Author’s Note: I live just outside of Baltimore, in a historically blue-collar neighborhood surrounded by water and wildlife. Sometimes it feels like living in a novel Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Kurt Vonnegut could have written together: filled with the magic and tragicomedy of the universe. As people and animals were dying around me, I wrote this narrative meditation on the disheartening matter-of-factness of transience and finding comfort in tiny acts of kindness and each new day.
The Entropy of Little Things
PEOPLE GIVE US LIVING THINGS. Things I don’t know how to take care of. It is customary when one moves into a new home. A shamrock hibernates, I learned. It is also not Irish, but South American: people just call it “shamrock” because of how the leaves are shaped. The tomato plants love the sun: both of ours grew tall and bore fruit, which we heartily consumed in salads. The hydrangea is supposed to go to a shady spot in the ground. You can alter the color of the flower petals by adding different chemicals to the soil. The oak saplings, which were a gift meant to be a reminder of their centenarian namesake at our previous house, did not make it through winter. You have to pluck the dead flowers off a petunia to make room for more. The coxcomb rallied itself after wilting away at first. The orchid has not blossomed since I got it as a birthday present but has three keikis; getting it to bloom again will be my next challenge.
I obsess over these things I don’t know how to take care of. The feeling of responsibility is overwhelming.
We live at the end of a dead-end street, tucked away between two marinas, in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel and its blue-collar pride and mesothelioma. Marsh wedges through our property. A wall of trees, reeds, and honeysuckle surrounds us in summer, illuminated by fireflies; when the leaves are gone in winter, we can see the water and the boats. Our neighbors have roosters and guinea hens. Snapping turtles knock on our door in the morning, fighting our brooms as we gently coax them back into the marsh. Our home is a humbling battleground between human hubris and nature’s quiet, relentless patience.
“What’s that swimming in the pool?” my Storyteller said.
It was a rabbit. With no idea how long it had been drowning, he scooped it up immediately and cradled it in a towel. We spent the day taking turns nursing it and making sure the Domestic Long Hair didn’t notice.
The Domestic Long Hair brings us living things. Things I don’t know how to save. The fledgling dove, accompanied by the mother as they walked carefully around the backyard looking for bushes in which to grow out of its adolescence, left as an offering at our front door. Countless mice, which served as toys before meeting their doom, beyond help. Multiple rabbits, still alive and injured in various places on their frail bodies, which we tried to patch up and nurse and release, but were dead and cold in the morning as I opened the door to the back bedroom where we kept each one. Domestic cats have a kill rate of 32 percent, and they only eat 28 percent of the kills. But to be honest, we haven’t really had a success story.
I’m a country girl. I grew up on a farm, waking up to the sound of pigs being led to slaughter. I held chickens in my arms, tracing the bend of their wings with my fingers. When the time came, I watched my grandmother chop their heads off for soup. It was a treat to be given a boiled chicken foot as a snack as I ran around the yard looking for my next adventure. I plucked fleas off cats and popped them between my fingernails; picked full ticks off dogs and threw them in the fire (that’s where they go). Drank milk straight from the cow’s udder. Slept in a room with the top of the armoire filled with pickled vegetables, my hands smelling of dill and peppercorn. There is no perfume that could match the smell of horses for me. I understand the beauty and cruelty of life’s cycle. “We are all consumers,” a friend said recently.
But I’m a country girl with a PhD, and I have never killed for sustenance. I didn’t have it in me to become a veterinarian. I don’t know how to grow food. I wrote a dissertation about ships and sailors, but I have never sailed. I drive past the Church Hospital where Edgar Allan Poe died on my way to work every day and study words for a living.
Cottontails don’t burrow, I found out. They nest. If they are the size of a softball, they can fend for themselves. The best thing you can do for one is leave it alone or send it back to nature as soon as possible.
The rabbit spent the day sleeping in a box. His heart was beating fast, and his breathing was shallow. He also became a “he” to us during this time. As evening approached, I realized we wouldn’t be able to release him yet, which diminished his chances of survival. We put him in the Domestic Long Hair’s crate for the night, snuggled in a new towel. I left baby spinach leaves in one corner and a plastic lid of water in another. He moved around, ate, and left tiny droppings all over the crate. He rallied. He would make it through the night, and we would release him first thing in the morning.
“It’s a hard world out there for the little things,” my Storyteller said as we buried him next to the garage the following day. It’s Raising Arizona, but it’s true.
I had found the rabbit’s little body cold and stiff in the crate, his eyes half-open. He had moved during the night and looked surreally comfortable, deceptively at peace. He had eaten, drunk water, left more droppings. An image of still life, the little machine with its inputs and outputs, the entire assemblage looked insultingly animated. The defeat was overwhelming. I had woken up hopeful, willing him to be alive, planning to release him back into the wild, all the while blowing raspberries at the Domestic Long Hair, “Some apex predator you are, oblivious of prey right under your nose!”
We buried the rabbit as Storyteller’s Stepmother made arrangements for home hospice, in the shadow of her New England pride and multiple myeloma. Five years into stem cell transplant and chemotherapy, she took back the reins. She stopped eating and was seeing people outside the living room window, drifting between worlds. She was asking her spouse to come with her.
My Storyteller is grieving. I have never seen him so sad. He believes in Yeatsian gyres and that the memory of one’s returns makes one better. I believe in physics. Bodies in space. Atoms repelling and attracting. Quantum entanglement. Any spirituality that can be explained with particles and waves, I will take it.
But it’s the entropy that kills me. The tendency of the universe toward disorder. Of warmer bodies to get colder until the system reaches equilibrium. Life seems to be a permanent Redshift to me, a constant, irreversible moving away from one another.
Ancient Greeks paid a lot of importance to how one died. The Iliad, I remember fondly, was little more than a collection of individual quests for the most noble, heroic death. It does decode one’s life in hindsight, doesn’t it? That first blood test, decades ago, when they told you there was a protein, element, or whatnot that would eventually show itself. The prophecy and its fulfillment.
Should I not have fed him spinach? Or given him water— perhaps he was still suckling and I have no idea what size softballs are? Should we have released him right away? Or not had a pool in the first place? (We are not rich; it came with the house.) Different choices that in a different multiverse would have led to different outcomes raced through my brain as we both wiped away tears and Storyteller shoveled dirt on top of his little body wrapped in the towel in which he’d died. They are stress- ridden animals and can expire at the drop of a hat. There are many of them. There would be more. It’s the equilibrium of nature.
The Domestic Long Hair kills for sustenance, but also for sport. We give him blues nicknames like Mudfoot and Waterbelly as he drags the marsh into the house. We also call him Mr. Murder. He doesn’t need us to survive, but he, too, is a little thing. There are so many big things out there that could hurt him. He will chase a rival cat up a tree and stare down a boxer three times his size, then hide in the closet at the faint sound of a lawnmower and meow frantically to be let in the house when Labor Day fireworks go off.
That just might be the only thing I’m good at: taking care of apex predators because they take care of themselves.
She never got in the hospital bed. She died in her recliner, with one of her cats in her lap. She wore jewelry to the last, shifting rings from the fingers of one hand to the other. As she passed, a bouquet of heart-shaped Mylar balloons in all colors of the rainbow floated from the kitchen, through the living room, and upstairs to the bedrooms.
Jai Guru Deva, om
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Two days later, I heard a familiar growl outside the front door. The Domestic Long Hair was wrestling another little thing, and I didn’t have it in me to look at the state of it. I did nevertheless—had to—with more instinct than anticipated: it was a baby rabbit, and it was still alive. I jumped, chasing the Domestic Long Hair all the way to the neighbor’s yard as he zig- zagged in front of me. (Storyteller was impressed by my speed.) In a moment of distracted growling at me, he let the rabbit go, and it ran away into the marsh. Our first success story.
The Domestic Long Hair slept on Storyteller’s chest through the night, guarding him. One living thing left this world. Another got to spend one more day in it.
I don’t know if that means that the system is in equilibrium.
I’m a country girl, and I just want to be there for the little things.
Martina Kado is director of publications at the Maryland Center for History and Culture, in Baltimore, where she serves as editor-in-chief of Maryland Historical Magazine. Researching maritime narratives for her PhD in English turned her life into a “traveling genre.” A Fulbright Fellow, translator, and flamenco dancer, she gets stir-crazy when exposed to only one language for too long. Her work has appeared in Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, Overland, and The Quill Magazine. Website: www.martinakado.com
Delmarva Review, now in its sixteenth year, publishes the most compelling new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions during the year. Designed to encourage outstanding new writing, the literary journal is nonprofit and independent. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org
# # #
Write a Letter to the Editor on this Article
We encourage readers to offer their point of view on this article by submitting the following form. Editing is sometimes necessary and is done at the discretion of the editorial staff.