Death of the Aardvark
People came from all over when the aardvark died. They came from neighboring counties, from faraway lands, from undiscovered continents. They caught red-eyes, raced upriver in canoes, and sardined themselves into subway trains. Police set up barricades all along the main drag. There were camera crews everywhere. Shriners marched into town with their pointy slippers, some of them in tiny cars driving in circles while weeping. Exes apologized. Families mended. Languid teenagers put on their Sunday best and left their vape pens at home. The mourners came in droves. They trickled in throughout the ceremony. Hardly anyone showed up for work. The entire town was an unmoving mass of misery.
They brought flowers, wreaths, casseroles, little envelopes. They left things at the grave. Lucky pennies, fine china, whistles, sand from every part of the world, olive branches, crucifixes, photos of you and me, tubes of lipstick, coupons, retired uniforms, music boxes, maple candy, work boots, medals, plaques, awards, little folded pieces of paper, candles, so many candles. When there was no more room on the grave, they left their things where they stood. It took three weeks to clean it up. We were all a collective wreck, an emotional mess for eons.
Some said it was a brain aneurysm. Some said it was a stray arrow from the nearby archery club. Some said it was a broken heart or a related coronary event. Some said it was cholesterol. They said it was poachers. They said it was street urchins who vandalized him to death, the fault of today’s youth. They said it was the music, the violence, the sex, the way it was all portrayed in the media. They called for a complete revamp of modern American culture. Others insisted that the free market would sort this out over time.
We stood in concentric circles, a topographical map with misery at the summit, as the eulogy was read. It went something like this:
O great aardvark, you have left us in a most untimely way. What else is there to say other than 'We are broken in your absence.' You believed in Truth above all else, and for that reason, we will begin by sharing some of the truths we’ve learned from you:
While you share some resemblance with the anteater due to convergent evolution, you are in fact different.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature rates the conservation status of your kind as “least concern.” Due to your nocturnal, burrowing lifestyle, however, we can’t actually be sure how many of you there are in this world.
Your predators include pythons and hyena. It warms our hearts to recognize that there are many from both groups here today who wish to pay their respects.
And somewhere in this grand list of truths is a Final Truth, which is that while we mourn, we must remind ourselves…
It went on. Then we drove home.
Do you remember on the way back how we sat in traffic for almost two hours and hardly said anything? How there were moments of silence on every radio station we tried? How we eventually gave up on the radio and found some old CDs in the glovebox? I didn’t know what else to talk about except for the aardvark. Neither did you. Neither did anyone.
I couldn't sleep that night. My eyes were so heavy, like someone had placed coins on top of them. But every time I began to fall into sleep I was pulled back out. The world around me hummed. It felt like there was an car idling in the driveway. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. There was something lingering outside my vision, right there by the corner. I tossed and I turned and I watched the red hours go by. Still there it was, unmoving: a living fossil with teeth that wore away and grew back so quickly; a buried thing that lived among dirt and roots and termites; something with long ears and four toes on its front feet and five toes on its back feet; something buried that comes up for air.
Laying there in the dark, I thought: this is not how I want to remember the aardvark. This is not how I want to be remembered. So I instead thought of the parade of pointy shoes, the flowers and casseroles, all the olive branches and good luck charms. I remembered in circles and circles and circles until the sun rose and my room swam in pale light.
With the room illuminated, the aardvark’s death seemed so lackluster. So standard. Robbed of all glamour. I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t have the air for it. It had all been taken out, stolen by the wind. It had been replaced with something that stops anything else from getting in.
I drove into town. I did the motions. I went to the grocery store and bought the weekly nothing. There was nobody else in the whole store. I used the self-checkout and everything scanned perfectly. I was thankful that an attendant wasn’t needed, though couldn’t help but think what would happen if the scanner stopped working? What if a light went off above the kiosk and it flashed “ATTENDANT NEEDED”? Who would assist me if I needed attending? And would I just leave the store with my groceries? I supposed it was impossible to truly know until you were in that situation. But I almost was, and I had no idea.
On the drive back home, I went the long way and nearly got lost. I drove past the turn about six, seven, a hundred times or more until it got dark out. The whole day had gone by. That couldn't be right. I mean, what the hell was wrong with me?
I pulled over and searched the rearview mirror for myself. I looked exhausted, and maybe a little crazy with grief I started to think. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw something dart past the headlights.
I froze. I looked around but the road was empty and the night was unmoving. It had looked like some sort of animal, or a person on all fours, and it was quick. I felt like I was being watched, observed between two glass slides. There was nothing left to do but go home. The finality of it dawned on me. I was so tired. I put the car in drive and turned onto my road.
With my house in view, I could see that all the lights were on. It glowed lonely against a backdrop of trees. I looked around at the other houses. They were all dark. Something cold slithered up my back. I thought I’d shut off the lights before leaving, but now I couldn’t remember. I pulled into the driveway and idled there. My heart pounded.
From there in the driveway, I could see into the living room window. The TV was off. A pair of boots stood in the corner, a jacket hanging up above them. I couldn't remember if they were mine. I waited for some sort of movement or sign of someone in the house, but I didn’t see anything.
Then I noticed fluorescent light spilling from the basement window into the side yard. The sterile glow bleached the grass. I rolled down the driver-side window, then turned the car off and listened.
A warm wind blew into into the car. It carried a vague sweetness with it, like the rind of a fruit. It reminded me of a recurring dream I’d had years ago. In the dream, I’m sitting cross-legged in a field on a summer night. The whine of crickets echoes across everything. I’m staring straight ahead where a path opens into the woods. Something is waiting down the path. Something with long teeth, something that hides; something once buried. Then the night gets so dark I can’t move.
The wind died down and I wondered if I could wait there until dawn. I wondered what happened to everyone else. I wondered what would happen if I peered down into the basement window. I wondered if I would see something. Something huddled and nocturnal.
I held my breath and listened until my lungs hurt.