Friday, April 17, 2015

That time Fern met Sam

Photo courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr

A  week or two ago I was on the Twitter cyber-stalking agents in hopes of finding a shepherd for my novel.

I found the hashtag #MSWL, where agents post about the types of manuscripts they're looking for. 

As it turns out, there aren't any agents looking for a story about a grief-stricken 20-something who stumbles on a body in the woods and ends up befriending the dead guy's sister and a friendly newspaper photographer. 

I should probably start my own hashtag: #PBOWB (Pipe Dreams of Wannabe Novelists).

Anyway, I came across this Tweet from Navah Wolfe:



This immediately made me smile. I love the Pevensies, though I was always partial to Lucy. She seemed much less fussy and she never gave up on Narnia. Not like Susan. 

These days I feel more like Susan though (I mean aside from the name thing). All mired in the practical side of being a grown up. Less engaged with the every day magic.

I thought about writing a story about Susan Pevensie. But then decided it had been too long since I'd read her stories. 

But then I got to thinking about writing fan fiction for characters I'd visited more recently. 

So I decided to write a story about the time Louis from "The Trumpet of the Swan" and the goose from "Charlotte's Web" hooked up. 

It was C-double R-double A-double Z-double YYY. 

Maybe I've watched that movie too many times.

Actually, I went more of a sentimental route, and decided that Fern Arable and Sam Beaver were totes MFEO. I wish I could be more wildly creative and nuanced about how I imagine their lives. But I love them and kind of just want them to be how they were when we first met. 

With apologies to E.B. White. 


"The Lake"

The lake was a clamor of squawks and honks and quacks. Splashing and plops and thwapping wings. Sunlight skittered over the the parts of the water not shadowed by fluffy cumulous clouds. 

Gangs of mallard and ancona and pekin and runner ducks paddled in and out of coves, dunking their heads underwater for bits of this or that. Beefy Canada geese ambled along the shore preening their feathers and shaking out their wings. 

And floating above the riot, as proper and disaffected as landed lords and ladies were the Trumpeter swans. As white as sun-dried sheets, save for their sharp, coal-black bills. The very stuff of love stories and children's stories.

Fern sat on a concrete bench just off the walkway that circled Bird Lake. Meditating on the sounds of waterfowl and how they made her think of home and the farmyard. 

Though the noises were different here, of course. 

The exclamations of children about the lions and jaguars or the cries over fallen ice cream and exhausted legs. The inescapable noise of cars on highways. And the smells, too. Here, it changed with the breeze. Sometimes popcorn. Sometimes the heavy, musky scent of camels or buffalo. The sweat of overheated patrons. On the worst days it was the pungent ammonia wafting from the primate house. 

At home it seemed simpler. The fussy clucking of hens. The conversational snorting of pigs. The bleating of goats and sheep. It always smelled of sweet hay, earthy manure and  the tang of milk off the cow.

Fern wished she could block out everything but the smell of the damp earth at her feet and the sound of the honking geese. As close as she could get right now to springtime in the barnyard. But even with eyes closed the relentless cacophony of the city suffocated her.

Three years ago, it had all been so exciting.

"I'm going to law school at Penn. Come with me," Henry begged. "You can find a job in the city. You're smart."

She didn't need Henry to remind her about that. She'd graduated near the top of her class at Cortland. Had been thinking about a masters in environmental policy when Henry convinced her to move.

His mother was furious about it, of course. That Henry was still fawning over that Arable girl after all this time. Practically born and raised in a barn cellar. His mother's nose still wrinkled every time Fern visited, as if she smelled of excrement, a swarm of invisible flies haloing her head.

Being with Henry was as natural as the over pronounced way she swung her arms when she walked, a sort of thoughtless habit formed to help cross fields and country lanes with more efficiency. But in the city, both Henry and her odd gait made her self-concious. Her movements taking up too much room in such a crowded place, made all the more evident by Henry's inborn townie gentility.

Last night, he treated Fern to a candlelit dinner at a swanky French bistro and actually ordered for her, something she'd observed his mentor from the firm he'd interned at doing for his wife one night the four of them had gone out together. 

"Did Winston forget his wife has an actual brain that might be capable of selecting a meal for herself?" She asked Henry on the walk home as they recapped the night.

"Aww. Don't be like that Fern. I think it's kind of nice – Winston knows how to speak French and he'd been to that restaurant before. He was being a gentleman." 

Fern rolled her eyes.

"He was being presumptuous."

But there was Henry. Being presumptuous. 

And then after he ordered for her, he took her to this little park near their apartment, all strung with white Christmas lights and got down on his knee and proposed to her.

"Winston tells me I'm in as soon as I pass the bar. They have an opening in their Paris office. Isn't that incredible? You and me in Paris?"

It was incredible. Fern knew it. And she didn't exactly love her job as a lab tech. But as she listened to dear Henry Fussy describe the path  their life together would take based on his advancement in the firm, she realized she wanted a different map.

"Henry," she said gently. "You're one of my oldest friends and I'm so proud of you. Look at you! practically a lawyer. Practically living in Paris! But I can't marry you. I'm so sorry. I can't be Fern Fussy."

And his face morphed through surprise and anger and regret before landing on a smirk. 

"Fern Fussy. That doesn't have any ring to it, does it?"

"It's actually the worst." 

They hugged. And when he told her she was too much of a country girl to ever survive in a city as sophisticated as Paris, she punched him in the arm. 

So here she was. With a new map, at the zoo, hoping nature (or proximity to nature) might offer some answers.

Her future yawned.

Staring in the water, she became aware of something tugging at her sneaker. She glanced down and was surprised to see a smallish Trumpeter swan had sidled up to the bench, and was staring sideways at her through one small onyx eye. When she had Fern's attention, the swan stretched her long neck over to Fern's foot and she grabbed her shoelace in her beak and pulled. 

"Hey! What's that about?" Fern asked in a quiet voice, her body still.

The swan yanked at her lace again.

"Her grandfather did that to me once."

Fern looked up to see a man about her age walk over carrying a clipboard. He wore cargo shorts, workboots and a green polo shirt. His hair was short and dark brown and his eyes clear blue and lined with smiles. 

"What's that?" Fern asked. Only a little flustered.

"Billie's grandfather -- he was a swan I knew year's ago. An old friend of mine. He once untied my shoe just like Billie here. I took it as a sign of friendship."

"You were friends with a swan?" Fern wasn't being judgmental, just conversational. 

"Sure. Louis is quite a swan. He writes and can play the trumpet. He used to perform here on Sundays. Now he lives out west. Still visits every once and a while, though he's getting on in years."

"And he played the trumpet? Like, an actual trumpet?" 

"That's right. He came to school with me back in Montana. Learned how to write there."

"And Billie is his granddaughter?" 

"That's right. A few of the Trumpeters here are related to Louis. Though none of them have taken up the trumpet. Of course, the others can sing just fine on their own. I've been watching Billie though, I think she's mute. Maybe I should pick her up a trumpet. See if she takes to it."

Fern studied the man. He didn't look crazy. In fact, he was very calm and matter-of-fact. He seemed at ease outside among the fowl. He reminded Fern a little of her father -- his easygoing stance and work-worn hands, dirt under his fingernails. She felt a twinge of homesickness. 

"You know a lot about these swans."

"Well, I suppose I should. I'm the head of the bird house here. My name's Sam Beaver." He sat at the other end of Fern's bench.

"Nice to meet you Sam Beaver. I'm Fern. I've just been enjoying watching your birds. They remind me a little of home."

"Oh? You live by a lake?"

"No. I grew up on a farm. We always had ducks and geese and chickens."

"And now you're a city girl?"

"I wouldn't say that. I don't know really what I am now. Just trying to figure that out."

As the two chatted, Billie waddled toward the water and stretched out her wings, one of which was much shorter than the other.

"What happened to her wing?" Fern asked.

"It's been clipped. It's how we maintain our population here."

Fern felt that old familiar self-righteousness welling up.

"Maintain your population? Is that the nice way to say you've disabled them?"

Sam frowned and shifted on the bench.

"A lot of the birds on this lake came to us with injuries. We take good care of them. They're well fed and safe from predators year-round."

"Of course. They just can't do the one thing nature designed for them to do. Fly."

"No offence, but it seems a little odd for a farmer to be advocating for animal rights. Last time I checked, cows and pigs weren't exactly living out their lives in comfort to a ripe old age." 

This time Fern grimaced. "Well, you like to eat don't you? Where do you think all those hamburgers and bacon you like come from?"

"I'm well aware of how the food supply works. Anyway, I don't eat hamburgers or bacon. I'm a vegetarian."

"Is that how you make peace with the bird mutilation?" Fern didn't mean to sound so harsh. She knew the zoo was a business, not unlike a farm. Every animal has its purpose. She softened. "I don't eat bacon either. I knew this pig once."

A smile creeped back on Sam's face. "You knew a pig once?"

"Wilbur. He was the runt of the litter. My father was going to kill him, but I intervened and I raised him like a baby -- bottle fed and everything. From a business standpoint my dad was crazy to let me keep him. He's always had a soft spot for me though. Wilbur was a wonderful pig. One of my first friends."

Fern hadn't thought about her pig in years. The memory of summer afternoons sitting on an old milk crate in the barn cellar brought tears to her eyes. 

Sam watched her. "It's good to remember old friends."

She nodded. "It is."

"I'll leave you to your birdwatching then," he stood up.

Fern looked up at him and smiled. "It was nice talking. Thank you for introducing me to Billie."

"Of course." He walked a few steps from the bench and then turned around. "Say. I get off in another half hour. If you want, I can show you around. You can give me more pointers on avian care. Maybe tell me about your pig." 

Fern nodded. "I think I'd like that."

As he walked away, as if waking from a daydream, she was suddenly aware of all surrounding noise. The birds the children the animals the cars.  

She closed her eyes and listened. Remembered being young with the sun on her face and a long summer full of possibility ahead of her.

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