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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/27/15

Meeting Lila

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Lila squatted, wrapped her arms around her knees, and leaned back on her heels to be on their level to watch them eat. The birds trotted around, eyes glued to the ground, eating as fast and as much as they could. A half scoop wasn't really enough for six chickens and two ducks, but her mother said they couldn't afford more and the chickens should work harder to find bugs. The ducks, according to mother, were unwelcome guests. They had just shown up one day at the pond and were eating the fish the family needed. Although their eggs were larger than chicken eggs, they hid them so they were harder to find. Mother told her she should scare them away, but Lila couldn't do that. She wished she could cluck in duck language and tell them to leave before they ended up in the soup pot. They always had a silly but friendly smile on their faces, but that was probably just the way their bills were shaped. Unlike the cow, they didn't act particularly happy. They were all business, waddling around and gobbling everything they could. She liked their shiny green and blue feathers and had several in her collection. The chickens looked a bit mean down here at their level. Their beaks were sharp, and they kept nervously darting their heads and stepping in quick jerks as they searched for food. But she knew they weren't mean. They were chickens and chickens just look that way. She had a lot of their feathers, but they weren't as special as the ducks'. Their babies were as dear as anything she'd ever seen -- dear as kittens. But she didn't like to think of the two together.

Lila had asked her father once if they could have a cat, but he said the only way they could afford a cat was if they had mice. No mice in the house -- no cat. Same with a dog. No robbers -- no dog.

Two crows dived out of the sky and began strutting around plucking seeds and cawing to scare away the other birds. Lila ran at them, crying, "Get away, you!" They flapped off on their black wings and settled in the corn field with a few nasty caws. A feather from one of them floated down. Lila picked it up, black glinting blue in the sun, and stuck it in her dark hair. I'll be the crow girl -- but I won't bully the other birdies.

The seven hectares of land the family owned were planted in corn. Now it wasn't even as tall as she was, but in the fall when it was taller even than her parents, men would come with a big machine and cut it all down and give them money. The whole family worked to take care of the corn: pulling weeds, pumping water, putting on special chemicals this kind of corn needed. Lila didn't have to work too much on the corn because she was only eight and still going to school. But her brother was 16 and had just stopped school so he could work more and help the family. Her grandfather owned the farm, but he was old now, so her mother and father did most of the work.

Lila remembered when she was little they grew lots of vegetables and fruit -- sold some, ate the rest. But that didn't bring enough money, so now it was all corn that got sent away to another country for animal feed, and they bought food from the store. They had milk from the cow, though, and fish from the pond, eggs from the chickens, and when a chicken got too old to lay eggs, they had chicken soup. Soon maybe duck soup, but Lila didn't want to think about that. Maybe if she worked extra hard to find all their eggs, her mother would let the ducks stay.

She walked over to the blossoming fig tree and sat in the swing that hung from the largest limb. She loved to swing and was now big and strong enough to do it by herself. She pulled on the rope with her arms and pushed with her legs, going back and forth higher and higher until it seemed she could fly into the air, over the house and fields, fly like the ducks and crows, much higher than the clumsy chickens. Once she had tried it, jumped off the swing at the highest point, but instead of flying she had fallen and chipped her front tooth. The tooth had already fallen out and grown back once, and she thought it would do that again. She was disappointed when mother told her no, that only happens once. Since then she flew only with her mind, not her body.

"Lila, come in," father called from the porch of their house. "We need to get ready to go." Today was a festival, and they were going to ride the bus into the city for music and games in the park.

She dragged her heels on the ground to slow down, then jumped off and ran to the house. Its plaster, once white, was now gray and had crumbled off in places, uncovering the stones beneath. Instead of climbing the steps, she reached her hands up towards her father, who grabbed them and swung her onto the wooden porch, both of them laughing.

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William T. Hathaway is the author of eight books and was a Fulbright professor of creative writing at universities in Germany, where he currently lives. His environmental novel, Wellsprings: A Fable of Consciousness, tells of an old woman and a (more...)

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