Thursday, November 1, 2018

Short Story #25 A Meadowlark and a Killer Whale

My best friend surprised me a while back by reviving our writer's club for two. It's been a few years since we've set ourselves a writing club task, what with being busy at other things. But Cathy sent me a short story she had written on the topic, "Choose an event from childhood that reflects who you are today... positively or negatively."

I sort of cheated and wrote two memories that are related in my mind, and I share them here. Enjoy!

A Meadowlark and a Killer Whale
MCWC #25
October 2018

The monkey bar was calling my name one grey morning, so I put on my mittens and hopped on my purple one-speed bike to pedal up the gravel road to the school yard. The street was lifeless, and so was the park across the street from my house, except for the sparrows nesting in the budding willows near the footbridge, and the tiny tadpoles underneath it. No school today, so I would have the whole schoolyard to myself.

I pedaled as hard as I could and back-slammed on my brakes, leaving a satisfying three-foot skid in the dirt behind me. When I got to the stop sign on school street, I stopped, though there wasn’t a moving vehicle for miles. Plenty, Saskatchewan, was always sleepy on Saturday mornings after the teenagers tore up and down the wide Main Street in their noisy cars on Friday nights. The school parking lot was empty, though if I closed my eyes, I could still see the principal’s car stuck in the melt-water canals that Norman, Carol and I had dug through the snow with sticks just two weeks earlier. We hid in the willows when Mr. Smyshnyk got stuck, afraid that he’d be mad. Carol and Norman almost missed their school bus home.

I walked my bike over the curb and ditched it on the wide sidewalk that led up to the old 3-storey brick Stuart school. Without kids around, it seemed huddled into itself, but I wasn’t about to feel sorry for it. I had to get to the monkey bar. What a treat to have it all to myself. No Benita to hog it for the entire recess. Being a town kid who went home for lunch, my time on the monkey bar was limited. The farm kids had half of the lunch hour to play, but it took me the extra time to walk home and back. During the short recesses, I never managed to escape the school fast enough to reach the monkey bar first.

Kids today would laugh at our coveted monkey bar – a single pipe that came out perpendicular to the post holding up one end of a four-swing set, supported by a vertical bar that dove into the dusty ground. A kids’ chin-up bar, really, though tiny blonde Benita had a way of throwing one leg over the top and spinning her whole body around it at dizzying speeds. What she did looked like fun, and I’d always wanted to try it, but the few times that I coaxed Benita to share and actually had a chance, I’d been too scared and self-conscious to be that daring. Benita, on the other hand, was fearless.

I pulled myself up onto the bar and sat for a moment, then dropped back, feeling its steel chill through my mittens and behind my knees. Then I let down a leg next to the swing set support, and clamped my arms under the bar and around my shinbone. The idea was to use my free leg to brace against the vertical support and propel myself over the bar with my knee the centre pivot, spinning again and again, like Benita did.

What I didn’t bargain on was that Benita’s boots must have afforded her ankle more padding than mine did. The first time I pushed myself over the bar was fine, but the second time I banged my ankle as I drove my body up and over the top. Still, I kept going. After four or five times around the bar, I felt slightly motion sick, and I could tell my shin and ankle were getting bruised. Maybe Benita’s fun wasn’t as great as it looked.

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Head spinning, hanging with my arms still clasped around one knee, I stared up at the cloudy sky just as a meadowlark flew overhead. His bright yellow belly was a small ray of sunshine, and I let myself fall back and watch him until he landed on the upside-down schoolyard fence a short distance from me. Pulling myself right-side-up, I dropped from the monkey bar and turned to the meadowlark, who was singing an amazing nine-note trill.

Moving slowly toward the bird, I said softly, “Good morning, sir, and what a lovely voice you have. Can I talk to you like Mary Lennox talks to the robin in The Secret Garden?” He cocked his head and stared at me with one black bead-like eye. The closer I got to him, the more slowly I moved, until his legs tensed, ready to launch him into the air. I stopped, and he waited. “Where do you live, sir” I asked, “and what are your plans for this Saturday morning? Do you have a lady and a nest somewhere?”

He flew to the next fence post as if he was about to lead me to his place, and I followed him, making conversation. If he had talked back, it wouldn’t have surprised me, but a full conversation wasn’t necessary. I was happy just speaking to him as though he was a long-lost friend, admiring his bright eyes, dark necklace, and yellow breast – and that song! He didn’t sing it nearly often enough for my liking, so I decided to stop talking and just follow in silence.

I had never fully explored the school yard before. Grade One and Two students generally played closer to the school because the bigger kids used the wider spaces for softball, kickball and other sports that might run over little kids like me. But that morning, the meadowlark took me on a grand tour: all the way around the fence perimeter, right to the farmer’s fields out back, and over to where the High School kids played football. He started to sing again, and, taking it for conversation, I responded in kind, telling him about bossy Diane trying to make my little sister eat a mud pie, and my difficulties with addition and subtraction speed tests. He sang a little song of sympathy, and listened intently. He seemed to agree that The Secret Garden was a wonderful book for Mrs. Hansen to read to her Grade Two class.

After what seemed like hours to my seven-year-old self, the bird stood up tall on his fencepost, and I heard a different birdsong coming from the grasses in the field beyond the fence. “Is that a lady bird?” I asked. He stretched even taller, trilled once, and was gone.

That’s when I realized that my hands were cold and my bike was far away. Plodding around the High School, past the middle school, and all the way back to where I’d started, I decided that I wouldn’t envy Benita her monkey bar spinning any more. I’d keep my eye out for meadowlarks instead.

*** ***

There wasn’t a single cloud reflected in the water. I stood, looking down at a wavy, acne-riddled face staring back up at me until it was shattered into a thousand watery fragments as the whale silently rose up, just inches from the railing. She had a piece of yellowish kelp on her nose, if killer whales had noses, and she bobbed in front of me as if she wanted me to take it.

I looked around for guidance or permission, but my family and the rest of the tourists had moved over to the four o’clock show, and the whale trainer had disappeared behind the stage door. I could hear the emcee two tanks over giving the same spiel we'd heard at the sea lions' 2 o’clock performance. But I’d had enough of people, and just wanted my space; reruns of sea lion tricks didn’t impress an introverted 14-year-old me. Until the young orca showed up, I was feeling more than a little melancholy and out of sorts.

Miracle moved a few feet to the right, her near eye watching my reaction. For reasons unknown, I decided to move with her. She moved back to the left, and I sidestepped again. She came a little closer to the railing, her piece of seaweed still on her nose. There was no one to tell me not to, so I reached over the railing, took it from her, and tossed it into the middle of the tank. She sank into the water, swam under the kelp, and came up with it on her nose, bringing it back to me. Fetch.

“You’re lonely too, aren’t you?” I said. I took the kelp and threw it in a different direction, and she brought it back again, her graceful body making only the slightest waves on the surface of the tank. I was delighted. The crowd at the Sea Lion tank laughed and cheered, clearly amused by Sally the costumed seal’s dancing, but I was communing with a killer whale. “Do you mind being cooped up like this?” I asked her. “Would you like to swim free?”

Our family had heard the story of the baby killer whale that had been found off the BC coast riddled with bullets. Fortunately, Miracle was rescued by marine biologists and brought to Sealand for medical care in 1977. By the time she recuperated, she had bonded with Sealand staff, and no one seemed sure whether she would be adopted or killed by a pod of wild orcas, so she remained as one of Sealand’s attractions, learning tricks and performing through the summer months. Two years later, our family decided it would be interesting to see Miracle with our own eyes.

She definitely wasn’t a baby anymore. The whale tank’s railings were marked in different shades of blue, and during Miracle’s performance, Uncle Scotty made the mistake of wandering off and standing alone behind a light blue railing while the rest of us stood in the navy section. None of us knew that light blue indicated where Miracle did the kinds of tricks that would have emptied the tank had it not been made of netted enclosures surrounded by floating walkways in the Pacific itself. Uncle was soaked to the skin, and it seemed that Miracle was pleased with her performance, nodding toward him when she took her “bows” at the end of it all. We laughed as he took off his tank top and wrung it out, but it was a hot afternoon, and we kids kind of envied him being cooled off by such a cool whale.

And here I was, hanging out with her! After a few more sessions of fetch, Miracle left the kelp in the water and came to take a long look at me, raising herself up so we could see eye to eye when I rested my chin on the railing. “Bored, eh?” I said. “I would be too, except for you.” She rolled to her side and flapped a flipper, then powered across the tank doing the motorboat impression that soaked our flip-flopped feet behind the navy railing during her show, and she made me laugh again at the raspberry-like sound she was making.

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On her way back toward me, Miracle changed direction and leapt into the air, her splash not quite reaching me. “You missed,” I told her when she surfaced, and she flashed a big smile. Then she disappeared underwater for a while, and I could tell where she was only by the occasional appearance of her top fin where she was practicing her “Jaws Impression.”  Eventually, she surfaced to my right. I sidestepped to be in line with her, and she opened her mouth and smiled again, displaying a regular row of large teeth and a marvelous pink tongue. I stepped to the left a few paces, and she went under and came up in line with me. It felt like playing peek-a-boo with a little kid. I wished I had a few fish to offer her.

The sea lions were working on their grand finale and Miracle and I were back to playing fetch when my dad came looking for me. “Why didn’t you come to the sea lions?” he asked. “Been there, done that,” I said, cool as a sea cucumber, “but I’ve never played fetch with a killer whale before.” Miracle had resurfaced with the kelp, and I took it off her nose and handed it to Dad, who threw it toward the middle of the tank. Miracle retrieved it, and this time, after I took the seaweed, I dared to run my hand along the side of her jaw, showing off a little. Her mouth opened, and I nervously pulled back and threw the seaweed once again. Dad laughed. “Better than the sea lions,” he said, as Miracle went after the piece of kelp.

When the sea lion performance ended, my sisters and cousins came running over to see what was going on. “Just hanging out with Miracle,” I said. At the sound of so many feet running toward us on the deck, she had slipped underwater, just her top fin and fluke showing now and then. I wondered if maybe she was an introvert, like me, but she surfaced with the kelp. I took it from her, and we showed my family the fetch game. “Let me try!” shouted Ronald, my ten-year-old cousin. I handed him the kelp, and Miracle dutifully brought it back a few times for my sisters and cousins before Dad announced that it was time to go back to our campsite and make supper. Ron was disappointed, complaining all the way to the parking lot. I was the last to leave Miracle’s tank, wishing that I could give her a hug.

*** ***

I suspect all human beings are born with a sense of kinship toward other creatures. It’s only natural for toddlers to converse with caterpillars and lady bugs. But somewhere along the line, many of us lose that sense of connection.

I haven’t. My conversations with other creatures have continued well into adulthood, sometimes to my embarrassment – neighbours walking our back alley have overheard me talking to crows and squirrels and even honeybees. I’d like to blame Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful book, but it comes naturally, and it’s not something I would ever think to prevent. It just happens, and it makes me happy. I’ve realized that it’s part of who I am, no small thanks to a meadowlark and a killer whale.

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