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Eagles of Ours

A short story by Ed Dewke  

Ages ago, wild water found the low spots in the land, one after another, and filled them up, overflowing, until eventually there came to be a river proceeding southwest.  The river regularly flooded, washing layer upon layer of soft soil away, until it ran on hard rock, which eventually relented as well, crumbling, grinding, until there became a canyon wide enough and deep enough that the river appeared to be a harmless tiny crooked silver thread way down at its bottom.

A host of animals lived in the canyon’s world of short sunlight and long twilights.  There were plenty of deer, beaver, fox, muskrat, weasels, mice, marmots and prairie dogs; a number of unsociable lynxes, some nomadic brown bears and a mountain lion who could have climbed out of the canyon but elected not to.

There were eagles, an uncertain number of them that nested in dark well-hidden spaces in the canyon walls.  And there was a man who was not born there, but who lived there now in a little rented cabin.

The man, whose name was Arden, hadn’t been there very long, but he’d been there long enough to grow close to the canyon.  Though he had no claim on the canyon at large, he looked after as much of it as he could.  He kept a written record of all he discovered and observed and realized soon after this began that the canyon did a good job of supervising itself.

Arden spent some time writing and rewriting an essay in which he compared nature’s management of itself to man’s management of his various enterprises.  When his essay was as good as he could make it, he drove to a nearby town to send it off to a publisher in New York.

At the Post Office in town, Arden picked up a sizeable stack of mail that had been accumulating for him.  Four envelopes in particular interested him, one from his ex-wife’s lawyer, a second from his old office, the third from a publisher, the fourth from the National Psoriasis Foundation.  Of the four, he was immediately interested in the one from his old office.

Whoever it was from did not identify himself on the return address.  He held it up before the light and could see that the contents were handwritten.  He tore the end off this envelope and removed the single sheet of company memo paper.  The handwriting was familiar; nevertheless, before he got much further than “Dear— he glanced to the bottom of the page to read, “Love, Georgette.”

He felt a quick anticipatory warmth in the pit of his stomach, like after a slow first sip of good scotch.  He refolded the letter, slipped it back into the envelope and put the envelope in the inside breast pocket of his jacket.

The letter from the publisher was good news.  A piece had been accepted.  Arden would soon receive payment, the letter promised.  This letter, too, Arden put in his breast pocket.

The National Psoriasis Foundation newsletter said what it always said — no cure had been discovered for psoriasis.  Reading the page 1 headlines made him look at his inflamed hand and badly deformed fingernails.  One of the his ex-wife's stinging comments when they were breaking up came to mind.  You've lived up to your potential, Arden.  That's obvious just looking at you. 

***

Arden carried his mail to the town’s only restaurant and bar.  It was about one in the afternoon and only one booth in the restaurant was occupied.  He went straight to the corner booth.

He was reading the letter from Georgette for the second time when the waitress emerged from the kitchen with a scotch and soda.

“How’s those eagles of ours?” she asked and, glancing over her shoulder toward the door to the kitchen, slid into the seat across the booth from Arden.  She put her hands in the middle of the table, palms down, fingers splayed, and studied her nails.

Arden folded the letter and set it aside.  He put his hands on the table, mimicking her gesture, and slid his grotesque fingers forward until the tips nearly touched her hands.  He studied her hands as he did this to catch a twitch, or a withdrawal, but her hands lay still.  “Our eagles are fine,” he said.  “But I don’t think the hatchlings made it.”

She frowned and looked at the psoriasis on Arden’s hands.  “Think something got to them in the nest?”

“Probably.”

“Shoot,” she said and, sitting up straighter, pulled her hands away.  “I wanted to bring Larry out to see them when they started to fly.”

“I’m sorry, Trish.”

Trish was quiet for a moment then moved towards the edge of her bench.  “You ready to eat?”  She stood up and began to wipe her hands with her apron.

“Listen,” Arden said.  “I know I said I’d have you back out, and I mean to.  I do.  I’ve been busy—”

“I know it.”

“I just finished a piece.”

“I hope you sell it.”

“Thanks.  I can take a breather now.  Maybe Sunday?  What about Sunday?”

She cocked her head and closed one eye half way, “I have Larry to look after all day Sunday.  You inviting my boy, too?”

“Oh.  Well — sure.  I mean, if you want to.  Or you can come some week night and stay over.”

She glanced back to the kitchen door, then smoothed her apron against her dress.  “I’ll think about it.  You ready to eat?”

He ordered.  When Trish was gone, he took Georgette’s letter and the letter from his ex-wife’s lawyer, along with his scotch and soda, to the pay phone in the restaurant.

He called the lawyer first and was made to hold for several minutes.  Finally, he heard, “Hello, Arden.”

“I explained the situation to you last month.”

“I’m fine, thank you, and how are you?”

“Cut it out, Roger,” Arden said.

“All right.  We’ve checked.  We know you’ve gotten paid the remainder of your vacation pay.  We think any further postponement of alimony is unwarranted.”

“If you’ve checked you also know how much I’ve been paid.  I can’t spend it all on alimony.”

“Make a partial payment then.  A gesture.  Try to understand.  From her perspective you’re on some kind of fantasy camping trip.  She didn’t make you quit your job and move out there.”

“What’s happening with the house?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?  No offers?”

“None worth considering.  You know how real estate is here right now.”

“What about if we make an adjustment in the shares of the house to cover back alimony?  What about that?”

“We can do that anyway.  Beth’s problem is cash flow—”

“Then take out an equity loan.”

“I can look into that.”

“Do it then.”

“We could probably do that, but to make it all nice and tidy it would be nicest if you’d sign the note.”

“Fine.  Send me the papers.”

“It will take some time.  You should still send some cash.”

“Christ, Roger!  I don’t have anything to send!  Listen, I just sold another piece.  How about if I send you the acceptance letter with a note from me saying it’s all hers?”

“We could get that anyway, Arden.”

“You’re a goddamned bastard, Roger.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Arden.”

He hung up the phone and breathed heavily until the warmth in his cheeks subsided.  He scratched his head then brushed the flakes off his shoulders.  His ex had called this dandruff from too many smoky bars.  His derm had said it was psoriasis, but his wife had stopped wanting to hear about his psoriasis.

Then he reread Georgette’s letter and dialed another number.

The receptionist recognized his voice.  “How are you, sir?” she asked.

“I’m fine, Vicky.”

“I bet it’s nice out there where you are.  Not much humidity, is there?”

“No.  Hardly any.”

“Do you have a horse?”

“No.”

“But I bet you could.  Am I right?”

“Yes, I could.”

“It just sounds lovely.  You should send us some postcards.  We could hang them on the bulletin board.”

“Maybe I’ll do that, Vicky.  Is Georgette in?”

“I think so.  Let me check for you.  Nice talking to you.”

He finished his scotch and soda while he waited.  When he saw Trish emerge from the kitchen he rattled the ice cubes in his empty glass to get her attention.  She came by, took his glass and winked at him.

“Arden?”

“Georgette.  Hi.”

“Geez it’s good to hear from you.  You must have received my letter.”

“Got it right here.  Called right away.  I don’t have a phone at the cabin.  I’m in town.  So when are you going to do it?”

“Quit?  No beating around the bush here, huh?  Same old Arden.  I don’t know when I’m going to quit.  I guess I was waiting to give you a chance to talk me out of it.  Or into it.”

“Don’t listen to me.”

“I want to listen to you.”

“You’re good, Georgette.  You stick it out and you’ll go places.”

“You quit.”

“I put in my years.  I’m old enough to be your father.”

“Not quite.”

“Close enough.”

“What does that have to do with it, anyway?”

“If you quit now you’ll never know.”

“Know what?”

“What you could have done with yourself.”

“You make not being a commercial illustrator sound like dying.  Maybe I’d just quit for awhile.  Why couldn’t I come back?”

“I guess maybe you could go back,” he said.  For a moment he said nothing and scratched his beard.  He saw flakes cascading down from the lesions under his beard.  “I keep forgetting you can do anything you want to.”

“You’re patronizing me.  I wish you wouldn’t treat me like a child.”

He didn’t want to treat her like a child.  He squeezed the telephone handset until the lesions on his fingers hurt and reached for his drink that was no longer there.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I don’t mean to patronize you.”  He paused, she listened, waiting.  “So what will you do?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve had several thoughts.  You’ll laugh.” 

“Not unless you want me to.”

“Well, I think I want to paint.”

“You mean, paint, as opposed to commercial illustration.”

“Yeah.  That’s right.  People still do that, you know.”

“I’ve seen some of your early stuff.  Your college work.  It’s good.  You could do that.  Pay’s awful, though.”

“Let’s leave that until the end.  I don’t want to think about money.”

“Fine.  What do you want to paint?”

“New things.  I want to paint people and places and objects and incidents I’ve never seen before or heard of or even dreamt about.  I think that to find myself as an artist I’m going to have to look in altogether new and different mirrors.  Know what I mean?”

 “Yes.  Yes, I do—”

“I’ve thought about going to Australia.  Reaction?”

“I don’t know what to say.  Why Australia?”

“Altogether new and different mirrors.”

“Do you have to go that far away?”

“You tell me.”

“There’s here.”  He’d said it; it had shot through the phone circuit at the speed of light and now the silence hung like a visible vapor trail.

“Tell me what there is to paint out there.”

“Eagles.”

“Eagles?  You mean like the bald kind?”

“Uh huh.  And pure blue skies, bright red earth, shades of green you’ve never seen before and that don’t linger more than a week or two; wild flowers with blossoms so small they look like drops of pigment sprayed from a crop duster; and some of the oldest ugliest, saddest looking cows you could imagine.”

She was laughing.

“And ugly bugs, skittish lizards, lethargic snakes, and an old psoriatic copywriter who feels sorry for himself, sheds a lot and drinks too much.”

“It all sounds much too strange, Arden,” she said, laughing still.   “Can trial excursions be arranged?”

“You bet,” he said.  “In fact, they’re recommended.”

“Well then,” she said and he thought he heard her smiling.

***

Arden spent days wandering through the canyon.  Unable, uninterested in writing anything, he studied scenes within the canyon, different views from different vantages, and framed them between his angry fingers, trying to assess how they would fare as painted landscapes.  He sat with his bare flaking feet in the shallow, fast river, sure that every so often he felt a fish nibble at his scales.  In his imagination he scripted their meeting at the bus depot in the town, their drive to the canyon, her first impressions, their first evening in the house, their first night.

One afternoon he heard distant spitting reports from small caliber rifle fire.  He moved fast at first, trying to distinguish between the direction of the shots and their echoes, but when he sensed he was near he slowed until he paused after every other step to listen and to watch. 

He heard their voices first.  Young men, four or five of them, punch drunk and plinking away at anything and everything.  He came across their old rusty Land Rover and peered in all the windows.  A weasel pelt, wet with blood and fat, was draped over a tool box.  He proceeded in the direction of their voices until he saw them. 

They had taken off their shirts.  They looked alike: the same close haircuts, same smooth tanned skin, same builds.  He guessed them in their late teens.  There were three rifles between the five of them and they were arguing over a handful of bullets.  One of them was noticeably shorter; this one cursed the loudest and appeared to have the remaining few bullets in his hand.  He was demanding that someone hand him a rifle.  His friends groused, called him names, but a rifle was soon handed over.  He dropped most of the bullets at least once before he got them loaded into the pump-action rifle.  Then he shouldered the gun and spun around carelessly making everyone duck, including Arden, who watched unnoticed from within the cover of bushes several yards away.

“Let’s go find us somethin’ decen’ to shoot at,” the boy-man with the loaded rifle said.

“Just shoot at the cans, Freddy,” someone said, and Freddy spun around again shouting obscenities until he had to stop and lower the rifle butt to the ground to steady himself.

“Well damnit, Freddy, shoot the thing’n pass it on.”

“I need a goddamn beer,” someone else said.

“What happen’ to all our ammo?” someone else complained.

“I thought you said there was all sorts game in this canyon,” Freddy said and looked cross-eyed at everyone.  “Les go back to where we shot the mink.”

“It’s a weasel.”

“You dunno a weasel from a porcupine you...” Freddy cursed and let loose a round that ricocheted with a lingering zing off the canyon wall.

Everyone squatted when the shot went off, including Freddy, who dropped the rifle but retrieved it again when his friends made a lunge for it.

“Damnit Freddy yer gonna shoot someone.”

“These are my bullets,” Freddy said and rose unsteadily.  “Comeon.  Les git outta here.”

Arden stayed low and in the bushes until he heard the boys drive off.  He heard one more shot fired from the moving vehicle followed by a volley of curses.  He let their noise die away completely before he moved, and then he went to where they had stood and did a slow circle looking everywhere, at everything, to assess the damage.  He kicked dirt over the shell casings and took off his shirt to use as a net for collecting the beer cans.

***

Trish sat down in his booth after glancing at the door to the kitchen and put her hands on the table, trapping the scotch and soda she had brought to him between her arms.

“I saw you coming from the Sheriff’s office,” she said.  “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

He touched the tips of her fingers with his own.  “Nah.  Trying to keep drunk teenagers out of my canyon.”

“What happened?”

He told her what he’d witnessed.  “The Sheriff says it’s an open area but he’s going to talk to the boys.”

“You knew those boys?”

“I described them, he knew them.”

“Then you must mean our beaver boys.”

“That’s what the Sheriff said.  Beaver boys.  Are they all related?”

“No,” she smiled broadly.  “They got that name because they’re always chasing beaver in town.”

Arden nodded and looked away from her.  “I get it.”

“Hell, they’re the only teenagers we got.  Has to be them.  And besides, that’s just the sort of thing they’d do.”

They were quiet for a moment, then Trish said, “No mail?”

“I haven’t picked it up yet.  I guess I forgot.  I’ll get it when I finish this drink.”

“How’s those eagles of ours?”

He looked at her and she averted her eyes.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I have some company coming—”

“I didn’t say a thing about coming over, did I?  Can’t I inquire about the eagles without you thinking I’m inviting myself over?”

He leaned back and remained quiet until she looked up at him.  “Of course you can,” he said.  “The eagles are fine but the hatchlings are definitely gone.”

***

At the Post Office Ken spotted the letter from his old office and shuffled the handful of envelopes so it was on top.  He was staring at the franking on the envelope as he crossed the street and the Sheriff pulled up beside him in his police car.

“Hi again,” Arden said.

“I’m going out to talk to those boys now,” the Sheriff said, “but just to let them know that you live down there.  Though I gotta believe they already know that.  Just remember, from what you said those boys were shooting well away from your place, and the rest of that land down there, well, it’s open range.   No law says those boys can’t shoot down there.  You understand?”

***

On the way to his booth in the restaurant, Arden motioned for Trish to bring him a scotch and soda.  When he sat down he opened the envelope from his old office and read the letter from Georgette.

In a while Trish hollered over from the kitchen door.  “You ready for another one?”

He nodded.

When she brought the scotch and soda she saw a letter folded on the table in front of him.  The rest of his mail was set aside, unopened.  He wouldn’t look at her.  His eyes were fixed on nothing.  She saw the flakes of skin scattered near him on the table and knew he had been scratching his arms.  “Bad news?” Trish asked.

He took a gulping breath and seemed to shudder, then he blinked and his eyes focused again and looked up at her.  He took a long pull on the drink she put in front of him.  Then he shrugged and wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

“It’s about my visitor,” he said.  “Change of plans.  Not coming.”

“I’ll say I’m sorry in case it wasn’t relatives and yippy do dah in case it was.”

He looked at her for a long moment and finally he smiled.

She smiled back.  “That’s better.  You ready to eat?  Or do you want to sit here and scratch some more before lunch?”

Arden looked at the flakes around him and brushed them off the table hurriedly with his hands.  “I’ll tell you what,” he finally said.  “You get off at four today?”

“Uh huh.”

“Why don’t you get somebody to look after Larry tonight?”

“Awful short notice.  What have you got in mind?”

“I’m going to drink plenty more of these scotch and sodas and I was thinking you could drive us to my place.  We’ll go find those eagles of ours and then—” he paused.  “And then tomorrow morning I’ll fix you breakfast and bring you back to town.”

***

It was the final hour of the long canyon afternoon before they made it to the base of the cliff beneath the eagles’ nest.  This was the time of day when twilight was already dark in most of the canyon and the birds made their last rounds; the time of day when the small animals came out under the cool cover of the long shadows.  For awhile they saw nothing.  They sat together on a fallen tree near the river, facing the canyon side where the eagles lived.  Arden put his jacket over Trish’s shoulders.

“Your skin is looking worse,” Trish said.

Arden curled his hands into loose fists, hiding the deformed nails and some of the lesions.  “I need to get some prescriptions refilled,” he said, shrugging.

“Does it hurt?”

“It’ll be all right,” he lied.  And then he said “They’re out hunting.  But keep watch and we’ll see them come home any time now.”

One eagle came, but rather than flying directly to the nest, this one flew some circles above them and then swooped to perch in a long-dead willow tree.  They could see this one clearly.

Trish whispered, “It’s so beautiful.”

“There,” Arden said and pointed skyward.

In the last rays of the sunset the other bird was high and circling, much higher than the canyon walls.  Its flight seemed uncertain, nervous.  The bird below sat calmly, waiting.

Finally the other bird began a slow, spiraling descent into the canyon.  Then there was the thudding, dull report of a shotgun.

For an instant nothing changed.  The reverberation of the shotgun blast faded and the eagle continued its spiraling descent.  Arden rose, eyes glued to the descending bird, and felt dizzy.  A second shotgun blast jolted the eagle in midair, but it took incredibly long milliseconds for the bird’s wings to cave in and for the controlled descent to become a death plummet.

Trish began to wail, first softly, then louder.  The perched eagle took off and climbed to its falling mate, swerved out of its way, turned, and followed it down.  When the birds disappeared in the ground foliage, Arden bellowed “NO!” and the sound of it overpowered Trish’s wail.  He squeezed his hands until lesions cracked and blood flowed.

Laughter echoed back at them.

Arden twirled.  The echo made it impossible to determine where they were this time, but it was young men laughing, he was certain.  “Oh Jesus,” he said.

As the laughter’s echoes died away Trish began to move in the direction of the fallen eagle.

Arden moved to follow her.  His legs were shaking.  He took a huge breath to maintain his equilibrium.  “Trish,” he said.  His voice was weak.  He willed his feet to move faster and not to stumble.  He did not want to lose her.  He did not want to lose sight of her.

###

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