A Bridge Called Neil 

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Prologue (As told by Marigold)

 

     I remembered being frightened.  It was dark. I had no home. I was shivering. Starving.  Pregnant. And my body was telling me it was time.  I needed shelter.   

     “There is an abandoned barn nearby,” said a voice in the darkness. “Walk beside me.”

Suddenly she appeared.  First as an apparition, and then as a wolf.  She sensed my fear.  “Don’t be frightened,” she whispered. “We’ve been anticipating your arrival.”

     “Who has?”

     I waited for a response. I smelled, and then saw other living beings out there; all with eyes on me.  Some looked familiar.  Some I had never crossed paths with. The tightening and expanding inside me my body was increasing in frequency and pain.  I started to panic.  Breathing became more difficult.  I desperately needed to lie down. 

     “We’ve arrived. Follow me.” 

     The wolf led me into the barn, guiding me through a maze of turns.  And then I stopped.  A new, but familiar scent.  A scent that brought fear. A scent I always ran from.  The wolf reassured me that I was being watched over.  She nudged me forward. We entered what looked like a makeshift shelter.  The ground was soft and warm as if it was expecting someone. And I realized it had been prepared for me. But why?

     “Lie down,” said the wolf.  “I will return shortly.” The wolf left. But others were watching just beyond the shelter.  When the wolf returned, she was carrying something in her mouth.  She gently laid it down beside me.

     “This human child needs food. Soon you will have plenty to give,” said the wolf.   

     I was about to protest when the wolf gently nuzzled her head against mine.

     “It is not happenstance that brought us all here.  You must realize that.”

     “What brought us here?”

     “The same purpose which brought this child here. Providence.”

     I had no idea what the wolf meant, but before I could ask, the first fluid sack burst, and shortly thereafter, I delivered my first puppy.  It would happen two more times.  The wolf never left my side.  I helped each puppy find food.  The wolf helped position the infant, and after several failed attempts, he began feeding.  Once all were satiated, they slept.

     “You need rest too,” said the wolf.  “I’ll keep watch.”

     I allowed myself to drift off, but not before I asked the wolf a question.

     “What does providence mean?”

     “The beginning of something most profound.”

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

     When I was old enough to write, my mother told me to keep a daily journal.  By the time I was old enough to question the purpose of my journaling, I had already filled two notebooks, both sides of each page.  My earliest entries included daily thoughts and events, the depth of which could be measured with the slightest of gaps between a thumb and forefinger.   When I asked my mom what I should do with the notebooks once I filled them, she said to keep every one of them. 

     “Why?” I asked. 

     “Because you’re special, and someday people will want to read about your life,” she replied.  Then she shushed me off to bed. 

     I thought it peculiar she would think anyone would want to read about me as opposed to my older brother Tommy?  He was smarter, stronger, and taller than me.  But my mom never told Tommy to keep a journal.   One time I made the mistake of telling Tommy that mom said I was special.  It was an attempt to raise my self-importance by lowering his.  It didn’t work.

      “Special means you’re simple and if God didn’t watch over you, you’d probably wander into the street and get hit by a bus.” 

Then he laughed.

 

     As I type this, many years later, I am sitting in my study surrounded by leaning towers of worn notebooks. The spiral bindings on many of the older notebooks have become brittle and broken.  Some are held together by twine.  Some by tape.  In my earlier years, I wrote with a pencil.  Over time, the graphite has smeared, and some of the words are now difficult to decipher. I am now faced with the daunting task of transposing the notebook entries into a single book of my life.  I only wish I had started this step much sooner; as I am unexpectedly pressed for time.

     My name is Neil Carlton Parker.  My mother’s name is Peggy.  My older brother’s name is Thomas (Tommy) Spencer Parker.  Tommy was named after two relatives, both of whom did great things and brought honor to the family name.  Unfortunately, they set the bar too high for every Parker who came along after them.  That is until Tommy arrived.  When I asked my mother who I was named after, she said no one.  She just liked the names.  At first, I was bothered by that.  Then after learning more about my relatives, I was relieved to know I wasn’t cursed with any of their names.  Plus there would be no comparisons. “When your great uncle Neil was your age he was working two jobs, going to school, and planting crops.  All before supper time.”

     I entered the world in a rural hospital in a small town called, Gramsen, which was twenty miles away from any bigger town in north-central Oregon. Fourteen months earlier, my brother, Tommy was delivered in the same tiny hospital.  We lived in an old farmhouse with creaky floors and drafty windows.  The living room had a large rock fireplace in one of the corners.  There was an old square grand piano named Bradbury in one of the other corners.  It was built by the Wm. Bradbury Piano Company in the 1870s.   Whenever someone lifted the fallboard and pecked at a few keys, they always made the same observation.  “Good tone, but desperately needs tuning.”

     It’s important to note that I spent a lot of my young life playing that piano.  When my mom asked me why I told her Bradbury was the only friend I had.  She told me I needed to start making real friends, but she never told me how to go about doing that. 

The farmhouse, barn, and 40 acres of field and pasture land had been in the family for many generations.  When my grandparents died, they left everything to my mother, who was an only child.  She had no interest in farming or dairy cows, so she leased the fields out to local farmers, and received a percentage of the profits.  My mother was a bookkeeper.  It was a skill passed down from the grandfather I never knew.   “Every farmer needs a fallback,” I heard my mom say using a voice I just assumed was supposed to mimic her father’s.  When he died, his clients became her clients. 

     Tommy’s father was Stan Wood.  In my early years, Stan was also my father.  If that sounds odd, then you read it correctly.  More on that later. Stan didn’t want us to call him father, dad, daddy, pops, or papa.  Just Stan.  Stan didn’t live at the old farmhouse.  He lived on the other side of town just several blocks from a gas station named ‘Stan’s’ and a car repair shop, also named ‘Stan’s’.  I guess he liked hearing his name called. As I got older, I began hearing the gossip about my mother.  It was never anything overt.  Just whispers behind covered mouths.  Then one of the kids at school told Tommy our mother was a whore.  Tommy knocked him on his back, although back then I’m not convinced Tommy even knew what a whore was. 

     Tommy was popular in school.  Whenever one of his classmates had a birthday party, Tommy’s name was always at the top of their invite list.  He was funny, smart, and good at sports.  And all the girls thought he was cute.  I was awkward.  Quiet.  Kept to myself.  “You’re nothing like your brother.”  I heard that a lot growing up.  It stung for a while until I built up a tolerance for it. 

     Although Stan didn’t live at the farm, he was a frequent visitor. I don’t think my mom was ever too concerned about the gossip.  After all, she did just about everyone’s books in the county.  “There’s a lot of dirty laundry out there,” she remarked during supper one night as she passed a platter of meatloaf to Stan.  It was no coincidence whenever Stan came over for dinner, he also showed up for breakfast the next morning.  But as unconventional as my mom and Stan’s relationship was, it seemed to work for them. 

     I heard voices.  From my earliest memory, I recalled hearing them.  One of the reasons I often played the piano was not because I lacked friends (which I did), but because the music drowned out the voices.  My mom suspected there was something wrong with me.  She took me to the town doctor, who looked into my ears and said everything was where it was supposed to be; so it must be my imagination.  And unless the voices were hurting me, it was probably something I would eventually outgrow.  The voices never left, but I trained myself to ignore them as best I could.  But occasionally I wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the voices in my mind and the voices coming through my ears, and I would tune out, or even worse, respond to the wrong voice. This became much more problematic once I started school.    There were a lot of parent/teacher meetings. And my classmates quickly discovered which kid they were going to make fun of.  

     My mom was not a religious person, although we made appearances at church on Easter and Christmas Eve, which I figured was the minimum number of required visits each year to keep you out of hell.  Occasionally, I would hear her praying, as her bedroom was across the hall from mine.  One time I overheard her mention my name.  And when she did, it included “Watch over him because he’s special.”      

     One night when my mom popped her head in my room to say goodnight, I asked her why she told God I was special.  Before she had a chance to respond, I added, “Tommy said it was because I was simple.”  My mom muttered something under her breath about skinning Tommy alive, but I’m sure she didn’t mean it.  At least the part about him being alive when she did the actual skinning.  She forced a smile and then proceeded to tell me why I was special.

     “I guess you’re old enough to know.  But you must not tell anyone what I’m about to tell you.  When you were born, you and I stayed in the hospital for a few days to make sure we were both well enough to go home.  At night, they kept all of the babies in the Nursery. The next morning when they went to bring you into my room, you were gone.  Someone had taken you.  I was panic-stricken.  I thought I would never see you again.  Everyone in the county was looking for you.  Both the Sheriff and the FBI got involved. The sheriff officially ruled it a kidnapping, and then added, ‘If after 24 – 48 hours there are no solid leads, the chances of finding your boy decrease exponentially.’ He reassured me they were doing everything they could.

     On the third day, very early in the morning, the sheriff showed up at the house and banged on the front door. When I answered, he told me someone thinks they found a baby.  I left Tommy at the neighbors.  I got in the car with the Sheriff. He told me not to get my hopes up.  He raced to the next county, ending up down a dirt road, and an abandoned farm.  There was a squad car waiting in the overgrown driveway.  A deputy and an old man named Ralph Bertrand approached us.  According to the deputy, Mr. Bertrand, who owned a nearby dairy farm went to look for several of his farm animals which had recently gone missing and thought he heard a baby crying off in the distance.

      ‘And then I saw that,’ said Mr. Bertrand as he pointed to a weathered old barn which was missing part of its rusted roof, and many of its side planks.  The field surrounding the barn was overgrown.  I started heading towards the barn.  Mr. Bertrand and the sheriff followed.  As I got closer, I saw animals near the barn.  Cows, horses, elk, deer, and even wolves.  There were all kinds of birds in the sky circling the barn.  As I got closer, I saw even more animals.  Dogs, pigs, goats, sheep, foxes, chickens, cats, and rabbits.  They were all standing at the entrance of the barn as if they were guarding it. As I approached, all of the animals slowly parted so the three of us could enter.  Once we did, the animals quickly closed up the opening.  A gray wolf led me to one of a few remaining stalls which hadn’t collapsed. 

     I couldn’t believe what I saw.  Even as I’m telling you this, I’m still not certain I didn’t imagine the whole thing.  A female dog was lying on a bed of dry hay, leaves, and what looked like an old tattered blanket.  Three puppies were nursing.  And so were you.  The mother dog would lean over and lick all of the babies she was nursing including you.  The sheriff and Mr. Bertrand approached the stall but kept their distance. They were as shocked as I was.  I cautiously approached the female dog.  I knelt beside her.  I slowly reached over and began petting her head, telling her she was a good dog and a good mother.  I could sense she knew exactly why I was there.  She sniffed me, then you.  She watched as I gently reached over and picked you up.  Then I held you in one hand while petting the dog with the other. 

     After a few more minutes, I stood and started to leave.  It was then I truly realized what was going on.  And I started sobbing.  All of these animals and birds were there for one reason.  To make sure you were protected and cared for.  As I left, I tried to thank every animal and bird I could.  They all were responsible for saving your life.  And as I left, so did all of the animals.  All going their separate ways.  Some into the woods and some back to the farms where they lived.  Mr. Bertrand and the deputy collected the mother dog and her puppies and Mr. Bertrand took them to his farm. 

     The ride back to our house was very quiet.  Occasionally the sheriff shook his head from side-to-side and whispered, ‘Unbelievable.’  When we arrived back home, he walked you and me to the door.

‘My statement to the newspaper will be brief.  When I arrived at the station this morning, I found the baby in a cardboard box by the front door with a note which simply said, ‘I’m sorry.’  I nodded my agreement.  He was struggling with what to say next, but he didn’t want to leave without saying it.  Finally, he shook his head, smiled, and said, ‘I now know what a miracle looks like.’  Then he turned and walked away.  He and a few of his deputies spent the next few weeks trying to solve the kidnapping, and how you ended up in the barn.  They found tire tracks and footprints, but since you were found, I don’t think they put a lot of effort into it.”

My mother reached over and ran her fingers through my hair and smiled.    

     “That is why you are special.  Most people live their entire life without ever witnessing a miracle, let alone being in the center of one.”

And then something I wondered about my entire (short) life finally made sense.

     “That’s why you told me to write my journals?”

My mother nodded her head.

 

     Later that year, my mother asked me what I wanted for my eighth birthday.  I told her I didn’t want a present.  I wanted to go somewhere.  She asked where.

     “I want to go to the Bertrand’s farm and visit the dog.”

     That request caught her by surprise.  As an adult now, I can imagine what was going through her mind, not the least of which was, did he even keep the dog, and if so, was she still alive? I’m sure a part of her would have done just about anything to steer me in a different birthday present direction, such as, ‘How about a BB gun instead?’   But she just smiled and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

On the morning of my birthday, my brother gave me eight punches in the arm while singing happy birthday.  When I went into the kitchen, my mother was making my favorite breakfast.  Banana pancakes with pecan syrup.   After breakfast, Stan picked Tommy up for baseball practice.  Once they left, my mother told me to go upstairs and make myself presentable, which meant putting on my corduroy pants, a shirt which required buttoning, and combing my hair.   And as I started up the stairs, she hollered, “And don’t dawdle.”  My mother called it dawdling, but what she meant was, “Don’t get lost inside yourself.”

 

     My mother and I went for a drive.  She didn’t say where we were going, but I was hoping it was to see the dog who saved my life.  Finally, we pulled into the driveway of a farmhouse and parked next to an old pickup truck with ‘Bertrand’s Dairy & Produce’ painted on the doors.  My mother looked over at me and smiled.

     “You got your wish.  The dog’s name is Marigold.”  We both got out of the car and began walking along a path leading to a covered porch. Halfway there, we saw the Bertrand’s front door open, and Mr. and Mrs. Bertrand stepped out. Suddenly we all heard what could best be described as a combination of barking and whimpering.  Marigold burst through the open screen door and cleared the veranda in two leaps.  About the time it took to blink, Marigold was down the path and launched herself at me.  I opened my arms and prepared for the impact.  Standing on her back legs, she was as tall as I was.  She immediately began licking my face and rubbing up against me.  Her whimpers turned to howls.  I glanced over at my mom and then the Bertrands.  Each of them wore the same shocked expression.

     Marigold was a mix of Piebald Blue Merle Border Collie and Labrador.  She had mottled patches of blue and black, and her eyes were blue marble. After several minutes, Marigold, my mom, and I made our way up to the porch.  As we approached the Bertrands, my mother began sobbing. She hugged Mr. Bertrand so tight I thought she was going to break him.  Then she hugged Mrs. Bertrand and almost broke her as well.  Then she introduced both of them to me.  The old man slowly reached his hand out to shake mine.  When I was young, old people scared me. I have no idea why.  But Mr. Bertrand was the lone exception.  Before old age got a grip on him, he was probably a few inches over the 6-foot mark. Having spent most of his life in the fields and pastures, over time, the weather had chiseled his features and burnished his skin. Something was calming about him.  Maybe because he was a gentle soul in an intimidating man’s body.

       “I’m very pleased to meet you, Neil.  Happy birthday.  Our Marigold was certainly happy to see you.”

      I shook Mr. Bertrand’s hand.  He stared at me, or maybe he didn’t.  Perhaps he was looking through me, reliving what happened eight years ago, trying to convince himself it actually happened.  The Bertrands and my mom went inside the house.  I stayed out on the porch with Marigold. This is where I might lose a few of you.  But I welcome your skepticism and ask that you stay with me. 

     “Marigold, do you know who I am?” I asked.

     If you have pets, you undoubtedly talk to them.  Sometimes you probably even ask them questions like, “Do you want a treat?” in a pitch several octaves higher than your normal voice.  You never actually expect them to answer.  But Marigold did.  

     “Yes, you’re the child I helped protect and feed when you were just a few days old.”

     I looked directly at Marigold, and I did not see her lips move.  But I heard her.  At least I thought it was her.  There were just the two of us.

     “How can I hear you, and how can you understand me?” I asked.

     “Most communication between animals is non-verbal. Whether it's within our species or with other species we rarely use our voices to communicate.  Yet we are constantly communicating.”

Marigold must have used her non-verbal skills to sense my confusion.  I had never really thought much about how animals communicated.   I just assumed if a dog wanted to communicate, he would bark.  Or if a cat was hungry, she would meow.

     “When your mother found you in that abandoned barn, there were over a hundred different species of animals and birds protecting you, all in constant non-verbal communication with one another.  All with the same objective.  Protect you, keep you fed, and keep whoever abandoned you from coming back. Then your mom came.  I felt both her pain and her joy.  She loved you very much.  She still does. Always will.”

     I sensed Marigold had more to say, but she wasn’t quite sure she should.

     “Please don’t stop,” I begged Marigold.

     “But for the briefest time, I was your mother too.  I loved you.  Still do.”  She nuzzled her head against me, and I put my arm around her. “Always will.”

     I didn’t know what to say.  It had only been a short time since my mother told me about the barn, Mr. Bertrand, and Marigold.  But I felt a deep connection the moment I first saw Marigold.  Like a long-awaited reunion.  I sat on the porch, and Marigold lay beside me.  I asked her to tell me about what happened in the barn.  And she did.  Her accounting of the events was so moving, I couldn’t think of a more fitting prologue to start my life’s story.  

 

     I asked her about her three puppies.  She said all three had gone to wonderful people, which made their partings much easier.  Then she asked me to tell her about my life, and not to leave anything out.  And so I did.  Marigold adored the Bertrands.  Especially Mr. Bertrand.  Wherever he was, she was.  Marigold had nothing but wonderful things to say about both of them.   

As I write this, many years after meeting Marigold, our visit is still so fresh in my mind.  It was one of the most poignant and pivotal events of my life.  It also solved the mystery about me hearing voices.  It must have happened while I was being cared for by Marigold and all of the other animals.  Somehow, in part, I became one of them. A form of imprinting.

Telepathy or thought transference best describes the form of non-verbal communication I had with Marigold (and eventually other animals).    Our telepathic conversations were not unlike verbal conversations I had with other human beings.  Some animal species and some animals within the same species have a much larger vocabulary bank than other animals.  Although there were natural intellectual disparities amongst animal species, the volume of words an animal had in their repertoire was primarily driven by the number of words required to communicate with other animals within the same species.  Animals would expand their vocabulary only after meeting animals of different species and being introduced to new words.  No greater example of this was when I communicated telepathically with animals.  Their vocabulary banks expanded. And like humans, sometimes they learned the definition of these new words simply by the application in which they were used.   

    

     My first visit with Marigold wasn’t my last.  Mr. Bertrand would call my mother sometimes and ask if I could visit Marigold.  I don’t know how he knew, but he could sense when she was missing me.  Sometimes we’d meet at a county park halfway between our addresses.   The Bertrands would always bring a picnic lunch.  Sometimes, my mom would take me to their farm.  Marigold and I would go for walks or just sit on the porch.  We’d fill each other in on events that transpired in our lives since our last visit. She’d ask me the same type of questions mothers ask their children.  The Bertrands developed a close friendship with my mother. We even visited their farm during the holidays.  Mr. Bertrand, Marigold, and I would cut down two Douglas fir trees.  One for their living room and one for ours.  But as much as I treasured my visits with Marigold, I could tell she was getting older.  Each visit her muzzle was grayer, and walking became more difficult.  What turned out to be our last Christmas with Marigold, the Bertrands gave me a framed photograph of Marigold and me sitting in front of their Christmas tree the previous year. 

     One morning we got an urgent call from Mrs. Bertrand, requesting I come over and see Marigold one last time.   I did not want to go.  I had never come face-to-face with death. 

     “As difficult as this might be if you don’t go, you will regret it the rest of your life.  Especially because you know how much Marigold cares for you – and you for her.”  My mother was right.  I am so thankful I listened to her.  But it remains one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life. 

     Marigold was lying on a blanket in the Bertrand’s living room.  When she saw me, she wagged her tail, but she was too weak to stand.   Mr. Bertrand told me to spend as much time as I wanted, as he and Mrs. Bertrand had already said their goodbyes.  Then the Bertrands and my mom went for a walk outside.  I laid down beside her and ran my hand gently up and down her body. 

     “When you were with me in the barn, there was a gray wolf who helped take care of us,” said Marigold.  “She told me that it was providence that brought you and me together.  I didn’t know what providence meant, so I asked her.  She said it was the beginning of something most profound. It wasn’t until your first visit with me that I realized what she meant.  Since the first tick of time, there has always been a partition between humans and animals.  What we say, you can’t understand. What you say, we can’t.  But you and I changed that. That partition disappeared.”

     Marigold was quiet for a while.  She was having difficulty breathing. I turned away to wipe my tears.

     “Please don’t hide your sorrow from me.”

     I turned back around to face her.

     “As much as it grieves me to say this, your life will not be without difficulty.  Much will be expected.  If you ever question why you are who you are, just remember all of those different animals at the barn who were watching over you and keeping you safe.  In any other place, at any other time, they would never congregate together.  Some lived in completely different regions or habitats.  Some are enemies. Some would be food for others. Some sleep at night.  Some sleep during the day.   Why were they all there?  Hope.  I don’t know how far that hope has spread.  I don’t know if some have given up hope.  But you’re the only one to carry it forward.  I wish that were not the case.  I wish I could…”

     Marigold’s body stiffened, then relaxed.  I thought she had left me.  But her chest was still rising. 

     “I will not let you down,” I promised.

     “Over many years, I carried one wish with me. I told myself I could be at peace forever if that one wish ever came true.  And then you came to visit me.  And then I wished the same wish again.  And it came true again.  How blessed I have been to make just one wish and have it come true over and over again.”

     And then she closed her eyes.  And her chest stopped rising.  And I stayed with her until I ran dry of tears. 

  

     The following week I spent a lot of time with Bradbury the piano.  Marigold’s passing was devastating for me.  I decided to put my emotions into good use and compose a song about her.   I didn’t have to look at the piano keys.  I just closed my eyes and started remembering our visits.  Our conversations.  And her departure.  At some point, my mom entered the living room, sat down, and just listened.  When I had finished, I heard her quietly sobbing. 

     “She would have loved hearing that Neil.”  And then I sobbed. But not quietly.

     After Marigold left us, we still kept in touch with the Bertrands.  They were the grandparents I never had. During one of our visits, I finally found the courage to visit Marigold’s gravesite.  I just assumed she was buried where the Bertrands buried all of their other pets, which was in a small grassy area between the barn and the woods.  But Mr. Bertrand pointed me in the opposite direction, towards a small hill.  When I reached Marigold’s gravesite, I had a view of the entire valley.  In the center of that view was the old collapsed barn.  It wasn’t until I was older and much more perceptive that I figured out why Mr. Bertrand chose that spot to bury his beloved dog.  When he’d walk up the hill with his morning coffee, he could see the place where something so profound took place, he was never the same.  And he was able to share that view each morning with Marigold.

     “Most mornings when I come up here, there are a few animals near her gravesite.  Not always the same ones.  Birds, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, dogs, cats, wolves.  I could have sworn I saw a bear one time.”

     “Why are they here?”

     “Pay their respects.”

     “What for?”

     Mr. Bertrand took a sip of coffee and stared out at the valley.  I thought he hadn’t heard my question.  But he had.  He was trying to come up with the answer.

     “What did the two of you talk about?” he asked.

     I pretended I had no idea what he was asking.  He smiled.

     “I had thousands of conversations with Marigold.  And just like everyone else who talks to their pet, they were always one-sided.  You can tell by their expressions.  Or the lack thereof.  But your conversations were different weren’t they?”

     I started to panic.  How did he know?  Should I tell the truth? And then I thought, why not.  Who would he tell?

     “Yes.”

     Bertrand put his hand on my shoulder.  “Can you do me a favor son?”

     I nodded my head.

     “Tell me about your conversations.”  And I did.  He smiled sometimes. Other times, he’d run a hand across his eyes.  That visit would be the last time I would ever see or talk to Mr. Bertrand. 

     Four months later, his heart stopped ticking.  I was twelve.  It was the first funeral I ever attended.  I could hear people crying throughout the entire service.  I wasn’t one of them.  If heaven was how we each envisioned it, then I knew somewhere up in the clouds, Mr. Bertrand and Marigold were taking a walk while waiting for Mrs. Bertrand to join them.  It turned out to be a long walk, as Mrs. Bertrand didn’t join them for almost two years.  I had turned fourteen by then.

     I had long forgotten about the animals visiting Marigold’s gravesite.  It would be years before that memory tapped me on the shoulder. 

 

     My mom worried about me.  Since Tommy didn’t seem to struggle at anything, and I struggled at everything, she diverted all of her worry resources towards me.  She tried to get Stan to spend time with me, but after several not-so-successful outings, I overheard him telling her I was odd, and he didn’t know how to deal with odd kids.  My mother called Stan a few not-so-pleasant names and then ended the conversation with,  “He’s not odd.  He’s just different.” 

     “Oddly different,” remarked Stan. 

     I was expecting to hear my mom push back on what Stan said, but she didn’t.  Maybe Stan was right.  Maybe I was oddly different.  So, I ran away.  I didn’t plan it.  I didn’t pack anything.  I didn’t even leave a note explaining why I was running away.  I was just upset with my mom and wanted to get her attention.  I snuck out the back door and headed down the road.  There were no streetlights.  It was pitch black.  I had no idea where I was going.  Occasionally car lights approached, but the cars drove right past me.  Not a single brake light.  After a few blocks, I started shivering.  I was in such a hurry I forgot to put on a jacket before I left. 

      ‘It’s always good to have a plan first.’  That’s what people caution you about when you want to do something, but have no idea how to go about doing it.  I had no plan.  Then someone spoke to me and I nearly pissed myself.

     “You shouldn’t be out here in the dark Neil.”

     I thought it was a person approaching me from the opposite direction.  But something caught my attention and I looked down.  Standing just close enough for me to be able to see his white face and black facial mask was a raccoon. 

     “How did you know my name? How did you know I could understand you?”

     “Humans have this communication barrier which is impossible to breach.  Your barrier is missing.  I can’t speak for every animal out there, but most of us have heard of you and what took place in that abandoned barn.  It’s quite an honor to meet you. My name is Carl.”

     “I was running away.”

     “In the dark?  What do you think you are, nocturnal?”

     “I didn’t think things through.”

     “I’ll make a deal with you. Tell me you want to go back home and I’ll make sure you do.”

     A part of me wanted to decline the raccoon’s kind offer, but the other part of me was cold, tired, and I felt a few raindrops.  There was also a chance my mom had not even realized I had left.  If I was stealthy enough, I could sneak back into the house before she even knew I was missing. I informed the raccoon of my decision. 

     “Good choice.  Follow me.”  We turned around and headed back in the direction of the house.

     “Do you know what a bridge is for?” asked Carl?

     “Yes.  To cross over things. Why?”

     “A bridge connects two sides that up to that point, were divided. You are the bridge that symbiotically connects animals and humans”

     I had never heard the word, “symbiotically” before, so I didn’t grasp the significance of Carl’s bridge analogy.  I knew what a bridge was.  But not a metaphorical bridge.    I sensed that the raccoon was disappointed with me.  Especially when I told him he looked like he was wearing a mask.

     For several years after that, every time I’d see a dead raccoon on the side of the road, I wondered it if was Carl.  It made me sad.

 

     I laid awake that night thinking about my conversation with the raccoon.  It had been several years year since Marigold died.  I had begun to question whether or not Marigold and I had actually communicated.  Was it all in my mind?  I had already decided I would tell no one about my conversation with the raccoon.  But I needed to find out if I could communicate with animals or if I was delusional.  At that point, I wasn’t sure which diagnosis I would have preferred.  But either would have supported Stan’s observation of me being “oddly different.”   

     The best way to solve this mystery was to have a pet of my own.  When I was younger, I won a goldfish at the county fair.  He had a very short life.  I don’t recall ever having a conversation with him.  I decided to ask my mom for a puppy.  This would not be my first attempt at asking her for a pet.  “I’ll end up taking care of it.”  “We can’t afford one.”  “Then I’d have to let your brother get one too.”  But for some reason, she never gave me the real reason why.  She wasn’t an animal person.  This didn’t play well with the fact she was raised on a farm and spent most of her childhood caring for a wide variety of farm animals.  She was even in 4H for most of those years. 

     Up until I met Marigold, I had no idea whether or not I was an animal person.  I thought briefly about enlisting Tommy’s help to further build my case, but the one time I asked Tommy if he ever thought about having a pet he laughed and said pets are for people who can’t make friends.  At the time I thought he was kidding around.  But I’ve learned since then, insults disguised as jokes are people’s attempts to systematically lower another person’s self-worth while attempting to elevate their own.   Although in fairness to Tommy, I’m not convinced he even knew that’s what he was doing.  We were such different people neither of us should have felt threatened by the other. 

     An opportunity presented itself where my mother and I were the only people at the dinner table one night.  I had been rehearsing all aspects of this anticipated conversation including an opening statement, justifications and supporting rationale, rebuttals to her position, and finally, my impassioned closing arguments.   Unfortunately, just as I was about to deliver my opening statement, I forgot everything I had rehearsed.  Someone had snuck into my brain and erased everything on my chalkboard.  So, I had to adlib, which immediately put my case in jeopardy.

     “Mom, you’re not an animal person, are you?”

     “Neil, if this is another attempt at getting a pet, save your breath.”

     “Just hear me out.  I need to ask you something.  What was going through your mind when you saw all of those birds and animals protecting me in that barn?  Animals who by instinct and nature, would not have hung out together.  You called it a miracle.”

     “All I could think of was getting you back.  How the miracle happened was far less important to me than the fact it happened.”

     “Do you believe all of those birds and animals were able to communicate with each other for that miracle to happen?”

     “I don’t know Neil.  I try not to think about it.  It’s beyond my comprehension.”

     “Have you ever told anyone about it?”

     My mom laughed.  “You’re kidding, right?  I’d tell it to one person and the next day everyone in the county would know about it, and all of a sudden, no one in the county wants their books done by a crazy lady.”

     “Mom, I need to know whether or not you recognize the possibility of all of those animals being able to communicate with one another to protect me until you got there.”

     My mother gave me an exasperated look. “What is the point of this Neil?”

     I was furious and I wasn't sure whether it was directed towards my mom for not getting it, or me for not being able to explain it.  Then I heard myself (in a not-so-very calm tone) yell, “The point is, I think I can communicate with animals and I think it happened because they all took care of me. And I'm just wondering if you noticed something like that happening to you because you were there too.”

     “No Neil, I've not been having conversations with animals. And neither have you.”

     “I did with Marigold.  Every time you took me to visit her, she and I talked.”

     “Neil, honey...”

     I hated it when my mom started a sentence out with that.  She always used this cavity-inducing sugary tone to make whatever she was about to say not sound so bitter.

     “…you have a wonderful imagination.  And I know you were very close to Marigold.” 

     “She was my mother for a few days of my life. That’s what she said it felt like to her.” I probably should have kept that one to myself, but instead, I put it right across the plate and my mom swung and connected. 

     “Marigold was just a dog, Neil.  Not discounting what she did to care for you, she was just a dog.  I’m not sure what you thought Marigold was saying to you, sweetie, but what you’re claiming is not possible.”

“You think I’m crazy.” 

“No.  You just have a very active imagination.  You need to try and make friends.”

That conversation was a disaster. There wasn’t a chance in hell I’d ever get a pet now.  And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, Stan picked me up from school a few days later and took me into town to get fries and a root beer float at Jenkins Drive-in.   Jenkins was similar to those old A&W Drive-in’s, only Jenkins Root Beer tasted like A&W Root Beer without the secret ingredient which made it taste good.  Some people said it tasted like horse piss, but I was never too eager to conduct my own taste test. 

My mother had obviously brought Stan up to speed on my conversation with her, and I felt both humiliated and stabbed in the back at the same time. 

“So Neil, your mom told me about the whole ‘talking to animal’ thing.  That’s not something you hear very often.   She’s worried about you.”

He looked over at me as if expecting me to grab the baton and run the next leg of the conversation.  I had no idea what to say so I just sat there and drank my horse piss float.   Stan was lost.  My guess was to get him to talk to me, my mother bribed him with a Pot Roast dinner at our house that evening; although I doubt it was the pot roast that sealed the deal.  Nor was it the promise of buckwheat pancakes the next morning.  What likely sealed the deal was what was promised in between those two meals. 

“Look, Neil, I’ll make a deal with you.  You tell your mom we had a good conversation, and the whole ‘talking to animals’ thing was just a misunderstanding.   And in return, whenever I come over to the house, I’ll bring Stubby with me.  Hell, if the two of you want to chat it up, have at it.” 

Stubby was a Basset Hound.  I hadn’t spent much time with Stubby, as I was not a regular guest at Stan’s house.  And whenever Stan spent time at our house, he never brought Stubby with him.  But Stan’s proposition would provide me an opportunity to get to know Stubby better, and perhaps find out if I just had an overactive imagination, or I was crazy, or I could actually communicate with animals.  

“It’s a deal, on one condition.  You bring him when you come over tonight.”

“How did you know I was…?”  Stan never finished asking the question.  He stared at me for a few seconds then smiled.   “There’s nothing dumb about you.  Deal.”    We shook hands.

My mother wasn’t thrilled when Stan walked in with Stubby, but she seemed pleased when Stan told her the two of us had a good chat. 

Stan spent the night in my mother’s bedroom, and Stubby spent the night in mine.  Stubby was one of the mellowest dogs I had ever met.  Nothing seemed to rattle him.  I was sitting on my bed, and he was lying on the small braided rug just below the bed. 

 “Do me a favor and scratch behind my right ear.”  I leaned down and relieved Stubby’s itch.  “Thanks, Neil.”

“You’re welcome.” 

“Does that answer your question?”

“What question?”

“Why I’m here.” 

“Yes, it does. I have another question.”

            “I was wondering when you’d get around to asking.  Yes, I heard about what happened at the abandoned barn.  I wasn’t even alive when that took place, but that event was – is so significant, it’s passed down from one generation to the next.”

“You know about Marigold?”

“My mother told me about her.  Every dog knows about Marigold.  She’s as revered as Swansea Jack, Balto, Togo, Nemo, Laika, Bretagne, and Roselle, and my namesake, Stubby.”

My eyes unexpectedly sprang leaks.  I quickly wiped away the evidence.

“Good.”

“But Marigold is admired for something far more significant than what happened at that barn?”

“What?”

“What we’re doing now.  Marigold bridged what was thought to be unbridgeable.  Communication and understanding between animals and humans.  One human.  You.”

I shook my head in understanding, but Stubby was not convinced I had fully grasped the significance.

“Neil, it is very likely animals of all species know about you.  Word spreads very quickly in the animal kingdom.  Do you have any idea what that means?”

I had no idea what Stubby was talking about, so I answered with a shoulder shrug.

“Some animals see you as a conduit.  A bridge connecting humans and animals.”

“I can’t speak for the animals, but humans will see me as a lunatic.”

“I guess the question is – now that you have your answer, what’s next?”

Stubby’s question must have been rhetorical since he began licking himself rather than wait for my response.  Not that I had one to offer. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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