“Alas, Falada!”

I am slowly reading through the stories in Among Animals, the new anthology from Ashland Creek Press, which, as the back cover promises, “affirm the indelible bond among humans and animals.”  Judging from the first story, and my own story “Meat” which is included, this anthology is not quite the easy-breezy-heartwarming stuff that such a description might imply.  I have a feeling I’m going to be in tears by the end of most of these stories, and not sentimental, Hallmark-Channel tears.  Existential, what-the-hell-are-we-doing-on-this-planet? tears.

The anthology’s first story, “Alas, Falada!” by Diane Lefer, is about a worker in a zoo’s veterinary office, attempting to cope with the death of a patient — an eland, a large type of antelope, who was recently euthanized.  The narrator struggles between her job tasks and her desire to honor the animal’s life with something better than what the zoo and the local museum have in store for the eland’s remains.

The title “Alas, Falada!” is an allusion to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Goose Girl,” in which the protagonist of the story, a wronged princess, has one stalwart friend: a talking horse who is beheaded early in the tale, but who nevertheless continues to advise and sympathize with the princess as a disembodied head nailed to a gate.  Like the narrator in Lefer’s story, this fairy tale left a strong impression on me as a child, one that horrified me to my core and yet at the same time confirmed something I knew from my cats and my hermit crab — that sometimes my truest friends were not human.  How I wished we could communicate as easily as Falada does with his princess.  In this story, Lefer weaves the themes of the fairy tale, with its horror and its magic (and its ungrateful silence on Falada’s ultimate fate once the princess has her happily-ever-after), into a very modern story about animals as objects of human fascination and study.  Subtly, the story catalogs all sorts of ways that wild animals are Other-ed in contemporary culture.  From the opening lines, “Humans get cremated.  Animals get burned,” to the knowledge that zoo animals are no longer named, to the positive differences that the misanthropic narrator latches onto (“When you save the life of a bear cub, you don’t have to worry he’ll go out and vote Republican”), the story is describing a line between humans and animals.  A la Gary Francione, I paraphrase: humans are people, animals are not.

Yet the narrative troubles that simple distinction.  On the third page of the story, the narrator informs us there’s someone at the museum she is trying to avoid.  On the fourth page, we learn that this someone is Jamal, a chimpanzee who died in the zoo, possibly a suicide, and is now a taxidermy display in the museum.  Playing with our expectations of who can be called a “someone,” the author forces us to adopt a new set of moral criteria, at least for the duration of the story.  The narrator repeatedly ruminates about the true nature of humans; and the emotional and cognitive capabilities of animals; and comes up short.  When our understanding both of what a human is like and what an animal is like are so fraught, it becomes audacious to accept facile social and emotional distinctions — at least not without a lot of angst, which the narrator readily supplies.  There clearly are differences between an eland and a human; part of the narrator’s conflict is how to treat the eland’s remains when elands can’t make wills that tell us how they’d like to be commemorated.  The narrator is emotional attached, and that’s all well-and-good, but we have no idea that any of this even mattered to the eland.  What the narrator learns above all, through her interactions with the zoo patients and her reflections thereafter, is that there are loveable humans in the world.  The Other becomes a distorted mirror that we use to learn about ourselves, ourselves being primary and the Others having little in the way of a life that might matter to them, on their own terms.

Yet the story will not let us end there, saying no more of Falada, as unproblematic as a Disney-fied fairy tale.  She matters, as an individual, as a life, as a feeling creature, and the narrator can’t help but intuit that she owes her something.  There are no answers or solutions, only complex emotion and meditation.  Lefer’s prose is transparent and smooth as water, and the journey she takes us through in this story make me very proud to be included in an anthology with her work.  Cheers, Diane.  This one will stay with me a long while.

Next up: “Greyhound,” by Jean Ryan.

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