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Slaying Dragons

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Slaying Dragons

 

                                                 Experience is a good school but the fees are high.”

                                                                                                          Heinrich Heine

 

            It was like a giant playroom, replete with castles, knights, and fire-breathing dragons.  Well, at least it was in the mind of a five year old.  For that precocious preschool child, though, tagging along with either mama or nana, his grandmother, down the long flight of descending stairs into the “dungeon” was as great as any adventure in epic literature.  He would sing and skip or dance along his mama's side, “helping” her in a very five-year-old fashion.  The long, cement hallway, almost as wide as a street in the child's mind, was dark and cool, with only a couple of light bulbs strung from fixtures dangling willy-nilly from the high ceiling.  The flick of a switch along the wall at the top of the stairwell turned utter darkness into a realm of long, deep shadows which seemed to creep alongside the child like some dark, otherworldly companion from the nether realm.

*          *          *

            “There ain’t no Santa Claus, stupid” the boy in the lunchroom declared aloud for everyone sitting nearby to hear. “Hey everyone!  Four-eyes over here still believes in Santa.”

            The laughter, which filled the lunchroom of my elementary school, seemed, to my eleven-year-old ears, as though it could have filled an entire stadium.  I knew that practically everyone agreed that Santa Clause didn't exist – at least not the “Santa” portrayed in fictional children's shows on television.  Oh, he had been a “real” figure at one time, but that was not the Santa for which the children were ridiculing me today.  I still believed in Santa.  Thee Santa.

            Walking home that day from school, thoughts about all of the things that the kids on the playground and in the lunchroom were saying filled my mind.  Teasing, occasionally even cruelty, had always been a natural part of life for me at school, but never with the intensity that there had been today.  Outwardly, I felt justified in my belief.  My parents always said there was a Santa Clause, and it had been easy to take them at their word.  Parents, after all, were infallible.  Right?  In fact, whenever I had begun to think over the years about questions like "How does Santa visit millions of homes on several continents in one night?” and “How do the reindeer fly?” or “How do the elves survive on the North Pole?” I had always justified them in my mind by assuming it was magic, something special.  My parents had never led me to believe otherwise.

            That evening after taking my bath, my mom came into the room.  The day’s events had upset me rather terribly, and she noticed it since I had arrived home from school.  When she asked me what was wrong, I hesitated . . .  It was fear.  Inwardly, I dreaded the answer to the question I was about to ask. 

            “Mom, is there really a Santa Clause?”

            “Of course there is a Santa, honey!” she replied cheerfully, though something in her voice no longer seemed quite convincing to me.  I pressed further.

            “I mean, is there really a Santa?”  

            There.  It was out.  I anxiously awaited her response.

            She looked at me with tilted head and fading smile as she seemingly contemplated her answer.  Yet already, I could see the words written in her eyes.  She didn't need to reply. 

            “No honey,” she finally said in a softened voice, “there's not really a Santa.”

            Through teary eyes, I hugged her close.  Still, something – something my eleven-year-old mind could not quite define – was gone.  What that something was I couldn't quite say, yet I mourned the loss nonetheless.

*          *          *

            The hallway then turned, and after walking what seemed hundreds of feet, the child stood outside the huge, dark metal door, like the gate of some mystical castle where adventure waited beyond.  Helping his mama open the door, the dark room, lit only by the tiny shards of light which shown through a few cellar-like windows, opaque and dirty from years of inattention, stood ominous, the child unwilling to enter.  But with a flick of another switch, the room suddenly brightened, the shadows fled to the safety of the corners, and inside was revealed a massive, open room filled with, perhaps, a half-century's worth of washing machines and equipment, like a hidden museum silently dedicated  to the last fifty years or so of women's domestic toil. 

            Instantly, the child ran across the room, exploring all that he had seen many times as he accompanied his mama or nana to this unconventional laundry room, actually created as a bomb shelter, a cultural remnant of the Cold War era.  Wringers with wooden hand cranks, well worn from decades of manual use, over hung large, ribbed, cast iron buckets from which the laundry was presumably pulled, squeezed, and hung to dry on any one of the dozens of clothes lines strung across the room.  He was fascinated each time his mama demonstrated just how people used these strange devices, struggling to crank the wooden handle himself, like a knight preparing for mortal combat by practicing first with wooden sword. 

            Every wall, every contraption, every corner was filled with exploration and adventure.  Whether it was dusty, metallic clothes presses or walls filled with metal ironing boards that folded out magically from alcoves in the walls, the musty smells of mold and detergent or the residue of gears, the dust accumulated from years of disuse or the enchanting feel of dark and rusted metal cold to the touch, the massive room provided hours of play for the boy.  Sometimes, he would play for so long, that his mama would leave him alone for a time to explore while she would drag the hamper-sized loads of clean or dirty clothing up and down the dark hallway and stairs.  It was in these times, alone but for the scattered shadows, echoing sounds, and strange smells, when the boy was to discover the dragon lurking unknown.

*          *          *

Home from school!  There was nothing like coming home from junior high school every day, running to my room, and turning on the television set to view another episode of Wonder Woman with Lindsey Carter.  Being thirteen years old, the realm of girls and the female body opened up before me like the pages of some pedantic tome suddenly making sense.  What used to be “yucky” was now interesting, as I began to take delight in being around girls. 

I remember, as a first grader, chasing my female peers around the playground, threatening to kiss them as punishment for some wrong real or perceived.  It was fun, to a seven year old, to make them run screaming to Sister, who often punished me for my terrible behavior by making me stay after school or visit the parochial school’s principal’s office.  Many a paddling did I receive for my atrocious acts, but there was a devilish joy in wielding some power over the girls by making them flee at the first sign of puckered lips.  Now a budding teenager, I wanted only to wield another power over the female sex, namely kissing them for real.  Even the thought of sitting next to a pretty classmate sent tingles throughout my body. 

All that would have to wait, however.  It was time for Wonder Woman! 

One time, while watching my favorite show after school, the star of the show must have appeared particularly dazzling to me, with her lasso of power and the very revealing – for a 1970s children’s show, that is – outfit that she wore.  I sat on the floor, only a foot or so from the television, entranced, and in my enthusiasm soon after the show began, I whistled aloud – a “wolf whistle” – in anticipation of another erotic episode.  That’s when things changed. 

“Jimmy!  Jimmy!” a woman’s voice called from below the stairs.  It was my mother.  “Jimmy!  Come here this instant!” 

She was mad.  This didn’t bode well.

Quietly I stood up and moved to the stairs, seeing the shadow of my mother’s figure standing at the bottom.  I took each stair quickly, not wishing to miss too much of the show, and thinking that if I somehow tumbled down the stairs and broke my neck, she’d feel guilty for yelling at me, and then everything would be ok.  I reached the bottom of the stairwell and found her staring at me, lips pursed, standing perfectly still.

“What did I just hear?” she asked, pointing a finger upstairs.

I remained self-consciously quiet.

“What did I just hear you do?” she asked again, her tone higher, sharper.

“Nothing,” I responded, cowed by her angry demeanor.  “I was just watching Wonder Woman”.

That was all she needed to hear.  For the next twenty minutes, my mother scolded me for treating women so terribly and for making “objects” out of them.  Only a few days earlier, she had rummaged through my dresser drawers and discovered pages of women in lingerie that I had removed from a JC Penney catalogue.  Now this?  Enough was enough. 

I stood there with my hands in my pockets, head down, afraid to make eye contact.  I was only half listening, embarrassed and angry. 

When the lecture was finished, I tramped upstairs, shamed and humiliated.  I had nothing to say to her.  What could a young man experiencing the psychological and physiological changes typical at this age say?  I turned off the television, any thought of arousal now wiped clear from my mind.  I felt ashamed and dirty.  I felt alone.

*          *          *

            Often the child would sit upon one of the folded down, heavy, metal ironing boards to watch his mama working in the dungeon, her tasks of washing and hanging, folding and drying, never really done.  In addition to her own laundry and that of her new husband, the child's mama worked as a maid in the six-story, red brick apartment building.  Thus, her work – including the washing of bedding – often brought her and her preschool son down the long, shadowy hallway and into the massive laundry room, sometimes several times a day.  The boy attended his mama faithfully, even expectantly, on each of these forays into the dungeon.  There was always something new to find . . .

            Yet the child found something he had never expected, something he would not be able to define or comprehend until many years later. 

            As the little boy danced wistfully around the room, he heard sounds coming from the long, shadowy hallway.  Mama had left the “gates” to the “castle”  open just a few inches, and as the sounds drew nearer, the child could tell it was footsteps, though the pace and tone of these steps sounded different from the gait of his mama or even his nana.  Clop . . . clop . . . clop . . .   It was slow, methodical, almost as if something was crawling in the dark cavern, preparing to lurch at the first sight of a tasty little meal – namely, him.

            The boy stopped what he was doing, listening, intent.  He walked slowly toward the door and called out, “Mama?  Nana?”  But the only response was the shuffling gait of the unseen creature that drew nearer the metal door as the child stood motionless, his heart beating faster in his chest, his little palms growing moist and cold.  Clop . . . clop . . . clop . . . clop . . .  He withdrew a few steps before turning to run, his eyes darting from object to object, evaluating as a child does which item would afford him the most protection as he sought shelter from the unknown danger.  Clop . . . clop . . . clop . . . clop . . . clop . . . 

            Finally choosing a suitable spot, the child huddled beneath one of the large ironing boards, staring at the door from beneath his meager cover.  His shallow breaths were coming quicker than he wanted, and he held his breath, watching, waiting.  And all the while the steps of the beast grew louder, closer.  Now, they were almost at the door.

            Clop . . .  clop . . . clop . . . clop . . . clop . . . clop.  Then all grew silent.

*          *          *

            I had never given a flower to anyone before, except, maybe, my mother.  It was February, and I had been in the tenth grade since autumn.  Everything was so different in high school, yet not much had changed since junior high.  Most of the kids here, growing up together and attending the same schools, knew each other already, but a recent move – I had lost count of how many different homes we had lived in and schools I had attended – and a rezoning of school districts left me virtually isolated in a sea of strange faces.  Although most of the other teens were not as cruel to me as I had experienced as a younger child, they were not particularly friendly, either.  They were, at best, indifferent. 

            Nonetheless, I had a terrible crush on one person in particular, Cheryl, a brown haired girl who sat in my biology class.  She was quite lovely, at least to me.  Her pimply complexion, full lips, and deep set, brown eyes were accentuated by her very quiet nature, and I longed to get to know her better.  She was mysterious to me, like a beautifully wrapped package waiting to be opened up and discovered.  She sat in the front row while I sat two seats down from her.  All the geeks sat in the front row, and I detected in her a familiar spirit.  I could hardly make eye contact whenever she casually looked over at me, which in itself was rare.  She usually kept to herself, speaking to few.   I had gotten up the courage a few times to talk to her, but her shyness was a barrier that I found too challenging, thus far, to surmount.  I knew little about girls, and even less about this courting thing, and I am certain that I appeared as awkward as she was shy.

            But today would be different.  It was “give your love a flower day,” and I had brought a couple of dollars with me to purchase a rose and have it delivered to her.  We had the option of presenting the flower ourselves or having it delivered during any class period of the day.  Since I did not have the courage to present the rose myself, I opted to have it delivered to her while we were in biology class, my excitement and anticipation growing exponentially as each hour, each minute, drew closer to the appointed time. 

            Sitting in class, now, sweating and trembling with anticipation, I could not stop watching the clock on the wall tick minute by minute, second by second.  I heard nothing that my biology teacher, Bill Klein, said; my thoughts were elsewhere.  Time passed, and it grew progressively closer to the end of the period.  I tried not to make eye contact with her or even look at her at all.  I knew that to do so would risk spoiling my surprise, as I was certain that she would read it in my eyes.  Where is it? I thought inwardly, wondering if the sign of my affection would even arrive on time.  But a few minutes before class ended, my hopes fading quickly, the door to the classroom opened, and in stepped two people, wrapped flowers in their hands.  I sat up straight in my desk and watched closely as names were called out and flowers delivered.  Several girls had already received theirs, and I worried that somehow my own token had been overlooked, forgotten.  Then, they called one last name: Cheryl. 

            It was surreal.  It seemed as if everything had slowed down, nothing else existed but me and the rose and Cheryl.  They handed her the last flower and departed, and I watched intently, breathing heavily as she looked at the flower, searching for something.  One of her classmates, a girl sitting behind her, whispered aloud, “Who’s it from?”

            Who’s it from?

            She carefully searched the pastel paper in which the flower was wrapped, looked around, and shrugged her shoulders.  There was no card.

            Shit!  I forgot to include the card.

I was devastated as Cheryl glanced briefly around the room, her eyes alighting on me for only a moment before scanning the others.  She had no idea who had given her the token of affection, had never suspected that it was I.  I wanted to stand up, to look at her, to scream out, “It’s from me!”  Everyone would laugh, to be sure, but all my effort, all of my overtures throughout the year would be for nothing.  And what if someone else, equally sweet on her, claimed that they were the one who had given her the flower?  Who could contest them?

The bell suddenly rang and kids began to rise, collecting their books, and heading out the classroom door.  I waited behind, stunned, unable to rise as my thoughts flooded my reasoning.  How could she know it was from me?  We had done little more than look at each other occasionally, either on the bus on in class, and the few times I had spoken to her would have given her little indication of my feelings, unspoken. 

            All through the remainder of the day, I could not concentrate, could think of nothing but what an idiot I was.  I despaired, and as classes let out for the day, I made my way wearily to the bus, intent on going home and drowning my sorrows in root beer.  I took my seat on the bus, always the front row, and watched as Cheryl made her way down the sidewalk and onto the bus.  She took her seat on the first row just ahead and perpendicular to the other rows, and I watched carefully as she held the still-wrapped flower in her lap, her book bag lying on the floor between her feet.  I was always able to get a good view of her as I sat on the opposite side, and I sat quietly, brooding, as I tried to decide what to do.

            The bus finally departed, and with each stop, my anxiety grew as I knew Cheryl’s stop was always before mine.  I struggled within to say something, anything, other than simply sitting there, silent, morose.  We were only two stops away, now, before she would rise, pick up her purse and book bag, and head for home.  It was now or never.

            “Did you like the flower?”  I trembled visibly and was certain that my voice broke, choking over the words and my own cowardice.

            Cheryl looked at me, and shook her head, confused.  The bus was quite noisy, and she had not heard what I had said.  Several other kids had heard, though, and I was more self-conscious than ever.  I repeated my words, louder, oddly unconcerned whether or not others would overhear.  I needed her to know.

            “The flower.  Did you like it?”

            Cheryl peered down at the rose, lifting it slightly as if discerning its true origin.  She raised her head, then, and looked at me.

            “It’s from you?”

            I nodded eagerly, and several on the bus snickered, but I was paying them no heed.  I watched Cheryl’s eyes closely as the bus stopped to let some more kids off.  She was quiet, too quiet, and I suddenly felt completely unnerved.  I felt as though I had just swallowed a cactus, my throat dry, my guts in pain.  She lowered her head and began to gather her things as the bus made its way to the pretty, brown haired girl’s stop.  Almost imperceptibly, her head down, she whispered, “Thank you.”

            That was it.  The bus stopped.  Cheryl stepped off, and I turned my head to watch her walk down the broken sidewalk as the bus pulled away.  She never looked back.

            I didn’t know what to say, what to do, or what to think.

            It was the last time we would ever talk.

            That night, curled up in my bed all alone, I held my pillow close to me and cried myself to sleep.

*          *          *

            For a moment there was only silence, and the child, huddled beneath the ironing board, watched in fear, not knowing what was to happen next.

            With trembling lips, the boy called out, “Mama?” then more frantically, “Mama?”

            Lips closed tight, face red, with tiny veins bulging in his forehead, the child sat motionless as the door began to move, slowly, it's metallic hinges creaking softly as they always did, as though resentful at being disturbed.  All the boy could do was watch, powerless.

            But instead of a claw or a talon, a hand appeared, fingers wrapped around the edge of the door.  Next, the boy saw one foot, a leg, and then another, but from his vantage point, the child could not make out the upper body.  Dipping his head lower, his eyes never leaving the creature, the young boy exhaled, smiling.  He crawled from beneath his hiding spot and approached the dragon, oblivious to the danger lurking behind the reptilian smile that met his own. 

*          *          *

            We saw her so often that it seemed as though she practically lived with us.  At times, she did.  Grandma Ruthie, or “Nana” as I was fond of calling her as a young child, was like a second mother to me, always there whenever I was hurt, sad, or just plain hungry!  Her baking, in fact, was phenomenal, and regardless of how often my mother attempted to meet her mom's unwritten cooking standards, there was nothing quite like eating at grandma's.  No matter what I ever did – good or bad – it seemed as though grandma was always on my side, always there to somehow help heal with a kiss and a kind word the little pains of childhood. 

            Grandma Ruthie wasn't a small woman by any means, but she wasn't so large that she couldn't reach down to put her arms around me every time I'd see her.  The plump, supple folds of her body were always soft and inviting as I put my arms around her, projecting warmth and comfort, and she had the most beautiful, thick, dark head of hair that I always recall most fondly in one of her many 1970's styles.  There was no feeling in the world like being with grandma, no time of the year that she didn't somehow go out of her way to make special.

            The summer after I turned sixteen was an exciting time for me.  I rode my bicycle everywhere and was happy just to have more independence and freedom.  So, when I came home one day to find an old 1972 Yamaha 250cc motorcycle sitting in my parent's gravel driveway, I was speechless.  She had purchased it for me because she wanted me to have . . . something.  That something, as I look back now with a wisdom that only comes to us through pain and experience, was a memory, a gift by which I would remember her.  Yet the only gift I really wanted most, my nana's time, was no longer hers to freely give.

            She had been ill for many years, though no one in the family had really known.  It wasn't until the ambulance rushed her to the hospital one day after she collapsed from bleeding that anyone close to her knew what was going on.  To our horror, my mom discovered that grandma had been sick for many years and had always known it.  She grew steadily weaker and experienced painful bleeding for some years now.  The doctors at the hospital diagnosed her with late-stage cervical cancer.  She had, at best, only months to live.

            It seemed surreal to me, as though someone had just announced that Superman was dying.  It was impossible, I reasoned.  This was Nana.  She can't die.  She was a staple in my life as large as any role mom and dad ever played.  There had to be something . . . something that I could do, anything, to save her.

            Deny it though I would, in a matter of weeks I watched helpless as her weight plummeted, and her hair fell out.  Watching her holding back tears one day as she looked in a mirror, shreds of the once long, black, shiny hair lay brittle and lifeless in her fragile hands.  Before the summer was over, Grandma Ruthie passed away in the hospital, her once vigorous, hearty frame wasted away to nothing.  I was not there to see her take her final breath.

            I cried uncontrollably, inconsolably for days. 

            Superman was dead.

*          *          *

            “Now, shhh.  Don't tell anyone,” hissed the dragon, zipping up his pants and wiping the crack of the boy's bottom clean.  “It'll be our little secret!”

            The child pushed himself up from the large, heavy ironing board, turned, and leaned his feet over the side until his toes touched the floor.  He quietly pulled up his pants while the dragon helped him buckle his belt.  The boy didn't run.  The boy didn't hide.  The boy didn't cry out.  The boy simply stood there, the dragon telling him to be a good little nephew and don't tell mama.  She wouldn't believe him anyway.

            As mama returned to the washroom, loads of laundry in her hands, the dragon chatted with her for awhile, smiled and exited the castle, the first of many, many visits he and the good little boy, the quiet little boy, the obedient little boy, would share together in the dungeon below. 

*          *          *

            The first semester of my freshman at the Franciscan Catholic college was life changing.  I had graduated from West High School in Sioux City, Iowa as the 1983 Bausch and Lomb Honorary Science Award winner, having taken more secondary education credits in the sciences than any other Iowa high school graduate up until that time.  It was my goal – no, it was my dream – to go to college and become a biologist.  An ornithologist, to be specific.  I had a love affair with birds and nature.  During my senior year at West, I had achieved a 4.0 grade point average, and there wasn't an area of the natural sciences that wasn’t fascinating to me; yet an intense love of the outdoors and everything it encompassed gravitated my young mind, naturally, toward the life sciences. 

            I was pleased, then, for any time spent together with my new biology professor during the first few weeks of the semester.  I had been working on a problem that had troubled me for the last couple of years, attempting to resolve the apparent contradiction between evolution and Creationism.  Having been raised a devout Roman Catholic with influences from a few fundamentalist relatives and friends, I was bothered by the fact that Creationism – a literal creation of all life directly by God himself – did not seem to mesh well with all of the hard, scientific facts I had learned about radiometric dating, evolution, and Darwinism.  It seemed obvious to me that the earth must be older than six thousand years, but how to mesh elements of evolutionary theory with the story told in Genesis chapters one and two boggled my mind.  I was determined to make it all fit.  Science, after all, was logical, and God, the Supreme Being, could certainly not be illogical, right?  So the question was only one of how to make them fit.  It felt like assembling a jigsaw puzzle in the dark.

            During the summer prior to entering college, I spent much of my time with my high school biology teacher and intellectual mentor, Bill Klein. He had introduced me to the newest discovery in Iowa, a completely new species of prairie wildflower that grew only on one hill adjacent to the local college.  Fascinated by its uniqueness, the fact that it had somehow sprung where nothing like it had ever been before amazed me, and I felt as though a wave of awareness was about to crash down upon my consciousness.  It set my mind racing.

            Nature, interestingly enough, seemed to continually produce life forms from earlier versions, each new species competing in an evolutionary “arms race” to carve out a niche for itself.  As the epics and eras progress, life seems to develop greater levels of complexity in an almost unconscious attempt to produce a life form that can survive every new change or catastrophe that arises.  The greater apes, for example, so similar anatomically, behaviorally and genetically to humans, seem to have been part of nature's unwitting attempt to produce an increasingly complex, successful species. 

            Humans, I reasoned, being created in the “image” of God himself, must therefore be the perfect creation, the perfect combination of genes and attributes to take “dominion” over the earth.  Was nature, I rationalized, which God apparently created then let loose for billions of years until He placed us on the planet, trying to do the same thing itself?  Was it trying, through the process of natural selection, to create its own penultimate creature?  It would explain why the primates and we were so similar yet so very different!  The feeling of potential insight – this meshing of the theological and the scientific - was ecstatic. 

            Approaching my college professor one day after lab with what I deemed a well-prepared, hand-written presentation, I explained succinctly the details of my hypothesis, seeking perhaps praise, a critique of what may have been overlooked or forgotten, or both.  What I received, however, was nothing of the sort. 

            Sighing deeply, the professor stopped and turned to face me as we walked out of the lab and into the Arts and Sciences hallway.  He shook his head, frowning slightly and said matter-of-factly, “You'll never succeed in the sciences if you believe in Creationism.”  He turned promptly, then, and strode off down the hall.  Standing in the hallway, surrounded by people yet all alone, I was speechless.

            By the end of my freshman year, I had dropped out.

*          *          *

            Fishie, the young child’s favorite stuffed animal, had been sewn together so many times that its stuffing had to be replaced in several places.  The child’s stepfather had won it for him at a carnival when the boy was almost six, and the animal never left the boy’s side when mama would lay him down to sleep in his little bed. 

            Fishie was always there whenever the dragon wasn’t, and at night, the child would hold the soft, plush animal close, rubbing it gently against himself much as the dragon had touched him.  There was always the tingling sensation that rose and subsided, and soon afterward, the child would fall asleep.  Though unable to understand what it all meant, the feeling left him relaxed and tired, sometimes  chasing away the demons that haunted his nightly foray into the world of sleep. 

            Fishie wasn’t there, though, when the young boy would dream at night.  He dreamed often, the same dream, over and over again: shadows, something moving from out of the darkness, the pain, then rolling uncontrollably until he was struck again, unable to stop, unable to control anything around him.  Rolling, rolling, rolling until he sometimes awoke, crying and screaming, unable to discern reality from the dream as his mama came inside his bedroom and held him tight, rocking and singing him to back to sleep.

            Fishie was there long after the dragon had left.  Fishie was the reminder of everything the child had learned from the dragon, and fishie gave the child comfort almost everyday of his adolescence.  Fishie’s soft touch was the boy’s inheritance from the dragon.

*          *          *

            “Hey fish!  Fish!  It’s a fish!”

            The cries and taunts of “fish” echoed shrilly down the narrow hallway as inmates from the other cells adjacent to the corridor watched two battle dress uniformed cadre lead the newest occupant to his newest home in maximum security detention.  The chains around his legs dragged heavily along the stone floor, his hands cuffed and clamped to chains that wrapped around his waist and from there attached to the larger links around his feet.  The slow, shuffling gait of the inmate was accompanied by the “click click” of the guards’ highly polished, black leather boots as they scuffed the floor along each side of the man.

            Wolf whistles and jeers that were more obscene were barely heard, barely audible as the prisoner was told to halt and face the bars of the cell door he was to call home for several weeks before being allowed into the general populace.  The shorter of the two cadre lifted a radio to his mouth with one hand while keeping a firm grip on the arm of the prisoner with the other.  In moments, an electronic buzzer sounded and the heavy, steel door of the cell slid open and the inmate was instructed to step into his new abode.  It took about two minutes for the chains, ankle, and handcuffs to be removed, the cadre staring at the prisoner who stood silent peering at the yellow wall with chipped and fading paint.

            Instructing the prisoner to assume the position against the wall, the two guards slowly exited the cell, said something over the radio, and waited until the cell door slammed shut with a resounding thud that shook the bars of the cells all along the corridor. 

            The man peered around the four foot by eight-foot cell and sat upon the edge of the steel framed bed which was securely bolted to the floor.  Other than a stainless steel commode and sink, the cell was devoid of anything that could even be remotely used as a weapon or suicide device. 

            As the man curled up on the thin, springless mattress, he began to cry.  And all the while, the taunts and derision continued, as cries of “fish, fish” filled the empty, hollow halls of his new home.

*          *          *

            “Hey, Colby.  Wanna help daddy feed the fishies?”

            I knew that was the trick!  He suddenly stopped crying and ran into the back yard, eager to help me with his favorite task: feeding the fish in his modest little pond.  Whenever my four-year-old son was upset or crying about something, all I had to do was ask him to help me, and he quickly forgot all his troubles.

            “Daddy wait!  Wait!” he cried aloud, seeing me move toward the gate that separated the upper half of the yard from the lower half.  “I want to help you!”  He ran as fast as he could, practically stumbling over his own feet.

            Retrieving a handful of fish pellets from a plastic bag in his outdoor toy box, I motioned for my boy to accompany me down into the “snaky woods.”  He had long ago christened the unkempt, wild-growing area behind the fence as the “snaky woods” after watching an episode of Miss Spider, where the little spider creatures head off into unknown danger all alone.  Still, although the woodsy area did indeed have gardener snakes, among other creepy, crawly life forms, my boy was fearless.  Together, we unlocked the back gate and headed down the thick, overgrown, sloping path.

            Yet when we reached the pond moments later, we saw a small, presumably baby, bird floating on the surface.  It appeared to have died from exhaustion, falling into the pond after seeking a cool, refreshing drink.  Bobbing in and out of the water, unable to find purchase on the smooth, pre-molded plastic edge of the pond, babies like these were virtually helpless against the forces of nature, with no one there to guard them or to warn them against unseen dangers.  It wasn't the first time we had found a baby bird in the pond, mostly grackles, but this one was different.  Bending down, pulling it out of the pond by its tail feathers, and holding it upside down, I could see that it was perhaps a young wood thrush or brown thrasher, the water-saturated feathers partly disguising its features.  Colby stood by my side as we both looked at the hapless victim, until he said, “Daddy.  It's dead.”

            Sadly, I agreed, and I gave the bird a gentle toss a few feet from the pond, certain that the same creatures that came to hunt the fish each night might enjoy this instead.  Yet when the bird landed in the soft bedding of wood chips and soil that surrounded the pond, I watched incredulously as the creature jerked, spread its wings, and opened its mouth wide before lying motionless, eyes closed.  Could it still be alive?

            Hurriedly, I tossed the fish pellets from my other hand into the pond and quickly reached for the baby bird, gently picking it up from the ground.  It was cold, I noticed, as I cupped the creature in my hand.  Very cold.  With my boy in tow, we headed back up the ravine and through the gate.  I didn't know what to do, but I felt great pity for the castaway animal, and felt some urge to help.  But how?

            I instructed Colby to go inside the house and get daddy some rags “to wrap the baby birdie in.”  I held the creature in my hands, wet and cold, until my son appeared at the door, rags in hand.  Carefully, I laid the rags out upon the patio furniture and set the animal down, wrapping the makeshift blankets around the bird until the only part of its body we could see was its eyes and beak.  Its chest was moving, slightly, but I didn't know how much longer it had to live.  I held the creature at an angle and watched as water and slime oozed from its nostrils and beak.  After a few moments, it blinked its eyes a few times, tentatively, as I blew warm air from my mouth through the rags.

            All the while, Colby watched as I held the bird, but the creature was barely moving, and I let my son hold him for a while.  It was getting darker outside, and the patio motion sensor lights turned on, providing dazzling light and warmth on a cool spring evening. Then the idea hit me: it wasn't exhaustion that brought the bird to the threshold of death, it was hypothermia.  The pond water was very chilly, particularly for an animal which normally has a body temperature around 110 degrees F.  Perhaps it was hypothermia that was killing the creature. 

            With that thought in mind, I gently bent down and took the little bundle of rags from my boy, then stood erect, moving toward the two floodlights.  Holding the bundle just over the lights, the heat from the bulbs was blazing, and I had to position my arms and hands so as not to get burned.  The heat, I knew, would soon permeate the tiny spaces between the makeshift blanket, warming the helpless animal it held within.  Then, I waited . . .

            Soon, it was time for Colby to get ready for bed, and his mom was calling him inside.  My boy was very concerned about the health of the baby birdie, and it took some coaching to convince him that I wouldn't let the birdie die, if I could help it.  Finally, he went indoors, and I stood outside, considering the fragility of all life.  And still, I waited . . .

            Then, I began to sing, quiet little songs to sooth the injured creature, to comfort, if it was possible, its very soul.  I waited a long time, patiently, as the sky darkened and the moon rose, a shadowy silhouette against the cold darkness of the night.  After some time, my arms numb from the effort of holding the bundle above the lights over my head, I felt a stirring in the rags.  When I turned the bundle to gaze at the tiny creature, its eyes were open, its beak closed.  The feathers on its head were dry and puffed out in every direction, the avian equivalent of Einstein, I thought to myself.  And still I held the young creature, and waited . . .

            Within perhaps another hour, the animal was sleeping.  Its breathing was measured and even, the rags hot to the touch.  I carefully walked into the garage and set the animal in one of many large cardboard boxes I had been using earlier in the day.  I unwrapped the rags, and the baby bird hopped out eagerly, pooping once before settling down in a corner.  I closed the lid.  Since it was chilly in the garage, I pulled out a portable lamp and hung it over the box, to provide more warmth.  I had nothing to do, now, but wait until morning to see if the baby bird would live through the night. 

            The next day, my son and I pulled open the box and found the tiny creature alert and active, flapping and peeping loudly as I reached inside to capture the soft, feathery thing.  Once outside, my boy and I walked to the back gate and held the bird, standing quietly (as quietly as a four year old could stand) as the baby began to peep.  Within seconds, first one, then another winged forms swooped overhead and landed at the bird feeder just behind us.  The large, brown streaked birds eyed us intently.  With each peep the baby would make, the two birds, adult brown thrashers, would reply with a loud smacking sound.  This was a good sign.

            Setting the baby bird down upon the ground, Colby and I watched as the young thing flapped precariously toward the fence, one of the parents flying quickly to land next to the young bird and immediately feed it.  Before long, the two larger birds flew off into the dense foliage in the ravine below, followed closely by a small, feathery thing flapping in uncoordinated fashion as it flew off, following them. 

            It was safe.

 

            The following evening, while preparing to dredge the pond bottom of filth and debris accumulated over the long, long winter, I spied something brown and streaked floating on the surface of the cold, dark, murky water.    It was small, feathered, hollow-eyed, and unmoving.

            I sat on the tree stump adjacent to the pond and pulled a pack of smokes from my rear jeans pocket.  I took out my lighter from the half-empty pack, removed a slender, brown stick, and tapped the little cigarillo a few times before lighting it.   A single trail of dark smoke wafted into the cool spring air.  I inhaled that first puff deeply, staring at the ground and thinking about . . . something.  But the sound of a large, brown streaked bird delivering a melancholy dirge from somewhere on the branches above me broke my train of thought.  The song seemed to say something, something important, but I couldn't quite understand. 

            After awhile, as twilight began to set in, I arose.  Then I danced, and I sang.

                        Tonight I danced. 

                        I danced with

                        myself outside, all

                        alone, under the stars. 

                        I danced and I

                        laughed and I

                        wept.  I danced

                        for lost loves

                        and for past

                        regrets, I danced

                        for new lives and for

                        paths ahead.

                        I danced for

                        the son

                        who rules

                        my thoughts,

                        I danced for

                        the one

                        who broke

                        my heart.

                        I danced for all

                        who cannot

                        be free,

                        I danced with

                        the heart of a bird

                        flying free.

                        Tonight I danced

                        with myself

                        outside, all

                        alone, no more

                        shall I hide

                        pain, fly free,

                        like all I hold

                        dear to me

                        I release you

                        too.

*          *          *

            “Come on little Jimmy, it's ok.  I'm here now.”

            The little boy stared wide-eyed and wonderingly at the image before him.  Neither person – the boy nor the man - could hardly recognize the other.  The child lowered his head to see the face of the man talking to him, then smiled.

            Crawling out from beneath the large ironing board where he had been hiding for almost forty years, the little boy approached, tentatively.  After observing the man for a while, satisfied, the little boy spoke.

 “Hi.  I'm Jimmy.  Who are you?”

            The man smiled tenderly, tears flowing down both cheeks to spatter across the dungeon floor.  “Everything's going to be alright.  I'm here to take you from this . . . place.”

            Shadows hung gloomily all across the room as opaque windows filtered the light of day.  The two stood silent, looking at each other.  Outside of the almost closed door, sounds could be heard from the hallway, echoes of another place, another time.  The young child started, peering towards the door and shivering.

            “I know, Jimmy.  I know about the . . .” the man paused, moving forward to touch the child's flushed cheek.  “ . . . the dragon.” 

            In the ensuing silence, only the sounds of distant steps, retreating into the nether realm, could be heard as the two stared at one another, unblinking.

            “What's your name?” the young boy asked, softly. 

            The man smiled and held out his hand.  “I'm Jimmy, too.”

            “Ohhh!” the child whispered, taking the man's hand and staring in awe.  The two of them turned and opened the metallic door, shadows and reptilian images scurrying, fleeing down the passage.  They walked down the long, shadowy hallway to the base of the stairs.  Light streamed in from the entryway above.  “That's my name!”

            The man smiled, bent, and kissed the boy upon his head. 

            “I know, little Jimmy . . . I know.”  Together, the two of them walked up the stairs and into the light, leaving the dungeon behind, for a while.

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