fiction · Original Thought

Can You Experience My Story?

Just by imagining what you experienced as you tell me a story about seeing a black bear while hiking in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, my mirror neurons fire as if I was on the trek with you. The better you tell me the story, the more I ‘live’ the experience. We are wired to engage with stories and yet we pretend to be concerned with ‘facts’.
If I share a story, I hope to engage you. The more often I tell it, the more often I engage with it. My memories are from my perspective and distance and time can create challenges if veracity and validation are important. I have been writing a piece called Faded Recollections for a couple of years and some of you would have read excerpts in the past. I share this chapter as a way of hopefully reinforcing my thesis that you can share the experience if the story is well crafted. As always, your thoughts, impressions and candor are welcome.

Powerful to Powerless
Did the silence mean it was going to happen again? If I held my breath, would time stop?

After hours of clinking glasses and men laughing, the party, upstairs, came to a sudden halt. He was visiting from wherever he came from and the Pilsner or Bohemian and cigarettes always came with him. Crude jokes, a couple of punches and arm twists, a dollar and the big bottle of red wine followed. The man made my father laugh – no one did that anymore. His visits were the highlight of his year.

Darkness covered the corner of the basement where a curtain defined my bedroom. What time was it? Midnight? Would he be too drunk? Too tired? Tonight? I pressed myself against the concrete wall and pulled the covers over my ears. The cocoon was so small, maybe I could disappear tonight. Maybe I could transform into a superhero.

Superheroes didn’t feel this much fear. Superheroes fought back regardless of a 100 pound weight difference. Superheroes didn’t need their parents to fight their battles, even when they are 9 years old. Tonight I was going to fight back. I was going to say “No, no, no”. Tonight I was going to scream. Tonight I was going to stab him through his heart.

A light at the top of the stairs went out and the shadows crept away. The steps on the treads shifted from stomps to tiptoes. The sanctuary curtain was torn open and disappeared. Not in the world but in my head. I wasn’t here. I wasn’t helpless. I wasn’t abandoned. This didn’t happen again.

I was 6 the first time I remember Roy visiting Regina or the first time I remember him at our house. He was always around my aunt’s house in Saskatoon. “Wanna play catch?” “Let’s go to the park” ”Would you like a chocolate bar?” My cousins never went with him. They were always busy or out of sight or in the bathroom. O’Henry, baseballs and swings. Roy always had time for me. “ “You are becoming a little man, aren’t you”. “ Climb up on my lap and I will tell you another story”. One gold tooth, sweat, and tales of headless horsemen.

I think he did some kind of work with my uncle, maybe painting, or pounding, or lifting or grunting. Something for those sausage fingers and rough hands to squeeze and pull and push and caress. Man work where you didn’t need to ask if you could, you just knew you could. Start a job, finish it. “ money in your pocket let you do whatever you wanted to do”.

My dad didn’t really like anyone but he seemed to really like Roy. He didn’t talk about much other than football. “ If God made cows then we are supposed to eat them – with mashed potatoes and gravy”. “The government needs to teach kids reading, writing, and rules”. “ We have a little bit set aside to buy a truck but things are tough”. Roy drew him out. They shared something from their past but I never knew what it could possibly be. Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Jekyll and Hyde and yet they fell into each other’s company, bear hugging, catcalling and baboon laughing. Between visits, my dad sank back into a silent stupor with occasional outbursts and roars. Work, beer, sleep, work, beer, sleep, … until Roy graced the back door with chaos and mayhem on his shoulder. I loved the light he brought. Garlic, sweat, dirt, shone from his pores and everything was instantly and temporarily brighter, lighter. Twinkle, twinkle eyes, crooked man smile, and always a secret to be shared or never to be told.

In those days, everyone looked back with nostalgia. “ Will it ever be a simple as when we were kids?” “Remember the time we went swimming at the Red Bank and Charlie got caught skinny dipping by Sister Anna.” “ A deck of smokes used to be 35 cents”. Safety, sanity, silliness and no responsibilities. Life was better then and wouldn’t be better tomorrow. Things could never be the same.

Breakfast, school, cartoons and lunch, school, playground, supper, back alley, sleep, breakfast, school, cartoons and lunch, school, playground, supper, back alley, sleep …. Me and Brian.

When you don’t know what poor is, you aren’t. Ladders turned into sailing ships, trees into fortresses, sticks were swords or guns or spears and playgrounds were where kids shared secrets, surprises, and challenges. Street lights coming on signaled something different – no need for shouting “Billy”, no cell phones, no worried parents. Just streetlights coming on and dozens of kids racing home.

Dreams were simple, sweet, safe and if scary not so scary as to make you wet the bed. Exhaustion, growth, and youth brought 8 hours of sinking deeply into a soft mattress, cool sheets, warm blanket and a new day – much like the others but with a promise of adventure and unknown.

Once you stop being curious, once you know too much, the promise fades and then is gone. Night just brings morning and day brings more of the same. Stealing candy, curiosity and dreams. Hope glimmers for a while. Trust tries to press through. Love is seen but not felt. “I need to get up every morning and get out into the world and keep looking for the secret, keep looking for a time to share it, keep hoping that someone will ask. Running helps, rhythm and breathing stops my brain from returning. When my legs are churning forward, I can’t go back. At 1 mile the veil lifts and light peeks in. 2 miles and heat rises from inside and warmth on my face is understood. Beyond 3 miles anxiety returns as the awareness of the end gets closer. I can’t run forever but maybe for an hour. I can pull a Houdini again this afternoon or this evening and on Thursday. Keep running.

He would catch me some day. I knew the bastard was behind me, getting closer. He was near enough that I could feel his breath chasing me down. His panting wasn’t laboured but enjoyed. His body was strong and soon he would reach the end. 1 mile, 2 miles 3 miles – darkness. Powerful to powerless.

fiction · Teamwork

Together

Once there was a land where the great rivers flowed from the mountains onto rolling hills and across fertile plains. Blue skies, red sunsets, amazing vistas and abundant wildlife abounded. Freedom loving, hardworking people came and for a hundred years and they worked together and built upon the land. The tilled and seeded, raised livestock and built cities and more freedom loving hardworking people came to join them. They mined, felled, drilled and dug the bountiful natural resources and built a strong caring community. A community where cowboys cared for children and city dwellers supported farmers. A community where each person accepted responsibility for themselves, their family and their neighbours grew. If a barn was razed, it was rebuilt. If a road was impassable, it was cleared. If someone was troubled, they were lifted up. If a barrier was identified, it was overcome – together.

untitled-design-25

There was a bounty shared by all who cared to join the inhabitants of the land. The blessings of opportunity, promise and hope teemed in a measure equal to the material blessings that were created. Hope was born out of industriousness and inclusion. As hope flourished, unimagined opportunities manifested themselves and unexpected forms of providence appeared.

Neighbours didn’t always agree but they lived together with honour and respect. They debated passionately but held space for the opinions of others.

A man came into the land and saw all that was good and he was jealous. Envy and despair grew in him and he set out to undermine and destroy what the people had built.

Saying to one here “you deserve more” another there “ why work so hard” and another “ that isn’t your job” At first his prodding was ignored and the people kept living together in community but the man’s voice was joined by many others with the power of print, radio, and TV. Their message began to take root. “Why worry about your neighbour. Was he there for you?” “Leave that for the next guy to do. You have done your share already”. “Let’s hire someone to do our work and we can relax in the sun”.

After a few dozen years or so, the passion and purpose that built the land was forgotten and the language of self-reliance and responsibility was erased and replaced by delegates and servants hired to look after every need. The sky darkened and neighbours built fences of fear. Trust evaporated and was replaced by rules of entitlement. People still came seeking liberty but they didn’t find freedom and opportunity and the sweat of their brow or the power of their skills wasn’t appreciated. A community turned into a group of individuals who happened to live in the same place. The man and his ilk said ” Our economy is strong”, ” we have too many freeloaders”, ” we need to protect ourselves”, ” we can’t let more people come here”.

Soon neighbour threatened neighbour. Disagreements were handled by the court. Prisons were built and filled and more prisons were needed. Debate became vitriolic rhetoric full of untruths and logical fallacies. Distrust turned to disgust and then to hatred. Hope evaporated and opportunities disappeared. People stopped coming and started to leave. The man and his bloc were satisfied that their jelousy had poisoned the community and they packed their carpetbags and moved on to infect another place with their economic arguments, their prejudice, and their fear.

This story is written by someone who observed the shift – a child born in the midst of abundance and caring who now nearly 30 years old, sees scarcity and greed. Her great wish is for a return to ‘the good-old-days’ but realizes that fear has its foothold and is gaining strength. It would take leadership, commitment and comp[assion to restart the journey towards hope. She can’t do it alone but she can do her part with a challenge; “I leave you this story, how it continues is up to you ..”

fiction · Original Thought · Uncertainty

Alternative Aesop’s Fable

Once upon a time, A man and his wife owned a very special goose. Every morning the goose would lay a golden egg, which helped the couple care for their five children. Throughout the day, the goose had the run of the farm and could go wherever she wanted and did whatever she would do. She ate from the garden, drank from the pond and honked at everyone within earshot. But the farmer appreciated the goose because of the golden eggs and gave her free rein.

goose

Unknown to the farmer and his wife, the goose served her own needs when no one was looking. As the family slept, the goose crept into the house and climbed on the cooling stove. She then pooped into the porridge pot, that mother had made and put on the stove waiting to feed the family in the morning. As everyone knows geese that lay golden eggs poop a vile poisonous runny stool. The farmer didn’t notice the mess because there was always a golden egg waiting by the door.

In the morning, father lit the stove and began warming the pot. As his children came to the table, he served them a big bowl. At first, no one noticed the foul taste or at least no one mentioned it. Day after day, week after week, the same ritual happened. The goose fouled the porridge and left an egg. The father warmed the porridge, and the children ate. But one day the youngest child fell ill. She complained of stomach pains and had trouble breathing. The father blamed it on the weather or other natural causes and said: ” she will be fine, just wait and see.” But she wasn’t. Within a fortnight the sweet little girl was gone, and everyone mourned her passing, but life went on.

Day after day, week after week, the same ritual happened. Soon two more children were ill, complaining of the same symptoms. Father and mother thought: “maybe it isn’t the seasons or the gods bringing this trouble on our house.” But no one suspected the goose, after all, she gave them a golden egg every morning.

Soon two more children died, and the last two were very sick. Mom and dad did everything they could. They sought out experts who told them it must be the oats, the water, the air or bad genes that were taking the family. Many ‘knew’ it was the goose but didn’t say anything because they had their own goose and couldn’t acknowledge that the generous goose was intentionally poisoning them too.

The farmer and his wife were alone. All five children had been taken. Everything that they had cared about seemed pointless. Day after day, week after week, the same ritual happened. The goose fouled the porridge and left an egg. With certain blindness, the farmer and his wife continued to eat the porridge. The eggs piled up because there were now only the two of them and the farmer’s wife became very sick. The farmer nursed her; he cared for her, he cried for her. But she too soon was gone. The farmer shouted: ” Damn you, goose, you have given me gold, just as you were taking everything that was important.”

He stopped eating the porridge and stopped gathering the eggs. Day after day, week after week, the same ritual happened. The goose fouled the porridge and left an egg. Soon the pot overflowed with poop. The air became putrid, and the gold became tarnished, and soon the farmer wasted away and was gone. And then there was just the goose, and the goose had the run of the farm and could go wherever she wanted and did whatever she would do.

With thanks and respect to Aesop’s Fables, number 87 and thanks to you for considering this alternative version.

fiction

We Belong Here

A really long post that is a draft compilation of one personal project I am working on.

See if you can guess what event was the impetus. Please excuse any errors, grammatical or spelling and any inconsistencies of character development. Let me know what you think, there are another 16 chapters to be written.

magpie

 

We Belong Here

She had always been a leader. Even before she fledged, she was always the strongest and first to recognize her mother returning with a substantial serving of some carrion or a scavenged scrap. Keen eyes and an alert mind allowed her to be fed first and fed frequently. After only a few weeks, she was 30% larger than her siblings and ready to take on the world herself.

” Black and white is the best, better than all the rest” was a chant she heard from her parents and mimicked with other magpies. ” Take care of yourself and your kind”, ” Protect our territory” and ” Don’t let those alien crows crowd you out” – lessons learned in the nest are lessons learned for a lifetime.

When the weather was good and food plentiful, Margaret didn’t worry too much about crows, ravens, kestrels or flickers. From March to November there was more than enough to go around, and she let her guard down. Soon there were dozens and then hundreds of nonindigenous species (code for immigrants) crowding the trees and causing a ruckus. When a murder of crows pushed their way onto an aspen while she was surveying her kingdom, she knew it was time for those birds to go. And while she was at it, she would put the run on the robins, the waxwings, blue jays and maybe the chickadees. They didn’t seem to recognize how important she was or their place in the pecking order. They somehow didn’t even seem to know they were different from her and her kind.

Motivated by the slight, Maggie was determined to rid the woods of these unwanted, uncivilized, intruders. If she was feeling disrespected, there would be other Pica who would be feeling the same.

At this time of day, there would be charm near the pond on the south end of the reserve. With a strong voice and message, she would rouse the Parliament and create a strategy to make the woods great again. Flying in from the south, with the sun behind her she effortlessly landed near the top of a well-populated aspen. Her presence was acknowledged by a few poetic squawks, but everyone knew she was perched in the place of honor.

As she considered her words, a cacophony erupted below her. A pompous jay had flitted and flaunted its way onto a branch beside three regal females who were quietly watching their clutches. The indifference and superiority expressed in the intruder’s crest were salts in the wounds and a perfect segue to Ms. Maggie’s first foray.

” Show some respect, you simpleton. You think because you can ape our calls that you are one of us. You are not” The jay blankly stared in her direction but became distracted by something shiny on the ground and darted away. The exit didn’t disquiet the anxiety of the trio or offer any satisfaction to Margaret. ” Well, I never. What are these woods coming to? I remember a day when those birds knew their place” ” What are we to do?” and the murmur started – “what are we to do? What are we to do?..”

We are known as Pica Pica and are known as a charm when we gather for good reason. We play out the day, lolling amongst the branches, wary of the squatters and the disrespectful behavior that intruders bring to our woodlot. Every action seemed magnified. Every discrepancy is more contemptuous than the previous. The jays, the crows, the starlings, wrens, sparrows, kestrels, hawks all went out of their way to intentionally make life difficult for the natural inhabitants. The murmur continued, and discontent rumbled.

M thought ” tomorrow, I will begin to show you what we are to do.” but not today. The seed needed to take root on the certainty that there had been a better time and that time could come again. All in good time but the time can’t come soon enough. Before the snow flies and the game gets scarce, we need to reclaim each thicket, each tree, each branch and run all the outsiders over the fence and beyond our borders. They can roost, poop, screech and scavenge south of the pond where they belong. Once we push them out, we can defend our territory and not let this contamination happen again. No more Mister Nice Guy. We can’t give them an inch or they will take over one tree at a time. The time is near – we will soon have control again. Once we have control, we will be great again.

~2~

Margaret stirred in the night many times as a plan developed and turned into a strategy. “If we are going to make the Woods great again, we need to make them unbearable for all the other avian species.” I need 5 or 6 cabinet members to join my cabinet. The range of players needs to appeal to or at least not offend the gentler pica pica who saw themselves as completely self-aware and progressive enough to be concerned about the other. And yet there needed to be a couple of conservative loons who wouldn’t shrink away from calling out the treachery of others.

Clarence came to mind immediately – he had an accident a couple of years ago that damaged one of his wings and ever since he could only fly in large clockwise circles. He blamed the nuthatches who had burst out of a tree and caused him to perform an evasive maneuver that didn’t quite succeed. The right wing was fully extended and in mid flap when it contacted an overhanging branch. He felt the break along the ulnare. The wing collapsed, and Clarence crashed into the bushes. He spent a couple of weeks grounded and grumbling before attempting a takeoff. The deformity along the edge wasn’t completely debilitating, but he had lost his agility and ability to adapt. Once at the top of the totem, he had been reduced to scavenging carrion and roadkill. Needless to say, he was peeved and ready to be motivated to do something about the injustice. He might not be capable of leading a military assault, but his story would serve as the rallying call for all the afflicted and injured (imagined or real). He would be the perfect Secretary of State. Maggie penciled in a memory to be near the blacktop junction on the west edge of the Woods before the sun was at it’s highest. She knew that Clarence would be waiting for something to be bowled over by the shiny roaring boxes that flew past on the hard pathway.

A Secretary of Offense needed to be in much better physical shape that Clarence but also needed to be bent out of shape by the illegal intrusion into their territory. The candidate needed to be willing and able to act with ruthless disregard for all outsiders. If they were to be disposed of or evicted, there couldn’t be any sentimental wavering. We need a veteran of other skirmishes, and Jerome ” Angry Bird” would fill the bill. Even though “Angry Bird” was a nickname and a term of respect no one ever called Jerome that to his face. There were stories of him nipping off a toe when another magpie made an innocent slight. It is said that he shrieked ” remember who you are talking to or next time it will be your head.” M was sure that Jerome would take up the nomination and gather his troops to begin wearing down the enemy. She was also confident that he wouldn’t just set up a defensive perimeter that made the Woods and island but that he would lead sorties over the pond and blacktop to instill fear into any that were considering trying to sneak in and take advantage of the Magpies’ efforts. There were too many layabouts sucking up resources that they didn’t deserve. After they were gone, by whatever means necessary we can’t offer any inclination or false encouragement for their return. She knew she could catch Secretary Jerome along the western perimeter scowling at the open flight path into their Utopia. A brief conversation ensued in mid-flight, and he dipped his wings in understanding and assent in principle. They would lay out their first phase plan of attack when others joined in.

The job of ensuring that there was enough food and equipment in the treasury would require an organized and conniving scrounger. She had heard of a younger bird that they called “Munchkin” who had a reputation of turning lemons into lemonade (whatever that meant). She apparently knew all the best places to raid and as importantly, all the secret stashes that no one else had discovered. There was a rumor that she had enough scraps of meat hidden to feed her first clutch through a long winter. Maggie knew that they would be facing a long winter of discontent when the battle started and a reliable source of daily rations would quell any squabbling storms. ” I need to connect with this Munchkin and figure out if she is the real deal.” A scrounger like her would need some incentive – a token, a gift, a reward and a share of the bounty. She likely couldn’t be recruited with patriotism and mission. ” I have a supply of colored wool that I was going to knit into my nest next spring. That would be a great beginning.

The most important position, the Secretary of Re-Education, needed an articulate, persuasive voice that was trusted by the masses. If we were going to be united in our efforts against the enemy, we needed to have a universal message; a message that was compelling and straightforward. It needed to be easy to understand and easy to act on. The Secretary needed to raise awareness of the problem with so many aliens in the Woods, demonstrate the impact these invaders had on the Crows, and an immediate, relevant and concrete action that every bird could take to change the situation. If the messages were too strong, too fast, too abrupt, the flock would panic and begin to doubt their place in the Woods. Too slow, too weak, too generic they wouldn’t be inspired to take the risks which were ahead. The language was the bread and butter of Pica Pica and the lifeblood of revolution. Timing was the currency that turned the words into magical motivation. The candidate needed to be old enough to have credibility and young enough to be seen as a plausible voice of the better future. He must be able to spin a tale and have no qualms about spinning it tightly. As troubling as it seemed, the only one that fit the bill was Cassandra. ” If M hadn’t recently told her she was ” a preening, primping pile of putrid puss,” this would be so much easier. ” Can I bring myself to apologize? Even if the statement was still true? ” The cause came before personal embarrassment, and there was sure to be more moments of anxiousness, unease, and distaste if we are to succeed. ” I can say what needs to be said to get her onside.” Pica politics has always had some dishonesty so when the stakes are so high, why should this be different?
The recruitment of Cassandra needed to be the first order of business. Ms. Cassandra Corvide believed she had royal blood and would need to think that the whole plan of attack was her idea and her doing. Ideally, the approach would take months, but with the urgency of the situation it must be concocted and completed today. It would be so much easier “if she didn’t think her shit didn’t stink.” Maggie knew she had to swallow her pride and become servile to elicit a positive result. She gagged a little and then committed to doing whatever she needed to do. Cassandra’s presence would force her into the background, but that is where she could be most effective and in the end, ridding the Woods of the lazy, troublemaking species would make it all worthwhile.
~3~
Approaching Cassandra with deference and apparent subservience Maggie started with ” It is tragic, truly tragic.”
” What are you going on about you birdbrain?” was Ms. Cordive’s terse reply.

” Oh, my apologies. I was thinking about something and was talking to myself I guess. Sorry to bother you with my small problems.”

” Hrmph” (if that is how you spell the sound that followed. ” What tiny little problem has your feathers in a knot? Did you hide your dinner and can’t remember where it is?”

” Maggie smiled behind her beak and said, ” oh no, nothing like that, although I am somewhat forgetful, some of the time.”

There was a pause (“stay silent” M told herself). Fifteen seconds had passed before Casandra forced the issue. ” Alright, tell me what terrible thing has befallen your meaningless little life?”

“Be cautious, don’t overplay the moment” M thought while saying ” I was down by the pond, hoping to find some scraps from last night’s hunting party when the coyotes chased down that hare.”

“Get on with it.”

“Sorry. I was at the top of the aspen when a gray jay haughtily landed between Mildred, Marjorie, and Mabel startling them and then causing their young to start calling for food. Those jays are forever disturbing what little peace we can find.”

” They never dare to disturb me.”

” Of course not but you know 3Ms, they are in a tizzy and their babies are suffering. They are afraid to leave them alone and those layabouts that they call husbands are nowhere to be seen.”

“Of course their not. Those girls couldn’t keep a male if their feathers were purple and their eyes bright yellow.”

Maggie could feel the opportunity slipping away. She needed to act quickly but not frantically. ” I suppose. There probably isn’t anything that anyone can do about the jays, the crows, the ravens, the flickers and all the rest. Not even Donald, if he was still alive could rally a defense against them all.” Maggie knew that raising the name of Cassandra’s first mate, who died unexpectedly just over two years ago, was risky and now she needed to hold her tongue and wait.

Silence filled the space between these wily old birds. They both knew what was afoot. They both knew what was at stake. Tick, tock, tick, tock shaped the decision. And then Cassandra lifted her head, shifted her weight on the branch, coughed and spoke.

” There is one who could lead an assault on these affronts. There is a voice that would be heard across the treetops. There is a voice that would ring across the pond, along the bullrushes and caragana bushes. This voice would ring true for the afflicted, the young, the defeated and the angry. Nestlings, mothers, wastrel fathers, and the willing and ready would come together and unite around this voice.

Her presence will at once enrapture and captivate those who see her. Her regal bearing and poise will instill such confidence as to encourage unseen boldness. Her clear and shining eyes will assure all Pica Pica that there is a better future ahead. She will bring the Magpie Nation together and Make the Woods great again.”

” I will do it” and as an afterthought ” if you will serve me.”

It may have been the moment. It could have been the situation. The speech may have stirred her, but Maggie responded with “yes, your majesty if it is your will.”

Maggie had hoped to manipulate Cassandra into being the face of the revolution. She was sure that she could con her into believing that it was her idea. She was sure that with the right words and the right posture she could control her as a puppet. Now she felt that she had been manipulated and was okay with it. She saw in Queen Cassandra the exact image that she described in her inaugural address. Before her was the leader that they really needed. She was captured by her sincerity and simplicity. ” I am sure glad that this was my first stop. All the others under consideration for leadership need to meet with Her and be vetted by Her not me” was the thought that passed through her brain as she bowed her head and awaited further instructions.

~4~
” Herald a Parliament” Queen Cassandra insisted.
” Your Majesty, shouldn’t we consider creating a small close group of confidants and having them act as emissaries to the masses” Maggie responded for the third time.
” A Parliament” the Queen insisted. ” I want to address all my subjects. Reach out to the winds and send a message to those within the Woods and those who have fled. Bring the entire Pica Pica tribe together so that We may inspire them and gain their allegiance. They must see the Queen and hear her voice first. The squeaky, unsure prattling of seconds will be fine once they are convinced that the battles can be won and the enemy vanquished.” ” Herald a Parliament for the next full moon, 13 days from today. I will be ready” ” Be gone, begin the preparations. I will have further instructions for you tomorrow. Stand at the ready.”

There hadn’t been a parliament called for generations. Most of the current generation thought of the gathering as a fairy tale or myth. In truth, most had never given the possibility of a mass gathering a passing thought. How could the call go out, so it was understood but not terrifying? What would be the minimum that needs to be divulged to express the urgency and responsibility? In a world where duty is a foreign concept. Who would attend? The latest estimate suggested that there are 1800 to 2300 magpies within 25 miles of the Woods. How many would travel back home? Both Cassandra and Maggie were mulling the same questions and arriving at a similar conclusion – if more than 1000 accepted the Herald, we would have a force to be reckoned with.

~5~

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The best-laid plans of mice and men and magpies are oft to go awry. And dozens of other cliches seemed to apply as Maggie thought through the path to making the Woods great again. But she was still getting used to the idea that Cassandra was the right leader and that she had some wicked skills, which she was biased by her early impressions, from seeing.

Sunrise was early tomorrow, and there were regular housecleaning details that needed to be accomplished before the meeting. ” I want to be prepared for anything the Queen requests” was a surprising thought Maggie had just before sunset,

Preparation isn’t always enough or misguided preparation at any rate. The first thing that Cassandra said was ” forget the bit players. The jays, the crows, the ravens, the starlings sneakily scavenge food that is rightly ours, but they aren’t the real enemy. We can always scare them off.”
M was taken aback and unfortunately it showed. She sputtered ” What, what do you mean they aren’t the real enemy?”

“Think bigger, think bolder. Don’t be a pea brain; you are better than that. All magpies are better than that.”
” All that those intruders are is an irritant.”
” We need to face the fact that we have some internal disadvantages and some troubling characteristics to fix. More than half the males are absent fathers. They are there for the breeding but disappear when the going gets tough. We can’t address issues of unity while defacto divorces are so common.”

“What does a deadbeat dad have to do with purging the Woods of vermin and making it great again?”

” The absent father leaves a single mother who needs to fulfill the duties of both parents which mean that nestlings and fledglings are left alone and exposed.”
“In the best situation, the duties are shared, and the real enemies are kept at a distance.”
“Today, almost half the brood is lost before we have a chance to bring them into the charm and teach them the right way to be a Pica Pica.”

Maggie was angry and confused. “How could Cassandra be blaming male magpies and some natural predator for the disrespect that all of us are feeling?” was the silent rumble stewed.

” Maggie, we need to take back the Woods, and that means sharing fathers into being responsible for their young and their mate. It also means taking on the owls, the hawks, the eagles in a battle to the death.”
” We can’t take back the Woods unless we can overtake the competition so we must cut our losses, so our population swells.”
” This war isn’t about one battle and frightening some smaller nuisances. It is about re-establishing us as the dominant presence in the Woods. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.’

” Cassandra, we don’t have the resources. We don’t have the bird power. How can we recruit that many magpies? Who would train them?”

” Finally” the Queen smiled ” You are asking the right questions.” ” We need to seek out the best mothers and assign apprentices to learn about breeding and nesting and caring for young. They should spend two seasons learning how to choose a nest site, built it securely and protect the brood.”

” What about the deadbeat dads?” Maggie sputtered.
” They will accept their responsibilities or we will disavow them. They will be chased from the Woods. They are either with us, or they are against us.” Cassandra paused to let that sink in. If they can’t or won’t accept the natural order of things their seed is worthless to us. We are better allowing the strong father figures to pass their genetic material on and act as models for the yearling males.”

” That seems harsh. Who gets to decide which males are doing their duties? Who chooses the mentors? Who makes the decision to allow a breeding pair to have a nest and start a family?”

Queen Cassandra calmly and confidently stood tall in her roost at the top of the poplar tree. She breathed in deeply and surveyed the woods, knowing that it wasn’t great today and wouldn’t be great again for a couple of generations. Standing over here kingdom, she spoke quietly and slowly ” My dear Margaret; there is only one member of our tribe that I would trust with such a horrible and onerous responsibility. I choose you.”

~6~
Maggie had never swooned in her six years of life, but she swooned at the sound of the queen’s voice and trembled at Her praise. She was mesmerized by the power that Cassandra demonstrated and the control she held over her. At this stage, Maggie would have flown into a hurricane (even if she didn’t know what a hurricane was, having lived her entire life in the Woods, in North Dakota). ” If this translates into sway over all magpies, she could get anything she needed to be done and the grand vision for the Woods could be realized. ” buzzed through her mind even as she tried to refrain from full allegiance and restrain her flaunting admiration and respect.

There was no relaxing in the presence of Cassandra’s leadership. She was always thinking, always planning, always pronouncing. ” we now have 11 days before the Parliament. Has the herald gone out to all Pica Pica that were fledged from the Woods?”

” Yes, Your Majesty” Maggie tested the title ” We have couriers and courtiers delivering the message from all the treetops within a forty mile radius. We expect that nearly 800 will attend.”

” Expand the Herald to one hundred miles. Deliver it in the Woodsian dialect, so only those with roots in the Woods will comprehend the urgency and the duty.” ” We don’t want riff raft from the plains thinking they are welcome.” Cassandra continued ” I don’t think we should use the Your Majesty title in public. Magpies believe they are independent thinkers and we can expect resistance to anything that sounds like the Monarchidae; those flat-billed flycatchers we have heard about from across the great sea. They are so full of themselves with their bright colors and lyrical songs.”

” I understand, Queen, er Cassandra. But you do need a title that befits your regal position. What would you suggest?”

” I have been toying with Regent. How does that sound? Is it regal without pretention?”

” Regent Cassandra, All hail the Regent” teased Maggie.

The sarcasm was missed, and Cassandra declared ” Then it is settled I will be the Regent of the Woods.”

” The next item on my agenda is assembling an entourage to add force, credibility and security at the Parliament.” The Regent was on a roll again, and Maggie needed to keep up. ” A show of considerable support and force will impress and influence all those in attendance. Who can we immediately recruit, who can at least look formidable and would sign on as early adopters of the movement?”

” Almost all of the juvenile males and yearling females would be easily swayed and can strut their plumage at the hint of recognition. I can think of thirty who are lolling in trees within five hundred yards from here.”

” Alright, but be cautious, I don’t want any headstrong kids thinking they are part of the court. Let’s bring in Jerome ” Angry Bird” to keep them in check and train them in some basic drills. I know you already had him in mind for a position and I have met with him to confirm his interest.”

Maggie smiled at the compliment and was a bit surprised and resentful that the Regent had been discussing the revolution with others. She wondered who else knew about the plans and who else was offering counsel and receiving instructions. She wondered, but she didn’t dare question Cassandra’s authority or wisdom in all matters. Her instructions were unquestioned and her authority was absolute. She knew that she now served at the Regent’s pleasure.

” I will contact Jerome and have him help me select thirty of the best prospects for duty.”

” Make it sixty and give him complete authority to do whatever he needs to do to whip them into shape. Let him know that this is the beginning of our standing army’s raiding force. He will understand and know exactly what is needed.”

” Anything else, Regent?”
” Not right now. Make yourself available this afternoon, and there may be more instructions after I meet with my cabinet at noon.”

Maggie knew she had just been shut out, and the slight was intentional, but she didn’t let her disappointment show. ” As always Regent, I am at your service, whenever and however it is needed.”

There wasn’t even an acknowledgment that Cassandra had heard the declaration from her underling. She just raised her regal wings and lifted off to the south and then circled back north towards the tallest trees. ” Who is she scheming with and do they have the interests of the Woods ahead of the personal agendas? ” Maggie mulled. The answer would need to wait until this afternoon or later.

~7~

Cassandra set off realizing that she had dissed and disrespected Maggie. It was intentional and necessary and one of the burdens of leadership that she was beginning to carry. ” There can only be one Regent and Her authority can not be questioned.” She hummed a melody that she remembered from her fledgling days. It wasn’t clear if it was a murmur from her mother’s brood patch, a distant chorus from the city, or a song she sang with her siblings. The humming began to form into a tune, and the tune helped recall snippets of lyrics.

We are black and white
We are going to cause a fright
Let no enemies sleep this night
The Magpies are ready for a fight

“That doesn’t seem quite right. I need to think about it and where it came from. If others heard the same tune while growing up, it could serve as a clarion call that our troops could raise when going into battle” she said to herself.

The Regent did have an appointment but not with a potential cabinet. Cassandra had long observed a conspiracy of ravens (conspiracy seems an apt name for a group, especially in this case). She had seen them training their young and teaching them valuable life skills through what appeared to be games. ” Could play help evolutionary necessity? Do these silly black birds learn something hanging upside down from a branch or swinging dangerously from a string of moss?”

She was intent on finding out and had arranged through an intermediary; the small rook named Castle, a meeting with Marquis James, the uncontested leader of the Corvas Corax.
Entering their domain on the eastern edge of the Woods was dangerous and maybe even reckless, but Cassandra knew that there was information and knowledge that the ravens held that her family had lost.
Since the great fall, Ravens and Magpies don’t understand each other well. Ravens speak in first person singular and only acknowledge the masculine regardless of circumstances or gender. The more sophisticated and egalitarian language was rooted in the same origin but Cassandra would need to be cautious about her choice of words and her interpretation of theirs. Magpies pace their communication with a rhythm that is more lyrical than the ravens, and this would create issues if she didn’t take care to modulate on their frequency.

Cassandra rolled over against a breeze, righted her wings and rose. She let out a long call ” I am here. Are me there?” and then just allowed her strong wings to carry her along the border waiting for an invitation to enter. Ten minutes passed. Cassandra was aware that there were hundreds of black eyes peering at her from large black heads atop vast all black bodies. She knew that she was being surveyed and appraised.

” Me here, I welcome.” A thunder arose, and the hundreds of eyes rose stretching across the sky on easy, flowing wingbeats and filling the empty spaces with an echoing croak. ” me here, I welcome.”

The show of force and the thunder was intimidating and meant to test her metal, and while it shook her she maintained composure as she mimicked her escorts with the same croak ” I here, I welcome” Her wings adjusted and she dropped into the formation for an aerial ballet that could as easily be a training exercise for an aerial battle. “ballet or battle” she thought ” is that a coincidence?”

Hanging above the trees Cassandra’s mind took a detour to a time long ago. A time when she wasn’t sure she was welcome.
The nest was tight three other fledges and two eggs tucked neatly under all those wings. The two boys reached higher. They squeaked louder and git most of the foot that father brought to the nest. Fairness wasn’t a consideration. Strongest meant fittest and fittest meant survival. As she pushed past her brothers, she knew that if she caught her moner’s attention, she could catch the latest meal. This was the day. ” me here, I welcome.” she squawked and reached to the sky with her last chance. The tiny piece of gopher was all the encouragement she needed. ” I here, I welcome’ and another piece was deposited. ” I here, it is me” . The rest is history. She had learned a valuable lesson in the nest. ” If you want something, reach for it. If it is out of reach, push someone out of the way.” No one noticed the tribute she carried clutched in her left talon.

Coming back to the field at the east end of the Woods, she knew she belonged, and she was ready for another fight. This was a different battle, but it would take a dance to convince the Marquis that he wanted to train the Corvid so they could make the Woods great again.
~8~

The conspiracy enveloped Maggie. Like most conspiracies, she couldn’t see anything in her peripheral vision – only the blinkered way ahead. They lead her to the meeting place, that she wouldn’t be able to find on her own, at the top of a rise she had never visited, at the top of the fir tree. The Marquis, held the position atop the highest branch and if she was to face him she needed to take a subservient place on a lower branch. Today, she would allow the Marquis his status. Tomorrow, maybe not.

There was an unnecessary and awkward silence. Both the Regent and the Marquis knew it was awkward and unnecessary, yet did nothing to alleviate the tension it created. An unnamed underling couldn’t bear the silence and interjected ” My Most Honoured Lord, may I present Regent Cassandra.”
With protocol broken, Cassandra respectfully added: ” I am honored to be in my presence.” The Marquis understood the concession she made and offered His own. ” I speak fluent Pica if that would make this easier.”

If magpies could smile, she would have been grinning but since she couldn’t she instead bowed slightly and said ” I am humbled and honored by your generosity.”
” My husband’s mother was also so honored by a former Marquis, when sh inadvertently strayed over the boundary into your territory. She was very young but the courtesy and care that she was shown stayed with her to the end.”

The Marquis knew the dance and offered a story to close the circle. ” My grandfather often spoke of an encounter with a magpie yearling who had lost her way. He spoke of his fascination of how naive and ill-prepared she was for the real life. He felt great sympathy for her and rather than taking her life, he ordered her spared and had her escorted back to your side of the divide. Do you suppose we are speaking of the same story?”

” I am sure we are and my husband, may he rest peacefully, would have wanted me to extend our appreciation for the courtesy.”

Marquis opened with ” Let me set the stage. I am a straightforward, direct, transparent bird. I avoid drama. I don’t appreciate games, and I don’t tolerate fools.”

“I appreciate that approach too. But if you will allow me one more point of protocol and tribute” she said softly as she stepped closer and held up the talon with a bright round red stone. She dropped it in a crevice on the limb she was standing on and stepped back. A young raven swooped in and snatched the gift and with flourish placed it at the Marquis’s feet. Cassie’s reading was that he was both dutifully and truly honored.
She immediately continued “and now I will get right to the point. Our Woods have been invaded by lesser birds and predators who have forgotten their place on the totem. It is time to take back our territory and make the woods great again.”

” We have seen the spillover; those unsophisticated, self-interested, scoundrels have begun flying over our territory and stealing food and supplies.”

” So, we both have reason to run these intruders out of the area.”

This time the pause was tactical, and the Marquis made it clear by his posture that no one was to speak up and break the moment. Time means very little to birds, but this break stretched into agonizing before Cassandra broke the silence. ” We need you. You have instincts and skills that I don’t possess. Ravens have training that would be valuable to Magpies, and I am seeking an arrangement where your elders teach our yearlings and fledges your curriculum.”
“That is very direct, and I appreciate you not wasting my time. Obviously, I will do you the same service. What is in it for me and what benefit would Ravens see if we do this for you.”

The approach had worked beautifully; Cassandra had allowed the Marquis to shift to Pica for the discussion and had allowed him to open the negotiations. “He thinks he has the power,” she thought, ” but I have just won the barter because he has allowed me to open as low as I can.”
” We would forever be grateful to you and your kind” she opened
” Gratitude doesn’t feed the fledglings” he countered.
“We would both be rid of the owls, hawks, starlings, waxwings, jays and any other troublesome invader.”
” We could do that for ourselves without training your troops.”
” Indeed you could, but then you put your conspiracy at risk battling the enemy. This way, you get my forces to do your dirty work, and you can swoop in and take the spoils.”
” Fodder for the battles, we could use that, for sure.”
The Marquis knew that he could ask for anything and get agreement but the outcome that Cassandra sought was the same one he wanted. Cassandra knew that she would need to agree to whatever demands the Ravens made but delivering on the promises might be something else. She was about to add a section of the Woods to the bid when the Marquis closed the barter with ” we have an agreement Madam Regent, we will start the training in a fortnight.” And with a slight flicker of his wing, the conspiracy appeared again to escort her back to the border between their territories.
The thunder and darkness shrouded her senses, and as her feet touched down at the base of a birch, she thought ” I have made a great deal, now to convince the parliament that we are able and ready to turn back time and restore our home to what it once was.” She needed to continue making plans for the great gathering, and she must somehow bring Maggie up to speed.