Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Pieter K┼▒rbisesser

During harvest season in the town of Chervale, one can understand the superstitions that have arisen to explain its agricultural fertility.  Fragrant concord grapes weigh on trellises, engorged gourds swell in the grasses, and McIntosh apples are collected in bushels.  It is a strangely quiet hamlet and one can almost hear, or at least sense, the fecundity of its soil.  Its richness has been known at least since the Palatines were granted asylum to settle there by the tribal mothers of the Haudenosaunee, who took pity on the hardships they had faced in Germany and then in the region of the Hudson River.  They were permitted to farm and live in that verdant valley.  The soil was known to be rich when the Palatines arrived, but old stories attribute its potency to a disaster that came long after that.
Who can say this fertility did not come from the blood of innocents that was spilled on the soil, that entire community slaughtered by angry Seneca and Mohawk working with the British?  Who can say that this abundant life is not the result of the death that inspired George Washington to have Sullivan scorch the earth behind the Iroquois fleeing to Canada, never to return?  Death begets life and life begets death.  Perhaps that is blood edged on the yellow maple leaves of fall.  Perhaps the exceptional darkness of the beetroot and sumac in this valley is truly sanguine.  The autumnal colors in the surrounding hills have here a more crimson hue than elsewhere, and at the right time of sunset, for a brief moment, all is illuminated in a roseate light.  Rational explanations of these phenomena are absent.
Pieter Van Kahler settled in Chervale with his wife several years after the massacre.  He and Sophia started a farm and were fairly self-sufficient.  The young couple grew mostly corn, potatoes and rutabaga.  They had an old horse and a young goat for milking.  They were neither prosperous nor poor.  He and his wife worked hard, but lived well.  And he adored her.
They expected to have children, but after a few years on the farm they did not, and it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Sophia, though wanting a child, accepted the concept of a childless life gracefully.  Over those few years, she gradually decided it was God’s plan, becoming somewhat relieved of the responsibility since work on the farm was exhausting and her poor Pieter would have had to do even more if she was busy with child.  She was too pure a person to think that the burden of child in addition to farm work would be a strain on herself.
Pieter himself never belied his disappointment, because his disappointment was not so much that they didn’t have a child, but that he was worried about his wife’s happiness.  He believed that she must have felt inadequacy and shame since she was infertile, and he remained outwardly positive because he didn’t want her to suffer any more than she had.  He was incorrect in this thinking since they were childless due to his narrow urethra.  So, he stayed the strong and supportive husband and toiled side by side with her in the fields, and at times took the rifle and the horse for a few days and returned with venison and turkey.  They had meals of perch and potatoes, rabbit and rutabaga, and watched the sun set together, marveling quietly in those brief Chervale moments of roseate illumination that must have been God’s work.  Who else’s work could it be?
One autumn afternoon, Pieter was hunting a few miles from their farm when he spied a cotton tail a few yards ahead of him on the edge of a field.  He raised his rifle quietly and saw the rabbit down his sights as it raised its head, mouth munching, to look around.  When he shot, the animal somersaulted from the force of the bullet.  As he picked it up, fresh, warm blood dripped from the hole in the rabbit’s ribcage and onto Pieter’s boot.  He grabbed an exceptionally large leaf and broke it from its vine to wrap the rabbit before stuffing it in his game bag.  He realized this leaf had the same tactile, ciliate hairs of a squash plant and he investigated further.  He pushed, scraping through the immense tangle of vines and discovered a gigantic pumpkin, one larger than he had ever seen before.  It was sagged to the side like a rotting apple, but firm and fresh, a yellowish orange with a spattering of wart-like growths across its side.  It was the size of a small boulder and too large for him to carry.  He marveled at its size and shape.  Since it was impossible to transport, he found a sizable rock to break it apart.  After much trying, he returned home with a decent slab and many seeds that he was sure to plant in the spring.  That night his wife cooked the gourd’s flesh with butter and brandy, and the rabbit was delicious.
The following spring, Pieter planted his pumpkin seeds and watched them closely.  He marked the location of each cluster of buried seeds with colored sticks in a clearing behind their barn.  Eventually, only one sprout emerged and he was careful with his cultivation, fertilizing the already rich soil with the innards of fish and the offal of fowl.  To his credit, Pieter was an exceptional farmer, and he might have been referred to as a horticulturalist if there had been such a designation in those days.  When the orange flower buds began to yawn widely on their dark green stems, he was sure to hand pollinate each one.  When infant pumpkins began to swell on the vines, he chose the largest and healthiest one to save and pruned off the rest.  Useless branches of vine were cut away and soon his lone pumpkin began to grow exponentially through the season.  He did not let the growing of this pumpkin take him away from his regular work on the farm.  It was a pet project and he wanted to make it a gift to his wife, proving his capability as a farmer.  By late September it was more than twice the size of the pumpkin he found while hunting the year before.  When it was time to harvest, with the help of a neighbor and his mules, he hauled it to a strategic point in front of his house to present to his wife.  And she adored it.
The night he presented her the pumpkin, she was ecstatic.  When she saw it out from the brush and vines and so immense and prominent in the short grass in front of their home, her eyes went wide and she laughed with genuine surprise.  When she congratulated Pieter with a hug and a hard kiss to his cheek, she had a youthful blush he hadn’t seen in years.  Some of her hair was loose and hung like tendrils of silvery gold.  She even climbed up and sat on it laughing!  That night and during the following weeks there was so much intensity in passion Pieter was sure her problem was solved and she would have a child within the year.
The following winter was a long one.  They didn’t want for food as their stores were sufficient, but they endured a few blizzards and the snowpack was high.  Another storm at the end of March brought another two feet of snow and the rains of early April brought flooding to the region.  The creek at the back of their main field dammed with detritus and water inundated the property.  Their home was safe, but it took a long time for the water to recede and a longer time for the land to become farmable again, causing a late start to their season.  Stress began to show in Pieter’s normally cheerful eyes.  The length of the winter, the annoyance of the flood, the barrenness of his wife: all weighed on him heavily and he started thinking in that way that people do which is misguided and unhealthy.  He started to think he was being tested by some greater force and was failing. 
Many believe winter is the toughest season, but really it is spring.   Food stores are lower, yet the land is still barren and lifeless.  The trees are gray and empty and even though the air may be warming slightly, it is as cold as death.  That spring was even longer to Pieter than the previous winter and he spent a lot of time on his own wandering the countryside.  It was still too early to plant, so he’d wake just before dawn and walk and think.  Spring means another year of toil is coming.  Toil and work can be satisfying in its own right, but he began to ask himself: why?  Year after year, the same work, the same results and what?  Another year older, another year closer to death, another year of bloom and richness so it can just die and germinate again the next year, until one year he or his wife will simply be gone forever.  He lived the life of plants, the life of seasons and years and now that he was getting older, he was beginning to understand its futility.  He realized then that that was why he needed a child.  The child is the man regenerated.  The child is the reason.  He was being tested.  He knew suddenly that his purpose was to give his wife a child, to sow himself from her and he was not going to fail.  He was incorrect in this thinking because life does not have a purpose and he had a narrow urethra.
Eventually, the temperature became favorable, the cold rains slowed and they were able to resume the work and life they loved.  Pieter, though, had a plan.  He planted his pumpkin seeds again and would grow the largest pumpkin one had ever seen, and his wife, subsequently, would be even more fertile that fall than the previous year.  They had come so close and he had almost fixed her.  This harvest he would succeed.
He repeated his procedures from the previous year, marking the seed clusters and hand pollinating the pumpkin flowers.  He enriched the already potent soil with the chopped innards of fish and fowl even more than the previous year, and when the infant pumpkins finally began to grow he spared the largest and healthiest and pruned the others.  He carefully removed unhealthy leaves and daily saw to the maximum health of the overall plant.  But during this process there was more urgency than the year before.  His attention to the chosen pumpkin became intense, paranoiac.  Woodchucks and rabbits, which previously had been pests, were now malignant spirits which were shot, trapped and clubbed.  As time wore on, he worried about opossum, raccoon and deer at night.  He began to neglect his other duties and his wife as well.
By mid-August, Sophia was beginning to be concerned for her husband.  He always seemed distracted and distressed, so much that they barely spoke.  When they worked together in the field he would look back over his shoulder towards the patch near the barn, muttering and exhaling dramatically.  She was concerned, but not worried.  This behavior was no different than her father’s, who barely spoke to her mother, unless he was enraged about something, and that wasn’t even speaking.  Pieter was a much better husband to her than her father was to her mother.  Pieter was kind and cared for her and if he was going through a period of difficulty, she would let him work through it as he always did.
As the pumpkin grew, so did his mania.  He weeded the patch constantly.  He fertilized the soil with horse manure and goat droppings, but that wasn’t enough for him.  The rich soil of Chervale and the nutrients from the flood were not enough for him, and neither were the putrescent innards of small animals.  He wanted that pumpkin to grow.  When his wife was absent he would dig cat holes around the plant and defecate in them.  Daily he hauled buckets of water from the creek and poured them carefully around and over the plant.  He would dip a broom in a water bucket and shake it all over the leaves, evenly coating them with droplets.  He put a layer of sand underneath the pumpkin to prevent rot.  He washed the pumpkin daily with a cloth, shining it and checking for insects.  There were none.
On a cool night in September, Sophia lay next to him in bed; her hair tumbled about her and her mouth slightly open as she slept.  He could not sleep, his mind consumed.  He saw moonlight on the floor of their room, he heard his wife’s light breath, he sensed the warmth of their blankets, but he felt only the xylem and phloem of the plant behind his barn.  He quietly got out of bed and went to the pumpkin.  It was immense by now, almost as tall as him with a uniform girth and it had a bluish hue in the moonlight.  He wrapped his arms around it and they barely encircled halfway.  He felt the cool skin against his cheek and pressed his entire naked body against the pumpkin, cleansing and cool, and he believed it felt him as well, his passion, ardor and heat.  This was his desire and potency, a physical manifestation of his virility and capability, and would be planted within his wife to be born again and anew, a son that was in fact himself to last beyond the seasons and years, an eternal regeneration.  When he presented her with this pumpkin, she herself would swell with desire and bear him himself.  Many nights he repeated this routine, finding himself fertilizing the soil with a most crucial and seminal substance.
He was losing weight and was haggard and unkempt.  He was neglecting the rest of the farm because he spent nights with the pumpkin and slept days.  No matter what Sophia tried, he would not pay attention to her.  The corn harvest was destroyed because of deer and crows, the horse needed shoeing, and the other fields were unkempt and haggard as he was.  She worked and worked, but could not keep up with the weeds and the growth from that mythical Chervale soil.  She kept the goat milked and did her best, but Pieter was practically catatonic during the day and essentially unresponsive at night.  But then the first frost hit right before the end of October and the pumpkin was ready.  He came into the bedroom the morning after that first frost, shivering and dirty, but he looked his wife in the eyes for the first time in months when he woke her.  She lay back against her pillow, searching his face as he smelled of vegetation, soil and rot.  He was wild-eyed and grinning broadly, bearing crooked yellow teeth streaked with brown.  He told her that in one more night all would be ready.  He curled up in bed and slept until that night.
The pumpkin beckoned.  Soil richer than coagulated blood, feeding and growing, swelling lust and burgeoning potency, the sky black, the moon white and the pumpkin blue: he crawled to its base.  On his knees sinking into the dark earth, he ran his hands across supple blue skin so cool, so cleansing.  Soon he was face down, prostrate, his arms encircling the base, fecund earth caressing his skin, seeping into self, xylem and phloem.  He felt the sticky scratch of the vines, hairy like spiders’ legs, twisting around his toes, the balls of his feet, tickling around his calves and the backs of his knees, tightening joyously on his throat and down around his armpits, grinding with that rich mud and squeezing him so tightly, his useless palms could only hold the base of the pumpkin.
The sun rose to a crisp fall morning.  Some leaves remained on the scarlet oaks, but by then the maples and elms were bare.  The cornfield was rippled with erratically broken stalks.  Sophia woke alone and saw no sign of her husband.  He had frightened her the morning before, but he did tell her that it was ready, whatever it was.  She assumed he was referring to the pumpkin and was glad the growing season was finally done with, although they would be in a predicament if the coming winter and spring were like the last.  Their farm, and subsequently, their stores, were in shambles.
The pumpkin was colossal in the morning sunshine.  It was five feet high and its girth twice that.  She marveled at its orange hue.  Pieter had sawn off the massive vines and arranged them in a gigantic wreath around its base, twining them in a complicated and beautiful braid, with some leaves acting as speckled ornaments.  Outside the wreath a saw had been dropped, its teeth glutted with vegetable matter, but there was no sign of her husband.  It really was a beautiful sight and she was glad her husband had succeeded so well at something he worked on, but she was relieved this whole ordeal was over.  Maybe now he could rest, or at least direct his energies in a better way.  But where was he?  As the day wore on, she convinced herself he had gone hunting, that he was to return in the afternoon with some rabbit and they would again have a wonderful dinner and watch the sunset together.  It had been so long since they enjoyed their life in that most essential of ways.
As evening approached he still hadn’t returned and she began to worry.  He had seemed so crazed the last time she saw him and his demeanor had switched so drastically and quickly.  She began to think that he wasn’t hunting rabbit, that something more sinister was afoot.  She fantasized about her old Pieter, the younger one, returning hopeful and happy with that slab of pumpkin she had cooked with butter and brandy.  She would see him enter with his game bag full and a slab of this new and most beautiful of pumpkins…but he wouldn’t cut this one up, for sure.  Then she remembered the saw, its teeth clogged with cellulose that was orange and yellow.
She burst out the door and ran calling his name.  She ran around the barn as the sun was descending behind the far hills.  She got to the pumpkin, breathing heavily and still calling for her husband, looking about, hoping he would emerge from the brush.  She saw the top of the pumpkin had been sawn off and then replaced like a cap fitted perfectly in place.  The stem was too far for her when she reached up to grab it.  She thought she heard someone behind her and whipped wildly around, but no one was there.  The milking stool!  She ran to the barn and grabbed the stool. She placed it at the base of the pumpkin.  The tip of the sun was just blinking behind the distant hills, and then began that haunting roseate illumination exclusive to the hamlet of Chervale.  She reached the stem and pulled with all her might and the top of the pumpkin came free from its setting.  She almost fell backwards as she let it fall to the ground.  The air was charged with radiant pink as she leaned forward and looked down through the hole to see her husband, writhing and squirming like a naked fetus in an orange amniotic fluid, smeared and bearded, bearing discolored teeth, looking at her with wide and wild eyes, and laughing maniacally.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

            H is an intergalactic entity, an alien on earth if we were to impose on him our human-centered labels.  In actuality, he does not have a name or a gender.  We ascribe these concepts to more easily understand his story.  We are unable to describe him physically because he is not composed of anything our human senses can detect. The closest we can get to describing him is that he is a form of conscious and sentient energy that sees though all time.  It is the human conceit that keeps us from understanding that extra-terrestrials are among us.  Not only do we insist that aliens should be elongated, advanced and brainy hominids, we also believe that they can exist only if we can detect them with our meager senses.  In fact, aliens similar to H have been around us through all human existence, passing through our bodies and our lives on a regular basis: we just don’t know they are there.
            H is a special entity, though.  He is a student of life and he loves it in all its forms and because of his obsession with the beauty of life he is especially consumed with the planet Earth.  It is fact, not human conceit, that Earth is by far the most spectacular planet when it comes to organic life—the only type of life of which our limited brains can perceive.  The few places in the universe that support organic life do so only in short spurts and it rarely advances past unicellular organisms.  Earth, though, is a rich and complicated anomaly that H has watched with fascination for eons.
            Because he can see (again in terms with which we can relate) through all time, his experience with life on Earth is like a bourgeoning symphony.  Proliferations of colors like blossoming wildflowers flare and fade, organic life surging and swirling in churning mists in eternal beauty.
            He enjoys cycling life and doesn’t shrink from the brutality of existence and survival.  With neither the voyeurism of a sadist nor the self-indulgence of a masochist, he watches the dynamic of predator and prey with platonic clarity and comprehends the necessity of these relationships without the affliction of sentiment.  Unburdened with the human instinct to protect the large-eyed and soft he is unaffected by the snake striking the fox pup, the hummingbird stuck in the eager spider’s web.  Death and pain are ubiquitous as is birth and pleasure and H revels in the beauty of all, but he does have a sense of fairness and although he is a passive observer and student of life here on earth he finds himself at issue with, you guessed it, human beings.  H has no issue with the power of a lion over the calf of a gazelle, nor is he bothered by piranha devouring en masse an injured caiman 100 times the size of an individual fish.  If humans were to catch baby rabbits, snap their necks and devour them whole he would be fine with that too.
H’s issues with humans begin with whales and end with elephants.  He witnesses humans developing into creatures like no other with the capacity to kill creatures they shouldn’t be able to even approach.  Why should a creature with dull sight, terrible hearing, no real sense of smell, antennae, a creature that is slow, weak, with no sharp teeth, claws or even fins or wings for that matter hunt and slaughter a forty foot 130,000 pound creature that lives in the middle of the ocean, making the multitudinous seas incarnadine?  Humans can’t even swim for more than a few minutes at a time, yet they are able to destroy these magnificent behemoths.  They slice and powder the horns of dangerous ungulates with impunity.  Nowhere else in the natural world does this hold true.  Ants may gang up en masse on a larger creature, but they are built for it.  They have incredible strength and severe mandibles.  Bacteria multiply and destroy their host but that is their purpose.  But take as many men as you can find and have them, naked, with no weapons or tools, attempt to take down African elephant?  Good luck.  These clever buggers somehow found a way to do such things and for no other reason than for their entertainment.  Destruction of the environment and loss of animal life was acceptable for H.  He knew of the beauty that would rise from the ashes of mankind.  It was really just that humans shouldn’t have been able to do what they did to animals better than them.  That was what bothered H to the point where he broke his code of observation and took action.
He pinpointed a time in Earth to influence the course of events.  In what is currently Africa, Australopithecus were beginning to get cocky.  They were using tools, coming down from the trees, walking upright to see over the grasslands.  They were forming tightly-knit groups and advancing their forms of communication almost to the point of abstraction.  They were beginning to be a threat to the larger animals around them even though physically they were a joke. 
H intervened in the least intrusive way possible.  He found a moment when a matriarchal pachyderm had been startled by a lone, baby Australopithecus.  In this moment the large beast reacted aggressively, as they often did, and stepped on the young creature squishing it to death.  At that very moment H “passed through” her.  As I said before, H is a form of incomprehensible energy that cannot be detected by organic creatures’ senses.  But if he or one of any similar entities in the universe hesitates while passing through a creature, it can stimulate the electrical impulses in a brain and trigger physical reactions.  If you have ever randomly forgotten what you were about to say or do, you were probably “passed through” briefly. It happens all the time.  Other reactions include sneezing, hiccoughs, yawns, and epileptic fits.  And all it took was one pass through this matriarchal beast to change the course of human evolution.
H passed through and aligned himself in a way that produced an intense orgasmic reaction in the animal’s brain at the moment she stepped on that stupid little monkey.  The result was an epiphany.  From then on the giant pachyderm would step on small hominids every opportunity she had, reveling in the feeling it gave her to crush that warm, hairy mass between her toes.  She loved to hear the twig-like bones crunch and the snap and pop of spines and skulls squishing into the terrain.  Frankly, she hadn’t felt that good since early adolescence.  She did it with such glee and enthusiasm that the other deinotheriidae took notice.  Being the sentient and socially imitative creatures they were, others in her herd tried it and felt the surge of excitement and energy that comes with stomping on a little creature, just like kindergarteners with June bugs.  Soon, across the grasslands and in forests one could see elephants in ecstasy twisting a foreleg into the earth and letting out a joyous bellow.  Of course they couldn’t catch all the little monkeys they saw and they didn’t want to.  They still had their own pachydermic lives and concerns: feeding, drinking, protecting their calves from lions and such, as well as maintaining their complicated social lives.  But if one of those little monkeys strayed too far from a tree or was bold or stupid enough to ambulate challengingly across the plain, then that was another story.

The monkeys, for their part, soon realized the dangers in the deinotheriidae and stuck to the trees.  They were more on guard and less bold.  They couldn’t cover as much territory which meant less interaction with other groups, which meant a shallower gene pool, as they say.  They never developed any tools worth more than ones used to dislodge termites.  They never developed tools to injure themselves.  They never developed agriculture or had societies or churches or whaling ships.  They lived in trees, mated and sometimes successfully raised young and died at a decent age.  They spent their spare time eating lice and masturbating and throwing feces at each other.  And they were content.   

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Old man Ody

Old man Ody
            Old man Ody adjusted himself in his chair, grimacing from the pain of moving but more from the pain of angry thinking that had dominated his life.  Ten years before, he turned his chair away from the window towards the television.  The twenty-four hour news channel played without sound, but Old man Ody watched the attractive brunette newscaster and the scrolling news feed below her.  Mass shootings in churches.  Celebrity overdoses.  People blown up in sand.  He had been angry and miserable enough in his younger days but now he was alone with cancer with his eyes ingesting more malignancy each day, anger scrolling in unintelligible script through his brain.
            He had been looking for his cat all morning and had given up for the moment figuring it had gotten outside.  It was strictly an indoor cat and he was worried it escaped while he was putting out the garbage.  That mangy thing had been darting out the door into the breezeway the past few weeks and he had grab it and put it back inside a few times already.  He sat and breathed and watched television until a mortgage commercial came on.
            It was almost lunch time and at any moment the mailman would knock once and then let himself inside the house.  They would lunch together for twenty minutes with a bottle of Canadian Club.  Old man Ody only drank at lunch and only drank with the mailman.  They had two glasses each and spoke to each other but not with each other.  Jim the mailman would expatiate on fishing although he hadn’t been out fishing himself in years.  Old man Ody would usually complain about minorities even though his community was profoundly homogenous and he rarely left his home or spoke to anyone but the mailman.  Their conversations usually went like the one the day before:
--Mark’s got himself a fine walleye last week…twelve pounder.  Worm on the bottom, he said.  Worm on the bottom, I said.  Worm on the bottom, twelve pounds?  I never seen a twelve pounder on a worm.  Large shiners’ how ya do it.  Worm on the bottom…
--I’m telling you they need a checkpoint on Altamont Avenue.  The blacks are coming in from there.  In droves.  Nah, a checkpoint with machine guns and all.  That’ll do it.
--Getting a twelve pounder with worms on the bottom?  More like to get a pike than that.  Nah, Marcus’s full of it.  Shiners or suckers.  Twelve pounder.  You know why pikes’ so big in Europe and Germany?  Cause they don’t have finny fish, only soft fish and the pikes gobble’em up an get fat.
--Some black kid showed up at my door with a badge trying to sell me some power or natural gas or something.  Badge looked fake to me.  And I says unless you got a warrant get the fuck off my porch.  And he says ‘Warrant?’  And I said yes, to be arrested or to search my house.  Otherwise, get the fuck off my porch.
            These dueling diatribes would last twenty minutes and Jim the mailman would drain the last bit of flavor from his ice and say, “See ya tomorrow, Ody,” and continue on his route.  Old man Ody would watch the news and nod off for a few hours.
            He opened his back door and yelled, “Fucknose!  Fucknose cat!” and scanned the catless back yard.  He went back and slumped in his chair and looked back at the television.  California was on fire again.  He paused and got up and looked out the window, searching again for the cat.
            “Fucknose,” he mumbled. 
He turned his chair from the television toward the window to the position it was in ten years before when he had a bird feeder.  That did not go well.  His daughter moved out when she was fifteen and when she was twenty and pregnant she came back to visit and thought she might make a connection with her father.  She was mistaken.  She found his irritability and stubbornness impossible and gave up after three visits.  His loneliness vexed her, though, so she bought him a bird feeder and wild bird feed and set it up in the crabapple tree out in his side yard.  “Why can’t you be happy that I’m happy?” is the last thing she said to him.  He enjoyed the feeder but didn’t like the way his cat would jump on the windowsill so he drilled sheet rock crews through the bottom of the sill as needle-sharp stalagmites.  The cat only jumped on the sill once after that. 
            He really liked the cardinals.  He had been retired for three years after thirty working as a custodian at the local high school.  Although he didn’t miss work, he was bored and the feeder was active with life.  Unfortunately squirrels found and dominated the feeder and that he could not abide.  He relieved the feeder of the squirrels with his air rifle.  After a week there was an accumulation of fourteen dead squirrels tossed over his shed into the neighbor’s corn field.  When the squirrels were gone he found the blue jays to be bullies.  They were harder to shoot so he removed the sheet rock screws from the sill to steady his elbows. When he was rid of the blue jays, starlings and house sparrows arrived in droves and he focused much of his day on them.  He stopped using pellets and moved on to BB’s to save time and money.  By the time the feeder was clear of these pests, Fucknose arrived at the back door mewing plaintively with the male cardinal dead in his jaws.
He removed the feeder, dumped it in the garbage, made Fucknose an indoor cat and turned his chair from the window toward the television.
Fifteen was a portentous number for Old man Ody.  Fucknose had been around for fifteen years until that day, both his son and daughter moved out of his house when they turned fifteen, and he moved out of his father’s house when he turned fifteen.  Ody left his father’s house rather than his parents’ house because his mother was killed in Italy during World War II when he was seven years old.  His parents met in the emergency room when she was a nursing intern and his father arrived with a foot he badly mangled after setting a bear trap.  His foot became as useless to him as he was to the armed services.  His mother left father and son for the war effort and was blown to pieces by an Italian shell while dismantling a field hospital.
Old man Ody’s old man worked in a carpet mill and arrived home from work at 7 pm, and that’s when Ody was allowed to enter the house.  He’d spend afternoons with a friend or two and then wait at the picnic table in his backyard until his father arrived.  Rarely, a friend’s mother would realize his situation and invite him in at dinner time, but Ody would always decline, knowing his father’s wrath at potential embarrassment.  When he was finally allowed in the house, he had to wash up, comb his hair and put on formal clothing for dinner as his dad sat at the table, grimy and smelling of benzene and toluene as he forked chunks of butter fried liver and onions into his mouth.  His father controlled a lot.  He controlled the food with a locked cabinet, he controlled the use of hot water with a timer, he controlled the climate of Ody’s bedroom with sealed windows, and even controlled the distribution of toilet paper by allotting three squares for each trip to the bathroom.  Old man Ody’s old man was so intolerable Ody started working at the age of nine and moved out by fifteen. 
He carried on his father’s parenting tradition after his own wife died giving birth to his daughter.  While the doctor was performing a cesaerian an artery was nicked and that was it:  Ody became Old man Ody.  He began with his son who was ten.  The boy needed structure with no mother and he needed to grow up fast and help with his family.  The boy moved out five years later, the girl ten years after that.
Still no Fucknose.  He boiled some egg noodles, drained them and dumped in a can of Hormel chili.  He hunched over his bowl at the kitchen table and munched in silence.  When he sat upright too quickly the pain pierced in his back again and he gasped.
He’d been to the doctor a few weeks prior because the pain was something worth discussing and his urine clouded the toilet water with red.  In the outpatient clinic which fit snugly between a Chinese restaurant and a Payless shoe store, he sat snugly between a coughing woman in a large coat and a heavy man with a soiled white captain’s hat, the television on the wall garish with a morning show.  Captain hat was sharing loudly his history of back pain to the receptionist as she was assisting someone else on the phone, although he said he was really there because of the diabetic sores on his forearms and calves.  The woman coughed violently into a paper towel, rattling the phlegm on her lung walls.  The perky hostess seated at a coffee table rolled her eyes in an exaggerated gesture as her cohost and the studio audience burst out in amplified laughter.  When he was called to the examination room, he stood eagerly.  He hated being examined in any way, but he would have been just as eager to leave that scene if he were going to a proctologist.  The doctor’s fingers were soft and cold like his stethoscope, but his manner was soft and warm.  After some questions during the examination, the doctor seemed not concerned but serious.  He wanted an X-ray and they brought Old man Ody to a back room for imaging.  He returned to the waiting room, but the two other patients were gone and he sat in the corner next to a dusty ficus and under studio laughter.  Back in the examination room a half-hour later, the doctor showed him a mass on his kidney and had the receptionist make an appointment for tests and a meeting with a specialist at the hospital.  When he stepped out into the strip mall parking lot the air was cold and the sun was glaringly noon-bright.  He never went back to that doctor and never met with the specialist.  He disconnected his phone a week later after getting too many follow up calls from the clinic.  He rarely made any calls on his phone anyway and only used it to tell telemarketers to “Fuck off.”
Still no Fucknose.  He sat in his chair.  The television did not change, in fact, it never will he thought.  California will always be on fire and people will always die in sand the same way those in Louisiana will fret over pederasts and floods.  There will always be sinkholes in Florida that swallow chlorine pools and Volkswagens.  Alligators will eat Jack Russell Terriers and mountain towns in Vermont will become islands in need of food drops.
Old man Ody took out the Canadian Club and the ice tray and quickly drank the bottle dry.  He fell asleep in his chair as the television glared silently in front of him and he dreamed he was a boy again but living in his present house.  He heard whining, a dog’s whine, and pushed open the back door and stepped from the breezeway into a bleak back yard.  The whining became louder and more acute as he tried to locate it.  The sound did not hurt his ears but rather the whole of his being.  He was in a panic when he realized it was coming from behind the shed and it was a puppy.  Although he couldn’t see it, he knew it was a yellow lab with brown eyes, a big nose and little puppy teeth.  He went behind his shed and found not a neighbor’s cornfield but an immense cement wall.  In the space between the wall and the back of his shed was a pile of blue dock barrels stacked high.  The whining from underneath the barrels turned to yelping as he desperately tried to lift them and the sharp edges of the rounded ends of the barrels cut into his soft young hands.  The cries grew louder and felt like they were coming from himself as he pulled uselessly and realized they were all bolted together in a complicated pattern, the bottom barrels lag bolted hopelessly in the concrete below.  He woke vomiting onto the front of his shirt.  He trudged into the bathroom, bumping against the door jamb and colored the toilet water and spattered the toilet seat and linoleum floor with crimson urine.  He was in a blur and would not remember anything past dinner.  “Fucknose cat,” he mumbled and stumbled out the back door into the open yard. 
The grass was a light blue from the moon and a 3 am stillness and quiet prevailed, not just an absence of noise but a vacuum of sound with the stillness of eternity.  The barren branches of the black crabapple tree posed cracks in the starless sky, the bright moon cancelling all other light.  He plodded to his shed and leaned his forehead against the splintery cedar shakes, staying in that position half asleep for several minutes, his bare feet insensitive to the frozen grass.  He wheeled around with his eyes wide looking back at his house, light glaring from the open back door.  He thought maybe the cat went in the house, but instead of checking he stumbled towards the back of his shed.  The line of staghorn sumac that delineated the space behind his shed was as empty as the cornfield.  He pushed through the branches and fell onto the frozen earth.  The field was barren, endless dirt furrows like a lesson in perspective, frozen clods with chopped cornstalk poking out like rebar.  Raising himself he stumbled towards the middle of the openness, the moon lighting a disconsolate blue his breath and useless hands that palsied in front of his useless eyes as he began his useless screams in that vacuum of silence and the farther he stumbled from his house into the middle distance, the farther he was from the distant invisible tree line as his screams became immense jabberings lost in the skin of atmosphere and the coldness and immensity of all.

Draft December 2016

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Skaters

The Skaters
            They stepped out from the warmth of their home and into the bitter cold of the street, he holding the canvas bag containing their ice skates and she locking their heavy oaken door.  The sun was already behind the trees and the other houses but its strength was in the undersides of the empty branches as the couple started down the slate plates of the walkway.  It wasn’t late enough yet, but soon the gas lights would illuminate the avenue when the sun was gone completely.  Clear wood smoke heat wavered above chimneys and dark coal smoke issued from others.  As they walked towards the river arm in arm, a motor car rattled down the cobblestones.
“Ghastly,” he said.  “Knowlton idles that beast continually in front of our home and poisons us with that exhaust.  I’m going to have a talk with him the next time he does it.”
“I don’t notice it, dear.  Our windows are sealed for winter.  Besides,” she kidded shaking his arm lightly, “you just don’t like it because it’s not electric.”
“They will be I can guarantee you that.  And these will be before you know it,” he said motioning to the streetlights.  “We’re already in major negotiations in the city…”
“I know, dear.  We saw them in Manhattan and you already told me and we’re not talking about work tonight.  You promised.”
“Are you sure you want to skate?  It’s terribly cold tonight and windy.”
“I just needed to get out of the house and move around a little.  Not for long.  It’ll be dark soon anyway.”
She stopped for a moment to adjust her fox boa snugly under her chin and gave her husband a smile.  He was so serious all the time, a naval man just like her father:  Serious, strong, successful and kind.  He already had a formation of ice in the top of his moustache below his nostrils but she said nothing about it because he would become distracted.  She took his dense woolen arm and they continued down to the river. 
At the base of the iron suspension span that crossed the river was a small shed provided by the river club.  In its shelter from the wind and glaring sun, they laced up their skates quickly with exposed and aching fingers, crisp puffs of exhalation quickly dissipating.  Fastidiously slipping on their gloves with excited yet forced laughter they patted their hands together to remove the chill saying, “Ooh,” ”Oh,” and “Wow!”
They navigated the boards of the small ramp down to the ice carefully and awkwardly and then slid out on to the ice quickly gaining their balance once moving.  It was a dry but cold winter and the ice was ideal for skating, smooth, clear, and eighteen inches thick at least. The sun was now in the trees that bordered the river but still glaringly strong and she loved sun like this before it disappeared in one last “Huzzah” as it were. The wind gusts were strong enough to wobble them, both competent and competitive with their skates, but they glided along gaining speed and holding hands and laughing when one cut to the left or right to surprise the other in a game they had played for years without tire.
There were other groups of skaters, black forms in the waning rays of the sun, single skaters and couples languidly arm in arm.  Two groups of boys at the base of the span were sliding a heavy rock as far as they could between them, yelling and gesticulating at a strong throw as they parted and then chased it down the ice, groaning and gesticulating when the return slide fell short of the other group.  Short but potent gusts of wind challenged all on the ice including the raucous and immense flock of crows downriver calling and flying between trees and ice, black dots peppering the blue and white.
They stopped skating and turned back upwind when they reached the railroad span about a quarter mile downriver by the ice cutter’s office with its distinct trail of wood smoke from the stove inside.  She remembered this spot the previous June afternoon when she expressed how she liked the yellow river lilies on the river’s edge, they were so tall and dense and wild and she would love to get some bulbs to plant in their yard.  She thought if she soaked them enough and put them in the sunny corner of their yard they might take.  Her husband took a trowel and a metal pail and scrambled down through the brambles trying not to grunt as she said, “It’s okay, dear.  I don’t need them…be careful.”  With the pail filled with an appropriate amount of river mud for the bulbs, he clambered back up the slope protecting the protruding stalks and flowers as best he could when he upset a nest of hornets.  He yelled at her to back away but they only had interest in him.  How swollen his face and hands became!  And he never grieved her for it, not once, no matter how she apologized and she really hoped the lilies would take to their yard, wild river lilies so stalwart and vibrant.
“How’re you feeling, dear?” he asked.
“I feel comfortable now we’re moving.  I did need time out of the house tonight.  No matter how I feel it has to be better than when we were here last June.  The lilies?”
“Look up there,” he said pointing up the ice past the metal span.  A small herd of deer were trotting deftly and briskly across the ice from the river’s edge to the island followed by the slouching gait of a coyote.  The sun had now set completely behind the trees and the sky was a brilliant purple and red, the kind of color nature produces only in the sky and in the organs of animals.  She watched the deer disappear into the bronchial trees of the island and then the coyote as well.  There was still considerable light left and some more time to skate as they reached the span and the skating shed when she thought about using a skating sail.  There were two for use in the shed and when she asked her husband he agreed a run or two may be nice.
As they approached the shed the groups of boys were breaking up, some heading to the north shore and some to the south exiting past the shed.  As they entered the ice with a sail one of the boys about eleven years old stopped and regarded them.  He had no skates but boots, black woolen trousers and a dark blue pea coat.  His hair was sweaty and frozen in chunks at the ends, his cheeks were bright red and he had an ample amount of mucus streaming from both his nostrils.  He stared at them with eyes of an almost caustic blue. 
“Hello, young man. Did you have enough of the cold today?”
“Yes, sir” replied the boy as he continued staring at the two.  “Are you taking that out, sir?”
“Why, yes we are.  Just for a breeze or two before dark.”
“Well sir, just be aware they’s thin ice on the far side down there,” he said pointing to the north end of the railroad span.  “Thems ice cutters been taking blocks out but you can’t see because of the thin ice over it.”
“Well thank you, young man.  We are very much aware and that’s why we’ve stayed on this side of the river.  But you can see they have it properly marked.”  He chuckled, “And here I wanted to warn you about the dangers of playing so close to the span because the ice here can be quite unsettled.  Thank you again.  And what is your name?”
“Alex J. Thompson, Jr., sir,”
“You be careful getting home, Alex Thompson.”
“What a fine young man,” he said to his wife when the boy walked up the boards of the ramp.
The river was fairly empty at this point since the boys were gone.  There was a pair skating on the north bank and one person for whom they wanted to wait in case the sail took them too quickly and they should disturb him or collide with him.  After a minute or two, the skater turned left towards the north bank and they had a wide open stretch of river to use the sail.  They positioned themselves and each took hold with one hand an end the sail and with the other the middle support bar.  “Are you ready?” she looked to her husband with a bright excited smile.  Before he responded they were in position and a strong gust took hold of them and they began to hurtle down the ice. 
She felt the power in her own legs and arms as she arched herself to gain speed, her husband doing the same as they glided over the ice faster and faster.  They worked perfectly as a pair controlling their direction as one, reading and adjusting to the other to keep straight much as they had always done in life.  They hadn’t the problems of others of which she heard so often in the gossip of her social groups.  Two weeks prior he did arrive home in the middle of the night senseless with alcohol but that was the only time in the seven years since they moved here that it ever happened.  He had to entertain some colleagues from New Jersey and told her he would be late, but he arrived home at 4 am and knocked over a table lamp in the foyer.  She had to help him into the bedroom and he was mumbling insensibly.  She remembered being glad they hadn’t any children yet.  He smelled fruitfully pungent with whiskey but she did not smell any women on him.  She knew all too well that many of his other colleagues at General Electric frequented the brothels by the lower canal and really believed he wouldn’t have accompanied them there.
When she got him comfortably into bed, she fell asleep beside him and then awoke with him on top of her.  He didn’t speak and she wasn’t afraid but she felt his strength but not his touch.  When he collapsed and began to snore next to her she lay for some time with the blankets off her to cool her skin.  When she woke in the morning he was already cleaned, shaved and dressed in his collar and coat.  He was sitting at a table in the kitchen drinking tea and reading some documents.  When she was in the doorway in her bed gown with her hair tumbled down her back and she stood watching him, he said without looking up, “I apologize terribly that I let the alcohol ruin my judgment and it will never happen again.  I promise.”
“Alright, you let go!” he shouted and she released her end of the sail and they continued to glide quickly, but slowed themselves into a U-turn by the ice cutter’s shack.
“That was exhilarating!” she proclaimed breathing heavily, her teeth bright white and her cheeks reddened.  “One more before we go.”
“Alright, dear.  But just one because it’ll be too dark soon.”
By the time they skated back up to the shed to begin their last run, the river was essentially empty.  The pair of skaters had merged with the single skater to become a trio heading home on the north bank far upriver.  There was still good visibility but soon gaslights would be burning amid the low tree branches above the quiet cobbled streets.  “Okay, one more,” he huffed as they turned the sail into the steady breeze.  They started off slowly and steadily and were trying to arch themselves to gain speed but the wind was not cooperating so when they hit a decent but uneventful speed they began their game of changing direction suddenly to offset the other.  They were about halfway down the river when an exhilaratingly powerful gust took them by surprise and hurtled them at a speed which soon became uncontrollable.  Before they could even communicate with each other they were speeding into the thin ice on the north bank where the ice cutters had been working.

One cold night a few weeks prior the couple was seated in their respective chairs watching the fire in their hearth and listening to the phonograph when her husband admitted to her that he did not believe in God.  She was honestly surprised because they were active at St. George’s, regular attendees and volunteers.  He never showed any indication that he felt this way and she asked him why hadn’t he said anything and also why did he attend so much if he didn’t believe?
“Simply, I don’t want to bother other people with my own thoughts.  I also like the church itself quite a bit.  So it’s really not an issue but that’s how I feel.  I simply see it as impossible, just stories made up by men, and to devote your life, your soul to it?  I don’t mind it, I just don’t believe it.”
“But why haven’t you told me?” she asked turning herself towards him.
“I don’t want to bother you with my thoughts either.  I see how you enjoy it, the comfort it brings you, the good it does for people.  All I’m saying is that I don’t think any of it is true.  Just stories made up by men.”
“Of course they’re stories made up by men but that doesn’t mean they’re not true.  They’re beautiful.  That’s what makes them real.  Or true for that matter,” she insisted.  “I mean it’s like what Keats said about truth and beauty being one in the same.”
“Oh, you and your poetry,” he chuckled.
“But it’s true.  When we are there in that gorgeous stone church you don’t get a feeling?  It’s where everyone is equal and when we sing, I believe it, in it.”
“But really that feeling is just communion and it doesn’t have to do with God’s existence.  Once again, I don’t want to upset anyone and I enjoy it there.  I just don’t believe in the stories made up by men.”
“Those stories are beautiful though and that’s what makes them true.  There may not have been a real Adam and Eve or a Moses but the stories are true.  Last week in our poetry club…”
“Poetry club,” he said
“Yes, poetry club,” she laughed.  “We discussed The Lady of Shallott and it is such a beautiful poem and it is so true.  There was no ‘lady’ and it doesn’t matter if there was.  For all I know there may not have even been a Tennyson because it doesn’t matter.  He wrote in a way the story has a life of its own, it’s remote.  Just like the bible, remote and beautiful and true.”  She gave him a sidelong glance and smiled, “And I didn’t study at Elmira for nothing…”
“Well, I certainly know you are true,” he said leaning back.

When they crashed through the ice she experienced a searing mix of panic and pain.  She was surprised at how low she was in the water, struggling to get her head above the surface amid frantic splashing.  Amid the turmoil she heard her husband exhale low and powerful grunts that rose in pitch.  She felt him push her up against the edge of ice and try to lift her up but it was impossible.  All sensation was burning and she felt her muscles recoil into cramps but she managed to get one arm up on the ice.  She felt him kicking and attempting to heave her up onto the ice but it was futile as all he was doing was crushing her breast and ribcage against the edge of ice.  “Get up!” he screamed as he jostled her desperately, but she was too waterlogged and cramped and no matter how she struggled she kept slipping down.  He kept pushing and trying to power her up on the ice, his breathing painful to hear and his eyes wild in panic and desperation in a way she knew was possible deep in her self, but wished she never had seen it in this life.  She realized he felt the same pain and panic but now he had exhausted himself and must be cramping up as much as she.  She could barely breathe.  She started to scream for help.  She screamed loudly and repeatedly through the pain and panic, through the burning.  And when she started screaming she saw her husband look at her as he slid beneath the water and felt his touch for the last time.
“I’m telling you they was planning to put in a street right here behind us down to the water.  They was planning on it and now they will soon’s there’s thaw,” the ice man was explaining to his son.  They were sitting in the shack with the burning wood stove.
“You hear that?” the son sat up alert.
The father sat up quickly and quietly and listened and they both distinctly heard a woman’s scream.  The son began to scrape the frost from the window to peer out at the river while the father slipped his feet into boots and broke open the door to the shack and stumbled into the frigid evening.  “Get the pikes,” the father yelled.  The two ran out onto the ice towards the figure clinging to its edge and realized they needed a boat to rescue this woman and ran back to the shore, got one and dragged it across the ice.  (The rescue would not be successful.)
Her screams for help became screams of “no” as his body disappeared below hers.  The wool of her sleeve and her fox boa had become frozen on top of the ice. She could barely move at all so she started to sink with him but was tethered by her neck and arm to the surface.  Then she felt pressure below her skates that raised her slightly to keep her from drowning.  “No, no,” she sobbed.  “Don’t.  No.” 
He had braced himself on the bottom and held her by her skates just enough to keep her head above water.  She felt his strength but not his touch.  The wind howled in her ears, her body flexed and cramped without her control and she thought how strange it is that life can simply end.  Like this. She heard shouting but couldn’t respond.  She felt his strength but all she wanted was to feel his touch again, to die with his touch and not his strength.  The railway span loomed above her as she was eye level with the water like some duck.  She looked below and saw the crescent of his forehead and his hair waving like sea grass in the dark water.  She heard yelling and saw figures moving but she couldn’t move herself, her arm frozen to the surface of the ice, she could barely think.  The wind blew strong again as the night grew darker and she began  murmuring, “They come for me with pikes and poles, my love, pikes and poles, they come for me, I feel your strength but not your touch, my love, pikes and poles for me, my love, poles and pikes.”

Draft  September 2016 

Monday, August 15, 2016

La Rata No Es Bueno

La Rata No Es Bueno
Beyond the hanging Spanish moss a wobbly splintered dock ran out into the tidal flat rife with small crabs.  A methodical flock of white ibis combed slowly through the mud, probing with red decurved bills fanning along and other than a few stragglers eventually disappeared behind a stand of saw palmetto.  The morning sun was gathering its strength and radiated through the marshland and channels with a light haze around the distant islands as a ship moved soundlessly through the Intracoastal Waterway.  A few lean deer with twitching, delicate ears moved soundlessly as well as cautiously around the edge of the salt marsh.  As Maureen sipped her morning tea, she noticed a little tree frog sticking to the picture window behind her.  When it noticed her interest, it edged sideways along the glass and flattened itself against the door jamb. 
Maureen had been living here for more than a year and she still had trouble believing it was real.  She and her husband Albert had retired a few years prior and they decided to sell out their home in Long Island and purchase this home in Beaufort, South Carolina.  They bought their first home in 1979 for forty thousand dollars and thirty two years later sold it for nine times as much.  It was a tidy ranch house that was fit to raise their daughter who moved on her own twelve years ago to San Francisco.  Over the years they maintained and remodeled portions of the house as needed and in the end it was their greatest investment.  When Maureen’s father had finally passed away two years ago, they could finally ask themselves what they would want to do with the rest of their own lives.  They had visited their daughter in San Francisco several times and thought of moving out there because of its beauty and their grandchildren, but property was so expensive it would be a step backwards for them.  But Maureen had a friend from high school that lived in Charleston and they had a wonderful time visiting there.  The people were so friendly, the seafood so fresh, the weather so not freezing that they started to ask about real estate opportunities and when they compared the housing prices and the tax rates, they decided on moving.  All they had were a few adult cousins left on Long Island and both Maureen and Al realized they could live without barbeque birthday parties around an above ground pool.  So with Albert’s pension from Con Edison, and Maureen’s retirement from thirty years at the Department of Motor Vehicles, they sold their Long Island ranch home and bought this house on the water south of Charleston.  It was secluded but part of a gated golf club community.  They would joke to each other that their life had become a never ending vacation.
They spent mornings golfing, afternoons on the boat and evenings enjoying Al’s new love of healthy cooking.  After dinners of oysters, shrimp or fish and vegetables, they would relax on the back deck with a glass of white wine both content with a life deserved.  They both discovered joys and interests they hadn’t known before.  Aside from maintaining his boat and working on his short golf game, Al started to collect and repair old radios in his garage workshop.  Maureen discovered birds.
Al convinced her to let him put up a hummingbird feeder on their deck when she saw them buzzing around the large live oak on the corner of their property.
“But how much is nectar and where do you get it?”
“It’s just water and sugar,” he said.
“But won’t that attract bees and flies?”
“I doubt it.  Besides I think it attracts butterflies.  Remember that big black and yellow one on the seventh green?”
Within twenty minutes of putting up the feeder little ruby throats were zipping around their deck.  One hovered above her glass of iced tea on the table and another lighted on the deck rail before shooting up into the trees and she loved them instantly.  But she never loved birds before.
When she was young, like many women from her generation, she had seen the Hitchcock movie The Birds and developed a mild phobia of the fluttering and the beaks and the expressionless but knowing reptilian look in their eyes.  When she was ten, at a friend’s house for a birthday party, someone loosed the blue and yellow budgerigar from his cage and he flew around the living room until he became winded and entangled in Maureen’s hair.  Also, it didn’t help that her younger brother developed an unreasonable and inexplicable obsession with birds when he was ten and she was fifteen in 1970.  She loved Michael.  When he was born and brought home from the hospital she got her little pillow and blanket and slept underneath his crib for two weeks until her parents interceded, but there were many mornings she was caught sleeping underneath him again because after she crept into his room she drifted off looking up at the wire web of his crib.  He died young.
He began his obsession with birds after a blue jay swooped and clipped their father’s head requiring three stitches.  A young jay had fallen out of its nest in the bushy blue spruce that bordered their property and their dog was barking at it.  When Dad came out to investigate and grabbed the dog’s collar the jay dove and hit him.  When he returned from the doctor, he forbade anyone from leaving the house and put on his WWII helmet from his tour in Germany and France.  He also donned sunglasses lest he lose an eye.  He got out his wooden stepladder and a rake and ripped out the nest and crushed the remaining two nestlings.  Michael watched from the garage window as the jays, five adults, screamed and fretted in the trees.  They were so blue and animated, black and white and passionate.  He began to notice other birds and his obsession had begun.
She never knew another kid who had such a love of being outdoors.  He was always in trouble for riding his bicycle farther than he was allowed, riding to the brackish river and salt marsh a few miles from their home.  He would return after curfew in the summer, scratched, bleeding and reeking of sulfurous mud from stalking water birds or covered in boils from poison ivy for stalking woodland birds.  She still loved him those years when he became older and tolerated his silliness with a maternal constancy, but she was nearing the end of high school and had her own interests.  She would be married to Albert by 1975.  The only real problems arose when his boyish devil took hold and he left one of the expired birds he was always trying to rehabilitate under her pillow or in her dresser drawers.
He died at 23.  Through high school he worked in the restaurant at the country club on Bread and Cheese Hollow Road and became quite a cook.  He also became quite a drinker and used both those talents in Martha’s Vineyard, Cape May and Santa Fe working seasonally at country clubs and restaurants using his pay for partying and travelling and Maureen supposed still looking for birds.  He was with them the Christmas week of ’83, staying with her and Albert because their parents didn’t have the patience for him.  They would be civil on the holidays, but not beyond that point because he dismissed the idea of college and they thought he had so much promise.  At 5:35 am on December 27th, he was killed in a drunk driving accident, but the irony was that he wasn’t drunk.  He woke up early to drive out to Shinnecock Inlet to look for eider when someone fell asleep at the wheel, went through a red light and destroyed Michael and his Jeep Cherokee.
One morning when Maureen was watering her rosemary and basil on the back deck she noticed a burst of color in the palmettos.  She descended the steps to her lawn and walked slowly towards a small bird of red, indigo and green.  She had never seen a bird of such exotic color in the wild, and it was so small and beautiful.  Much like the hummingbirds, this little creature enamored her.  Such a gorgeous and delicate little thing out here in the wild!  She went inside and grabbed from the book case A Guide to the Birds of South Carolina which someone had given her as a housewarming gift and found the bird almost immediately: Painted Bunting.  She was fascinated and flipped through the pages looking at all the other bird photographs in color plates.  Within a few days, she and Al put a bird feeder that was shaped like a small gazebo in the middle of the table on their bedroom deck.  Soon she recognized with ease chickadees and nuthatches, Carolina wrens and orioles.  It was a while before the painted buntings found the feeder, as well as others. 
They had been living in the new house for more than a year and were finally settled in and still joking about being on an eternal vacation, but a form of loneliness started to seep into Maureen’s being.  She had no friends around and really no interest in joining the social circles of the golf club as the women to her were older and foreign.  Her friend from Charleston and her husband would come visit every month or so because they loved Beaufort, but well-spaced weekends don’t consist of companionship.  She and Al would go to Charleston as well to see a Judy Collins concert or check out the Spoleto Festival.  Her grandchildren were on the other side of the country and her daughter had her own life, so they’d see them once a year and have to deal with her tedious and insufferable husband while doing so.  She and Al had each other and that was all.  She noticed sometimes his well-concealed exasperation at her clinginess since they were always together and sometimes felt jealous of his ability to get along with everyone.  He knew several of the neighbors, was cozy with the golf club manager and even began to run a bobcat and backhoe helping drainage on the course for free driving range balls.  So she found herself concentrating on improving her swing and really starting to enjoy the wildlife and birds around her. 
She loved the deer that crept along her property line, the bold and careless cottontail rabbit who grazed on her lawn, the white ibis in the marsh.  And she began to notice the birds beyond her feeder, the ones around the golf course.  She brought her guide book onto the course and identified brilliant red-headed woodpeckers and yellow-shafted flickers, snowy egrets and Louisiana herons, cormorants and the strange anhinga, or snake-bird, whose odd swimming habits had her captivated.  She saw two, necks twisting at strangle angles, almost form a heart shape before disappearing below the surface.  She only made the connection to her brother when she saw the spoonbills.
They were on the sixth hole and she looked back at Al who was in the middle of the fairway, but behind her.  On his right was the main pond of the course, on his left was a wide salt marsh with circuitous channels, and overhead were a couple jets from Parris Island performing their touch-and-go exercises with a deafening roar.  Even the few inconveniences of this life were beautiful in their own way.  As she watched him line up to swing, a group of long necked pink birds flew above him towards the salt marsh and they looked exactly like flamingoes.  According to her guide there were no flamingoes native to South Carolina, let alone any long necked pink birds.  She and Al reasoned that they were escapees from someone’s private estate.  When they were leaving Al had his usual lengthy conversation with the course manager and brought up the flamingoes.  The manager told him they were roseate spoonbills and they had been nesting on the property for two years and that they used to be only found in the Everglades in Florida.  When she got home to her computer, she found only references to the birds inhabiting Texas, Louisiana and Florida.  They were hunted almost to extinction in the 1800’s and there were 30-40 pairs left in existence until hunting them was banned. 
That evening after a salad and Al’s oyster bisque, they rode their bicycles with binoculars to the private road that ran through the course and edged the main pond where numbers of wading birds roosted, clamoring in the trees at night time.  As they scanned the trees amid the wood stork, the egrets, the ibis, the heron, there were the spoonbill, dozens of them unmistakable with a strange grey leathery bill that ended in a spoon shape.  Al said, “They must be moving up north now,” and she suddenly remembered her brother.  It would be difficult to remember all of his ramblings, especially about birds, but for some reason, she immediately connected Al’s statement to one night at the dinner table when her brother was fifteen and he was raving about bird species shifting north in their range.  He was eating the fat from the edge of his sirloin and pushing the lima beans to the side of his plate and talking like a madman about birds that were new to Long Island.  (He was talking about the red-bellied woodpecker.)  This time was long before people argued over global warming and thinking of the prescience and enthusiasm of her baby brother gave her a comfort she hadn’t known since his death.  From that point on, she looked at her birds as more than pretty things; she had more respect for them.  It also made her sad.
Albert was a kind and loving husband and he knew his wife well.  She never liked animals; they never had any pets because most of her life she was concerned with
“the mess they make.”  He was fine with whatever would make her happy and remembered with much pain the death of his own childhood dog when he was eighteen, two years before he and Maureen were married.  So when his wife took such an interest in birds especially he understood it was more than a distraction of retirement.  She was lonely and missed her friends from Long Island although she never really socialized much. She needed companionship more than he could offer but she refused to try to meet people from the course club.  He even encouraged her to get a part time job to get out of the house.  He knew her brother and was there for his death.  Birds of all things.  He didn’t need a degree in psychoanalysis to figure that one out.
Maureen had expressed concern that the squirrels might discover the bird feeder on their bedroom deck and make a mess of the seed.  They eventually did but before them they had another visitor.  Al was typically an earlier riser than his wife and one morning while he was out getting coffee and the newspaper from Adnan the owner of the nearest convenience store, Maureen woke and stretched.  She slipped out of bed and moved slowly to the glass doors of her bedroom that led to the deck eager to see if the buntings were back.  She had seen a wood thrush the previous morning.  She saw no birds but instead a squirrel at the feeder busy stuffing its cheeks with bird food.  Annoyed, she knocked hard three times on the glass hoping to send it leaping off the table without avail.  She opened the door briskly thinking it would send the critter forth but still it continued to eat as if she weren’t there.  She stepped out on the deck and realized that this squirrel did not have a bushy tail but rather a bald one.
Al was speaking with the clerk about the techniques of catching shrimp with a cast net when his phone rang.
“Al, there’s a rat at our bird feeder.  A rat!”
“A rat? Not a squirrel? Are you sure it’s not a squirrel?”
“It’s a rat!  Where are you?  It’s a rat!”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
When he got home she described how she watched it as it left the table, crawled down the side of the chair and disappeared below the deck. 
            Al went out and inspected the deck, the area below the deck, the garbage cans, the garage and the edge of the property and all he found was the startled but bold rabbit that grazed on their lawn.  They both decided it would be wise to hang the feeder from a tree limb reachable from the deck to discourage the rat.  They didn’t climb trees did they?  This rat did not and the birds quickly adjusted and after a few days, they thought it was a freak occurrence, some lone rat which saw an opportunity.  But then the squirrels discovered the feeder and although they shook the feeder and wasted a lot of seed it was far better than a rat to them.
            Another morning Maureen awoke to find nuthatches and chickadees taking turns at the feeder and took her tea on her bedroom deck rather than the main back deck because now that the birds didn’t feed at her table, they weren’t afraid of her and she could watch them feed from the tree closely.  As she sat in her robe, a female bunting alighted nearby and then dropped below the feeder to take advantage of the dropped and scattered seeds from the squirrels.  Maureen leaned forward slowly so as not to disturb it and saw the rat foraging next to the bunting.  It was grazing methodically using its forepaws to fill its cheeks with spilled seed and didn’t seem to notice the bunting hopping back and forth near it.  Maureen tossed the tea from her cup at it scaring away the bunting.  The rat paused and then turned and walked to the edge of the house and hugged it until in turned the corner towards the driveway. 
Two mornings later it was back and Maureen watched it closely.  It almost seemed benign filling its cheeks, chipmunk like, uncaring as she took a few steps down the stairs towards it.  When she got to the fourth step it halted abruptly, paused and this time ran humpbacked and wobbly to the edge of the house and cornered towards the driveway.
“We need to do something about this rat,” they both agreed.
“Well, should I trap it?”
“Not with one of those snap traps.  Can’t you get one that doesn’t kill it?”
“I’m sure I can.”
Albert entered Grayco Hardware & Home relieved by the strength of its air conditioning and with a little help found the section for pest control.  Above the roach baits, the heavy-springed rat traps and poisons, he found several metal Havahart traps of varying sizes.  The smallest seemed much too small and the next largest seemed too large but he went with that one because there was no way the rat would get through the small squares of wire and it seemed likely the rat was large enough to trip the door.  He looked around before he took it off the shelf thinking that if he had moved here ten years earlier he could have had an extensive conversation with the store owner about the pros and cons of certain rat traps.
He and Maureen researched the best bait for rats and it turned out to be bacon, gummy bears and peanut butter.  Al joked he may end up in the trap if he sleepwalks and Maureen laughed.  Since they were eating healthier he had to go out and buy the ingredients and when he fried the bacon, he had three pieces himself and secreted the bacon grease in a small container in the back of the dairy drawer in their refrigerator for future use.  They tested the trap’s effectiveness with a stick, made an appealing pastry with a bacon crust and peanut butter filling with gummy bear garnish and set it out that night.
“You’ll let him go in a safe place?”
“Yes, sweetie.  Down at the boat launch.  Lots of space in the rocks, no gators and people leave dead fish down there all the time.  He’ll be fine.”
“Alright, I just feel bad because he’s not doing anything.  He’s actually kind of cute in a way.  But we can’t have rats.”
“I know, sweetie.”
“We can’t have rats.”
Al woke with the first light of the next day.  He put on a shirt, shorts and sandals and went out back to check the trap.  Sure enough, it had been sprung and there was the rat sitting peacefully in it.  “”Hey, little guy,” Al said as he cautiously approached.  The rat’s whiskers twitched as it seemed to regard Al, but when he reached down towards the cage to pick it up, the rat lunged savagely at him and made a deep growling noise.  Al jumped back, surprised at the sudden change in the rat’s demeanor.  The rat seemed to grow in size as it growled loudly striking periodically at the side of the cage.  The growling was growing louder and turning into a scream so Al needed to act quickly because he did not want Maureen to wake and see this situation.  He went to his boat in the driveway and pulled out a long gaff pole that came with the boat when he bought it.  He hooked the end of the gaff under the trap handle and lifted the cage of turmoil from the ground.  The handle slipped so the cage was hanging at a 45 degree angle with the rat screaming and clawing savagely as Al used all his energy to hold it out straight from him and walk it to the back of his pickup truck.  Bathed in sweat, he took a moment to get his breath and walked to the side of the house to see if Maureen had been awoken.  The house was quiet, but the rat was continuing its horrible growl, a combination of anger and anguish.
The air conditioning of his truck was welcome to cool him down as well as drown out the noise of the rat.  Leaving his neighborhood and passing the entrance to the golf course he worried that someone may hear the noise coming from the back of his truck.  Al, what was all that racket in your truck yesterday?  That sure would be a good story to tell later, he thought.  The road past the course passed through a salt marsh with winding channels and a pool where he had seen a man using a cast net to catch shrimp a few days prior.  He really wanted to give that a try.
He turned left onto the main road that led to the boat launch.  He looked in his rearview mirror at the rat, hot in the sun in the back of the pickup.  It was breathing heavily and Al could still hear the growling noise which persisted as if the thing was possessed.  The road was straight and narrowed as he moved along, the live oaks crowding in.  Except for an occasional bright plot of fresh construction the shade of the woods grew darker and Al was happy because that rat must’ve been overheating in the sun.  What would he tell Maureen?  Yes, the rat was angry.  It was sure aggressive, but he’s fine now and far from us.  It was needed for sure and we have the trap if there are others.
As the road closed in even more he began to pass some of the Gullah houses, descendants of freed slaves who had lived there for generations.  He wanted to try some of the Gullah restaurants around but Maureen was so health conscious these days and they heard the cooks used a lot of grease.  Finally, the road ended at an expansive channel, the Intracoastal Waterway.  The grass and dirt parking lot was empty as he had hoped and as he got out of the truck he heard the spouting exhale of a pod of passing dolphins.  The sun was beginning to heat the land and the cicadas began to buzz, and when the rat saw Al its growling intensified again.  When he hooked the cage with his gaff and lifted it out of the truck, the rat started to make that screaming noise again and savagely attack the cage as if it were animate itself.  When he placed the cage on the ground, unhooked the gaff and moved back he said out loud, “Jesus.  How the hell am I going to get him out of there?”
All he had to do was lift the sliding door and run if it came bolting out of the cage like a greyhound.  It shouldn’t be a problem, he reasoned, but when he approached the cage the rat’s anger became exponential.  He leaned down at a safe enough distance to regard the rat as it lunged, snarling and screeching that terrible noise.  It looked at him with such rage and hate in its eyes he was stunned.  He said, “Alright.  Enough is enough,” and forced himself to grab the top of the sliding door.  When he did the rat lunged at his hand and he jerked it back quickly.  Growling the rat latched on the cage bars and bit so hard he saw some of its teeth break off with a terrible cracking sound.  He backed away while the rat still chewed at the cage, it’s mouth bloody with foamy saliva, its eyes wild, its ribcage heaving and pathetic, a keening now in its growls. 
“If Maureen saw this,” he thought.  He remembered how she was when her brother died, four days in a dark bedroom and then the months afterward when he worried most about their little daughter. 
He wished he had gloves, but even then…
Albert Jorgenson hooked the handle of  of the cage with his gaff as the rat continued his assault.  He held the long pole in front of him with the shaking cage hanging at an angle and walked down the boat ramp without looking forward.  When the water was up to his knees he was glistening with sweat and still looking away as he lowered the cage into the water.  He heard brief splashing and a keening gurgle as the cage submerged.  He unhooked the gaff and went back to the air conditioning in his car and sat for fifteen minutes.
“Did you just let the rat go?  Did we catch him last night?” she asked eagerly.
“Oh yeah.  Yup,” he said removing his sandals before stepping into the house.
“Where did you let him go?  The boat launch?  Was he okay?”
“He’s far from here and won’t be back.  I didn’t think he’d ever leave he cage, but he did and then ran out and disappeared into the rocks.  I bet he was hoping for another bacon pastry,” he kidded.
“Well, maybe we can bring one down to him once in a while.  As long as you don’t eat it on the way there,” she kidded back and gave his arm a squeeze.
“Good idea,” he lied successfully for the first time that he could remember.
That night, after a delicious crab gumbo and green salad, they rode again with their binoculars to the roosting site of  so many beautiful birds, yellow crowned night herons, roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets while below in the duckweed, the tiniest flowering plant in the world, alligators waited silently for the clumsy young to fall.

Draft     August 2016