Stories by Beth Wellford, Sara Hardman and Ben Oddo
by Beth Wellford
The center of the universe is everywhere.
-Black Elk, Oglala Lakota Medicine Man
The Ant Keeper sat patiently on the overlook of Prairie Springs mountain praying for a gust of wind. The drought seemed to him a force of its own. Rather than an absence of rain, the dryness pervaded the lower ravine, as countless rifts gaped open in thirst. Myrem’s elevation above the site provided only slight relief from the August sun. He dragged his knuckle carefully in a circle, forming a moat around the tiny hill of pepper-speckled sand. The wild ants immediately noticed, and their synchronized reactions propelled them back inside the hole and away from the boy. The air remained still.
Down below, the archeologists sifted through layers of dirt and crushed sediment. They too worked together, a team searching for artifacts from the Cheyenne tribe. From this far distance, they might as well have been insects, though distinctively more intrusive. Beginning the initial dig, the resonance of thirty shovels against dry rock created a percussion that, every so often, would be interrupted by the sound of metal hitting a foreign object. Myrem never understood why, but this particular clash always made him flinch.
But then a more delicate search began, one of tiny movements, brushstrokes and resolute focus. A static energy that mirrored the heat and resisted the urgent anticipation of finding something precious. Attention to concrete detail was vital, and yet what was sought could not be measured by any of man’s tools.
As the young boy perched above the great unearthing, he wondered what life was like when the colored patterns of ancient pottery rested visibly atop the red soil. People might have roamed freely on the land, faces lifted towards the sun and not inches away from delicate tools clenched by rough hands. Decorative pottery was enjoyed in its completeness, and men would not spend hours finding only fragments. Beautiful yet austere weaponry could have been used for the hunt or an attempt to restore tribal peace.
The sifting continued, and there seemed to Myrem something tragic in the art of excavation. Even the most beautiful scrap of metal or shard of clay implied a broken society. A great fragmentation. His mind reverted to the familiar question that had recently caused such great distance between him and his father. What difference did the shards and scraps make? Its makers were dead and its spirit was surely gone. Just like his mother.
The day Myrem lost her was a day forever preserved in his mind, as though it was a seven-year old time capsule. Every so often, the reserve of memories would surface unexpectedly. Some images began to fade, yet others remained protected against the onslaught of time.
It was the same day he began his ant collection, filling the dusty case on his mantel with tiny black pixels. His eyes needed something to focus on, any form of motion to alleviate the paralysis of his mind.
“She’s peaceful,” they kept saying, in their expert tone, but Myrem didn’t understand. Of course she was peaceful. There was never an instance where his mother raised her voice or showed any sign of discomfort, even throughout the worst of the illness. These doctors in white coats were scientists like his father, yet their faces showed no evidence of sunlight.
His father tried to explain the dark phenomenon that had caused his wife’s smile to fade. Words like “immune,” “inevitable,” and “disease” were rearranged in various phrases whose outcome was the same. An immune system deficiency. A terrible lung disease. His mother’s health had declined drastically in the past two years. The relentless coughing fits disturbed Myrem the most. Late through the night, he would awake to the terrible barking of her illness combined with the steady hum of his father’s voice, trying to console his wife. The pollution of coughing was made even more tragic by the purity of his love for her.
Although his father would never admit his sentiment, Myrem noticed the effect his devastation had on the excavation project. The moment the sun illuminated Prairie Springs and all the encompassing land, his father would take his set of tools and dedicate the entire day to finding something. Anything.
Myrem and his mother would often watch him work from inside the house. She would make breakfast tea while they watched his father search for various items. His team would eventually join him, but he was alone during these early morning hours.
“I don’t have the heart to tell your father that what he’s looking for can’t be uncovered by digging,” she said, the miniature black moons of her eyes fixed steadily on the horizon.
A few hours later, the workers were positioned in a circle, his father standing in the middle announcing the day’s goal. Myrem had overheard these speeches before. They were motivational and practical. No matter the goal, it was vital that each man use the same technique for gathering, brushing, and cleaning. As they began working in the morning sunlight, they appeared to be in some sort of mechanical choreography.
“You mean the arrow-heads?” the ten-year-old stirred his tea and tried to make sense of what his mother had said.
“Myrem, if someone asked you to uncover history, to show them proof of what has already passed, what would you say to him?”
“Who would ever ask me that?”
“Well, your father, his team, they’re all looking for pieces of existence. My culture – our culture – has been preserved in the earth just as it should be.”
Hoping she’d share his apprehension of the work going on outside, the boy asked, “Are you upset by the digging?”
“No, I don’t mind the digging. I mind the impatience, the disappointment in not finding evidence.”
She paused for a few moments, and her voice became quiet, yet distinctively stronger. “They don’t realize the evidence is in the wind.”
The next month she stayed in bed and her body grew weak, tired from the burden of the restless malady inside her lungs, yet her faith did not. Every night after his father would kiss his small forehead, his mother would graze Myrem’s dark hair and say, “Sweet boy, my love for you is everywhere. You’ll find me everywhere.”
Her words echoed softly. In his mind appeared a portrait of her kind face. Simple, with the accents of dark beauty one obtains only through knowledge. The disquieting creases impressed on her forehead when her eyebrows raised in empathy.
Lines that resembled the curves of an eagle’s outstretched wings. He etched the familiar shape in the sand, remembering the weeks long ago that rolled through in a progression of tears, questions, anger, and finally, ants.
Myrem wondered what his mother what have said about the miserable inert climate of today. Windless. Myrem’s recollection was interrupted by the immediacy of tiny moving specks. It was this particular scurrying that made him feel slight discomfort at the realization of their vulnerability. Today, he would make his tenth collection from this very population, and yet they seemed unaware. Myrem often wondered if the hundreds preserved in the tanks inside even noticed their new environment. Perhaps they had a miraculous ability to adjust.
He told his perplexed friends his reason for keeping them was to simply observe. He did not have the words to explain that he depended on them like most his age depended on a nightlight. The insect workers inches away from him seemed to follow an unbiased tactic. They had no particular goal in their digging, yet every so often would exhume a speck of brilliant blue, a fragment of an ancient world that had recently become of interest.
The human workers persevered under the exhaustive temperature. They were all around the same age, save the tallest who stood under the lone Lodgepole Pine and voiced various commands. Though his voice was out of hearing distance, he could imagine what his father might be saying this afternoon.
“The sun has not yet set; today can still be a good day. The treasure’s there. It’s just a matter of finding it.”
However, the slow movement of the team suggested that his words might have been less encouraging than he had intended.
“Remember, the layers will be searched through again if we don’t have anything by the end of the week. Statigraphy. We’ll need to clear out this entire strata before we move any further.”
It was the same tone that beckoned Myrem into the house around dusk for supper. The boy’s stomach turned with hunger, and he wished the sun would hide its bright face so that he could feast.
His hoping was useless, though. These extended search periods tended to mesh together into one long, droned day. During these times, seldom was something of interest found; however, the value of these rare findings was motivation enough to work through insufferable conditions.
The Museum of the Americas had sent Myrem’s father a request for a collection of small stone weapons to be displayed in the upcoming fall’s exhibition. Mr. Sanders was thrilled to be presented with such a task. As head archeologist, he supervised many similar projects. His expansive anthropological knowledge and his late wife’s heritage made him a valued member of the search team.
More than his knowledge, the delicacy and treatment of artifacts as well as the respect for the searching grounds allowed him permission from the remaining Cheyenne tribes to lead the project.
When Myrem was too small to appreciate the cultural uniqueness of his parents’ partnership, he would listen to the familiar story of their first encounter with the same forced attention paid to the assembly readings at school. In fact, the telling of the First Conversation had itself a tone of insincerity for which Myrem blamed the audience. Scientists and archeologists would gather around in the Sanders’ living room the night before the exhibition opening.
“Now Chris,” Someone would ask, “Tell us about that first time. You know, the reason we’re all here tonight.
Mr. Sanders put his arm lightly around his wife’s back and replied,
“In all my years of searching, I have never found something as precious, as beautiful as my Honia.”
Mryem would stand at the doorway of the kitchen and study faces, boyish anger geared towards strangers who demanded this story over and over.
“She was in the market place buying tomatoes and as I walked by, my eye caught the ornate pendant and its exquisite wearer.”
Myrem’s mother held the copper-plated necklace with three fingers, blinking slowly and smiling tranquilly at her husband.
“Never in my life had I believed in fate, but this design was one I had studied. It was my reason for spending the summer in Montana.”
As if they were cued, the listeners slightly tilted their heads and raised their eyebrows at the mentioning of fate. They wanted to believe they were part of the Story, too.
“So I was barely twenty, passing through the county on a research assignment for my internship and had stopped by the grocery store by chance,” he continued. “I had to ask her. Talk to her.”
Although Myrem disliked the publicity of this speech, he always felt special that he knew his mother’s side of the story as well as his father’s. This was the portion of the dialogue that the scientists would never hear, let alone understand.
All they would hear was her delicately humored response, “I hadn’t expected to hear a pick-up line so early in the morning, but Chris was so visibly nervous that I decided to be patient.” The crowd would laugh and then she would add, “Besides, I knew we had many things to learn from each other.”
The emblem worn by Myrem’s mother was known in archeological terms as the Morning Star glyph. It was a diamond of equal-sided lengths out of which four lines expanded outwards. Myrem found it curious that the morning star was represented with such accurate, geometric parts. His mother wore it always, however, so Myrem knew not to question its significance.
He applied the same principle of repressed curiosity to his father’s work. Myrem felt as though he should help, yet he found the task both monotonous and upsetting. Especially in these recent years. Uncovering something of the past seemed to him a futile attempt to reconnect with his mother, as though for the past decade she had been hiding in the obscure artifacts of her ancestors.
Her burial site was distanced from the excavation, though. In fact, the far side of the mountain seemed to function under its own isolated climate. Baneberries and buttercups along with other wildflowers created a boundary from the arid plains. There was a perpetual lushness of moss and spring whose vitality remained a mystery to everyone except Myrem. He had seen proof of its magic years ago. Of all the memories of this mother, this one seemed clearest, though it was perhaps only a dream.
It was Christmas Eve, and anticipation for the morning’s festivities had prevented Myrem from a sound sleep. Upon waking in the middle of the night, he mistaken gentle drumbeats for reindeer hooves, and as he peered outside of his window seeking proof, he realized the sound’s source. Surrounded by several tiny candles, his mother sat dressed in the buff-colored dressings that Myrem had seen on the special occasions of family reunions.
Her eyes were closed and she was tapping the instrument in front of her with delicate precision. Woven cloths of bright color were wrapped around her. Suddenly the drumming stopped, and his mother stood up. Her long hair moved like a shadow around her as she lifted her arms towards the moon.
Perhaps it was the drowsiness of his eyes combined with the tiny lights, but Myrem saw a golden glow emanate from the ground. It was as though the sun had awakened under the earth to gently radiate the soil. His mother was now dancing on pure gold. Yet still her eyes remained closed as if unfazed by this earthly transformation. Her mind, her entire focus, was elsewhere. Myrem too became entranced by this scene of gracefulness and watched his mother until his eyelids became too heavy. The next morning he mentioned nothing about this strange vision. Although his young age prevented him from fully deciphering the scene, he recognized an element of sacredness. Besides, words seemed an inefficient means of inquiring about an experience that had forever changed Myrem’s perception of his mother.
The next morning, a strange object waited for him under the lofty evergreen and perplexed him. A plastic tank with neither decoration nor contents was his only gift that year. His countenance fell upon realizing that he would not be getting a collie. His father responded to his despondent look. “To be a caretaker, you must learn in stages,” explained the father. His mother nodded along in agreement. Her face warmed with the glow from the string of lights. It immediately reminded him of the way the candle lights danced around her the night before.
Myrem’s gift remained untouched for months. Years. It was placed on his bookshelf among other forgotten items: a set of McGuffey readers, National Geographics and a few cigar boxes. Unlike these items that had settled into the room’s background comfortably, the tank did not seem as though it belonged as a display. Its emptiness was nearly haunting, as though it had been a picture frame with no image. His curiosity increased each day as he wondered what might happen when wild ants were taken from outside and placed into the case.
When his mother exhaled her final breath, Myrem decided it was time.
That morning he took a jar outside and began hiking the steady incline of Prairie Springs. Myrem made this trip often, as he enjoyed watching the archeology site from afar. However, this journey had a particular purpose. Today, he would not simply be an observer. He had his own treasure to find. Usually he’d bring a canteen of water and some form of reading that had not been assigned in school. He never felt ashamed by his reading selection; however, could never allow his classmates to realize the extent of his curiosity.
He had always believed ants were fascinating creatures. They did not seem dangerous, like spiders, or frivolous like butterflies. The miniature workers had purpose and were driven, if only by instinct. Through minimal observation, Myrem had discovered their tendency to congregate among the grand firs. He unscrewed the top of the mason jar and rested it on the red earth, contemplating the best method for capture.
He would admit so to no one, but over the past month Myrem had studied the behavior of carpenter ants from a chapter in his biology textbook. It was as though a new society had been revealed. The ants were not categorized equally, but rather in castes. There was the queen, the winged male, the major worker, and the minor worker. Myrem saw them as a society native to the golden land his mother had danced upon, and he wanted so deeply to understand their Secret.
The boy inherited his Native American heritage in the same manner that he inherited his name: with little understanding but implied significance. “Myrem,” his mother would often say to him, “you’re a beautiful boy with a beautiful gift. Your ability to see the true light of things will forever guide you.” The summer before her death was marked by prophetic statements such as these.
Myrem never felt particularly different, though his parents often discussed his unique heritage. Partially Cheyenne. He noticed his slightly browned skin only on certain classroom days where the teacher talked about Indigenous Americans that were forced from their lands. His classmates would slowly turn their heads in an effort to gauge his reactions. Myrem felt rather unaffected, though.
It was his unique interest in ants, not his heritage, that was the main source of unwanted attention.
“Were we supposed to read that?” a Classmate would ask, pointing to the library book tucked under Myrem’s arm.
“No I’m just, I’m working on a project”
“Extra credit? Did I miss an assignment”
“No, it’s something – I’m doing it for my dad’s research,” Myrem lied.
To his relief, the confused red-haired Student asked no further questions.
Over the past few years, Myrem had kept a collection of pages he had torn from the library books in a tin box near the edge of the cliff. He continued his etching in dirt and whispered to himself a familiarity from his childhood scribbled on the back of one of the pages.
“Sand paintings are sacred. A careless gesture or breeze can ruin their form. They live on in the Memory of those who love them.” His face began to prickle under his eyes and soon tiny teardrops fell onto his design. He realized he had known his memory-mother longer than he had known her alive. Nothing seemed fair. Surely the ants were frightened by these craters, suddenly appearing in their gritty territory.
Yet they appeared remarkably unaffected. Myrem saw through his glassy vision, the excavation marks had not hindered their work in the least. They continued as if nothing had burdened them – weaving in and out of the holes like tiny moving stitches.
His father, the workers, were they any different? And why had he tried to protect these ants?
He noticed his father kept turning what appeared to be an arrow head in his hand. He must have opened his dusty palm, though, because in that instant the sun caught the object and a flash of gold nearly blinded the boy’s vision.
And Myrem understood.
He sprang upwards, forgetting the heat and soared down the mountain, his feet tossing behind pebbles and dust so rapidly that he nearly fell. Finally reaching his house, Myrem took two ant cases off of his mantel and watched the ants as he caught his breath.
They did not belong in these sterile cases. They needed sunlight, moonlight, and interaction with the other members of the society. The warriors. The workers. The explorers.
He freed them all that day. Every ant was returned to the soil to start life anew. They belonged on the earth, and the earth belonged to them. The searching and the celebrating could continue forever.
Calmly seated atop the mountain, overlooking the land, the Ant Keeper smiled. The resonance of thirty shovels met the ground. He wasn’t sure why, but this particular clash sounded to him like a soft drum beat. Or perhaps rain.
Beth Wellford is a junior English major from Richmond, VA.
The Lost Boy
by Sara Hardman
To survive, you must know how to think like a murderer. When they want to kill quickly, hide because they will not take the time to look. When they want to kill slowly, create a distraction, then run. These bearded men with their machetes cannot outrun you over your home terrain. Run until you get to the plain and the village looks small and you can barely hear the screams. Then lay on the dirt, hidden behind the tall grass, and stay awake until morning, when they are done killing. When the sun rises over the broken huts, stand, find the other survivors, and leave. One last, crucial thing: to survive, never help another. You cannot do both.
For seven years the attack has repeated itself in my mind every night, and each time I try to think of a way it could have ended well. But no matter where I hide or which way I run or how much I fight, in the end, nothing is different. I hear the same scream I heard that night, as a twelve-year-old boy.
The sun had fallen hard upon my shoulders that day as I waited well past our normal time for my neighbor to take over the watch of my sheep. It made things difficult that my family had only one boy. While my younger sister, Ruth, took care of our home by herself, I stayed in the fields to watch our sheep every day of every month except two. For those two days, we traded our neighbors any special food or clothing my sister had made that month. They would keep watch, and I would get to see my sister. This month, my sister had traded the neighbor’s family a treat, two small cakes, which made each moment of his tardiness heighten my anger. He arrived finally when the sun was at its peak, meaning I would get back no sooner than dusk. It would not be soon enough.
Because my neighbor arrived late, I would not make it back in time. After it all ended, I found him, a survivor in the plain, and we walked together with 1,000 others. As we crossed our country to seek refuge in another, many fell and stayed down. When he fell, I did not pick him back up.
Because he arrived late, I did not stop to find food on the way back, but instead let my shoddily sandaled feet slap the dry earth step over step, and let my clothes fill with the wind. I held my hand in my pocket and ran my fingers over the necklace with the silver cross there. My sister had found and given it to me after they killed our parents, but made me keep it in my pocket because if the bearded men saw me wearing it, they would kill me. As the sun began its descent, only the beat of my footsteps and the few distant bird songs accompanied the sound of the swishing grass.
It struck me as odd, though, even then. Not only were there many more birds than normal in the sky at that hour, but every last one of them flew towards me and away from my village. They sang cries of distress as if trying to warn me of something ahead. My pace quickened as more birds flew past me. They flew more and more until finally, there were none, and the sunset lit upon an empty sky.
When they stopped, so did I. Then nothing accompanied the noise of the swishing grass. I inhaled deeply, and for an instant recognized the smell of a faraway fire. I knew then that they had returned to my village. I could have left at that moment without memories to torture me. But because speculation will lead me nowhere, the fact is that I kept going.
As I ran, I pressed my thumb to the silver cross and repeated a prayer again and again. Even as the smell of the fire strengthened as I approached the hill that overlooked my village, I still had hope that it would be answered.
My breathing was heavy as I ran uphill, but not heavy enough to block the sounds of the crackling fire, the yelling of the attackers, and the screaming of the victims that poured over the hill from the other side. I know this now as the second worst sound I have heard in my life. As I got closer to the top, a young boy crested it and ran toward me.
“Turn back, Abel,” he shouted. “It is too late.”
He only shook his head as I ran even faster forward. I could not believe that it was too late for my sister, so I did not stop running toward my village until I reached the top of the hill.
Thick, black smoke billowed to the sky from the fires engulfing nearly half the huts. Bodies in contorted positions covered the ground and tripped those trying to run. Some men fought with what weapons they had, but not many could counter the machetes of the bearded men. Their shouts to praise their god mixed with the screams and cries of those they killed mercilessly. As parents stayed back to fight or distract, their children ran up the hill to safety. My sister was not one of them.
Down the hill my sandaled feet took me. The flames had not reached the house at the bottom of the hill yet. My house. Hope remained. My prayer was yet to be unanswered. It was still on my lips when a strap on one of my sandals broke and I fell hard down the hill. Dust filled my eyes and mouth as I rolled, until I crashed into someone escaping and stopped. It took a few minutes, too long, to wipe the dirt from my eyes, but when I opened them I could see that I was less than 100 meters away from my home and from my sister. The way the bearded men ran in lines from the other houses reminded me of ants pouring from their hills. The amount made me want to vomit. But my house was alone. I stood and started toward the house, then stopped, and felt my insides twist at the sight of a bearded man exiting the front door. I was too late.
I dropped down to the ground once again, and stayed down, hidden behind the tall grass. I wanted the birds to come back and take me with them, but stayed silent and alone. After much time passed, the same bearded man, accompanied by three others, came back to my house. Looting. I could not stay and watch them take the few possessions we had, so I finally turned to leave.
Once morning came, the survivors stood in the field. We were mostly children, mostly boys. We could not stay in our country, so we walked to Kenya. When they kicked us out, we walked to Ethiopia. Then the Americans took me here, to Atlanta, where I have a new life. Yet even though I am 10,000 kilometers away from my home country, I relive that moment every night.
I relive it because it was not too late. Even though my neighbor arrived late, and my sandal broke, and I had to wipe dirt from my eyes, it was not too late, I had only believed it was. While the birds flew farther and farther away, I sat on the hill for ten minutes thinking my sister already dead before the men returned. As I turned to leave, though, I took one step forward before I heard her scream, just once. I turned back just in time to see all four bearded murderers leaving. As I sat on the hill, it had not been too late.
Sara Hardman is a junior English major and a theater and math minor from Parkersburg, WV.
A Dove Story
by Ben Oddo
Neal looked at the man standing before him and had to bite his lip. If only, he thought, if only he found that camo jacket to be as silly looking as I do, we’d have something to share beers over. Just a father and his future son-in-law, laughing over the incongruities of practicing physicians wearing woodland scenes on their bodies. But with his pursed lips and stern face, Dr. Wilson acknowledged no such joke. Neal could just as soon don his Groucho glasses covered in sticks and leaves, and together the two mustached men would enter into the woods, neither one thinking to question the other.
“Now Neal!” Dr. Wilson snapped, bringing him out of his trance. “You ever shot a gun before?”
“Yes, sir,” he lied. “Yes, I have.” Sir. When did he ever address someone as sir? Blagh, he felt like saying, like a cat spitting up a hairball. Blagh, blagh.
The man’s blue eyes narrowed in their deep-set sockets. “What kind? Remington, Winchester half choke?”
The older man looked the outsider up and down incredulously, making him feel more like a Yankee than ever. “Well, look, this here’s a 12 gauge. Only a couple rules you need to follow,” he said, sticking the shotgun’s glossy wood butt in Neal’s outstretched palm. “One, keep the barrel pointed down at all times.”
Neal nodded his head as the gun’s lightweight muzzle began to drift north.
“Two,” the older man continued as he took his left hand and gently pointed the barrel downwards. “Do not release the safety until right before you’re going to shoot.”
“Safety on until I shoot, no problem.”
The man paused, ensuring that his words were not taken lightly. “And finally, if nothing else, remember: safety first.” With that, a thick black juice of chewing tobacco came flying out the side of his mouth, landing with a thick splaaaat on the dry earth.
“Safety numero uno,” Neal responded as his own dribble of juicy long-cut slid down his lip and onto his chin. “Sorry.”
He was the first to be assigned a position in the field. “See that grey chair a hundred yards down the gravel road?” they told him, “that’s where you’ll be. Go get settled in, and we’ll be with you in a few minutes.” With two boxes of shotgun shells, a bottle of cold water and a disheartening nod of the head, Neal made the lonely trek along the white four-rail fence to the far end of the Wilson’s farm.
It was an oppressively hot day beneath the rural Virginia sun, and with each heavy step of his dark brown boots the walk became more cumbersome. Peering back over his shoulder, Neal looked at the family farmhouse from which he had just come. It was a simple and yet powerful looking structure whose great white columns and wrap-around porch embodied the antebellum feel Dr. Wilson had wanted when searching for a country escape. Hearing now the voices rocking from the porch, Neal longed to be back with the family members as they enjoyed pulled pork sandwiches and glasses of sweet tea. He had instead arrived at his plastic fold-up chair, where he dropped his supplies on the kernel-covered ground and took a seat, the hot metal gun resting horizontally on his faded blue jeans. Crossroads, he sang to himself, gently closing his eyes, seem to come and go, yeah/The gypsy flies from coast to coast/Knowing many, loving none/Bearing sorrow, havin’ fun. But back home he’ll always run/To sweet Melissa.
After a short while he was awakened by the footsteps of Dr. Wilson and his hunting buddies as they made their way out to the field. Propping himself up in his seat, Neal took a quick swig of water and tried to look busy, staring off into the tall set of pines ahead. The doves, he had been told, would emerge from there soon, flying out of the dense thicket and soaring high above the open field. “And when you get a clear look at one, raise that gun, lead it with your sight, and then BANG!” The thought made Neal grimace.
He felt a hand clasp down on his shoulder. “You seein’ anything?” It was Dr. Wilson.
“Eh, too hot out still. When it cools down a bit they’ll get hungry. Then they’ll start a flyin’.”
Neal wasn’t sure what exactly he was supposed to say. Yup, they’ll be a flyin’ alright. Sensing his unease, Dr. Wilson continued, “You know my daughter is quite the marksman. Once shot thirteen doves all by herself.”
“Did she really?”
“Sure did, and in pearls no less.”
“Well,” Neal followed up, getting his elbow ready for the rib nudge but then remembering where he was. “I hope she went to confession the next day.”
For a while Dr. Wilson looked blankly at Neal, as if staring at him long enough would make him go away.
“Well, look, any questions just let me know. I’ll be at the outpost beneath the Poplar tree.”
But there were none. As the day trudged onwards and Neal sat baking in the summer sun, not a single shell was fired. He wasn’t sure where these doves were that had these men patiently waiting with eyes glued to the sky, but they sure weren’t here. Twice he had bolted up from his seat and raised his gun at two flapping wings, but before he could shoot he was reprimanded by tauntings of “SPARROW!”
And then, just when it all seemed a waste, he saw it: from out of the woods a tiny grey bird emerged, fluttering gracefully onto the single power line which ran from the house to the main road. Neal rose from his seat and stared wide-eyed at the fat-chested, round-headed, needle-beaked bird. What audacity, he thought, looking at the avian in its regal pose. Dove, don’t you realize? This is Fallujah. You’re about to be killed. Care why don’t you! Show some regard for lif…
“SHOOT IT!” a voice yelled.
Neal’s head lowered and he noticed all the men were standing up and staring at him, guns un-cocked in the crook of their arms.
“We’re out of range. SHOOT I…”
“THERE HE GOES!” yelled Dr. Wilson.
Throwing his head upwards, Neal watched as the dove leapt from the wire, dancing through the air in a fit of aerobatics. In a surge of adrenaline he clumsily raised the gun to his shoulder and released the safety. With his finger on the trigger he followed it through his sight – following it, following it and…BANG!
The dove came to an emphatic stop, and Neal’s regret was as instantaneous as the paralysis which rippled through the falling body. As he removed the gun from his ringing ear, it was for peace of mind that Neal dropped his weapon and went sprinting into the field, hoping to locate his victim.
He found the bird lying in a collapsed patch of dried corn stalks, lagging but not lifeless. Squatting down, Neal placed his hand on the soft feathers and examined the wound: a direct hit to the left wing. Frightened, the dove began to flap its wings in a flightless fervor, splattering droplets of blood onto his brown leather band. “Oh dove, gentle symbol of peace, what have I done? We didn’t even know each other, you and I. You probably had a family…HAVE a family! HAVE!”
The bird had begun to flicker it eyes, and its chest had now slowed to a falling pace. “Oh Dove,” he continued, “do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage…”
The hard pound of a familiar hand struck his back. “Hell of a shot, Neal!” He turned his shoulders and looked up. It was Dr. Wilson. You bastard, he thought, glaring at the man hovering over him.
The bird flapped its wing.
“Wring its neck,” the doctor commanded.
Neal’s eyes widened.
“Wring its neck son, it’s still alive.”
Rising from his knees, Neal took a defiant step towards Dr. Wilson. The two men stood but inches apart as they waited to see who would make the next move. Then, a sinister smirk crept onto Dr. Wilson as he looked over to the porch. The women – his wife, her sisters, and most importantly, his daughter – had pressed their faces to the wire mesh screen to see what all the commotion was about.
“Boy,” Dr. Wilson said with a sneer, “If you plan on marryin’ my daughter, you’ll wring that damn dove’s neck.”
Neal’s eyes shifted to the porch. In the distance he could see his college sweetheart giving him the thumbs up. Melissa looked beautiful, even from here. Gazing at her short brown hair, cute flannel shirt, and oversized cowgirl boots, he suddenly remembered why he had made the weekend trip down. It wasn’t to impress her family, or her father – it was to be with her. “Don’t wooooorry,” he could hear her saying later in her strong southern accent, throwing her arm around his shoulders. “My eold man’s just makin’ sure you’re the wun.”And then she would wink.
Neal cast a solemn look down at the dove. He had never been this close to a wild animal before, and there was something very unnerving about that. This, he felt, was not a meddling Nature intended. And yet, as the dove stared up at him from his brown caper-sized eyes, Neal realized this was no beast, this was a life.
His eyes then shifted from the Dove’s to Dr. Wilson’s. As he took a deep breath, Neal extended an outstretched palm. “Hand me the dove.”
Ben Oddo is a senior English major from Winchester, MA.