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  • Intimacy:A Bestiary
  • Traci Brimhall (bio)

Nothing is what I imagined. The lawn is tidy. The sidewalk swept. There are bins of labeled bones stacked in front of the garage. When I drove 120 miles to meet the former zookeeper, I planned to ask about the elephants he'd once tended, but he hands me one of the overripe pawpaws set out on the grayed picnic table. It tastes like someone else's childhood, at once familiar and strange. He recites facts about the fruit while we peel unexceptional green skin with our fingernails and suck on the tropical orange-and-honeyed flesh. It isn't why I had come, but I am glad this is how we introduce ourselves to one another, making strange faces as we try to keep the fruit's sweet mess in our mouths instead of on our chins. I always feel more comfortable with someone after I've embarrassed myself in front of them. It is early afternoon, and so far we are only what we've imagined of each other: he is a man who has cared for animals and saved their skulls; I am a woman who is curious about this collection. He smiles between bites, his slight dimples hiding in his low, gray sideburns, and he points to a wasp in the grass that is seizing a paperwhite moth hiding in the blades.

"It's from the mowing," he tells me and points upward. "The dragonflies have been out all morning." And they are still there, circling, eating whatever small insects fled the motor whir in the grass when he'd done his chores earlier. Above them the swifts dart to snack on whatever the dragonflies miss. A whole feast ascending.

It isn't what I thought I'd come for, this life cycle above a freshly cut lawn, but I hadn't really known what to expect of a skull tour with a former zookeeper. I am always interested in grief and thought I would ask about whether or not [End Page 15] elephants in captivity grieve as I'd heard they do in the wild, calling across distances until all lost relatives return, keening. But instead we stand next to each other in the late summer humidity, nearly silent while we peel pawpaws and watch insects and birds busy the sky with a hunger that has no grief in it.

The zookeeper had advised I bring an extra pair of shoes for the mud, so I change shoes after I wipe my sticky-sweet hands on my jeans. I coat my arms and legs in bug spray before we walk around the property and look at the cages where a menagerie of deer bones lie bleaching. He teaches me practical things about skull preparation, like covering the cages where you let the bones dry out because the force of the rain can knock out the teeth. He shows me one skull where only the molars have stayed fully rooted, the others knocked out by spring storms and lost to the earth. But his collection is part practical and practice, and part creativity. An old gas grill holds half a dozen deer jaws, a cat's skull, and the old papery tenements of wasps. It is not a cluttered arrangement, but artful. Jaws line the top rack like synchronized swimmers all bent for a dive, and below sits a bobcat skull and other miscellaneous bones. Wasps' nests are tucked into place like flowers behind a beloved's ear.

By the cages full of bones, a creek curves and looks sequined with September sunlight. The familiar drone of traffic hums just past the honeysuckle on the far bank. The zookeeper narrates the water levels of the creek with the seasons and smiles. We are strangers to one another. His face feels familiar to me, but we tend to look at the bones and leaves he identifies for me rather than at each other. As we walk along the bank I study the back of his khaki shirt and the swoopy gray curls of his hair on the collar. It gets easier to ask questions when I can't see his face...