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"Grasshopper"
by Peter Koronakos

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Diane Craddock

Breaking...

Bob reached over for another cigarette, brown-stained fingers searched furtively though the crumpled, flattened Camels pack.  Empty, he flung it distractedly to the floor and patted his shirt pocket.  Nothing.

He looked over at the small, rumpled screech owl that shifted on the back of the desk chair.  One eye blinked and opened at Bob.  The owl fluffed its feathers, arranged its wings neatly, and closed both eyes. 

“Don’t panic yet, Owl! There must be a spare cig somewhere.  Don’t want to disturb you…after all, it’s just now dusk. Yep, I can see the sun going down behind the redwood trees.  Wouldn’t want to wake you too early now, would I?  After all, Pal, the mice are only just now beginning to march out from behind the ‘fridge.  They’ve hardly left even one tiny mouse poop on my kitchen floor.  Wouldn’t want to start too early ruining their jaunts to the cupboard where my last box of cherry Pop Tarts are carefully hidden…No way, my feathered friend!”

Bob was now rifling through the wastebasket, digging down deep past wadded up Hershey bar wrappers, shredded and ink-stained pieces of typing paper, and wood shavings from his enumerable pencil sharpeners that lined the sill behind his desk.  No cigarette butts in the cavern of the tin basket.   A day or so ago, he had already come across and smoked the lipstick-rimmed filtered butts left behind when Margaret brought his month’s groceries the week before. 

“Well, Owl, looks again like old Bobby is just plain out of luck…Once more left behind by the blessed nicotine bus; neglected and shunned by the Goddess of Smoky Pleasures.  And, Owl, pay attention!! This is damned important…it’s about those MICE!!! Exactly when, buddy???”

Bob kicked the chair with his right boot.  The owl jolted awake, raised both wings weakly for balance.  Settling, he shuffled one wing like a feathery deck of cards and yawned.  His small beak made a clicking sound, an old man of the forest contentedly smacking his lips.  His eyes, now huge shining gold orbs, focused on Bob in anticipation of some sort of explanation for this disturbance.  He waited.

“So glad you could join us here this evening, Owl.  I mean me… and the mice…we’re glad to have you finally with us.  Well, maybe me, not necessarily the mice…Fully awake now, eh?  Looking quite owl-like, I must say.  No longer in the guise of a small lump of inert bird flesh anymore?  A non-predatory one at that, I might add…” Bob placed both of his hands on his knees for stability and leaned over into the owl’s unblinking visage.
He sighed heavily, “ Ah, Owl.  Another night…just us two, you and me..”

He paused, came to attention at the remembrance, “ Oh nooo….wait a minute, Owl!  Just you, me, and possibly ten or twenty mice!  We mustn’t forget that now, can we?”

Bob turned his attention to the slight skittering of tiny rodent nails on the interior of his wastebasket.  “Aha!  I hear you vermin down there stealing my discards!”   He peered into the can, but saw only wads of crumpled paper, a torn matchbook that he used to pick his teeth with, and three or four candy wrappers: O’Henry, Three Musketeers, M & Ms. Margaret was always extra generous when she passed the candy aisle shopping in town for Bob’s monthly supplies.  Yes, he thought, generous and kind.  She had always been so.  His brain ticked back unwillingly to meeting her years ago when they were both young, vibrant, and…STUPID, he caught himself. 

Certainly, Bob had felt great fondness and warm admiration towards Margaret.  That was all he could drum up though.  But she had loved him unconditionally and passionately and often told him so.  He regretted not being able to return that flame, but there it was.  She understood, accepted it, and they had remained true friends even so. 

These days she came once a month to check on him, isolated in the mountains above Lompico in his cabin hermitage. Native Americans wouldn’t settle here it was claimed by the locals, because of the bad spirits and witchcraft that permeated the dense, dark woods, seeping into the early settlers’ cabins and belongings. Driving through these same forests, coming home one night way past late, Bob had fallen off his motorcycle rounding a familiar curve.  The roads were wet from fog, his vision was dimmed from lack of moonlight. He’d laid the bike down before he knew what hit him, lain in a ditch by the side of the road with a broken hip, waiting for some other foolish midnight traveler to drive by, and hoping their headlights would be bright enough to catch the gleam of his overturned Harley.  Aching from road rash and humiliation, he had an eerie feeling he was not entirely alone. 

Painfully, he pushed himself into a semi-seated, lop-sided position.  Squinting into the darkness, Bob was able to distinguish a flapping, intermittently righting itself silhouette, back dropped by the rain-soaked
shine of the road.
 
“Ah, shit…did I fuckin’ hit a bat?” he grimaced, “ Those things have gawd-damned RABIES!” He tried to drag himself painfully out of the way, unable to get too far on sore elbows and cold-stiffened joints. 

The flapping and fluttering intensified at his disgusted, loud outburst and futile attempts at escape. The small thing, though no doubt trying to do exactly the opposite, managed to furiously flap and catapult its “possibly diseased and rabid” self directly at Bob.

“Shit!” he yelled into this most unfortunate night, “Fog, ditches, voodoo, and….BATS!...all shit!”  As he uttered the final furious “shit”, Bob realized the small creature, close enough now he could smell its dampness, was not a “foaming at the mouth”, dripping with hydrophobic saliva, blood-sucking rabid bat as first imagined, but a feathery, bedraggled clump of owl with a seriously mangled and quite useless right wing. 

Bob and the owl kept distant company for three more dreary, drizzly, and shivery cold hours until dawn slid some warm rays through the tall redwoods.  An old logger in a beat-up Ford truck happened by, so Bob and the owl went home together to rest up and heal. Although wary companions over the years, neither parties was fully repaired. As a decade passed, they had grown accustomed to one another.  The owl reliant on Bob for simple biological sustenance and metabolic warmth, Bob needing the owl more deeply, to sustain his soul and sanity. 

On this evening, the owl cocked his head to get a better view of Bob’s rummaging in the wastebasket. He sidled and shuffled foot-over-foot to edge his way along the chair back, ever closer to Bob’s stooped, pony-tailed head, now grown quite grey and sparsely tied.  The owl had grown older, too, of course, but owls were blessed with bird faces that showed no wrinkling or weathering with the years’ passing and with bodies fluffed up and padded by feathers, masking any sagging or age-related withering or decline.  Unfortunately, the years though not apparent in the appearance of the small owl whose eyes remained mostly clear and golden, whose beak was still hard and sharp, whose feathers kept true to the plumage of the species: mottled brown, tan-ish buff, and thick, white downy leggings, but had manifested its toll by an imperceptible loss of force and grip of the taloned feet and thus, a tendency towards a loss of balance when leaning over for better and more accurate views. 

As the small owl leaned just perhaps an inch too far, he tumbled from his perch directly onto the back of Bob’s otherwise engaged head.  Trying to right his wrong immediately, he grasped quickly for a stronger hold. Bob’s sun-burned ear being the obvious easiest purchase. 

“Hell’s bells!!” screamed Bob, which echoed nicely in the wastebasket.  The owl lost his grip as Bob stood upright knocking the wastebasket and all its contents including two frightened, but glad-to-be-suddenly-released mice, across the cabin floor.  The owl had by now slipped off Bob’s head, released his inflamed right ear, and clung tenaciously to his leather thong tied hair.  His remaining good wing beat the air furiously trying to recapture a foothold or at least disentangle his foot from the leather hair tie.   Bob flailed his arms around in exasperation, trying to reach the small owl flapping across his back just out of range from his stiff joints and inflexible range of motion. 

Bob’s left foot rolled over a discarded lipstick tube Margaret had left behind that had escaped with the mice from the confines of the overturned trash.  Thrashing ineffectively to regain his balance, Bob’s bad hip wouldn’t hold underneath him and he crashed to the floor, hitting his chin on the desktop as he went down.  Blood leaked down his whiskered chin and pooled in a silver dollar-sized glob on the floor.  The owl was flung free and rolled like a feathered Nerf ball coming to a soft stop before hitting the kitchen wall.  Inertia had prevailed at last. 

Bob lay on his left side, cheek smashed solidly into the floor.  A trickle of blood colored his grizzled mustache a pale pink.  The owl lay on its side, too, facing Bob, blinking in bewilderment.  (When telling the story later, Bob said “blinking in avian indignation.”) A one -inch stub of a spent Camel cigarette divided the distance between Bob’s prone face and the owl’s. 

“Owl!” Bob cried out from his position on the floor, not yet sure he should even try to right himself, “Beautiful smart creature, faithful friend of the forest!  You’ve found me a smoke!”

Diane Craddock is a retired science teacher and administrator.  She currently serves as the co-chair of Cabrillo College Foundation’s President’s Circle and as a board member of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. She joined Clifford Henderson’s Writing Salon in hopes of tapping into her inner muse, deeply hidden for years while studying science and mathematics.  She has been influenced by and writes in memory of her late brother, William J. Craddock, a published novelist and columnist for the Good Times. She lives on a farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains with a lot of animals, plants, and her significant other.

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