I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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# 55. Mom and I were going to watch the penumbral eclipse together, but since she’s been murdered, I have to watch it alone which is forcing me to sit in that middle seat of our van with all the crash day and court day memories. Not good.

From my dormer window seat, I study the giant Hunter’s Moon, squinting my eyes to see if the penumbral eclipse has started.  Mom was eagerly anticipating this night. We’ll watch it together, Isabel is what she promised. Hey, who knows; I am experiencing the Mom-is-nearby feeling. I hear her voice as if from the great silent void of space saying, On its southern-most edge, Earth will move between the set-sun and the full moon. This will allow us to see the outer part of Earth’s shadow. And there it is, Mom—our penumbra! It’s getting clearer and clearer.

But missing Mom is putting me in that middle van seat of memories; in real life Mom and Dad kept that seat folded down in order to fit the double-wide twin stroller; so, as a metaphor it works, since I usually want to bury the horror of the crash day and now the court day. But like the penumbra sneaking into view via my peripheral vision, I revisit a scene sliver from the court caper. As Pop and Mimi were marching me outside, I glimpsed the killer in a shadowy alcove beyond the metal detectors. He was lit from above by a chandelier missing most of its lightbulbs.

Here’s what I saw: the killer is hunched over like he’s carrying a load on his back—burdened, as they say in books. Too pooped to pop as Mom used to say when she was pregnant with the twins. Another man, his lawyer maybe, supports him on one side. On his other side, more in the light, is a tiny lady dressed in layers of bright, colorful clothing: a square woven cloth that covered her narrow back and shoulders, secured in front with what looked like a sturdy diaper pin; an embroidered skirt with several other skirts underneath; and a vibrant hat loaded with beads, sequins, and bric-a-brac. She pats his back as they walk. Is it his mother? She looks like an illustration from my National Geographic magazine on Peru.

His suit is strange. I think it’s too small for him, like he might have gotten it for his wedding years ago and then grown up. You can see his white socks and all of his wrists. His hands shake, just like that time in the coffee shop.

The scene gets fuzzy along with my and Mom’s penumbral eclipse, so I crawl into bed. Even though I punch pillows and yank covers, I’m not as filled with venom and vengeance as I was immediately after Mom and Dad were killed. Maybe it’s because of the chickens or Sir Isaac or Oliver or maybe even Arturo. My madness is more muted.

But not so muted that I’m giving up on seeking revenge. Pop and Mimi go on and on about different laws and shades of meaning, blah-blah-blah. No disrespect to Mimi and Pop, but Mom and Dad are dead because of this guy.  I want the judge to put him in jail and throw away the key. Darn. The problem with thinking about this now is that it riles me and I can’t sleep.  I might as well get up and write a Judge Welch letter.

#53. Toad for Tuesday is one of our family’s all time best read alouds: poignant, just enough tension, and a primer on friendship and how it builds. We read it to Arturo.

Arturo is signaling. His teacher says this is Very Significant.

Oliver and I are reading Toad for Tuesday to him. Warton, the toad, has been owl-snatched. He’s a captive in the nest cavity where a calendar on the wall is marked with the owl’s birthday. TUESDAY.  So the task for Warton is to be brave and use his wits before B-day. What’s happens today in the story is that Warton makes tea for himself and the owl and asks if he may call him George–the owl says no one ever calls me anything and sips his tea. So it seems like things might be improving for Warton; but after the tea? Whammo! The owl says don’t think I’m not going to eat you on Tuesday and flies off.

This was my first chapter book; Dad read it to me; I remember wishing the author, Russell Erickson, had turned it into a series. Since then, good news! He’s written more books with the characters of Wharton and his brother Morton. Mimi and Pop are reading them to the twins, and, I admit it, I do my homework nearby so I can hear. Hey, if Oliver can read Ramona and her Mother at his age, I can listen in to a master storyteller.  Toad for Tuesday is a finish-in-two-or-three sittings sort of book (65 pages) and it doesn’t reek of the Early Reader or Books for Beginners type of controlled vocabulary with questions at the end. (Those are dreadful; as a reader I wasn’t damaged by them, but for kids who were struggling? I thought they did the opposite of kindling a love of reading. Really.)

I stop for a minute because it occurs to me that Toad for Tuesday might be too scary for Arturo, even though Sam and Clyde weren’t really scared at the scary parts. They just hugged up to Pop and said keep reading, keep reading!!  

But just in case, I ask, Hey, Arturo, is this too scary?

We think he’ll just peer out at us from under his arms. Remember I said he’d emerged from beneath his desk, but maybe I didn’t include that he keeps his head BURIED in his arms–unless we’re folding books.

So when I ask him this question–wowee!–he looks UP and shakes his head NO.  We have to ask him again to make sure because he doesn’t shake vigorously like a dog who’s just come out of a lake; he just turns his head a tad to the left and a tad to the right. It’s like we’ve been having a conversation near that Civil War soldier at Coe Park, the one next to the canon, and suddenly the statue comes alive, looks down, and waves his arm.

It isn’t talking, but it sure sounds loud.

Isabel Scheherazade 

isabelinchair

 

#54 Like the tiny tug freeing the 220,000 ton cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal, my “little” book could dislodge our buddy’s gigantic problem.

The container ship wedged in the Suez Canal got freed thanks to divers, tugboats, dredgers, backhoes—like the mouse who gnawed the lion free from his rope trap. Our first grade buddy’s mutism is due to a gigantic ship of a problem and I’m betting it will be one of us little players, including our buddy, who dislodge it.

Arturo’s teacher said that Expert Books might inspire him to switch from signals to speech. So, using a  little book, I demonstrate.

Arturo, I peer under the desk at him as I re-crease the folds so I can sketch more easily, I’m going to write about how I’m an expert at patting Zia’s sheep. 

Page One: First, get the sheep’s attention (not hard, if they are itchy and see you coming). The sheep will come to you. I draw a sheep and a stick figure waving.

Wide-eyed and all-ears, Arturo scrambles out from under and wriggles onto his chair.

Page Two: Put your fingers all the way in the fleece, as deep as you can. Rub your fingers back and forth vigorously I quick-sketch my stick figure with her stick hands buried in the sheep’s fleece. The sheep is grinning.

Page Three: Go from one end of the sheep to the other (it doesn’t matter which end you start with). If the sheep wants you to scratch both sides it will turn. My sheep turns around. I use arrows to show this.

Page Four:  If you do it right, the sheep will wag its tail (if it has one). I make wag marks on either side of a stubby tail.

When I’m done, Oliver asks Arturo, Did you like the book?

He nods YES! 

Want to write one, too? An Expert Book?

He nods YES! again.

Oliver says, What are you an expert at, Arturo?

He sighs. (His first noise!) Then he takes the pencil from Oliver and starts to draw.

And he is a good artist.

He sketches a little kid–curly hair, giant eyelashes, and the one eyebrow–who pulls a book from a bookshelf and carries it to his dad. The dad is at a table with his head in his hands. The little kid leads his dad by the hand to the couch where the dad reads the book, and at the end, the dad is smiling, and the kid is talking. We know he’s talking because Arturo draws a speech bubble and writes a string of random letters and little squiggles in it.

And while he draws?  He TALKS! (Funnily enough, his pictures are so good we don’t really NEED words, but, hey, who’s complaining.) He narrates his story. Out loud!

We go ballistic. We show the book around to the class. Arturo “reads” it aloud, adding more details with this second edition—like his Papa sits with his head in his hands every day. After a few minutes of celebrating, Oliver says, This is a really good book, Arturo. They fist bump.

He says, Thanks, Oliver.

I tease him and say, Hey, Arturo, I said it was great, too. Aren’t you going to say thanks to me?

Arturo looks at me with what might be the sweetest smile ever. Thanks, Isabel. We do a finger-pinky pull.

–Isabel Scheherazade,  expert at expert books cropped-isabelcrosslegsmaller2-e1358962249154.jpg

PS. This seems like such a normal topic, even though Arturo’s situation is, well, DIRE. But it feels good to worry about a little kid with a sort of little kid problem (selective mutism). Um, on second thought, his is NOT a regular, little problem, but it IS a change from Court Capers, lying, cheating, and trust issues. (Pop just read this over my shoulder and patted me on the back.)

#52. Ramona and Her Mother: if you’re missing your Mom, says me, Isabel Scheherazade, read this Beverly Cleary book again. It’s beautiful and—can I say this in my title?—ordinary. Beautifully ordinary. Sigh.

Ramona and Her Mother: If you’re missing your mom, read this Beverly Cleary book again. It’s beautiful and ordinary. Beautifully ordinary. (I used to wonder what the country song lyrics meant when they sang about “yearning”; I get it now.) When Oliver and I were searching for more books with mothers for Arturo, I pulled Ramona and Her Mother out of the twins’ read aloud pile. Although we decided it was too long for us to tackle with Arturo, I took a few hours and reread it. I remember Mom reading it to me when I was 7. “I couldn’t get along without my Ramona” was one of Mom’s “make peace” things she’d say to me when I was miffed at her and storming around thinking I must have been adopted. We’d laugh and I’d come in for a hug. I told Oliver about Mom and me and Ramona and Her Mother. He’d never read it and asked to borrow it; he was sheepish about asking. I joked, Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone Mr Cool is reading Ramona. I think he was thinking about his mother and how she nevernevernever told him she couldn’t get along without her Ramona. Poor Oliver.

Oliver and I ended up reading tons of mother books to Arturo, but today’s read is a Richard Scary book, one of Sam and Clyde’s suggestions. It has lots of little pictures. Me, I don’t like this kind of book much, no real plot. But, Arturo creeps out a little farther from under the desk to find Goldbug, a tiny little gold cricket. He’s a tease. He’s on every page but you need to scrutinize; scrutinizing a Richard Scary cannot be done from waaaay under a first grade desk. Way to go, Goldbug!

Next, Mrs. Stanley (Arturo’s teacher) suggests we fold a few Little Books with Arturo. After the Richard Scary book, he’s retreated but cranes his neck to see what we’re doing.

You can fold one of your own if you get up here, Arturo buddy-boy. Oliver taps his chair seat. 

Guess what? He does it. 

First, he looks at Oliver and me for a whole minute. And then, hurrah! He pulls himself up onto his chair. We get a good look at him.

He’s tiny. Clyde and Sam are maybe twice as tall as he is and they’re a year younger. He has black curly hair and glasses, miniature, round glasses that stay up somehow. It must be the long curvy earpieces because his nose is the stubbiest nose I’ve ever seen. He’s got funny eyebrows. They meet in the middle. He’s a one-eyebrow kid!

Arturo watches Oliver do the first fold. Then he takes a fresh sheet of paper and does it, too. He goes step by step, waiting for him to fold or cut. He is very good at folding for a first grader. I don’t think I could have done this when I was his age.

Later on, at home, after she hears all about the out-from-under-the-desk success, Mimi says, You’re communicating.

I don’t think so, Oliver snorts. He didn’t say a word!

I’m pulling out my homework and he’s getting up from sharing brownies and milk to go home to the farm. Oliver, he had to watch us fold—think about it—and then do it. And remember when he couldn’t do the center fold cut? Remember? He held it up to you and raised his eyebrow?

That was cute: his one big eyebrow. Oliver gives this some thought.  So, hand gestures and eye-brow raising is communication? 

I give him our family’s signature one-eyebrow lift and I settle in to do my math homework. It’s a start. 

#51. Letter to the Judge First Draft: Beverly Cleary said kids haven’t changed much; they still want a father and a mother in the very same house. I have neither.

Dear Honorable Judge Welch,

Ramona, Beezus, Ralph the Mouse, and Henry Huggins were my friends when I was a kid. Now they’re stacked with other Beverly Cleary books we’re reading to Sam and Clyde. I loved this author. One time she talked at my old school. During the question time, someone asked her if kids had changed since she started writing for them. She said, “I don’t think their inner feelings have changed. They still want a mother and a father in the very same house.” I agree, but, thanks to one man, my twin brothers and I have neither.

I use my dead Dad’s jog-to-work backpack as my school backpack.  Unlike Dad, the backpack is in good shape except for the fraying fabric laces that my grandfather (“Pop”) replaced with no-tie, reflective, elastic-lock laces. (Sam and Clyde—our 5-year old twins—have new rainbow Lock Laces for their sneakers. We’ve decided to hit the pause button on teaching them how to tie; they’re stressed enough for now.) As I watched Pop lace up the backpack and sneakers I remembered that Dad also used Lock Laces to keep the twins out of the cabinets—to keep them from getting into poisons and such. I don’t know if my grandparents’ cupboards need to be protected from Sam and Clyde, but it’s been a steep learning curve for Pop and Mimi (our grandmother); I’m not sure they’d think of Lock-lacing the cabinets. I maybe should do a safety check on my own. They are trying as hard as they can to have our backs, but it’s all happened so fast.

I used to watch Dad load his backpack each school morning. He kept his thermos and lumpy objects away from the part that would lie against his spine and for that spot he used a backbone-comfort pouch that he packed with his lesson plans. He stored heavy books in the very bottom. For instance, even though he didn’t like using anthologies for his Lit classes, occasionally he assigned a story from one and carried it back and forth. PB&Js, apple, and keys he slipped in the zipper pouches on the waist straps. He tucked his mittens, hat, and scarf in the side mesh pockets. 

Monday through Friday he’d shrug it on, adjusting the straps just tight enough: snug, but not so tight that it restricted his arms. Then he hugged and kissed us kids and Mom and jogged to his high school.

Monday through Friday I follow the same routine: pack it, slip it on, and do the tighten-adjust manuvers. 

I love to wear it because I can feel his presence, like he’s watching my back, as they (I) say.

I hate to wear it because it reminds me that he’s dead.

He and my Mom are dead because one guy ran a red light; my parents were extinguished by a murdering killer. Well, I guess that’s a tautology, or some such, as Dad would say. But I wrote it that way on purpose, for emphasis.

Please impose the toughest sentence you can think of on Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto.  I know in our country we do not do beheadings and I know Mom and Dad were against the death penalty, but I wish the worst for him, that’s for sure.

Respectfully yours,

Isabel Scheherazade

#50. Switching to third person is the memoirist’s gambit for the hard parts; not so easy in real time.

I’m not sure I can tell this next part in first person, so I may switch into third person or some omniscient narrator to give myself objectivity. Or maybe I’ll start with a nature metaphor; never mind switching “person;” I’ll switch species to gain distance:

Unless it’s mating season—when they appear to be drowning each other—Mallards seem calm on the surface, while underneath they’re paddling like crazy. That’s me during my fight with Mimi and Pop about the killer and what law he’s broken.  

Here’s the scene in play format:

Isabel: Mom and Dad are dead because this guy ran the light. They rolled down a hill! Over and over.  (Isabel has a disheveled appearance even though she is speaking with an eerie flat-line voice.)

Mimi: Mr. Smith admits he’s guilty, but not criminally guilty. (Mimi is clutching her hands, perhaps to keep them from grabbing Isabel’s chin again.)

Pop: He wasn’t speeding or drinking or doing drugs. Those are criminal actions. 

Isabel: So how come the police don’t charge him with breaking the “I-killed-people-with-my-truck-but-I’m-not-a-criminal law?”

Pop: It’s called Plea Bargaining. Mr. Smith says he’ll plead guilty to a law that says it’s unlawful to drive CARELESSLY and cause a death.

Isabel: What if the two sides can’t agree on which law he’s broken?  

Pop: Then a trial gets scheduled.

Mimi: But we don’t want a trial. And neither does Mr. Smith.

Isabel: But..but..but..I  DO!!  (Isabel sounds like a car that needs a quart of oil.)

Pop: Why, Isabel?

Isabel: ‘Cause…‘cause…I want to be a WITNESS.  I want to tell the judge how Mr Smith wrecked our lives. 

Mimi slumps.

Pop: You CAN communicate with the court. (Pop talks as if his words were eggs he’s placing on a table with no edges).

Isabel: How? 

Pop: You write a LETTER to the judge and tell him how you feel.

Isabel: And that will make a difference, Pop? M’p! I doubt it.

Pop: You’re wrong, Isabel. Anyone in our family can write to the judge, and what we say could influence the punishment.

Isabel pulls her morning glory muffin top apart while digesting this new morsel of information.

Isabel: Okay. I’ll write a letter.

The it’s-a-play-fugue ends.

Pop and Mimi look at each other and sip their juice. Mimi had gotten up and poured everyone a big glass of orange juice in the midst of our fight. (Juice is good for shock.)

I swipe at the muffin crumbs I’ve spewed around. What a crumby idea.

Is it too bizarre that I can pun even in a moment like this? Maybe I’m trying to ratchet down the tension between me and the only two adults in the world who love me.

–Isabel Scheherazade, who is no longer like a duck; she’s not calm on the surface or paddling like mad—just worn down and still. And, apparently stuck in third person…?!

isabelcrosslegsmaller

# 49. I refuse to be charmed, calmed, and kumbaya-ed by the chicken project, no matter how much I love it. To the guy who murdered my parents I say, “Methinks’t thou art a general offense and every man should beat thee.”

I refuse to be charmed, calmed, and kumbaya-ed by the chicken project, no matter how much I love it. Sorry. To the man who murdered my parents I say, “Methinks’t thou art a general offense and every man should beat thee.  (Like my Dad, I quote Shakespeare to keep myself anchored. “Let grief convert to anger” comes to mind now too.)

It’s the evening of the coop-construction day. Pop and Mimi and I are spread out on the couches in the sunroom. I’m sketching the chicken run plans, Pop’s figuring out what supplies we’ll need, and Mimi’s scanning the morning paper. On our old-timey (1968 vintage) TV trays we’ve got hot spice tea and ginormous Morning Glory Muffins left over from morning, but still full of glory. Papers, drafting pencils, clipboards, laptops, and dishes carpet the couch cushions where we aren’t sitting. It’s precarious, but it works. (We can’t do this when Sam and Clyde are around, for obvious reasons.)

Mr Grim and I discussed the chicken run. He was delighted to help. Who knew that chicken runs are a classic in math! When I described what we were trying to figure out, he pulled open a drawer in his old file cabinet where he stores his ancient lessons, his recent work being on his laptop which is connected to the white board. He rummaged for a while and then pulled out a yellowed lesson plan. He read the problem aloud.  The farmer is putting a new chicken run up against a brick wall. He has 20 feet of wire to put around the run. If he makes a rectangular run, how big an area can he enclose?

He used the classic chicken run lesson with my class. First we considered how we might approach it. Then we broke up in groups and investigated the problem further. He gave each group string to model what we wanted to do. We used the formula area = length X width and applied our knowledge of parabolas. Then we started thinking about equations. We worked on reducing the number of dependent variables to one. For homework everyone was to figure out my chicken problem. 

The plan is to make it 6’ X 10’, with one end up against the coop door which the chickens will get to via one of the ladders. We don’t want to undersize it or “our girls” would fight and get sick. We’re using hardware cloth which has smaller openings than traditional “chicken wire” so as to better protect them from snakes, possums, raccoon, foxes, hawks, coyote, fisher cats, and bobcats. (Yes! We have these carnivores around here!) Maybe we’ll layer regular chicken wire with the hardware cloth. We need guidance on whether or not to lay wire over the top too. But at least we know to make the width no more than four feet. Factoid: A hawk will not land in such an narrow space even if we decide not to make a wire roof.

I’m so into this, I can’t think on anything else, if you get my meaning. Anything.

Pop clears his throat and closes his laptop.  Isabel? On another topic? Mimi folds the paper she hadn’t gotten to this morning.

I sense a pre-arranged scheme here. 

Hmmmm, Pop?  I’ve been multiplying length and widths to get an idea on how much hardware fabric we want. I’ve got figures scribbled on five sheets of chart paper.

Isabel, we have more information about the preliminary hearing.

And then while one part of my brain spots my math mistake, the other part sees my mistake in allowing myself to be chicken-lulled.  I hate that guy so much, I mutter. 

Isabel, let’s call him by his name. Mimi is stern.

What is it, anyhow?

A. Spinoza Smith. Mr. Smith.

Okay, so, what do you know about what happened in Mister Smith’s preliminary hearing?

Pop opens the laptop. The prosecutor e-mailed me a rundown on how it went.

I interrupt. Olivier said that the police would have pictures of the crime scene and measurements and test results and stuff like that.

Pop looks surprised. Yup, a report was given to the judge. What else did Oliver tell you?

The prosecutors will accuse the guy, er, they’ll accuse Mr. SMITH of breaking a specific law.  He didn’t know what law. Maybe “Murder One.”

Pop and Mimi look shocked when I say Murder One. 

Pop studies the e-mail.  Mr. Smith will be prosecuted based on the law that says he caused a death by being criminally negligent with a motor vehicle.

TWO deaths, Pop. Morning glory muffin crumbs fly out of my mouth. I’d say he’s a CRIMINAL all right.

Well, Pop sweeps the crumbs off my math figures and into his hand, athis hearing, the defendant–Mr. Smith–entered a plea. It was his opportunity to say whether HE thinks he’s guilty or innocent of breaking this particular law.

Mimi elaborates: Mr. Smith entered a plea of not guilty.

I snort. That figures.

Pop nods.  And we agree. We don’t think he’s guilty of being criminally negligent either.

What?!!!  How can you two say this! He killed Mom and Dad. They’re DEADI stomp my feet; I can’t jump up because I have How to Talk Chicken, my iPad, the spice tea mug, half a huge muffin top, and the litter of math computations on my lap.

Stop! Mimi holds my chin between her thumb and pointer finger. LISTEN TO US!

This shuts me up. Immediately.

But not because I want to listen.

It’s because the last time anyone held my chin and told me to listen was this summer.  And it was Mom.

-isabel scheherazade who’s remembering another Dad-Shakespeare quote: “Days of absence, sad and dreary, clothed in sorrow’s dark array, days of absence, I am weary; they I love are far away.”

Isabelcurlyheadfrombackonchair

#48. Ever hear of NFTs? Me either until one sold for 69 million! Same with chicken raising: I never heard of backyard chickens and now everyone is raising them!

NFTs stands for Non fungible Tokens—something that cannot be traded or exchanged. For example, recently “Beebles” had his digital collage auctioned by Christy’s for 69 million. The collage is a token and it’s nonfungible because it will NOT hang on someone’s wall, but instead is digitally “possessed.” But it’s NOT like how I once “possessed” Pokemon cards and traded them at recess. There was a real dust-up when some kids decided they wanted their cards back. Probably their parents had bought them expensive collector cards; perhaps a $1000 PSA 10 1st Edition CHARIZARD; I got mine at Dollar Tree. So when their kids came home with cheap old regular Pokémons instead of the oolala cards, the parents were furious. They had to come and separate the cards and the principal banned trading. When I told Mom and Dad about the dust-up they called this “hover-parenting.” So that’s an example of trading and exchanging, well, I guess, give-backing also. But with Mr Beebles’ collage it’s a one of a kind only viewable by the possessor. Since this record-breaking auction occurred I’ve read about other NFTs: NBA Top Shot auctioned a video clip of my hero LeBron James for $208,000!

But enough already with the NFTs—this is all towards my point that before starting the chicken project I never ever heard about chicken raising by regular people, just like I’d never heard of NFTs. (I do love juxtaposing. It’s in my genes.)

Chickens are everywhere: Two streets over from us the neighbors at one end share their rooster with the neighbors at the other end. The rooster struts down the street from one coop to the other. (I wonder if this cuts down on the amount of cockadoodledoo-ing?) Sam and Clyde’s Miss Honey is going to hatch chickens in their classroom. By that I mean, she’s getting fertilized eggs from a farm and placing them in an incubator until they hatch. (I hope they ALL hatch; Sam and Clyde don’t need any more death.) A lonely Israeli zoo monkey has adopted a chicken. Our public library display case this month features chicken-themed books: Chicken in Space (see companion books: Chicken in School, Chicken in Mittens, and Chicken on Vacation); The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County; Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella; Tillie Lays an Egg; Little Chick (a finger-puppet book), and Chicken Big (a twist on Chicken Little, hysterical).

Finally I’ve stumbled into the main topic of this chapter, albeit at a slant and through the transom of the back door. (Mr Grim asked us to use the word “albeit” at least once between close of school today and tomorrow.)

The Topic: Death in books.

Before Mom and Dad died I’d read many books where the protagonist’s parents have died. (It’s a natural result of just reading a lot; some books have death in them.) But before Mom and Dad were killed I was removed from the agony in these books, meaning I didn’t identify with the central issue of being an orphan. What books you say? The entire Harry Potter series, The Secret Garden, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, just to name a few.

Coyote lives in old school bus with her dad, Rodeo. They drive around the country fleeing grief: five years ago, Coyote’s mother and two sisters were killed in a car crash. Then Coyote learns that the Washington park where she and her mom and sisters buried their memory box is going to be demolished; so, she tricks Rodeo into driving the 3600 miles back to Washington in 4 days. They accumulate a motley crew of travelers who become friends: a musician, a boy and his mom, a gay teen on the run. First time I read it I thought: classic road-trip tale. I fixed on Coyote not having to go to school and how they drove all around the country, seeing new places. I thought Cool, Coyote and Rodeo left their old names behind to help them get on with it. Good idea. Coyote and I both read read read. Her favorite book was The One and Only Ivan—mine too, well, until, the next favorite book! I loved it.

I saw Coyote on my bookshelf the other day and re-read it. I’m a different species, post Mom and Dad. I reread certain pages and chapters, as if I was taking a course on how to deal with grief: I paid much more attention to Coyote and her trick to get her dad to head home; to the dear host of travelers who join them and who turn into family; to the big-heartedness of them all; to their struggles to see other people’s perspectives; to the many kindnesses. I kept better track of each glimmer of hope. Especially I noticed that even though Coyote and Rodeo were broken-hearted, they didn’t run from one another. It was like I was watching another version of myself figure out how to push away from that steaming bowl of sadness.

The court caper, the chickens, Oliver, Mimi and Pop, Zia, Arturo, Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe, even Sir Isaac may be in the same category as Coyote’s road trip. I’ll keep track of this idea.

Isabel Scheherazade

#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

# 46. My authority figures don’t do “we’ll talk and you’ll listen” smack downs.

(Preface: My authority figures don’t do “we’ll talk and you’ll listen” smack downs; instead they say let’s “learn to talk chicken.” Also: the lasting memories of my murdered parents shouldn’t be just the deadly fact that they were murdered.)

Mimi and Pop steamrolled me over to that round glass-top table in the back corner of Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe, and my anxiety eased as they chatted with Belle about cookies and sandwiches and lattes. But then Pop tells her, Let’s begin with drinks and maybe cookies and sandwiches-to-go later, depending…

Depending? Uh oh.

Then like ice cubes cascading all over because the twins lean too hard on the ice-maker, Pop, Mimi, and I start apologizing.

Me—well, pick your poison—I had lots to apologize for. But, I didn’t expect ANY apologies from Mimi and Pop. Here’s their list:

We should have talked through the Preliminary Hearing with you.

Secrets won’t work for our family.

Of course you were right to confront us about hiding the paper in the bookshelf!

We need to remember how old you are and give you the benefit of the doubt.

Please forgive us. We’ll improve at this, Isabel.

Simple right? Yes. Simple but not easy. They were NOT saying that I should have been allowed to go to the Preliminary Hearing: Not appropriate or necessary, Isabel. However! Pop reassures me, you CAN write Judge Welch a letter. Judges always read and take into account what the victims’ relatives have to say.

I frown as much as is possible for a person to frown; I frown like a Shar-Pei puppy. A letter? Inwardly I yell, Give me a break! You’ve got to be kidding.

Pop nods as if he’s mind-reading and says, You can work on putting your feelings into a letter. That way, IF there is a sentencing hearing, you would have a voice.

I try to switch into my ballistic mode when I hear the word If but I’m chewing a huge white chocolate chip cookie and can’t get any words past all the chips and crumbs. So, I mumble a meek, slightly chippy, Ok.

Then we have an abrupt “scene shift.” I mean, it was seismic.

Pop looks at Mimi as if to signal her to go on stage. She takes a deep, cleansing breath, puts her hands flat on the table to steady herself, and starts talking about Zia and her sisters—of all things.

Seems like a sudden non sequitur, right?

Wrong.

Isabel, you’ve heard some of Zia’s Sister Stories?

Ah, sure? I play along, not knowing where this is going, at all. I remember her story about pulling the clapper out of an old-fashioned, churn ice-cream maker. She and the sisters were testing the doneness of the ice cream. They used long-handled spoons. They began with just little tastes, but kept “testing” and devoured the entire gallon. It was pistachio with shaved chocolate. We laughed so much while she told the story, we forgot all five of them were dead. Zia said she could pick out each one’s different laugh in her memory; she remembered them all taking turns to reach in to the churn with their spoons; and she could still hear the crunch of the pistachios at the bottom of the mixer.

Like an IMAX movie, in fact, says Mimi with another big breath. (What IS this about!!??) Yes. This is so important, Isabel, pay close attention. Zia told me she no longer dwells on the particular “axes”—sicknesses or accidents—that cut her sisters down. She refuses to allow their essence and spirit to be defined by that last thing that happened to each of them. When she recounts a sister tale or does something one of the sisters loved to do, it’s as if the sister is right there with her, emerging from the shadows, a loving shade of sorts. This is how she grapples with the terrible loss of her whole family; it’s her way-forward. It’s why city-dweller Mary revived the family farm where she, now a Zia, and Oliver live.

Thick-witted and full of cookie, I catch a glimmer of why Mimi is telling me this.

Then, we have yet another seeming non sequitur.

Isabel, Pop takes over, you know how you helped me “break” into your Dad’s laptop? I was trying to locate their bank account numbers and tax information? Pop checks to see if I recall. I happened to see one of those“YOU’VE GOT STUFF IN YOUR CART” messages from the bookstore.

I finished the cookie and was working on my latte, so I had enough voice to say, Ah ha?

So, there was a book in the cart. “How to Speak to Chicken” by Melissa Caughey.

Oh, golly. I choke on an almost-sob. I’d forgotten. We were planning to raise chickens! Dad had just moved the old plastic playhouse to the back fence so we could add on to it for the roost. We’d measured and ordered the lumber and wire. Maybe we pre-ordered our baby chicks.

We found those orders in other “check your cart” e-mails. Mimi chuckled. So! We’re doing it! We’re going to work on a project that your Mom and Dad and you and Sam and Clyde were about to do: we’ll raise chickens!

So, dear readers, while I compose a judge letter rife with vengeance, hate and curses, our family will learn to speak chicken. Will it help us focus on something besides Mom and Dad’s last moment on Earth—like I plan to do in the letter, a letter so explicit Judge Welch will see that he must toss the guy in jail and throw away the key? I’ve got my doubts about the chicken project. But I get Mimi and Pop’s logic. They want to aim our minds and hearts at what it was like with all of us before. Before, when Mom and Dad’s beautiful selves lived and loved with us. I don’t know if it will work like it does for Zia, but come to think of it, I already get a rosy glow when I realize Mom and Dad are sitting there in the Way-Back seat of my memory. Maybe I’ll catch them roosting near the chicken house like a Princess Leia hologram in The Last Jedi.

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