The stories in Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals take place at the confluence of the commonplace and the cosmic, the intimate and the infinite. A fossil-hunter, a comedian, a hot- air balloon pilot, parents and children, believers and nonbelievers, the people in these stories are struggling to understand the absurdity and the magnitude of what it means to exist in a family, to exist in the world.
In “Shirley Temple Three,” a mother must shoulder her son’s burden—a cloned and resurrected wooly mammoth who wreaks havoc on her house, sanity, and faith. In “The Real Alan Gass,” a physicist in search of a mysterious particle called the “daisy” spends her days with her boyfriend, Walker, and her nights with the husband who only exists in the world of her dreams, Alan Gass. Like the daisy particle itself—“forever locked in a curious state of existence and nonexistence, sliding back and forth between the two”—the stories in Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals are exquisite, mysterious, and inextricably connected.
From this enchanting primordial soup, Pierce’s voice emerges—a distinct and charming testament of the New South, melding contemporary concerns with their prehistoric roots to create a hilarious, deeply moving symphony of stories.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Shirley Temple Three
Mawmaw’s throwing the party, and her own son is three hours late. Already he’s missed his cousin’s goshdern wedding ceremony and the grape-juice toasts and the cake-cutting, and now he’s about to miss the couple’s mad dash to the car too. All the tables are decorated with white flowers in beakers, since the groom, new to the family, is a chemist for a textile company, and in the foyer she’s put out enlarged photos from when the bride and groom were babies and total strangers to each other, and overall Mawmaw would give her reception an A-plus if not for this business with Tommy.
Tommy is supposed to be driving in from Atlanta, where he works as the host of a popular show called Back from Extinction. On each episode they actually bring back long-dead, forgotten creaturessaber-toothed tigers, dodo birds, and all the rest. The show is a little controversial, but people seem to enjoy it. Tommy always looks so handsome in his khaki safari vest.
The happy couple is about to depart when the phone rings. One of the uncles holds it out the door saying it’s you-know-who on the line. Mawmaw swats it away, because she doesn’t want to hear it. Not a word of it. Tommy is always full of excuses. She gives all the guests baggies of rice, and they go out front and shower the bride and groom with kernels as they dive into the back of a Plymouth decorated with shaving cream and condoms, and then they’re gone and the party is over, and Tommy has missed the entire thing.
What’s crystal clear is that he doesn’t give two hoots about anyone but himself.
House empty again, Mawmaw steps onto the back porch to smoke a menthol and feel the cool night air on her freckled skin. The night air is a natural force, and natural forces help you remember how small you are, and when you remember how small you are in the Big Picture you see how silly it is to be upset at almost anything. It’s a technique she picked up from a woman on television, and even though the woman was talking specifically about money trouble, Mawmaw finds it works in most situations. The technique helps you to remember that you have to surrender control to the universe. She can feel the breeze tickle her skin. She can recognize the breeze as a natural force much larger than her little old arthritic self. And she understands that one daywho knows, maybe even tonight in her sleepshe will die and enter God’s eternal golden Kingdom and feel His Love, and when that happens all her frustrations and concerns will be like dewdrops on the windshield of a fast-moving car, the glass streaked clean and clear of all blurriness. That thought is a true comfort to her, and she’s close to letting go of her anger, but then she allows herself to picture Tommy with that boyish look on his face, the one he puts on when he pretends to have absolutely no idea why anyone could possibly be mad at him.
Mawmaw stubs her menthol out on the steps and goes inside to stack the dirty dishes and glasses. The real clean can wait for the morning. Upstairs, she changes into her nightgown and takes her pill. She is on the edge of sleep when she hears the truck in the driveway.
The porch lights hum with a new electricity. If the moon could radiate more light, it would. Tommy is home. She wants to sing. She wishes the party wasn’t over, so everyone could see her son. When she greets him out front, he pulls her into a deep hug. “You look thin,” she says. “How about some coconut shrimp or wedding cake?” His eyes are bloodshot, his brown hair ruffled. He’s wearing suit pants and a white undershirt. She hasn’t seen him in eight months and six days. She’s already forgiven him, already forgotten how mad she was an hour ago.
He pulls her into a short waltz across the asphalt. “I promised you a dance,” he says. “Don’t think I forgot.”
“Your uncle asked me if you’d fallen in with the wrong sort of people,” she says, teasing him. “That’s code for drugs, in case you’re wondering.”
They stop dancing. “Did you set him straight?”
“I wasn’t sure what to tell him,” she says, eyebrows arched, looking away but smiling. Sometimes she feels like a different person around Tommycarefree, lighthearted.
“Well, Maw, I’ve got a good reason for being late,” he says, and pats his truck, which has a BACK FROM EXTINCTION magnetic decal on its door. “Something I need to show you. Pour us both a drink and meet me around back.”
She pours him some grapefruit juice in a tall Daffy Duck glass. Tommy comes into the house through the back door. She hands him the glass and he takes a swig, then looks at her, confused. He pulls a flask out of his pocket and tips it into Daffy Duck. “Follow me,” he says, and leads her into the backyard, both of them swatting their way through a veil of mosquitoes and moths attacking the overhead floodlight. There, in the freshly mowed grass, Tommy has something hidden under a quilt. It’s moving.
“What I’m about to show you,” he says, “you can’t tell a soul about it. If you did, it would be major trouble. Trouble with a capital T.” He sips his drink and tugs the quilt away.
Mawmaw takes a step back. She’s looking at some kind of elephant. With hair.
“Don’t worry. She’s not dangerous,” Tommy says. “Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth. The last wild one lived about ten thousand years ago. They’re the smallest mammoths that ever existed. Cute, isn’t she?”
The mammoth is waist-high, with a pelt of dirty-blond fur that hangs in tangled draggles to the dirt. Its tusks, white and pristine, curve out and up. The forehead is high and knobby and covered in a darker fur. The trunk probes the ground for God-knows-what and then curls back into itself like a jelly roll.
“What’s a goshdern Bread Island Dwarf Whatever doing in my yard?” Mawmaw asks.
“Listen,” Tommy says. “This is very special. Other than the folks at work, you’re the first modern human to ever lay eyes on such a creature. Her episode hasn’t even aired yet. Go on, you can touch her. She’s friendly. Practically tame. Her name’s Shirley Temple.”
“Shirley Temple?” Mawmaw asks. “You can’t name it that. Shirley Temple was Shirley Temple.” She points to the dog pen, under which Shirley Temple the Great Dane is buried. The dog had tumors that couldn’t be removed. The vet wanted to put her to sleep, but Mawmaw couldn’t bear it. One night she left the pen open by mistake, and three days later she found the dog curled and cold under the porch.
“All right,” Tommy says. “I meant it to be honorific. Call this one Shirley Temple Two, if you’d like.” He puts his hand on the mammoth’s tusk. “Or maybe we should call her Shirley Temple the Third? Since, you know, technically, the first one was the ‘Good Ship Lollipop’ Shirley Temple. This one’s about as dangerous as the little girl.”
He runs his hand along Shirley Temple Three’s back. The mammoth looks up at him with dark, mysterious eyes. It doesn’t seem to know what to do in this new setting.
“Is it full-grown?”
“That’s what they tell me. Isn’t she amazing?”
Mawmaw nods because the mammoth really is a scientific miracle, a true marvel, but then again, it’s getting late. She’s been awake since four a.m., working on final preparations for the reception, and she’s already taken her pill. The moonlight shines down on the three of them. They decide to keep Shirley Temple Three in the dog pen for the night.
Not all of Mawmaw’s friends like her son’s showespecially her friends at God’s Sacred Light. When the show debuted, she had not yet retired as the church’s financial administrator, and Pastor Frank pulled her into his small, warm office and asked if she was concerned about her son. She hadn’t been until that moment. Pastor Frank knows everything there is to know about Mawmaw and Tommy. They joined the church two months after she gave birth. She wasn’t married, because Tommy’s father was already married to someone else. Kyle Seevers was a CPA in another town and had given a talk in Mawmaw’s night class in business administration. Kyle couldn’t leave his wife, but he was a real gentleman about all of it and mailed regular checks until the day he died of a heart attack. Mawmaw thought it best not to attend the funeral.
Tommy knows the name Kyle Seevers. Mawmaw doesn’t like secrets.
Her son comes into the kitchen the morning after the reception and asks if he can have scrambled eggs and grits. She can’t refuse him. His hair sticks up in the back. He’s forty-two but could be twelve. Up on her toes, Mawmaw reaches for a pan on a high hook, then down low for a whisk in a bottom drawer. She’s feeling more energetic than she has in months. Her knees are hardly bothering her at all. Tommy sips his black coffee and reads the newspaper. The eggs crackle in the bacon grease.
“And how’s Shirley this morning?” Tommy asks.
All morning Mawmaw hasn’t let herself look out the window above the sink.
“Don’t see nothing out there,” she says.
“Don’t see it?” Tommy is up in a flash and out the back door. She watches him scurry across the grass in his boxers. He goes inside the pen. The mammoth emerges from behind the oak tree in the far right corner. From a distance it’s almost doglike. But that long probing trunk. Those tusks! Tommy squats in front of the mammoth and runs his fingers through the dirty-blond coat.
“Wash your hands,” Mawmaw says once he’s back inside. “Could have diseases.”
“Maw, it doesn’t have any diseases,” he says. Yet she can’t help but notice how thoroughly he scrubs his hands in the sink.
She puts his breakfast plate on the table and sits down to watch him eat.
“How come they let you take this elephant?” she asks. “Isn’t that against the rules?”
“It’s not an elephant. Listen, Maw, I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret. You know about the Back from Extinction Zoo, right?”
“It’s where that cute little zookeeper takes all the animals to live at the end of every show.”
“Right. Her name is Samantha. Only, she doesn’t take every animal to the zoo. We never say this on the air, but sometimes we clone twins by mistake, and that, legally speaking, is a bureaucratic nightmare. There are so many fucking laws that we”
“No f, please.”
“Sorry, but it’s true. You’d think we were trying to make nuclear weapons. We’re allowed to keep both twins alive until we’ve filmed the episode, so we can use each one on camera. But then we have to get rid of one. Samantha is the person who has to euthanize them. It’s awful.”
Tommy scrapes the grits into a small pile and takes another bite.
“Why are you telling me this?” Mawmaw asks.
“Because,” Tommy says, “we had two dwarf mammoths. Twins. Only, this time Samantha couldn’t bring herself to do it. She took Shirley home instead. Not the smartest move, but it’s not like she could just set a mammoth loose in the woods, you know? Anyway, the show suspected something was up. She needed it out of her house for a few days in case they came snooping around, and I told her I would help.”
Mawmaw goes to the window. Shirley Temple Three is using its tusks to root up the dirt. She wonders what it eats. If it would eat eggs. Shirley Temple the dog used to eat eggs.
Tommy plans to be in town for less than a week, but his friends want to see him. One night his high school buddy Mitch Mitchells comes over to take him out like old times. Mitch is recently divorced, and Tommy says he thinks he’s lonely, which is enough to make Mawmaw laugh. What does Mitch Mitchells know about loneliness? But, standing in the foyer, Mitch gives Mawmaw a long, sad hug. She hasn’t seen him in probably a decade. Unlike her son, he hasn’t aged well. He has an extra chin, thinner hair. He’s clearly in awe of Tommy, a real celebrity, and is full of questions. Has Tommy met many movie stars? Is he dating anybody special? Have any of the animals bitten him or stung him or stabbed him or done him any sort of bodily harm as yet unimaginable? And how do the scientists bring back all those animals, anyway?
First of all, Tommy says, he hasn’t met many movie stars, since he lives in Atlanta, not Hollywood. And he’s not dating anyone special, certainly not anyone famous, and thus far, knock on fossil, he hasn’t suffered even a single scratch from the animals, and as for the science, well, to be perfectly honest, he doesn’t have a clue how they do it. He’s just the talent. He reads the cue cards. He doesn’t have to handle any pipettes, let’s put it that way. Mitch Mitchells thinks that’s just hysterical.
“You’ll look after the dog?” Tommy asks on his way out, a glint in his eye. Mawmaw nods, but once he’s gone she wonders what she’s supposed to do. Walk it? Give it a treat? Earlier that week, on the computer, she learned that prehistoric mammoths ate grasses, fruits, twigs, berries, and nuts. In the pantry Mawmaw has a tub of mixed nuts. She pours some cashews and almonds and pecans into a metal bowl and takes it outside, to where the mammoth has stuck its trunk through one of the squares of the metal gate. The trunk recoils when she places the bowl in front of it. It doesn’t seem very interested in the nuts.
“Take it or leave it,” Mawmaw says, and abandons the mammoth for her nighttime ablutions: her face cream, her electric toothbrush, and, just before sliding into the faded red nightgown, her sleeping pill. She sleeps hard until midnight, when a car in the driveway pulls her awake. She realizes she’s not in bed anymore but at her desk in the office, half her toenails painted dark red, the computer printing a ninety-two-page document about the dangers of lead-based paint. Her pills can have that effect sometimes. They turn her into a zombie. She goes to the window, but it’s not Mitch’s Bronco outside in the driveway. It’s a taxicab. Tommy shoves a wad of cash through the driver’s window and stumbles toward the house. Mawmaw creeps back into her room and shuts her door. She considers taking another pill but turns on the television instead.
An hour later, her son’s show comes on. It’s a rerun about the Glyptodon, a prehistoric armadillo thing with a spiky tail shaped like a mace. The Glyptodon is the size of a small car. They name him Glypto-Donny. Tommy narrates Donny’s reentry into the wild, in this case a reedy riverbank, the water brown and slow. The camera follows Donny through the reeds. Through the trees on the opposite bank, only for a moment, Mawmaw sees what looks like the top of a condominium. Donny doesn’t do much except nose at the reeds. Tommy enters the scene and walks right up to the beast. Her son looks so small in comparison. He knocks on its hard shell. Donny doesn’t seem to notice. The show ends with the Glyptodon in the back of a truck headed for the zoo. Samantha, a sturdy, petite woman with curly blond hair, gives Tommy a thumbs-up, and then there’s the quick stream of credits.
No light outside yet, but she goes downstairs to put on the coffee and check on Shirley. All the mixed nuts are gone from the bowl. The mammoth makes a squeaking sound in the back of its throat.
Later that morning, Tommy appears, disheveled and quiet. They’re eating breakfast when his phone screeches noisilya pterodactyl ringtone?against his cereal bowl.
“Not at the table,” she says. “Please.”
But Tommy takes the call. He goes into the living room. She can hear that he’s upset.
“Of course, yes, she’s safe here,” he says. “She’s holding up well. I told you everything would work out fine if we just” He paces. “Okay, well, we knew that was a possibility. But listen, please don’t do anything drastic. Just take a deep breath. Have you had breakfast? Go get one of those egg sandwiches you like and take a walk. I’ll be back soon. We can sort this out together. One step at a . . .”
Mawmaw goes out back for a menthol. She smokes two a dayone after breakfast, one after dinner. A self-imposed rule. It’s been this way ever since she was a teenager. No one called her Mawmaw back then. She was Louise Baker, the dark-haired beauty who scooped ice cream at the drugstore after school.
A crow lands on the top rail of the dog pen, and then flies away. The little mammoth hardly moves. It’s almost like a mannequin. Why isn’t it moving? It moves. Mawmaw realizes she’s been holding her breath. The mammoth shuffles to the back of the pen, on the other side of which is a stretch of woods. Sometimes the deer emerge from those woods to eat the small green apples when they fall. Shirley Temple Three might like to see that, she thinks, and then takes a final drag of her menthol. Tommy says that the mammoth is from the late Pleistocene. It’s been yanked out of its own time and lives outside God’s natural laws.
God created the world in seven days, but those days weren’t necessarily twenty-four-hour days. Each one of His days might have been a million years long. Human time means nothing in the realm of Heaven, where the clocks probably don’t have hands but golden arms, and the arms belong to God. On which day did the mammoth get created? It wasn’t on the seventh day, since that was the day of rest. Quite possibly it came into the world on the morning of the fifth and went back out again that same afternoon.
She is grateful to have been included at all in the grand parade of Creation, but thinking of entire creations already come and gone, it’s hard not to feel a bit lost in the procession. Mawmaw has experienced this anxiety before. “The anxiety of smallness,” her pastor called it once and advised, in these situations, that she imagine a zipper running down the length of her back, a flesh-colored set of teeth that when unzipped split apart to reveal a dazzling white vastness as big and deep as the universe itself. But to have invested something so big in something so small and limited, it often seems to her, was probably unfairor even dangerous.
When she goes inside, the plates are still on the table. She finds Tommy upstairs, packing his bag. She asks if everything is okay, and he says of course it is, then adds, “But I have to leave a little earlier than expected.”
“Is everything okay with Samantha?” she asks. “I assume that was Samantha?”
He gives her a curious look, then continues collecting clothes off the armchair and floor.
“Are you dating the zookeeper from your show?” she asks.
“Dating her? I don’t know,” he says. “Does it matter? Listen, Maw, I’m sorry, but I need to get back to Atlanta for a few days. I’ll come back once things get sorted out.”
“What about . . .” She motions out the window to the other houseguest.
“Don’t hate me, Maw. Please don’t hate me, but Shirley has to stay here for a while. Not for too long, I promise. It’s just that, well, if you want to know the truth, people are asking questions. Samantha’s in some hot water. They want proof of death. Someone at the zoo must have made a call.”
“And you’re helping her because why?”
He grimaces. “What do you want me to say, Maw? That I’m doing it all for love?”
Mawmaw is quiet. His doing it all for love certainly wouldn’t make the situation less palatable.
“Fine,” he says. “Sure, Samantha and I might have something. Maybe. And so that’s why I have to leave and sort this all out. She might have broken a few laws.”
Mawmaw doesn’t bother to ask him how many laws are currently being broken in her own backyard.
“Whatever you do,” he says, pulling up the handle of his roller suitcase, “don’t tell anyone about the mammoth. Once this business with Samantha settles down, we’ll figure out what to do next. I promise.”
She’s been babysitting the mammoth for not quite a month when it starts losing hair. Mawmaw sits in front of the pen on a kitchen stool. The days are getting warmer, and she doesn’t know what to do. Clumps of the mammoth’s blond tangles are spread across the ground, and its exposed skin is red and irritated. It rattles the gate with its curvy tusks.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I’m worried,” she says to Shirley. “Tommy’s not returning my phone calls. Don’t look at me like that. I know exactly what you’re thinking. Tommy’s not calling? What a surprise, right? You got fleas, is that it? Or are you molting? Is this normal? You’re probably not used to this weather, are you? Eighty-eight degrees today, and it’s only going to get hotter. What happens then?”
Mawmaw wonders if the mammoth might be scratching itself raw along the fence, but over the next week, looking out the back window, she never catches it in the act. Mostly it just stands there in the heat, breathing heavy. But the hair continues to fall out. One patch of skin looks so rough that Mawmaw takes out her lotion and rubs some on the spot with two fingers.
“Just so you know, this is expensive lotion. I have to order it special. I use it on my faceotherwise I get dry between my eyes. Does that feel better?”
She calls Tommy and gets his voice mail. When the temperature hits ninety, she brings Shirley inside the house to cool off for a little while. Guiding the animal down the hallway is a challenge. The mammoth comes up only to her waist, but it is a hefty creature, much too heavy to lift or shove. Mawmaw steers it toward the laundry room, where the dryer is tumbling a load. She moves some cleaning supplies and boxes onto the shelves along the back wall, clearing a space on the floor. She spreads a plastic tarp and cranks up the air-conditioning. She fills the mammoth’s bowl with beans and orange peels and mixed nutsalways nutsand a little hay that she picked up at the garden-supply store. With some old bath towels she creates a nest beside the washing machine. She tells Shirley good night and closes the door.
By the time she climbs into bed that night, the house is nearly an Arctic tundra, and she needs four blankets to keep warm. In the morning she puts on a sweatshirt and a jacket. The laundry room smells like the circus. She shovels the dung into buckets and dumps the buckets in the woods behind her house. She burns citrus candles to mask the scent.
Tommy still hasn’t returned her phone calls by the time Shirley has her big television debut on Back from Extinction. It’s been on the calendar for weeks, and Mawmaw lets the mammoth come into the living room as a special treat. She offers Shirley a small bowl of milk and sinks into the couch just as the episode begins.
Mawmaw knows the theme song by heart, the horns and jungle drums that float above a highly scientific electronic beat. Tommy narrates a few basic facts about woolly mammoths. How they haven’t walked the earth for thousands of years, how in some cases they were overhunted by early man. The show is very protective of the technology that gestates the mammoth, and so it skips ahead to post-birth with a montage of Shirley’s first year, as her legs and trunk elongate, as her coat thickens, as her tusks sprout outward. Then Tommy enters the action. He asks one of the scientists what mammoths used to eat, and the scientist, a limp smile on his face, informs Tommy that frozen mammoths have been discovered with bellies full of leaves and grasses. They also like fried eggs and grapefruit rinds, Mawmaw adds, not to mention M&M’s.
“Look at you, Shirl. You see yourself? Pretty impressive.”
In the next scene, Shirley is loaded into a truck and dropped off in the middle of the Canadian Arctic, in an area that approximates conditions on Bread Island thousands of years ago. In the back of the truck, with a fur-lined hood pulled tight around his pinkish face, Tommy explains that Shirley has been wired with cameras and a tracking device and that now, for the first time in thousands of years, we’re going to get a glimpse of a mammoth in the wild. Mawmaw knows that Shirley will survive, but still she grips her armrest.
The mammoth loses interest and wanders into the kitchen.
“You’re missing it,” Mawmaw calls. She can hear its tusks knocking against the walls as it migrates to the back of the house.
Shirley stops losing hair. Gray scabs form a light crust over the bald patches, which break apart under a wet washcloth. But Mawmaw is still concerned about her patient. Shirley isn’t drinking enough water. She seems lethargic. She comes down with diarrhea. Mawmaw discovers it, the dark green puddles across the tarp. She leads Shirley back to the dog pen so that she can clean up the mess. She tosses the whole sheet of plastic in the trash and lays out a new one.
“What can I do for you?” Mawmaw asks, leading Shirley back inside. “Would Pepto help? More sunlight?”
The next morning Mawmaw wakes up to find even more diarrhea. The mammoth is trying to hide behind the washing machine, her tusks tapping the metal side.
Mawmaw gets on the computer and searches for “elephant + flu,” but the sites aren’t especially helpful. She dips her fingers in the water bowl and presses them to the mammoth’s wrinkled gray lips beneath the trunk.
“Come on. You can do this. Just a little. You need this.”
She wets her fingers again and this time the mouth opens a little to receive them, but when the water drops pass Shirley’s lips she shuts her mouth tight again, as if the liquid were toxic. Mawmaw strokes her tusks and knobby forehead, brushing loose strands away from her dark eyes.
She calls Tommy’s cell, but gets his voice mail again.
“Tommy. Shirley Temple is dying. I just thought you should know. I’m doing the best I can, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough. Maybe Samantha should have put her down like they asked her to. Maybe something really is wrong with her. I don’t know why you brought this goshdern thing to my house.”
Mawmaw imagines finding the mammoth dead, its blond hair stiff with dried excrement, its eyes white and milky. She won’t be able to lift it. She’ll have to carve the mammoth into chunks to get it outside again. She imagines the jagged saw blades, the mess.
This is all Tommy’s fault. What kind of a fool son did she raise up? This mammoth doesn’t belong here, or anywhere. Back from Extinction is a cruel television program. The cruelest. Shirley is a clone, and that means ten thousand years ago her exact copy walked the earth. The original Shirley had parents, and maybe even children. The original Shirley probably died in some kind of ice pond or avalanche or tar pit. Ten thousand years from now scientists could make a Mawmaw clone. What would the world be like then?
Then a terrible thought: What if today is still God’s seventh day and He still hasn’t woken up yet from His rest? That would explain why He’s been so quiet lately. What if, when He wakes up on the eighth morning, He decides He doesn’t like what we’ve been up to down here? Maybe He’ll be grumpy with us and stamp out all the lights again, return the world to darkness. In ten thousand years, the earth could be cold and barren, an endless frozen wasteland more suitable for mammoths than for humans. If theywhoever they aredo grow a new Mawmaw out of a petri dish, she can only hope that someone will set her up in a nice warm room. And if that Mawmaw gets sick she can only hope that they’ll do what’s right and call a doctor.
She finds a vet in the yellow pages. His name is Dr. Mark Sing. She promises to double his fee for a house call, and he comes over that evening. His hair is dark and shiny. He has a leather bag that she hopes is full of instruments and medicines. He takes off his tan blazer, then puts it on again. The house is still cold. Mawmaw’s last electricity bill was astronomical. “You have to swear to me that you won’t tell a soul what you see here,” she says, and he shrugs like he’s heard this all before.
“I’m serious,” she says, and across a blank sheet of paper writes, I won’t tell a soul. “Sign this. I want to have it in writing.”
The man looks tired. He removes his glasses and rubs his left eye with the palm of his hand, the gold watch snug around his wrist. He signs the paper, and she leads him down the hall and opens the door. The mammoth is nested in the bath towels. Mawmaw has done her best to clean the room. Vanilla candles burn on the washer. The plastic tarp crinkles under their feet. Dr. Sing opens his mouth but doesn’t say a word. He kneels down by the mammoth, runs his hand through the hair, caresses its knobby forehead. Shirley doesn’t seem to mind, and Mawmaw considers this a good sign.
“Can I ask you where it came from?” he says. “How long you’ve had it?”
“I’m sorry, but no. She going to be all right?”
He opens his bag and removes an electronic thermometer. He taps it a few times against his palm, as if uncertain whether he should proceed. Finally he lifts the mammoth’s thin hairy tail and inserts it quickly. Shirley’s head jerks around and the tusk collides with the doctor’s left shoulder, almost knocking him over. The thermometer beeps. He looks at the reading. Mawmaw asks if it’s high, and he says he’s not sure exactly, because he doesn’t know what’s normal. He says what he really needs is a blood sample, to run some tests, but Mawmaw can’t permit that. He gets up off the floor and goes into the hall. On the wall he sees a framed picture of Tommy in his khaki duds.
“He’s the one from that show.”
Mawmaw doesn’t answer.
“Could be a mammoth flu, for all I know,” he says. “She definitely seems dehydrated. I suppose I could give her fluids intravenously.”
Mawmaw agrees that he should, and that’s the plan. Fortunately, Shirley doesn’t protest when he inserts the needle. Mawmaw pays Dr. Sing triple his usual fee and shows him the piece of paper again. “Who would believe me anyway?” he says, and takes the check.
The next morning the mammoth has her appetite back. Mawmaw cooks her rice and yogurt. She lets her out into the yard and runs a stiff wire brush through her matted blond coat. The mammoth seems to like being brushed. Then she wanders to the edge of the property to root around. Mawmaw pulls the excess hair out of the brush, stretching and curling the strands between her fingers.
“I could make a Shirley sweater. I bet it’d be warm.”
That night Mawmaw is in her bed when she hears the first wail. She’s taken a pill, but she’s wide awake now. The mammoth lets out a long guttural cry that almost shakes the house. Maybe her cries are a reaction to the vet’s visit and the fluids he administeredor maybe the fever and the dehydration were only early symptoms of some deeper crisis. Mawmaw waits for another, but it doesn’t come. She might have dreamed it. She’s on the verge of sleep when it erupts again, that slow mournful bellow. Pulling the top blanket over her shoulders, she sticks her veiny feet into her Goofy slippers and flips on every light switch on her way downstairs. In the laundry room, Shirley is staring at the floral-print wallpaper, as close to the wall as her tusks will allow.
“What’s going on in here?”
The mammoth doesn’t move.
“You need to drink more water. That’s all it is. You’ve got some kind of flu. You need sleep.”
Mawmaw has an extra pill in her pocket. She takes it into the kitchen and coats it in a gob of peanut butter. The peanut butter sticks to the food bucket when she brings it out to Shirley. The mammoth’s trunk grabs the gob and tucks it into its gray mouth.
“Whatever’s bothering you, we can talk about it in the morning.”
She gets back in bed and nestles under the weight of the blankets. A few minutes later, the mammoth repeats the sound, but this time, instead of trailing off into nothingness, it ends with several shrill, trumpetlike staccato bursts. Mawmaw considers turning on her television but doesn’t. She’s worried. Maybe it’s mating season. If so, how tragic. Shirley is separated from her closest mate by ten thousand years. Then comes another wail. The mammoth lets up only at the first hint of sunlight.
The mammoth’s night terrors have been happening for a week when Tommy finally calls. She can hear street noise behind him.
He says he’s so sorry she’s had to deal with Shirley these past few months, but if the mammoth dies of its sickness, maybe it’s for the best. For everyone. He says the network still hasn’t figured out that Samantha took the mammoth, but they’ve been keeping an eye on her. And on him. That’s why he hasn’t been able to bring Shirley back to Atlanta. “I was actually beginning to worry I might have to come down there and euthanize her myself,” he says.
“And how would you do that exactly?”
“God, I don’t know. A shovel, I guess. Or maybe I could poison it.”
“And what would Samantha have to say about that?”
“Why, you plan on telling her?”
Mawmaw is quiet. So, her son would protect his girlfriend from that tragedy but not his own mother. No doubt they’d bury Shirley in the backyard, and every time Mawmaw walked across the grave she’d have to remember what her son had done.
“Thankfully, I don’t think it’s going to come to all that,” he says. “Not if she’s sick. Right?”
Mawmaw doesn’t mention Dr. Sing’s visit. She doesn’t mention the wailing. She doesn’t tell him that Shirley’s problem might not be physical but spiritual. She lets him think she wants it dead too.
Calling Pastor Frank is a risk, but Mawmaw is desperate. Three years ago Pastor Frank prayed over the body of a young girl with brain cancer, and despite the doctors’ dire prognosis the girl survived for another two years.
He arrives five minutes early and, without being asked, removes his large black sneakers at the door. He pulls her into a deep hug and pats her back. In the living room, she offers him coffee.
“No, thank you,” he says. “I get jumpy.”
He’s examining the items in the spacious living room: the oil portrait of baby Tommy on the wall, the antique tea cart with the porcelain teacups, her mother’s old electric organ with the thin black pump pedals. Possibly he’s wondering how Mawmaw could afford such a nice living room with what had been a modest church salary.
“My son bought me this house after I retired,” she says. “A total surprise, believe me. I didn’t ask for it.”
“It’s lovely,” he says. “You look exhausted. Everything okay?”
“My dog is dying. I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Never easy. I still get teary-eyed thinking about our Pomeranian that died two years ago. Copperhead bit him.”
“Did you pray for him?”
“For the dog? Well, it happened so fast. He was dead within hours. Do you have any tea? Noncaffeinated?”
“Of course,” she says, and goes into the kitchen. As the water heats, and then as the tea bag steeps in the Mickey Mouse mug, she imagines what happens next, the moment of first contact. She tries to picture Pastor Frank, the tarp crinkling under his knees as he places his warm hands over Shirley’s tangled hair. She imagines his words as a light, almost liquid, that forms an amberlike shell around the mammoth’s body.
She takes the tea into the living room. Pastor Frank is leaning over the electric organ, tapping the keys. He hasn’t turned it on, so it produces no sound. She offers him the tea.
“You know, my wife and I don’t have cable,” he continues, “but we’ve been hearing an awful lot about your son’s show recently. Is it true they brought a Neanderthal back from the dead? Two ways of thinking about these things.” The pastor’s thin brown hair is brushed back with pomade. He has one finger on a low B-flat and another on a high one. “Two scenarios. In scenario one, God killed off the Neanderthals because He wanted it that way and therefore we’re going against His will by bringing one back. In scenario two, there never was such a creature as a Neanderthal, and the so-called fossils were put there by the Devil himself. The second scenario is frightening, of course, because that would mean we’re breathing life into the Devil’s creations.”
Mawmaw can feel the pulse in her temple. “They never brought back any caveman,” she tells him. “Only animals.”
“Still,” he says, as if that settles it.
They sit down in the wingback chairs, facing each other. Mawmaw isn’t sure whether or not to proceed with her plan. After a long silence, he asks her if she’d like to pray for her son.
Pastor Frank reaches out for her hands. How many times over the past thirty years has she put her hands in his and said the words? How many times has he shined the light into the shadows of her heart? He knows all there is to know: about every sordid encounter she ever had with Tommy’s father; about her visit to the clinic and what she almost did there, the blue gown and paper-thin slippers, so thin they barely existed at all; about every dark dream, every dark thought; her doubts about God, about Hell, about what happens next.
Pastor Frank is praying for her son. He’s asking God to bring Tommy home again, to protect him from evil forces at work in the world, to reveal to Tommy the path back to God. His words hover in the space above her head, a wispy cloud in a night sky, breaking and re-forming in the high atmospheric breeze. From below, her feet planted firmly on the ground, Mawmaw could reach out for those clouds if she wanted, poke her fingers through them, but she doesn’t. She recycles Pastor Frank’s words, borrows their power. She recites a silent prayer of her own, this one focused on the creature in the next room, their two prayers, she hopes, working in tandem.
“Can you add my dog?” she interrupts.
“Of course,” he says. “Do you want to bring her out?”
“She’s at the vet.”
Pastor Frank smiles and gives her hands another squeeze. He speaks softly, almost in a whisper. He asks God to keep watch over sweet littlewhat’s the dog’s name?to watch over sweet little Shirley Temple. “Lord,” he says, “we praise all the beauty in Your creation, the fish and the birds and the turtles and the squirrels and the cats and the dogs and even the possums.”
The wailing at night does not stop. A neighbor calls to complain about the noise, and Mawmaw blames the television, her bad hearing. She tries a night-light in the laundry room. She tries stuffing towels under all the doors to muffle the sound. She prints out pictures of the tundra and other mammoths and tapes them to the walls. Some nights, half asleep, Mawmaw worries that the noise is emanating from within the catacombs of her own body. Opening her mouth she half expects the cries to amplify. She is able to sleep only in spurts. She dreams that Shirley is her guide through a world of snow and ice and unidentifiable landscapes. Every direction looks the same, but Shirley knows the way. Where they are going is important, but in the morning Mawmaw can no longer remember why.
One night, she gives the mammoth three pills. The next night, four. But, no matter the dosage, they don’t seem to have any effect.
“What is it?” she asks, downstairs again, desperate, the lights flipped on. “What do you need from me? Is this mating season? I’m sorry to tell you this, but you got no one to mate with. You’re on your own. You got to hush up. I’ve tried everything I know to try. I’m going out of my mind.” She steps backward into the hall, the door to Shirley’s room still open. “Is this what you want? You want out? Here.” She opens the door to the backyard. “Do whatever you need to do.”
She stomps back up the stairs and climbs into bed. A little after midnight, thank God, the cries downstairs finally stop.
What wakes her in the morning isn’t a noise but a light. Bands of gold and yellow sunlight crawl slowly across the end of her bedspread. She’s quite certain no morning has ever gleamed in this particular way. She feels like she’s been asleep for a thousand years.
Only once she’s on the stairs in her bathrobe and slippers does she remember leaving all the doors open for Shirley. The mammoth isn’t in the laundry roomor anywhere else in the house.
“Come on out, wherever you are. Don’t play tricks on me.”
She steps outside into the sunlight and peeks under the edge of the porch, just in case Shirley managed to squeeze herself underneath. The far corner is where the dog went to be alone in the end. But the mammoth is not there. Nor is it anywhere in the yard or the dog pen. Shirley has escaped.
Of course, there’s no one to call for help but Tommy. His voice mail picks up after a few rings.
“Call me back. It’s about Shirley,” she says vaguely.
As soon as she hangs up, she regrets the message. Her son doesn’t need to be involved, not if his solution is poison-laced candy or a bop on the head with the shovel. An unsettling image begins to take shape: her Tommy, no longer handsome but totally devolved, a swollen caveman’s brow, hunting spear in his grimy hand, bits of broken leaves in his long and matted hair.
She climbs into her car and drives up and down the block, too afraid to actually yell out Shirley’s name. Two streets over she spots a hulking shape beside a brick house, but when she gets closer the shape is only some yellow pampas grass. On a cul-de-sac, a white-haired man in a blue tracksuit is walking his Jack Russell terrier. The sight of the man with his dog, the parallel rhythm of their strides, almost brings a tear to Mawmaw’s eye. When she pulls up alongside the man, he leans down to her open window.
“Something wrong?” he asks.
“Sorry, but you seen anything kind of odd this morning?”
She’s not sure what to say. “I lost my dog. A real big one.”
“Sorry to hear that. You tried animal control?”
“I will,” she says. “Good idea.”
She drives home again and gets on the phone.
“Listen,” she says, once she has a woman on the line. “Have you gotten any of what’d you say were ‘odd calls’ this morning?”
“Like what?” the woman asks.
“Like, for instance, about a real big and sick hairy dog?”
The woman breathes deep. “Ma’am, are you calling to report a big and hairy sick dog?”
Mawmaw hangs up. She opens a cabinet for breakfast but isn’t very hungry. Next to the cereal boxes is a tub of mixed nuts. Upstairs she flips on the television in her bedroom. She waits for Shirley to show up on the morning news, then the afternoon news, then the evening news.
She goes outside to smoke a menthol, but can’t remember which end is which. The ash flakes on the brick at her feet. She pictures Shirley in the oncoming beams of interstate traffic. She pictures her in a hunter’s crosshairs, then her head stuffed and mounted as a trophy.
What People are Saying About This
A debut collection that reads like the work of a much older, established fiction master. The stories in Pierce's book explore the ordinary in the otherworldly, the surreal in the mundane, and the results are stunning and unexpected....There isn't a weak story in Hall of Small Mammals, and Pierce is an endlessly incisive and engaging writer. It's a book full of wisdom and emotion, with stories that explore what it means to live and die in a world filled with invisible things. --Michael Schaub, NPR.org
Praise for Hall of Small Mammals
“Ridiculously good… These stories never drift vaguely off into the ether. They are beautifully built, and their author has an especially deft way of finding just the right final flourish…. [There’s a] feeling of being inside a bubble while reading Mr. Pierce, and it is a bubble you won’t want to leave. This is such a fine collection that there’s not a stinker in the bunch…. Mr. Pierce’s originality, inventiveness, questing spiritual intelligence and animal fixation aren’t easy to do justice to in the limited space here. But they’re irrefutably good reasons to discover him for yourself.” – Janet Maslin, New York Times
“A debut collection that reads like the work of a much older, established fiction master. The stories in Pierce's book explore the ordinary in the otherworldly, the surreal in the mundane, and the results are stunning and unexpected.... Pierce is an endlessly incisive and engaging writer. It's a book full of wisdom and emotion, with stories that explore what it means to live and die in a world filled with invisible things." – NPR
“Pierce mines the mysterious rift between fantasy and reality with the intricate skill of an archaeologist and the sheer wonder of an imaginative child.” —Elle
“Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery.” – Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions
"[C]ompulsively addictive and delightfully strange.... Pierce's menagerie of colorful characters equally inspires and amuses. The book is expertly paced (there isn't a dud in this eclectic bunch) and many of the stories' endings—some sinister, some melancholic, others heartfelt—prompt momentary reflection, though thankfully not always in ways that are expected."
—Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
“It’s thrilling to find a writer with an imagination as wild and wonderful as Thomas Pierce. It’s even more impressive to see how Pierce builds upon the initial conceit of his stories, the way he follows the thread of that weirdness toward something utterly unique and altogether human. This is a fantastic, rewarding book of stories.”
—Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and The Family Fang
“We’re in the realm of the uncertain here, immersed in a view of life that teeters on the edge of parable as an organizing principle for this amazing collection of stories about the possible, the probable, the unknown, the ridiculous, the astonishing, the embarrassing, and also the just plain heartbreaking awkwardness of all kinds of hope and yearning, as we read about life lived in an echo chamber of the past that is now moving rocket-like into the future. It’s a brilliant group of stories fueled by its inherent metaphors. Thomas Pierce has a delicate, shaping presence in all these stories, which are sure to be talked about, admired, and paraphrased nervously, because they take us out of the comfort of our known world.”
“This is a book that feels adventurous in scope, but is classically and skillfully wrought, even as it throws us into a future of genetic experimentation, loss, and change. Humorous, absurd, and smart, Pierce's collection doesn't just give us the delicate, dangerous future, but also explores what it means to be a flawed, feeling human living within it - as the keeper of a resurrected species, a physicist with an active dream life, a bone collector. A book that rewards and earns deep and repeated reading.”
—Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Almost Famous Women and Birds of a Lesser Paradise
"Thomas Pierce describes a world we may soon inhabit, where science advances but mystery endures. Extinct species are revived on TV, and near-extinct species are the local zoo’s sellout draw; a new infectious disease defies attempts to identify or contain it, and physicists everywhere quest to identify a theoretical entity called the daisy particle. In this world, fractured families and lost souls — Pierce’s deeper interests — are the norm. Wry, wrenching, and elegant."
—Brian Kimberling, author of Snapper
“This arresting debut collection of short fiction from a gifted new writer gracefully renders the textures of the American South and the indefatigable people who live there…. Thomas Pierce’s debut collection, Hall of Small Mammals, taps the aquifer of Southern literature but blends in supernatural elements with a light, deft touch, echoes of García Márquez among the biscuits and magnolias.... Pierce knows his people well, connecting their conflicts to a deeper narrative about the human condition…. With its elegant prose and revelatory insights, Hall of Small Mammals announces a vivid and engaging new voice.” – Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Hall of Small Mammals is a skilled collection of explorations on what it means to believe. Pierce teases faith and science out into myriad scenarios, and highlights our principal desire to put our belief into worldviews that make sense of what we see. Each story is a journey into a different kind of observation. Hall of Small Mammals shows us that it might be our need to explain which makes us most human.” – Bookslut
“I was floored by Pierce’s balance between authoritative control over his craft while maintaining an authentically quirky sensibility…Pierce shows reverence for the Southern Gothic tradition on which he draws, while also bringing in a fresh dose of modern irreverence. He’s a huge talent — one to keep an eye on.” —Bustle
“[Pierce] balances the incredible incident in each story with powerful — and emotionally involving — insights into his characters.” —Columbus Dispatch
“Pierce clearly has talent to burn. A promising debut that studies hard-luck types from new and provocative perspectives.” —Kirkus Reviews