Aphelion Issue 218, Volume 21
June 2017
 
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The End

by Martin Westlake





Adanna heard her mother hovering at the entrance.

"Adanna? Are you awake?"

"Of course, Mummy. What is it?"

"It's Elof," she said. "He's ill."

"Ellie?" said Adanna, wide-awake now. "What's wrong?"

"You'd better come down and have a look."

Adanna followed her mother down through the seven levels to Elof's cage.

"You see?" said her mother, pointing.

"Ellie," Adanna mewed. "Ellie, my darling. Where are you?"

"He's under that bush," said her mother. "Do you see?"

"Oh, yes. I see him now. What happened?"

"I don't know, my dear. He's been like that for ages. It's not normal, is it?"

"Ellie," Adanna mewed again, a little louder. There was no response. "What should we do?"

"We'd better call Asha."

"Yes, we'd better."

Asha had always been the family's vet. Indeed, Asha had helped the family choose Elof, when the young Adanna had first started pleading with her parents to get an animal. Being Adanna, it was not just any old pet. Asha had helped long-suffering Moa and Babak come to terms with their daughter's demand and then track down one of the very few specimens still available. He was reckoned to be about eighteen when they'd bought him and had been vigorous and violent. Once the cage was built and Elof had started to calm down, Adanna had started to decorate it in various ways to make Elof feel at home. It was she who'd planted the trees and bushes, including the one under which Elof was now lying, worryingly inert. Adanna stayed there, mewing to Elof, while Moa went off to call Asha and welcome her when she arrived.

Adanna leaned down into the cage and gave Elof a little prod. He opened his eyes very briefly but it seemed he wasn't seeing.

"Come on, Ellie," she said softly. "What is it? What's wrong?"


* * *

When Asha bustled in, they immediately felt better. She was always so business-like and dismissive of their worst fears, but in a friendly and reassuring way.

"Let me examine him first, and then I'll tell you what might be going on," she said. She went into the cage and took his pulse, then she opened his eyelids and shone a light into his eyes. Elof made no attempt to resist her. After a while, she came back out and asked them to explain what they had noticed.

"Well," said Moa, "as you know, he's been slowing down for quite a while."

"Have you been giving him his medicine?"

"Oh, yes," said Adanna. "Every day, just as you told us to."

"That's good," said Asha. "He's getting on a fair bit in his own terms and it's perfectly normal that his joints should start to stiffen up. That's what the yellow pills are for. In addition, there's that thyroid condition of his, but the other pills should be taking care of that. Now, tell me; what else have you seen?"

"It wasn't just that he slowed down," said Adanna. "It was as though he was becoming less interested in things."

"And he's completely gone off his food," Moa added.

"That's not good," said Asha, "but it can happen when there's an underlying condition."

"I sometimes wonder if he gets bored with the biscuits we give him," said Adanna.

"No, no," Asha reassured her. "You shouldn't think that. They're not like us. Elof gets all he needs--proteins, minerals, vitamins--from those biscuits."

"And is there an underlying condition?" Moa asked.

"Well, I can't find any physical condition, apart from old age," said Asha.

"So, what could it be?" asked Moa.

"You have to understand that animals like these are very highly strung. It's because they are so intelligent."

"You mean it could be some sort of psychological illness?"

"That's what I am beginning to suspect," said Asha. "So far, you've been very lucky with him, haven't you? He's never had any sort of mental problem, has he? No phobias, no breakdowns... Nothing like that."

"No," said Moa. "Never. In fact, we didn't even realize that such illnesses were a possibility."

"Well, you've always looked after him very well," said Asha, "and that's so important. All that affection and attentiveness from Adanna. You could see how much he appreciated that. Not to mention the exercise."

"He's always been a lovely animal," said Adanna. "So interesting."

Asha smiled.

"Not everybody is prepared to give them such love and affection," she said. "That's one reason why they became so rare as pets. In fact, Elof's the last one I know."

"And not everybody could afford to look after them," Moa added.

"That's certainly true," said Asha. "You've really spoiled him with that cage. It's huge."

"We wouldn't have built it if we hadn't thought he'd appreciate it," said Adanna.

"That's right, my love," said Moa.

"It's one reason why he has been in such good health," Asha explained. "Physical exercise is very good for them and he certainly hasn't wanted for space."

"So, what should we do now?" Adanna asked.

"There are two things I don't like," said Asha. "The first is the fact that he's not eating. That's not good, especially at his advanced age. If he doesn't eat, he'll soon grow very weak. The second is that he is not moving. Again, at his age that is not good news. If he doesn't get up and start moving around his muscles will soon wither, particularly in his legs. The two conditions together, if they continue, could be very bad news, and then there's the hygiene element to consider."

"It sounds worryingly like the beginning of the end," said Moa.

"It could be," said Asha, "but we shouldn't give up just yet. The important thing is to encourage him to start moving again. Once he does, his appetite will surely return. So your job, Adanna, is to try and coax him into getting up."

"But he doesn't seem to be conscious."

"Oh, he's conscious all right."

"You mean he can hear me when I talk to him?"

"Of course he can, Adanna. It's just that he doesn't want to listen."

Adanna turned to the cage and looked down at Elof.

"Ellie, you cheeky devil," she said. "You really fooled me, you know. I thought you were unconscious! Come on, get up, Ellie!"

Elof remained still.

"Come on, Ellie," Moa chimed, but Elof showed no sign of life and they could barely make out the gentle rise and fall of his chest.

"We'll set a target for him," said Asha. "The next time I come, I want to see him up on his hind legs, all right? I am fairly certain his appetite will return if we can get him moving. Could you take care of that, Adanna?"

"Of course!"

"It may take a while and, anyway, progress will be slow and gradual."

"What about that hygiene element you mentioned?" asked Moa.

"Well, until he does start to get up and look after himself again there'll be some nursing to do."

"You mean cleaning him?"

"That's right."

"I don't mind doing that, Mummy," said Adanna. "It's the least I can do after all the pleasure he has given me over the years."

"So we agree, then," said Asha. "When I next come I will be expecting to see some progress."


* * *

But when Asha next came there had been precious little progress. Adanna had moved Elof from under the bush and nursed him lovingly, drying and washing him every time he wet himself, and she'd tried to get him to drink and eat. Very occasionally, he would accept some water from a pipette, which was a small sign of progress, but he showed absolutely no interest in food. Adanna chided him and occasionally wept as she remembered him in his prime, but if Elof knew she was crying he showed no sign of any sadness or remorse.

Babak was home the second time Asha came and was insistent on adopting a realistic course.

"How long can this go on?" he asked Asha. "I mean, we all love Elof dearly, but it doesn't give us any pleasure to see him like this--and we're thinking about him, not us."

"Of course," said Asha. "It's frequently like this with old, much-loved pets. It can't be much fun for him to be in such a state. They can be very proud and he can't be enjoying the nursing and, of course, from your point of view it's a sad decline of a once magnificent animal."

"What do you think is doing the damage?" Babak asked.

"I think he's suffering from a bad bout of depression, probably brought on by his realization that he's becoming increasingly immobile. He displays all of the classic symptoms of depression: listlessness; an inability to get up; a failing appetite; a general lack of interest in the world around him...'

"So, how long can this go on?"

"Well," said Asha, "I freely admit that things do not look at all good at the moment, but I think we should give him just a little more time. That way you will always be able to say that you did everything you possibly could. Would you be up to that, Adanna?"

"You mean to carry on nursing him?"

"Yes."

"Of course."

"What happens next time?" asked Moa.

Asha nodded. "Good question. If there has been significant progress then I would recommend that you should stick with Elof. He's already far past his average age expectancy, but there's no objective reason why he shouldn't be able to make a full recovery, for as long as he rediscovers his positive spirit and starts to take an interest in things again. He could easily become your lovely familiar pet and stay with you for a good while yet."

"And if he doesn't?"

"If his condition remains as it is now," said Asha, "or if he makes very little progress, then you would have to consider the worst."

"You mean?" said Adanna.

"I mean that it wouldn't be in Elof's interest to continue in such a state. His muscles are growing steadily weaker and soon it will be impossible for him to get up. Once that happens...'

"So, what then?"

"Let's not go there just yet," said Asha. "Let's concentrate all our energies and thoughts on Elof getting better." She turned to the cage. "Right, Elof?"

"Do you hear, Ellie?" said Babak.

"Come on, Ellie," said Adanna.


* * *

Elof wasn't listening. Adanna spent a lot of time in his cage, stroking him and mewing to him, trying to cajole him affectionately into consciousness and all-important movement. Sometimes, his eyes would flicker briefly, as though he were about to wake up, but then the flickering would stop. A few times she managed to get his mouth to open and could push the pipette in and force a few drops of water down his throat, and then he would swallow, but even those rare swallows were shallow and silent. She thought back over all the stages of Elof's life and her changing relationship with him. She remembered his savage youth, when he had seemed to have so much energy to burn and was aggressive towards her and her parents and anybody who came within view. She remembered Asha telling them that this stage was normal and that the best thing they could do would be to give Elof plenty of exercise, so that he could burn off his energy and aggression, and above all not to get near him. That had been the beginning of the big cage and nobody would ever have thought about getting into it with him then.

However, within a few of his decades, Elof had started to calm down. Adanna would wait for him to fall asleep, and then she would slip into the cage and decorate it in ways she thought he might like. In the beginning, she never stayed for long and always kept a healthy distance between herself and his sleeping form. She'd watch afterwards, as he discovered her decorations, to see what he might make of them. She didn't dare tell her parents what she'd been doing and they thought the decorations were Elof's doing. In those days, she'd watch him all the time, and so it was that one day she found him playing with a part of his body in a strange way. When he'd sensed her overhead and knew that she had been watching he'd snarled and howled and then begun to weep, sitting on his heels, his head bowed between his thighs. Asha later told her the sort of play she'd seen was perfectly normal, but she also told her something about the animal's normal habitat.

Gradually, Adanna learned about concepts such as hygiene and variety and privacy that had no meaning for her but were apparently important for the animal's well being. She created buildings for him, some of them with roofs overhead so that Elof couldn't be seen when he was inside them, and she watched with satisfaction as he started to use the buildings, particularly for sleep. In the beginning, she'd been tempted to take the roofs off from time to time, so she could see what Elof was up to underneath, but then she remembered the way he'd howled that time and she stopped. She didn't need to worry about hygiene. Elof always went to the farthest corner in his cage to relieve himself, and so she really didn't need to do anything.

Then it happened. She'd slipped into the cage when Elof had seemed to be deeply asleep in a building and she had started to work on one of her plantations, and then she realized that he was there. She turned, slowly. Elof was hiding behind a bush and watching her. She slid back and away and then watched, from above, as he advanced cautiously to where she had been working, and then--such a profound moment!--he had looked up into his sky and made a gesture with his hand. He'd moved a limb down towards the plantation and then back up into his sky and made that strange gesture again, and then he'd smiled, a great, toothy grin through the mass of hair. Suddenly, she understood that he was telling her not only that he knew she was doing these things but that he liked what she was doing; that he liked her plantations and decorations. She remembered how warm she had felt inside.

Later, on one of Asha's regular visits and when her parents had been out of earshot, Adanna had told her about this episode. Asha had grown excited. "It's a sign of intelligence," she'd said. "He has understood that there is a greater intelligence, one to which he belongs and with which he can communicate. That's wonderful! Soon you'll be able to interact with him physically, you'll see!" Adanna liked this prospect, of forming some sort of tactile friendship with the animal. It was, she realized, what she had always wanted. She continued to work on the plantations and decorations in the cage, but now she was a little less careful in checking his status and whereabouts. Increasingly, Elof would creep up and watch her furtively, and then not so furtively. Following Asha's advice, she gave the animal plenty of time to get used to her appearance, her scent, and the way that she moved. Now he would squat on the edge of the plantations where she was working and, gradually, he would squat closer and closer to her, and then... she'd never forget the first time he touched her. Soon, he was not just allowing her to stroke him but positively encouraging it, grunting with pleasure, and that, Adanna reflected, had been the best period of her and his lives and their relationship together.

Like all the episodes, though, it didn't--couldn't--last. Elof had grown older and become stiff-jointed. He lost a lot of his hair. Something grew over his eyes--Asha assured her it was perfectly normal--so that he couldn't see her or her decorations properly any more, and when she mewed to him she had to raise her tone because otherwise he couldn't hear her. He spent increasing amounts of time in his buildings and there were days when he only came out to relieve himself and take in some food. Her mother caught her one day looking down sadly at the cage.

"Are you going to go in, my love?" she'd asked.

"I don't think so, Mummy. There's no point anymore."

"Poor Adanna. I do so understand. It was lovely to see you two playing in there."

"But now he doesn't play anymore."

"Poor Adanna," said her mother.

"Poor Ellie," said Adanna.

Sometimes, with increasing rareness, Elof would let her stroke him or, even more rarely, he'd climb onto her and just gaze sightlessly up at her, and then began the times when he wouldn't come out of his building at all, or he'd only come out once or twice to relieve himself, and when he did come out, he didn't go all the way to the far corner, like he'd used to do. The mess got closer and closer to his building, and then the time came when Mummy had found him under the bush. Thinking about it, Adanna realized he had been in inexorable decline for quite a while. He was still her Elof and she'd always love him but the end of Elof had been coming sooner or later for a long time and now, it seemed, it was coming sooner.


* * *

Adanna, Moa and Babak waited patiently by the cage as Asha carried out her third examination. When she joined them, she wasted no time.

"I'm afraid we're in the worst-case scenario," she said.

"We feared as much," said Babak. "He's hardly moved since you last came."

"And he's eaten nothing," Moa added.

"I'm sorry," said Asha, but I don't think we can do very much anymore."

"Meaning?"

"Well, Adanna," said Asha, "the final decision is of course yours to take. If we leave Elof to his own devices, he'll almost certainly die fairly soon. You might think it best that he should die a natural death and I could understand that. On the other hand, I would be failing in my duty if I didn't explain to you the condition into which he is now falling. His muscles have atrophied to such an extent that he can't get up anymore. He'll never recover the use of his legs, I'm afraid. That means that he cannot live hygienically. He has already started to develop pressure sores on his buttocks. The sores will spread and break and become infected and then they'll start to suppurate."

"What does that mean?" Moa asked.

"I won't bother with a technical explanation, Moa, but what it will mean to Elof is that he'll start to suffer a great deal."

"Poor Ellie," said Adanna.

"So, what would you do?" asked Babak, and they all knew what Asha was going to reply.

"If it were my pet," said Asha, "I'd euthanize him now, without any hesitation."

"What do you think, my dear?" Babak asked Adanna.

"I don't know. Do we really have to?"

"You heard what Asha said, my dear."

"Yes," said Adanna, "I did." She turned to the cage and looked down at Elof's motionless body. "I'll always love you, Ellie," she shouted. "Thank you for everything. I love you."

"Moa?" Babak asked.

"I agree," she said. "It would be cruel to keep him alive now. We should let the poor thing go."

"So, we all agree, Asha. Tell us what happens next, please."

"It is all very simple and I want to reassure you from the beginning that Elof won't suffer in the slightest bit; on the contrary!"

"How does it work?" asked Adanna.

"There are two steps," said Asha. "The first is to put him entirely at his ease, so that there is absolutely no way he can suffer at all. To do that, I am going to inject him with a large dose of something called a sedative. If I do it skillfully enough good old Elof won't even feel the prick of the needle. Shall I start?"

"Yes," said Babak, "let's get it all over with, please."

They watched as Asha stroked Elof affectionately and then injected the sedative. Elof didn't even open his eyes, but his slumbering body slumped slowly into the ground below him, as though whatever muscles had still been working had decided to give up the struggle of maintaining any sort of form.

"He's still alive at this stage," said Asha. "And I should warn you that the last thing that goes is their hearing, so he can hear you, if you want to say a last something."

"Good old Ellie," Babak shouted.

"Best pet in the universe," Moa said.

"Love you, Ellie," Adanna mewed.

"And now?" asked Babak.

"And now we're going to give Elof a second injection. The medication in question, pentobarbital, is a sort of relaxant, but we're going to give Elof a massive overdose. He won't feel a thing, I promise you, but soon his heart will stop beating, his brain will stop working and his lungs will stop breathing. You know, a very long time ago, when they were much more numerous, creatures like Elof had pets of their own and they used to do the same thing to them at the end."

"No!" said Adanna. "You mean Ellie could have had a pet?"

"He didn't need a pet, my dear," Moa reassured her. "He had you!"

"Shall I begin?" asked Asha. They were fast approaching the point of no return.

"Go on, then," said Babak.

They watched with morbid fascination as the blue liquid in the syringe gradually disappeared.

"Look," said Asha, "his heart has already stopped beating. In a moment, his lungs may give a gasp or two. That's an automatic reflex and you are not to worry. Elof is already clinically dead."

It was all over very quickly.

"Now," said Asha, unfolding a large plastic bag, "could you help me, please, Babak, to get the body into this bag?"

"He's so light!" Babak exclaimed.

"You'd be surprised how fast those animals can lose weight if they don't eat."

Adanna looked away as the mortal remains of Elof slithered inelegantly out of sight.


* * *

Once Asha had gone they didn't know quite what to do with themselves. They felt strange. Something profound--the end of an animal's life--had occurred. They had not just borne witness to it but also collectively ordained it.

"It won't be the same," said Moa.

"Truly the end of an era," said Babak.

"Perhaps we should start tidying up the cage?" said Moa.

"No!" Adanna exclaimed. "Not just yet."

"I am sorry," said Moa. "How silly of me. I don't know why I said that."

"Don't worry, Mummy. I know you didn't mean it callously."

"We're all a bit shocked," said Babak.

"Well," said Moa, "all I know is that Ellie was the best pet in the universe."

"The best pet ever," said Babak.

"My darling Ellie," said Adanna.


THE END


2017 Martin Westlake

Bio: Martin Westlake is a British-born resident of Brussels, Belgium... His last Aphelion apprearance was The Garden of Eden in our February, 2012 issue.

E-mail: Martin Westlake

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