Dancing Out of Nowhere
City of Writers: A short story by Todd Babiak
by Lee Nielsen
Every other year, when school ended, a heavy door opened into popsicles and watermelon, into mowed lawns and barbecue and swimming pools and mosquito repellant. The summer of 1986 was different, as though cotton batting had been stuffed in the space between the beauty and me.
There was food in the fridge and enough toothpaste and clean underwear and, when we spoke to her, she answered, but my mom could not see us. We had become ghosts in our little house, only visible when we howled. My brother Ricky – who had insisted we call him Richard since his 15th birthday – stayed in his room with his Walkman on. We ate breakfast together but he barely spoke; he read the Cap’n Crunch box over and over again.
At the end of June, nighttime in Edmonton was an adult mystery. Every other year, I would go to bed with the full sun and wake up with it. My dad had strong feelings about sleep. But, since my mom wasn’t watching, I stayed up three nights after the last day of school with a flashlight and my cat-chewed and grape juice-stained copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the only book in the world at that time for an 11-year-old girl.
The Bischoffs drank wine on their patio. Men cussed on the sidewalk. And there was something else: music. One of the neighbours played a song over and over, slow and dreamy. Then, 30 seconds later it would play again. I would finish with the book, turn out the light, and listen.
On the third night, I waited until three o’clock, when I was sure my mom and Ricky would be asleep. I sneaked out on to the patio. But I couldn’t hear the song outside. It wasn’t until I was in bed that I heard it again. I got up and went to the back door, and that’s when I saw a glow from the basement.
I crept down the stairs. My mom kneeled in front of the television, as though she were praying. It was a video, taped from MuchMusic. A man was singing and then a woman in a wedding dress danced in a castle. A big bird was involved somehow. At the end of the video, my mom stood up and rewound the tape and pressed play again. I watched this for a few rounds until I worried I might fall asleep on the stairs and then I went back to bed. Soon, the house was quiet.
The Strathcona Library had two books on falconry. I signed both out, though one of them – The Sport of Kings – was just a bunch of black-and-white pictures. It was a warm Saturday so I kept my bike locked up, bought a lemonade from the farmers’ market and lay on the grass that smelled like armpits in Gazebo Park, learning how to train a large powerful bird so it would fly around killing things for you.
No one had killed my dad. I already knew it and Ricky knew it too, and, when we had joined the searches through the valley, we heard it from strangers. My mom didn’t join the searches. She wanted the police to assign a homicide investigator to the case. When they told her it didn’t fit, that it wasn’t a homicide, she wrote letters to the chief and to the mayor and to the commissioner. At first, the television stations and the newspapers were happy to speak with my mom, but then they wouldn’t return her phone calls or print her letters. My dad’s disappearance had been news in March, and then it was news again in early May when we had an awful memorial service for him, but it wasn’t news in June.
On the grass, that warm Saturday, I knew why my mom wanted a peregrine falcon on her arm. And I vowed to get one for her. I biked home and found, in the phone book, a number for the “Falconers Association of Alberta.” I prepared and called the number. A man answered on the third ring, cleared his throat in my ear, and said, “Yeah, this is Steve.”
I had written out what I wanted to say:
Hello Sir/Madame. My name is Katherine Flynn. I am phoning with an entreaty because I believe my mother has a strong desire to become a falconry enthusiast. Perhaps there is a store or a farm where I could buy her a peregrine falcon, a barn owl or a common buzzard.
Some time passed, after I delivered my introduction. Steve sniffed once, and breathed. Then he asked a question I had not prepared to answer: “Why?”
The library books were on the kitchen table. “Well. For one thing, it’s the sport of kings.”
“Why do you want a bird for your mother?”
There was a short list of the reasons people take up falconry, in the more technical book. It shouldn’t be to hunt, because who needs a dead mouse or a jackrabbit? It shouldn’t be to impress people or to look like a hero. Falcons are not affectionate pets. I tried to recall the good answer, from the manual. “She really likes the majesty of-” I started, but Steve’s breath made me so nervous I couldn’t remember the word “predators.” It was either tell the truth or hang up. So I told the truth. “She’s sad.”
Steve explained that even people over 16 have to be certified apprentice falconers, and that a Minister of the Crown has to approve the bird’s housing facility. He gently suggested I go with a kitten to help my mom feel better. “It worked for my wife.”
I put down the receiver.
“Falconry enthusiast?” Ricky stood in the middle of the living room, eating a Boston cream doughnut. “Why do you talk like that?”
I didn’t want to tell him the real reason. “I overheard her say she wants something like that.”
“Like what? Something alive?” He chewed. “Because we’re here and that’s not so interesting to her.”
“They’re wild things. When something wild happens, maybe some people want to …”
“We’re too tame?” Ricky took a bite and a dollop of cream spilled out and plopped on the carpet. “Oh, that’s goddamn great!” He looked down at the cream for a while and then took another, more careful bite. His mouth was still full when he said, “My friends did a thing for science class.”
When he finished his second Boston cream, Ricky and I made a flytrap out of a plastic pop bottle. We cut it in half and put some sliced apple in the bottom, turned the top upside down in it. We caught three flies in 15 minutes.
I had read somewhere that children who kill insects are more likely to be incarcerated later in life. When I related this to Ricky, he didn’t seem to mind. “We aren’t killing anything. You can look away and pretend it isn’t happening, then you won’t rob any liquor stores.”
He put the flies in the refrigerator and I showed him the video. Close-up I could see the song was called “Avalon” by Roxy Music. Ricky knew it from when he was my age, maybe younger. I didn’t say Mom watched it over and over, just that she watched it and appreciated the falconry aspect.
Ricky was skeptical. “There’s hardly any falconry in it.”
“But the rest of the song is just people dancing around looking moony.”
“That’s what Mom does. Everything but the dancing.” He was eating his third Boston cream, even though he hadn’t washed his hands after handling the flies.
We prepared the dental floss: Three long strips. I made tiny bowline knots, Girl Guide knots. After 20 minutes, we took the flies out of the fridge and Ricky was right: they were slow and dumb. Ricky’s fingers were bigger so he handled the flies while I took care of the floss. We messed up the first fly’s wings, a nauseating tragedy, but we secured lassos on the other two.
I made a sign for the front door, told my mom to come downstairs. She worked the lunch shift most Saturdays so we knew when she was coming home. When we heard the door, we pressed play on the video. She walked slowly down the stairs. Ricky was too cool to dance but I danced, like the woman, spinning around, and I handed her one of the flies on a string and Ricky handed her the other one as though it all embarrassed him.
Mom didn’t have to say it. This was not about falcons keeping us safe, or how it might feel to tame the wilderness. She pulled us in for a hug, with one fly leash in each hand, and she whispered to us that she had no idea how to do this or what to say. We went outside to release the flies, as a family. We only killed one.