tax·on·o·my noun \tak-ˈsä-nə-mē\ : the system or process of classifying the way in which different living things are related by putting them in groups
Ring-tailed Lemurs (Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Mammalia; Order: Primates; Family: Lemuridae; Genus: Lemur; Species: L. catta)
On the way to Lancaster, he stops to buy his daughter a gift.
It’s a residual habit from long-ago business trips, though Meredith is both far away and past such things. But this trip is for her, or at least undertaken on her behalf, so it feels right to get her something, a talisman from the journey, as he would have done when she was young. Welcome to Amish country, says the sign in the little country store attached to the gas station—though surely the Amish themselves would never erect a sign like that—and inside are displayed butter churns, quilts, dolls, and pies. Picking up a wooden spatula, he notes that it’s made in China. The man behind the cash register smiles vaguely out the window, his mouth hanging open to reveal small, colorless teeth.
At the back of the store, he spots a basket of stuffed animals. At twenty-four, Meredith hasn’t cuddled a teddy bear in years, but the selection here is startlingly varied: gorillas, monkeys, snakes, and something that, if he squints and holds it at an angle, might be a lemur. What these animals might have to do with the Amish, he doesn’t know, but a lemur is a perfect gift, since that’s the animal Meredith is studying, in Madagascar. Studying and saving, or trying to save. As a budding conservation biologist, she’s researching the many species and subspecies of lemurs, along with their vanishing habitat. So she has explained to Ed—in, frankly, a bit too much detail—in passionate, jargon-heavy emails.
A lemur it is, a long-limbed tube of fur with wide, plastic eyes.
After paying for the toy and the gas, he gets back in the car. The GPS sends him north on one road, south the next, a route so erratic he can’t help but wonder if the calm, robotic female voice is messing with him. But the landscape quiets his irritation: eastern Pennsylvania in July, green hills dotted with small farms, is a place of tidy safety. Not like Madagascar, which has seen a sharp rise in attacks and robberies, particularly crimes against tourists. When he copied the U.S. government warning link to Meredith, she sent back a message that began: I’m not a tourist. I’m a scientist.
Always very self-serious, his girl, very conscious of categories. He’s glad she has a sense of purpose, if one that he struggles to understand at times, and that he wishes hadn’t sent her halfway around the world.
Meredith loves animals, her work, her friends. She loved Christine, with a complicated intensity that belied the fact that they weren’t biologically related—they fought almost daily until Meredith was seventeen, and then the skies cleared and they grew so close he sometimes felt like an outsider. She loves the lemurs. She loves him, at least he hopes she does. About the errand that has brought him here from Philadelphia, and the woman who was her biological mother, she seems to care nothing at all.
Cows (Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Mammalia; Order: Artiodactyla; Family: Bovidae; Genus: Bos; Species: Bos Taurus)
Following the GPS directions, he passes through a small, well-kept town (diner, consignment shop, fruit stand) and then it’s back to farms. The cows are settled down in the fields, legs beneath them, dozing, placid hulks. This is Phoebe’s world, the place she couldn’t wait to leave and then returned to, the trip equally frenzied in both directions, which was how Phoebe lived her life. Their time in Philly was short: first romantic and dramatic, then terrible and dramatic. It was like living in a tabloid, every conversation a shouted headline, every scene a sensation. They met in a bar, got married in a hurry, had Meredith, then commenced hating each other as if this had been their goal all along. Ed had grown up in Quakertown, the son of an accountant and a school librarian; he’d always been a quiet person. Sure, he liked to go out drinking with his friends, but who didn’t, at that age? He had a college education and was saving for a house. Then suddenly with Phoebe he was drinking whiskey in the afternoon and calling his wife a bitch and a cunt while his sweet little baby slept in the next room. He used those words; he did those things, and worse. The fact that Phoebe goaded him to it, that she turned out to be as purely, irredeemably crazy as a person can be, did not excuse him.
The night she left, to get away from his bullshit, she said, he got down on his knees—though he’d never been religious—and prayed to God to be returned to the person he used to be. Then he prayed that Phoebe would never come back, never try to take the baby from him, that life in their apartment had been so hellish she wouldn’t want a single reminder of it, even one composed of her own flesh and blood.
To his endless surprise and gratitude, these prayers had been answered.
As Meredith grew up, Ed monitored her for signs of her mother’s illness, but she was level-headed and literal-minded, like him. She and Ed were calm together, placid creatures, rooted to the earth. He tried to talk about Phoebe sometimes—not out of allegiance to his ex-wife but because he thought Meredith might need to know later, might require answers to the questions of her own past. But she showed no interest in the subject. He married Christine when she was three, and she didn’t remember any other mother. The past was an abstraction. Even as a toddler, she’d most wanted to be down on her knees with her hands in the dirt, looking at frogs and ants and worms. Whatever she needed to know about her existence, she seemed to find it there.
It was Ed who waited each year for Phoebe to write or call, to demand contact, to sue for custody. Despite their arguments she’d shown affection for the baby, cradled her in her arms, sung her lullabies. She must have had regrets. He loved his daughter so intensely that when he had to leave on business trips, he always wept, and he took to departing before dawn so that he wouldn’t upset her. He couldn’t fathom that anyone related to Meredith wouldn’t feel the same bond. He knew that one day Phoebe would show up at the front door, demanding her rights as mother.
But she never did. Instead, last month, a letter came to the house, and how it found him Ed didn’t know, seeing as they’d moved several times in the intervening years, from a son Ed wasn’t aware she’d had. Mordecai. Phoebe was dead, he wrote, without further explanation, and she’d left something for Meredith. Maybe Meredith wanted to come pick it up. Maybe she’d want to meet her brother.
A brother. Ed hesitated over this letter for days before deciding to go himself, without telling his daughter about it. Though she’d never shown interest in Phoebe, Meredith had a scientist’s mind; she liked to figure out where and how things fit together. Would she not one day want to know about her own kind?
Dogs (Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Mammalia; Order: Carnivora; Family: Canidae; Genus: Canis; Species: Canis lupus familiaris)
The property looks more or less as Ed remembers it from a few bitter weekend visits back in the day: still dilapidated, but with newer cars rusting in the front yard. Phoebe’s grandparents built a neat, just-profitable dairy farm, with a vegetable plot that fed the family during the summers, food they canned to see them through the winters. She spoke of these thrifty, hardworking people with nothing but contempt for their labor; it was a hard life, she said without admiration, implying that they should have found an easier one. The property passed to her parents without the work ethic to sustain it; they let the place go to seed, but would never relinquish it. Injured in a car accident, her father went on disability and drank; her mother operated an informal daycare in her living room, four or five kids who always seemed, Phoebe said, sick and snot-nosed and screaming. Wanting to get away from a place like that, Ed could understand. Less clear—in fact, completely opaque—was why she’d ever moved back. Phoebe never went to college; she was working as a bartender when they met. He supposed she thought it was temporary, and probably she didn’t have other options.
As he pulls up, tires crunching on the dirt, dread fills him. The house, once white, now peeling and gray, looks lopsided, as if subsiding into the earth. On the porch a skinny brown dog lifts its head wearily at his approach. A black dog comes around from the back, panting in the heat, wagging its tail. Neither one barks, at least, and when Ed gets out of the car, the black one noses its head into his palm, wanting only attention. Then it follows him up on the porch, where he steps over its compatriot and knocks on the door. As he waits, he surveys the land around him—the two poplars beside the house, the silo in the distance, as lonely a place as he’s ever seen.
The door opens and Mordecai, presumably, sticks out a hand. Ed is relieved to see he looks normal: just a guy in jeans and a navy T-shirt, buzz cut tinged with gray. He looks at least forty years old. Ed’s confused—didn’t he say he was Phoebe’s son?
“Ed,” he says, with a strong grip. “Good to meet you. Meredith with you?”
Ed shakes his head. “She’s in Madagascar, as I mentioned.”
“Oh, right. I saw that movie,” the other man says. His tone is ambiguous. It’s possible he thinks that Meredith is at the movie right now. “Well, come on in.”
Expecting the worst, Ed’s glad to find the place clean and neat. The only noticeable smell is the faint funk of dog, and indeed a couple of other ones trot up in greeting, these little and white.
“I foster,” Mordecai explains, leading him into a sunroom at the back, where plants line a shelving unit, their tendrils reaching to the window. Against the wall is a small, old tube television with rabbit ears. The two men sit down on opposite sides of the room, and Mordecai offers him a beer.
Ed shakes his head. He wants to get this over with. “I was sorry to hear about Phoebe,” he launches in.
From the way Mordecai lifts an eyebrow, Ed understands that Phoebe has told him the truth about their marriage.
“Well, she didn’t suffer too bad,” he says. “Pancreatic cancer. Gone in weeks. Barely enough time to settle any of her affairs.”
Reaching over to a side table, he picks up a framed photo and passes it to Ed. It shows an elderly woman with her arm around a younger Mordecai. It takes him several confused seconds to understand this woman is—was—Phoebe. A jolt strikes in his chest, though he couldn’t even say what emotion causes it. Picture Phoebe weighs easily three hundred pounds, and her lank, brown-gray hair lies flat against her ears in a stringy bob. She wears a shapeless housecoat-dress. And she’s smiling.
At twenty, Phoebe wore tight, black metal-band T-shirts and acid-washed jeans and feather earrings that dangled almost to her shoulders. She had a leather choker jutting with spikes. Hers was the kind of figure that silenced men in the bar, so they could concentrate on looking at it. Then, when she was pregnant, her body grew ample, her skin taut and glowing, and she was even sexier than before.
Ed knows he looks old too, but come on.
“She only put on the weight after magic was born.”
“What magic?” Ed says automatically.
“Magick. With a c and a k. Meredith’s brother.” Mordecai passes him another picture, this one showing a little kid in a baseball uniform. “This is old. We haven’t been much organized to take pictures since my dad died.”
“Oh,” Ed says, understanding. “So your dad—”
“Married Phoebe when I was twenty-five. Magick’s my half-brother. Meredith’s half-brother, too. We’re all related by halves.”
Ed, absorbing the news, can’t decide if it’s good or bad.
“He’s around here someplace,” the other man goes on. “He’s a bit shy. Bit shook up with his mom gone, of course.”
A couple of the dogs make their way into the sunroom, leading with their noses, as if they’ve been on Ed’s trail this whole time. The black one stands next to him, leaning suggestively against his knee, though he can’t figure out what the suggestion is. A small, white one curls up on an armchair and goes to sleep.
“And his name is Magick?” Ed says, unable to shave the judgment from his voice.
Mordecai looks at him steadily, his hands on his knees. He has replaced the two photographs on the side table. “You know Phoebe. She put a big premium on unique.”
And Ed laughs, the sound rolling out of him before he can stop it, remembering one of their first big fights, over Phoebe wanting to name the baby Ocean. He thought it would condemn the child to a lifetime of ridicule. So they compromised, and Phoebe would say, every time, “her name is Mer, which is French for ‘ocean,’” and Ed would grit his teeth.
Mordecai sighs. “She was kind of nuts.”
Ed is surprised. “She was when I knew her. I thought maybe—”
“Nope,” Mordecai says steadily. “Nope.”
Goats (Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Mammalia; Order: Artiodactylia; Family: Bovidae; Genus: Capra; Species: Capra aegagrus hircus)
Mordecai offers to show him around. Back on the porch, the animal he thought was a dog stands up and reveals itself as a goat. He’d been so intent on getting to the front door that he hadn’t even noticed. It’s mangy and scruffy, with hard little eyes.
“Magick’s lactose-intolerant. Seems to do okay with goat’s milk, though.”
The goat looks at him quietly, either tired or trusting.
“Good idea,” Ed says inanely.
“Phoebe didn’t much care for animals. She always had a lot of business plans. Came up with a lot of Internet-based stuff. But in the end, this property—” he sweeps his arm out widely instead of ending the sentence.
Ed swallows. “Do you know why she never got in touch with Meredith?”
Mordecai looks at him. They’re around the same height, not far from the same weight. He seems on the verge of saying any number of things. The goat bleats as if disturbed by the silence. From the highway comes a distant rumble of truck traffic, or maybe it’s just the wind. The quiet here is not tranquil. It used to be that Phoebe couldn’t stand to be in a room without music playing, couldn’t drive a car without a soundtrack to her life. If she hadn’t been crazy before living here, this place would have guaranteed it.
The goat nudges him, and Mordecai signals their way off the porch. “She never talked about Meredith much,” he says as they tramp around the property. “I didn’t even know she existed until just recently, to be honest with you. Phoebe kept some things close. They didn’t even tell me she was pregnant until they brought Magick home from the hospital.”
In the backyard, which is not a yard but a weedy expanse of agricultural land no longer cultivated, they come upon him, the boy. True to his name, he’s wearing a black cloak and huddling over a tree stump as if performing incantations. He doesn’t notice their approach. Ed thinks of a video he saw online once, of a kid fighting with a light-saber, leaping and jumping, lost inside his kinetic reenactment. There was a pure joy in it people had to make fun of. Ed felt sorry for him. What was childhood if not the time before you understood how stupid were your pleasures, how necessary it was to keep them secret?
Though in retrospect he’d probably laughed at the Star Wars kid and Christine had been the one to talk him out of it, to show him a kinder point of view. That was what she did for him. In the year and a half since she’d died, he felt himself getting sharper tongued at work, more sarcastic and impatient, less interested in other people, even in Meredith’s monologues about her work. He was getting meaner again, as he’d been when he was young.
“Magick,” Mordecai says. Then louder: “Magick.”
At the sound of his voice the boy turns around, the cape swirling cinematically as he does. Ed feels sharply sick, bile rising into his mouth. Because the boy’s face is Phoebe’s: sensual, instantly recognizable, like a rock star’s. Thick lips and high cheekbones. A violent confrontation in the eyes. Phoebe’s beauty was androgynous; she was a challenge, a woman without coy glances or feminine gestures, a hard place you’d have to scramble to get to, and oh, how men wanted to get there. Here in this awkward teenage face you could see not the sex but the defiance, a fuck-off-world stare written too large on his slender face.
The kid hates him, Ed’s sure. “He knows who I am?”
“I’m not sure what he knows,” Mordecai says, and his tone holds a warning, though maybe not the warning Ed was expecting.
The boy comes over, a sword dangling from his hand.
“Say hi, Mag.”
“Hi, Mag,” the boy says mechanically.
Ed puts his hand out, and the kid ignores it. Up close, the resemblance to Phoebe is even starker. Under the cloak, the kid is wearing an Eagles jersey and black cords—clothes far too warm for the weather—and his body is all angles and bones.
“I’m just giving Ed the tour,” Mordecai says. “Come with.”
The boy neither agrees to this nor disagrees. His large, green eyes are so wide set he looks almost like an alien. They head around the opposite side of the house, where Mordecai points out a storage shed full of Phoebe’s things, “business materials,” and then back inside via a side door. Ed is shown a dining room, the hutch with Phoebe’s china in it, and a living room with family photos on the walls, Phoebe’s husband a Santa Claus type with a belly and beard. There’s an oil painting of the house itself, done by Phoebe, whom he never knew to paint or draw or anything. Throughout the tour Mordecai offers up a steady stream of information, most of it financial: the tax assessment on the house, the rising cost of heating oil, the price of a much needed new furnace and roof. He seems to think Ed cares about these minutiae, like he’s in the market for a broken-down house in the middle of nowhere.
In the living room, Ed finally asks—he has to interrupt a sentence about the cost of weatherproofing the windows—what it was that Phoebe left for Meredith. When the other man goes to fetch it, Ed puts his hands in his pockets, then takes them out again, then plunges them back in.
This is the only message Meredith will ever get from her mother.
The interval stretches, unbearable. Ed and Magick are left alone. They sit down on a green couch draped with a yellow and black afghan, the boy humming tunelessly and making small swishes with his cape. Between the humming he murmurs to himself, a bass line of words that Ed can’t decipher but knows aren’t meant for him anyway. He tries to connect this behavior to Phoebe, but for all her faults she wasn’t remote from other people. If anything, she was too connected to them. She loved her co-workers at the bar, and also fought with them, sometimes physically. She was always yelling at Ed, but it was because she wanted more from him, more love, more sex, more heat, more anger. She cheated on him twice, both times with guys from the bar, because she said she needed to feel beautiful and he didn’t give that to her. She was a thrumming machine that never turned off, her craving for attention a constant engine, revving.
The boy mutters and hums. Maybe he takes after his dad.
Finally Mordecai comes back into the room holding a pink stuffed rabbit, which he passes to Ed. He cups it in his palm; it’s cute but nothing special, its fur made of cheap polyester. It probably cost the same as the lemur that’s baking outside in his Sentra.
Ed is perplexed. “Did she, was there, any explanation or anything?”
Mordecai shakes his head. “She just said to give it to her daughter. I assumed it was something she kept from when Meredith was young.”
“If it is, I don’t remember it.”
Mordecai shrugs, abdicating.
“Did she say anything else?”
“Not really. My dad said there was a lot of unresolved issues there.”
Ed raises his eyebrows.
“He was a pastor,” adds Mordecai.
A pastor with sons named Mordecai and Magick. None of it makes sense to Ed. And there’s no way the rabbit dates back twenty years; it’s stiff and unhandled, pink fur bright from the factory. He wonders if Phoebe was hallucinating, at the end, imagining some other life, some other daughter. He’s heard such things can happen, when there is pain and medicine for the pain.
Just as he’s about to leave, Magick stands up and faces him. Mordecai puts on a falsely jovial voice and says loudly, “You want to put on a show?”
The boy nods.
And he commences a set of tricks that are so good as to be professional. Not that Ed’s any judge, but it is magic. What’s missing is any kind of patter, the river of words that magicians use to distract you from the sleight of hand. The only sound in the room is the swish of polyester as the cape moves through the air. And yet, despite the silence, Ed can’t see how the tricks are done; he can’t find the seam that stitches one gesture to the next.
The kid swallows his sword and regurgitates a rainbow-colored cloth. He pulls a bird out from behind Ed’s ear. The bird settles itself on a coffee table, pecking at something it finds there. He makes coins rain down from the ceiling, a clatter of dimes and nickels that land on the couch and in Ed’s lap. From a deck of cards, he gets Mordecai to pick the eight of hearts and hold it in his hands, then finds the eight of hearts in Ed’s pocket. Each trick is a silent impossibility, a wonder.
The boy claps his hands and the bird disappears! One minute it’s next to Ed, pecking and seeming slightly unsanitary, and the next it’s gone.
The two older men clap enthusiastically, and the boy nods, stooping slightly in acknowledgment, then leaves the room.
Ed doesn’t know what to say. When he glances at Mordecai, his eyes are watery with tears. Ed’s surprised, then not surprised. He thinks he knows the feeling. When Meredith was a child, less than six, he took her to a circus. In the parking lot a man was forming balloon animals, and they stopped to watch. The man squeaked and twisted a bumblebee, a snake, a dog. When he asked Meredith what she wanted, she said a spider. The balloon artist seemed taken aback, but eventually he twisted a black balloon around itself until he had made some semblance of one, a circle with legs sticking out of it. He handed it to Meredith, who studied it gravely, then gave it back. “There’s no thorax,” she said.
What astonished Ed was not her intelligence or her vocabulary—though he was bursting with pride over those—but the indefinable personhood of her. He had made her and cared for her, and she had become, so quickly, something separate from him, something well and truly her own. She was herself, a girl who knew what a spider should look like, a girl who could name its parts.
Dove (Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Aves; Order: Columbiformes; Family: Columbidae; Genus: Zenaida; Species: Zenaida macroura)
The magic show over, Mordecai spreads his palms out, as if to say, can you believe that? Ed can’t. He’s never seen anything like it.
“That was impressive. Please thank him for me later.”
“I’ll try,” Mordecai says.
“I should be going.” Ed lifts the rabbit in a kind of salute. “Thanks for this, too.”
The other man nods and then, as Ed is rising from the couch, he reaches out and grabs Ed’s wrist with a forceful grip. “Tell Meredith,” he says, and his voice is low but urgent. “Tell her he’s here.”
And Ed understands that this was the reason for the visit, not the plush toy, which may or may not have been earmarked for his daughter in the first place. Maybe Phoebe never wanted her to have anything. It’s Mordecai who wants something, wants it desperately, judging from the pressure of his hand.
There’s a rustle in the corner of the room, and the bird from Magick’s trick—a dove, he thinks, though he doesn’t know anything about birds—is pecking around the base of a potted plant, trying to reach the soil. It doesn’t look good, one wing hanging lower than the other, its walk a drunken stagger. He can’t remember if it looked like that before, or if the trick damaged it somehow.
He turns back to Mordecai. “Meredith’s off working on her studies,” he says. “She’s going to get her Ph.D. and be a professor. I don’t see her coming back home much. Just so you know.”
Whatever you want from her, he’s thinking, you can’t have her. I will protect her from your sad, broken-down house and this unfathomable, caped boy.
“He’s her brother, too,” Mordecai says, but the urgency in his tone is already fading into defeat. “It can’t be all on me.”
“I hear you,” Ed says noncommittally, and the grip on his wrist lessens, then releases.
When Phoebe first left, she flung a beer bottle at him, and it shattered on the wall behind his head. He vacuumed up all the glass, terrified that Meredith would get into the shards somehow, but still he kept finding them, days later, some tiny sliver that could have cut his daughter, could have gone down her throat. It was picking up that glass that solidified his hatred for his wife. When she called to get the baby back, he thought, he’d say that Meredith cut herself, and that would be his proof that she couldn’t be a mother.
But Phoebe never called. It was her mother who did—a tired, pallid woman with some sweetness at her core. She didn’t make any threats; she was too timid for that. She only wanted to see Meredith, to visit occasionally. Ed said no. “It’s too confusing for her,” he said, though Meredith was barely a year old. Nothing and everything was confusing to her; she wasn’t even walking yet. He knew the door had to be shut completely, or else the crazy would find its way back in. And he will keep it shut now.
He shakes Mordecai’s hand and leaves the house, picking his way past the goat, the friendly black dog, and the weeds in the front yard. Midday sun has broiled the car, and he rolls the windows down, turns the AC up, cool air dissipating into hot. An upstairs window opens, and he sees Magick in the bedroom, maybe looking at him, but probably not; he’s too far away to tell. The house is otherwise motionless, the whole animal kingdom preparing to drowse the afternoon away. The plush rabbit joins the lemur on the passenger seat. He’s already decided not to tell Meredith where they came from. He’ll give them to her, and she can do what she wants: name them, cherish them, or throw them away.