Julia Elliott’s debut collection The Wilds will be published by Tin House books in October.
The Wild family moved into the house behind ours. For two years the split-level had been dead, open to prowling neighborhood children; its sunken den had become a nest of slugs and millipedes, its attic a froth of bats. Now eight brothers flung their restless bodies around the property. The largest Wild, a bearded boy of seventeen, shut himself up in the basement den. The littlest Wild, a tangle-haired half-naked thing, rumored to be a biter, lurked around in the shrubbery. The Wilds kept cats, lizards, and ferrets. Rabbits, hamsters, turtles, and snakes. A bubble of musky, ammoniac air enveloped their home like a force field, and the second you dared step through it you felt dizzy; a hundred arrows whistled around your ears. Their mother was frequently seen hauling in bags of supplies, and when she climbed from the battered shell of her station wagon, the boys would jump her like a band of hunger-crazed outlaws, snatching cookies and chips and tiny shrink-wrapped cakes. They’d scuttle up into the trees. They kept quiet up there, waiting out their mother’s fits. She was a lumpy, old-fashioned lady, forever in a rumpled dress and panty hose, with a pouf of hair as golden and crunchy as a pork rind. She’d tear her hairdo into wilted clumps and shake her fists at the trees. “I’m having a nervous breakdown,” she’d say, sometimes falling to her knees.
Mama said she felt sorry for Mrs. Wild. Dressed in tight jeans and heels, Mama would invite the hunched lady to have coffee in our spotless living room. She made fun of Mrs. Wild’s dresses when the poor woman left, but sometimes she was sad, and I knew she was thinking about my little brother, who’d weighed three pounds when he was born and died in a humid tank of oxygen.
Mr. Wild always rolled in after dark, in a black Chrysler New Yorker, appearing briefly in streetlight, always shrouded in a suit. He worked in the secret depths of a nuclear plant, thirty miles away, a glowing futuristic fortress surrounded by high walls. The family was from way up north, somewhere between Pennsylvania and the North Pole, where the world froze into a solid block of ice for months on end and people lived half their lives indoors. But now, in the teeming Southern air, the transplanted boys were growing, faster and faster, so fast their mother reputedly had to keep two industrial freezers in the garage, one for milk, the other for meat—hot dogs, chickens, turkeys, and hams; pork chops, baloney, and liver; a thousand cuts of beef and strange bloody meats seldom eaten in our part of the world.
We were deep into summer and you could see the vines growing, winding around branches, sprouting bumps and barnacles and woody boils that would fester until they could stand it no more, then break out into red and purple. It was night and the Wild boys hooted in their shrubbery. They wore dirty cutoff jeans. They carried knives and BB guns and homemade bombs. I could smell their weird metallic sweat drifting on a breeze that rustled through the honeysuckle. The Wild boys had dug tunnels under the ground. They had filled the treetops with catwalks. They whirred from tree to tree on zip lines and hopped from attic windows out into the bustling night.
I crouched in the bushes in Mama’s green chiffon evening gown, wearing my crown of bird skulls. I’d collected the skulls for two years, spray-painted them gold, and glued them to a Burger King crown, along with fake emeralds and glowing shells of June bugs. Thin, long hair tickled my spine. My Barbie binoculars were crap, and I’d smashed them with a rock. I was on the lookout for Brian, the oldest Wild, who sometimes left his den to smoke. I was deeply in love with him. Every time I saw him, reclining in his plastic lawn chair, pouting in dark sunglasses, my heart twisted like a worm in the cocoon of my chest.
My father taught medieval history at the community college. I’d found a recipe for an ancient love potion in one of his books, and inside a purple Crown Royal pouch, buried under an assortment of amulets, I’d placed a fancy perfume bottle full of the magical fluid.
Lightning bugs bobbed in the rich air. Crickets throbbed. A fat, bloody moon hung over the house of the neighborhood alcoholics. I heard the click of the sliding glass door that led to Brian’s lair, and he came out into the night, pulsing with beauty and mystery. His hair was long, wild, and black. He’d shaved his beard into a devil’s point. You could tell by the way he sighed and flopped around that he dreamed of better places—glamorous and distant, with a different kind of light. Because of him I’d taken up smoking. I stole butts from my mother and kept them in a sock with a pink Bic, Tic Tacs, and a tiny spray can of Lysol. I fantasized about smoking with Brian: Brian leaning over to light my cigarette, our sensuous exhalations intertwining, Brian kissing my smoky mouth. My longing pulled me over the invisible boundary into the Wilds’ honeysuckle-choked yard. I was in their habitat, sniffing ferret musk and a thousand flowers, when a hand slipped over my mouth. It smelled of onions and dirt. A small, hot body pressed against my back.
“Don’t make a sound,” said a boy.
“We’ve got knives,” said another. They snatched my wrists and twisted them behind my back. Other boys came out into the moonlight, and Brian slipped inside the house, tossing his cigarette butt behind him.
“Stand up,” a boy said.
Their chests glowed with firefly juice. They had steak knives strapped to their belts and some of them wore goggles. White cats strolled among them, sometimes sniffing their bare feet. “Move,” yelled a small Wild, no older than six, a butter knife dangling from his Cub Scout belt. They pushed me toward a crooked magnolia. In the sweet, knotty dark of the tree, they’d nailed boards for climbing, and they forced me up, higher and higher, the gauze of my skirt catching on branches, until we reached their tree house, a rickety box with one window that framed the moon. Two boys squirmed around me to climb in first. They lit a stinking kerosene lantern that sat on a milk crate. They flashed their knives at me. One of the boys prodded my butt with a stick and said, “Get in.” I climbed up into the creaky orange glow of the tree house.
Five Wilds surrounded me with glares and grimaces. A cat poked its white head through the window and stared at me. Birds fluttered and fussed in the branches.
“Give Ben the signal,” said the biggest boy in the room, whose name, I think, was Tim. “He knows how to deal with spies.”
“Spies?” I said.
“Shut up. Don’t talk. You’re on our property.”
One of the boys opened an old medicine cabinet that was mounted on the wall beside the window. Inside were several ordinary light switches and a doorbell. He pressed the doorbell.
“What are you?” said the little Wild, staring dreamily at my crown.
“Shut up,” said Tim. “Don’t speak to the prisoner. She’s got to be interrogated.”
Something heavy jumped in the branches then and shook the tree house. A flashlit mask of a wolfman appeared at the window, sputtering with evil cackles. He was copying somebody on television, though I couldn’t quite place the laugh.
“What have we here?” said the wolfman. “A princess?”
Two boards beneath the window opened and the wolfman squeezed through a primitive secret door. He closed the narrow door behind him and stood before me in karate pants and a black bathrobe too big for his skinny body. He wore no shirt under the robe, and a live garter snake twirled around his pimply neck. I thought I knew which Wild he was but I couldn’t quite remember the face under the mask. He sat on an overturned plastic bucket, elbows on his knees, and gazed down at me through his mask, a cheap Halloween thing with molded plastic hair. The wolfman had a silly widow’s peak, a hard fat beard, and vampire fangs that looked like buck teeth.
I sat on the floor, feeling dizzy in the press of boys. They smelled of stale biscuits and fermented grass. Their hair was oily, and Kool-Aid stains darkened their greedy mouths.
“We’ll have to search her,” said the wolfman, plucking a cigarette from his robe pocket. There was a small mouth hole in the mask, and the wolfman inserted his cigarette into it. His brothers licked their lips as they watched him light it with a silver lighter. The wolfman took an awkward puff.
“Gimme one,” said the little Wild, but no one paid him any attention.
“She’s got something hidden under her skirt,” said the wolfman, pointing with his cigarette at one of my secret pockets.
They stuck their filthy, gnarled hands into the soft film of my skirts, snatching my treasures from me: my lipsticks, my notebook, my voodoo doll of mean old drunk Mrs. Bickle. The wolfman tried to read the notebook, but he couldn’t understand my special language. He pulled objects from my purple pouch and picked through my magic things.
“Quit squirming,” hissed Tim, pinching my nape, looking for the nerve that would paralyze me.
The wolfman examined my amulet for night flying, a big gold medallion with a luna moth Shrinky-Dinked to the front. He opened my power locket and dumped the red powder onto the floor. I think he was smirking under the mask. His eyes gleamed, wet and meaty behind the dead plastic.
He found my love potion buried deep in the pouch, wrapped in a gauzy violet scarf, and held the soft bundle in his palm, squeezing it and cocking his head. Slowly, he unraveled it. He examined the perfume bottle in the lamplight, mouthing the word on the label: Poison. I don’t think he understood that it was the name of a perfume. And the sight of this word, printed so precisely on an old-fashioned bottle filled with dark algae-green liquid, as though packaged by goblins, must have unsettled him. Poison was my mother’s perfume. When she dabbed it on her pulse points, she made a mean face in the mirror, as though going out into the night to kill. The summer after my brother died, I’d seen my mother flee a noisy neighborhood party to rush into the arms of a strange man; they’d fallen into uncut grass. The man had moaned as though he’d been poisoned.
Now the wolfman unscrewed the cap. My love potion filled the tree house with goats and tortured lilies. He shuddered and put the cap back on and turned his wet eyes away. His brothers groaned. According to the ancient recipe, just smelling the potion was dangerous, though I’d had to make substitutions with modern ingredients, and I knew this had weakened the brew.
“That smell,” said the wolfman, turning to look at me. “It made me gag.”
“It won’t hurt you,” I said. “It’s not really poison.”
“Make her eat it then,” said the brother with the cowlick and bulldog eyes.
I tried to squirm away but the Wilds were on me, this time binding my wrists with fishing line. The wolfman knelt near me, holding the bottle in his fist. I could smell his scalp. The snake on his neck lifted its head to look at me and opened its velvety pink mouth. Its fangs were too little to see, but I could imagine them—clear as diamonds, wet and sparkling sharp. The wolfman daubed a green droplet on his fingertip and pushed it toward my lips.
“Lick it,” he said. “If it’s not poison.”
I turned my face away, and the Wilds pressed around me, flashing their knives and grunting.
“Lick it, lick it, lick it,” they chanted.
My tongue felt parched and gross. It slithered out and tasted the drop. I closed my eyes to block their faces from my mind and tried not to swallow. I would hold the poison in my mouth and spit it out when they let me go. I thought of Brian, reclining in his lawn chair, but the image of the wolfman billowed up in my head. Hunched in his bathrobe, laughing his midnight-TV laugh, he staggered through the twisted branches.
I kept away from the Wilds after that and did not spy on them and grew two inches and learned how to talk to birds. My father had ordered a Xeroxed copy of a book so ancient that a library in England had to keep it in a special tank. This book was full of useful information: how to communicate with animals, how to make your own cough medicine, how to keep the devil from visiting your bed at night. It also contained love potions, but when I came to these passages I skipped over them with a beating heart. When school started, I spent hours in fluorescent-lit classrooms, breathing disinfectant and chalk and the smell of warm, young bodies shut up. Two groups of girls wanted me as a friend, and I jumped between them, keeping my independence. Ben Wild was two grades ahead of me. At school he ran with bad boys and lurked under stairwells and slipped off to McDonald’s for lunch. Sometimes I saw him slinking down the hall in the silent in-school suspension line, guarded by Mrs. Beard, a mammoth woman with a face like a sunburned fist.
Ben had a thick, pubic unibrow, and his mother couldn’t keep his black curls tamed. Tucked into the nest of his hair was a strange acne-scarred face with glowing green eyes and slick, pimento-red lips. Sometimes we locked eyes at school. He’d laugh at me and say, sarcastically, “There goes the fairy princess.” He was always making nasty remarks to his friends. People whispered that his mother was pregnant again—with twins, triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets. They invented terms for outlandish broods, like megaduplets, and referred to the Wild boys as “the litter,” “the pack,” or “the swarm.”
In health class we watched creepy, outdated films on lice, scabies, menstruation, scoliosis, and drug mania. I saw cartoon bugs burrowing under the soft skins of children, leaving red maps of infection. I saw pretty girls transform into twisted, tragic creatures who hobbled down school hallways in back braces. I saw hippie chicks dance ecstatically in throbbing psychedelic light, only to hurl themselves out of windows. Womanhood was bound up with disease. Ecstasy led to bashed-open skulls and the apocalyptic wail of police sirens. Parasites lurked everywhere: little bloodsuckers hopping into your hair; big perverts with candy and needles. But the disease of puberty had already touched me. My right nipple swelled and turned darker, while my left was still small and pink. My mother laughed when I asked for a bra, and my deformity was visible beneath three shirts.
One day Ben Wild called me Cyclops. The name spread through our school like lice. I vowed revenge and took to my spell books and started watching the Wild house again.
I learned that Brian had an older girlfriend from the neighborhood, a dental hygienist, which was fine with me because I didn’t love him anymore. I learned that the rumors were true. Mrs. Wild was pregnant. And she had a nervous breakdown every Wednesday evening after picking up three of her sons from midget football practice and allowing them to gorge on ice cream. I learned that Mr. Wild sometimes lingered in his car for thirty minutes before venturing into the house. And most important, from the chatter of his brothers, I learned that Ben wore his wolfman mask every month on the night of the full moon.
I had several theories: Ben fantasized about being a wolfman; Ben had told his little brothers, years ago, that he was a wolfman, and he kept up his ruse to control them with fear; Ben donned the wolfman mask as some kind of deep, ironic joke. But no one in his family seemed afraid of the wolfman mask. While out in their yard his brothers never said much about it, simply commenting, in September, when the full moon came, that it was “wolf night” again. And Ben went about his activities as though everything were normal: taking out the garbage, bumming cigarettes from Brian, shooting hoops with Tim.
In October a hurricane swept through our town. Before the storm I saw Ben in his backyard, standing in the weird sulfurous light with wind whipping through his hair. Something flickered through me, and I wanted to join him, to snuggle in the hectic, stinking warmth of the Wild pack. But Mama screamed out the back door, and I ran inside our lonely house. Daddy made us sit in the pantry, where he told stories of green knights and enchanted ladies as Mama rolled her eyes and the storm lashed at our roof. My father was getting plump. His pale, clammy skin sometimes broke out into rashes. I knew all of his stories, word by word. I knew every sarcastic phrase in my mother’s repertoire, and the contents of her closet no longer fascinated me. I was sick of my parents’ faces and hungry for new life. Into the dark blinking windows of my dreams, Wild boys would sometimes scramble. They’d run howling through our house, kicking over end tables and smearing mud on our wall-to-wall carpet. They’d tear doors off hinges and let night storms fly through our house.
Our power was out for four days. Houses glowed with candlelight. Children ruled the dark chaos, and the Wild boys prowled the battered neighborhood with guns and knives. On the third day Tim Wild came to our back door and told us his parents were having a cookout. Their freezer of meat was going to go bad; the whole block was invited.
It was a warm day and autumn mange patched the ragged trees. Smells of charred meat floated through the neighborhood; a million gnats had hatched in the muggy air. It was weird to see Mr. Wild out in daylight, cooking on their rusty grill, so tall, so skinny and pale, his shiny square of hair gone bristly like the coat of a dog. He hunched over the spitting meat, grinning with long teeth. He wore glasses. His ancient jogging suit had faded to a strange purple, and sweat dripped from the stubbled point of his chin. Children whispered that he was too smart to talk, that nothing he said made sense, that he had false teeth and a robot eye and a creepy vampire accent. His wife looked worn-out, fussing with paper napkins that kept blowing all over the yard, mustard stains blotting her massive poly-knit bosom. The boys looked exactly like Mr. Wild. Children said he’d planted his evil clones directly into her belly, and now another one was growing down in the warm, dark wet.
The Wild boys looked like they hadn’t bathed since the storm, and they ran around the yard with gristly bones in their fists. They had been gobbling meat all day, and their mouths were slick with blood and grease. They’d darkened their faces with charcoal. They whizzed through the treetops; their heads popped up from secret holes. Immune to their mother’s screams, they cackled and smacked, lunged at heaped platters, stabbed morsels of flesh with the tips of their knives. White cats jumped on the picnic table and carried whole pork chops into the trees.
There was nothing to eat but meat and white bread that turned to pure sugar when it hit your spit. There were no forks left. I fixed myself a plate and took it to Brian’s lawn chair. I had a blistered wienie and a steak, black on the outside but raw and oozing inside. I had a hot dog bun infested with ice. I ate the steak with my hands, and warm blood dripped down my throat. Gnats landed on my cheeks to lick sweat with their invisible tongues. I ate more meat: crumbly, dry hamburger and fatty pork loin and chunks of bitter liver; gamy lamb and slippery lumps of veal. I gnawed at the stubborn tendons of turkey legs and savored sausage that melted like candy on my tongue. I nibbled minute quail with edible skeletons and sucked tender feathers of flesh from roasted ribs. The sky flushed pink and I ate as the boiling sun sank. I ate until my paper plate dissolved in my hands. When I finally came out of my cannibal trance, the moon was up, rolling like a carcass on the spit of its axis. And Ben Wild was staring at me through the sliding glass door that led to his brother’s den. He was wearing his wolfman mask, as I should have expected, though I’d forgotten all about the full moon, and he startled me with his goofy monster face.
Adults murmured near the dying grill. They were drinking beer. My mother’s sarcastic laughter drifted across the sea of withering honeysuckle, and I knew my father had already skulked home to bed. I peered through the door of the den and saw shapes moving in candlelight. A boy barked. The door slid open all by itself, and I suspected that one of the Wilds had pulled it with a string. Or maybe the little smart-asses had rigged up something more complicated.
I walked into the room and the door closed. There were animals in there, filtering the air with their strange lungs, pumping out musk and farts. Ben sat on a small velour couch in the corner, wearing his karate ensemble. A ferret dozed on his neck. White cats eyed the weaselly beast as they slunk around. Three Wild boys stalked the room with knives, obsessed with being near their older brother. They’d made a pile of bones on Brian’s dresser. Candles flickered on the floor, bleeding wax onto ancient shag. I took a deep breath of moldy air.
“Where’s Brian?” I asked.
“With his girlfriend,” said Ben, and his brothers snorted and made kissing noises.
“We’re taking over his room,” said Tim. He threw his knife at a cat and metal clattered against the dark paneled wall.
“I’ve got to go,” I said, though it would have hurt me to leave the room.
“Wait,” said Ben. “I wanted to tell you something.”
“Get out of here, you assholes,” he said.
“Make us,” said Tim.
Ben stood up, and the boys ran toward a corner. In the dark, I could just make out a flight of steps with a wrought-iron banister. The brothers crawled up and down the stairs, neither leaving nor staying, snickering and coughing and slapping each other. The ferret leaped from Ben’s shoulder and slithered under the bed.
“I wanted to tell you I was sorry about the thing, you know,” Ben whispered. “The name I called you. I didn’t mean for it to get around like it did.”
“Whatever,” I said. My cyclopean breast burned above my mortified heart. I pulled my jean jacket tightly around me. “Forget it. Don’t say another word about it.”
The wolfman’s stupid expression didn’t change, but his eyes, wet behind the plastic, fluttered over my chest.
“I was just having a bad week,” he said. “You don’t have any brothers or sisters, do you?”
I told him I didn’t.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “All that privacy. Sometimes I think I’m going crazy. They never leave me alone. But when Brian goes to college next year, I’m moving down here.”
“It’s a cool room,” I said. “You can come and go whenever you want.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Want a cigarette?” He pulled a pack of Marlboros from his robe pocket. He made room for me on the couch and I sat down. The couch was small and I could feel his body, hot beside me. I could smell the dark yellow musk of the ferret that had been sprawling on his neck. When I leaned in to light my cigarette, I caught the tang of wine on Ben’s breath, and I wanted to drink wine too, from a silver goblet, deep in the secret tunnels the Wild boys had dug under the ground, or high in the treetops, where clouds oozed through prickly branches.
“Give me some wine,” I said.
“What?” The wolfman cocked his head.
“I smell it, and I want some.”
“No problem.” He produced a jug from a laundry basket overflowing with dirty socks.
We sat drinking wine and smoking. White cats paced. We didn’t speak, and a beautiful, sweet evil grew between us.
“How deep do your tunnels go?” I whispered to him.
“To hell,” he said and laughed his television laugh. “One of these days I’m going to take my little brothers down there and sell them to the devil.”
On the staircase a Wild boy gasped, but the others giggled.
“I wish I had brothers—or sisters.”
“Oh no.” Ben shook his head. “You don’t.”
“I do. At night, when my parents fall asleep in their chairs, I feel so lonely I wish a spaceship would swoop down and kidnap me.”
“I feel exactly the same way.” Ben’s voice broke. He cleared his throat. “Only worse, more desperate, with a swarm of little gnats always bothering me. And my mother . . . sometimes she calls me Brian, sometimes Tim. I know it’s just a slip of the tongue, but still. And now she’s going to have another one.”
His eyes rolled behind the plastic and I felt the damp meat of his palm resting on my hand. Our fingers intertwined and the air pulsed around my ears. This was what it was like to hold hands with a boy. I’d never done it before. There was a film of sweat between our palms and the position I was frozen in felt uncomfortable.
The sliding glass door opened by itself, and the smell of dying charcoal drifted in from the night. The full moon hung over the Bickles’ rotten roof, spilling its silver.
“Where are all the parents?” I asked, but Ben didn’t answer me. He dropped my hand and let out a deep moan that made my stomach clench. He shot up from the couch and staggered around on the carpet, fingering his wolfman mask and groaning. Ben Wild fell to his knees. He lifted his head to the moon and barked. Then an ancient, afflicted howl rocked through his body and ripped the quiet night open.
He clambered around on all fours, trotting toward me, growling and spitting, and I wanted to dissolve into the couch. He sniffed my sneakers and licked my left ankle and whimpered like a dog. I was wondering if I should run or try to pet him, when he stood up and loomed over me, the air behind him darkening as a cloud passed over the moon. He shook with demented laughter. Then the night went white, and he tore the mask from his face.
His brothers shrieked and clambered to the top of the stairs. A door slammed, and I knew that I was alone with the wolfman, with all his fury and frustration.
Ben’s acne had broken into bloom. His face glowed with an eerie bluish luster, and I thought that maybe his father had brought nuclear radiation home in his clothes. Zits swarmed like fire ants on Ben’s brow. Purple pimples glistened like drops of jelly on his cheeks. Fat whiteheads nestled behind the wings of his nose. Only his eyes and lips had escaped the infection.
Ben sat beside me, holding his mask in his hands. “The moon controls the tides,” he said, “and brings poison boiling to the surface of my skin. But tomorrow I’ll be a normal boy again. I swear.”
I didn’t know what to say. Some of his pimples were seeping yellow drops.
“The family curse.” Ben winced. “My father had it, and his father before him. Whoever gets it always ends up having lots of sons.” He rolled his eyes again and forced a laugh. A complex blush lit up his zits.
He took my hand and I let him hold it. His hand looked completely normal, warm and smooth and brown, pretty enough to bite. I could feel the moon licking at my skin with its magnetic light. I wondered if it was true that the moon moved the blood of women. I wondered if mysterious clocks, ancient and new, had started to tick within me. Ben leaned toward me. I threw my head back and vamped for his kiss. I’d spent a hundred nights dressed up in gowns and makeup, kissing stuffed animals, and my lips felt fat and sweet. But the hot suction cup of his mouth hit my throat, and he bit me, digging his braces into the soft skin of my neck. When I swatted him off, he laughed like a hoodlum and scratched his chin.
“I’m a wolfman,” he said sarcastically, as though that explained everything. He shrugged and lit a cigarette.
Through the stinging wound on my neck, Ben’s slobber trickled into my bloodstream. I waited. I felt a slight burn when the poison hit my heart. Acid rose to the back of my throat. The taste of dead animals filled my mouth. Wild hope and withering despair tainted the meat, the craziness of animals shut up. The poison was in my body now, changing me, making me stronger and meaner.
I reached for Ben’s cheek and stroked a mass of oily bumps. My fingertips drifted along his jawbone and tickled the triangular patch of downy skin under his chin. He closed his eyes like a lizard in a trance and swallowed. I pressed my lips to his neck. I tried not to laugh as I licked the tendon that ran from his collarbone toward his jaw. Ben groaned and grabbed my elbow. His ears smelled like cinnamon. When I stuck my tongue into the silky cranny beneath his left earlobe, he bucked. I could feel the pulsing of intricate muscles and secret glands. I could feel veins throbbing with fast blood. Finding the spot I’d been searching for, I gnawed it gently until breaking the skin and tasting copper. Then I bit him harder with my small, sharp, spit-glazed teeth.
Julia Elliott’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, the Georgia Review, Conjunctions, Fence, Puerto del Sol, Mississippi Review, Best American Fantasy, and other publications. She has won a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award. Her novel The New and Improved Romie Futch will be published by Tin House Books in 2015, and she is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species that she has studied as an amateur primatologist. She teaches English and women’s and gender studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband. She and her spouse, John Dennis, are founding members of Grey Egg, an experimental music collective.