A Menagerie of Grief

a dragon curled around a grave with a dog by his side
By Dario Bijelac

When my daughter’s chest fell and did not rise again, when her doctor looked at the monitors and shook her head, when it was over, really over, and still she lay there, my grief pushed its scaly head out of her chest.

My grief was a dragon, with scales of steel and eyes of flame. It barely fit in the room, and its breath was hot and wet.

“Shane, Will, I’m so sorry.” The doctor’s grief was a butterfly, joining the cloud of like insects that circled above her head. Some were flickering, soon to fade.

“Are you?” I asked.

“Will!” Shane said, in that sharp, behave yourself tone of his. He clutched his own grief, the clean white mass of shivering fur that’d been following him since the doctor told us there was nothing to be done. He had given up then, and we’d all known it, even Lexi, who’d spent the last days of her life seeing that damned dog at her father’s heels.

“I want to go home,” I said.

He looked not at me, but at my grief. “Where will we keep it?”

I looked at Lexi’s body. “Everywhere.”

They didn’t get along, Shane’s pretty little dog and my great ugly dragon. It was the dog’s fault. The way it pranced at Shane’s heels, so clean and appropriate, while my pain smoldered in the living room, curled around the couch where I’d taken to sleeping, its breath fogging up the windows. At night, the dog whined for hours. I could hear it pacing the bedroom, scratching at the door. Was it already trying to leave him? Maybe he only kept his grief for my sake. For the show of it.

And such a show he made. He took his grief to the funeral. The “remembrance celebration” as he insisted on calling it. He took it to Lexi’s boyfriend’s house, where it no doubt lay in her boyfriend’s lap and got its ears scratched. He had it at his heels when he greeted visitors, accepted flowers and food, cried and clasped hands.

I stayed on the couch, and my grief’s breath made everything dingy and faded.

“We can’t keep putting this off,” Shane said, weeks after we’d finished the last frozen casserole. He held the box of dust that had been my daughter, and his eyes searched the room like he’d just bought a new photo to hang. “I don’t think they’ll let us scatter ashes at the library, but–“

“I don’t care.” My grief pressed its nose against the box. It tried to breathe her in, while the dog at Shane’s feet growled and leapt, like it could rip through scales with those tiny flat teeth. My grief ignored it, dropping its head into my lap.

“We have to do something,” Shane said.

I ran my fingers over my grief’s scales. They had begun to rust, and the rough red patches looked like some sickly rash, another disease come under this roof.

“Do whatever you want.”

He gripped the box, knuckles white. The dog started howling again, that high, keening noise that’d grown so familiar in the dark.

“Can’t you shut it up?” I asked. “I never sleep, anymore.”

The dog tilted its head back and shrieked. I swear it did. A sound like falling. Like watching your child exhale for the last time. Shane didn’t even seem to notice. He was looking at my dragon.

“It doesn’t mean you loved her more,” he said, and his words were almost a whisper. “It just means you’re fucking selfish about it.”

He looked away, shoulders slumped, and the box slipped from his fingers, hitting the carpet. It fell sideways, the bag spilling out. For one long, shaking exhale, he froze. Then he turned and walked down the hall.

His grief followed, with a new, mangy ghost of pain at its side. I knew that shape, could see Shane leaving in the lines of its ribs. He always gave up first. I was the stubborn one. It’d been a good thing, once.

My grief’s breath was warm and wet on my back, and it smelled of salt and ash. I picked up the bag that had been our daughter and held it against my chest as my grief tore at me with rusty claws.

“Stop it,” I said, turning so we stood nose to nose. Its mirrored pupils reflected my bloodshot eyes. How ugly we’d become. “She’s gone.”

It isn’t that my grief grew less, as I faced it. Only, it took up less space. First chest high, then hip high, denser and brighter than it’d been before. The rust fell away, revealing a dragon of silver and gilt.

It could follow me, now. Down the hall and into the bedroom Shane and I had shared.

He was sitting on our bed, stroking his pair of griefs.

“I’m sorry,” I said, knowing it wasn’t enough. “I miss her.”

I sat beside him, and his first grief pressed its head into my hand. Its fur, though as soft as it looked, froze to my fingers. I’d never touched it, not in all the weeks that Shane cuddled it to his chest. My hand ached when it licked my fingertips.

“We all miss her,” he said.

“I know.” I rubbed feeling back into my fingers when his grief turned away and jumped from the bed.

“We’re not ok,” Shane said.

Our griefs circled each other in silence, stiff legged and wary. Shane’s second grief, the starved one, stayed in his lap.

“I know.”

He leaned into my shoulder, and I stroked his grief. It flickered under my fingers, shifting in and out of focus.

It flickered. It did not fade.

My dragon curled around his icy canine, licking its face with hesitant affection. They lay together, Shane’s grief sheltered under a silver wing.

I pulled Shane closer. Maybe we’d never be ok. But it didn’t matter. For now, he needed me.

Our griefs lay watching us, breathing as one.