A modern bestiary

Lessons from critters in Any Small thing Can Save You

| November 15, 2001

If Christina Adam’s book, Any Small Thing Can Save You, were a mural, it would cover the walls of a cavernous room, the intricate tapestry of humans and animals, scenes and stories speaking their wise truths in the silent stillness. Alone in the room with the mural, you might step closer, see how the hues run together to form the image, and perhaps see yourself reflected in the countless layers of paint and revelation.

Any Small Thing Can Save You is a bestiary—a medieval collection of allegorical fables about the habits and traits of animals, each fable traditionally followed by an interpretation of its moral significance. In this collection, the 26 vignettes (one for each letter of the alphabet) feature more commonplace animals than the more exotic or fantastical counterparts of the past: asps, quails, and moose rather than unicorns, dragons, and gargoyles. And unlike the collections of the Middle Ages, the stories in Adam’s bestiary are not necessarily designed to offer blatant moral lessons. Adam, instead, concentrates more on blowing the dust off the small forgotten stones of our lives, the stones that when rubbed or polished reveal themselves as gems, prism-like and bright. Her fables have gentle rhythms, her characters quiet contemplations and moments of unexpected realization that reawaken them—and us—to the world and to our best, most honest selves.

Though the stories are built around an animal or some connection to an animal, oftentimes the role of the creature is simply a foil—a way for the character to remember or learn or see, as if for the first time.

In “B is for Bat,” a newly widowed man helps a young biologist band Mexican swallows in order to escape from the barrage of well-meaning friends and families who are trying to set him up on blind dates. Ironically, for the first time since his wife’s death, he feels his feet back on the earth when he is enveloped in a cloud of bats, the sound of their wings and nighttime squeals corkscrewing around him. “Raymond hung in the thick, black air, his arms out-stretched like Jesus on the cross. Oh, he wished Judith were here, to tell her how, for just this moment, everything he felt and saw was working, humming with a fine precision. He felt like Jesus, gazing out over the multitudes, a man with a secret so huge, it seemed to him unbearable.”

In “H is for Hen,” a 45-year-old woman is told by her parents that she was adopted. The time to tell her had just never seemed right, they said. “Gene stepped out into the summer evening and began to walk in no particular direction. A runner and an athlete, this is what she had always done—found a place inside her own body that moved in a familiar way, and thought of nothing but the steady rhythm of her heart and breath. But it didn’t work this time. Crowds of imaginary people invaded her thoughts. All these years while she had felt at home, others knew she was a rank imposter.” She finds her way back to herself with the help of an old friend, and the appearance of a speckled hen that dies as unceremoniously as it had appeared.

In “M is for Moose,” a woman recreates her life and identity in the wake of divorce from her husband. To live alone on the solitary ranch, she now finds she must learn more skills—from splitting frozen logs with a maul and accepting the help and friendship of neighbors, to coming to terms with her feelings of guilt and failure. She teaches herself how to cross-country ski as a way to get out of her snowbound home for a while, and out of her mind crowded with thick, confused thoughts. While skiing, she comes across a moose. In an attempt to get away, she skis directly into its calf. Frightened, angry, and protective, the mother attacks her. “She rested her head in the snow, glad to be quiet in the still world. She noticed how the snow glistened close to her face. She tried to move, but pain so severe it twisted her bowels stopped her short. …” As she lay there, ribs broken, hardly able to move, she thinks of her husband and her failed marriage—a broken circle, small, crooked, not quite closed. She recalls the end of winter and the beginning of spring, “… the times she’d walked down to the river to watch the blue sheets of ice break from the bank and drift down the center of the waterway. There was a sound to it, a slight detonation as each sheet gave way.” Lying there: “Some sense of a moment’s reprieve left her feeling softened and peaceful. The very worst had happened, and she wasn’t dead. She waited, wondering how long it would be before the moose attacked again, or the cold seeped all the way into her bones.”

In “Z is for Zoo,” it is not until the day she is fired from here job that a lonely schoolteacher recognizes that she has spent a chunk of her life “shepherding others toward their dreams,” all the while being ashamed “because she was afraid of her own.” In three boxes, she has journals she has kept since she was a girl, which are filled with “random dreams, short poems, and quotations from books she has read.” In one, “she is struck by a few lines of Sartre on what a shame it is that we all live our lives from the outside.” Holding the worn notebook in her hands, she realizes that her collection of journals tells her nothing about what her life has been. “Nothing to remind her of her joys and her sadnesses.” With her car loaded up with cartons and clothes, she drives off, choosing to head north simply because it is one direction in four in which to go. She drives off, realizing perhaps for the first time, that life is lived for the small, quiet moments, not for the ones when horns sound and bells ring.

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