Saturday Short: The Community Bookstore

photograph of two polaroids of bookstores

It used to be, back when your mother and father were young and there were still such things as penny candy and magic, there was a bookstore in every town and every one was different. Some were so small that you would have sworn it could have fit inside a shoebox.

Yet the proprietor always managed to find the exact book you needed, when you needed it, even if you had no idea that particular book was going to make your heart sing.

Others were so large that you could lose whole gaggles of children amongst the stacks. Some did, only to be found at closing time by the store cat, asleep with picture books open in their laps.

Nowadays, when people live next door to each other for years, yet still can’t rightly tell each other’s name, there are fewer bookstores and less magic, too.

But if you’re lucky enough to find one in the town where you hang your coat at the end of the day, go in and say hi. Put your phone in your pocket and gaze around in wonder as you step over the threshold into a place of joy and welcome.

Find that book you’d forgotten, which made you brave when you were young. Pick up a slim tome, on the recommendation of a handwritten sign stuck precariously between the spines, that may just save your soul. Buy the fat novel with a title that tickles like déjà vu at the base of your neck on the advice of the bookseller whose smile crinkles the corner of her eyes when you say yes and who whispers that the book is one of her favorite friends.

There’s still magic in the world, though it’s hidden more often than not. But you can find it wrapped up in the pages found in bookstores owned by people whose veins flow with prose and poetry. Don’t be shy, come on in, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the books call your name, too.


Dedicated to Renee on the occasion of the Grand Opening of Books on B. Thank you for bringing back magic, warmth, and community into our downtown through your bookstore. May all the pages of your days be blessed.

Saturday Short: A Run of Chickens

photograph of a flock of chickens

“Chickens” by E Gregory on Flickr CC-BY-NC

The thunder rumbled across the valley and rattled the bottles in Ani’s shop. She glared at the grey clouds blotting out the afternoon sun, making the world look flat and grey. A crack of lightning looked like it would split the mountain in two. She hated the thunderstorms at the border between the seasons.

“As if the gods themselves were fighting over the change of the tide.”

A rumble of a different sort caught her attention as a gaggle of her neighbor’s children came rushing in the back door of her store as the next wave of thunder shook stifled yells from them.

“Careful! Careful! You’ll break your necks running like that through my stock!”

They came skidding to a halt, their tracks across her floor a study in mud. They fanned out around her like chicks, looking up with their wide eyes.

“Auntie Ani, tell us the story,” the eldest cried as he jumped with the next burst of lightning. The storm drew closer. He would soon be too old to not pretend the storms didn’t scare him.

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh, what story would that be?”

The sudden downpour of rain, pounding on the roof almost drown out their reply.

“Oh, that story! Well, I suppose we could do that, but clean your feet and the mud on the floor first.”

They scurried away and her floor was clean before she was able to shutter her windows and draw enough cushions around. The older children dragged the rest and plopped down.

Then Auntie Ani began her tale about the real reason for the storms. She wove her tale for an entire hour until the storm had ran dry and moved on and the sun wiped away the last of the clouds from the sky and the children were smiling with their storm fears forgotten.

“And,” she concluded wagging a finger that would soon be gnarled with age, but not today. “That is why one must always be kind to a run of chickens.”

A rooster crowed from across the square as if to signal his agreement.

“Or else the great goddess, Thunder Chicken, will send her fury after you and you’ll never be rid of the storm again.”

The children nodded sagely and Auntie Ani smiled before she shooed them away. She watched them as they scattered to their houses and hoped she would die before she ever saw the great goddess bird again.

Saturday Short: A Mural of Buntings

photograph of two painted buntings

“Painted Buntings” by shell game on Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND

“You must make your paintings come alive!” my teacher said as she shook her paintbrush at my canvas. “What’s this? This is not alive. Feel your painting!”

I stifled what I wanted to say by biting the inside of my cheek. The last thing I wanted was for my painting to come alive. I looked over at my teacher staring at me, along with the twenty other sets of eyes in my two o’clock intermediate oil painting class, as if waiting for me to speak and felt my cheeks get hot no doubt as red as the chest of the bird I was beginning to feather into being.

“I don’t think paintings come to life is such a good thing,” I mumbled.

“Not a good thing?” My teacher snorted as if my words were somehow offensive smelling. “To paint is to be alive. To not show movement, the feeling, the essence of life, what is it worth then?” She threw up her hands and turned her attention to the student next to me.

My shoulders sank with relief and I went back to carefully daubing crimson onto my canvas, assiduously ignoring those who still stared at me. My teacher and I were not talking about the same thing. I knew this, but hoped she never would.

At the end of the hour, everyone packed up their oils and moved their easels to the perimeter of the room to dry. I was the last one in the room even though I didn’t want to be, but my painting was beginning to worry me. If I just stayed away for a few days, everything would be fine.

“You know,” my teacher called over her shoulder as she opened the door to leave. “If you don’t start showing life in your paintings, you won’t do well in the class. I know you can.”

I looked back at my canvas, half-covered in paint and felt the pull I always did. I should never have taken out my brushes, should never have come back, but I didn’t know anything else. All I’d ever wanted was to paint.

The sun was on the other side of the building when the screams woke me the next morning, my paintbrush clutched in my hand. I watched the coffee spread across the floor, my teacher heedless of it staining the hem of her skirt as her eyes flitted about almost as fast as the birds that had torn ragged holes in my canvas.

I smiled, half with wonder and half with worry at the birds whose feathers rained fine droplets of paint whenever they flew. At least this time I’d known to paint something small.

“A flock of buntings is called a mural, you know,” I said and my teacher’s still-shocked gaze came to rest on me. “How’s that for alive?”

Saturday Short: A Bellowing of Bullfinches

photograph of a male bullfinch

“Male bullfinch” by Nick Goodrum on Flickr (CC-BY)

“You’re nothing but a birdbrain!” Sam yelled. The boys behind him laughed as they all ran away.

Their cackling reminded Tami of grackles. “That’s not an insult!” she shouted at their fleeing backs. They didn’t turn around. “It’s not,” she said to herself. The tears in her eyes said otherwise.

She turned and walked the other way, away from the boys, the broken blacktop, and the walls where their taunts echoed. There were no birds ever on campus except for the occasional turkey vulture circling lazily overhead or seagulls lining the flat roofs of the buildings before the storms rolled in.

It wasn’t her fault. The birds had called to her since she could follow them, toddling along behind them. They waited for her and, if she was quiet and very still, one would sometimes alight on her shoulder and chatter in her ear. They told her stories and tried to teach her songs. She remembered the stories, but could never get the songs correct. The birds said it was because humans’ throats weren’t made right, but they still loved her.

“Why are you crying?” the bullfinch flitted by her ear asked as Tami turned up the street towards home.

“Not crying.” She wiped the back of her hand over her eyes.

“Of course, but why are you sad? Are you sad your flock is gone?”

Tami looked up at the bullfinch and frowned. “I don’t have a flock.”

“Not those boys?”

She snorted. “No, they were making fun of me.”

“Birdbrain is not an insult. We are quite intelligent.”

She nodded. “But humans use it as an insult.”

The bullfinch didn’t answer, but didn’t fly away either. It stayed until Tami reached her house. “I must go talk to the others.”

“Stay safe,” Tami said and watched until the bullfinch was not even a speck in the sky.

The next day after school, the taunts began, again.

“Birdbrain!” they yelled. The other students in the yard hurried away.

The group of boys didn’t run away laughing, but began following Tami and her heart sped faster as their footsteps grew closer.

“Leave me alone,” she said to her feet and hurried down the street, pulling the straps of her backpack tighter.

“Come back, birdbrain!”

Just as she pushed off to begin her desperate sprint away, she heard a cry behind her. No, not a cry. A deafening roar of hundreds of bullfinches, their chirps and songs combining into a mighty bellow. Tami turned around and saw the boys stopped in their tracks like frozen deer as the bellowing of bullfinches circled overhead, casting a shadow of a roiling raincloud.

The first bird dove and struck its stocky beak against the crown of Sam’s head. He cried out and tried to hit the bird, but he was too slow. Another bird dove down and struck another boy on the head, pulling out a strand of brown hair as if it were straw for a nest. Then the bullfinches called as one and a wave descended on the boys, who cried out and began running away.

And Tami laughed, tears running down her face, hands white from clenching her backpack straps so tight. She watched the bellowing of bullfinches chase the boys until she could no longer see either group. When she got home, there was a bullfinch waiting for her in the yard.

“Thank you,” she said. She’d have liked to say more, but would have ended up crying, which always seemed to confuse the birds.

The bird seemed to smile, but that was of course just her imagination. “You never have to thank your flock. We are a flock.” Then the bullfinch flew away and Tami waved until at last she was waving only to the sky.

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.”


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?”


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.”


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



“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.