Party of Five

It’s a bright, brisk Sunday morning where the grass and leaves twinkle with a million drops of dew. I’m reclined on my couch with a cup of cool coffee grateful for the weather being such that I can open the windows and let the fresh country air move through my house. The donkeys are enjoying their breakfast and the birds peck and flutter around their feeder. I take the last sip of my coffee when from outside, I hear a crow. Of course, Ron Swanson the rooster crows all day every day, but this is a different crow. A raspier one. A softer one, like an old car’s coughing engine. It’s struggling. 

I dart over to the window and see Ron Swanson, ParmParm, and Gene along with the ducks, Pat and Dorothy, standing in their normal party of five stance. Ron crows, but it sounds like his usual crow. What did I hear a moment ago?

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I watch for a second longer and then shrug it off—maybe Ron had a bug stuck in his throat. As I turn to drop my mug into the kitchen sink, I hear that raspy crow again. I whip my head around and…huh? I take a few, slow steps towards the window and once more, the raspy crow. And it’s coming from ParmParm. ParmParm, the hen that when we got her, was sexed and confirmed female. 

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As I stand at the window dumbfounded, I begin to recall some odd behaviors from ParmParm within the last month or so. Besides the fact she’s grown substantially, she’s also become a little aggressive, especially towards Ron Swanson and Pat. And oddly enough, about a month ago, she molted (which as I understand it, hens are not supposed to molt until they’re over a year old) and her feathers have since been coming in ridgy and sharp—like rooster feathers. I should note that before this molting, she had typical soft, bland, rounded feathers and was the same size as Gene. Her comb and her waddle have transformed quite suddenly and I have found it all a bit interesting.

Plus, so far as I know, ParmParm has not laid any eggs. I have seen her fluff out and settle into a typical hen position in the nesting box within the coop many times—fluffing her feathers out like she’s laying—but I’ve never found any of her eggs. Gene, however, lays in the box right next to ParmParm’s go-to box and leaves an egg every day. It’s all quite peculiar.

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ParmParm crows again and appears to try and do a mating dance in front of Gene. But as quickly as she starts, she stops and chases a nearby fluttering bug. Ron Swanson crows loudly.

So of course, I quickly drop my mug in the sink and grab my laptop to do some research. I google, “can chickens become roosters?” and other similar questions and by golly, there’s quite a host of articles documenting this very phenomenon whereby hens can be genotypically female but become phenotypically male. Here are some references I found:

https://animals.howstuffworks.com/birds/what-cluck-case-gender-changing-hen.htm

http://www.scoopfromthecoop.com/tag/can-my-hen-become-a-rooster/

https://backyardpoultry.iamcountryside.com/feed-health/spontaneous-sex-reversal-is-that-my-hen-crowing/

It’s been a while now since I’ve heard ParmParm’s crow, so I look outside to see the party of five doing what they always do—migrating around the yard in a group, gobbling up and bickering over bugs. 

I decided to write about this for two reasons: 1) it’s incredibly interesting, something I’ve never heard of and wow, nature is amazing and 2) because I’d love some input from some chicken experts or avian vets out there. I’m considering taking ParmParm to the vet just to see if this is the case, but then I wonder, does it matter? She’s healthy and happy as it is. I guess I just worry that her and Ron Swanson might begin to butt heads and I don’t want injury if I can avoid it. I also don’t know for sure if this is what’s happening, but every behavior and physical change seems to check all the boxes. 

At the end of it all, whether this is what ParmParm is experiencing or not, there are surprises every single day. There’s so much that we don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t recognize and it’s a testament to how vast the world is around us. Something rare could be happening right in our own backyards and as Ferris Bueller once famously and accurately said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” 

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Sunflower’s Story

There once was a patch of sunflowers (10 stems, to be exact) who divvied themselves upon either side of the walkway through a garden. Some said they were oddly placed, but the sun shined strongest right there along that path and as we all know, sunflowers not only need, but love the sunlight.

For weeks, the stems grew and grew and finally, one early summer afternoon, the first flower bloomed.

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Her petals stretched wide as her face turned toward the sun and soon after that, other flowers upon other stems began unfolding too. Each flower was beautiful and strong, always turned towards the light which fed them–a stunning, vivid patch along that little garden path.

But as the weeks went by, one stem (the one on the far end of the patch) still had no flower—no face to turn towards the beaming sun. The stem just kept growing taller and taller, spitting out giant and heavy leaves in every direction.

By mid-summer, the other flowers began to droop (their time having passed) and still, the tall stem remained flowerless.

The gardener, curious about this large, barren stem, removed the old lifeless flowers from their shorter, less leafy stems. She wondered if this towering stalk would ever bloom? She pruned the other flowers, readying them for a new season. Day after day, the gardener checked on the growing stem at the edge of the harvested patch. The plant grew so tall that she could no longer reach or even see the top of it.

Finally, one humid morning where the heat laid in wet fog along the surface of everything, the gardener awoke to a beaming yellow crown, high above the otherwise empty patch. She ran outside to greet the soaring sunflower which was bigger and more beautiful than any flower she’d ever seen.

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For days the glorious flower radiated her beauty—her face so large that she didn’t need to turn towards the sun for the sun reached her from every direction.

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People came from far and wide to admire her. No one could believe that a sunflower could climb that high. She had been worth waiting for.

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As the summer blazed on, so too did the wheel of time, and so the day came that this mountainous flower—the largest and most beautiful that had ever been—started to slump. Her time had come.

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The sunflower’s strong stem began to buckle under her wilting weight, and so the gardener, with her best pair of shears, was forced to clip the crown from the queen of the patch.

The path through the garden was empty again, the only remaining growth being skeletal stems of their former, shining glory. Seemingly the end of an era.

But the gardener knows that this is no end. This is in fact the beginning! Because from the heart of every one of those sunflowers are the seeds of tomorrow.

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What started from a single seed is now dozens! Dozens that will line the little garden path. Dozens that will ship through the post to friends and family who have bees and butterflies anxiously waiting for a patch of their own. And from there, an infinite number of sunflower seeds…seeds from flowers that remind us that we all move in our own time. We grow in our own ways. We find strength in our roots and inspiration in the light that feeds us.

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…seeds from dried out and drooping death. Life goes on, our legacies and time taken to do what was right for us is built into these vulnerable, harvested seeds so that they may grow in awe inspiring ways.

…seeds which carry with them the pride and stamina and determination of those that came before them. Bury deep, your roots. Reach high, your ambitions. Be proud, your growth, even if it takes more time than the others.

Shine on, sweet sunflowers, shine on.

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Roots

It’s a chilly afternoon and I’ve finally decided to clear the weeds and old roots from the garden in order to prepare for a new, spring crop. My fall garden was a bust: I didn’t do enough research on planting in sticky, gumbo soil and we had a bizarre, hard freeze in mid-November which killed off everything weeks before I was planning to harvest. My fall garden yielded three green beans. Three.

I suppose it’s fine—I was travelling a lot last fall, so my chances of upkeeping a garden with the love and respect it deserved and needed were probably low. Plus, I haven’t built up a proper compost heap this time around. The odds have been against it and for more than two months now, I’ve let weeds and grass overtake my sad, little garden.

I pick a corner and kneel down to begin pulling up weeds. Dampness from the soil soaks into the knees of my jeans, but I don’t mind. I start by raking the stringier weeds with my fingers which are tangled loosely across the top of the bushier and more deeply-rooted growth below. Rake, rake rake. Dirt gathers beneath my fingernails and what was a chilly afternoon has become quite warm with my repetitive movements.

The repetitious motions of backyard gardening is therapeutic. Row by row, whether planting or clearing, there’s a natural rhythm that guides the process regardless of your being a seasoned gardener or not. Rake the loose weeds. Dig around the stubborn ones. Pull the deep roots. Brush away the leftover. Rake rake, dig dig, pull pull, brush, brush. Rake rake, dig, dig, pull, pull, brush, brush. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. 

Bit by bit and breath by breath, I travel through my garden removing that which is alive with rapidly reproducing weeds and dead from poor management and unfortunate circumstance.

It’s a bit grim: the idea that death must occur and be grieved in order to make way for new life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to move on from things of the past and how to start the healing (replanting) process. Like all people, I’ve had my share of heartache, hurt, missteps, and much like my garden, have fallen victim to poor management and unfortunate circumstance. Neglect. Distraction. Habitually pushing care to the back-burner. All that.

So here, squatting down in the mud and the weeds that are here because of my neglect, I imagine that the soil is life-giving light and the weeds are darkness, swiftly crawling across and covering the richness and space from which life, love, and nourishment sprouts. Rake, rake, dig, dig, pull, pull, brush, brush.

Gosh, there are weeds everywhere. It’d be easier to just let the whole thing go, I doubt I’ll have time for a garden this spring, anyway. My hands are beginning to hurt and the dampness from the ground has spread past my knees and down my shins. For the first time, I notice my fingertips covered in tiny, red cuts from small spikes in the seemingly infinite growth and holy moly they sting. Why didn’t I wear gloves? It’s so hot out here.

My heart rate has risen significantly and I can no longer find my breath. I try counting, but can’t hold my attention span to the count of four anymore. I pull my phone out of my back pocket and find the app which is connected to the USB-sized monitor implanted in my chest, right above my heart. It’s recording all the time, but I’m supposed to report when I can feel abnormal things occuring, which is often and especially when I do things like squat down for too long. I sit back, butt in the mud, and lean against the small, picket fence as the app begins to record my heart’s rhythm which is heavy and fluttering. The space around me vignettes itself and my fingers and toes begin to go numb. 

I close my eyes feeling the wet ground absorb into my jeans and try again to find my breath. Rake, rake, dig, dig, pull, pull, brush, brush. One, two, three…One, two…One, two, three.

It’s like I can’t get the breath all the way to the bottom of my lungs: it stops halfway. I make a concerted effort to relax my gut, pelvis, chest, and eyes, and try to imagine sinking a little farther down into the wet ground. Instead of counting, I picture a jellyfish gently and repetitively pulsing through the water. My friend and teacher, Stacey Ramsower, shared this image with me recently and it’s since resonated quite vividly. I picture my diaphragm and pelvic floor moving in tandem in the same way a jellyfish propels itself through the deep: smoothly, rhythmically, and beautifully. Something about the image seems more accessible than the count right now. Blub, blub, blub she goes…soft, smooth, and infinite. 

Blub, blub, blub, through the blue.
Blub, blub, blub, held by water.

After a while and once the flapping wings of my butterfly heart calm down, I open my eyes and lean forward, placing my forearms on my knees. My fingers and toes prickle as blood begins to pour back into them and the world around is light once more. I submit the recording to my doctor and slide my phone back in my pocket. I figure I ought to be heading in to get some water and rest, but then something catches my eye. What is that?

I scramble to my hands and knees and crawl to a tall, bright green growth reaching from the weeds. I trace my fingers down the delicate stems and carefully pull up. Oh my goodness. I start to laugh.

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I stand, holding the small carrot ball and look around. This bird’s eye view has allowed me to discover that several other plants have inched above the weeds reaching for sunlight, so one by one, I trace their stems and pull their roots gently from the ground.

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Brave, little root veggies. My goodness, I had no idea anything could’ve survived multiple hard freezes and certainly not beneath the heavy darkness that’s blanketed their space for so long. They may be small and oddly shaped, but boy they are phenomenal (and cute!) I suppose small specs of light can indeed penetrate darkness. Maybe it just requires a shift in perspective.


I spent much of the rest of this day reclined on the couch with a big glass of water while imagining whole blooms of jellyfish pulsing together through the deep. How strange it must be to pulse endlessly through the darkness…strange but oddly encouraging. Blub, blub, pulse, pulse, on and on they go. Infinite, rhythmic movement.

I imagined the proverbial weeds that often stretch themselves across me and how somehow, someway, light manages to get through. Sure, sometimes, that light goes undiscovered for a while, but it’s there. It is. And certainly it’s worth the blood, sweat, and pain to pull back the darkness and make way for more light. Just start in a corner and see what happens. Darkness breeds in neglect. I’d say, get in and get your hands dirty.

Even if you don’t find anything the first few times you start raking, digging, pulling, and brushing, the process is still wonderfully meditative—the re-examination of a familiar space that’s gone untouched for a while is so helpful for growth. Afterall, you can’t start a new garden without first tearing up and dealing with the old, deceased one. In that death and chaos lies life waiting to bloom and be discovered. 

Donkey Mind

In the lush shade of one of the pecan trees out in the pasture, I ran a circular brush along Bunny’s spine and down her sides as she blinked heavily—her long lashes moving in slow motion over her glossy and flickering brown eyes. Sprinkles of shedding, gray hair tumbled around in the almost non-existent breeze before either disappearing into the brightness of the day or landing on my boots and jeans. Donkey dust.

On this morning, Autumn teased us with tiny hints of itself in the breeze—it carried a ripeness in the wind that smelled like someone had just sliced a ripe, honey crisp apple and the trees were mostly still except when the leaves took turns twinkling as that fresh-apple air tickled them. Everything was in full, green bloom and seemingly asking for a trim and a change from that first bitter cold that’s hopefully not too far away.

With my hand on her back, I circled behind Bunny to continue brushing her other side. I read somewhere long ago (when I first took up an interest in donkeys) that brushing donkeys is a way to bond with them and I agree with that theory. The donkeys love when I’ve got the brush and sometimes, like this moment, they seem to fall into a trance with their ears lowered and eyes drifting. It’s therapeutic for me, too: line after line of combing and watching the stray hairs fall. I wondered what Bunny thought about as I brushed her. Not just about what she thought about the brushing, but what kinds of things regularly go through her mind? When she spaces out, I wonder what she imagines? What is created in a donkey mind?

I tucked the brush into the back pocket of my blue jeans as I knelt down in front of Bunny’s face. Her eyes widened, meeting mine and in them, I could see the silhouette of me and my cowboy hat and the brightness of all the blue and clouds behind me. She lowered her large head and rested her snout in my lap as I scratched the insides of her ears.

With my forehead against hers and now my own eyes closed, I focused on the way the air touched my skin. It was a perfect temperature—not cold or hot but Goldilocks perfection—and in that absolute comfort, my skin prickled. Goosebumps covered my entire body and I began to feel like I must have been glowing a bright, honey gold.

It radiated—that place where my skin met the most perfect air and it started to shine so brightly that it could no longer be contained in my own skin and in seconds, it’s warmth exploded outward like the birth of a brand new universe. Elements of all kinds scattered and shimmered and suddenly, the whole world was a radiating, healing gold.

The light touched my family and my friends and it healed them of all their pain—physical or otherwise. It touched those people who have helped and assisted me. It touched those people who really, I don’t have much of an opinion of at all and it even touched the difficult and hurtful ones, too, stripping them of hate and hopelessness. It touched all animals and all plants and all the rocks on the beach and in the center of it all was Bunny and me. My best friend. The creature responsible for such a big chunk of joy in my world.

The light circled Bunny and seeped into her heart and her mind and with it, an assurance that she would never, ever be abandoned again. I poured all my alabaster gratitude into her through my hands and imagined wrapping my arms around her entire being which is far larger than the donkey shell in which it’s contained.

I am so grateful for my friendship with Bunny the donkey. Her and I share a world beyond words; beyond human expression. My dear Bunny, where would I be without you?

The pulsing, warm gold covered absolutely everything—the whole world and all of it’s contents floated above the ground. Waterfalls ran up cliffs. Flowers bloomed at lightning speed. Wolves howled and the sky began to sing in an angelic chorus that vibrated the entire history of mankind.

I opened my eyes and leaned back as she lifted her head and snorted. The air around us was still and silent but for that flickering, fall breeze that drifted by. I made eye contact with her once more—my silhouette and a bright, golden sky peering back at me.

I stood up, knees popping, pulling the brush from my back pocket and adjusting my hat. From behind me, Tyrion nudged my legs and so I placed a hand on his back and started to run the brush along his sides. I wondered what he must imagine when he’s spacing out, too? Who could ever really know?

Donkey dust

The Morning Five Foster Donkeys Arrived

In my freshly shined boots and my one pair of jeans without any holes, I’m standing at the edge of the gravel road out in front of the ranch. The sun has only barely peeked over the treetops; it’s morning rays filtering everything in a lively, lemony hue. Little Foot is securely fastened in a toddler hiking pack that’s strapped around my back and he’s saying “ball” over and over again. I’ve unlocked, unlatched and opened one of the larger side gates of our property and am holding the rusting chain that was looped around it in my left hand—it’s ends clanging softly together.  

Although it’s still quite early, the humidity of Texas summer engulfs us in it’s warm-washcloth embrace. My hair has already begun to stick to my forehead which frustrates me because I spent time straightening it before I came outside about 30 minutes ago. I also spent several minutes debating which shirt would be most appropriate to wear on the morning that I would be meeting our first five foster donkeys.

Ever since last summer, after King Ranch and I adopted Tyrion the mini donkey from the Humane Society, I’ve had it in my mind that I would like to volunteer to help in donkey adoptions, too. More than that, I felt like I needed to volunteer. I don’t know why. It’s been a growing and driving idea in my mind and so, after months of research, planning and lots of discussion, King Ranch and I have found ourselves here: opening our property to these five, soon-to-arrive foster donkeys.

Any minute now, the owner of the organization in which we are fostering the donkeys, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, will be pulling up with a trailer attached to his truck—five donkeys for whom I have yet to even see a picture will be in tow.

Moving the chain between my fingers one link at a time, I’m running through my mental checklist again:

-Troughs cleaned and filled: check.

-Hay distributed: check.

-Bunny and Tee secured into a separate paddock with plenty of hay and water: check.

-Fences sturdy and locks functioning properly: check.

-Coffee and cold water ready in case Mark, PVDR’s owner and today’s donkey deliverer, wants any: check.

I reach the end of the chain and start to move it through my fingers in the other direction. With my other hand, I tug at the bottom of the plain, gray t-shirt that I settled on when deciding what to wear. I thought plain, gray was calming and not the least bit intimidating for donkeys coming to a place they’ve never been. This must be terrifying for them.

From down the road, I hear the slow, heavy crunching of gravel. Although I can’t see beyond the tree line what or who has turned onto our road, I get the strange feeling that it’s got to be them: the five.

I gather the chain up in my hand and place it on the ground in front of the open gate before adjusting Little Foot’s pack on my back with a bounce which makes him giggle. The gravel crunching is getting closer as I run my fingers through my hair in an attempt to make it presentable.

I’m suddenly very nervous. Are we doing the right thing? Can we really take care of five more donkeys?

I shake my head and pull in a long inhale. In the bottom of my belly, I hold my breath and close my eyes. I imagine the day we adopted Tyrion and how touched I was at the grace in which that organization handled all these animals in search of a forever home. I remember how Jo, the woman who led us around, knew every single donkey, horse and mule and all about their stories. I remember how she’d taken the time to know them and how she was probably sizing us up—wondering if we’d be fit owners for Tee. I remember wanting to do what she did: help save donkeys.  And I wanted to do it just like her—thoroughly and with my entire heart. By the time donkeys need fostering, they’ve already been through so much. I wanted to be a peaceful and loving transition for them.

Through a small opening in my mouth, I let out my exhale and open my eyes. From around the tree line, a large, white truck approaches with a low, rumbling diesel engine—a dark green trailer rattling along behind it. It’s them.

As the truck halts in front of the ranch, I jog around the side of the trailer—Little Foot bouncing and giggling in his pack. A tall man with a long, white goatee exits the truck and from behind his sunglasses, he says, “Jess?”

I reply, “Yes,” and smile.

He extends his leathery hand and I extend mine—realizing then that my hand is shaking. When it meets his, I notice too how clammy my hand is in his dry and strong one.

“Pleasure to meet you,” he says, removing his sunglasses. He’s got a deep and steady voice which is calming for me.

I say, “Likewise,” and relax my shoulders.

He leads me to the trailer and says, “This is them.” I stand on my tip toes and peek in—five sets of furry ears is about all I can see. He continues, “You got a good group here.”

We’re both quiet for a moment. In the distance, cicadas call from the trees and flicking grass bugs hop and buzz on the sides of the gravel road.

I clear my throat and say to him, “Thank you so much for this.”

He smiles and says, “Lead the way,” and climbs back into his truck.

I direct him onto the property as he maneuvers his truck and the large trailer of donkeys flawlessly around behind me. As we reach the paddock in which the five will be staying, I open the gate and motion for him to stop. He steps out of his truck, unlatches the trailer and there they are. The five.

Five donkeys—all smaller than Bunny but bigger than Tee—are staring at me. Their eyes are wide with curiosity and the ears shift around quickly. My heart is pounding so heavily that I barely hear the sound of their hooves against the metal as one-by-one, they gallop out of the trailer and onto our property. We’re both smiling as we watch them gallop away.

After the owner and I talk for a long while about the logistics of fostering, he shakes my hand and leaves me to it.

I’m now standing in the middle of the property. The sun is higher now and pure, white heat. Little Foot is still strapped in his pack on my back only now, he’s not saying anything. Bunny and Tee are quiet and curious in the paddock to my left and the five fosters are curious and exploring in the paddock to my right.

So many long ears. So many flicking tails. So many snorts and exhales and big, searching eyes.

Once more, I pull in a long inhale and hold it. With my eyes closed, I think of Jo back at the humane society. She had a day one, also, right? When I release my breath and open my eyes, every single donkey on my property is looking at me with their ears straight up.

I peek over my shoulder at Little Foot who grins when he sees my eyes and say, “Alright bud. Let’s do this.”

The five foster donkeys

 

The Ghosts of Summer: Part Two

Before reading below, make sure you’ve read Part One! Link here: The Ghosts of Summer: Part One

 

The black widow’s eight legs are sharp and shiny like daggers. Clearly, she’s sharpened them. In my left hand is the hose, still running—the water splashing heavily in the mud around my feet. Like yesterday, I look around for a stick or something similar, but as I shift my eyes, in my peripheral, I see the widow move a few steps in my direction.

I fix my gaze back on the widow who freezes: her legs stopped mid step. The sun beats angrily down on us—our shadows small underneath the high noon sun. Nearby, Bunny and Tee have lifted their heads from grazing in curiosity.

I think that surely, this is a different spider because King Ranch most certainly killed and dismembered yesterday’s identical black widow. I don’t know enough about the spiders to know if they travel in packs. If by some strange, cosmic force, this was the same spider, I’m sure she’s furious and ready for revenge. If this is a different one, perhaps a sister or a parent, then vengeance is in order. Whoever she is, she’s angry.

What I do know is that in this moment, I can’t blink. She would surely strike if given the split second.

I remember then that I already have a weapon: the running hose. I press my thumb over the opening, creating a pressured spray. The widow is watching this and I could swear that she, too, is looking around to plot her next move. Two of her legs curl in close to her and as quickly as I can, I turn the hose and spray her with everything I’ve got.

She clings to her web, all of her legs curling in tight. Her web is strong, unbroken by the pressure of the hose. I step closer and spray harder.

She retreats—scattering up the web and behind the circular handle where she’s blocked from the water. I spray still and step closer. To my right, from the corner of my eye, I see the same stick that King Ranch used yesterday and with full hose pressure going and my eyes fixated on the round handle behind which she is hiding, I fumble to reach the stick with my right hand. Finally reaching it, gripping it tightly, I release my thumb from the end of the hose—the water once more plopping into the mud below. Beads of water shimmer along the chaotic pattern of her web like twinkling stars.

She remains behind the handle. I can’t see her, but I know she’s there. My heart thuds in my chest as my eyes begin to dry out from having not blinked. Still, I hold my gaze trying desperately to see any movement in the shadows.

My eyes are watering now and the flickering drops on her web are too bright to handle any longer. As quickly as I can, I blink.

As the light enters my reopening eyes, a blurry shadow is scattering with furious speed down a dripping web and into the mud. I stumble back, the stick unstable in my sweating hand. She’s at a full sprint towards me—her eight, dagger legs reaching high and leaving small prints in the mud. As fast as I can, I pick up my boot, wait until she’s nearly reached me and stomp.

Mud splatters everywhere.

I twist my boot back and forth, pressing down as hard as I can—it sinking at least an inch down into the ground.

After a moment and another twist each direction, I slowly lift my boot. She’s flattened: her yellow insides mixing with the brown mud. To make sure, I take a step back and run the hose over her. The yellow and brown swirl together and slowly, her corpse begins to run lifelessly along a small river that’s formed—her legs curled tightly into her broken belly.

Closely examining the faucet and seeing no other spiders, I turn the running water off and carefully wrap the hose around the spigot. Using the edge of my boot, I push mud over the widow’s wet corpse.

Now, she’s dead.

It’s the following day and King Ranch, Little Foot and I have just landed from a three hour flight to Michigan to spend the weekend with King Ranch’s family. We’re thrilled to have a break from the heat, if only for a few days. By the time we make it to my in-law’s house, it’s nearly 11:00 PM, so with Little Foot tucked tightly into my arms, we settle in for bed in the room that used to belong to King Ranch’s sister.

Around the walls is hand-painted, forest green ivy sprawling in every direction. There are two framed paintings of fairies wearing water-colored dresses with dainty, reaching hands. The paintings seem old—their colors no longer vibrant but instead, dusted. Little Foot’s body relaxes into sleep and I, too, close my eyes: the last thing I see being one of the fairies staring hopefully up to the sky.

Although we’re inside, it’s quite foggy. A gray mist hovers over the brown carpet while the fairies on the wall twirl inside of their frames. This is the first time I’ve seen sad twirling—they are looking up to the sky with tears streaming down their pale, small faces. They spin slowly and clumsily.

My feet feel heavy, suddenly, and my body feels like it’s growing tall. I look down as the ground is inching farther and farther away from me. The fog clears and bright yellow goo begins to seep up from the brown carpet. I grow taller and taller, yet somehow, feel smaller and smaller when the brown and yellow ground beneath me disappears. I begin falling and falling fast. I reach for anything—the fairies still twirling slowly in their frames that are now seeming to follow me as I fall.

I look up and from the darkness, a red glow appears. It’s faint at first, but then brightens into a beaming red hourglass. Black lines drip and ooze like oil over the fairies twirling in their frames when I see that their heads have turned into small, pointed skulls—their dresses dangling off of skeletal bodies. They wail hysterically when I land in a net.

I try lifting my arms, but they’re stuck to the webbing beneath me. The red hour glass is too bright to look straight into and is growing. I look left and right but soon, even my head is stuck. The redness is so bright.

With a huge exhale, I sit up abruptly in bed, which causes King Ranch to startle awake next to me.

I gasp, “Where’s Little Foot?”

“He’s in the crib,” King ranch whispers, pointing at the wooden crib that my mother in law had set up. Little Foot was rolling over, I imagine, because of the noise. King Ranch says, “I moved him there like an hour ago. What’s going on?”

I’m panting. “I…” I start, but then the tears come.

King Ranch says, “Honey, what is going on?”

“Nothing,” I say, wiping my face. “Just a bad dream, I think.” My heart is thudding and my spine is sweaty.

“Come here,” he says, pulling me into a little spoon. He wraps his arms tightly around me.

I watch the fairies in the frames who are still and dusty once again. They look longingly to the sky.

We’re 1500 miles and several days away from being home at the ranch. The widow will have plenty of uninterrupted time. I shudder and watch the fairies until dawn.

 

The Ghosts of Summer: Part One

Hauntings don’t happen in the summertime: they happen in the wintertime, right? In the summer, the trees are much too lush and kids are out of school, bobbing up and down in neighborhood pools. It’s light until 9 at night at which point the sun sets in a painted portrait of vibrant and far-reaching oranges and pinks. Hauntings don’t happen here.

Instead, hauntings happen in the wintertime—when the tree’s skeletal arms reach up towards a heavy, gray sky. Figures drift across the frosty ground when you exhale while shadows sneak in the edges of your vision. Frigid air creeps into your bones as the wind whispers in pointed, almost comprehensible warnings.

Hauntings happen in the winter, not the summer. Right?

It’s a mid-June afternoon in week 5 of no rain, although the humidity’s weight would suggest some is on its way. The warm washcloth through which we all breathe is heavy on the chest and hopeless for dry clothes. The donkey’s troughs need daily refilling as evaporation is working on overtime—mirages of microwaving water waving lazily above them during the day.

I keep an upside down bucket over the various faucet hookups around the property so the donkeys don’t hurt themselves by trying to scratch their faces on the metal spigots. For the first trough, even the plastic bucket is too hot to lift without gloves, so I do so very quickly, using the tips of my fingers to flail it up and away. As the bucket is flying to the side, something catches my eye by the faucet—a quick, chaotic scramble beneath the shadow of the blue hose. I lean in, but see nothing. A few, salty streams of sweat glide over my lips and drip off my chin into the dust around the faucet.

Round by round, I unwind the hose and walk it over to the first trough. As I approach the trough, whose water has managed to empty by half in only a day, I’m surprised to see just how much algae has formed as well when wait a sec, that’s not algae. I squint.

Oh god. That’s a squirrel.

I drop the hose and turn from the trough, acid bubbling in my stomach.

I peek back over my shoulder to confirm and indeed, that’s a bloated, belly-up squirrel in the trough.

I call for King Ranch who is working on the riding mower, “Honey!” He mustn’t hear me. Louder, I say, “Honeyyy!”

He drops a tool into the grass and lifts his head, his brow furrowed.

I say, “Squirrel,” pointing at the trough, “in the trough. Dead squirrel.” My stomach has folded in on itself.

King Ranch stands and meets me by the trough. After a long exhale that could mean frustration or grief, he says, “I’ll get the shovel.”

Later, after he’s buried the squirrel and I’ve cleaned out the trough, I turn on the hose and lay it in there to refill. It takes some time, it being a large trough, so I leave it and walk back to the barn. Well, it’s the back house, but I’m considering turning it into a barn. This is where a few weeks back, we found the dangling Rockstar rooster. [his story here]

Inside the soon-to-be barn, it’s dark and damp. Sulfur light enters through the slits in the rotting wood and in the rays, specs of filth float aimlessly. The ground is covered in a thin layer of hay and there are more wasp nests on the ceiling than I can count. A hodge podge of rusted farm equipment, wood scraps and fuel containers scatter about the edges of the room. I’m in here to decide if I think it will be too much work to actually proceed with my barn project when from behind a stack of wood, something moves. It’s too dim and dusty to see anything, but for a moment, I stare. Maybe it was a mouse? Or a lizard?

I take a few steps closer when a wasp dive bombs towards me—its buzz, loud and angry. I quickly cover my head and dart out of the house.

Across the yard, the trough is overflowing so I pull the hose out and start winding it back around the faucet. Again, something scatters in the side of my vision in the shade of the spigot. This time, I lean in closer, looking beneath the knobs. In the shadows, there is small movement: a chaotic shuffling. I look around for anything and behind me is a stick, which I pick up and poke into the moving shadow.

It wiggles and whines and then darts into the open.

A black widow spider.

I stumble backward, landing in mud that has formed from the running hose, and scramble to my feet, holding the stick out like a dagger. It shakes in my hand as again I call, “Honey!” I do not take my eyes from the spider hanging in a messy web that is barely visible. “Honey, it’s a black widow!”

I’m surprised at how plastic the spider looks. It’s shiny: oily black with a shiny, red hourglass. It looks fabricated. But it’s looking back at me, furious. I suspect that black widows don’t like the sunlight, and now, I’ve exposed her.

King Ranch approaches, wiping sweat from his brow with his forearm. He says, “It’s a what?”

I use the stick to point out the spider. He tips up his cowboy hat and leans in before he, too, stumbles backwards. “Holy shit,” he says.

He takes the stick from me and tries to stab the spider, but it’s much too quick. It darts in and out of the shadows, striking its arms up at King Ranch.

This duel goes on for a clumsy while before King Ranch defeats the black widow. It’s not a triumphant win, by any means. After a moment of standing over the curled spider corpse—a few legs having been dismembered during the fight—King Ranch says, “I didn’t want to kill her.”

I say, “I know.”

“But she could kill Little Foot.”

I nod.

It’s the next day and King Ranch is at work. I’m out in the pasture checking the donkey’s troughs which thankfully have no bloated squirrels, although they do need to be topped off. Again, I quickly toss the bucket off the faucet and also thankfully, I see no scattering movement which could belong to a black widow. I plop the hose into the trough and walk back to the barn.

As I approach the front door of the barn, I hear shuffling coming from inside. I lean in and my weight snaps a stick that I didn’t realize was beneath my boot. When it snaps, the shuffling stops.

I slowly push the creaky door open and again, behind the same pile of wood, something moves. It’s a small movement: like a shift, although, I still can’t see what it is. I take a few, careful steps into the house before my eyes fully adjust to the dimness of the damp room. The movement stops and in front of the pile of wood, there is something small and round gently rocking side to side. I stand as still as I can, even holding my breath. Flakes float curiously in the rays of entering light.

After a moment and when the round thing stops rocking, I take another step and nudge the round thing with my boot. It rolls over and oh gosh. It’s a small skull. I take a clumsy step back and shake my head. Squinting my eyes, I look closer and yes, it’s a skull. It’s a skull whose face is pointed and small. A skull that could be that of a squirrel’s.

My heart is suddenly an unbearable weight in my chest as I run out of the house and out to the spot where King Ranch buried the bloated squirrel just yesterday. The whole grave has been dug up. All that’s left is loose dirt and a deep hole. I look all around but see nothing.

Sweat is pouring from my brow which is pounding with a frantic pulse when I realize that the trough is overflowing. Grabbing the hose, I wrap it around the faucet as quickly as I can, struggling for breath, when something catches my eye. I stop.

Hanging from the knob on the faucet is the black widow. She’s not in the shadows today: she’s out in the open and she’s staring at me. Her belly’s hour glass is even brighter red and all eight of her arms are spread wide and ready.

Summer sunset
The last bit of sun in the summer