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Professor Cornelius stroked the crop of the bright golden bird perched on his arm, admiring the shine of the one hundred degree sunlight on its feathers. He heard fast hoof beats, and through the shimmering air he saw four men approaching.
He put the bird back in the cage and set it inside his Arapaho Miracle Cure wagon. The fact that the men were driving their horses too fast in the heat and they were coming from the direction of the last town he'd sold his goods in, made him nervous. Maybe he should have put a few more miles between himself and Farmdale before stopping for the night.
The sweating and scowling men rode up and eyed Cornelius as the Oklahoma dust settled around the horse's feet. Professor Cornelius made it a habit to leave a town before people had a chance to examine their snake oil purchase and experience buyer's remorse, but his product wasn't expensive and no one had ever came after him.
One of the men spoke, tugging on his blue neck kerchief. That's him. Cowhand at the saloon said he was drivin' herd near Tall Tree three years ago, and right after this fella rode into town, a hell of a rainstorm came out of nowhere. He said the same thing happened in Watsonville.
"If he can make rain, he ain't leavin' until he does it here, replied the lead man wearing a hat the same shade of brown as the dust covering it.
The storms in Tall Tree and Watsonville were just coincidence, Cornelius asserted. I've been to hundreds of towns and it didn't rain.
"Well, if you cain't make it rain, you ain't got nothing to lose 'cept gettin' rid out of town on a rail, said the man with the kerchief.
The lead man rubbed the sweat off his brow with his sleeve. But if you can, we can't afford to let you go without doing it for us.
Cornelius climbed onto his wagon. The men, two on each side, led him back to Farmdale.
In town, Alvin Sullivan, shopkeeper and self proclaimed mayor, ordered the professor to a room in the Hanover Hotel. The mayor came in, his son straggling in behind him.
Mayor, there's no use holding me. If I could make it rain I wouldn't need to sell potions and such.
The mayor stroked his graying beard. Maybe you can't, but the folks here have decided they want you to try. I hope you can swing it because people here are losing their crops, their livestock, everything to this drought. Sullivan gestured toward the lanky teenage boy. Tell my boy Lenny what supplies you need.
As the mayor left the room, Lenny sat down on an oak chair. If you can't make it rain, mister, what are you going to do?
I'll give them a good show. Maybe it will be enough if they think I really tried. I could use an assistant, how about it, Lenny?
Surprised to be taken into the confidence of the mysterious professor Cornelius, Lenny smiled and nodded. He found a pencil and paper and Cornelius rattled off a list: fireworks, black powder, matches, haywire, fuse line.
I'll get all this right away.
No hurry, Lenny. I have something else for you to do. I have a pet bird in a cage in my wagon. Feed and water it for me, but don't let it escape.
As the door shut behind Lenny, Cornelius stretched out across the bed and stared up at the ceiling. His mind wandered as he drifted off to sleep. He had been selling his Arapaho Miracle Cure since he was Lenny's age; nearly fifty years. His bones ached more each year and he had to admit the cure, an extract of herbs mixed with alcohol, didn't help. Maybe it was time to pass on the business.
Lenny returned the next morning. I brought the fireworks and the haywire. I'll get the rest this afternoon, professor.
Good, Lenny, but call me Cornelius. I'm not really a professor. The title just makes it easier to sell the cure. I never felt bad about calling myself professor, an inquisitive man can learn a lot more from life than he can from a few years in a classroom.
I sure hope so. Pa wouldn't send me to college, even if he had the money. Since ma died, all he cares about is the store and running this town. He says he came up from nothing and if I'm any good, I'll have to do the same.
Cornelius pushed his silver wire-rimmed spectacles up the bridge of his nose. He noticed Lenny's lip twitch at the corner and changed the subject. So, how's my bird?
It's fine. Looks kind of like a golden pheasant. Uncle Dudley says pheasants are good roasted. Says that's what he's going to do if you don't make rain.
It wouldn't taste good, it's an old bird. Just like me.
Lenny dropped his gaze, focusing on his scuffed brown shoes. It's all right, son, said Cornelius. People have a way of not really knowing what they'll do until the time comes.
It hasn't rained in over a year and everyone's pretty desperate. They'll take it out on you. Are sure you can't bring rain?
I've seen it done only once and the price is too high to ask a man to pay. Cornelius dabbed his face with a hankie. Might as well get on with the show. I need you to collect the rest of the supplies and pick out a high spot near the edge of town.
# # #
"Here it is, Lenny announced, entering the room the next morning and setting a burlap bag on the table.
Cornelius laid all the objects in a row and began tinkering. Wrapping five firework rockets with haywire, he carefully nested a pouch of black powder amongst them. He connected fuse line to insure simultaneous detonation.
Ive heard of a theory that particles seeded into a cloud can cause rain.
We haven't so much as seen a cloud in months, professor Cornelius.
I know, Lenny. But it's all I can do. Cornelius lowered his head a moment in contemplation then raised it, a small, sad smile played at the edge of his mouth. Remember I said it is possible to make rain if you're willing to pay the price? I reckon I am ready to pay up, but it also requires a young man's sacrifice. If you choose, you could help bring the rain, but you must be willing to give up everything you've ever known for your pa's town and the needs of the folks here. Think about it but don't fret: You'll know what you want to do when the time comes.
Before Lenny could inquire further, the mayor's men entered the room to escort Cornelius to the rain making location.
Do one more thing for me, Lenny. Get my bird and bring it over to the site. I'm not going to get to take any of my belongings with me, and I'd like to see my old feathered friend one last time.
Cornelius slowly marched around the small knoll. He spent several minutes aligning the fireworks cluster and checking the fuse line. He wanted to stall long enough for Lenny to get there. The mayor's men brought a four by four fence post and rope to tie him to it. While most spectators appeared hopeful that the rain would come, some seemed to be looking forward to his certain humiliating punishment.
The idea, folks, is to introduce powder particles into the sky.
No one is interested in how it works, cut in the mayor. We just want to see some rain. Now get to it.
Cornelius looked around. There was still no sign of Lenny. He lit the fuse and hurried to the edge of the crowd. The fireworks shot into the air and exploded, leaving a dark, smoky smudge in the sky.
Ten minutes passed and the crowd grew more and more restless. Get the rail. Someone said.
A man grabbed Cornelius by the arm to prevent escape just as Lenny appeared with the bird cage.
The bird, Lenny, Cornelius said.
The boy looked at Cornelius and at the crowd. As comprehension lit his eyes, Lenny reached for the latch in slow motion and opened the cage door.
A bright yellow, pheasant sized bird cautiously poked its head out of the open door. It cocked its head to see the sky and launched itself into the air. Some of the crowd looked up at the sound of flapping wings and the flash of yellow. As the bird gained altitude it transformed to massive size. Lightning and thunder flashed around it with every wing beat. Clouds formed and concentrated around the flying bird until the entire sky was filled with dark, rain heavy clouds.
As the first drops began to fall, the man holding Cornelius' arm released him. He edged through the bystanders to Lenny.
The thunderbird is related to the phoenix but when it gets old, it regenerates in thunder, lightning and rain instead of fire." The old man's eyes glistened with emotion that Lenny could not quite identify. Perhaps fear, pride, or excitement or some combination. "Another difference," Cornelius continued, "is that the thunderbird attaches to a human, and requires the essence of that person to transform.
The rain began pelting down harder and Cornelius shook Lenny's hand, pulled him into a hug before turning away and walking to the top of the knoll. Above them, the thunderbird gave out an echoing shriek as it dissipated into the rain and clouds. The crowd was dancing, tossing hats into the air and lifting their arms and faces to the rain. Only Lenny noticed Cornelius standing atop the knoll. As the downpour increased, the professor faded, ghostlike into the sheet of driving rain.
# # #
The young man drove his Arapaho Medicine Cure wagon into a small town. He opened the door, checked on the fuzzy yellow chick in its cage and unloaded a crate of snake oil. He still had a lot to learn, but one day he would call himself Professor Sullivan.
micheledutcher - The thing I like most about this story is the quiet desperation inside of the characters. You can feel the heat of the riders at the beginning, the dust of the drought-ridden town, the thunderbird just waiting to break free and fly into the sky. Nice modern fable.
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