Friday, December 18, 2009

The Concert

"Should we call Bumblebees With Migraines?"

"No, Mangy Wolves are my favorite!"

"New Stiff Shoes, they're the greatest."

"What about The Bad Eggs?"

The Fourth of July was to be a celebration to top all others. They were to have a carnival, a dunking booth, several concession stands, and a singing group. The council couldn't agree on what singing group to invite. A decision was finally voted upon by some extra and impartial tie breakers, whose opinions were that all four rock groups should be called, and that the lowest priced one was to be hired without further discussion.

Bumblebees were called first, but it turned out their manager was buzzed and unavailable.

Mangy Wolves were then tried, but the curt and surely answering service said they were completely booked through August.

New Stiff Shoes had a very polite office manager who very politely told them that there was no way a group as great as they would play in such a very small town for anything near what they were offering to pay.

The Bad Eggs said they had a previous booking for that day, and that it was unlikely they'd be able to make it on time.

A real fuss and flutter arose among the council members, and some said there would be no music at all or that they would have to use recorded music instead of a live band.

One lowly man suggested that they ask some local high school talent, four kids who played in their garage, to do the honors, while also explaining (with much adjustment of his glasses) that the kids would probably not ask for money, and would be glad just to gain a little recognition.

Once agreed upon, the youths were solemnly greeted by the aforementioned bespectacled fellow who visited their hangout while they were in the act of their weekly practice. The idea was accepted with cheers, hoots, and slaps on the back, and they promised to show up early.

The holiday came, and the kids played their hearts out. Everyone paused many times to hear the prodigies share their united sound, even amidst the browsing of many other attractions. All but their parents and teachers were astonished, and the ones who knew their abilities were nearly bursting with pride at such accomplishment. A steady beat, full of pep and attitude, swept the whole town off their feet.

Then, and only then, did The Bad Eggs arrive. They had been told by their manager that a small town had offered decent pay for their services, and that since their previous engagement canceled they may as well make their way down to the area. They stood around watching the kids, and the unshaven spokesperson for the group, a certain Lee White, mentioned that the group would require a kill fee of 50%.

"You'll get no such thing," said the atypically short-winded mayor.

The music continued to tap in the feet of the listeners, and the Egg group got another bright idea. Lead guitarist Melvin Y. Oak decided they needed to add this talent into their own mix and offered to hire the kids to go with them on the road.

The kids, when a break came, were motioned over to speak with the group's manager, amid many sighs and cautioning glares from those who knew them.

"No way," said Ken. "I'm going to be a doctor. Music is for the weekends and such."

"Me neither," said Brent. "I'm already half owner in my ranch, and I've got stock to raise."

"I'm going to law school as soon as I can," added Gus. "I can't go on the road."

"Culinary arts are my practical side," chimed Oliver. "Musical arts are an additional plus, but I'm going to be a chef, thanks the same."

So The Bad Eggs, disappointed and without recourse or contract, slid off in their bus to help someone else enjoy the afternoon.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My New Best Friend

It was a very dark night and the moon was hidden, but I found the cool of the outdoor bench to be a soothing relief from steamy indoor laundry work. I had grown up in the country, so my eyes were quite used to seeing in very low light. Chores on farms (as you know) are done before dawn.

It was not unusual to take my break alone. The other ladies sometimes joined me, but this time their shifts kept them busy. Sometimes also they skipped their midnight meals, but I needed the energy boost, so there I sat enjoying the late picnic and admiring the stars.

An odd fellow with a limping gait sat down beside me. In the dim light his extremely pale features made his face sort of glow, and his empty eyes stared gloomily ahead into space.

I ignored him and proceeded with my snack. The steaming smell of soup from my insulated food container wafted into the air. My silent companion sat bolt upright, a puzzled expression visiting his face.

"What..." he began. His voice was deep and mysterious.

"Go on," I said. "I won't bite you."

Again an odd look crossed his face, and he choked slightly like there was something stuck in his throat.

"What..." his voice whispered hoarsely, " in that bottle?"

"Oh, it's just my soup. It's my breaktime, and I must finish my late evening snack before returning to work in that hot old laundry room."

"What kind?" he persisted. A faint breeze picked up the ends of his long, lightweight coat and made it flutter.

"Chicken and roasted garlic," I said. "Want some?"

He looked like he was going to be sick.

"No," he said.

I ate in silence for a while, and studied my neighbor curiously between bites. He had deep red lips and dark outlines around his eyes like he was wearing eyeliner. Maybe he's into goth culture, I thought. It was not my business to judge, however, so I continued to sit and eat.

Continued, that is, until I accidentally spilled it. Spilled it right on his leg. I was so embarrassed! I apologized all over myself and began to soak it up with napkins. The man seemed to be beyond anger, though, and bit his lip in delirious pain.

"It's not that hot, is it?" I said. I handed him some napkins. "Be a man," I continued. "Don't be such a baby."

The strange person dried up the mess, adjusted his position, and sighed deeply. He wrapped his black cloak around him and rested his chin upon his hand. I noticed he was still biting his lip, however. I noticed also that his teeth seemed a bit long and sharp.

"You know, they can do something about that overbite," I said. He looked at me curiously.

"I don't mean to make personal remarks," I continued, "and you might feel just fine about how your teeth look, but I used to have the same problem and braces helped considerably."

He smiled saucily without answer.

"Here, let me get you the number of my orthodontist," I said, rummaging through my purse. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him watching the back of my neck, but I was already beginning to get used to his oddness, so I didn't pay it much heed.

"Shucks, so much junk in this purse," I muttered. "Here, hold this for me." I handed him some makeup compacts, my empty keychains, and the crucifix necklace I carried with me at all times. (It had been a gift from a very dear friend.)

The man rose straight up off the bench with a yelp as though his posterior had discovered a very large thumbtack. I was afraid he wasn't going to return my belongings, so I gave up the search and threw my stuff back in the bag.

"Sorry," I said. "I must have left it at home."

"That's all right," he said stiffly.

"So much at stake when one leaves for work in such a hurry," I said.

The man again became rather alarmed.

"What did you say?" he said.

I shrugged. "I said I had to hurry to get to work, and I may have dropped my phone book out of my..."

"No, the other part. What was that about stakes?"

"No, I don't like steaks at all. They're too tough and tasteless. I much prefer chicken or fish. I still think you should try some of this soup. It's great stuff!"

I pulled a very strong flashlight from my pocket and began making sure that my effects were in order. My companion squinted in the bright light and seemed to become very annoyed.

"Well, I think I've got everything. My break's almost over. It was nice meeting you."

He nodded sullenly and remained on the bench, staring off into space.

"It's so nice to meet new people," I added as I arose to leave. "I hope we meet again. Let me tell you though, those laundry rooms can suck you dry. Leaves you void of energy. I don't know how I do it sometimes."

A rustling of leaves answered me. Somehow he had left in the blink of an eye.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Furballs

The first time I found a furball I was not the least surprised, although I should have been. The morning paper hit my door at approximately 6 a.m., and I was there to answer it.

It was pink, about the size of a softball, and covered with thick fur.

"Some kids lost their toy," I muttered to myself. I kicked it off the doorstep.

It whimpered.

"Oh, great," I said. "What have I done now?"

I picked it up cautiously and turned it over. It had two yellow eyes that blinked at me sadly, and a small, flat, toothless mouth. The creature appeared to be breathing through two tiny holes in the place where one might expect ears, and it didn't appear to have any sort of feet. I rather liked it, and wondered where it had come from.

While I wondered, a tremendous rustling of leaves in the maple tree overhead suggested that I step aside, and another one plunked down into the grass. It was light brown with white spots, and its eyes were bright green.

"Two of them!" I said, scooping it up.


Every few minutes I looked up from my newspaper to see what these creatures were up to. I had left them on the floor mat near the door, and I had given them each a sweet roll which they were devouring eagerly.

"City pound? I have two furballs... What? No, they're not cats. No, not dogs, either. They're round and look like a tennis ball... Hello? Hello?"

I began to ponder what to do with them.

"Where'd they go?" I said out loud to myself.

Though they seemed to have no feet, both things were crawling up the wall in a snail-like fashion.

It occurred to me they might be some new exotic pet that escaped from a pet store, so I boxed them up in a dog carrier and took them in the front door of the nearest shop and marched right up to the service desk.

"Here for grooming services?" asked a softspoken, pleasant young man.

"No," I said. "I've found these creatures outside my house, and..."

"Wild animals or tame? You're not supposed to keep them if they're wild. If they're tame and you don't own them, the pound..."

"I've already called the pound, and they won't listen to me," I interrupted.

I opened the cage and dumped the contents on the desk: three furballs! The new one was a sleek black with bright blue eyes that glowed cheerily.

"Eek!" yelled the clerk while making tracks for the nearest exit. I sighed, packed them back up, and left the store with a shrug.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Ugly Convention

The highway passed beneath the car no faster than it ever had, and I grew impatient. Tim, half asleep, sat beside me. He was supposed to be helping, but I knew I'd be doing most of the work.

"We're almost there," I said, hoping to wake him up a little and maybe inspire him to get his camera ready.

"Mmph," he said. Tim always said "mmph". It must have meant something on the planet he came from, I chuckled silently to myself.

Two merry guards talked briskly at the gate and asked to see my pass. One frowned at the other and said something in his ear.

"Mr. Gruffy said I had permission to do a story on this place," I explained, hoping they would remember and not bar me from entering.

"Gruffy, the owner of the Daily Satellite," Tim put in. They looked him over carefully and nodded to one another in approval. The gates swung wide, and I drove on through.

"Wonder why they were questioning me. Thought we had this all set up."

"Easy," croaked Tim. "You're not ugly enough."

I had decided not to wear makeup, and instead of fixing my hair I had just tied it in a lazy ponytail. I had dressed in my oldest clothes for the occasion, but I guessed that it hadn't done enough good.

Tents and campers lined up for many aisles. Everyone was out milling around, talking and laughing, playing games, eating refreshments, and watching me park with critical eyes. I strode right up to one man who seemed particularly good at lawn bowling and opened my notebook.

"What's is it you like best about this convention?" I asked. "I'm Laney Brown from the Daily Satellite," I added with a smile.

The man frowned a bit. "I liked it just fine until you showed up," he said. I turned and walked away to find another person to interview. A senior citizen was walking her dog, so I pulled a treat biscuit from the pocket of my coat (an old trick I had learned for getting dog owners to talk), and introduced myself. Tim followed, camera in hand, typical lazy attitude afoot.

"Hello, I'm Laney Brown..." I began.

The woman picked up her dog, went into her camper, and slammed the door shut.

I went for a walk and looked around. Everyone here was definitely in the lowest 2% of the population as regarded external looks, but none of them seemed to care too much about it. They were a community of ugliness, but at the same time many of them seemed to be hard working, clean, friendly, and intelligent. Farmers with holes in their gloves waved at Tim as we went by. Broad shouldered, sensible women were chatting about sewing and cooking. Dog owners were petting their dogs and comparing notes on breeding and nutrition. Everyone had something to do, and no one saw his or her life as useless. I put all this in my notebook as I walked. Then I thought of something.

"Tim, these people seem to like you better than me. It must be your friendly appearance."

"You're not fooling me, Laney. I know why they like me better," he said with a pout.

"No one's going to talk to me," I insisted, "so maybe you can get them to talk. Especially if I take the camera and hide behind it so they can't see my face. See?" I held up the camera as a mask and smiled.

"Yeah," said Tim, swallowing the last of his coffee and stowing the cup in his shoulder bag. "Okay, what do you want me to ask them?"

"Here's the list of questions Mr. Gruffy gave me." I handed over my list and notebook.

We got several fine interviews that day, and I witnessed a depth of humanity that I personally will not forget. It seemed that when society had thrown them out, they took each other in. When no one met their need for comfort and friendship, they were there for each other instead. The rejects in turn rejected those who rejected them. The doors that got slammed in my face made me wonder how many had been slammed in theirs. Inner beauty and wisdom were prized by those who couldn't win the game of good looks. I envied them, although I knew that I didn't particularly want to change places. They had something automatically given to them that the rest of us had to work harder for: that something escaped my attempts to name it, so I just wrote it up as a "unique and mysterious quality."

My article won an award. I named Tim as co-author for the first time ever. Lazy or not, I couldn't have gotten it done without him.

"Where are we going now?" said Tim as we climbed into my car.

"To cover a beauty pageant," I replied.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Unscripted Script

"I can..."

The stage echoed.

"I can..."

The director and assistants watched from the front row.


The dark, empty theater waited.

"Well, Cecil?" said the director.

The young actor threw his hat on the floor and stomped defiantly.

"Who wrote this script?" he demanded. "It's ridiculous!"

"Many scripts are," the director assured him.

"Find me one that isn't!" he snapped.

If he hadn't been blessed with unnatural good looks he might not have said that. The fact was that in a town of 1,800 Cecil Drifter was the only man for the job, and Cliff knew it.

"Be reasonable," said Cliff. "No one could do this play as well as you."

"No one would want to," replied his employee.

"Okay, fine," said Clifford in an easy tone. "Let it go. Let the whole town miss the production. Theater and art aren't so important, right?"

"Of course they're important!" thundered Cecil. "My kid sister's in the ballet, my big brother's paintings are on half the walls in town, and my mom teaches sculpting. Art's in my blood whether I like it or not."

"And drama is an art, right?"

"An art. A fine, precise art. A delicate rose."

"And does this not include comedy? That which produces laughter and great happiness?"

Cecil's arms hung loose and limp at his sides in surrender.

"Yes," he sighed.

"Then please read the script. I promise this will be the last rehearsal. Next Friday's for real."

Cecil shifted his feet to a more steady stance, blinked twice, took a deep breath, and resolutely spoke.

"I can just taste that blackberry pie right now!"

Instantaneously a large pie splattered his countenance. The assistant cheered his own good aim, and all broke out in smiles.

"Thank you, Mr. Drifter."

A muffled mouth of berries managed, "You're welcome," and with a great sweeping distinction, he bowed.

Friday night opened with a full house. Cecil's eyes twinkled extra brightly as he took the stage and winked at the assistant director, who winked back.

The curtain rose, the audience clapped, and the play commenced. There were many good punchlines, and Cecil delivered them all with skill. He interacted naturally with the cast, and when the final act arose he stood tall with pride, eyes still twinkling, wearing a handsome grin.

"Well, boys, it's time we headed home. Auntie Jo said she was going to bake today."

Cecil glanced downward. Just as planned, the chairs on either side of their beloved director were empty. He continued.

"Cliff can just taste blackberry pie right now!"


Clifford, now drenched in pie, joined the cast up on the stage. With half the town on Cecil's side there was but one thing to do: play along. He scraped a glob of fruit from above his ear and plastered it against Cecil's forehead. Cecil laughed.

Auntie Jo bounced heavily across the floor boards and set five more pies on the table. Both men's eyes gleamed. As one they rushed for the stack. The curtain slowly lowered on the trembling stage, awash in flying purple pies. The comedy's new ending brought loud cheers and uncontrollable laughter from the crowd, who vowed to return and see it again next season. Seven cast members later headed for the dressing room, warm with laughter and covered in purple splotches.

In time Cecil did get to do more than comedy, and in time bigger companies offered him roles. Cliff stayed with the small town theater until he passed away, and though no one could replace him several kept his shows alive for younger generations to enjoy.

Oh, and one more thing: Cliff wrote that script.

Friday, August 28, 2009


"Don't make him mad," she whispered.

"Why not?" I said. "I'm not afraid of him."

"It's not him," she continued softly. "It's things."

"Things?" I said, getting louder. "What sorts of things?"

"Shh!" she cautioned, glancing back at Werner, who was busy busing tables.

"What do you mean?" I insisted, more hushed.

"Things will happen to you if you make him mad," she said.

A bucket splashed dingy gray slop water all over the entrance. I turned just in time to see Werner stepping clumsily away, his leg soaked to the knee.

"Werner!" I said. Annette grabbed my elbow in begging restraint, but I shook her off.

"Now look," I continued, marching in his direction. "I'm not going to fire you on my first day as manager, but we can't have the patrons slipping. Clean that up!"

Werner nodded, mouth open, and began hurriedly throwing large amounts of the customers' supply of napkins into the pine scented wash water, which did nothing to remove the spill and wasted the napkins.

"Werner!" I said sharply.

"Shh!" pleaded Annette.

"Werner," I continued more evenly, "please go get the super absorbent disposable mop kit from the supply closet. Do not ever waste napkins."

Werner slowly shuffled to the closet, leaving a trail of wet footprints all the way.

"Werner!" I hollered after him.

"Shh!" warned Annette.

"Annette, what's he going to do? Quit? Why should I be afraid of that?"

"No, he never quits."

"Why shouldn't I show him how to be a more efficient employee? What harm is in a little scolding now and then?"

"He doesn't mean to," she said.

"Doesn't mean to what?" I insisted.

Werner returned with an armload of supplies in his same slow deliberate gait. He passed me without a word and began mopping up the floor, this time correctly.

"See?" I said to Annette. "He's making himself useful. He doesn't appear angry in the least, and it's getting done."

I turned confidently toward the grill. The scent of warm, inviting food was still fresh in my mind when I saw stars upon stars eminating from a central focal point. I landed on the floor in a sitting position and held my head, too breathless to speak.

"Ms. Flare, Ms. Flare!" said several employees.

"What happened?" I mumbled incoherently. I looked beside me and realized that a ceiling fan is really quite ornate, especially when there are stars dancing upon the blades. I also realized it had fallen on the floor amid a crumble of ceiling pieces.

Next morning I was back at work with a head bandage peeking out from under my visor. Everyone went about business as usual, including Werner. He seemed to bear no ill grudge for yesterday's incident, but neither did he seem to have learned anything. When he knocked over a customer's drink with his sleeve, he immediately piled napkins in the mess and wasted them. He also ignored the customer--policy was to replace the drink.

"Werner!" I said sternly. "Go apologize and offer to replace what you spilled."

He shuffled to the table and proceeded to speak in a thick but distinct voice.

"I'm sorry your drink got in my way."

"Werner!" I shouted. I smiled appeasingly at the very large unhappy man and his hungry family.

"I'm sorry," I said to them. "New employees don't understand things. I'm going to replace your drink with the same thing but in a larger size, on the house."

I turned to Werner.

"Go get the mop kit!"

The family continued eating until at some point Werner poked one of the children in the eye with the mop handle, resulting in a black eye. Our insurance costs would be going up.

"I'll fire him!" I roared from the break room.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said Marie, another good worker who was freshening her hair and makeup at a small corner mirror.

"Why not?" I asked.

As if in answer the mirror fell off the wall. I rushed to catch it, did so, and hung it back on the peg.

"He's a jinx," she said, "The real thing."

"There's no such thing," I laughed.

"That bump on your head would say otherwise," she warned.

"This is serious," I said soberly. "There are no jinxes."


"What is it that makes him that way, Dr. Travis?"

"Some people were born with mental wavelengths that we don't yet fully understand. They have used them accidentally, but some have learned how to direct them, how to focus them. These are the people who pose the greatest threat."

"And Werner?"

"No. He doesn't know how. I am convinced he is benevolent. But somewhere inside him is a deep residual rage. Contact this, and his talent awakens. Make him angry, and it will point in your specific direction. I don't think it is something he can help, or even knows about. But it is real, and you're going to have to find ways to deal with it."

I sighed, picked up my crutch, and went back to work.

Miss Lacey's Good Sandwiches

Her peanut butter was never dry. Her bologna and cheese was perfect. Her ham, with pickles and mustard, was famous. There was no sandwich that passed her butter knife without her complete attention, nor was there a recipient of such work that did not appreciate her talent.

Parties called her for a tray,
Weddings had her in their plans.
No one let her get away
Without introduction.

Beef tenderloin was the central topic, and all adored her delicate handling thereof.

Many were fed by her unrivaled skill,
Ranch and cold chicken rejoiced at her touch.
Long were the orders she scrambled to fill,
While crowds gathered where there were rumors of lunch.

In time she was noticed by famed Big Bucks Bill,
Who tried in his time every marvel to buy.
He told of a restaurant he wanted to build,
But when he asked Lacey, his quest was denied.

He flaunted his money in large waving fans
But still Lacey's gifts were for little or free.
If anyone asked for more food than she'd planned,
She'd offset the cost with a nominal fee.

And so she continued, the talk of the town,
Until she expired at age 93.
And still ever after for miles around,
They talk of Miss Lacey, the legendary.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Incredible Power of Soap

It was neither storming nor sunny when the wide wheeled jeep rolled around the dusty corner and into the unmarked driveway. Grass patches stubbornly claimed their territory despite being driven on, and the inhabitants of the jeep didn't bother to tell them otherwise. Chickens roamed about behind a fence that kept them more or less behind the house, although an occasional escape went unnoticed by all except the neighbor's dog.

A flabby, slovenly woman emerged. Her jeans were torn, and her feet were black with grime atop her minimal foam shoes. Her over sized shirt besmirched with food completed the ensemble, and her short, greasy hair hung in clumps atop a pimpled and unwashed face.

She waddled lazily to the porch, followed by two overweight and very dirty children. Her grocery bags were full of airy new packages of sweetened, flavored, oil-soaked chips upon which they would all feed for the rest of the afternoon.

The cluttered house gave one the feeling of being in a pack rat's den. Crooked window hangings, caked with dust, let in a small amount of daylight, and the dim glow of the television allowed them to see what they were eating.

A knock at the door brought one of the children to see whom it could be, for her laziness did not yet outweigh her sense of curiosity.

A saleswoman, brightly dressed, stood beaming a smile through freshly applied red lipstick.

"Would you like a sample?" said the lady.

"Who is it?" bellowed the woman on the couch.

"A pretty lady," said the girl.

"What does she want?" grunted the woman.

"What do you want?" echoed the girl.

A look of extreme compassion washed across the saleswoman's face.

"I'll be right back," she said.

She disappeared to her car for a moment, then returned with a heavy looking paper bag.

"Here," she said, handing it to the girl. "You can tell me how you like these the next time I come."

The young girl closed the door and began to peek inside the bag.

"What did she want?" repeated her mother, not looking up from the talk show.

"She left," said the girl. "She wanted to sell perfume."

"Ain't got money for it," grunted the woman, who filled her mouth full of chips beside her son who did the same.

The girl looked in the bag and tip toed to her room. There was a bar of soap, a small bottle of shampoo, some powder makeup, and some earrings. She carefully placed them in the corner of her top dresser drawer and covered the bundle with a wrinkled handkerchief.

The next school day the girl held her head up high. She was still overweight, but her whole outlook had changed. She was clean for once, cleaner than she'd ever been in her life, and it felt good. She made her mind up then and there: she would grow up to be like that pretty lady.

She began to try harder at some of her school studies, and found that she really was smarter than she'd formerly realized. Her grades were noticeably higher--noticeable by colleges who scouted scholars.

She left her mom and brother when she turned eighteen and rented a small apartment, which she kept clean--not pristine or spotless, but clean. Her weight problem was never perfect, but it did go down several sizes. She stayed busy and got several job offers when college was finished. The pretty lady kept in touch with her and they often exchanged short notes. Eventually she became involved with politics and ran successfully for a local position several times.

She never married, although she'd turned down a few dates. In a joint project the pretty lady and she raised a large sum for medical research.

She felt fulfilled in life, useful, a valued community member; and when she retired, she often visited houses in poor districts at Christmas time, bringing gift baskets composed of shampoo, bath oils, and soap.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Stubby Pony

The others all rushed ahead, looking back at her with gloating. Sara cantered quietly on her fat, ungainly pony. She was not that far behind, and couldn't figure what they had to gloat about. She had not tried to be first, furthermore did not want to be first. Being first must be fought for with undignified pushing. By contrast, the last one in the group could take more time to notice things.

Cinderella could not help that she had a broad build and short, stubby legs. She was a reliable horse full of good sense, and that was all Sara cared about.

Their daily group rides were always the same: rich kids on fast, long-legged horses fought each other for the lead. The trail was crowded near the front, sparse at the rear. Sara and Cinderella paused to nibble berries and clover (respectively), still able to catch up with ease.

Pretty soon the rich kids began noticing Sara's complete antipathy toward them. They began calling her names and insulting her pony, sometimes even slowing down to make sure she could hear them. Sara, however, was gifted. She could tune them out completely or act like their words never registered. Her mind was so full of flowers and meanderings that she had no room for their boring words.

One day someone threw a rock at her horse. It bounced off the hindquarters, but the reliable pony only sidestepped a little and continued.

Several now began to bedeck their steeds in rhinestone breast collars and embroidered saddle blankets, but Sara still paid them no mind. She rode with the group, happy in their company though excluded from their highest circles.

Kids that were not able to be first or had tried and failed at it began keeping their ponies with Sara. She didn't like crowds but understood why they did this. It was too beautiful to ignore the sunlight on the leaves, which could be glimpsed but not soaked in when one goes fast.

The rich kids could not make her jealous on any level; she simply did not want what they had. They could make her sad, lonely, or hurt, but they could never force Sara to be truly and genuinely envious.

After several weeks most of them slowed down. The few that hogged the front no longer had to fight for it. The last place was now coveted, and some started arguing about who would get to ride there.

Sara moved her horse to the middle. It was quieter. The stops for clover came less often, but it was a small price to pay for breathing space.

I could say that one day all the flighty ponies scampered, throwing their riders. I could say that the avalanche of baseball sized rocks left several on the ground, and that the remaining riders, including Sara, went for help. I could say her patience, which seeped into everyone else, made her and others into heroes.

I could say it, but modesty forbids.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reevari Run

"The eyes of a reevar are drawn to light. They cannot look away."

The sage's words replayed themselves inside his head. He threw the ball down the hill--the one that blinked each time it bounced--and prayed that the reevar would look away for just one second.

It did--his only opening. His sword swung whistling through the air.

It missed.

Tentacles grabbed him by the leg and dragged him toward an open mouth of humongous teeth. The horrible smell of its breath made him start to vomit. It paused, curious as to this never-before-seen behavior. It admired him, turning him every which way and suspending him to see if he would do it again. He did.

The creature made a sound that was half like a warble and half gurgle. It set him on the ground again and patted him on the head with one clumsy limb, then left abruptly.

It was gone. He tried his best to survey the valley and see if the way he'd come (now buried in loose shale) could be unblocked. He dug away several loose pieces and with some persistence made the path usable. So much for reward money, he thought. If only he weren't so desperate to pay the doctor bills for his best friend's ailing father.

The ground rumbled. One, two, five, ten...fifteen reevari were following the first one! They were coming straight at him! He made a desperate dash up the newly cleared exit but was caught by the leg.

All of them sat down in unmonsterly order and formed an audience while the first reevar shook him and gurgled.

"Put me down, please!" he said.

Sixteen reevari roared disapprovingly. The first reevar shook him again and warbled.

"I can't do it again," he explained. "My stomach's empty."

More shaking followed. The audience was getting restless, and some were opening and closing their circular hungry mouths.

He hated to do it, but he reached for the only comfort he felt he had left: cigarettes. He'd been trying to quit. He lit one up, difficult while up-side-down, and began puffing greedily on what might very well be his last.

"Oooh," the reevari warbled. The first reevar put him down and gargled proudly, taking credit for the wonderful display.

He got an idea. Quickly he pulled the somewhat crushed remainders from his pockets, lit them all at once, and passed them out to the reevari, who, imitating him, puffed on them heartily to see the ends light up like coals. The smoke made them cough, but their fervor for light was indomitable and drove them to keep at it. When the ends burned down to the filters they promptly ate them. Then all the reevari curled up for a nap, snoring loudly, and our hero crept away.

Monday, May 18, 2009

White Wings, Part 2

In several jumps over ramps his feet were more than a meter off the ground, so that you could swear he was flying. He descended in a delicate arch and landed lightly on the tips of all four paws. His wings had grown till they were longer than he was, but he rarely opened them. When he did open them, it was usually a reaction to some sort of stimuli, such as being startled.

"I need to attach a jack-in-the-box to your collar," I told him, "and open it by remote when you're in mid air." He cocked his head like he was trying to understand me.

About a week later I found him outside staring at something, his wings at full attention, tips pointing skyward. I approached with too much haste and not enough caution, for when I got close a cobra's head whisked past my leg, a near miss. Before I could unholster my weapon the great animal ripped its head off with one snarl, then looked at me and wagged his tail. Pleased with himself, he proceeded to destroy what was left of the snake by tossing and clawing it like a cat with a rubber mouse.

The next morning I could not find him. I looked everywhere. No one in the stone city ever stole anything, so that wasn't one of my worries. I went to the end of the flower garden and peered out as far as the eye could see. Sighing, I turned toward the house, then gasped. A large furry white surprise was sitting on my roof, watching me and panting.

"You get down from there!" I laughed. The great dog pawed at the edge of the roof and whined.

"If you can get up there, you can get down," I argued.

He answered with a saucy bark. I got an idea.

"Dinner!" I called loudly. He did not need dinner at mid morning, but if he'd only fly I'd feed him two dinners, just for today.

He got excited and started to bark. I slapped my thighs and whistled. The wings opened. I snapped my fingers and cupped my hands like I was holding a savory treat. He began to hop up and down near the guttered edge.

"C'mon," I urged.

He barked rapidly, turning in circles.

That evening as I scribbled in my personal journal I remarked in my notes how difficult it had been to get down a ladder while carrying a large, wiggly, energetic, hungry dog.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The White Wings

"Shh! Follow me!"

He seemed to think he knew something interesting. Slight of frame as he was (and also of stature), he had no trouble slipping into the cave's entrance.

Not far along the passage the cavern widened slightly. Soft leaves and dried grass formed a sort of nest in a hollow tucked against a wall of cool, smooth rock. A sleeping heap of white fur turned out to be five adorable puppies. They were about the size of wolf cubs, but more resembled German shepherds. I lifted one out of the nest and examined it. To my surprise two small, soft, feathered white wings were attached to either side of its well muscled shoulders.

I returned it to the nest, but the man rattled off a series of unintelligible words and signed with his hands that I was to keep one. I guessed the extent of his English must have been a few key phrases, because whatever he was saying was very elaborate if I could only have understood it. I reached for my wallet and started to count out several large bills.

"No!" he said plainly, and again began rattling some very complicated phrases.

"You..." The man struggled to think. "," he said with great effort. "You..." He pointed to the dogs, and then to me, over and over again.

The little boy had fallen out of a ten story window in the ancient city of rock. Had I not been in the right place at the right time I wouldn't have broken his fall. As it was, we both tumbled to the ground and got concussions.

Ah, the cruelty of it! If I were to refuse his generosity, all the work would be undone. It had taken me five years to find the city, and it had been with great difficulty that I had won over the trust of its inhabitants. But now, if I accepted this puppy, this oddity, I knew that I could never go back to the "normal" world, for the dog and I were sure to become inseparable, and the people of my world would hound me endlessly for his oddness, trying to steal the dog, or his picture, or my time.

It really was a simple choice: commit to this world and stay forever, or lose my chance to learn about a place most thought did not exist.

Hiding my reluctance with a grateful smile, I scooped up an armful of fur and wings. The creature began snuffling my chin with kisses.

With a low bow, the little man led me out of the cave, and I began mentally making a checklist: dog food, bed, leash, shots...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Hoarse Swap

Swap meets have been my favorite semi-annual event since I discovered them as a teenager. Upon entry at the gate, where you fork over a few dollars to get a car full of people in, you are greeted, overwhelmed, by the scents and sounds. Hickory smoke (headache, yes, but still sweet), crowing roosters, funnel cakes, clucking guinea fowl, hamburger stands, honking geese (and cars), bustling shoppers (some who occasionally spit or cuss), traders, barkers--

Barkers. A barker is a salesperson whose methodology includes talking proficiently, talking for a long time, and talking pleasantly to passersby, proclaiming the goods to be sold and their virtuous properties. I observed some barking, then picked it up. It really works. When you engage people, you are at least ten times more likely to snag a sale.

This swap meet I was handicapped severely: I had come down with laryngitis. If I tried really hard I could occasionally force an audible whisper, which would use up all my vocal powers for the next half hour.

This swap meet was different in another way: I was moving to a less rural area, and I had to find a home for my dog. He was a farm dog, rough and ready, large and active, and a small home or a caged life was just not acceptable for him. I had to find a farmer who'd let him run with the cattle and sleep in the barn.

I put up signs on the back of the SUV explaining why I was giving away the dog. Many passersby oohed and ahhed over the dog, especially when he did a trick that he'd taught himself: he sat beside me and rested his paw on my hand.

"Aww," they'd say, "they're holding hands."

I'd smile and nod, unable to say anything.

As the day wore on and lunchtime came and went (I gave the dog half my string cheese), I decided to take him for a walk and see if I could find anyone who'd make a good candidate. I attached a sign to his back that read FREE and set out walking, with this beautiful, flashy, black and white dog tugging at the leash. I knew it would be hard to let him go, but I reminded myself of the story of how Moses' mother put her baby into a basket, and how it was for the best, and I pressed on.

Some of the people I passed had also seen him holding hands with me, and evidently had not read the sign explaining why I needed to give him a new home. All they saw was a person giving away a loving animal, and their eyes said traitor. Some of those people actually hated me, and I wondered why they thought they had any right to judge me. I couldn't have spoken up for myself if I tried, so I ignored them and pressed on.

I paused to look at some handmade wooden puzzles. I felt sorry for the man, retired and supplementing his income by making them. If I have time when I get back to the car, I may return and buy one, I thought. All of a sudden many people were frowning and growling at me. I turned to see the dog, nervous from the long car ride, relieving himself in the middle of the gravelled walkway. If I'd had on my person the wherewithal to clean it up, I would have. And if I'd known he was going to do that, I would have moved him to a better place. But neither were the case, so I walked onward, followed by many a hateful stare.

After all the aisles, after all the hate, after all the people who were sympathetic but unable to help, at the head of the last aisle my feet were turning towards the car, and my weariness became insistent. Yet somehow, intuitively, I said out loud, "If I don't go down this aisle, I'll never find him a home." I pressed on.

The aisle I hadn't wanted to go down was sparsely populated with people who had little or nothing to sell. I preferred main paths to little out-of-the-way ones as a matter of policy. I traveled all the way down one side of it and halfway back up the other side, where sat a kindly looking man in the back of a pickup truck, who hollered out to me, "Come here!"

I smiled and brought the dog over. His young grandson looked pleased. I liked the man, and I liked the child.

"Do you raise those?" he asked.

"I used to," I said in a preciously forced whisper.

He petted the dog. "I've been wanting a pup sometime. He's a fine dog. I was going to get your number and ask for a pup out of him."

The "free" sign had slipped. When the farmer petted the dog his hand discovered it. He lit up with gladness.

"You're giving him away?"

"I'm moving," I whispered. "He needs a larger place to live."

"May I have him?"

I nodded, smiled, handed him some vet records, and watched as they loaded him into a cage in the truck. Silently I thanked God, and gladly I went home to nurse the headache that was fast approaching from the smell of hickory smoke.

Writer's Block

"That coffee was cold!"

The ceiling reverberated. Newspapers flew in a circle, split apart, and floated downward in separate sheets onto the matted rust colored carpeting.

"Don't you know it isn't polite to throw things?" said Angie.

"What isn't polite is to throw hard things, like this paperweight, at people, or windows, or other living things," said Mr. Morgan thoughtfully. "To throw something soft and harmless is not wrong, so long as it hits no one."

"Perhaps so," replied Angie, "but there are now newspapers all over my side of the office. Can you guess who's going to pick them up?"

A voice near the doorway startled her. "I am!"

The youth proceeded to collect the papers, and carted them off like he'd just found a treasure.

"He uses them to cover the mahogany table when he paints those confounded models of his," Morgan explained. Calmly he returned to his papers.

"Ms. Mark," he said without looking up, "do you think you could find me a genuinely hot cup of coffee?"

"And since when does renting three and a half rooms from you make me your housekeeper?" she queried.

"It doesn't," he replied. "I was only inquiring. I would rather buy it from you than lose the time it takes to walk to the Sun Deer."

Angie considered a moment. "If it's all the same," she said, "though it's tempting to take advantage of your lack of time and make a few dollars, I'll decline. It would be good exercise to walk, and might inspire you to heights of still more colorful and creative work."

Still looking down and still writing, with his left hand he displayed a fan of five one hundred dollar bills.

"A cup of coffee, please, Ms. Mark," he said.

"Sorry," she replied, "no deal."

Morgan looked up. A glimmer of smile played on his lips.

"I'll walk," he began, "if..."


"...if you will come with me. My treat."

Angie thought a moment. "I'll go, if..."

"If?" he frowned.

"If Toby comes with us."

"Twelve year olds don't drink coffee..." began Morgan.

"This one does!" hollered a voice down the hall. "The lady at Sun Deer puts chocolate in mine, and lots of cream!"

"He's got my creativity," Morgan muttered, straightening his desk and grabbing his hat and cane, "but he bears his late mother's affinity for chocolate."

Author's note: The story is actually about an author's struggle with himself. His reasoning mind (Angie) struggles with his passionate mind (Morgan) while his inner child (Toby) picks up the pieces and/or tries to entertain himself.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Roar in the Night

She was eleven, very imaginative, and very much into books. One particular historical biographical series told a bit of a tale about mountain lions, and described their unsettling screams in the night as they looked down out of trees on unwary passersby.

Autumn came, and the daylight shortened. Now she needed a flashlight to go out and feed the chickens. And normally this was fine, except that by now the mental images and horrific sounds described in the book made her tremble at what might be out there somewhere in a tree.

Maybe if I wave my flashlight beam in circles like a disco, she thought, whatever is probably not there will be too scared to come near. The large, sturdy lantern made a splendid light show, and she stepped towards the pen with a bucket full of chicken feed, feeling confident.

Screams ripped the air. The chicken feed flew up then down and scattered on the walkway. Trembling, she stumbled back up the way she'd come, falling several times. It had come from the large oak in the front yard.

Screams rang out again, making her hair stand up. She felt like vomiting. She fell against the front door, holding onto consciousness by sheer willpower.

Then she heard something that made her feel foolish: the last set of screams was followed by a familiar "who who who." Who knew that owls who are frightened by a lantern beam can scream to scare the daylights out of the sturdiest of hearts? Not to mention those less sturdy and more creative.

As time went by there were many screams in the night, belonging either to bobcats or to owls. She often dealt with them by imitating them and screaming back. It worked. You couldn't feel scared when you could make a bigger, badder noise than the animal was making.

Howls of coyotes were not frightening. She always felt they were her friends. She especially liked to stay out late on a moonlit night and listen to them. They were melodic, musical, sweet. She never lost a single hen or single head of livestock to them, whatever the reason, and whatever the neighbors' reports of their tenacity.

Shooting stars, once one had gotten over the surprise, were beautiful and amazing, brighter than lightning and almost as quick. Though they didn't scream they sometimes made her scream if they startled her.

One of the more frightening things was the cat. The cat was a very good mouser and a very devoted friend, but one thing she did that was almost unbearable: she'd sit atop a wooden post above six feet high, and remain there with her silently glowing eyes, looking for all the world like an owl or a mythical beast. You could walk right under her and not know she was there, and if you happened to look up the sight was initially surprising.

Now, the old timers of the region didn't help anything. They'd swap stories that were about 45 percent fictitious, about four foot high wolves and cougar tracks in their yards. Occasionally a lone rogue cougar could hypothetically come so far south from his native grounds, but it was highly unlikely. And there were no wolves in this region. Coyotes, yes, and maybe a stray dog gone wild, but definitely no wolves.

And even if there ever were a wolf, by all means you could flash your lantern at him.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Clunky Horse

B. Buck was a long legged half mustang. He had a broad, flat head, long ears (especially for a horse), and a black dorsal stripe.

He was as lazy as the day was long.

Every time I wanted him to go and would dig in my heels it did very little good. Even heavy cowboy boots did not induce him to move beyond an oddly gaited, knock-kneed walk.

Special horse shoes did not significantly improve his stride. One good thing, however, was that he rarely spooked, so a rider could feel reasonably safe from being thrown or run away with.

Being green broke when I received him, I had to introduce him to many things he hadn't seen before. He took his training well and made himself at home, but there was one thing he did that makes me laugh even today.

A tiny, six-inch-wide ditch drained water off the hill. One day I rode him up to it, and the horse promptly stopped. It was running, but as I said it was a very tiny little ditch.

"Giddy up," I said.

He acted nervous. I had never seen him like that before.

"Giddy up," I repeated, and pressed my heels into his sides.

His legs began to tremble.

"B. Buck..." I began.

With the speed and swiftness of a deer, the horse leaped over the ditch as though it were a large waterway. I was just a young person, and had never jumped a horse before (or since). That was fun.

Thanks, B. Buck, for the good jokes and your soft, velvet nose. Whereever you are, may you live in peace. If there's heaven for horses, I hope you're in it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ignorance is Bliss

A possum (yes, I know that's "opossum" but all the locals leave off the "o") raided the chicken house night after night. Once the ghastly, white faced, sharp fanged, stupid, hissing, rocking, filthy creatures had discovered my chickens, nothing deterred them. In a single night four hens were beheaded and then left. It couldn't have killed one and finished eating it--he had to take one bite of four different hens, my fine, beautiful, multicolored Araucana Easter egg hens.

The only solution was to lock them up at night. Most of them roosted at night anyway, so it was only a matter of catching a few stragglers, tossing them in the door, and bolting it. The possums couldn't open the door, and I stopped losing chickens.

One tired night I forgot to lock them in. The possums didn't forget, and I lost some more. It became imperative not to forget even once.

Storms would sometimes arrive one right after the other in a steady succession that kept up for hours, even days. Now, the chicken house was at the crest of a hill, next to a tree line that had been struck several times by lightning. Examining those trees was mighty awe inspiring, especially the ones that had become a scattered pile of splinters. Being reluctant to go up there during severe thunderstorms, and having experienced them in long successive chains that continued long into the night, I was left with a dilemma: risk lightning, or lose my chickens. I watched eagerly for hours, hoping it would let up for even a few minutes, but every time one storm moved out another moved right in. My stomach hurt at the thought of both dangers, one of which I would have to choose by nightfall.

Finally in late afternoon all the thunder stopped. I looked outside. The atmosphere above had a reddish tint in a sky wide, impenetrable cloud bank. I watched for several minutes. No lightning.

I ventured out. I stopped by the dog pen to get my faithful border collie. The dog, quite uncharacteristically, refused to come out of her house. After much coaxing I gave up and went on without her. (I will always ever after trust a dog's good instinct.)

The wind became strong. I ran. A gust of it knocked me to the ground. I got up and ran some more. Turning a corner revealed in the southern sky a large, twisted mass of slowly circulating clouds that formed a black, nasty tower from ground to sky. An older, wiser person would have known what that was, but I was fifteen and a novice, more concerned with avoiding lightning than the cloud. I kept a close eye on it, caught all the chickens in record speed (especially since none of them had roosted yet), and ran for the house, fighting the wind.

The pillared cloud moved off to the north east, doing no damage. As if to mock me, within an hour the sun came out, and we had a lovely sunset full of vivid colors and gentle breezes.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Musicians of the Hills

The moist, tree pollen scented wind threw small boughs and branches skyward under the blurred and watery light of a cloud-covered moon. Lightning flashed silently, too far away to be heard. He laid his hand on a wet tree trunk and tried to keep from slipping on the slimy wet moss underfoot.

Normally he'd be asleep at this hour, but something had awakened him and had sparked his curiosity into a fully fledged forest fire. For some inexplicable reason he felt he would cease to exist if he did not find the source of the sound he'd heard.

It was delicate, but not a tree frog; loud, but not a screech owl; frightening, but not a bobcat, coyote, puma, or bear; musical, but not a katydid or cricket; strong, but not a deer; intelligent, but not exactly human.

The notes were elusive. They seemed to come from the pond. When he neared the pond, however, he heard them towards the head of the spring-fed creek. When he approached it again, they paused for a moment, and then continued from the deep, rocky ditch between two extremely steep hills, where if one were not careful it might be possible to step into a nest of pit vipers. The fire within that compelled him to seek the sound felt as if he'd sooner do just that than deny it the journey. He went on.

Now it seemed to come from the tip top of an isolated bluff. Thunder from the far away storm became slightly audible, and the winds grew even rougher. Immune to any danger except that of stopping, he climbed. His fingers were barely able to keep hold of the rock face. Gravel and earth rolled beneath his feet, and the stone was carpeted with wet moss and grimy rotted leaves--no easy hold. He inched to the top, victorious in small steps. He was nearly there. The sound did not abate. This time it did not move. The eerie notes poured forth as he surmounted the crest of the bluff and found--the neighbor's dog.

Frankie was a large, protective golden retriever who had been a help to all the community, a friend of children, and the guardian of his house and yard. The fact that the dog had died three years ago did not seem to affect him as much as it should have. The great dog gazed at him with its deep yellow eyes and seemed to recognize him, then continued in a long, musical howl.

He noticed a bluish light in the valley on the side opposite the one he'd climbed--a steady glow as of the moonlight, yet softer. Musical notes now faded, now floated up out of its center.

Slowly his eyes accustomed. He began to see several forms taking shape. One was an old man in blue jeans and a wide brimmed hat. His fingers gripped a sweet, polished fiddle which he played devoutly. The second and third had flutes, a fourth held an old guitar. Three women played mellow mandolins. A drummer held his sticks in solemn silence, as though this song had no room for him. One very fat man in glasses played a jug, and two gaunt lads held jaw harps to their mouths. A little boy somberly coaxed the music out of his harmonica. A very wise looking woman wrestled a large accordion, and wielded it as though her strength were exceedingly great.

He wanted to retreat, but the force that drove him there refused to allow his feet to move. The dog nuzzled his hand, and its breath was warm. It stepped forward and then paused, looking at him as if to say, "Come on!"

"Well, look!" said the fat old man. They all stopped. He felt thirteen faces and a dog staring at him. He walked forward in a shuffling, half apprehensive fashion, convinced they were ghosts and not convinced they had good intentions.

"Play," said one of the lanky lads, and from somewhere he found a guitar thrust into his hands.

"I haven't played in years," he protested.

"Play!" they all repeated.

He found he had the rhythm of a rock star, and the agility of a classical musician. The strength of a dozen warriors coursed down his arms, and the attitude of a hundred winning teams sang in his voice. The guitar expressed every happy moment he'd ever had and a million he'd never known. The musicians began dancing wildly to its music, leaping from rock to rock and over tree stumps and bushes. He found he could not stop playing, and he played for a very long time.

When he finally felt the time to end was now approaching, the storm clouds had passed to the south with very little rain, and the sun's first blood red rays burned through them.

"Thank ye," said the fiddler as he took the guitar with a country sort of nod. "That'll do."

He now felt as weak as a newborn kitten. He found he was wrapped in a coat that clung to his shoulders, and he pulled it loose with a great amount of effort. It stuck to him as he fought to free himself. He gasped for air. The coat was not a coat, but a sheet, a sheet soaked with sweat. He threw it off and found he was at home in bed, with the remnants of a storm rumbling south, and blood red rays of sunlight peering through the window.

"Well," he said to himself, "I've sweated out the fever. I guess I'm going to make it."

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Burro

Climbing a hill was no easy task for the burro, but he plodded on steadily. He would have liked to eat the green grass he walked on, but duty came before filling his stomach. He hoped at the end of the day his destination would include more of the same delectable looking vegetation for a sundown browse.

Time and climb later his wish was granted, and he grazed eagerly. The flies buzzed at his ears. He flicked them away and hoped in the cool of the night their wings would stiffen and refuse to carry them till sunup.

A small creek ran nearby. Vernon dipped his nose in the water and lipped playfully. Water spiders darted across the surface of a rocky pool.

Something didn't sound right. He sniffed the wind and listened.

No owner.

If he'd been a rowdy donkey, his owner would have used a bridle, and eating grass would have been more challenging.

If he'd had the tendency to wander away from camp, he would be tethered right now, eating only what the rawhide rope allowed.

He tenderly stepped over and around the owner's fallen tent. The scent of his rider was still heavy on the empty pair of boots and dust smeared blanket.

He listened to the wind. Silence ruled. Even the forest birds held back their songs and hid their rustic feathers.

Days went by. No owner returned, and no other human arrived. The grass and the creek were enough, and he may have stayed at that campsite longer if it had not been for one thing: a bear.

The bear nosed and overturned every one of the pots, pans, blankets, and spoons. He ate very portion of leftover bacon and chewed up one of the boots. Finding it inedible, he decided to see what a donkey smelled like, and whether it was good to eat. Vernon walked a few meters, then grazed with one eye on the bear. It again approached. He again moved away. Time and time again it tried to smell the gray burro, till at last its temper flared and, one snarling the other snorting, the ass easily outran the omnivorous beast.

When his head quit stargazing and his snorting ceased, the donkey found himself in a wide meadow. Butterflies busied themselves with wildflowers. Taller grasses grew in bunches. Seed heads waved and beckoned him to nibble.

He did nibble. While chewing his eighth sweet seed head he found he was not alone. The presence seemed quite familiar and he was eager to keep on chewing, so he let the girl slip her hand in his halter. Her soft voice tickled his ear, and he nosed her affectionately. Her arm smelled like flowers.

She patted his wide, furry forehead.

"Where did you come from?"

The donkey went on eating. She pulled a soft pink scarf from her pocket and strung it through the halter.

"It's not much of a lead rope," she admitted. "Somebody must be missing you."

Vernon was missing somebody himself, but seeing her made his heart ache a little less.

The overflowing animal shelters were glad to let her keep the burro while they kept an ear out for any missing animal reports. The local sheriff had just about the same idea.

Vernon himself was pleased. The barn lacked nothing, and the well bred ponies in the other stalls didn't mind him being there.

Soon the girl was taking him for long walks along a garden path. He enjoyed nibbling leaves and stretching his legs, and the stone pavement was a friendly file to his tough unshod hooves.

Then one day she slipped a bridle on his shaggy head and led him to the practice arena. The floor of it was made of delightfully soft and supportive dirt. The girl weighed no more than a feather when she slipped aboard his bare shoulders, and the felt he really could run with her forever.

She did something no other owner had ever done, and it make him feel like he had springs in his legs. Her legs and feet bumped against his sides, urging him forward, but with her hands she held his head until his nose turned downward and his neck formed an arch. His terse legs danced, and at a decided moment she released his head and dug in her heels with a sharp cry of "Hyah!" Dirt flew behind them and the ring sped past as the wind blew his coarse and shaggy mane in winding circles. Even when he had run away from the bear he'd not attained such speed, and he was delighted. So was the girl. Soon he could do the barrel race faster than most ponies because of his tendency to be surefooted and his excellent memory.

A man was watching them. As they slowed and then halted his eyes smiled.

"No one can bring out the best in them like you can, Jo," he said.

"What good is it to teach a burro to race?" said a saucy voice behind him. "He'll never win."

"It's really none of your business," said Jo.

"Uncle Bob," persisted Felix, "what good is it to teach a burro to race?"

"Until some owner claims him, that donkey belongs to Jo. It is neither my business nor yours what she wants to do."

"Thank you, Uncle Bob," she said.

"Aunt Hin says to come in for cinnamon rolls," said Felix sulkily.

The next time Jo and Vernon were at the barrels, Felix appeared aboard Grand Marshall III, a stunning, flashy, white-streaked, leggy three year old pony. Just at the point where Vernon reached his highest speed they flew past him in haughty delight. Jo didn't let it bother her, however. She kept right on with the exercises without showing the slightest hint of annoyance.

"Fifteen laps? No way!" Felix protested.

"Why not?" Jo smirked.

"The races are not that long. Why? I already beat you. Haven't had enough?"

"You wouldn't beat us if the race were fifteen laps. My burro's in condition now; he obeys me perfectly, and if you want to settle the matter then put your pony where your mouth is."

"No way."


"Am not."

"Younger brother is a chicken," she sang.

"Jo's pony is a jackass," he replied.

True to form, Felix caved in. Marshall pulled ahead and stayed ahead for three laps. By the fourth he was lagging, by the fifth no more bragging. Vernon's even, steady lope and untiring endurance showed the pony to be what he was: a speedy winner in a short sprint. Longer races went to the burro. Day after day Felix tried new horses and new techniques. He watched Jo gather the burro, and copied what she did. He found when he did this his ponies had springs in their heels, and they always passed the burro for the first few laps. The more they ran against him, the greater their endurance grew. Instead of faltering in the sixth, their lead remained until the eighth or ninth lap, depending on the pony.

That spring the junior barrel events arrived. Felix and his ponies took many firsts and seconds. In the past he'd never won anything above fourth place.

Jo eventually left the horse events behind to pursue her education in law. Her brother raised and trained many champions, and his ranch and training grounds became famous. People came from as far away as Europe to purchase ponies.

Jo visited the burro once a week. She provided for his care at the ranch.

Her brother thought she was sentimental. He never thanked her for pushing him into excellence and never gave it much thought. All he seemed to care about was pursuing fame and money.

On a mid-Atlantic flight his heart gave out. He'd grown fat and a bit lazy, leaving all the physical tasks to the hired trainers. The ranch was left in his will to Jo, who returned home to care for the ponies.

Her law office could now be handled by the young trainees, plus her help by phone, fax, and coming in for three hours a week. She decided to open the doors of the ranch to allow kids to visit and interact with the ponies for a low fee to help offset the costs of running it. She had a separate barn where kids were allowed, plus three that were off limits, so that horses who were in gestation, nursing foals, and skittish colts could remain undisturbed.

Many gentle colts were sold. Many kids' hearts grew warm from loving something other than themselves. Two foster kids stayed on at the farm, and loved Jo like a grandmother. Her wisdom and her calm, patient demeanor rubbed off on all who spent much time around her.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Coco the Faithful

Coco was a border collie in training. She showed promise as a stock dog, being both obedient and willing to grip, a term that means nipping the heels of livestock on command. Some dogs won't do it.

The ice storm was one that most folks don't forget. All the roads and sidewalks were solid, slippery ice for over two weeks.

During that two weeks I stayed at home and minded the stock, there being very little for me to do at work, since very few customers were showing up.

Now it just so happened that there was a very deep dip leading to the door of the barn. I carried a sharp stick for digging into the ice, and I wore knobby boots. Even so the going was difficult.

The dog had less trouble walking on the ice than I did. She seemed almost to enjoy taking her daily run on it.

It was a good thing that day her daily run coincided with my getting stuck by the barn. That tiny bit of a hill had gotten so slick that with my stick, my boots, and all my knowledge, I could not get up it. I even tried to crawl up it on my hands and knees. It was very short, and I could touch the level ground on top with my hand if I reached, but it was to no avail. I was stuck.

I called Coco. One of the commands she'd learned was "walk on." To those of you not familiar, it means approach the stock. It's sort of like "mush" to a sled dog. I held her collar and said, "Walk on!" She ran, and I held onto her while crawling alongside. With her help I reached the top, up and out. I ran to the house and got a hammer, and roughed up that ice so I would not get stuck again.

Coco, if there's a heaven for dogs and you can hear me, God bless you.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Beau the Blue Dog

He started as a wiry little puppy with a stubby tail. He was a beautiful blue merle with black spots and a brownish face. At a very early age he learned to understand what I said. He tried to follow me through a gate; I told him not to come in. He started obediently to walk back to the barn.

"Don't go away," I said, "Just wait for me."

So he did. He turned around and came back, and sat by the gate till I was finished.

He was tough. He would take on opossums and snakes, moles, voles, and shrews, raccoons, repairmen, and foxes. Yet he had a softer side.

By the ducks was a scrap pile. In the scrap pile were some melon rinds. Beau used to steal them and chew on them.

One day a beautiful female chihuahua came out of the house. She pranced in her fenced yard, looking about and sniffing the wind. Beau came right up to the fence, melon rind in his mouth.

I watched closely. A blue heeler is so much larger than a chihuahua, and he might hurt her even through the fence, I thought.

He dropped the rind and pushed it. He pushed and pushed till it started to slide under the fence. He didn't stop till it was on her side.

The little chihuahua picked up the melon rind and trotted off with it, head held high in the air, looking for all the world like it was a treasured prize. Beau had given her a gift.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Unruly Mare

The large mare leaped, head down, rear legs thrown halfway into a kick. She spun, muscles taut, flanks covered in foam. Her eyes were wild with rage, mouth open and gasping, flared nostrils spraying droplets of saliva mixed with sweat. I looked at her thick, golden coat.

“How much?” I asked.

The farmer regarded me as one whom he had just met emerging from an institution for the mentally challenged.

“Now, I won’t bicker with you,” he said.

“I’m sure of that,” I replied. “How much?”

He pulled his hat down lower as though to shield his eyes from some bright light I couldn’t see.

“She does have good papers,” he reminded me.

“I am aware of that, Mr. L. And seeing that she has obvious behavior problems hasn’t deterred my interest. But the price may.”

“Four thousand,” he said slowly, and looked away as though dreaming.

I started to leave.

“Three thousand eight hundred,” he offered.

I didn’t stop.

“Thirty-two hundred,” he said.

I stopped. “I thought you said you weren’t going to bicker about it.”

“What’s your price, then?” he growled.

I stared into his tiny brown eyes.

“What will yours be if she tears down another fence or injures another worker? What will it cost you to keep her any longer?”

He looked at the ground.

“Take her for nothing,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “I have good use for her, and I’m not going to have you asking for her to be returned once I’ve gotten her problems worked out. I’ll give you one thousand dollars.”

“Heh. If you think you can work with that mare, you’d better have good insurance.”

I ignored his comment and wrote the check.

“How are you going to get her home?” he said.

I threw a rope around her neck.

“You forgot how you’re going to get her into the trailer,” he pointed out.

I snapped the end of the rope to another rope that led to a winch inside the trailer. Slowly I shortened it, a couple inches at a time. She threw her head and pulled back on all four legs, yet little by little she could not help but get closer. Finally I drew her in and shut the door. The floor of the trailer rattled and echoed with her hoof beats, but she could not get out. I stroked her fur in my mind, and combed her mane with my eyes. It would happen. It was only a matter of time.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Birthday Party

"You forgot Aunt Agatha?"

The questioner seemed incredulous.

"I did not forget her. I just got busy and remembered a little late."

"But she will be here in an hour!"

How Katie always worries. I knew I could fix this problem. I knew just what to do. I went to the garage, dusted off an old sign, and put it up near the mailbox.

"I don't see how having a garage sale at this hour of the day is a good idea," stated Katie blankly. "And what about our aunt?"

"It'll all work out in the end," I said. "Now let's find her some gifts."

The desk drawer yielded a new pad of paper and some fine unused pens. My purse closet held several purses I had yet to use, from which I chose a simple black handbag. I hadn't yet opened two bottles of lotion, so I put one into the bag and wrapped it all up together.

"Okay," said Katie, "so you've gotten a gift. What about cake? Decorations? Guests? And she's coming in half an hour."

The doorbell interrupted.

"Is this the garage sale?" A lady of fifty or more, gracious and intelligent, peered from under a blue sun visor.

"Do come in," I said.

The lady looked around, wondering what was for sale. I let her wonder.

"Have a seat," I said, motioning toward the table. "This garage sale has refreshments."

The doorbell rang again. I motioned Katie to answer it and went into the kitchen to see what I could do. The doorbell rang twice more in the ten minutes it took me to peel and slice a tray of cheese and fruit. By the time I returned to the table Katie had them all seated, looking a bit bewildered. I placed it upon the table and strode hurriedly to the closet.

Some of the leftover Christmas and New Years decorations were generic enough for anytime festivity. I picked the plainest ones.

"I've almost got the sale ready," I explained to the ladies as I danced about with my decorating. "I apologize for not getting my ducks in a row sooner. Thanks for your patience."

I sneaked out the back door on tip toe to the mailbox and back, and stowed the garage sale sign in the nearest closet.

The doorbell rang.

"Aunt Agatha! Come in!" said Katie.

"Right in here!" I hollered over her shoulder. The aunt slowly made her way to the table. She sat down heavily and smiled.

"I'll be right back," I said. I ran into the other room, brought out all the purses, and told the ladies to choose one, on the house. Soon everyone was smiling and clutching a clean, new, fresh scented handbag. My aunt opened her gifts. She seemed pleased.

Soon everyone ate and was done, and I thanked the ladies and bade them farewell. My aunt was the last to go.

"Thank you," she said in her usual thick and winded voice. "I know I'm terrible with names, and you were so good not to embarrass me about it. You two are my best nieces."

We both smiled and watched her leave, relieved.

"Next year," said Katie, "I'm having her to my house."

"Let me know if you need any last minute ideas," I grinned.