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“Brown Snake-Eagle” by Sarah Busse

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Brown Snake-Eagle

By Sarah Busse

Sidney Lendon’s children had all outgrown zoos, while he had not. When he brandished the freshly purchased map of the United States in January and announced that “this summer, the Lendons are going to road trip around the US!” his announcement was met with only lackluster enthusiasm from his two children, and a knowing glance from his wife. When he cleaned out the Motorhome, tucked inside its small storage bay, sweating as he tried to navigate the tiny hallway between the pushed-in dinette table and the sharp corner of the slab of Formica that served as a kitchen counter, his wife came in and sat on the edge of the double bed.

“What will we do on this road trip?” she asked.

“Well, that still takes some planning,” he’d said. “We could fit in some visits to your folks, maybe your sister in Des Moines. We could get a Disney fix, stop in Disneyworld or Disneyland. Maybe both!” He was dusting the cabinets. With every sweep of the washcloth, a fine powder came drifting through the air. He fought the urge to sneeze.

“And you’ll go to your zoos,” she finished his unsaid thought.

He shrugged and tried to make it seem nonchalant. “If there’s time. You and Marley and Curtis could come with.”

“There’s only so many zoos they can take,” she murmured, and Sid felt his heart do its familiar sink.

***

As Sid pressed the button that would release the pop-out from its stays, the now familiar whine filled the air. He felt a chill creep down his spine as he checked the Motorhome blocks, looked at measures for the pumps, then fired up the tiny stovetop to make bacon for breakfast. They’d pulled into Little Rock around 3 AM. Lisa, Marley, and Curtis had all been asleep. The chills had started around then. Sid couldn’t seem to shake them.

Lisa emerged from the bathroom and lifted an elbow to allow Marley, their thirteen-year-old, to speed past her and shut the bathroom door behind her. “Woah!” she said with a laugh. “Where’s the fire?”

“She’s been complaining about you using up all the hot water,” Curtis, fifteen, said from the couch that doubled as a futon. He didn’t look up from his cell phone as he continued.  “Same complaints as back home.”

“Play nice,” Lisa warned.

“Hot water shouldn’t be a problem,” Sid chimed in. “I checked the pumps this morning. Everything’s fine.” His reassurance was met with silence.

“What are everyone’s plans?” Sid asked, as the first piece of bacon sizzled in the pan. He had to speak over the fan, which he’d had to turn on full blast so that smoke wouldn’t drift up and trip the fire alarm.

Curtis shrugged and sighed. Lisa was quiet a moment. “Not really sure,” she said. “I don’t think any of us slept very well. We might just take it easy, do some grocery shopping. I think a movie came out yesterday that the kids are interested in seeing.”

Sid felt himself getting frustrated. “Well, we only have three days here. Don’t you want to see if there are any museums? There’s a dam a short drive from here. Curtis could get some practice in, drive us all in the Jeep there…”

Again, silence.

“I’m just kind of tired,” Curtis said, and let the sentence flop.

“Me too!” came Marley’s voice from inside the bathroom.

Sid sighed. He knew it came out too loud, too exasperated, by the way Lisa shot him a look over her small, light-up vanity mirror, which she was using to apply her makeup.

“Well I’d like to do something today.” Sid felt his sentence again lead into silence, and felt his frustration mount.

“Go ahead and go to the zoo, Dad,” Curtis said. “We know it’s what you want to do.”

Sid swallowed his disappointment, and another chill, as he slid the first few pieces of bacon onto a paper towel-lined plate. The grease soon soaked the towel straight through.

***

Walking up to the ticket counter for the Little Rock Zoo, Sid felt five-years old again. The wrought iron front gates, “LITTLE ROCK ZOO” printed ominously in black, the little iron Rhino figure touching its nose to the top of the “R”: it was all the same.

Thank God he didn’t recognize the woman behind the ticket counter, although he didn’t know why he would. “BECKY” her nametag read. She had red hair, pulled into a ponytail. Her bangs were plastered to her forehead with sweat.

“Welcome to the Little Rock Zoo!” she chirped, her voice crackled slightly from the speaker. “Are you here for Four Dollar Friday?”

“Um, I guess,” Sid managed. He pulled four wrinkled, one dollar bills from his wallet and passed them to Becky through the metal bowl, cut out from the glass partition.

“Thanks!” She said, and ripped off the ticket, passing it to him in the bowl. Sid nodded, stuffed the ticket into his pocket along with his hands, and walked into the zoo’s entry plaza. Giant, colorful canvas tarps stretched across the amphitheater directly ahead of him. When he was a child, they hadn’t existed. Or had it been under construction the last time he’d visited? God, was that a long time ago. He still felt the arms around his midsection, lifting him so he could better see over the guardrail for the wolf exhibit — his favorite animal. He could still feel his eyes grow wide over a stick of cotton candy proffered to him, a pink translucent cloud smelling of sugar and leaving his fingers sticky.

A violent chill swept down his back, and he visibly shivered. It was the dead of summer, and people were pouring in from the zoo’s front gates around him, like a stream divided around a boulder. Women pulled their kids away from him, probably seeing that he had no kids clinging to him, and probably seeing the frightened, tight look around his eyes.

Sid forced himself to walk forward. Clockwise. Travel the zoo clockwise, and don’t skip an exhibit. That was his method, how he explored every zoo. Every one since he was five and last left this one.

The antique carousel warbled its carnival music as he passed. Parents stood beside toddlers strapped onto the plastic seats of garish horses as they swooped up the curve of the carousel’s unique path.

“Look at this picture, Sidney! See all the horsies? This picture was taken almost forty years ago!”

 

He could anticipate the chill this time, and let it quietly pass. That picture was probably still there, on the same plaque set in front of the queue. Now it would have been taken over eighty years ago.

A woman, dressed in a zoo employee uniform — red shirt short sleeve shirt over a long sleeved black one, and black pants — pushed a large cage through the plaza, smiling at the children suddenly craning their necks to see what was in the cage. Through the slits punched in the tough plastic casing, Sid saw two unblinking, black eyes, and the top of a heart-shaped face.

Without another thought, Sid followed the employee as she wheeled the owl in its cage down a narrow path, past the Lorikeet exhibit. Only when she paused to unlock a gate labeled “EMPLOYEES ONLY,” did she turn and see him.

Her expression flashed with annoyance and then suspicion, but she quickly masked it. “Can I help you?” she didn’t move to retrieve the keys clasped to her belt. Briefly, Sid imagined that this is how she might approach a frightened animal: no sudden movements, calm voice.

“I’m sorry!” All of a sudden, Sid was horrified. He’d followed this woman from the main flow of zoo traffic. She must have thought he was going to attack her. “I just-it’s been a while since I’ve been to this zoo. My babysitter-” He swallowed past the quick lump in his throat. “That was my babysitter’s favorite animal. A barn owl, right?”

“Right. This is Lola.” She tapped the top of the cage lightly. Lola shuffled inside.
“I’m just feeding her before our first Birds of Prey show at eleven.”

“Of course. So sorry about this. I don’t know what I–like I said, I just thought it was a barn owl,” he started stepping backward, and took his hands out of his pockets. See, look: non-threatening.

 

“Mom!” a young girl’s voice reached them at the same time. They both turned to the source: a young girl, younger than Marley, rounding the curve from which they’d just traveled. Her long brown hair was pulled into two braids that lay against her bony shoulders. She wore glasses and scuffed corduroy pants. She carried a well-worn, large hardcover book in both arms, hugging it to her chest. Detailed, pencil drawings of birds graced the cover.

The girl stopped upon seeing Sid. She tilted her head and squinted at him.

“What is it, Emily?” the employee asked.

“I told Dennis that he was an Oriole and he said he wanted to be a Lorikeet! I told him he didn’t get to choose and he shoved me!”

“He did? Well, where is Dennis now?”

“With his dad. I went right over to him at the amphitheater and told him what Dennis did.”

“Honey, I told you: you can’t just get people in trouble like that! You come to me, and then I will take care of it.”

“But I did come to you.” Emily looked confused. Her head was still tilted to the side and she looked back at her mother, unblinking.

The employee sighed, then suddenly seemed to notice Side again. “I’m sorry sir–”

“What’s your name?” Emily asked.

Both Sid and the employee looked back at her.

“Honey–” the employee began.

“No, it’s alright,” Sid said, putting on a smile, still trying to seem non-threatening. He turned to Emily. “My name is Sid.”

“No, you’re full name.”

“Emily!” her mother said, admonishing.

“Sorry. May I ask you what your full name is, Sid?”

“Um, it’s actually Sidney Everette Lendon. If you wanted all three,” Sid said, taken aback.

“You ‘re a Brown Snake-Eagle, Sidney Everette Lendon.” Emily said, still clutching the book to her chest, still looking at him with her head cocked to the side.

“Really?” Sid said. He crouched down and winced. When had his knees and back begun to hurt at the same time? When had he begun to feel old? When he walked through the front gates? “I would have expected a crane, or a…what’s that other tall one? A heron.”

“No. You’re a Brown Snake-Eagle.”

“Well, I’m afraid I don’t know what that is,”

Emily looked up at him incredulously. Sid realized he was talking to her the way he would a five-year-old — soft voice, smiling face, almost in that sickly way people talk to pets — and Emily clearly wasn’t buying it.

She sighed and pulled the book from her chest, then flipped a few pages until it was right where she wanted it. She turned the book around and pushed its pages toward him.

“A Brown Snake-Eagle,” she said. On the page in question was a brown eagle, drawn with mottled brown and white feathers, with a bushy collection of feathers on its head. The artist had drawn it from multiple sides: perched, in flight, head on, and finally stretching its claws out to capture a small gray mouse.

“Well, uh, thank you.” Sid said, clearing his throat. Not sure what to make of being compared to a fluffy eagle, he let a silence stretch between them.

Emily turned the book back around, then shut it. She clutched it to her chest again. “Mom’s a Harpy Eagle, and Dave is an Osprey. That’s mom’s boyfriend.”

“Emily,” her mother cautioned. Emily rolled her eyes in response and ran back down the path, her braids swinging loosely behind her.

“Don’t get me started on what’s behind her calling me a harpy.” The employee said. Sid turned, surprised to see a smile on her face. “Luckily, she doesn’t quite get that one yet.”

“She uh, reminds me of my own kids.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, they, uh–” are difficult as well? Give me attitude? “They latched onto things as kids too. With Curtis it was space. Marley loved horses.”

“Mom!” Emily came careening up the path again. “Are you going to feed Lola?”

“Yes I am.”

“Can I come help?”

“Of course you can.”
“Can Sidney come, too?”

“No honey, Sidney is–”

“Can he come watch? Just behind the fence? He can sit where the kids on field trips sit when they watch.”

“Emily,”
“Please?” Emily lay it on thick, cocking her head again and smiling, looking angelic.

Her mother looked at the watch on her wrist and sighed loudly. “Fine. You show him where to stand though.”

Emily looked genuinely pleased. “Come on Sid!” she said, beckoning to him with one arm.

Her mother reached for her keys and  unlocked the gate. As she pushed Lola and her cage, Emily began to babble behind her.

“So what’s a harpy, then?”

***

As Emily’s mother — Justine, she’d told him — began chopping meat and measuring supplements into a bowl, Lola, released from her cage and into a larger enclosure complete with branches for perching, hopped and lightly hooted occasionally, eyes on the food intended for her. Emily chattered constantly to Sid, sitting on a bench behind a rail a good dozen yards away from the bird enclosures.

“Mom’s a trainer. She works with the birds in the show and she even gets to wear a microphone and talk to the audience, telling them all about the birds’ tricks and what they’re like in the wild. Lola is actually from Arkansas, born in captivity on a farm that also uses the owls to keep vermin from their cornfields.”

Cornfields. Goddamnit.

 

Sid felt himself harshly, forcefully, thrown back in time.

He was seven. Ava had taken him to the corn maze and pumpkin patch an hour from his house. He’d fought with her in the car, saying he was too old for a babysitter. She just laughed and continued to joke with him, but looking back now, what really danced in her eyes was pain and hurt at his comments.

They pulled into a gravel parking lot, the tires crunching to a stop. He’d hopped out before her, determined to prove that he didn’t need her help. Not with anything.

“You want to pick out a pumpkin first? Or do the maze?”

He shrugged.

“Let’s do the maze. It’s supposed to close down in a couple of hours so they can turn it into a haunted corn maze. We don’t want to get caught up in that!” She tugged on his stupid hat with the orange pom-pom on the top that his mother forced him to wear when he went outside. Therefore, Ava insisted he wear it too. He shied away from her touch.

“Haunted corn maze would be cool,” he muttered.

Ava rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. “Okay tough guy. Stick around while I get us tickets.”

Sid immediately wandered, standing on the edge of the pumpkin patch and looking out over the undisturbed cornfields waving into infinity past the orderly rows of gourds and the sharp edge of the maze. He peeled a trampled ear of corn from the mud at the patch’s entrance. He lifted it up to sniff. Did it still smell like regular corn? Or would it smell dead, like something other than corn.

“Don’t eat that!” Ava laughed as she approached.

“I wasn’t going to eat it!” Sid felt his ears redden. “I’m not a baby!”

“I know that, Sid,” she said, pursing her lips. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her hair long and loose around her shoulders. “Still friends?” she stuck out a hand, an old game of theirs: handshake then fist bump to reestablish the peace. He gave her a halfhearted one of each.

“Try this instead,” she said, and held out a small white paper sack, speckles of grease staining the bottom. “They were selling apple cider doughnuts. I bought us some.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled, still trying to act tough. But they were good. He wolfed two down before they got to the entrance to the maze, and Ava handed him a napkin to wipe the cinnamon sugar from his face and hands.

“Let’s split up!” he said, as soon as they were past the ticket taker and rounded the first bend. Corn had been removed and replaced with a fine layer of hay. Many feet had trampled it to mix with the mud. Their boots sucked at the ground as they walked into a broad clearing, three paths open before them.

“No, Sid–”

“Come on, Ava!” He hated the whine in his voice. “We can race to see who can get through it first!”

“Sid, no!” her voice sharpened, and Sid stopped, anger rising in him immediately.

“Listen,” she said, bending over to get level with him. He hated it when she did that. “We’ll go through it together. But it’s going to be super easy to get lost in here – it’s a maze, that’s what they designed it to do! But I won’t hold your hand if you don’t want me to.”

“I don’t,” Sid said, quickly.

“Okay,” she straightened up again. “Which way do you want to go?”

Without a word, Sid began to trudge into the middle passage. Ava followed dutifully behind. She followed silently when he picked the next three turns, when he answered the first trivia question and led them to the right, when they were met with a solid wall of corn, a sign cheerfully boasting “TRY AGAIN!” planted in the muck.

When they got to a fork, Ava stopped him. “Okay, how about this: I’ll take one way, you take the other. But we have to keep in contact.”

“We should have brought walkie talkies,” he said.

Her face broke into a smile. “Good idea! We’ll do that next time. But for now let’s stick to an oldie but goodie: Marco Polo. So when I call ‘Marco,’ you have to say ‘Polo,’ right back, got it?”

He nodded, suddenly a little excited.

“But don’t play any tricks,” she held up a finger. “You have to say it back. If I get too far away and can’t hear you, I’m going to double-back until I can. We’ll take it slow. Deal?”

Another handshake. Another fist bump.

“I’ll take left, you take right?” Sid nodded, and they struck out.

Every few seconds, a “Marco!” would sound and Sid would reply.

“Marco!” came Ava’s voice, somewhere to his left.

“Polo!” he hollered.

“Marco!” this time further away.

“Polo!” he said after a moments hesitation, after getting confused where the path was truly going.

“Marco!” Ava said, a little closer.

“Polo!”

“Marco!” Ava said, and suddenly rounded a corner to end up in front of him.

“Oops!” she laughed. The path shot off again in three directions.

“I’ll take this one,” she pointed to the left.

“I’ll do this one,” he said, and pointed to the right one.

Ava raised an eyebrow. “Either of us gets too far away, we double-back, okay?”

“Okay,” he said.

“Marco!” she called a few moments later. Sid responded with a yelp, the mud having sucked his boot from his foot momentarily.

“You okay?” came the faint inquiry.

“Fine. Polo!” he said, as he stuffed his foot back into his boot. She’d sounded further ahead, and he hurried to catch up.

“Marco!” Still up ahead.

“Polo!” he pressed on, walking as quickly as he could without slipping.

“Marco!” The path must be veering even further to the left.

“Polo!” he tried to shout louder.

“Marco!” her voice sounded closer. Sid felt himself grinning.

“Polo!” he said more quietly.

“Marco?” she hadn’t heard him.

He let the moments drift on.

“Sid, you promised! Marco!” her voice drifted higher into a warning.

“Sid!” came her more panicked cry. Sid thought she was behind him by now.

“Polo!” he called. Moments passed, and his boots sucked away in the mud. He came to the fourth trivia question. When had they passed the second and third? Unless Ava had passed them and hadn’t said anything.

“Ava!” he shouted, “I found question number four!”

Silence.

“Polo!” he cried, then after a few tense seconds. “Marco?”

“Ava?” he shouted, louder. He felt sorry for teasing her earlier. He should have said “Polo!” right away.

A rustling came from his left, and he whipped around to meet it. A family with two small children came into the clearing. They were laughing. “Is this number four?” the father asked.

Sid didn’t answer him. He turned and ran, slipping in the mud down the path he had just come. All the while he was trying to retrace his steps, he called out “Polo! Polo! Polo!”

When he arrived back to where they’d first met up, there was no sign of her.

Without hesitation, he started down her path, the left one. It was less familiar, and twice he fell on his side in the mud, streaking his jacket with brown.

“AVA!” he was finally screaming. “Ava where are you?”

Nothing. With even more panic, he noticed the darkening sky. He really didn’t want to be stuck in a haunted corn maze. He was just kidding before.

Wait for her. That was always her rule. If they got separated, wait somewhere they’d agreed on. But they hadn’t picked a spot in the corn maze! Sid thought of the aerial view of the maze she’d shown him on the website: the corn cut into shapes, a witch on a broom, an owl to her left, with extra bends and turns in the empty spots. He’d boasted that it would be no sweat: he’d get out of there in no time.

So he slipped and slid back to where they’d separated. He sat, regardless of the mud, and clenched his arms around his knees. He was crying, snot pouring out of his nose and onto his jacket when a man with a flashlight came trudging past.

“Hey! Kid, what are you doing here? You lost?”

He’d cried even harder.

When his parents arrived, he cried again. Three times in one night. But he couldn’t find it in himself to feel like a baby. The owners had taken his coat so they could wash it the best they could, and given him a wool blanket to wrap around his shoulders. The wool was itchy on his skin and the hot cocoa they’d given him had gone cold. When he pointed to Ava’s car, still parked in the gravel parking lot, he could see his parents’ faces go paler, saw his father detach himself from then to call someone.

***

“Sidney?” Emily’s voice broke through. He looked at her blearily.

“This is a Harpy Eagle,” she said, pushing the book toward him, acting as if he hadn’t been ignoring her. “Doesn’t it look like mom?” It was a giant, gray and white bird. The author had taken great pains to illustrate how the feathers on the top of its head stood up when it was startled.

“Yeah, it does,” he said, not really seeing it. “Thank you, Emily, for showing me what your mom does, and your book…” He felt like he was stumbling over himself when he got up and turned back to the gate.

“Sidney?” Emily was calling to him. Justine turned to them from Lola’s enclosure gate. The owl was hopping on one leg, and let out a sharp hoot, impatient.

“Thank you,” he stammered.

They’d brought him into the kitchen after school one day. They’d sat him down at the table where he ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast and did his homework each night. They explained that someone very bad had taken Ava, and they’d found her. He’d been so excited. Then they said that someone very bad had hurt her, and that Ava wasn’t going to be coming back.

Marley had understood death when her guinea pig died in the fourth grade. Curtis learned it at an earlier age, when they found him trying to revive his beta fish, who had somehow jumped out of its tank while he was at soccer practice. But Sid learned it with Ava.

He trudged aimlessly around the Little Rock Zoo. Orangutans, giant tortoises, the penguins; he disregarded his own clockwise rule.

At eleven, he sat woodenly on a bench, watching the Birds of Prey show, as Justine spouted facts about the birds. When the kids near him shrank back from the low-flying birds, he felt the whoosh of their wings and glanced briefly overhead, unfazed.

He left the amphitheater slowly, looking around him without seeing things. Mothers again tightened their grip on their children. What’s so scary about me? He thought. I’m not the one you should be worried about.

The smell of doughnuts and the sound of his own children playing Marco Polo sent those chills down his back still. Years later, when he felt he was ready, he did a Google search on her. Ava Thurston. Found November fourth in someone’s front yard. Suspected to be the fourth victim of a serial killer they’d never found. The Autumn Reaper, they’d called him.

It never seemed like Ava. The smiling school picture they put on the FBI websites and news articles. Sid remembered her taking him to the zoo, to the wolves, holding him around his stomach so he could see the animals better, the smell of her rose shampoo, her spearmint gum.

“Mr. Lendon?” Sid turned. Justine stood there with her hands on Emily’s shoulders. “Emily was hoping we’d track you down. We were just short of calling over the zoo’s loudspeaker for you.”

“You were,” Emily said. “I knew he’d come to the show. He said Lola was his favorite.”

Justine gave her a stern look for talking back. Emily held out a piece of paper.

Sid saw his hand reach out and take it. Bringing it closer, he realized it was the page from her book. The bird that looked like him. The Brown Snake-Eagle.

“Thank you, Emily,” he said, touched.

“You’re welcome,” Emily said, suddenly shy. She escaped her mother’s grasp and strode away.

“You should feel lucky. She doesn’t deface her books for just anyone,” Emily said. She gave him a smile, an awkward wave, and was gone.

Sid didn’t dare crease the page. He brought it out to his car in the parking lot and placed it carefully on the passenger seat. When he got to the Motorhome, he took it out and placed it in between the pages of a dictionary, an aid for Boggle and Scrabble games, and one of the few books on the scant shelves in the Motorhome’s interior.

He grabbed the last Coke from the fridge and tried to think if Ava drank soda. If she ate healthy or snacked on junk food.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it Sid” she asked. The barn owl blinked at them balefully, and Sid felt as if it were looking straight at him.

 

“It’s scary!” he said, gripping her hand tighter.

 

“No,” she said, almost sitting so that she was eye level. “It’s beautiful. Barn owls are so useful to farmers, and look! Its face is the shape of a heart!”

 

Sid was quiet, and only hugged her neck in response. She laughed and wrapped her arms around him too, grunting as she lifted him and stood.

 

“You’re getting too big for this, little man! Soon you’ll have to carry me!”

 

That got him to laugh.

 

The sound of voices nearing the Motorhome shook him out of it this time.

His wife and kids topped the hill. Sid watched as Marley laughed at something Curtis was showing her on his cell phone. Lisa reshouldered her purse and squinted through her glasses to peer at what they were looking at. Robin, Sid thought. Blue jay. And a snowy owl.


© 2013 Sarah Busse

“Untitled” by Peter D’Auria

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Untitled

By Peter D’Auria

When we asked him what he wanted for his funeral service, my uncle Frank made only one request. We had clustered at the side of his hospital bed in a little knot, my mother, father, and I, and my mother explained how the doctor had said in his delicate doctor-way that it was maybe time to start thinking about the funeral arrangements.

“All I want at the service,” my uncle said, scratching his patchy-bald head, “is for Sean to say a few words.”

“Are you serious?” said my mother.

“Oh no,” said my father. “No no no.”

Uncle Frank shrugged in his hospital gown. “Look. You can stick me in whatever cemetery you want. Burn me, bury me, both, I don’t care. Just let Sean give a little speech.”

“Even if we wanted to do it,” said my mother, “which, for the record, we don’t, there’s absolutely no way they’d allow that.”

“Sorry,” said my uncle. “That’s my dying wish.”

On the drive back to our house, I asked my parents, “Who is Sean?”

Sean, my parents explained, was Uncle Frank’s African Grey parrot, whom he had in his possession when he returned from his yearlong trip to Japan twenty-five years ago. “Parrots live a long time,” said my mother.

“Why does he want a parrot to speak at his funeral?” I asked.

“Beats the heck outta me,” said my father.

“Frank’s always been a little…off,” said my mother.

Ashburn was a small town of about 5,000 people, wrapped on all sides by cornfields and soybeans; it was the kind of town where you grow up knowing everyone in your graduating class, in many cases knowing them a little bit more than you would like. I’d had the same best friends since elementary school, the same crushes since middle school, and the same

Uncle Frank lived across the state, outside of Norwood, but they had transferred him up north because of the oncology department at the Cleveland Clinic.

Except for a yearlong period during which he had gone AWOL in Japan, returning 20 pounds lighter without notice, Uncle Frank had worked with animals his whole life: at a pet store, as a trainer (briefly) at Cirque du Soleil, at the Audubon Society tending wounded birds. My uncle had, over the course of his lifetime, owned (“kept” might be a better word) six hundred and three animals. The first of these had been Harrison, the turtle, whom my uncle had rescued when he saw the reptile about to cross a busy road, an endeavor during which it would have been surely smashed into shards.

“I was in middle school when he brought Harrison home,” my mother told me. “I remember he taught it to shake hands.”

“No way,” I’d said.

“I kid you not,” my mother said.

As Uncle Frank’s only living family, we inherited everything when he died a few days later. He had passed away in his sleep, the nurse told us, very peacefully. The next day my parents drove the pickup down to Norwood and came back with the bed filled with his possessions. Sean rode in the backseat, his square cage covered by a cloth. “I’m hopeful,” my mother said to me, “that the funeral won’t be a disaster after all. Sean didn’t say anything the whole trip.”

I was excited to meet Sean, and to hear what he could say. In his own way, he was sort of regal, with an upright posture and a red tail like a cape. But when I introduced myself, he just bobbed his head and remained silent.

“Can you say anything?” I asked him. “Do you speak English?” Sean just scratched his head with a scaly foot and blinked his little yellow eyes.

“I bet he doesn’t even know how to say anything,” my father said, watching my attempts, “and Frank is just making some joke.”

The funeral was held in Ashburn, my parents reasoning that even if it was held in Norwood, nobody would show up anyway. Including the priest and us, there were only seven people at the funeral (eight if you counted Sean, who spent most of the service in a covered cage by the doughnuts and cookies). We had opted for a modest open casket service. Aladdin’s Bakery, on Buttercup road, had provided refreshments.

It all went smoothly. The priest, who seemed bored, gave a little speech about grief and comfort. My mother went up to the podium and said that Frank had been a man of great kindness and generosity, especially to animals. When she had finished talking, she paused for a moment and I wondered if she was going to adjourn the service then and there and ignore Frank’s wishes. But she leaned down to the microphone again.

“As per Frank’s last request,” she said, nodding to me, “there is someone else who is going to say a few words.”

I brought the covered cage up the aisle, through a wave of murmuring and stifled laughter, and set it on the podium. My mother, a strange look on her face, pulled the cloth off and opened the door.

The audience watched in silence as Sean hopped to the doorway of his cage, looked around, and fluttered onto the podium. I wondered briefly if he was going to fly away. But instead he shuffled up to the microphone. My mother reached over and bent the adjustable microphone neck down towards his beak.

We watched. The audience watched. The whole room was silent.

Sean bobbed his head up and down, and then—

“Rain all this week,” he said. “Rain, rain, rain.”

Prior to his illness, we had heard from Uncle Frank maybe twice a year, through short, businesslike phone calls, and we saw him practically never. I do remember one occasion, though, many many years ago, when we passed through Norwood returning from a road trip and spent the night at his house. I guess that he must have had Sean at that time but I don’t remember seeing him. Frank was working at that point for the Audubon Society and had three injured great horned owls living in his shed. I remembered that my parents, exhausted from driving, had fallen asleep immediately, but I was wide-awake after doing nothing but stare at the passing cornfields all day. Frank had taken me outside to see the owls, which were perched like little statues in the shed, and he had taught me how to mimic their calls. We spent half an hour calling them up at the stars until my father had yelled for us to shut up.

On the way back from the funeral, while Sean, his cage covered again, sat next to me in the backseat, my father said, “You know, I think that was a great success.”

“Frank shouldn’t have let Sean watch the weather report,” said my mother.

“I’m just glad he didn’t teach him how to swear,” said my father.
Sean remained silent for another week (during which, contrary to his prediction, no rain fell) until one morning when he started to speak Japanese. We were sitting down to breakfast when Sean rattled off a long stream of unintelligible syllables.

“Parrot’s broke,” my father said, pointing a thumb towards Sean’s cage.

Sean said it again.

“Quiet, Sean,” my mother said.

“Wait, say it again,” I said.

Sean bobbed his head and repeated himself.

“I think that’s Japanese,” I said.

We went still, spoons of oatmeal halfway to our mouths. Sean rattled off the syllables.

“I’ll be damned,” said my father. “That must be the weather for Japan.”

Sean’s bilingualism was excellent news because it gave me an excuse to invite Lauren Yukimura, who had moved from Japan in the fifth grade and who was hands-down the most beautiful girl in school, over to my house to translate. I intercepted her at lunch the next day, as she was on her way to sit with her friends, all of whom were nearly as beautiful as she was.

“Hey, hey, Lauren,” I said.

Lauren turned and got a strange expression on her face, not unlike the one my mother had had when she uncovered Sean’s cage at the funeral. “Yeah?”

“Can I ask you a favor?” I said.

“What kind of favor?”

“Can you translate something from Japanese for me?”

Lauren frowned. “Well. Okay.” She looked down at her brown paper lunch bag. “I guess. Do you have it with you?”

“Uh, no. It’s…” I explained the situation.

There was a long pause while she stared at me.

“Are you serious?” she said.

“I am. Really.”

“You’re not gonna do something creepy when I get to your house.”

“No! God. I just wanna know what it’s saying.”

She gave me that look again. “All right. Can we do a week from today?”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Perfect.”

“I’m only doing this cause I’ve never seen a parrot before,” she said.

That night I came downstairs for a midnight snack to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table. Sean was there too, outside of his cage, shuffling on the tablecloth and pecking at crumbs.

“Mom?” I said. “Are you all right?”

“Nothing to worry about,” she said. “Just spending some quality time with Sean here.”

I pulled a cookie from the jar and poured a glass of milk. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“Not at all,” said my mother. “Sean is not really a great conversationalist.” Sean bobbed his head and bit a chunk out of my cookie.

“Hey, don’t eat that!” I said. “You’ll give me bird flu or something.”

Sean cocked his head at me and repeated his Japanese phrase.

“Did Uncle Frank speak Japanese?” I asked.

My mother shrugged. “I don’t know. We were never close.”

“How come he went to Japan for a year and didn’t talk to anyone?”

My mother shrugged again. “That’s Frank for you. Any more of those cookies?”

The next morning the cage door was open and I panicked for a moment before I saw that Sean was sitting on my father’s shoulder.

“There’s a bird on your shoulder,” I told him.

“Yep,” my father said. “I think he likes it.”

“Rain all this week,” said Sean.

“Have you gotten anything else out of him?” I asked.

“Just the weather forecast,” said my father. “And his little haiku.”

I went to the fridge to get the milk. When I got back my father was feeding him little bits of toast from the palm of his hand. “Toast,” my father said loudly. “Sean, toast.”

“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.

We started the laborious process of going through Frank’s things. At first it seemed to offer clues to the mysteries of Frank’s life. But eventually it became clear that the clues pointed to one thing: Frank’s life had been as mundane as everybody else’s. He had owned a surprising amount of faded furniture and boring clothing and a few framed pictures of landscapes. I kept expecting a samurai sword, or an ancient Japanese scroll, but they never appeared.

“There’s gotta be something missing,” I said.

“This is it,” my father said. “Sorry.”

“We’ll figure it out when Lauren comes over,” I said.

We discovered that Sean liked most human foods, except for peanut butter, which caused him to shake his head back and forth and clack his beak together. We discovered as well that he could not really fly, but only flutter from one perch to the next. The day before Lauren’s scheduled visit, I got home from school to find my Sean sitting on the back of a chair, bobbing his head, and my father, very excited about something, sitting across from him.

“Stephen,” he called when I came in, “check this out.”

“What?” I said. “What is it?” I imagined Sean spilling the beans on the mysteries of Frank’s life, revealing the location of some hidden Japanese treasure.

“Sean,” said my father, and held up a piece of bread. “Sean, what is this?”

“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.

“Sean,” said my father, “what is this?”

Sean rattled off his Japanese phrase.

“No,” said my father. “What is this, Sean?”

Sean shook his head back and forth. “Toast,” he said.

Lauren’s beauty seemed even more extreme in our house, normally messy anyway but especially so that day due to Frank’s possessions scattered throughout the living room. Even my father seemed affected by her radiance. “Nice to meet you,” he said stiffly when I introduced them, and he shook Lauren’s hand.

We took Sean out of his cage and carried him to the kitchen table and we all sat down.

“He’s really pretty,” said Lauren. She held out her index finger and Sean nibbled it. She laughed. Although her beauty was as radiant as ever Lauren seemed different outside of school, less distant. I was suddenly euphoric. There was an electric excitement in the air. We were getting to the bottom of the mystery.

“You just have to get him talking,” my mother said. “Come on, Sean. What have you got to say?”

“Toast,” said Sean. “Rain all week.”

Lauren laughed. “Sean, do you speak Japanese?”

“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.

“No, come on, Sean,” I said. “You do speak Japanese.”

“Toast,” said Sean. “Rain. Toast.”

“You can do it, Sean!” said Lauren.

“Rain,” said Sean, and then he finally said it.

We all looked at Lauren.

She stared at Sean for a moment, and then looked up with a sad sort of smile.

“He can count to ten,” she said.

Two nights before he died, Sean revealed that he knew how to say one other thing. It was my father’s fiftieth birthday, about a week after Lauren’s visit, and we were having a party. Sean was wandering up and down the table, pecking at cake crumbs, and my parents were fairly drunk.

“Well, Sean,” said my mother, draining the last of her wine, “do you have a speech to give on this momentous occasion?”

Sean fluttered up and perched on the rim of my mother’s wineglass. He shook his head and then said, “Sorry.”

We stared at him.

“Sorry far away,” he said.

“Sean,” my father said slowly. “Are you giving a speech?”

“Sorry so far away,” said Sean.

“Is that…” I said.

“That must be what Frank taught him to say!” said my mother.

“That’s it?” I said.

“Or part of it,” my mother said. “Maybe he forgot the rest.”

“He must have just messed it up at the funeral!” I said. “Maybe we asked the wrong question, or said the wrong thing.”

“Frank should’ve just written a letter,” my father said. “I mean. Don’t get me wrong, Sean. You’re great. But what kind of speech was that?”

“Sorry,” said Sean.

Sean died the morning after the next. He was an old parrot, the vet reminded us, and we didn’t even know exactly how old. My mother wrapped him in newspaper and tried to put it in a shoebox, but he was too big, so I went to Aladdin’s Bakery and bought half a dozen doughnuts for four dollars and asked them for a big box.

I invited Lauren to the funeral and to my surprise she showed up, arriving in a stunning black dress. She gave me a long hug, after which I had to take a number of deep breaths.

We all congregated at the graveside and watched as my father placed the box into the little hole he had dug.

“You were,” said my father, “by far the best parrot I ever met.”

“We’ll miss you, Sean,” my mother said.

“You were a good bird,” Lauren said.

“Rest in peace,” I said.

We took turns piling dirt into the little grave. When we finished we stood there for a few moments, eating doughnuts, looking at the little pile of earth. It started to rain softly.

© 2013 Peter D’Auria

“Crows at the Farm” by Vincent Rupp

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Crows at the Farm

By Vincent Rupp

“You taking the truck out?”

“Yeah, saw a couple crows yesterday. Gonna make sure there isn’t a roost in the woods.”

Billy gasped and looked at Rose. Quietly, she whispered “The Crow Man!”

Margaret turned the dough in the pot and looked briefly over her shoulder to ask “Who’s the Crow Man?”

Rose spoke quickly, with excitement. “He’s made of crows and can disappear and then come back anywhere.”

“He’s not MADE of them.” Billy, exasperated, corrected. “He’s a man who BECAME a crow and he flies with them and keeps them safe.”

Margaret understood: The long bus ride, the endless speculation, a story embellished across decades of children. George was lacing his boots, shaking his head. She set the rings on the towels, blotting the extra oil. “Hush, children, the doughnuts will be ready in a few minutes.”

“Why didn’t we just buy them at the store? A dozen was only four dollars.”

“We don’t have money to waste on something your mother can make herself.”

Margaret agreed, but she’d have been less harsh. The other children had newer clothes and their parents’ truck tires weren’t bald.

She listened to the engine noise dwindle while she put on the glaze and let it set. Hours to make the treats, and they’d be gone in minutes. It reminded her of their new existence here; so much work, and it could be gone so quickly.

“Momma is that a crow?” Rose pointed out the window at the yard. Margaret wiped her hands and came to look. A jet-black bird poked its beak around in their waste heap with quick motions.

“Yes it is, sweetie.”

The crow looked up, unmoving. Billy pointed “Look, there’s two more.” Margaret saw them, further from the house, close to the field. The sweet sprouts of corn had just appeared the previous morning. The bright green dots in the rows had brought her immense relief, but now a low dread crept back in.

There was a rush of feathers and flapping against the glass; they all drew back, startled. A large crow had landed on the windowsill, black toes and black claws gripping the ledge. It took a few steps and cocked its head.

Billy peered closely at the crow’s black eye. “Is it looking at us?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s just a bird.”

The crow took another step and jammed its beak at a spider web, coming away with a large brown spider.

“Ewww crow don’t eat that!”

“Look there’s even more now!”

Another three birds landed on the grass, looking around in the dirt.

“We’ll tell your father later. For now, go scare them off.”

They ran for the door, four arms flailing. He charged the birds, cawing and flapping his arms. Rose shrieked and laughed as the crows scattered to the wind.

——

“Damn birds are everywhere. Woods are crawling with them for miles.” He scrubbed his hands in the sink. “Another section of fence came down too. Never should have hired that kid.”

Margaret rubbed his shoulders. They knew the first years would be difficult, but they’d work hard. They’d pay down the debt, find good help, and buy more land.

“We’ll make it work. We’re doing better than most new folks.” He nodded; weather, illness, pests: stories of ruin were everywhere. He rinsed the dirt out of the sink.

“Mommy the crows are back.”

“What?” George rushed angrily to the window. Two crows had landed on the apple tree; its branches were still bare from winter. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d seen them?”

“George, it’s okay. The owls are keeping them out of the fields.” The old-timers swore by real owls, expertly stuffed, mounted on five-foot stakes, and repositioned every morning. These owls eat crows, they said. George had fumed at the cost, but protecting the fields wasn’t optional.

He wouldn’t wait and hope. He grabbed his gun from above the door, a Winchester 1873 carbine, handed down from his father before the infection took him. “George, stop!” She pulled on his arm, but he jerked it away.

“They’re gonna get bolder if we don’t scare them off.” The seeds had gone in late; there wasn’t enough growing season left to replant.

The crows didn’t react when George banged the door open and stormed down the steps. When he fired a shot into the air, they stopped and looked at him, sideways, one black eye each.

He pulled the action and leveled the gun. Both birds stepped off their branches and took to the air. He lined up carefully, and fired at the closer bird. The crow jerked hard, but didn’t drop. He’d hit its wing, near the body.

For minutes, it tried to fly. A species never known for graceful soaring, this specimen beat its mangled wing against the air, climbing at first but then losing altitude as it lost blood. Its light lifeless body struck the ground nearly soundlessly.

Crows nearby peered at the corpse, saw it motionless, began to caw and croak. Others picked up the call, flew to investigate, and within minutes the crow funeral was underway.

Billy saw the flocks first. They came quickly from the woods past the horizon, and then from all directions. There were scores of flocks, hundreds of birds to a flock, a million ink-black feathers moving and so many voices cawing incessantly. The sound filled the fields as the shadows raced over them.

Rose held Margaret’s leg tightly. “Mommy, are they mad?” She pressed her head into Margaret’s dress.

Margaret held Rose’s head with an almost steady hand. “I don’t know, sweetie.”

An hour later, the crows still called from the distance, but the family had gone back inside. Out of sight of the house, a solitary figure approached the fallen bird. His ragged black clothes fluttered behind him, his black hair shook in the breeze. The ten thousand mourners quieted as one. He kneeled near the bird, took it gently in his hands, and spoke very softly, under his breath.

He rose slowly, his gaze fixed on the distance, in the direction the crow had come.

——

George woke early, even before the pre-dawn light. He’d not had enough food or enough sleep, but it’d be better in a few hundred days, if he put in his time. He went first out back to feed the chickens, then into the barn to tend to the horses and milk the cows.

Sometimes he woke up Maggie to help, but he liked to watch her sleep; she’d gather the eggs and have biscuits ready before he went back inside anyway.

It was barely light when he left the barn. That’s when he saw them, filling the fields, standing a dozen per yard along the length of every row of barely-sprouted corn. He froze, stuck between rage and terror, but slowly he calmed; the corn shoots were still there, still green, as far as he could see in the indigo light.

The crows all shook their wings. Dozens alit into the air, flapping furiously before diving onto the owls, thrusting beaks through the feathers and tearing off bits of carefully preserved skin.

If he’d had his gun, maybe he’d have tried to shoot them. Instead, he watched, helpless and awed, as a large portion of his inheritance was destroyed by the blades of tiny mouths. In under a minute, as a mass, the thousand crows took to the air and dispersed in a hundred directions.

George went to the nearest owl; he took it in his hands and knew the loss was total. Looking up, choked with powerless rage, he saw a black figure far on the horizon. He shouted and ran, heedless of damage to the crop he was so desperate to protect. He ran hard for minutes, stumbling across the soft ground. But the figure turned and walked away and disappeared in the darkness.

Margaret noticed the owls and found George loading the truck. He’d siphoned five gallons from the tank and was hefting the canister into the bed. He didn’t wait for her to ask. “He did this. I saw him.”

“They didn’t touch the corn. Just leave it alone.”

He shook his head adamantly and got in, slamming the door. “We gotta protect what’s ours, Maggie. No matter what.” He wrenched the truck into gear and sped off, leaving her helplessly watching his trail of dust.

When the road ended, he drove into the trees until the brush was too thick. He pushed the canister off the bed and rolled it deeper into the trees. All around him, every bare branch was covered with dense black feathers and inquisitive little eyes.

“Come out!” he yelled. He uncapped the canister and pushed it over. Gasoline spilled out with a slow glug-glug. He took out the matches. Louder, he shouted “You better come out!” The trees fluttered darkly, casting deep shadows on a figure dressed in black tatters a hundred yards away.

“You leave my fields alone!” Crows leapt from the trees and took to the air, circling overhead and through the branches behind him. They began cawing at once, tens of thousands of overlapping threats.

He shook the matches. “You think I can’t kill them all?” The noise drowned out his words, and he knew he couldn’t. He put the matches away and pulled his rifle from the truck. He braced it against his shoulder and pointed at the still figure in the wood’s depths. The birds changed course; they flew densely between the men.

“Damnit!” He threw the gun into the truck. Whether he tried to kill the birds, their habitat, or their master, he would lose. “What do you want?!” he screamed above the shrieking of the crows. At his words, they fell silent, stopped their insistent flapping, sat gently down, and all was still.

George looked around, surprised. “That’s it? That’s all you want?” A single caw pierced the silence and hung in the air. “And you’ll leave my fields alone?” From a different direction, another caw sounded.

The early sun glinted on a million shining black feathers as George loaded the half-full canister back into the truck.

——

It’s a cold winter morning, with frost on the panes. A black bird brings a stick to a garbage can, pries the metal top open, and nudges the lid onto the ground. The clatter attracts a girl to the window. Excitedly, she says “Mommy a crow opened our trash!”

The mother knows the land’s generations; she doesn’t look over, just simply says “Better leave it alone, sweetie.”

© 2013 Vincent Rupp

“Processing” by Eva Sylwester

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Processing

By Eva Sylwester

April was nervous about her blind date. But weren’t blind dates all small talk anyway? Being brand new in the big city, she hadn’t had much but small talk for a while, so at least she was up to speed on that. The office busybody do-gooder, however, had managed to find out after a lot of focused effort that April was single and a lesbian, and had immediately concluded from there, “You should date my friend’s daughter. She is a real hoot. Real colorful, eccentric young lady — very Portland. It would be like an opposites attract thing. She actually seems to like the quiet types best.”

April was so shocked by the request that she went silent and blushed really obviously. “So you’ll think about it?” the busybody said.

“Sure, I’ll think about it,” she said. She thought she had managed to look embarrassed enough by the request for the busybody to shut up about it permanently, but the next day, the busybody brought it up again.

“Have you thought any more about dating my friend’s daughter?”

“I don’t know.”

“You should do it. She’s been on a lot of first dates, so she’d be fine with one more.”

Other people in the office were starting to gather around to eavesdrop, so April said, “Okay, okay, fine,” to quickly end the conversation.

Anyway, here they were in a coffee shop. The date, Corinne, was easy to find. As an icebreaker, Corinne had a huge bird, probably an owl, on her shoulder. That made it easier for April, as it was normal human curiosity, not a weird awkward date question, to ask about the bird.

“So, what’s the bird about?” April said.

“I’m an animal trainer specializing in owls,” Corinne said.

“Okay. You’re allowed to bring her in the restaurant?”

“We’re regulars here.”

They were up to order. April had been so distracted with the bird that she hadn’t even been looking at the menu. “What’s good here?” she asked.

“I personally like the soy cappuccino for the coffee, and you can’t pass up the doughnuts. But we’re going Dutch, so you can get whatever you want.”

April realized she did not want to spend $4 on coffee, so that narrowed her options. She finally ordered a plain coffee and a plain doughnut, $4 total.

“So you’re new in town, I heard,” Corinne said.

“Right.”

“Where from?”

“Placid Valley.”

“I know somebody who used to live there,” Corinne said. “He said it was a place where injured people go to heal.”

“Really? I’d never heard that before.”

“Were you from there?”

“Yeah, I lived there my whole life.”

“Maybe it’s different for people who are from there. He just lived there for a while after college, and he said he heard it from someone else who lived there.”

“What was he healing from?”

“I know he and I talked about it a long time ago, but it was so long ago that a lot of things have happened since then — like I’ve processed it, you know?”

April noticed the owl shaking her head a bit, maybe like a cough or a hiccup. Then the owl fluffed her feathers. Corinne extended her arm onto the table, and the owl waddled down. April was too busy noticing the clacking of the owl’s claws on the tabletop to notice the owl eating off her plate until Corinne called out, “Don’t eat that!”

The owl shook her head as though willfully disobeying Corinne. “Sorry, she’s new,” Corinne told April.

“Birds eat doughnuts?”

“The owls mainly eat mice at their designated feeding times, but, when they’re socializing with me, they eat what I eat,” she said. “Maybe they’re not really supposed to eat doughnuts, but I guess we’re not really supposed to eat doughnuts, either.”

“They come down on the table and eat with you at every meal?”

“Oh, yeah.” Turning to the bird, Corinne said, “Here, sweetie, you can have some of my doughnut.”

Dating was supposed to be about planning a future with someone. Though it was early to be thinking about that, could April really see having a bird eat off her plate at every meal for the rest of her life? She didn’t know much about birds, but she had heard they could live a long time. “So what are you training them for, then? I mean, when I hear animal trainer, I think like, obedience school, that kind of thing — like keeping the animals off the table.”

“I’m more interested in the cognitive capabilities of owls. If I were interested in having them do physical tricks, then, yeah, I would want to establish the standard dominance relationship with them, but the birds actually open up more mentally when you spoil them.”

The owl seemed to be returning to Corinne’s shoulder. “So what are their cognitive capabilities?” April asked.

“Well, they aren’t called wise for nothing. Anyway, enough about me for now. Now I’m really curious about your hometown. How long did your family live there?”

“My grandparents transferred there for work when my dad was in high school, so that was about 45 years ago.”

“Where were they from?”

“Nebraska.”

“I drove through there once on a really crazy road trip in college. Nothing but miles and miles of cornfields, right?”

“Right.”

“You’ve been there?”

“Still have some family there. I’ve been back a couple of times.”

“So they just transferred for work? No big injury?”

“Well, my dad wasn’t happy about the move, enough that he still talks about it. He was popular at his old school, not so much at the new one. But that was after the move.”

The owl then looked really uncomfortable, appearing to seize and twitch.

“Is she okay?” April said. “The doughnut didn’t kill her, did it?”

“It’s just an owl pellet, like a cat coughing up a hairball. She’s fine.”

“That looks pretty nasty.”

“I’m used to it by now. You know, the funny thing is, a few years back I sold owl pellets from my birds to Urban Outfitters for a while.”

“How did you get them to buy owl pellets?”

“It was their idea. They looked for people with owls to be their suppliers, and they sought me out. Go look it up on your phone. It’s real.”

April looked it up on her phone. “Oh my god, it’s real. What were they thinking?”

“Hipsters apparently thought displaying the vomited-up mouse skeletons in their homes made them look rugged. Maybe in a few years I can find a place in Portland that will get the same idea again.”

“It looks like there’s more in the pellet than mouse bones,” April said. “Is that a piece of corn in there?”

“Could be.”

“That’s so weird. We were just talking about corn. Wouldn’t it be weird if the owl knew what we were talking about?”

“When I first got owls, I used to wonder what they would say if they could speak in English. I don’t wonder that any more. They communicate what they want to tell me without words, and I’m sure they find out what they need to know from me and from other humans around them. In addition to their intellect, they’re very wise emotionally.”

“I can see why you’d spoil a creature that smart,” April said. “I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of that. But what exactly are you training them to do?”

“Everyone always asks me about my owls,” Corinne said. “I want to talk about something else for once. I really want to dig deeper into this rumor about Placid Valley.”

“Why don’t you just ask the guy who told you the rumor?”

“I’m trying to get validation from multiple sources, and I don’t meet that many people who are from there.”

“Fair enough.”

“He told me there was a big drug scene in Placid Valley.”

“People who really want to get in that kind of trouble will find it wherever they are. Maybe there are a few potheads in Placid Valley who get more attention than they deserve, but people abuse, for instance, prescription drugs all over the country.”

“You know something about that?”

Before April could voice a reply, the owl shuddered and hacked up another pellet. This one had a pharmaceutical pill on top too obvious to miss.

“My dad said his mom used too many prescription drugs after the move,” April said. “Valium and that kind of thing, like a lot of women did in the 1970s. How did your bird know?”

“She’s good at processing.”

April got up, leaving a lot of her doughnut behind. “I can see why you have a lot of first dates,” she told Corinne, walking out of the coffee shop.

It would have been really interesting to see the owl pellet exercise done on someone else. But April knew the national corporation her grandfather worked for arranged his transfer and substantial promotion to Placid Valley not primarily on the merits of his work, but primarily to discourage him from reporting to police that his boss had raped April’s grandmother, and she couldn’t bear to see the next owl pellet come out with two mouse skeletons intertwined in that act — even though she knew Corinne could get a lot of money selling it to Urban Outfitters.

© 2013 Eva Sylwester

“Thanks Hank” by Bob Ferguson

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Thanks Hank

By Bob Ferguson

The blistering sun and dust from the corn fields gave his face a swarthy look and his hands a leathery feel. He was tougher than the land he had tilled his entire life, but looked older than his sixty years.

It had been nearly a year since Samantha had passed away and Samuel Butler couldn’t move on. She was his ranch partner as well as his wife. In Fox Hollow, Alabama they were referred to as The Sammies. Everyone called each of them Sam, but to each other they were Samantha and Sam. They had been high school sweethearts and were fixtures in the community their grandparents had helped build. Her death came after a two year battle with cancer. Watching Samantha die had been like watching the slow wilting of the grandest rose in the garden. It withered Sam.  He was a hard-boiled, horse trainer, but her cancer was not something he could rope, brand, hog tie, and bend to his will. He could only watch and weep.

Sam put the tractor in the barn for the season. Harvesting was done. His tired body climbed the well worn stairs and he took a seat in one of the two rockers. He looked out over his acreage and was pleased with what he had done by his own hand. He took a cigar from the box of White Owls he kept on a wicker table.

The night was warm. He grabbed a cold PBR from the fridge.

He looked at his old acoustic guitar hanging on the wall. He took it down, tuned it, and began to sing.  His voice was like the rest of him, ruggedly sexy, and welcomed anywhere. He had been singing the same song since Samantha’s, the Hank Williams classic “I’m so lonesome I could cry.” He sang the same verse over and over:

“Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry”

Tears streamed down his face. Six PBR’s couldn’t ease the pain. For some odd reason he sang the last verse.

“The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry”

That verse jolted him from his misery. While he was wondering “where you are” he knew Samantha would be the first to tell him to buck up and get on with the business of living. He drank the last of the beer and began packing.

His ’63 Chevy was like the one he had in high school. It was made to run. He put the guitar in the back seat and a few bags of clothing in the trunk. He had arranged to have the farm taken care of for the next month and he now had a plan to live with gusto. He even whipped a few doughnuts in the front yard, and made a bee line to the county road. He would rejuvenate his mind and body on the beaches of Mobile, play his guitar and sing in the karaoke clubs. Samantha would like that.

On the edge of Montgomery Sam stopped for lunch. Nothing fancy, but a city diner.

“Hi there hon, take a seat anywhere,” the waitress said. “You look like you’re the real deal, not like the guys who come in here, they’re all hat and no cattle.” She handed him a menu and said “We had a little problem with our stove today so you don’t want to eat the jambalaya, but we’ve got some good four dollar gumbo.” She was filling his water glass and wiping tables all at the same time. She was a hard worker like Samantha.

“Where ya’ll from?” She asked.

“I’ve lived my whole life up in a little place called Fox Hollow,” Sam said.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” the waitress shouted. “Let me take another look at you baby cakes. I lived in Fox Hollow for a few years myself. I hated to leave it, my dad got transferred.”

Their eyes met. They were of the same vintage, no wedding rings, life’s experiences etched their faces, and there would be no need for awkward flirtation.

“Charley, I mean Charlene is that really you?” Sam said, remembering her as one of the prettiest girls in school.

“And you’re the guitar playing Sam who married Sam!” They had the rest of their lives to fill in the rest of their stories.

“Well, I’m single again.” Sam was going for it. He was starved for fun. “Since we seem to be between the lunch and dinner crowds, how about if I sing for my supper?”

As he went to fetch his guitar he heard another refrain that Hank made famous,

“Hey, hey good lookin’ What ya got cookin’
How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?”

The End

© 2013 Bob Ferguson