Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!
Mr. Mueller's Eighth Grade


Eighth Grade Logo
Welcome to Mr. Mueller's Eighth Grade Language Arts website. Below you will find links to the short stories and the last link is a pattern for your dodecahedrons.





Short Stories

The Secret Life of Walter
      Mitty
There Will Come Soft
      Rains

Coming of Age
The Leave-Taking
A Lifetime of Chances
All Summer in a Day
True Love
Light Verse
Strikebreaker




Dodecahedron Pattern

Digital Pattern
   
A Lifetime of Chances
By Timothy L. Personias


     I remember certain fall days. The first fall days, really, when an uncertain cold front would drop out of Canada temporarily pushing the muggy air of summer out of the upper Midwest. If you've ever lived there, you know how refreshing those suddenly clear, brisk days can be--days when you want to live just to breathe that clear, cool air from the tundra.
     Those fronts also brought thousands of geese to my home in Wisconsin, on the edge of Horicon Marsh. Canada geese--big, black, white and gray. I'd hear the murmuring rumor of them for some days; a late night whisper of honking, far away in the dark. I'd look for them every morning, sometimes calling my father at the federal wildlife refuge headquarters to ask if anyone had yet seen them.
     Finally they'd arrive--chevron after chevron traced thinly against the sky, looming larger in their descent--some neatly overshooting the refuge and resorting to a spectacular side-slip stall, plummeting like skydivers until they unfurled their wings with a rifle-sharp crack of suddenly compressed air. For a moment, even now, the air is filled with the snapping reports of braking geese, and I am standing outside our house, watching them settle softly over the marsh. In my commonest memory, they arrive all at once, changing summer into fall, instantly, by their presence.
     The geese were a package deal. You had to take the good with the bad. The good parts were many, and wonderful, and I don't know that I've ever been as content as when they sang me to sleep on crisp autumn nights. But later on, after the start of the hunting season, there was the bad part too--the cripples. They were the result, largely, of the slobs we collectively referred to as "Milwaukee hunters." In all fairness I cannot condemn every hunter from Milwaukee or Madison or Chicago that came to the marsh. But there was the certain sect of mostly suburban idiots who migrated to the marsh in the fall with the geese. The kind of "sportsmen" who measure the quality of their hunt by the number of rounds they fire.
     To be sure, every hunter will at some time cripple and lose game. It is the inevitable consequence of pursuit. But there is a question of ethics, too, and another of competence. I was then, and I still am, a hunter. And I resist anyone's attempt to classify me in a group that includes them.
     I think of the man I once saw kill a goose cleanly on his first shot and who was then ridiculed by his partners for having to end his “shooting” for the year - the limit on geese being one bird per season. On another occasion a pair of clowns came equipped with a super-8 movie camera. One filmed as the other shot a goose and then laughingly ran down the wounded bird and finished it off. The 'hunter" swung the goose around in great circles by its head until, to his great amusement, the neck broke and tore away. The grinning sport was left holding up the bloody head for the camera.
     But mostly the flock of cripples grew out of a practice known as "skybusting," exercised by those who didn't know the effective range of their weapons, or didn't care. This type of behavior was exemplified by a man I once observed from my own front porch, who crippled and sailed a dozen birds before he luckily broke the next bird's wing and was forced to collect it and quit for the day. He must also have been relieved, I think, to get away from our house and my redoubtable sister, who had charged him at least twice in his nearby blind, hurling insults and curses that surprised my mother and impressed me, at least, with their worldliness.
     There was nothing I could do about the hunters. They came and went in their fat, shiny cars. They left behind a legacy of wounded geese. But there was something I could do about those birds.
     On a typical fall day, the school bus would drop me off at the end of our driveway in the late afternoon. I can still feel the sense of relief I had when I finally jumped out of that stale, creaking bus, done with school for another day. Almost done, that is. I had one more thing to do.
     I fairly ran down the half-mile-long dirt road to the old red-and-white farmhouse at its end, just inside the refuge boundary on the edge of the marsh. I was inside for only a minute, long enough to shuck off my stiff school clothes and pull on my faded and threadbare jeans, plaid shirt, patched rubber boots, a tattered camouflage jacket and a drooping canvas hat. Marsh clothes. Only then did I feel really finished with school and free from all the loathesome rituals that went with It.
     I'd duck into the shed and stuff several small gunny sacks into the game pouch of my coat and then head across the old, overgrown cow pasture to the big fields of corn and alfalfa, also inside the refuge, that always harbored big flocks of loafing geese. I'd be excited and hopeful that today might be a good day, that I would find some of the cripples hiding in the great flocks, catch them, and take them home to join the sick and injured geese I had already captured.
     In season, the makeshift pen in back of our long shed sheltered afflicted birds of many kinds: a great-horned owl, screech owls, ducks, pheasants, a rare swan, one great blue heron, a red-tailed hawk. And, of course, the geese. In my best season--not theirs--I caught 96 wounded geese, scratching the tally marks into the plaster wall outside the pen.
     We sent most of these to game farm or zoos in the late fall, when there were no more to find. But others would die of their wounds, and a lucky few, those with wings broken beyond the outer joint, would heal well enough to fly again. There were very good and hopeful days when I would let these few out of the pen, cross my fingers for them, yell wildly, and chase them into the sky.
     But catching the birds in the big fields had its moments, too. I would creep through the still-standing corn to mid-field, then crawl on my belly to the edge of the adjacent hay field where the birds usually rested in the late afternoon. By moving slowly on all fours, staying just inside the shield of screening corn, I was often able to crawl within twenty feet of the edge of a flock that numbered easily in the thousands. I sometimes stayed hidden for an hour or more, watching them graze and preen and squabble, laughing quietly at such a picture of organized confusion.
     Sometimes I'd imagine a far away teacher shaking a concerned finger at me, scolding, "You should be more involved in extra-curricular activities." I laughed too loud at that thought once and the nearest geese looked my way with blinking concern. But I stayed silent and still for a while, and the geese forgot about me.
     When the sun began to set behind me, I knew I'd have to make my move. Gathering my legs under me, I'd charge full bore into the open field, running all out just for the fun of it, crazily, yelling, laughing. Instantly, panic would spread through the flock. I'd be engulfed in a dark cloud of rising geese, deafened by the wild crescendo of thousands of pairs of pumping wings and a thousand-part honking harmony as the huge birds panicked all around and above me. Some crashed into each other in their mid-air hysteria–-Thwock...Thwock...Thwock--wings flailing wings as they scrambled into flight.
     The geese disappeared rapidly. Most settled out on the marsh where they always roosted at night anyway. Some dropped into nearby fields for a last bite. I hope they didn't mind my intrusion too much. After all, I was there for a reason. I was there to find the handful of birds that could not join the others in flight, and I would run several lengths of that field each evening, chasing down cripples.
     A Canada goose is a large bird, and when cornered it can present to the novice a sobering spectacle--feathers ruffled, hissing madly, wings held at the ready to batter the enemy with their club-like, thickened joints. Most of the cripples could be run down easily and pinned, the birds falling into a helpless, shock-induced stupor. Some were not so easy. Just as I was closing in on them, they would turn to confront me, holding their ground. Fewer still would actually attack. After one of these surprise counterattacks, and a rather embarrassing retreat on my part, I devised an effective capture technique for the bold ones.
     Mimicking a snake charmer, I would entice them to strike at one of my hands with their bill. Then quickly grabbing their neck with my other hand, I would flip them on their back and pin them. This often worked. Other times, I would learn how sharply geese could bite. In either case, l eventually pinned the bird. Then, out came a gunny sack large enough to fit over the bird but snug enough to pin its wings. I tied the bag loosely around the base of its neck, so it couldn't worm out of captivity, then left it to run after the next cripples. When there were no more to be found, I would go back and collect the bagged birds, walking home through the then-silent fields, clutching two or three or even four lumpy, squirming bundles, a long-necked head of a bewildered goose protruding from each.
     The new birds settled into the pen flock quickly, their size and fierceness determining each one's new rank in the pecking order, and they quickly adapted to my routine of caring for them. As the hunting season progressed, the flock grew larger and the days grew shorter. Eventually, it was dark when I fed them in the morning before walking down to meet the school bus.
     The water tub would often freeze over, and I'd smash the crust with an axe and bring a bucket of hot water from the kitchen so that the geese might have longer to drink. It was harder to find any greenery for them in late fall, and later, when the snows came, I would pry up the weathered boards of an old pen to find a few handfuls of clover. The geese treasured these morsels most, disdaining any corn until the last green leaf was gone, squabbling and pecking for the last bite.
     All the while, it never seemed like work to me. While I could be hard to find when the lawn needed mowing or the trash begged for burning, I never forgot to care for my birds. My birds. My special friends that I fed and watered and talked to and listened to and just liked to be around.
     I liked to walk down the long narrow shed in the gloom of morning, more feeling than seeing my way, smelling the stack of bedding straw outside the pen and listening to the quiet clucks and cackles and whistles of the flock. Finally, the door would creak open at my touch, and the birds hushed instantly, shuffling to the far side of the pen. Uncertain. When steaming water splashed into the tub and rustling ears of corn dropped at their feet, they remembered and would scatter again, drinking, eating, squabbling, chattering, oblivious to the boy sitting quietly on the bale of hay in the corner. They pecked even at the corn the boy always left between his feet. Did they even see me? Did they know they were with a silent, smiling boy who suddenly felt too good to go to school and wondered if anyone would notice if he didn't?
     I like to remember those mornings. Those were rare times for me, when getting up early was easy and the purpose rewarding. After we shipped the birds to the game farm, things were different. I avoided the shed for weeks. And mornings, bleak and still, were best slept through.
     During the second year of my goose collecting, I started the mercy killings. By then, I'd seen enough birds die to recognize the doomed ones--the ones infected and poisoned with lead. I was already a surgeon of the crudest sort and had amputated several wings. That in itself was a difficult job. We operated only on birds with shattered wings, the ones with shards of bone jutting out. They would never fly again, and they seemed to wonder what the useless and stinking mass of feathers was that they constantly tripped on. So we would cut off the wing. One of my brothers or me holding the bird down, the other cutting quickly with a clean, carefully honed jackknife.
     Sometimes it was easy...on us. And sometimes not. A severed blood vessel would suddenly squirt out a thin, curving stream of blood that splattered our clothes and hands. Then we had to pinch the twitching stub with our fingers until the flow stopped and the blood congealed and it was safe to let the stunned bird go. They plodded dazedly back to the flock, leaning crazily to one side until they learned to adjust to their lost symmetry. We plodded sullenly back to the house to wash off the blood. It was a funny feeling when a live bird's blood spurted all over your hands. Afterward, Mom made us wash up thoroughly, but for days I still felt the sensation of hot blood running down my fingers. It took me a long time to rub it away. I really don't know If we saved any geese with our surgery, but in spite of out crudeness, we never lost any.
     Of course, the mercy killings were different. One morning I would open the door to the pen and, as the birds shuffled to the other side, one or two would be left behind, unable to walk. For a few days, their only locomotion was their wings; they'd push and flap themselves around to eat and drink. These birds, like the amputees, had to become fierce to maintain their rank and fill their crops. Eventually, their wings would fall too, and I would have to bring them their own corn and water, standing guard over them to make sure they had their fill. For them, however, the pattern was inescapable.
     First the legs would go, then the wings, and ultimately the will. Their poisoned, infected bodies finally succumbed to a creeping paralysis. On their last day they would sit alone, neck drooping, head bobbing rhythmically up and down, milky eyes swollen nearly shut, gasping. In the mornings I would find their stiff, lonely corpses. Unable to bury them in the now-frozen ground, I would carry them down to the edge of the marsh, hurtling them as far as I could. I watched with stony silence till the reeds unbent and resumed a swaying guard over their new charges. I'd trudge back up the hill to our house without looking back.
     Too many died that way. I had this notion of cruelty then, and I thought that theirs was a cruel death. I didn’t want to see it again. So I started to kill them.
     I would wait till they couldn't move anymore, wait until I was sure they couldn't come back. I hoped every morning to see them back on their feet again. It never happened.
     The first one was the worst. I watched the slow sickness taking over a large, fierce gander. I tried not to believe that he was doomed, but even his great will was not enough. I fed him separately for a couple days, trying not to look right at him, trying not to see his death approaching, slowly, inexorably. I don't know today if I wanted to kill him for my sake or his.
     They had become my special friends, these birds. I couldn't save them, but maybe I could spare them. I debated how to do this. Should I shoot the gander, suffocate him, or even have a vet euthanize it for me? Eventually, I knew I couldn't have a stranger do it, that it was my obligation, a sorrowful portion of the commitment I had made to the geese, including this perishing gander, and that I would have to do it quickly and quietly.
     I found a stout, short-handled club, ridiculously large for the task. I was going to do it in the morning, but I found many excuses to put it off till later. That evening, I could delay no longer. I walked into the pen and hoped he was already dead. The other geese bunched nervously in one corner, and he was left alone with me in another. He couldn't move around anymore, and he was starving slowly, unable to eat, or not caring to.
     I knelt down beside him and sat still for some time. I wanted a miracle. I wished for one. I prayed for one.
     “Show a little mercy, God . . . is that too much to ask?" I guess it was. I thought about the local priest who told me that the "other" animals didn't have souls, and don't worry about them. Just who the hell was he to know that? I was mad and scared and sad for the whole world and me and a goose.
     I weakly raised the club above my head, summoning, it seemed, all of my strength to hold it there. Trying to comfort the gander and not knowing how, I cradled his sagging head in my free hand and felt a muffled, guttural honk work up his long neck, but the once-vibrant, resonating call vented quietly as a gasp. His milky eyes were seeing something else, far away from where we were.
     For one last moment he was high, so very high, the half-frozen tundra far below and he was heading north, leading the flock, wings pumping, heart pounding, singing. And in a terrible moment, I suddenly knew every word to his song and heard every voice in the flock's clarion harmony. I looked to him for help, but he was gone. I saw that he had died weeks before, falling to earth, falling from grace. And before I could cry for him, the club arced resolutely down. He shivered a moment and then stilled. His life passed quickly, quietly.
     There is, I think, some part within us that tries to save us from pain, covering and protecting us with a blanket of numbness. A kind of mental paralysis stops us from asking the endless, unanswerable questions, stops guilt and fear from taking over. The numbness came when I clubbed the goose to death. I was almost outside myself then, watching a grim little boy do this thing for me so I wouldn't have to feel it. Well, not much.
     There were others after him, but none so difficult. I slowly acquired the traits of the man that destroy the boy. Stoicism. Cynicism. I don't think I was born a cynic. I remember endless hope and constant expectation, but no cynicism. I think my other faults--the greed, the jealousy, the capacity for hate--were always there, but the cynicism I had to grow and nurture myself. The hope got bashed in too often, the expectation always went unanswered. The geese died. They would never fly again. I began to kill the hopeless ones. Cynicism strengthened in me. I learned to see the gray in black-and-white.
     I remember the high hopes I had in the beginning, in the first year, and I remember the weary resignation I had the last year. Finally I quit. I avoided the fields in the fall, where I knew I would find cripples. It was all hopeless.
     I remember the day I lost the last goose. It was December. The marsh was freshly frozen over, the geese gone south. The ice was just solid enough to walk on, so I headed out among the cattails and muskrat houses for one last roundup of stray cripples. I shuffled along the slick, thin ice, half-stepping and sliding, listening to the sonorous ping and groan of settling ice and watching fresh cracks slice outward under my heavy boots. At last, the narrow channel I was following widened, opening into what we called the big ponds--a series of connected small lakes, really--and now a vast, gleaming shelf of ice, windswept clean of snow.
     Across this shimmering expanse, a weak sun stealing away silently behind him, stood the last goose. His broken wing dangled limply on the ice and I could see that he was looking to the sky. Across the gulf of space between us the wind carried his thin, wavering call.
     I could not catch this last goose. He outran me easily on the stick footing and disappeared into the snowless, encircling tangle of cattails, leaving a trail only a fox could follow...and would. And I, bent against the wind, turned my back once more, and shuffled my way home across a sea of singing ice. It's hard to describe how you become so attached to a place where you worked and played, lived and took life, and loved and hated everything around you at one time or another. A place on which you look back and want to feel that you made a difference in. A farmer I knew put it this way: “You got to make your mark on the land. The most turrible thing in this life will be havin' to die without makin' your mark... knowin' you ain't left someplace no better'n you found it."
     So I now look back at that place I hold so dearly and wonder if my 'mark' is there or not, knowing that I am forever marked by the marsh. It's hard to describe how I became so attached to it. Part of my fiber is part of its fiber. When I left it, I left behind some part of myself. My family moved away from the marsh when I was seventeen. It hurt: a dull ache--real, physical pain--deep inside.
     One March, I was returning to my new home in Montana from a trip to the South. A scheduling conflict unexpectedly found me on a jet flying over central Wisconsin. We flew out of the megalopolis of the Milwaukee area and into the hinterlands of dairy country. It was late evening, but the lights from closely packed farms and small, ubiquitous towns, were visible everywhere below. Even at 20,000 feet the land was noticeably lighted. I peered out the tiny window, straining to see my old home, wondering if I would be able to recognize it from the air, suddenly realizing that I wouldn't need to. There was the marsh, plain as the night--a broad, oblong, black hole on the landscape. Thirty thousand acres of darkness, to be exact. My place. It hurt a little to fly over and not be stopping.
     We crossed the marsh quickly, the dull ache again in my stomach and a thousand memories racing so fast I couldn't pick out a single one to stop the flow. All of them compressed into a sort of melody, the countless notes indiscernible. For me, it was the song of a home that I couldn’t have again, a siren’s song I heard but could not heed. Belted immobile in the jetliner, hurtling forward, I understood the torment of Odysseus, lashed to the mast of his ship. And then, sometime later, I am huddled down behind a clump of willows along the Beaverhead River in southern Montana, hunting ducks. A flock of geese sounds in the distance and heads my way.
     Instinctively, I slip off the safety of my gun. Then I’m laughing to myself and pushing the safety back on.
     The birds, about twenty, are coming right at me. When they are almost overhead I leap up and shout at them, “Too low, dummies!” Then, just talking, “Any fool could have had you.” The flock splits around me and frantically gains altitude.
     My hunting companion runs over to me, asking breathlessly if my gun was jammed and why didn’t I shoot? I told him that I didn’t shoot geese, as I had told him before. But he didn’t believe me. After all, I had a license. “And the season’s open! How could you miss a chance like that?”
     How, indeed. How could I explain to him that I had already used up a lifetime of chances?





~Complaint Department~





© all rights reserved
Joshua Schenck 2003