Read Chasing Redbird Online

Authors: Sharon Creech

Chasing Redbird (3 page)

Uncle Nate would say, “Guess I'll go on alone and meet my sweetheart.” I never paid any attention to that; I figured he was joking.

When Uncle Nate went off into the hills, he'd sometimes be gone the whole day, and now and then he'd even take a sleeping bag and camp overnight. He rarely chose to work the farm because he'd made his resolutions about farming.

He once tried to raise chickens, but then decided he couldn't bear to see them killed, so he made a resolution not to raise chickens anymore. Next, he grew tobacco. Our land is perfect for tobacco, as it is moist, dark earth that gets a fair amount of sun and rain. Although Uncle Nate liked his smoke every now and then, he got worried when the Surgeon General said that tobacco was dangerous to everybody's health, and so he made a resolution that he would not raise tobacco.

We had a whole big herd of dairy cows for a while, but they got a disease and we lost twenty-seven in two days. Uncle Nate said he couldn't bear to see such sweet creatures die, and so he made a resolution not to keep cows, except for two which gave us our milk.

Pigs would be like chickens and have to be slaughtered, so he made a resolution about pigs. Corn and tomatoes were next. Uncle Nate practically gave them away at the market, being unable to charge hardly anything for them, as this was against his resolution not to cheat people. Aunt Jessie finally told him to quit planting them, as they were going to waste and we were losing our shirts. So now corn and tomatoes were okay, but not in too much abundance, only what we could eat ourselves and give to the neighbors. Since we didn't make much money off of Uncle Nate's efforts on the farm, it was a good thing my dad worked full time as manager of the county airport.

Aunt Jessie was a redhead, which is how she got her nickname Redbird from Uncle Nate, and because of her red hair she stood out from the rest of us. Uncle Nate and Dad were sort of average-looking, but all of us kids looked like my mother: dark hair, dark eyes, little noses and ears, long skinny legs. Mom once said she felt like a photocopy machine. She said this to Mrs. Flint one day in the grocery store, and Mrs. Flint must have thought Mom was complaining about the number of children she had, because Mrs. Flint said, “Ain't you ever been told about birth control? A person doesn't have to have a million kids, you know. You can go to the doctor and get a pill.”

Aunt Jessie was with us at the time, and she said, “Doctor, schmoctor. God gave her these children, and if God wants to give her a pill, then let Him do it.”

It was a sensitive issue, and I wouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole, so as usual I kept my mouth shut.



he day I'd seen Jake Boone at the store, May stood up after dinner and said, “I'm tired of people asking me which Taylor I am. I'm tired of you all saying ‘Bonnie—Gretchen—Zinny—May—' before figuring out which one you're talking to.”

May was launching into one of her rages, but I knew exactly what she meant. My parents were always saying “Bon-Gret-May-Zinny?” or “Will-Ben-Sam?”

May plunged on. “I'm going to make it easy for you to remember exactly which one I am.” She waggled a striped ribbon in her hair. “It's multi-colored,” she said. “
is for
ulti-colored and for
ay.” I thought she was a bit old for hair ribbons, but apparently she'd seen a magazine article that said that ribbons were back in style. May was big on style.

Gretchen, who is seventeen, then announced she would wear only green (“
is for
reen and
retchen,” she said). This wouldn't be a big hardship for her, because green had always been her favorite color.

onnie decided to wear only
lue. This did not leave me with a good option, as I could not think of any colors beginning with
. Bonnie suggested I paint a
innia (it's a flower) on all my clothes.

That night I did exactly that. When I went downstairs, with a newly-painted red zinnia on my shirt, my mother looked at that
ed flower, obviously puzzled. In her tired mind, she was probably trying to remember if she had named one of her children something beginning with
Rebecca? Ruby?
Or did the
lower mean my name began with
? Had she named me

“It's a
innia, Mom. I'm

“I know it,” she said. “I can tell you all apart. It's just that my head is full of other things. If I were blindfolded and you walked in the room, I'd know it was you.”


“Because I know who Zinny is. I know what she sounds like, smells like. I know what she—radiates. I know who she

I wanted to ask
And who is that?
, but I didn't.

“Anyway, Zinny,” she said, “that's not a zinnia you've painted. That's a rose, isn't it?”

What do you know about that? I'd gone and painted a rose on my shirt. It was spooky.

My younger brothers took a different approach.
ill (he's ten) decided to eat only
hite foods (rice, potatoes, bread, the whites of eggs, etc.);
en (he's nine) would eat
eans with every meal, even breakfast; and
am (at seven, the youngest) chose
oup. It wouldn't necessarily make it easier to tell them apart unless you were at the dinner table with them, but you could usually count on the fact that some of their food would be on their clothes, and so that might give you a hint.

Mom and Dad made an effort to use these hints and call us by our right names, but Uncle Nate didn't even try. He had always called all the boys
(sometimes referring to “the littlest tadpole” or “the biggest tadpole”) and all of us girls
. I can assure you that Gretchen was not thrilled to be known as “the biggest pumpkin.”

Except for my brother Ben, my sisters and brothers liked to be inside with the computer and television and stereo and phone. Ben and I would rather be outdoors, especially since I had gotten healthier. I hadn't had a cold or anything like that in years. The worst punishment was to have to clean the house or stay in my room. “There isn't enough
in there,” Aunt Jessie used to say, and I agreed. She and I did a lot of inside things outside: peel potatoes, sort laundry, fold clothes. We even ironed outside, as long as it wasn't raining, and she had a twenty-foot-long extension cord that ran from her kitchen to the outside, just for this purpose.

I shared a room with my three sisters, and at night, when May and Gretchen thought Bonnie and I were both asleep, they would whisper. Once I heard them playing the
game. It went like this:

May whispered, “So what am I? You're the oldest and smartest, Gretchen. Everyone knows that.”

“You're the prettiest, May.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Of course. Everyone does.”

“And Bonnie—she's the nicest,” May said.

“Will's the strongest and Ben's the gentlest, don't you think?” Gretchen asked.

“Yes, and Sam, he's the cutest.”

“What about Zinny?” Gretchen asked. “We forgot Zinny.”

“She's the—the—
dirt-daubing doodlebug!”

They laughed and laughed.



he day after I saw Jake at Mrs. Flint's store was Saturday. Dad and Uncle Nate were up in the field setting out tomato plants. They'd left a tray of plants down by the “squirt gardens” behind the house. These were the mini-gardens that each of us kids kept, and the week before, I had planted zinnias around the border of mine. I didn't like to see that lonely brown earth, so plain and bare like the top of Aunt Jessie's grave.

There were three rules for our squirt gardens: We could plant whatever we wanted; we had to take care of our own gardens (weeding and watering and de-bugging); and we could do whatever we wanted with what we grew, which was basically eat it or sell it. The first year I planted mine, I was so selfish with what I grew that I wouldn't even let
eat any of it, and I sure as heck wasn't going to give it to anyone else. Then I cried when it all went rotten.

That Saturday, I planted and watered six tomato plants in my squirt garden, and then told each plant it would be okay. Aunt Jessie had firmly believed that if you treated each plant as an individual, it would be a happier plant and give you more tomatoes.

When I was finished, I snuck off, raced up the hill behind the barn and down the other side, and ran along the creek until I came to the start of my trail. I felt like I owned the trail because I had discovered it. Actually I had
discovered it, a few weeks before Aunt Jessie died. The trail had been there for at least two hundred years.

I had found it by accident when I was poking along the creek bank, following a sleepy frog. It wasn't a very clever frog, for he leaped away from the water into the grass and soon was tangled up in it. That's when I stepped on something hard, which shifted beneath me, slurping in the mud. It was a large, flat piece of slate, covered with dead leaves and grass.

When I moved back, there was another slurp as I stepped on a slab laid end to end with the first one. For the next few hours, I cleared away grass and debris, uncovering a row of similar stones, leading in a line from the creek on up the hill.
Zinnia Taylor: explorer!

For a few days, I kept my discovery a secret, wanting to have something of my own, but Ben and Sam followed me one day, and when they saw my newly uncovered trail—which, by this time, was half a mile long—they raced back to get Will and Bonnie. Soon the whole family was up there, stepping along the stones. Everybody was flapping around, saying, “What is it?” and “Where'd it come from?” and “Who did it?” and “Where does it go?”

Only Uncle Nate and Aunt Jessie were quiet. Uncle Nate was kicking the stones and looking all around, as if he'd just landed on this planet. At last he said, “I never heard such a noisy bunch of tadpoles and pumpkins in all my born days.”

“Do you know what it is?” Dad asked.

“It's the dag-blasted trail,” Uncle Nate said.

dag-blasted trail?”

dag-blasted trail. Goes nowhere.”

“It must go
,” Will said.

“Goes nowhere,” Aunt Jessie said, echoing Uncle Nate.

“I'm going to walk the whole thing,” Gretchen said.

“Me too!” Will agreed.

I don't know what came over me. “You can't go,” I said. “It's covered. Only this part is cleared because
cleared it. It's mine.”

“Don't be a toad,” Will said. “It isn't yours.”

I felt as if he were robbing me of my most prized possession. There was something about the trail—I couldn't have said what—that was suddenly so important to me that I became determined to defend it. “I discovered it. I cleared it.”

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