One of my blog resolutions this year was to post more of my fiction work. So far I’ve only posted a short story that was more of an exercise than a work from my heart, so now I’m making good and posting a story of which I’m proud. It’s weirdly scarier to post something I like than something about which my feelings are basically lukewarm. The stakes are higher.
What follows is a short children’s story about a character who lives in my head, and occasionally in my past. I’ve written a number of stories about her, and in my head, they’re meant to be read aloud to a child, accompanied by soft pencil drawings or watercolors – nothing harsh or overly saturated. Here’s just one sample. I hope you enjoy it!
Ok, deep breath – here goes nothing.
BIRDSEED, by Michelle Joelle
Dorcas DeMilo was a clever, thoughtful seven-year old girl. She was small for her age, with oversized glasses that made her eyes look like large brown saucers and a huge mass of thick brown hair that went down to her elbows and was never, ever brushed.
While her parents and siblings were somewhere else, Dorcas was, as usual, wandering outside alone with Samson, the family dog. He was a floppy-eared mutt that was the size of a cat and covered in an unkempt grizzle. No amount of grooming could tame Samson’s coat, and so the two were a well matched pair of scrawny limbs and too much hair.
It was a Spring day and they were outside in the scraggly vegetable patch they called a garden. Dorcas sat on a bursting retaining wall made of recycled four-by-fours with a tattered book hanging from her hands. Nothing much had grown yet, but they had planted tomato seeds, and marigold seeds, and basil seeds, and zucchini seeds, and pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds, which was probably more than the small garden could handle. Dorcas was her parents’ primary helper. She helped choose the seeds, dug holes with the trowel, and every few days she came out to monitor the progress of the little sprouts and to clear away the weeds.
The rest of her time after school and on weekends she spent with Samson. They would wander around their yard, which was large enough to keep Dorcas occupied most of the time. In between the houses in her neighborhood were large swaths of trees, not sidewalks like she’d seen on TV, and so instead of running down a street to visit a friend as children were often depicted doing in stories, she would run through the woods on foot-trampled paths to nowhere. She would do this every day while her older brother and sister were off at practice for the activities that Dorcas never enjoyed and always quit after one or two tries.
Instead of going to Karate, or ballet, or little league, she collected salamanders and sticks and tried to make tea out of mint leaves, which her mother would pretend to drink. She’d watch the birds and look for nests, and stay as still as she could when she saw a deer off in the distance. She would collect fallen antlers to add to her collection of pretty rocks and well-shaped twigs, which she kept in an old trunk in her room, and then keep a journal of everything she had seen. She would track the appearance of leaves and budding flowers, and watch as the open patches of the woods filled in with new growth.
After a Saturday morning of flipping through books, Dorcas and Samson found themselves wandering through the potting shed, eyeing the seed containers on the shelf as she walked along. She read the labels of each large jar; there were pumpkin seeds, and hydrangea seeds, and eggplant seeds, and tomato seeds, and marigold seeds, and – wait, what was this?
Dorcas stopped short at the end of the shelf, where there was a large, unopened bag she’d never really looked at before. It was nearly the same size as she was, and it was covered with the most beautiful pictures of birds – blue birds, yellow finches, brown chickadees, cardinals, and more. She thought it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen. And it was labeled at the bottom in bold letters: BIRDSEED.
She stopped where she stood, her eyes shining with possibility. Was it possible? Where did birds come from anyway? She knew they had nests and laid eggs, but an egg was like a seed, wasn’t it? Were these collected bird eggs? Did birds plant seeds in nests that turned into eggs? Could Dorcas plant them in nests and expect them to grow?
It was worth a shot. She wanted those birds.
“Come on, Samson – we have a nest to build.”
And so the two of them gathered loose grass clippings from beneath the bushes and straw from the corner of the potting shed. Dorcas picked a spot just a few yards beyond the vegetable patch and, using a small gardening tool, dug up a bit of a grass. As she worked, members of her family came by, eyeing her progress with curiosity. When her brother asked her what she was doing, she answered plainly – “I’m growing birds.” She ignored his scoffing. When her sister came by to tell her that wasn’t how it worked, she ignored her skepticism. She turned up the earth, and poked holes in the ground, arranged the straw and grass in clumps around the holes, and then one by one, she dropped in the birdseeds and covered them with more straw and grass. She wasn’t sure how this all worked, so she opted to try and combine what she’d knew about nests with what she knew about gardening. It was like a cabbage patch for birds.
Over the next week, Dorcas monitored her patch amid explanations from her parents about how birds didn’t grow from seeds. At first, she didn’t believe them. After all, the bag said “BIRDSEED” on it, just as plainly as the other packages said “SUNFLOWER SEED” and “EGGPLANT SEED” and those grew what they said they grew. She was giddy with excitement as she imagined all the colorful feathers, and flying wings, and sweet little bird songs she’d soon enjoy.
She checked the seeds as she watered the patch, but no eggs had sprung up. By the fifth day of waiting for something to happen, a storm kicked up and Dorcas began to have doubts. Maybe her parents were right. Maybe this wouldn’t work. As the wind took away some of the grass and the straw, destroying her carefully built nests, Dorcas stared out the window and bit her lip, wringing her hands. Without the nests, the birds probably wouldn’t grow. The rain beat down into the dirt, bubbling rocks and worms – and probably the seeds themselves – to the surface, and Dorcas fretted, visions of colorful birds dancing through her head and flying away forever. Samson stayed by her side, whimpering as Dorcas grew sadder and sadder.
Her siblings did not mock her now, but put their arms around her. Her saucery eyes grew hot with tears, and she tried to blink them away, but every time she closed her eyes another small hope died away. They no longer humored her or tried to explain where she went wrong. It was enough that she was finally realizing that the birds weren’t going to grow. Dorcas couldn’t sleep that night for the sound of the wind and the rain washing away her birds.
The next morning, the sun came out and the storm was over. Dorcas and Samson ran out to inspect the patch, but it was beyond repair. The seeds had all come to the surface, and the nests were strewn about the lawn haphazardly. It was over – nothing would grow now. Dorcas shrunk into her ragged mop of hair, and went back inside for breakfast, though she was hardly hungry. Dorcas couldn’t bring herself to go outside and play today, or even to read. Holding Samson close to her chest for comfort she went over it all in her head, again and again, and she could only conclude that this was her fault. She’d built the nests poorly and now she would never have any birds of her own.
At some point, she pulled herself from her wallowing. She slumped over to the picture window to stare despondently at the patch of earth where she’d once dreamed of a flock of birds in every color. When she got there, she imagined her birds, fluttering and singing. She closed her eyes tight so she could see them more clearly, but curiously, they disappeared, rather than growing more vivid as she’d expected.
And then her eyes flew open, and she gasped. She blinked, wondering if she was still sleeping, but no – it was no dream, she was awake, and there they were. Her birds. All of them. Dorcas yelled out in surprise and joy. Samson barked in excitement. They were there, and they were hers. Birds in blue and red and yellow and brown, whole flocks of them, all over the patch, pecking at the ground. They were just as she’d imagined, fluttering about and chirping and singing. Dorcas felt her eyes grow warm again, and she blinked away happy tears.
“Come quick! Everyone! It worked!”
And no one could ever convince her that it was a coincidence or that the birds had come to eat the seeds, because Dorcas knew better – she’d grown those birds from birdseed, and they were hers forever.