Friday, March 20, 2015

We Pray For Children


I read this poem a bunch of years ago.  I don't know it's history but I use it often when I speak to teachers about what our job really is.  I am a teacher of little kids.  I don't just teach math or reading or social studies.  I teach children.  This poem by Ina Hughes reminds me.

We pray for children
who put chocolate fingers everywhere
who like to be tickled
who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants
who sneak popsicles before supper
who erase holes in math workbooks
who can never find their shoes

rain-boots-and-puddle

And we pray for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire
who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers
who never "counted potatoes"
who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead
who never go to the circus
who live in an x-rated world


We pray for children
  who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions
who sleep with the dog and bury goldfish
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money
who cover themselves with band-aids and sing off key
who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink
who slurp their soup


And we pray for those who never get dessert
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them
who watch their parents watch them die
who can't find any bread to steal
who don't have any rooms to clean up
whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser
whose monsters are real

We pray for children
who spend their allowance before Tuesday
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food
who like ghost stories
who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse out the tub
who get visits from the tooth fairy
who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool
who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone
whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry

And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime
who will eat anything
who have never seen a dentist
who aren't spoiled by anybody
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep
who live and breathe but have no being

We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must
for those we never give up on 
and for those who don't have a second chance

For those we smother... and for those who will grab the hand of 
anybody kind enough to offer it.
                     Ina J. Hughes

At school we have a moment of silence every day.  "Please pause for a moment of silence," says the child who reads the announcement.  It used to mean nothing to me.  It was just this little moment where I would mentally prepare for the school day ahead.  Now I pray for children.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Hat


The Hat

I wrote this little piece last year when my third grade class was working on memoir.  




It was gray when I woke up; misty, foggy, cool – no, cold. Not a great day for the beach. It was chilly and gusty. The kind of day that made my ears ache when I went swimming. Michigan City, Indiana. 1968. I was 11 years old.

In early summer the downtown area was home to a bazaar, a fancy name for giant sidewalk/garage sale. All of the shops had racks and shelves of bargains outside. People were invited to bring their used clothing and household items and set up tables to sell their wares.

My mom was a bargain hunter. With seven children she had to be. My brothers and sisters decided to stay home that day. I’m sure they had better things to do. I wanted to go with my mom.

This was the kind of day my brothers and sisters loved to swim. There was a cold northwest wind blowing and the waves on the beach would be enormous, way over my head. I loved these days as well. There was danger involved in swimming these waves. They towered over you, threatening to squash you into the sand if you didn’t catch them just right. If you went out too far, the undertow could snatch you up and pull you out.

This latter danger was for people who didn’t grow up on the beach. Almost every day that the wind whipped up from the northwest during swimming season someone along the beach would be swept away. Chicago, Gary, Miller Beach, Porter Beach, the Indiana Dunes State Park, Beverly Shores, Michigan City. We would read about it in the paper, occasionally see a helicopter flying by on these days. When we did we knew someone had probably died. We pretty much knew what we were doing. We never ventured out far. Still there was the danger.

As for being smashed into the sand if we didn’t get on top of the waves we were body surfing, that happened all the time and we routinely walked back into the house with bad scrapes and sand rashes from this hazard. Those wounds were all right. Those scabs would become badges of bravery.

I got ear aches on these days. I could have worn ear plugs but that would be a sissy thing to do. So I chose to go with my mom to the sidewalk sale. With six brothers and sisters, I didn’t get much time alone with her anyway so this would be my chance.

The bazaar was very busy. Vendors, crowds of people, the smell of sausages and popcorn, laughing, bargaining, little kids clinging to their mothers’ dresses, occasional babies crying. Teenagers, parents, old people.

My mom let me wander around by myself for a while. There was a huge clock tower so, even though I didn’t have a watch, I could see to meet her at noon. I only had a quarter with me so I was just looking. I’ve always been intrigued by crowds, always been a people watcher even as a kid.

There was a table of old used clothes in front of St. Anne’s church. They were musty and wrinkled and piled on the tables not folded neatly or hung on racks as the clothes were in front of the stores. The poorer people were drawn to this area because the prices were so low. There seemed to be something for everybody. They were practically giving the clothes away.

One old man was wandering between the rows of tables. I’m not sure why I was drawn to him especially. He was one of so many. But I watched him carefully for the next few minutes. His clothes were very worn. Gray pants frayed at the cuffs and pockets. They were pleated pants. My mom would have called them trousers. Tired old jacket which could not have kept him warm on this chilly day. His fancy old dress shoes were terribly worn.  He needed a shave. His cheeks and throat were covered with short gray stubble.

He wore no hat and his head must have been cold. It was early summer, but that northwest wind… He was very bald and the gray fringe that surrounded his head was shaggy and blew in the cold gusty wind. He could have used a hat.

I wished that he had newer clothes. I wished he had a hat. In those few moments that our paths crossed I felt sad for him. I’m not sure why I remember him after all of this time, after all the years and distance; his windblown hair, his disheveled yet somehow classic clothes, his stubbly cheeks and the smile lines around his eyes. I don’t think I could pick him out of a lineup after all this time, but I remember the feel of him.

I wished he had a hat. It was chilly. His head, shiny on top, was blotchy from the cold. He must have been freezing with his threadbare jacket and his thin, worn pants.

As he walked down the long tables in what I thought of as the poor peoples’ section in front of the church, he would pick up one item then another. He would pick up a woman’s scarf, turn it over in his hands and, almost as if he were having a conversation with himself, would shake his head and return it to its place at the table.

Finally he came to an area on one table with hats. I was relieved. He needed one. There were stocking caps and baseball style caps, earmuffs and old fashioned felt hats like the one my dad wore to church. The old man stopped at these, meticulously searching through them for just the right one.

Why was I concerned about him finding the right hat? I had never seen him before, would probably never see him again. But I was mesmerized, silently urging him to find a comfortable hat to warm his bald head.

He picked up a gray felt hat with a wide brim. I think it’s called a fedora. He tried it on and it fit snugly. He sort of wiped his hand around the brim in an automatic gesture. I had seen people do that kind of thing in movies. They were rich people or gangsters.

The hat looked great on him. A lady at the end of the table was eying him suspiciously. She had a gray metal box in front of her – the money box. Perhaps she thought he would walk away with  the hat without paying for it. The old man didn’t look at her. I could tell that he was pleased with the hat. He had this dreamy faraway look in his eyes like he was remembering something from long ago. His fingers went around the brim again. He smiled a small stubbly smile, a satisfied smile, the smile of a younger man. It was the look of one who has found a jewel.

The money lady continued to glare at the little man. He reached up and took the hat off. There was a little piece of masking tape on the band inside the hat. A price tag. I couldn’t make it out but the man stared at it unbelieving. I could see his disappointment.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. All change. It surely wasn’t enough. I could tell by the look on his face. I wanted to buy it for him. I only had a quarter. It wouldn’t help much.

With a look of quiet disappointment and even embarrassment the old man put the hat back on the table - slowly, almost reverently. His shoulders drooped and he shuffled softly away. The money lady smirked.

All these years later I wonder why the image of the old man stays with me. Certainly I have witnessed sadder moments. On the news. In the papers. In books. So many tragic stories with greater magnitude. Why this man? So long ago and so far away.

Perhaps in a way this little story has served to make me aware of the small sufferings all around me. Perhaps this little memory reminds me of all the rich blessings in my own life. I am so blessed. I pray that I never take it for granted.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Keeping Me Warm


It has been chilly down here in the “Sunny South”.  Not unbearable.  Last winter in Chicago, where my brother Dan lives, I think they had 20 days (maybe more) below zero.  

Degrees.   

Fahrenheit.  

They know cold.  Our cold has always been double digit cold and pretty infrequent.  Still, since we have lived Up North, we do have cold weather gear.

We keep hats and mittens in this old bench with a lid that raises and holds about two cubic feet of stuff.  I still have hats from WAY back in the day.  One is from an ill-fated hockey team from our days in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The Grand Rapids Grizzlies only lasted a season or two.  That was circa 1979 or ’80.  Who knew a knit cap could even last that long?

Anyway, I found myself with a random hat and gloves out of the mix.  When I got back I realized that the hat was one that my mom knitted just before she died.  She was always a knitter.  And sewer. And quilter.  And for a while, she made the most exquisite leaded glass.  She never really watched TV.  Her hands were always busy.  And almost always, they were busy making things for other people. 

Just before she died she went into this frenzy where she was going to knit 100 little caps for newborn babies for this project my sister was helping to sponsor in Kenya.  I think she made it to 60-something before she let go.  I’m guessing most of those 60-something caps are still in use.

At the same time she was working on a quilt for my nephew Mike.  It is a beautiful thing.  But her hands were not working very well at the end.  She had this vision in her head of how she wanted it to be, but her poor old hands could not cut with scissors.  One of the last times I went to see her at her “Tree House” in Brevard, NC, she was so worried that she wouldn’t be able to finish that quilt before she died.  She couldn’t use her scissors any more, but she could improvise.  She would make just a little cut and then use her teeth and the strength in her arms to tear the strips she needed.  Those she could still fit into the sewing machine.  I don’t now if it was the most artistic of all of the many quilts she made, but to me, her last quilt was the most beautiful. 

The gloves I happened to wear that night were once my dad’s.  They were driving gloves.  Does anyone even wear driving gloves anymore (besides my brother John)?  Jack O’Keefe died in 1989, just about 6 months after he retired from The Inland Steel Company where he worked almost all of his adult life.  In the early 60’s he took a job as a technical service rep.  He drove all over creation representing that steel company.  He loved his work.  You see, he was a real personable guy, the kind of guy you wanted to hang out with, to have a drink with, to have lunch with.  I wouldn’t say he was a schmoozer, but he was well liked by his clients and his work pals.  And that man drove.  And drove.  I’m guessing he put 50 or 60 thousand miles on the company car every year.  He also had considerable arthritis toward the end.  So… driving gloves. 

The gloves are worn now.  The fingers are worn through in a couple of places and the stitching in the finger webs has come loose.  But I think I can sew them up a little.  Maybe get a few more miles out of them. 




There was something comforting about wearing that combination of Ruck and Jack O’Keefe on that chilly night; something besides that yarn, spun like magic from the fingers of my old mom, and that old worn out leather, the same leather that comforted my dad’s arthritic hands, that kept me warm. 

That night I had a dream about my mom.  We were talking on the phone, like we had done so many times over the years.  We talked of school, and the family, and her home in the mountains.  We talked of the old days when we were all so much younger.  And just before the end of that dream, I asked her when she was coming down again for a visit. 

It was that question that brought reality crashing through that dream.  It was the question that woke me with my mom’s voice still in my ear and the image of her pretty old face in my mind. 

The next chilly evening, when I need to wear a hat and gloves, my choice won’t be quite so random.  I’ll have that old Ruck and Jack keeping me warm.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Parallel Conversations


Remember those rambling conversations on Seinfeld when the characters are talking about two entirely different things – as if they are actually talking to each other?  If the sound were down on the TV it would look as though the characters are engaged in a thoughtful exchange, but when you turn the sound up, Jerry is talking about not liking greasy food and George is discussing how annoying it is to have a loose button on his shirt.   Writing that kind of dialogue probably wouldn’t be that difficult, performing it might be a challenge. 

Seinfeld’s 25 greatest contributions to the English language


I think when my siblings and I get together we probably engage in parallel conversations a lot.  I might be talking about teaching and some funny anecdote from the classroom, and my brother Pat could be talking about fixing up a wrecked car that no one else would have figured could be salvaged.

The last time I was at the doctor’s office I was checking the calendar on my phone when this odd little conversation occurred on the bench next to me.  I am not very fast at the recording on the small keyboard with my thumbs.  But I didn’t have a book with me and didn’t have anything to write with.  I opened a new memo and text-typed this little exchange.  I missed a lot, I'm sure.  I probably looked deep in thought but was really just eaves dropping. 

An older gentleman is sitting on the sofa waiting to see the doctor.  Baseball cap, long sleeved shirt buttoned up to his throat, big worn out tennis shoes, age spots on the backs of his hands, big baggy trousers, rimless glasses, whiskery throat.

A little old lady walks in with a cane, parks herself on the opposite end of the same bench.  She has her snow white hair up in a bun on the top of her head, pretty, flowered, old fashioned dress, white cardigan sweater, the kind of little round spectacles that make her eyes look big.   Prim.  She wears nice shoes with stout heels.  Are they called pumps?  They look to be about the same age.

“Never been out of South Carolina.  Never saw the need,” she says, speaking in his direction.  “Nope, never saw the need.  Can’t see why people would want to wander around the way they do.”

“Yep,” says he.  “It used to be like Mayberry when I was a kid.  Mayberry.  Things were simple.  That kind of feeling is hard to find nowadays.  It’s just not the same.”  He looks straight ahead, but he seems like he is talking to her.  No one else appears to be listening.  He goes on.  “Got rid of my wife back in ’89.  She was always up to no good.  Didn’t give me no choice, really.  Just made a fool outta me.”

Little Old Woman seems to hear him and answers in her own fashion.  “My little granddaughter called me and said to look outside at all that snow.  I thought that was so cute.  She was all the way up in Michigan.  She just assumed that we had that same snow all the way down here.”

Little Old Man:  “I live in a old trailer.  It’s hard to keep that thing warm when it’s a cold outside.  It’s hard to live in a trailer."

Little Old Woman:  “Just imagine all that snow!  While our weather is balmy, down right balmy.  She looked out her window and said all she could see was snow.  She gets the day off school.”

Man: "‘Bout thirty years ago I did have me a house.  That thing was too much for me.  Of course my wife loved it.  She was always trying to make out like we was better than the neighbors."

Woman:  “I guess we haven’t had a good snow down here for many years.  Six years?  Eight years?  I don’t remember.  I’m sure glad we don’t have that kind of snow down here.”

Man:  “I would be a good maintenance man if my knee wasn’t so trick.  I did it for ‘bout thirty years.  It was ‘bout to kill me.  I didn’t have no benefits though.  No benefits at all.  At least now I got me a little pension coming in.” 

Woman:  “I was a school teacher for forty-two years.   Forty-two years.   Been retired for over twenty years.  Honestly, the kids have changed so much.”

Man: “I loved doin’ maintenance.  Wasn’t hardly nothin’ I couldn’t figger out if it got busted or just wore out.  They said I was a helluva fix-it-man.  That’s what they said all right.  One helluva fix-it-man”

Woman:  “Back then, kids were respectful.  Respectful.  They had to be.  If I whooped one at school, he got the switch when he got home as well.  Yessir, parents backed you up.”

Man:  “Never had no formal training at fixin’ things.  Just hung around my old man.  I suppose that was all the training a fix-it-man needs.  Real world trainin’.”

Woman:  “By the end of my time as a teacher you couldn’t even paddle the kids without signing a form and having witnesses and all.”

Man:  “Even fixed a heatin’ and air unit once.  Most people hadn’t even had no experience with air conditionin’.  But, yessir, I figgered it out just usin’ logic.  Logic is all it took.  Never had no formal trainin’ at all.”

Woman:  “Most times the principal did the paddling for us.  I would rather have done it myself.  That way the kids knew where it was coming from and for why.” 

Man:  “I fix all my own stuff now.  Couldn’t see hiring someone for somethin’ I could do myself.  Just takes a little common sense is all.”

Woman:  “Nosiree.  From what my niece tells me now you can’t paddle them at all.  Not at all.  Can you imagine trying to keep control without being able to paddle the ones who need it?”

Just before I left the waiting room, being called back into the inner sanctum, their conversations intersected. 

Man:  “Yeah, I guess that’s why I never felt so bad about never having no kids.  Never had to do none o’ that kind of stuff.  None at all.”

Woman: “Well I can tell you, sometimes a good paddling is just what those children needed. The good old ‘Board of education…”

If you had turned the sound down, it would have looked like they were conversating ‘bout somethin’ real interestin’. 

And I guess it was interesting for each of them to hear their own words, but I don’t think there was much of an authentic exchange of ideas.  More like two monologues running side by side.





Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Belt


“I didn’t mean it, Daddy!” said the little guy in the Lowe’s parking lot.  It was a pretty day.  Late afternoon, blue sky, balmy breeze for winter in the Southland.  “I didn’t mean it and I’m sorry!” 

“If you didn’t mean it then you shouldn’t have done it.” was the terse reply.  Dad’s voice was deep, low, menacing.  That voice held a promise of something dark. 

The child was three, maybe four.  He was being hauled along to Daddy’s truck.  Dad was moving faster than the little boy’s legs could carry him, so his toes were kind of dragging on the parking lot surface, sort of skidding along.  His left arm was being held straight up, his shoulder blade sticking out. 

Dad was grim.  We didn’t know what the child had done, but we had a pretty good idea what Dad would do.

“Daddy, don’t.  PLEASE don’t,” the little guy begged.  The mom trailed behind.  She had a resigned look on her face.  A satisfied look.  The kid was going to get what he had coming to him.  Heidi and I were going into Lowe’s.  I think we knew what was going to happen.  And it did.  Dad let go of the boy’s hand.  The little family was sandwiched between their truck and another car.   The child jumped around in panic and fear.  His eyes filled with tears.  Mom was behind him, blocking any potential escape.  When they were far enough away from the store, when they were in a place where few could see them, dad unbuckled his belt. 

“NO!” the kid said.  But Dad didn’t even hesitate.  They had been through this before.  “I’m sorry, Daddy.”  Dad pulled out his belt.  Slowly.  He was a big guy.  It was a long belt.  Black leather.  Then Dad grabbed the little one by the back of his shirt, up by the collar.  Again he lifted that boy almost off the ground. 


You know what happened.  You’ve seen it before.  We all have.

I am not saying that the boy was brutally beaten.  I suppose it could have been a lot worse.  He didn’t hit the kid bare-bottomed.  There probably weren’t any welts.  Mom stood there with her arms crossed across her chest.  Smug.  Satisfied.  The kid cried out.  I don’t know how many times Dad hit him with the belt.  A few.   It didn’t matter.

What mattered was that Dad hit his child with a belt.  Hit his child with a belt.  A belt. 

Heidi and I looked at each other and shuddered.  It was miserable.  What could we do?   Tell him that corporal punishment is wrong?   Ask what the kid had done and tell him that whatever it was – it wasn’t enough to warrant this kind of treatment?  Remind him that his child wasn’t an animal.  Tell him of the emotional residue he was likely leaving behind? 

And if we did intervene, how would Dad react?  Would he be embarrassed and toss the kid into the truck and whoop him even worse when they got home?  Would he tell me to mind my own f@%$ing business and hit the kid even harder? 

So, what we did, what I did, was wrong.  I didn’t do or say anything.  We heard the kid crying as we walked into the store.  It was haunting, you know?

I am not saying that I am the best parent.  I made plenty of mistakes.  Looking back – as both of our kids are men now, most of the parenting we do is being best friends, washing their clothes (as both seem to be laundry impaired), helping them pay rent and buy groceries and praying for them.  But when they were little they were never physically threatened or hurt as a way of disciplining.  I never spanked or pulled out my belt.  And they are OK.  They are better than OK.  They are good men.  We made it through the terrible twos, the sassy upper elementary times, the often self-righteous, indignant, in-your-face adolescent years.  We had some rough spots when we didn’t know what to do.  We were flying by the seat of our pants, right?  But hitting them never really crossed our minds. 

Still, I felt complicit with Dad’s crime.  I watched.  I listened.  I walked away.  The parents saw us standing there and it didn’t deter them.  Not at all.  So we just walked into the store to get our bird feed, our light bulbs, our HVAC filters or whatever.  But that image is left in my mind.  The sound of the little one’s pleading voice, the sight of Dad’s belt slowly unwrapping from around his waste, running through belt loop after belt loop until it was free and dangling from his fist.  The sound of the belt hitting that kid's bottom. 

And I wonder if that kid will grow up and whoop his own little kids for their petty crimes.  And what about when those kids are older and they have the will and strength to resist?  Will it go beyond a spanking?

Heidi told that story to our Colin, now 21 years old, when he came to visit last weekend.  He showed us this Louis C.K. thing on Youtube about parenting.  I won’t link it here as some of my younger friends stop by from time to time and it is filled with profanity.  Lots of it.  But I’ll include some of his words.  Because between all of the cuss words, there is a ton of wisdom. 


I like kids.  Parents, I’m not so crazy about.  Like this whole country, our thing is, it’s all about the children.  We have to do it all for the children.  And meanwhile, nobody gives a s#@t about how they raise their kids.  People put minimal effort into it.  They’re like consumers of their kids.  Like they want to call customer service, “Why does he play videogames all day?  I don’t understand why he plays videogames.”  Maybe it’s because you bought him a f*&#ing videogame.   You idiot.  Throw it away.  Who told you that was a good idea?...

And then the food we feed them tastes like insanity.  You used to be able to give a kid an apple, and they’d go, “Oh, thank you. I love apples.”  Kids can’t even taste apples.  Apples are like paper to them.  Because people force their kids to eat fast food.  I was in this hamburger place and this woman was like shoving french fries into this kid, “EAT IT!” 

The kid's like, “Mom, it’s salty, it hurts, I can’t eat any more.” 

“SHUT UP!  HAVE A SODA!”

We give them MSG, sugar, and caffeine.  And WEIRDLY, they react to those chemicals.  And so they yell, “AAhhh.”  And then we hit them.  What f&%$ing chance does a kid have?  We pump the stuff in there… “AHHhh!”

 “SHUT UP!  STOP IT!  WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?!”

“’Cause I haven’t had actual nutrition in eight years, Mom.  I’m dehydrated.  Give me water.  Pepsi’s not water.  Give me a glass of water.  I’m dying.  I have sores on my tongue all the time…  Stop hitting me, you’re HUGE!  How could you hit me?  That’s crazy.  You’re a giant and I can’t defend myself."

I really think it’s crazy that we hit our kids.  Here’s the crazy part about it.  Kids are the only people in the world that you’re allowed to hit.  They’re the most vulnerable and they are the most destroyed by hitting.  But it’s totally OK to hit them.  And they’re the only ones.  If you hit a dog they’ll put you in jail for that s&%t.  You can’t hit an adult unless you can prove that they were trying to kill you.  But a little tiny person, with a head this big, who trusts you implicitly, f*&k them!  Let’s all hit them. 

And people want you to hit your kid.   You’re kids making noise and they’re like, “Hit him, HIT HIM!” 

We’re proud of it.  People say, “I hit my kids.  You’re damn right I hit my kids.”

“Why do you hit them?”

“’Cause they were doing a thing I didn’t like at the moment.  And so I hit them and, guess what?  They didn’t do it after that.”

“Well, that wouldn’t be taking the f$%&ing easy way out, would it?  How about talking to them for a second?  How is that…  What are you, an idiot?  What are you an ape?”…

“You hit him…  He’ll know.  That I’m stronger than him.  That it hurts when my hand hits his face.  He’ll know.  He’ll get some wisdom out of that.  Raising them right.”

I wish I could say that I am the perfect parent, that I know the answer to all of the difficult parenting questions.  I am not.  I can’t.  But doesn’t it make sense that if you hit a child; it also teaches the child to hit?  To wait until they can hit back?  To hit others who are weaker?  To get their own way through force? 

If we model violent behavior, doesn’t that make it right for kids to be violent?  



Friday, January 16, 2015

Arthur and Matilda, An Act of Fiction, Part 2




Once again, this is an old act of fiction that has been simmering in my drawer for years.  I dusted it off and began to think of these characters during my writing workshop in my second grade class.  I am nearing the end of the final chapter – it being written way out of order.  I have drafts of about 3 others including this first one where we meet our protagonists.  Here is the final small chunk of the first chapter.  If you want to read it from the beginning, click here or simply scroll down to my last post.



------------------------------------------------------------

“Wanna race?” he dared.

“Sure.  To the tall pine down in the valley and back to this old stump.  I’ll give you a head start, Brother.”

This was too much.  “Oh, no.  I insist.  Ladies first.”  This was all she needed.  Like a streak she was off. 

“What…  Who is this bird?” he asked himself.  With that he took off as fast as his wings could pull.

She had a good lead on him.  Why had he let her get that head start?  Now there was a good chance he would lose – and to a smartbeaked female.  His pride would take a beating if he lost.  But he was a strong flyer as well as agile and, after straining with all his might, gained on her steadily.  The muscles in his shoulders and chest heaved.   His legs and feet were pinned back to make his form more aerodynamic.  He wasted as little energy as possible to get maximum speed.  Snowcapped pines sped by along with scrubby oaks still clinging to their crinkled, golden leaves.  It began to snow lightly and Arthur had to squint his eyes.

Gaining.  He could see her well now.  Slowly he got closer.  He couldn’t believe how fast she was.  No female he had ever known came close to his flying ability.  The distance between the birds decreased and Arthur could see the muscles through the female’s feathers; flexing, extending, bulging, smoothing.  She was a magnificent creature.  But the closer he got, the more he sensed that she might actually be holding back. 

She was playing him.

While she should have taken the straightest line to the tall pine, she darted between limbs and rocky ledges, taunting him to follow at incredible speed.  There was a break in the clouds where a shaft of sun shone.  Playfully, she headed for it.  When the sun shone on her sleekness, on her muscular body, Arthur was lost.

He caught up after a tremendous burst of speed.  For the first time during the race he could see her face.  She didn’t even look as though she were straining.  “Oh, there you are,” she spoke calmly, not at all like one flying in a race.  “I was wondering if you would ever catch up.  So much for ladies first, am I right?”

With that she began pulling ahead, even though Arthur was flying flat out.  “Who is this bird?” Arthur repeated to himself as he viewed her again from behind.  Once again the sun slipped behind a low gray cloud.  The gently falling snow increased.  Arthur no longer looked ahead at the tree around which they would fly.  He had eyes only for this bird.  This magnificent black creature.  The tall pine was about 100 meters ahead and the winner of the race was a foregone conclusion.  Knowing full well that she would arrive first at the stump, Arthur only gazed at his new acquaintance, his rival in this race.  He was mesmerized by her bulging shoulders, her streamlined form, how effortlessly she pulled herself through the air. 

As she reached the topmost bough of the tall pine, instead of circling it and heading back up the ridge to the stump where they agreed the race would end (this was no race, Arthur thought), she quickly fanned her tail and spread back her powerful wings.  It was a near perfect landing, almost unbelievable considering her speed.  And yet she made it seem effortless. 

Arthur swooped around her awkwardly and lit beside her on the branch, snow drifting down lazily as the bough bounced from his ungainly landing.  “I thought the race was to be around this tree and back to the stump in the snowfield,” he puffed.  The female examined him calmly.  Once again she cocked her head to the left, then to the right and back.  Her beak was smooth and shiny, the tiny hair like feathers at its base were just… perfect. 

“I didn’t want to embarrass you any more than was necessary.”  She spoke calmly.  She was not out of breath from the strenuous flight.  Again Arthur was impressed.  His own heart was beating mightily.  He tried to suppress his respiration so as not to give away his weariness.  “No need to hold your breath Brother.  You flew hard,” she said matter-of-factly.  “You are not half bad.”  Again, she eyed him up and down. 


“You’re not so bad yourself,” was Arthur’s weak reply.  He could not take his eyes off of her.  “The name’s Arthur, by the way.” 

“Mine’s Matilda.  Pleased to make your acquaintance, Brother Arthur.”  He hoped that she wouldn’t see him as ‘Brother Arthur’ for long.

Arthur felt a sea change.  He knew that there would be no turning back.  He doubted that he would ever again encounter a crow such as this.  Looking into Matilda’s sparkling black eyes he saw his own tiny reflections.  She must have seen hers too.  She bent forward.  Slowly, delicately, until their beaks almost touched.  Arthur was holding his breath again.  But this time he was not trying in any way to impress for he was lost to her.  He just didn’t know what this lovely, unpredictable creature would do.  There was a pause when the two seemed to exchange breath.  She cocked her head to the left very slowly as though she were considering something very important.

“Beat you to the stump!” she cried in a burst of speed and black feathers.  The clouds parted and a sky of deepest blue was revealed. 



“Oh no you won’t,” Arthur was after Matilda in a flash.  But of course, Matilda won.