MAN KILLED BY PHEASANT and Other Kinships
By John T. Price
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 2008 John T. Price
All right reserved.
The Robin Defense
* * *
Put the baby bird down, the patrol boy says. Its momma is coming back and it'll give you lice.
I tell him I don't care about lice and that I'm going to take the bird to my own momma, but is he in the mood to listen? No. He's in the fifth grade and thinks that wearing a badge and holding a sharp-edged stop sign the size of a pizza dish gives him the power to decide life and death. Another time he might be right, but on this particular spring day, this particular baby bird needs my help—I spotted it in the new wet grass, shivering, on its side, its leg sticking straight out the way they do when things aren't right. Now it's cupped in my hands, a soft, freckled ball, and I think it isn't shivering so much as before.
But is this boy in the mood to listen? He tells me again to put it down and I tell him exactly what I think about patrol boys, what we second-graders call them behind their backs—the Poop Patrol—and that he's the stinkiest of them all. Well, that just about does it, he says, and the next thing he has a fistful of my red windbreaker and yanks me backward, but I keep my feet and the bird, and elbow him hard in the breadbasket. He grunts and lets me go, but then his partner, the second stinkiest in the Poop Patrol, grabs hold of my red windbreaker and tells me they're going to send someone to get the principal. That's fine with me, I tell them, because my friend Andy has already gone to get my mother and she'll definitely be on my side. Andy's dad was in the Battle of the Bulge so he'll get her, you can bet on it, even if she's in the bedroom with the door shut, on account of being sad about the funeral. He'll march right up the stairs—he's not afraid of anything, I tell them—and when my mother hears about the bird, she'll come running because she's a nurse and took a sacred oath to heal the sick, which she's done many times before.
But are they in the mood to listen? They just laugh and I say well, OK, for example, my mother once healed a freezing, shivering rabbit I found that very winter. It was sitting in my backyard, in a crust of snow, when I walked over and just picked it up with my mittens—it was a very cold day. My mother put it in a box with a blanket and water and some lettuce and the next morning it was gone, hopped away, she said. That's what nurses can do, I tell them, but they just laugh some more and I remind them that if they're not careful the same thing's going to happen to this bird that happened to the albino squirrel—remember the squirrel? I think they do, because they stop laughing. They should remember because last fall that white squirrel hung out in the maple tree just across the street, right in front of their faces, and there was a picture of it in the newspaper. They might have even fed it crackers—a lot of kids did since it was almost tame from, well, being fed so many crackers. It came up to me once, close enough to pet, and the newspaper was right, it did have pink eyes. I should've taken that squirrel home to my mother, but we all know the end of that story, don't we?
I think I've struck a nerve, because Pooper Number One pushes me to the ground and the baby bird tumbles from my hands. It lands on its back and just stays there, with the leg pointing a different way, but still not right. I try to pick it up, but Number Two yanks back on the hood of my red windbreaker and that's when I lose it—Get your paws off me! I struggle hard, but he has a pretty good grip on my arms by now. I tell them that they both should take a good look at that baby bird, instead of grabbing me all the time. Don't you see the bugs on its eyes? They mention the lice and I have to tell them, once again, that I don't care about the lice. Don't you see that leg sticking out? But they just keep telling me to leave it be, the momma's coming back, the momma's coming back, even though that isn't true and even if it were, she'd be too late. I'm seven and I know something about babies they don't, that they can die, even when they're just being born, like my brother. Do you want the baby to die? I ask them, just in case they read his name in the paper, next to my name, and remember that once they're gone there's no bringing them back, even if it is spring and Easter time and all. You'd think they'd remember that, after the squirrel.
But are they in the mood to listen? They just keep holding my arms and calling me a crybaby—I guess I've started crying—and now the bird is shivering again, in the wet grass, and my mother hasn't arrived yet. What else can I do? What choice have they left me? I relax a little, fake like I've surrendered, then stomp down hard on Number Two's ankle with my big brown shoe. Now he's the one screaming and falling into the wet grass. I don't wait around for Number One to grab me; I scoop up the bird and dart across the street. They're both standing now, red-faced and thinking about coming after me, thinking about what they might do with that axe-sharp sign of theirs, but then, whatdyaknow, the bell rings.
Too bad, so sad, I tell them, since they're finally listening. You have to go back to school now and it looks like the principal ain't coming, either! Number One pulls out his little scratch-and-sniff cheeseburger notebook—I can smell the onions from here—and writes my name in it, but I don't care. I won't be going back to school, ever. Compared to this, school doesn't matter, even though my father says it does and made me go today. Tomorrow's another day, a different story, and I'll have the baby bird to remind him. No. These boys won't see my face again, but I guarantee I'll remember their ugly mugs forever!
That's right, I yell at them, keep walking! Uh-oh—LOOKEE HERE—I'm carrying the bird with my bare hands, lice and all, and there's nothing you can do!
They don't turn around, they've stopped listening again, but I don't care. The bird has stopped shivering; he has his shiny black eye on me, because he knows I'm going to take him away and save him. Not like that squirrel. So when the Poop Patrol comes back with the principal, if they come back, they'll have no one to boss except the sun and the air and the mud. Grab them, if you dare, but you won't grab me. I'm gone and so is this baby bird.
I am not a crybaby!
I am in the second grade and don't any of you worry, he'll live, because my mom's a nurse and his name was in the paper and I'll remember. And it's spring.
What Kind of Light?
* * *
Our arrival at Camp Mini-Wakan was marked not so much by a sign as by the character of light. In the backseat of the Buick Electra my two younger sisters and I had been asleep, sweaty, open-mouthed, baking in the kind of plastic heat from which I'd awakened during other car trips—usually during the song "Brandy" (she's a fine girl)—and wondered: Who am I? But now, as the open fields gave way to the woods, the harsh strike of the sun softened, freckling down through the hackberries and oaks and onto my arms. A cool breeze touched my forehead and drew my face to the window. I saw trees. Lots of trees.
We were going there for Mom, a few months after the baby died—at least, that's how I will always remember it. Mom had spent her childhood summers at Mini-Wakan, a church retreat on the northern Great Lakes of Iowa, and remembered it fondly: the friendships, the horses, the countless Ping-Pong victories. We'd gone there before, as a family, but I didn't expect to return that summer. In April, just after the baby, Mom had seemed to want nothing more than to be away from us, retreating day after day behind the closed door of my parents' bedroom. A few weeks later, just before our move to the new house, she transformed into a tornado of activity, tossing around boxes, filling them with clothes, toys, blankets, dirty silverware—anything within reach. Watching her, I'd thought the summer already lost. Then, one evening, she appeared at the kitchen table in her flowery nightgown and told Dad that this year she wanted to go somewhere special for her birthday, that there was a spot down by Okoboji Lake where she'd sat alone as a girl and read My Friend Flicka all the way through, without stopping. That's where she wanted to go, back to Camp Mini-Wakan. So Dad decided to take her, and us, and you could tell by the way he drove the gravel roads (a little too fast) that he was glad to be going there, too.
Dad parked in front of the log cabin lodge. The air hinted of wood smoke and a thin mist hovered over the nearby meadow, purple with phlox. Inside, while Dad registered, I examined the poster with the cabin assignments. Some cabins had names like Blackfoot and Pawnee and Crow—fierce, noble names—while others had less desirable names like Pocahontas and Sacagawea. I worried that a balsa wood identification tag with a girl's name on it would hold little currency among my friends and would have to be tossed shortly after our return. I finally found our names listed under "Sioux." Dad concurred, it was great luck: Our cabin would be near the lake, not back in the ivy-infested woods like last year or on the smashed-down mud near the latrines.
Carrie Anne, Susan, and I raced to our cabin and through the open doorway. The walls were exposed cedar planks and the floor a dirty cement slab. The smell—pinesap and mildew—burned my throat, in a good way. Two bunk beds with thin, liver-spotted mattresses were shoved against the walls, and I quickly claimed the top of one of them.
"Sure you want to sleep up there?" Mom asked, throwing her hard white suitcase on the mattress, the suitcase that still contained stray rice from my parents' honeymoon. During our last stay there, I'd rolled off the top bunk and dropped like a meteor. Mom had screamed, snatched me off the concrete, and asked urgent questions: Do you know your name? Can you count to five? She'd retrieved Dr. Greenwood, the unofficial camp physician. Nelson Greenwood, who was my age, watched as his father felt my neck and gently rotated my head. Nelson looked disappointed when it was announced that I didn't have a concussion. I know I was. Head injuries were gold.
The Greenwoods were regulars at Mini-Wakan. In khaki shorts and tees, toting around their identification guides and Foxfire books, they seemed totally at home in the wild. I admired Dr. and Mrs. Greenwood, and despite Nelson's indifference toward me, they'd always been friendly and generous. Last year, they'd taken Nelson and me to an amusement park across the lake. The rides inside the Fun House were brutal discards from the forties, most of them made of wood. There was the carpet slide and the barrel roll and a whirling, king-of-the-mountain monstrosity called the Sugar Bowl. Dr. Greenwood broke his ankle inside the barrel roll. He'd been shuffling his way through its dark, spinning gut, and the next thing he was on his back, clutching his leg and getting tossed like wet jeans in the dryer. This year Mrs. Greenwood had promised to take us someplace more educational, like the site of the Spirit Lake Indian Massacre. I looked forward to that, but mostly I looked forward to spending time with Nelson.
Nelson was a genius. In preschool, he could do more with three twigs and a wad of gum than most of us could with a fully loaded tub of Tinker Toys. During those afternoons the other kids and I watched, amazed, as Nelson built gothic castles out of broken chunks of asphalt or used his pocketknife to carve voodoo masks into Mrs. Carroll's bath soap. Then we'd watch him throw a violent tantrum over something like getting the wrong flavor Pixy Stick. He didn't care what anyone thought about him, even grown-ups, and so we hovered around him like moths. Nelson's popularity had only grown. During his frequent battles with our elementary-school teachers, he'd spit out words like sycophant and fascist. I'd assumed he'd learned these words from his older sisters or from his parents, who, it appeared to me then, had made it their life's ambition never to tell him what to do. Not only had they bought Nelson a microscope, a chemistry set, and a quail egg incubator, but they never required him to keep them or anything else off his bedroom carpet. He'd also been liberated from the humiliation of haircuts. Unlike the rest of us, Nelson was free to walk the earth with shoulder-length hair, his chin in the air as if no one could hurt him or boss him or prove he was wrong. And no one, in my memory, ever had.
At dusk, on our way to the Mini-Wakan lodge for the first campfire, I caught a glimpse of the Greenwoods walking far ahead of us on the trail. There were Nelson and his parents and another boy, limping close beside them. I squinted.
"Who's that crippled boy?"
"We don't point," Mom whispered. "And we don't use the word crippled. We use the word special."
"Who's that special boy?"
She didn't know. At the outdoor chapel we sat down on one of the log pews. I could see Nelson across the fire, his long hair wavy in the flames. He was shirtless and tan and barefoot, wearing nothing but his olive green shorts with the knife clip (I had a pair myself ). He was sitting next to the crippled boy and didn't notice me. Camp Director Jim—tall and sinewy, a mop of curly, sun-yellow hair—called for our attention. He reminded us that every campfire begins with the Johnny Apple-seed Prayer, so let's all stand and join in, with feeling:
Oh, the Lord is good to me And so I thank the Lord For giving me the things I need, The sun and the rain and the apple seed. The Lord is good to me. Amen. Amen-Amen-Amen.
We bent our knees at each amen, as if it were a Romper Room exercise and not a prayer.
Jim went over the schedule and the safety rules, and then it was time for games. First, the potato-on-a-spoon relay, in which Dad and Carrie Anne finished dead last. Next, Jim announced the knot-untying contest, and Nelson confidently stepped forward. During school recesses Nelson had impressed us many times with his knot-tying expertise, easily tangling the flag line with sheepshanks and bowlines and cloves. He seemed a sure bet. Jim passed out the knotted pieces of rope and blew his whistle, and the contestants frantically went to work. When Nelson's first attempt failed, he looked confused, then enraged, bringing the tight jumble down low near his knees as if to break it in half like a stick. His face became a purple bruise. The whistle blew and someone else was declared champion. Jim tried to collect the rope, but Nelson turned away, still yanking at the knot. Finally, he threw it in the dirt and marched to his seat.
Mom covered her mouth to giggle, but I didn't. The reason for Nelson's tantrum—a deep-seated hatred of losing—was the same reason I didn't plan to participate in any game at all. But when Jim announced that the final competition would be a cracker-eating contest, I reconsidered. It would require only the use of my mouth, something at which I was fairly skilled. I stepped forward, and for similar reasons I assumed, so did the crippled boy. Someone cheered, "Yay, Joseph!" We stood next to one another in the line of competitors. I stared at him; he was around my age, the same brown hair, the same summer buzz cut. We looked a lot alike, actually, except he was missing both arms and a leg. In their place were gangly prosthetics, oddly shiny in the firelight. Metallic bolts and wires ran the length of each arm, ending with double hooks that, presumably, could be pinched together. Looking at them I maybe should've felt pity, but mostly I was envious. The kid had hooks.
Jim explained the rules of the contest. It was simple: Our hands would be tied behind our backs and saltine crackers placed in our mouths; a whistle would blow and everyone would start chewing. The first one to whistle would win. Jim tied my hands with rough twine and then, skipping Joseph, did the same to the others. Volunteers came forward from the audience. On Jim's command, a woman wearing a flowered bandana crammed three whole saltines into my mouth. The whistle blew and we began chomping. I realized almost immediately I was in over my head: The salty wafers quickly absorbed all the moisture from my mouth, making it nearly impossible to swallow. Ten seconds in, my jaw was cramping, my tongue straining to dislodge the wet drift of cracker forming against the back of my gums. My head jerked and seized. I glanced at Joseph, who was chewing with a steady, almost elegant rhythm. He appeared poised to win. The crowd roared.
Excerpted from MAN KILLED BY PHEASANT and Other Kinships by John T. Price Copyright © 2008 by John T. Price. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.