Warning: This poem is mostly fluff, but it has some touchy topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It contains references to past abuse and traumatic stress, poverty, sensory overload, veteran issues, scars, detailed discussion of PTSD with one war story, reference to panic attacks with bolting and how to handle that, limited indoor tolerance, anxiety, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"Sacrificed Part of Himself"
Ansel rapped gently on
the side of the gazebo. "Turq?"
he called. "If you're home,
I'd like to talk with you."
The caney wriggled out
from his den under the bench,
wagging his tail in eager greeting.
"Remember I mentioned that we didn't do
the holidays with my grandparents because
someone ran into the garage where they keep
the farm equipment?" Ansel said. "Well, it's fixed
now, so Janie and I going out to visit them.
Would you like to come along with us?"
Turq shook himself into a vertical position
and said, "Yeah, but why invite me?"
"First, because you're part of our lives now,
and I'd like you to meet my grandparents,"
Ansel said. "Second, because I think it'd be
good for you. The farm is very peaceful, and
it's a real refuge for people with difficulties."
"You mean problem kids," Turq said,
his shoulders slumping a little.
"I mean, my grandfather is a veteran,
and so are a lot of the people who work
for him," Ansel said. "I think that you
would like the farm, but you don't have
to come with us if you don't want to."
"I'd love to, but ..." Surreptitiously Turq
sniffed himself. "... I'm not sure if I have
anything clean to wear, and I'm definitely not."
"You can borrow my shower now, and I'll
loan you some clean clothes," Ansel said.
"Later you can do a load of laundry here,
or visit the laundromat at the lodge."
"Okay then," Turq said, and
scampered up to the living floor.
While Turq was in the shower,
Ansel picked out clothes for him,
a blue-and-raspberry flannel shirt
with matching pants in blue.
When Turq finally came into
the living room all dressed and
ready to go, Ansel could tell that he
liked the outfit because he kept
petting the soft flannel fabric.
"Some day we should hit Farm Mart
and get you some flannels of your own,"
Ansel said. "They've got the cool shades
of blue and green that you like so much."
"I do okay at the thrift store," Turq said.
Maybe, if you defined "okay" as
having at least three sets of clothes
but not enough to last for a week
without needing to wash anything.
"Up to you," Ansel said, not wanting
to make Turq feel pressured.
Janie came out of the kitchen
with a list in hand and said,
"You guys ready to go?"
"Yeah, we're ready," Turq said,
so they all went down to the car.
He still had to ride in caney form
to avoid freaking out because
of the small space, but at least
that kept him relatively calm.
As they drove out of Bluehill,
they headed into the rolling hills that
sloped up to the distant point
of Taum Sauk Peak.
Small and medium farms made
a patchwork of the landscape,
most of them belonging to
families who had worked
the land for generations.
When Ansel pulled into
the long driveway, Turq put
his nose to the window and stared
at the soft slopes and the orchard
and the pond full of quacking ducks.
"Is this all yours?" Turq asked.
"It belongs to my grandparents,"
Ansel said. "After they retire, then
the farm goes to my uncle Tillman, who's
actually a few years younger than me --
Grandma's last surprise baby -- and
he's currently studying agriculture
at the Missouri State University."
"Yeah, I meant your family, not
you personally," Turq said. "Wow."
Ansel stopped in the parking lot
between the house and the two barns.
"Here we are," he said. "Hop out."
Turq made it three steps before he froze.
"What's wrong?" Janie asked. "If you're
cold, then it will be warmer in the house."
"Smells," Turq said. "They're so -- it's all --
I can't keep track of everything."
Ansel realized that Turq spent a lot
of time in town, and if he wasn't used
to the riot of scents on a farm, then
it could easily get overwhelming.
Well, Ansel had handled that before.
He could talk Turq through it now.
"Try focusing on one thing at a time,"
he suggested. "I smell woodsmoke
coming from the fireplace. You?"
"I, I don't, I can't --" Turq stammered.
"I smell snow, and mud where it's
starting to melt," Janie said. "Don't
worry, Turq, we do this all the time
with Justin. You'll get the hang of it."
"I smell sawdust and varnish from
Grandpa's workshop," Ansel said.
"Cooking?" Turq guessed.
"Yes, Grandma's a great cook,
and Grandpa does a few things too,"
Ansel said. "What else can you get?"
"Animals," Turq said. "So many,
I don't know what kinds there are.
This is all so confusing ..."
"Look around," Ansel said. "See if
you can find clues to identify them."
"Oh, ducks!" Turq said. "Look,
they have a little floating house!"
"Grandpa makes those so that
the ducks can roost in the pond
without worrying about predators,"
Ansel explained. "What else?"
Turq closed his eyes and tilted
his head back to scent the air,
then opened his eyes to look
around the farm for more clues.
"Cows or horses, maybe?"
he guessed, turning to Ansel.
"I can't see any, but there are barns
right here, so they might be inside."
"Yes, both of those," Ansel confirmed.
"Grandpa raises Luckett Pineywoods cattle
and Missouri Fox Trotter horses. He also has
a team of genuine Budweiser Clydesdales,
Pride and Joy, for hauling and plowing in
places where tractors can't easily go."
"I can smell the pigs," Janie said.
"There's no mistaking that odor."
"Yeah, but they're good eating," Ansel said.
"Grandpa raises a mixed herd of Tamworth Pigs,
Mulefoot Hogs, and Gloucester Old Spots."
"Norma Jean keeps the goats, though,
and the chickens," Janie said. "She makes
the most amazing cheese, fresh or cured."
"It's really beautiful here," Turq said,
"and everything is so quiet, too."
"That's one of the features which
makes this attractive to veterans,"
Ansel said. "It has electricity and
running water, but Grandpa only
uses machinery in some places,
so as not to disturb the peace."
"Yeah," Turq said dreamily.
"It's like it soaks right into you."
"It's meant to do that," Ansel said.
"Do you want to go inside and
meet folks, or do you need
more time out here first?"
Turq shook himself a little
and said, "We can go in."
Janie bounded up the steps
ahead of them and opened the door.
"Hi, everyone, we're here!" she called.
"We're in the living room," came the reply
as they passed through the mud room.
Ansel let Turq move at his own speed,
following him a comfortable pace behind.
Big windows and warm yellow walls turned
the living room into a bright, welcoming haven.
Ansel hoped that having one side made
mostly of glass would help Turq feel
more comfortable indoors.
Ansel coaxed him forward and said,
"Okay, Turq, this is my grandfather Conrad
and here is my grandmother Norma Jean."
"Hello, Turq, welcome to the family,"
Ansel's grandmother said warmly,
but made no move to touch him.
As much as Ansel regretted
his grandfather's difficult past,
right now he was really grateful
for the lessons it had taught them.
"Hi," Turq said faintly, his body
pressing back against Ansel.
"Can I go hunt eggs?" Janie said,
bouncing eagerly on her toes.
"Sure, go get you a basket from
the kitchen," said Norma Jean.
"I gathered eggs this morning,
but that was hours ago; the hens
have surely laid more by now."
Janie trotted into the kitchen,
grabbed a basket, and scampered
back through the living room.
"She's like a kid at Easter,"
Turq said with a grin.
"I heard that!" Janie said
as she hurried out the door,
letting it bang behind her.
"That's why I love raising chickens,"
Norma Jean said. "It's like
Easter every morning."
"It sounds fun," Turq said,
turning shy again. "I got
to do Easter sometimes,
but not every year."
"Well, you can come here
to hunt eggs any time you like,"
Norma Jean said. "The ducks
don't lay all year round, but
the chickens sure do!"
Turq looked at Ansel,
rather than Norma Jean,
for reassurance. "Really?"
"Yes, they take dayworkers
for all kinds of tasks," Ansel said.
"If you can gather eggs without
cracking them or harassing
the hens, that's good enough."
"I can do that," Turq whispered.
"That's good," Norma Jean said.
She sat down on the couch, then
pulled out a big straw laundry basket
completely full of knitting needles,
yarn, and partly-finished projects.
She picked up a sea-green stocking cap
and set to work on the ribbing for it.
Turq didn't sit down, but neither
did he act like he wanted to bolt
back out of the house. He just
didn't seem to know what to do.
"You boys want to move this
into the den for a bit?" Conrad said.
"That's a good idea," Ansel agreed,
urging Turq in that direction.
The den was a refuge of
leather and wood, with a fire
of its own burning in the hearth.
Colorful paintings hung on the walls,
souvenirs by local artists from places
that Conrad had visited in his youth,
and potted plants sat on the floor.
Several ottomans stood in
the middle of the room, likely
left from a prior talk session, and
one of Norma Jean's afghans lay
over the back of the couch.
Turq gravitated toward
the heat from the hearth fire.
"Pull up some couch, or
whatever else helps you
feel safer," Conrad invited.
Turq flicked a glance at him,
but took the end of the couch
closest to the fireplace.
"One reason I wanted
to bring you here is because
this is the safest place I know,"
Ansel said. "You seem to like mine,
and it's modeled a lot after this farm."
"Thank you," Conrad said.
"Care to fill me in now, or are we
talking around the elephant today?"
"That's up to Turq," said Ansel,
then turned to his friend. "If you
feel like sharing, Grandpa can
absolutely keep a secret, and he
won't hassle you about anything."
"I um, I've had ... it's been pretty rough,"
Turq said, stroking the arm of the couch.
"That happens," Conrad said. "How about
I start by telling you a bit of my story, and
then you can tell me some of yours if you
want to get anything off your chest."
"I can listen," Turq said softly.
"Long time ago, I had me a wife
and a little girl," Conrad began.
"Then the Army sent me off to war,
and when I came home, I was ..."
His voice trailed off for a minute.
Ansel could remember that,
when he was little, Grandpa
had been touchy sometimes
and mopey other times, and
Ansel's parents had impressed
on him the importance of being
gentle and not too pesky.
Conrad cleared his throat.
"Well, to be honest, I was
a total basket case," he said.
"I couldn't help Norma Jean with
our daughter. Some days, I couldn't
even get out of bed, and others
I couldn't sit still for five minutes."
"That sounds pretty bad," Turq said.
"But you seem okay now?"
"Wounds heal, son, even
most of the deep ones,"
Conrad said. "It took me
a couple of decades to put
myself back together, though."
"How did you ...?" Turq wondered.
"Norma Jean hit on the idea of
getting a farm," said Conrad.
"So we bought this place in
a quick sale using money
from my medical discharge."
"Wasn't that even harder, if you
were already struggling?" Turq said.
"I sure thought so at first, but
Norma Jean insisted it would be
good for me," Conrad explained.
"She told me that if I was going
to be depressed, then I could
at least be depressed outdoors."
Turq giggled a little. "Sorry.
It just struck me as funny."
"It is, a bit," said Conrad.
"She tried her best to tease me
out of my funk, which worked
once in a while, not always."
"But the farm worked?" Turq said.
"Eventually it did," Conrad said.
"The sunshine helped chase away
the clouds in my head. There was
always work to do, if I was up to it,
and if not, Norma Jean did what
she could. We had a garden and
hens for eggs, plus the orchard."
"What you see now is a lot more
than they started with, or even what
I remember growing up, so it wasn't
always this much work," Ansel said.
"There are photo albums that show
how things changed over time."
"I like albums," Turq said.
"I have my scrapbooks, and
those help sort things in my head."
Conrad nodded. "I use logbooks
for that myself, but I know plenty of folks
who use scrapbooks or journals," he said.
He pulled out a couple of photo albums.
"Norma Jean made these, too."
The first had garish pink-and-blue flowers
on the cover, which opened to display
pictures of a suburban neighborhood
with small houses close together.
"That's where we lived before we moved
to the farm," Conrad said. "You can see
why that wasn't a good place for me then.
Besides, the house only had two bedrooms,
and we knew that we wanted more kids."
The next album had a handsome leather cover
with clumsily whipstitched edges, embossed with
a scene of several horses in the mountains.
Conrad opened it to show a snapshot
of a man on a tractor. "That's me in 1969
with my first herd of cattle, all four of 'em --
three cows and one butt-stubborn bull."
Turning the page, he said, "Here's
Norma Jean in her vacation dress from
the same year. Didn't help me any,
but it was nice of her to try."
He turned another page.
"This is my daughter Maribel
on our first horse, Devil's Food,"
said Conrad. "She named him."
Ansel laughed, pointing to another photo
of a boy jumping an improvised hurdle.
"That's my dad Clovis, and how he got
the big scar on his right knee."
Turq leaned in closer.
"Who's the girl feeding
the two horses?" he asked.
"That's my aunt Linda Sue, and
she's still horse-crazy," Ansel said.
Conrad flipped to another page.
"Here I am in 1979," he said. "We had
the best baling weather that year, so good
we didn't need to buy any straw or hay for winter."
"There's my uncle Grady," Ansel said as he
indicated a snapshot of a boy at a table.
"Now this one's from 1989, and you can
see how the garden's shaping up real well,"
Conrad said. "That's my youngest girl,
Nellie, with her arms full of rhubarb."
He moved to the next page.
"Is that a tent?" Turq said.
"It looks like it's made from tarps."
"That's exactly what it is," Conrad said.
"1991 was a nasty year. The Gulf War
brought up some bad memories for me,
and we lost a hired hand to suicide. Then
we got a Gulf veteran who'd been tortured
and couldn't stand being indoors. So I spent
six months camping out in the yard with him."
"Why would you do that?" Turq said.
"You had a house and everything."
"It was what he needed," Conrad said
with a casual shrug, "and besides, I
wasn't too fond of walls myself that year."
"By the way, that's me in the cradleboard
leaning against the tent," Ansel said. "Grandma
made that thing for me so folks could carry me
around the farm without dropping me on my head.
She started out doing it for her children, and then
kept it up for all the grandchildren too. That's
a real goatskin making the wrapper --
kid in a kid, she likes to call it."
Turq grinned, leaning over the photo album.
"Oh my god," he said. "You're so adorable!"
"Here's a picture of Norma Jean and
her mother Coralue working in the orchard,"
Conrad said. "That end of it has ornamental trees
like that magnolia they're pruning, and underneath
you can see all them spring flowers blooming."
"I can remember my great-grandmother,
but just barely," Ansel said. "She died
before I started kindergarten."
"Yeah, I miss Dao's mom," Turq said.
"That's my uncle Tillman," Ansel said,
showing Turq a picture of a tow-headed toddler
wearing blue fleece pajamas. "He's a few years
younger than I am. I like to tease him about it."
"Our last surprise baby," Conrad said.
"Maribel was our first, which is why
Norma Jean and I married so young."
"It turned out okay, though, didn't it?"
Turq asked. "I like Ansel's family."
"Yes, everything is going well now,"
Conrad said. "We have plenty of
resources for when it's not, though.
You want to give me an idea
of what you might need?"
Turq nibbled his lip for
a long minute, then ventured,
"I grew up in foster care. I had
a good family for a while, but
then we got split up."
"That's sad," said Conrad.
"You deserved better than that."
"Yeah," Turq said. "After that, I
bummed around in different families,
and then one sold me to a place that
was ... bad. Really bad. So I can't,
it's hard being indoors for long, and
everything is, I'm all messed up."
"Now he's talking, do you want
to add anything to that?" Conrad said,
turning to Ansel. "I don't need details,
but a sense of scope would help."
Ansel looked at Turq, who nodded
permission. "Remember about
three-four years back, that kid who
came out of Kandahar in a real fix?"
"Ayup, I do," Conrad replied.
"Now add superpowers,"
Ansel said with a sigh.
"Cops got a handle on it?"
Conrad asked, holding his gaze.
"We're doing the best we can,
but it's not easy to pin down,"
Ansel said. "We don't have
as much detail as we need."
"Because if it's not settled yet,
well then, might could be I know
a few folks who brought home
some interesting souvenirs from
the war," Conrad said. "Just in case."
Ansel shook his head. "I would really
rather not go there," he said.
"And I'd rather explain to a judge
why we had some wild fireworks,
than explain to your parents why you
ain't coming home," Conrad said.
"Point made," Ansel said, looking away.
"We have BASH, and we can call SPOON
if we need more backup than that.
Thanks for offering, though."
"Well, if you need any help
with this, you just give me a holler,"
Conrad said. "It doesn't have to be
firepower, I'll do whatever I can."
"You should stay out of it,"
Turq whispered. "This place,
it's nice, I don't want to mess it up."
"I will not say that I've seen worse,
but I have seen some mighty bad things
in my time, and heard others from folks
I know," Conrad said. "If trouble comes,
then we will deal with it together."
"I just ... can't imagine why
you'd risk this," Turq said.
"The only one who can understand
what a farm is, or what a country is either,
is one who has sacrificed part of himself
to his farm or country, fought to save it,
struggled to make it beautiful," Conrad said.
"Only then will the love of farm or country
fill his heart. I can risk it, son, because
this is what I am fighting for."
"Oh," Turq said softly. "Yeah,
I guess that would be worth it."
"That it is," Conrad said. "This place
helped me settle after I came back from
Vietnam. Took a few years for me
to stop jumping at shadows, though.
Are you still spooking a lot?"
"Yeah," Turq admitted.
"It doesn't take much, either."
"So when you spook, do you tend
to fight, or run?" Conrad asked.
"Run," Turq said. "Always run,
unless I'm cornered." He grimaced,
then flicked open the button on the cuff
and pushed up his shirtsleeve to reveal
the striationary marks. "If I can't get away,
then things like this can happen."
Conrad unbuttoned his own top and
tugged up the undershirt to reveal
a spatter of old, pale shrapnel scars
that dotted his belly and chest.
"Bitch named Bouncing Betty did this,"
he explained, then covered up again.
"It's a mine that you step on it and
the first charge sends it up to about
waist height before it explodes.
It killed around half my platoon,
and it almost got me too."
"Yeah, I've lost some people,"
Turq said. His hand shook as he
tried to rebutton his cuff, then gave up
and mutely held out his wrist for help.
Ansel settled the shirtsleeve
gently back into place, buttoned it,
and returned Turq's hand to his lap.
"If you need to talk about that, I will
listen, or help you find a shrink if that's
what you want," Conrad said. "If what
you need is peace and quiet, I got that.
If you're looking for work, this is a farm,
so there's no end of stuff that needs done."
"I think," Turq began, pausing to lick
his lips, "maybe I've seen you in town?"
"Ayup, when it gets busy enough, then
I run the pickup truck to the plaza across
from the police station to look for day workers,"
Conrad said. "You might've seen me there."
"Yeah, sometimes I go there," Turq said.
"It's hard, though, because I can't stay
indoors for long, and not all the offers
are for jobs that work outdoors."
"I got more outdoor work than indoors,"
Conrad said. "You come on over when
you need work, and tell your friends too.
Unskilled, you work for food, and cash if we
have it to spare. Skilled labor gets you cash
for sure, once we know what you're good at."
"Thanks," Turq said. "I don't like taking
charity, but I don't have much choice."
"You work, you eat," Conrad said.
"That ain't charity. If you can't work,
well, house rule is still that we feed
anyone who's here and hungry
when the food hits the table."
"It sounds like a good deal,"
Turq said. "I think I might like it."
"All right, what can you do?"
Conrad said, waving a hand.
"Lots of things," Turq said.
"Maybe not skilled farm work,
but I can do house work, yard work,
all kinds of fetch and carry."
"He makes a great porter,"
Ansel said. "Turq can carry
a whole cartload of groceries,
and still leave his hands free."
"Now that I can use," Conrad said.
"We always need porters here."
"You have such a nice farm,"
Turq said. "I'd like to see more."
"I needed a nice place when I came
back from the war, somewhere quiet and
wholesome that I could work or rest as I
felt like it," Conrad said. "So I made this farm
into what I needed, and then when I got better,
I invited other fellas to drop by whenever they
wanted a break from all the hustle in town."
"Grandpa has all kinds of stuff here
that veterans find helpful, and he gets
some other folks off the street as well,"
Ansel said. "I sure think it's worth a try.
My friends and I have come out here
after a bad call, plenty of times."
"What kinds of stuff?" Turq wondered.
"Well, it's not official Gentle Life caliber,"
Conrad said. "We don't have a caregiver
on staff most of the time, although sometimes
we get lucky and a paramedic hires on for a while.
What we got is a lot of wide open space, horses
to ride, cows and goats to milk, eggs to hunt,
weeds to pull -- lord, have we ever got weeds! --
produce to pick, firewood to cut, split, and stack,
that sort of thing. Good home cooking to eat."
"Just about every game ever invented
to play," Ansel added with a smile.
"Yeah? Anybody ever play chess?"
Turq asked, brightening up. "Or maybe
go or mah jongg, but I'm not as good at those."
Conrad laughed. "You named for
the Turk, then?" he challenged.
"That and my hair," Turq said,
ruffling a hand through the ruff
of light blue on his head.
"Do we play chess," Ansel said,
chuckling. "Why don't we go
downstairs and you can see."
"Okay," Turq said, and stood up.
When they stepped out of the den,
Conrad said quietly, "Side door's
right ahead through the living room.
Front door's on your right, that's
the way you came in. Back door's
through the kitchen. So if you need
to run, now you know where to go."
"Uh huh," Turq said, plainly nervous
but curious enough to stick close.
In the living room, Janie and Norma Jean
were both knitting and chatting about
Janie's home repair projects and
Norma Jean's ideas for spring.
Ansel nodded at them as he
went by, and so did the other men,
but nobody interrupted anyone else.
"Down here's the basement," Conrad said
as he opened the door. They went down.
"This is the rec room. We got a pool table,
ping-pong, foosball, arcade games, darts ..."
"Wow," Turq said, staring around
the room. "You weren't kidding
about having all the games."
Conrad laughed. "That's not
all the games," he said, opening
another door. "This is all the games."
It really was.
The game room was crammed
with several small tables and chairs,
long bookcases stacked with board games,
and cabinets which held even more.
Ansel had been coming down here since
he could walk and not put things in his mouth,
and the sight of it still took his breath away.
Turq, who had never seen it before, was
completely awestruck, standing there
with his mouth hanging open.
"Chess is up there," Conrad said,
helpfully pointing to a shelf that held
wooden boxes with deluxe sets of
games such as chess, checkers,
backgammon, go, and scrabble.
"There must be hundreds ..."
Turq whispered, turning in place.
"Try thousands," Ansel said.
"I can remember when Grandpa
cracked a thousand, but I was
little then. They had a big party.
Two thousand, I was in college."
"It's up over two thousand five hundred
now. Card games are getting popular,
ones with special decks," Conrad said.
"I don't even try to count all the games
you can play with a regular deck or
a set of dice. I have whole books
full of rules for both of those things."
"This place is amazing,"
Turq said reverently.
"Helps keep my mind off
what troubles me," Conrad said.
"Lot of folks feel the same, so
game nights can get crowded."
Turq wrinkled his nose.
"Maybe not my style, then."
"You can play any time
you like, son, it doesn't have
to be a special time," Conrad said.
"We just set those to make it easier
to gather folks for the games that
need a large number of players."
"We have outdoor games too,"
Ansel added. "Horseshoes,
croquet, shuffleboard, badminton,
and all kinds of beanbag toss."
"Giant chess and checkers,"
Conrad said. "Norma Jean
made us a set out of bucket lids,
an old bed sheet, and spray paint."
"That's a cool idea," Turq said.
"I like making do, but some people
used to complain about it -- that and
pretty much everything else about me."
"Turq is Chinese-American, by way of
attaching to a Chinese family," Ansel said.
Conrad just chuckled. "Well, if you speak
Chinese, why don't you run upstairs and say hi
to my wife," he said. "See what happens."
Turq scampered upstairs, followed at
a slower pace by Ansel and Conrad.
"Nín hǎo?" Turq said tentatively.
"Nǐ chī le ma?" Norma Jean replied,
which Ansel could recognize as,
"Have you eaten?" and then
went into rapid-fire words that
he couldn't begin to follow.
Apparently neither could Turq,
who blushed and said, "Could
you slow down some, please?
I'm a little out of practice."
"Oh, so am I, dear. I don't have
many people to practice with, so I just
watch a lot of Chi TV," Norma Jean said.
They talked for a few minutes in
Chinese, going slower now, before
they switched back to English.
"Would you like to come downstairs and
help me pick out a side dish for supper?"
Norma Jean said. "It's cycling day, too,
so you're welcome to take whatever you
can use from the stock near its expiration."
"Like what?" Turq asked. "We were just
down there, but I didn't see any food."
"There's a lot more of the basement than
what you just saw," Conrad said. "We have
a whole pantry down there for canned goods,
dry goods, and household supplies in case of
emergency. Plus some toys for the kids."
"I made a list of what we need," Janie said,
holding up a slip of paper. "Rice especially,
if you have a big bucket or bag of that."
"We do indeed," said Norma Jean as she took
the list. "There's a fifty-pound bag of white rice,
along with some smaller jars of different kinds
if you can't use that much of the white."
"We sure can use it," Janie said.
"Turq eats a lot, and now Ansel
is eating more too. So we have
a rice cooker, and we just got a wok
as our household gift for Christmas."
"I can carry it," Turq offered eagerly.
"I'm happy to help, and I like food.
Stocking up makes me feel safer."
"That's why we have the pantry,"
Conrad said. "At first, we needed it
in case I wasn't up to going out for
a while. Now we keep it for storms,
family emergencies, that sort of thing.
Farm hands and a big family can go
through a bucket of rice in no time."
"You don't need it for yourselves?"
Turq said, looking a little anxious.
"No, or we wouldn't offer the overflow
to other folks," said Norma Jean. "I'll put
some of the rice in the kitchen to use now,
but we aim to have a little more than we
really need. The rest goes out to family,
friends, our day workers, whoever can use it."
She headed down the stairs, with Turq
tagging at her heels like a puppy.
"Thank you for offering to help out
with him," Ansel said to his grandfather.
"I may have the police training, but you
just have more experience dealing
with badly damaged people."
"Any time," Conrad said. "Folks
took care of me when I needed it;
I'm just paying it forward."
"Even though he's not
a veteran?" Ansel said.
"That boy's been to hell and
back, nevermind it wasn't in war,"
Conrad said. "I may have a soft spot
for fellow uniforms, but anyone in
that much trouble needs all
the help they can get."
"True enough," Ansel said.
When Turq came back up,
he had a carrying pole over
one shoulder, with a bag of rice
on the front and a milk crate of
pantry goods in the back, plus
more stuff in his free hand.
Norma Jean wasn't carrying
anything but a canning jar
full of mixed vegetables
and a large smile.
"I like this one," she said.
"Can I keep him?"
"That's up to Turq,"
Ansel said, but he
"Yeah," Turq said as
he knelt down to offload
the things he carried.
"It looks like you got
quite a haul," Ansel said.
"Bag of white rice, smaller bags of
red beans, carton of oatmeal, pasta,
food bars, that's the storebought stuff,"
Turq recited. "Then canning jars full of
honey, peaches, apple butter, pickles,
and look -- pink pickled eggs!"
"I'm surprised there's any of those
left," Ansel said. "Grandpa loves
the eggs, he even makes them by
reusing the juice from pickled beets."
"Lost the damn jar," Conrad muttered.
"Finders keepers, losers weepers,"
Norma Jean said firmly.
Turq had finished stacking
everything neatly, even leaning
the broom handle against the wall.
"Thank you, Turq," said Janie.
"We can take those out to the car
when we're ready to head home."
"I'm glad I could help," Turq said.
His toes tapped restlessly on
the floor, while his fingers
drummed on this thigh.
"You're getting twitchy,"
Conrad said. "Do you
need to get some air?"
Turq looked at Ansel.
"If you want to go out for
a run, it's fine," Ansel said.
"Really a run, or just walking
around like this?" Turq asked,
waving a hand at his body.
"Whatever makes you
feel better," Conrad said.
"Long's you don't spook
my livestock, it's all fine."
"I uh, I'm a shapeshifter,"
Turq whispered. "Staying
human for too long is hard.
I feel better if I can shift, but
not everyone is okay with that."
"All right, what form?" Conrad said.
"I might have to draw the line at dragon."
Apparently he'd seen pictures of
the social emperor of Japan.
"Gosh, no, nothing like that!"
Turq said. "The caney kind of
looks like a cross between dog,
wolf and fox. The deer's a deer,
except I stay blue in all my forms."
"I wouldn't recommend deer in
hunting season, but dog -- caney?
should be all right," said Conrad.
"Then yeah, I should go out for
a while, see if I can calm down
before we eat," Turq said.
"I'll come with you," Ansel said.
"This is a big farm, so it's easy
to get lost if you're new here."
"I was just going to run laps
around the house," Turq said.
"That plan'll last right up until
the caney gets his nose in
the air," Ansel predicted.
"What will you do then?"
"Okay, you're probably right,"
Turq said. "You can come."
"That's great," Ansel said,
and opened the door for them.
As soon as Turq stepped outside,
his paws hit the ground and he
ran madly around the house.
When he came back into view,
Ansel could see him sniffing
around trees and the ground.
Then his toenails clattered
over the hardwood porch.
"I'm right here," Ansel said.
Turq ran up to him, wiggling
so hard that his whole body shook.
He snuffled around Ansel's feet
and then ran off again.
Ansel watched as Turq
made another lap and then
came back to him. Sniff. Rub.
Dash away at high speed.
Gradually Turq slowed down,
although he kept looping back to
Ansel when he needed reassurance.
Turq shifted from frantically running off
his nervous energy to real exploring.
He found a duck feather, bottle-green
in the slanting winter sunlight, and he
chased it around the yard for a minute.
He came back to Ansel, rubbing
against his legs and licking his hands.
"It's okay, I'm still with you," Ansel said.
"Are you having fun? There's so much
to explore here. I hope you're enjoying it."
Turq lolled his tongue in a caney grin,
then trotted toward the pond.
Ansel wasn't sure how badly
Turq had been damaged by
all of his experiences, or
how well he was healing.
Turq's tail was wagging,
though, so that gave him hope.
* * *
This poem is long enough that I'm moving the notes elsewhere. See the setting notes. Read the character and topical notes.