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Chasing butterflies

Christian Courier is pleased to announce the 1st place winner of our 8th Annual Short Story Contest – Adult Division.

Chasing butterflies
Christian Courier is pleased to announce the 1st place winner of our 8th Annual Short Story Contest – Adult Division. The final entries were evaluated by a panel of judges: James C. Schaap, author and professor emeritus of English at Dordt College, Iowa; Hugh Cook, author and professor emeritus of English at Redeemer University College and Brent van Staalduinen, author and creative writing instructor at at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.. The judges would like to congratulate Bob Bruinsma of Edmonton, Alberta, on his first place win for his story, Chasing Butterflies, “a bitter-sweet coming of age story that has a warm and wonderful voice,” according to judges Cook and Schaap. VanStaalduinen added: “This story . . . does an effective job of exploring, through concrete experience and detail, the complexity in retelling difficult memory stories. We are brought along with John as he works through his relationship with Shep and by extension his Uncle Orey. The voice is effective for this narrator – sometimes the best stories are told plain.” In addition to having his story published in this issue, Bob will receive a prize of $100.

 

Shep was dead. Fred O’Neil drove into the barnyard in his Dad’s Ford pickup with the news.

“I’m sorry Mr. Hemming, but I just ran over Shep. He’s dead and I left him in the ditch at the end of the lane.”

“How did it happen, boy?” asked my uncle.  He asked it not in anger or in sorrow, but in annoyance. After all, it was his dog and my uncle disliked anyone fooling with anything that was his, whether he needed it or not. Besides, young teenagers like Fred, driving at breakneck speed, were one of his pet gripes. So he looked impatiently at Fred, waiting for an answer.

“Well, sir, I was driving along when out jumped Shep, right in front of my wheels.  There was nothing I could do. I’m sorry, sir.” Fred must have been scared for I’d never heard him call my uncle “Sir,” before.

“You’ve already said that,” replied my uncle gruffly. “But I suppose it’s not your fault. Damn fool dog was always chasing something.”

“Ok, well anyway, like I said, I laid him in the ditch at the end of the lane.” Fred climbed back into the truck, made a careful U-turn in the barnyard and drove sedately away. I watched him pause at the end of the lane, glance quickly toward the ditch on his left, and then peel out in a cloud of dust towards town.

I never cry much, mostly because I haven’t really got much to cry about. Sometimes Dad wallops me, and I cry because it hurts, but what I felt when Fred said that Shep was dead was a different kind of hurt. It sort of came from up inside my stomach and then tightened in around my lungs. I didn’t want my uncle to see me cry so I snuck off behind the barn.

Uncle Orey (his real name’s Orlando) isn’t really my uncle, but he and his wife are good friends of Mom and Dad so we kids have always called him “Uncle.” I spend most of my summer holidays at the farm. Things are better here than at home in the city.  There’s always something to do here even if it’s just sitting around on top of a haystack doing nothing. I guess that sounds sort of stupid but, anyway, I just like it on the farm. This summer Uncle Orey got Shep from a neighbor who didn’t want him. Shep had just sort of wandered into Mr. Ewasiuk’s place and, since the Ewasiuks already had a dog, they asked Uncle Orey if he wanted Shep. Uncle Orey wasn’t crazy about the idea, but Aunt Francis talked him into it, and it was she who named him Shep because she once had a dog named Shep when she was a little girl.

He wasn’t very beautiful, but I figured right away that he was pretty smart. I’m sure he was part bird dog. I have this old single shot .22 that I use to plink cans and stuff.  When Shep got to following me around I noticed that sometimes he’d stop dead and freeze with his tail straight back, his left paw held up off the ground and his nose pointed straight out. I’d sneak up behind him and then I’d whoop and holler and dash in the direction of the point and, nine times out of ten, there would be a sparrow or a rabbit or a squirrel in the bush. Whatever it was would flush out and Shep and I would chase madly after it. I’d often take a wild shot but never meant to hit anything. I once shot a sparrow, but it bothered me to find it soft and pretty, but lifeless. So I never shot them any more.

Sometimes, when we were walking in the pasture, there’d be a butterfly sitting on a flower. I’d grab Shep by the collar and quietly tug him towards it. Dogs don’t see things so well when they’re not moving, I guess, but when his nose was almost touching the butterfly, the insect would flutter away and the chase would be on. Man, we’d run like crazy: Shep jumping like a frisky lamb and me trying to drive the butterfly his way. We never caught one, but then, I guess we never really wanted to.

After a chase like that we’d be really tired out and we’d lie down in the clover by the old creek at the west end of the pasture and we’d talk. I could really talk to Shep. That probably sounds weird, but it’s true. When I talk to Uncle Orey or my Dad, they listen, but only sort of. And when they answer, their heart’s not in it. But then I guess they’re a lot busier than Shep or me. Shep listened when I told him what I wanted to be, and he listened when I explained stuff to him. I think he really cared why cowbirds follow cows around and why I don’t like the minister’s long sermons. And when I asked him things, I could tell that he really wished he could talk. He’d whine and sort of reach out with his paw, and often he’d lick me with his great soft, slurpy tongue.

The trouble was that all that chasing we did sort of spoiled Shep. He figured that anything that moved was fair game, and so he chased birds, gophers, flies and leaves. But the bad thing is he also chased cows and pigs. Uncle Orey mentioned just the other day that he was getting mighty tired of having Shep spook his cows.

It was two days ago that Shep’s cow chasing caused me trouble, a sore hand and a lot of unhappiness. We were walking along the trail leading in from the pasture when Lulu’s calf (Lulu’s a cow) jumped up from a clump of willows. Shep crouched down and made a leap at Lulu over the barbed wire fence. Only he didn’t quite make it. His hind legs caught on the wire. He yelped in pain and I rushed over to try to lift him over the wire. But he’s so darned heavy, and I guess I frightened him even more because I was yelling and screaming that I was trying to help him. The barbed wire must’ve really been hurting him, so he was trying to reach back to bite his way free. All the while I was trying to lift him and somehow Shep bit my hand really hard. I yelled, “No, no, stupid dog, I’m trying to help you!” And finally he struggled free. I guess it only took about 15 seconds, but it seemed like forever. Shep slunk away and he must have thought I had something to do with his pain because whenever I approached him after that, he’d look sort of uncertain, hold his tail against his legs and slink away. That really hurt. I mean, I was only trying to help him. But I guess that’s the way life is sometimes.

That was only two days ago, and now Shep is dead. It isn’t right. At least we could have become friends again before he died. Stupid dog, why did he have to chase cars anyway?

But Shep wasn’t dead. After feeling bad behind the barn, I slowly walked toward the end of the lane that led to the main road. I stopped before I could see down into the ditch where Fred said he’d put Shep. Somehow I knew I would feel like I did when I shot the sparrow, only worse. But then I heard a whine. You know how you sometimes read in books that a character’s heart skipped a beat? Well, mine really did! And then it started pounding. I peeked over the edge of the ditch and there he lay. He turned his head and I could tell he wanted to say something like often in the meadow. I picked him up gently and carried him home in my arms, forgetting how heavy he was.

And then came the long week of patient care. Shep’s right foreleg was badly cut, and his hindquarters seemed strangely stiff. At first, he didn’t have enough strength to eat.  I got Aunt Francis to make some warm milk with bread soaked in it, and I poured this on Shep’s muzzle. He would let his tongue hang out to catch the warm mash. He was trying, really trying! I spent long hours talking to him, and explained what happened at the fence. I think he understood, and I’m sure he forgave for, wonders of wonders, about a week later, when I got up to feed him his morning meal – there he stood weakly wagging his tail, waiting in front of the back door. Boy, and I cried again.

Shep wasn’t exactly his old self but by the time I left for school in late August he was hobbling around pretty good. We even managed to chase the odd butterfly together.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a letter to Uncle Orey about my coming to the farm this summer and, of course, I asked him how Shep was doing. I got his reply today.

Sure, you’re welcome to come down this summer, John. Your Aunt and I are always happy to have you over. I’m getting older, you know, and an extra hand at the chores won’t hurt. Oh, by the way, I had to shoot Shep. He started chasing cows again.  But I got a fine new dog from the elevator man, almost pure German Shepherd. You’ll like him, I’m sure. Say hello to your folks for your Aunt and me.                                  
Uncle Orey

    
I don’t think I’ll go to the farm this summer. I wonder if the butterflies will miss us?   

About the Author
Chasing butterflies

Robert Bruinsma

Bob Bruinsma is retired professor of education who writes a column for Christian Courier and has fond memories, as a boy, of spending a couple of summers on a farm in Neerlandia, Alta.

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