I kept the sphinx in my front yard. I’d wanted one for a long time, the way other people want a Dalmatian or Persian cat. It wasn’t just because the houses on my block all looked the same, small and marked only with the occasional tulip bed or stray tricycle, though that was part of it. The sphinx was mostly for safety reasons. I’d always been a flighty person and the nightly news was thick with burglary reports. Some robber, maybe even a gang, was swiping TVs and computers and DVD players and raiding jewelry boxes. I spent the money my boyfriend thought I was saving for a new car to buy the sphinx and have it shipped from Egypt. The moment it stepped out of that wooden crate and sniffed the humid July air, I was in love.
It was a regular guard sphinx, five feet at the shoulder with a lion’s body and human head, not one of the deluxe models with eagle wings. I’d wanted something larger, but it would have been more difficult to transport, and this sphinx was still a good foot taller than me when I took its head into account.
From the start my boyfriend did not like the sphinx, wondered why I’d bought it.
“It’s too big to cuddle with,” he said. “Too big to fit in the house.” He never was an animal lover. I reminded him it was the smallest sphinx available, the most economical model, but this did not sway him.
“I don’t like the way it looks at me sideways,” he said, crossing his arms as we stood in the front yard.
“It’s getting used to you,” I said as the sphinx bent to lick its paw.
“I wouldn’t want to be alone with it,” he said, walking into the house.
My boyfriend and I had been arguing a lot lately, snipping at each other and not kissing much. When we’d started going out he didn’t mind eating at home and watching movies after dinner, but now he said we needed to go out more. He tried to convince me to get drinks with him and his friends, but after a day at the insurance office I was tired of talking, needed to rest.
“I get bored,” he said. “You need to live a little.”
“I want to relax,” I said. “Not be around people.”
“I don’t understand why working eight hours in an office can make you so exhausted,” he muttered. I tried to explain how it wasn’t just work, it was hearing about loss all day, it was trying to comfort weeping people over the phone when they got their payment from the insurance company and it wasn’t enough.
“Just leave work at work,” he said.
Easy enough for him since he was a bank teller.
I pretended to sleep. He said his friends thought I was anti-social.
On the weekends he stayed out even longer, sometimes until two in the morning. I watched the local news before bed and was reminded of the latest break-ins. I hated being alone, wanted the comfort of another person, and sometimes he forgot to lock the door at night. After buying the sphinx I felt better.
The sphinx responded to basic commands. Sit. Lie down. Come here. Fetch. It couldn’t speak though I wasn’t sure how it managed to purr. The sphinx liked romping in the front yard, which made sense because it had spent a few millennia completely stationary on a pedestal. I’m sure it was tired of heat and pyramids laden with jewels and gold and dead pharaohs. Now it only had to protect my TV and furniture and laptop—not as exciting, but maybe lower stress. The sphinx could not smell, it had no nose, so it helped me push the trash to the corner on Thursday nights.
My sphinx ate only cornflakes, didn’t care for bananas or ice cream or boiled ham or noodle soup, so I kept its bowl full beside the back door and made sure it had enough water. It spent a good deal of time staring at the cars that drove by my house and sharpening its claws on the maple tree. When it shat little piles of sand all over the lawn I was a bit annoyed, but the sand smelled only of sand so I didn’t think it would be a bother.
“It’s going to kill the grass,” said my boyfriend as we ate dinner and watched the sphinx chase squirrels outside.
“It just has to get the desert out of his system,” I said. “Spending a few thousand years there is bound to create problems.”
My boyfriend harrumphed. When we’d started dating three years earlier he said he loved me because I was smart and compassionate and good at remembering things like dental appointments and when to pay the credit card bill. I liked that he was kind and easygoing and good at calming me down when I got anxious, but when he kept forgetting to lock the door I started to wonder if he was more lazy than laid-back. He worked in a bank. He was supposed to understand the importance of locks. Still, he had a point about the grass, so I made sure to spread the sand around the lawn before he came home.
My sphinx was quite tidy, regularly cleaned itself with its pink tongue, which I discovered was rough like a cat’s because I let it lick me once and thought it was going to take the skin off my whole hand. Sometime my sphinx was a little overprotective. It stayed close to me outside and growled when the postman came near, but it recognized its territory and never strayed over the property line. There was a certain grace to the sphinx, a certain power and intelligence in those eyes. Difficult to resist.
The lady across the street was jealous, said she knew of this place out in Wyoming, a unicorn ranch, and she was going to send for one as soon as she had the money.
“I’m going to buy a mare,” she told me while standing beside the curb and eyeing my sphinx. “A white one with a beautiful horn. I’ve heard they eat a lot of grass so I won’t have to mow the lawn once it arrives, but they like to rub their horns against trees and that can take all the bark off, so you need to provide them with an alternate horn-sharpening post.”
My maple tree was showing signs of wear from the sphinx’s claws, so I knew this was the sort of thing I should consider, but when I gave the sphinx a two-by-four it just kept using the tree. I acquiesced and sacrificed the maple because I wanted it to be happy.
During the day I sat in the insurance office, answered the phone and filled out paperwork and got quotes and asked clients to please have a seat in the waiting room. I knew all about house fires, car crashes, tornadoes, and floods, as well as accidents people could have with electrical cords, trees, cutlery, and swimming pools.
Sometimes there wasn’t much to talk about with a client while she waited, so she told me the details of the horrific thing that had recently befallen this uninsured friend or family member, which was why she had to ease her new anxiety with several thousand dollars worth of coverage. I did not explain that I had eased my own anxieties with a sphinx because I didn’t want to start a trend.
After work I liked leaning against the sphinx, listening to the beat of its centuries-old heart, because it seemed reliable. I didn’t have to wait for my boyfriend to get home so I could tell him about my day. I could tell the sphinx. This was a much better arrangement since I didn’t get upset when my boyfriend went for an after-work drink with the other bank tellers. While he got bored with my insurance office stories and said they all sounded the same, the sphinx looked at me with sympathy and licked its paw.
Like all loving pets, the sphinx left gifts on the back porch. A mouse with the head of a bird. A bird with the head of a mouse. Once or twice a large black raven.
“This is disgusting,” said my boyfriend when the sphinx left a sparrow with the head of a snake outside the glass door that led to the patio.
And perhaps it was, but the neighbors did not complain about the sphinx, and I didn’t notice a decrease in the number of songbirds. The burglar who’d been prowling the area was found lying under our across-the-street neighbor’s dining room window with several abrasions, a few cuts on his face, and a broken arm. He did not, maybe could not, explain what happened when the police came, just handed over several pocketfuls of jewelry and asked for medical attention. I hugged my sphinx and gave it extra cornflakes.
“If I’d had my unicorn, those thefts would have stopped earlier,” said my across-the-street neighbor, though she brought over a box of cornflakes for my sphinx to show her gratitude. The sphinx grimaced at her, but she kept close to the curb.
Following that incident there were calls from the authorities, some questioning if I’d acquired my sphinx through legal means, but I had all the necessary importation documents and bill of sale. The sphinx was well-mannered around the police, knew to respect authority figures, so after inspecting my paperwork the police went on their way.
The sphinx usually sat stern and sentry-still in front of my house. Sometimes it eyed passers-by in a menacing fashion, but they stayed on the sidewalk and everything was fine. When I got home it almost pounced on me, happy for something else to guard. It growled at my boyfriend when he arrived at eight in the evening.
“It’s vicious,” he grumbled.
“You’re late,” I said.
“I stayed a little long at happy hour,” he said. “I needed to relax.”
We didn’t do that in the same way anymore.
My boyfriend said he’d make dinner, so while he was cooking I played catch with the sphinx, threw a big rubber hot dog that the sphinx brought back to me in its mouth. The hot dog was its favorite toy, maybe because it was long and thin and kind of mummy-shaped.
“It’s going to hurt some kid,” said my boyfriend.
“It is not,” I said. The sphinx could tell a threat from an annoying brat and acted accordingly. “It only attacks prowlers. And it makes me feel better when you’re not here.”
“Come to dinner with me and some of the other guys from the bank,” he said.
“I’m too tired,” I said.
“You’re no fun,” he said.
“Try working in my insurance office all day and see how much you feel like going out afterwards,” I said.