“Displace” by Rachael Greene

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Cactus in Snow 3, Austin, Todd Savage

It’s hard to find homes for black cats, the young volunteer told me. 

I had heard this before—that black cats were less likely to be adopted because they were considered unlucky. While I’d never known anyone to openly hold this superstition, the ubiquity of silhouettes on Halloween decorations and fears about a black cat crossing your path were enough to convince me of the prevalence of lingering bias. 

She’s on her last week with us, she said. 

Meaning before they euthanized her. 

Olivia was no housecat. Her feral nature was apparent even when I picked her out at the shelter and she slinked away from me in the cat playroom, her amber-green eyes like discs with pulsing black pupils. She yowled at the door of my Atlanta apartment incessantly, standing on her hind legs and pawing until she panted from exertion. At night, she crouched on the floor beside my bed, eyes glowing, waiting to pounce on my face as I drifted off. I slept with my head between two pillows to avoid her bared claws and teeth. No matter how many toys I got to keep her amused—culminating with a PetCube which had a laser pointer that could be operated remotely—she paced and cried and pawed at the door whether I was home or watching via the PetCube feed at the office. She was alive, but unhappy. A hunter in a preyless environment. 

Moving to Austin was supposed to be the light at the end of the tunnel for Olivia. My partner and I had found a house with a large, fenced backyard where she could roam—a place we never could have afforded in Atlanta. The first day I opened the sliding glass door and ushered her outside, she hunkered low to the ground, sniffing delicately, senses on high alert. A grasshopper sprung from the grass and she pounced. I watched her from the window as I worked in my new home office—crouched under the waving branches of the cottonwood tree, eyeing squirrels and birds—finally free. 

Olivia quickly bored of the backyard and started climbing the fence. Try as we might, we couldn’t confine her to the yard—we ran angled wire along the top of the fence and flared skirts around tree trunks, but she always found a way. I worried about her for the first couple weeks, but she returned every evening to curl up at the foot of the bed, no longer attacking me in my sleep. 

One evening a few days after New Year’s, she didn’t come home. I walked our neighborhood calling her, looking under bushes and between houses, peering into my neighbors’ backyards. In the weeks that followed, I knocked on doors, visited local shelters and vets’ offices, checked, and rechecked the contact information associated with her chip number. I posted pictures on every Facebook and Nextdoor page I could find, refreshing them often so they didn’t get buried in the plethora of missing animal posts. I received scam calls and texts from people claiming to have her and promising her safe return for a fee. The sheer number of missing cat posts in the online feeds reinforced what everyone kept telling me had likely been her fate—coyotes.  

I had grown up in the country in north Georgia, where coyotes could be heard yipping in packs at night, but this was a suburban neighborhood with an Austin zip code. When Olivia started roaming, I had been more concerned about someone trying to keep her than coyotes. It had never even crossed my mind as a threat. As I read further on Nextdoor, I learned that coyote activity had increased in our neighborhood since a nearby development had destroyed their dens and narrowed their hunting grounds, forcing them to roam farther for game. The nature trails and extensive parks running through our neighborhood were home to a thriving population of rabbits and squirrels—and family pets—which drew them.

I mourned Olivia but felt comforted that she hadn’t met her end in a shelter, on a cold table under fluorescent lights, surrounded by strangers and the smell of antiseptics. She had been free to hunt for a time, too. 

Photograph of bare branches covered in ice and small icicles.
This photo and those below: Austin freeze, by Rachael Greene

The recent influx of new residents in Austin has changed its landscape—both natural and human—dramatically. Though some consider the most recent spike as beginning in 2009, Austin’s expansion started nearly half a century earlier with the rise of oil and gas industries in Texas. Since 1980, the population has increased from less than half a million to over two. Our neighborhood, though still in an Austin zip code, is 10 minutes from the neighboring town of Round Rock, and 20 from downtown Austin. A plaque outside an historic homestead preserved in our neighborhood states that our house and its myriad clones sprung up soon after developers purchased the family land in 1983, just as similar housing developments were cropping up in concentric circles around the city like a rash. Meanwhile, downtown, burgeoning gentrification forced local families into neighborhoods south and east of the city center and continues to press them further out even today with exorbitant land taxes, increasing rent costs, and persuasive developers. 

When we moved to Austin in 2018, this northern suburb where we landed was the most affordable option. If we were looking to move here now, we would be pushed farther north, into Round Rock proper or Pflugerville, as many newcomers have been, contributing to record growth in these neighboring towns as well. What was once open land dotted by cedar and prickly pear is increasingly crowded by rows of identical houses and apartment complexes radiating heat from new shingles. 

Displaced water finds its stasis, and the cannonball of transplants splashing down in Austin has driven a tidal wave of locals and working-class communities farther out from the city center, while attracting more residents of populous states looking for comparatively cheap land and living costs. Those of us fleeing high costs in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco (and Atlanta), unwittingly drive up costs here in Austin merely by relocating and contributing to the boom.

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It’s ironic to use a water metaphor for anything in Austin, given the annual droughts and water scarcity experienced here nearly year-round. Burn bans and water restrictions are so common it’s more newsworthy when they’re lifted than when they’re instated each year. Blue-green algae, which thrives in warm and stagnant waters and is especially poisonous to dogs, has now infiltrated every body of water in the city, including Lake Travis which had been thought to be too deep and expansive for it to thrive. Austin water plants operate with less than a day’s reserve on hand, a fact that we were made acutely aware of last February when Winter Storm Uri crippled the region. With faucets left dripping and frozen pipes bursting, it took less than two days for large areas of the city to run out of water entirely. Boil-water notices were put in place for those lucky enough to still have water at a low pressure, and it took nearly a week after the storm had passed for the reservoir levels to be restored.  

On a two-mile hike through the snow to the nearest gas station that was still rumored to have bottled water, I reflected on how quickly the situation had devolved. In summer, water conservation is top of mind, but in winter, it’s hardly a concern. We faced more pressing threats from the rolling blackouts instituted to keep the power grid from collapsing entirely. As I was toiling to break through a layer of ice and six inches of snow beneath it without rolling an ankle on a quest for water, I wondered if we would come back to a dark house, how long the three pieces of firewood would last us, and how many days it would be until the temperatures climbed above freezing. Austin hadn’t seen a winter like this in over eighty years. This was what unpreparedness and resource mismanagement looked like. This was what climate change looked like. 

The fact that the entire city’s water supply could be depleted within two days is nothing short of unnerving, yet more than a million of us exist with this knowledge without losing sleep most nights. It is easy to become desensitized to a threat that is constant. Resource scarcity so rarely impacts us in the developed world that even when it does, we are quick to highlight the novelty of it. The improbability of it. In the weeks following Winter Storm Uri, our outrage subsided, the whole thing became a tale to tell our friends in other states.  

I wonder if we’ve grown increasingly desensitized to the number of severe weather events we face in a destabilizing climate. Even those of us directly affected think of it as an anomaly, unlikely to happen again—at least to us. No one has such bad luck, we think. While you could call this naivete or even toxic optimism, our brains have evolved to respond this way to protect us from chronic stress. It’s hard to plan brunch and answer emails while consciously holding the knowledge that there are simply too many of us and not enough resources to go around. 

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Transplants like my partner and me are drawn to Austin for the jobs, the cost of living, and the culture. Keep Austin weird has become more of a charge than an anthem in recent years, people brandishing it like I (heart) New York T-shirts. You’re more likely to run into someone from Denver or Sacramento in a bar downtown than from Austin. Locals have made no secret of their disdain for the ways their city is changing, and Austin pride runs deep among the few who can claim to have been born here. Texans at large regard Austin with a mixture of pride and alienation—capital of the Lone Star State meant to safeguard Texan values, now opening its doors to tech companies and an influx of transplants from distant states. Like the coyotes, many Austinites feel they have been forced out of their natural habitat. 

Except this habitat has been handed down to them by a long line of settlers from other places—or forced on them by one of the most prominent examples of displacement in this country: slavery. Father of Texas, Stephen F. Austin brought 300 farming families and their slaves to Texas in the final and successful wave of colonization in this region. Those families and their descendants created the Texas persona we know today—determined, self-reliant, dominating—for they did not land on unoccupied frontier. Their success was defined by how permanently they displaced those who inhabited this land before them. The old homestead in our neighborhood sits on land that once belonged to the Tonkawa tribe, a people who were pushed out far less subtly than Austinites who fear becoming outnumbered by the recent surge of Californians. 

Two hundred and fifty miles south of Austin lies the US-Mexico border, another result of centuries of displacement and migratory patterns, both willful and forced. Texas has a complicated relationship with the border for several reasons, not least of which being that it was once part of Mexico. The outsized Texan identity might never have existed had it not been for the movement of that arbitrary line. A line which the state is now invested, monetarily and personally, in guarding. What this means—to guard the border—changes constantly. Housing and detention often end up looking the same. Here in Austin, where politicians come to pontificate on these things, the border still feels far enough away to be easily forgotten, seen only in headlines—children sleeping on concrete floors, adults deported to the promise of violence in their home countries, families separated. More catastrophes pushed to the fringes of our daily awareness.  

Any Austinite, local or transplant, might cite the escalating homelessness in Austin as the most pressing issue in the city today, though it is no less daunting than the border crisis. This past May, voters approved Proposition B, making it illegal to sit, lie down, or camp in public spaces. The penalty? A fine up to $500. It seems cruel to punish a population defined by lack by demanding more of what they do not have. Streets, highways, parks, and common areas are the centers of democratic activity. Gatherings, demonstrations, contemplation—life takes place in them. They are the only spaces left to those without private dwellings, the only place one can simply be, free of charge. In seeking to remove homeless people from these spaces while offering them no alternatives, Proposition B leaves no viable option other than complete disappearance. Obliteration. But humans do not merely disappear, no matter how inconvenient they may be. Tents are popping up on Austin’s hike-and-bike trail. Encampments appear under different overpasses. Our neighborhood has seen an increase of homeless in the park and on the trails. Like the coyotes whose dens were destroyed, they are forced into new neighborhoods. 

What happens when displaced water has nowhere to go? It spills over.

Perhaps the human population has always lapped against itself like this, people displacing each other since the beginning. As our numbers increased, so did our clashes with one another and the natural world around us, pushing into territories where we never belonged, taking over what wasn’t ours. We are continually testing the limits, pushing until there is backlash or at least resistance. Perhaps we will never find stasis. Perhaps we were never meant to.

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As I stand over my dry kitchen sink in February 2021, working the handles even though I know no water will come, something catches my eye on the road outside. Our icy street has been empty for days, city officials saying we just have to let nature take its course. An eleven-year-old boy froze to death in his bed last night. Images of I-35 and the Mopac Expressway blanketed in snow—there are no plows—on the 6 AM news reminding us that we’re truly on our own until the storm is past. But something is on the road now. Not a vehicle, but an animal. A greyish-brown dog, no leash or owner in sight. It’s trotting down the exact middle of the street. As its bony ribs and patchy tail come into full view, I realize it’s a coyote. They don’t usually venture out during the day, yet here one is, loping along an empty street through the heart of our suburb. Its head is hung low, eyes darting from side to side in search of prey or danger. As it disappears over the hill, I feel a pang of sadness. With no water or firewood to use in our neglected fireplace and the threat of losing power at any minute, I watch this creature and wonder, where will it find water? Food? How will it stay warm in the record-breaking cold? I consider leaving some of our dog’s food outside for its pack. I’m surprised at my sympathy for a species I know killed my pet, but perhaps because I’m facing my own struggle for survival, I find that I can’t begrudge any living thing its fight for life. After all, they were here first. 

I scatter dog food on top of the ice in the front yard. The brown pellets frost over within an hour. As the sun sinks and we face another night of single digits, we blanket the windows and push towels against the bottoms of doors. In the dark, I listen to the heat run, waiting for the eerie silence that means the power has gone out. As I try to sleep, a question buzzes around my head like a mosquito—How much of this are we responsible for? 

In the morning, our house is still warm. Outside, the dog food is gone.


Rachael Greene is a nonfiction writer living in Austin, Texas. She is a contributor to the Southern Review of Books, an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte, and a part-time poet.

Todd Savage is Another Chicago Magazine‘s interviews editor.