Half soul

David was born with only half a soul, but nobody noticed for years. He was a twin, not conjoined, but still half of a whole. The doctor said that they were identical, but he and his brother thought otherwise. To their eyes, they looked only as similar as brothers do, nothing unusual or special. They also didn’t have the same interests or tendencies as most identical twins did, and would point these facts out to their mother when she would bring up their connection when one would bring a new girlfriend over for dinner. Because the doctor said so, she too was convinced they were identical and no amount of fact would make her budge.

She was long dead before there was any suspicion that one of her sons had suffered any ill effect from his natal experience. You can get by with half a soul if you get the correct half. Daniel was lucky. As the one who was on the left side of his mother’s womb, closer to her heart, when the quickening happened at 18 weeks of gestation, he got the good half, while David, on the right side, got the bad half. Now the bad half wasn’t evil per se, it just wasn’t quite up to snuff. It made him less compassionate, less caring. He was a bit self-centered, a little selfish, even.

Daniel was usually picked first for group projects in class because he simply worked well with others, while David was usually picked first for any sport that required ruthlessness, like rugby or dodgeball. Compassion never won a sporting match, after all.

Neither one felt left out by this arrangement, which had developed quietly and surely over the years. Neither one realized that the repetition of this pattern, determined by their divergent natures from their half souls, over the many years shaped them into the people they had become. They were in fact identical, as the doctor who delivered them had said, but they were as different as the two sides of the coin – one thing but with two halves, both different. Just like with a coin, with one side you won, and the other, well, you didn’t.

David wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t good either. Some people thought he was shy, and that was part of it. He wasn’t shy out of actual bashfulness or a desire to be polite, whether they were friends, family, or coworkers. He kept to himself because deep down, he didn’t like other people. He thought they were lesser than him.

In school, he blamed his average and never exceptional grades on his belief that the teachers were jealous of him and gave him lower marks then he deserved out of a desire to put him in his place. He was convinced they had a coordinated plan to subtly remind him every report card day that they were in charge and he wasn’t. He was sure that they did this to him and only him out of a mistaken desire to keep him from getting full of himself. He was sure that they were operating on the premise that too much praise early on and the child wouldn’t get along well with others – they’d either lord it over their classmates or they would shun them. They were doing it for his own good, he told himself, so he said nothing to anyone, not even to his brother.

When they moved three states away after his father’s job transfer, the low grades continued and he just knew that the teachers at his old school had sent a letter explaining their plan along with the transcript to the new school. Never once did he think that his lackluster grades were due to a lackluster performance. He maintained his fecklessness throughout his life, never quite amounting to much in whatever he did.

He wasn’t a schmuck, but he certainly wasn’t a mensch either. He had married well, with a patient wife who usually made up for his social gaffes. Their son, an apple from the tree, was possibly even more socially inept than his father and even with a graduate degree still lived at home and waited tables for a living. Members of their church gossiped that David’s wife, Jane, had married him as either a favor to him (she was forever taking in strays and rehabilitating them) or as someone who wouldn’t have the spine to challenge her whenever she wanted to do her own thing. Headstrong men were challenged by strong women. They felt threatened by a woman calling the shots, so some nontraditional girls chose to stay single, associate with other women, or marry a man who acted tough but really was a wimp. The latter was most certainly the case.

He was all show and no go. At work, where he was a manager solely out of attrition, he would bluster about schedules and vacation requests from his employees, but clam up when they would confront him with the unfairness or duplicity of his newly minted rules, which never seemed to apply to him. He had become a manager because of budget cuts. His job as an designer was being eliminated, so he had a choice: become a manager or go find another job. He was already counting the months until retirement (it was under 100) so it made more sense to take what they were offering, distasteful as it was, than get a cut in his pension and have to start all over at the bottom of the pile somewhere else.

Fortunately upper management put him at a location where he could do the least amount of damage – one with little business. They were few customers and enough staff to cover his ineptitude. This worked well until further budget cuts and staff complaints forced him out of his office and at the service desk, assisting customers. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know how to use the software to look up auto parts or how to use the cash register to sell them. He had glided by on ignorance and feigned helplessness for too long. It simply wasn’t fair to force his subordinates (in position only, not a know-how or aptitude) to do all the work while he spent his 40 hours a week reading a book, chatting with friends from his previous office, or writing his latest novel on work time.

The CEO was aware of how much he shirked. Everyone knew. The only person who was fooled was David, he thought he was doing a fine job. He thought he’d coast right on for another year until it was time to retire. Little did he know that his invisible handicap was soon to catch up with him. Little did he know that going through life with only half a soul would have negative repercussions very soon.

The wooden dolly

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Maybelle was a bad doll, but she couldn’t help it. The wood that she’d been carved from was terribly damaged. Only one person knew that, and he wasn’t telling. He couldn’t. He was dead. The act of creating her had been the last thing he did. He hadn’t planned it that way.

Drogon was the village doctor – medical and otherwise. If you were out of sorts, you went to Drogon. Before that you’d go to Drogon’s father, and after this you’d have to go to Drogon’s son, even though he was only seven. These kinds of doctors didn’t get trained in schools, or even by their parents. There was no apprenticeship. The moment the father breathed his last, his spirit and everything he’d learned traveled into the son. It had gone on so long that everybody in the village accepted it as normal, just like how flowers came out in the spring and leaves died in the fall. The village was many miles from any other so the residents had no way of knowing this was unusual. It was only in the past decade that they’d even learned they weren’t the only people in this country, or even on the planet.

They’d never ventured any further than a few feet from “the edge of the world” as they called it. Why would they? Everything they needed was here. Exploration comes from want and need. If you have everything you want or need, you don’t tend to go exploring. Art was created for the same reason – out of a sense of lack and loss. Folks who felt content weren’t artists. Artists were forever plagued to create even more art, because what they made never felt quite right to them.

Drogon was an artist as well as a doctor – never satisfied with his work. He was sure he could do better with his healing. This was unlikely, since he’d inherited 16 generations worth of healing knowledge when his father died. Everything his father had learned had passed on to him, as it had happened to himself when Drogon’s grandfather had died. It was an amazing process. One day you were yourself, the next you had all these voices in your head giving you unsolicited advice on what to do. It was a little like a family reunion, but only one person heard the jokes, and thankfully nobody brought the green bean casserole.

Not many years after their first visit from the outside (as everything other than the village was called), Drogon had a visitor from very far away. He was told that everyone there spoke a different language than him and thought differently, acted differently, dressed differently. He was told that they weren’t as clever as the villagers, because they couldn’t make up stories to entertain themselves in the evenings. He was shocked to learn that hundreds of people would even pay to sit and listen to a person entertain them, to tell them stories, even hearing stories through the air on something called television, rather than in person.  There must be a huge drought on stories there to have to go to that extreme.

This visitor wanted Drogon to make her a very special doll – one that could tell stories to her people. She’d had a successful career as a ventriloquist, but this would be different. This would be special. This would be so amazing that she could retire early, at the top of her game. She wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of having to do ads for life insurance or hearing aids in her later years, as so many of her fellow performers did. She wouldn’t have to hawk (or hock) anything. She’d be set, if only he would make this new dummy with some of his magic. She told him nothing of her own wishes – only that he would be helping her people with their story-sickness.

Drogon had assured her that he had no such skill, no ability to make wood talk, but she was persistent, and he soon felt sorry for these people so far away who had to pay someone to do something they could do for themselves. He promised nothing, but said he would try. That night, he did something he’d never done before – he called a family conference.

Inside his head were all 16 generations of healers from his family. Normally they chimed in when there was a medical emergency that they needed to be consulted on. Never before had Drogon even attempted to rouse them. Normally they were just there when he needed them. But this was different. This was a sickness as sure as malaria, as certain as cholera. To be without stories was a sickness of the soul, a certain death. Sure, you could live without stories, but it would only be half-life, a sorry existence. He told his ancestors, all those healers before him, that they would be giving the greatest gift of healing they could ever give if they would do this one thing for him.

It took them eight days to agree to try, and another 10 to figure out how. Three more days and the performer from the faraway country, the one with the story sickness, was leaving. Drogon had to act soon on their suggestion. He wasn’t sure if it would work but he had to try. Early the next morning, before the sun had risen but after the birds have begun to sing, he went to the center of the village to the story tree. This was the tree where they all met every evening for stories and at least once a week for council. It was the center of the village. As far as anyone knew, it was the reason the village was there.

The tree at the center of the village was older than memory and bigger than dreams. A dozen grown men could stand around it with arms outstretched and embrace it in a circle. Its branches stretched out 40 feet all around and were thick enough to provide shade on the hottest of days and protection on the wettest ones too. Drogon looked at it, this member of the village he’d known the longest, and told it his tale. He asked it for its permission to do what must be done to cure the people he’d never seen, would never see. He told it that they would sing songs about it for years in the future, to honor its sacrifice of itself. There was no answer. He hadn’t expected one, but he had tried all the same. He’d tried because to not try would have meant the guilt of what he was about to do would be on him and his descendants forever.

The tree said nothing, so he assumed all was well. “In silence it went to the slaughter, a willing sacrifice, the cure for their disease.” The lines of a half-forgotten prophecy came to him then and he felt better. Surely it was about this time, and this event? He felt the odd tingle of power that always happened when a prophecy came true, when then became now.

With spirit ghosts from all of his ancestors helping, he had the tree chopped down in less than an hour, and quietly enough that none of the villagers awoke.

He had selected one log to use for the doll.  It was from the heart of the tree, and was a warm sepia, the color of dry autumn leaves, the color of coffee with a hint of cream, the color of the people it had loved for so long.  He had planned to carve it himself afterwards to complete the ritual, but first he had to call the spirit of the tree into it.

Right now it was like any other spirit after a trauma – floating around in the air, hovering close to its body.  Car accident victims were the same. The spirit gets pushed out before it has a chance to realize that the body is no longer a safe vehicle for it. Meanwhile, it hasn’t prepared itself for the journey it must now embark upon to return to the All-spirit.

Many souls think they have years before them to prepare for that mapless and solitary trip. Some are surprised, and they linger around the body longer than they ought. There was a danger to living humans in these places – the spirit might try to take over, to evict the living soul, or to try to double-up. This led to what the villagers called “possession”, and what Westerners called “mental illness”.  Some spirits stayed in the area of the accident for weeks afterwards, the body long buried elsewhere. This meant that it was possible to cross paths with a homeless spirit without even realizing it. Perhaps this was why some people in America had started putting up roadside memorials where there had been a car crash and death – to subtly warn others of the risk of contamination. Perhaps they knew this truth deep down, on a subconscious level.

Drogon meant to call the spirit into the wood but it was harder than he’d imagined. None of his ancestors had ever been through anything this immense, so they couldn’t offer anything useful in the way of advice or warning.  They were all winging it.  They knew it was in their best interest, as a group, to be as careful as possible.  This much energy in one place could possibly end all of them at once.

There was a reason that tree had been so big – it had held the hopes of the village for thousands of years. It had fed them with stories the same as a mother feeds her babies with milk from herself.  It had sheltered them as a mother hen shelters her chicks.  All of that spirit was too much to try to condense into one tiny log, but it tried.  Perhaps the tree wanted to help out those nameless people who were so far away. Perhaps it trusted the village doctor, who had just like his father and his father on back into the mists of time sat under its branches in the cool of the evening. He wouldn’t bring harm, no, not him.  So the tree sacrificed itself, went easily, almost willingly.  And yet it still was too much to distill down into one log meant for one little doll.  The energy poured in, but once the log was full (over-full, actually, in the same way you can cram more sugar into tea if you pour it in while it is hot), it spilled out, and up, and over Drogon, and in a flash of blue-violet light, embraced him, and erased him.

The sound that was created in that moment was like the sound of a waterfall, swollen by spring rains, or a thousand bees swarming to find a new nest.  It was sudden and sure and scary, like a lion before it charges upon a hyena foolish enough to prey upon his family.  It was then that the rest of the villagers awoke, to discover the body of Drogon next to the felled tree.  They ran to find Drogon’s son, knowing that he would now be able to explain what happened.

Drogon’s son, only seven years old but now the village doctor, took it upon himself to complete the doll.  It had to be done.  Otherwise, the death of the tree would have been in vain.  He also had to atone for the actions of his father, as well as the ancestors who had agreed to this disastrous plan.

Out of a sense of guilt, the lady from the faraway land offered the villagers ten times the amount of money for the doll than she had originally agreed to. They wanted nothing – no money, no school, no hospital.  Nothing could repay them for the loss of the tree.  To accept payment would be to cheapen its sacrifice.  They gave her the completed doll, hoping to never see it again.

The lady went on to become famous for her ventriloquist act, retiring early as she’d hoped. Her fans were amazed at how much better she had become. The skits were sharper, wittier, if a little edgy these days.  They marveled at how adept she had become at throwing her voice without apparently having her mouth open.

She kept the doll with her all the time to keep her secret.  She lived alone for the same reason.  When she had first returned from her trip, she was living in an apartment, but soon made enough to move to a large home, far away from people.  This was good, because otherwise they would hear the wooden dolly arguing with her owner.

It all came to an end one humid summer night when the home went up in flames, reducing both the lady and the doll to ashes.  Arson investigators scoured the ruined property shaking their heads.   They agreed that the fire looked like it was set on purpose by the doll, but since this made no sense, they quietly agreed to officially state that the performer had dropped a cigarette while smoking in bed.

Lost and found penguin

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Sara thought Petey was her brother, and nobody had the heart to tell her otherwise. They’d grown up together, after all. Sarah and her mom had found him hopping on the shoreline near their home in Athenree, New Zealand. Rockhoppers were all over the coast, but it was rare for one to venture into Shelly Bay.

They left him where he was, and her mom promised that they would check on him the very next day. The toddler wanted to take him home right then but her mom said they didn’t have anything for him to eat. Sara didn’t think that was a good enough reason because she knew the Four Square market was open right then. Mama had to admit she was worried he might be lost and looking for his family. She hadn’t wanted to say that, not knowing how Sara would take it. Would she feel for him, be sad that he was alone, and then insist on adopting him right away? This was not a situation she wanted to deal with on a Tuesday afternoon. She just wanted to go on a wander with her daughter and then come home to afternoon tea and a nap, preferably in that order.

Sara was concerned, but not overly so, and Mama again assured her they’d come back tomorrow and check on him. She hoped that he’d be gone and forgotten by then. Children have such short memories, and sometimes that was a blessing.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Mama had forgotten about the little lone penguin by the next afternoon. But he hadn’t forgotten about them. As soon as she opened the garage door to leave for their daily walk, he was standing there in the side yard. Sara shrieked with delight and started to run towards him. She hadn’t forgotten about him at all. Mama called to her to stay away but it was too late. She was already embracing him in a full-on hug as only a toddler can. It was a hug that was a bit like a tackle and a lot like a reunion after a wartime deployment. Fortunately the penguin seemed to be just as enthusiastic, flapping his stubby wings and chirruping in high-pitched squeals. You would have thought they were long-lost friends if they were of the same species.

Mama stood there in amazement, taking in the scene. Maybe he had followed them home? They lived not  far from the shoreline, and there weren’t any roads he (Mama assumed it was a he – how do you to tell?) would have had to cross. How long had he been there? Sara’s voice broke through her musings.

“Mama he’s here! Our Petey!” she exclaimed in delight, her face lighting up like the sun.

“Sara, sweetheart, we can’t keep him, he’s a wild animal. There are laws about this.” She wasn’t certain about this but it sounded very parental to say.

“And Petey? Is that his name?” – knowing that naming a pet meant it was harder to get rid of it. Name it and keep it. Anonymous animals came and went, but named ones stayed. How did she come up with Petey? They didn’t have any friends or relations named that. It wasn’t out of any picture book they’d gotten from the library for bedtime stories.

“He told me his name was Petey!” Sara beamed, and she hugged him all the more. He seemed a little overwhelmed and on the verge of being smothered by this point, but overall still quite happy to be found. Mama wondered if Sara could translate his squeaks and chitters. “How did he tell you, baby?” She used her most reasonable voice now. This wasn’t in her plans. Daniel would be upset when he came back from his business trip tomorrow to discover they had adopted a penguin. Or a penguin had adopted them. She wasn’t sure.

“He told me in my heart,” Sara said, and letting go of her newfound best friend with one hand, she placed it over her heart to show her mom. Sometimes she had to point things out to make sure she understood. Even toddlers know that parents can be a little dense sometimes.

Sara’s mom wasn’t sure how to take this. Was her daughter making things up again? Or was this a sign of mental illness? It was hard to separate the two sometimes. Was this why so many artists and writers went off the deep end?  This wasn’t going so well.  She was supposed to be the adult, after all, supposed to be in charge.  Toddlers weren’t supposed to run the show, although they often did.  Adults just thought they were in control.  Meanwhile, toddlers determined when and if they slept, and where and how they ate.  The fact that Sara was an only child amplified her power over her parents.

It was not long before Petey became a member of the family.  He lived outside, however, so he wasn’t a full member.  Mama thought it was safer all around to not bring him inside, and the weather was always mild there.  She was concerned that if they brought him in they’d have to notify the animal control department.  But if he lived outside, they could still consider him “wild” and he could come and go as he wished.  If they brought him in there might be shots and laws to be considered.  Plus, there was always the thought that it wasn’t fair to keep him in.  Daniel, once he got home and was consulted, remembered a roommate he’d had in college who’d kept a bird in a cage as a pet.  He’d always thought there was something cruel and vain about that, because birds aren’t meant to live inside like dogs or cats.  They are meant to be free.

Sara’s parents started to think of him as the second child, and while they never said that out loud to friends or coworkers, they were never so strange as to refer to him as their “featherbaby”.  He was an animal, a quasi-pet.  They loved him, but he wasn’t a child.

Except to Sara.  She remained the only child that Mr. and Mrs. Fullerton had, so she didn’t know any different.  To her, Petey was her younger brother.  It didn’t matter to her that he never learned how to speak English and never went to school.   She understood that he was a little different that the other kid’s siblings, and she was OK with that.  All of her childhood she looked forward to going home after school and getting to see her best friend, who still waddled about in the back yard, still pleased as punch to see her too.

Bone music

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Harold loved playing the French horn. The tone was mellow and warm, inviting. He knew it would never be the lead instrument like the trumpet or guitar, and he was fine with that. He wasn’t one for being in front, leading the way. No, that was for the peacocks in the world. It was more a pigeon, behind-the-scenes, anonymous. He never wanted to be a manager, bossing people around. He was happy being a team member, a cog in the wheel, someone who got things done without any fanfare.

And then he met Lydia. She loved him exactly the way he was, for who he was. She wasn’t put off by his meek nature or unassuming presence. She certainly wasn’t concerned that he was a skeleton, either. While most women were loathe to live with someone who looked like they escaped from an anatomy class, Lydia saw the advantages. Because he had no skin, he was never too hot or too cold. She could adjust the thermostat to whatever she liked and he’d never fuss. He never spent any money on clothes either, so they had plenty set aside to go on vacations.

And go on vacations they did! Every month they ventured to a new part the world, seeing a new place and meeting new people. They picked their destinations from their list of numerous pen-pals, strewn all over the globe like Easter eggs, each one a treasure to discover. Every year they had to get new passports made because they’d filled them up with stamps and visas. Lydia had a plan that the pages could be used to re-wallpaper her art room one day.

Mr. Buttons, their cat, never got to go on a trip. He never even left the house. The vet even came to him. He was terrified of the outside world. Trees sent him into a tizzy. Clouds? Forget about it. He’d run and hide under Lydia’s dress, cowering there until she picked him up up and carried him back inside. Otherwise he’d stay there, trembling, paralyzed. It was kind of embarrassing really, but it meant that they never had to worry about him sneaking out when they opened the door, or be bothered with him asking to go out and come back in every 15 minutes. No, all in all he was a good cat, and he seemed to enjoy Harold’s home recitals almost as much as Lydia did.

They met at one of his performances – that time in a mutual friend’s house. Jane had suspected they’d get along smashingly and set up the recital as an excuse for them to meet. It was the blindest of blind dates – neither one knew that they were being steered toward each other. Harold brought his French horn and Lydia brought her harmonica. While listening to the sousaphonist playing his solo, (a piece he wrote himself for the occasion) they began to talk.

 

Lydia was certain that she’d heard undertones in Harold’s playing – notes that she was uniquely capable of hearing because of her unusual ears. Nobody in her family talked about her ears, but she knew she was different. She assumed they didn’t want to talk about them out of kindness, to not make her feel different, or perhaps it was out of embarrassment. Nobody really was certain who her father was, after all. Sure there was a man who filled the role, who was married to her mother. Jack had raised her since she was a baby. Everybody knew he was Dad and not her Father. The only person who knew for sure was Martha, Lydia’s Mom, and she wasn’t saying. She’d retired from the circus when she got pregnant and that was as far as the story went. Sure, there had been a mule act as part of the show, but nobody went so far as to suggest anything that questionable. Maybe it was the illusionist, spurned at the end, and he performed some real magic instead of those sleight of hand stunts that were his bread-and-butter. No matter, they didn’t know and it wasn’t worth the bother to make up stories, so they just acted like things were normal.

Harold said that yes, he regularly played more notes then were normally heard, basically playing two songs at once. If it was a depressing song, he played a cheery one at a subsonic level simultaneously to even it out. If it was a rousing march, he played a dirge for the same reason. He just felt it wasn’t right to bring people’s emotions too high or too low. Somewhere in the middle was best, and since he could, he did.

Nobody before had discovered the extra song weaving its way into and under the first, like how the framework of the house is hidden yet integral to the house itself. Nobody until now, he thought, and there and then he decided he would have to make her his bride. Partly it was out of admiration for her rare talent. But partly it was out of the desire to keep his actions a secret. No wife could testify against her husband – that was law. It was like testifying against yourself since “the two shall be of one flesh”. It stood to reason she wouldn’t tattle on him either, as a logical extension of that law.

She hadn’t told, and he never had reason to worry. She wouldn’t have anyway. Nobody ever believed her when she told them anything she’d learned from using her unusual talent. They had no way to check if it was true, and honestly they didn’t care. In some ways she was like a five-year-old boy, fascinated with trains or dinosaurs, telling everyone within earshot about the most minute details of her obsession. Even though what Lydia said was true it didn’t really concern them, so it wasn’t worth the bother. “Uh-huh!” and “Is that right?” they’d mumble to not appear rude, but they were already off thinking about their own interests. She never took it personally, knowing their actions said more about them than her, and learned to keep her own counsel early on.

 

The Clower twins

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Emma hated her siblings. All day long she had to rock them back and forth. Even if they’d had arms and legs they were too small to do it themselves. Rocking was the only way to keep them content, but more importantly, to keep them quiet. Her shoulder was getting tired, but she kept at it. To stop meant noise either from them or from their parents. Or both. She wasn’t sure which was worse, but she was unwilling right now to learn the answer.

The twins were born three years ago but they looked half that age. They were so tiny, still. The doctor in Millersville was unable to tell Mr. and Mrs. Clower if they would always be this small, or if they would ever catch up. He also had no answer to why they had no arms or legs. He didn’t have a lot of answers for most of their questions, but he was all they had. They couldn’t afford to take the twins into Baltimore to get a second opinion. It was only 22 miles away, but that was forever when you didn’t have a car. Sure, it was only two hours by bicycle, but those babies couldn’t travel that way, no sir! How would they take them – in the basket like they were a package to be mailed, or a bag of apples bought at the market? You can’t hold them and steer, either. Plus it would mean Earl had no way to get to his job at the field, picking beans or tending the goats. No, one opinion would have to do, even though it wasn’t much. If the good Lord had wanted them to know more, He would’ve provided more. This was their burden, and they had to carry it.

Now, to be sure, Mr. and Mrs. Clower never said out loud that their newest children were a burden. They never intentionally sounded ungrateful for any gift the Lord gave them, no matter how odd it seemed. Their pastor had said years ago that nothing from the Lord was bad, only bitter sometimes. Medicine was bitter, but it was good for you. And it took a while to see the effects. They remembered his words when the twins came, and thought about them often.

Why, wasn’t even the Lord Himself born in a barn? That sure didn’t seem appropriate for the One God to make an appearance. Surely God would be born in a palace for at least a manor house. Never someplace so anonymous or dirty as a pen for animals. Imagine the noise! Imagine the smell! So if the Lord could be born in less than ideal circumstances, so could their babies. They’d just have to wait and see how things turned out, just like Mary did.

Emma didn’t have the patience to wait. She wanted these babies gone and she wanted them gone right now. They were getting on her nerves. She hadn’t asked to be a big sister. She was fine being an only child. She sure didn’t want the limelight taken away from her, and even more she didn’t want to have to care for these interlopers.

Her parents never thought twice about making her tend them. It was part of her job as a member of the family. They didn’t charge her rent or expect her to pay for her food or clothing, so how else was she supposed to do her share? The same had been expected of them, both first borns in large families. Of course you needed large families then. It was free labor. Having children was like printing money. Need more help? Have more babies. Of course you had to plan ahead a bit – look down the road a piece in order to see what you might have need for. It didn’t do to have a baby right when times got tight – then you were doubling your trouble. Best to have one who was at least five, so he was able to feed and clothe and go to the bathroom by himself. It didn’t count as child labor if it was yours, you know.

But these babies weren’t going to be a help to anyone, born as they were without limbs. They sure were happy, though. That made it a little easier. All day long they laughed and smiled, eyes gleaming at everyone and everything. Some thought they were soft in the head, being so happy and all. It takes smarts to see the troubles in the world. But they really were smart and happy at the same time. It was weird. Maybe that was their gift. They’d been cursed physically, but blessed spiritually. They were happy no matter what was happening, which was good.

 

Ella

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Ella had been raised with humans since she was a wee calf, only two months old. She’d been abandoned by her mother, who simply walked away one afternoon while she was sleeping in the damp Savannah heat under a baobab tree.

Perhaps the mother forgot her? Perhaps she walked off to check on a sound or find something to eat. Perhaps she didn’t want to be a mother anymore. Perhaps she was too young for the experience, or it was more than she’d anticipated.

Regardless of the reasons why, the “what” was that Ella was by herself for a day and a night before she was found by a safari full of New Zealand tourists. That area wasn’t on their tour, but her bellows aroused their curiosity so they rerouted.

Ella was fine for a few hours after she awoke. It wasn’t unusual for Mama to go away. Calves had to learn to be independent early on, so mothers didn’t coddle them. But when sunset came and Mama still wasn’t there she started to get a little anxious. That hungry feeling in her tummy got more insistent, which only worsened her anxiety. It was a terrible self-reinforcing loop. Ella began to whine, quietly at first, feeling sad and alone. She didn’t want to call the wrong sort of attention to herself. There were plenty of animals in the Savannah who would love to make a meal of a young elephant left unguarded by her intimidating parents. But after a few hours alone under the stars, Ella started the bawl openly, no longer holding back. She no longer cared if some predatory animal was drawn to her cries. Death was better than this, this half-life of loneliness and fear.

What would she do? How would she care for herself? Her mama had been her world, her constant companion. And now as far as she looked across the flat scrubland, she saw nothing but thorn bushes and trees stripped of their leaves by the giraffes. She was still awake, red-eyed and hoarse from her keening in the early morning when the safari group found her.

A young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Eli Halverson, married just 6 1/2 months, decided to take her as their own. They’d agreed when they were engaged that they didn’t want children, both having been raised by abusive parents. They didn’t trust themselves to not repeat the pattern. It was as if they both chosen to be teetotalers after being raised by alcoholics. Safer for everyone all around if they didn’t even try. But an elephant was another matter entirely. And who couldn’t fail to fall in love with her? Her huge dark eyes with her long ashes locked into them like a tractor beam. There was no chance of escape.

However, there were a few obstacles to overcome. How to get her home? An airplane was out of the question. If airlines charge by the pound for luggage, there’s no way they can get her on board. Perhaps a combination of train and boat? It was the only way it seemed. However, the moment they put her on the train for the first time they knew there was going to be a problem. She began to bawl when Jake stepped out of the car. He and Margie quickly realized one of them would have to stay with her.

They hurried to get another ticket and had to pay extra for the “privilege” of riding in the animal car. It wasn’t meant for people, and Mr. Gruber, the engineer, had to pay off the station manager to keep him from grumbling. Fortunately the weather was good, because the animal cars were ventilated on the sides. No use wasting heat and air on them. But Jacob would have a hard time. Even though it was early summer, the speed of the train would mean it would be rather chilly while it was traveling. Margie gave him her mink coat that he’d given her as an engagement gift to soften the blow. The other animals kept away from him once they caught a whiff of it, unsure of what it, or he, was. It masked his aftershave, however, and that was good. He was grudgingly accepted as one of them at least long enough to get Ella to her new home.

The weather box

It was that time again. Around August, every year for the past two decades, Michael consulted the box. He had to. It was part of his job as chief forecaster for the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Some would say it was all of his job, but he would disagree. There were plenty of other chores he did around the office on Main Street in Dublin New Hampshire that justified his salary, but this was by far the most important.

The box was kept in the editor’s office on the floor. It was unlocked in fact, Michael was sure he’d never even seen the keys for it. The information inside it was too valuable to risk not being available when needed. Michael shuddered to think how much damage would result from an attempt to open that black box. He might never be able to create the eerily accurate year-long forecast that the almanac was famous for. No it was best to leave it unlocked, safe and the editor’s office. The office door could be locked, sure, but there was no need.

Nobody stole anything here. It just wasn’t that sort of town. What came first the town or the almanac? Was the reason for the honest nature of the citizens due to the intentions of the founder low those 225 years ago? Or did he choose to place his center of operations in the town because of its nature? Did it matter? The two went together like peanut butter and jelly, both make each other better by being connected.

Michael had been carefully advised on the preparations he had to do before even starting to write the forecast. It was a carefully guarded secret handed down orally from meteorologist to meteorologist. Even the editor didn’t know what was involved. Even Michael’s wife, a kind lady who’d claimed him as her own when they were both in their mid-20s half their lives ago, even she who had seen his ups and downs and in between even she didn’t know.

It was only after he understood and agreed to the very specific and arcane instructions that he was even offered the job. It was essential for everyone safety, no doubt about it. One step forgotten or performed in the wrong order and people would die. Not immediately probably but certainly. He was by nature and inquisitive man, but on this point he knew better than to question any part of the litany, and certainly never to write it down.

But what if he died before he found his replacement? Subsequent meteorologists were carefully selected and groomed for the job by the current occupant. How would the knowledge pass on if he wasn’t around? It turns out that this wasn’t a concern. In fact, it was one of the perks of the job although nobody else knew it. He couldn’t die by accident as long as he performed the annual pre-prognostication ritual carefully and correctly. He wasn’t sure how closely the ritual matched the preparations the high priest made to approach the holy of holies in the holy temple 3000 years ago but he was pretty sure it wasn’t far off.

That cool August day, he took the box from the current editor’s office and took it to his own. He sat down at his small wooden desk after he’d locked the door. It was best to not be interrupted. He made sure that everybody was out of the office so they wouldn’t need anything from him for the rest of the day. They understood how important it was to not interrupt him once he started, but there was no telling but they might forget and try to come in to get a refill on their coffee or to tell him the latest sports score. He often did his forecasts on a Saturday for this very reason, so he could be sure nobody would be there.

Michael took a deep breath in and opened the box. He took out all the papers and put them to the side. He kept the box in front of him. The box was what mattered after all. The papers were a red herring, put there to confuse and misdirect. That was the trick – anybody could open the box and look through the papers there. The instructions made no sense to anyone, even him. This was on purpose. The box was the secret. This is why it has never changed for 225 years, not out of a sense of sentimentality or thrift.

The box was forged from a blend of steel, copper, and tektites. The pieces of the meteor had fallen behind Robert Thomas’ house all those years ago and they told him when he touched them while turning the soil for his wife’s daffodil bed that he must save them, for they would tell him the future. Not meaningless trivia, mind you, not anything so banal as who would win the World Series or who would be president in 130 years. No these meteorites would tell him what really mattered – the weather.

It was the weather that caused the crops to grow or not, and made life pleasant or deadly. Balmy days were nice, but ice storms and floods were what really mattered. Robert knew better than to keep the meteor pieces as is. They might get lost, or forgotten, or mistaken for knickknacks or paperweights and taken to the thrift store or given to a grandchild. No, he knew what to do – melt them into liquid steel and then forge them into a box. Nobody would think twice about a small metal box, like one you would use for keeping cash in at a garage sale or school bazaar. Hiding in plain sight.

Michael looked into the box and knew everything all at once. Some people thought making up the forecast for the year for the whole country was difficult. It turns out that the hard part was separating it out. The information came all at once into his mind, like a zip file. It took him the rest of the afternoon to scribble the important parts of it down, and then a week later to fill in the details and sort it out into an acceptable shape. It was like working a jigsaw puzzle without the cover.  You put together the bits that you could figure out and then filled in the rest from the sides.