Heaven, Helen, and Evan
Copyright 2005 by James Bassett
So when you have one emu, and I do, Evan, the result, slash, reward of an odd phone call received several years ago, there will be another one. There will be another odd call. There will be another emu. Don’t go looking for one on your own. Don’t set your sights on getting a second for the first, some company, a companion. You know what I mean. It is the one and first question from all who hear of Evan, a lost emu now in my corrals, increasingly growing in temperance and my affections.
“Are you going to get him a friend?”
Although there is a quick and very true answer for that, “No, I really only take in the needy and don’t care to create a market for more unwanted emus in the world by seeking them out and buying them,” no one can escape the undertone behind the question. I was an ogre for taking in Evan and not offering up at least one emu girl to him, however ostensibly a friend and companion, still, emphatic and persistent enough not to fully dispel the prospect of a leggy and wanton emu aberration.
Still. Don’t fill that space with one you want. If you do, there will be no room left when you get that call. And you will. And I did. One of my business customers called with information about a local nursery going out of business and giving away the animals they kept on the grounds as a type of attraction. One of those animals would just have to be an emu. And it was a girl. For that split second, that same split second spent on every call just like this, my mind raced. It raced over every excuse, explanation, pretence, and/or grandiose personal catastrophe possible to back out, now. And one more split second to go over all of them again, trying to make just one of them work in my head and avoid taking in one more. One more, that is, of what I have come to call “somebody else’s animal.” And this “somebody else’s animal” was a big animal at that, needing big room, outside, and lots of my time. This emu is not just a bird in a cage or a fish in a bowl. It is livestock, big, needy, agricultural livestock. There is going to be a lot more involved to this than just opening the door in the morning to go out to go poop.
The split seconds always pass with, “Yes. I’ll go check that out.” I leave off the “damn it.” I always think that is a non-committal reply and know it to be a concrete commitment, simultaneously. Not a yes, not a no, but also, not a definitive and/or grandiose escape. So at the root of it, it’s a “Yes.” It was a call I knew would come someday and, after all, it was a girl. Evan could use some company through the day, even if emus are not the closely social, always monogamous animals some species are known to be. If I could figure out how to transport her home and they don’t kill each other (which by the way is one of the known emu introduction possibilities, occasionally the female just plain trouncing and gouging the male underfoot to a bloody pulp), yes, I will maybe be able to finally answer the masses with, “Yes, the boy did eventually get a girl.” So, I guess that is-- a “Yes.”
This nursery, really this retail portion of a much larger commercial nursery, had made a business of going out of business over the years. This time though, with the dispersing of the animals, it seemed to be an end of the end of this end of the business. It was just one of at least two retail outlets of the concern. This one, by the looks of it, right in the right-of-way of a long threatened road straightening that would create a major cross-town thoroughfare finally underway.
The whole set up for the animals wasn’t really any kind of petting zoo or facility with any more interaction than a place for shoppers’ children to hang out and look at a few animals in chain link caging. There wasn’t even a gate into the emu’s pen. You had to go in the other animals’ pen, a couple of pygmy goats and a peacock already taken by others, and move another section of fencing that was wired between that pen and the emu pen to even enter the section she occupied. It was about twelve feet wide by twenty-five feet long and a piece of plywood had been strapped over the top of one corner to cover the hanging food bucket. Some straw had been thrown in one corner for the emu’s “comfort”. Any shade was by time of day from some trees to the south side of the pen. There was no overhead protection. They said they had acquired the emu when she was six months old and had kept her here these last eight years.
This is why you “don’t fill that space”. Where there are animals in the hands of people, there is always need. Jaded by years of offering Animal Welfare to a near deaf general public, I know people and animals together to be by definition “immanent need emanating.” Even if the boy doesn’t get the girl today, or this year, or more, “don’t fill that space”. You will need it. And the need now is this emu needs to get out of that pen. This emu needed to be out of that stinking box of a pen eight years ago.
Of course that is somewhat unnecessarily condescending. Much can be given with little. The dog loves the master rich and poor, luckily for me and mine. It is in the end not the facility, my own no more than proportionately less stifling, but still inadequate to house animals who roam hundreds of nomadic miles at speeds up to thirty-five miles per hour. It is only the perspective, but the perspective was now mine, burdened with my baggage, and further distorted by no one here making even the slightest effort to indulge their emu and their eight year long “ownership”, “guardianship”, or whatever “ship” they might have had with this emu with so much as question one about just who I was and what I might or might not know or care about an emu, its life, or just why I might be interested in this emu at all.
The sign on the sales counter said “Emu, free to good home.” I have become pretty tired of that sign over the years, as if I were to be made to believe there was a “good home” behind the sign. Behind that sign were thousands of unwanted dogs and cats and their thousands of litters of puppies and kittens and a myriad of other animals cast off by people’s self-indulgences, crushing the hopes of those working animal shelters and rescuers throughout the nations.
The line at the counter was longer than I had time for that day if I was going to get this emu up and out and get back to my own life, rather than now having to take care of one more animal being discarded under the shoddy guise of one “good home” to another. And that long line definitely had too much money in the pockets of those customers for the current “caretakers” to care anything about me, or their precious “free to good home” emu.
My cynicism was escalating. I regretted its effect on me as I caught the sales person’s eye and pointed at the “free to good home sign” as a manner of circumventing the line of buyers. She told they would have someone meet me by the emu pen. When I returned a half hour later, having waited for no one, she lead me over to the owner’s site trailer which radiated an overpowering odor of cat urine, where I remained outside until the cashier returned and relayed to me that the owner was too emotional to talk to me at the moment, presumably about the sale of the business that has gone out of business so many times before, but the answer was, “You seem like a good guy. You can take her.” My condescension and the cynicism were seething. More than the wish to accommodate an animal in need, those furious and hostile emotions drove me on so I might put into place the logistics for moving this one emu for this person who I knew had more money and more resources at his, her, or whoever’s disposal than I have, because the need emanates and this emu’s need was obviously immanent.
If there were no questions for me and my home, there would also be no questions asked of those arriving who only wish the emu a worse fate, a worse holding pen for another company’s customer curiosity, or a financially strapped and unconcerned traveling side-show operation, or a shoddy get-rich-quick breeding scheme. That “The Wisdoms” of the ages here appear specious, no pestilence pursuing the uncaring, good intentions no match for this cashier line, truth no champion over dubious vernacular, must for the immediate, at least at this going out of business again event, defer to their origins, just “believe and do good.”
Transporting emu is a dilemma, even for the industry. In contacting various organizations I receive the same noncommittal advice from emu ranchers to emu sanctuary personnel. Transporting is the worst thing for them. They get a bit crazy and there is no real transporting vehicle specific to the emu. Usually, they end up at the other end fairly worse for the wear. The smaller interior area the better is the common wisdom. One emu breeder relayed a situation where two were loaded into the back of a station wagon. Other than quite a mess, emu find relieving themselves fully necessary during stressful times, it seemed a compact, plausible solution. Horse trailers are for horses. They give the emu way too much room to bash themselves against the sides running frantically within it, desperate to escape. But a small, single, fully enclosed horse trailer, definitely not one with the open-air slat sides, but well ventilated, with padding or straw hay spread on the floor serves some well. One transporter is known to have fashioned one of these with an inner, movable topper that lowered, forcing the emu to crouch and be unable to stand or jump up during transport, though I gather neither this nor the station wagon stopped them from ending up sideways and kicking each other during the trip.
Having taken in the various options used by others, I sided with the concept of “the smaller the space” the better and safer for all. It only makes sense. The confinement reduces various means of impact in transport. I fashioned the cab of the my truck with an interior divider made of plywood that also blocked the leg space, which made a nice compact area that kept the emu crouched and confined to a small space and protected me from any kicking sideways.
My first attempt at transporting an emu a few years ago went fairly well only for the dumb luck of a damn fool and the four hours previous spent chasing the bird to near exhaustion. Fully fatigued, Evan had allowed me to pick him up and place him in the back truck bed of my little pickup and rode quietly alongside his earlier pursuers. Flawless, but for the minor incident as we approached the corral area and bounced a bit off the main drive, making Evan bolt upright and with a swift kick send one woman air-born, right out of the bed of the pickup. Quite hilarious really once finding no bones had been broken. She just flew out of that truck, arms flailing and just about spread eagle sideways in mid air it seemed forever.
This new emu also did not seem an overly excitable bird. I had walked with her inside her pen a few times to gauge her basic attitude. We would walk back and forth in her pen and she would let me touch her some and then sit in the corner where there was straw hay put out and let me lie down next to her. She was docile, which I took for being friendly. After taking the next morning fashioning the passenger seat for her in my truck, I went in with a harness. It had taken almost a year for my emu at home to allow a harness. She and I walked a while, sat awhile, and I slipped the harness over her head within a relatively short period of time. I took this all as a good indication of her amiable nature. She pulled away some, but was easily led out of the pen, lifted into the truck seat, and allowed the door to be closed. I was feeling extremely fortunate and the pit in my stomach begun by yesterday’s communications with the supposed caretakers who were nowhere to be found during this entire process was subsiding.
She was calm while the car started and while I drove around the nursery compound for a few minutes testing the waters. I talked to her through the divider. I had forgotten to ask her name. I called her Heaven, Heaven for my Evan. I thanked her for being so well behaved and making this trip so easy so far. It was a manual transmission and we were driving on the nursery grounds behind the public area making for a somewhat jolting test drive. Jolting even more than usual was my intention here on the nursery grounds. I wanted to make sure this ride was in fact possible before setting out into traffic. And through all that bouncing over the nursery grounds, quick brakes, and clutch playing, Heaven was just heaven on wheels, I told her. So I went out the drive, did not wave rude gestures toward the overworked cashier, and drove down the street to the main road. Cake.
Emu don’t vocalize a lot. There are distinctive sounds they make, but they are not a great communicator. I didn’t hear the sound my male at home makes for some two or three months. It seems to be used more in times of ease and comfort and heard more during mating and nesting season. The male makes what people call a grunting sound. To me it sounds like a very well developed burping. The female sound is described as an exotic drumming sound. Though I had not heard her at this point, I have since found it to be more like an extremely well developed burping augmented by a fully amplified subwoofer set to volume ten. But for now, all was quiet. Thank heaven and thank you, Heaven.
I stopped at the main road. That was it. Heaven exploded. EXPLODED. Everything was thundering. The whole cab bounced, crashed, and pounded. The seat jumped. Feathers were coming over the divider. There was nothing to do but wait. It didn’t take long. But it was enormously BIG. They tend to go a little crazy was the part of the advice I was remembering as the commotion settled. The divider held. I was fine. I could hear the bird breathing, breathing exactly as you would expect after such a display of “big”. I wouldn’t know how else to explain the bedlam other than just that, a tortured show of big, big, and big enough to be kind of scary. It was still scary even now just listening to the breathing. Even the breathing was bigger than me.
But it was quiet enough to just listen to the breathing. So I thought, maybe we were okay. It was quiet. The divider did its job. We were solid. Then I saw the windshield. Cracks spread from top to bottom, from side to side, and crisscrossed diagonally. I anticipated that delayed crumbling you see in the cartoons. Splat! Pause as a distorted face smashed against the other side of the glass slides down. Crack! The sound makes the lines spread choreographed, first up, then across, all intertwining and wildly orchestrated. Then. Crumble. There would be a tinkling sound as thousands of tiny pieces deposited in a pile along the dash, and a pause.
I couldn’t go out into traffic. I could only imagine a frantic emu in the middle of a major city intersection and me explaining to the police some kind of innocence while I and a troop of sheriffs raced after a thirty-five mile an hour sprinting emu, a six-foot, frenzied, Australian big-bird in rush hour traffic held up and congested for the past and probably the next hour and a half, several unhappy commuters blurting out scenes of this emu bursting up through the windshield like a rising phoenix, as I pleaded for leniency with proclamations of “the smaller the space the safer for everybody. It only makes sense.”
She let me open her door and walk her back to the nursery. I don’t know why she was so amiable. From the start she allowed me in, sat down with me, let me prod her, allowed me to pressure her, to harness her, to move her about. She didn’t know me. I have come to think it was only because she knew there was nowhere to go. If I had decided to chase her, poke her, or prod her, or any other manner of distressing her into disarray, she would have submitted to that also, because there was nowhere to go. She knew it. She had nowhere to go these past eight years. There was twelve feet in that direction and twenty-five feet in the other. She wasn’t allowing anything. She was compliant in resignation to twelve by twenty-five feet of nowhere to go long ago. I was just one more interruption to that today. Again, I was feeling lucky we were both intact due again only to the dumb luck of a damned idiot.
Through it all there was not one sign of the slightest interest from anyone at the nursery. No one asked how things were going, why there was a delay of a day or two, or if they could be of any assistance, offer a panel truck they used for transporting trees, or even throw in the last of the bag of her food. The day we did go, the nursery was closed. There was no food in the food bucket and no one in sight to say goodbye.
A horse trailer may be for moving horses, but there was no way around it. I was two days off my own work already. I hired a trailer for the next day. I harnessed her up, put her in the horse trailer and followed them back to the house trying not to imagine the number of ways she could hurt herself on the way. The driver backed the trailer around to the small corral I had left just for this purpose. I didn’t know it was going to be another emu, but I did know there would be another need.
I had broken out the majority of the partitions in a series of five horse pens so that the first emu, Evan, could have a larger space than your usual horse stall and run. It was five stalls made into one big arena and there was a gate opening into another exercise area behind it that had formally been used for horse training. It was the same size again or bigger. It wasn’t the great expanse of the famous Out Back where he ought to be, but it was enough for him to do more than just walk back and forth along the fence. But I had left this last pen just for such a need as this. Introductions can be so unpredictable.
I wanted to open the horse trailer door even before it came to a stop and I did not want to open the door. I wanted to know and I didn’t. It was excruciatingly quiet in the trailer. She had squat down. Thank you, Heaven. She turned her head at the opening of the door. She remained squat and quiet. She moved, maybe a little quickly, as I lifted on the harness. There was no pulling, no jarring, no moves of desperation. She walked beside me nicely into the pen. I felt a great calm as the driver and I watched the two emus square off at their separating fence. There was no commotion. No sounds. No grunting, no drumming, no burping. I watched the two watch each other for a while after the driver left. She was no worse for the travel wear. The two were at least interested in each other. For animals greeting one another, this was a truly tame introduction.
So into the big pen she went. Why wait? She let me walk her out and into the big pen and take off the harness as if it was a daily occurrence. And in a minute, there was an immediate flurry of movement, fast and furious movement. There was running, bouncing, swaying, and jumping. There was kicking, and biting, and snapping, and pouncing, and there were feathers flying everywhere. And then there was more running. One chased the other from one end of the pen to another and then the other jumped, kicked, and bit and then began to chase the first from that end of the pen into other. Neither one was chasing the next any more than the other. And it was fast. It was furious. I stood mid pen and clicked photos by the second. I could see them lean heavily as they veered off running straight toward me. I could feel the rush of feathers brush by. As they would enter a corner the one being chased would leap up in a turn, and the other would leap as well, then with both mid air, the first would kick and bite at the other and then be the one in mad pursuit. These huge birds ran more like the animated cartoon roadrunner than the cartoon ran like the real roadrunner. The head and neck were straight out, the legs were a blur, and their hair-like feathers flew on the run, swayed on the turns, and bounced on the trot. They were slowing down. Occasionally there would be a break, a motionless moment in a corner, and then another mad dash by one after the other.
That was the afternoon, hours of flurries, scurries, and mad dashes. Fairly mild for what it could have been. I must erect an alter to my guardian angel, the dumb luck of a damned idiot. By evening they had gone to what I call their neutral corners. They would keep those neutral corners for the better part of six months. One of them might decide to walk over to the other and a good run would ensue, but nothing like that first day. And soon, it was almost always the female running after Evan.
Once we had learned how, Evan and I had always found some time to lie down on the ground together so I could pet him like a dog, usually in the evening. That is their quietest, calmest time. He did a lot more of that now. He’d be there immediately at morning feeding time, come right over and sit down next to me. If I moved along, he stood, moved along and sat real fast next to me again. I chuckled at this some, but was genuinely moved by the attention. He was eager for the time together. Sometimes you can’t know exactly the thoughts of an animal, but here you could absolutely see Evan seeking solace. Just as I would lie down, he would bury his head in my neck. He would press the top of his head right into my neck and we would be there until the next car drove by, or dog barked, or some other noise brought him to the alert. Then he would bury his head in my neck again. It is intriguing to be stretched out next to a hundred pound bird, but for the most part just the head and neck fold back into yours arms much like a baby. With this, there are times they aren’t really like any kind of big bird at all. In the tenderness I tried to see that maybe this was a little more even to Evan than just another place to cage him. Maybe he liked it here a little. Maybe he liked me a little.
Otherwise, it looked as though the two of them would do just fine together. I’d get up and set out their respective food buckets. Evan never would eat the ratite or emu food that is made for them. I had to mix turkey crumble, game bird feed, and chicken scratch for him to eat. He played me much like any manipulative little dog or kitty holding out for the good goopy canned stuff. She would eat the proper food made especially for the emu. It is a processed pellet much like the horse food is made. Evan never recognized the pellet as food, or at least, so much more recognized cracked corn as food that he wouldn’t eat unless he saw the cracked corn in the food. The turkey mix and the game bird feed were added in slowly until he accepted it, just so he would be on a healthy diet.
But, being a stupid male, Evan decided he needed to pick at the new bird’s food, chance a little dominance, even if he did wait until the coast was clear to do it. When Helen would walk off, he would go in for the steal. And through it, he was unaware of his own shrinking portions of cracked corn, until his own bucket was no longer put out at all. Even if and from some dumb male power thing, Evan finally conceded to a proper diet. And it cost him more than his favorite food. For all his attempt to domineer the food bowl on the sly, it had more than once cost him some chasing and biting and kicking around the corrals for his intrusion into Heaven’s neutral corner. But, in the end, they both began to eat from the same bucket, in the same corner. In the end, the neutral corners merged at feeding time.
I had to call the nursery one more time. I had been calling her Heaven, but did want to keep some things constant for her in the change and calling her by her own name would do well. They said her name was Grace or Gracie and put me through to Charles, her normal caretaker I guess. He said she would like a cracker and did she ever like her cracker. I had to find creative ways to hold that cracker so she wouldn’t take off a finger in the process. And she gave me an inquisitive look it seemed the first time I offered her that saltine and called her Gracie. It was the same look that was also so evident that Evan had given me those first years. The head cocks sideways. The one eye lands squarely on you. You know you are the focus of attention. And you can see the eye question, wonder. The question is not “Are you dangerous”? That is a given, first and immediate. The question is “Are you not dangerous”? Just to change the question is an enormous undertaking.
Though I might understand the situation to be that Gracie had been somehow saved from a meager life of little and seemingly disinterested human companions, and about to be thrust off on any number of possible future scenarios, Gracie only knew me as the one who took her away from all that she knew. I took her away from whoever brought her crackers. I took her away from those visiting children and shoppers at the fence. I took her away from that space she had come to know as her world, her safety, her everything.
Recently I had run into the origins behind the phrase “apple of your eye.” When translated literally, it means “the image in the pupil of the beholder”. To be the “apple of the eye” does not refer to who is being viewed, and not just what that beholder views, but also what the beholder refers or infers onto that being viewed. The apple is the image in the pupil. If you are the “apple of one’s eye”, you are not just what that eye sees, but everything that beholder believes you fulfill. Even more, the gaze of that eye lands only on the one who does fulfill what that eye is looking to see. The “apple of one’s eye” can fulfill the search for friend or foe. It can fulfill the search for deceit or truth, good or evil. But it will only land on that which does fulfills that search.
I had seen that sideways glance when Evan arrived and understood it less. I understood it enough to want to live up to it. I grasped the then undefined concept that when I was the image in that pupil, I wanted there to be no fear. When I was the image in that pupil, I wanted there to be no want. And now with the understanding, when I am the image in that pupil, I want to be that and more than I am able.
So also I shy,
bid the gaze would avert,
lest it see
which I seek most to hide.
So, except for the intermittent stroll into Evan’s neutral corner for the ensuing chase around the corral each morning and several times in the day, Gracie would walk her short end of the pen. It was enough. The same as did Evan when he first was able to stretch into larger quarters. He stayed along the short side of a wider fence line, the smaller was better, it was known, it was safe. I’d walk in and past her, flash a wave and yell, “Hello, Gracie”, sometimes “Hi’ya, Heaven”, even sometimes “Hey there, whoever you are”, and go on over to Evan right away. One day I mixed up hi’ya, hello, and heaven and blurted out “Hidee’ho, Helen.” And she has been Helen to me ever since.
She may have been Grace,
and Lord knows we hoped
more than a little
Heaven for Evan,
but I think deep down
we knew, I’m talking for me
and I think Evan, too,
as the chasing commenced
more from her than from him,
she would be called Helen,
for she was more that now than Heaven,
less Heaven than Helen,
cause she was it seemed sure
Hell bent on being
pure Hell on poor Evan.
So, Hell on she was,
They were Helen and Evan.
even now when I hold her,
even now when I told her
“Grace be to Heaven.”
Grace be to
Evan and Helen and
Helen and Evan. Selah.
Her space increased. She began to walk the full fence. That’s a funny thing about the emu. They walk that fence as if to venture beyond, but shrink at the means. It goes beyond an animal tendency to become habituated to their given caging. In new surroundings, their immediate space grows slowly, even if accustomed to vast acreage. Her independence grew slowly also. I didn’t quite grasp it in its subtlety. I would sit with Evan for a while as usual, but Helen would have stood and moved on. With her own growing space, so grew the space between her and me, between my approach and her moving on ahead, not unfriendly, but not friendly.
So, she wasn’t always friendly: So, who is? She was nice enough. And it was becoming evident she and Evan were being extremely nice in the morning, a few times in the afternoon, and again in the evening, November through March. Evan tried to keep this friendship up into April, but the biting from Helen took a toll here and there, became brutal by May, until even Evan finally gave up hope for attentions from Helen, and we all lied down quietly again in the heat of June, right on through too long in the Arizona sun. Calm again. That was their season, an eventful introductory season of the emu. And introductions can be so unpredictable.
For the most part, the emu is much like any other animal. If at all possible, it would avoid people. Given captive circumstances, and depending on the nature of the people, the emu tend to be at least docile. But, they are an animal and domesticity rests in a balance tempered with and somewhat depending on the time of year and what seasonal hormones are driving them at the moment, breeding, nesting, gorging, or “coasting” is what I call the very docile summer session. They are definitely not your spayed dog, house pet. But then, to the contrary, much like the intact male dog, those having difficulty identifying their single emu as male or female and relying only on their differing sound have just not had a lone male emu in love with them in November. Thank heaven for Helen.
And this past November, December, January, and well into April was Helen’s. She stayed just out of reach of me and very close to Evan. Evan remained his amiable self. I had more than just hoped Evan would not become so enamored with the attentions of Helen that he would become indifferent to me. I enjoyed his attention and tolerance of me. Letting me stretch out beside him in the evening, I could at least imagine we had succeeded beyond a consequence of circumstance, beyond the context of mere captive animal. She wasn’t unfriendly, but there was no rapport between us. We were situational. Only for Evan were her surroundings more than caging. And it seemed to me that as long as she and Evan were good companions, I didn’t need to pursue the matter. She was now merrily laying a beautifully textured, green egg every three days. So I just let our non-accord be and proceeded with the ensuing egg hunt.
I might find one under a corner bush with twigs dropped on top, or between several bushes in the center of the corrals with leaves spread over, or supposedly hidden in the far corner of the exercise area. The ostrich is famous for strewing its eggs across the countryside, for all to snatch and even themselves to squash, so the absence of elaborate nesting was no surprise. Though I would for Helen and Evan’s sake avoid dwelling on the biblical connection made between this ostrich habit and the fool.
The egg husbandry being the male obligation, I found a couple of them right under Evan. Just like a chicken, there is a “hollow” that follows forward of the thigh, along the rib cage to the arched underbelly. If the day and the time was right, always just the darker side of dusk, and I could not find an egg in my searching, I would reach under Evan while we were stretched out and pull out an egg.
It would be more than a few times, the day was right, the time was right, but there was no egg and there was no egg under Evan. I would already be stretched out beside Evan resting and Helen, off in her neutral corner while I visited, would come up on her legs half way, arch her back, lay the egg that would thud a bit with the drop to the ground, and then stand upright and either peck and drop a few twigs and leaves over it, or just walk away. I was just jaw-dropped astounded the evening I had guests over expressly to visit with the emus and Helen came to stand between us, give out a hiss like a disturbed cat, and then very oddly out of character cuddle up to me in an extraordinary display of closeness and affection, drop to a half squat, and plop an egg out with a thud to the ground right in between my two visitors and myself. And yes, she just stood right up and walked away. I was the more dumbfounded by her behavior maybe because it had been just several days ago now that she had attacked in a manner clearly intent on killing me.
I had gone out mid-day to offer them some grapes. For all of Evan’s picky food choices, grapes were always accepted. I handed them out one at a time. They came to expect to eat them in turn, one for Helen, one for Evan, only from the right hand until the last of them, then the left held out one to Helen and the right held out one to Evan, they ate it and knew there were no more. Helen would walk away and Evan would let me step up to him, hold his head for a kiss and stay there while I pet along his neck and pounded lightly to hear the deep hollow torso resonate. I always verbally thanked Evan for tolerating me. And I would head back to the house. It was a break in the day more refreshing than the “power nap.” I used it often to punctuate my daily routine.
So today, I walked down to the corrals, into their pen and across to the exercise area before I spotted them both milling around a few bushes in the far corner. I like that their space is not just a stark, bare, welded bar horse corral anymore. Bushes have grown and softened that vacant caging effect. And they both blend with the desert surroundings so well that spotting them is sometimes a challenge. That camouflage allowed Helen to get very close quickly before I realized she was on a dead run straight at me with an unholy vicious and violent objective, which was to kill me. There was no mistaking the behavior. You don’t have to have been around animals much to understand this kind of attack. There would be no pause in the assault. My only option was escape and I had nowhere to flee. I was scared.
I ran clumsily backward, flinging the grapes as my hands flew forward to protect me. I could see her push off with the one powerful leg, about to pulverize me with a kick from the other as I fell back through a creosote bush and landed flat on my back with a good crack to the head, terrified that I was now down, defenseless, and exposed for the savage trouncing and gauging I had heard females can inflict on objectionable males.
She did not come through the bush. It was a barrier. Maybe it had flung back and slapped her like a switch. She was coming around. Fast. I was up and around the bush. She switched direction. She was intent. I was definitely the image in her pupil. And she was dead set to see blood red death, doom, and carnage. I switched direction. She switched direction. I bolted for another bush. I kept to the far side of the bush, both switching back from one direction to the other. Somewhat less panicked now; I envisioned scenes from Laurel and Hardy, or Harpo Marx in the mirror. I bolted for another bush. The zigzag bounding from bush to bush and the intermittent recoiling and positioning back and forth around each, mine for escape, hers for attack, delayed my final mad dash for the corral gate for some twenty minutes.
She guarded that gate with a warrior’s zeal. I could see her chest heaving great gasps and her feet pounding, raging in rancor, as I slipped around back to close the gate that would confine her to the corrals. I shook and my heart pounded in my head. I walked back to where Evan was still milling around the back corner of the exercise area. He ran off wildly flinging his neck and head in defiance as I picked up the egg and walked back to the house. Evan flaunted himself occasionally. He would bluff force in these times when our routine was disrupted. He’d even bite. But birds have a bit less tooth to their bite than others. It can hurt, but is somewhat of a bluff in itself.
When Evan feels I have sufficiently disturbed him, like now, or when visitors bring children who chase him, or he is harnessed and held for a veterinarian to examine him and vaccinate him against West Nile Virus, he waits until I have escorted the offenders away and return to visit him alone again. He then stands as I approach to console him only to suddenly lift and strike a bruising bite and walk off or, like now, run off flinging his neck and head. There isn’t much to it and I have come to be able to just miss the bite, at which point he just walks or runs off anyway. I have come to know Evan will not follow through. He will stop. I had just learned that Helen will not. Helen will commit to violence.
I had found out exactly why you do not put an animal in a cage, in a corral, in anything and leave it to its own means. I had always known it and not known it. I had always taken dogs and cats and trained them to live with me in my house, not relegated them to the confines of a lonely backyard. When Evan arrived, he was lavished with attention, however uninformed or unfocused that attention was. It was still an abundance of interaction, if no more than that. There were hours spent walking up and down the fence line alongside Evan. When he walked, I walked. When he stopped and stood, I stood. When he lied down, I lied down next to him. I would place my hand on him at every chance and for as long as he permitted. I wanted him to know me, to know my touch, to understand that he was a precious gift. I followed Evan with his food dish in hand for months on end. I talked to Evan while I broke out the five smaller corrals into one big arena. I brought him toys, pinwheels, statues, and windsocks to decorate his pen and give him some diversion. I was his servant. And Evan learned to stand by me calmly and let me hold his head in my arms.
I had cheated Helen. She had remained ignored because she showed up friendly, at least passive. And I had done nothing to modify the primeval enmity between animal and human kind. I did not recognize her detachment as being aversion. I misinterpreted her aloof nature until it built into animosity. Because she was seemingly no threat and as long as she would unobtrusively preoccupy herself with Evan, I disregarded her. I underestimated the malice and hostility of indifference and disinterest.
When I stopped shaking, I picked up a handful of grapes and proceeded out to the corrals. I let Evan in from the exercise area and fed each their grape. One to Helen, one to Evan, one to Helen, one to Evan, in their turn until the last two, then two hands out flat, one for each. Helen walked away. Evan let me hold his head. I would keep that gate to the back area closed for some time, limiting their space. They would only get food when I went out and held the food bowl out to them or gave them grapes, one to each in their turn. I walked behind Helen more now than Evan and talked to her. In the day, she kept her distance. At night, I lied down by her whenever she would allow. That was not always, not even most of the time. It is their calmest time, but that still was not always. And she was always ever more alert and tensed than Evan. Except that I took for granted that our fight would be over when I walked back out into that corral, and it was, Helen was never dismissed again.
It has been more than a year now. Helen and I talk often still.
Still at a distance
At a distance in the day
a passing pat,
a fond wisp, a murmur,
the slightest hello,
and still only a chance
but a better chance than before
still a better chance
at least at night
to rest, reprieve
lull one another
a better chance
even her own
better than before
but still, and
It has been more than a year now. And we take grapes now, one, then the other. It will be more than a year again someday and we’ll see then, too, and then again in more than a year after that. God willing. Selah.
The road bypassed the nursery property again.
The nursery is open again. Same place, same name. Who
knows with who in charge now, the same, or the same only different.
A business is allowed to make a profit, even at my expense if I so
choose to enter into a free offering, and certainly at the expense of
a few plants and animals. The goats and the peacock are back.
The goats are a longhorn, pygmy goat, marketed and sold as an exotic
pet. They have no agricultural use. Their cage has a big,
new lean-to inside that they all can almost fit under. Helen’s
end of the cage has a nice “house” in it, a scratching
post at the east end of the caging, and shade cloth screen draped
over the top. The shade cloth is new, the fabric stretched
taut, no tears, and no flapping remnants yet. There is chicken
wire over the chain linking at the bottom. It’s new,
shiny, not rusted yet. The cats caged in it are the new exotic,
spotted breed with crooked, bobbed tails. They bring a very
good price. Who knows? They could be spayed and
neutered. And who knows? They may be taken into real
housing evenings, or maybe at least during wet, messy weather.
And who knows if immanent need is really emanating?
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James' Story List and Biography