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The Antiseptic House

by Tamara Sheehan

This morning, when I went out onto the balcony with my coffee, I found a dead bird. It must have hit the window sometime between first light and ten, hit the window hard, and snapped its little neck, or broken its skull, because it was lying with its wings still out, as if someone had plucked it frozen from the sky.

Oh Christ, I though, and stooped to pick it up. If Cassie sees this she’ll be really upset.

Cassie, four years old and already the lady of the house. She’s grown into her role so fast that neither Adam nor I can believe it. When we look at the old Christmas photos, there she is, shyly looking at the camera, next standing with us, holding my clothes for support, and now, she’s a little lady all to herself.

She’s a handful, everyone knows when she’s in the house because she‘s constantly moving around. Some preternatural urge to clean seems to have been built into her, no pile of unfolded socks, no dust nor bug’s cocoon stands a chance against her. She never mentions it to us, never asks for approval, but we know how messy we were before Cassie, and can’t help noticing the change.

Right now she’s upstairs, probably wiping rain-tacks off the window, or checking the tub for soap residue. If we ask her about it, she says she wants us to be healthy, and dirt is anathema to that. I tell her anathema is an awfully big word.

Sometimes I hide from her. I like a little mess and so does Adam. Living in an antiseptic house can take its toll on you. It’s not natural for humans to suffer perfection, so sometimes I’ll lock the bedroom door and dump out the contents of my dresser and together Adam and I will roll, yelping, in the socks as if they were leaves.

I dream of the mess of autumn, specifically, the autumns of my childhood. Of twigs stuck in my hair, of mud on my boots, my mother’s exasperated sighs when I tracked into the bathroom and out again, totally unconscious of the organic trail left behind. Mud, leaves, twigs, bugs, all of it.

Cassie always knows when we’ve been playing. She cleans up as soon as Adam and I abandon the pile and run, laughing, chasing one another down the stairs. When we go back up to the room, everything is clean. Shirts are folded, socks matched, drawers fitted into their slots. As if the mess had never been. It’s deflating.

Cassie isn’t old enough to understand us yet, why we like a little mess, how a heap of socks on the floor is important to us. She’s a quick learner, but she’s not there yet. If I could explain to her, mathematically, perhaps, or with some sort of pie chart that any percent of mess that is less that fifty percent of total state of house actually gives us pleasure, I think she would change. We’d say she wants to, but the fact is, she’s programmed to make us happy. But neither of us has found a way to explain it so the AI will pick it up.

We can’t legally change the AI programming. It’s on par with tinkering in the brain of someone who scores under sixty on the old IQ tests: not OK. So we’ll have to wait and see when she picks it up. The manual said she’d learn the way that normal, human children learn. I hope that’s true.

She learned to speak and walk and dress herself, but she learned it all so fast. I know parents are constantly going on about “where did the time go” and “oh, look how she’s grown” but Cassie really did grow up quick. It’s the program. Neither Adam nor I thought we could possibly elect to change diapers or clean up vomit or go through that mess of childhood inoculations, teething, growth spurts, so we got a more expensive model. She passed all those awkward stages overnight. Now she’s four going on fifteen and a neat freak.

What bothers me about the bird is how angry Cassie will be. She’ll stand there, where the porch meets the door and jab her finger at me and the bird will be all my fault. “Why did you do that? I just cleaned out here yesterday.”

I can conceal the bird in one hand, it’s so small. Even with its wings out, it’s a tiny creature, a woodland sprite. its feathers are in perfect order, only a spot of congealed blood on the smooth, round head indicated some problem, unseen. The spot would bother Cassie to no end.

She cut down all the trees that used to line the balcony. Cherry trees, with pink petals like confetti. Their petals made mounds like snowdrifts in spring, pyramids of pink in corners and on rails. Too much mess. Too much effort.

The year she noticed the petals, we thought she’d work herself to death, had to read the warranty a few times to be sure she was still covered. She was out here with the broom and vacuum from dawn till dusk, every fifteen minutes, sweeping, vacuuming, looking up at the cherry tree full of its own pleasures and then down at the mess it made.

The next year, just as buds were swelling on the branch tips, she cut it down.

I worry sometimes, irrationally maybe, that she’ll grow tired of the mess in our bedroom, of the cast-off clothes, the unfolded laundry. The manufacturer said she’d learn from observation, but what she picks up is a mystery to us.

Where did she get the idea we liked to live in an antiseptic house? What made her think preventing the cherry tree from blooming would bring us more pleasure than the blossoms? I didn’t teach her that.

I look up when the patio door opens, guiltily holding the tiny, broken body in one hand. Cassie is there, with Adam, holding his hand and staring at me. She points.

“What’s that?”

“A dead bird. It hit the window this morning,” I tell her, nervously bending so she can look into my hand. Her expression softens. She reached out and strokes the little creature with one finger. I want to know what’s going on behind that face, what’s firing through those circuits. It’s like the picture on the box she came in, a family, together, the little one learning from mom and dad.

“What do you think?” I ask.

Cassie can’t take her eyes from the bird. “It’s perfect,” she says.

Copyright © 2005 by Tamara Sheehan

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