Monday, December 15, 2014

The Little Mouse That Lived

This pile of Elk Lines and Tinderbundles is the swiftest way to convey to you the reason I've been silent on the Vat the past few weeks. 

Meanwhile, the rain has been falling, turning the gutters to creeks and the creeks to rivers, and this yellow-rumped warbler, with his flashing yellow crown has, all the while, been feasting on the last persimmons out the window. Alas, he is blurry in this photograph, taken through glass. But he and I, we've been watching each other while each of us works. I wonder what he thinks of me, spotted through the window, murmuring hello to him when he comes and chirps and gorges himself and indignantly pesters the occasion jay. That strange being sitting at a big table with many things flashing about in her fingers. 

But what I really would like to share with you today is the story of a Mouse. 

You may remember him from October (A Heart of Acorn and Mouse) when I found him under an oak tree, trembling in a little ball, where I was about to dump out the dregs of my tea leaves, in the midst of learning to make buttons and beads with primitive hand-tools with a gathering of wild women in the hills of Occidental. 

With the help of another woman whose heart couldn't quite bear to leave him for the foxes or the bobcats or the owls, despite the natural way of things (for there he was, right in our path, as if begging to be saved, motherless and tiny and cold) he was scooped into an old coconut milk tin which we lined with wool (and how he curled, nose to paws, delighted, was the final straw for me; I almost cried at the sight, and became determined to save him, for all beings crave the pleasure of life, and deserve a chance at it). I tried to get him to Wild Care that evening but they were closed. I called their Emergency line about fifty times (and felt quite foolish) until I finally spoke to a woman who told me to keep him warm through the night and bring him in straightaway in the morning. I wrote of how I woke up every few hours to change the water in the bottle so he stayed warm, how I rushed him back over the bridge the next morning and nearly wept at the front desk when I gave him to the excellent people of Wild Care, certain he hadn't lasted the night, afraid to disturb him in his little nest and scare his remaining energy away.

I heard from them a week or two later saying that he was doing well, though his appetite wasn't quite what it should be, and that he was living with another deermouse. It's best for animals that have any hope of rehabilitation to be housed with another of their kind, especially young ones who have no parents to demonstrate to them the Ways of Wild Mice. It seems that together, they teach each other what it means to be a deermouse; they speak together in the language of deermice, whatever mysterious tongue that might be. 

I didn't hear from them again for a while. I was afraid he hadn't made it, and couldn't bear to call and ask. At least he got to be warm and full for a while, and speak with another mouse, I thought to myself. Then, about two weeks ago, I got a message on my phone saying that he was ready to be re-released into the wild, and since I had expressed interest, would I like to do it? And would I mind releasing both little mice together, as they needed to have each other nearby for a while to relearn the Big Wild?

Oh my. I couldn't imagine anything more magical. 

The woman informed me that the little mouse I had found was actually a rather rare subspecies of deermouse, possibly a pinyon mouse, who needed to be released right back where he was found. So, off I went on a rain-free Saturday with a cardboard box full of two terrified mice and a big bag of acorns and seeds. 

I took the back roads to Occidental. Everywhere, the world was turning green. Winter, our fecund season. The clouds were their own great landscapes on the horizon, come from over the ocean, wrung out of rain for the time being.

Smaller deermouse

When I found a safe place, full of thickets and near running water, close to the hilltop where I originally found the little deermouse, I opened the box. At first, the mouse I found wouldn't come out from under his shredded bedding at all, unlike his friend, who was very bold, and ran around the box a few times before literally leaping up over the side and into a very dense thicket where I had left a pile of seeds.

Smaller deermouse
As for "my" mouse, when he finally emerged, shy fellow, he was about twice as big as the other, with enormous ears and a little chestnut streak down each side. He climbed up to the edge of the box and was about to jump, when he looked back at me and fixed me with the most peculiar stare. We looked at each other for a good long moment. I could see his whiskers quivering, and the dark moisture of his great black eyes. I don't know if he regarded me with panic only, or some measure of recognition. I like to think it was recognition. Certainly the other mouse didn't pause to look at me at all. For some reason, the pinyon mouse fixed me with his liquid stare, and in it I saw the brief intense beauty of what it is to be a Mouse, the intense sensitivity, the quick fear. Maybe he was smelling at the air, and reading in it the resonance of Home, the place of his people.

"My" pinyon mouse
Whatever the case, he leapt from the edge too, and ran deep into the thicket I had chosen to hide them in, overhung with a very ripe toyon bush (a good feast for mice), and was gone. I stayed for a while and sang a small mouse song, hoping that their lives would be sweet and good, no matter how short or long. That they would be free, and content.

I kept thinking of the great gaze of that small mouse all the long drive home. The ancient intelligence in his eyes. How dark they were, how knowing, how perceptive. And how my heart, so easily moved already, was rather bowled over by the circle of this little mouse story--how he had huddled there, cold and alone and motherless, refusing to let me leave him; how, a month and a half later, he gazed long at me before he, a full grown healthy young mouse-man, leapt off into the thick greenery and began his wild life anew.

How, for all the lives I have unintentionally poisoned and ruined by living as a modern human woman in California in the 21st century, this one life, this tiny life, got to keep on living a little longer because I happened to be in his path, and my heart would not let me pass him by. It is a small thing in the great scheme, in the big story of loss and ecological destruction that we all carry and balk in the face of and do not know how to handle our sorrow over. But I think this experience reminded me that it hurts to become involved--to suddenly love a small mouse who is food for more creatures than I can count, to love him in my heart in a way that was literally painful, as I doted on him through that long night, and that is painful now, when I think of him out there in the scrub, and pray that he is alive, though it would be just as well to an owl if he were a meal—and yet, without loving and therefore mourning the beings of the more-than-human world, they are already lost to us.

He may not have made it past the following morning, or even that night, though I do so hope that he did; but whatever the case, for even an hour, his little mouse paws and his bright mouse eyes and his sharp mouse nose were again in the place of his fathers and mothers, and he was again wild and free.

For this, I am moved beyond human words.

And you never know, as in the old fairy tales, what may come of it all. When the foolish third brother spares the lives of the small ones-- ants, ducks, rabbits-- they always come back to save him in the end. This may be a matter of saving our hearts, of healing a small portion of a great divide, and not rescuing a princess from a sorcerer, but perhaps in this world of ours they are more similar than we might at first believe...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Just like a newborn ember needs dry grass, usnea lichen, mugwort leaves, cattail down, a good long breath of air, to light, so too does the creative ember (la chispa) in each of our spirits need its own nest of bundled fuel. Tinderbundle is just such a figurative nest of twigs and moss and down, to tuck the embers of your own dreams inside. 

Tinderbundle is my newest Wild Tales by Mail project. It has been crackling away in my imagination since early autumn, fueled by an embered conversation with my dear friend Nao Sims, of Honey Grove, my own love of the crafts and magics that come not just through the pen but also the making hands (medicine, dye, watercolor), and my experiences over the last year learning to make fire by friction. The first time I attempted to do so, I was very taken by the tinderbundle that I and the women I was with were instructed to make out of dry grass. I was moved by the idea that an ember is a newborn being that needs to be caught in the gentlest of beds before it can be blown into flame. That it is not just the act of producing a coal with spindle and hearthboard that is important, but also the act of caring for the ember so that it may reach the age of fire. 

All of this feels deeply resonant to me with the process of creativity. 

And so I give you... Tinderbundle. A firestarter for the wild soul. Each bundle is a nest of inspiration and small kindling for your own creative fires, for the path you are walking in your own place, slowly learning its wild songs. They arrive on the new moon-- so the first Tinderbundle is set to arrive December 21st! A wonderful yule gift...

Each Tinderbundle is wrapped in a vintage or naturally dyed piece of cloth and tied with my own handspun, naturally dyed wool (each dye relevant to the month's theme, and wildcrafted nearby). Once unrolled, you will find a short story vignette (of roughly 1500 words), two hand-painted divinatory cards (4 by 6 measurements, on watercolor stock), and an herbal salve (1/2 oz.)

Because these bundles contain such lovingly made items, I will only create 45 each month. So it is best to sign up early! Right now, I only have 14 Tinderbundles left for December's new moon.

Nettle, madder and black walnut dyes
Each Tinderbundle is woven around a single word, like a lone ember in the hand, a word whose roots stretch far back in the mothertree of the English language, to its roots in Old Norse, Old Dutch and Old Germanic. For example, the first month's word is Mast, from the Old English Maest: the fruit of forest trees, such as acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts, as well as the pole on a ship that supports the sail.

The word is the organizing principle for all materials within the bundle. 

A note on the cards: I describe these cards as divinatory not because they particularly resemble what we think of as tarot cards, nor because they in any way predict the future, but rather in the sense of the word divination at its roots, and the old spirit behind the tarot. Divination comes from the Latin divinare, "to be inspired by a god," and the concept of seeing into the unknown. Regarding the tarot, I've heard it said that the "original" tarot was a set of playing cards in which the magic keepers (witches) of medieval Europe hid their knowledge, so that it might live on and not be entirely destroyed throughout the era of the Inquisition and beyond. These cards are about looking deeply into the wisdom of the natural world and the stories of the land, and so in that sense, they are divinatory--looking into the unknown, inspired by the gods and goddesses which dwell everywhere: in the coyote, the candle, the hazelnut, the Fool. 

One of the cards contains the word (Maest, for example), a related painting, and a set of questions and tidbits to create points of departure for your own creativity. The other card contains an animal associated with the monthly word-theme. (So for Maest it might be a bear, it might be a deer, a squirrel, a woodpecker...) The animal card will not, however, resemble a "medicine" card, but rather will provide you with some basics of the creature's natural history, track and sign, so that you might go out on the land near your home and forge a relationship of your own. 

A note on the salve: All herbal salves will be both practically useful (for bruises, for wounds, for sore muscles, for chapped lips, etc), but they will also carry a magical component (as all herbal medicine does), as they are doorways into a conversation with whatever plant they are made of. I will provide a little scroll of information with each small salve. They will be made in a base of happily harvested beeswax and olive oil, and created with the moon. Salve is from the Old Germanic/Gothic root salben, "to anoint," which holds to me both the meaning of healing, and of magic. 

A note on the yarn: in the old Gaelic tradition of knot-magic and witch's ladders, the string wound around your Tinderbundle will carry sacred knots tied with blessings upon you, the recipient, and the four-leggeds, two-leggeds, waters, winds, stones, plants, and fire embers that surround you—the family of things in which you reside, and are inextricably connected to.

Follow any of the links above to purchase, or right here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Embered Eye of the Buck

It is an old, old tradition the world over, that when the nights grow long and dark, the hearth becomes the sun, to carry the seed of light through the winter and on into spring. The fire becomes the axis around which stories are shared. Through the dark nights of the year, people held (and hold) vigil for the sun on its journey through the darkness, in all of his/her manifestations—Lugh, or Ra, or Sunna, or Cernunnos (the Stag, the Green Man, the Horned God)— as it travels through the underworld of the Cailleach, of Hel, and back out again into spring.  

Out over the ocean, as the sun sets and turns the sky all to fire, the Farallon Islands rise like a dream of the Otherworld in the distance. There, it was said by the Coast Miwok people, the spirits of the dead traveled. There, the sun sets, and for a moment turns the world to flame. 

In autumn, the fire from the sun is made manifest in the acorns abundant on all the trees, in the madrone berries, the manzanitas, the black walnuts, the golden chinquapin nuts, the buckeyes. All year long, the trees have been drinking up the heat from that great star to turn it to sugar. An acorn, in your hand, is transmuted sun. My hands have been full of acorns these past weeks, and the fallen flames of leaves; of roots and the bones of stags and what it means to honor the coming of winter on this land. So here are some threads of my days for you to warm your own hands by...

There is a beautiful Coast Miwok story about the origin of fire. It begins something like this: "In the early days, the only fire anyone knew about was kept by Starwoman, who lived near an elderberry brake to the east, in the mountains beyond the Great Valley. She kept her bright treasure in a box that she had carved from the burl of a buckeye tree. In those days it was cold and dreary here on the coast. Coyote decided to remedy that situation, so one day he sent little hummingbird out to steal the fire from Starwoman." (from Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, by Jules Evens) 

Hummingbird, being so quick and tiny, managed to steal a piece of ember from Starwoman's immaculate buckeye box. He carried it all the way back to the coast, where Coyote, naturally, had already lost interest and wandered off in search of some amusement or other. Hummingbird, desperate to keep the ember safe, hid it in a buckeye tree. To this day, the throats of the hummingbirds in my garden are flashes of magenta flame, as bright as any fire. 

To this day, the buckeye holds fire inside. Make a hearth board from a split branch, and a spindle from a thin straight one, and if you have a good amount of hand-drill fire-spinning skill, you will make an ember right there, between the alchemy of hand and buckeye wood.  

Buckeyes are beautiful trees. They drop their leaves in late August, long before anyone else, in order to cope with the long dry season. Now, their silvery limbs are bent down with the planets of their buckeye nuts. If you've ever come eye to eye with a male deer before, and shared that long moment of surprise, and then timelessness, as you stared into his very large, very dark eyes, you will see why the nuts are called buckeyes! 

It is no easy feat, let me tell you, to coax fire from buckeye wood with your hands. It took a circle of nine women to make these flames by hand, but my goodness, when an ember is birthed before your eyes, and blown to life in a cradle of grass, the fire thus made becomes a being in a way that no lighter or match can approximate, a deity you have welcomed to share your meal, your stories, your hottest wood. 

We roasted bay nuts and chestnuts over the flames, and cooked ash cakes, and simmered madrone berries, red as drops of blood, over those hard-earned flames. (All of them fruits of the year's sun-turned-to-sugar, turned to seed). 

Madrone berries
I am whittling away at my own buckeye hearthboard, and a spindle of elder, to coax an ember all on my own from the wood. This is a hard task for my shoulders, but I do believe that there is something besides strength which helps to birth an ember by hand; I believe we all carry an ember in our gut, in our womb, the spark of creation, and that it is not so much strength, but breath and focus, which brings a literal ember into the world. Anyway, I'm not there yet, but these dark nights have me dreaming. Perhaps by the Yule...

In my mother's garden, the persimmons (great pockets of sun-sweetness) and their leaves are all fire. These fruits are one of my favorites in all the world. They taste of autumn to me, crisp and sweet and cinnamon. There are half a dozen persimmon trees within a five minute walk of my home; this climate suits them well!

And out in the woods, the black oaks, new friends of mine, are leaving beautiful gifts, each an ember in its own way, amidst the leaves. I have been on an acorn-gathering high. Though my yield is rather pitiful, the pleasure I have derived from the slow search amidst leaf litter for the gift of an acorn, velveteen and luminous as amber, is impossible for me to quite put into words. 

Having my hands or my pockets heavy and clacking with acorns gives me a deep old satisfaction. I can hardly imagine anything more beautiful than these perfect parcels.  I can hardly imagine an activity more grounding than crouching down, sifting the bounty of sun-gold leaves, like any bear or deer.
Black oak acorns

We brought some of the leaves and acorns and oak galls from the woods into our home for Samhain, and feasted, letting the wild and our ancestors sit at the table and feast too, bringing the fire inside with candles and the dying leaves.  

About a week ago, with that same group of fire spinning women, I had the great privilege of listening to a Northern Pomo woman named Corinne Pierce speak about her relationship (and her people's relationship) with the plants of this landscape. This is a kinship that stretches back thousands and thousands of years on this very land. When she spoke, I ached, and cried. I looked around and saw many other women crying too. Corinne herself wept when she spoke about a new Caltrans bypass being built through Willits, the territory of her people and an area where she has gathered plants for her entire life. Those plants, she said, are her family. My elders tell me not to tell anything to white people, she said to us. But the plants--the oak trees, the madrones--they tell me to share all that I can with those who will use it. Because the plants long to be used. They long to be loved again by people, to be in communication, in kinship.

Black oak
 I ached when she spoke of her rootedness in this place, how she was literally made of its acorns, because she had eaten them as a child, as had her mother, as had her grandmother, and on and on back into an ancient time far beyond my imagining. I ached because it was a gift to be in the presence of a human being who still carries such a story; I ached because it is so rare; I ached because my ancestors were the reason she is one of only a handful remaining of her people. I ached because I, too, want to belong to this place. 

Coast live oak
Then she, extraordinary woman, told us something so simple and so wise. She said: let the plants tell you what they need. Devote yourself to your place. Learn the plants and animals so that they are your family. Take care of your place. This is how you belong. Taking care, she said, means staying in communication. 

When you gather acorns, bring gifts for the oaks. Her people once left leather, shells, ash, baskets at the bases of their oaks. Much later, when archaeologists discovered these "middens" around the roots of trees, they called them garbage piles. They did not realize that the people who left these gifts were leaving not only beautiful presents for their tree-kin; they were leaving nourishment. All of these things (leather, ash, plant matter) balance out the pH in the soil, lowering acidity. Those "middens" were ancient conversations, held over millennia between humans and trees.

When we don't gather their acorns, the oaks know it. They know it in the language of tannins. Without the presence of human beings and grizzly bears (who we killed off), two of the biggest acorn eaters, most of an oaks acorns stay where they fall (remember, a tree may drop a thousand pounds of nuts in a season). When it rains, the tannins in the acorns leach back down to the roots of the trees, sending them a message—you are not needed. Do not make as many acorns next year. Some trees will begin to produce less, and less, and less...

As I wrote in the essay I helped Jolie Egert Elan of Go Wild craft for her Oak Ceremony last month, before the advent of agriculture, acorns were the staple food for people all around the temperate belt of the world. The word Druid means "oak-seer," or "one who knows the oak." Their rituals were originally held only in oak groves. And of course, before Druids, they were Dryads, women-priestesses who knew the oaks like they were kin, who each had a tree they called sister. My name, Sylvia, means "one who comes from the forest," or forest spirit, or wood nymph. I feel a strange familial thrum in my bones at the thought of women dancing long ago in oak groves. I think I carry them in me still. I think many of us do. When I stand under oaks, with my hands full of acorns, I feel at home in my blood, no matter that my ancestral roots are far away. 
Anyone know the species of this glorious oak? Looks like a coast live oak, but not quite...
All of this—the fire in the heart of winter, and buckeyes, and food made in its heat, and the gathering of acorns—I think the gift beneath the surface of it all, the reason that acorns in the pocket feel like medicine, is because these things make us feel very human. In all of our senses. Fire making. Gathering. Cooking. As Corinne said, we can learn all we need to learn about living in balance on this earth from the plants. They will tell us. If it becomes hard to hear them, we can watch the animals, and learn from them too. 

Yesterday morning, Cernunnos, the Stag Lord of the Woods, eater of acorns, visited my life. A friend had called late the night before to see if I would help her process a young buck she'd found on the road on the edge of one of our regional parks. She had to get to class by eleven, so we rose at dawn. In the early morning light, I found myself with a knife, another woman, and a young buck whose back leg was shattered, whose body was bruised from its impact with a car. There were shards of headlights in his skin. 

I have only done this once before, but it seems that something comes over the body and mind, so that the process itself is somehow natural—no big deal, I am pulling the skin off a buck's body, I am cutting through tendons; I am separating the leg at the joint over my knee, as I might break a stick; etc. We said our prayers over him, of course; we left him offerings of acorns and cornmeal and sage, but the processing itself was efficient, practical, somehow familiar.

It is only later that the true, bone-level impact of the thing comes to you; how much pain he must have been in, and how afraid, battered to death by a car. How his little antler-nubs were just growing for the first time. How beautiful his delicate hooves. What places they must have roamed. Who his mother was. Where he was born. 

I did not take any photos of the process. Somehow it didn't feel right. But I took home the cannon bone from his back leg, the one that was broken. I remembered that bone awls (tools used to pierce leather when sewing it) have been made for thousands of years from the knuckle bones of deer. I found that the break in his leg was shaped just so, like the beginning of an awl. And that the skin around it would make the perfect pouch. 

It is all still in process--the skin scraped to removed the membrane before tanning, the bone left out for the yellow jackets and the ants to clean for me. But there is something in this, some healing I hope—that the terror of this breaking might become something beautiful, a sewing tool, to sew him back together on his spirit's journey with Cernunnos, Lord of Stags, to the Otherworld of Deer. That his body, tossed sidelong by a car, was been honored by being used, not left ignobly to be further battered on the roadside.

It is said that once, animals gave themselves willingly to the bows of hunters, just to hear their stories and songs around their fires as they ate. Like the acorns, relationship comes through use, through need. Relationship comes through recognizing the personhood of all beings, the ember that sparks in the spirit of all things and then, deeper yet, seeing that we are situated within a web of consumption, a web of eating and being eaten one day in return. 

For the rest of that day, I felt like I was in a dream. I couldn't focus on writing, or reading. I needed to move, to use my body. I dug up the garden and put it to bed for the winter, covered in hay. I pulled the roots of my motherwort, and held them for a long time, seeing in them the branches of trees, the antlers of stags, the rivers in the wombs of women, the wisdom of winter, all there in the roots underground. The roots that reach back in my blood, in  your blood, through time, to women and men long ago who crouched under trees, and gathered acorns, and knew what it was to worship and to eat the Lord of the Forest, the old hart. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Beatrice and the Mail Truck

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!

John Bauer


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?