Cockatiels at Seven

Chapter 1

"Meg, are you busy?" Dad asked.

I didn't turn around. The iron rod heating in my forge was approaching white hot, which meant it was the perfect temperature for working. So instead of answering, I gripped the rod with my tongs, pulled it out, slapped it onto the anvil with a satisfying clang, and began hammering one end into a point. Okay, I confess, I showboated a bit, just to emphasize how very busy I was. I worked faster than I normally would, with just a little flourish as I turned the rod, left, right, left, right, over and over, shaping the point. Then I moved an inch and a half back and began shaping and narrowing another area.

When I'd done as much as I could without heating the metal again, I plunged the rod abruptly into the water bucket, sending up a cloud of faintly acrid steam. I closed my eyes as I breathed in the familiar, strangely soothing odor. Or maybe it wasn't the odor I found soothing. When you're feeling annoyed, whacking things with a two-pound hammer works infinitely better than counting to ten.

"Yeah," I said. "I'm busy." I turned to see both Dad and Dr. Blake standing in the doorway of the barn where I'd set up my smithy. Technically, I was allowed to call Dr. Blake "Grandpa" now that the DNA tests had proved he was Dad's long-lost father, but that would take some getting used to, so for the moment I went to great lengths not to call him anything at all.

I pulled the iron rod out of the bucket, held it up and sighted along the shaft. The end I'd been working on had now taken on a shape like a rough spear point. I smiled at the smooth, flat surfaces, with just enough faint dimpling to prove that they had been hammered on a forge rather than poured in some factory. Nice work, if I did say so myself. And a good start on having a productive Monday morning.

"That's not finished, is it?" Dr. Blake asked.

My mellow mood evaporated.

"No, of course not," I said.

"What is it?" he asked. "Some kind of primitive boar spear?"

"A towel rod. This is only step one of a five- or six-step process. When it's finished, it will look like this."

I strode over to the section of the barn where I stored completed work and picked up a towel rod made of a single iron bar hammered into a graceful curve with a curling leaf on each end.

"The part that looks like a spear point is what I'm going to turn into the leaf on this end," I said.

"Oh, I understand," Blake said, in a falsely hearty tone that suggested he didn't understand at all.

"She sold a pair of those to the governor!" Dad said.

"Lieutenant governor, actually," I said. "And it was his wife doing the shopping."

"Nice," Blake said. I suppressed a sigh. I could tell he was trying, but since my work had nothing to do with zoology or the preservation of endangered species, his own particular obsessions, he was having a hard time.

"Still," Blake went on. "Think of all the time you could save if you could find a way to automate some of those steps. You could make ten times as many iron doodads in the same time. And more cheaply, I expect."

"That's not the point," I said. "It's handmade. It's not like every cookie-cutter towel bar you can buy down at the hardware store. Every one is unique."

"Unique, handmade--I suppose they're nice, but look how labor- intensive this is."

"Yes," I said. "It's labor-intensive. Like taking care of the animals down at your zoo. Think of all the time you could save if you just freeze- dried and stuffed them all. No need for feedings several times a day, cleaning the cages, hauling them to and from the vet--just dust them off every few weeks. You could probably take care of ten times as many animals with the same staff. And more cheaply."

"That's not the point," Blake said.

"So you're busy, then?" Dad asked--probably to change the subject and keep the peace. Blake was frowning at me. Did he disapprove of my sarcasm? Surely he didn't think I was serious about taxidermying the zoo's inhabitants?

"Very busy," I said. "The cupboard is nearly bare." I swept my arm in a dramatic half circle to indicate how very large the storage end of the barn was, and then fixed my gaze on the pitifully small pile of finished metalwork in one corner.

"Oh, dear," Dad said, shaking his head in sympathy.

"And I'm scheduled to do that really big craft show over the Labor Day weekend," I said. "Only three weeks away. What with all the distractions I've had this summer, I haven't had nearly as much time to work as I thought I would."

"Hmph!" Blake snorted. "Does young Michael know you consider your wedding and honeymoon distractions?"

I ignored him.

"We won't bother you, then," Dad said. "But can we use your shed?"

"Which one?" I asked. "And for what?" The three-acre property Michael and I had bought contained not only an enormous Victorian house and a two story barn but also a bumper crop of small sheds and outbuildings in various states of disintegration.

"Any one you're not using," Dad said. "Don't you want us to tell you about our project?"

He sounded eager. I suspected the tale would be an interminable one.

"Later," I said. "Pick a shed as far from the house as possible." If both Dad and Dr. Blake were involved, they almost certainly wanted the shed for some project related to birds or animals from the small local zoo that Blake had recently bought. "Downwind, if that's likely to be a problem. And I'm not doing any midnight feedings."

"Oh, of course not," Dad said. "Thanks!"

Blake nodded his thanks and dashed off without speaking. Dad lingered.

"Something else?" I asked.

"He doesn't mean to be insulting," Dad said.

"No, but he manages it quite brilliantly."

"It would help if you'd show an interest in some of his projects," Dad said.

"There's a difference between showing an interest and letting him take over my life," I said. "Like those orphaned wolverine cubs he tried to foist off on me."

"Wolverines are really quite sweet at that age."

"And require feeding every hour with an eyedropper," I said. "No thanks. I'm letting you use one of the sheds--try to convince him that's a sign of profound interest in whatever you two are doing."

Dad shook his head and followed Dr. Blake.

I picked up the iron rod and stuck it back in the forge.

It had barely begun to redden when my brother Rob ambled into the forge holding a leash.

"Hey, Meg," he said. "Mind if I borrow Spike?"

"I don't mind if you take him off our hands permanently," I said. Technically Spike, an eight-and-a-half-pound furball with delusions of Rottweilerhood, belonged to my mother-in-law, but Michael and I had had custody ever since her allergist recommended a trial separation. We'd grown used to having him around, but I still cherished the forlorn hope that someone else would grow profoundly attached to Spike and insist on adopting him. So far, Rob was the only possible candidate, and Rob wasn't responsible enough to be trusted with a pet rock.

"No, I just want him for the afternoon." Rob strolled over to the indoor pen where Spike usually snoozed while I worked, and climbed over the fence.

"Just don't let anything happen to him or Michael's mother will kill you," I said, turning back to my forge.

"No problem." I heard the small scuffle as he cornered Spike and a muffled ouch as he failed to avoid getting bitten. I was pulling the hot iron rod out by the time he led Spike through the gate. He stopped to watch.

I didn't rush it this time, because I was performing the slightly more complicated job of spreading the point at the end of the rod and working it into a rough leaf shape. Sometimes it took me two heatings to finish the transformation, but I was in good form today. I finished the leaf, plunged it into the water bucket, and drew it out to examine.

"That's so cool," Rob said.

"Thanks," I said. I sloshed a dipper full of water over the rod, to cool the parts that had been above the water line. My good mood was returning.

"I could never do that in a million years. I think you're so lucky to have a creative outlet."

I frowned slightly. Rob didn't usually lay it on this thick unless he had an ulterior motive.

"Something else you wanted?" I asked.

"No--what do you mean?"

From the expression of utter innocence on his face, I deduced that Rob did, indeed, want something, but had decided now was not the right time to ask me.

Just then Spike lunged toward the forge, barking wildly. He hated all large mechanical objects, but seemed to feel a particular antipathy for my forge. Perhaps the faint roaring noise it made sounded like growling to him. We'd built his holding pen after the third time he'd nearly flambéed himself while trying to attack the forge.

"Go find something his own size for Spike to pick on," I said. As Rob and Spike sauntered out, I thrust the rod back into the forge for the third time. Should I start heating another rod or two? It was more efficient to have several pieces going at once, working on one while the others were in various stages of heating. No, I decided I'd rather work up to a good rhythm before I started to multitask. After all, I had all day. Michael was at the college, attending more of the interminable faculty meetings that filled the weeks before Labor Day and everyone else who wanted me for anything would just have to take "I'm busy" for an answer.

I pulled the rod out, picked up the cross peen hammer, and began the next--and nearly final--step of leafmaking: the precise strokes that flattened the iron and gave the impression of the veining that ran through the leaf. Again, I managed the job in a single heating--I was definitely in good form today. I held up the leaf and was nodding with satisfaction when--

"Oh, Meg! Thank God you're here! I need your help!"

I jumped and accidentally hit the leaf with my hammer. The metal was in that awkward stage, still hot enough to cause third degree burns, but not hot enough to be flexible. The leaf cracked off and dropped to the ground, landing on a few leaves and bits of straw that sizzled when it touched them. I grabbed the dipper and doused the area before looking up at my newest interrupter.

I saw a petite, plump woman with short, blond hair in a pixie cut, wearing jeans and a pale blue t-shirt with a faded Caerphilly College logo. She looked vaguely familiar, but it took me several embarrassingly long moments of gaping and peering to come up with a name.

"Karen?" I said finally. "I didn't recognize you with the new haircut." The last time I'd seen her, she could sit down on the end of her long, thick, wavy blond mane. The fact that she'd gained a good thirty pounds since our last meeting didn't help with recognition either.

"Oh, I know," she said, ruffling the hair with a sheepish look. "Ever since I had Timmy, I just couldn't seem to find the time to take care of it."

I nodded. Odds were Timmy was also the reason for the thirty pounds, not that I was going to mention it. Just because I was currently winning the diet battle didn't mean I couldn't understand someone who was having a harder time.

"And then when Jasper ran out on us, I decided the hell with it. I'm going to make things easier for me, and never mind what some man thinks of my hair."

"Right," I said, nodding. Jasper had run out on Karen and baby Timmy? Had I forgotten that, or had it been longer than I remembered since I'd seen Karen?

Apparently I didn't do a very good job of concealing my surprise.

"I'll tell you all about it later," she said. "But right now--could you do me a big favor?"

"Sure," I said. "If I can."

"Could you take care of Timmy? Just for a little while? I need to do something without him along. And my day care lady had to go out of town yesterday because of a death in the family and there just isn't anyone else I can trust. Don't worry; he won't be any trouble; he's a little angel. Wait; I'll show you."

She dashed out the door and then returned, pushing a large stroller. A blond toddler was asleep in it. His mouth was stained with chocolate and he was clutching a small green blanket and a ratty black stuffed toy.

"Isn't he adorable?" She smoothed a lock of his hair that hadn't been out of place.

Yes, he was adorable. Of course, he was also fast asleep. Even Spike looked adorable while asleep. And it must have been longer than I thought since I'd last seen Karen. Timmy was much bigger than I expected. At least two years old. Maybe three if he was small for his age. My youngest nephew was twelve now, but I remembered what he and his siblings had been like at that age. Angelic wouldn't exactly be the word I'd choose to describe them.

"I know it's an imposition," Karen said. I looked up to find her staring at my face with an expression of desperation, almost panic. "There just isn't anyone else I can trust. Meg, please, take care of Timmy for me."

"Of course," I said. "But what's going on, anyway? You seem--"

"Timmy, honey!" Karen said. I glanced down to see that Timmy had awakened.

"You remember Aunt Meg, don't you, Timmy?" Karen cooed.

I didn't think it likely, myself, and Timmy didn't waste much time trying to place me. His bright little eyes were already busily exploring the surroundings and he was squirming as if the rest of him couldn't wait to follow.

I glanced around and felt a sharp twinge of protective anxiety about my workspace. "Let's go up to the house," I said. "This really isn't the best place to turn a kid loose."

"Good idea," Karen said. The protectiveness on her face was aimed at Timmy, but at least we saw eye to eye about the fact that Timmy and my blacksmithing tools were not a match made in heaven.

"Let me shut things down here and I'll join you," I said. As Karen wheeled Timmy out, I turned off the gas to my forge and looked from it to my still depleted stock of merchandise.

"Just for a little while," I said, echoing Karen's words. I allowed myself to feel a moment of resentment that something was interrupting me just as I was finally settling down to do some real work.

But a shriek from outside broke into my moment of self pity, and I rushed out to see what was wrong.