Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The wind came up the river joyous as a boy riding a new bicycle and Harry Guahagan hustled to get his paint ready, the pale blue in the gallon can looking exceptionally good to his trained eye as he stared at the expanse of blue overhead from one horizon point to the other, the Saugus River running beside his house being the axis of the whole circumference of his existence. He was giddy at the thought of carefully applying a new coat of paint on his house; for god's sake the insects had made a mess of his most recent paint job, the pale blue besmirched in so many places, but unbelievably in his mind the damned birds jamming the river were probably more at fault than other creatures; rabbits and skunks and an odd dog or two, he knew, had no responsibility in creating this new mess. It was nearly choking him.
Most likely he thought with deep discomfort, it was the birds again!
Damn them sitting the river's surface, lifting off with a flock's wings and hauling crap right out of the river to fall without care during the beauty of the flight. How could they be so divided? So compromised? He might have to call on the gods, even though they chased his family from Ireland a century earlier. Their names would come back in a hurry, he was sure.
From yesterday to today he had counted more than 20 spots on the pristine pale blue of his recent painting task, barely two months old at that. What a disgrace!
It was the birds again, for sure, he thought anew with a haranguing displeasure, as he spied more of them climbing off the river's surface and unloosing their offal garbage from overhead in their flight pattern; clumsy, intolerant creatures at that! And all that crap coming down against his pristine blueness, splattering itself!
Readying himself for the task at hand, he adjusted his starched shirt collar, made sure his dungarees had a crease down each pant leg like a pair of railroad tracks glistening in the sun, or a pair of tracks torched by the moon on the few splendid occasions of the moon's majesty and splendor, the moon often held at high disfavor with him when it hid its absolute roundness in a mere patch of clouds. Oh, there were times he was absolutely sure that the moon itself was out of roundness; it was inevitable in the sloppy universe that squandered above him.
Things, though, at odd times, could be so neat they'd twist his head into a kind of happiness of the soul; a pair of stars matching twinkles in the sky, the edges of newly mowed grass showing exquisitely trim lines as if they had been made in a factory, the toes of his work shoes not caught by a single blemish.
His comfort, or discomfort, was on display at all hours; some neighbors ignored him, his wife tolerated him, his sons had little contact from afar.
Finally, the paint in a creamy solution, his arm in the slow music of the swing, finding the true rhythm, the color rich in its intensity of pale blueness, he knew the paint was ready to be applied. Joy itself, like a spirit, overcame him; he was at balance, fully prepared, the brush loaded to a specific weight, he was ready for the task ... or the joy of application, covering the horrid smirches.
For the curious, I have to tell you that I am only part author of this tale of neatness, for Harry's wife Mirabel told much of it to me in secret.
"We, Harry and I," she said once in a whisper, have two sons, Evan and Jules, and neither one has been home for a visit in five years. Evan, a few years older, is a highly paid dresser of the Hollywood gods of the screen. He designs and makes and selects the clothes for many great movie hits and stage presentations. He makes an awful lot of money at it. And his younger brother Jules is in so many advertisements, in print and on television, that he's a household name and practically without a voice; he doesn't need to use his voice very much, just the clean,, neat art of being impeccable in his dress.. He signs contracts that guarantee him his choice of clothes for each advertisement, and using a lot of Evan's designs, and rules much of what he does."
"Where'd they learn all this stuff?" once she was asked, to which she replied, "Oh, Harry took one look at youth sports and said no on baseball because lots of times they would have had to slide into base and get their uniforms in a horrid state and he put his foot down on that. And he said no on football because of those awful, crushing jumbles of bodies in games that threw a wrench into that selection." And when she was asked about hockey, she said, "Did you ever smell the inside of a hockey player's bag? It's an absolute horror show, like a slaughter house must smell and his boys were getting no part of that experience. Good dress, classic dress, impeccable dress was the answer for them. And they've made a lot of money doing it and are still at it, like hand over fist, both of them."
She was, in the matter of words, a proud mother ... but seemed somewhat short on being a proud wife, although she never mentioned once to anybody anything about pleats and folds and seams galore.
Mirabel told another confidant, one not so closed mouth either, that Harry had told her a few months past that "he was going to see a few ball games one Saturday after another day of paint-patch," as he called it, "covering over the smirches on the house, done by passing birds in flights off the river."
"Supposedly," he said, "because I want to see what my boys missed in their youth and what amends I could make for them." This was all cover-up. In reality he had gone, not to a ball park, but to New Hampshire to buy fireworks. When he came home late at night, he drove the car right into his garage and unloaded his purchases, putting them out of Mirabel's sight. It turned out that he was really heated enough about the birds splattering his house that he was going to get even. So the next evening, just at dusk hunkering down in its way, shadows dark in areas, sights dimmed all along the river, no damned bird watchers up and about, that he placed an iron pipe into a rocky wall, propped it tightly with two bricks, slipped a July 4th rocket into the pipe practically on a level with the surface of the river at mid-tide and fired the rocket. A couple of folks on the higher street, sitting on their porch, sipping tea or swigging beer, take your choice, swear the rocket came down the river from an unknown source and exploded in a school, gaggle, skein or siege of birds, knocking the hell out of the bunch of them and killing some. Like Harry was the Forward Observer of a rocket outfit, its target selector, and dead-on with his calculations.
There was a bit of noise about that rocket thing, some questions asked because the Fourth of July was weeks away, until it all quieted down, and that's when Harry started making model boats and sailing them down the river. He was pretty good at it, and it seemed it would turn his life around, not being so blue all the time.
So you know what happened next when Harry's house was doused again by an overhead flight of ducks who let go one fell swoop of their unnecessary weight and the poop hit Harry's house like the Forward Observer was again dead-on target.
The trouble with that came, insurmountably it seemed, with Harry's sense of neatness, now in a state of hopelessness, making him plan the ultimate attack ... and it made clear the purpose of his model boat building.
Mirabel, according to her big mouth confidant, had become suspicious about Harry's dark secrets of life, his cover-up trips, the odd packages she dared not open that were hidden away in the garage, his constant, unintelligible murmuring of getting even with every rotten bird in the town. She kept thinking he had mortal enemies that she could not do anything about. She had even asked the boys to help and they each replied that they were too busy, making too much money, to take the time for a trip home. "As long as his pants are pressed, Mom, he'll be okay." And they added, "And his shirts, too. They count as much as his pants."
"Watch his ties, too, Mom," Jules had said, "because they're like his Merit Badges."
But Harry, being the man he was, had another ace up his iron-pressed sleeve. One of his model boats had made the most successful trip each time he placed it on the river surface beside his house ... only after looking at his daily updated charts on tide times, moon phases, the exact hours of useful twilight or darkness, including all his duck, geese, egret, tern, torn and rip, (with a built-in self laugh), etc., activities. His humor, he must have figured, kept him sane. And so it was that it brought him to a dark alley in Boston where he purchased two old hand grenades promised to be in good order. Harry had no idea that his registration number plate was photographed by the seller when Harry departed the area. That bold step of course, one of deepest irony, put him in the bold grip of unlikely individuals who had nothing against birds, them being old jail birds themselves.
On his turn of the river, the ducks, the geese, the ganders and quackers bothered Harry the most, and with all the mathematics brought to the decimal point, all possible errors detected and phased out, on the best appointed night he attached one grenade to "my best little boat," connected the pin release gizmo he had created, and set sailing the armed craft out upon the river. He'd show the birds of the river and the birds of the air, who was boss! That his house would evermore be the sharpest, cleanest, bluest in the whole town, a house without a smirch.
The launch was perfect, the daylight fading, the river quiet at the turn except for a few coalitions of enemy birds floating in place, those which would otherwise surely be aiming at his house on take-off. Minutes after the set-sail, a harrowing time for him, a blast the town had never heard, tore apart the bird formations on the float, brought fire engines to some separate points along the river road, showed later that some debris had been collected ... and no suspects in custody.
Of course, Harry's model boats came into light discussion and disappeared in the vapor of guesswork.
Six months went by and the only thing keeping Harry from painting the house again was the merciless weather. Smack in the middle of the blizzard, months after the mysterious blast had occurred on the river, the police received a tip from an old acquaintance that the owner of the car in the attached photo had purchased two WW II class grenades, one of which was suspected as being exploded for unknown purposes months earlier on the river not too far from the police station.
When the police car drove into the driveway, Mirabel dropped her iron directly to the floor and screamed for Harry who thought he could not be bothered by histrionics ... he had enough on his mind waiting for good weather.
But the ensuing attacks on Harry Guahagan 's home, highly-arched and deadly of aim in subsequent months were, most agree, generated and directed by one of the Gods or Goddesses of birds from a point of command unseen and undetected by any local warning systems. There are a host of them involved with birds and with water (streams, rivers, seas) that one can call on from out the hierarchy, Tuatha de Danaan, and call either way in combat or life itself on either side: Boann, Goddess of the River Boyne; Cyhiraeth, Goddess of streams who screams the scream of death and is connected to the Banshee; Llyr, God of water and the sea; Morrigan, who might hide as a crow or raven and is a warrior Goddess; Rhiannon, Goddess of Birds; and finally, to Nuada, God of ocean, dogs, poetry, and writing; an army of them not mentioned here.
I prefer to believe they were engineered by Manannán mac Lir, the Seagull God who is the guardian of the gateways between the worlds, in his direct response to Harry's rocket attack on river birds and the grenade he floated to the midst of a skein or flock or covey of birds (you can pick what collection or collections they may have been). A note of explanation should be appended here about Manannán or Manann (Old Irish Manandán), also known as Manannán mac Lir; he is a sea deity in Irish mythology out of the Tuatha dé Danann This choice, some say, is preferred over Blodeuwedd, an Owl Goddess, or even Thoth (aka Tehuti) who also comes to those with a deep affinity for writing, neatness not earning any points among the locals when it comes to distribution of birdshit, if you can believe that.
Some say it is very easy to dig up historical data on Manannán mac Lir, especially via computer connections about things like his association with oceans and storms, or his linkage to the Isle of Man. What we're expressing here though, foremost and not as afterthoughts, is about Manannan and who he actually is. Pagans, it is believed , appear to have their good luck getting to connect in some manner with their gods and goddesses, and while myths are often seen as references, it is direct experiences shaping our image of any selective deity. People who have connected with Manannan all have very similar things to say about him. Quite often the first thing they mention is his notorious sense of humor.
We can agree, most of us, that a life lacking humor is partially bare, like meatloaf without mashed potatoes, a grill without flame, a laugh without a joke. Manannan, a tricky sort of god, manages to insert absurd ideas into the lives of those who know him, making life's daily grind that much easier to contend with. His wit is infamous, ever amiable, pulling friendly punches. His association with the ocean and its expanses is best typical of this. Any voyage on a cruise liner is as much fun as it is adventurous.