Best of the Net 2008  

A Pattern of Chaos

The ducks had come to eat his grass again, but this time Barrow was ready. Squat little things, all brown, they made loud retching noises when their brown beaks weren’t filled with tufts of his perfect Malaysian Summer Grass. Barrow, who sat behind his row of hedges, hose in hand, could see the Phillips boy leaving for school, a huge backpack hoisted up on his narrow shoulders. It seemed to Barrow to be too much weight for such a young boy.

He watched the boy move down the front walk, toward the street. Alongside him, a few more ducks were making their way up from the lake behind the Phillips’ house, toward the street and Barrow’s yard. The boy broke away from the ducks, stepping into the street and heading out from the cul-de-sac, toward the stop sign where he’d wait for the bus. The ducks began crossing the street, moving toward Barrow’s yard.

When he’d bought this house two months before, the grass had been brittle, brown. There had been whole patches of the yard where there was nothing but bare dirt. He’d set to work immediately, first thing, before he’d even unpacked his clothes or dishes. Dreams of having a lawn of his own, not some rented patch of crabgrass, had occupied Barrow’s mind for a long time, years, and now, in his retirement, here it was.

He’d found a garden store and looked through a catalog at the expensive grasses, at the ones that they didn’t even carry regularly, and that’s where he found Malaysian Summer, settled on the page between Light Mediterranean and Natural Blue. The picture had been bright, from a low angle, showing the gentle blades standing firm even as they looked fragile enough to be blown away. He’d read the description, how each blade had a natural coating that made it resistant to insects, how the roots set deep and were thicker than those narrow blades would indicate, how each group of blades was tucked into the dirt so close that they formed a single unit, a tight cluster that could battle the cold better than grasses with thicker, yet more widely set blades. He’d ordered it then, and when it came in he’d insisted on putting it down himself. It had taken him days to do the work, removing all the old grass and furrowing the ground, seeding the dirt, and finally laying down the patches of green luminescent grass. He imagined doing this work with Jamie, his son. In his mind, he could see them together there on the bare dirt of his lawn, carefully nestling the little squares of grass against one another. Doing it by himself, he’d felt the pain of each day’s work in his back and shoulders as he lay alone in bed, yet when the last patch of grass was angled into the corner of the yard, the pain seemed almost congratulatory, a sign that he’d done this job and done it well. He marveled at the ruddy tone his hands and arms had taken on from the rich black earth and the Mississippi sun.

Now, the ducks began congregating in the middle of Barrow’s yard. They were moving slowly around one another, their feathers shaking occasionally, squat little legs plunging down into the soft Malaysian Summer. Barrow tried to count them, but every time he thought he had a full count they seemed to change formation and he lost track. He put the hose’s nozzle on the high-pressure setting.

They had come to his yard for the first time three days ago. Then, it had only been two of them. He’d been having his eggs and toast in the dining room, staring out the window at his lawn, wondering when the mail would come and if it would contain a letter for him, when they’d trotted up from the lake and settled into his yard. He’d thought it was nice at first, a conversation piece in case he ever got in a conversation with someone, but then he’d noticed that they were digging their beaks down into the grass, pulling up clumps of green by the root. He was about to get up and chase them off when they wandered back out of his yard, their small stomachs full of Malaysian Summer. He viewed the incident as an oddity, an anecdote that could be used to show how normal his retired life was in this new place. Then more had come the next day and more again the day after that.

He’d woken early this morning, before sun up. It was the earliest he’d woken up since Jamie had been young, and they’d gone hunting together. He’d forgotten how his heart beat faster in the early morning chill, how he loved the burn of cold air expanding his lungs.

Barrow moved out from the bushes, the hose in his hand. He felt the soft cushion of the grass beneath his feet. Raising the hose and squeezing the trigger in one clean motion, Barrow fired a hard stream of cold water straight into the middle of the pack. The screeching squawks began immediately, and Barrow swung the hose around, trying to tag each of the birds, to teach each of them the price of eating his grass.

Suddenly, the ducks rose and took flight. They swung and wheeled through the air, and Barrow found himself back in a duck blind twenty-five years before, sitting with Jamie, the early morning light graying the dark sky. The ducks had been everywhere in that marsh, and they’d both been ready with their shotguns, listening to the sounds of the birds moving around in the thick, tall grasses. Barrow had blown his call, and the ducks had risen from all sides of them, moving quickly up into the air in one fluid mass of feathers and wings, beaks and feet. What Barrow was remembering now wasn’t the moment when they’d both fired into the swirling mass, nor was he remembering the way their bird-shot had taken down clusters of the ducks, dropping them from the sky, and he wasn’t remembering the truck ride home, how Jamie had fallen asleep, head in his father’s lap. What Barrow remembered now was before all that, when the crowd of ducks had first taken flight in that cold clear air. They had moved together, even as they moved separately, a pattern of chaos that rose and swelled above him and his son. They seemed to be in formation, to all know exactly what they were doing, and yet it had seemed then that each bird was flying free of the others, that each was about to break from the group and fly off on his own. There had been nothing holding those birds together that day, nothing tangible that kept them flying in their circles, moving amongst one another.

Barrow let the hose drop into the grass at his feet as the ducks flew back toward the lake, their home. He wanted to believe that this had been enough to scare them away, to keep them away from his stretch of Malaysian Summer, but there lingered in his mind a knowledge that the ducks would always come back.

-Christopher Lowe (Fiction Weekly)