The Herd

Deformity exists within other species, I’ve seen it, I just can’t be certain how the unaffected react. Still, I dream.

Salmon were my ingress. While working for Alaska’s fish and game department I occasionally ran across scoliosis-hobbled adults, waggling crook-spined upstream with the others. Bug-eyes, too, impeded here-and-there spawners however swollen eyeballs might impede. If other fish stigmatized such rarities, though, I didn’t notice, but that doesn’t mean they don’t.

Humans, we know, do. When Shannon was finally diagnosed, Karen and I remembered how brutal kids had been to the few special needs students in our respective high schools. In mine there were two. Short-bus jokes were the least of their troubles, and the depth of that furthered cruelty didn’t register until years later, blooming to full terror when therapists deemed Shan autistic.

Fortunately, people have evolved. Inside two generations, in fact, openly abusing the mentally afflicted most often ricochets now, visiting equally cutting ostracization upon the abuser. While Karen and I still fear the middle school years ahead, then, Shannon’s pre-K experience has been remarkable, with typical students piling on warmth and welcome. Still, we all need our bogeymen.

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Paranoia alone may nourish mine. While not enough to affect my views of Shannon, our family, or others, it does provide an occasional chill, one welled up from primitive chambers. Though I’ve never seen one, caribou populate the attendant reverie.

Mosquitoes spur the migrations, at least in part. Food probably has more to do with it, even ritual, but a desire to keep calves mobile and comparatively bug-free is in the mix. Regarding Shannon, though, order of impetus is immaterial, as whether on a playground or in a mall, at the beach or a fair, I see those hooves and plodding torsos, sensing the shift when difference is detected. It’s always subtle, scarcely noticeable, mirroring the one perceived when Shan is in a crowd.

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We’re not supposed to say abnormal. I do, though, and know others who do too. We whisper it among ourselves, infinitely proud, quietly joyed, by our children’s outlandish peculiarities. Few today question that pride, but most would blush at the reconstituted pejorative used to tout it.

It’s not the blush that summons the clattering hooves, but what drives it. In all likelihood it’s unconscious, but regardless, as Shannon twirls and hops and twitches her hands, vocalizing unintelligibles all the while, strangers – if only at the genetic level – create space. On the surface their smiles, questions, and generous accommodations are by all definitions sincere, but the molecular core can’t be helped.

Social mores progress, but at our base nature remains inviolable, and it’s there that I see the calf – hunch-backed, maybe, slack-jawed, or with a too-simple gaze out over the steppe. The herd doesn’t cull it, doesn’t abandon its mother nor stomp them both to death, but as numberless hooves tear up tundra a halo forms, and though included, the deformed one remains in quarantine. I’ll never know if these sensations really happen, but I dream them, and dreams have the greater sway.