Quilled by Claire Hopple
The horde of porcupines began to form not long after Labor Day, when we were so freed up from our labors we forgot to feed them. Our children had insisted on baby porcupines as pets; everyone was getting them. And once one of us on the street got one, you knew the rest of us wouldn’t hear the end of it until we did, too.
Our children were suddenly holding these breathing balls of spikes; these sheltered sons and daughters of ours asked for and received living weapons, even if they were in miniature.
Their quills lay flat unless they’re threatened, our children explained. They’re just little babies, they cooed. But some of us were quilled in interesting places nonetheless, and we kept stepping on the shed quills in our bare feet in the night, just trying to use the bathroom. Mostly, we were getting tired of them because, scientifically (we stopped letting our kids do the research and did some ourselves), they were rodents. The third largest rodents in the world.
These baby porcupines grew up, and they were no longer baby porcupines but regular porcupines. It all seemed very strange. So we set them free to wander the sidewalks, climb our fenced-in trees, no less prickly than the rest of us, really.
We released them and we could hear children wailing from houses with cracked open windows like half-hearted sirens.
After the upheaval, they moved to the trees in our backyards that led to the woods, hanging from limbs, nibbling on bark. At night, they ventured out to Mrs. Grunewald’s lawn and ate the tips of her begonias, though no one had actually witnessed it. They made labyrinthine patches in the shrubs, but some of us thought they looked better that way.
We saw Ava and Tomorrow Jones talk over the fence sometimes. They lived right next door to each other. Mrs. Grunewald liked to overhear things but she didn’t have anything conclusive regarding an affair. They liked to talk about music, she said. She delivered an example conversation to some of us.
“You’d be surprised what can be used as instruments. How everyday items can be so percussive. So musical,” Tomorrow Jones supposedly said.
“It all sounds very resourceful,” Ava supposedly said back, leaning into the shared fence a bit more.
Ava’s husband, Roland, ignored Tomorrow Jones. But not completely. It was more like Roland would pretend to ignore him, we gathered. Like he might be jealous of him. Like he might think his wife was having an affair with him. We wondered too, of course, but like Roland, we did not actually want to find out. We didn’t want to be implicated in the alleged entanglement; we wanted simply to wonder about it.
We knew that Ava was writing her dissertation on American Society’s Response to Single Adult Females (or some outrageous title like that) when she met Roland. She couldn’t finish it because her fieldwork had been compromised. They always raved about their honeymoon out west. We could imagine their initial passion: the patter of their rinsed out bathing suits hanging over the resort shower curtain rod like a distant rain. Or like a clock’s sonorous insistence of time.
But Roland’s new job made him travel frequently and Ava didn’t like being alone. She would always talk about her runs through the neighborhood, how she always ran by the house with the high fence no one had seen behind. Every time, she heard what must be the clacking of dog claws against what must be a deck, following at the same pace as her, just being able to hear the breath and claws, not seeing, but feeling the dog’s attempted greeting.
Roland would call when she lie panting and stretching in the yard after her runs and the connection would be bad. She would end up talking very loudly to make up for it when he was driving through cavernous tunnels on a distant expressway.
“I can’t get through to you,” we would hear her say, still out of breath.
Tomorrow Jones had a limp. He acquired a cane with a sterling silver panther on top. The panther was frozen mid-leap, agile, much like Tomorrow used to be. He was older but still attractive. One of those guys that looked especially good with gray hair. We knew he was an artist or poet of some kind. We heard from Mrs. Grunewald that he was also a new adjunct professor at the university and only had one or two advanced workshops to cover. But there was also a rumor that he was retired and mowed lawns in graveyards to pass the time. We knew for sure that he received many packages in oblong shapes, which were left on his porch beside his front door for hours at a time. Tomorrow had a painted tin roof that dinged loudly when it rained.
The porcupines liked to moan and grunt in the trees behind the neighborhood. It would wake up some of us lighter sleepers. More disconcerting were the coughing sounds they would occasionally make. We thought there were extra phlegmy intruders in our homes at first. Our street was close to the hospital so we were already used to the whine of sirens. It didn’t take us that long to adjust.
Most of us stayed in during the winter. Someone would be telling one of us a serious, dramatic story when we really just wanted to go in from the cold, or put down our heavy grocery bags, or scratch our knee, but we would feel that was inappropriate during such a heavy story and as we weighed whether or not it was appropriate, our need ever increasing, we would have accidentally stopped listening to the important story. Which was way worse than knee scratching.
Then again, a few of us had stopped trying to converse with each other a long time ago. Instead, we would watch each other. Or we’d watch the old man who hunted through the garbage cans in the alley. Roland got into it with him one day and we couldn’t believe it. He’d just returned from a business trip and he confronted the guy about passing over his cans. He said the old man would spend a lot more time sifting through others’ garbage and would barely lift the lid on Roland’s or pass over it completely. Roland asked the guy if there was something wrong with his garbage. Supposedly, the man shrugged and said it was all filled with candy bar wrappers and he wasn’t interested in empty candy bar wrappers.
Ava had a flexible job so we wondered why she didn’t go with Roland on his trips. She didn’t want to leave, well, because, she didn’t want to leave. That was as articulate as she could be, at least to us.
We continued to hear whines and groans through the winter, which was replaced with a lot of shuffling in the summer. Then Mrs. Grunewald’s grandson, an aspiring zoologist, told us that during mating season, the male porcupine dances for the female, then sprays his urine over her head, aswirl with desire.
At the end of the summer, during rush hour, cars were stopped on the street. Our cars’ engines hummed in harmony, idling, one in front of the other. There were two fire trucks and a police car blocking the way. Our eyes grew sore from staring. We all hoped, individually in our own cars, that it wasn’t our house on fire.
It turned out to be the home of Tomorrow Jones. The fire was being investigated. The term “suspected arson” hung from our tongues like a fatty morsel. One of us knew the fire chief. The fire chief’s wife cut people’s hair in her basement, gave some people perms.
The eastern portion of his house was charred. It wasn’t all that bad. They got to the flames relatively quickly. But we saw the moving trucks shortly after. Ava gave him an intricately wrapped present before he moved, some sort of going away gift. We weren’t sure if it was out of pure kindness or love or if she was thanking him for leaving.
The house is being restored. We now hear hammers and humming equipment and loud, mechanized slams when we’re not hearing the porcupines. A double-jointed woman who wears a lot of Lululemon appears to be moving in. None of us have introduced ourselves yet.
Claire Hopple’s fiction is published in Monkeybicycle, Bluestem, Quarter After Eight, Timber, Hermeneutic Chaos, District Lit, Maudlin House, Third Point Press, Crab Fat and others. She’s just a steel town girl on a Saturday night. More at clairehopple.com.