you want. Never mind what your dad says about well-cooked beef, eh?”
After she’d hugged me and swept out of the room, leaving faint traces of black pepper and ginseng in her wake, I stared around at my empty space. The warning seemed futile; I didn’t have anything left to lose. My job at the supermarket didn’t pay enough for luxuries and I couldn’t see the point in decorating my physical space. What did it matter, anyway, when I spent most of my free time gliding on air currents, the world below me carpeted with green, lush forest? Why bother buying expensive trinkets to clutter up my countertops, when I could appreciate sea-glass, smoothed to a fine sheen, through the eyes of a gull?
After a couple of months, the boy behind the bakery counter asked me out for a drink. I’d never mated before―hadn’t even stayed for the ride, as it were―but my colleagues on the checkouts encouraged me. One lent me a black velvet purse and shoes, while another lent me a dress, red and silky, unlike anything I’d ever touched before. In the boy’s flat, he handed me a glass of white wine before putting on a record. Big band music played, slightly too loud for comfort, while he ran his hands up and down my body out of time to the beat. The mice in his walls skittered and scurried; their babies snuffled inside nests made of bits of damp cotton wool, fished from his trash. I couldn’t concentrate on my own pleasure, whatever that might have looked like, so I let him indulge his whims. Afterwards, he seemed upset anyway. You’re not really here, he accused, and I couldn’t defend myself against the truth.
The checkout girls had lent me the outfit but hadn’t tossed in any understanding of the social customs that went along with it. Growing angry, the boy kicked me out barefoot, and tossed my shoes into the hallway after me. I tottered home, shivering, escorted by a stray dog.
At work, colleagues gossiped about me behind their hands, peeping through shelves of stacked tins and laughing. It reminded me of school, but this time I wouldn’t indulge in shame. Instead, I retreated into the safety of bird-minds in the trees outside; nervous sparrows, stoic ravens, and one arrogant buzzard, lingering on a high branch, talons still bloody with its last kill.
Their primary-coloured thoughts―eat, breathe, mate, protect―were so beautifully straightforward. Humans wanted me to parse their words for subtext, for hidden meaning, like listening to sound in real-time instead of examining a painted wall at my leisure. I found the demands of those interactions exhausting, so when I saw a leaflet pinned to the bulletin board, detailing a job fair at the local zoo, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
I put on my whitest, cleanest shirt, and arrived early so I’d have a chance to speak to the animals. The primates were situated near the entrance so I halted by the macaques. Intrigued at my presence, several broad, butter-yellow minds poked and prodded at me until I couldn’t help giggling at their childish, sweet insistence. The largest female knuckled towards me and tapped on the glass. I held my closed fist up, releasing one finger at a time until my open palm splayed against the glass. She copied my motion perfectly.
A keeper slowed to watch, lugging a heavy bucket of fish. A shiny silver whistle hung around her neck on a thick black cord. Embarrassed, I shoved my hands into my pockets, but a tiny chirp from the bushes caught my attention. One macque, smaller than the rest, peeked out at the troop. Too shy to join in, even though she desperately wanted to be accepted; I knew how that felt. “Come on then,” I whispered, holding two fingers up, then three. “If I can be brave today, so can you.”
The tiny macaque hesitated, then held up a paw. I felt the matriarch’s joy blossom, wide and proud, but she held still, waiting to see what her niece would do. One tiny finger rose, followed by another, then a third. I splayed my palm out, showing five fingers; the macaque inched out of the bush, intent on my hand and copied the action.
“Hey, how’d you do that?” a voice said, mere inches behind my ear.
I flinched—the moment was gone, but the macaques crowded around each other, shrieking, bouncing from perch to perch and giving each other open-air high fives.
The keeper moved around so she could see my face, then repeated the sentence, enunciating it out loud but signing it too, her hands bouncing from one word to the next with clipped, precise grace.
“I like animals. They-they like me.” I stammered, shame wriggling down my spine. Strangers didn’t tend to talk to me. At least, not for long. The smallest macaque’s mind shimmered past my consciousness for a brief second, just long enough for me to feel her new twinges of confidence. “I see them but, like, I don’t see past them.”
Dark eyes, fringed by a heavy band of streaky blonde hair, studied me. Feeling a need to fill the silence, I elaborated, “Like, they’re not just animals. They feel like bright sparks of consciousness on a dark night.” Sweat broke out between my shoulderblades. Not a great time to start waxing poetic. She was probably going to call security any moment.
The keeper frowned. “Okay. Come with me.”
She marched off without waiting for a response―not back towards the entrance, but further along the path leading into the heart of the zoo. Baffled, I followed. She led me to the mustelid enclosure, where the otter minds were spiky crimson peaks―more intense than the familiar red colour common among dogs. The keeper let herself into the pen and blew her whistle; I couldn’t pick up any sound with my human ears but the otters loped around her in excited circles, chasing each other with exuberance as if every moment spent motionless was a moment closer to death.
“A zoo isn’t all fun and games.” She set the bucket down on a small wall, while the bevy seethed around her ankles in delirious anticipation. “Most of the time, it’s hard work and filth and sickness and heartbreak. Satisfying work, but hard. You sure you want to work here?”
“Yeah—” I started to shrug, but caught myself. “Yes. I definitely do.” People asked each other questions, socially. I picked something I hoped wouldn’t be offensive, and tried to make sure I was mouthing each word properly rather than my usual mumbling. “How long have you worked here?”
“Five years. Started with the giraffes.”
I could feel them across the zoo, tall and leggy; thoughts like pebbles, tumbled smooth by the sea. Faint memories of a yellow-haired human feeding them, speaking in a slow, kind voice. I trusted their opinions; maybe this human was better than all the rest.
“You know, almost any animal can be trained,” she told me, in between throwing fish to the ravenous pack. “You have to make it worth their while.” Holding up a fish, she made a circular gesture with her free hand. The pack members who hadn’t yet grabbed a fish immediately stood on their hind legs, looking like the world’s smallest attempt at a stadium wave.
“Does that apply to people too?” I’d meant it as a serious question but she cocked her head and smiled.
“Funny. The boss is going to like you. I can tell.”
The boss seemed too busy to care about me one way or another but the otterkeeper vouched for me as if we were long lost friends. Before I really knew what was happening, an HR representative was talking me through the salient points of the employee handbook. The otterkeeper presented me with a shirt, emblazoned with the zoo’s emblem, and tasked me with mucking out the elephant enclosure while the huge, lumbering beasts were safely locked in the paddock. “Come find me after your shift, kid. At the reptile house.”
She looked the same age as me. I frowned. “I don’t know your name.”
“Saskia.” She signed it, spelling it out letter by letter for me, then winked and disappeared.
Despite the weight and smell of the elephant manure, I felt happier than I had in years. The small herd seemed happy―the paddock was large and grassy, lined with trees and several interesting puzzle games designed to be manipulated by curious trunks. I shovelled another heap of dung onto the waiting wheelbarrow. Normally, I’d have let myself drift away in the minds of the nearby animals―the elephants were fascinating, and there was a hyena pack nearby planning some mischief―but despite these temptations, I couldn’t help counting down the hours until I saw the otterkeeper again.
Over the next few weeks, Saskia took me under her wing and taught me the ways of the zoo; the right ways to clean hooves and paws, the best ways to tempt a sick baby to eat, how to treat the animals meant for wild release at a future date. “People aren’t so different, you know,” she signed. “We want the same things. Safety, nurture, affection. You can learn to read them too.”
“If you say so.” I turned away, not wanting her to read my expression, but her hand found mine, squeezed it hard, tugged me back around to face her.
“Take your time,” she signed, eyebrows dipping to meet each other in a tender kiss. Even I could tell she meant the words in more than the literal sense. “No rush.”
Buoyed by her encouragement, and despite my surroundings, and the availability of new animal minds all around me, I began to spend less time hitchhiking and more time in the real world. I learned to read the body language of the other keepers and customers, to know when a confrontation was about to get ugly, or when a conflict had been successfully averted. I picked my moment carefully and asked the boss for more responsibility―surprised, but pleased, he gave consent.
As the nights began to cool and the leaves turned yellow, Saskia finally convinced me to climb onto the top of the lion cage to watch the stars. “You have to take chances while you’re alive. My mother used to say ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’,” she said, hands whirring through the motions. I’d begun to recognize words here and there―me, mother, animal―but I lacked the ability to replicate the language in any meaningful way.
“My mother is nowhere near that adventurous. She used to say ‘never give away more than you’re willing to lose’.” I shrugged, making a clumsy attempt at signing the word whatever, my cold fingers sweeping back and forth over each other.
She touched my arm before her fingers began to move again. My flesh prickled, a sudden heat flooding my cheeks. “What does that mean?” she asked.
I licked my lips. I’d never thought to wonder why my mother had warned me. “I guess she was saying that you shouldn’t lend something for a while if you’re not prepared to lose it forever. People don’t always give back what they take.”
She touched her whistle before she began to sign again. “Losing things isn’t always bad. Sometimes they come back. Or sometimes you outgrow the need for them.” Her fingers hesitated. The moonlight hollowed her dark eyes. I felt as if I were seeing her for the first time, like a telescope in reverse; something too close to feel, too much to see all at once. “Sometimes forever is just a while. Sometimes a while is forever.” Her breath frosted out in small, dragon-puffs, but she was warm and steady beside me. “You know?”
The answer felt bigger than the question, but I gave it anyway. For once, I was prepared to lose. “I know.”
Underneath us, mammals breathed slow and heavy in their dens―nose to tail to trunk to hoof―and dreamed of one day running free. In the trees around us, birds roosted or soared silently through the night air, every eye a roving spotlight looking for the faintest bristle of leaf or twig. In their warm tanks, reptiles uncoiled, listened to the air with forked and flickering tongues, and deciphered all the languages written unseen on the scales of another. Saskia leaned in to kiss me. Her lips were cold and chapped but when they met mine, a thousand voices hushed until all I could hear was my own heartbeat, pulsing as steady as a star.
Lindz McLeod is a queer, working-class, Scottish writer who dabbles in the surreal. Her prose has been published by/is forthcoming in Catapult, Flash Fiction Online, Pseudopod, and more. She is a member of the SFWA, a Rogue Mentor, and is represented by Headwater Literary Management.
Photo by Alexandra Mirgheș on Unsplash