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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Dominant Animal


Kathryn Scanlan

MCD x FSG Originals



I took a bus past the old dairy with the big metal cow out front. The cow had long, thick eyelashes and pink-painted lips like a human woman’s. On the cow’s head was a pillowy, blue-spotted bonnet topped with a large, floppy bow.

Hey, I called to the bus driver. Everyone else had gotten off earlier, at the hospital.

Hey, I said. Why do you think they want that cow to look like a human woman? No ideas? I said.

You can’t be drinking that in here, he said without looking up.

I pinched my own lips in a pucker and sucked air into my mouth. Then I let out the long, suggestive whistle I’d recently learned.

Where I was going—it was something to do with a family. It may have been my family. When I arrived, there was a large frosted cake, boxes of wine, and a pyramid of sparkling plastic flutes.

I swallowed some flutes of wine and from a metal platter lifted a single cube of orange cheese that someone had taken the time to stab with a little pick.

I walked the perimeter of the room and leaned on a wall beneath a large, unrecognizable flag. On the dance floor, several people were creeping around in the dark. A hectic pattern of lighted dots fell all over them.

In the bathroom, someone had painted bright, childish flowers along the bottom of the wall, giving the impression that the flowers were growing from the linoleum floor. The hand soap had left a bright pink puddle on the sink. Its cherry smell made me wish for something pink to drink. It mingled with a septic odor that emanated from the old lidless toilets.

I was wearing a dress, a purse, shoes. Earrings. Some bracelets. A large, elaborate brooch. Barrettes and clips. Rings. A belt upon which I’d set my hopes of pulling everything together.

People sang. Several individuals, working together, lit a large quantity of candles.

Then, the swaddled body landed in my arms—somebody’s new, red baby—another stranger brought into the world. Here was the cause of our celebration.

I looked down at its swollen face, its unseeing eyes. It waved an arm stiffly.

Smells of mud and manure were coming through the open windows—the first whiffs of spring. When I went outside, the wind began to blow. It was coming from a long way off with nothing to stop it. It turned me around. It opened my mouth. It undid my hair and lifted my skirt. It scattered me just like I liked.


The father was a professional manipulator of spinal bones and the mother was a skilled scraper, dauber, and suctionist. They enjoyed playing together: tennis and golf, as well as games of chance. They were slim and tan and drove sporty European cars. One didn’t mind his lack of hair, because he had physical vigor and a nicely shaped head—or maybe it was his money. She kept her hair chemically kinky—a nonchalant frizz.

In the morning they liquefied fruits and in the evening they steamed leaves and heads in a large metal pot. The breast of a bird—split, skinned—turned slowly in the dim yellow theater of the microwave oven.

There was a dog, of course. It was big and blond with an expensive heritage. The dog’s name—it eludes me, but it was something to do with victory, royalty, luxury.

And there were two children—an adolescent boy and a prepubescent girl.

I was blond, too, but of a different sort. My pedigree was mixed. For a brief period, they tried me. They took me on a trip with them—all of us together in a large van with a small television in the back. A second adolescent boy was auditioning as well.

We drove for a day, then arrived at the stucco condo that was to be the site of our happiness and relaxation.

I understood my role as companion to the girl, but my exuberances could not excite her. She watched me with the disinterest of the statistician she would become.

To the mother and father I went then, but because they had recently cleaned themselves and put on fresh, light-colored clothing, my approach caused a great deal of alarm.

The boys, then, I could not avoid. At the pool, they bared their hideous bodies to swim or just because it was hot and they were proud. They strutted—huge and spindly, jackal-faced, inflamed, malformed. They called to me.

I dropped straight in. When I tried to come up, they held me down as long as was funny. I understood this as their birthright. On they would go—a lifetime of dunking, of the pleasures of the dunker.

I suppose I was asking for it—the way I would hide beneath a piece of furniture and cry out when frightened. I was easily riled. It didn’t take much to spook me. I was a soft thing, very grabbable, with large, wet eyes and a tender nose. At mealtime, I ate at top speed, jealously eyeing the bowls and plates and the rates at which they emptied into mouths other than my own. Here was a group of individuals who took their time with food and did not appear to derive any particular enjoyment from consuming it. In a corner, the dog daintily took its kibble, coin by coin, and never approached the table to beg.

The day we were to go out on the motorboat, the girl began to bleed. The mother took her into a rest-stop bathroom and stood outside the stall while the girl attempted to insert what her mother had given her. The girl cried. She said she could not do it. This went on.

The phenomenon had recently been explained to us in the music room at school, where many of the female teachers, as well as most of the mothers, had assembled one afternoon. On a table at the front of the room sat a large human torso—gruesomely separated from the rest of its body—vivisected to reveal the organs, which were brightly colored and removable.

The lights were dimmed and a movie was projected onto a screen. In the movie, some girls had a sleepover at a friend’s house. The friend’s mother poured pancake batter into a hot frying pan in the morning. She made a large pancake in the shape of the female reproductive system to illustrate what had happened to one of the girls in the night. Then, together, they ate the pancakes.

The lights were turned on again. Blood, sanitary napkins, and the importance of personal hygiene were discussed.

Otherwise, I said loudly, you might start attracting flies.

The teachers and mothers—my mother—all turned to look at me then. It was a look I have come to recognize.

My companion emerged at last—triumphant but shaken. Mother and daughter washed their hands in happy communion, talking to each other’s reflection in the mirror. Then they turned and saw that I was still leaning on the wall, cramped between two dryers. There came a change in posture like a sigh.

Come along, clipped the mother. The boys have waited long enough.

We were late getting out on the water. It was crowded with other boats and ours burned your arm if you leaned on it. The father popped a beer and revved the motor. We bounced along.

At last the father found us some solitude. One by one, they dove gracefully into the water and surfaced laughing. They floated and flipped their bodies around. The father did it one-handed, his beer held aloft.

Copyright © 2020 by Kathryn Scanlan