Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tell Me a Story

“Tell me a story,” I wheedle, snuggling closer in bed to my husband, Dave.

“I’m tired,” he says with a yawn for effect.

“C’mon, Honey. I want to hear a story.”

“I can’t think of anything.”

“I’ll give you three animals…”

He groans.

I smile in the dark, hearing echoes of the voices of my little ones, Tucker and Casey, twenty-five years ago, saying, “Dad! Dad! Tell us a bedtime story!”

“Hmmm,” Dave would say. “Give me three animals…”

And that’s all it took. No matter how obscure or unrelated, Dave could spin a yarn from those three threads. I don’t know what sparked memories of those cozy evenings, but that’s what I want to hear now. I know from Dave’s groan that he is weakening, so I think back over the past few days...

We’re on vacation in Florida, staying at the Holiday Inn. Yesterday, Dave summoned me from the bathroom, saying, “Your services are required… and bring a tissue.”

I’m not in the mood, I’d thought.

But when I entered the bedroom, Dave was on the floor doing his back stretches and he was pointing at the ceiling. An insect – a centi-pede? – was motionless on the swirl of white stucco.

Dave does not like bugs.

I climbed on the couch and reached, but the insect had wings and took flight. It was not a centipede, something more like a…

Dragonfly…” I nudge Dave. “That’s my first choice - a dragonfly.”

Dave is silent. Has he fallen asleep? Maybe he won’t tell me a story tonight, but I’ll be ready for tomorrow. I think some more...

On the beach this morning, I spotted a large, gelatinous green mass, rolling in the lazy surf. I thought it was seaweed until I noticed a quiver and the tremble of a pointy protuberance. “It looks like a huge snail without its shell,” I’d said...

I whisper into the dark, “My second animal is a sea slug. Dave? Do you hear me? My animals so far are a dragonfly and a sea slug.”

“I hear you,” says the weary voice at my side.

Number three, number three. What will it be? I hear the surf beyond the window and I picture the expanse of blue water in daylight, the wink of sun flecks dancing on ripples. Since our arrival, we’d scanned that vista, hoping for a glimpse, but never seeing a …

Dolphin. Those are my three – a dragonfly, sea slug and dolphin. Tell me a story, Honey," I beg.

There is silence and I think I’ve lost him, when…

“I’m sorry, but I don’t breathe fire,” says Dave.

“What?” I say, confused.

Dave’s voice is annoyed, a little high-pitched. He says, “I said, ‘I don’t breathe fire.’”

I smile and pull the sheets closer to my chin. He’s already started the story!

“But you’re a dragonfly,” Dave continues in the whiny voice of the sea slug. “You must be able to breathe fire.”

“Well, I don’t. I understand your confusion, but I’m telling the truth. I do not, I repeat, I do not breathe fire.”

“Please,” said the sea slug, “I need your help. None of the other sea creatures likes me because I’m so slimy. I need your fire to dry me off a bit.”

“Even if I had fire, I doubt that’s a good idea,” responded the dragonfly.

“Oh, I don’t care if I wither like a vanilla bean or a raisin, it would be better than the way I am now.”

“I’d like to help you. Really, I would, but like I said, I don’t breathe fire. Let me think though. What’s the smartest animal in the sea?”

Again, I smile, wiggling my toes in anticipation, inching still closer to Dave’s chest. It’s my dolphin! I think.

“A dolphin,” said the slug.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said the dragonfly.

He winged his way out over the waves and spotted a fin. A triangular fin, moving very fast. He flew in close and fluttered on the fin. “Excuse me,” he said politely.

The fin tipped backwards and slipped beneath the water’s surface, revealing in its place a great mouth, bristling with sharp teeth.

“I’m sunk,” thought the dragonfly. Then he felt a strong thump.

The jaws of the shark, for that’s what this many-toothed creature was, snapped shut. He turned with a thrust of his tail and was gone, scared off by the one thing, the dragonfly knew, that sharks fear.

A dolphin! I feel like crowing, but instead I grin.

“A dolphin,” says Dave.

I knew it!

The dragonfly thanked the dolphin for his timely appearance and explained the sea slug’s dilemma. “The poor thing really is quite repulsive, so if there’s anything you can do…”

“Hmmm,” said the dolphin, only it came out a whistling squeak. He slapped the water with his tail and swam to the beach, scanning the sand in search of the sea slug.

The slug was lolling, in and out with each tug of the waves, waiting for the dragonfly’s report. Suddenly, the water whished and wavered and wrenched at the slug, tossing him up on the shore. The slug glimpsed the curve of a smile as the dolphin flipped something high into the air with a cheerful squeak.

What is it? I wonder.

“What is it?” wondered the slug.

Whatever is was, it landed smack on the slug. He felt the tapping and tickling of tiny tentacles, touching him, holding him close. Very close.

It was a starfish and it enfolded the slug, tucked him in and rolled him up. Together, they looked just like a ball. With his round gray nose, the dolphin pushed them beyond the surf line, onto the hot white sand.

“Now, I’ll dry up!” thought the sea slug. But soon he realized, “This doesn’t feel very good.”

The sun beat down. The sand was scorching and grainy. The tendrils of the starfish were still, growing tight; the starfish was shrinking as it dried. The slug thought, “I could go for some nice, wet, ooze.”

Overhead, the dragonfly hovered, concerned.

But the dolphin was wise. It was just a matter of time. He knew who would happen along.

A small boy appeared, as curious as the dolphin knew all little boys to be. He trotted over to the slug-starfish, poked at the odd-looking ball and picked it up.

“What is it, Tuck? What did you find?” called a voice.

“Don’t know,” said the child. “Something weird.”

The slug was not dry yet. He was wet. And sticky. Quite frankly, he was still pretty gross.

“Yuck!” said the boy and tossed the ball into the sea, where it sank through the rippling salt water.

“Ahhhhh!” said the starfish.

“Ahhhhh!” said the sea slug.

They stretched and separated and gratefully sucked in that water.

With a swish and tail-pump, the dolphin appeared. To the slug he squeaked, “Did you get what you wanted?”

The slug swelled and twisted, content in the water. The dragonfly zoomed overhead and tipped a wing. The starfish floated, flexing his five fingers; softly, he touched the slug.

The dolphin waited with a knowing smile.

“No,” said the slug, “But maybe I have what I need. I’m slimy and green, repulsive perhaps. That is not going to change.”

“And?” said the dolphin.

“And?” repeated the slug. What did the dolphin want him to say? He thought about the dragonfly who’d sought out the dolphin. He thought about the starfish who’d been willing to dry for him.

He smiled, as slugs do, a gross, slimy smile, and said, “And still, I have friends willing to help me.”

Just as my kids had, two decades ago, I feel cozy and safe at this happy ending. “I loved my story, Hon, I might want one every night.”

Dave groans, but he gives me a hug and a kiss.

“Let me think,” I murmur. “What will my three animals be?”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Searching for Sand Dollars

I stride the beach, pausing every so often to bend and pick up a shell. Curling and whispering on the sand about my feet, slow swells of green water roll, a rhythmic pulse.

A gathering of gulls shriek and complain, no doubt wishing for an ocean stir to rough things up and slap a few fish onshore for supper.

In pink sundresses and floppy hats, two little girls crouch on their haunches, tiny fingers reaching for black ridged scallops and yellow jingle shells. An Amish woman, her hair covered in a white gauze cap, gathers the long skirts of her modest rose dress. She stops, leans closer for a better look, and selects a brown-striped turkey-wing.

Whether a leathery gent with an imposing paunch, a lithe blond in a turquoise bikini, or a well-browned matron, gold bracelets jangling, we walk the shore, hands cupped around shells, entranced by the variety of nature’s designs. We pluck them up, spiraled and curved, pottery-thick, ice-brittle, in shades from gray to vivid orange with squiggles.

Sand dollars are best. Bleached clay-white, etched with a star, they are fragile, so easily broken. It is rare to find one intact on the beach. And so, we hunters head for the water. Wading thigh-deep, the beer-bellied, bikini-clad, and sun-hatted hunch, peering through rippling water.

As I toe the sand, sifting, sending out smoky plumes, braids of gold sunlight waver. A school of silver fish flash around my feet. And I notice the absence of thought. Searching for sand dollars seems purpose enough to clear my head of its usual spin.

Squinting, I scan for the elusive disks. There? No, it’s a shell. There? No, it’s another shell. So it goes. Purpose enough.

I slosh back to the beach empty-handed, but grateful for the warm sun and wide blue sky feathered with light-hearted streaks of jet trails.

A tall man, tan, perhaps European, with dark hair and white teeth strides purposefully toward me. He holds out his hand and says, “For you. A gift. I found it in the sea.”

A sand dollar.

I beam my thanks. He smiles and walks away.

Sand dollars. A kind gesture. Purpose enough.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Running with Dogs

I glimpsed the two dogs through the dining room window as they dashed across our back yard and headed toward the compost heap. When I ran outside, they were snuffling amidst clam shells, coffee filters and vegetable scraps. “Good dogs, come!” I said. And they did.

One was a handsome, mid-sized akita-type animal with fawn-colored fur and a white mantle across his shoulders and chest. The smaller of the two was a creamy lab-mix. Both were friendly and excited about their free-wheeling adventure.

The lab had a tag with a phone number and his name - Jesse. My husband phoned and learned that the larger dog’s name was Champ. The owner said he’d come pick them up; he was on his way. Unfortunately, so were the two wanderers. In the time it took to make the call and grab our old dog’s leash, they were on their way down the road.

With a herky-jerky stop-and-start, I went after them, halting to call, clap and whistle, then running to try and keep up.

While my husband, Dave, waited for the dogs’ owners to arrive, I threw caution and respect for private property aside and followed Champ and Jesse up a neighbor’s driveway. I zipped through back yards, past swimming pools and porches, scanning the March woods, the uniform gray-brown of trees, leaf litter, and rock fall for a flash of creamy-white or the wag of a freedom-thrilled tail.

In the snow’s aftermath, sticks, leaves and brambles were pressed flat so the going was easy. Easier still were the well-worn deer trails that the dogs had chosen. My feet, that four days ago had been snowboot-encased, were gloriously bare but for flip-flops. My toenails, freshly painted in red “Cherry Crush,” flashed brilliant against the drab brown of the trail. As euphoric and free as the dogs, I ran.

Champ and Jesse slowed ahead. I could see them racing back and forth. “The stream,” I thought. And sure enough… they’d been stymied by the bank of Cricker Brook, but only briefly. Champ found a way across and took flight.

When I caught up to Jesse, he was still seeking a path, but he came when I called and I snapped on the leash. “Good dog!” I said and gave him pats and a hug. “Let’s find Champ!” And we were off.

Together, we followed the deer trail, Jesse pulling and panting as he strained to catch up with his friend.

Champ bounded ahead, in sight, but out of reach. Part of me thought, “He’s loving this! Let him go!” But I knew if he were my dog, I’d be bereft to lose him, plus I worried about hunters and the inevitable road crossings. I had a brief tug of worry, about the home they were running from – was I returning them to an unkind master? No, I dismissed the thought; Jesse and Champ had come cheerfully when first I called them. They were happy and friendly; someone loved these dogs. Still, what a joy to be a dog racing through the woods… and what a joy to be a woman close behind!

I am fifty-five and far from athletic; this was the farthest I’d run in thirty-some years. But I felt great. I wasn’t tired. I loved the slap of my feet on the deer-trodden trail. I loved the ease of movement, the surprising energy of my body. I loved the tentative March birdsong and the chatter of stream-water over rocks. I loved the glimpse of deep green moss on stone and the trembling parchment-like beech leaves. I loved the sense of purpose and the company of dogs.

Champ was widening the distance between us; his ears no longer flickered at the sound of my voice. Something else was calling him and he gleefully complied. Jesse was tired, at least that’s what I told myself, so I jerked at the leash and said, “C’mon, Sweetie. Your owners will have to find your pal.” Jesse was reluctant. He whimpered and balked and searched the woods behind us, but he was used to following a human’s lead and trotted along.

I’d trespassed in those woods often enough to know where I was and I took pleasure in that too. Unerringly, I clambered over stone walls and fallen trees. Together, Jesse and I headed home.

We met Dave and the dogs’ owners once we came to the road. Jesse scrambled readily into the back seat of the car. Good; final proof he was content to be found. I was disappointed that I couldn’t deliver both dogs, but I described Champ’s general direction, and his people drove off to keep up the search.

Dave and I went to sit on the porch, basking in the sun on this seventy-degree March day. An hour later, the click of claws on wood planking, heavy breathing and the rasp of a warm tongue nudged me from my doze. It was Champ! Wander-lust satisfied, he pranced around us a bit, then settled in next to me to rest.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


The old road bordered by ancient stone walls meanders from the edge of the lawn back through the woods to a lovely pond on our neighbors’ property. More than once we’ve been told, “Oh, I love your pond! We used to skate there when I was young!” Sadly, we respond that the pond went with another lot when the property was subdivided, so we’ve missed out on skating parties. Still, we admire the mythic nature of the old road itself, its stone walls alive now with colonies of chipmunks and garter snakes, having once been travelled by horse-drawn carts, and certainly those skaters, laughing in anticipation of some mid-winter fun.

The sunken bed of the road, boulder strewn, gives a trough-like effect as the bowed centerline curves gracefully up to the tops of the walls. It would be rough passage now for anything on wheels, although the deer and wild turkeys traverse it with ease. During warmer months, graceful ferns unfurl and feather within its borders and the occasional foxglove will send up a startling spire of purple blossoms.

The lawn ends at a retaining wall tangled with forsythia, day lilies and golden rod that slopes to the entrance of the old road. Sometimes I perch on the steps from the back door to the yard, listening to the summer bugs, basking in the sun’s golden warmth and dreaming of sipping tea beneath the overhang of a porch.

We have made our way gradually toward this construction along the side of our sheds, but even so modest a project seems to involve many steps when it’s a Sylvestro plan. First we dragged our feet, watching for signs from the aging apple tree as to when her demise might be planned appropriately. Once the tree came down, there were permits to be acquired, necessitating a survey of the yard. Former Dave projects, a lean- to for the lawnmower and a “firewood condo”, once sources of weeks of labor and proud show-and-tell, now required demolition. Of course, the new shed roof that Dave and I installed together five years ago was also destined for the scrap heap.

The next step was to empty the shed that would support the porch and its roof. This would have been a daunting task under any circumstances due to the fact that we’d not done a thorough cleaning since we moved here. Further, at the risk of appearing slovenly, I confess that we’d had a little rat problem this winter that had exacerbated the mess in the shed. Oh yes, Rats.

I used to love watching the cardinals, titmice and chickadees darting about the feeder hung on the lilac just outside the kitchen window. We had recycled our sturdy plastic kitty litter containers to hold the loose bird seed stored conveniently in the shed. I loved the job of filling the feeders in winter. Pulling on my LL Beans boots and tromping through the snow carrying the bucket of seed, I pictured myself kinswoman to the farmers of old, making their way out to the barn, tending to chores. We were not, however, aware of feeding an additional, less charming, wildlife species until we discovered holes the size of silver dollars gnawed through those seemingly invulnerable plastic bins. *Shudder* I’d had no idea how rapacious rats could be.

We had never seen the rats and we made every effort to convince ourselves that these were only mice. When entering the shed, however, we would approach with caution, knocking threateningly before setting foot inside. On several occasions, we sent in our feline guard on reconnaissance, but they were wary and unenthusiastic about this place that had once been a favorite play area. Later, the exterminator confided that cats do not like rats. Whole different ballgame from mice. Well, there you go. Good judgment.

One day, Dave went to the shed to fetch a tool, entering only after the required knocking ritual. Upon turning to leave, he came eyes to whisker with a rat quivering above the door lintel. Oh. My. God. With this, and the rats’ growing appetite for anything housed in the shed - coolers, life vests, rugs, bottles of motor oil (!?), we realized that co-existence was not a possibility. We needed professional help.

We established contact via the yellow pages and were given the common sense instruction to remove all primary food sources. You would think we would have thought of that for ourselves, but no. The bird seed moved inside the house and sadly, the feeders on the lilac were banished to the foot of the yard. This had the immediate effect of forcing our vermin friends into plain sight. We were treated to the unnerving spectacle of four adult rats - eight inches or so in length, not counting the tails - and seven babies, all vying and squirming for fallen bird seed at the foot of the lilac, right under the kitchen window. *Shudder* again.

Our new guru, Brian the exterminator, had the wild-eyed glint of one who did battle with rats on a regular basis. Like some old man of the sea weaving tales of legendary fish, he told us stories of wily creatures with gimlet eyes who had mocked him, showing uncanny cunning in eluding him during past engagements. He stood at the kitchen window with us, watching the roiling tumble of sleek bodies and slithering whip-like tails of our rat family.

“Don’t you resent them?” he snapped accusingly. “Look at them! They’ve destroyed your belongings and befouled your shed! It stinks in there!”

It was true. We hung our heads in shame. We had let it go too far. Pushed around by a pack of bully rats.

Well, enough of that. Our uniformed emissary set out three formidable black bait traps, anchored them to the shed and tree with ropes of wire cord and padlocked them shut. No one but rats was going into these babies. Task accomplished, Brian handed over the keys and turned to go.

“Uh, wait. Are you going to come check them? Pick up the traps or something?” I said.

“Well, I will if you want me to; it’s really not necessary.”

Again I faltered sheepishly, “Will the rats die inside the traps?”

“No, usually not.”

“Well, do they head for water?”

Brian got a kick out of that. “That’s what other guys’ll tell you, because of course, that’s a comforting concept. But no, they’ll probably die under the house somewhere...”

He was right. Those rats had us coming and going. For months we tried to mask the stench with pans of absorbent charcoal and fragrant red candles of cinnamon scent set strategically around the kitchen and downstairs bathroom. Oh yes, those rats were calling the shots even from the grave.

Which brings me back to my original point; clearing the shed. Preparation for porch construction was the incentive required to attack the build-up of thirteen years. There was now the added impetus of removing hidden nests, gnawed baskets and spewing bags of soil rent by ratty teeth - a host of forgotten detritus now made repulsive by our former tenants.

I approached the task with surprising gusto, my willingness to dispose of items squirreled up through the years made far easier by the taint of rat occupancy. Expansive black garbage bags swelled like balloons to maximum capacity as they received unmatched gloves, unused foil pans, endless bottles wistfully saved for Dave’s homemade wine, and a bag of solidified concrete mix. Out! Out! Out!

Purging provides a gratifying sense of order. After cleaning a closet - or a shed, for example - I squire tolerant visitors in for a look, so great is my sense of satisfaction. Surely the aura of “everything is in its place in my shed, and all is right with the world” is palpable to all who go there.

It took three days, but the area so recently choked with years of debris, mingled with (dare I say it) rat droppings, was finally emptied. Let the porch construction begin!