James Bassett

© Copyright 2005 by James Bassett


It was an odd call. The neighbors were asking to put an emu in my corrals.  For the novelty of the opportunity, I concealed that I may have allowed the corrals to deteriorate beyond housing large animals safely.  The only occupants these ten years past had been but wild rabbits.  One small section seemed in good enough condition for now.  The gate swung short against backward hinges.  The cover was scrap plywood with a door a slim man would slip through sideways.  I hoped more than knew it would hold the emu at least through the holidays.

We think it belongs to the family right over the hill behind us.”
When I walked up to the road, the four of them were there standing by an emu who had decided squatting was his best defense against those now wishing to move him.

A calf we found loose last year was theirs, and a goat the year before.”

This was a small section along the mountains that had retained its rural cast with larger property sizes as the city surrounded it year by year.  A few retained the animal housing more typical of its history.

We called there, but they must be out or away for Christmas and New Year’s.”

The woman was holding the end of a lariat she had managed to get onto the emu.  I was a little impressed.  Very deliberately positioned and stationary objects remain safe from me and a lasso.  They were talking about each false move sending the bird running in another direction through the desert.  Emus can run thirty to forty miles per hour.

I knew no more about emus than I knew about fairy godmothers, so I pursued simple solutions.  I went to get my truck and drove it over to the still stubbornly sitting emu, got out and proceeded to wrap my arms around the bulk of his body and lifted him into the open bed of the truck, fully fortunate in the blessings of ignorance.  The emu neither flailed mid air nor stood up once in the truck.  He sat quietly.  Judy continued to hold the lariat.

Simple” was working well.  I didn’t think too much about bouncing as we neared the corrals beyond the normal driveway, but the emu did.  With the first jolt he stood straight up, gave Judy a swift kick which sent her out of the truck bed, fully horizontal mid-air.  She resembled a caricature rodeo cow girl bucked off the bronco, hands, arms and legs flailing every which way, before landing with a definite “thud”, as the emu as quickly resumed his defensive squat.

Judy was in one piece and endured the snickering well. And “simple” resumed.  “Evan”, masculine for Eve for finding him on New Year’s Eve, was picked up and put in the pen, even squeezing through the half opening gate uneventfully.  What precisely he proceeded to do I have no idea.  I now needed a crash course on the emu diet.  At the end of the lariat he had taken some wild birdseed from the crew.  They left me with that.

The internet suggested his wild feed to be seed, berries, and bugs, though the bulk of the information on emus consisted of their agricultural care, housing, and product yield.  It did suggest that the product yields were improved with a diet more similar to the rudiment (goat), leafy greens, alfalfa, grain, and less like the chicken, cracked corn, seed, grain, which the industry had first used.  But when he refused spinach, lettuce, and carrot tops, and with the holiday there being only one feed outlet willing to sell me anything, he got hen scratch and he liked it.

Even after the holidays, it was obvious that hen scratch had been his main fare. It was what he recognized as food.  Everything else he might or might not eat.  He ate green grapes, but not red grapes.  He ate canned peaches for the first few days and then never again.  He definitely disliked any kind of meat and was very demonstrative in his tastes.  If it was a food that he was not going to eat, he checked it, took a visibly thoughtful moment, full with the head cocked sideways, and then rapidly shook his head from side to side, the skin of his neck flapping audibly, and walked away.

The actual ratite pellet feed that would be best for his diet was a definite failure.  That is, while I was in the pen he would have absolutely nothing to do with it.  But if I left a bucket of it in the pen when I returned to the house, it did not go to waste.  To this day, he eats it only on the sly.  When I visit, I still better be carrying hen scratch, or his favorite, an apple, half cubed, hand fed, and half strung full, hung from the fence for him to eat at his leisure.  I think that gives the full picture.

He was at first and remains very comfortable eating from a personally offered bowl.  He sort of takes a mouth full and slams his head backward in order to throw the food down his throat.  He’ll take a few slams and then take a minute to straighten his posture, close his mouth and look at you.  His look is direct, eye-to-eye self-assurance.  The eyes are a striking copper that give a stilling, severe look, if not quite intimidating, still singularly intent, topped by a sort of feather pompadour that can effect a sinister appearance.  He returns to eat, a few slams of the head back, then he looks and I hold myself and my gaze for a moment, hoping I’m OK as he sizes me up.  Though to what standard I was hoping to pass muster, I was not quite yet sure.

I didn’t hear it for a few days.  He’d been quiet, or I wasn’t used to listening for him.  It was a low guttural sound rising from deep within, a rumbling you can hear as well a ways off as nearby.  My friend says of him and her husband, “ Well, Bob does that.”  The sound at least, and I guess I am to assume universally, confirmed him male.  The female emu gives the more exotic and sought after drumming sound.  The haphazard information available often gave this sound difference as the sole means of gender identification.  A breeding season later I was to learn this must be information put out by those never encountering a male emu who was in love with them.  There is a definite strut, an encircling display, and a brushing of the feathers up and down one’s back and sides until the male slams himself down to the ground, now fully ready for love, musk and an obvious phallus making gender identification unmistakable.  Move away a step or two and the strut, encircling, and brushing all preludes another slam to the ground, and another healthy dose of scent and love displayed.  Getting much work done around the corrals would from here on out be better seasonally planned.

Also, from what I could gather, age is undeterminable altogether, though he is obviously an adult.  One source gave the typical life span as five to six years, while most agreed ten to twelve with captive to wild differentiations being expected.  This is the kind of “expert” information one can currently expect from the upstart, ratite meat agri-business.  The veterinarian declined to give a guess at his age while she cut off a large six-inch flap of torn, drying skin from his thigh.  Coyotes maybe, dogs probably, giving him chase when he was fending for himself.  Otherwise, his health seemed only in need of feed.

Evan walked the fence line.  There was a visible path worn along the fence the first half-day.  The full desert winter weed was still tall and full through the center of the pen.  The emu trade information had mentioned this behavior in suggesting it to introduce and offer food and water to the emu in new surroundings.  It was there that I found what foods he might eventually eat, stringing one type of food after another onto the fence.  So Evan walked the fence line.  From dawn to dusk, Evan walked the fence line.  He’d stop to eat, taking a few gulps of seed, and an insistent glance to stop me still in judgement, then return to walk the fence-line, me behind, finally to squat only well past sundown.

I thought of the stories I had heard of the great cats, lions and tigers who had paced their zoo pen for so long they continued the same small rectangle even when placed in larger housing.  I in faith hoped for word from an anxious family beloved of Evan.  I in fact also searched for more adequate facilities than I could offer.  In this search I was also to find a different information on the emu and the emu agriculture trade.

There were rescue organizations housing emus orphaned, abandoned, and abused amid a flurry of fledgling and foundering flash and cash, “ground-floor-opportunity” emu product and emu breeding pyramid-marketing schemes.  One failing and frenzied upstart who was resolved, one way or another, to be rid of the poor investment that continued to cost plenty in feed, work, and housing, entered his flock wielding a shot gun, blasting away one emu after another.  Another investor, lacking shotguns, walked into the pen armed with a club and set forth beating his stock to a bloody pulp.  Evan didn’t belong to the man up the street.  No one was looking for him at the Department of Agriculture, Fish and Game, or any local welfare agency. I judged Evan lucky to be just dumped, with at least a chance of finding my neighbor Judy before finding the other, a harsh, desolate desert death.  Obviously, the one who loosed him to the elements cared little which end the emu met.

Evan was in a panic.  He ran the fence line, frantic.  It didn’t help to go in with him.  He’d run to and fro the more.  Sometimes it was noises, construction trucks, garbage trucks, sometimes nothing.  One day he’d feed easily from me, another I’d set him affray just to enter the pen.  There was little making sense of it, to find something to calm the fear.  It was just the nature of newness.  After he settled a bit from his fierce running of the fence line, I took him a handful of grapes.  Still somewhat fraught, he walked ahead, even jolted forward a jump or two at a time if I got too close behind.  Evan had not yet consented to the new fellowship.  He still held to the old.  We did this for a while, I ever tightening a smaller space for him to move and turn easily.  I thought if I made this new arrangement a little more challenging and specifically directed at me, in his making peace or war with that, and I did not know which of the two to fully expect, he might at least let go of the “devil he knew”.  And even then that might only be for the minute.  He paced.  I followed, allowing a little tighter turn.  He’d glance and bolt through.  A few more turns and he had to push through.  It was a sideways glance, still direct, intent and intense, still self-possessed, neck cocked back, and he’d push through.  At the last, he cocked and glanced, and at once noticed his predicament.  He was penned tight.  He bolted rigid, then as instantly, released, slumped full against my chest, head and neck draped full weight over my shoulder, conceding, yielding to solace, not war.  He let me lift his head to mine a minute.  I gave him a pat and turned to let him move on, and gave up thinking of where to find him another home.

The larger barn would need repair.  The rabbit holes needed to be dug up, trenched, and the dirt repacked.  One gate was good, better than this.  The other had dropped to the ground for rusted hinges.  A few of the smaller sections of the separated corrals could be made into a single, larger area.  Half the footage of welded pipe and cable corralling was secured with wire fencing and half was not.  Evan watched.  I thought he might be frantic at the noise.  In his own pen, he would peck at each tool, pluck up the extension cord, and be directly over my shoulder during the work.  I thought of the dog as we both went about the work.  Intently domestic, somewhat annoying, Evan inspected and delighted in each detail of the process ever so much more than he would the impending moving day.

It wasn’t until after posting the neighbor lady to hold the fully opened at half gate, that I found I could no longer easily wrap my arms around and lift the now better fed, hooded (a pillow case blind fold), and leashed emu who, blinded, uprooted, and uncertainly trapped between an unyielding iron gate and the clumsy grasp of an obstinate custodian, decided to pounce against the barn siding, propelling us both into a somersault that lamentably ended with me straddling a crouched emu who as suddenly stood up, and whose own bucking and throws against me now riding him impossibly imbalanced and refusing to let go, ended with us both finally sprawled out flat on the ground, most providently on the other side of the half opening gate still held by my now stunned, stock-still, and gape-mouthed neighbor lady whose image instantly recalled to my mind my first and original solution – “Simple.”

So we both sat. Evan just stayed sprawled out on the ground with me as we both caught our breath and a smidgen of remaining dignity and reserve.  I took off the pillowcase hood and we both stood up.  Evan was still leashed, a miracle.  I pet him and he started to walk calmly toward the old pen.  I wanted to think about that, why he would do that instead of dash for escape from all enclosure and me as well.  But, there were still those last few rousing minutes and we were not actually in any enclosure as yet.  This was no time to be thinking.

Staying out of the pathway, the neighbor lady shook his hen scratch bowl.  I kept the leash just taught toward the new pen, pat him a bit on the rump, and he just walked right in.  I turned and mentioned to the neighbor lady, as matter-of-factly as I could muster, “Well, that went a little better than it could have,” and thanked her for her help.

And Evan walked the fence line.  Not all of it.  For several days he walked only the short lengths away from the gate and the barn.  I thought of the great cats again.  Musing the animal in the care of man is so often pensive.  Evan himself I mulled endlessly as I watched.  I wondered what I refer to as his “prehistoria”, his very ancient being as it were.  This is a three toed bird, kin to dinosaurs.  The emu roamed a violent, volcanic earth of fire and fumes, lived unfettered in a primitive existence of survival.  Only a precious few species hold such a potential of genetically entombed enormity.  I hoped in a way he might somehow impart an aboriginal wisdom.  Maybe not so much a tangible knowledge as an inaudible, more envisioned, primordial comprehension.  Without fully understanding my own yearning, I deviated into inane concoction where divulged in the echoes and undertones of  Evan’s own guttural rumbling, there was the distinct uttering of revelation, “Yes, tell them.  Yes, tell them all.  He AM.”  This once in my head, the fantastic abounded.  Evan sailed into great striding leaps through the corral proclaiming with all grand flamboyance and fanfare, “He AM.  He AM.  Like the potato, y’know?”  (You may have to say that one out loud.)  So, so slowly, the absurdity passed.

As it turns out, refusing to fully release farce, Evan would have nothing to do with yams. I chopped them in a bowl, hung them on the fence, and hid them in his favored apple.  He’d check it out, cock his head, shoot a direct challenge into his glance at me, and have absolutely nothing to do with them as he flapped an audible head shaking.

His walk along the fence line grew to the full area in the passing weeks.  He paused more, even stood inside the barn, not just in its shadow.  One corner of his sentry showed a shortcut around a small lawn ornament.  Pathways began between the bushes.  I’d even find him squatting in the shade of the bushes where he’d spend down time mid-day.

He didn’t spend much time with the toys.  A big colorful parrot hung by a shepherd’s hook.  There were shiny wind chimes, bird’s bells, and colored, parrot chew toys.  I even found him a six-foot tall iron rod flamingo sculpture that I could not resist, but for a black beak, eyes, and legs, painting bright, shocking pink.  Evan couldn’t care less.  The toys I guess soothe only my own guilt of his loneliness. But I’m not about to begin wishing for just one more selfish bastard to abandon just one more poor, innocent emu to the desert just in hopes Evan might gain a playmate.  I’m sorry.  I’m what he gets.

His fence walking did temper and he did finally find places within the pen and in the barn to rest.  Spending time with an emu wasn’t as easy as with the housedog and cats.  Mostly I stood close with the feed bowl, taking time while he ate, ever holding out hope of atonement when caught up abrupt at the bolting of a glance, the ever-confronting copper eyes.  Then he’d walk on.  I’d walk behind.  He’d move on a little and I’d move on a little.  He’d rumble some.  Then I’d put the feed bowl back in the tack room and head for the house.  Two, maybe three feedings was about the time I usually get to be with Evan.  But today, our time together changed.  Mid stride, Evan set right down on his haunches.  He had found how to rest among the bushes of his new home during his day, and now he was going to rest even while I was there with him.  I sat right down.  It was Sunday and I had time.  I could lay my arm and shoulder across his back, lounging against him.  Today I intended to lounge on Evan for as long as he would allow.

It was the dirt floor of the barn, but comfortable enough for old clothes.  I pet Evan.  I’d comb my fingers through and sometimes into his feathers until I was to the skin and hug him into my side a little.  Evan has three or four different kinds of feathers.  The hind feathers are long, coarse feathers with one feather to a quill.  Mid body, there are softer feathers, two each to one quill.  They’re wispy feathers that blow in the wind like hair.  Then there is a shorter, smaller downy feather half way along the neck that curls upward and the head itself has an even smaller, more course feather strand shaping a cow-lick pompadour square over the copper eyes.

He’s draped his head and chin, under-beak maybe, across my legs now.  His eyelids close from bottom up to top.  As I run my one finger along the hard beak ridge, it reveals a softening, a pliant bridging over each nostril that wholly resembles the continuing still solid beak.  There also is not a specific point where the beak turns into the leather surrounding the eye, or where the skin of the eyelid attaches to that leather.  Each of the surfaces blends in the change.  The hard, rigid beak is really mostly flexible and almost constantly in motion.  Evan doesn’t impart any primordial wisdom to me today, but I do wonder why he sits here with me, why he lets me sprawl across him, running my fingers down his beak and then cross grain along the down of his neck.

Against my will, I make the first move and break the afternoon respite.  My once far skinnier butt has failed me once again.  I filled the water buckets and Evan strolled the length of the corral.  There was a storm moving in fast.  Giving a glance back I was struck with surprise.  Evan appeared small, an image in conflict with all that I associated with Evan and emus, the great ancient bird.  Evan appeared small, exposed before the advancing storm directly behind.

It was classic desert monsoon.  The sun was setting in blue, clear skies behind to the west, stretching an astounding double rainbow that loomed in frame over Evan against the approaching full black, malevolent thunderhead now right behind him, ground to surface lightening striking seconds apart, deafening thunderclaps, Evans feathers whipping in the wind bursts.  Here was my real vision of his “prehistoria”.  There was no frenzied flight, bolting along the fence line at the thunderclap.  There was no frantic escape effort, no scurry for cover more dangerous than the storm.  There was only a quick look of the severe copper eyes that would halt me still, another exacting glance even now wholly composed in what I at once and finally understood to be simply the virtue of the unencumbered.  He squatted down, full body to the ground, the long neck and head held up waiting.  Evan held only his very life up to the passing fury.

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