Thursday, March 26, 2009
Toss A Bull Into The Orchard
I did a lot of babysitting during my teenage years, and most of it wasn't very memorable. A few temper tantrums or fist fights to break up. The occasional potty training mishap. And one rather unfortunate incident with a hot burner and a (used to be) pretty little stove cover which I'd rather not revisit.
But one night of babysitting is etched into my brain with the indelible ink of WHAT WAS I THINKING and solidified with a healthy dose of NEVER DO THAT AGAIN.
And I won't.
Unless the right set of circumstances presents itself, of course. If it does, I'm absolutely certain I will once more find myself doing what, any other day of the year, would be an unthinkable course of action for me.
It all started when a family friend called up asking if I could watch their seven kids at the last minute. Seven is not a number to be taken on by the inexperienced or faint of heart. Since I was neither, and since I was perpetually short on shoe money, I agreed.
This family of seven lived out in the country, surrounded by farmers, dairies and the miles of neatly planted orchards that stitch one small town to the next in California's Central Valley. I arrived with a couple hours of daylight left to burn, greeted the children, and was introduced to the concept of playing hide and seek in an orchard.
As a side note, let me just say that small children playing hide and seek among skinny little peach tree trunks have a distinct advantage.
We'd been playing in and out of the orchard and the rolling stretch of green-brown grass covering their backyard for twenty minutes when one of the boys ran up to me and breathlessly announced that the neighbor's bull had gotten loose again and was in the orchard.
I had the boy repeat this ridiculous statement twice, my brain trying the words on for size and rapidly rejecting them.
He pointed back into the trees. I followed the line of his arm and there he was--the biggest bull I'd ever seen (The fact that he was the only bull I'd ever seen has no bearing on this story.), staring across the scant thirty feet separating us with murder in his eyes.
At least, I thought it was murder. It could have been simple assault and battery, but I wasn't going to hang around dissecting nuances.
I called the children to me, using a whisper (All the better to not aggravate the bull) that nevertheless carried across the entire yard and issued the following rallying cry: "To the house! Now! But, move slowly. We don't want him to charge."
The children refused to obey. The girls settled back into their game of "house," carting a rather irritated feline around in a tiny pink stroller that bumped precariously across the wooden porch of their home. I dismissed them. The bull wouldn't charge the porch. Not when he had three juicy targets sitting right out in the open.
That one of those targets was me did not escape my attention. Reissuing my command to the boys, I gestured forcefully toward the porch before freezing, hand in mid-air, my eyes glued to the bull. I didn't know if there were hand gestures that meant "Charge the idiot human!" to the bull and I decided I could wait a few more years before finding out.
Rather than obey me, the oldest boy said a sentence that shifted my course of action irrevocably. He said, "Want me to get him out of the orchard for you?"
Excuse me? I glared at him, all thoughts of hoisting the two boys over my shoulder and sprinting for the porch temporarily forgotten. Who did he think was in charge here? If I needed help, I'd bloody well ask for it. Besides, the day I let some nine year old display more courage than me was the day I'd turn in my stilettos for a pair of rubber galoshes.
I couldn't leave the boys on their own to handle the bull. My sense of responsibility and my tremendously competitive nature wouldn't allow it. So, I heard myself say the unthinkable: "I'll do it."
I'll do it?? I'll chase a bull out of an orchard? With what? Sheer attitude and a shiny pair of pink Jelly shoes?
With plans like that, who needs obstacles?
I stepped away from the boys, walked toward the bull, and said, "If he charges me, run into the house, take the girls with you, and call for help."
"He won't charge. He'd get his horns stuck in the tree trunks," the six year old informed me.
Until that moment, I hadn't truly examined my nemesis. I was too mesmerized by the "I stomp girls like you for breakfast" expression in his eyes to tear my gaze away.
I stopped walking and considered the rack of death mounted atop the bull's head. Suddenly, the phrase "take the bull by the horns" began to sound incredibly foolish. Combine the horns with the bull's homicidal leer (Don't think bovines can leer? Think again.) and the only thing moving me forward was my innate refusal to back down from any challenge issued to me, even if the challenge was from another species.
"Here. You'll need this." The nine year old shoved a stick in my hand.
A stick. A slim piece of wood versus two feet of perfectly honed horn. What was I going to do, smack him in the face as he crushed me to the orchard floor?
Sensing my ignorance, the six year old piped up. "Hit the tree and yell to herd him in the direction you want him to go."
Noise? Noise and attitude? That was my plan? The negatives to this course of action were too numerous to name, though my regrettable lack of herding skills could certainly head the list. On the plus side, I had plenty of experience in dealing out noise and attitude.
I crept closer, not fooled in the least when the bull simply stood there. Chewing. Trying to lull me into a false sense of security. No doubt hoping I'd believe he was munching on grass when I knew full well he was simply masticating the remains of whichever babysitter used to watch these children.
I stopped four trees away, gripped the stick like it might somehow save me, and slammed it into the tree trunk with a sharp thwack!
The bull bellowed.
He did not grunt. He did not issue a pleasant how-do-you-do. He did not gently call to any other cows in the area, hoping to poke fun at the idiot city girl who came to her appointment with Death armed with a twig.
Somewhere in the years of reading everything I could get my hands on, I remembered that wolves or dogs or giraffes or some other breed of animal needed a show of dominance to establish who was master. I figured that probably applied to recalcitrant bulls as well so I bellowed back.
Mine was far less impressive.
The bull thought so too and took a step toward me.
I banged that stick against the tree trunk, screaming at the top of my lungs, and calculated how fast I could shimmy up the trunk before the bull could reach me.
Before matters could get that far, the nine year old raced past me, stick in hand, and gave the bull a stinging slap on the side. I was already moving toward him, sure I would have to dive between him and the bull and charge his parents serious hazard pay when the bull grunted, turned his head away from us, and ambled slowly back to his own pasture.
Just. Like. That.
Turns out, he was a eunuch. Or whatever you call a bull who no longer has his goods. Apparently, that makes a difference.
I told myself under no circumstances would I ever voluntarily face off with a bull armed with nothing more than a stick and pink Jelly shoes, but I would. If I felt challenged to prove myself. If I felt I had to protect someone. The right combination of character triggers can make a person do just about anything.
If it's true in life, it's true in writing. A pretty ordinary character can be made to face a bull in an orchard if the right circumstances are present. And the outcome can be funny. Suspenseful. Tragic. All depends. The above story wouldn't be nearly as interesting if I'd had to chase an obedient little lamb out of the trees. Where's the conflict? The need to step beyond what's comfortable? If your character always stays within her comfort zone, your reader will use your book to cure her insomnia. If, however, you understand what makes your character tick, you push her emotional triggers, and you make it authentically impossible to back down or turn away, you can push her into doing the unthinkable.
The trick to good writing is to know your character well, understand what triggers her deepest emotional responses, and then throw as many bulls in the orchard as you possibly can.