The Jaws of Life | Lydia Trethewey

People don’t want selectively bred cabbage, but they’ll buy designer dogs.

The Jaws of Life

By Lydia Trethewey

For the RAT IN A CAGE Award


A tiny gleam of light seems to emanate from the bars of my cage. I squint against the darkness, pen tracing invisible arcs across the fragile paper. The concrete floor chills my body, and an empty space stretches out behind my back through a blackness I cannot touch. Somewhere in it Bathsheba stirs, her powerful flanks pacing out a steady circle. I smell the dampness of her breath and the phrase ‘jaws of life’ rises from my tired brain. For me the words have always conjured images of mighty beasts, tearing flesh from their prey as sustenance for the overwhelming force of their life.

But I’ve not yet introduced myself, dear reader. You’ve doubtless heard my name, tossed about on the lips of the righteously indignant. My pasty face and watery eyes newsroom fodder to fill the gap between the immigrant fear-mongering and the banality of ‘neighbours from hell.’ I can almost hear the reporter asking, is this Australia’s sickest man? Swallowed in the reek of excrement and the ripe tang of a newly dead dog, I wonder that I am.

I am Wendell Lambert, and if you’ve missed my fifteen seconds of infamy put this memoir down and spare my memory. For as I scratch these words laboriously on the tender skin of toilet paper, I do not seek to defend myself, only to apportion my shame so you might pause on your way to condemn me.

The name Wendell was my mother’s choice. It means wanderer, or seeker, and proved an ill-fitting label for a boy with a persistently sickly countenance not entirely born of hypochondria. My mother wanted to give me the world to explore, and over the years I watched mutely as her hopes fell away from her aging eyes and bunched sadly beneath them. I do not want your pity, dear reader, only to divulge the substance of the man you despise so you might see that what I made of my life was not carried by intention but was awash with meek acceptance.

Huddled on the floor of the cage, the stale stench of urine fills my mouth and all around is the mournful whimper of puppies. I feel the rumble of Bathsheba as she rolls the idea of me backwards and forwards across her tongue.

When the journalistic vultures descended I was taken unawares. The tip-off came from a client who had come to me for a dog, a woman named Bebe Klein. She’d had jewels clasped to her throat and a kale juice in one hand, and as she sniffed between cages of pure-breds she told me without a hint of irony that she was avoiding all GM foods. That’s the way it is. People don’t want selectively bred cabbage but they’ll buy designer dogs, bent out of shape through generations of inbreeding. The oblivious owner of the pure-bred fawns over the handsome coat whilst ignoring the warped skeletons and straining organs beneath. Inevitably, suffering manifold maladies, the pure-bred that was brought cruelly and selfishly into the world makes a hasty exit.

Dear reader, don’t think I’m trying to shirk from my actions. I played the part, the seller leading waif-like women and stallion men around cages of dachshunds, poodles, German shepherds. I wish only that some of my guilt be shared with the beautiful people who want beautiful animals, people like Bebe who have protected themselves with a veneer of ignorance from which such accusations slide off.

It would be misleading though to suggest that the media vilified me because of the dogs. No no, it was the cats that struck their interest. My first import was a savannah cat, a striking, limber creature. She sparked in a few of my buyers a lust for the exotic, and there followed a booming trade in servals, ocelots and caracals. And my prize, my love, Bathsheba. It pains me to think of her passing into uncaring hands. The thought scratches its way into my brain like a fever.

The back of this cage runs deeply like a tunnel through a mountain. Blind in the dark basement, I hear the whisper of an alpine wind beckoning the powerful legs of a great beast. Water trickles slowly down the rounded walls of my imagination, divulging an earthy scent. A fathomless, salivating hole opens up, one that leads inwards and outwards towards freedom.

Now I’m crawling on all fours, memoir forgotten, thoughts panting and rasping towards the cave. The concrete floor becomes grittier, littered with small stones, cold to the touch. I hear the sway of faraway trees, taste boundless clouds. A deep indulgent purr greets me at the threshold. In the gloom a flicker of stripes, white peaks opening around a bottomless hole.

I open my arms wide and welcome the jaws of life.

Navigation: Short Stories | Lydia Trethewey Feature Interview | Stories Lydia Trethewey | Lydia’s Website