|For the beginning of the story, click here|
Everybody's got a starting point, be it as a child or even a grownup; that moment when life starts to unspool like a line with a whale on it. You either spend your life trying to reel in something impossible, or the line breaks and you stand there empty-handed with nothing but a story. Some folks even get pulled overboard and drown. I know that's a funny way of thinking for someone raised a thousand miles from the sea, but there you have it. Our whole family's peculiar in one way or another and I'm no exception.
I'd like to say that I was thinking these thoughts when I was dangling fifty feet in the air, but I wasn't. I was fixed on getting Bird down from the Hendricks' windmill without my falling and splattering in the dirt. No need to worry about Bird; he was a champion climber. Trellises, barn roofs, silos - you name it, he'd end up on top, hooting and waving his skinny arms around like Tarzan in the movies.
I was already queasy from the candy that Pop had bought us on his last trip to town. It was supposed to last at least a week, but the Valomilks I had settled on had starting melting into goo the minute we left the store. I was in charge of my brother's licorice drops too, but was far better at managing his supply than my own. It was a lucky stroke, too, because I still had some left in my pocket and it proved to be the only thing that got his attention.
Hollering sure didn't make any difference. You'd think he was deaf. We'd stopped on the way home from school to get a drink and scrounge our usual biscuit at the Hendricks place, but there wasn't a soul around. I cracked the door and called a few times, even checked the stove. Cold. I was just helping myself to the scraps of pie left in a tin when I heard Zeke start up like he'd fallen in a pit of snakes. I could say that my mouth went dry from fear but that was probably just the pie. My stomach was sure enough up in my mouth though.
I made my own little dust storm charging out the door and round the corner to where we'd left Zeke by the windmill. He was making a God-awful sound, but I couldn't see anything wrong with him. Finally I grabbed an ear and yelled into the hairy depths.
Unexpectedly, he fell silent. I was just congratulating myself when it dawned on me that Bird was nowhere in sight.
"Bird. You there Bird. Come here. Olly olly oxen free. Peek-a-boo. Durn it, Charles Barrymore Dunner! You come here now!" The sickening realization that he might have fallen down a hole or been dragged off and eaten by coyotes (the latter was a constant specter in my dreams) made my voice squeakier than I liked.
I was just wishing that I had my tin whistle with me when I remembered the licorice in my pocket.
"I'm gonna eat up your candy!"
From up above me came a howl. There was my brother, dangling by two hands and swinging his legs to catch the next girder. I held up a licorice drop and slowly moved it toward my mouth. He stopped for a second, and then resumed climbing. I was going to have to go up and get him.
And that's how I ended up 50 feet off the ground and wishing my brother had never been born. Climbing was never my strong suit; I hated the woozy feeling I got in my head, the way my muscles went weak and the sensation that I was going to pee myself any minute. But I kept on going until I was close enough for him to get a good eyeful of that licorice.
"Look Bird! Licorice. Got a whole bag full in my pocket. You gotta come down to get it."
He moved close enough to reach for the piece I held, and I broke a bit off. Sucking on it, he closed his eyes and for a moment I thought for sure he'd fall. But then he opened them and smiled, reaching out for another. I slowly backed down the structure, one leg at a time, keeping each sweet bit just out of reach so he'd follow me. About every 10 feet I'd let him grab a piece and eat it to keep his interest. We were almost to the ground when he got fed up with the whole thing and grabbed my hand, digging his nails in.
I let go.
Hitting the ground felt like dying, or at least what I imagined dying might feel like. I was flat out; the breath had been sucked from me and I couldn't draw another for what seemed like forever. The sky was a blue tablecloth above and everything was silent. A gentle peace was settling over me when I felt a finger go up my nostril.
With a whoop my lungs started up again and I had enough strength to smack Bird right upside the head.
"Get your dirty finger outta my nose. What's wrong with you?" I grabbed him by the collar and pinned him in the dirt. "You get up and quit causing me trouble." Yanking him up, I hustled him over to Zeke. "We gotta get home. Pop will be mad as a hornet if we don't get there in time for chores."
He was all set to fight me on it, and I rummaged in my pocket for more licorice. Dang. Nothing left but the Valomilk wrapper. But, Bird being Bird, he was as happy as a dog with two tails. Carefully licking the wrapper, he climbed up on Zeke and settled in, crinkling the shiny wrapper and turning it this way and that, over and over again.
Of course, we hadn't gone more than five minutes when he dropped that wrapper and set up a ruckus. I had to stop, get down and retrieve it - nothing but a tiny bit of trash no good to anyone. Looking back, it meant as much to him as a nickel would have meant to me, but at the time I just felt like Job of the Bible suffering through his trials. I wished that Bird would just go away for a while and give me some breathing room.
Somewhere along the way home I felt his arm creep around me and the heavy weight of his head between my shoulder blades. We rode like that, mortared together with sweat and dust. The land rolled out around us, nothing but acres of brown dirt under an angry sun.
For a while it felt like maybe we were the only two people left in a world of empty tomorrows.
Continue reading - Part 5