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All Stories Copyright 2003 & 2010 Karlene Kubat UNCAGED SONGBIRDS By Karlene Kubat A diverse selection of the author’s short stories. Page CONTENTS: THE HEIRLOOM.......................... 1 THE UNTAMING OF THE SWAN.............. 22 GRANDMA IN THE WOODS.................. 40 A FAVOR............................... 55 THE UNFINISHED BOAT................... 68 WHO GOES HOME......................... 84 THE HEIRLOOM The children were at play under the swollen spring branches in the filbert orchard. A March wind rushed down the long rows, rattling the limbs and muffling the excited cries of the little ones. Something in the distance sent them running toward the big white frame house below the orchard. Their unclasped boots and scarves flapped with each short bounce of their rushing feet as they came Uncaged Songbirds 2 Karlene Kubat beneath a spreading yellow forsythia bush in the yard. Under its luminous arching branches they huddled together with hushed, wondering voices, their faces turned toward the road running below the western edge of the orchard. A man’s gray head rose and fell above the bank of wind-torn grass, coming on until his figure was telescoped in the long gravel driveway. There he paused, a bony hand sliding into the open front of his faded jacket and fluttering over an inside shirt pocket to withdraw a stained pipe and a thin pouch. A little tobacco was deftly pressed into the bowl. Hunching over, he turned away to save the flame flickering below pale, half-closed lids. A few white puffs of ignited leaf whirled away as he started up the path. From their hideaway the children watched his tall figure lean into the wind as he moved nearer, watched and gasped and murmured as he turned toward the stairs leading up to the front veranda. On either side of the steps grew massive holly trees that rose, dark and bird-inhabited, to the eaves beyond the second floor balcony. He climbed with slow measured steps and stood at the heavy door. No one ever came to the front door. Their mother went there only to sweep dry holly leaves from the porch corners. Now as the man hesitated, high airy giggles tumbled out of the bright forsythia below. He turned and descended, walking straight to the golden umbrella of branches. Erica stepped forward, the second daughter, the second eldest, growing already out of her sister’s clothes. Her sister, Maddy, secretive now away in the house, but Erica gladly out-of-doors, leading the other two little boys in play; the tomboy, her elders called her. Uncaged Songbirds 3 Karlene Kubat “Where’s your daddy, girl?” “Gone to work. Grandpa’s inside reading the news.” “The news.” He spat almost over her shoulder as she thought to step back but did not. “It’s always the same or a little worse every cussed day.” “Grandpa knows all about it. He reads everything in the paper and his news magazine. When daddy comes they talk about it...the war that’s in your-rope. Grandpa knows a lot of that news.” The old man bit down on his pipe and spoke through clenched teeth. “Waste of time.” Erica stared at the hand with its swollen knuckles cupped around the pipe. Thin strands of pale blond hair whipped over her blue eyes, and more streamed out around her crocheted woolen cap as fast as she tucked it in. “I’ll get grandpa. Come on, you kids.��� The old man followed around to the back of the house as the wary little brood glanced over their shoulders at his angular frame. He stood under the cherry tree, looking up through tight-budded limbs at the fast-moving clouds. Beyond the network of dancing branches, the sky’s airy white shapes were studded with small blue patches -- a blue almost the color of the girl’s eyes. “News,” he muttered, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” The back door slammed behind the grandfather as he stepped forward, pushing a battered felt hat down on his head with one hand and buttoning a shrunken black cardigan with the other. “Well, so it’s you. I could’ve used you in thrashing season but now there’s nothing.” Uncaged Songbirds 4 Karlene Kubat “It’s not work I’m after. You can get the young boys for that. I’m on my way through to the river and need the strength to get there.” The grandfather, short, trim, his body used to physical labor, looked out of a bland leathery face with eyes the coloration of his granddaughter’s but a more faded blue. “I can offer you sauerbraten and cabbage...maybe a little grape wine. Come in, then. Wash up inside on the porch while I tell the woman.” The mother bent her head with brows drawn together, listening at the screened porch door. Her auburn hair was pulled back under a white kerchief. Retreating to her kitchen, she wiped her floury hands on a towel and moved back and forth from stove to sink to refrigerator. The young children vanished downstairs. Erica sat in a corner next to the woodstove, which was burning now and which the grandfather had kept even after the electric stove beside it was installed. She pulled up her jeans and yanked off her boots. Her eyes followed the old man as he came in from the pine-scented washroom, his hair slicked down. His eyes darted around the room, but he averted his gaze from the curious girl and said nothing, only pulling up a chair and leaning on the checkered oilcloth covering the big scarred oak table. Erica’s mother came from the pantry, carrying in one hand fresh thickly sliced bread with a broken-topped crust, and in the other hand an oval green dish of newly worked butter. The rich yellow butter still glistened with beads of its finishing ice water. She nodded to the guest, who straightened up and dipped his head with respect. Uncaged Songbirds 5 Karlene Kubat “Are you going to eat, too?” Erica’s mother asked. “Uh-huh, me too,” Erica said, holding her stockinged foot high over the woodstove’s open oven door. “The kids are in the basement. Maddy’s there. My feet are cold. It’s going to rain. I’m hungry as a bear.” The grandfather came in with an earthenware jug of homemade wine. He sat down at the head of the table and filled two thick old tumblers with the pale rosé. Erica hurried over and slid into a chair across from the stranger. “My name’s Erica, what’s yours?” The old man had his fingers clenched tightly around the glass of pale pink wine and was lifting it to his thirsty tongue. He took one long swallow and answered, “Bill.” “There’s two Bills in my school but I’m the only Erica. Us kids all have unusual names. Did you work for grandpa? Where’d you come from? Where you going?” “Here, here, let the man have his wine, Erica,” the grandfather scolded. Squirming with an anxious desire to go on talking, Erica leaned back and began to bite her fingers. The old man studied the girl, the relief of the wine in his eyes. “You musta been pretty small when I was here before, little magpie. I don’t remember you.” “Maybe I was just a baby when you came here. I’m seven. I’ll be eight in September.” The stranger’s eyes focused more intently upon the girl. “Well, this is March. September’s half a year away. Uncaged Songbirds 6 Karlene Kubat Don’t hurry it, girl. No, you don’t want to hurry it. “You help your ma and your daddy, I reckon.” “Daddy wished I was a boy when I was born ’cause I was the second girl, but I can do any stuff a boy does.” Erica’s busy mother paused near the table and shook her head with amused censure. “How do you know what daddy wished, Erica, honey?” “’Cause I heard him say it...how he’d be needing a boy to help him...how he was worried ’til Sean was born.” “These little ears hear too much,” Erica’s mother said. “I milk our cow. I go to school. I’ve been going a long time. I can read,” Erica proudly revealed, directing her conversation to the old man. “I’m learning to read the news.” The grandfather waved his arm for silence and shook his hand at the girl as the steaming plates arrived in the mother’s agile ruddy hands. Sauerbraten and red cabbage with apple, vinegar, brown sugar, and bacon pieces filled the heavy white ironstone plates -- the grandfather had eaten from this thick stained old ware in his childhood. Erica held the large wooden-handled knife and fork in her small hands just the way her grandfather did, both angled over her plate as she chewed, then both utensils worked over her food, a little clumsily but unfailing. After the main course came thick slices of gooseberry and grated lemon rind pie and two mugs of hot black coffee. For Erica there was milk still warm and frothy from the pasteurizer. The thin white strip of milk above her mouth made Bill smile for the first time. “So...you read the news, girl.” Uncaged Songbirds 7 Karlene Kubat “Ach!” the grandfather exclaimed, waving his hand. “I do so read, grandpa. I can read a little of it.” “Ja...maybe a little.” “You stick to fairytales, girl,” Bill said. He reminded Erica of a mad rooster. “My teacher, Mrs. Hayward, says the news is going to be history. History is just old news, I guess, so we keep on getting more of it. Sometimes it makes me laugh. I like funny stories. I bet grandpa could find one in today’s paper. He’s always--” “Here now, be quiet, Erica. “How’s the wife, Bill?” Bill stiffened, staring past Erica and straight ahead at the wall which held a rack of copper pans. “Passed on.” “No! I’m sorry to hear that. Was it sudden?” “Yes...sudden. In the night.” Bill reached for the jug and filled his glass to the top. He gulped down half the wine, his hand trembling as he continued to stare toward the pans. Blood swiftly infused his cheeks, flushed little spots of red reminding Erica of a rosy-cheeked Santa Claus. He tipped the remainder slowly back and forth then tossed it down and began to talk. “When I lost the farm we still had the hired man’s cabin. Hired on...workin’ like that, we had just enough for livin’. Anna made a garden...vegetables and flowers...like always. She loved flowers...and them tall hollyhocks...made her happy to see ’em against the sky. We even laughed about it all...sometimes. Didn’t matter no more. Anna is sure somethin’, not a quitter. Every day Uncaged Songbirds 8 Karlene Kubat the country got worse. Anna went right on, so I did, too. Right on...until... Huh...the wine...makin’ me talk.” Erica struggled with the difficult phrases: passed on...lost the farm...country got worse, but she felt only the heavy sadness of the old man. Did he mean the wife died or went away? Sometimes people died. Once a newborn calf got caught in the underbrush and died. It was stiff when she discovered it, its legs stretched out, its fur matted and dry. Flies buzzed around the bloated body in the sun, and the terrible smell, the dark birds in the trees. She ran away. Her father came with a shovel. She couldn’t go near those thick willows after that without remembering, without imagining the calf struggling to live. The whole scene came into her dreams for a while, over and over until finally it stopped. At about that time, her wrinkled great-aunt Melba told her stories of people who died and came back somehow. How could they? It gave her goose bumps. Erica commenced a nervous squirming with the memory of the calf and of Aunt Melba’s ghosts. She wanted old Bill to laugh. He was not a family elder demanding obedience, but someone she could charm and tease, the way her mother sometimes did with friends. She had seen it happen when she was lucky enough to be taken along to grange potluck...her mother arranging her baked beans on the table filled with tempting casseroles and pies and cakes. Her mother looking so pretty in her good navy dress with the white lace collar and the small corsage of imitation red cherries, smiling as the side lamps winked on her auburn hair, the rosy faces of laughter around the hall and the admiring eyes of the men. Uncaged Songbirds 9 Karlene Kubat “Well, I give a heap a thanks for the meal, folks. Now I’m on my way.” Bill stood up and shook hands with the grandfather, who had stood up too. He nodded polite thanks to Erica’s mother. Erica was busy, hurriedly putting on her boots. She grabbed her hat and coat and followed Bill out. “I’m walking to the crossroads with you.” “That’s two miles down and the same two back, girl.” “I do it all the time.” She pulled on her woolen cap. Her mother leaned out the door with her mittens. “Here, put these on. I think a storm is coming. See that black cloud? Button your coat. Your hat’s not enough; put up the hood if the rain comes. And you come straight home now. Hear me?” “I hear, mama.” Together the old man and Erica walked down the long driveway, with the penetrating east wind rushing at their backs. “She tells me that every time I go outside. I guess she forgets, but I never do.” “If you was mine I’d do the same.” “Don’t you have any kids?” “No. If I did they’d be older than your mother. It’s a good thing I don’t.” “Why?” “I just don’t wish anyone into this world.” “I’m glad mama had me...even on cold days like this. If the sun comes out I really feel good, like old Tiger cat when he finds a patch of sun to sleep in or lick his fur. He just loves it. You can tell.” Erica felt the bony hand grip her shoulder and had a Uncaged Songbirds 10 Karlene Kubat twinge of fear. “Enjoy it now, girl. It goes fast and life comes down hard.” “What does that mean?” “Things happen that keep you from gettin’ where you want to go.” Erica looked up at Bill, her blue eyes widening. “Where’s that?” “Well, huh, I guess a place where there’s a kind of peace and not very much to need.” “But where?” “Ain’t really a place...just the way you feel.” “Then why can’t you just feel it?” Bill’s eyebrows arched up, forcing even deeper lines than those already etched across his forehead. He fell silent and stopped to light his pipe. Puffs of blue smoke instantly whirled away in a sudden gust of wind. “You might grow up to be a fast talker. That’s how they got my money...fast-talkin’, silver-tongued devils.” “If I had some money I wouldn’t let anyone take it away...not unless I wanted to give it to ’em.” “Then you’d have been a help to me when that slicker sold me shares in the gold mine.” “A gold mine? Did you see the gold?” Bill’s mouth fell open and he grabbed for his pipe in amused surprise. “You shame me, girl. Nope, never saw a single speck. Some friends invested and swore it was fixin’ to be a real payload. Friends, they was. Hah! I was a handsome lad, see, with a pretty young wife and bound to give her everything under the sun. The mine was down in Arizona. Uncaged Songbirds 11 Karlene Kubat They just kept sinkin’ more dough into that loser ’til there was nothin’ left to sink. Leastways, we thought they did. Most of it wound up in their pockets. Them kind never lose nothin’...but the folks they con. Yeah, they lose those fast enough. Never did catch up to my debts. Hell for that. It’s water under the bridge now.” “Are you still mad, Bill...’cause a that old empty mine?” “Not now. Once I wanted to break things...fight. Almost killed a man over nothin’ at all. Kept havin’ the urge to bang my head against a wall...sit down and howl like a wolf.” Old Bill’s fierce laugh choked up in a fit of coughing. “Did you howl?” “No more talk. I’m tired.” They walked on in silence, passing a tall fir where crows were beginning a spring nest. The angry birds took turns swooping down and squawking at the intruders, circling over Erica’s and Bill’s heads in diving feints of attack. Erica danced around, waving her arms and laughing. “They do that all the time now...same old racket. They’re making a nest. They lay green eggs.” Bill careened doggedly ahead, showing not the least sign of interest in the birds or the girl. In a few more steps he stumbled to the side of the road and half sat half fell on the knoll beyond the ditch. “Hootch went to my head...can’t do it anymore...used to be a little wine was nothin’...woozy...got to rest a spell. All that food and wine...didn’t taste a Uncaged Songbirds 12 Karlene Kubat thing...that goes, too...everything goes.” Erica frowned as Bill muttered to himself and sank back on the damp earth. He stared at her, his faded gray eyes hardly blinking. She was like a freshly opened flower come upon among the rough grasses, a daisy small and innocent, yet soundly abiding. For a moment, Erica thought Bill was going to cry. He reached out a long finger to touch her cheek. “Now I’ve got to close my eyes a little. If you’ve a mind to stay then wake me when the rain comes. No, better go on home. Yeah, git.” He pulled his knees up against his chest, like a very old unearthed skeleton Erica had pored over in one of her grandfather’s magazines. Without another word he lifted a hand to cover his face and dozed off. Erica removed her coat and pulled it carefully around him, stretching forward on her knees. The white, lifeless hand over his face evoked a strange fear in her. She watched him with anxious attention, but then it was like spying. She turned away, shivering a little. The sound of the water burbling in the ditch caught her attention. She pulled off her mittens and stuffed them into her pocket. Stirring up the red silt with a dry weed stalk, she watched fascinated as it coiled into the clear puddles in muddy curls. She set about damming the trickling water with stones from the road shoulder. As she squatted at her task she hummed a low, uneven working tune. After a while she sat up and studied old Bill. He was disturbingly motionless, without even a sign of breathing. Shaking him gently, she pointed to a dark cloud. Bill opened his eyes and stared up in silence. He lay Uncaged Songbirds 13 Karlene Kubat looking deep into the sky, with a dread in his pale eyes so immense it left the girl in cringing awe. Then his eyes fell on Erica’s spread coat covering him and he heaved himself forward, grasping her slight body and rebundling her quickly as he shook his head. Struggling to his feet he teetered a moment, centered himself over the opposed earth, and set off in slouching, falling-forward steps. Erica trotted along at his side, glancing up at his face for any sudden change. “Mama says winter is depressing and spring makes her happy. Are you depressed like that?” “Maybe.” “Winter’s okay with me. I like the way snow comes in the night. It’s so quiet...so surprising in the morning. This winter the snow came before I went to bed. I turned on the porch light and stood on the steps looking up. Oooh, I like to do that. If you stick out your tongue, big cold flakes land on it and melt real fast. They float down right out of the black...little dancing things. If you keep your head back, you feel just like you’re flying up through the sky. You even get dizzy.” Erica gazed out at the distant clouds. The black edge of an eastern storm moved overhead, driven by the wind. On the western horizon pale rays of sun still slanted down in glassy shafts. They shot straight into dark-forested hills, making spots of summery lime. “Oh, look there! I’d like to be there,” she cried, pointing to the far sun-spotted mountains. Old Bill grabbed her arm. “Under those pretty patches is damp cold forest.” “But there’s sun. If I was an eagle I’d fly there.” Uncaged Songbirds 14 Karlene Kubat “Right fast you’ll see the way things are,” Bill said, tightening his grip on her arm. “I don’t want to be like you!” Erica shouted, pulling free. “Hah! Your tongue will be worse trouble than your wild fancying. There’s the crossroads, magpie. You’d better be hightailin’ it home before the rain gets to your tender hide.” Along with his warning came a little shove, but Erica stood firm with a stubborn glance at his grim face. “Where’ll you sleep tonight? Won’t you get wet?” “Don’t give a damn if I’m wet or not. If I don’t stand here jawin’ I’ll make it to Bel Air Farms, where I can sleep in a worker’s cabin. Mind what I say: enjoy it while you can.” “Enjoy what?” Erica asked, walking backwards. “Your eagle trip and your little patch of sun. “Hold on a minute. I just thought... Come back here, girl. Got somethin’ I’ll give you to pass on to your own boy some day.” Bill slid his hand into his hip pocket and drew it out with the fingers clasped around something quite shiny. He stretched his hand toward her and in the trembling palm Erica saw a gleaming circular bauble, about the size of her grandfather’s silver pocket watch. “What is it?” Erica asked, stepping forward, now a little shyly, with her hands crossed behind her back. “A double-case 18-carat-gold Waltham pocket watch. Soft gold, but I took good care of it...hardly any dings. The only gold I ever had. See why it makes a man crazy? Look here. You just wind it every day at the same time. Uncaged Songbirds 15 Karlene Kubat Before you go to bed, maybe. Wind her up ’til she feels a little tight.” Erica took the watch into her small nervous hand. It was heavy and warm and oily smooth. “I don’t think I can keep it.” Her lips tightened in a fine line of doubt, pushing out her plump rosy cheeks. “It’s so heavy. Don’t you need it for the time?” “Nope. Time’s nothin’ to me.” “Mama would make me give it back. I know she would.” “Keep it and don’t tell her for a while. Now let’s have a shake on it, and you get on home.” Erica slipped the watch gently into her pocket and offered her hand. The two hands, one large, bony, and wrinkled, the other quite small and slightly soiled, moved slowly up and down. “Gee thanks, Bill. Come back and eat at our house,” she invited, but his piercing gray eyes quickly made her friendlier eyes dart away. She walked backwards as old Bill continued to stand in the road, looking hard at her. A little further on she stopped and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Read the newspaper when you get one. I bet you find something so funny.” “You read it for me...but don’t lose your spirit,” he called over his shoulder as he turned away at last. Erica walked along, kicking at small, angular rocks that had been thrown up on the road. Some flew into the ditch where veins of water trickled along over the red mud. Large drops of rain began to fall. She pulled the jacket hood over her woolen cap and stuck her mittenless hands into her pockets. In the left pocket she encountered the Uncaged Songbirds 16 Karlene Kubat cool liquid smoothness of the watch. Her heart leapt. Shouldn’t she run and give it back? Bill was far away around a bend in the road now. What would mama say? She didn’t like to keep things from her mother. Daddy might get really mad. The heavy timepiece was wonderful to touch and hold, and it had a nice clear ticking, like a heartbeat. Climbing the steps, she found her mother at the door with an anxious look. Erica quickly evaded her mother’s scrutiny and ran to her room, hanging her jacket on a wall peg, with the watch still inside. That evening after dinner, Erica listened to her family gossiping around the table as they sipped their steaming mugs of coffee. The little boys were asleep in their bunk beds. Her sister, Maddy, went off to her room to immerse herself in her world of cowboy music and daydreams. The two girls had so frequently annoyed each other that they had been given separate rooms in the large upstairs. Erica watched from her pillow on the staircase, where she liked to sit and look down into the dining room through the sliding oak doors of the hallway. The doors were always left open. Under the hanging lamp, her father’s big hands reached into a dark wicker basket filled with gleaming mahogany filberts from her grandfather’s orchard. He cracked a fine-grained shell, extracting the meat with a delicate silver pick. His hands seemed much whiter in the artificial light, and almost like those of a giant, wielding the shiny little nut pick. “I feel sorry for old Bill,” her grandfather said. “He’s lost without his wife...not much work to do now. When that gold stock came to nothing he was finished. He Uncaged Songbirds 17 Karlene Kubat was a scrapper before that little Anna came along. She smoothed out his feathers right quick, and he never took to the bottle like some...like old Prebstly who lost money hand over fist. You know, they came to me, those robbers with their phony stocks. I said, ‘No thanks. I haven’t got it to spare.’ They said I’d be sorry. Hah!” Her grandfather knocked a thick white ash from his cigar and retreated into a quiet, thoughtful mood, his drowsing head propped against his hand. Erica tiptoed back to her room. She was just dropping off to sleep with the events of the day drifting through her head when she came to the watch and sat up. A pang of guilt stirred her heart, for she had already forgotten to wind it. She got up and crossed the room, reaching into her coat pocket. There was the cold metal sliding into her hand. She gently pried open the back of the case, using the metal tip of her hair barrette, and watched the movement clicking away with its tiny teeth, measuring, measuring time. She was deeply engrossed in this fascinating little engine when her mother entered the room. “What’s that you have?” Startled, Erica closed the watch. She stood up quickly and tried to hide it. “Let me see that. What on earth... Erica where did you get this beautiful old pocket watch?” “Old Bill gave it to me.” “Why, Erica, how could you do such a thing? Haven’t I taught you anything? This is a family heirloom.” “What’s an earloom? It was his father’s. He didn’t want it anymore. I tried not to... You gonna tell daddy? I’ll give it back.” Erica started to cry. Uncaged Songbirds 18 Karlene Kubat “An heirloom is a fine old family possession, like a dish or a piece of furniture or a jewel that gets passed along from parents to children over and over again.” “Bill doesn’t have kids.” “That doesn’t matter. I have to tell daddy. Put on your robe and come downstairs.” “I don’t know what got into her,” Erica’s mother was saying as Erica came into the dining room and stood before her father. Erica’s father, a stocky, blue-eyed man with sandy hair and ruddy cheeks, leaned forward in his chair, clamping a large scarred and weathered hand over his knee, “Well, Erica, you can’t keep this fine old timepiece. Maybe you’re not old enough to know how such things work, but now you have to learn.” “Are you going to spank me?” “No. This isn’t the kind of thing that calls for a spanking. You didn’t understand. You’re getting too old for spankings anyway.” Eric caught her father’s wink at her mother and began to feel a small amount of relief. “The thing is, I’m puzzled as to why old Bill would want to part with this. Where did you say he was headed?” “He was just going to the river...going to sleep at Bel Air Farms.” “Wednesday, grandpa is going to the feed store. Now you’ll go with him after school and look for Bill. When you find him, you’ll apologize and hand the watch over.” “I will, daddy,” Erica said, brightening. “Good. Now wind this fine old piece carefully and go to bed.” Uncaged Songbirds 19 Karlene Kubat Erica was quite relieved to be let off so easily, but she began to worry. What if old Bill got mad at her? She didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She felt dread deep in her stomach, the same as expecting to go to the dentist. She would have to go all the way through tomorrow, which was only Monday, and then the next day and part of the next before she could get the dreaded exchange over with. On Tuesday morning Erica sat at the breakfast table, going over sections of the newspaper with her grandfather. “See, girl, here’s a story about a goose that follows a little kind to school.” Her grandfather folded the paper and laid it beside her plate, but as she was going over the words and looking at the picture her grandfather threw up his arms and exclaimed, “Gott in Himmel! It’s poor old Bill. They found his body in the river.” “You mean he drowned?” “Ja, dead...dead!” Erica sat very still, trying to imagine what Bill looked like in the river dead, but she couldn’t get beyond the last wave of his hand as he disappeared around the bend in the road. “Poor Bill. Poor old Bill! He won’t get his watch back now, grandpa. How can I give it back?” Her pale forehead crinkled in frustration and worry. “There was something the matter with him. He wasn’t paying attention. That’s why he fell in the river.” “I don’t think he fell.” “What then, grandpa?” “He must have jumped.” “But it’s so cold and deep...all that water. Old Bill Uncaged Songbirds 20 Karlene Kubat wasn’t crazy.” “Maybe just crazy enough to commit suicide.” “What’s sooside?” “It’s...never mind what it is. He just meant to jump.” “You mean he was thinking about it eating here...and on the road and when he gave me the watch, he was thinking- -” “That’s just it. He was going to the river, only we didn’t know why.” “Then he wanted me to keep the watch...’cause he wasn’t coming back. We’ll never see him again. Oh, Grandpa--” “Don’t think about it, girl.” “But why did he do it?” “Your mama will sure be mad I told you. I was so excited I didn’t think.” All day at school Erica thought about Bill jumping into the river. How could he do it? How? She thought over the things that Bill had told her. At recess she ran far out into the field and stood by a fence that separated the playing field from a thick forest of tall firs. It was the first day of April, April Fool’s Day, when mama always managed to play a trick on everyone before the day ended, something that caught everyone off guard and made them all laugh. The sky was overcast and gray without even a pencil-shaft of sun to light the woods. She heard Bill’s voice: “Your eagle trip and your little patch of sun.” Nearer the schoolhouse, the children were screaming, playing April Fool’s jokes. She did not want to go back, as if first she had to find something lost. She looked up Uncaged Songbirds 21 Karlene Kubat at clouds. Their shapes changed faster than she could make up names for them. That night Erica’s father said, “Well, it looks like you can keep the watch now...unless some relative turns up, but I don’t think old Bill had anyone. He was all alone.” Erica sat still and quiet on the braided rug before the snapping fireplace. A chunk of damp wood hissed at her. When no one was looking she began to bite her fingers. After some quiet reflection, her father told her, “We’ll put the watch away until you’re older.” “But I promised to wind it and never let it stop!” Erica cried out on the verge of tears. Her father knelt and patted Erica’s troubled head. “All right, honey, you can keep it on your dresser, but don’t carry it around.” Erica raised her bent head. The flames dancing on the shining hearth reflected across her somber face. “Daddy, you know what, old Bill said the news was always bad, then he got printed and it was awful.” “All right, enough of this. Off to bed,” Erica’s mother called, frowning and shaking her head at Erica’s father. “Tomorrow is a school day.” The usual approach of late night sleepiness would not surround Erica as she tossed nervously in bed. She had learned two new words. One was wonderful, like a gift at Christmas. The other made her shiver with its strangeness. Deciding to sleep with her lamp on, she stared up at her favorite picture, which had hung over her bed for as long as she could remember. It was a black and white photograph of real monkeys with glossy black and white fur, playing in Uncaged Songbirds 22 Karlene Kubat a dense forest. One monkey had eyes that looked right at her. Sometimes she whispered to him as she fell asleep. From the dresser nearby, she heard the clear ticking of the large gold timepiece. It had a voice that called to her. She threw off the covers and hurried to hold the cool watch against her flushed face. Tenderly, as if it were a small living thing, she rubbed it over her cheek, then wound it slowly, carefully. Settled back in her bed she whispered, “I’ll keep it beating for you, Bill.” She pulled the covers over her head, a little afraid but wishing he could answer. THE END THE UNTAMING OF THE SWAN It was early spring. A man and woman were strolling down a forest path in a place called Laughing Water Park. The man’s left leg was in a metal brace visible from the sides of his shoe below the cuff of his navy corduroy slacks. His stride was made in a practiced rhythm almost graceful to behold, like a dancer initiating an expansive Uncaged Songbirds 23 Karlene Kubat dance, the forward motion carrying him smoothly into the next balanced step. His face held a contented, rather amused smile as he studied both the woman and the tender green shoots and delicate buds which she carefully noted. “More queen’s cup.” The woman pointed at a tulip-leaved plant from which sprang a few thin stems bearing simple white flowers, each with six dewy petals. “Oh, how I love spring...this fresh, fresh air heavy with sweetness...but a sweetness you can tolerate. And look there: a trillium already reduced to soft purple. They start in February.” She fell silent and glanced at the man beside her. He appeared to regard the shaded trillium and the fragile plants pushing up around it with an earnest absorption. His eyes were a clear, liquid brown, docile for the moment and full of pleasure. His face was not that of an invalid but of a man well acquainted with sun and inclement weather, the soft amiable crow’s feet and smile lines equal to the furrowed brow of sorrows. Small fingers of breeze teased at his hair. She noticed how its color matched the silvery-brown scaly bark of the giant spruces growing beside the path. “Are you tired of my chatter? I can’t seem to keep all of this to myself.” A Steller’s jay glided near, interrupting their voices with a raucous cry of “chook-chook-chook” as it bounced up and down on a hemlock branch just above their heads. Its sharp jet eyes glittered from a black-crested hood that dissolved into a twilight-blue back and tail. The restless wings folded just long enough to display their even black Uncaged Songbirds 24 Karlene Kubat bars, then the wild masquerade of innate strategy went on with a fluttering of wings. “Shack-shack-shack-shack,” it chided, dancing on its swaying bough. The man laughed and looked down into the woman’s surprised eyes, which were nearly the same dusky blue as the jay’s breast feathers. “I like it when you point out things that interest you. Then whenever I see them I’ll...” He shrugged and bent to lift a wayward wisp of auburn hair that blew over her eyes. “I’ve taught you the names of flowers, haven’t I? And you’ve taught me how to live in the present moment. I didn’t know how...or never wanted to. It was always tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow...” She spoke with nervous excitement that could suddenly surprisingly erupt out of a guarded quietness. Her head was down, half watching red ants stream across the wood- slatted walkway and swarm around a large dead beetle. Very quickly they attached themselves to the lifeless black casement and tugged in unison. A detail of pallbearers. Her body stiffened and her fingers clenched the hem of the red flannel shirt that blew against her, clinging to her hips. A shiver went through her body, and the man noticed at once. “You’re cold. You need a sweater.” “No. It’s almost balmy. It wasn’t that. Something just...I don’t know.” Her dilated eyes were drawn up into bright triangles of misery and joy. “It’s much more than the names of flowers,” he said, laying the back of his hand across her cheek. Uncaged Songbirds 25 Karlene Kubat She looked quickly away and knelt down to pick up a slender cone, sliding her finger over its pliant scales. “Spruce. Its cones hang down from the branch like those of the Douglas-fir. Neither are true firs. The cones stand upright on true firs.” “You amaze me, Kate.” “I’ve heard that in Russia there’s an expression for VIPs...funny..instead of the big cheese, they say the big pine cone.” He laughed. “God, Kate, you’re a connoisseur of wonderful trifles.” He halted, resting casually on his good leg. Then he hunched forward and gripped her shoulders. “Spring then summer and you’ll go.” “But I’ll come back, Hugh...always...always.” She slipped her hand inside his navy jacket and laid her head against his chest. He stood still and held her, looking up at the clouds sweeping over the treetops. “Shack-shack-shack-shack...chook-chook-chook,” insisted their feathered eavesdropper. “I’m happy,” he spoke into her ear. “Here and now.” They followed a path which led along a swift burbling stream at their left. Its bed was mostly shallow and strewn with rocks, but there were here and there pockets of deep green. The water swirled around large boulders of basalt and splashed over the smaller rocks, varnishing them with a honeyed light. Fast-moving clouds made the sun appear to dart in and out of ragged openings as it shone recurrently over the stream, making changing spangles of gold. Uncaged Songbirds 26 Karlene Kubat Ahead, the ground they were traversing fell away into a steeply descending and narrow canyon. Breaking through the silence of the forest, and swelling in their ears until it filled their minds with a pounding white wall of noise, came the sound of the park’s dazzling centerpiece, a roaring waterfall. Near where the stream became vertical, dropping nearly two hundred feet over a cauldron of water- chiseled rock, the path angled sharply away and ran across the rim of the cauldron. They walked around the edge, stopping where the trail descended, and watching the misty white column tumble in fast-breaking patterns. These ceaselessly reaching fingers of white shot straight down into the deep inner side of the green pool, boiling up and sending out rings of foam that lapped at the fern-lined banks. The steep path they were on eventually wound back behind the waterfall, where there was a large dripping cave containing around its perimeter smaller, dryer alcoves of near total darkness. For a while they stood watching Laughing Water give its noisy, mesmerizing performance. At last he turned away and started to lead her down the path, but she held back. “Hugh...you want to go down there?” “Yes, come on...behind the waterfall. Isn’t it good luck? Or is that rainbows?” “Waterfalls make rainbows...if the light is right. We don’t have to go down. It’s nice here.” “You think I can’t negotiate that?” He had said it with a faint smile, but there was a tension beneath his words. She blushed deeply in surprise, opened her mouth to speak, but then remained silent, pondering how she could Uncaged Songbirds 27 Karlene Kubat answer. They pressed back against the railing to let a heavyset, jolly-faced man in coveralls, and a scarved woman wearing a long coat and rubber boots, carrying a muddy white poodle, puff by them on the upward climb. She had not been thinking of his leg at all. He was strong...so strong. It was only that she liked being up on top...on top of the world. The thought of leaving the sparing sun and descending into the dark rain forest of the canyon disturbed her. But how could she say this? He would not believe her now. Anyway, it was a negative, unpleasant sentiment that tainted her deep happiness. She moved down, letting him keep behind her, listening to his footfalls. The expert way that he handled his body was for her a feat bordering on the heroic, yet she was not so caught up in heady devotion as to be oblivious to his occasional irritation or regret. She thought of his hands touching her, a feeling so new it was startling. She pictured his high ruddy cheeks and the sensitive mouth that curved so greedily after her laughter. She wanted to turn and have him in her vision, but could not for fear of what he might think. Quite involuntarily and with a jolt, she thought of her husband. She was soon in the angle of a switchback and screened by a drooping hemlock. Gripping the wire of the fence in tight fists, she looked down and felt her knees buckling. It came to her that she was the one who could not walk here without stumbling. He had been moving along easily with just the slightest splay in his stride. He stared at her rigid back. Even before the first blush in her cheeks and the slump of her shoulders, he knew that she hadn’t meant Uncaged Songbirds 28 Karlene Kubat anything. Why had he said it? He was not even sensitive about it, sometimes only a little impatient. It was so long ago. Did he merely want a cutting edge for all his joy? Something to measure it by? Something to twist inside until his hands reached out to have her stop it. The consuming sensation of her was what he wanted. He knelt down to tie his shoelace and from there he glimpsed her figure through the sweeping limbs of the lacy hemlock. Her hands were clenched around the wire, her face closed and white. She hung there at the edge of the cliff, like a butterfly impaled on a thorn bush. He found that it was hard, nearly impossible, to run down such a precipitous incline. When he reached the place where she had stood, she was gone. He could see beyond the waterfall. She was not there and not on the trail. Hunching his tall frame, he moved behind the blowing mist of the falls. Nearly crawling through the dim musty alcoves of the cave, he searched, not wanting to call her name but to find her as she was. She was kneeling in near darkness on cold dirt packed hard by curious spelunkers. “I can’t change anything back...don’t even want to anymore,” she agonized with her mouth against his throat. “The names of flowers...if that were all he didn’t want to hear. Not the name of his wife and hardly the names of his children. It’s always been tomorrow, tomorrow, a tomorrow that never comes. I try...no, I don’t, not anymore. I’m kinder now, and he...he uses kindness very cruelly.” “Don’t Kate. Christ, not now, not here, not with us. Don’t hurt yourself like this. You...you still love him?” “No! No!” “Then don’t hurt so.” Uncaged Songbirds 29 Karlene Kubat She pulled away. Her smooth face was broken now, not ever pretty but a depth of beauty far more evocative; he had seen her turn heads with her earthy softness. Part of it was the caring, the compassion for others, her children. With him, her eyes always flashed that refulgent light, filling him with passion and conceit because he had somehow engendered such credulous luminosity. How could her husband not see what she was, the gentle opening of self to love and injury alike? So aware of her that first time, all he had needed was one glance. “I didn’t want to come down here...falling out of heaven. I never meant to say these things. I wanted our times to be peaceful, full of loving--” “Kate,” he said, shaking her a little. “I’m sorry I made you stop...selfish, I’m selfish with you. I’m glad you let it out. Forgive me for up there. This is where we learn things...down in dark caves.” Here, painfully revisiting escaped reality, they still remained very close, unwilling to separate and resume the disguise. They had spoken above the roar of the falls echoing through the cave, and now were silent. His eyes, growing accustomed to the dimness, roved over her warming face. Her heart pounded as she saw his serious mouth curve slightly with a certain smile. She watched him take off his jacket and spread it on the moist dirt, which was nearly dustless and hard as linoleum. “Are you cold?” she asked as her nervous hands reached out to unbutton his shirt and slip inside. She touched her lips to his chest, answering her own question, “No, not cold, so warm, and your heart is like mine.” Uncaged Songbirds 30 Karlene Kubat “Can you hear it above all that?” He jerked his head toward the rushing water, then placed his hands on her waist, lowering her down upon his heavy jacket. *** They were up on top now, brushed and straightened and drifting in a languid, secretive elation. He leaned against the crusted amber bark of a tall fir, watching her as she gazed at the crucial edge where the stream became Laughing Water Falls. Looking down the stream at an angle almost parallel, she had no view of the stone cauldron or the thundering cascade. She could see the battered and bent wire fence which had been stretched across Laughing Waters’ wild head as a safety precaution. There, the stream broke away and plunged into the sky, sending up a swirling rainbow spray. Something, probably a log rushing along in a swollen torrent, had torn a small hole in one side of the fence. Pieces of flotsam occasionally slipped through. The captured object would shoot out, balanced for an instant in space before gravity’s invisible siphon pulled it straight down, bound for the center of the earth. Her steady gaze, a question, left his eyes and moved over the near horizon of clouds tucked above forest. He knew the question precis

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