The Llama ~ Laura Ender

 

The animals had been cleared out, sold one by one to families looking for pets or fresh poultry. Only one remained: a fat, over-wooled, gray-speckled llama name Mel. He was twenty years old, with arthritis in his front legs. No one would buy him, trade him, or take him for free. His wool grew in steel knots because he would not behave for the shearers. His left ear had a bite out of it—just a small, triangular nip, but a bite all the same—from taking on a younger male who still had his fighting teeth. That llama had been sold shortly after the fight, but not Mel. Now Helen had no choice but to take care of him. Three buyers in a row had examined him and decided to pass. Helen was almost ready to sell him for meat, but he was so old he would probably be all gristle.

She imagined him divided into cuts—rump roast, shoulder, tenderloin—but Brian would be disappointed. They’d been vegetarians for three years.

“Come here, boy,” Helen said, waving a carrot over the fence. She had a whole bag of them, ten pounds that she’d bought at the grocery store on the drive out. She’d have to buy some proper feed soon, but she couldn’t remember where the feed store was, hadn’t been there in almost twenty years—not since she’d moved out of her mother’s house and into her dorm room. After that, her mother had kept up with the chores on her own. Whenever Helen came home for a visit, she was more of a guest than a daughter.  Her mother had redecorated Helen’s bedroom, painting over the green walls with gray (the easiest color for the eye to look at, Helen’s mother said). She bought guest towels, guest soaps, guest pillows. She made pancakes for breakfast and grilled cheese for lunch.  She claimed she’d made Helen do enough chores for one lifetime. Brian, whom Helen had married with only an Elvis impersonator for a witness, was allowed to wash dishes and carry palettes of alfalfa to the pens.

But now Helen’s mother lived at Country Gardens, in a room facing an oak tree and a parking lot. She took pills from a white paper cup and reread piles of romance novels with broken spines from where she folded them. On her last visit, Helen had asked for directions to the feed store and received instructions on how to make chicken potpie.

“Mom.  The feed store. To feed the animals, not to cook them.”

To which her mother had waved a hand and dismissed the notion.

 

The llama stood in his pen, several yards from Helen, flicking flies with his ears.  His jaw sawed at a mouthful of cud, his giant worm of a tongue occasionally darting out to lick something from his lip.

Helen shouted: “Carrots, Mel.”

The llama took a few steps forward, focused on the food in Helen’s hand. He swallowed his cud and licked the side of his nose. A few steps more, his ears pointing forward, folding back, pointing forward again. His upper lip, split down the middle, stretched forth like fingers, feeling for the carrot, his long neck straining toward Helen while his body remained planted as far from her as possible. He grabbed the tip of the carrot and bit, yanking downward to snap off a chewable chunk.

“Good boy,” Helen said. She bent her knees slightly, trying to be as short as possible. Llamas, her mother once told her, like to be in charge. They like to be the biggest, toughest animal on the farm.

Helen kept her arm extended and Mel took another chunk of carrot, scrutinizing her as he chewed.

“Isn’t it nice to be nice?” she said. She wasn’t sure why she was talking to him, but it seemed like the thing to do.

The llama’s ears folded back against his head and he raised his nose, clucking in his throat.

“It’s okay,” Helen said, crouching lower, trying her best to be submissive. “I’m a nice lady.”

The llama thrust his head forward, and Helen was sprayed with recently chewed carrot.

“It could have been worse,” she told Brian at dinner. “It could have been cud.” She’d been spit on before, by various pets of her mother’s, and needed several showers to kill the smell of stomach acid and straw. Since nothing Mel spat had been digested, Helen had left the encounter feeling more lucky than put out. She should have known. She should have thrown the carrots into the pen and walked away. But then she would have had to cut them up first—Mel couldn’t eat them if they weren’t in bite-size pieces. She’d tried handing him whole carrots once and he’d chewed for a moment, most of the carrot hanging from his jaws like an orange cigar before he dropped it. She handed him a new carrot and he dropped that one, too. And he wouldn’t pick them up again. He wouldn’t eat anything directly off the ground, except maybe grass.

Brian pushed his food around his plate. Olives, potato salad, coleslaw—all things Helen had grabbed at the deli counter on the way home. She’d thought she had veggie burgers in the freezer, but she didn’t, so it was cold side dishes, even on Brian’s day off.  The pots and pans were all in boxes, anyway, waiting to be moved from the apartment into her mother’s house. Their house, now—but still her mother’s, really.

Helen stood to clear the table and Brian’s hand encircled her wrist as she reached for his plate.

“You know it’s going to be fine,” he said, fixing her with his gaze.

“Of course,” she said. What “it” was, she didn’t know. Maybe all of it. The llama, the house, her mother’s new home at Country Gardens. He released her wrist and she put the dishes in the sink, turned on the faucet, sudsed up the sponge.

 

A woman in kitty cat scrubs led Helen down the hallway toward her mother’s room. All the nurses at Country Gardens wore scrubs like that, with various cartoon animals or smiley faces or hearts splattered across their chests. The walls were painted in pastels: pink for the hallways, green for the common areas, blue for the bedrooms. Calming colors, Helen supposed, though even with all the color therapy and the soft-spoken staff and lacy curtains, Helen found it difficult to be calm. Her pulse always rose as she walked down that hall, quickening with each door she passed.

The nurse knocked on the open door with one knuckle. Helen’s mother was in bed, staring at the pages of a paperback that rested on her thighs.

“Mrs. Clemens?” the nurse said, as though they might be at the threshold of the wrong room. This was something the nurses did every time, like a test to see if her mother could remember her own name. Someday, Helen knew, she wouldn’t. There were probably days like that already, but thankfully they didn’t happen on Tuesdays. Maybe she pulled it together for her daughter’s visits. If anyone would be that thoughtful, it would be Helen’s mother, setting out her sanity like fresh guest towels.

Helen’s mother looked up from her book, her expression morphing from bewilderment to delight.

“Sweetheart!” She held out her arms and Helen walked in to hug her. She smelled like antibacterial soap and dryer sheets, which Helen found comforting. Just being here, even though it was a high-end facility, Helen expected her to start smelling of stale sweat and urine. She expected rats skittering inside the walls and bandages in the food.

The nurse stepped into the hall, pulling the door most of the way shut like Helen’s mother used to do when Helen had a boy in her room, to make sure they studied and that was all.

“How are you, Mom?” Helen always made sure to call her “Mom,” just in case.

“As well as I can be sitting around here all day.” She sighed, looked down for a moment, then looked into Helen’s face expectantly. “How are the animals?”

Helen reminded her mother of the animals’ departure, that Mel was the only one left on Mother Clemens’ Family Farm.

“Don’t call it that,” her mother said, laughing. Helen had come up with that name when she was a teenager and her mother had first started filling her four acres with farm animals. Not for resale or for food—though the daily influx of eggs was quite welcome—but for company. She had no husband—he’d been gone since before Helen was born—and her daughter was about to leave for college, so she’d done what she’d always wanted to do. She got herself a menagerie.

That reminded Helen—she needed directions to the feed store. She thought back to last week and the chicken recipe, but the nurses had told her not to expect the same mother from one day to another. Today’s mother seemed lucid, bright—a little forgetful, perhaps, but not too far from the mother she used to be.

“All the way out on Via de la Valle,” her mother said. “Just past the sign for farm fresh eggs, past the house with the sunflowers. Make a right on Blackbird Lane.” She shook her head, clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “Mel. How is Mel? Is he behaving?”

Helen shook her head. She didn’t want to mention the spitting.

“I thought so. He must be lonely out there all by himself. He used to get on really well with the goats. You should try putting him in with the goats.”

Helen reminded her mother, again, that the goats were gone.

“Well, he needs a herd,” her mother said. “One way or another.”

 

“I’m thinking about putting the llama down,” Helen said to Brian, over the phone. He was at work; she was trying to get to the feed store.

“You can’t be serious.”

She knew he would react this way.

“The llama isn’t sick. You wouldn’t be putting him out of his misery.”

“No,” Helen said, more meekly than she had hoped to. “I’d be putting him out of mine.”

“That’s clever.”

“It’s not like I’m planning to eat him. Though I’ve read that llama meat is a delicacy in some countries.” Actually, she couldn’t remember if she’d read that or not. It seemed plausible. And if it wasn’t a delicacy, there was certainly someone eating it somewhere. In South America, probably. Maybe Peru.

“Think about your mom. It would absolutely break her heart.”

Helen didn’t know what to say to that. Most likely, her mother wouldn’t even remember that Mel existed. Except she’d been so lucid today. Maybe she was getting better.

“She said I should put him in with the goats.”

“As long as you don’t put him down.”

Helen pulled into the feed store parking lot. She remembered coming here with her mom when she was little, mainly by the smell. The people next to the feed store raised pygmy goats, rabbits, guinea pigs—Helen’s mother had bought most of her menagerie there. Her mother would step out of the car and breathe deep, like mud and pig were two of the best smells in the world; Helen liked to bring a handkerchief to hold over her nose. She’d forgotten her hankie this time, but the smell of animals and hay didn’t seem so disgusting now. Maybe it hadn’t been when she was little, either.

Helen went through the feed store as quickly as possible. She bought a palette of alfalfa, some oats, and a goat—a little black pygmy. It had been standing by the fence as she stood in line to pay, and she had to have it. Since it was so little, Helen let it ride in the backseat of her car, where it pooped on her upholstery and chewed on the passenger seat.

“Her name is Cordelia,” said the woman who sold the goat, a round, pink woman in a floppy straw hat. “It’s Shakespearean.”

Helen raised her eyebrows as if to say, How interesting. The woman wasn’t too keen on Helen’s taking Cordelia away in a coupe, but a sale turned out to be a sale and she waved at them from the driveway as they turned onto the street.

“Do you have other goats?” the woman had asked as she led Cordelia to the parking lot.

“Sure,” Helen said. “A llama, too.”

“Oh, llamas get on great with goats.”

“That’s what I hear.”

The woman smiled, squinting despite her shady hat, and pushed the goat’s rump into the backseat of the car.

“What do you think, Cordelia?” Helen said when they pulled up to her mother’s property. They drove past the house and toward the llama pen. As soon as the door opened, Cordelia clambered out of the car. She ran a few steps on her short legs, stopped, and looked up at Helen with those unnerving, slitted eyes. Helen walked toward the llama pen, but Cordelia didn’t follow. Helen had to herd her, walking behind her with one leg on either side of the goat’s round belly. Cordelia walked slowly, carefully. Mel watched from the far edge of the pen, his ears cocked back.

“Now you two play nice,” Helen said once the goat was latched into the pen. She went to the car and unloaded the feed from her trunk, which was now covered with fine bits of green since she hadn’t remembered to bring a tarp.

 

“You have hay in your hair,” Brian said. He pulled a stubby stick out of her ponytail and handed it to her. They were on the couch, cozying up with the evening news. He pulled the ponytail maker out of her hair and ran his fingers through it, plucking out another twig. “Look at you,” he said. “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

Helen leaned her head back. His fingertips were icy where they touched her scalp.

“So,” Brian said, exhaling loudly. “When do you figure we’re going to move in?”

Helen dropped her chin to her chest and another bit of alfalfa fell into her lap. She thought about the lease on their apartment, up in only two months. She thought about her mother’s mantelpiece, with all the ceramic figurines gathering dust: the chipmunk, the penguin, the elephant. She hadn’t been in the house since she packed her mother’s clothes. Brian had gone in a few times: to make sure things were clean, to pack some boxes, to retrieve the rusty alarm clock her mother simply had to have. There were things to be done in there, things to organize, things to get rid of. She’d have to go through it all sometime, whether it was going into storage or to Goodwill.

Her mother would never live there again, the doctors said, not after nearly burning the place down, not without a caretaker. And Helen couldn’t be a caretaker. She knew she couldn’t. She had Brian, her medical transcription work (which made her sick enough), a cat who sometimes came out from under the bed. She had a life, and along with that a general squeamishness about bodily fluids. Just thinking about changing her mother’s diapers, giving her sponge baths—it turned her stomach. She was sure she should be more grateful for all the wiping and bathing her mother had done for her, that she should be down on her knees thanking the lord to have such a wonderful mother—that she should be so lucky to have her mother alive at all, with or without several chunks of her mind. But that feeling was locked away somewhere inside her, perhaps with the part that desired children and dogs. If she had to, she would blame it on her father. She’d blamed him for her crooked teeth, her terrible singing voice, her strawberry allergy—he could take the weight of this one, too.

And then there was Brian. Her mother wouldn’t even look at him straight, let alone live with him. She’d even stopped calling him by name shortly before entering Country Gardens—he was now known as Killer, though Helen didn’t know why. It had started suddenly, after he had gone to Helen’s mother’s house to pick up a sweater he had left there. The next time they visited, her husband had a nickname, one that her mother said through her teeth. And then her mother stopped being available for lunches. Helen tried to get the story out of Brian, but he would get angry and find something unrelated to growl about: the laundry needed doing, the cat was getting fat, there were cobwebs on the ceiling. She didn’t want to ask her mother. At this point, she couldn’t trust much that came out of that mouth, and even when lucid she was prone to exaggeration.

So the house had to be cleaned out. Her mother’s things would leave; hers and Brian’s would replace them. Something had to be done about the stupid llama. And now there was his goat friend, too.

            *

“Are you sure you want us living there?” Helen asked her mother. It was Tuesday again and her mother was sitting in a wheelchair this time, looking out the window that overlooked the parking lot. Once in a while, a squirrel would dart down the trunk of the oak tree or appear in the grass under the windowsill and her mother would clap her hands like a little girl at the circus.

“You can live anywhere you like,” her mother said, her eyes still trained on the patch of grass where the last squirrel had been sighted. She turned her wheelchair toward Helen. “Excuse me,” she said, wheeling past her daughter and out into the hall. Helen wasn’t sure what to do. She followed her mother to the lobby, through the automatic doors and into the parking lot.

“Mom, where are you going?” Helen called. Her mother didn’t answer. She just pulled her chair up to the oak tree that was in view of her bedroom window, stood, and then parked her rear in the dirt at the tree’s roots. She leaned her head against the bark and closed her eyes, a look of ecstasy spreading across her face. Helen thought about calling the nurses, but sat down next to her instead.

“Isn’t this nice?” her mother said.

 

Somehow, Cordelia claimed the llama pen. Helen peeled a few flakes of alfalfa off the bale and scooped a pitcher of oats.  She dumped the food in the trough and waited for Mel to come bounding over—but he didn’t. Instead, little Cordelia came tottering on her miniature legs, flicking her tail from side to side, and dove her snout into the oats while Mel stood in the corner, craning his neck but keeping his toes firmly on the ground.

Helen called to him, cupping her hands around her mouth like a megaphone. He shifted his weight from foot to foot and angled his ears in her direction but stayed where he was, a safe distance from the goat that was eating his breakfast. Cordelia snarfled up the entire serving of oats and sniffed the alfalfa.

Helen scooped some more oats from the bin and ducked between the fence rails. Cordelia followed for a few steps before deciding to drop onto her side and roll in the dirt. Helen trudged through the pen, swinging the pitcher of oats at her side. Mel watched her nervously, shifting from foot to foot and backing into his corner of the pen. His ears flapped back and forth, and his nostrils widened with the smell of breakfast. He snorted once, though Helen couldn’t quite derive the snort’s meaning. She kept coming, fully prepared for another incident.

“Here you go, you big baby,” she said, thrusting the bucket in his face. He clucked in his throat but eyed the food, still shifting back and forth. Helen held the bucket level, waiting for him to eat, but he wouldn’t. He looked at the oats, and looked at her, seemingly pleading for her to drop the pitcher and go. His eyes were a muddy brown, more human than she remembered them, and framed by a brush of black lashes that had always made visitors think he was a girl. Helen’s mother had complained about it during their weekly phone calls. People would drive up to the house, knock on the door, and ask if they could see the llama. In most cases, her mother had been glad to oblige, but then they would look at the llama and ask how old she was, what she ate, was she nice to have around. Helen had heard many stories about such visitors, and though she’d never met a llama that looked distinctly gendered, she had always taken her mother’s side. Now, looking into Mel’s face, she saw what everyone else did. The eyelashes, the delicate cheekbones, the precocious way his head rested atop his neck. He even stepped lightly as he paced back and forth, barely making a sound despite his weight.

“Come on,” she said in a low voice, as soft and smooth as her vocal cords could manage. “Eat your breakfast.”

Mel’s head pulled back and the clucking in his throat grew louder, more violent. She could see him pulling his reserves up from his stomach, ready to send them flying her way.

“Fine!” she screamed. She threw the oats at the llama’s feet and ran.

 

Helen crouched by the bed, a dish of Meow Mix in one hand, the other holding a drape of blankets. The cat was curled in the corner with its paws shielding its nose. She rattled the dish, but the cat didn’t stir. She pushed the dish under the bed and let the blankets fall.

“She’s just upset by all the packing,” Brian said. “She’ll be fine once we’re settled into the house.”

Helen nodded. She’d come home that afternoon to the sound of blaring guitars and found Brian in the living room, taping up boxes, his head bouncing up and down to the music. She’d turned off the stereo but Brian’s head had continued bouncing for a few seconds, until she called his name and he looked up.

She asked him what he was doing.

He’d decided, he said. He wanted to be out of the apartment by the end of the week. It wasn’t healthy, putting it off like this. They were only upsetting the cat.

So Helen decided to lure the cat out and give her some attention, but of course, the cat wouldn’t come.

“Just think,” Brian said. “The new house is so big, she can practically have a room to herself. We can get her one of those cat trees with the little house on top, and a scratcher pad with catnip.”

“The house isn’t new,” Helen said, flopping back onto the bed. She could hear the cat crunching the kibble through the mattress.

“New to us,” he said. He caught himself. “New to me.”

“New to you. Because that’s all that matters.”

Helen stretched her arms above her head, considered going to sleep despite the fact that it was only seven-thirty. The kitchen would be new to her, at least, with all the work that had to be done after the fire. All her mother’s old kitchen towels, the crocheted trivets, the plaque that said, “Bless This Mess.” All of it, gone. Replaced with new drywall, new fixtures, Helen’s rarely used kitchen accouterments. She felt a swell of anger in her ribcage. Why had her mother started a fire in the kitchen? Why not in the fireplace where fire belonged? But then, her mother hadn’t meant to start a fire. She hadn’t meant to lose her mind. She’d meant to make tea and wipe up a puddle of water on the countertop, not to let the towel fall into the flames. And she’d walked away, taken a shower, gone to bed, and eventually been hauled out by the firemen.

Grandmother’s cookbook, the school pictures on the refrigerator, the fake flowers that no one ever dusted—Helen had planned to keep those things. She’d planned to give them to her own daughter someday, though it was looking increasingly unlikely that she would have one.  Maybe that was it—her mother had given up on her. On everything, really.

“It’ll be nice to get out of this dump, won’t it?” Brian said. She looked around at the walls, the dark spots where Brian had pulled down pictures. They’d never meant to stay in an apartment so long.

Helen stayed near the llama pen while the movers did their work. Some things went in, some things came out, like the furniture was playing musical chairs. Whose things would win, hers or her mother’s? She knew the answer, of course, knew that her mother’s old couch with the sagging springs would be going to Goodwill while her Pottery Barn sofa would be pushed into its place. She knew that the stained pine coffee table would make way for the mahogany, that the particle board bookcase would be moved out for the brand new, carpet-covered cat house. But the pictures would stay on the walls. Her mother’s table would stay in the dining room, along with the hutch and all the good china that no one ever used.

Mel stood a few feet away, watching the movers and chewing absently on the fencing. His mouth grabbed the top bar, his tongue wrapping around it, paying no mind to dirt or germs or bird poop. His tongue moved across the metal, feeling for something, or maybe just tasting the salty tang of it. Helen wondered if he had an iron deficiency.

“What’s up?” Helen said, stretching her arm toward the llama. He looked at her sideways but didn’t give up chewing on the bar, didn’t move or step away. Helen looked around the pen. Cordelia was in Mel’s usual corner, munching a tuft of grass. She didn’t seem to notice the movers or any of their commotion, didn’t seem to care.

“She kicked you out, huh?” Helen moved a little closer to Mel and he shifted his weight from foot to foot, but kept chewing the bar. She stretched out her hand and her fingertips brushed the short wool on his neck, much softer than it looked from a distance. He reared slightly, letting go of the fence, and folded his ears back once more. Helen stepped backward, crouching, waiting for the spit to come. Mel’s front legs stamped and his nose bucked upward. Helen squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for impact, but none came. When she opened her eyes he was calm again, watching her sideways, his mouth clamped on the metal bar once more.

“Mel let me touch him,” Helen said first thing, once the nurse had left her alone with her mother. “I touched his neck. I think I’m making progress.”

“Well, Mel always was a nice man.” She was back in her bed today, a copy of Reader’s Digest facedown on her lap. “Not like Killer. Is he still working at that garage downtown?”

Helen shook her head. So it was going to be a bad Tuesday.

“Well, that’s too bad. He was an excellent mechanic.”

“What do you mean, not like Killer?”

“He never killed a rabbit, as far as I know.”

She could tell she would get no straight answer today. She tried to remember a Mel in the real world, a non-llama Mel, but she’d never met one. Maybe he was real, tucked into her mother’s deep-fried brain, or maybe he was a hallucination. Maybe Killer wasn’t Brian at all, but some bunny-killing motorcyclist her mother had imagined.

*

Helen drove all the way to the apartment before realizing it was empty and heading back toward the house. She didn’t even have a key anymore. She’d turned it in to the landlord that morning.

The house was all lit up inside. It was nice to see it that way. The yard was gloomy, about to be swallowed by dusk. Cordelia stood at the edge of the pen, scratching her back on the fence.

“Want some help, girl?” Helen whispered. She crouched down and scratched the little goat’s back, feeling her wiry hair under her fingernails. Cordelia lifted her nose in the air like a dog might, then turned toward Helen and nuzzled her wrist. She couldn’t see Mel anywhere but knew he had to be around, as far away as possible, watching.

“There you are,” Brian said as the front door squealed shut. It had been squeaking since Helen was in junior high and her mother had never bothered to fix it. She said it made the place feel homier. “I’m in the kitchen. I need you to come look at something.”

Helen edged toward the kitchen door. The cat was sitting on the roof of its new house and Helen ran her palm across its back; it sniffed her wrist, curious about the goat stench.

For a moment, Helen imagined her mother at the kitchen table, eyes bright, flipping through Grandmother’s cookbook. She shook the image from her mind.

She opened the kitchen door and saw the table, covered in a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. A bottle of wine stood open, flanked by two empty glasses. Brian was at the stove—not her mother’s, but a brand new stainless steel model—stirring a pot of what looked like tomato sauce.

Helen tilted her head and smiled.

“Not that,” Brian said. He lifted the spoon from the pot and gestured toward the window. “That.”

Helen looked up. The llama pen came close to the kitchen window, about six feet away, and there was Mel, chewing on the fence and looking in.

Helen moved to the table and poured herself a glass of wine. Mel continued to chew on the fence, but his eyes followed her: to the table, to the stove, to the refrigerator. Helen wondered if he did this with her mother, communicating through the kitchen window.

“I’m going to feed him a carrot,” Brian said. “Watch the pot.”

Helen stirred the sauce and watched him bound out the backdoor, not bothering to shut it. He ran to the llama pen and opened the gate, waving the carrot theatrically in the air. Helen hoped he wouldn’t get spit on. Nothing and no one had ever spit on him before, and Helen wasn’t sure he could take it.

The sauce was starting to bubble. She wondered if it was supposed to do that or if she ought to lower the heat. She added a little salt and pepper and stirred. After a few minutes, she felt something nudge her shoulder.

Helen turned, expecting Brian—possibly spit-soaked, possibly dry—to take the spoon and resume his cooking. Instead, she found Mel standing in her kitchen, looking almost as confused as she was.

“Hello,” she said quietly, not wanting to startle him. “What are you doing in here?”

The llama hummed inquisitively, as if he might ask her the same question.

Brian appeared at the kitchen door, breathless from running. “He got away from me.”

Mel looked at Brian and sniffed around the countertops, snorting every once in a while. He came to the salad bowl and dove in, munching the romaine lettuce.

“Look how comfortable he is,” Helen said, watching in awe as the llama ate their dinner. “Do you think my mom let him do this? Do you think she let him inside?”

Brian’s mouth moved a little, but no sound came out. Finally, he said, “Do you think he’ll poop on the floor?”

Helen couldn’t believe it. The llama walked carefully through the kitchen, around the table, without disturbing the dishes or the chairs. She called her mother at Country Gardens, but a honey-voiced nurse told her she was sleeping. Helen didn’t leave a message.

She drove out to see her.

“Hello,” her mother said, a beat or two after Helen walked through the door. She was in bed, sitting up with one of her novels abandoned on the bedside table. Her voice was higher than usual and her face was creased where it had pressed against the pillow.  “What can I do for you?”

Helen moved to the side of the bed, standing as close to her mother as she possibly could. She was bursting to tell about the llama in the kitchen, but her mother only looked at her quizzically, leaning away.

“I’m sorry,” Helen’s mother said. “I don’t mean to be rude.”

“Don’t worry about it, Mom. I just wanted to tell you—”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but would you mind telling me who you are?”

Helen looked at her mother’s eyes. They seemed to be focusing. She wondered, for a moment, if she was in the right room, if she was speaking to the right mother.

“Honey?” her mother said, blinking rapidly. Her head shook a little, from side to side. “Helen, what is it? I thought you weren’t coming until next Tuesday.”

Helen had to think, to remember what was so urgent. She sat at the foot of her mother’s bed.

“The llama,” Helen said.

Her mother stared.

She said it again. “The llama.”

Helen’s mother smiled. There was no recognition in her face, but no confusion either. She seemed sympathetic. Strangely enough, she seemed happy.

 

Helen sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and remembering where the llama had stood the night before. She’d had to lure him back to his pen with the salad bowl, had to compensate a braying Cordelia with a head of iceberg, to be fair. When she got back from Country Gardens, she’d found Brian sanitizing the entire kitchen, mopping the floor with extra Pine Sol and grumbling. The cat was back under the bed.

Helen wandered out to the pen, where Mel stood in his usual corner and Cordelia circled the feed trough, waiting for her breakfast. She filled the trough with oats and hay and kept one eye on Mel, who edged his way toward the fence one delicate step at a time.

She wondered if she should leave the gate open, if she should tempt him to leave his pen again. She imagined putting Mel on his lead and taking him for walks, but she would have to catch him first. She imagined him folding into the back seat of her car, his head hanging out the back window like a dog’s. She imagined him wiping his feet on the way into the house, angling his body onto the couch.

She would buy sweet apples and feed him where Cordelia couldn’t butt in. She might borrow one of her mother’s blouses or wear her mother’s perfume.

First, she would build a separate pen for the goat, a separate food trough. She would feed Mel from her hands. She would start leaving the gate open, and the back door, too. She would put a dish of vegetables on the floor by the refrigerator and move the cat’s food to the dining room. She would leave a path for Mel to wander into the living room, perhaps tempted by roses on the coffee table (he’d all but stripped the rose bushes that grew through his fence), and a nice space for him to sit next to the sofa. He would stay with her while she watched TV.

Mel made his way to the food trough and dipped his nose into the oats while Cordelia chewed alfalfa on the other side. Helen took a few steps toward him, her hand extended. He didn’t look at her. His nose stayed in the trough as he ate. For a moment, her fingertips brushed the wool on his neck. His head jerked sideways, but the rest of him stayed put.