Cowbells

A cowbell and a barbed wire heart on a wall. i i
iStockphoto.com
A cowbell and a barbed wire heart on a wall.
iStockphoto.com

For Round 6 of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction where one of the characters tells a joke and one of the characters cries.

I don't know who else to share this with, but it must be documented that when you and Lilac Blue would hang cowbells from the boxcars you boosted, we could hear the bangs and dull clangs for miles at night. Thanks for letting us know which way you were headed. Those tones were most discernible in the winter, when they'd echo off the snow and through the barn to reach me in the hidden crawlspace where'd I camp until I'd hear them.

I'd go out to the fields to call you for supper and find your empty tractor, idling in the emptiness, you vanished from its seat. Sometimes you'd be gone for months; other times just a matter of days. Blue and his bowtie would wave at you from a passing train and that wild wanderer's heart would start beating fast as you'd sprint to catch up with him. Always you'd come back to a slap from mama, a belt from daddy and a smile from me.

You'd lift me up to take me to bed and lull me to sleep with stories of strangers you met and tall tales you'd been told. I'd laugh at the jokes you had picked up at the hobo hootenannies around barrel fires and lean-to shanties.

"What did the little 'n' say to the little 'u'?" You'd pause three beats or more until I pinched your thin-skinned shoulder for the punchline. "Who knocked you over?!"

I'd roar and, faintly, you'd kiss me on my crown and promise more in the morning.

I didn't want to sleep because that meant you'd be gone and I'd be alone, waiting in the dark for those monotonous cowbell clanks so I could turn over and know you were safe.

"Little sister, everyday you wake, the world has already changed. It won't make a difference whether I'm here tomorrow or not."

I'd cry, wanting to tell you that I knew full well about change and its inevitabilities, we were old friends. You got to run away from it while I stayed in the house with it and watched it take its toll on mama and daddy. As change rested on my shoulders, it never seemed to bother you.

I never told you any of this but perhaps you sensed my anger as your 16-day stop-ins weaned to one. Blue would stop in more than you and he'd tell me there was a logic to my anger and my interpretation of it was irrelevant as long as I responded to it in a positive manor.

"I can't respond to a ghost, Blue." He'd tip his hat and be on the next train, maybe to find you, or maybe to find his muse.

Why I'm telling you this now is of no real import. Maybe change has caught up with you by now, creased its way through the lines on your face, told the same stories you've heard a million times, slowed that back-beating heart, maybe even altered the way a cowbell rings with the shifting weight of a lumbering train.

Either way, I'm sending this note with Blue to tell you that you need not come back unless you're going to stay. Don't come back unless you've got meaning in what you say.

What you should know is that we tied the bells around the cattle so they wouldn't wander off, not for you to ring as you traveled without destination, without regard for change and without regard for those quiet nights when those bangs and dull clangs couldn't reach us.

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