Saturday Short: A Wake of Buzzards

photograph showing 7 buzzards circling in the sky

“Well I Never!” by Nick Ford (CC-BY-ND-NC)

There are only two reasons to see buzzards circling, gliding, stacked like moving mobile pieces with invisible strings in the air. The first is that there is a thermal and they are simply having fun. Or, at least, I imagine it would be enjoyable to ride the air like it were as substantial as the ground beneath my feet. I told this first reason to my little brother as we walked, shoulders hunched beneath our packs away from town. The stack of buzzards slowly descending towards the ground as we distanced ourselves from them.

“What’s the other?” he asked.

“Hmm?” My mind had lapsed in its attention, a dangerous thing.

“What’s the other reason for the buzzards?” He pointed up and I winced, never good to point at a bird, especially a buzzard.

I nodded buying time to think. Questions work well for that, too. “Do you know what a group of buzzards is called?”

“A flock?”

“Nope, a wake.”

He wrinkled his forehead the way he always did when thinking hard. “Like not asleep.”

I shook my head. “No, like when someone dies and people come. They call it a wake.”

“Like a funeral.”

“Something like that.”

“Huh.”

I could almost see the machinery of his mind trying to piece things together, but he was still too young, thank whatever deities remained. Soon he’d be old enough to know, but not now. I tugged my sleeve lower to cover the new bandage around my forearm.

“So, what’s the second reason for the buzzards to circle like that?”

I tried to laugh, but it only came out as a dry cough. “I’ll let you think on it and tell me, okay?”

“’Kay.”

It took him more than two miles with the buzzards barely specks of black against the late morning sky before he figured it out.

Saturday Short: A Sedge of Bitterns

photograph of an American Bittern

“American Bittern, Adult, 9719,” by Len Blumin (by-nc-nd)

“That is the stupidest name for a group of birds I’ve ever heard.” Marie’s face puckered as it always did when she expressed her strong opinion about the unbelievable idiocy of someone or something in the world.

It made Dana’s want to shove Marie into the marshy water, but she resisted the urge by raising her binoculars and following an egret’s unhurried glide across the sky. Taking Marie out birding was a mistake, but their mother had insisted and Dana acquiesced, as always.

“A sedge.” Marie shook her head. “By far the stupidest.”

“How many could you possibly know?”

“What?” Marie turned around, shocked at the ripple of impatience in Dana’s tone.

“I said, how many names for groups of birds do you know? How do you know it is the stupidest?”

Marie glared and kicked up a cloud of dirt as she ground her heel into the trail. “Everyone knows they should just be called a flock.” She turned, startling a sparrow that had perched on a nearby thistle. “I’m going back to the car.”

Dana watched her go and took a deep breath that caught somewhere in the back of her throat. Sedge wasn’t a stupid name for a group of bitterns. It made sense. Both a bittern and a bit of sedge were easy to overlook, far from glamorous, and dull to the untrained eye. But they were both beautiful, if really seen. She swept her binoculars slowly and methodically across the marsh in front of her, but saw nothing but more sparrows and an egret. No bitterns today.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket. It was Marie complaining that she didn’t have the keys to the car and was being eaten alive by mosquitos. Dana sighed as she put her binoculars in her bag and turned to go back to the carpark.

“I don’t think it’s a stupid name,” she said to no one in particular as she hung her head walking back to the car. “I’d love to see a sedge of bitterns.”

And behind her, from deep in the reeds, came a loud, watery plunk of the bittern’s call as if agreeing with her. She was still smiling when she reached the car and even Marie’s incessant whining couldn’t dampen Dana’s happiness. Maybe, one day, she’d find a sedge of bitterns after all.

Saturday Short: An Orchestra of Avocets

photograph of a group of avocets

“Birds FeatherFest 2017” by Gary Rosenfeld on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

When the famous composer died, their niece was tasked with cleaning out their house. With no children of their own, the house passed to her. She hadn’t seen Caz for years and it was odd to unlock the door to the house on the edge of a salt marsh famed for its shorebird watching on the mudflats. The house was silent. Angela remembered there always being music when she was there as a child even when Caz—not uncle, not auntie, “just Caz”—was overseeing dinner instead of their latest composition for full orchestra.

Angela looked around the cottage. It was spotless, as usual. It seemed to her as she walked inside and closed the door that she would turn a corner and there would be Caz, binoculars in hand waiving her over to come look at a particularly beautiful avocet in his breeding plumage. Angela smiled as she threw open a window to let in the breeze.

The study, unlike the rest of the house, showed the aftermath of a tornado. This too was as usual. Caz died in the middle of scoring another orchestral piece, obvious from the sheets and sheets of scores flung about the room. She picked up a crumpled sheet from the floor and smoothed it with the palm of her hand. When a tear splashed on the page and the notes began to run, Angela frowned. She hadn’t realized she’d been crying.

For the first time, she wished she’d inherited Caz’s gift. There was no one to finish the score. It would remain forever incomplete, but then, what life was ever truly completed?

It wasn’t the sore neck or the chill breeze that woke her in the morning, after she’d fallen asleep on the study floor. It was the music, such haunting music that she’d never heard before. Angela peeked out the window and her gaping mouth transformed into a smile that turned into a chuckle, which rolled into a laugh loud enough the echo across the marsh. Thankfully, it didn’t upset the orchestra.

Its members didn’t miss a beat of their wings or their calls from which sprang passages that could only be described as a Caz composition.  Angela shook her head as she finally, belatedly, realized Caz had never pulled her leg when they said composing was simply writing down what they heard. Caz had given the world beyond the marsh the orchestral genius of the avocets.

Saturday Short: A Raft of Auks

photograph of rock with many auks perched on it

“A Rock of Auks” by Tom Houslay on Flickr

Gillian never put much stock in the old sayings her grandfather spouted like one of the blowholes on the rocks at high tide. Though she’d not given them much thought for a turn of seasons she realized as she hauled up the last of her catch onto her boat, the wood protesting at the weight. There was barely a half foot between the top of her boat and the skin of the water now.

“Never count your chickens before they’ve hatched” he’d say and she’d shake her head. Of course you couldn’t count chickens before they’ve hatched; they aren’t chickens yet.

“Never put off for tomorrow what can be done today.” That was a way to starve out here on the outer islands, where the sun seemed to feel like it was coddling them if it shone more than once a week and where putting off work could mean going hungry that night.

“A raft of auks will save ya.” That was the one he’d said the most and that she’d despised the most by his end. She crossed herself as she thought of him, gone now three years. Her father hadn’t come out of mourning yet, though he’d never admit it.

Gillian pulled at the line she’d threaded into the well-worn bolt in the cliffside and looped over the prow of her boat. It was the way the islanders found their way home, even in the fog that was had overtaken the island and was fast making its way across the seat towards her.

Hand over hand she pulled, gliding through the water like she had every day, for what seemed as many days as there were stars in the sky. It was endless and soothing. The few waves were small and the water brushed gently against the side of her boat when something off the starboard side caught her eye, a blowhole spouting it looked like, no, four.

“No!” Gillian cried as she realized they were whales, they were early, and they were coming straight towards her.

She pulled at the line and it bit into her fingers like a startled beast. “No, no, no.”

The first whale missed the boat, but the wake shook it so Gillian grabbed the side, dropping the line. The other three passed and she breathed out. Close, but—

Then the last whale’s tale caught the side of the boat, toppling Gillian and her catch into the water. Breaking the surface, she saw the end of the tail disappear and treading, she looked for her boat only to see pieces of it floating away from her. The catch was long gone to the bottom of the sea and there was no sign of the line back to the island. There was only damp, grey fog that licked at her face and seeped down into her bones.

Her teeth began clicking as she picked a direction and began swimming, not thinking about anything other than the next stroke. Fog made it impossible to tell how far she had come and how long had passed. As she continued to swim, her fingers started to go numb and she sighed as she began to hear calls, like barking and cooing in the fog.

“That’s it, the end.”

Then a dark shape materialized out of the fog and she closed her eyes, shaking her head, treading in place. “Not possible.” But she opened her eyes, and it was still there.

A raft of auks materialized on the surface of the water. A dozen birds popping up like kelp bladders out of the water. They linked and bobbed together, looking at her expectantly.

“Well,” said the first in the front of the raft. “What are you waiting for? Hang on would you. We’d like to get back before bedtime.”

“Of course,” Gillian said as she carefully placed her hands around two of the auks’ body. “Sorry.”

“Be nice to her, dear,” said another auk as they began swimming. “She’s never taken to us like her grandad.”

“Not every day you see a raft of us,” another said with a laugh.

Gillian began laughing, choking a bit on the saltwater, as the auks tugged her home. Finding a star visible through the fog, she smiled. “Of course, you’re right, you daft man.” And the star winked.

Saturday Short: The Dinosaur in the Stone

photograph of a rock that looks like a dinosaur smiling

“No, it’s not the same.”

Edith stuck out her tongue and fisted her hands on her hips, a little emperor not amused at Maryann’s refusal to see things her way.

“Is too!”

Maryann shook her head, not taking her eyes off the rock in front of them. The crack running from side to side made it look like it had an overhung jaw, one that Edith insisted was smiling at them. Maryann wasn’t so sure.

“It wants to be free! Just like the cougar.”

Other walkers passed the two on the dirt path from the lake to the town without a moment’s pause or greeting. Their feet kicked up the late summer dust. It swirled near the rock reminding Maryann of breath from nostrils on cold days. Despite the heat, her arms broke out in gooseflesh.

“You need to free him now.”

“No.”

“He’s been spelled just like the cougar!”

“No.”

“But—

“No!” Maryann glared down at Edith who faltered a step back, hands now limp at her sides. “Dinosaurs died a long time ago. No sorcery did this. What you want is unnatural and only harm will come from it.” She turned and began walking back to town without waiting to see if Edith would follow.

She did, but not before taking one last look at the rock, memorizing its lines, promising to return. And as she turned her back, it looked like the rock grinned more fiercely. But it was probably only a trick of the light and the wind.

Saturday Short: Down by the Creek

photograph of a small waterfall and creek in the middle of the woods

Once the cities were built, once the buildings were higher than the trees, once the pavement replaced the dirt lanes, few people wandered into the woods anymore. Nature had been tamed, they said. It was put to better use. When anyone objected, when anyone expressed sadness, when anyone suggested the cities could use some more green, they were rounded on as if they’d said something truly horrible, like suggesting pets might be put to better use as a food supply. People learned to keep their opinions about trees and streams and meadows and unkempt spaces to themselves.

Ida never learned. And she never cared to learn. Because somethings were more important than others’ opinions and public attempts at shaming. Ida always stood as if she were contrite, as if she were repentant. But she was not.

She was not because she knew why those whose power was tied to the city didn’t want people to still go into the woods. She knew why they especially wanted people to stay away from the creek, especially the part where there was a bend and a small waterfall and a tree that beckoned people closer.

There was magic in the woods, in the trees, and especially in the creek. It was a magic that couldn’t be controlled through a strategic plan, a building vision, a committee. It was alive and feral and only answered when treated with appropriate respect and even then, answered in ways that couldn’t be controlled.

So Ida didn’t try. She smiled and listened and learned as she dozed, toes trailing in the water with her back against the tree. And she learned that every city has its cracks where nature and its magic can seep in.

Saturday Short: The Giant Chair

photograph of a giant-sized red Adirondack chair beside a smaller, normal sized chair amongst redwood treesThere is a giant chair now sitting beside the usual one under the trees. It was impossible to miss in the morning, on a walk, even with the light grey from the clouds blocking the sky from view. It wasn’t twilight or dawn, when the light plays tricks and everything flattens out until it looks as if you are walking through a painting rather than standing in the world.

The new chair, red as the sort of wagon we used to play in dragging our loads of books back to the library or each other until our arms burned, dwarfs the one someone nestled among the trees. It is the same color, a red that is never seen in nature. I wonder at both chairs. No one in town has ever admitted to putting the first one there. I doubt anyone will admit to putting the second one there. I’ve never seen anyone sit in the first one or smelled the sharp, unmistakable smell of fresh paint retouching the first. But it looks as new as the giant’s chair.

I don’t move any closer to see if there are tracks marking the path that the chair was dragged or wheeled into place. It would be worse to move closer and see no tracks. It is better to believe that there have to be tracks. I turn and hurry into town, not glancing behind me once, not even when I hear the call of a bird that shouldn’t be there. No one makes a chair without a reason and I don’t want to know the reason for this one. Tomorrow, I’ll walk the long way ‘round to town.

Saturday Short: Secrets in Pumpkins

photograph of pumpkins

Every year we harvest the pumpkins and pile them high. They smell like sunshine trapped in the dirt. At least that’s what I told Mother once, then she laughed, and I’ve learned to keep my thoughts to myself.

After they are stacked and the banners are raised, the people from the City descend on our farms like sparrows on a pile of spilled seeds. They jostle and yell and purchase such a number of pumpkins that they could never eat before they start going soft on the bottom. Apparently they cut them open, too, not for eating but for lanterns with faces. I’d seen one once and it made me shiver down to my toes.

It makes me shiver when I hear them talk about cutting them over and leaving them out with candles inside with no one around to watch them. But I smile and make their change and answer their questions that show they wouldn’t know how to survive a day on the farm. That they don’t know what it’s like to keep secrets.

And when they turn their backs and laugh as they carry their pumpkins away, I cross myself as I hold my breath. Because I know that each pumpkin holds a secret. Everyone in the country knows that. You can hear them if you are caught out in the fields at dusk or dawn by yourself and the pumpkins are fat on their vines. They whisper and they tattle and they tease with their secrets that never mean anything good. And we let them go because we don’t want to know their secrets. We plug our ears when we harvest them or sing songs loud and clear. We sell them and their secrets to those who don’t know better. We let them go because we have enough secrets of our own.

Saturday Short: The Beach Egret

photograph of a cattle egret walking on top of a hedge

The egret looks improbable from a distance and precariously perched the closer one comes towards him. He bobs like a boat in a squall, weaving side to side like a drunk. Yet, he never falls from the tops of the hedge where he walks. It is maddening. There seems to be no reason for him to be there, so close to the surf with the dark clouds overhead threatening to unleash a storm that these parts are known for across the country.

Then his head darts down, quick as a snake into the lower branches of the bush. You shiver at the thought of snakes. His beak reappears from the foliage and a lizard, the color of emeralds, hangs limp like an odd mustache. The egret tips his long neck back and feasts.

You’re not sure if you feel badly for the lizard or happy for the egret. You decide it might be both or perhaps neither as the first drop of rain lands on your head.

Saturday Short: Wild Mustard Fields

photograph of mustard fields

“The problem is we’re too good at hiding the pain,” Erika said as she stopped and looked out over the mustard fields.

“I don’t think that’s the problem,” Leo said. “It’s that we won’t fight and they know it.

She shook her head. He always wanted to fight, to pound something with his fists. As if knocking someone out would make them come around to the light. More likely it would just addle their brains. She gestured towards the yellow flowers that were almost too vibrant against the grey, muted sky.

“We hide our feelings like they hide our dead.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said.”

A siren in the distance sounded and Erika’s pulse pounded in her ears as they turned, discussion forgotten, as they tried to outrun the wind. The mustard bowed as the storm moved in behind them, but did not break.