That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval
Many of us are relying on the post office a lot lately—perhaps you mailed in your ballot, and now you’re mailing holiday cheer to loved ones you might usually see in person this time of year. Even—or perhaps especially—in pandemic times, there’s something special about sending and receiving mail. In today’s That Thing With Feathers, Kathryn Wilder and her grandchildren check their mailboxes and share some joy.
by Kathryn Wilder
I hear my two grandkids come bounding down from their house to mine, all squeals and chatter, before they materialize outside the sliding glass door. Cupping their faces against the glass with their hands to help them see past their own reflections, they still can’t see me. Lacey slides the heavy door open and they startle at my sudden visibility. Lacey rattles off a tale before remembering why they’ve come.
“For you,” she says, thrusting a rainbow candy cane at me while her younger brother remembers the other reason.
This house, built to look like a barn from the outside, has an extra-large living room, which means wasted space, or extra space. In one corner, the kids and “Unk Ty” have built a five-by-five-square-foot cardboard house complete with a drawn-by-Lacey fireplace and pictures on the walls inside, and on the outside, an actual drop-down cardboard grill, a doghouse, and a mailbox—a small box Lacey and Unk Ty attached to the house at a child’s chest height. Lacey made a flag of a single chopstick with one of her drawings taped to the end, which resides at the mailbox, and Unk Ty and I know the drill: if we put “mail” in the box, the flag goes up, and when the kids get their mail, they pull the flag from its slot and lie it back down.
Two days before, I visited the (real) post office on my way back to the ranch after being at the cabin for more than a week. Dropping the canvas grocery bag of bills and junk mail, along with a couple of packages, onto a table, I didn’t open anything, barely glancing at a small but weighty box bearing a return address I did not recognize.
I didn’t open anything, barely glancing at a small but weighty box bearing a return address I did not recognize.
Requirements of my work life—writing and ranching—have me moving between a cabin forty-five miles away in summer (eighty miles in winter when the back roads are closed) and the ranch headquarters. This involves toting coolers of food and baskets of laundry back and forth, and the first task upon arriving at either place is emptying the cooler’s contents into whichever refrigerator. Often all other tasks are delayed as I step into ranch work, whatever that may be. So I didn’t open the small heavy box until later in the afternoon.
And didn’t see Lacey and Lucas until two days later, when they got home from school early enough to bring me a rainbow candy cane.
Lucas stands at the upright flag sticking out of the cardboard mailbox attached to their playhouse. “We have mail!” he announces, and Lacey abandons me to reach her small hand into the small slit she has carved through which to retrieve the mail. She pulls out two colored three-by-five index cards, reads the names, and hands Lucas the green one. “But I can’t read it,” he says.
Lacey, ever the elder sister at seven years old, says she’ll read it to him, first reading her purple one, my elementary, carefully printed prose spilling from her lips. Both kids smile, and Lucas hugs me. Lacey’s hugs have dwindled since COVID, a tragedy with which I have not yet grappled, and I welcome Lucas’s hug without asking him to first wash his hands.
Lacey puts the three-by-fives in a box of mail-received inside the cardboard house, and that’s when I remember the contents of my own box.
“Look,” I say, holding up a book for them to see. The horse on the cover draws them both near. Lacey starts reading: “Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West.”
“And?” I say, because she has stopped. “What’s this?”
Grandma Kat is what they call me; as she sounds out my other name her eyes grow big. “Is that you?” she says, and they both look up at me.
I turn the book over where they can see my photograph—proof. “TJ took that picture, and the one on the cover.” They have known my friend, Aunty TJ, for years, and have seen many of her mustang photos. This must be real.
Lacey holds the book, turning it over to see the horse cover again. Looking at me solemnly, she says, “Does this mean you are an author now?”
I’m not sure if he grasps the meaning of “author.” I’m not sure I do, either.
Lucas waits, too, though I’m not sure if he grasps the meaning of “author.” I’m not sure I do, either, until this moment. “I’ve been a writer forever,” I say, “but you’re right. I guess I’m an author now.”
I open the book, and start reading: “I lead my grulla mare, Savanna, to water,” and their eyes get bigger still.
“Savanna!” they say, glancing outside to where they might see Savanna in the corral.
I read a part about their dad, the O’s of their eyes and mouths never closing.
“I have another book,” I tell them, without explaining the gap in between, the many essays published but no books, the years in which I was writer only. From the bookshelf I pull Forbidden Talent, a children’s picture book from the last century, written with the painter Redwing T. Nez. They ogle, turning pages carefully to look at Redwing’s paintings of horses and dogs and sheep. Because this is at the longer end for children’s picture books, I have not read it to them before, but it’s the story of a boy who, like Lacey, only wants to draw and paint.
She interrupts my thoughts. “When we do a sleepover we can read it,” she says. Then she grabs Lucas’s hand and heads for the door. “We have to go tell Daddy Grandma Kat is an author,” and they sprint up the drive toward their house, leaving me laughing alone in the too-big living room of that house built to look like a barn, Desert Chrome and a rainbow candy cane in my hands, pandemic be damned.
Kathryn Wilder is the author of Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West (Torrey House Press, May 2021). Her essays have been listed as Notable in The Best American Essays and have appeared in such publications as High Desert Journal, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Southern Indiana Review, High Country News, Sierra, many Hawai`i magazines, and more than a dozen anthologies. She is a past finalist for both the Ellen Meloy Fund Desert Writers’ Award and the Waterston Desert Writing Prize. A graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, she lives among mustangs in southwestern Colorado.
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