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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

The Spiteful Flock

            Leonard’s house sat right in the middle of the lot. There was a road in front, a fence around the back yard, and neighbors a fair distance away on both sides. Frail trees of no particular kind, none taller than ten feet, were scattered around the back yard, struggling toward maturity under Leonard’s patient tending. Their thin trunks bent dramatically in stiff winds, the green of their leaves tended toward the very pale, and every few weeks, a determined flock of birds, working together, would tear one of the trees out of the soil and carry it away while Leonard watched from his kitchen window, shouting, “Why? Why?”

Leonard built a scarecrow to frighten the birds, but the birds ignored it.

Leonard upgraded to an expensive store-bought scarecrow, but the birds ignored it too, Leonard couldn’t find his receipt, and the store wouldn’t take it back even though Leonard clearly saw the manager tear down the “no-hassle return policy” sign when he saw Leonard approaching the counter with the scarecrow under his arm.

Leonard bought a pellet gun, but it was not powerful, and the pellets it lobbed at the birds as they flew away with Leonard’s trees dangling in their grasp bounced off of their feathery little bodies without harming them.

Then, one day, while reading a monthly journal of inspirational essays, Leonard came across a small advertisement for a prayer hotline. “We’ll pray for your requests,” said the ad, “for two bucks a minute.” The irreverent use of the word “bucks” instead of “dollars” bothered Leonard, but he was desperate, so he called anyway.

A voice answered after the first ring. It said, “Hello,” and stopped.

Leonard wondered if he had been disconnected. “Hello?” said Leonard. “Is this the prayer hotline?”

“Yes, it is,” said the voice. “I’ll be your prayer deliverer this afternoon. My name is William. Which deity would you like your prayer to be directed to?”

“What?” asked Leonard. “Which deity? Um, God? I’m a Christian.”

“So just the regular God then?” asked William.

Leonard furrowed his brow. “I guess, yeah, the Christian God. You know, God.”

“Would you like to pay only a little bit extra for fasting?” asked William.

“OK, sure,” said Leonard. “If it makes the prayer more effective. What does fasting entail, exactly?”

“It means,” said William, “that I don’t eat while I’m praying. It’s only an extra 50 cents a minute. It’s a good deal.”

“Fine,” said Leonard. “I’ll take the fasting. Can we get started?”

“Sure,” said William. “Tell me specifically what your request is.”

“I want a tall, sturdy tree to grow in my back yard as soon as possible.”

“Fair enough,” said William. “Let’s pray. Dear Heavenly Father, God of the Christian faith-“

“Hold on,” Leonard interrupted. “I can hear you eating.”

“No,” said William.

“Yes,” said Leonard. “You’re crunching chips. You’re doing it right now! I can hear it! You know what? I’ll try my own praying.” He hung up the phone before William could argue.

The next morning when Leonard looked out his kitchen window, he saw a huge, beautiful, healthy tree planted right in the exact center of his back yard, its thick, leafy branches cutting and filtering the sunlight, casting the entire back yard in delicate, restful shade. The tree looked old, but no less powerful for its advanced age. More powerful, if anything. Leonard went outside and stood beneath the tree, craning his neck and looking up, following each branch all the way to its tip with his eyes, one branch at a time. Some of the few remaining scrawny trees in Leonard’s yard seemed to shy away from the new tree in fear while others seemed to revere it. “I can’t recall,” said Leonard to himself, “if I actually remembered to pray or not.”

A few hours later a steady rushing sound awoke Leonard from a nap on the couch. The afternoon sun shone through the picture window in his living room and made a rectangle of light on the floor across which a long, continuous stream of little shadows flitted. Leonard hurried out into his yard through the back door. An enormous flock of sparrows was descending upon the new tree, filling its branches with their tiny, angry bodies. More came. More came. From all directions, digging their stubby talons into the bark and wrapping their skinny feet around the twigs. Leonard watched in awe.

Soon, the last few straggling birds had found room in the tree. After a moment of rest, the wings began to flap, all of the wings, steady and measured, but growing more frantic and more focused as the flock struggled to uproot the giant tree. Some of the smaller twigs bent upward and snapped, scattering the few birds that had clung to them, but the tree did not budge; the ground around its roots did not bulge even slightly. The birds intensified their shared effort, straining, agonized expressions contorting their beaks and dark fury charging through their black eyes. Their bodies stretched as they pulled, but the tree did not. Furious, the birds began to screech. Their beaks were pointed straight up at the sky. Some of their brown feathers turned white. And, finally, there were thousands of popping noises, which sounded all together like one immense popping noise, and the legs of all the birds were torn from their bodies. A rain of ripped-free bird legs poured down through the branches of the triumphant tree and carpeted Leonard’s yard, forming grotesque little piles and drifts. The legless birds shot upward as one, their connection with the tree broken, and they dripped thin streams of their blood behind them as they flew away, their trajectories erratic, their small brains scrambled with confusion and pain.

Leonard used a snow shovel to scoop the bird legs into a metal trash barrel and then he burned them, which didn’t smell as badly as he expected it would. The smoke billowed up through the leaves of the tree and the tree inhaled deeply.