Tuesday, August 25, 2015

And Then There Were Two

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
And Then There Were Two

It’s said: There are two sides to every story. That's true. But most times there are even more than that. Each perspective becomes like a facet on a crystal, adding dimension. So many sides. So many perspectives. So many facets.

My Side.
I walk Norma in and we're almost to the corral when I see a turkey. A gray hen loose in the grass. She's calling for her friends, pacing in front of the fence that leads into the garden. She's not in the turkey pen.

Oh no, I think. This can't be good.

I close the gate on Norma and walk over to the turkey pen. Feathers. A torn fence. A massacre. All our turkey friends dead, but one. Oh no. Not the turkeys. I try to catch the loose hen. To calm her down with an offering of grass, but she won't let me near.

I stand up and look over at the torn netting. The turkeys would normally rush up to the fence when I walked past, preening and chirping, and gobbling, and, in their own words, saying something like, “Come inside, bring us grass, we love you." All my turkey friends. I cry for the dead turkeys.

Jesse is off moving the layers’ chicken trailer. I want to wait for her so she doesn't have to discover this alone. The turkeys were her friends first. They loved her the most. She gave them grass and treats from the garden. They jumped on her shoulder and her leg when she came in to feed them. They grew large and happy under her care. But I feel funny waiting around; there's work to be done. I go mop the kitchen, hoping to hear the skid steer go by so I can meet her there. Be there. But I don't hear. When I look out the window I see the skid steer in front of the Chicken Palace. Jesse is not in the driver’s seat.

I go out and she's not in sight. The gray hen is also gone. I head back toward the lodge. Jesse and I meet up on the road. I can't tell from her face if she knows. "I'm so sorry," I say and more tears come, as, at the same time, she says, "Something got the turkeys."

She's already caught the gray hen and another wandering turkey. "I haven't seen Greg," she says.

"He was over by the lodge," I say. She and I head over together. Greg is in the outside covered porch area eating breakfast and we stop and talk through the screen at him.

"I hate to start your morning off with bad news," Jesse says. "Something got the turkeys."

Greg stands up. "Shit," he says, takes off his hat and runs his hand through his hair.

Jesse and Greg go out together to look at the mess. I go into the kitchen and start on dairy stuff.

"It was a bear," Jesse says later. It had slid under the electric fencing, catapulted itself into the pen, tearing the netting to get inside. There are seven dead turkeys scattered with their feathers in the pen. A trail of feathers is sad evidence that the bear took one with him on his way out. That's eight gone. Plus the two that are still alive. That's ten. There are five turkeys unaccounted for. Have they flown the coop for good? Are they dead? Are they waiting for it to be safe to come back home?

Some time later, I go to the garden to get basil. I hear voices and see Greg and Paul walking over. Greg shows Paul, the owner, the tracks, tells the story of what must have happened. I come to stand next to them and to see the bear’s tracks for myself, to hear the story of his entry again.

"How is your sister doing?" Paul asks me. He gestures toward the torn netting, the scattered feathers, "With all this?"

"She handled it better than I did," I say. "I cried a little for the turkeys."

"I think that's okay," Paul says with kind understanding on his face.

The Turkeys’ Side.
Death came like a quick falling shadow. A slashing of claws. A clamping of teeth. As the shadow fell, the biggest Tom spread out his feathers and stood in front, saying, "Look at how grand I am!" But his distraction wasn't enough to save the other turkeys, even if noble, even if proud.

Two turkeys flew out through the opening and ran frightened into the darkness. When light came they paced, calling into the morning air for their friends. Fearing, thinking they were all alone in the world. In the pen the dead lay still, making no answer. No longer able to greet, to gobble, to spread their tail feathers and preen.

My Side.
Jesse puts the two survivors in the chicken house. They fall silent. They’re in shock. They roost in the half light of the chicken house and don't even come down from the perch to eat or drink. "The saddest part," Jesse says, "is they're not saying anything." The turkeys who always talked.

The Bear’s Side.
He’s old. Grandfather ancient in bear years. He's a small bear for a grizzly, for a male, for a creature his age. In the darkness, he sniffs at the compost pile, scrapes gently at the top, looking for something, anything to eat. He knocks over the dumpster. But it's locked down tight and doesn't open for him. His stomach growls. This year's berries were too scant. The moths not enough.

Old Bear’s teeth are worn down, some are missing. His mouth is torn and deformed from some long-ago fight. He is no longer able to bring down a yearling cow or an elk. Not large enough to stand up to younger, more massive bears. He's lean, no fat on him, certainly not enough to last him through another winter. He's starving slowly to death. He knows this and he's desperate for a meal. He's never caused trouble before. At least he's never been caught at it. Up to now he's only ever been a shadow, drifting from place to place, shape shifting between the trees, vanishing into dusky mist. He passes the turkey pen, leaving no tracks in the grass on the far side, sniffing, evaluating. This is his one chance and he takes it. He comes around and his feet leave deep impressions in the sinking mud. The electric fence is no deterrent. Not this time. He gets a little shock as he barrels underneath the strand, but his hunger is a harder pain, a stronger one. He jumps onto the netting, tearing the threads with his claws. The turkeys offer little resistance. How could they? This is Old Bear. He's still got his claws.

My Side.
Fish and Game set out a trap.

At lunch, Paul looks up at Jesse and me. "I have a question for you ladies." Jesse and I wait. "If they catch the bear should they kill it? For the turkeys?"

I stand up to get something from the buffet. Plate in hand, I shake my head. "No," I say. Punishing the bear won’t bring back the turkeys. Revenge never satisfies a hurt, only makes it worse. I think of the quote from the show Life where the character says, "Violence against another is violence against myself." I don't explain any of this. I just say no.

"No," Jesse says.

"That's the answer I was expecting," Paul replies.

My Side. Later with Jesse.
"I'd rather they be killed by a bear than by humans," Jesse says.
Those turkeys were set to be someone's Thanksgiving dinner. All their feathery glory stripped for tradition. I agree with her, but I had wanted to leave this place with the turkeys still happy and alive. Their death not in our summer story. That’s what I had wanted.

The Bear’s Side.
Darkness has finally fallen. Old Bear walks past the trap. The smell of turkey and decaying elk meat entices him and he can't resist. He approaches the opening and climbs inside. Warily, he nears the meat hanging at the back of the cage. The door slams shut behind him and he cries out in rage, in fear of being caught. He's never let his hunger overcome his sense before. Not until now.

There's no way out. He knows because he's tested all the walls. No place to go, he does the sensible thing and eats every last bit of the food left to trap him. For the first time in a long time the pang of hunger subsides.

My Side.
In the morning, Jesse and I clean out the pen. Fish and Game have already taken Old Bear into town. They’ll tag and collar him and relocate him to some place where he won’t cause trouble. That’s the plan anyway. I’ve come over too late to see him with my own eyes. I hadn’t gotten up early enough. I had needed all my sleep.

After the regular morning chores, Jesse and I rake up feathers and mend the netting. We lay down fresh straw. When the job is done, we carry the two turkeys over, holding them upside down by their feet. They spread their wings out to balance, their necks curve up in a beautiful arc. "They look like angels," I say. Inside the pen, we set them gently down. The gray hen is shell shocked still. Shy and frightened. Both turkeys jump at sudden movement, at loud noises. Jesse and I speak softly, bring over grass to try and settle them down. They peck at the new straw. They begin to speak again. Calling for their friends, telling them it's safe to come home. But no other turkeys come out of the tall grass. Jesse and I stand outside and watch them, listen to them.

"I'm glad there are two," Jesse says.

"I was just thinking the same thing," I say. We stand and watch them for a while longer. "Who knew that turkeys could be so precious."

My Side.
At lunch time, Greg comes in. "A sad story," he says. He tells us how old the bear was, how small, how hungry. "They put him down," he tells us. "He would have died this winter anyway. He didn't have enough fat to get him through hibernation."

Jesse and I wash up the dishes. We go outside and stand in the garden looking in the direction of the turkey pen. "I'm really sad about the turkeys," I say. "But I'm glad the bear had one last meal. I'm glad he didn't die hungry."

At dinner the previous night we’d had a guest, Arthur, a man who studies the migration habits of elk. He had talked about the struggle of pictures and stories. How National Geographic could have a feature and one picture would slant the reader in favor of one thing or the other. "Take the bear," he says. "In a long feature piece, on one page you feel bad for the bear. You turn the page and," he opens his palm and gestures toward Greg, "you feel bad for Greg." I add another one in my head, Then you turn the page and feel sorrow for the turkeys.

What Arthur says, in a rather convoluted manner, is that all stories have their own sides. It's the telling that influences what a reader walks away with. Will the story make a reader pro-bear or anti-bear? He says that often times it's better for the story not to be told at all. For the pictures to be kept in dark rooms, unseen. The public doesn't need to be influenced by stories of dead turkeys and killed cows. Fish and Game have a hard enough time handling the bear issue as it is.

"Poor old hungry bear," I say when Greg tells us at lunch that the bear is gone, that he’s been helped into that long goodbye.

My side. The bear’s side. The turkeys’ side. III Sides To Every Story, as the Extreme album title says. Sadness in all. Is there joy in the suffering? Is there suffering in joy? I don’t know. I do know that there’s enough love for all things. Prey and predator. For the sorrowful and the ones of sorrow. And also I know that I miss the turkeys. Maybe I always will.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Nothing has died or suffered overly while Jesse and I were away to Texas. Lance even took the time to pluck handfuls of grass to give to the turkeys in between his other chores and discovered he loves them. The turkeys are charming. Despite his initial reluctance to like the ranch life, Lance has learned to love the cows, at least Norma and her calf Little Dude, to enjoy harvesting wild spinach, and to relish his time in the kitchen washing dishes. In the weeks that he's been here, Lance has quickly become family, a part of our small community. But the days have passed quickly. The weeks sped by. His dad comes Friday night to take him back to Idaho so that Lance can start his last year of high school.

"Not to be sentimental," I tell him. "But I will miss having you around."

"I’ll miss you guys too. You and Jesse are the best coworkers, and that includes my family, that I've ever had," he says. "You work really hard."

Lance and his dad leave early Saturday morning. None of us like goodbyes. So I don't try and get to the lodge before they're gone. Lance’s leaving creates a silence. His quick wit and smile, his joyful chatter and helpfulness are one-of-a-kind. He'd told me that if he ever became rich he would hire someone to make him kombucha. It's the biggest compliment I’ve had; I make the kombucha.

Karen's niece Riley is here for ten days or so. And she carries some of the workload while Greg takes his oldest daughter off to college.

Nevertheless, Jesse and I work long hours, long days. We're down to a scant crew. Basically, we’re it.

"It's no way to live," Jesse says one tiring afternoon, "counting down the days. Five more weeks, right? We have to find a way to enjoy the time. The present."

We have five weeks of ranch life left. Five weeks of milking, tending turkeys, chickens, and the new goats. Five more weeks of yogurt, cheese, buttermilk, kefir, and kombucha making. Five more weeks of dishwashing, tree watering, lawn care, pruning, weeding, planting, and harvesting. Five more weeks of watching the elk and deer fill the far pastures in the early evening light. Of hearing the now unseen owls who-whoing after dark. Of quick rainstorms that bring in wind like a banshee or a whirling dervish. Of the sound of the running stream outside our cabin, the early morning call of coyotes so happy to be alive, the constant chirping of a diverse community of birds, the passing buzz of a bumblebee who gets tangled in my hair and stings me in fright.

Five more weeks of the swift, shifting clouds, the majestic, light-changing faces of the looming, surrounding mountains, the crisp chill air of a cool Wyoming summer.

Five more weeks filled with the smell of fresh baked bread. Five more weeks washing newly lain eggs, fending off the attacking roosters, watching a weasel watch me as I sit on my porch and take a much needed break.

We’ll blink and the time will be gone. Like Lance and Michael and Tom and Sami and Darby, Riley will leave. Greg will return. Karen will return. Then, Jesse’s and my time to leave will come as well. Soon enough, our days as ranch hands will be over. Nothing more than stories to entertain those we meet up with later on. Stories to tell our niece and nephew when they're old enough to ask for them. Details for me to attach to characters in novels and short stories for depth and entertainment as I continue to write.

Five more weeks.

Oh, the life we lead.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Time to Weep and a Time to Laugh

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
A Time to Weep and a Time to Laugh

One time my grandfather gave me a quarter and said, "Keep this with you and you'll never be broke." I kept it for a while and then I must have spent it on something—a bus ticket, a bottle of water, a postcard, a stamp. But I was never broke. Not when it came to things that mattered. For I am lucky to have a wealth of friends, a family I like, and an interesting life. Even when the days are financially tough, I remember the value of living over the stress of toiling in vain. Most of the time. Even so, the morning of my granddaddy's memorial service, as I'm getting ready I stop and uncap a jar full of coins—Granddaddy's jar, his coins—and take out a quarter. It's the only inheritance I want. I already have a jar full of memories, a drawer full of stories, and the passed on legacy of singing silly songs just the way he did.

Because our summer work has given us enough quarters to fly home, Jesse and I leave the animals, the gardens, and the mountains behind and go to remember, honor, and to say, "Rest peacefully, Granddaddy. We love you." We leave Wyoming as the sun rises, turning the sky pink and purple and soft blue. We arrive in Texas when the sun is high and the temperature hovering between 106 and 107 degrees.

The next day, about thirty of us gather at the graveside. Two uniformed Navy men stand guard by the casket. A flag covers the top. Over to the side, another white uniformed Navy man stands ramrod straight with his bugle under his arm. We gather in the shade, visiting with seldom seen family and friends using whispered voices as we wait for the service to start.

When the muted, melancholy tones of Taps begin, I tear up. The lady standing next to me cries openly. Her grandson, who my grandfather taught to fish, weeps. For some reason I keep thinking of what an angel said to the disciples when they came to the tomb looking for Jesus, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" The song plays on. My dad reaches over and takes my grandmother's hand. My uncle, sitting on her other side, holds her other one.

When it's time, the Navy men fold the flag. The man on the right kneels down in front of my grandmother and holding out the triangle of blue says, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service."
After the pastor has said a few words, some of us leave to go to the church. The rest of us stay to watch the casket being lowered into the ground. "What's in that box?" My four-year-old niece Shea asks my brother, her papa.

"That's where Granddaddy is going to rest for a long, long time," he tells her, kneeling down at her level, one arm wrapped around her.

"For a long, long time?" Shea asks, her voice holding that tremulous, uncertain sadness that only a child can intone. Ben lowers his voice and I can't catch the rest of their conversation.

After the casket is lowered, my dad sifts a handful of dirt over the top. My cousins, my siblings, and I do the same. I wish I had a flower or a quarter to add. All I can think is, Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But that's too often used, too grim, and I change the words as I soften a clump of hard dirt between my fingertips and let the grains fall. "Blessings, rest peacefully," I whisper. I love you, hovers in the air. Shea wants to be a part of this as well. She and Ben go hand-in-hand and both add to the covering already there. I wonder if Shea will remember this moment later in her life.

My grandfather never liked to be the center of attention unless he was telling stories of Eniwetok, those early Navy days when he and my grandmother were first married, the days of his youth when he walked around with a salt shaker in his pocket in the event that he came across any fresh tomatoes to eat, fishing stories, or of the times when he and his friends snuck into the cold ice block warehouse and stole slivers of ice to help cool them down in those hot, southern, summer days. As I sit next to my sister who sits next to my brother who sits next to my sister on the pew in the church my grandparents attended together for fifty-seven years, I wonder if my grandfather would like this service with him as the center of attention. My dad and my mom's cousin Clay sing The Sacrifice Lamb. Ben, three of my cousins, and I sing Amazing Grace. My dad, Kyley, Jesse, and Phinehas give touching remembrances; stories and tributes. True eulogies.

I imagine Granddaddy sitting in the pew next to my grandmother, holding her hand. And I can almost see the twinkle that would be in his eye as the stories of his jokes are told, as his favorite songs are sung, as his most loved Bible verses are read. I think he would like this service. I think he would even like being the center of attention.

Behind me, my niece reaches over the back of the pew to poke my shoulder. She grins at the faces I turn and make at her. It's like the verse my cousin Kyley had just read from the Bible that had stayed close to hand near my grandfather's comfy chair. There's a time for everything under the sun. "A time to weep and a time to laugh." There's time for both today.

As a family we mourn and we rejoice. We remember Granddaddy as we catch up with the family and the friends we haven’t seen in a long time. And, only a handful of miles away in my backpack a quarter settles into the pocket I’ve placed it in and sits there to keep me rich for as long as my memories last.