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Authors: Sharon Creech

Chasing Redbird (5 page)

BOOK: Chasing Redbird

That night after I had put away my new bottle caps, and the four of us girls were all in bed, with Bonnie fast asleep and me pretending to be, I listened to May and Gretchen whispering.

“Do you think Jake is handsome?” May asked.

“His hair is nice,” Gretchen said.

“And he has nice muscles.”


They were quiet for a few minutes and I thought maybe they had gone to sleep, but then May said, “I wish Zinny didn't collect things.”

“How come?”

“It's so—so immature, don't you think?”

“I collect green things,” Gretchen admitted.

“That's different. That's not immature. But bottle caps—now

They laughed.

Too bad
, I thought. It made me even more determined to keep on collecting them. But then, in the quiet, in the dark, I wondered if they were right. Was I immature? Questions like this can keep you awake a long time.



his is why I thought Aunt Jessie's death was my fault:

The day before Aunt Jessie died, I was up working on the trail. I was thinking about her because the anniversary of Rose's death was approaching, and Aunt Jessie always got very quiet around this time, very still, as if her whole body were holding itself in, as if she were suspending herself in time in order to get through this anniversary without disintegrating into a million pieces.

A cold wind reared up on the trail, sweeping heavy clouds overhead and dumping hail on me. I huddled beneath a pine tree near the path, watching the hail become bigger and bigger, sailing down from the clouds and whacking into the ground, bouncing in all directions. A thick layer of pine needles carpeted the ground around me, and I trailed my trowel through them.

When the trowel hit something hard, I scraped the pine needles away, uncovering a flat piece of slate, similar to that used along the trail. It was odd for the slate to be there, some twenty feet away from the trail. I cleared a wider space, but there was only this single slab set in the dirt.

Clumps of mud and a worm clung to the bottom of the slab. As I dug in the space beneath where the stone had been, the trowel snagged something. I unearthed a small leather pouch with a drawstring around its neck. Inside was a gold coin.

What a discovery! Suddenly I was
Zinnia Taylor: famous archeologist
, single-handedly responsible for the discovery of the century. On closer examination, it didn't seem to be a coin at all, but some sort of medallion. On one side was the outline of a woman's head, and on the other side was a man's head and these engraved initials:

I had the strangest sense that I'd held this medallion before, and it was a creepy feeling. Seeing it in my palm like that reminded me of something, something—but what? Had I been here long ago, maybe in another life? Had I held this coin? Had I seen someone bury it? I didn't like the feeling, and so I slid the medallion back into the pouch and stuffed it in my jacket, and when the hail stopped, I returned to clearing the trail.

But I couldn't keep my mind on my work. I kept trying to guess what the initials
stood for. Were they one person's initials, like maybe Thomas Newton William Morris? Or were they two people's initials, like maybe Tom Newton, Willa Morris? Did the initials stand for something else?
Time Never Will Move?

When a second bank of dark clouds raised their heads in the distance, I raced for home. Along the way, a harmless little grass snake slithered across the trail and, impulsively, I snatched it up.
Zinnia Taylor: noted biologist captures rare species
. In the barn I found an old coffee can wedged behind oil cans, dumped the sack of screws which it had contained, dropped the snake inside, and punched holes in the lid.

Aunt Jessie appeared at the barn door. “I wondered where you'd got to,” she said. She was standing stiffly, her arms pressed against her sides.

“Look—” I brought out the leather pouch and handed it to her. “It was under a rock along the trail.”

She opened the pouch and emptied the medallion into her palm.

“And look what else I found—”

Now why did I do this? I knew she was afraid of snakes. I knew it, but still I held it up to show her. Maybe I was proud of it. It was so small, so innocent looking, not like a
snake. But maybe, maybe, I wanted to tease her, to scare her a little bit, to make her not so stiff that day, to make her like the
Aunt Jessie. She glanced from the pouch in her hand to the snake in mine, took a step back, and let out a thin wail. She dropped the pouch and staggered back toward the doorway, as Uncle Nate entered.

That night, Aunt Jessie whipped out her bottom dresser drawer and plonked it in the middle of the room. She lined it with her marriage quilt and tried to curl up inside. She was a bit big for the drawer. Uncle Nate sat on the edge of the bed pleading with his Redbird to get out of that drawer, but it was as if she couldn't hear him, as if she'd already started on her journey.

I knew what that drawer meant, and I was scared to heaven and back. “Please,” I begged her. “Please—”

But she kept mumbling about
the hand of God
and calling me
Rose-baby, Rose-baby
, and my mother snatched me away and took me back to our side of the house.

In the middle of the night, according to my father, Aunt Jessie sat straight up and shouted, “I hope it's a miracle I'm about to see!” and then she lay back and closed her eyes, and she was dead.



verybody was torn up about Aunt Jessie, but I think Uncle Nate and I took it the hardest. They let me see her the next morning. They'd taken her out of the drawer and put her on the bed. Uncle Nate was kneeling beside her, saying “Redbird, Redbird,” over and over. I wanted to jump on the bed and pull her up, but she was lying so still, just like Rose, and her hand looked just like Rose's, and it made me crazy. I had to get out of there. I had to get outside where there was air.

Later that day, I was alone in my room
(Zinnia Taylor: agent of doom)
when Uncle Nate came in, carrying a stick.

“Where is it?” he demanded.

“Where's what?”

“That creature—” He thrashed his stick around the room, poking under the bed and dresser.

“In the closet,” I said.

“Get it.”

I pulled out the coffee can.

“Open it,” he said. “Now pick it up by its tail. Now snap it like this—” He whipped his wrist in the air.

I did as he directed, holding the snake by the tail and whipping it in the air. There was one sharp snap, and then the snake hung lifeless. I dropped it and it lay still on the floor. “What'd I do?”

“Killed it,” he said. Then he stood over it and thrashed the already dead snake with his stick, over and over and over. He was like a wild man, and I'd never in my life seen him like that. Usually he was the quietest, gentlest man you ever did see.

No one knew about the snake except me and Uncle Nate. I couldn't tell anyone. I didn't want anyone to know I'd killed Aunt Jessie. The doctor blamed her diabetes; he said her sugar was way out of sight. But I didn't believe it. How could anything so good as sugar kill a person?

For weeks, I hardly said a word to anyone. People buzzed around me like flies on a honey jar, knowing how close I'd been to Aunt Jessie, but their attention only made me feel worse. It kept reminding me of what I'd done and that I was
Zinnia Taylor: killer
. I had terrible, terrible nightmares in which people were chasing me through tall, stiff trees, and the farther I ran, the narrower were the spaces between the trees, so that I'd be squeezing myself through. I was afraid I'd get stuck and not be able to move and it would be then that the snakes would come and get me.

At home, I'd skulk around, trying not to be noticed, and yet hoping, wishing, praying to be noticed.

And Uncle Nate? In some ways he seemed the same: He'd putter around the house and yard, he'd sit on the porch, he'd talk in his same, quiet voice to us kids. And sometimes, even, he'd talk to me, just as he used to. “Look here, pumpkin—look at this-here rock I found,” he'd say.

But there were other times when he'd look at me and not seem to know who I was, and there were times he called me Rose, and as soon as he said that name, he'd stop and turn around and stare, as if someone else—Rose? Aunt Jessie?—were standing right beside me. And there were his bouts of grumpiness, when he seemed impatient with the world, and there were his chases, too, when off he'd go, running after his Redbird.

And my parents? They were so busy, as they always were, that it would be easy to think they weren't grieving for Aunt Jessie. My mother had always been distracted—simultaneously tying Sam's shoe and scooping up someone's muddy clothes and making out a grocery list and yelling at Will to get off the roof. But now she was bewildered, as if someone had spun her around and around, and then set her free to weave and wobble through our house.

She put the milk in the oven, and the sugar in the refrigerator. She lost her car keys every single day that first week. At least once a day, while Uncle Nate was out, she slipped into his house to tidy it up, and she'd come back with her eyes all red and puffy, and you'd know she'd been crying over Aunt Jessie. Sometimes she'd go out to Aunt Jessie's bare flower border and just stand there, staring at the dirt.

For a while my father seemed as helpless as a turtle on its back. He took to digging in the garden a lot. This is not something he used to do very often, but in the first few weeks after Aunt Jessie died, you'd see him out there with his shovel and hoe, digging and scraping at the bare earth. At the dinner table, he'd turn to where Aunt Jessie used to sit and automatically say, “Jess—” and then he'd catch himself and turn beet-red and try to cover it up by saying, “Mess—what a mess that airport was today!” or “Jest gonna get some more potatoes!” and we'd all look down at our plates and pretend we hadn't heard him.

My brothers and sisters? Well, Gretchen and May did a fair amount of whispering in the first few days after Aunt Jessie died, but as to what they said, I don't know. Will lay around the house like a rug, and absolutely never mentioned Aunt Jessie's name. I heard him tell Ben, “I hate this bit about dying! I hate it!” and that's the only way I ever heard him refer to Aunt Jessie's death, as
this bit.

Sam, the youngest, became obsessed with everything to do with funerals. He wanted to know where the coffin came from, and what it was made of, and if it was waterproof, and why did people send flowers, and did many people get buried alive, and why was the coffin put under the ground—why couldn't it be kept in the barn, on and on and on and on, until people started avoiding him because they couldn't bear to think about these things one more minute.

In a way, Ben seemed to be the calmest, and at first I thought he didn't mind too much. Later I found out that he had his own way of coping.

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