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Authors: Patricia MacLachlan

Fly Away

BOOK: Fly Away
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For Sofia, who first sang the song—

For Nicky, who sings it too.

Love,

P. M.

My thanks to Anne Ramsey, Director of the Dalcroze School at the Lucy Moses School in New York City, who adapted “The Birdies Fly Away” song from Engelbert Humperdinck and graciously gave me permission to use it. My thanks also to Haeeun Shin, talented Eurhythmics teacher at the Concord Conservatory of Music in Concord, Massachusetts, who taught the song to my grandchildren, Sofia and Nicholas.

—Patricia MacLachlan

The Birdies Fly Away

The birdies fly away, and they come back home.

The birdies fly away, and they come back home.

Fly away, fly away

All the birdies fly away,

The birdies fly away, and they come back home.

chapter 1
Secrets

We
drive across the Minnesota prairie in our old tan and green Volkswagen bus. My father does not believe in new cars. He loves the old Volkswagen with the top that pops up like a tent. He can take the motor apart and fix it himself.

In the way back are neat wooden
framed beds for sleeping. In a pen are Mama's chickens: Ella, Sofia, and Nickel. Mama loves them and never goes away for long without them. My younger sister, Grace, sits in her car seat next to me. In back of her is Teddy, the youngest, with his stuffed beaver.

My father, called Boots because he wears them, is driving, listening to opera on the radio. It is
La Traviata
.

Misterioso, misterioso altero . . .

I know it well. If a conductor dropped dead on stage I could climb up there and conduct.

Now here is something abnormal. I can't sing. When I open my mouth nothing
happens. I know the music, but I can't sing it. I can only conduct it.

My father went to Harvard. His parents expected him to be a banker like his father. In secret he planned to be a poet.

But then he discovered cows. He became a farmer.

He loves cows.

“They are poetry, Lucy,” he tells me. “I can't write anything better than a cow.”

Maggie, my mother in the front seat, wears headphones. I know she is listening to Langhorne Slim. She loves Langhorne Slim as much as my father loves opera. And I know
her
secret. She would like to sing like Langhorne Slim. She would like to
be
Langhorne Slim.

If you've got worries, then you're like me.

Don't worry now, I won't hurt you.

My younger sister, Gracie, ignores the opera and my mother's bopping around in the front seat. Gracie sings in a high perfect voice, fluttering her hands like birds.

“The birdies fly away, and they come back home.

The birdies fly away, and they come back home.”

I turn and look at my little brother, Teddy. He smiles at me and I know what that smile is all about.

In his small head he is singing the “Fly Away” chorus in private so no one can hear.

Fly away, fly away,

All the birdies fly away.

I smile back at him.

This is our secret because Teddy wants it that way.

I have known for a long time that Teddy can sing perfectly in tune even though he is not yet two. We all know he doesn't speak words yet. But only Teddy and I know that he sings. He doesn't sing the words, but sings every song with
“la la la.”
He sings to me every night, climbing out of his bed, padding into my room in the dark. He sings a peppy “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” ending with a “Yay” at the end with his hands in the air.

“La La La La

LaLaLaLaLa.

Yay!”

He sings a soft, quiet “All the Pretty Horses.”
“La, la, la.”

I made a mistake once and told them all—Boots, Mama, and Gracie—that Teddy can sing. They didn't believe me. And of course Teddy wouldn't sing for them. Only for me.

“I've never heard Teddy sing,” says Gracie.

“He can't even talk yet,” says Mama. “How could he sing?”

Teddy has music but no words.

I have words but no music.

We are a strange pair.

And here is
my
secret: I am planning to be a poet. I have written thirty-one and a half poems. Some are bad. They are bad hideaway poems. I plan to get better and publish better poems and buy Mama more chickens and take Boots to see
La Traviata
at the opera house in New York City, wherever New York City is.

When I get to be a poet Boots will be pleased.

He will be proud.

And one day, for him, I will write a poem as beautiful as a cow.

chapter 2
Cow

The
reason we have all been loaded into the old bus is that we spend part of every summer with Aunt Frankie in North Dakota. Everyone calls her Frankie. Her name is Francesca, but she says that is pretentious. That is the first time I ever heard the word “pretentious,” and I've
been looking for a time to use it ever since. It is much too long for a poem.

Frankie, who Mama says is as “old as time,” lives far out in the middle of the universe. She lives by a big river that floods in the rainy season. It is now the rainy season, and Boots says it will flood while we're there.

“Frankie will need our help even though she doesn't think so,” says Boots.

“She is so stubborn,” my mother complains.

Boots looks at me in the rearview mirror. It is like looking into my eyes, we look so much the same.

He smiles.

“Who else is stubborn?” he asks.

“Mama!” says Gracie.

Frankie has a few milking cows she milks every day, but leases most of the higher meadowland for other people's cattle.

There are few trees, no mountains, just miles and miles of prairie grass and gophers and sky.

And the river.

Frankie's house is the house where Mama grew up. Mama loved it and hated it at the same time. She always cries when we get there and cries when we leave. Maybe one day I'll understand that.

“It sounds like ‘the birdies fly away and come back home' to me,” I once said to Boots.

“You're very right,” he said, peering at me as if I'd said something important.

At dusk we find a place to stop for the night. It is a state park hill with an open field, bordered by a farmland fence. Mama lets Sofia, Ella, and Nickel out of their crates and spreads chicken feed on the ground for them. They flap their wings and mosey around, eating and strutting. My mother and father get out their chairs and their small stove. They set up their tent near a tree. Gracie, Teddy, and I always sleep in the car beds, Teddy in the middle. Mama and Boots could sleep in the bus, but they love their small domed tent.

“Why can't we stay in a motel?” Gracie asks. “Trini's family goes to a motel with a pool and dining room and minia­ture golf course where a little volcano goes off if you get a hole in one.”

I know what Boots is about to say. I've heard it many times. I've even written a poem about it. Gracie has heard it before too, but she is young enough to think the answer may change when she asks to stay in a motel. She'll know better one day.

Motel Room

Where's the river?

Where's the sky?

Can't see the clouds—

Or bluebirds fly by.

Boots waves his arm.

“In a motel you wouldn't have this great view,” says Boots. “You'd have four
walls with boring paintings.”

“Maybe a motel would have a pool,” said Gracie.

“Maybe we'll find a river,” said Boots.

Can't smell the flowers,

Can't smell the sea—

Four walls and bad art

Is all that you'll see.

I take Teddy for a walk in the mea­dow. He reaches up and takes my hand with his tiny hand. His hand is warm. He wears red sneakers and a faded T-shirt with a green fish on it.

Suddenly Teddy stops. He is staring at something. He points.

“Cow,” he says.

“Teddy, you said cow!”

As far as I know Teddy has never said cow. But he says it as clear as light. He says it again.

“Cow.”

“Mama!” I shout. “Boots! Teddy said cow!”

Mama waves. Boots and Gracie come quickly across the field and look where Teddy is pointing. Far off, at the fence, stands a cow. It is a kind of cow I've never seen. Ever.

“Oh, my.” Boots's voice is strange. “Oh, my,” he repeats.

“Cow,” says Teddy again.

“Oh, my,” says Boots again.

I feel like I'm in a strange echo chamber.

Boots starts to walk toward the fence, then comes back to scoop Teddy up in his arms. He beckons for us to follow.

At the fence is a very large cow. She is beautiful and black, with a wide white stripe around the middle of her. My breath catches. Maybe Boots is right after all. That he couldn't write anything more beautiful than a cow. Maybe no one can.

“Cow,” says Teddy.

“I know that,” I say, then I laugh because it is Teddy I'm answering.

“Dutch Belted,” says Gracie. “Boots's cows are mostly Holsteins or Guernseys,” she tells me.

Gracie has a chart at home of all the cow breeds. She opens her notebook and
takes out a pen. She begins to draw the cow.

“I've never seen one,” says Boots. He puts his hand across the fence and the cow moves back quickly. Then, after a moment, she comes back so Boots can rub her head.

“Beautiful,” says Boots. “Beautiful Dutch Belted.”

“Cow,” says Teddy.

“Yes, Teddy,” says Boots. “Dutch Belted.”

Teddy reaches his hand over the fence and rubs the cow's head, imitating Boots. The cow's tongue comes out, long and rough, making Teddy jump.

The sun goes down behind the faraway line of trees. Two more Dutch
Belted cows move toward us, probably hoping for grain.

“Cow,” whispers Teddy, putting his arm around Boots's neck.

BOOK: Fly Away
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