Animal Rights was first published in In The Tradition, 1992, Harlem River Press. Also published in Listening To Ourselves, 1994, Anchor Books, and read on National Public Radio in 1994. Also published in Where Coyotes Howl And The Wind Blows Free, 1995 & 2002, University of Nevada Press

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                        Animal Rights
                         © 1991 Jess Mowry      

          "Animal rights activists in the Bay Area joined today in voicing support for a militant group that is claiming responsibility for vandalizing property in Santa Cruz County. In what authorities are calling an act of terrorism,'the office and adjoining structure of a small business was ransacked, files destroyed, and a blood-like substance was splashed over walls and floors. According to a spokesperson for the militants, animals, primarily white rabbits, rats and mice, were being raised on the premises for the purpose of laboratory experimentation. Cages were destroyed, and all the animals removed. The spokesperson refused to comment when asked where the animals had been taken, saying only, 'to a place of safety and refuge.' The spokesperson declined further comment, adding only that 'animals have no one to stand up for them, and their welfare should be the concern of every caring human being.' ...In local news. last night's drive-by shooting of a West Oakland youth..."

            The boy stared at the TV screen, not hearing much more than the soothing cadence of the white lady's voice, or seeing anything but shifting colors. Dimly, he remembered his mom telling him something -- a long time ago -- about “in one ear and out the other.” That was cool. Nothing stayed long enough to hurt.

       The boy sat small, deep in the big old couch. It was covered in worn out velvet, but enough of the nap remained to feel soft against his body. There were no sharp edges to hurt him. He wore only jeans, faded 501s that were a little too small, so three of the buttons were open. The jeans were soft to his skin. The open buttons kept them from pinching. That was cool. Nothing hurt, and they were probably better than what he'd been wearing before...

       In one ear and out the other.  

       The TV voices droned on, and the pretty colors shifted. If the boy thought hard enough he might have remembered that this was the early morning news. Soon there would be cartoons. He didn't know how long he'd been watching the screen; all night, for weeks... or years. It didn't matter. He drifted at peace in softness and warmth. If he concentrated, he might have remembered more. But nothing hurt, so there was no reason to remember.   

       The boy was maybe ten, his skin like ebony velvet, with eyes that looked large and lost in a small peaceful face, long-lashed and gentle obsidian. His body was just beginning to take on the puppy look of major growing. He was thin. Small, tight muscles had started to define his chest and arms, but now they seemed slack and fading as if no longer needed. His hair was bushy and wild, but clean and scented with lice shampoo. Sometimes he was given a bath. Since when he couldn't remember, but it didn't matter. Here he was, and nothing hurt.

       There were cartoons. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Vaguely he recalled it being a cool show that he liked. But now he couldn't remember their names.  

       The man's voice came from over his shoulder. "Boy! You got to go?"   

       The boy considered the words. What did they mean? He half turned his head toward the voice, but then forgot why. It didn't seem important. 

       "Shit," said the voice. Then: "Irene! Get his ass to the bathroom 'fore he mess himself again!"    

       The boy didn't like the man's voice when it sounded that way. Maybe it reminded him of something? The woman appeared -- Irene -- and took his hand. It was a surprise to discover he could stand... that his legs held him up, even though he walked on clouds. It was a surprise to find that he could walk; to see his very own bare feet way down on carpet, and crossing faded green linoleum one step at a time. Green like grass. He hadn't walked on much grass in his life. Even the linoleum felt soft. Linoleum grass. A new idea.  

       The woman -- Irene -- set him on the toilet. He wondered if that should piss him off. After all, he wasn't a baby, and boys stood on their own two feet. But that didn't seem to matter to the woman. Maybe she just wanted him to be safe? The toilet was hard and cold if you fell. He supposed he should do something, but seemed to have forgotten what it was. He was aware of the woman's hands, soft and warm on his bare shoulders, holding him. Her voice was gentle. "C'mon, boy, do somethin' for momma 'fore you go noddin' again."   

       The boy had a name -- didn't eveybody? -- but he couldn't remember it. The woman -- Irene -- wasn't really his mother.Maybe he did something on the toilet because he found he was standing on his very own bare feet once more, and the woman was buttoning his jeans. But not the top three. She led him back to the couch. There were more cartoons, but he wasn't sure what they were about. The old velvet was soft, but it seemed important to remember his name. Why?  

       The man's voice: "For chrissake, feed him, Irene! Saturday busy as hell. It be godddamn embarrasin' if he died on us!" Laughter.   

       No, Irene wasn't really his mother. But mostly she was kinder than his mother had been. Even the man was kind in his way, though not as gentle-voiced anymore as when he'd picked the boy up in his big new car and brought him here. Wherever here was.   

       It didn't matter. Here was a lot better than there. Here was warm and soft and nothing hurt.   


       The boy wasn't sure. Not yet. But he had almost remembered.  

       A spoonful of color appeared under his small snub nose. Lucky Charms. Marshmallow shapes. Magically delicious. A spoonful of sweetness fed to him. He concentrated on not choking. Milk dribbled down his chin and chest. The woman clucked her tongue gently, the way his mother had done long ago. A soft cloth cleaned him up. Good as new. When had his mother been so kind? A long time before he'd come home from school to find the apartment empty? He was starting to remember.   

       The Lucky Charms were sweet and crunchy, and the marshmallows melted in his mouth. The woman was gentle as she fed him, waiting until he remembered to swallow. sometimes reminding him to. Did she love him? Most times she was kind... except when he messed himself like a baby. Or choked. Or forgot what to do on the toilet. The she would shake him. Sometimes she would shake him for no reason he could figure, but she never hit him. Even the man was kind in his way... he didn't want him to die.   

       The cartoons were almost making sense now. If he blinked his eyes and thought very hard, he could remember things... fog drifting through the night streets, following him. Street lamps haloed, cold, wet, lonely. He shivered. It hurt to remember.   

       A knock on a door. Men voices, mostly the man. He had a name, but the boy couldn't remember it. ...Yet. Maybe, if he could remember his own, it would help? If he concentrated with all him might, he could just understand the men's words...   

       "I'm tellin' ya, Jack, be prime shit I got."  

       "An' how I know that? Could be death in a sandwich. Don't know you."  

       The boy looked down at his arm. Sometimes it hurt. Things weren't supposed to hurt. It said on TV that it shouldn't hurt to be a kid. The man voices, rising, falling, reminded him of that.  

       "Yo bra! You don't gotta take nothin' on faith! Check this out. Straight from the source. You watchin'?"  

       The boy stirred. The TV screen blurred. His arm hurt again, and he began to remember. His name! Almost, he had it!    Man shapes standing over him. Tenseness in the air. Smells of suspicion. Man voices again:   

       "Check this out! My own son! Boy I love!"  

       The pain of the needle, sharp in his arm. Man laughter. "He look like he dyin' to you? Watch him as long as you want."   

       The voices faded. Faded like the pain until nothing hurt anymore. All was softness and warmth. And sometimes even a gentle touch.   

       So why, the boy wondered, was he crying?