Ham scowled and chattered his teeth as they waited amid the meows and grunts. He shuffled around in his cage picking at dried rose petals, while opposite him a panting Labrador winced and scratched its balls. When Mr. Shaha called them in, Kemy had fallen asleep and Aubrey had to carry her. Mr. Shaha, old and fat, atrocious eyebrows, with his crooked spine only suggested beneath his lab coat, slowly took Ham out of his cage and looked him straight in the eye. "Now, what's the matter with you?" he said. "Hmm?"
"It's Ham. His name's Ham," said Georgia. "He's d'stressed."
"He's got a cold," Bessi added.
"And he doesn't want chocolate."
Ham was airborne, on a warm free hand. Mr. Shaha's breath smelled of kippers from his lunch. He put Ham down on the examining table and Ham kept bolt still.
"Is he going to die?" Georgia asked. Mr. Shaha gave her a serious look. "Little one, we are all going to die one day, and I suppose it is better if you are prepared." There wasn't much he could do for Ham. He checked his mouth and his eyes, one of which was closing, and recommended warmth and lots of sunlight. "Try to keep him active," he said. Aubrey bought a checkered tie-on body blanket from Mr. Shaha's accessories cabinet (which had proven to be quite lucrative over the years), and on the way home Georgia secured it under his throat and belly. "There," she said. "Isn't it better now. You won't die anymore."
But Bel had another one of her dreams, and Bel's dreams were never taken lightly. She had once been told by a fortune-teller at the annual Roundwood Circus that she possessed "the powers of premonition," which had made her shudder, as she was only ten at the time. Ida, who had been harboring suspicions about Bel's psychic status on account of a certain piercing mystery in her eyes that reminded her of her paternal grandmother, Cecelia Remi Ogeri Tokhokho, who had also been prone to clairvoyance, had held Bel's hand and looked at her very intensely. "Don worry," she'd said, "it means you are a wise one and you will know many secret things." As she got older, Bel's dreams became more and more reliable, to the extent that sometimes Ida would consult her on matters such as forthcoming natural disasters in Nigeria or whether Kemy would catch chicken pox from the twins (which she hadthey had scars on their backs).
The night after the visit to the vet, Bel dreamed of a wedding held in a muddy field. She tossed and turned. There was no bride and groom. There were no guests. There were only a few waiters wandering around with stacks of empty plates, and the only sound was a dog barking frantically outside the tent. Bel woke up and rubbed her temples with her fingertips. She knew what was coming.
Over the next two weeks Ham moved less and less. The apples began to thump and Bessi was joyous. She banged a frying pan with a wooden spoon and led her army of harvesters up into the wild. Under Ida's supervision they peeled and chopped and mixed, frilled in aprons, getting sweaty. And while Bessi was standing at the stove, busy with the applesauce and the future, Georgia walked silently out into the sun lounge every hour to check on Ham. She felt, in those last days, that she and he were traveling together to the end of What is it? and there was only so far she could go.
Ham sat through the days with his nose glistening. He was making a decision, and when the decision was made, he simply stopped moving. And closed the other eye.
Then it was possible, Georgia noticed, to choose the time, to leave when you were ready. The heart sends a message of surrender to the brain and the brain carries out the formalities, the slowing down of blood and the growing cold, the gathering of stillness and the inside lights retreating. Ham's fading vision caught the angry man walking about in the middle of the night and shouting something. There were tender strokes along his back from the little girls, and roses, new roses. He could hear the faint echo of bells. But it all was history. He had decided and it had happened and now he was ending toward what was next. Toward another shock, another scale. It had been very small, this life.
From 26a by Diana Evans, pages 1-17. Copyright Diana Evans. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of William Morrow Publishing.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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