I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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Category: Kid narrates young adult novel

#47. Learning how to speak chicken seems a weird pursuit when Mimi and Pop and I are just learning to speak MimiPopIsabel.

We call the author of How to Speak Chicken by her first name, “Melissa,” as if we know her. She writes so clearly, her voice rings out in the nook where we prop the book during breakfast, read it aloud, highlight words, look things up, and reread. Melissa says chickens are not birdbrains and have a lot of different vocalizations; I’m going to keep track of their coos, clucks, and squawks to see if I can figure out what they mean. Right now, we’re making pre-chicken decisions. So far: “no” to roosters, “yes” to baby chicks versus full-grown layers, “yes” to 6 chicks, and “yes” to “they’re pets and egg-layers, not meat.” Also, we found a place that will “sex” the chicks so that we don’t get a male.

“Sexing” IS important. I remember the time Mom and Dad surprised us with gerbils for Christmas.They had been assured by Stella, the gerbil guru, that they were girls. Mom hid the gerbils and their “Critter Trail 2-Level Treadmill Habitat” downstairs in the tenant’s apartment until Christmas morning. I couldn’t believe my eyes when we all peered into the cage: 12 tiny sausage-style newborns nursing from one of the gerbils while the other one careened round and round on the treadmill and critter trails. We kept having gerbil babies every few weeks, buying more Critter Trail Levels and Habitats—they all connected. We tried to give them away to make space for the newborns. Eventually everyone we knew—even strangers—had gerbils: we tacked FREE GERBILS! signs all over town, we had so many to get rid of. Then came the inevitable and fateful day when someone left the cage open. Mom-and she’s a scientist; I thought she’d be the last one to lose patience-shouted Enough! and we gave everything back to Stella. Unfortunately we could find only 12 of the 20 runaways.

So sexing the chicks will eliminate unwanted population explosions. We learned that girl chicks are born with 4000 eggs in them. They don’t need the rooster unless we want more chicks—which we don’t. Um, the male rooster fertilizes the eggs when he mates with the girl chickens; absent the guy, the girls just, well, they lay their 4000 unfertilized eggs one by one which we’ll then eat one by one, I reckon. I discovered another “you’ve got items in your cart” message on Dad’s laptop—the preliminary chick order he’d started on the website My Pet Chicken: “More people than ever want to raise chickens…reserve your order soon!” Zia tells us which type would work best for our yard. Mimi places our order. Then the two of then discover Melissa’s blog, Tilly’s Nest, and read aloud more tidbits of information.

Next we pulled the playhouse out of the storage unit from our old apartment. After a ton of back and forth hemming and hawing, we agreed on where to place it in the yard. While Mimi reads aloud from the notes we’d organized from our many YouTubes on Playhouse-to-Coop transformations, Pop, Oliver, and I get to work.

QuickQuickQuick we: tacked wire fabric—also called hardware cloth in, over, and between all of the cracks, openings, orifices, holes, and spaces a predator could squeeze through; raised it off the ground; dug down all along the edges and buried more hardware cloth in the ground to discourage predators who burrow; constructed and attached a nesting box outside one of the playhouse windows; made two little ladders that cross-crossed each other just above the flooring inside the “coop.” Ladders are handy because they can be steeper than a ramp. One of our ladders turned out to have rungs 6 inches apart—the chickens will hop from rung to rung on that one. Another has rungs that are closer—the chickens will walk up that one. One ladder goes from the roost downwards; the other ladder goes from the window opposite the roosting box to meet up with this ladder. This window will be the chicken’s doorway to their run. Both ladders repose against each other and hover over but not on the floor. To keep the ladders in position we suspended a wire from the ceiling to one of the ladders and screw-eyed it. Finally we spray painted it Robin Hood Green with faux mahogany trim.

Working all of this out was engrossing, companionable, zany, and mesmerizing. The playhouse was morphing in front of our eyes.

The reason we raised the playhouse up on a platform is so we could make a sliding poop floor to catch the droppings from under the roosts. First we tacked “runners” to a plywood base, an inspired touch—thanks Mimi. Then we cut another sturdy piece of plywood and put drawer handles on the outer side to push it in right under the roosting box side so it rested on the platform with runners. We measuremeasuremeasured. Measure once, cut twice says Zia. I really got into this detail work being excellent at visualizing and figuring on paper. The twins “helped” but mostly laughed about poop floors and pounded nails into a tree stump. Not to be too explicit, but the pullout floor is clever. The chickens poop—well, we all poop!—the “bedding” on the floor absorbs it, and then every day or week, not sure of how often yet, we ease the floor out—a two-person job—and carry it to the compost pile, dump it, scrape it with an old hoe, and then slide it back in. This means we won’t have to use tons of bedding on the bottom of the coop. It also means our compost will have more manure/fertilizer and less shavings.

All during this hubbub coop-making day, Mom and Dad stories percolated up and out of the Way-Back seats of our memories. Mom’s love of fresh eggs. How she always picked up fresh eggs on her way home from the lab. Dad’s special ingredient scrambled eggs—cottage cheese. Sexing. Chick Names. Why 6 chicks is better than 10. Egg recipes. Forest green or Robin Hood green—and what’s the difference between them anyway?

Oliver never got to meet Mom and Dad and I could tell he was loving this orgy of happy tales. Were Mimi and Pop right about this chicken thing as poison antidote? Did it switch my focus? Was I seeing the beautiful Mom and Dad who loved and lived with us up until a few weeks ago? Yes. Yes. And Yes. It was like temporarily taking the needle off the broken scratched up revenge record and bathing myself in sunlight. (I know about records; who doesn’t? We even have a turn-table so we can play Mom and Dad’s original Credence Clearwater albums they bought the year they got married.)

But! Note my use of the word temporarily.

—Isabel Scheherazade

# 24 I like the idea of being a spinner of plates and stories. Here’s a Way Back story about how I got to be a plate spinner; I’m still working on the story-spinning.

Running away ISN’T in my game-plan (right now at least); but, if I did run away, I’d join the circus. I could be a plate spinner. (The Ring Master would announce me this way: Isabel Scheherazade, Spinner of Plates and Stories.)

I can spin two plates on two poles; Dad and I were working on adding one more—three poles, three plates. I stopped breaking plates once I understood how the physics of  how to keep the plate twirling, and…um…also when I switched to brightly colored, glow-in-the-dark plastic spinning plates.

Here’s how it works: Plate spinning, according to Dad, relies on the gyroscopic effect. To help me understand gyroscopic, Dad and I lie on the floor and watch a toy top. It spins from the side, Isabel. When the energy’s on the right side, the top’s heavier on that side and tries to fall over. But! It doesn’t because the weight moves to the left side and tries to make it fall that way. 

I watch so hard my eyes almost crack. I say to Dad,  And that keeps it upright?

Until the friction between the top and the wood floor slows the spin–see, it’s wobbling left to right now?

The top fell over, but I got up and spun my first plate!

Dad was a good explainer.

I tell Pop how Dad’s description of the gyroscopic effect helped me.  We’re watching Clyde and Sam get their tops spinning. Pop tells me he’ll try to follow Dad’s example and explain things.

You could start with explanations about HEARINGS, Pop, I almost say. But don’t.

Since Dad’s murder, I haven’t practiced plate-spinning—I’d need to practice if I ran away to the circus—but I like using the plate-spinning metaphor whenever I’m feeling burdened with chores, which I’m not really.  For sure I’d never consider emancipating myself. Poor Oliver.

 Isabel Scheherazade


(sketches by my friend Ryan)

#11b. Old-fashioned Water Pumps: Metaphor alert!

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#7. Belle the Barrister crafts special drinks that help me swallow what’s happened. (I keep trying for metaphor…)

Our apartment is already rented to another family. The twins and I now live full-time and forever with Mimi and Pop. It’s like all of a sudden my closet is full of different clothes and I have no idea what fits and where I’d wear them anyhow. As a stop-gap filler activity until we figure out how we’ll fill the rest of life,  we go to Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe every day. I think of it as Ye Olde Construction Shoppe.

Sometimes I sit at the counter and watch our Barista.  Her name tag says she’s Belle the Barista, but I call her Belle the Builder. I love her.

Belle starts with Mimi’s Hazelnut Coffee: She weighs and grinds the beans and then saturates them with water for a sloooooow drip through a special metal filter into a glass carafe. Once the drip’s set, Belle quickquickquick stirs whole milk, cinnamon, cinnamon coffee syrup, and sugar in a deep metal cup, positions the steam wand from the expresso machine into the mixture, where it whirs away while she starts the twins’ hot chocolate.

She melts chocolate chips in a small, heavy pan and whisks in hot, whole milk, and a shake of chili-cinnamon. She sets the full mugs in front of the twins and swirls whipped cream on top until they shout WHEN!  Belle names the hot chocolate the Clyde and Sam.

Mine is Isabel’s Special Latte.  On our first visit here, Mimi thought age 13 was too young for Lattes. Then I told her Mom and I shared one once a week when I walked over to her lab after practice. Belle listened to me explain its strong pumpkin taste. Hmmmm. Your Mom was substituting pumpkin punch for caffeine kick. I can do that. And like a magician, she steams milk, scoops pumpkin purée, mixes “pumpkin” spices, and finishes it off with a mountain of very thick, from-scratch, whipped cream. It was as if Mom was at her shoulder giving her tips. With every swallow, I’m back in the lab watching Mom put away her slides and notebooks while we sip and chat. 

With fancy neon markers, Belle adds our drinks to the drink white board. In between “White Mellow Mocha” and “Plain Ol’ Coffee with a Kick” is “Clyde ‘N Sam” and “Isabel’s Special Pumpkin Latte.” It makes us feel part of the community when I hear, I’ll have a Clyde ‘ Sam, Bella.

Spooning the whipped cream first, I “construct” this idea: This coffee shop habit is sweet in more ways than one. Belle crafts new, just-for-us drinks. At the same time, we’re crafting new, just-for-us lives. 



#5. Wherein I explain who the narrator of my own life is…

I, Isabel Scheherazade, am 13-years old. Still a kid, technically; but what I’m writing is not-just-for-kids. Parts of my story is “for mature audiences” as they say. In fact, the movie rating for this memoir of mine wouldn’t be “G” or even “PG.” The reviewers would say it’s “edgy” and maybe give it one of those “parental warnings” for violence and death.

(My old school once tried to ban “A Day No Pigs Will Die.” We protested to the school board; that’s how I know about this stuff.)

My dad was writing a memoir with his high school Freshmen. (He’ll never finish it, BTW.) I asked him, “How do you decide which stories?”

“I write the stories that will still ring a bell in my heart when I’m 99,” he says.

How’s that for a not-really-an-answer answer? But now that I’ll never see him again I get it. My mind and heart throb with my stories. They’re seared into me and making a sound in my heart and mind every minute.

This is what happened. I’m going to write it quick and then throw up.

Mom and Dad were killed.

A guy in a truck ran a stop light; my parents swerved to avoid him and rolled over and over down this steep hill.

They wouldn’t let us see Mom and Dad after the accident. This means that the last time I saw them was about 5 PM. Mimi and Pop (my grandparents) had come over to babysit for date night. I was on our front porch in my PJ’s, electric- tooth brushing while telling Dad that Pop and I were going to play Settlers of Catan.

So, I didn’t even give them a good night kiss.

Since that night, me, Clyde, Sam (they’re twins) and Mimi and Pop sip and gulp from this Huge Cup of Sorrow.

I notice, though, even on the worst days I see OVER the lip of the cup a tiny bit. It’s because I’m trying to write to understand what’s happening. I’m trying to hold myself together by grabbing at words.

Stories jump up and down to get my attention.

I’m like this lady Pop told me about. She thinks someone is trying to poison her, so pretty soon, since she expects it, all her food begins to taste funny. Because I’m on the look-out for stories that will shed light, I find them.  All around me.  Just waiting for me to pick them up.

My memories are organized like our minivan (the one that rolled down the embankment.) Before it got squashed, it had three rows of seats, but, we used this van differently from other families.

I’ve got stories about what’s happening Right This Minute: The front seat memories. They’re full of our life With Mimi and Pop, school, neighbors, every day kinds of stuff. Some big. Some little.

I’ve got stories of Mom and Dad’s car crash: That’s the middle row o seats. But most times it’s like that row is turned down for storage.  In our family we used that middle section for storage because the twins’ huge double stroller didn’t fit in the usual back door storage area.  So all  three of us kids sat in the third row of seats, me in between two car seats full of noisy boys. Tight and gooey.

Back to the middle row. You know how you can press a lever to fold and turn the seat cushions so they’re out of sight? That’s how it is with the crash day memories. Out of sight. Usually.

Then there’s our whole life with Mom and Dad.  Before. It’s like they’re just sitting in the way back seat of my memory, waiting for me to notice them.

So, here goes.  This is the story of our first few months–After.  You’ll see how memories and stories jump out of the way back and into the front.

And sometimes plunk right into the middle.



It’s over.  We had a memorial service at the stone chapel near Raging River, which was not.

I can’t remember much of what was said except this. One of the readers quoted Abraham Lincoln, “it’s not the years in a life, it’s the life in the years.”

Words as comforting as peroxide on a cut. When President Lincoln’s kids, Tad, Edward, and Willie died,  he couldn’t have uttered this.

I don’t process most of the words. They were like that blah blah background grown-up talk in Charlie Brown TV specials.

In the front row, Pop and Mimi clamp onto us like Dad’s woodwork vise, the one with super sturdy metal and wide wide “jaws.” I use this vise, Izzy, for the heavy-duty projects, Dad would explain while I sat on the cellar steps just above the work bench. See? The vise keeps it all from coming apart.

Sam, Clyde, and I are Mimi and Pop’s heavy-duty projects. Otherwise, I know we’d come apart.

Now we’re back at Pop’s. The twins and I are hiding out on a glider behind a tall wooden trellis loaded with viney, orange trumpet-shaped flowers. They’re glorious. Inappropriately jolly?

What a minute, Isabel. Give it a rest.

Clyde and Sam had a playgroup we brought them to for a while; we stopped because one of the mothers was always scolding kids for being “inappropriate.” Honestly?  At age 2!!  So, take a lesson, self. These flowers are perfect. Mom would be pointing out how their shape suits Hummingbirds.

I peer at the bunches of people in the backyard. If you didn’t know, you’d think this was a picnic.  Pop calls the crowd the partying mourners. Some party.

Right now one of Mom’s scientist buddies is talking to Mimi. Just last week I was at Mom’s lab waiting for her. The two of them were comparing slides, talking about honey bee mouth parts. Now he looks up at the trumpet trellis and gives a tiny wave.

Sam and Clyde are rolling their little trucks back and forth on the seat slats.  It’s weird though. Unlike usually, they make no noise. None. It’s like their volume control knob is turned all the way to OFF.  If Mom were here, she’d be holding their foreheads and murmuring, where you gone, little guys?

But they’re not. Gone, that is.

And she is.

And there’s this killer, not even in jail. Even though he made Mom and Dad go off the road and roll down a hill.

And die.

And, unlike the river, I am, raging that is.




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