|John Bauer, Leap the Elk|
I have a quilt-square of story to share with you this fine November evening. It fell in to my notebook through my pen a couple of months ago, as I was sitting by the window, watching the UPS truck make its regular stop outside our house, just as the leaves were starting to change. I had this sudden wild dream—what if a UPS truck did not deliver boring boxes ordered from Amazon and whatnot, but instead delivered parcels of a strange and talismanic variety? Not in the way of Santa Claus and his sleigh full of presents, but something far wilder, far weirder, far less materialistic and more concerned with the stories of things, and the journeys of stories, and the things the land beneath a city longs for, but cannot create on its own...
So here I give you the first bit of this tale which I am calling Beatrice and the Mail Truck.... I don't normally share such large amounts of my fiction here, because my fiction is my livelihood, and publication on a personal blog amounts to first publication rights in the eyes of magazines and publishers alike, no matter if it is one's own. But this story seems to want to be delivered right to you, a gift of good old magic in this dark time of the year, when stories are the richest currency. But since this is my livelihood, I have placed a tea-kettle button at the bottom of this page. If you read this and enjoy, do consider dropping even just a dollar into the kettle, to keep me in tea and in pen ink, so to speak. If this feels like a nourishing exchange for all involved, I will continue to post stories from Beatrice's adventures for all to read, probably on a biweekly basis, and create a separate page here for your ease of navigation!
Blessings on your long dark evenings and your gentle autumn mornings, wild ones!
The Hummingbird With An Amaranth Throat
Everything else about the street outside Beatrice’s window looked normal, all except for the big brown truck that brought packages in the mail. The houses across the way, blue and white and wood, with clotheslines strung up between and lemons starting to ripen on the tree that grew in a pot by the sidewalk; the red and purple poppies at the end of their blooming; the man who walked his beagle at half past three and always wore striped socks, which Beatrice noticed in flashes at his ankles, under his pant cuffs like they were a secret—all were in order, all were as they should be, as they always had been. The trees were losing their leaves in red and orange and purple across the ground, just like yesterday—a little early in the season, it was true, but that was because men had come and dug up the sidewalks and paved new ones, due to the hazards of lumps and bumps in said sidewalks. They had cut the roots in the process. Beatrice’s father told her so when she exclaimed that it was fall already in the last week of August. He had told her that cutting the roots to make the sidewalks had shocked the trees, and they had started to shed their leaves early. This news only made Beatrice dislike the cement pavers more than she already had—the sidewalks had always been a patchwork of veering pieces pushed upward and cracked from the roots of trees. She liked this. She had always lived in the old blue house on River Street, the whole eight years of her life, and the sidewalks had always been crooked. She hated them all smooth and straight.
Despite her grievances, they looked exactly the same as they had since August. Nothing amiss about them. But the tortoise-shell cat named Walnut who lived across the street had stopped his grooming and was standing very still to look at the brown truck, like it was an enormous bird, and in need of stalking. Beatrice’s heart caught in her chest. She looked closer too—cats can see ghosts, after all, and therefore anything of a potentially uncanny nature.
The brown truck had all the basic appearance of the usual UPS vehicles in size and shape and color, except for one very obvious detail. It had no lettering of any kind that she could see. Beatrice reasoned that maybe this truck only had the UPS logo on one side, the far one? That would explain it. But this did not satisfy her, particularly because the driver’s compartment did not look like a mail vehicle at all, but the front seat of a travelling circus. The floor was wooden. The windows—she blinked— were stained glass (how did he see anything as he drove?), which, she realized now, was the reason the whole compartment glowed blue and yellow and red all at once. The driver’s seat was a tall stool with a velvet cushion, and the wheel appeared to be made of a circular spinal cord—Beatrice could see the vertebrae.
Walnut the cat had not moved. The exterior of the truck had about it a slight glow as well, which might, yes, have been the cider-light of late September, slanting from across the San Francisco Bay, but there was also something decidedly unpaintlike about the actual brown hue of the truck’s sides. It had more the luster of soil—a textured, rich, multi-faceted brown. Beatrice blinked. Then something stirred in the back of the truck. She saw the flapping of wings through the doorway which led to the area where all the packages were stored. Then, a small man emerged with a brown parcel in his hands. Dozens of birds sat on his arms, his shoulders, his head—finches with red breasts, chickadees and bushtits, several black phoebes, towhees, one shy hermit thrush with a speckled chest, even a hummingbird with a glinting throat the color of amaranth. On the sidewalk, Walnut thrashed his tail and looked ready to spring.
The man himself was not dressed in a brown mail uniform, nor anything remotely similar. He wore a loose striped shirt, a vest made of rabbitskin, and a pair of green velveteen trousers tucked into sturdy walking boots. He was all over the color of an acorn, but his eyes were very green, and he turned them suddenly toward Beatrice’s window. She jumped. He was looking right at her, and his eyes were sharper than any cat’s. He took another step, toward the open door on the side of the truck, where folding steps led to the ground.
He gestured toward the package, as if impatient, and even from her bedroom window, Beatrice could see the faint silhouette of her own name there on the brown paper. Her stomach jumped, but she couldn’t be sure if the sensation there was fear or delight. Without considering any further, drawn by something in her heart far older than her years, Beatrice ran from her bedroom. She had been taught, of course, not to accept gifts from strangers, and certainly not to climb into the trucks of unknown persons, especially men, but by the time she had thought of these things, she was already on the porch stairs, barefoot and panting. She descended slowly, patting down the flyaway pieces of her hair, smoothing her red corduroy skirt. The small man regarded her with a thoughtful expression. The birds on his shoulders had spooked to the various perches of the truck and peered at her with eyes that were dark and glinting and full of an old, wild language she had never longed for, nor even know of, before that very moment, as they fixed her with their gaze. She stood for a moment, startled by the birds and their eyes and the small man, by the clarity of her name penned there on the parcel. What was she supposed to do? Announce herself as Beatrice? Reach out her hands? Snatch it away and run?
“You’re a bit small,” the man said suddenly, coming to the first stair step down from the driver’s compartment.
“So are you!” retorted Beatrice without thinking, surprised and blushing as it came out. What had gotten into her? The sight of that parcel, crisp paper, her name in lettering as delicate and strange as birdprints in sand—all of it made her heart singular with longing. She wanted to open that package desperately. It made her palms itch. The little man smiled a crooked, secretive smile and tipped his chin down slightly, raising an eyebrow, as if he knew her thoughts. She noticed that the hummingbird with the amaranth throat was still sitting on his shoulder. It made an irritated sound, rasping and insistent. Beatrice realized it was a sound she heard often in the garden, coming from the treetops, but she had never realized who made it until now. The little bird glared at her like a strange jewel.
“I’m sorry to be rude, sir,” Beatrice stammered. She felt a little dizzy—the man’s face was so layered, so lined, his vest so lustrous and thick, the sun on the hummingbird’s throat so bright, and all the while he regarded her with eyes at once kind and biting.
“It is no matter,” said the little man at last, as if he was satisfied with something he had discovered, though what he could have discovered only by staring Beatrice could not fathom. “You may be small but you have spirit, Beatrice.” He handed her the parcel, and the movement stirred the air with his smell of bergamot and a hint of freshly dug roots. The parcel was just the right weight in Beatrice’s hands—heavy but not too heavy, and the shape of a shoebox, though not as tall. The itching in her palms and fingers turned to a hum, a heat. She noticed that only her name, Beatrice Fletcher, and not her address, was written in that script of loop and ancient line. How could it, and he, have found her without an address?
She looked up to ask him this, and saw that the man had flitted into the back of the truck and was returning again with a silver kettle in one hand and two small cups in the other. The kettle steamed, releasing a rich scent of cinnamon and chocolate. The man sat on the steps and, holding the kettle at a great height, poured a dark stream of chocolate into each cup. Then he beckoned for Beatrice to sit down as well.
“We must drink to your parcel,” the man said solemnly, handing Beatrice a steaming cup. It was porcelain, the sort of small cup used in the coffeehouses of an older world for shots of espresso. A phoenix was painted on the sides in green, rimmed with vines.
“To my parcel?” Beatrice clutched the package closer to her breast and, hesitating, sat down on the lowest step. She took the tiny cup carefully. It burned her fingers, and she almost dropped it.
“Indeed,” said the man, and the hummingbird made that sound of scolding again. Beatrice looked around, wondering suddenly what her mother would think if she were to look out the window now.
“But why?” said Beatrice more quietly. “Who sent it to me?”
The little man laughed, raising his cup to hers with a clink before drinking the chocolate down in a long swallow. Steam trailed from his nose. Beatrice took a cautious sip and burned her tongue.
“Oh my dear child!” the man snorted when he had regained his breath. “Sent? Such parcels are never sent, Beatrice! They are discovered, and then delivered.”
This was neither amusing nor informative to Beatrice, as the little man believed it to be. A trickle of fear hitched along her spine.
“Discovered,” she said, taking another sip of chocolate. This time it was cool enough not to burn her, and despite everything around her, she closed her eyes at the rich river of flavor, the dark musk of the chocolate and the bright embered flavor of the cinnamon, more delicious than anything she had ever tasted. “But in order to discover something, it must be a surprise, like a thing you find on the beach,” she said as she opened her eyes again.
She started, and the chocolate spilled on her red skirt. She was sitting on the sidewalk and the brown truck was nowhere to be seen. The porcelain cup fell from her fingers and shattered on the cement. For a moment, Beatrice thought it all some terribly beautiful hallucination, or daydream—perhaps mother had made hot chocolate, and she had been sitting here all along, imagining things as the sun lengthened along the street…? But then she saw the parcel sitting there, spattered now with chocolate, her name just as beautifully written as before. A hummingbird with a throat of amaranth scolded from the fuschias in front of the house, where he was busily drinking nectar. For a moment he paused and looked right at her. His throat gleamed.
Beatrice looked around. The world was quiet. There was no breeze. Inside that stillness she ripped the brown paper from her parcel, careful not to tear the letters of her name, and untied the string from around the brown box beneath. Her fingers trembled as she lifted the little lid, and for a moment she closed her eyes, wanting to savor that feeling of expectation, that delicious mystery. She opened them. Inside the box was a small garden spade made all of iron. A red carnelian flanked by two green polished serpentine stones was set in the handle. The shoveling edge was caked in dirt. Beatrice’s heart sank.
A spade? Why had somebody sent her a dirty old garden spade? Or rather, why had the strange man in the brown truck delivered it to her? She was beginning to believe once more that he had been a dream; perhaps a friend had left the parcel on the sidewalk as a joke? Maybe it was Aya, or her brother James, who lived next door; they were always trying to throw paper airplanes with secret messages from their window onto her roof.
She turned and her palm pressed into the shards of the porcelain cup that had shattered across the sidewalk. One cut through her flesh, making her bleed. She smelled the chocolate, the cinnamon, and remembered the eyes of those many birds, looking right into her heart. Walnut the cat was still staring intently at the place the brown truck had recently been. Beatrice smiled to herself, and gingerly took the heavy spade from the box. It was cold in her hands.
I know what I saw, she thought, and so does Walnut. But what on earth am I meant to do with a spade?