In my sister’s taxonomy, our father is a squirrel. She’s eight, I’m five, and we both agree on this, although if we didn’t, she’d have the final word. Our father: Limpid squirrel eyes, a narrow squirrel face, prominent squirrel teeth. He scampers and leaps and takes small nibbles of everything, even apples.
“Pure squirrel,” she says, and I nod wordlessly.
We classify our family. Our timid rabbit cousins, aunts with hyena laughs, red-faced macaque uncles. Our mother is a no-mercy tiger. Grounded! she doesn’t hesitate to hiss when she catches us in the basement, cutting our boxed baby clothes into cat costumes. We roar back at her when she flashes her claws.
In secret, we divide our friends: the bird children, grabby and rude; the rodents, twitchy, curious; the reptiles, silent.
“What am I?” I ask my sister.
She studies me with scientific scrutiny. “Mouse,” she says.
After the divorce, we catalog all the men our mother dates: Gazelle (too weak for her), rhino (too indifferent), turtle (too inert.) My sister leads the effort, making long lists of all the potential animals, hypothesizing what would fit our mother best. She’s eleven, and says it’s a way to organize the world so it makes more sense. Eat or be eaten, she says. The good men are things like elk or horses; the bad ones are wolverines, skunks, or mountain lions.
In our own play, we argue over who gets to be the big cats. My sister says there can be only one: the most worthy—most fierce.
“I’m the lioness; you’re the cub,” she says. “Since I’d win in a fight.”
“Teach me!” I yowl. “I want to be a lioness too!”
When our mother works late, we wage war with brooms and chairs, hoisting them over our heads, making a spectacle of our viciousness. My sister claims the living room and barricades me out with stacked chairs and book towers. She is both opponent and mentor, sometimes pausing breathlessly mid-siege to shout some big-cat secret at me: Softer when you leap! Louder roar! Hiss like you mean it!
When we’re birds, my sister is a quetzal-hawk, a hybrid, she says. She’s thirteen, slicking mascara over long feathered lashes. She wears our mother’s peacock print shawl veiled over her hair.
“What am I?” I ask.
“A crow,” she says. “They’re smart; you never see them as road kill.”
Time changes our taxonomies.
In high school, our men are half animal, half human. Bear claws jut from long fingers; talons sprout fromt their toes; they flash wolf-fanged smiles. My sister drapes herself over them in the halls, a slouchy leonine casualness to all her encounters. I watch the ones I like from afar: They are beautiful mutants, strange and alien, battle-ready and angry.
In college, my sister chooses predators. Anything that could stalk you, she says. I choose sea turtles and anglerfish, platyupus and chameleons, although the labels don’t feel quite right.
“Why can’t they just be human?” I say.
My sister snickers and says, “Don’t be boring.”
When she visits, she generously classifies mine for me, whispering in my ear their respective genera minutes after she meets them.
When our father moves cross-country, I follow. Perhaps I need a reason to break away, define myself on my own terms. The west coast feels like acceptance, a warm bath of sun over my icy fur. When I see my sister, she wears sequined shirts and takes me to play pool in fuliginous lounges. She talks quickly about her job in journalism and the men who stalk her. They are all different types of prowlers, with a sleekness and stealth that mine lack. She is twenty seven. Her first husband was a leopard; her second, a lion.
“You’re sure he’s not something else?” I ask.
“Of course not,” she says, and laughs, as though there are things I’m incapable of knowing about her species. “We’re both lions.”
Sometimes, we talk about the past: Between us, our taxonomies span innumerable phyla. The elephant boys we eyed as children; the Harris hawks and springbok and wolf spiders in high school; the feline men my sister married, the ruminant one she predicts I will. When our family comes together, in one big welter of claws and snarls and howling laughter, my sister mostly forgets our game. We chew and sleep and grumble as the same species, and I’m grateful. Our tiger mother has tamed into a cat who licks her paws and purrs and flaunts her German shepherd boyfriend. Only once more at a family gathering, when I bring along my fiancé, does my sister whisper to me quietly, in the bathroom of a restaurant, our whole riotous clan waiting outside: “Goat, right? I knew it.”
I shrug, no longer interested. “Maybe,” I say.
She waits for my agreement, but I change the subject.
“Don’t you think he is?” she says again.
“Not really,” I say, nonchalant.
“Well, what animal then?”
“Haven’t thought about it.”
Outside, she casts wounded looks at me, like I’ve trashed something sacred, but I smile and pretend not to see. It’s the end of a tradition between us, something that my sister will never quite grasp I’m able to shed
That evening, we gather at my mother’s house—a twice-a-year kind of closeness—and sit around the deck, watching bats swoop and dive in the half-light.
“Look,” my sister says, pointing: A pair of bats flits and darts in tight rings around each other, circling higher and higher over the dark screen of sky. My fiance squeezes my hand, and I lean into the ursine warmth of his shoulder and watch the bats until they wheel apart. My sister and I slink our eyes around each other, yet the confused look resurfaces in the most delicate twitches of her face, and I know she is struggling, with all her poise, to reassert her old dominance, to win back her pride.
Joy Baglio lives, writes, and teaches in NYC, where she earned her MFA from The New School. She is currently at work on her first novel.