The Storyteller

The Storyteller

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Storyteller

They stood on the edge of the sprawling desert, a very small girl holding a kitten in her arms and an old rancher so tall and frail he swayed like a cypress in the gentle wind.

“Boy calicoes are scarcer than a hen’s teeth,” I heard him say. “Musta been that unusual blue fur that made him a boy!”

From the glint in the old man’s eyes, I could tell he was a spinner of tall tales—and children are believers because their world is still full of magic and miracles. I’d always heard, though, that because of a genetic flaw, male calicoes are very rare.

But this man could weave a spell, and I found myself believing him. A look at this very much alive kitten—and at the joy in my child’s eyes—was all I needed to start doubting established fact. Maybe this calico was a boy.

Hugging the ball of fluff to her cheek, she studied the old man’s face with the wrinkles pounded in from years in the sun and wind. “I’m going to name him Blueberry, Uncle Ralph,” she said, “because blue’s my favorite color.”

“Mine, too,” he answered.

From the moment Jaymee and Ralph met several weeks before, their hearts had instantly bonded. Our Arizona ranch was isolated among miles of yucca and mesquite beneath the vast blue sky, and now that Jaymee’s sister, Becky, had started school, our four-year-old felt small and alone. Suddenly the coughing of a distant motor announced the approach of an ancient pickup crawling down the long, dirt road toward us. The vehicle rolled into a barnyard pothole and rocked to a stop.

“Mornin’, ladies,” the driver said, pinching the brim of his sweat-stained hat. “I’m Ralph Cowan. Bill around?”

“He’s in the horse barn,” I said, conscious of Jaymee’s arms locked suddenly around my knees.

My husband, Bill, had told me about Ralph Cowan, owner of the NI Ranch bordering ours. A well-known figure among cattlemen throughout the state, Ralph had once owned a spread so vast that it took 150 horses just to keep his ranch hands mounted. The father of three sons, he’d also found time to serve fourteen years in the state legislature. But that had been decades before. Now, except for his niece, Edythe, who took care of him, a few pets and his old horse, Dodger, Ralph was alone.

He opened the door and untangled his long legs. Then, squaring his boots on the ground, he leaned forward and smiled into the solemn little face peeking out from behind me. “I’ll bet you like calico kittens,” he said.

Jaymee’s head bobbed.

“Well, I’ve got a brand-new litter at my place, and as soon as they’re old enough to leave their mama, how ’bout I bring you one?”

Jaymee looked up at me anxiously. “I hope it’s a boy, Mama,” she murmured.

Ralph cupped an ear. “A boy you said?”

The grip tightened. “Daddy says no more girl cats!”

Ralph’s blue eyes disappeared into a mask of friendly wrinkles. “Well, you tell your daddy if it’s a boy, it’s worth five hundred dollars! That’s more than he can get for a good yearling bull nowadays.”

“Five hundred dollars!” Jaymee’s eyes widened. She knew about money. She and Becky sold eggs and spent hours at the kitchen table counting and stacking coins in piles on the red-checkered cloth.

“Now, don’t forget,” Ralph cautioned, “a boy calico is hard to find. I’ve been lookin’ for one . . . most of my life. But we’ll see if we can’t find you one.” As he smiled at Jaymee, a sudden warmth tugged at my heart.

“Yep,” he continued, “a blue calico is as rare as a white tarantula.”

“A white tarantula?” Jaymee squeezed me harder.

“They’re out there somewhere,” he said. “You just gotta keep looking.” I didn’t think that white tarantulas existed, but who was I to break the spell that Ralph had woven?

Gripping the top of the door, Ralph hoisted his lean, six-foot-six-inch frame from the truck and struggled to steady himself. Afraid he might fall, I wanted to reach out and help—but right away he headed toward the barn. To my surprise, Jaymee let go of my leg and tiptoed softly in the long shadow trailing behind him During the weeks that followed, Ralph visited often to “talk cattle” with Bill. Sometimes, listing like a mast on a sinking schooner, he arrived on Dodger, his legs so long he could almost wrap them around the horse’s middle. But most of the time, he came in his truck, and it wasn’t long before we realized it wasn’t Bill he really came to see.

“Where’s the little gal?” he’d ask. It didn’t matter that sometimes he couldn’t remember her name. It was the chuckle in his eyes each time he saw her that made the difference.

Then came the day when he brought Blueberry—pink nose, buttercup eyes and frosted silvery-blue fur. Ralph told Jaymee that Blueberry was a male. But it later dawned on me that he probably said this because he wanted it to be a male for Jaymee’s sake. Since Bill didn’t like cats in the house, Jaymee arranged a box for the kitten on the back porch. There he could come and go as he pleased at night, and light up her world by day.

Ralph, however, became the real flame for Jaymee. At the first sound of his pickup, she cried, “Uncle Ralph’s coming to play!” and dashed to the end of our long driveway, Blueberry flailing like a mop in her arms. When they returned in Ralph’s pickup, the calico cat would be reclining on the dashboard amid rusty spurs, fence pliers, bits of wire and assorted hardware, while Ralph and Jaymee, seated among springs escaping the worn seat cover, would be making plans. Soon they were searching for secrets among fallen cottonwoods and twisted mesquites and poking sticks into forbidden lairs.

“What do you and Uncle Ralph look for?” I asked Jaymee one hot afternoon as she and Blueberry shared a dripping Popsicle.

“White tarantulas.” She sighed heavily. “But we can’t find one anywhere.”

“What does Uncle Ralph say about that?”

“He says we gotta keep looking, that’s all. He says that’s the only way you find things in life—by believing and looking.” Her face brightened. “So we find other things.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Dead baby doves, all over the place.” She frowned. “Dumb, lazy birds. They can’t even build a nest right. Three twigs! That’s all they use. Then the poor little babies fall through and get killed, and the mamas and daddies cry all the time. That’s why they’re called mourning doves. Uncle Ralph said so.”

One day she dashed into the house, eyes sparkling with excitement. “Mama!” she cried. “Chickies play songs before they hatch!”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Uncle Ralph took an egg out of the incubator and pressed it against his ear. Then he let me listen. He said it was tapping ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and I could hear it, too!”

Later that night after the children were asleep, I asked Bill, “Can you believe all those stories Ralph tells her?”

“Can’t hurt her,” he said. “It’s all good stuff. Better than sitting in front of the TV all day watching things she’s far too young to understand.”

One morning, I caught the unlikely pair crouched over an anthill, heads nearly touching as though there was a conspiracy between them. Blueberry, eager to pounce on anything that moved, twitched his tail nearby. “When ants build a hill around their house,” Ralph began, “it means it’s going to rain.”

“Does Daddy know that?” Jaymee asked loudly. She had learned to speak up because Ralph couldn’t hear too well.

“Maybe not, sweetheart,” he said, “but next time he goes out to bale hay, you check on the ants first. If they’re buildin’ a hill, tell him to wait a day.” He winked at me, but Jaymee believed him.

Next to Becky, Ralph was Jaymee’s best friend. But he was ill, and even at four, a child can worry. “He hurts, Mama,” she said. “I can tell.” To Becky she confided, “Uncle Ralph’s going to be an angel soon. He told me so.” What will happen when he’s gone, I wondered. What will she remember?

Meanwhile, Jaymee absorbed his wisdom like alfalfa soaks up rain, and in subtle ways we all became victims of Ralph’s stories. From Ralph, Jaymee learned to whistle “Yankee Doodle,” and Becky joined in. Hours and days of the same tune trying to be whistled can be nerve shredding. “Can’t get that darn sound out of my head,” Bill grumbled. “It’s driving me nuts!”

Then came the migration, a yearly event that prompts hundreds of huge, black, hairy tarantulas, some the size of my hand, to cross sparsely traveled Route 666 in quest of mates. Ralph had planted the seed with Jaymee—and that’s all it took. “We have to go watch!” She jumped up and down. “Maybe there’ll be a white one!”

So off we went in the pickup: Becky, Jaymee, Blueberry and I, with a three-pound coffee can to put “Whitey” in. Parked on the side of the road, we watched the phenomenon as Becky counted, “. . . 307 . . . 308 . . . 309 . . .” and Jaymee kept “almost” seeing one—while I prayed and prayed there was no such creature, knowing in my heart that nothing would make me get out of the truck. In the Southwest, tarantulas can live to be over seventy-five years old, and they can actually jump two feet—or more. Thankfully, I was spared.

Then the monsoon season arrived, bringing torrential storms and toads and frogs by the thousands. Puddles simmered with tadpoles. Then, gradually, the water dried up. “The pollywogs are dying, Uncle Ralph,” Jaymee said, full of sadness.

“Can’t let that happen,” he said. “There’d be nothing around to catch the mosquitoes—and we’d all be eaten alive!” For the rest of the day, Jaymee scurried back and forth with coffee cans full of water to keep the puddles full.

Why, I wondered, did Ralph spend so much time with Jaymee? The day she found an old box turtle living under the log pile offered a clue. “I’m going to feed him tomatoes and lettuce every day,” she told Ralph.

“I’ll bet he’d like Oreo cookies better.” Ralph spoke slowly as he leaned down to pick up the turtle. Suddenly, he paused—then ran his stiff fingers over the worn letters carved on its ancient shell. “RC,” we heard him whisper.

Of course! I thought. Ralph Cowan. Had he been the one to carve those initials years and years before? But the gentle voice of the storyteller soon rearranged my thinking.

“His name was . . . Running Coyote!” Ralph began, his eyes misting. “He was an old Indian friend of mine. He had a little girl . . . just like you.” He looked down at Jaymee. “And he carved these initials into this shell some fifty years ago—just for her. He loved her very much.”

Running Coyote? Ralph Cowan? My heart softened. Was this another tall tale? But what does it matter? I thought. The important thing was that he had awakened in Jaymee a curiosity and love for the world around her. In her bright-eyed innocence and enthusiasm, she had touched his heart and brought him back to the wonders of life. And yet, I couldn’t help thinking about those initials.

Ralph’s visits suddenly stopped. A phone call from Edythe confirmed our fears. He was laid up—badly injured by a bull. “It will be a while before he can drive again,” she said.

Jaymee missed him. “Can we go visit Uncle Ralph?” she asked me one day.

When we arrived at the NI, Ralph was sitting on the porch steps patting a dog so old not even a thump was left in its tail.

“Why did the bull hurt you, Uncle Ralph?” Jaymee asked.

As frail as the storyteller was, he still spun his magic. “He’s old, sweetheart,” Ralph said, “and his skull’s getting so thick, it’s squeezing his brain. It hurts. So he got mean.” Jaymee nodded sadly and put Blueberry on Ralph’s lap, while I went inside to talk with Edythe.

Over a steaming cup of coffee, we watched the two through the kitchen window. “Wouldn’t you love to hear that conversation?” I said.

Edythe smiled. “Ralph has always loved children,” she said softly. “Did you know he lost his own little girl when she was about Jaymee’s age? Her name was Ruth. . . .”

Ruth Cowan. RC. Suddenly, my mind filled with the vision of a young father scratching those initials on a box turtle for a very small girl. I pictured the two rescuing baby birds, saving pollywogs and searching for blue calico boy kittens. And just as suddenly, I knew that it was one of life’s quirks of timing that had brought Ralph and Jaymee together when they were both lonely and needed a kindred spirit.

Heading home, I noticed Jaymee squeezing Blueberry much too tightly. A tiny furrow creased her forehead. “What’s wrong, honey?” I asked.

“Uncle Ralph told me Blueberry’s going to have . . . babies!” she said, her lip trembling. “Uncle Ralph says it’s a miracle, Mama . . . and since only God makes miracles, to tell Daddy Blueberry’s worth a lot more than five hundred dollars.”

“Of course he is, honey.” I hugged her close.

When Becky started school again, Jaymee didn’t seem so alone anymore. She spent hours feeding cookies to RC and searching for white tarantulas. And soon she was caring for the “boy” calico’s nine “miracle” kittens.

The next time we visited the NI Ranch, Ralph sat huddled in an old leather chair. Edythe had arranged a wool blanket around his shoulders. Orange coils glowed from an electric heater near his feet. He smiled and talked with Jaymee and Becky. When we got up to leave, he insisted on seeing us to the door.

“Did I ever show you my cattle brand?” he asked pointing to an empty hole in the living-room ceiling. “There used to be a neon light hanging there, molded into the letters NI.” His hand trembled as it covered the wall switch. “I lit it every night,” he said, “a long, long time ago.” His eyes sought Jaymee’s. “It was blue,” he murmured, “just as blue as your calico.”

Jaymee stared upward at the hole, mesmerized. In her mind’s eye, I could tell she saw that calico-blue light just as though it were shining down on us. And I could tell that Ralph, too, sharing Jaymee’s excitement, could also see it. As ill as he was, he still loved journeying into this child’s imagination.

Uncle Ralph disappeared from her life as quietly as he’d entered it, dying peacefully in his sleep. Years passed before we witnessed the absolute power of storytelling.

Almost everything a small child hears and sees is tucked away in the memory. There it can hide undisturbed for years, perhaps forever—sometimes resurfacing just the way it really was—or as the heart wanted it to be.

Jaymee and Becky were in their teens, and Bill had just rewired the wagon wheel chandelier he had made for me so many years before. This time he added seven blinding-white light bulbs. “Gosh, Daddy,” said Becky. “You better invest in a dimmer switch. That’s so bright it’s like hanging the sun in the house.” She turned to Jaymee, who was sitting on the floor. “Don’t you think he should?”

But Jaymee’s thoughts were elsewhere. Smiling, she wrapped her arms about her knees as though hugging the memory that came drifting back. “Do you remember Uncle Ralph’s chandelier, Beck? The one with the NI brand on his living-room ceiling?”

Becky looked puzzled. “No . . . I . . . I don’t remember.”

“Well, I do.” Jaymee’s brown eyes shone. “And when Uncle Ralph clicked the switch and turned it on, it glowed—the prettiest, warmest shade of blue I ever saw—just like my blue calico.”

Penny Porter

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