i am seven when we are leaving grammy’s house, shaking off the clinging odor of soiled cat litter and stale cigarette smoke. my mother turns to my father and says below her breath, she can’t help it, this is what she does, she takes in strays, she collects broken things. then she squeezes my hand and tells me to be aware of what runs in my blood, but by the time we’ve reached the mcdonald’s drive-thru i have forgotten the lesson, forgotten to say that broken things mostly just make me sad.
there’s a nest of frogs—is nest the right word?—in there, in the pond beyond the tall tall reeds, and on an august afternoon i saw him lollygagging in the shallowest part of the water, half-hopping from one small puddle to the next because of his leg, or lack thereof. where a tiny webbed foot ought to have been there was a useless stump, and that portion of his body sunk sadly into the mud. i scooped him up, slick and vibrating with life, and studied his movements. no scrabbling or clumsy attempts to leap, he croaked up at me unbothered and blinked with ripe wet eyes. briefly i imagined crafting a tiny limb for him out of the materials i knew best, paper clips and ruled notebook paper and strange blue sticky-tack. smallish but fat, his face a perpetual smile, i thought do you even know you’re not whole and then i wondered if it mattered. i placed him, gently, back on the shore, and quick ribbit splash he was gone.
the christmas tree drooped, exhausted by the sheer weight of living and longing for january’s release. a runt of the litter, its capillary branches barely sprouted the requisite needles, and its roots were so shy and coiled they could fit into a fist-sized planter. i loved it immediately, because it needed me so.
whiskey droplets slide down the small of my back, taking the curve in a manner too explicit. his favorite glass breaks beneath my shoulder blades. we fuck on his coffee table, big books of pin-up stars and superhero memorabilia shoved to the wayside. afterwards he tells me how he’s too busy to put his bed on a frame but his books are stacked neatly away on shelves, and he plays me ‘jersey girl’. i know someday she’ll wear my ring he sings, then don’t get your hopes up, kid. i am awake while he sleeps, and in the morning when i leave he does not kiss me. it is on the el that i admit to myself what i have done, that it knocks the wind out of me with its ferocity and violence, and i collapse on michigan avenue, doubled over by the pain of collection. i wake up days later in my childhood room, my mother stroking my hair. it runs in your blood, she says with sadness in her voice, and i understand.
on a filthy chicago sidewalk somewhere north of the granville stop there is a memorial for a crow. belly torn by teeth and tongue he laid unnoticed, trickling blood until found by my combat boot, an accident. head turned like a portrait of a saint, he had never been soft or precious, but alchemical death changed all that. i swaddled him in newsprint, covered his eyes with bus change. two red tulips, stolen from the city landscapers and tucked under a wing, would have to do. i thought of crow-mother, crow-father, who would weep if they could at the sight. i wept on their behalf, by birthright, by chance.
Alyssa Zaczek is a fiction writer, playwright, and journalist originally from Chicago, IL. Her work can be read in Midwestern Gothic, Jet Fuel Review, The Dionysian, and others. She currently lives in Saint Cloud, MN, where she works as a journalist for a USA Today paper.