How many animals he had at the zoo now, Cory wasn’t sure as they were free to come and go. Some stayed, while others only came for one visit. Whether they came and went or came to stay, they enriched his life in countless ways. He wondered if he would ever know the extent of their help.
He had been strolling through the park-like estate and now stopped at the crest of the Japanese bridge to survey the vastness everything had become. Ahead of him, the baobab trees stood staunchly in a group and were a nice little walk from the bamboo grove with its paths that meandered through shadowed mazes of frothy leaves and stalks. Somewhere in the middle of them was the path that only sometimes he could find. It led to the spring that fed the lake he was standing above. Stretching out behind him a distance from the house were the forests of immense pines and deciduous hardwoods: the old growth forest and the new, young forest.
He leaned his arms on the lacquered rail and looked across the water through the hazy afternoon light to the low, lumpy hills. They were covered now in the apple greens of summer and in colors of the larger flowers: irises, daisies, and sunflowers. He couldn’t see the multitudes of small, bright flowers hidden in the grass, but he knew they were there. In only a few months, the hills would slowly morph to gold, vermillion and a pumpkiny orange and then on to the alternating browns and whites of winter.
Past the hills, the desert baked under an endless sun and housed the cave that tunneled deep into the bluff at its western edge. Beyond it, well … Cory didn’t know what lay beyond the bluff. He’d never been that far.
He became aware of a woodpecker and was reminded that obstacles are illusions, a false sense of separation, an opportunity to help us reach our true goals, our true selves. He remembered when he had learned that and smiled at the memory. He sensed now that something was about to change again. That’s okay, thought Cory. This lifetime is for change and for gaining experiences. He turned in a slow circle to memorize his surroundings, to remember what they were now before they changed again. To give himself a way to think about who he was now before he changed, too. It’s all good, he thought as he took it all in. Everything is as it should be.
Throughout the estate, the birds and animals that had adopted him over the years went about their business. The first was with him still. Well, the first live animal—he counted Hank, his childhood stuffed lion, as the practice round for Daisy and the other living animals who followed. As he thought of Daisy, she flew onto his arm and looked up at him. Hopping off, she sat on the rail next to his elbow and viewed the hills with him. A simple, tiny chickadee. He had been so disappointed when she showed up so many years ago.
The memory was still vivid. They’d been reading fables and fairy tales in school, and their teacher explained the role of helper animals in the stories. Everyone thought that was cool and assigned animals to themselves and to each other. He had chosen a lion, of course, and been assigned an alligator by his friends. He liked those. They were manly and tough. His friends nicknamed him Gater, and he tried to live up to it.
Then, Daisy showed up in his back yard and at his window. He didn’t recognize her at first, but she was relentless. She started showing up at the playground and everywhere else he went. He knew it was the same bird because of the way she acted and looked. He didn’t know what kind of bird she was, but he did know she wasn’t cool like a lion or alligator.
One day, though, he just got it. People really can have helper animals, but they choose you. So, he first looked carefully at her as she ate the seeds he’d put in the window feeder. He then looked through a bird book he had checked out from the library. Comparing each picture to her, he finally found her—a chickadee, a plain, ordinary chickadee. An animal for a girl. He did not tell his friends, who continued to call him Gater.
But something drew him to her. He named her Daisy, sometimes calling her Dais or Daisychain. When he saw her, he’d go outside to talk to her. Soon, he began looking for her even on the ball field and outside his classroom. It didn’t take long for her to come to his whistle and to recognize the name he’d given her.
When the weather started to cool, he built her a birdhouse and placed it out of the wind and near his bedroom window. His dad came home one Wednesday in late fall and said they were supposed to have record cold over the weekend. He looked at Cory and offered to help him convert his bedroom window to an indoor/outdoor aviary. Cory’s eyes lit up. He hadn’t realized his dad had noticed. Did he want it for his birthday present, his dad had asked. He said, yes, very much. Good, his dad had said because he’d ordered one, and it had been delivered.
They spent the next two evenings building and installing it. Daisy sat on the birdfeeder and looked interested. When it was ready, Cory sprinkled a trail of seed from the outside part to the inside, but Daisy didn’t need that as enticement. She flew straight in and hopped around, found the water dish and the nest, and made herself at home and stayed.
His friends had started to notice her following Cory around and began teasing him. They quit calling him Gater. By that time, Cory didn’t care. In fact, even sports held less interest for him. Some continuing ed classes at the university, that allowed teens with a teacher’s permission, had captivated him. His English teacher was happy to write the required letter, and he enrolled. The classes were taught by a professor who was excited about his subject matter and his students’ learning and who made sure Cory was not left out. It was probably that professor who started him on his life’s work as keeper of a special zoo. He’d always thank him.
Daisy pecked very gently at his elbow. “Ow, Dais, that kind of hurt,” said Cory coming out of his reverie and looking down at her. She cocked her head at him, I was gentle and you aren’t a wimp. “You were gentle,” said Cory petting her feathers with one finger. “Sorry, Daisychain, I’m just a bit antsy. I heard the woodpecker. Are we going somewhere?” She hesitated and then flew off towards the desert. Cory sighed. He could tell it was the desert and not the hills. He didn’t like the desert.
He knew nothing there could hurt him unless he let it, and the only animals there were his animals. But it wasn’t as pleasant as the hills with their flowers or the forest of birches with their papery bark or the lake with its little inlets and islands that were home to frogs and water birds. In the forest, he could occasionally spot a fawn or a badger, and he loved looking for ducklings at the lake. He could happily spend a day quietly walking or rowing and watching for his animals, but where Daisy led, Cory followed. He straightened his back and stepped down from the bridge. Stopping home briefly, he started making his way towards the desert.
By late afternoon, Cory reached the desert’s eastern edge. At least, he wasn’t going to be greeted with a whole day of heat, but he would quickly be faced with night. He knew about night in the desert and what it asks of a person, especially if the desert belongs to that person. However, he had everything he’d need in the canvas bag he had picked up before starting out. He looked around. No Daisy. She wasn’t about to sleep rough, but then again it wasn’t her calling. She and the woodpecker were just the callers. She’d show up if he needed her.
He scouted around for a place to spend the night. He knew parts of his desert well, but he’d entered at a different point, and it took him some time of walking and looking to find a depression with a few trees, which meant a water source. He gathered a number of small rocks and started scooping sand and pebbles until he got a bubbling of water. He made a rock ring to hold the water in a small pool and hung a hammock between two palms. Before doing so, he peered into the fronds. Yes, there were coconuts growing above. Good, maybe he could get one in the morning.
Cory laid out the food he’d brought, asked a blessing, and ate as the sun set. When it was almost at the horizon, he turned his whole attention to its setting. In the desert, the sun does not take a lazy stroll towards the horizon. It sinks as if drowning. Cory wanted to make sure he did not miss the sinking as it marked the entry into night. The shadows of the palms lengthened, reaching out to him and then covering him, and with that, night, inky black at first. As Cory’s eyes adjusted to the lack of light, stars seemed to pop from the darkness until they made their own shadows. This is what Cory had been waiting for.
The rest of the novel can be found on Amazon.com.