Camellia hates her name and sits under the dogwood tree at the top of the hill, thinking about it.
In the early days of spring, when the air gets raw and clean and gentle all at once, she is reminded that water sometimes has a slight scent.
Behind her is the peach-colored cottage she shares with her father, with the
gigantic soft blue cloud that always billows above it like a benign spore. At dusk, when
the sky is a bright and deep blue-black, that cloud turns to iron, a cartoon anvil suspended
above the neighborhood and all its twisty, jackknifed streets, the government locks and
gates protecting the work of her father and the others. To Camellia, the scene is like a
commercial for sedatives. The rye grass keeps its waxy green all winter. There is even a
picket fence, and, somewhere, a sheep or two in some geneticist's backyard.
One spring evening Camellia sits under the dogwood tree and the world is very
blue. The darker its gets, the richer and more saturate, like a Persian textile depiction of
the cosmos. A slow wind balloons her light jacket, and she pulls it back around her in
satiny crenellations of the day's last ribbons of blue and golden light. She hears the slam
of a car door, and afterwards the deer throttling in the canyons below, where vines and
creepers swarm the junk interred. Her uncle Bob Grimes, Internet Lawyer, climbs the hill
to meet her, snapping his gum in a way that seems at once dramatic and mechanical.
"Why so sad, kiddo?" he says.
So it is obvious.
"Bob," Camellia says, "it's that every girl has a purse-dog, and I don't have a
purse-dog, which seems stupid and just totally vapid because I don't want what everyone
else has, I mean I know there's no real reason to want that, except that I do."
"Damn kids growing up so fast," Bob says, in an oddly nearly teary voice.
"Goddamn kids," Bob wiping his eyes and then his brow, though it is not hot outside.
Before getting into law, Bob worked as a model, standing next to showroom-new trucks on hills backlit by sunsets, wearing all-denim except for the boots. When that sort of truck commercial went out of style with the rising price of oil, Bob was done, simply
couldn't get work in the industry. So even though her Dad won't tell her the details, this
is when Camellia thinks Uncle Bob started drinking and studying how to get his Internet
"Yes. Sorry, sorry Cami, I was thinking just now of my own childhood."
"Anyway. Oh, what the hell is a purse-dog?"
"Okay Bob, you're officially out of touch. They're the latest rage, these purse-
dogs. Chihuahuas were popular with the girls at my school because certain celebrities
were carrying them around on television, at galas or wherever, but you couldn't just carry
a Chihuahua around school without getting in trouble for possession of Chihuahua. No
"So there's the problem. I guess this purse-dog is the solution?"
"That's right. Purse-dogs are like big gerbils almost. They breed ‘em deep in the
green canyons down there and who knows how. Because the creatures are abominations,
they often come with defects, which everyone thinks is all the more cute. Girls can slip
the puppies in their purses, with proper ventilation—AND—when the things bark it's
basically indistinguishable from a squeaking chair or a clearing throat. The purse-dogs
don't really grow, but they also don't last so long. So it gets expensive. I mean, if one has
been seen with purse-dog already, and said purse-dog perishes which is bound to happen,
one does not want to be seen again without purse-dog, because that's even worse than
never having had purse-dog altogether, you get me?"
"So I know it'll be over in a year or two. But right now it would really help me out if I could maybe get one, Bob."
"Tell you what. Tell you what. I can't do anything about it tonight, but let your
Uncle Bob see what he can do about a purse-dog, okay sweetie?"
Camellia knows there's no reason to get excited. Even if Uncle Bob could afford
to fund a purse-dog habit, a litter of purse-dogs, which Camellia guesses he can't given
his debt and his besieged legal practice, she doesn't believe that Bob would remember a
thing about this conversation by tomorrow at sundown, which is the earliest the gross and
totally unethical (she knows) purse-dog mills open up their shadowy business in the
"I guess your dad wouldn't buy you one of these runts."
"No, Bob, he wouldn't. Can you imagine dad down in the canyons? With his
Camellia's dad peeks out from the front door, his figure dim in the blaze of the
"Just a second dad."
"Hey is that Bob! Get out of here Bob!"
"Guess Dad's still mad at Bob," Bob says, patting Camellia on the back. He
makes a clicking motion at his truck and the lights flash on, revealing the dashboard
debris of a man living on the road. Briefly he leans back against his truck, as he used to
for the cameras.
Camellia believes that she is a relatively smart kid, and that she knows there is
only one reason why an Internet Lawyer such as her uncle Bob Grimes would live out of
his truck, practicing law on his phone.
Which is that, for legal reasons, it is better that Bob not have one fixed address,
for he is also in need of some defense. Heat lightning opens the sky, revealing a sheaf of
rain frayed far over the canyon. Camellia's hilltop world is domed by the bone stark
brilliance of the flowering dogwood.
At school in the girl's bathroom, Carly Olson produces a purse-dog robed in
flowing amber hair, like a Pekinese, almost all hair and eyes and it fits in the cup of her
two hands. This mutation (The Peking), along with the popular Mexico City, is one of the
two most popular and expensive of the purse-dogs bred in the canyon. Everyone knows
that Carly's older brother is a distributor of the dogs and he must have cut a deal for
Carly on the extravagant price. Or, Carly's father's just extravagantly rich. Carly's last
purse-dog Scoot, a Mexico City, perished a week or two ago, without fanfare, a victim of
its body's juryrigged biomechanics.
Camellia leans in for a better view but she's on the outer ring of the crowd of girls, and she has to brace her knees not to be pushed through the stall door ajar behind her.
Carly announces that only girls who own purse-dogs can pet the puppy, because
only those girls know proper handling (too much hug can crush). Camellia's pushed even
further back, falling back through the stall but catching herself on the edge of the toilet
seat, hard, so that in her dizziness she doesn't see what causes the girls to flee in a melee.
Utterly barkless, Carly's new purse-dog's lobbed over the rim of the stall and it's falling
and flailing Camellia's way. Camellia catches it by the scruff and deposits it in the roomy
lower pocket of her cargo pants. Camellia flushes the toilet and sort of sidewinds out of
the stall, with the purse-dogged pocket facing away.
"Mrs. Jercivich," Camellia says.
"I smell purse-thing, Cami," Mrs. Jercivhich says. "Do you have any intelligence
"Mrs. Jervcivich, you know I can't do that. At this age I'd be drawn-and-
quartered for being a spy. I was just using the can."
Mrs. Jercivich nods bitterly, understanding. And turns to heel-snap away, but
pivots back to Camellia.
"Yes Mrs. Jercivich?"
"Don't get mixed up in that scene. You're too smart for that."
"Okay," Camellia says
And the raid is over, and what is in Camellia's pocket, whether meant to exist,
whether apocryphal to all established taxonomies, squirms all the same for some need it
At lunch Camellia's confronted by a posse of popular young ladies.
"My dad has his own squad of mercenaries, just so you know," Carly Olson says.
"Oh," Camellia says.
"Yeah, and they're some bad news Brits," says Carly's sort-of sidekick, Meghan
"Would they hurt a girl?" Camellia asks.
"They don't have the same morals as us, Camellia," Carly says. "Now, I believe
you have something of mine?"
"I'm sorry?" Camellia says.
"My animal, Cami."
"I don't. I was just onlooking, earlier."
"Let's see your purse, then."
Camellia hands over her purse, an oversized beige leatherlike thing with
tarnished brass snaps, a granny purse, she thinks, and Carly Olson basically sticks her
entire face in it.
Carly muttering, "this thing is bottomless." It isn't cool to have a larger purse. It
is cool to have as small a purse as can fit your mini-accessories and your infinitesimal
purse-dog within, without giving away the shape and squirm of a lifeform.
"And there's nothing in it," Carly says.
"Nothing at all?" says Meghan, shocked.
Camellia snatches back her purse. In the pocket of her cargo pants, the small
thing sleeps curled.
"I've been thinking about this purse-dog thing. This trend."
"And as you can probably guess, I don't at all approve of it. This isn't just some
cottage industry supporting a few hard workers down in the canyon. It's science.
Someone who lives in our neighborhood, some dubious scientist, is supplying the code,
so to speak, that makes those things live. But the only life they can live is one of
Cargo, as Camellia has named him, stretches out warmly in her pocket.
"Hmm," says Camellia.
"But Cami, I can give you something else. Something I've been working on, a test
version of a new commission. Something that's not perfected perhaps, but also something
that won't just...die after a few weeks of misery.""
"Something considered. Something thoughtful. Not cells and tissues glued
together at the midnight hour."
It's sushi night, which Camellia and her father do once a month: a trip to the
Japanese market across the canyon in the flatland suburbs and then a night of craft,
presentation, then digestion. It's a time when Camellia enjoys one of her favorite foods
while her father attempts to address the crises of her early adolescence. Camellia's father
gathers up their plates and teacups. Camellia dips her last bite of garnet sashimi in a
swampy murk of soy and wasabi, relishes it, and hurries off to her room just as Cargo's
rousing in her pocket.
"You're different," Camellia says in the privacy of her room. "You're smarter
than most. You'll survive."
But something is wrong. Camellia's got the purse-dog, but she can't show it off to
anyone, can't even keep it in her granny purse—and furthermore, this muzzle order's
giving her some perverse sort of thrill she's never yet experienced. A deeply private
pleasure, secrecy, and one Camellia savors for a week or two before Cargo's expulsions,
hair, and odor give away the fact of his living.
Her father says he is not disappointed, that he understands, but that they must now
take the appropriate action. Uncle Bob is not consulted. Camellia and her father go
together to turn the specimen in to the proper neighborhood authorities. The other
zoologists and geneticists thank Camellia for being a brave girl, for providing valuable
evidence against the illicit purse-dog trade. "It's unethical," the scientists say. "It's
gross!" Camellia, caving, confirms. But Cargo was endearing. Undoubtedly they are
going to take him apart and see what makes him viable.
"What is it?" Camellia asks her father, stunned. They're in his basement
laboratory, an unkempt hall of walk-in freezers and fridges, a creepy cryogenic vault of
forms new and old.
Her father has many times attempted to impress her with the curiosities of
science, but never before on this scale.
"It's a peraceratherium." The unpronounceable thing snorts gigantically in its
"A balucitherium, peraceratherium,a few names for what it used to be. It's extinct.
Long ago in prehistoric times it wandered a subtropical version of Eurasia. A Natural
History Museum in China commissioned this reproduction, but I haven't quite gotten it
right yet. Therefore, this one is your new pet."
"Don't sound so disappointed. I know it won't fit but...I guess we will simply
have to purchase you a larger purse." He chuckles very quietly as if he's the only one in
Camellia's father usually recognizes his limits, won't tread into comedic territory,
but he gets in certain moods, or certain moods get to him, and this is the outcome.
"I'll name it Cargo II," Camellia says.
Like your average peraceratherium, Cargo II has three toes per foot and resembles
a freakish, gargantuan horse crossed with a rhinoceros.
Unlike your average peraceratherium of old, Cargo II only stands about twelve
feet tall—not eighteen—if corrected, the laboratory ceiling would give Cargo II a crick in
his thick but agile, slithery neck.
Cargo II weighs a few tons, but his weight is far from the typical tonnage of his
forebears, as fossils tell it.
Like all peraceratheriums, Cargo II is a vegetarian. Camellia soon learns this
when Cargo II mysteriously shies away from a leftover hunk of sashimi grade tuna,
Cargo II claiming three-fourths of the kitchen with his bulk one otherwise ordinary
"His kind thrived when the steppes of Eurasia were covered in deep, wet forests.
He eats tropical plants. But this one will take the feed I've developed. I've rerouted a few
things in the guts." Her father is going on excitedly, losing Camellia, though Camellia is
thinking: howsit any different'n a purse-dog?
Cargo II is a messy pet. There is nothing secretive about him. When Camellia
brings him to the park, the other kids—including Carly Olson—gawk and wonder, but
Camellia can't kindle any kind of affection for the beast. She'd rather have something
tiny, a hideaway organism, like something you'd need a microscope to see. She doesn't
need all this attention. Also, Cargo II keeps wandering down to the canyon, getting stuck
on ledges, causing minor landslides.
"It's the semitropical vegetation down there," her father muses. "It's wired into
him. Really, a place like the canyon is where he belongs, but we'll keep him up here with
the good and decent."
When Camellia goes down there on narrow, vinetangled switchback paths, she
isn't afraid of the criminal element, more intrigued really. No one would bother her on
her way to retrieve Cargo II. She has a reputation for mastery of Cargo II's defective
brain, and Cargo II's own reputation involves his supposed insatiable carnivorousness.
And Cargo II, though no meateater, does seem to obey Camellia.
"He'll only live a few years, this specimen," her father says after a few days,
sighing. "He's defective alright. I need more money from the Chinese if I'm to do this
"Humanely?" Camellia says, but her father just stares at her.
And that should fill Camellia full of pity for all her father's trouble, as well as for
this hopeless beast, but Cargo II is a burden, the way his shadow always swallows her up
when he attempts to nuzzle her, knocking her breathless. She could get her Uncle Bob to
facilitate a midnight transaction, sell Cargo II to a traveling circus in one of the shady
back gulches of the canyon, where the bazaars are full of stolen, bootlegged, and
knockoff goods. But it would break her father's heart again.
He's done this before: flying lizards shaped like dachshunds and which always
fail to fly, dumb, floppy dogs the size of tigers, all sorts of hybrid aberrations, and no one
in this neighborhood looks twice. All the government permits check out, and the checks
clear from the Chinese ministries, and her father's work serves many top exhibits and
institutes across Asia. Camellia's father could give his daughter most anything fanciful,
but she would rather have Cargo I back and snug in her pocket.
R.I.P, almost surely, Cargo I.
A few weeks later, they catch the rogue biologist behind the purse-dog trade when
he boldly attempts to offload his wriggling litter to a gated neighborhood in the daytime.
The state, nearly bankrupt, assigns the case to the one man they can afford—Uncle Bob,
who agrees in a plea bargain to represent the side of justice for free, thus absolving his
own crimes, whatever they were. The more robust private courts will not be persuaded to
interfere in this particular matter, and they can afford to be particular. The fickle demands
of little girls will assign the purse-dog trade its eventual fortune or fate, not any of the
impotent courts. Already it's summer. Cargo II is still alive and still apparently quite
healthy. Cargo II has shat of mythical proportions upon Camellia's bedspread, where
strange prehistoric fungi now arise, and Cargo II has with tusklike protrusions rendered a
hole in the roof for stargazing, has, in his infinite hunger, horded uprooted potted plants
and poison weeds into a makeshift backyard jungle. All things of wonderment for girls,
but perhaps Camellia's outgrowing her girlhood this summer. The well-funded
imagination is too obvious. Camellia is more interested in the harebrained but
resourceful, the vague and half-formed, the juryrigged and do-it-yourself and semi-
functioning. One improvement that will please her father: ever since Cargo II's rise to
sentience through genetic reconstitution, Camellia's been developing a natural sense of
leadership. This weekend she'll be taking Carly and a few of the others down canyon
way, to a realm of utter disregard and celebration, where the imagination still makes do
with what the world's refused. They will ride the steep descent atop a lumbering Cargo
II, for the other girls like to fashion themselves as ancient princesses. Darkly down
canyon way, to thiefdoms rules by warlord high school dropouts, along trade routes
abandoned by all rational merchants. The other girls may have come to be delighted by
the hot springs, the hot jewelry, and the thuggery of handsome suburban boys feigning
canyon lives each weekend, but Camellia's headed down on business. She would not like
to work in an office or a magical laboratory, like her father. She has heard of good cash
money in the small animals trade, and, even better, systematic forces will be trying to
outsmart her—the way that systematic forces always get sort of flustered when faced with
the outright outlawry of a teenaged girl.
I like writing about insular communities. In this story, I decided to have two in conflict—one is sponsored by authority and one is hunted by authority, but both of them work different ends of the same animal industry.