Off the highway stood the Grain Elevator. There was a feed store there, in a parking lot surrounded by warehouses, silos, and elevators. At the store they also sold things like postcards, pens, bolo ties, sterling silver belt buckles, cowboy hats, and saddles. And in the spring before Easter they sold little baby bunnies, duckies, and chicks. The store smelled of grain and dust and feathers.
I went there for the ducklings. The little mallards in the boxes by the windows cheeped and waddled in circles, or cuddled up together in the corners by the lights. I picked up the ducks with their little webbed feet; they were soft and warm, with waxy round bills. I would take them home and they would sleep in the garage in an old aquarium, on a bed of soft wood shavings.
I went outside the store with a cardboard box, four baby mallards inside. In the parking lot I saw a slender man in a black turtleneck sweater, black slacks, and a crooked black beret sitting behind a booth. He hadn’t been there when I went in. Statuettes of elevators and towers sat on the table before him: farm silos, grain elevators, lighthouses, the Eiffel Tower, Sears Roebuck building, the Seattle Space Needle, the Tower of Pisa, Big Ben, the Tower of London, the Washington Monument, the Statue of Christ, and more. He had a rotating tower of postcards beside him, pictures of towers and elevators, and he was writing something on a notebook in his lap.
I walked up to him and looked at the price tags on the statuettes and post cards. They were reasonably priced – 10¢ a postcard and 25¢ a statuette. “What are you writing?” I asked. I sniffed, suspecting an odor of bargain cologne clinging to the vendor and his stand.
He glanced up, with brown eyes. “I am writing a poem,” he told me in a faint French accent. “I sell Original Bitter Poetry, for 50¢ a line, $1a stanza, or $5 a full page. ’Tis a bargain, Mademoiselle. I have neat handwriting and can fit more than five stanzas on a page.”
“Original Bitter Poetry?” I echoed, interested. “What is that one about?”
“Rain,” he replied, bending back over the notebook. “And death. And the futility of life.”
“Ah. Could you write a bitter poem about anything I asked for?” I wondered, shifting the box to rest against my leg.
“Oui, Mademoiselle,” he nodded. “Commissioned Bitter Poetry costs an extra quarter for every line, stanza, or page.” He tapped his notebook with the pen.
“Sounds fair. Could you write me a bitter haiku about mallard ducklings?” I wanted to get my money’s worth.
He paused, sat back in his chair, and regarded me through brown eyes half lidded. For a moment he chewed on his pen, then replied, “Would you rather have a poem about salamanders?”
I paused. “Not really, no. I just bought some ducklings and I’d like an Original Bitter Poem to go with them,” I motioned the box towards him slightly.
“I beg pardon. I thought you had salamanders in the box,” he took the pen from between his teeth and wiggled it at me.
“No; ducklings,” I shook my head. “Four of them. Donald, Daffy, Daisy, and Daphne.” I set the box down and took the cover off, intending to show him.
Inside the box, with wood shavings clinging to them, were four salamanders.
Now, I adore salamanders, with their small, smooth wet bodies, tiny cold feet, beady eyes, soft underbellies and firm little salamander lips. They are the kittens of the amphibian world. And these were a perfect variety of salamanders, with black bodies spotted or striped with yellow, red, blue, and orange. But I had bought ducklings, and ducklings I wanted. “By gum,” I muttered. “I had duckies.” I looked up at the vendor.
He rested his elbows on the table among the statuettes as he looked down into the box. “But Mademoiselle, a bitter poem about salamanders would make so much more sense. And you could name them Sammy, Samantha, Sally, and Salvatoré.”
I thought about that for a moment. If I took salamanders home I would have to empty the wood shavings out of the aquarium and instead build a beach of dirt, leaves, and stones sloping down into a little pool with a rock island, where the salamanders could swim or rest. Besides, bought salamanders were not the same as wild salamanders. You remember your salamanders better when you’ve found each one in a different place, under a rock, log, or pile of leaves in the low wet kettle in the woods.
“It’s almost Easter, I’d rather have ducklings,” I said, staring up at the vendor patiently.
He sat back. “I shall write you a salamander haiku,” he nodded, ripping his poem about rain from the notepad. I stood up, and decided to wait and see if I liked the haiku. He knitted his brows in deep thought as he regarded the empty spaces between the lines on the paper. I picked up the figurines one by one, inspecting them. Very nice workmanship, I thought idly, turning the Triumphal Arch over in my hands. I ran my fingers over the grooves and corners and around the arch, looking down at the box of salamanders. I heard the pen scraping the paper, and set the Triumphal Arch down, reaching into the box to pick up Sammy. He must be Sammy, for he was the smallest of the four, and Sammy was a small name. The little salamander had a round belly, fragile and soft. He was black with yellow stripes. I brushed wood shavings from his skin, and he watched me from gray eyes. I watched him back—we regarded each other very seriously.
The vendor—I wondered what his name was but did not ask—tapped his pen against the page with the satisfaction of a final word. I returned my attention to him as he read out loud.
“Decaying leaves hide The soul’s slithering promise A salamander.”
I thought privately that it made little sense, but the vendor looked so pleased with himself that I was compelled to say, “That was very bitter. Decaying and all.”
He nodded graciously, with a smile. “Merci Mademoiselle. So I thought, as well. It is three lines, that is $1.30, but I will charge you only $1, the price of a stanza.” He carefully tore off the page and offered it to me. I thought that the soul’s slithering promise sounded nice, whatever it meant, so I put Sammy back in the box and paid the man the money. I liked his brown eyes, too, so I also bought a replica of the Eiffel Tower.
“But I would still rather take mallard ducklings home,” I remarked, crouching down to cover the salamanders up with the cardboard lid. “The males’ heads turn green when they’re older.”
I didn’t get a response, and looked up. The Frenchman, his table, and his postcard tower were all gone. I stood up and blinked. A dusty grain scented spring breeze brushed through the empty parking lot. I turned around, wondering where it had all gone. The page of notebook paper rustled in my hand, and I saw the words of the haiku still written on it, in neat, small handwriting that could fit more than five stanzas on a page. The Eiffel Tower was heavy cold metal in my other hand. “By gum,” I muttered, raising the paper to my nose. There was a memory of bargain cologne.
I crouched back down and peeked into the box. Four mallard ducklings sat huddled up together with their feet hidden under soft tan down. They regarded me with quick black eyes. I smiled faintly, thinking I would not have to change the aquarium setup after all. But I would miss Sammy.
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