The Last Garden Contest

“And the winner is…”

Blake Jorgenson held his breath. This was it. This was his chance. Was this the year he’d win first place in the Long Lake Garden Contest? He closed his eyes and thought back over the past two years. The memories weren’t pretty: two years ago, second place; last year, third place. This year, could he hope, could he even begin to imagine that he’d win? “Yes,” he thought to himself, “Yes, he could.”

Next to him Alicia, his wife of over forty years held his hand and said a silent prayer, “Please, please,” she thought to herself, “Please let this be his year. Please let him win.”

Last year her husband had suffered a mild heart attack brought on by doing battle with a female rabbit who’d been spending much of the summer eating his prized flowers, especially his pretty blue and white and pink straw flowers, often referred to as bachlor buttons. He’d placed third, which to her highly competitive husband was unacceptable. A slap in the face really. And that wooden third place plaque he’d been awarded? Not even worth mentioning. This year Blake still had his heart set on winning first place and the big, shining, gold trophy that he’d already cleared a space for on the fireplace mantle in their living room.

Alicia sighed, something, it seemed, she was doing way more often than she used to the last few years. She really could do without having a trophy in the living room for the whole world to see. There was no doubt in her mind about that. None at all.

Blake felt the calming touch of Alicia’s hand in his, and he appreciated it, he really did. But he was here to win, not be gently encouraged by his wife. Or his friend, Toby, for that matter, who was standing with him too. Toby McCourt, his best buddy, the guy who’d loaned him the Haveaheart trap last year that he used to try to catch the pesky rabbit, the one he often referred to as That Damn Rabbit.

Blake still bristled sometimes when he thought about it. The trap has proven useless, and the rabbit too smart or too uninterested, or too something, to be enticed into it. Yes, Mrs. Bunny Rabbit apparently was not the least bit interested in partaking of the delectable salad mixture he’d baited the trap with: romaine lettuce, baby carrots and sliced radishes. No. All she wanted were to eat his beloved nasturtiums, bachelor buttons, delphiniums and any other flowers she could sink her rabbity teeth into. It was horrible. Then, to add insult to injury, she started bringing her babies into his yard! Blake sighed at the upsetting memory. It had been a long summer last year, a long, long summer indeed.

But this was a new year, and he felt he’d spent the intervening months wisely. He’d changed his diet, listened to his relaxation tapes and tried to learn how to calm down. Plus, and this was more to the point, he’d made a plan. Over the winter, he’d studied the behavioral habits of rabbits, specifically cottontails. He found out that among their favorite food was red clover and creeping charlie, plants considered by most, Blake included, to be weeds. They also liked watercress, collard greens, swiss chard. “Well,” thought Blake to himself, “Why not plant all of that for the rabbit to eat? If I grow what they like to eat, maybe the damned thing will stay away from my flowers.”

And early this spring that’s exactly what he did. He dug out and planted a new garden, one especially for the rabbit. It was a five by ten foot space, rich with sweet clover, creeping charlie, watercress, collard greens and swiss chard. The plants had flourished (Blake really did have a green thumb) and the female rabbit fed exclusively there, in her garden, eating what she was supposed to eat. Blake was ecstatic at his success. He even got into the habit of spending a few minutes each day watching her, first, early in the season when she was all by herself, then later during the summer when she brought her seven babies. It was kind of cute, really, Blake thought to himself, when he wasn’t thinking about all the damage she’d done in years past.

Feedback on the microphone drew his attention back to the present. The past was, as they say, past. This was now. It was a new Blake with a new, rabbit friendly garden, and now it was time to find out who the winner of this year’s garden contest was going to be.

Everyone turned their attention to the small stage set outdoors down by Lakeside park. Gwendolyn Pickle, Long Lake City Council President, stepped to the mic and said in a voice loud and clear, “And the winner this year, for not only having a beautiful garden, but one that also is home to some of the critters and wild life in the neighborhood…The winner is Blake Jorgenson.”

” Finally,” thought Blake, “It’s about damn time.”

Then he accepted the congratulations from his wife and Toby and about a hundred other people, none of whom he knew. But that was okay. He’d won. That was the main thing.

Later that evening, Blake and Alicia were strolling through the front yard, looking at the pretty flowers and waving at passersby who were stopping by to congratulate them. Then, just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, they took a moment to sit in a pair of white Adirondack chairs, strategically placed to give the viewer a sweeping view of the front yard and all the lovely gardens. After a few minutes Alicia said, “It’s such a wonderful evening. How about if I go inside and bring us out some nice iced tea? Would you like that?”

Blake smiled at his wife, “Yes, I would, dear. Thank you.”

He watched as she went inside and then turned his attention to his yard and his gardens. My how pretty everything looked, he thought to himself. The last year had been very trying, what with his heart attack and all. But he’d preserved, and now he’d won the first place trophy. It was already proudly displayed inside on the fireplace mantel. His garden was the best in the city. Good for him.

Blake felt wonderfully calm and at peace. All was right with his world. He sat silently as the twilight deepened, listening to the last song of a robin and the final cooing of a mourning dove. Over the past year he’d listened to many different types of relaxation tapes on his road to recovery, but there was something to be said about being in his own yard at sunset. It was better than any damn relaxation tape. He was in the natural world and it was real and it was right here, all around him. He felt himself mellowing out even more. After a few moments, he nodded off to sleep.

A few minutes later, Alicia came out with their tea and found her husband dozing peacefully in his chair. She smiled and set his glass aside and then sat down to savor a sip of her own tea while she enjoyed the serenity of the quiet evening. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a movement. She looked closely and saw her husband’s nemesis, the big female rabbit, confidently hoping across the yard, carefully skirting the flower gardens, making her way to the sweet clover and watercress and creeping charlie – her garden. She had three young ones with her. Alicia watched as the mother and her young made a meal in the garden Blake had planted especially for them. She wondered if she should wake him so he could watch with her. No. Better let him rest. It’d been a long year. She closed her eyes and rested with him.

In amongst the creeping charlie and clover the female and her young fed hungrily. The man had been nice to plant a garden for them. She had done her part and stayed out of his precious flowers. It’d been a nice year for her: abundant food, a nice litter of babies and, most importantly, no metal trap. She was happy.

When they were finished feeding, the female led her young ones away, back to their burrow on the far side of the garage next door. On the way, she couldn’t help herself, she stopped and nibbled some of the man’s bachlor buttons. Oh, did they ever taste good! She’d almost forgotten how tasty they were. She encouraged her babies to have some. They all agreed it was a welcome change from their rather bland diet in ‘their garden.’ Then she led her little family away. Maybe tomorrow they’d come back for some more of the man’s flowers. As she hoped away, she thought about it for a few moments and then decided that, why not? She’d been a good little bunny rabbit all summer. She deserved a treat. Yes, that’s what she’d do. Tomorrow she’d come back for more of the man’s flowers. There were a lot of them for the taking. After all, there was only so much sweet clover and creeping charlie a hungry rabbit family could eat. Especially with a garden full of so many other tasty flowers to choose from.

Slowing Down

“Tommy, can we rest up ahead? This old heart…”

Mom let the words trail off. Congestive heart failure, I thought to myself, what a friggin’ bitch. “Sure, Mom,” I said gently, “Here, take my hand.”

With no argument she put her hand in mine, and we made our way to the bench fifteen feet away. It took five minutes.

As we walked I gazed down at my mother, a tiny, bird of a woman, thin as a rail, her formally auburn hair now snow white. “I’m keeping it natural,” she told me once, “The way it’s meant to be.”

Mom was like that, independent. She became a single mother at thirty-one to four children (I was the oldest) after dad left home without a word. That was fifty-three years ago. To help make ends meet she worked part time as a cashier in a local grocery store, then later, after we’d grown, she’d become a teaching assistant helping out at the local grade school. She was a friend to many and beloved by all.

Now this. These slow steps toward the end of her full life.

We sat down and looked out over the wetlands behind the senior living complex she’d called home for the last seven years. Suddenly, excited, she pointed, “Tommy, look, a family of ducks. What are they? Mallards?”

“Yes they are, Mom. Cute, aren’t they?”

She smiled, “Little puff ball babies. So sweet.”

We watched the mother and five ducklings in silence. I listened to Mom’s breathing as it finally slowed down, becoming less labored. She still held my hand. I squeezed it and said, “Mom, what about it? Should be think about a wheel chair for you? It would make it easier for us to be out and about.”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

I nudged her gently, “How long did it take us to get down to this bench?” I asked, trying to make a point.

Mom was no dummy. “Don’t get smart with me, young man,” she said, barking a phase she used with me quite often a lot when I was growing up.

I smiled, “Well, the point is, it took us forty-five minutes. Last year we could make this walk in ten.”

She patted my hand, her tone softened, “I know, but I just don’t know if I’m ready to make that step.” She paused, then added, “No pun intended.”

I laughed. She had always had a good sense of humor.

We stayed on the bench for most of the afternoon. We watched the mother with her ducklings and, later, we even saw a great white egret land nearby. I’ll always remember that day.

Three months later she passed away in her sleep. We never did get that wheelchair, we just slowed our walks down and didn’t go very far. And when she got tired, I carried her. I think she enjoyed it. I know I did. She was my mom. It was the least I could do.


The Injured Owl

Miigwan Martinson worked as a technician at the Minnesota Raptor Center on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. She was gazing out the window talking to her idiot boy friend when she saw a compact car pull up to the curb, skid on some ice and bump to a halt. On the phone, Frankie was going on and on about how sorry he was that he had fooled around with that slut Jasmine, but Miigwan had pretty much tuned him out. She was watching as a skinny old man with a scraggly beard got out and went around to the passenger’s side. He opened the door and took out a bundle. There was a flurry, and she saw a head pop up. The head of a great horned owl.

“Screw you, Frankie,” Miigwan said, “Don’t bother calling again.” She clicked off and stuck the phone in her back pocket just as the guy and the owl came in the front door.

“Hello, welcome to the Raptor Center,” she said walking toward him and smiling her greeting, “I’m Mia. Looks like you’ve got a patient for us.”

“Yeah. Hi. My name’s Greg. Yeah, I found him by the side of the road west of here near Long Lake. I was out for a walk, bird watching, and found him by the edge of the forest. It was snowing so I wrapped him in my parka to keep him warm,” he spoke rapidly and was clearly flustered.

He was also reluctant to let go of the owl. Mia could see that. She also thought it was nice, really, that he felt so attached to the injured bird. Sizing up the situation she said, “He seems very comfortable with you, Greg. Why don’t you hold on to him, and let me make a quick call.”

“Okay, that’s good,” he returned a quick smile, calming down a little.

A moment later Linda Zen picked up and said, “Hi Mia, what’s up?”

“A gentleman just brought in an injured great horned owl.”

“Okay. Bring him back right now. Hurry.”

Mia hung up and said, her voice urgent, “Let’s go, Greg. Follow me.” She led the way through a swinging, double-wide door, down a gleaming hallway and into a brightly lit room.

A short, stocky, no-nonsense woman was waiting. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.” She gently took the bundle from Greg and lay it on a spotless metal table. She gently pealed back the parka and began studying the bird.

While Linda carefully checked over the big owl, Mia turned to Greg, “I’ve got to help out here. Do you want to wait?”

Ignoring the question, he asked, “What do you think is wrong with him? Is he going to be all right?”

Linda paused in her examination and looked up, “I think his wing is damaged. I need to check him out some more.”

“Oh, no,” Greg frowned, clearly upset, “He’s not going to die, is he? Please tell me he’s going to be all right.

The lead surgeon of the Raptor Center cracked an encouraging smile, appreciating the old man’s concern, “Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure he’ll live. He’s banged up, probably hit by a car, but he’s a strong bird. I think he’s going to be fine. He just needs some TLC, and we’ve got that in spades here, don’t we, Mia?”

Mia grinned back but didn’t say anything. She was in the process of ridding her mind of Frankie. The guy was a loser. Why she had bothered wasting the last three months of her life with him, she’d never know. What she did know was that owls were signs of many things: imminent marriage, sudden travel, a guest arriving soon, mental distress and impending death, to name but a few. Mia understood all that. She also knew owls could stand for good fortune and that’s what she was going to go with. Dumping Freddie would be the first step.

Mia had studied birds extensively throughout her young life. Her first name, Miigwan, in fact, meant feather. But birds were more than a hobby to her, they were a calling. She was an Ojibwa from the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. She was nineteen years old. She was in her second year of college, majoring in Wildlife Biology at the University of Minnesota. She had a good job at the Raptor Center and worked with good people, Linda Zen being one of the best. Every day she learned something new. One day she hoped to be doing , something meaningful with her life, like what Linda was doing, working on an injured bird and performing one of the many steps required in bringing that bird along the road to recovery.

She even got to meet decent people like the old guy who brought the owl in.

“If it’s alright with you both,” Greg interrupted her thoughts, “I’d like to wait around for a while.”

Mia smiled at him, “That’s great. I’ll take you back to the waiting area.”

Linda spoke up, “Hurry back, Mia. I’m going to need you.” She gazed lovingly at the large raptor, the biggest owl in north america, “This looks like a two person job.”

“I’ll just be a minute.”

Mia got Greg settled and was on her way back to surgery when her phone buzzed. She took it out of her pocket and glanced at the screen. It was a message from Frankie. She grimaced and shook her head. She went to contacts and deleted him. She was done with the guy. Then she hurried off to help out Linda. The owl was going to live and she was going to be able to help with the first stage of its recovery. It was looking like it was going to be a really good day. In fact, a great day, especially now that she had an injured bird to take care of.