By Kori Flowers

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“Feed me,” demanded the cat.

I didn’t move. I didn’t even open my eyes, so it stayed nice and dark. Maybe if I just ignored her or played dead, she’d go away and let me sleep in. Was that too much to ask for?

Feeeeed me!” Mittens’s voice was so demanding, my eyes popped open without my permission. Met with the blazing sunlight, any hopes that it was really three in the morning and the cat had finally truly lost her mind were bashed. There would be no more sleep for me.

I rolled over and faced the one who woke me. Through the strands of my hair, I could see Mittens’s head looming fuzzily over the edge of the lumpy mattress, blinking at me with very green eyes that looked all sweet and innocent.

Lies.

Shuuuuut up!” I whined right back at the cat. She ducked away when my hand reached towards her. She left the room with one final reminder that she was apparently starving.

I directed my hand, left hanging in the air, towards the phone on the nightstand. Moving as little as possible, I pulled my phone to my face, knowing even before I flipped it open that it was probably about five minutes before my alarm was set to go off.

Nope. I was wrong. Three minutes before.

I pushed myself up and clumsily traded my phone for my glasses. The bare white room sharpened, the piles of clothes on the floor no longer blurry. With the grace of a drunken freshman, I lurched from the bed and started squirming into the necessary underthings. Said articles weren’t my best; a day off for me meant laundry day, not sleeping in until noon. The bra I pulled on had straps that threatened to snap any day, and the panties didn’t match. Not that I cared; no one would see them.

Since I was awake, I could really hear the racket outside. Volleys of sound pierced shrilly through glass and wood, and I wondered how I was able to sleep through it in the first place. By the sound of things, the robins and the chickadees had declared war on each other. They seemed to be doing their best to out-scream the other species. It was probably very important and all, but did they just have to do it right outside my bedroom window?

The bathroom was closer than the kitchen—by only about three feet, since this house was barely bigger than my freshmen dorm—so Mittens was left to suffer while I put in my contacts and stuck my face under the faucet for a minute.

The day had just begun, and already I was pissed off. Today was going to be awesome.

“Human! Feed me!” Mittens sounded really angry now, her eyes sharp and accusing.

“I don’t believe you’re actually starving, you know,” I informed her when I finally dumped the scoop into her dish.

She ignored me in favor of eating, but I didn’t expect an answer anyway. Mittens can’t talk back because she hasn’t been properly trained. And I wasn’t going to be the one to do it.

Some might imagine living near a Disney-like forest surrounded by talking animals would be fun and magical. They are sadly and hilariously mistaken. They only

The first of my many ruined expectations about working with talking critters involved a very polite garter snake.

hear the trained animals, bright and pretty, the ones in children’s movies and commercials. They don’t realize that every animal, trained or not, can talk here. And they don’t shut up. Ever.

Take the singing birds. The ones who don’t know Grieg’s “Morning Mood” or commercial jingles tend to sing bawdy bar songs. Seriously, you don’t know how annoying “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” is until you hear it sung by a murder of crows. And the only reason they know it is because they’ve overheard some drunken idiot singing it. Being way out in the sticks as this farm was, drunken idiots are common as crows.

When most animals got infected by the magic or whatever it was that made them able to talk, it only changed the normal noises they made into human language, at least at first. But they could be taught to speak just about anything, from simple phrases to monologues. One of the most popular videos on YouTube was of a raven reciting, you guessed it, Edgar Allen Poe’s poem.  You know which one.

They could even be trained to carry on conversations, but that was pretty tricky and way above my pay grade and skill set. My job was to teach them the basics and correct their pronunciation, along with things I didn’t go to college for, like cleaning up after said critters. I was a speech-therapist-slash-farmhand.

It was just as glamorous a job as it sounds.

I was supposed to be a speech therapist for people, specifically children. I wanted that feeling of helping someone grasp the gift of proper speech, to see that light in their eyes as they finally got it. When I lost my job at the elementary school (not my fault!), I thought this job would be a suitable substitute. I figured the only difference between teaching a kid to talk or a kid (the goat kind) to talk was that the latter was fluffier.

That was before I realized just how much this job would suck. I’m as big an animal lover as the next girl, but cleaning up after them is still a shitty job, even if they can talk. My co-workers—the human ones—don’t like me very much. The hours are pretty much long and constant, and living in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere loses its charm pretty quickly.

I don’t think I would have minded the job so much if it had been, you know, working with the exotic animals, like the Ribald Brothers and their lions, or teaching snakes to be properly creepy. The first of my many ruined expectations about working with talking critters involved a very polite garter snake, and it all went downhill from there.

Besides learning how to speak properly, one of the things taught to animals is personality. Most personalities met the standard stereotypes:  cats are mean, dogs are nice, snakes are scary, etc. Even though the industry was starting to move away from that type of casting, it was still pretty prevalent, even after thirty years.

But can you really teach personality to animals?  Or is it still just mimickry?  Wouldn’t it be called animality?  It was one of the questions I never could decide on an answer to, and it was too early to think about it.

 

***

My day off meant I wasn’t actively on duty, but since I was the one living on the property—rent free, might I add, the only perk to the job—I was still the one who had to go out at the butt crack of dawn to feed the critters. I started the coffee pot and then went back to my room to grab the large pile of dirty clothes from the floor because I can never remember to do anything in the right order. By the time the washer was filling, I was so ready for coffee.

I was preparing my usual coffee with all the sugary fixings, but I paused when I heard the scratching at the door. I stopped my incredibly important task and let in my dog Rocky.

Rocky’s a pet like Mittens, but unlike Mittens, she was my pet.  All mine. Ever since she was a puppy, we’ve been together. The only time we weren’t was when I was living in the dorm of hell for my first year of college. But once I was out of that pit of despair, I found a way to keep her with me. I turned down plenty of nice houses because they didn’t allow pets, but that never stopped me. I needed her.

Rocky carefully picked her way through the kitchen to her food dish. Mittens eyed her as she passed, but it’s fairly obvious that Rocky’s not a threat. She’s so old, the magic of the place didn’t affect her. She didn’t need to speak; I understood her just fine. As I put her bowl on the floor, she licked my hand to say “Thank you.”

“You wanna go on a walk later? Huh? Do a little exploring?” I asked as I rubbed her side.

She wagged her tail, so I assumed she said yes. Sometimes it was really nice not to have an animal talk back. Okay, maybe not sometimes—more like all the time.

I finished drinking my coffee while she finished eating her food, and when I headed to the door to start my chores, she sat down in her grubby bed to await my return.

 

***

The St. Francis School of Animals was the largest center used to train animals to speak in the state, which was sad when you realized how small the place was. It used to be just a farm, with cows, a few hay fields, and lots of woods and swamps. The nearby woods were what made the place special because most of the talking animals came from there, but other than that, it just looked like every other old farm in creation:  tiny farmhouse, huge barn, at least five other smaller buildings, and maybe two that were rotten and falling down.

Like I said, it used to be a farm. Then it became one of the places where the animals that were captured in the surrounding woods learned to talk, where they became used to people and learned to speak properly. Then, they got shipped somewhere else, and then still more places after that. I hadn’t seen any of the farm’s former animals go anywhere famous like summer blockbusters or sitcoms. From what I heard, it was just as hard for an animal to get a really good acting spot as it was for humans. But who knew? Miracles happened before.

As I walked towards the shed furthest from the house, a swarm of chickens (leftovers from the days when this was a farm) started clustering around me, following either me or the flamboyant rooster to the grain shed. I always got unnerved when I heard

The only thing the job had going for it was that it wasn’t fast food service.

the quiet whispers of “Foooood,” and “Whaaaat?” following me wherever I went. I also didn’t like the rooster, but that was between him and me. He called me bitch one too many times, so it wasn’t my fault for kicking at him.

I threw a coffee can of oats over my shoulder to distract the chickens before I started divvying up food for all the other animals. Deer got corn, squirrels got a nut mixture, I didn’t have to worry about the goats ‘cause they did their own thing, and I didn’t feed the meat-eaters cause my co-workers were afraid I’d screw up.

Just because an animal could speak our language didn’t mean it was any less of an animal. It didn’t magically become a human in animal form. The foxes would still nip and bite, coyotes would eye you like you were the next meal, and the occasional bear always got shipped off somewhere safer as soon as they were caught. Until bears became used to people, they were still wild, and too dangerous for some nobody-farmhand to clean their cages.

I hated doing chores. It was boring. It was repetitive. It was a job. The only thing the job had going for it is that it wasn’t fast food service.

Forty-five minutes later, I was seriously hungry, but my chores were done and the regular workers were showing up for their shifts. I waved half-heartedly at the few who weren’t assholes to me before I entered the privacy of my house. Rocky watched me lazily as I swapped clothes from washer to dryer and put on some jeans and sneakers. I scarfed a granola bar as I straightened my laces. Rocky obediently presented herself to be leashed, and we headed out the door.

 

***

Forests used to be like freedom to me a long time ago.

I used to enjoy wandering around woods like these when I was younger, when I was stupid and naive and thought talking animals were fun. Now that I knew better, I would give anything for a nice quiet walk in the woods.

Still, it was nice to get away. I didn’t have to worry about having a cheerful attitude that would rub off on my trainees, I didn’t have to talk constantly, and for a while I could just be by myself—myself and Rocky, of course.

I wasn’t just out there for the solitude. I could have been spending my day off doing something fun like watching TV, but instead there I was, tramping through the wilderness. Off to look for the source.

The source was supposedly the place where all the magic came from and infected the animals with speaking abilities. When sources started springing up around thirty years ago, the first thing people realized, after they got over the fact that animals were mimicking them, was that every source was centered in a place largely untouched by man.

Which was sweet and all, but it didn’t last.  People began to trample all over and around sources, trying to use science to learn more about them, or coming to steal away bits, or bother the magicked animals. I don’t know what Mother Nature was thinking when she decided to unleash all the magic on us poor mortal souls, but I don’t think she thought it through.

In some places, you could tell where the source was. Other than being untouched by man, everything was greener, and supposedly there was some sort of feeling in the air. So, something like a Disney movie. I would have expected mystic symbols or frolicking animals as well, but no one ever mentioned those.

The woods I was in were among those where the source was still hidden, which meant I could have been walking over it that very moment, getting magical radiation or what-have-you all over me. But according to They-Who-Study-Such-Things, the magic didn’t affect humans, or animals of a certain age, or even certain animals for no reason whatsoever.

Truth is, no matter what they claimed, they still didn’t know much about the magic or why the weird stuff was happening in the first place. All they could do was guess and try not to look too stupid.

I only got about fifteen feet into the forest, following the old logging road, before my peaceful solitude was interrupted. In the oaks above my head, wild squirrels were chewing each other out over acorns. Cute little tweety birds were singing “Friday” at the top of

The songbirds were out of sight. Even the crows went silent.

their little lungs (it was a Tuesday). And then the crows started in on “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

I tried ignoring it, focusing on the scenery for as long as I could, but the murder followed me down the trail. I overheard a family of grouse scuttle past, muttering under their breaths. The red-tailed hawk that lived in the dead pine screamed, “Go away!” at me as I passed.  I think I heard a deer swear as it ran away through the underbrush.

I stopped walking at a trail crossroad as voices quarreled around me, yelling at me and each other. Rocky sat at my feet and whined. The crows reached seventy-three bottles, and I knew there would be no stopping them until they were on the last bottle. All around us the animals raised a verbal ruckus, singing and growling and assaulting my eardrums. I pressed my hands over my ears, stifling the sounds into a muffled roar.

I took a deep breath, then another. My usual meditation efforts, the ones I used to go to sleep or to stop from throttling my coworkers, worked in this situation to slow my breaths and heartbeat. Slowly, I calmed down.

Removing my hands from my ears, I knew in my head that things hadn’t quieted down much, but I could handle it now. I smiled down at Rocky.

“They’re so noisy, huh? Don’t you wish they’d just shut up sometimes?” I asked her.

She wagged her tail at me.

Down the road in front of me, a rabbit hopped into view and stared at me with its big bugged eyes. He asked, in the meanest voice ever to come from a fluffy little rodent since Bugs Bunny, “What you looking at, asshole?”

I snapped. I screamed, “Shut UP! Will you all just SHUT UP!” I just couldn’t handle it any more. I closed my eyes, crammed my hands back against my ears, and screamed, long and wordless and hard. I screamed until all the air left my lungs, and I was left gasping for breath in the silence.

Silence.

I pulled my hands away from my ears. I could hear the echo of my yell, fading away like a memory. In the forest, all I could hear were my ragged breaths and the quiet of unnaturally still woods. The rabbit had fled. The songbirds were out of sight. Even the crows went silent.

A really, really bad feeling churned in my gut. It reminded me about when I stood in front of the balding principal, begging him to let me stay on at my teaching job.

I got the sense that something was very wrong.

Way off in the distance, birds started singing. Real singing, proper singing. Twittering bird singing. A crow landed on a branch over my head and squawked at me. The woods sounded normal again.

I looked down at Rocky. She looked back at me and whined.

“What did I do?” I whispered.

Rocky didn’t have an answer.

Had I actually just reversed the magic?

If I had, I was out of a job. Again.

catgreeneyes2.jpgKori Flowers is one of the winners of the 2013 Elliott Creative Writing Scholarship competition. She has attended Bemidji State University for three years and has been living in northern Minnesota for most of her life.  She likes writing short stories when time and schoolwork allow it.