copyright Ellen
Washington, D.C.


"Up and at'em!"

Fey's energy wisps congealed, sucked back into eye sockets, running like mercury along nerve endings, switching on her brain.

Tonight had been a flying night, skimming the roofs of adobe houses that dared the unstable California hills to toss them into the Pacific, swooping like a thirsty bat at the surface of fishscale pools. "Look at me!" she cried. No one was aware. Somehow that seemed less important than when she was awake.

A voice rumbled again, "Up and at'em!" Her unconscious made a final snap and she hazed into her skin. She moaned inwardly, feigned sleep until a finger lightly invaded her ear. Resigned, resentful at being recalled from flight, she rolled over and sighed, "All right, I'm up."

Energized by the predawn chill, she and her father performed their unnamed chores with a minimum of whispers. Within thirty minutes they were bundled in the jeep, greeting dawn from the highest point of Palos Verdes. Fey felt giddy from thin oxygen and closeness.

It was cold, though not bitter cold like when they sat in a duck blind, noses at water level, or fishing on a Sierra lake without a toilet for eight hours. This morning she'd be hiking at least. Maybe her father would cook pheasant tonight. And maybe he wouldn't ask her to pluck it.

The dew stung her cheeks like salt on sunburn, like last summer when she had been bag girl, a burlap gunnysack half-full of speared bonito lashed to the innertube across which she lay belly-down. She had worn fins, a mask and a snorkeling tube which ran from mouth to sky to keep her alive while her ears tuned and her eyes sank into a waterworld of magic. Beside her, her father cruised with a handmade wooden spear, a broomhandle lashed tight with a steel prong on one end and a thick looped rubber band on the other, which he pulled taut up the shaft to spear fish.

Suddenly her father had swung across the surface and shouted, "Swim back to the boat! Leave the sack and SWIM!" She rolled off the innertube, the cold stinging her sunhot back, and headed toward the rowboat, eyes wide and searching beneath her. She saw her father, diaphragm distended, kick sharp and true like a frog leaping and spurt toward a tiger shark which circled ten feet beneath the pink-haloed bag. Straight, slow-motion smooth, the spear hit its mark The water roiled under her toes as the shark twisted and bit the shaft in two. "Christ," Fey gasped, wondering if the shark would turn on her father, on her.

She swam faster, head bending to watch till the snorkel tipped into the water and she sucked in brine. Choking, she gained the boat. She gripped its peeling edges and looked back. Her father swam toward her, heavy bag in tow. The shark had caught the spear shaft inside a coral arch and thrashed, entwined by kelp.

There wasn't much wrong her father could do any more, since then.

Today they were on top of the world in Roy Bowen's garbanzo patch. The sky looked like the rainbow sheen of an oil slick. They cracked through dried fieldstubs with heavy snakeproof boots, perfect for frightening pheasants.

After twenty minutes of hiking she was aligning bootstrides with her father, settling into a rhythm where she barely seemed to touch ground, too fast or smooth to alert rattlers, when a gentle thunder burrrred to her right, and her father swung his 12-gauge to his shoulder and assumed Marine stance. "Get back!" A pair of pheasants, wingspread vast, lifted themselves scolding above the scruboak tops. She rose with them, feeling the muscles strain against her back. The early sun sparked the male's iridescent throat. One barrel blasted, the throat exploded, the second barrel blew, and brown and red feathers scattered off the female, who disappeared.

Her father pushed into the underbrush, searched a moment, and handed her the male by its feet, bloody head dangling warm and limp from the shredded neck. There was a strong smell of life seeping, heady and nauseating. She knew that squeamishness was unacceptable, yet the gorge rose rancid on her tongue.

"Never quit until you've found and finished off an animal you've wounded. Don't leave it to suffer," her father said.

With numb hand held high beside her to keep the dead head off the ground, she followed him into the brush to seek the wounded mate. It seemed to have flown far. Still her father searched. Fey dropped behind.

A thornbush grabbed her and whispered, "If the bird flew that far she must be all right. Haven't you enough for dinner?" A vine tripped her, and thistles clung possessively. She lowered herself clumsily and cradled the warm down belly against her cheek, tasting blood in her nostrils, on her tongue served up with cranberry sauce.

Her eyes unfocused. Seeping out her shoulders, arms, fingertips, nose, her energy poured into the riddled body, willing it to rise, to fly to places remembered or yet to be remembered. No response but a trace of warmth like the distant scent of a flower dried for months. A feather surged, subsided, the gift already spent.

A branch thwacked against a nearby trunk. Fey returned, stood up, had composed herself when her father emerged, bird grotesque in his fist. She reached for the neckwrung female and gently held it against its mate. She walked head bowed behind her father, stepping in the spaces he vacated, accepting his groundsight until they reached the jeep. They drove down the mountain each in a separate silence.

Fey postponed cleaning the shotgun, though she knew it would be harder later. Her father, thank God, skinned the pheasants. She went to bed.

It was decided Fey must have asthma again, for she didn't wake when called to dinner. Minnie, the cat, left unheeded to crunch carcasses, and Fey flew with pheasants for a long, long time.

For my dad

© Muffin Ellen