|For beginning of the story, click here.|
Death was dust, dust was death, and both were everywhere, from the tender hollows of our necks to the windmill gallows upon which farmers' hopes once hung.We ate it, breathed it, wore it and slept in it. Ma used to wet sheets and put them over our beds and in the morning they'd be brown and gritty. For a time I remembered when things were good, the fields were green and there was meat for dinner and penny candy when we went to town. But the older I got, the more it seemed like something I'd just dreamt about.
I used to be able to walk to school, catching little snakes and turtles in the fields. But when the dust storms started to roll, Pop made me ride Ezekiel. That meant no stopping, because Zeke was the stubbornest mule that ever lived. You had to always walk up on his left because he was almost blind in the right eye and if you scared him he'd snatch at you with those big yellow teeth and bray like you'd stuck him. I'd climb on, Pop would tell him "school" and he'd head down the road on his own. I couldn't turn him or stop him; and he moved at one speed, unless I kicked him in the ribs. He'd trot along just enough to rattle every bone in my body before settling back into his usual I'm-fixin-to-die-any-minute pace. Soon as we hit the schoolyard he'd dig in his feet and wait till I got off. Then he'd turn around and head back home, reappearing at school in the afternoon to take me home.
That was till my brother came along. The first time Bird toddled into the barn he went straight over to Zeke. On the right side. I expected him to get eaten right off the bat, but that old mule spun halfway around, fixed him with his good eye, and let out a snort. You don't think of a mule looking surprised, but he did. Maybe he'd never seen a miniature human before. Anyway, they were friends after that. Pop says that animals know enough to protect babies of any kind, and that mules are so smart they know bad people from good. Bird was sort of that way too; he knew that George Miller was a mean kid and bit him on the leg the first time George showed up at school.
For a while Bird went to school with me, and that was nice. He could get Zeke to do most anything, including stopping at the Hendricks farm on the way home to get a drink of water or maybe a biscuit from the Missus. Bird didn't do so well at school; he couldn't sit still, climbed out the window, ate the chalk and pinched anyone who interfered with him. The one thing he could do was take things apart and put them back together. Miss Ellie, the teacher, started bringing in bits and pieces from her brother's junk yard, and pretty soon he was dismantling carburetors like nobody's business. That kept the peace until George Miller took some parts from him and that's when Bird bit him on the leg, and Miss Ellie sent a note home saying she was very sorry but Charles Barrymore Dunner could no longer come to school.
"Pop, what's it mean when people say Bird's touched?" I'd been turning that over in my head the whole way home from school. Folks pointed to their heads and I was pretty sure that they were saying that Bird was crazy, but I wanted to be sure before I started kicking them in the shins.
I remember him studying me for a minute, and that look meant that he was pondering whether I was grown up enough to understand something.
"It means that God has laid his hands on that person and made them special. Reached right down from heaven and touched them. That's what makes them special, and different. Some folks are afraid of anything different. Just like old Ezekial, if they're scared they're liable to kick or bite. Some of 'em even bray like jackasses. Most of the evil in this world doesn't come from anger; it comes from fear. Anger generally wears off over time. It's the fearful person that you need to watch."
"Zeke ain't afraid of Bird." I secretly wondered if Bird was special enough to talk to animals.
"That mule's got more sense than half the town put together. Now suppose you go out and give him a little extra bran mash tonight. He's feeling under the weather this evening."
I couldn't help but gape. "How'd do you know that?"
He winked. "A little bird told me."