Racing fever hit Uncle Einar's hard that spring. Suddenly a whole household of kids were eating, sleeping and breathing speed and competition. Every child who could write the alphabet had a scoring plan or a race course diagram; the littlest ones spun happily through the hubbub waving their own scribbled pages.
Pete-the-artist drew a beautiful map of the yard. After much discussion and comparison and trying out of various routes, the map was embellished with a course that even Father Einar declared "very challenging." It started five paces from the foot washing buckets lined up near the back door, took a sharp right turn around the blueberry bushes, a hop over the hen house, a zig zag through the apple trees, a long straight stretch to the duck pond, up and over. Wet feet were cause for disqualification. Next came a dizzy spin around the top of a much battered pine, a death-defying drop through the thorny burned out hole in the arbor where Niles and Lana had carried on their experiments with magnifying glasses and a last sprint between the clotheslines. The finish line was the front door.
The first races were individual matches, which were all won by Zoriah or Xylina.
Z for Zoriah and X for Xylina. That made them the two oldest, of course. Einar and Margaret's thirteen children were named in reverse alphabetical order, every other letter. They had devised this plan years ago, while Einar strode back and forth between the garden and the clothesline, restlessly rolling his left shoulder, the great broken wing awkward and flapping behind him. They had begun to talk of children in a theoretical sort of way. He was wild with the unspeakable fear of never flying again, and tender with gratitude toward the small woman who had nursed him back to life. She was tongue tied with the miracle of his coming to her on that storm-dark night and the yearning to keep him there forever. Humble talk of families and homes had seemed safe, and they had discovered shyly that they agreed on a surprising number of things. In a fortnight the talk had gone quite particular and personal, and twenty years later here they were still together in the small house, bursting with four boys, five girls and two sets of twins.
It was Einar's opinion that 13 was "a good, solid number. Plenty of history to it." The alphabetical order had been Margaret's idea. Something about keeping everyone's nighties straight.
"And it makes a rather nice washline, as well, doesn't it, lambkins" she said on that spring morning as she surveyed the rising line of long johns, fresh and sweet smelling, ready to pack up for next winter. She jiggled baby Bobo on one hip while she unpinned Dinah's tiny baby sleepers at the tail end of the line and piled them on top of the mounded basket at her feet.
The first two babies were born winged, like their father. Margaret remembered that they had looked "just like a bunch of posies" as Einar tucked one of them in each arm, Zoriah's buttercup yellow and Xylina's blushing rose dainty against his great green wings. Vesper John had reached a year without sprouting, but shortly thereafter began giggling up out of his bath, following the soap bubbles. "Cousin Leif used to do that," said Einar approvingly. "Less of a bother in some ways," he added comfortably, with a twitch and a rustle of his own wings that threatened to capsize the little tub, baby and all. A year or so later when Tommy was born, Margaret was already busy with a lively trio of little ones and didn't pay much attention to Tommy's lack of interest in aerobatics, especially when the twins arrived. It was rather a relief to come into the nursery and find at least one child on the ground.
Most often Tommy could be found under something, into something (a fox hole on one memorable occasion) or flat on his stomach investigating an ant trail. He never worried his mother dream flying in his sleep or gliding into the duck pond from the porch roof. At two he would rather trail behind Margaret as she snapped peas off the vines, and at three he could tell an asparagus shoot from a sprouting weed. "Listen for the rip like silk, not the snick of stem" she said, guiding his small hands in the delicate art of pulling up a weed with all of its roots intact. By five he had his own little plot, and at seven he spent winter evenings with his seed catalogues when the others were lost in tales of flying carpets and broomsticks.
Although all the children were responsible for a row of vegetables or a pair of fruit trees, only Tommy and Lana had the patience to tend a whole plot of their own. Tommy supplied the family with tomatoes and onions, Lana had rows of zucchini and the pumpkin patch.
Tommy usually felt that there were just too many other things to do to bother much with flying. And to tell the truth he wasn't very good at it. When Lana planted her zucchinis she left no space between the rows at all, and simply hovered to pick the long green squashes. But when Tommy tried to pop up over his tomato row to check the other side for hornworms, the result was a great deal of tomato sauce on the seat of his pants. Lana told, of course, and he had to put up with being called Tommy Tomato until his big brother Vesper John got sick of it and threatened to squash the next person he heard referring to a tomato, any tomato. Which led to another round of jokes about squashes which lasted until the summer was over. By that time, attention had shifted to the pumpkin patch for the likeliest jack o'lanterns and everyone but Tommy forgot all about his embarassment.
On the first day of The Official Racing Season, Tommy slipped off during the arguing about the first races. After the older girls' overwhelming victories, several of the losers banded together to demand teams, and the ritual of "choosing" was in full swing - teams chosen by ancient rhyme and current rivalry. Excitement was high and no one really noticed that he wasn't there. He was peacefully replanting a flat of marigolds. Einar had looked thoughtfully at the tiny black bugs swarming over the new tomato leaves and recommended, "Those yellow-faced flowers, they have a powerful bug magic, I believe." While Tommy dug holes for the small green plants between the tomato vines, he could hear the yells and cheers of his brothers and sisters as the team races began.
Mother Margaret had come out carrying a pile of tattered shirts to mend while she cheered on the first meet. Within minutes Heloise and Fergie, who were only four, had come bawling into her lap. Their team had still been lining up at the starting line discussing how big a pace was anyway, when Zoriah's and Xylina's team was crossing the finish line. Margaret patted them on the head and suggested mildly that the teams be redrawn to spread the littlest and the fastest evenly.
Though everyone agreed that this was a good plan, Margaret would not specify just how they should do it, saying only, "You'll work it out fairly, dears". Assigning the big kids was easy, which made three teams, Z, X and V. Then the process sort of broke down. The sounds of furious debate came clearly around the house where Tommy was planting the last of the marigolds and startled the tree full of sparrows over his head into a cloud of twittering flight. At the end of the row, Tommy straightened up and strolled toward the chaos.
"I told you, " Pete was shouting, "It's division, a-rith-ma-tick! Eleven can't be divided into three equal teams unless we cut Vesper John in two pieces!"
"One wing each," giggled Roxy, his twin. "May I introduce Vesper, the half guy, and John, his identical twin!"
"Except" said Tommy mildly, "one is all left and the other is..."
"All right!" chorused the twins.
"Thank you, thank you," Tommy bowed. "So what's the problem, you guys?"
"I wanna be on Roxy's team," Fergie hollered.
"Fergie, shut up!" Pete hollered even louder; Fergie launched himself at Pete's knees.
"Twins, alert!" Tommy said, throwing up his hands in mock exasperation. Out of the air, Heloise and Roxy dive bombed their respective twins and began tickling. Some minutes later, when all four had subsided into a gasping heap, Tommy said, "Okay, now. Jill - tell me what the problem is."
Jill produced a much smudged square of paper taped to a discarded Monopoly board. "New Teams" it said at the top. The oldest kids names were clearly printed on the first line. Under their names a younger hand had added toddler Diana on Zoriah's team, Fergie on Xylina's and Heloise on Vesper John's. The rest was a palimpsest of overwriting that threatened to perforate the paper, and cross-outs accompanied by corrections jimmied into the spaces until the page looked like the sand in front of the hen house.
"See, if Roxy and I are on Xylina's team with Fergie..."Jill began deliberately. "Yeah!" Fergie said, his voice muffled since his sister was still sitting on him.
"And Niles and Lana are on VJ's with Heloise," Pete broke in, "that leaves me and the baby on Zoriah's team and it's not fair and it won't work ever because," Pete's voice threatened to go berserk again, "because, because - we only have 11!"
"Except," Jill said calmly, "if Big T here were on your team."
"Oh yeah, oh yeah!" Pete laughed. "Tommy's on our team! 4 plus 4 plus 4!"
Tommy smiled uneasily and was about to give an excuse, but in the next moment he was swept into the excited explanations and found himself on the starting line behind Pete, with Diana holding his hand and twirling around his shoulders.
"Feet on the ground!" hollered Vesper John, and they were off.
Despite his misgivings, Tommy and Pete were well ahead coming through the apple trees. The rest of their team was right with them, Diana riding on Zoriah's shoulders making wild cowboy noises. "This is it, Tommy, me boy," Zoriah panted as she leapt into the air, "Take the right side! Less branches!" Pete shot up the pine tree, keeping clear of the reaching branches, but Tommy lost his nerve. Looking back he saw Lana just under his feet and instinctively swerved to avoid falling on her, which was silly, of course, since they were both flying straight up. She swept up ahead of him, yelling encouragement to her own team. Niles passed Tommy thrashing in the branches, without noticing, since he was yelling at the top of his voice, "Louie's in the duck pond - we're out of it, Lana!" "Louie, you duck head, this is no time to go swimming!" Lana screeched. "Those are the breaks, sweetie," Xylina crowed as she and Jill swung Fergie up between them. Roxy, of course, the other member of Xylina's team, was already far ahead, slowing to negotiate the final run through the clotheslines. Since her team was not with her to keep an eye on the sheets and dishtowels, she was determined to not unpin a single one - and to watch eagle-eyed for any infractions by the other teams.
Jill's braids got caught in the arbor, but she got free with a furious shake of her head, leaving behind a yellow ribbon and enough strands of hair to delight a dozen nesting birds. Her team, Fergie hollering "We're Number One, we're number one!" were doing a victory dance by the time Tommy extricated his long legs from the pine tree, slipped gratefully through the arbor onto solid ground and loped through the flapping sheets. Diana had burst into tears coming through the same spot and Zoriah was bouncing her and singing "No big birds are getting you, Dee Dee, no big white birds," and no one really took any notice that Tommy was last one in. But he kept right on going, until he was around the house and deep into the corn rows, where he flopped onto the ground in disgust.
"Well, I am never going to fly again", he declared to the sparrows hopping in the dusty rows. Reluctantly, he thought about Homecoming, and the family rule that 13 year olds weren't carried, but had to fly in on their own, and for a moment he hesitated. In October he was going to meet Old Seed; his father had promised. Old Seed was about a thousand years old and he knew everything there was to know about anything that grew. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon had practically been his whole idea. He'd been living at the big house everyone called simply Home with lots of Tommy's other relatives ever since anyone could remember. But he only grew herbs and things in his room now, and even in this extraordinarily long-lived family, who knew ...
Tommy's gloomy thoughts were rudely interrupted by the crash landing of the younger twins. Heloise crushed the corn stalks next to his right elbow and immediately began to wail. Ferguson had time for a shriek of warning before ending a magnificent rolling dive directly on top of Tommy, which sent them both tumbling, with little damage to either. He crowed and lay among the wreckage, chortling.
"Tommy, kiss," demanded Heloise, sniffling. Fergie rolled over and grabbed his hand. "What team you on?" he wanted to know. "Um, no team, little one," said Tommy. He shrugged. "I'm not on a team anymore." The twins regarded him solemnly. "Come on, Tommy!" Fergie insisted. "He doesn't want to, Fergie," said Heloise doubtfully. "Well, so, okay for him," Fergie shrugged, too, hoping he looked just like Tommy. "Come one Louie, I'll boost you!" They hopped off, gaining altitude with each spring. "Like chickens trying to get off the ground," Tommy smiled, then continued on down the corn rows toward the house.
"There you are, dear," his mother said distractedly, handing him Bobo, the littlest of Einar's brood. "Go on with Tommy, love," she said, looking back inside the house where a large stewpot was steaming and beginning to bubble over. Bobo looked at Tommy and his fat baby face split open in a wide toothless grin. "Okay, frog boy!" Tommy grunted, swinging the baby up onto his shoulder, rather glad of the company. The baby felt lighter than he looked and Tommy thought, "Probably a flyer, then," "But not today," he said aloud. "Today you can be a farmer!" He stomped heavily down the path behind the house to make Bobo bounce and squeal. None of Einar's children were ever afraid of falling.
After ten minutes he had forgotten the races and the children's voices were no louder in his mind than the buzz of a big bluebottle Bobo was trying to catch and eat. Tommy zinged him a green pea pod instead and the baby settled in to some serious gumming as Tommy worked. His current project was nursing a variety of tiny epiphytes. Small and larger pots surrounded him, filled with shapes as various as clouds and cucumbers.
As the spring warmed into summer and the tomato vines withered Tommy rescued several of the wire frames to mount his epiphytes. He placed the embellished frames in a loose circle around an item he was rather proud of. After several trials, he had devised a sort of basket around an old bicycle wheel, with blooming flowers all around the rim, and the old bare vines twined tightly together at the middle. "I'll bet it's tight enough to hold water," he thought with satisfaction. A garden of succulants, epiphytes and several cacti began to grow, with the basket at the center. One day he realized that it might be starting to take on a star shape, but when he levitated up above it, it was lopsided. "If the echeverria was just a little over to the right," he thought and returned to earth to adjust one of the wire frames. In a minute he was airborne again, and hung there as he began to see a pattern in his mind. For the next week he worked steadily, taking a swim when he got too hot and dusty, but feeling a profound satisfaction in the garden that was taking shape.
The only blot on a happy summer was that he was still avoiding the races. Racing had settled into a regular entertainment, an alternative to swimming or floating on whatever scrap of wood could be found, but he just couldn't face being out-flown by kids five years younger than he. One evening he sat all by himself at dusk watching the bats zip through the air and thought, "I'm just not the best at anything. Who else cares about vegetables? Swimming is okay, but everybody except Niles is better and he's afraid of water." The memory of Vesper John floating down on him as silent as a cloud one day and dunking him made him wince. Standing up he kicked an inoffensive clod of dirt into dust and went indoors.
There was a discussion of racing strategy going on among Zoriah, Vesper John and Xylina, with sleepy comments from Roxy who had just attained the eleven year olds' right to stay up past Little Ones Down. Pete had apparently given up his rights and was curled up under the table fast asleep. Tommy listened for a minute or two, feeling more and more like an outsider, and retreated to the doorway to watch for his father to come in from his evening flight.
When Einar ambled in, he glanced at his son and the huddle of brothers and sisters and greeted him solemnly. "Did you work out that pentagram yet?" he asked calmly. "Uh huh," Tommy replied. "Good work," Einar said and turned to close the door. Tommy hadn't thought to tell anyone about the culmination of a week's work to get the last point filled in. From the air, the pentagram should be a beacon for any relative who might be drifting or soaring by and he was proud of it. Feeling a bit better, he swung his hammock down from the rafters near the door and fell off to sleep with the murmur of his brothers and sisters in his ears. Margaret and Einar exchanged a look as she came out from the little ones' room and Einar nodded as if to say, "He'll work it out." "Off to bed with you, too," Margaret said mildly to the older children, "As long as you're at home, my dears, you'll have to be up as early as the little chicks."
The next day, Tommy had just come down from a reconnaisance flight to place a brilliant green jade tree next to a patch of pink succulents when Jill came to borrow one of his plant stakes for a scepter. "Can I, Big T?" she asked. Jill was six and wanted to be ten. She thought nobody in her family, especially herself, had an interesting name except Xylina and Zoriah so she made up her own names for every one of her brothers and sisters. Bobo was her idea, of course. "Belden!?" she had asked incredulously when he was born. "After Cousin Belden Knapp, dear," Margaret had replied, handing her a damp cloth for the laundry pile. "He has Belden's big shoulders. Probably a strong flier, this one." Jill had come closer to peer into the baby's fat face. "Bobo," she announced, "welcome to the family! Hey, he smiled at me!"
She hadn't hit on just the right name for herself yet; this week it was Princess Shira.
"Sure, Shira, your princessship," said Tommy absently, looking up, where Vesper John was dreamily turning cartwheels in the air high over the trees.
"How come you're not in the races?" Jill asked, following his gaze.
"Epiphytes," pronounced Tommy distinctly.
"Why does she?" asked Jill, seriously.
"Does she fight. Eppie's a cool name."
Tommy stared at her. "Oh," he said finally. "No, I mean, it's not an Eppie who fights. Epiphyte. It's the name of a kind of plant that lives in the air. Look, no roots!"
"Weird," said Jill, peering underneath. "You know alot of big words, Big T."
"So would you if you studied anything the way I study plants."
"Yeah, I'm sure. But no way," Jill declared, hopping from foot to foot. "There's no time to study now, Tommy - it's race time! Even Bobo's been in a race! Roxy's so fast they made her carry him. He's an Andy Capp!"
"Handicap," Tommy corrected her absently. "Maybe, Jill, I mean Your Highness. But summer's so busy with all the stuff coming up. Racing's cool, but, well, gardens are cooler!" he finished, feeling sort of lame about it.
"Weird," pronounced Jill. "Well, gotta fly, dude. I hear that old starting gun!"
So that was what he had heard. It sounded like someone had set off a cherry bomb inside one of Niles' drums. Which was exactly what it was. The children were always well supplied with minor explosives by their cousins from Mongolia, who brought in a fresh supply nearly every time they flew in for a visit, and Vesper John had become something of an expert in re-engineering fire crackers to do all sorts of interesting things. The birds around their house were kept in a constant state of nerves by unexpected pops and cracks at odd hours of the day and night.
The August sun beat slowly down, almost muffling the explosion. Kids were deposited in various parts of the yard and stream, mostly doing nothing at all.
"Dog days," Lana said, flopping into the shade of an apple tree in elaborate slow motion.
"I'm an oooold dog," Fergie replied, rolling onto his back.
A hand stretched down out of the tree, fingers wiggling.
"Hsst, Fergie," Lana giggled.
"Wake up, old doggie," Louie crowed and dropped out of the tree onto her twin. "It's Championship Day!"
"Oh yeah," Lana said, "I almost forgot! And V-J's doing something for the finish line, he won't tell what except it's gonna be BIG."
Scrambling up, the three children hopped, bounced and flew past Tommy's garden. He looked up briefly, wondering what had revitalized them. When they were out of sight around the house, he smoothly rose up above the five pointed star of his garden for a final look.
"It's, well...perfect," he thought with a surge of pleasure. "Just that one corner," where Niles' pet goose had eaten all the Lamb's Ears. He retuned to the ground and loped off behind the house to get the flat he had in reserve. Dimly he heard the familiar pop of V-J's starting gun, as he loaded up a wheelbarrow with plants, soil and tools.
At the front of the house, the couples' final championship races were getting underway. By the end of the summer teams had been abandoned in favor of four person races. A list had been drawn up, and posted next to the front door, so that whenever someone wanted a race they had to pick a partner first. The older girls had to pick from a list of younger ones, Roxy had to pick someone slower, and so on. Zoriah had declared the whole idea of racing boring and was spending most of her time in a tree as far from the house as possible composing poetry to a non-winged boy she had met down at the river in July. Niles was still recovering from a sprained left wing after a sparring session with his pet goose and Diana at three was content to watch and cheer, which left two sets of four to fly and run the championship of the summer. Roxy and Pete had decided to race as a pair, but the younger twins had paired off with the oldest children, Fergie with Xylina and Heloise with Vesper John. Jill and Lana made up the final team, calling themselves The Dreadful Duo, Diamond Jill and Laser Lana.
The race was close. Everyone was familiar with the course, and flew almost in a pack. Apples flew off the trees as they came through the orchard, the hens hadn't time to get panicked before the thunder of wings over their heads was past, and no one even touched water over the duck pond, although the ducks put up their usual fuss with great spirit anyway.
The pine tree had gone completely bald as hand after hand had spun around its spindly crown, and as Fergie clutched at the top branch it snapped off in his hand.
"Hey, guys!" he yelled, and waved it like a baton. "One, two, three..." BLAM!
An enormous explosion sent shock waves across the valley and back. Tommy, who was just about to take a final look at his garden from the air, shot up an extra ten feet and narrowly avoided a confused ball of legs, arms and astonishment.
"What was that!" Lana was crying.
"Oh RATS. Oh, my Great Uncle Rufus Rat!" Vesper John yelled. "It went off too soon!"
In midair, eleven kids sorted themselves out and streamed toward the front door, the race forgotten. Tommy zoomed in first, and dropped to the ground in time to stop Diana from crawling into a rather large hole where the finish line had been.
"Wow." Pete whistled. "What did you use, VJ, dynamite?"
"Yes, Vesper John," said a familiar voice with uncommon firmness, "may I see whatever that was? Now. Hush, Bobo, yes, a big boom."
The children stood around in guilty admiration as Vesper John produced a tube of purple powder from his untouchable stash on top of the door frame.
"Einar?" Margaret called.
When Einar had looked at the powder he began to laugh. The children grinned nervously.
"Vesper John," he said solemnly, "this little powder bears the imprint of the Venerable Thunderer of the Booming Caverns of the North Bearing Reef. Produces the echoes on calm days. Pinched from Clarice's, I wouldn't be surprised. I know she uses a pinch now and then for thunder."
"No, Dad," Vesper John said, "she gave it to me. Well, she said 'Take anything, just don't bother me', actually. It looked pretty, and well, I'd never actually tried it before" he finished, smiling tentatively.
"Well, no real harm done," said Margaret practically, "that is, if this hole is filled in before dinner."
"Yes, ma'am," VJ agreed quickly.
The children all looked at each other after their parents had gone back inside, and at the hole, then burst out laughing.
"That was the best sound I ever heard," Niles declared reverently.
"I've never flown so fast, or shot up so high," Tommy laughed.
"Yeah," Lana agreed, "I thought you were some kind of big bird or a helicopter! How'd you miss shooting us all out of the sky?"
"Superior evasive action. I guess my flying has improved over the summer after all."
And it had. After the hole had been smoothed in, Tommy brought six marigolds over and planted them as a memorial, within a circle of green hen-and-chickens. Everyone trooped over to admire his epiphyte garden then, for about five minutes, before Margaret's call "Ice cream in the arbor!" drew them off like bees to honey.
Following after, Tommy mused on flying and gardening and being the best, and concluded with a sigh of satisfaction that staying with his garden for the summer had been well worth it. He still wasn't the best flyer, and Vesper John's big bang would be recalled in stories longer than the epiphytes and succulents he loved. But the garden was his, it was finished, and it was...well, perfect! And that was enough.