Row Your Boat Ever After | Ariel Carter-Rodriguez

Stephen Stevens had been deathisized, or desensitized to death, at an early age. It had begun when he discovered Stuart Stevens, his older brother, playing God in the attic. Not only would he pluck each leg off the small house spiders that coexisted with the Christmas decorations, he would slingshot squirrels, birds—and even the occasional cat—out of the neighborhood crabapple trees.“What are you doing?” Stephen had asked.
“What’s it look like I’m doing?” his brother had replied.
“It looks like you’re killing a spider.”
“No duh, dickweed.”
Stephen sat in a nest of fluffy pink insulation, watching as his brother turned a spider into a round, black M&M. He wondered whether his brother was planning on eating it, too.

And so the dichotomy began. The term “dichotomy” comes from the Greek dichotomia, meaning “divided,” the dich- referring to “two” and – tomia meaning “cutting,” or the excision of an object. A dichotomy is therefore the splitting of a whole into exactly two, completely separate parts, otherwise known as “halves.” These two parts are often mutually exclusive and can also be viewed as opposites. Stephen was ignorant of the term and its history, but was nevertheless inadvertently experiencing the effects of an emotive dichotomy. On one hand, the prior my-brother-is-the-best-in-the- world half was now completely disconnected from an entirely new, intrusive half, better known as the my-brother-is-actually-a-genital-botanist half. But more importantly, this was when Stephen’s loving half divorced itself from his expressive half. After all, the poor spider didn’t care what the boy’s face did.

Stephen Stevens was oblivious to this early onset of deathisization. The sticky, popcorn-scented rounds of violent video games in the basement didn’t faze him in the least. His brother and his cronies would shriek and squawk as they died countless bloody deaths, only to respawn seconds later. Stuart in particular much preferred ambushing his best friends around virtual corners than playing traditional hide-and-seek. It had gotten to the point where he would ask his doctor how many lives he had left whenever he went in for a checkup. Stuart strove to be at the top of a hit list and stay there. Stephen, however, would plop into his beanbag chair with a Cat’s Cradle, being the only one in his family who knew how to use one. Row row row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream, death is only a game.

One day, Stephen Stevens was humming and thrumming along the routine route all the way home. His eye caught the embroidered hem of a canary yellow sundress, which was flapping around the ankles of a girl with brown curls. She was holding a bushel of miniature daisies, gently poking a hole in each and stringing them into a chain. Most of them had ragged stems from clumsy but determined fingertips, yet the green chain held link for link. She itched at the lace stenciled on her collarbone, a plump parakeet sitting on her shoulder. It chirruped importantly, making the girl squirm with glee whenever it felt ignored and decided to nibble her ear. The owner of the sundress and the parakeet was a classmate of Stephen’s, but until today, he had always seen her as a kid, not as a girl. The loving half of Stephen Stevens decided it would risk itself for that girl.

It should be known that openings such as “One day” and “Once upon a time” have been favorite stock phrases in the English language since 1380. Other variants such as “Once there was,” “One day a long time ago” and “There was, and there was not” also exist in foreign languages. These openings were—and still are—often coupled with the traditional ending of “and they lived happily ever after.” However, this finale’s lesser known cousin, “and they lived happily until their deaths,” was also used on occasion. For our purposes here, the simple words “One day” suffice quite nicely to describe Stephen’s childhood epiphany, although its conclusion could be considered less than conventional. Endings can have a hard time being original without being callous.

Stephen wasted no time. He would never approach her directly, oh no. He took it upon himself to use his shyness as his ace in the hole. She always sat by the tire swing for an hour or so after the bell finally rang, making flower chains and blowing grass whistles until her parents picked her up. During the school day Stephen would puzzle, posit, and otherwise think about what she would like the most. The “she” turned out to have a name, and that name was Lydia, a beautiful name with three out of the five vowels in it, including the fickle “y.” Stephen chided himself for not knowing her name already. Lydia Collins and Duke, the royal blue parakeet. She never went anywhere without him. Stephen had even seen her go to the restroom with him, although he wasn’t sure what the protocol was on bringing a male pet into a women’s bathroom. Stephen didn’t know what to get a bird, much less a girl. Chewing on his fingernails, he decided. He would make her something and leave it for her—prove his love through the masculinity of manual labor.

“Stephen.”

Stephen looked up from his arithmetic quiz dazedly. It was his teacher, Ms. Landers.

“You’re drooling a bit, dear.”

One other day, Lydia was sitting in her usual plot of grass, knee-high socks rolled down so far that they crumpled off the ends of her feet like white snakeskins. Toddlers pointed and burbled at the blue birdie as they were released from kindergarten into their parents’ arms. Popping open the hinges of her lunchbox, Lydia began to fill it with the burrs that had decorated themselves in her hair. Then, when that was done, she sighed. The playground was empty as was the gym, school, and parking lot. She sprawled out backwards in the tall weeds; grass stains seeping into a new coral pink dress her parents had fabricated. They tended to notice color but not time. On the verge of attempting the world’s first grass angel, Lydia felt a sharp pain in between her wings. She pursed her lips, removing a wooden stick, with the words “TO LYDIA” carved on it in a deliberate scrawl. She didn’t need a stick and she didn’t particularly want one. It made her smile.

In a house far, far away, Stephen Stevens was more stumped than a stump in past tense. Chin on the edge of his dining room table, he did not know what to give Lydia. A stick was the natural first choice, but now he was swimming in ragged clippings of Warp Woodworking and Carving Quarterly without a single decision to spur him onward. He had, of course, already built several trinkets, but he needed a final, master project—a masterpiece if you will—to win Lydia’s heart. Stuart Stephens, zitty and anti-everything, sauntered into the room, plucked a clipping from the table, and sneered.

“Whatcha up to, dickweed?”
Stephen didn’t look up. “Thinking.”
“Thinking is for the birds. I’m gonna go shoot stuff if you’re interested in growing a pair.”

Stephen Stevens was then struck by the perfect idea. He wasn’t interested in growing a pair of anything at the moment, but for once in his life, his brother had created something instead of destroying it.

Meanwhile, Lydia Collins sat in her warm bay window, quietly reading to Duke. Today she turned the glossy pages of her mother’s Vogue, since she was sure Duke had already memorized all the books in her personal library by now. Lydia and Duke had flipped through pages and pages of graceful necks and perfumed promises when Lydia’s mother entered. She leaned casually against the doorframe, holding Stephen’s stick in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other.

“Lydia, what have I told you about bringing the outdoors inside?”

“The outside is outside for a reason,” she replied, not looking up from the magazine.

“Precisely, but then why did I find this by your lunchbox?”

At the sight of Stephen’s gift, Lydia sprang to her feet, nearly dislodging a startled Duke from her shoulder.

“Um, that’s not a piece of the outside anymore. That’s a present.”

Lydia’s mother raised her eyebrows, scrutinizing the stick and its crude engraving with a tired interest. She chuckled under her breath.

“Lydia, sweetheart, I think you may have a secret admirer.” Lydia stared blankly.
“I think a boy likes you.”

And so, Stephen Stevens continued to leave his small, wooden tokens: decorated popsicle sticks, a carved fish, and even a small treasure box all appeared at her sanctuary with no sign of the mysterious benefactor. Lydia kept them all in her backpack—in the secret inside pocket, just in case. Whenever she rested in the shadow of the tire swing she would remove them all and examine the mysterious chicken scratch tucked in their corners. Stephen Stevens began to design wooden castles in his head where the two of them would live, red cedar turrets with majestic staircases spiraling upwards like coils of ivy. He would make an aviary out of only the sturdiest cherry, and a regal banquet table where they would sip only the finest pine juice. And above all, he would shield Lydia’s hands from the splinters of the world. He asked his mom if there were such things as wooden rings. Lydia asked her mother what she was supposed to do with a “secret admirer.” Stephen started constructing a future as a carpenter. Lydia wondered if princes still existed. The courtship flourished until the day Duke went missing.

The psychology of pets is an interesting one. Many of us unconsciously view them as equal companions, or even as surrogate offspring. Ever-increasing anthropomorphism has led to pets becoming legitimate members of a family, some of them adopting surnames as the children do, such as “Connie Carter” the cat. But what’s most significant about this phenomenon is that an animal is beyond imaginary friend, sibling, or parent. They act as unconditional support systems where humanoid ones fail. In Lydia’s case, Duke the parakeet was the one who whispered tweets of encouragement into her ear. He was an avian shoulder angel. He took up her parent’s slack.

Stephen Stevens became aware of this terrible news through the sudden outbreak of “Have you seen me?” flyers hastily stapled to every surface. With no printed reward amount, most of the students either ignored them or used them to make paper airplanes. The sheets spilled over bulletin boards, posts, and people’s bicycles like layers of lavender scales. Lydia’s handwriting was echoing in the hallways and staring at Stephen from the cafeteria. He swallowed the way a man swallows his pride. There was no time to lose. Stowing his latest gift for Lydia carefully into his bag, he ran in a direction, looking for tropical birds on telephone wires and in the branches of trees. Patchwork pigeons, onyx crows and fat sparrows, but no parakeet. He ran for hours, it seemed to him, before his feet finally led him to Lydia’s sanctuary. Stephen Stevens keeled over in the grass, waiting for his breath to return, when he saw a royal blue gem in the branches of a crabapple tree.

Lydia’s face hurt. An ocean of salt had been rolling down her cheeks for hours, it seemed to her. Her eyes were puffy and the reservoirs behind them were empty. They were used to running dry like this. Trudging, step by featherless step, those feet found her sanctuary.

A boy was there—a boy with hair so brown and light it could almost be gray. He looked like what her parents had referred to as a “deer in the headlights,” although Lydia had never actually seen a deer in headlights. He was wearing an unusually cubular backpack, and holding his hands out of sight.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Stephen Stevens,” said the boy. “I’m in Ms. Landers’ class with you.”

Lydia remembered. He was the boy who knew all fifty state capitals and smelled like tuna. “Why are you in my spot? It’s supposed to be a secret.”

Stephen looked down at his hands. “I was looking for Duke. I heard you’d lost him.”

Lydia all but imploded with joy. She saw feathers poking out between the boy’s bandaged fingers. She flung her lunch bag to the ground. “Did you find him? Did you? I’ll give you what’s left of my sandwich or—”

“No.”
“No?” Lydia croaked.
“I don’t need a sandwich. I just wanted to help.”

Lydia hiccuped as she laughed. “Oh! Okay. Where is he? Can I see him now?”

Stephen Stevens gave a look as unfortunate as his name. He met Lydia’s gaze steadily with neither worry nor ease. Slowly, hesitantly, he opened his hands, revealing a small, lifeless, blue parakeet.

You should know right now that he didn’t mean to take the life of Duke Collins. It was one of those accidents that are too terrible to be classified by the same word that is used to describe a stubbed toe or spilled glass of milk. He had spotted the bird napping on one leg, and did only what he could. Stephen was an eight-year-old boy filled to the brim with eight- year-old hope and delusion and miscalculation. This is a precarious mixture at the best of times. This fixed equation did not include Duke.

Lydia stared at the bundle of feathers that no longer twittered secrets in her ear. She stared because her reservoirs were indeed empty, and she only did what she could. She looked at Stephen with a look of “why?” and he replied with a look of “because.” They stayed like that for a long while, Lydia cradling the limp body in her palms. Other children squealed in the distance. Finally, after what seemed to both of them to be hours, she faced Stephen.

“You’re not doing it right.”
Stephen looked back with dry, gray eyes. “What?”
“You’re not sad,” she said. “You’re not crying or sorry or saying what happened.” She looked at his blank face angrily. Lines appeared on her forehead twenty years too early. “You aren’t doing anything.”

Stephen Stevens did look at the bird, and he did feel sad. He had felt its future cheeps and fluffs and head bobs evaporate as he grabbed it. Duke Collins was a fine bird, brother, and friend. He felt that leave, too. Stephen felt his tear ducts and wondered whether there was a problem in the plumbing. Merrily, life is but a dream. Duke hadn’t respawned, good as new, like Stuart Stevens had done in the basement all those times. Stephen didn’t want to be a genital botanist. He had wanted the bird to fly back to Lydia and shower her in downy kisses. He had lived happily until his death, but he was supposed to live that way ever after. No, Lydia Collins. Stephen Stevens was very, very sad.

Stephen started to pick daisies, intending to make a funeral chain out of petals and pollen. Lydia took off one of her shoes, holding it above her head, “You killed my bird! Why aren’t you sorry!”

Frankly, my dear, he did give a damn. He just didn’t know how to give that damn to you so you’d see it and believe in its sincerity.

She threw the first shoe. “Why aren’t you sad!”

Stephen merely gazed at her. He’d heard that actions speak louder than words, but he wasn’t quite fluent in actions yet and words simply weren’t good enough, so the boy remained mute.

She threw a second shoe. “Why didn’t you cry! You saw it happen!”

They thudded against his chest and stomach, but Stephen Stevens didn’t flinch at either shoe. Leaving the picked daises in a pile at her feet, he went to his backpack and tugged at the object inside. Lydia was out of shoes but not out of ammunition. Her chest heaved with slowly refilling reservoirs. She was about to aim more words when Stephen turned around. In his hands was a birdhouse made of plywood. Dried glue dripped mid- leak between the edges, but Lydia could tell it was a bird home, not a bird house. It was simple and odd and perfect. He offered it to Lydia, along with her shoes.

Lydia took the bird-home silently, tracing a finger along the name carved on the front. She blinked with long, wet lashes. She gathered up the daisies and discarded feathers, making a cocoon around the small bird. Then, ever so gently, she placed Duke inside the bird-home, and pressed her ear to the roof. They both listened. When Lydia opened her eyes, they said “he likes it.”

—–

Ariel Carter-Rodriguez is a recent graduate of Whitman College and is originally from Portland, Oregon. She graduated with a degree in Psychology, but very much enjoys reading and writing fiction. She likes to peer into subjects that offer playful inquisitiveness, cultural tension, and she has a particular fondness for the raw moments of childhood.

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Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.

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