Rise with Fleas
Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is
-John Donne, “The Flea”
In the morning, I pick fleas from the head of a mewing kitten. This has become something of a ritual for the two of us: wake up, run the water, add Dawn, and pick. Some of the fleas drown in the blue soap and fall into the water. Others are smart, lurk around the ears and eyes where I am too nervous to be as rough as I should be. The kitten, nicknamed Poubelle, does not appreciate these baths, squirms for dryer hands, shivers in the towel afterwards. I wonder if she will forgive me, and then she does.
I see them swimming in her black and grey fur, splashes of brown bodies moving just above the skin. Flea infestations can cause smaller creatures’ bodies to sicken, become anemic, their eyes discharging, their mouths cracking. She is too small for more serious medicines, so we bathe, and pick, and bathe, and pick. The flea comb I have seems ineffectual at combing fleas, most of the parasites diving under its metal prongs, though occasionally one is caught, writhing, and then it looks like this:
Of course, there is an irony in the name: Ctenocephalides felis. cteno- (“comb”) + cephal- (“head”). And of course there is felis: “cat.”
Poubelle was found in a dumpster this week (“Poubelle,” in French, means “dumpster”). My roommate and I were outside with his dog when the three of us heard a sound. My roommate thought it was a bird; the dog thought it was a threat; and I heard mewing. So we found the corner of the dumpster where it seemed to be located, unloaded it piece by piece so as to not cause a collapse, and still the mewing was beneath us. It was then we looked in the slots where the garbage trucks load the dumpster and there, in the darkness, we saw: two eyes staring back. Several baths later and her coat is starting to recover, though some patches remain stuck together from substances we cannot identify but slowly wash away day-by-day. A kitten cannot stand being in water for too long, so the baths are quick, the cleaning hurried. More and more she is starting to look like Alice, my sister’s cat growing up, before she lost her tail, and after she scarred me.
A creature does not need to present visible fleas to have them. Symptoms can include: eye discharge; itching; flea dirt. Flea dirt is the most reliable way of confirming infestation, small, dark clusters that brush from the skin. These are not the eggs but the aftermath of feeding, clots of blood dried and discarded. As it does look like dirt, and strays tend to be dirty, one way to test whether it is dirt of flea dirt is to brush some of the particles onto a white paper towel and wet it. There—do you see it? Rust. Crimson.
Our father would rent apartments that were, put mildly, in need of maintenance. Rust on appliances; peeling paint; spaces behind or beneath we weren’t to venture. I learned to fear carpet for what might lurk inside. Our father, following the divorce, took full custody of the cats, and partial custody of us, and, though he loved them, he was not always the best at tending to the animals. Litter boxes would go uncleaned for weeks while we were away, prompting the felines to seek other places to urinate and defecate and, from poor diets, vomit. We took turns cleaning up during our visits. And these animals, who did not receive medicine, would occasionally become homes to smaller creatures, and then our home would erupt in terrible feeding.
The worst infestation, but not the last, occurred in the apartment (there were many apartments) that was on Main Street, two doors down from the liquor store and across the street from the bar. We arrived for our visit and entered the apartment and then we felt it: our skin crawling with tiny teeth. Our father would have taken our mother to court had she refused the visit, as he was always trying to have her lose custody of us, if not gain full custody himself, so there we were, ready for a long weekend in the midst of a parasitic colony.
Our father slept through most of it. Our beds, however, proved to have too much swarming for us to get any rest, so we barricaded ourselves in the living room and spread out over the leather furniture—the only safe haven in the house—and tried to sleep. At the barricade we could see the cats—Aspen, Alice, and Tucker—and watch the tiny bodies fly from their fur, flares of hunger. We did not sleep that night. In the morning, our father awoke for his coffee and found us like that, and scolded us, and then what did we eat for breakfast?
The last infestation did not happen in an apartment—though there would be more apartments, a last apartment—but in a house. Judy, the last wife, and last divorce. The cats already there were indoor/outdoor cats but still without medicine, so one day my brother and I, now in high school, and our sister now in college and free, arrived for the long weekend and felt, again, the biting. Imagine: the long drive to our father’s; kissing our mother goodbye and grabbing our bags; letting ourselves in through the kitchen door; and then? The ground starts moving.
Amiri Baraka wrote, “Lately, I've become accustomed to the way / The ground opens up and envelopes me” in his poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” I was reading that poem at the time in school. It hardly matters, though. Poetry cannot kill a flea. And there were so, so many waiting in the darkened house. I headed outside, to the concrete surrounding the septic pool, and I picked at my legs until the biting stopped.
My brother could not take it and, without saying a word to anyone, even me, left on a bicycle and biked the twenty miles of back roads to our mother’s. He was terrified, constantly checking over his shoulders for the rattling of our father’s Jeep Cherokee. It never came, though: dad was at a bar, and sister was in college, and I was in the backyard, and brother was by himself, surrounded by farms, heading to homes free of biting. Our mother was home when he came crashing into the driveway and through the door. She asked, Where’s Reilly? and my brother responded, I couldn’t stay in that house, and my mother asked again, Where’s Reilly? and then my brother was silent, and then she grabbed her keys.
I do not remember what followed, but I have been told it. I have been told that our mother was afraid to enter the house, the house with the shotgun, and so our brother crept inside while she kept the car idling in the early afternoon sun. I have been told that our father woke from his drunken slumber and found us packing, and what terrible shouting followed. Where the hell do you think fleas come from? he shouted. Well? Where the fuck do they come from? You fucking pussies! This I have been told, as I have been told what came next: my standing up; my shouting back; my clenched fists, insignificant and furious. How I stormed out, my father stumbling after me, and how we squared off in the yard, my brother a body between us, terrible shouting drawing the neighbors out. Finally at a loss, our father swore that he wouldn’t pay for our college now, swore we were cut off, but that was just anger, and he did what he could for us when we went away. He was a good man like that.
We didn’t stay with our father after the final shouting. The custody stayed the same but it was understood: we only visited briefly, to catch a movie or to help pack up a moving truck when the next divorce inevitably came, or, and these were good days, when he needed help building sets in the theatre. At some point, he stopped talking to his father, and I stopped talking to him.
Our father died shortly after the last cat did. Alice had passed away in the Main Street apartment, and Tucker in Judy’s backyard, buried beneath a rock, but Aspen, the princess, with her long coat, had lasted all the way to the last apartment. She had been sickly for awhile but then recovered, her coat shining, her playful nature back for a spell, and then she died. Animals have a tendency of doing that—a last hurrah. A last bite. And Aspen was buried in the backyard, where strays would wander, their coats alive with want, lonely mouths begging for warmth. Our father provided it to them. And when he died, we burnt him. We didn’t want anything coming back.
When Poubelle is finally at a safe weight, I give her more serious medicine. I pick her up, gently stroke her chin, listen to her purring, and shove the half-pill down her throat. She does not appreciate this gesture and runs away and I wonder if she will forgive me, and then she does. She comes back and we watch Netflix on the bathroom floor, a mockumentary with David Harbour, and Poubelle sits attentive in my lap. After some time, she begins scratching herself, mewing with anxiety, and I know it is working: a last feeding frenzy for the dying parasites. They fall off into my lap, where I watch them collect, pity the tiny bellies, and pick them up between my fingers. Such delicate yearning! And then a crunch.
Reilly D. Cox is a MFA candidate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where they served as Design Editor for Black Warrior Review. They attended Washington College and the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. They have work available or forthcoming by Nat. Brut., Always Crashing, Juked, Cosmonauts Avenue, Rust + Moth, and elsewhere. If you need to find them, you can follow the cat that comes from the sewer.