It’s Spring!

I knew it was Spring several days prior to all the news media telling us to “spring forward” with our clocks.

I knew, because on the evening of Wednesday, March 7, I took my dogs outside for their final potty before bed. The motion detector lights cut through the darkness, allowing me to see if there were maurauding skunks or coons or possums helping themselves to the plentiful supply of seed and peanuts spread out for the birds and squirrels. I could also see the stark, moonlit outline of the tree branches in the dense woods behind my house.

The branches were bare. Black, rough scales held in position by cracks that appeared silver around the edges; similar, I think, to open, human lips covered in that horrible Gothic-inspired make-up. Dead-looking….not yet emerging from the deep imprisonment of winter.

Then, just after sunrise on the morning of Thursday, March 8, I took the furkids outside for their first potty since the arrival of the new, 24-hour cycle. Birds and squirrels were feeding, skittering away when they heard the glass storm door close. I glanced at the trees and couldn’t believe what happened during the night, while I was sleeping.

The trees had changed clothes. Their black mourning suits had disappeared and, in their places, were gowns of that ever-so-special shade of green that marks new growth and new birth. It’s that green that defies description, remaining eternally nameless since there is no word on the human color palette that accurately depicts the hue. How could such a miracle happen overnight? Such a dramatic transformation? Could I have seen it if I’d been awake? Or was it like Santa Claus, leave the gifts and then hurry away before anyone sees him?

Or was it, quite simply, God?

Personally, I prefer the God-thing answer.

Please don’t forget to stop and notice the Spring miracles that will continue unfolding, reminding us there is an eternal cycle that is completely beyond our control; although, sadly, not beyond our power to destroy.

 

In Your Easter Bonnet

In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,

You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade!

I’ll be all in clover when they look you over,

I’ll be the proudest fellow in the Easter parade.

On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us…

I don’t remember photographers but I can definitely tell you I was a grand, grand lady at Easter.

There were very specific elements about our Easter tradition, beginning with the shopping trip. Mama and I would get in the car on a Saturday two weeks prior to Easter. Destination: find my Easter outfit….an entire ensemble for a fashion conscious four year old, with a mop of Shirley Temple-curly hair. A straw hat, usually with a ribbon tied around the crown, holding a nosegay of Spring flowers in place. A tiny, matching, straw purse. A dress….the frillier and the lacier, the better. White gloves, reaching to my wrists. Lace-trimmed socks rising from my vaseline-polished, patent leather shoes. And, for the piece de resistance, a confection-like, pastel-colored “topper,” which was the back-in-the-day name for a soft-as-a-tissue, short jacket. After all, it could still be quite cool and the lightweight piece of cotton candy was just enough to put a shield between me and the early, Spring reading on the thermometer.

Oh, was I ever decked out….not just physically but emotionally as well, since this was long before I knew the variety of hypocricies grown-ups could harbor. At four, and even at the more advanced ages of five and six, I thought everyone not only said nice things but….actually meant them.

Anyway….

I was raised Catholic and, back then, our rural community’s parish existed on very little money. (This was also prior to my learning about loans from the archdiocese for projects such as church-building. Such loans, of course, were followed by those little envelopes everyone tossed onto the collection plate.)

Anyway….

Our church was what they referred to as a “storefront,” but even at four, I puzzled over that designation, since it was the back of the building that served as our church. It was such a cramped space that the priest donned his vestments at the altar. The front was a country grocery store.

Anyway….

We went to church and I absolutely reveled in all the “Oh, isn’t she precious” comments. I accepted the adulation with a beaming smile.

We went inside and entered a pew. I really can’t remember how the church managed to have pews in the back of a grocery store, but we did. On this particular Easter Sunday, the store must have received a large delivery of fresh onions the previous day because the church reeked. Not even that little, gold thing swinging from a chain with incense puffing out of it could conquer the smell.

Anyway….

I always stood on the kneeler that was hooked to the back of the pew in front of the pew my family occupied. I know. That’s a lot of pews and, considering the onion smell, the pun was intended.

The reason I stood was because if I knelt, I was too short to see over the next pew.

Anyway….

So, there I stood in all of my finery; gripping the handle of my beautiful straw purse with both hands and hanging it over the back of the wooden seat in front of me. The Mass began and proceded a bit more quickly than I thought it would, catching me somewhat unaware when it was time to sit. I was just stepping back off the kneeler, bringing my purse with me, when the broad back of the very portly woman in front of me descended into her seat. I could see the writing on the wall as those broad shoulders fell like a soft sack of lead against the back of her pew. She crushed my gorgeous, white, straw purse. I watched in desperate horror as it squashed; part of the little pink and yellow and green nosegay peeping sadly from the confines of that woman’s heaviness. She seemed to neither feel nor hear what was happening behind her.

I threw my gaze toward Mama, who stood there, shaking her head at me in the unmistakeable side-to-side movement of NO.

I didn’t care. I yanked my purse, trying to rescue at least a flower or a straw. The handle tore off. There I stood….holding the handle and staring at it like a dog who catches a lizard only to have the creature’s tail break off….leaving the confused dog to wonder what happened to the rest of the body.

I could not believe the unfolding horror story. I felt Mama’s hand on my shoulder. Again, I didn’t care. I yelled, “Get off my purse,” and shoved the big back with both hands. The lady’s head, topped with her own Easter bonnet, swiveled around….allowing her to stare at me with a gaping mouth.

I was angry….oh, so angry….so angry that I began bawling. Loudly.

That lady had managed to rain (a thunderstorm, actually) on my private Easter parade.

I wasn’t happy. Mama wasn’t happy. The lady wasn’t happy. And there, in the middle of it all, stood my laughing, 14-year-old brother. It was Daddy who took care of him.

I have remembered that Easter for all these years. And you know what?

I still have that bonnet.

 

 

 

A Rocky Rescue

The Lord was simply part and parcel of Mama’s daily breathing. She invoked His assistance for any task that proved difficult – from the ones that seemed easy but eluded her, right up the ladder to the more complicated ones. I can remember being no more than seven or eight years old and watching her as she pitted all the strength of her 5’ tall body into popping the lid from a jar of canned green beans. It wouldn’t budge.

            Mom stopped and sighed.     

            Holding the cantankerous jar in her left hand, she raised her eyes heavenward and said “Lord, I’d like to feed these beans to my family for dinner, but I need your help in getting this lid off. Thank you, Lord.”

            Her tone was reverential and totally respectful and the little prayer was delivered in an attitude of one friend talking to another. Matter of fact. Affectionate. But, most importantly, confident of receiving an answer.

            Mom lowered her eyes and put her right hand on the lid that, just a few seconds earlier, refused to move so much as one millimeter. She gave a twist and off it came, so easy it appeared oiled.

            Even as a youngster, I can remember being impressed by Mom’s faith. I believed in her and I believed in God but, for whatever reasons, I just couldn’t muster up that closeness she enjoyed. There were times I wondered how in the world she could talk so much to someone she’d never seen. I asked her about it once and she told me she had seen Him. Of course, she went on to explain she saw him in the flowers and trees and stars and a host of His other creations. That was fine but it wasn’t what I had in mind.

            Regardless of the closeness I did or did not feel with the Lord, I did grow up knowing there was Someone and He was somewhere out there.

            Mom didn’t read the Bible a lot but she did manage to find various passages relating to horses. You see, I was a horse nut and I had my very own big, black, wonderful Tennessee Walker. His name was Bob’s Merry Legs and he was far more than just a horse. He was a friend. He listened to all the things that welled up inside my secret heart. His broad, white blaze caught my tears. His finely etched ears switched back and forth as he strained to catch every syllable I said to him. Mom knew if there was any way to reach me with God, it was through horses.

            She read to me passages from Job, with the Lord speaking of the horse’s might and majesty. She told me how Jesus would come back one day and He’d be riding on a big, white horse with all His saints riding horseback behind him. I could envision the scene. It made my heart beat faster and my pulse race with excitement. I took it a step further and mentally seated angels on horses, their robes flowing downward over the strong withers and backward across the muscled rumps. Then, when I went outside with Bob, I pictured him in heaven and thought even Jesus might be proud to ride him.

            Every school morning I got out of bed, dressed, ate breakfast and went outside to visit with Bob before catching the yellow school bus that I rode for a total of three hours each day. One morning I went through my routine and then headed for the barn, snatching some sugar cubes as I passed the kitchen counter. I went out the back door whistling and calling for my friend. His routine was as predictable as mine. He would hear my whistle and call, look out the barn door and then come romping into the paddock to whinny and hang his head over the fence. This particular morning, however, there was something wrong. There was no Bob. It was enough of a deviation that I panicked immediately.

            “Bob?” I called again. I opened the gate in the paddock and went into the barn. He wasn’t there. I went back to the paddock and, from the angle of the barn doorway, I spotted the problem. There was a section of fence down and Bob had obviously wandered off. I was frightened.

            I ran back to the house and told Mom I wouldn’t be going to school, a rather presumptuous announcement for a 10-year-old fifth grader.

            “What are you talking about?” she asked.

            “Bob’s missing.”

            She didn’t repeat what I’d said. Mom was like that. In a crisis she always had an immediate grasp of the situation.

            “I’ll go get Daddy,” she responded. We always, always turned to Daddy in any crisis. “You wait here,” she instructed.

            I could hardly stand still. My best friend was out there somewhere. I knew it would take Mom only a few minutes to drive to the field where Daddy was working in the cotton. That’s where I was raised. A cotton farm that was crisscrossed with dozens of dirt roads. Bob and I knew all of them.

            It seemed like forever, but it couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes when Daddy pulled into the backyard in his truck with Mom behind in her car.

            Mom got out. Daddy didn’t. He yelled for me to get in the truck. I ran and he started driving.

            We covered those dirt roads but there was no Bob. He was trying to not show it, but I knew Daddy was getting worried. Suddenly, from nowhere, he said “I’m going across the main dirt road to Mr. Rogers’ place.” There was something about the way he said it that made my skin prickle. I can still remember it.

            We crossed the main road and headed toward a huge gravel pit. Daddy stopped a safe distance from the rim and we got out. We looked down and there, appearing very small, was Bob. I immediately started crying as if my heart had broken.

            Today, because there’s a lake where the gravel pit was, I know it was more than 100-feet down and nearly an acre across.

            I wiped my eyes, hiccupped three or four times, edged closer to the rim and looked down. I could see his right rear foot was cocked off the ground, a sure sign that it was injured. There was no use asking or even wondering how or why he’d gotten into the pit. The only concern was getting him out.

            We lived in a tiny, rural community. There were no such things as rescue helicopters or hook-and-ladder fire trucks or anything else bordering on the sophisticated. Daddy began walking around the lip and I followed. He came to a spot that had a more gradual slope than anywhere else. There was a sort of trail leading to the bottom. Bob, who wasn’t wearing shoes, had left hoof prints in the dirt that was still semi-soft from a rain three days prior.

            Daddy and I looked at one another.

            “I have to go down and get him,” I said.

            “No way,” Daddy responded. “You’ll get hurt, your mother will kill me and I have no idea what else will happen. But I do know you’re not going down there.”

            I wiped away the last of the tears and looked him in the eye. “Then how will we get him?”

            “I’ll go,” Daddy answered.

            “He won’t follow you and you know it,” I said. “I’ll be fine. I can scoot down and, coming up, I’ll have Bob to hold on to. He won’t let me fall.” Suddenly, I knew I was speaking the truth. He was my best friend and that meant I was the one to rescue him; and I was his best friend which meant he’d do all he could to keep me from harm.

            I knew it was a struggle for Daddy, and I know that even more today now that I’m older. I was the youngest of three children, and enjoyed certain privileges that go with being “the baby.” Daddy was torn.

            “There’s no choice, Daddy.”

            He knew I was right.

            “We don’t have a lead rope,” he said.

            “We don’t need one. He’s wearing a halter. Besides, I know he’ll follow me without a rope or a halter.”

            Daddy knelt down and double tied my tennis shoes, shortening up on the laces and tightening the knot. He got up and stood back. I knew that was his way of giving permission. I sat down at the top of the trail and started scooting, kicking rocks as I went.

            I don’t know how long it took to reach the bottom. I was a kid and time wasn’t all that important to me. I just remember it seemed to take hours to reach the bottom, shredding my jeans in the process.

            When I was three-quarter of the way down, Bob hobbled in my direction and started whinnying. I thought of Mama. I knew what she would do.

            “Lord,” I breathed, “I know I have no business doing this but my friend needs help. I know you like horses or you wouldn’t have them in Your Bible. I don’t know if I can do this, Lord, so I’d sure appreciate it if you’d give me a hand. Thank you.” I didn’t know it then, but I must surely have sounded just like Mama.

            I reached the bottom and turned around to wave at Daddy. I immediately wished I hadn’t done it because it made me think of the climb needed to get us out of the pit. I reached up and patted Bob on the neck.

            “You silly, silly horse,” I crooned. “Why’d you ever get out and why in the world did you come here?” He looked at me as if to apologize for causing so much trouble.

            “Okay,” I said, “I know your foot hurts but you don’t have a choice – just like I didn’t have one. I’ll help you but you have to help me, too.” I took hold of his halter with one hand and put my other hand on the side of his neck to help steady me.

I suddenly stopped in mid-motion.

            “Lord,” I said matter-of-factly, “we’re going to need all the help You can give us. I’m just a kid and I’m scared. I know Bob’s scared, too. Just please don’t let us fall, Lord. Just let me and my friend get to the top. Thank you, Lord.” I was about to start forward when I stopped again. “Lord,” I said, “if you were thinking about sending any angels down here today, it would sure be good if you could send some to go all ‘round us. Maybe they could let us just sort of lean on them. Thanks again.”

            This time we started up, each step placed slowly and carefully, Bob maneuvering his big bulk along the narrow trail with small rocks scattering from under his feet. I plastered myself as close to him as possible. Every time I extended one foot forward, I can remember saying “Please, Lord, don’t let us fall.” I don’t know how many times I repeated those words, slipping and going to my knees in what seemed like dozens of times. Bob stopped with each slip. I stopped any time he seemed to favor his hurt foot.

            We made it to the top. Two best friends holding on to one another. I learned that day what it meant to take risks for a friend and, just as importantly, I learned what kind of relationship I could have with Someone I’d never seen.

Mama was right….as usual. And today, when I can’t wrestle the lid from a jar, I simply stop and say “Lord, I need some help to do this.”

It never fails, the lid slips off….so easy it appears to be oiled.

The Beaver

 

A brown western hat snugged the man’s head, crowding his ears downward. His blue and black checked flannel shirt, draped loosely over his slightly stooped shoulders, fought off the early morning Wyoming chill. Faded, well-worn jeans contrasted sharply with a big, silver belt buckle—a relic from his younger days when he competed with the best of cowboys on the bare backs of bucking broncs. And, finally, reflected rays of sunshine shot skyward from a pearl-handled Colt .44 revolver. Hanging from a gun belt strapped to his leg, the Colt was handed down to him by his granddaddy. The man never left his house without the gun, especially this time of year when the Diamondback rattlers were slithering out of their dens to enjoy the early Wyoming sunshine. It was the 20th century, but the man appeared to be a remnant of the old west.

            The man’s name was Clark. Sloshing through the creek in rubber waders, he slowly and deliberately closed the distance between himself and the beaver dam in front of him.

………………..

            Droplets of clear water spotter the beaver’s slick, taupe-colored coat, glistening and sparkling in the morning sun like so many crystal pendants dangling from an invisible chandelier.

            The beaver sat still, patiently waiting, dark, button-like eyes darting across his immediate horizon. His two front teeth resembled shining white candidates for a vintage Ipana toothpaste commercial. Those two strong choppers were enjoying a brief rest from their seemingly constant chewing, chomping and carving. It’s not a craving for industry and productivity that causes beavers to fill their days with felling trees and building dams. Instead, they must spend a large portion of their lives cutting and chopping to keep their teeth worn down and, thus, prevent them from elongating and stabbing painfully into their lower jaw.

            The beaver’s chubby body stiffened in anticipation. “Aha,” he thought in beaver language, “I knew he’d be here.” Cocking his head to the right and raising his tiny paws to his mouth, he fixed his button-eyed stare on Clark wading through the creek.

            The beaver skittered his glance upward to the snow-crested peaks of the Grand Teton mountains surrounding this place called the Hoeback Junction at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The mountains were a calendar for the beaver. He reckoned time by how far the mantle of undisturbed snow extended down the mountains’ pitted faces. This was the first time this year Clark and the beaver had met. This had been the pattern for the last nine years, ever since the beaver was a youngster crowding close to the soft fur of his mama and she demonstrated for him the fine art of dam-building. That was the first time he saw the man. That was also the first time he’d heard him, bellowing and cussing about “damn beavers” ruining his pastureland with their “damned chewing.”

            The beaver didn’t understand the words but his senses told him there was a struggle here. He glanced at his mama but she seemed to ignore the man as she continued gnawing through the trunk of a slim, silver aspen. He remembered how the tree cracked and snapped, falling with a splashing plop into the shallow creek directly in front of the man. The cold water flew upward and backward, drenching him in instant shivers. To this day, the beaver couldn’t be sure but, when he looked at his mama, he could have sworn he’d seen the flicker of a smile on her mouth. That was nearly 10 springs ago. Since then, the beaver had managed to give the man a couple of dousings of his own. He always remembered his now-dead mama’s smile when he did it.

………………..

            Clark stopped and surveyed the destruction around him. The crystal clear creek was one of several dotting his 2,000-acre ranch. It watered cattle and elk and moose, and even provided drinking water for himself andhis family when their well ran low. Every year, after the beaver left, he waded in and cleaned out the fallen timber, freeing the water and allowing it to again run its natural course. It needed a month before regaining its crystal clarity, draining itself of the muck and crud that accumulated above and below the surface as a result of resting stagnant in its beaver dam prison.

            The man put his hands on his slim hips and tipped his brown hat back from his forehead. He didn’t look at the beaver. He knew he was sitting on a log not more than 25-yards from him, but he’d be hanged if he’d acknowledge him. Instead, the man directed his gaze and his thoughts toward the mountains.

            Clark looked across the creek at the water eddying smack against the steps leading to the front door of his oldest son’s cabin. His four-year-old grandson was sitting in the open doorway, pulling on the rubber boots his mom handed him.

            “Mornin’, Pop,” called his daughter-in-law. “We found the water when we woke up. The beaver’s back and he must have worked all night.”

            “I swear, this’ll be the summer,” Clark growled. “He won’t live past June.” He hitched at his waders irritably, still refusing to glance toward the beaver.

            The beaver continued staring at the man, thinking his own beaver thoughts. “He’s aged,” he mused to himself, using padded paws to pat down his rich fur which was now drying and becoming very uncomfortable in the upward angling Wyoming sun. He thought he could feel it pulling and pinching from the inside to the outside.

            Clark did look older. Even his two boys could see it. He was 68 this summer and it had been a hard life. His grandfolks on his daddy’s side were the first white family to settle in the Hoeback. Until then, the only people had been the Indians who named those two towering mountain peaks the Grand Tetons. It’s no wonder Clark felt a God-given right to the land.

………………..

            The beaver was about to return to his work when he noticed the man opening his mouth to talk. He couldn’t understand the words, but the years had taught him to read much of the man’s body language. He thought the man looked worried as he leaned over and allowed his daughter-in-law to speak into his ear.

            The man finally glanced over at the beaver. “You flinty-eyed little devil,” he hissed. “I just found out I got me another grandbaby on the way. You keep pushing that water up to this house and I’ll be forced to use this on you.” The man patted the pistol while he held the beaver’s stare. “You hear me, you furry rat? You cause any problems and your hide will be on the inside of my coat this winter. You hear me?”

            The beaver was the first to break the deadlock of their eyes. He blinked at the man….just once….one blink. The man felt his head jerk back just a fraction. “Dang,” he said to himself. He knew the beaver had just answered him. He watched as the beaver slid off the log, made a couple of deep dives to wet his fur thoroughly, and then cut through the water in a gliding motion to begin work on yet another tree.

………………..

            Spring turned into summer and the piles of felled trees grew higher. The man swore the beaver never slept. The young couple in the creekside cabin insisted they could hear his big, front teeth gnashing late into the night, followed by the plot of aspen falling into the stagnant water at rhythmic intervals.

            July gave way to Labor Day. By mid-September, the Wyoming air developed its first crisp edge. The mornings were chilled, and the nights were dropping to two-blanket lows. Clark was eating supper one evening with his sons and daughters-in-law, all seated around the big table in the main house. It was near the end of September.

            His younger son laid down his fork and looked at this father. “Pop,” he said, “it seems to me that beaver is worse this year than he’s ever been. The water must be 10 inches up the side of our house. It’s bothering me. Didn’t you say something about killing him?”

            Clark directed his full attention to his coffee mug, never looking away from the dark brew, blowing across the top of it in tiny ripples. “Soon, son,” he said. “I’ll take care of the beaver. Probably some time this week.”

            The man glanced out the front window. There was just enough remaining twilight to get a good look at the Tetons. He mentally calculated the length of the snow mantle draped down the mountain. “Soon,” he said. “Real soon.”

            Clark went to the creek the next morning. He waded into the water and sat down on one of the chewed logs. He could hear the beaver on the other side of the dam, chomping and carving. He waited. In less than three minutes, he felt rather than saw the button-eyed stare. He turned his head. The two pairs of eyes—one as black as flint pebbles and the other as blue as the Wyoming sky—locked on one another. Neither man nor beaver moved. Then, as if by unspoken agreement, both turned to look at the blanket of snow drifting down the big bosom of the Tetons. “Soon,” said Clark to the beaver. “Soon.”

            The beaver blinked….just once. They both understood. Each knew just how far to push the other in this battle of wills they waged against one another each year. They understood and abided by their unspoken rules of war which were based on total respect.

            Clark returned to the creek the following morning. He looked around. He waited a few minutes, his mind sliding into the unfamiliar silence. Then, slowly, he began dismantling the now vacant dam…. just as he’d done for the past several years…. just as he’d done when the beaver used to come with his mama…. just as he figured he’d do next year and the year after that. And he’d need to instruct his kids and grandkids to do it after he was gone.

            A man needed his pride but, then, so did a beaver. He’d have a new grandbaby next spring. One of the first things he’d do would be to show her the beaver. Then, just as he was straightening his back and lifting a limb from the colt water, he heard a “plop.” There was no need to turn around. He knew it was the beaver, getting in the last word before his final good-by. Clark didn’t turn around. He didn’t want the beaver to see him smile.

Christmas Smoke

 

Don’t forget to show hospitality

to strangers, for some who have

done this have entertained angels

without realizing it! (Heb. 13:2)

There! I heard it again. It was so tiny and so soft that I couldn’t be certain I’d heard it at all. I crossed one foot over the other so I could turn my body on the ladder, facing away from the nearly 10-foot tall, prickly Christmas tree that was being festooned with every imaginable decoration. I glanced down from my viewing vantage point, shaking my head and thinking the living room was a perfect tableau for a Norman Rockwell painting.

There were cardboard boxes of every size, with brightly colored satin ribbons flowing from the corners. Some of the boxes bore the obvious scars of age and all of them were open with various “stuff” spilling out. Two of the six cats, were wrapped in multiple strands of lights like fish caught in a net. I felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to plug in the tiny twinklers. I’d never seen lighted, decorated cats and this could be my only chance. I refrained.

I saw one broken ornament, and a guilty-looking Cocker Spaniel sitting next to it. I was certain her repentance wouldn’t be long-lasting, however, since she was already eyeing the black and white fox hound, and his mountain of tinsel. I could see I’d face trips to the vet if I didn’t quickly pick up and clean up some of the irresistible, shiny playthings.

I looked back at the tree. It was huge, the biggest I’d ever had; and the odd conglomeration of decorations seemed somewhat symbolic. Chaotic. Turbulent. Close to rudderless.

There! The sound. I had no idea what it was. I knew it wasn’t a bark, but neither did it sound like a cat. That was scary. What was it if it was neither dog nor cat?

Being respectful of my intrinsic fear of ladders, I carefully picked my way down step-by-careful-step. Safely on the floor, I walked to the hall closet and pulled out a heavy coat, hat and gloves. Texas weather is usually quite temperate, but we were experiencing one of our rare cold spells….as in really, really cold. Add a 30 degree temperature to 40 mile-per-hour winds and you discover the definition of not just cold but miserably cold. I tried to rationalize the situation by saying, “Well, after all, Christmas is only five days away so it should be cold.”

The bundling process completed, I turned on the front lights and went out the door with head lowered to combat the brutal wind. I stood still, trying desperately to hear over the groaning and whistling gusts. Nothing. “I can’t stand here very long,” I muttered to myself. On the heels of those words came my next thought which went something like, “But I know any creature that might be out here is definitely in trouble.”

I wrestled a flashlight from my narrow pocket and directed its beam behind the row of low-growing cedars that hemmed the front side of the house. I leaned over to push some of them back, trying to ignore the itchy pricks they inflicted on my wrists where the coat sleeves parted company with the tops of my gloves. I stooped forward and there they were! Two huge, glowing, yellow-green eyes centered in what appeared to be an overly large head. And there was the sound again….the weakest, most pitiful imitation of a meow I’d ever heard. I never stopped to wonder if the cat might be unfriendly. I just said a soft “Kitty, kitty” and reached down for him. I knew extricating him from the cedars would be tricky, so I moved slowly.

I couldn’t believe what I felt when my right hand closed around the cat. He was, literally, skin and bones. I could actually place my fingers on his side and pinch around each, individual rib. I slid my left hand underneath him as I raised him higher and, again, I was shocked when I felt the opening of his rib cage. He was finally out of the cedars and in full view.

I looked at the cat under the orange/yellow bath of the porch light and, suddenly, all the Christmas tree ornaments just one room away lost their glitter. “Oh, God,” I said softly, “how could this happen?” My reaction was always the same when I faced situations such as this one. I felt suffocated by pain and, on top of that pain, was a consuming anger at our throw-away society. We throw away razors and contact lenses and TV dinners heated in instant microwaves. We throw away just about everything, including relationships. Why not animals? Just toss them out when we’re tired of them or when they change from cuddly babies to somewhat less cute adults. Sure. That’ll work.

The cat’s hipbones strained against his skin, looking as if they were trying ever-so-hard to escape their thin prison walls. I couldn’t stroke him down his back because my fingers hung on the knobs of his spine. And the head that I thought was overly large? It wasn’t. It just had that appearance because the rest of his body was so emaciated. His feet, too, appeared large….like big pads glued to the bottoms of boney sticks.

His fur was gray….a smokey gray….the color of fireplace smoke drifting skyward on crisp October afternoons. It felt dull beneath my fingers. Some people may not realize it, but “dull” is a feeling as well as an appearance.

I cradled the cat in my arms, afraid I’d snap one of his nearly exposed bones if I placed the least bit of pressure on them. He didn’t struggle. He probably didn’t have the strength to engage in a great deal of movement. I wondered how he’d managed to wedge himself behind the cedars. Then, as I tried to stroke him, I saw him push against the warmth of my coat. For what must have been the millionth time in my years of loving animals, I felt my heart crack as I looked at the pitiful creature.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get you inside where it’s warm.” The big yellow-green eyes blinked at me. “We’ll need to put you in your own room,” I continued. “I have no idea whether or not you might have anything contagious, even though everyone in the house is vaccinated against all imaginable germs and bacteria. Besides, you’re in no condition to meet anyone right now. Even a gentle swat would send you tumbling.” He seemed to pay attention to my running, one-sided conversation.

Dogs and cats alike rushed at me as I opened the front door and walked in, acting as if my absence spanned weeks rather than minutes. The gray cat never stirred. Some special feline sense seemed to tell him he was okay as long as he had me in his corner.

“Okay, guys,” I said to everyone. “Let me through. It seems we received an early Christmas present.” Dogs jumped. Cats rubbed. There are times when I know exactly how Moses felt when he parted the Red Sea. “Let me through,” I repeated. Noses lifted upward, straining for a whiff of the newcomer. Had they been able to verbalize, I’m quite certain I would have heard, “Let us see. Let us see.”

I took the thin, scruffy cat into the guest bedroom, and promptly plunked him in the middle of the bed. He looked at me and blinked, appearing totally at home on the yellow comforter with its mauve roses. “Look,” I said, “everyone needs a name so, at least for now, yours will be Smokey.” He filed no protest so I assumed he was comfortable with it.

Okay. The next step was food. Not too much and not too rich. All my cats stayed fat on dry food, but the canned variety might be better for Smokey’s condition. Leaving him in the bedroom, I foraged in the kitchen cupboards and came up with Ocean Whitefish. I put not more than two, level tablespoons in a bowl. Taking two more small bowls from the cabinet, I put milk in one and water in the other. I returned to the bedroom, finding Smokey curled into a tight ball and sleeping between two pillows. I decided to arrange a litter box for him before awakening him to eat.

Everything was ready. His three bowls were on a metal tray which I put on the bed. The cat was just too weak to jump up and down. I brought him out of his warm slumber by stroking the head that looked too large for his shrunken body. Blink! The yellow-green eyes burst open.

“Come on, Smokey, guy,” I crooned. “How ’bout some dinner?” I picked him up and took him to the food. He smelled, turned his head and covered me in a yellow-green stare. “Go ahead,” I encouraged. “It’s yours.” He lapped at the milk three or four times, sniffed the food and took the smallest possible bite. “Go on, Smoke,” I encouraged again. “You need to eat. Not a lot, but more than that.” He looked at me as if he understood. He took another small bite, but he was doing it more for me than for himself. He returned to the spot between the pillows, wobbling from weakness and the soft mattress. He looked at me before he returned to his warm nest.

“It’s okay, Smokey,” I said. “Maybe you need rest as much as you do food; but you really must eat.” The gray cat had been sinking to the bed but, when I told him he really must eat, he stopped his downward motion and looked at me. I rushed to him, putting my hand on him and pushing him gently to the mattress.

“It’s fine, Smoke. There’s no need to get up right now,” I told him.

There was something very strange about this cat. He seemed to have this all consuming desire to please me, and I was nothing more than a total stranger who happened to pull him out of the cedars. He kept looking at me and I kept looking at him. I had a feeling we were connected by some invisible thread, and another feeling that said he understood everything that was happening to both of us. It was highly peculiar but, at the same time, I felt suffused with a consuming warmth and well-being. I could almost feel him absorbing everything negative. I closed the door gently, leaving him to his rest while I returned to the Christmas tree. Somehow, the scene I’d left less than 45-minutes earlier had changed. It was quieter….more serene. I felt like an idiot saying it, but the entire atmosphere of the house seemed altered. I certainly didn’t intend to say I thought it was because of Smokey’s presence.

I took Smokey to the vet the following day. The diagnosis was straightforward and basic. He was emaciated. On a scale of one to 10, his overall system was functioning somewhere between a two and a three. He was probably wormy so they administered a very gentle wormer since they were afraid he was too weak to sustain even a normal dosage. He didn’t appear to have anything contagious. Would he live? They weren’t willing to offer a prognosis.

As I spoke with the vet, I couldn’t help but notice one of the techs from the corner of my eye. She stood next to the examining table, bending over slightly, stroking Smokey. The gray cat rested his head on her right hand while she used her left hand to caress repeatedly from his neck to his flank. Her movements seemed almost hypnotic.

“Lisa,” I said. She didn’t respond. I raised my voice. “Lisa.” She turned and looked at me, but her hand continued its ministering kindness. “This is the most wonderful cat,” she said. “There’s something so special about him.”

I looked at her and then at Smokey. “Yes, I know,” I answered.

I wrapped Smokey in his towel, holding him tenderly as I would a baby, and placed him on the passenger seat of my car. I talked with him on the short drive home.

“Well, Smoke, at least we know there’s nothing contagious. The Christmas tree is all finished and, even if I do say so myself, it’s probably one of the most beautiful ones we’ve ever done. If you’ll eat just a little bit for me today and tomorrow, you can come out and admire the tree with the rest of us. We’ll leave the door to your room open when we get home and see how that goes. Okay?”

I reached over to stroke the gray cat. He purred and rubbed his head against my hand. Funny thing. He was still as emaciated as ever but, for some reason, his head no longer seemed out of proportion to his body. His bones still strained against his skin. I could still imprison his ribs between two fingers. But, somehow, I was no longer aware of all those things. All I saw was….well….beauty. That must be what Lisa witnessed when she stood there stroking him at the clinic.

I unwrapped Smokey and put him on his yellow comforter, leaving the door open and sitting in a rocker near his bed. The Cocker Spaniel was the first to venture in. She sniffed the gray cat. He purred and rubbed his head against her neck. The other two dogs trooped in. Sniff. Purr. Rub. It became a ritual. The six cats came in, usually in twos or threes. They hopped on the bed and approached the gray stranger. No hisses. No swatting. Just quiet. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.

The days until Christmas passed with Smokey becoming no better and no worse. Somehow, in my heart, I knew he wouldn’t live; and I couldn’t help wondering why I was so instantaneously in love with this gray cat.

It was finally Christmas Eve, a day we usually approach with fever pitch excitement since the mountains of presents are opened Christmas Eve night. This year, though, it was different. It was quiet. Peaceful. More reverent. The way everything had been since Smokey came from the cedars. The lights were plugged in on the tree, hundreds of dainty, tiny, white flickerings among the branches of the towering spruce. It seemed to dance with fireflies. Satin bows graced the boughs and a lace-clad angel perched on top. Underneath was the stable with the Christ Child’s manger.

Everyone was there, watching the tree as if it might disappear at any moment. Yet, there was a magic something in the air. I glanced down and there, curled up next to the stable, was Smokey. He’d come from the bedroom on his own. All I saw was his beauty, and I felt so blessed to have him.

Somehow, as soon as I opened my eyes Christmas morning, I knew what waited for me. I walked into the living room and there, still curled next to the stable, was Smokey. I’d left him there the night before because I felt that’s where he wanted to be. He’d died during the night. I cried as I stroked him but, at the same time, I knew he’d been a special gift; and I also knew it might be years before I knew his true meaning….if ever. For the first few moments, I felt the crack that had come to my heart when I first met him begin to widen. Then, just as quickly, it was stopped by the mortar of his magic and mystery.

It was three, maybe four, years later when I stood in the checkout line at the grocery store. I glanced at the rack where all the little pocket books are displayed and saw one on cats. I picked it up and laid it on the counter. Later that night, I read a piece titled “The Gospel Of The Holy Twelve” by Gideon Ousley. In 17 lines, it revealed the story of the birth of Jesus. The last three lines told of an ox, a horse, an ass and a sheep, who were in the cave with Mary, Joseph and the Child. And, it said, beneath the manager was a cat.

Ah, Smokey. Who were you?

Now, I make a fire every year on the first, crisp, October afternoon. Then I go outside and watch as the gray smoke floats heavenward, looking for all the world like a gently curling cat’s tail – a gray cat’s tail . My heart grows full, tears gather in my eyes but I smile through them. And I think….

Ah, Smokey. Thank you. Thank you for purring peaceful meaning into Christmas.

Justine

 

I was incredulous when I looked up the word “sweet” in the dictionary and saw that it was not defined as Justine. Someone had obviously made a horrible mistake.

Who….what….was Justine? She was the sweetest, most gentle mini-lop rabbit in the entire “bun” kingdom. Her ears rested in soft folds on the floor. Her color was classified as “broken torte,” which was no more than a fancy way of saying she was splotches of black, brown and reddish hues on a white background. And, of course, she carried the signature mini-lop butterfly pattern just over her twitching nose.broken torte mini lop

I didn’t intend to have Justine. I’d recently lost Jellybean, a black standard lop, following spaying surgery. I was going through all the turmoil accompanying an animal’s death, including horrible guilt pangs. I’d mentally reviewed countless times all the things I thought I could’ve or should’ve done to prevent the tragedy. I’d been an animal person my entire life but my experience with Jellybean left me convinced I had no business with rabbits. Then, less than two weeks after the burial, my husband John called me from his office.

“I was looking in the classifieds and I saw this guy with rabbits,” he said, without the benefit of even a brief preamble. I waited.

“I thought you might want to go out there and take a look.”

“Why?” I asked rather curtly. “I don’t need another rabbit. All I do is kill them.”

He sighed in exasperation. He’d already been down this trail with me. “You did not kill Jellybean. Besides, I didn’t say anything about getting one. You enjoy them so I thought it might be fun to just look.”

“I’m not in the mood for fun,” I retorted.

“Fine,” he responded, “but what about my mom and Aunt Elsie?”

His mother and aunt had flown from Florida to spend Christmas with us in Texas, but I couldn’t make the connection between the two elderly ladies and rabbits.

“What about them?” I asked.

“They might enjoy riding out there and looking.”

“Oh, fine. Let’s go,” I said in an irritated tone. “I’ll have everybody ready when you get home from work.”

We hung up.

An hour later John arrived, leaving the car’s engine running while he walked into the house.

“Everybody ready?” he called.

The three of us appeared as if by magic, holding our purses in front of us and looking for all the world as if we were ready to file off to church.

“Why don’t you bring along a pet carrier?” John asked. “You know. Just in case.”

I was tired of arguing, and I certainly didn’t want to do it in front of his mom and aunt. I trotted off to the garage and grabbed one of the several cardboard carriers stacked in the corner. I always made certain I had plenty of them put together in case an emergency arose and I needed to transport animals in a hurry. The one I yanked from the heap happened to be padded with a thick towel.

We started our journey, which ultimately took us across the entire Dallas metroplex, plopping us down on the outskirts of a satellite city. There, behind a small frame house, was a wooden complex of rabbit “condominimums”. I was afraid the conditions were squalid but they weren’t. There was only one bun to a cage. Everyone was clean, with plenty of fresh water and food, and there was at least one plaything per house. For some, it was a tin can with rattling pebbles. For others, it was a plastic ring with semi-noisey dangles. Still others used their twitching noses to roll plastic soft drink bottles around the wire cages. The gentleman who was showing us around explained that his rabbits were bred primarily for the show ring.

This was the first time I’d been exposed to an honest-to-goodness rabbit breeder, and I didn’t know if he should be classified as a good guy or a bad guy. I had a difficult time making a decision since he wore neither a white hat nor a black hat.

I stood quietly and watched the bunnies. “Do they enjoy rolling those bottles?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “You’ll have to ask them.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Was he being smart or making an attempt at amusing me?

I didn’t say anything else. I could stand in one spot and have a good view of the four, short rows of houses. My eyes wandered back and forth but they returned, without fail, to the mini-lop with the broken torte coloring. I finally walked across the dirt to her cage. The man followed me.

“That’s Hubbard’s Justine,” he said. I was impressed that he knew the tiny bun’s name. “She’s a little more than a year old and has won two legs.” Well, I had no idea what he meant by winning “legs.” Was it the same as in horse racing? I didn’t ask. “May I hold her?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, opening the door of her cage and stepping back for me to lift her out.

Warning bells went off in my head. Mistake! Mistake! Shouldn’t have done it! Put her back before it’s too late. But it already was too late.

Justine was immediate sweetness. Everything about her was soft and gentle. It almost felt as if she were melting in my hands, like a small pile of cotton candy that had been left in the sun. I cradled her under my chin. People would certify me as crazy if I told them what was happening but I felt, unmistakably, the hard knot that had lodged in my chest the preceding year begin its own melting process. I felt cracks beginning to lay down spider veins that circled the hurt of my father’s death. More delicate fissures lassoed around career setbacks. And others embroidered themselves into a lace-like quilt thrown over a variety of disappointments and hurts. Eventually, everything would break into chunks and slide away as if it never existed.

I turned to the man.

“$25,” he said. I guess he had no trouble recognizing a sucker. Since it WAS John’s idea to make this trip, I felt it was only right that he should pay. He handed the man three $10 bills. The man turned and disappeared inside the small house. He returned with $5 and Justine’s papers.

“I have a list of shows where you can get her third leg,” he said.

“No, that’s okay; but thanks.”

“It’ll be better to have that third leg if you’re going to breed her,” he insisted.

“I don’t intend to show her or to breed her,” I answered.

He looked at me. “Then what do you plan to do with her?” he asked.

“Oh, I thought I’d just love her.”

And that’s exactly what I did….in sickness and in health.

It becomes repetitive, but the absolute best word for describing Justine is sweet. After just three weeks, I was able to place my face next to her head and ask for a kiss. The tiny tongue came out and licked me on the cheek. Then she lowered her head and butted me ever so gently. Sweet. Sweet. She won over the dogs and cats by just being Justine. She didn’t push herself on them. She just waited quietly and, of course, sweetly, for them to make the initial overtures. Then, when they did, she met them with….you guessed it….sweetness. They couldn’t resist. She knew all there was to know about a litter box within a few hours. She had a spacious house in my office but the door was left open 80-percent of the time. She went in for the evening because I was afraid she might hurt herself if she roamed the house alone at night.

Time passed and Justine became sweeter. I knew I should spay her but I couldn’t. I remembered Jellybean.

Justine sat in my lap while I read or watched television. She sat quietly in the kitchen and watched me cook. Several months passed and then, suddenly, Justine stopped eating and drinking. I was holding her and stroking her, trying to figure out what was wrong, when I noticed a lump on the top of her head. I panicked. I crooned to her, calling her all the silly names I had for her. Jussie. Hon-bun. Butterfly nose. There was a long string of them. She snuggled deeper under my neck, and I somehow knew we’d begun that long day’s journey into the ultimate night.

A friend told me about a vet who specialized in bunnies and birds. Expensive but good. I wrapped Jus in a towel, put her in my lap in the car, and off we went. It wasn’t long before I began an educational process about bunny health. I learned how critical it was that they not go more than 24-hours without eating, and how that time frame was even more critical for water. I learned how their bodies were capable of “walling off” certain infections. While she was talking and informing, the vet picked up a scalpel and made a quick cut into the lump on Justine’s head. The tiny bunny never moved. But I did.

The vet began massaging gently around the mini-incision. Horrible “stuff” came rolling out. It was thick. It smelled And it kept coming. And coming. “How can there be so much in that little lump?” I asked.

“It’s an abscess,” she answered, “and the lump is just what you see on the outside. It’s apparently very deep or there wouldn’t be this much excretion.”

“Excretion,” I thought to myself. “That’s a wonderfully civil word for this mess.”

That visit to the vet marked the beginning of my doing things that I never would have thought I could do. The vet handed me a syringe with a hooked end, and showed me how to dig into the abscess and flush it. More stuff (excretion) came out. “Do it until the solution runs clear,” she instructed, “and do it in the morning and evening. It’s important to jot down how quickly the pocket refills.” She told me to buy baby food, mix it with a small amount of water, put it in another syringe and feed the bunny until she was eating on her own.

“Will she eat on her own?” I asked.

“That’s our goal,” she answered, “but we can’t guarantee anything.”

I did everything she said. Jussie was eating after two days of the baby food, but the abscess was quickly refilling with junk. That bunny was really unbelievable. When it was time for her “treatment,” I would sit down on the floor and wait for her to hop to me. She knew what was going to happen but she never resisted. In fact, she did all she could to help make things go smoothly. After a few days, I would say to her “Let me see your head, Jus.” Believe it or not, she would actually hop very close and then extend her head toward me as far as she could reach. She never flinched. It was as if she felt guilty about making me go through this ordeal.

The abscess finally cleared up and we had a month of peace. Then another lump appeared. This time, it was on the side of her head. It was gone after several weeks of treatment, only to be replaced after another brief interval of quiet. Finally, the vet decided to do surgery on her, going in and literally cleaning the entire cranial area of any visible infections. The sweet lop came through it fine, along with five weeks of flushing four times each day. Then we had nearly five blissful months of health. The hair grew back on her tiny head. She hopped and ran and cuddled under my chin. Most people thought I was crazy if I said anything, but I was quite certain she smiled when I looked at her. Then it stopped.

I walked down the stairs to my office early one morning to find Justine laying on her side in her house. I called her name but she didn’t move. Her food and water hadn’t been touched. I reached in and stroked her. She raised her head and then put it back down. I picked her up and brought her out.

“What is it, Jussie?”

I checked her head for lumps. Nothing. I felt her entire body. Nothing. That is, nothing until I began feeling her stomach. There seemed to be a slight swelling but, regardless of what I could or could not see or feel, there was something seriously wrong. We left for the vet where x-rays revealed an enlarged kidney.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“Surgery,” answered the vet, “to remove the bad kidney. If everything goes okay, she can do just fine on one kidney. But….”

She paused.

“What?” I asked.

“I know you’ve already spent a lot of money and this will be another big chunk. Probably more than $500,” she said. “And I want you to remember we don’t have a very healthy patient going in. She’s really gone downhill in less than 24-hours.”

I’m a long way from rich and there are times when I’m not even close to comfortable. A good month is when all the bills are paid. An excellent month is when they’re paid a few days early. But it never occurred to me to not have the surgery. This was, after all, Justine.

I left the little bun at the vet’s. The surgery was done that afternoon. She died.

I picked up her little body the next morning. I didn’t unwrap it to look at her, but I did hold her for quite a long time before putting her gently into the hole I’d dug.

Who knows? Maybe…. if enough people are told about her….I can change the dictionary’s definition of “sweet” to read….quite simply….Justine. I know she’d like that. And perhaps I can also sneak her name into words such as soft and healing and melting. I would, after all, be speaking honestly since the little lop-eared bun did all those things for me. And, perhaps most importantly, she taught me that God does, indeed, often use the most unlikely creatures to do His work.

My Friend Bob

 

Long, long before I knew anything about racehorses, I had a best friend named Bob. Here’s how it happened.

I was short. He was tall.

I was white. He was black.

My vocabulary was above average for a third grader.

He….well….I was the only one who understood him when he “spoke.”

I was a nine-year-old girl.

He was a gorgeous six-year-old Tennessee Walking horse, and his registered name was Bob’s Merry Legs. He was the most velvety black I’d ever seen. His four white stockings and broad, white blaze made him look even blacker than he was. He was at least 16 hands high, which meant he towered over me. As I grew older, I realized the Tennessee Walking Horse Association should never have accepted him for registration since his left eye was that deep, dark brown most commonly associated with horses while his right eye was blue, referred to as a glass eye.

I thought his eye was beautiful. It simply added to the unique, magical qualities I already knew he possessed. I wanted him as soon as I saw him go into the sale ring. Daddy had brought me to the auction, but I’m sure he had no idea what would happen.

I couldn’t turn my head away from him. I was quite certain my life would be nothing but pure happiness if I could have him and, by contrast, I was equally certain it would be nothing but misery if I were denied.

I knew begging and pleading would get me nowhere. In our family, one made a simple request and then waited for the parental decision.

“How will you take care of him?” asked Daddy. “Look at him. He’s huge. You won’t even be able to get on his back.”

I shook my head in the negative. “Yes, I will,” I countered. “Before they took him into the ring, I saw him stretch out with his front and back legs. I promise, Daddy, his belly was almost on the ground. I could have gotten on his back with no help,”

“They want $125 for him,” continued Daddy. “That’s a lot of money, but that’s not all. We’ll need to feed him and pay for visits from the vet every now and then. We’re talking about a very expensive situation here.”

I looked him square in the face, eyeball-to-eyeball. “I could give you my entire allowance until he’s paid off.” Looking backward over all those years, I have no idea how Daddy kept a straight face. •

“And how much allowance do you get?” he asked. “A quarter every week.”

“Hmmm,” he said, “if my mental arithmetic is correct, you’ll need almost 14 years to pay him off. That’s a long time.”

I dropped my head and looked down at the dirt. My visions of having the beautiful, black horse in the pasture at our small farm were fading quickly.

Now, my focus was to keep my bottom lip from quivering.

“Here.” I looked up to see Daddy holding out a dime to me. I took it with a questioning look.

“Call your Mama and see how she feels about it.” He nodded to the phone hanging on the wall.

I stretched upward on my tip-toes to reach the receiver and dialed the number. She answered almost immediately.

”Mama?”

“Is something wrong?” she asked before I could say anything else.

”No, m’am. Daddy wanted me to call you.”

“Why?”

“Well, there’s the most beautiful horse here. He’s black and his name is Bob and if you let me have him I’ll give you my allowance to pay for him.”

“Let me speak to Daddy.”

I handed him the phone. He took it and turned his back, shielding his words from me. I waited until he finally hung up the receiver and rotated his body to face me.

“Are you sure about this? A horse is a lot of responsibility, you know. It’s different from a dog or a cat.”

I nodded my head in the affirmative.

“Okay,” said Daddy. “Go over to the man in the red plaid shirt….the one leaning against the fence. Ask him if the horse is still for sale for $125 and ask him if he can deliver him to our farm.”

I couldn’t believe it! I’d never before in my entire life experienced the surge of joy that rippled through me at those words. And, really, I’m sure I’ve never experienced it since.

A grin split my face, so wide I could actually feel the shape of my cheeks changing. I ran to the man, began talking to him, pointing first at Bob and then at Daddy. He nodded his head ”yes” to both my questions. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I started to run back to Daddy but changed my mind. I knew he’d take care of the business part. What I needed to do was introduce myself to Bob.

The big, black horse had been moved to a small corral, standing there all alone. There was hay in the manger but he seemed disinterested. I climbed to the top rail of the fence, threw one leg at a time over and perched there.

Daddy glanced up and saw me. “Be careful,” he shouted. “Don’t you get hurt before we even get him home.”

Even now, all these years later, I can remember twisting my torso so Daddy could see my huge grin. I waved my hand, indicating all was well. I turned back to the horse.

“Hey, Bob,” I said. “You’re beautiful. You don’t know me yet but I already love you. We’re going to have wonderful times together.”

The horse tossed his head before walking to me. He stopped three feet short, stretching out his neck and flaring his nostrils in an attempt to pull my scent into his nose. Slowly, I held out my hand. It was turned palm upward, flat. I don’t really know how I knew I was supposed to do it that way. I just did.

Bob snuffled across my small palm. His warm breath was the most wonderful sensation I’d ever felt. And I knew….at that moment….we’d bonded. Nothing else was needed. We were friends, and we would remain friends even after we died.

Bob settled in at the farm immediately. No fuss. No special fanfare. My parents did, however, set limits on the freedom we could enjoy. There was a railroad track one mile east of our house. I wasn’t allowed to ride past it. There was a bridge 3/4-mile to the west. I was allowed to ride to the bridge, but not on it or past it. There were numerous dirt roads crisscrossing our farm and I could ride anywhere I pleased on those.

We lived in the country and I attended private school in the city. I boarded a school bus at 6:30 in the morning and didn’t return until 4:30. Bob learned my schedule. He began prancing and whinnying sometime between 4:05 and 4:15. Daddy made him wait until 4:20. Then he opened the paddock gate and let Bob walk, on his own with no bridle or rider, down the long driveway to the edge of the cattle gap. He waited there, looking expectantly in the direction he knew would bring the bus. He was neighing furiously by the time the bus door opened and I stepped out.

Hi, boy,” I’d greet him. “How were things for you today? Wanna’ go for a ride?” And, of course, he always said yes.

My daddy always, always, always wore a hat; one of those dapper little fedora types. He would go nowhere without one perched on his head. At least, that was the case before Bob. There were, however, times after Bob when he had no choice.

Bob seemed to love those little hats. He waited for Daddy to walk past him and then, as quick as lightning, he darted over, snagged the hat with his teeth and snatched it from Daddy’s head. He seemed to laugh and shout as he did it, knowing he’d exposed a very large bald spot. Fortunately, Daddy learned quickly that chasing the big, black horse was not the thing to do. It wasn’t a fair match and Bob always won. Instead, just ignore the situation. Don’t acknowledge the sight of Bob running around with the hat dangling from his big, yellow teeth. Eventually, having the fun taken from his game due to lack of attention, he would walk over and drop the hat at Daddy’s feet.

Three years after Bob came to live with us, Mama and Daddy decided I could ride beyond the railroad tracks and beyond the bridge. That was really great but there was one major problem….I couldn’t convince Bob we had permission to expand our universe. He absolutely refused to cross the tracks or the bridge. It was frustrating as well as humiliating. Finally, Daddy came and led him across both former boundaries while I sat in the saddle. Somehow, he equated that action with receiving the official okay from an authority figure.

I had my first date on Bob. His name was Malcolm—blonde, silver braces on his teeth, skinny and beautiful blue eyes. I can’t remember his horse but I do know he didn’t begin to compare with Bob in either beauty or intelligence. We took a long ride together, Malcolm 15 and I 14. We took our tennis rackets and the sandwiches Mama made. Bob kept watch as we munched and talked.

I graduated grade school (there was no such thing as junior high back then) and moved into high school. Unlike some girls, though, I didn’t leave behind my passion for horses in general and for Bob in particular. He was still my very best friend, and he still met me each day at the end of the driveway. Very seldom did we skip a day of riding but, if we did, I sat in the pasture with him. Our conversations were long and slow and deep. There was nothing about me he didn’t know, and he kept my secrets ever so well.

I was sixteen years old and completing my sophomore term. Bob had been my best friend for eight years but, in most ways, it seemed far longer than that. He, too, was 16 but his hair was still jet black and his step still had all the fire and prance of a much younger horse. I visited Bob each morning before walking down the driveway to meet the school bus, but there was something seriously wrong on one particular morning. He was on the ground in his paddock, drenched in sweat. He’d swing his beautiful head toward his side and try to nip himself, telling me he was experiencing painful stomach cramps. He looked at me. I knew he was asking for help, and I also knew he had a horrible case of colic.

Sometimes colic happens for no obvious reason. Somehow, an impaction develops in the bowel. The pain is horrendous.

I ran to the house, slamming the door behind me, snatching the receiver from the wall phone and calling the vet. Mama came from the kitchen, drying her hands on a dish towel.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“It’s Bob,” I answered, short of breath from the run as well as fear. “Colic. I called the vet.” I was struggling to hold back tears.

Mama walked to me and patted my shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “I’ll just go get Daddy so he can help.” She got into her car and drove to the field where he was working on his tractor. They returned together.

“We need to get him up if we can,” he said to me. We set off for the paddock at a run.

Daddy put a lead rope on Bob’s halter. “You coax him,” he said. “He’ll listen to you.”

I couldn’t help it. I started crying. “Bob,” I sobbed. “Please, Bob. Get up. Please. Please.”

The big horse lumbered to his feet and, when he was standing, I gasped. He looked as if he’d lost 100 pounds overnight. Daddy handed me the lead rope. “Walk him,” he said tersely. I could tell from his look and his voice that he thought the situation was bleak. Tears running down my face, I started walking the black horse.

The vet arrived, jumping quickly out the door and pulling a stainless steel bucket from the back of his truck, pouring it half-full of mineral oil. He stuck a pump in the bucket with a long, clear, plastic tube attached to it. He walked over to Bob, pinched his nostrils together and began feeding the tube through his nose, down his throat and into his stomach. I couldn’t watch. It looked ghastly. He began pumping the oil into the tube, hoping to dislodge the impaction and move it out. He pumped and pumped and pumped, but nothing happened.

Bob’s front legs started buckling at the knees.

“Don’t let him go down,” the vet yelled at me. “We don’t want him to roll. If he does, he could twist that intestine and then we don’t have a prayer.”

I held on to him, my heart breaking. I knew he was miserable. I hated the tube. I knew how he must long to lie down. But I tugged and strained on the lead rope. “Please, Bob,” I prayed. “Stand up, Bob.” And, for the first time since the ordeal began, I allowed myself to say the word. The awful word. “Please, Bob. Please don’t die,” I breathed.

“I can’t do anything more,” the vet said. “Just keep walking him as much as you can.”

I was exhausted, but not too exhausted to continue helping the best friend I’d ever had.

I walked. I stroked his face. He touched my cheek with his nose. I suppose I knew what would happen. I suppose I wasn’t surprised when he yanked the rope from my hand and crumpled to the ground, looking like a million broken pieces of black glass. He stretched out his neck, and I lay down on the grass next to him. At that precise moment, on that crystal clear morning so long ago, I would have gladly lain down my life for his.

“I love you, Bob. You’ve been the best friend I could ever have.” He knew what I said. He always did. I missed school for an entire week, crying every day.

I was still short. He was still tall.

I was still white. He was still black,

But the wonderful world of friendship erased every difference. And, all these many years later, my heart still feels the tug of a lead rope whenever I think of Bob.

Daddy and Mama are both gone. The farm has long since been sold with rows of houses built on it. Way back in the corner….in the middle of a small thicket of trees and vines….is where Bob is buried. It was a big grave and Daddy worked all day to dig it, with a rented backhoe. He knew a decent burial was all I’d accept for Bob.

There’s a house built over the grave now. Sometimes….if I happen to drive by there when I’m home visiting….I wonder if the people living in that house ever hear a whinny and, just for a minute, think they’ve seen the silliest thing….a big, black horse with a fedora dangling between his teeth. I think they do. I think they see my friend, Bob.

Who Could Love a Chicken?

Who Could Love A Chicken?

It’s quite possible the opening question should be rephrased. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to ask something such as, “Who could resist loving a chicken….especially a chicken such as Henny Penny,” a little white hen who was determined to love and to be loved.

John, my husband, is addicted to almost anything with feathers, including chickens. His early childhood was punctuated with their clucking and crowing, watching intently as his father experimented with crossing various strains.

We decided to visit our local flea market one Saturday to scout out who-knew-what hidden treasures. I always stayed as far away as possible from the animal section, since it broke my heart to see the puppies and kittens and bunnies huddled together in over-crowded cages in the miserable heat or cold. This time, however, John immediately cut a direct path toward the tangled cacophony of bleating goats, barking dogs and a general ol’ McDonald’s atmosphere. I reluctantly tagged along behind him.

He veered toward the chickens, looking like a man with a single-focus purpose. He’d said nothing during the drive to the market but it was now apparent he wanted chickens at the farm he had for his horses. Great. The neighbors would surely love a few crowing roosters on Sunday mornings. I watched and listened to the negotiations between the chicken buyer and the chicken seller. Then I saw the man open a burlap-kind-of sack and begin grabbing chickens by their red-colored legs. Squawk! Squawk! Flap! Feathers drifting to the ground! I didn’t blame them. I, too, would protest vehemently against such inconsiderate treatment.

That was it. No other “shopping.” How could we with a bag of chickens to carry around? We loaded up and headed for the farm, where John untied the bag and unceremoniously dumped out three hens and one rooster. Everyone was a brownish/ blackish/grayish (I never knew much about chickens) color, with one exception.

“Why did you get that one white one?” I asked.wlghhen

“Oh, I dunno’,” he answered vaguely. “I thought it might be interesting to see what kind of biddies she has.”

“Biddies?” I inquired.

“Babies,” he answered. I told you I knew nothing about chickens. I looked at the white hen as she stood somewhat apart from the brownish/blackish/grayish ones.

“But will those others accept her?” I asked. Even though I wasn’t drawn toward chickens, I didn’t want the little thing to be abused and, for all I knew, fowl might be color discriminating..

John shrugged. “Probably,” he said, “but maybe not right away.”

I did not like his answer.

I left the farm with an uneasy feeling about the little white hen. I felt a nagging prick in my conscience, telling me to check on the white hen as frequently as possible.

I waited four days before asking John, “How’s the white hen?”

“Well, she doesn’t seem to be eating a lot.”

“Are the others eating?”

“Yeah, they’re doing fine. I honestly thought they would accept the white one by now, but they haven’t.”

“Great,” I said. “You’re supposed to be the chicken guy. You should have known this wouldn’t work.”

“It’s going to be okay.”

“Yeah, when?” I shot back. I decided to drive to the farm in the early evening. It was summer, so twilight didn’t fall until after 8:00 p.m.

I parked my car in the drive, unlocked the gate and walked in. The brownish/ blackish/grayish rooster and two hens scattered as soon as they made eye contact with me. The little white hen, however, stood quietly in a corner, shaded by the sagging branches of a cracked, thick-skinned oak. I opened the door to the feed room and stuck my hand into a bag labeled Chicken Scratch. With the pulverized corn slipping through my fingers, I dumped it on the ground two feet from a white plastic chair. I lowered myself to the seat quietly, in a perfect position to keep one eye on the hen and the other eye on the brownish/blackish/grayish trio. Hopefully, the little white one would eat.

Nearly five minutes passed before the dainty hen picked her way to the feed. My vigil was punctuated by slaps at mosquitoes, flies, gnats and various other flying and creeping insects. I was never drawn to outdoor activities and, to me, this was roughing it.

The hen lowered her head to the ground. Peck. Peck. Then she picked up the pace and increased the rhythm, pecking faster and faster. The poor thing was half starved. She ate so much and so fast that I was afraid she’d be sick. After all, I had no idea how much a chicken should eat. I was thinking about all this when the hen suddenly began flapping her wings and making that noise that only excited chickens can make. Then, before I had time to do something….something such as run away to my car….the little hen jumped/flew straight into my lap. I was so startled that I let out a shrill “eeek” but it wasn’t enough to daunt the hen. She plopped into the middle of my lap, turned to face me and sat down.

I had no idea what she expected. Did one pet a chicken? Did one talk to a chicken? Or did one simply pick up the chicken and put it on the ground? And, speaking of that, what did a chicken do when someone picked it up? Was there a typical behavior pattern? And why did she jump into my lap in the first place? Was she grateful for the feed? There were just too many questions in this budding relationship for me to be comfortable.

Just then I heard a footfall behind me. It had to be John. It was.

“Hey, there’s a chicken in your lap,” he called

“I know that’s supposed to be funny,” I replied, “but it lacks something. I fed her because she was starved. Then, after she’d eaten, she jumped up here. What am I supposed to do?”

“Pet her,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “She’s dirty. She could have fleas. Or maybe even lice. I don’t think she’s very smart and, besides, she’s a chicken!”

John gave up. He grabbed the hen in both his hands and put her on the ground in front of me.

“Thank …..” I couldn’t get the word “you” out before the little white hen was back in my lap.

Thus began a pattern. I felt guilty if I didn’t go to the farm every day. I didn’t know if the little white hen was eating. I didn’t know if she’d been accepted by those brownish/blackish/grayish chickens or if she might still be keeping a solitary watch under the oak tree.

“But she’s only a goofy chicken,” I wailed to myself. Okay. Okay. Even goofy chickens deserve care and consideration.

I went to the farm at least every other day. She was waiting. And, as soon as I sat down in the plastic chair, she clucked her way to me and jumped into my lap. It was maybe the third or fourth jump when I began stroking her white feathers. As I did, something like a cluck/purr came from her throat. She would close her eyes and burrow deeper into my lap. There were times when I couldn’t believe I was actually holding a chicken….a chicken I’d named Henny Penny.

Henny Penny was, without doubt, her own “person.” She had a way of “singing” when she was content. It was a sweet, gentle sound she made somewhere deep in her throat. In truth, however, I think she actually made the sound in her heart and just used her throat to turn it loose. She was a hen who wanted to love and to be loved. Somehow, with no conscious thought or plan, I found myself allowing her to realize her goal.

It’s hot and humid in Texas in the summer, and off-and-on cold and humid in the winter. Humidity means moisture and, with horses, moisture means hoof/feet problems. In an effort to curb the development of mildew and other moisture-related conditions, the stalls at the barn were constructed with a double wall. There was the exterior wall, which looked like every other exterior wall in the state. Then, on the interior, there was a second wall with a six-inch gap between the two. Moisture wasn’t trapped. No one ever truly determined if the double wall worked, but there were no hoof problems.

The brownish/blackish/grayish rooster and his hens always roosted either in the oak tree or on top of the barn. The little white hen couldn’t fly as high as they could, so she usually roosted alone. She selected a few special spots, and one of them was the ledge of the interior wall smack on top of the gap separating the two. It didn’t look comfortable to me but she seemed happy.

It took only five minutes for me to reach the farm and the little white hen was happy if I spent 10 or 15 minutes with her. It afforded her a chance to engage in her peculiar singing while I stroked her feathers which, by the way, were neither dirty nor lice ridden. I drove over, parked in the drive, went through the gate and waited for Henny Penny to run out and greet me, but on this particular day, she wasn’t there.

“Henny Penny,” I called. “Henny Penny.” Nothing. I began to panic. I pulled my cell phone from my purse and called John.

“Did you see Henny Penny when you were here this morning?” I asked.

There was a pause. Finally, “No,” he said. “Now that you ask, I didn’t see her anywhere.”

“Well I can’t find her. Do you think the coyotes may have gotten her?” Now I was frantic.

“No,” he said. “She would have put up a fight and we would have seen feathers.”

Oh, God. That really wrung my heart. To think of her putting up a struggle against a coyote, or maybe even a bobcat was nearly more than I could handle. I kept looking. I made broad sweeps of the entire pastures. I looked in every tree. I knew she didn’t fly very high, but I thought she may have changed her pattern to avoid danger. I called. I looked in stalls. Nothing. I dumped feed on the ground. I sat in the white, plastic chair. I slapped mosquitoes and I waited. Finally, just before dark, I left.

One day followed another and Henny Penny didn’t show herself. A handful of days went into a week, and new days began attaching themselves to the week. Then, one morning, John called me. “I think you need to come over here,” he said.

I shoved back from my desk, grabbed my purse and jumped in my car. Somehow, I knew the call had something to do with Henny Penny. When I arrived, John was sitting in the white plastic chair holding the little white hen. I fell to my knees in the dirt and grabbed her. I could feel her bones.

“Oh, my God,” I said, “she’s skin and bones. Where was she?”

John was shaking his head. “She fell into the space between the two walls. She’s been down there all this time.”

“How did you find her?”

“I went into the stall and she was singing,” he said.

“But why didn’t she make a noise before now? I called and called and she never did anything.”

“I have no idea.”

“I know she’s weak,” I said. “Do you think we can bring her around?”

“Maybe. I won’t say yes because I don’t know.”

I took Henny Penny’s feed home and boiled it into a thin mash. Then, holding her on my lap, I spoon-fed the little hen. She ate. And, on the fifth day, she sang.

There was a fairly rapid chicken turn-over at the farm. Something always happened and their life expectancies were relatively brief, making numerous trips to the flea market necessary for replacements. Henny Penny, though, was different. She stayed. The little white hen was tough. Five years went by. We were in the middle of a drought. Pastures burned to a crisp. Lakes all but disappeared. We weren’t allowed to water lawns. And wildlife such as coyotes and cougars strode boldly into the middle of civilization. They were hungry and they were thirsty.

One day I drove to the barn first thing in the morning. I parked the car in the drive, opened the gate and, as usual, walked through calling for Henny Penny. For the second time in six years, she didn’t come. I called again. And again. She didn’t come. I walked around the corner of one of the stalls and there, on the ground, were white feathers. I felt something happen deep inside me. I didn’t know then what it was but I later realized it was a crack chiseling a fault line into my heart.

I knelt on the ground and stroked the feathers. And I cried….very, very hard….and I never again stupidly asked who could love a chicken because I knew the answer.

I could…..I did.