By J. Scott Paul (78BBA), 2019 Write Now Finalist

Elmer regretted selling the farm within hours of signing the deed. They said he had no choice. It had been two years since he had lost his wife, Anne, to a brain aneurysm. Elmer's farm was located just north of Iowa City adjacent to the Iowa River, several miles north of Coralville. To the extent there was any possibility that Elmer could eke out one more year on the farm, that came to a quick and tragic end when Elmer lost his right arm above the elbow in a farm machinery accident. The stump that remained was a constant reminder to Elmer of his foolish decision to wear loose clothing around exposed, rotating engine parts.

At least Elmer had a place to go. He recently inherited a house from his brother Merle. It was located on Iowa Avenue near the campus in Iowa City, next door to the State Historical Society building. Elmer missed the farm. He longed to walk the trails that followed the bends of the Iowa River. Those walks were the way that he coped with the loss of Anne and the departure of his son. To occupy his time, Elmer volunteered at the Historical Society next door. He was such a fixture there that the Society gave Elmer his own key.

One night, Elmer noticed a display of several stuffed birds. He was particularly attracted to a regal looking bald eagle that had beautiful white tail feathers with inky black tips. As he cradled the bird against his chest with the stump of his right arm, he heard a voice say, "Go back."

Elmer looked around but saw no one else in the room. He thought it was his imagination and so he disregarded what he thought he had heard.

The next night Elmer was again examining the feathers of the bald eagle when he heard the words, "Be free." It was the same voice that Elmer had heard before and, like the day before, no one else was in the building. Elmer told no one of the voices he attributed to the stuffed eagle, yet he could not disregard the continued messages that the bird seemed to be sending him. Finally, Elmer decided that if the bird wanted to be set free, he would do it, and what better place do so that than on the trails of his farm along the Iowa River.

If he went back and walked the trails he might recall happier days when his wife and his and son lived with him on the farm. Elmer could return to the farm unseen by simply renting a boat with a small outboard motor.

One Saturday morning when the Historical Society building was closed, Elmer took the bald eagle and its stand, wrapped it in plastic and left the building. He then drove to the dock in Coralville, rented the boat, and set off for the farm. Elmer placed the eagle in a box on the boat and covered it to prevent it from getting wet as the boat cruised up the river against the steady current. Upon arriving at his farm, Elmer tied the boat up at a gray, rickety, wooden dock. He took the eagle out of the box, unwrapped it, set it on its stand, and then placed it on a flat-topped post that formed part of the dock.

Elmer then left to walk the trails in search of the contentment that he was missing. As he did so, he finally realized that the stuffed eagle was not seeking freedom. Rather, the voices were suggesting that it was Elmer, a prisoner of his grief and loneliness who needed to be set free. It all made sense to him. He was at peace with what he had to do.

Elmer headed back to the boat with renewed vigor. When he arrived at the dock, he got into the boat and observed the screw plug at the rear floor of the boat near the outboard motor. As he unscrewed the plug, water slowly began to fill the bottom of the boat. Elmer knew that with the plug removed, the boat would slowly sink and a fully clothed man with only one good arm would not be able to swim to safety.

Before untying the boat, Elmer looked back to where he had placed the eagle on the dock post. To his surprise, the stand remained atop of the pole but the eagle was gone. Elmer quickly got out of the boat and went over to try to find the stuffed eagle. It was not on the dock, nor was it in the water around the dock. Elmer wanted to continue to look for the bird, but the water had already filled the bottom of the boat. He did not have much time.

Elmer got in the boat. His feet and ankles were sitting in cold water. He steered the boat into the middle of the river where it was deepest and the current strongest. As he began to float down the river, the boat began to sink. The water was at Elmer's knees, then, his hips, as the boat rode lower in the water. At some point Elmer realized that he was no longer sitting in the boat but that he was being pulled along by the current. The water lapped against his chin. Elmer saw lights, and then, darkness.

Elmer regained consciousness while lying on his back. He was on the other side of the river. He could hear the sound of traffic from the nearby Interstate 80. His boat was on the other side of the river having been snagged by submerged tree limbs. As he looked up, Elmer could see a single bald eagle circling above him. Elmer struggled to his feet trying to comprehend what had just occurred. He looked down and opened the clenched fist of his left hand only to see a beautiful white tail feather with inky black tips.

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