I sit at a distance and watch Layla digging purposefully in the dirt. She selects stones, tangled globules of hair, twigs and leaves and places them on the ground around her, as if to remember where they fit in an elaborate jigsaw. An hour passes. The trench she’s made is irregular in shape, surrounded by its innards like some war zone bomb crater. She sits back on her heels observing her handiwork, humming softly.
Layla’s hair shines black as patent leather, hangs soft as a cats, tickling the top of her shoulders. Her skin is the yellow of autumn moonlight; it gleams, pores always open as if breathing deeply. She has arms and legs slightly too short for her body with over large ears and wide apart eyes. Everything about her is a touch too much or a touch too little for comfort.
Although she doesn’t look at me, she knows I’m here. We walk, sit and wait, like shadows of each other. She leans forward, selects a tangerine- sized stone from among her debris and licks it clean. Grit sticks to her gums, mud oozes out of the corner of her mouth. Within seconds the stone is bone white.
She places it at the centre of her trench and begins the usual process of systematically returning to the hole everything she has removed. Another hour goes by. I shiver with the chill of sitting still for too long in the shadow of a tree. When she’s filled the trench, scarcely a scar remains of the earth’s recent surgery.
A breeze stirs the air, the scent of honeysuckle carries. Her nostrils quiver as she raises her face skyward for an instant. I long to know her thoughts, as sharply as her parents wish they could forget this mystery sent to them late in life. She does not play in the pink and polished nursery, preferring the outdoors to her mountain of toys. She will not speak in sounds recognized by the human ear. She carries her eight years heavily, even in sleep.
Most afternoons we go to the river. Layla sits and watches the water but her ears are tuned elsewhere. A few days ago I noticed them twitch slightly. She didn’t alter her position or make a sound but it was as if she was listening to something far off. I looked but there was nothing to see until, eventually, Layla turned her head slowly and stared up the riverbank. I followed her gaze. In the distance, on the towpath, a woman was pushing a wheelchair towards us.
Layla jumped up and ran towards the approaching figures, slowly at first and then with great acceleration, as if there was true urgency to it all. The women stopped walking, startled at Layla’s approach but the girl in the wheelchair smiled. As I caught up with them, her eyes glittered with recognition.
Layla took hold of the girl’s hands; their eyes locked. The woman, too shocked to speak, looked to me for an explanation. I had none. We waited, odd chaperones, as the girl uttered guttural sounds that I couldn’t grasp and Layla hummed a soft tune. There’s no adequate way to describe the strangeness of the scene but gradually they seemed to find a common pitch in their voices. They held the sound for longer than should have been possible.
I rocked back on my heels, almost mesmerized. The woman turned away, suddenly jerking the wheelchair and the girl’s blanket slipped. She had webbed feet. The woman lurched the chair around and fled back up the towpath, nipping one of my heels with a wheel. Blood spurted out in a small arc as the pain swooped up my leg and I fainted.
When I came around a small black dog, with brown tufts around its eyes and legs, was licking my neck. Its eyes were honey; they looked inside and beyond me. Woman and wheelchair were gone. Layla sat placidly with her back towards me, gazing towards the river. I moved closer to her. She was pale and drained and didn’t want me near. The dog sat beside her and they leaned into one another, panting rhythmically. There was a remarkable similarity in their outlines as they were silhouetted against the sun. After that day the dog came and went regularly. It gave the impression that it could never be owned by anyone but it always seemed to know when Layla needed its company.
Some time later, Layla ran away from me in the woods. I searched for nearly an hour, calling her name until my throat ached. The dog arrived silently and led me to her. She was perched in a tree where she’d built a large nest out of twigs, feathers, leaves and mud. She sat there smiling as if she might be incubating eggs.
One day I watched her in the large greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens amid the exotic blooms. She sat on her haunches, chin cupped in her hands. Large droplets of moisture gathered on her eyelids, upper lips and hair. She sat for almost an hour as visitors came and went, stared at, commented on or ignored her. In her stillness she was like an alien organism.
This afternoon I’m taking her to the zoo. I wash her hands and face gently and look into eyes that are turned inwards. On the bus she presses her face into the window, distorting her odd features even more. Some passengers notice her strangeness. They stare and whisper and I stare back. She once bit a too-nosey woman who kept touching her hair and cooing over her. The woman was horrified. Her face changed from goodwill to suspicious ugliness in seconds and she stared at me demanding sympathy or a reprimand for Layla; I offered neither.
Layla reluctantly holds my hand as we negotiate traffic and crowds. She pants heavily as we queue at the turnstile. The man ushering the tickets gawps openly at her; others keep a meaningful distance. I don’t mind open curiosity but what I see too often is fear.
As soon as we’re inside the grounds of the zoo, Layla lets go of my hand. There’s no revulsion, it’s just not what she wants. She stands on her tiptoes and leaps into the air, head thrown back as far as it will go. Her nostrils bulge as she absorbs all the scents and aromas. I wait to see which direction calls her. She decides on the seals.
We stand overlooking the water, crowded up against other visitors. Cameras click impatiently, children squeal and parents ooh and aah. Layla is silent. I watch her watching, my usual occupation. We stay for over thirty minutes, by which time dozens of groups of spectators have come and gone. I begin to notice how casual and careless the visitors are. I wonder if this is what Layla sees. We leave after she’s slapped a boy who was about to throw chocolate to the seals. The notice is very explicit: DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS AS IT CAN BE DANGEROUS FOR THEM, but as far as I know, Layla can’t read.
We hurry through the snake house, she’s wide-eyed and worried, pressing her small body far away from the glass fronted cages and whimpering softly. As we emerge into the open air she reels a little, her eyelids droop. I put my arm around her, to steady her. She leans back on me breathing in great gasps. I stroke her hair, pleased for once, to be able to help. As her breathing slows back to normal she licks my hand, lightly at first and then more firmly. I have mixed feelings. I want to pull away and yet it’s contact of a sort and I don’t want to reject it. Her tongue is rough and my hand begins to tingle. She will break the skin if she doesn’t stop soon.
I kneel down beside her and she ceases her licking. She holds her small hand up to my lips. I understand that I’m supposed to reciprocate. I manage two small licks before I start gagging because on my tongue her skin feels like fur. All at once the dog arrives and knocks us both flying. He takes over from me, licking Layla vigorously. She laughs and gurgles. I feel sure I’ve failed some kind of test.
The dog disappears again as we reach the chimpanzee cage. Layla leans on the wire and stares. The animals are acting up for their visitors, dashing here and there, displaying swollen genitals. I bend down, her cheeks are damp with tears. Someone in the crowd starts throwing peanuts at the chimps. A banana follows then an orange and an apple. I glance at the faces around me, pompous and herd-like, they all join the game. Soon the back of the cage is littered with nuts and fruit and the animals have retreated.
The crowd stirs impatiently, beginning to get bored. Suddenly the chimps rush forward, screeching. They gather up armfuls of fruit and nuts and fling it back at the visitors. Children scream, parents pull them away, muttering angrily. Grins are quickly replaced by scowls, which the chimps instantly imitate. I wipe ripe banana off my coat. Layla still stands in the same position, the only one that hasn’t moved. A half-eaten pear rests on her shoe.
A young chimpanzee approaches. It stands virtually the same height as Layla and stares into her face. Chimp hands grip Layla’s hands and for several seconds neither move. Then the animal bends down and retrieves the piece of pear from her shoe. It cocks its head to one side, breaks of a lump of fruit and offers it to Layla. She takes it on her tongue and makes a big noise of eating it. The chimpanzee begins jumping up and down excitedly, swinging from the wire. Layla joins in the jumping.
Abruptly, the spell is broken; a keeper appears and bangs the cage with a large stick, sending the chimp scuttling away. Layla turns burning eyes on the man. He winces and tries patronizing us, flashing his identification in our faces.
‘Leave us alone,’ I snap.
Layla leans against me. Anxiety oozes out of her, dampening my coat. I get an overwhelming sense of time running out. This feeling increases as the dog appears. It walks close to Layla and gets on the bus with us. When the driver tries to remove it, the dog bares its teeth and growls. It won’t leave her.
Back at the house the dog circles the garden before curling up to sleep by the side of a tree beneath Layla’s bedroom window. Twilight approaches. I run a hot bath and make up her favourite supper: Cumberland sausage and mash. She won’t eat a bite. When I lift her into bed she’s shivering and her skin is clammy.
As usual, her parents come in to say goodnight. She smiles at them and they’re confused because she usually ignores them. They exchange puzzled glances. Later, I phone the doctor and describe Layla’s symptoms: shivering, loss of appetite, high temperature. He says it sounds like a chill and he will call the following morning. I press for an evening visit but he is not interested. I wonder if I should just take her to hospital. I ask her parents but they think the doctor knows best.
I sit next to her bed until after midnight. Her eyes are closed but I don’t think she’s sleeping. As I close her curtains, the dog is still curled up under the tree. I watch it for a while from my bedroom window but it doesn’t stir.
I wake early and am immediately anxious. The night has been too hot and heavy. I go to the window and look down into the garden. Layla is curled up on the lawn next to the dog. It looks up at me with those honey eyes and begins to howl, its nose pointing at the sky. I know, as I run down the stairs and through the house, that I’m too late.
A weakness in the lungs, the doctor says, inevitable with this condition, only a matter of time. The dog has gone and I feel completely alone in this room full of people. The next day I visit Layla's small coffin in the Chapel of Rest. The room is cold, impersonal. Canned music and plastic flowers add to the airlessness. They’ve dressed her in a white robe. From a distance she could be anyone’s child. I move closer and see the seams on the shoulders of the robe have come undone. I lean over her body to kiss her cheek, to say goodbye. A layer of dark fur has begun to push its way through the pores of her skin.