Discover more from Fantastical Contraption
A short story
"You stupid chickens!!!" Cassandra shouted at the top of the bush as pale orange feathers whipped furiously through the leaves just above her head. She threw down the long bamboo pole in disgust and climbed down, calling back pointlessly: "I'm trying to help you!"
She had a long scratch on her forearm from where – she would later attest – the bush had lunged at her. And she shook dried leaves and twigs from her hair as she opened the kitchen door.
"I'm done!" She announced to absolutely nobody. "I'm done with these damn birds!"
"Did you say something?" Her husband's voice called out from the front room. In another three seconds, he appeared in the doorway with four bulging grocery bags in his hands.
Cassandra grabbed two of the bags and plonked them down on the counter.
"I'm done with the damn chickens!" She proclaimed. "If they want to get eaten by raccoons or coyotes, let them!"
"You love those chickens!" Rudy countered.
"Not right now I don't!" She shoved her forearm in front of him. "Look what the bush did!"
Rudy made a sympathetic noise.
"Anyway," she continued, pulling bottles of beer and sausages out of the bags and putting them in the refrigerator, "there's nothing more I can do. Those three are already up in the bush for the night. There's no getting them in now."
"Well," said Rudy, "we don't have time for chicken wrangling anyway. It's almost four. People are going to be here in an hour."
"…not even dusk yet", Cassandra muttered to herself. "What are they thinking???"
"Last I checked, chickens weren't much known for their thinking," said Rudy.
"Did they have Lambic?"
"Yep! Raspberry and peach!" He pulled out two large bottles topped with sparkly tinfoil.
"Oh, I should have said just raspberry!"
The two hurried to get all the food and drinks in the fridge, and then to set up outside. Strings of blue and white triangles danced in the light Santa Ana wind as Cassie brought out the cardboard box of ceramic mugs from Munich that her mom had let her borrow for the evening. She was sure the box hadn't been opened since the late 1970s.
"So your mom's not coming then?"
"No. She says she's still not up for being around a lot of people."
The first guest to arrive was – as expected – Mildred.
"Let me get a hug!" She cried out before she had fully crossed the threshold. Her curly white hair was striking against the deep purple shawl she had wrapped around her shoulders, both drooping from the weight of two reusable shopping bags.
Cassandra wrapped her arms around the old lady and smiled. She briefly entertained the thought that maybe "All This Crap" - her and her husband's shorthand for everything that had happened over the past year and a half - had a purpose, and that purpose was to help everyone to appreciate the little things, the important things, that they already had in their lives.
She let Mildred go, and immediately banished the thought. Her favorite yoga studio closed forever? Kids forced into masks to go to school? Thousands of third-world children each month dead from malnutrition? No. How could anything be worth that?
Rudy stepped over and hugged Mildred too. She had set the shopping bags down and he eyed them.
"That's not for us is it?"
"I just picked up a few things for the party!" She said.
"Oh Mildred," said Cassie, "you didn't need to do that!"
"I enjoy it!" Mildred exclaimed, her eyes sparkling. "Every time I go into Trader Joe's it's a battle! This time, they had a special cart for me that I had to push around, with a little flag on it!"
Rudy laughed. "Did it say 'Unclean'?"
"No," she replied with a sly smile, "I think it was 'untermenschlich'!"
Rudy picked up Mildred's shopping bags, which were filled with a selection of fall ciders, and carried them into the kitchen.
"Can I get you anything to drink?" Asked Rudy.
"I'll just take one of these," said Mildred, rummaging through one of the bags and pulling out a pear cider. The three headed out to the back patio.
The blue-and-white Oktoberfest flags flapped happily in the breeze above their heads.
"Cassie, do you have more stickers for me?"
Cassie nodded. "Yes! Don't let me forget to give them to you!"
Every week or so, Mildred asked Cassie to print out subversive stickers for her on her printer. It wasn't because Mildred didn't have her own printer - she did. She just didn't know how to use it very well, and at her age, she was always quick to remind everyone, she shouldn't be expected to master every new bit of technology that came her way.
The stickers came from an underground group called "The White Rose". They said things like "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty", "My freedom doesn't end where your fear begins", "Imagine doing this for a virus so deadly you have to be tested to even know if you have it", and "Live in fear, it makes you easier to control."
Cassie printed them all on bright neon sticker paper, and after dark, Mildred would hit the streets of Burroughs in her old Jeep, looking for places to put them up. All of the stickers would be gone two days later, but Mildred kept on going out and putting them up again. "I need to do something," she would say.
Rudy and Cassie were the only ones who knew about her late-night escapades. Her own family would not have appreciated the stickers' messages, and they would have worried for her safety. Even her two friends brought up the danger of security cameras.
"Don't worry!" She said, with a glint in her eye, "I always wear my black Ninja sweatshirt, and pull the hood down low!"
The sun was starting to throw its early-evening glow on the Verdugo hills, and the clouds were just beginning to turn a rosy pink on the edges, as the other guests began to arrive.
Danielle arrived in a snug black cashmere sweater and sparkly earrings. Her recently coiffed hair (she later explained that she had to sneak into the “closed” salon, speakeasy style) bounced just above her shoulders. She brought with her a bottle of red wine, which she plonked down on the table, along with the announcement that she had used a new app that helps you identify quality wines to find it.
Then Felicia, with her clipped London accent, fox-colored shoulder-length hair, and stylish green woolen coat – and yet another shopping bag from Trader Joe’s.
“It just occurred to me as I was heading for the door, that sometimes when people are throwing parties, they don’t have time to think about cheese!” She handed the bag to Cassie, who took it into the kitchen with profuse thank-yous.
Then Xochitl, with her laughing brown eyes and her promise of what was going to be the best flourless chocolate cake anyone had ever tasted. Cassie swapped the platter of freshly-opened cheeses for the cake, which she secreted away to the fridge with more thank-yous.
And then the newcomers began to arrive.
Krystal was first. "I wasn't sure if I should knock on the front door, or just come around," she said tentatively.
"Oh shoot!" Cassie shot up from her seat, "I bet the sign came down!" She made quick introductions and then dashed around to the front of the house to put the sign back up, whereupon she was greeted by Andrea and Mick and one-year-old Hannah.
"This is Andrea," she announced, when they all came around to the back yard. "And this is Mick, and this is Hannah!"
Andrea wore Hannah in a sling across her chest, and Felicia immediately leapt from her own chair to offer it to her.
"I'll grab some more chairs from inside," said Rudy.
"So how do you all know each other?" Felicia directed her question at Cassie and the newcomers.
"Well," began Cassie, looking around, "Krystal and I had been talking for a while on one of the Telegram groups, and when I found out she lived in LA, I asked her to join us. And Andrea…"
Andrea looked up from little Hannah's face. "We were in Lance Hudson's medical-freedom group on Facebook, before it got shut down," she said. "Fortunately, we'd DM'd each other about something, so we stayed in touch."
"Andrea and Mick have started a wellness company," Cassie said to everyone. "They're helping people get early treatment with things like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin."
"Oh wow!" Said Krystal, in a hushed tone. "But isn't that… I mean, how do you do that? I thought those weren't allowed?"
"Oh there are ways," said Andrea matter-of-factly. "We work with other people who are doing similar things around the country." Then she looked up, at the brick wall just a few feet away.
"What about your neighbors?" She asked with a slight frown.
"We don't really know," Rudy shrugged.
"They're great people," said Cassie, "we really like them. But we haven't talked to them about any of this."
Everyone around the table nodded, and a self-conscious quiet descended on the group.
"Have you been hearing the stories in the news about all the athletes who are just collapsing on the field?" Felicia leaned forward to ask in almost hushed tones.
Xochitl's eyes widened. "Yes!" She exclaimed, also in a hushed voice, "and what about that newscaster a few weeks ago! Right on the air!"
Across the table, Danielle had Andrea and Mick enthralled in the tale of her most recent breakup. Her tones were slightly less hushed, and were punctuated with clucks of sympathy and exclamations of "oooooh!" and "ouch!" from the couple, while Andrea bounced little Hannah – who had just begun to emit barely perceptible squeaks of discontent - on her knee.
More guests arrived: Darcy, one of Cassie's dance friends, and Mark, a friend of Cassie's mother's from her Qi Gong class. Introductions were made, a variety of imported beers and ciders offered up, and the conversations continued.
"You know," Felicia was remarking to her side of the table, "I can't talk about any of these things in my professional circles."
Danielle nearly spat out her Cabernet. "Oh. My. GOD!" She slapped the table in front of her. "YES!"
Andrea shifted little Hannah to her other knee.
Krystal nodded. "If people knew what I thought, I'd lose my career," she said quietly.
"Absolutely!" Exclaimed Danielle.
Others around the table nodded. It was getting dark now, and the string of bare light bulbs cast a warm glow over the little party. If the newcomers had had inhibitions at first, they were forgotten now. Slowly at first, and then rapidly, as if gushing forth on a current that was beyond the speaker’s control, the stories began to pour out:
Andrea told of her sister, whose son was autistic, and how proud she was that she had gotten him to wear his mask to school.
"I just can't even look at the pictures she posts. And there's nothing I can say to her. She just dismisses it all – the studies, common sense, everything.”
Xochitl told about the "mask Nazi" at the farmers' market:
"This middle-aged woman, she looks like Dolores Umbridge! And she goes around telling everyone to pull their masks up over their noses!"
"Oh man!" Mark exclaimed. "I got that at the optometrist!"
"Yeah! I had an accident at a job I was on – I wasn't wearing goggles, and something flew into my eye! So I had to make an emergency appointment with my optometrist, and here I am, my whole eye is bright red! I can barely even see out of it, and this young guy, not the doctor, but the guy who does the initial exam… he was like screaming at me to pull my mask up or I was gonna kill his grandma!"
Krystal was worried that her office was going to mandate the vaccine.
"They haven't said they're going to," she said. "But they keep asking me about it. I keep saying I'm not going to get it, but they keep bringing it up."
"Why are they worried?" Asked Mick. "If they've all got it, they're 'protected', right? Why do they care what you do?"
"There you go again, trying to bring logic into it!" Said Andrea.
Danielle looked around the table. "You know," she said, as if it was just now occurring to her, "this is the first time I've been able to speak freely in months! No…" she corrected herself, "no… more than a year. Like a year and a half now!"
At some point, concern for what the neighbors might think vanished into the night air, and the volume of conversation rose to a steady, loud, hum. Soon, the table glowed not just from the bulbs above it, but from something magical that nobody could name. It was as if some other presence was there with them, something benevolent and joyful, dancing in the glow above the table along with the flapping blue-and-white triangles.
"Good God is that a chicken?!" Felicia's voice cut through the hum. Cassie gave a start, and followed her friend's gaze upward. Indeed, one of the birds she had so desperately tried to wrest from the bush on the other side of the garden now sat perched above them all in the tree that grew next to their table.
Cassie cursed under her breath. "Yes," she said coldly. "It's a chicken."
The look on Felicia's face suggested that this fell short of a full accounting of the situation, so she continued.
"We have nine chickens," she explained to the rapt table, "six of them are very good about going into their coop every night before it gets dark. But the other three…" She glanced above her, "…it's like they have a death wish."
Mildred piped up: "Can we help you get them in now? I bet if we all try…"
Cassie agreed, more in the spirit of making Mildred happy than out of any real belief that they stood a chance of getting the rogue birds back into the coop. "Sure," she said, standing up. "Let's give it a shot."
She handed out bamboo poles to Mildred, Danielle, Krystal and Felicia, and they began poking at the chickens in the tree as the others continued their conversations.
"You know what's weird?" Said Darcy, "some of the people I don't see anymore… it's not like we even talked about it, or they even know what I think… it's like they just knew!"
Xochitl frowned inquisitively.
"I mean," Darcy continued, "like, I tried reaching out to some of the moms from my son's school. I emailed like six or seven of them, asking how they were doing, asking if they wanted to try getting the kids together… only one responded! And the first thing she said was about how any get-togethers had to be masked!"
"Wow!" Andrea shook her head.
"You know," said Rudy helpfullly, "it might have just been the fact that you were asking about getting together at all!"
"Maybe," said Darcy, "but I find it weird. Other than the one, none of them even said anything. They didn't even respond. And it's other people too. They've just sort of… disappeared."
After putting some genuine enthusiasm into jabbing bamboo poles into the tree branches, Felicia, Danielle and Krystal recognized the futility of the enterprise, put down their poles, and returned to the table.
Andrea nodded. "Hannah's cousins aren't even allowed to see her," she said. "She was born just over a year ago and most of her own family hasn't even seen her in person yet."
"Are you kidding?!?" Darcy exclaimed.
"Oh, it's the same in my family!" Mildred cried out from the other side of the tree where she stood vigorously pumping the branches with her bamboo pole. "My own kids won't see me in person. Won't let their kids come over."
"Oh Mildred…" Cassie set down her pole. "When you said your family didn't approve… I didn't realize…"
"Yep," Mildred nodded, "here I am, eighty-seven years old, and they're afraid of me!"
With a defeated sigh, she threw her bamboo pole down into the pile with the others and came around the tree to join the others.
"But you are at risk because of your age," said Felicia with a concerned frown. "Surely you take precautions!"
"Oh I take my supplements," said Mildred. "I don't want to get it. And I still do my tai chi and qi gong, three times a week." She paused for a moment, as if deciding whether to share the next part or not.
"But I'll tell you something," she looked around the table. "Before all of this, I used to go to the Senior Center pretty frequently. I know some of the ladies who work there. Well, I ran into one of them… this was almost a year ago, so about six months in… and she said to me – she was so upset – she said to me 'Mildred, we've had so many deaths!'"
Sympathetic heads bobbed around the table.
"…and they weren't from Covid!" Mildred finished.
"What… what happened?" asked Darcy.
"That Senior Center," said Mildred, "was their social life. So many of them. It's where they went to have lunch every day, to play cards, to hang out and gossip with whoever happened to be there… it was their life. You take that away from people…"
"…and they die," said Andrea simply.
The table was quiet for a moment.
"You know," said Xochitl, "I'm pretty sure the vaccine killed my dad's brother." Everyone turned to look at her.
"He was old. He was in his eighties, but he was in perfect health. Got around by himself, really active… he took the shot, and right away, like a few days later, his organs started to fail. In a couple weeks, he was gone."
Exclamations of "wow," and "how awful" came from around the table.
"Well," Rudy interjected, "you can't be sure it was the vaccine that did it."
"No," said Cassie, "that's just it – you can't be sure. They'll just say 'oh, he was old, he would have died anyway…'"
“In Sweden, they’ve stopped giving it to young people," said Krystal, "because of all the side effects."
"…I'm sure," said Xochitl. "But I could never say it to any of them."
There was another hush.
And then a rustling at the gate. Everyone at the table looked up, and in another moment, a small figure with short blond hair, wearing a bulky dark sweater, approached them. It took Cassie a moment to recognize the figure, because the figure was wearing a mask. When she finally did, she rose from her seat and called out:
Cassie moved tentatively to offer the newcomer a hug, but Dee-Dee pulled back just barely. Just enough for Cassie to understand. She pulled over one of the chairs they had brought from inside, and offered it to her. Dee-Dee set it just slightly apart from the others and sat down.
"Everyone," Cassie turned to the table, "this is Dee-Dee! We…" she hesitated for a moment. "We knew each other in college," she said.
Everyone said their hellos, and Felicia asked Dee-Dee what she did for a living.
"I'm into feminist tree," she said.
The entire table leaned forward.
"I'm sorry?" Felicia eyed her quizzically.
"The full ministry…" Dee-Dee raised her voice just a little.
Felicia sat frozen, her glass of Raspberry Lambic hovering just to one side of her nose. She blinked several times.
"Oh the film industry!" Danielle cried out loudly. The entire table laughed. Dee-Dee tried to join in, but Cassie could see the effort.
"Dee-Dee's an artist," Cassie explained. "She designs promotional material and things for films."
She looked over at Dee-Dee, who nodded to the group.
Somewhere above them, the dancing spirit retreated to sit among the branches with the chickens. The bulbs still cast their glow on the table, but the sound of wind blowing through distant trees now replaced the warm hum from just a moment before.
Dee-Dee's eyes were wide just above the mask. Cassie thought she looked shaky, her skin pale. She hadn't seen her friend in over a year, and she looked smaller than she remembered her. Cassie felt an urge to wrap her arms around her, to tell her everything was going to be OK. But she knew she couldn't.
"How's your mom doing?" Cassie understood the words from beneath the thick cloth mask.
"She's holding up," Cassie said. "It's going on two years now. But she's still pretty fragile."
"How long had they been married?"
"Wow…" Dee-Dee's eyes grew distant.
"Was it Covid?" Asked Darcy, who was sitting to Dee-Dee's right.
"No," said Cassie, leaning over the awkward space between their seats, where Dee-Dee wasn't sitting, "it was cancer. He passed away right before it all started."
She turned to Dee-Dee. "So what have you been up to? We haven't seen you in so long!"
Dee-Dee interlaced her fingers and clasped her hands together in her lap. "Oh," she said with attempted brightness, "you know… work, mostly!"
"Weren't you going out with some guy?"
"Oh, yeah…" said Dee-Dee, "that didn't last…"
From across the table, Danielle's ears pricked up.
"Did I hear mention of faithless suitors?!?" She cried out, grabbing her wine glass and carefully navigating the way over to perch precipitously between Cassie and Dee-Dee. Danielle did not notice the tightening in Dee-Dee's cheeks, but Cassie did.
"Tell me all about your loathsome Lothario!"
"Oh, it wasn't like that…" Dee-Dee gave a little laugh. "He wasn't a bad guy, really. It just didn't work out."
Seeing that this wasn't enough of a story to have justified Danielle's trek from the other side of the table, she added: "…for whatever reasons."
Cassie left it to Danielle to try and draw Dee-Dee out on the details of her personal life, and turned to the remains of her bratwurst, which had been neglected throughout most of the evening. Darcy joined in, and Cassie mostly listened as her friend told of the failed romance, of the challenges of doing her work from home, of the seemingly endless Zoom meetings.
"Honestly," she said, "I feel like we're having more meetings now! I just want to get on with my work!"
"Don't you find it isolating though?" Darcy asked. "I mean, you live alone, right?"
"Yes," said Dee-Dee, thinking for a moment. "Yes, I guess it is. I'm just worried about so many other things, I guess I haven't noticed it much."
"Mmmmm…" said Darcy. Danielle hiccuped.
"Have you been in touch with Matt?" Cassie asked Dee-Dee, who said that she had. They spoke for a while about old friends and what everyone was up to. And then, after what seemed to Cassie to have been a very short visit, Dee-Dee reached down for her bag and announced that she needed to get home.
"Oh!" Said Cassie, "already?"
"I'm afraid so," Dee-Dee sounded apologetic as she rose from her seat and wrapped her scarf around her neck. The faces at the table turned and wished her a happy rest-of-her-evening. Cassie stood and, resisting the urge to give her a departing hug, walked with her to the gate.
"It was great seeing you," she said.
"You too!" Dee-Dee's muffled voice cried back as she stepped away into the darkness.
When she got back to the table, the warm murmur of conversation stopped abruptly. Cassie sat down.
"You know," Felicia turned to her, "I felt bad for her. I didn't really know what to say."
"No, that's the whole thing, isn't it?" Said Krystal. "What do you say?"
"You just have to talk about other things," Darcy said. "There's no point even bringing it up."
"Still," said Felicia. "I feel bad for her. She seemed so small and frightened."
"Don't," said Danielle, who had returned to her seat with her glass of Cabernet. "There's nothing you can say. It's like watching all your friends and family run out and get the vax. There's nothing you can say – they can't even hear it."
Cassie remained silent. Rudy reached over and put a hand on her shoulder.
"You OK?" He asked.
The others stopped talking and turned their attention to Rudy and Cassie. She looked up at them, uncertain what to say.
"We used to be really close in college," she said finally. "She kind of… " The words "saved my life" almost rolled out her mouth, but she stopped them. "…she really took care of me when I was going through a pretty bad time."
Cassie looked up at Rudy, who bent down and kissed her head. "Yeah, she really did," he said, pulling her close to him.
Up above her, the spirit on the tree branch gave a shiver.
Cassie smiled weakly.
"I'm sorry!" Said Danielle, a little too loudly. "I shouldn't have said that…"
"No," Cassie said slowly, shaking her head, "it's true. I don't know what I can say to her now."
Rudy squeezed her again. The table sat silent for a moment, and far away a car alarm bleated plaintively.
Cassie frowned. "Didn't someone say something about a flourless chocolate cake?"
"Ohmigosh, yes!" Xochitl jumped up from her seat. "I'll run and get it!" She disappeared inside.
"You know," said Felicia, "this… whatever you want to call it, this whole thing… it's changed people. It's changed all of us. And now we find ourselves…" she sat for a moment, searching for the words. "We each of us find ourselves on one side or the other of a great divide… but it's not because we've chosen it. It's been imposed on us by outside forces. And isn't it astonishing to think that only a few years ago, this particular divide didn't even exist!"
"Hmmm…" said Andrea, softly, so as not to rouse Hannah, who was now snoring lightly in the sling on her chest.
"I think…" announced Danielle, a little wobbly even while seated, "…that that was verywell said!"
Xochitl emerged with the flourless chocolate cake, and a reverent silence fell over the table as she sliced up pieces and passed them around on the little green glass plates Rudy had brought out.
Whether it was due to the quality of the cake itself, the company, or the gentle night breeze carrying the scents of flowers that only bloomed at nighttime and at this time of year… the flourless chocolate cake was indeed the very best any at the table had ever tasted, and each one made sure to say so.
They sat for a while longer, saying all the things they couldn't say outside of the boundaries of this space. They spoke of the new sense of hostility that seemed to have sprung up everywhere and all at once. The sudden and unexpected rudeness of the people working in grocery stores; the family members who seemed like strangers now; small children dashing behind their parents' legs in fear of other human beings. And the vague, menacing, feeling that always seemed to hover above them: the feeling that nobody knew quite what to expect next.
Each one seemed to know that anything not said right here and right now would have to remain bottled up for a long time once they had all said their goodnights and gone home. And so the stories – and the wine, and the cider, and the Belgian beers – continued to flow.
Finally, Mildred gave a sigh and stood up.
"Well," she announced, "that public property's not going to vandalize itself!"
"Oh Mildred!" Exclaimed Cassie. "Are you sure? It's nearly midnight!"
"That's when I do my best work!" The old lady beamed.
"Alright, let me go get your stickers…"
Cassie rose and went inside. She returned with a stack of bright neon yellow and green and pink, which she handed to Mildred. Mildred said her goodbyes to everyone, exchanged hugs, and then was off into the night.
One by one, the other guests started to rise from the table and to say their goodnights.
"You don't know how wonderful this has been!" Said Danielle, hugging her hard. "Truly!"
Cassie could smell the alcohol on her breath, felt the warm squishiness of her body wrapped in her black cashmere sweater, and was grateful.
One by one, she and Rudy said goodbye to their guests, exchanged hugs, and elicited promises to not wait too long before doing this again. And then, they were alone.
They spent some time cleaning up, and deciding what could be left for morning. Rudy went off to bed and Cassie said she'd be in shortly.
She stepped into the back room and turned on the light. Her little desk sat by the two windows in the corner that looked out over the back yard. She turned on her computer and checked her email for the first time that day. She didn't intend to reply to anything, just wanted to make sure she wasn't missing something important.
A new message from nextdoor.com caught her eye:
"Has anyone else noticed a lot of young healthy ppl having heart attacks right after the vaccine?"
"Really?" She muttered to herself, slightly astonished, "on Nextdoor dot com?" She clicked on the link, only to see an image with the message "this post is no longer available." She gave a little laugh and closed the screen.
And then she heard it.
A sudden, very fast rustling in the tree outside the windows. And then a loud squawk. She felt a chill. There was more commotion, and then, from the other side of the yard, a sound like she had never heard before: Another squawk. But this one more wild, more desperate. It was a cry to the heavens from one of the smallest of creatures. And it sent a shiver down Cassie's spine. She had never heard an animal die before.
"Damn it!" she cursed under her breath. She flung a notebook across the room.
She was angry at the chickens for being so damned stupid. But she was angrier at herself for not getting them into the coop that afternoon, for not trying just a little bit harder.
She looked out the window, into the mysterious dark that was her garden at nighttime. She could see outlines of her rosebushes, the chicken coop against the back fence, the wide, flat spaces where the chickens had torn up all the grass. She saw no sign of the tragedy she had just witnessed, and when she opened the window a little, the garden was silent. She could smell the earth, feel the coolness in the air, but she heard nothing other than the soft chirping of insects. She spent a long moment looking out into the garden, then closed the window, turned out the light, and went to bed.