The Pickers

z 0c3dde05-6043-4f10-9207-640b3decc815

Charlie and Rex played together every day, but not like most. Little boys and mutts were usually fast friends, playing tag or chase or tug-of-war. But not these two. Charlie’s dad got him the banjo the same time he got him the dog. Sure, the banjo wasn’t child-sized. Mr. Jason Reinsch didn’t have enough money to buy something that Charlie would outgrow soon enough. So he got him an adult one at a used musical instrument store. He got Rex from what he liked to think of as the used dog store.

There were a lot of choices of instruments there – all castoffs from the hundreds of hopeful people who came to their city every month, trying to become the next big star. Trouble was that very few of them had much talent, and even fewer had the discipline to make anything of it. There were instruments in there that had been bought and sold a half-dozen times, all at a small profit to Zeke, the owner. He didn’t want to charge too much, but he had bills to pay the same as anybody else, so he did what he had to do.

Charlie had never met Zeke or anybody else in the music business before then, but things changed. Once word got out about his act with Rex, he met nearly everybody who was attached to the music business. It seemed like that was most of the town in one way or another. If they weren’t actual musicians, they were songwriters, or producers, or agents, or roadies, or fans. Everybody wanted to see Charlie and Rex play. It hadn’t been like that at the beginning.

Charlie first learned bluegrass songs because that was what his dad knew. Why try to pretend to be an expert in something you know nothing about? That was a sure path to ruin. No, best to stick with what you know and build up on that. It wasn’t long before he was picking out a passable rendition of such classics as “Muddy Road to Ducktown” and “Dream of a Miner’s Child”. The latter was especially well-received because he hammed it up with a little soot on his cheeks to play the part.

He wasn’t a miner’s child, of course, but there were some similarities. His dad, Jason, dug out precious gems in a way – he was a picker. He never could see a way to having a full-time job, even when he had a wife and five children to support. He was too independent for that. He wasn’t one to submit to a boss, especially one who thought he could tell Jason how to complete the task he’d never even personally tried. Why did so many businesses think it was a good idea to have a supervisor who was a stranger to the task at hand? He had bosses try to tell him what to do in his first couple of jobs, thought better of it, and decided that as soon as he could, he’d never have anybody above him

Times were sure lean when he was married with children. All those mouths to feed and backs to clothe! A few years ago his wife and the children had wanted a dog and he put his foot down. He couldn’t see clear to how that would even be possible. It was hard enough making do with the earnings he made from up-selling his finds to antique malls and consignment shops. Did they expect him to rent a booth at the flea market as well to pay for the dog’s needs? That was too much like what he was trying to avoid.

Spring left him and took four of the kids one afternoon to her sister’s house and never came back. Jason had taken Charlie to the hardware store to get some chicken wire. He had the idea that raising his own chickens would save a lot of money in the long run, what with not having to buy eggs or meat ever again. He didn’t know anything about raising chickens, but he hadn’t known anything about raising children either and hadn’t done too bad. Or so he thought.

Spring was fed up with his get-rich-quick schemes that always turned out to be get-poor-slow ones instead. He never gave up, which in some situations is an admirable trait. But sometimes it is good to know when the time has come to move on and let go.

Like now. Spring was through with his promises that never work fulfilled, his dreams that seemed more like nightmares. Without even leaving a note, she left. Sure, she missed Charlie, but four other children were plenty enough to keep up with, and Charlie had been Jason’s favorite after all.

Jason noticed the quiet first when he got home. It seemed so peaceful. He couldn’t ever remember a time when the house didn’t have at least some noise from some child banging on something or his wife complaining about something else. He then noticed why it was so quiet. It was just him and Charlie there. This was unusual for his wife to leave without saying anything.

He was so grateful for the quiet that he decided to take a nap right then and there in the middle of the day. The last time he’d done that he’d been in kindergarten. It was just as delicious and just as needed now. Jason decided he’d take a nap every day from now on out. This was yet another reason not having to work for “the man” was a great idea. He could nap anytime he felt like it.

What did Spring know anyway? Always whining at him about how he needed to grow up and be a man. What did she know about being a man? She wasn’t one. She had no idea how hard it was to carry all this responsibility. It was a miracle he hadn’t snapped like some guys did and started killing people. Mass murder and road rage came from the same root after all – unexpressed anger. Jason figured it was best to not get angry in the first place, so he avoided everything and everyone that made him angry. Well, except for his wife of course. He meant it when he said his vows. Divorce wasn’t an option in his mind, no matter how hard it got.

Things were easier now that it was just him and Charlie. Less to keep up with. Sure it was harder without Mary to keep on top of the household things, but he could manage. He did before he met her, didn’t he? If the dishes didn’t get washed for a week, who would it bother? It seemed a waste of time to have to do it so often. She was always nagging about every little thing. He was better off with her elsewhere. He kind of missed the other kids, but Charlie really was his favorite. This meant they got to spend more time together, undisturbed by everyone else.

Of course, with Mary gone, he had to keep up with Charlie all the time now. He was too young to leave alone at home, like you could with a dog. That was how Jason came up with the idea of getting a dog and teaching them both to sing for their supper. This way he could set them outside on the curb to perform while he was doing the grocery shopping. The home farm hadn’t yet taken off like he thought, so there were still carrots and broccoli and potatoes to buy. Even when his crop did come in, he’d still have to go get milk and fruit. No way was he going to raise a cow or fruit trees. Too much work, and Jason was all about putting in the least amount of effort. If he could get someone else to do the work for him, all the better.

Charlie took to the banjo like a duck takes to water, and Rex was happy to howl along. Jason hadn’t figured having him as part of the act but it was sure funny to see him crooning in more or less in the right pitch. His timing was a little off but practice would fix that. Plus, he soon realized, people weren’t as likely to call the authorities when they saw them together. It was as if they thought the dog was a suitable guardian for Charlie, little as he was. Alone, they thought he was abandoned or had wandered off and tended to call the police to check up on things. But the dog there? That was okay somehow and they let them be.

Jason was through trying to figure out why people thought and acted the way they did, so as long as things worked out in his favor. His wife leaving him was certainly working out, better than he’d ever expected. Not like he’d even imagine she’d leave. But he certainly wasn’t one to pass up a good thing that came his way. That was part of the picker mentality, after all.

Advertisements

The wooden dolly

doll2

 

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 have gone to Drogon’s father, and now 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 went away 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. The fact that they had a sense of something missing in the world caused them to make art – but then still feel incomplete.

Drogon was an artist as well as a doctor – never satisfied with his work. He was certain 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.  Drogon thought that 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 needs – 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.

That night, he called together all 16 generations of healers from his family. Never before had Drogon even attempted to rouse them. Normally they were just there in his head 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 ten to figure out how. Three more days and the performer from the faraway country 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 the tree that they would sing songs about it for years in the future, to honor its sacrifice of itself. There was no answer back. 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.

He assumed all must be well with the tree’s silence. “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 to be 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 at a sudden death 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 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 at the site of a fatal car crash – 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 make all of them wink out of existence.

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 sat under its branches in the cool of the evening, just like his father and his father on back into the mists of time. He wouldn’t bring harm, no, not him.  So the tree sacrificed itself, went easily, almost willingly.  And yet it still was too much spirit 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 that of 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 remains 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. The only reason they knew it was Drogon was from his clothes and the beaded jewelry he always wore.  His body had been reduced to ash.

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 their tree.  To accept payment would be to cheapen its sacrifice.  They gave her the completed doll, hoping to never see it or her ever again.

The lady went on to become famous for her ventriloquist act, retiring earlier than 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 have heard 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

d9de1473d85db228f948183e7d905bdc

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. Mama had to admit she was worried that 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 to read at bedtime.

“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 her mom 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 a 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 where they lived. 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 think of him as “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. Penguins were birds too, after all.

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

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 than her friend’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.

Bone music

skelhorn

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 was, 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. He 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 extensive list of 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 old 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 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 and carried him back inside. Otherwise he’d stay there, trembling, paralyzed. It was kind of embarrassing really, but it did mean 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, the family didn’t know and it wasn’t worth the bother of making up a story, so they just acted like everything was 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 simultaneously played a cheery one at a subsonic level 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 minutest 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

5

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 to learn the answer right now.
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 that 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 it might be 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, the Lord Himself was born in a barn. That sure didn’t seem appropriate for God to make an appearance. Surely God would be born in a palace or 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 had been 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 part? 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 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, seeing as how they were born 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. Now, if only they could rub off some of that spirit onto Emma.

Ella

ele

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 Ella was sleeping in the damp savannah heat under a baobab tree.

Perhaps the mother forgot her? Perhaps she walked off to check on a strange 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 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. Jacob 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. They decided it was 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 weren’t air-conditioned. No use wasting heat and air on them, the company thought. 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.

Molly under cover

JlnkreP

The Eames children could not bear to be without their mother. Simply losing sight of her would set one, and then all of the children to wailing. Even after she returned to the room it took a good ten minutes to assuage them.
It was a worrisome thing. You’d expect it from babies. They are so helpless. Their every need has to be taken care of by an adult, and often that was their mother. It stood to reason they’d think she was God. Plenty of adults acted the same way, come to think of it. When everything started to go sideways they forgot themselves and made it worse with all their worrying.
Perhaps it was because the children were so close in age that it kept happening, the self-reinforcing feedback loop. The boys were only a year apart. For Molly Eames it felt like she was pregnant two years running. She had no intention to make it three so she simply told Mr. Eames that there would be no sex for year (at least) until she felt like going through that ordeal again.
She’d not expected marriage to be like this. Her mother, either out of modesty or meanness, never told her where babies came from, or more accurately how they got there in the first place. She was horrified to learn the secret and was incredulous at first. How was that even possible? Much of her life was a mystery to her. Her parents were conservative on many fronts and had homeschooled her to keep her from being “infected by the disease of the world” as they so often informed her. It was for her own good, they said. It was like she was a time capsule, a frozen moment in a fictional time when everything was safe. Their greatest hope was that she’d be a beacon of light in the dark times they knew were soon to come.
Her lack of education chafed at her once she realized it. If she could get pregnant from contact with a part of her husband’s body, then what else could happen? What else had been hidden from her? After her first check up at the obstetrician she went straight to the library and got every book they had on biology. Three weeks later she returned them all and decided to start at the beginning of the nonfiction section and work her way through the entire collection.
She told no one in her family what she was doing, least of whom her husband. She even made sure to confirm that her library record was private when she got her card. She figured if her family had hidden important knowledge from her then they must think she wasn’t worthy of it, or that it wasn’t worth their time to tell her. So she decided it wasn’t worth her time to tell them otherwise.
Molly Eames couldn’t hold off from sex indefinitely, however. Her husband was becoming insufferable, acting as if he was a prisoner of war in his own home. If he’d had to endure what she had – months of nausea, clothes not fitting, and even swelling in fingers and feet (not to mention the painful and embarrassing ordeal of actually giving birth) he might have thought differently about sex. Ten minutes of fun wasn’t worth nine months of feeling possessed by an alien being.
Giving birth was the most difficult thing Molly had ever been through. It wasn’t joyful at all. She simply didn’t understand the chittering from her neighbors and friends who gushed about how wonderful it all was. Maybe they were lying. Maybe they were insane. Maybe the whole experience had turned them permanently crazy with no hope of recovery. The worst part wasn’t even the pain, which was so bad it created a whole new category of suffering. It became her new ten on the pain chart, a place formerly occupied by having her arm set without anesthesia at 12 after she fell out of a tree.
She never climbed a tree again after that. Just like with sex, the risk wasn’t worth the fun. It’s not like her husband was any good at it anyway. He called it “making love”, never “having sex” but it wasn’t lovely at all. It was sweaty and awkward and strange. Perhaps other people were used to being naked in front of others, but Molly wasn’t. There was nothing exciting about it. She was always trying to cover up with the sheets. She wasn’t trying to hide how she looked so much as not be cold. Her husband wasn’t much to look at either, and he only took a bath once a week, and then only if she insisted.
The “being naked” part of being an adult was a great shock. Her parts most certainly weren’t private when she had to go for her checkups when she was pregnant but at least that was just the doctor who saw. When she gave birth, it seemed like the whole hospital was staring at her nether regions. She briefly considered selling tickets to offset the bill.
Even though her two children were very clingy, she had agreed to produce three when they had that discussion before marriage. It was important to work out such things. Children or not, standard of living expected, minimum expectations of signs of affection – all of these needed to be negotiated before you said “I do”. Too many folks didn’t see marriage as the legal contract that it was, hoping love would right all wrongs and mend all wounds. Without clear agreements it caused more trouble than it cured.
But she’d promised three, so three it must be. There was nothing to it except to do it, so she determined her most fertile time from some of the research she had done and had sex once more to provide her end of the contract. Better get it out of the way, like ripping a Band-Aid off. To prolong the suffering was pointless.
Walter Eames wanted a picture of the children, but not of his wife. He was sick of who she had become – no longer meek or mild. She seemed more confident, more aware. She certainly wasn’t the person he had married – someone he could push around all day long with nary a peep. Not like he thought he was pushy, no, never. Being assertive and decisive had gotten him to where he was at work, but it was getting him nowhere at home. Debate and compromise weren’t part of his repertoire.
But there was no way to photograph them without her. The moment she would walk away from them, they’d set up a wail worse than a tornado siren. It was ridiculous. She couldn’t even go to the bathroom without them pitching a fit. It was embarrassing to go out in public with his family, so he didn’t. Far from being a source of pride as he had expected before he got married, he now frequently left them at home and went out by himself. Even though he’d worked all day and she stayed home with the children (that one attempt at day care changed any plans they might have had of her working outside of the home), he was happy to spend even more time away. This was not turning out to be the life he’d planned as an adult.
So when it came time to get a portrait made, he had to get creative. His parents had asked to see the kids for years. He refused to make the six hour drive with her, and his parents were too frail to make the drive themselves. A portrait would have to do. He looked around the studio and his eyes landed on a backdrop. “That’ll do!” he exclaimed, and snatching it up, pushed his wife into the chair, dropped the fabric over her, arranged the kids around her, and ordered the photographer to snap away. Other than the sound of the shutter release, the room was silent. Nobody other than him could believe this was happening.