Cassandra Carillo grew tired of the rat race in Edmonton and Calgary and Vancouver and most every other city where she worked. She was tired of the office politics, of typing memos for the boss, tired of smiling, of greeting crabby old clients, and of making payments on new cars. Disillusioned, she kept moving to a different city, always in Western Canada, always in hopes to make a positive career transition of some kind, but she kept returning to the same office jobs where nothing ever changed. At age 39, she was defeated. She grew tired of it all, this bleeding tangle of necessities.
Aside from the animosity that she had toward her jobs, Cassandra was also trying to break free of the cycle of choosing the wrong man. The most insane and subnormal men always found her and loved her. It was a pattern that never changed. All through her school years, into adulthood, and now that she was pushing 40, the unwanted would affix themselves to her. A guy with a missing ear, a guy who twitched, a guy with a speech defect, a guy who drooled when he talked, a guy who couldn't control his farts, a guy with crusty white film over one eye -- she had dated every one of them. When one left another arrived worse off than his predecessor, a man whose face was wolverine or predatory. Most of them had more than just physical abnormalities; they were mentally unstable as well. They found her right off and attached themselves. They still did.
Instead of being a fragrant flower that bumblebees were attracted to, her destiny or so it seemed, was to travel in the company of duds and the dispossessed her whole life long, more like a lump of dog turd that drew flies. Her friends used to remind her, "Peacocks should not associate with crows," but this was precept that she did not follow.
In school, the teachers taught her that if she got a good education that she could be a winner. The teachers neglected to tell her about the gutters, the suicides, or the terror of one person aching in an apartment alone, untouched, unspoken to, watering a dried-up plant. The men she met were not good to her. She called these men her lovers, but haters would have been a more apt word to describe them. When she felt lonely or too much disgusted with herself for choosing a particular man, everything around her seemed to share in her sickness and disgust: the flowers withered, the sidewalk seemed ashamed of the whole glob of humanity that walked upon it, and even the moon looked diseased.
She had seen other women with gentle, quiet men -- and that's what she wanted. She saw them in the grocery store, happily married couples, and she saw them walking down the streets together. They were people at peace, living together.
For a time she event went to a counsellor about this problem, but that didn't really help any. The counsellor told her things that she already knew, that she had to come to grips with her self-defeating behaviour, that she had to make changes in the "scripts" that governed her role in relationships, and stop expecting different results when making the same choices over and over again. Otherwise, the counsellor told her, she would continue finding herself in bed with more washouts.
Cassandra needed a good man, but the losers kept finding her wherever she went. "Don't ever bring an alcoholic or a wife beater around," she would tell her few friends. "For sure I will fall in love with him."
Being a beautiful woman and an educated woman, she figured that she deserved a better life for herself. She deserved a husband and a child or two like other women her age. So one day she left the city life behind and made a new life for herself in rural Alberta. To her amazement, small town living was no different than the city life in most respects. Minimal adjustments were required. Water still came out of the faucets. Stores for buying food to fill the fridge and cupboards were still available. Dirty old men with monkeylike faces, a couple of eyes daubed in, still tried picking her up at the bars. She still misunderstood spiders at work, clouds still went by in the sky, and tap water was still wasted on luxury cars and old women's daisies.
The biggest difference for Cassandra was the work. No more office jobs for her. She bought a small farm and raised Japanese quails. The quails were hardy birds that thrived in small cages and were inexpensive to keep. An individual bird sold for about $7, but the eggs were where she made the real money. With proper care, hens could lay 200 eggs in their first year. Unfortunately, the hens only had a life expectancy of about two years or so.
It was a lot of work caring for these birds. Their incubators needed cleaning every day because contamination made them very susceptible to the same diseases as chickens. The hardest part, of course, was getting the quails breeding. In the wild, quails still bred well on their own, but the Japanese quails had been in captivity so long that many of them had forgotten how to breed.
During the height of the breeding season, the males crowed all through the night. The males played rough. During mating, they chased females, dragged them around by their feathers, and pecked them. Once, Cassandra watched a male Japanese quail try mating with a female's head! And the males fought all the time, too. Japanese quails were territorial, especially during mating season, and defended their home against intruders, including other quails. They fought for dominance by pulling feathers, calling, or even raping the other male. Gamblers in Asia pitted the males against each other, but that was illegal here in prairie country, Alberta. Still, with three or four males together in one pen, there was bound to be a scrap every now and again.
Today, as she approached their pens to do her daily feeding, she spotted two male quails fighting, pecking at each other. Both of them had rusty brown-coloured feathers on their upper throat and lower breast region. One male was a passive, cold and weak bird, while the other was bright, active and strong. She could distinguish the males from the females because the males had a bulbous structure at the upper edge of the vent that secreted a white, foamy material. This unique gland was used to assess the reproductive fitness of the males. The strong one showed a lot of breeding potential, much more so than the weak bird.
"I hate you little bastards," she said, as she separated the two fighting males, the stronger one picking at the other's feathers.
Next, Cassandra fed the birds. They had a small hooked beak suitable for grabbing and tearing off leaves and picking up seeds. Cassandra's quails ate a varied diet. Her quails were fed a mixture of chick crumble, crushed seeds and small insects. The females also received some cuttlefish for extra calcium to make the shell of their eggs stronger.
The quails had small plump bodies that didn't look equipped for running, but they had strong little legs so they could dart off when they needed to. Cassandra filled their water cups. All of them scurried to the nipple drinkers anxiously.
With the birds fed and watered, Cassandra checked on the eggs. The fragile quail eggs were characterized by a variety of colour patterns. They ranged from snow white to completely brown. More commonly they were tan and dark brown speckled or mottled brown with a chalky blue covering.
Two hours Cassandra dashed back and forth between the bathroom and the bedroom getting ready for her date tonight. She had never been more worried about her appearance, nor had she ever been more satisfied with it. The sun came in through an opening in the curtains and shone on her. Her hair was natural red, hanging loose around her shoulders. A touch of makeup, dangly silver earrings, and a blue shirt that brought out her eyes -- she looked really good tonight.
The clock on the wall said 10 minutes to seven. She sat waiting nervously on her bed for Daniel to arrive. Daniel was a lawyer, probably a rich one although she didn't know that for sure. They had met a week ago and hit it off right from the start. They talked in a bar. He listened to her and she had no trouble finding interesting things to say. She had never found that with the other men, the losers, she talked to.
The doorbell rang. Cassandra caught a slight lump of nervousness in her throat, as she exited the bedroom and made her way downstairs. Flirt smiled from her large blue eyes and figured in her intense physical magnetism. She opened the front door.
There, standing in the doorway she was surprised -- no, disappointed beyond words -- to find Walter.
"Walter, what are you doing here!" she said.
"Popped by for a visit," he said.
Cassandra had met Walter at the bar, too. She was forever meeting men in bars. Walter had been sitting alone drinking vodka. He was a small frail man of indeterminate age, with yellowing skin, no hair on the top of his head, and little black nostril hairs poking out of his nose. Nobody liked him or so it seemed. He had a metazoan face. That night at the bar he came over and introduced himself to Cassandra. Making the mistake of tolerating him, he glued himself to Cassandra after that. There was no drive or humour in their conversation, but he was so pitiful that she didn't have the heart to tell him to get lost. He was like a mongrel dog, starved and kicked. In some ways, Walter symbolized every man she had ever dated and, wanting to break the pattern of dating defective men, she didn't feel good being around him. But since she knew that mongrel dog feeling, she kissed him under the moon outside of the bar that night and she agreed that they would see a movie together sometime. Now, here he was standing in her doorway this evening.
"What are you all dressed up for?" he asked.
"I'm meeting somebody," she told him.
At first, Walter didn't seem to know what to say. Fidgety, he rubbed his hands. On his middle knuckle was a dirty Band-Aid, peeling up at the edge. All the rest of his knuckles were covered with old scars and new scabs. Finally, "A guy? You're meeting a guy?"
"Yes," she said.
As if on cue, Daniel pulled up in his black Acura and got out. Cassandra knew that she would have some explaining to do why Walter was here and all that. As he approached the two of them under the porch light, Cassandra saw how great Daniel looked in the soft yellow light, like someone out of the movies, except he was actually here right in front of her.
"Hi," he said.
Wow, she thought, he even talked like a movie star.
"Hello," she responded.
"Who's this?" asked Daniel.
Before she could say anything, Walter said, "I'm Walter."
"I see," said Daniel.
Walter, perhaps sensing that he was not the preferred man here yet not wanting to leave altogether, responded, "I came to check on the chickens."
"Japanese quails," she corrected him.
"Whatever," said Walter as he turned and went out to the small barn where the quails were kept, making sure to give Daniel a snide look as he left their presence.
Cassandra invited Daniel inside. He was a handsome man and his clothes were without wrinkles. Indeed, he looked like a movie star, like Brad Pitt, like Tom Cruise, like a glass of milk.
Inside, they went to the living room and spoke of deathless matters. They sat together on the couch talking about the weather, national politics, and how the flu bug was going around as of late. The room was dark. The radio played classical music. Cassandra recognized that Daniel had a quiet confidence about him that she had seldom seen before. Then, their conversation turned to more personal matters.
"Why no husband?" he asked.
"I always get involved with the wrong men -- the losers," she admitted.
They kept talking. They spoke of their lives and their dreams and they drank red wine. Daniel summed up all the romance that a woman of her age and environment led her to desire.
"Cassandra," he whispered, speaking in such a soft voice that she could barely hear him, although he bent so near she felt his breath against her cheek. "You know I'm crazy about you."
Now there was a definite vibration in the air. With him so close, she felt small explosions go off in her heart. "Yeah..." she said.
"How much do you care about me -- do you like anyone better?"
She didn't answer.
"You know," he continued, "one of these days you're going to have to choose."
She didn't know what he meant by this last statement.
He explained, "You can choose me or you can keep choosing the wrong man, like that Walter fellow."
Still, she didn't answer. Everything was wonderful tonight, most of all this romantic scene with their hands clinging and something else, something wonderful looming charmingly close.
"Cassandra!" His whisper blended with the classical music playing. "Can't I kiss you, Cassandra?"
Her breath came faster. Lips half parted, she turned her head to him in the dark. Before their mouths could touch, suddenly running footsteps surged toward the house. Like a flash, Walter rushed in from outside and appeared in the living room entranceway, while Cassandra and Daniel sat without moving, both of them serene and not the least bit embarrassed. She greeted Walter with a smile. Her heart was beating wildly and she felt somehow as if she had been deprived. They didn't get to kiss.
"Your chickens are fighting!" announced Walter, his voice racing with a mix of worry and excitement.
The next thing you know, all three of them were out in the barn, at Walter's request, checking on the Japanese quails. The birds were easily startled and fretted over the slightest disturbance or noise. Upon the three of them entering, the quails started crowing and running every which way.
Sure enough, just as Walter told them, two of the males were fighting again. Cassandra was not too worried about the quails, really. Males contesting for the affections of the female quail were to be expected.
There was an uncomfortable tension between Daniel and Walter that reminded her of the fighting quails, Daniel the strong one with a law degree on his office wall, and Walter the weak one with no university education whatsoever, no office to speak of. He earned a living as a prep cook, washing dishes and peeling potatoes. No ambition, no talent, no chance. What kept him going, she supposed, was raw luck and luck never lasted.
Instead of separating the fighting quails from this vicious "pecking showdown", this time Cassandra watched them fight. All three of them watched the quails fight. One of the female birds was also watching. The adult hen was slightly heavier than the two males. The body colouration of the female bird was similar to the males except that the feathers on the throat and upper breast were long, pointed, and much lighter cinnamon. Also, her light tan breast feathers were black-stippled.
The hen observed with keen interest the males battling for her affection. Soon, when their fight was over, the bird knew that she would be able to choose a new mate.
The weaker male poked at the stronger, superior male. The stronger quail poked back with vigorous jabs about three or four times. The ratio of pokes was lopsided in favour of the stronger bird, and the outcome of the fight was a given before they really got underway. Eventually the weaker male could not stand any more injury. The weak bird limped off into a corner, sad, feeble, defeated.
"This is stupid," said Daniel. "I don't care to watch this animal cruelty."
"It's part of the selection process for breeding, that's all," said Cassandra.
"Well, it's not for me."
"It's a natural process for the males to fight and the hen to select a mate based on the outcome of the fight," she said.
"Well, it's not for me," Daniel repeated. "I don't care to watch it."
"The males play rough," Walter pointed out, his voice sounding as though he was chewing on a dead mouse.
"Yes, a strong male will treat his mate rough, too," she said.
"Let's go back inside," said Daniel.
Cassandra said nothing.
"Did you hear me?" he asked.
Cassandra didn't want to go back inside the house with Daniel. Instead, she took Walter by the hand, unknowingly stroking his Band-Aid, and sidled up beside him. Still, she said nothing.
Daniel looked at her in disbelief. "What's going on here! I thought we were on a date!"
"I know," said Cassandra, trying to explain her actions, yet not quite able to justify them in her own mind. "I met Walter first. Maybe if circumstances had been different..." Her voice trailed off, not quite knowing how to finish her thought.
"Unbelievable!" said Daniel, a twinge of anger in his tone, as he exited the barn, got into his fancy Acura and sped off, spraying dirt and small rocks as his vehicle vanished into the horizon.
Meanwhile, Cassandra stood there with Walter. She wrapped her arms around him. It was a full-of-dreams embrace. Then she kissed him. He tasted like old postage stamps and the dead mouse.
"I have some red wine in my kitchen. Let's go back inside," repeated Cassandra, kissing him again. "We can drink wine and watch TV and make love until the sun comes up."
As they drew apart from their kiss, they looked down at the hen, the one that had observed the confrontation between the two competing males. The hen scampered over. She did not approach the winning quail, though. Ignoring him, the hen went over to the loser brooding in the corner.
Originally published on 2005-03-27