From the Archive: Rumpus Original Fiction: Mr. Burley


This was originally published at The Rumpus on December 11, 2011.

When I was still a crawling thing, and for some time after, I kidnapped lobsters. There were years my family gathered every Sunday evening—my aunts and uncles, my cousins—until the dinner became tradition, something especially ours. In my father carried the large brown paper bags on his shoulders, what would have been mistaken for his bottles had the bags not been thrashing.

The lobsters spilled out onto the tile kitchen floor. Brown, wet claws shining bright as quartz. Prizes. They moved up against the cupboards, the fridge—yes, they wanted to move. Where’s their home? I’d ask.


Why Maine?

Nothing good comes out of Florida.

The lobster eyes shifted like telescopes as I pet them, all ten of them, lining them up on my stomach until I chose a favorite. Mr. Burley, I’d whisper, you’re coming with me.

My favorite was usually the smallest, the most alive.

My favorite was always named Mr. Burley.

As soon as the kitchen emptied, as soon as the pots were filled with cool water, set on the stove, the pads of butter knifed into ceramic bowls, as soon the grown-ups moved out to the pool with their sloshing glasses, their cigars, I would pick up Mr. Burley by the middle, watch his legs dance in a non-human way that buoyed something inside of me, and hide him in my bedroom. Sometimes we would stay in the closet. Sometimes, beneath the bed. I would snap off Mr. Burley’s blue rubber bands and watch him battle the air. I wore the rubber bands as rings.

And then, soon enough, the voices. Never ready for them.

Where is Mr. Burley? Grown-ups in the hall, opening and shutting doors, knocking, knocking, always ruining everything.

Mr. Burley, on my chest, my lap, breaking the skin of my elbows, manically pinching, trying to scrape his way up the side of my dresser.

Beautiful, living thing.

Mr. Burley, Mr. Burley, where oh where can he be?

And then I’d be lifted, picked up by the torso, my own limbs whipping the dark of my bedroom. My father or my grandfather or my uncle, always a man doing the job, me clenched under one armpit, Mr. Burley under the other.

Time for Mr. Burley to join his family, okay?

But what if he doesn’t want to? What if he never did?

I could never watch him go into the pot. I heard the whistling, the high-pitched lobster squeals of my friends kicking up, up, inside of that water, but I could never watch. I laid down on the kitchen floor and listened and took it.

Once those lobsters turned ruby, the steam lifting off their bodies like heat on pavement, I could never quite tell who was who. Not for certain. There are no favorites amongst the dead.

I always ate whichever lobster I was given. I am obedient that way. I let the lobster juice spill out onto the newspaper until the black words bloated. I snapped open the chest with my hands, sucked and bit down every leg, smashed tail and claw and head with a wooden hammer.

I was taught that this, too, meant loving him.

Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.

T Kira Madden is an APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician. She is the founding Editor-in-Chief of No Tokens, and the author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. More from this author →