My kid says of our cat, which died this morning, “Maybe he’s reincarnated as a fly.”
I say, “Why a fly?”
We’re settling into his bed to read a bedtime story. Per the usual, the sheets are gritty from the sand he tracks in from the playground at school. I brush the bed off before sitting. I immediately get up again to pull his closet door all the way shut. Not for him, but for me. He asked me once, “Why are you doing that? You afraid there’s a monster in there?” “Of course not,” I said, “Incomplete things just bother me.” “You could open it all the way,” he said, “But you never do that.” “Then the mess in there would bother me,” I said. He seemed skeptical.
He looks at me skeptically now, too. “Do you even know what reincarnation is?”
“Of course I do,” I say.
“Why do you say ‘of course’?” he says.
“I’ve lived a long time. And I read a lot. I know a lot of words. Your mother’s pretty knowledgeable.”
“Have you been reincarnated?” he asks.
“I don’t know. Not that I’m aware of.”
“Well, I have,” he says. “Thirty-eight times. So I’ve lived longer than you and I’m more knowledgeable than you.”
He’s sitting up against his bedroom wall, his arms crossed in front of his chest. Serious as a dead cat on a pile of clean laundry. (My favorite pajamas on top. The softest flannel. My kid said, “Well, that is a good place to die.”)
“Thirty-eight times,” I say. “That’s a lot of lives. Were you ever a cat?”
He scrunches up his eyes. “Cats aren’t reincarnated as people. You can only go the same or smaller.”
“How do you know that?” I say.
“I told you. I’ve been reincarnated 38 times. I know things,” he says.
His father, Owen, used to say that every time he surprised me with some bit of trivia I’d never heard him mention before and I asked him how he knew it: “Like I’ve told you, I know things.” Somehow his saying that always made me feel safe, as though with nothing but what he possessed in his head, he could navigate us through any impediment.
“Why?” I ask my son. “Why only the same or smaller?”
My son has often said he wishes he were a cat. So he wouldn’t have to go to school. So he wouldn’t have to do chores. So he could just eat, play, sleep. Then I’d say, “But consider how little control Ganges has. He has to beg us to feed him.” My son would say, “That part sounds the same as being a kid.”
“I don’t know,” he says now. “That’s just how it is.”
Something about his not claiming to know rubs at me. Like Ganges licking, licking, licking the same worn patch of fur. If my son had a rationale, maybe my heart wouldn’t feel now like an overcooked slab of steak. Maybe I wouldn’t think irrational thoughts, like that breathing in the scent of Ganges in those flannel pajamas might infuse me with Owen.
My idiot brother said maybe it was a blessing that my son was too young when Owen died to remember him. I told him to keep his blessings to himself.
My son says now, “You’re sad. Are you worried about Ganges being reincarnated as a fly?”
I worry about so many things, ninety percent of which I will not discuss with my son, no matter how articulate and knowledgeable he is.
I say, “A fly is so small and vulnerable.”
My son crawls over to me, presents me with his kiss face. Lips so puckered the wet underneath of his lips show, too.
After he kisses me, he says, “You probably feel that way because you kill flies. Treat every fly like it could be Ganges, and you’ll feel better.”
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and many other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. www.michellenross.com