A Tale Worth Twice its Weight in Cockles
“Fusty feathers!” mutters the scribetree. This is the third time she’s run out of inketberry concentrate. Her scribbler-branch is dry and the centaur’s story is still gushing.
She summons her boydboy to fly down for another jar from Scribbles & Sons. Not that she expects to get her effort’s worth from this centaur.
His clan has tied itself up in knots over their motherfield inheritance. They’ve complicated it all by mating between generations. The Court of the Folk dismissed their case, stating that they had earned their woes with their arrogant disregard of the codus-reprodus. The scribetree is not sure anymore why she agreed to ink down the tale for their last resort—the Folk Justice Reality channel.
“That will be another thirty-five cockles,” she tells the centaur, her voice cold.
“Cockles don’t grow on trees,” he hisses. He knocks down an anthill he’s been worrying as he paces the scribegrove.
The scribetree straightens her trunk and rises to her full height. “Respect the grove, centaur.”
This shuts him up. They wait for the boydboy in silence. For the first time in five days, there is is no sound in the grove. It’s the season for hibernation and migration. But this centaur wants to get his tale straightened out before his cousin-uncle can. That would be fine for the scribetree if the centaur wasn’t so tight-hoofed about his cockles.
The scribetree curls her roots to expel the nutriflow they have soaked up. She needs to save osmosis potential for more inketberry fluid.
Her boydboy returns and pours the concentrate at the base of her trunk. She swirls her roots so the concentrate will hydrate enough to take precedence over the nutriflow. Then she inhales deeply and sweats out as much water as she can from her remaining leaves. The hydrodifference shocks her roots, and inketberry fluid rushes in, courses up her trunk and suddenly, spills into every single one of her branches.
“Fust, fust, fust,” she screams. She needed to save her other branches for future inking. She must have expelled too much nutriflow, and now all of her branches are scribblers.
“What’s the matter?” The centaur watches her morphing canopy in horror.
“I’ve lost all my nutribranches. If I don’t hibernate soon, I won’t be able to grow enough new ones to weather another year. Weigh your cockles and decide how much more tale you can afford. No pay, no story,” she says.
The centaur’s self assurance gives way to desperation. “Listen, kid,” he begins.
“Don’t call me kid,” she says. “You and your clan will be compost for the grove and I’ll still be inking.”
“Fine. Sorry. Just listen. If I inherit the motherfield that is honorably due to me, I will double your cocklerate for this tale. I don’t have it all now, but I will. You know that. You’re arguing it out in folkscript yourself. I’ll mark a contract for double pay right now—a contract you draw up. I can’t even read. You know that.”
The scribetree’s roots have been aching for a complete season of nutriflow. Her branches are turning blue from the inketberry fluid. Her leaves are turning into brushes at the tip of every branch. But, with twice the cocklerate, on a tale this long, she could retire at the same time as her parent.
She shakes out her practiced scribbler-branch, splattering the first drops of fresh inketberry fluid on the ground. She can feel it. The flow is strong. She will ink the contract, and the tale after that.
“Fine, centaur,” she says. “Mark the contract first, and then, don’t leave out a single sordid detail form your drama. Your future and mine depend on what I can ink down for you here.”
A map of saigon
“Want to see another one?” he asks, leaning in closer to her under the sway of willow branches as the bayou meanders past their feet.
She doesn’t. Scars are like silenced torture carved in stone. Stone is forever. She lives for moments. But somewhere she learned that forever is the thing to look for in a man. And this man’s history is as proudly etched in his mind as it is on his body.
“Yes,” she answers. This is the first time her tongue belies her heart in front of him. It will not be the last.
He pulls off his impeccable white t-shirt in one clean move. His body is still war-ready. She wonders if it will always stay this way. She wonders what he will think of her body when it is her turn to reveal a story about herself. She wants to ask him who launders his t-shirts so perfectly for him. Her own clothes lie in two mounds, clean and dirty. But he is already telling her about the map of Saigon beneath his left nipple.
“This one is American-made. Fellow ranger. Called me papa san and grazed me with his bayonet in the same breath.”
“Why?” she asks. A flutter of hope rises in her. “Did you protect an enemy combatant? Did the ranger think you were on their side?” She imagines that this man has a fiber of compassion weaving through the sinew of his muscles. She pictures the war as a rosary of prayer beads, strung with scenes of camaraderie and brave sacrifices.
His eyes dart at her, a flash of contempt, and then a veneer of disappointment. “Do you really think that’s a possibility?” He puts his t-shirt back on, picks up a pebble and flicks it with perfect aim at the long, exposed legs of a snow white egret. “Every one of my scars was taken for our side,” he says, as the startled bird takes off and skims the opposite bank of the bayou for a safer landing spot.
“Why’d you do that?” she asks, unable to check her tone. Something has stirred in the back of her head, something her mother had told her once. She can’t recall now, but she is tempted to part the willow curtain and walk away.
But then he says, “To encourage it to fly of course—much better food in the reeds on the other side.”
“Oh, of course,” she says, relaxing. This is the first time his voice drowns out the one inside her. It will not be the last.
“How do you know all these things?” she asks, in awe of how self assured he is.
“I’ve seen so much. I’d like to show it all to you. I’m sure you’d like that too, wouldn’t you?”
She allows his reaching hand to grasp hers. She slides her other hand beneath his t-shirt and fingers the map on his torso. “Tell me this one’s story.”
sixty is just two thirties
“Why aren’t we doing this?” Rita asks, waving the hiking brochure in Seema’s face.
“Because it’s our birthday. We’re both 60 today and are now at the mercy of our hip bones.” Seema picks up a historic bus tour brochure from the display shelf at the tourist information center.
“No really, have you ever been up to the state park before?” Rita asks, her voice almost urgent.
“You know I haven’t,” Seema says, trying to remain calm. She had been looking forward to lazy afternoon of cake and champagne with her best friend, perhaps by a lake. But now she senses Rita’s stubborn streak rearing its head.
“Then remind me why we’re here, at the tourist info center of our very own town?”
“Because it’s our birthday,” Seema says.
“And?” Rita is snapping her fingers, as if to ask Seema to hurry up with the right answer.
“And we’re going to do something we’ve never tried before, as we do on every birthday,” Seema drones on to complete the sentence.
“No, we’re going to do something that scares the hell out of us,” Rita corrects her. “Because this is the first day of the rest of our lives.”
Seema pulls out a ghost tour brochure and shoves it at Rita. “I would prefer it to not be the last. Do you know how steep the ledges are along that hike?”
The sun is setting just as Seema and Rita emerge from a hairpin bend in the trail, into the valley on the other side of the hill they’ve just hiked down. An immense, sky-blue lake stretches out in front of them, its ripples lapping gently at the sand on its banks.
Seema kicks off her shoes and runs into the water until it is up to her shins. She turns around to look at Rita, who waves to her. Rita is already busy laying out a picnic blanket. Seema turns back around to rest her gaze on the calm water. The hike down was about as rough and long as she had expected, but she was able to wrest one important compromise out of Rita—that they would take the chairlift back up, even though Rita was afraid of heights. “Right up your alley of having the hell scared out of you today,” Seema told Rita when they argued over the plans.
Other than that, Rita had made up for dragging Seema here by keeping the lake a surprise, and taking care of all the arrangements, including driving them down to the park in time to complete the hike one way. She even packed their backpack and carried it the whole way, “to spare your hips,” she had teased Seema.
Calmed by the sight and feel of the lake water, Seema turns back toward Rita. As she sits down, Rita pulls a tall round box from the backpack. She also wriggles out a bottle of champagne from an insulated sleeve and hands it to Seema. “Could you pop that open, while I set this up?” she asks.
Seema has always been the champagne opener between them, but Rita has a tradition of making an excuse as she hands the bottle to her.
As Seema teases the cork out of the bottle, she watches Rita digging around in the side pocket of her backpack.
“What’re you looking for?” she asks.
Rita finds what she’s searching for and holds it out toward Seema. “Our candle.”
She opens the tall box, revealing a chocolate mousse cake—their celebration cake for the last thirty years. They’ve had it at each others children’s graduations and after successful surgeries. They’ve had it at each other’s divorces, and they’ve had it at every birthday.
Rita places their candle on top of the little cake and lights it with a match. “It’s half burned up,” Rita says, sounding a little concerned about the candle. “Remember how tall it was when we first got it?
Seema slides up, pours champagne into their plastic flutes, and handing one to Rita reminds her, “We’ve been using it for 30 yrs. Here’s to another 30 then.”
They blow the candle out together, as they have always done.