The Bird Country

by K.M. Ferebee

 

Childer killed the boy during the night, quietly, on the bed’s Egyptian cotton sheets. On sheets as white as sun lining the back of the Nile, he knelt atop the boy, knees on either side of his chest, and held a pillow over the boy’s face until he ceased to breathe. Childer had to check, afterwards, the breath. He checked it with a hand mirror: the Victorian way. If some small exhalation smeared the glass, then Childer would have to cover the face again. It felt sullied the second time around, profane. The path from life to death should be direct and steady. There shouldn’t be any detours along the way.

The boy’s name was Finn, and he was fair-haired. Sixteen years old. Childer had taken him out for a walk in the fields. The fields fallow this close to winter, stripped of their hay. Finn’s breath came in pale coiled bursts against the frosted air. In the warm molting color of autumn his hair seemed light, his skin translucent. He wore a woollen scarf. His family were Irish, and it was in his manner of speaking, his long soft vowels as he said, “In the old days, of course, people knew what winter meant. Not just a season, but the killing season. When the light and heat go out of things. How do we know we’ll get them back? That’s a lot of Christian faith, right there.”

In the house between night and dawn, as Finn’s body cooled beside him on the cotton sheets and the country wind came cold through the cracks in the glass pane, Childer thought about the boy’s voice saying these things. He liked its lilt—the foreign liveliness that reminded him of birds moving upwards and downwards in the sky. His own voice was without accent. It troubled him, this absence of a quality others seemed so effortlessly to achieve. He touched Finn’s thin white throat, then his bruised-looking lips. The muscles that moved to make sound leave the body were still. Childer closed his eyes, but was unable to sleep. When the light turned a first fragile blue, he rose and donned his work boots. He set a pot of coffee brewing in the kitchen and went to the back garden to dig a grave.

The ground was hard, stiffening already in anticipation of the frost to come. Where his shovel struck no worms curled from the earth; no beetles scurried from lairs disturbed. The soil was dark but slightly chalky. Flecks of mica glittered. It felt dead. He’d tried to tend plants in the garden at first. But he hadn’t the gift. Vines withered to slim straw stalks under his hand; roses rotted on the bush and in time were overtaken by thorns. Some part of Childer had thought, had hoped that if he buried the boys among the rose bushes a spark, a transfer of life might occur. But the same knots of thorns remained by the rocky earth of the first two graves. Now he was digging farther off, among the herb beds. Dill and rosemary ran wild, interspersed with weeds. Their scents mingled strangely in the morning air.

Childer hollowed the grave out to three feet and no farther—he didn’t see the point of a deep grave. The dead didn’t have to live in exile. He hefted a stray clod of dirt. He could feel a cold sweat under his clothes, the kind that hard work in winter produces. The day was just beginning. The sun was rising, a white circle, very far away. He wiped the dirt from his hands.

It was then that he saw the angel. It stood by the tool shed. It did not descend in a cloud, nor announce itself with voices singing. But an angular light seemed to haunt it, a stray white echo of that early sun. It went barefoot. It wore a hooded sweatshirt and ragged jeans. Childer identified it at once as an angel, though he could not have explained this understanding. There was no shadow to it, not even the shortest stretch of darkness. It didn’t speak to him.

After a while, Childer leaned the shovel against the back steps and went inside. In the bedroom Finn’s body still rested amongst the rumpled cotton sheets. His t-shirt bore the faded legend of a rugby club and a knotted emblem in the shape of a cross. Bruises had flowered on his upper arm, like blurred footprints, a violet shade. Childer lifted the dead boy in his arms. He was not a large man, but Finn had been lightly built. Childer could carry him with ease through the warm kitchen now rich with the smell of coffee, out to the back garden and his grave. Finn fit easily into the space Childer had made for him.

The angel watched inscrutably as Childer took up the shovel and buried the boy. Childer was able to ignore the angel’s presence. He concentrated instead on packing the soil in tightly, like he’d been taught to do whilst planting. Seeds displace less soil, though, and no matter how closely he pressed in the dirt there was always a heap left over, a small sad excess hill.

When he had tamped down as evenly as possible the earth over Finn’s grave, he found that the angel was still waiting. The time was perhaps eight o’clock by then. Where the angel stood, small green threads were starting to snarl the surface of the earth. New shoots growing fast and thick. From the angel’s bare and high-arched feet they hove outwards.

Childer leant the shovel against the back wall and went in to breakfast. The coffee had started to scald slightly. It tasted burnt, which he liked, like something had been boiled out of it, some impurity, and now it was clean. When he looked back over his shoulder he could see the angel in the garden. He grew used to it quickly. Soon he stopped checking to see if it had gone away.

 

He dreamed of abstract and ordinary things. He dreamed of himself as a child, throwing rocks at crows to scare them away. He dreamed of other birds, starlings. A crowd of them was called a murmuration, after the sound of their wings. When he was a child great clouds of them would gather going into winter, shrouding the sun with their dark bodies, blotting the light like beads in a kaleidoscope tray. Now the climate had changed and the winters were colder. The birds went elsewhere.

Childer dreamt of where the birds might go: a country warmer and brighter, where children went running under the trees. They left little footprints amongst the tall grasses and the air was filled with the sound of their laughter. Starlings sat on their shoulders and made nests out of their fine light hair. It was always winter in this other country, but the winter was not cold. The weather was equanimous. Seeds in the soil stayed dormant. The birds were never moved to migrate away.

 

 

The next day, Thursday, he proceeded into town. The morning air was thin and mountainous, suggesting frost. He weighted the bed of his pick-up so it wouldn’t skid or flip on bad patches. The best weights for this purpose were worn-out books. Childer used an elderly set of encyclopedias, browned by basement flooding and brittle-leaved. They contained the names of every bird known to man by the books’ date of printing, as well as notes of their special markings and migratory diagrams. There were other items in the encyclopedias: information on areas of the world unvisited by Childer, illustrations of plants that he had never seen. A man in one photograph held his hand beside a flower to show the great size of each petal. Palm outwards, fingers rigid and straight. On another page the aurora cut across a northern sky. There had once been such a sunstorm that men could see the aurora where Childer lived, and further south. Prospectors asleep by rivers in the Rocky Mountains awoke to a pale sky and thought it was day. Childer read this account and failed to understand their mistake. He felt sure that  the  aurora  would  prove  different  to  the  sun’s  staid  dawn.  He  studied  the photograph. The aurora bent like smoke sinking towards the earth instead of rising. Their shapes ringed the landscape in lucent display.

The engine of the pick-up shook at first when he started it, then settled into a steady rhythm. He steered out onto the gravel road. There were fifteen miles between his house and the town, flat and inhabited mostly by birds. This early the neighboring fields were colorless. The scrub by the side of the road was a ghost grass, bleached bluish-gray.

He stopped for a kolache at the edge of town. The night boy at the bakery was still on shift. He handed Childer the paper sack, pastry warm within it. Childer paid in coins so he could put them in the boy’s slightly sticky hand. He sat by the front window and watched the boy lift pecan buns from the oven on large flat trays. There was flour smeared across the boy’s sweatshirt. He wore a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead. Sleeplessness blued the skin under his eyes. Childer wanted to place his hands on the boy’s narrow shoulders. He wanted to lower his head to the boy’s neck and smell the sweat and powdered sugar there. He bit into the kolache. Seeds from the raspberry filling stuck in his teeth.

He drove next to the co-op. He was running low on coffee, flour, fruit, and meat. As a precaution he purchased several boxes of plastic trash bags to protect the garden against a later freeze. Sheets and blankets were best to keep the frost out in the dead of winter, their corners weighted with stones or cinder blocks. But in autumn they wetted come dawn and smelled of must and decay. With plastic he could shake the water off. He loaded also a case of beer into the bed of the truck. He liked, come the long winter nights, to sit on the back porch and look out over the tangle of the garden, drinking. The colder it got the cleaner he felt. When sensation ceased in his feet and hands he would go inside, but not before. Then back in the heat he would be clumsy. His fingers, mercifully severed for a moment, forced to re-learn how to feel.

The cashier at the co-op asked him, “Getting ready for the first big freeze?” “Oh, yeah,” Childer answered. “Got to start settling in for the winter.”

The cashier wore a nametag that said Daniel. He had black hair and a blue tattoo of a star on his wrist, bisected by his sleeve. The ink of the tattoo had faded. It was the color of a summer storm cloud. Childer watched as Daniel bagged the groceries: holding, briefly, each red apple in his careful hands. The blue star flashed as he lifted the bags to Childer. Idly, the boy tugged at his shirt to cover it. Childer found it difficult to move away. In the pick-up, he dissociated the apples from the other groceries. He had not yet decided if he would eat them. He placed them in the passenger seat and from time to time, whilst driving, would touch them as though for reassurance. They had acquired a kind of radiance, visible only to him.

When he arrived home it was after midday. He loaded a few beers into the icebox and stored the rest of the groceries away. The apples he lined up on the kitchen counter. Then, as an afterthought, he took one in his hand and went out to the garden. The angel slept, curled like an animal on the earth. The new greenery formed a pillow under its head. Elsewhere vines had begun touching at the walls of the house with tentative fingers. Childer considered whether he should pry them off, but let them be. He went over to where the angel slept and set the apple beside it. It occurred to him—an impulse quickly stifled—to describe aloud to the angel where the apple had been. Instead he returned to the house. He tore a lined sheet of paper from a spiral notebook and sketched on it in ballpoint pen a star. He had no clear idea what to do with the drawing once it was finished. He folded it twice and tucked it in his pocket. All the rest of the day he was aware of it, reverent, somehow, of what he carried with him. In the grip of the superstition he caught himself minding his words, careful of his actions. He wanted obscurely to prove himself worthy of the star.

 

Come the next morning, the apple he had left for the angel was gone. Gray clouds gathered overhead, threatening rain. The angel sat cross-legged and gazed up at the sky. The clouds were fast-moving. They seemed to swell close to the earth and then recede. Childer made coffee and took a cup of it out to the back porch. The wind was high, the coffee hot and sweet. A brown bird perched on the packed earth in the garden. Childer could tell it was a mockingbird when it took flight; the fine white bars that marked its feathers stood out against the sullen sky. It seemed to rise and rise, till Childer could not see it. It loosed a single, insensible cry.

“Should be moving on for the winter, anyway,” Childer said aloud. He glanced at the angel. “If I built a coop I could keep some, maybe through any season. Have to get a manual on it for next year.”

The angel said nothing. It inclined its head. Its eyes were a light shade almost like seawater, suspended between blue and gray. The cashier’s tattoo had been that color. Like a bruise in the shape of a star.

“Hard to keep them warm, though,” Childer said. “Same with the plants. I try all the tricks they say on the radio. Garden shows. Still lose a few come that first freeze or a hard storm. Some people’ve got a knack for it, I guess, that I don’t have.”

The angel blinked. The vines it had produced were climbing the wall. They bore large, dark, insistent leaves. They clutched at the garden fence as well. On the ground, small white flowers had sprung up in clusters like weeds. They grew even over the graves of the boys, where the soil was loose and new. The angel seemed unaware of the effect it was having.

“Reckon we’ll see what makes it through the winter,” Childer said. He returned to the kitchen, placed his coffee cup in the sink. In the base of the cup some fine slough of sugar remained. He tilted the cup; the sugar took on a shape. Continent-like, a mass of land. In his mind he mapped the contours of it. A private country. A moment later he twisted the tap and washed the whole of it away.

 

The week went. Once or twice Childer left food for the angel: half a sandwich, a soft- boiled egg. Later, the food had always gone. He assumed the angel ate. On Sunday he drove to the bakery, intending to bring back a box of doughnuts or a coffee cake. The boy from the night shift wasn’t working; a teenaged girl had replaced him. Childer found that his appetite waned. He wondered where the boy was, if he were sleeping. He envisioned him buried under a comforter and cotton sheets. His bedroom perhaps smelling sweetly of the bakery. The boy’s mouth slightly agape. Childer could not bring himself to buy anything from the girl who manned the counter. He stopped at the filling station for a coffee instead. On the long road home he was tense and restless. The sky overhead seemed to expand. Its goal was to shake him loose from the earth, to lose him. He would drift into it and never see the boy again. It was his memories of each of the boys, his anamnesis of their bodies that formed an anchor of sufficient weight. He worked to recall the night shift boy’s short hair curling at the nape of his neck. That warm place which one hand could cover, fingers resting against the back part of the skull. But it had been days since Childer had seen the boy and he could not resolve the image. In his mind the boy’s eyes hovered between blue and gray.

When he reached the house he headed to the garden. He felt somehow that he needed to explain. He had wanted to bring the angel an offering, something the boy at the bakery had held in his hands. Instead he had nothing. But when he met the angel’s eyes, squinting tenderly against the broad light of day, he knew in an instant that it understood his failure, by instinct, as though they were of one body. It beheld him kindly. For the first time, it extended a hand to him. Childer was reluctant to touch it. When he did, he held his breath. It seemed to him that as long as he was not breathing he could briefly absent himself from the physical plane. Something other than his clumsy flesh would touch the angel’s fingers. But if he breathed he called an end to the whole charade. If he could have caused his heart not to beat it would have been better. But his nervous pulse betrayed him.

The angel’s hand was cool and slightly gritty. Dirt gathered under the short nails and in the lines of its skin. Childer was overcome by a strong desire to raise the angel’s palm to his mouth and taste it. It would taste, he thought, like wet earth after a rain. He folded the angel’s fingers into a fist and released it.

“It’s getting cold,” he said. “You should come inside.”

The angel smiled at him and did not reply. Childer stood ineffectually for a moment. He wanted to inspire the angel to movement. What if an ice storm comes, he thought. What if it freezes. On the wall of the house, a stiff wind stirred the ivy as though it were not winter at all. Elsewhere, other plants were pushing up from the dark earth. The rosemary had doubled its radius. There was a desert smell of its spiny leaves.

 

For the first time, Childer dreamed of Finn. In the dream they were pressed up close against each other, underground, in a grave. The earth was warm and smelled sweet. Childer tasted cedar mulch, wet leaves. His hand, heavy and hot, rested against Finn’s ribcage. Childer could feel the faint heart beating beneath. Finn raised a finger to his lips: a secret. His eyes were black, the pupils blown and strange.

Finn touched Childer’s mouth with the same cool finger. Soil clotted his fine pale hair. Childer could feel his breath hot against the boy’s hand. He was ashamed at his own animal mechanics. Finn’s body had a different architecture. He did not need to breathe. When he moved his lips it was not a human voice that came out, foreign- accented and made of air and thin, but the low warble of birdsong. Black and liquid. Based in the throat. Childer closed his eyes and covered the boy’s mouth. He could not stand to hear it. He was consumed by envy by fear of the sin he had committed, the creature that he had made.

A hard freeze came, finally, when the week was halfway through. Childer woke to find long fingers of ice on all the windows. When he walked outside a layer of frost broke under his work boots. He had covered the garden as a precaution but left the area the angel inhabited bare. Now when he went to lift the trash bags he had weighted over the herb beds, he saw that the new growth surrounding the angel was untouched. No frost matted the dark leaves. The angel itself huddled by the tool shed, its hands pulled up against its body. It watched without comment as Childer inspected the garden. There was no ice damage; the plants were vivid and green. Even over the graves of the three boys, wildflowers were thriving. Childer stopped and knelt beside the third grave. When he breathed, his breath hung in the air as though reluctant to leave him. He thought of Finn’s breath whitening the mirror. He looked away.

The angel was shivering. “If you’re so cold,” Childer said, “why don’t you just fly away?” For the first time he considered the angel’s shoulders, narrow beneath the aged sweatshirt. “Have you not got any wings?”

It made a sad, curious gesture, neither confirmation nor denial. It dug its toes into the hard-packed dirt. Its feet looked bruised, blackened by dust. Abruptly Childer wanted to wash them. He imagined rinsing the angel’s worn body clean.

“Come inside,” he offered again. “I can make you some breakfast. You don’t have to stay out in the cold.”

He waited for the angel to answer. Slowly it dawned on him that this was its answer, that it would not enter the house. Resigned, he got to his feet and left the garden. In the kitchen  he  cracked  three  eggs  into  a  frying  pan.  He  cooked  them  till  they  were coherent, each yolk a solid globe of sun. He had meant to divide them between himself and the angel, but by the time they were done he found he was no longer hungry. He slid the eggs onto a plastic plate. He thought of making toast, and did so. And bacon. Then added salt and pepper to the eggs. He searched the kitchen for something else he could feed the angel. The last of the apples, turned slightly withered. Half a grapefruit. A hunk of cheese. He carried the crowded plate outside, the eggs still slightly steaming. The angel did not look at him. Childer set the plate on the grass and stepped away. A hollow had opened somewhere within him, in a part of his body that had no name. He felt in his pocket for the star he had drawn. The crumpled paper. It seemed to him not a common five-pointed emblem but a colossal, luminous thing. Large enough to fill the hole, or at least patch it. He pressed it, trembling, into the palm of his hand.

He woke the next day to snow outside his window, thin light flakes barely feathering the breeze. His chest ached, a familiar feeling. The heat had gone out in the night, and the cold was a physical form that pressed against him. Needy, insistent. Nudging him with its icy nose. He drew his arms around himself and regarded, through the window, the descent of the snow. The small flakes died on the fields and road. The earth was not frozen enough to accept them. It would be in another few days.

Outside the sun seemed weak and screened through water. White clouds moved swiftly overhead. He brushed ice from the books weighting the bed of the pick-up; scraped the windscreen clean. The engine heaved when started, like an animal roughly awakened. Childer directed the truck down the road and away.

At sixty or seventy miles per hour he sometimes felt he was no longer limited to his body that other things contained him instead. The long fences with barbed wire starry between their pillars, the animals gut-split by the side of the road. The low grass that clung to the bad soil by the shoulder, the vultures aloft and eyeing their prey. Then the sight of something beautiful would rise up out of the landscape and reduce him. That had been Finn: a hitchhiker, slightly sunburnt at the roadside. Childer’s human desire had stirred. Now he increased his speed, hungry for the sense of exaltation. But the world around him played dead.

When he reached the bakery, the night shift boy was still working. Relief swept him like a strong wind, leaving him shaky on his feet. He stood in the warm sweet air of the shop and watched the boy arrange pastries on wax paper. The sleeves of his sweatshirt were pushed up past his elbows, putting the thin bones of his wrists on display. The sweatshirt was hooded and worn, just like the angel’s.

The boy looked up. “What can I get for you today?”

“Just a cup of coffee,” Childer said. He didn’t want the coffee, but he wanted to see the boy make it. Raising the carafe, careful with the hot and fragrant steam. The boy’s hands wrapped around the cup, leaving fingerprints, traces. Childer’s gaze travelled from the cup to the boy’s face. His eyes were gray, his hair wheat-colored. A silver chain cut across the hollow of his throat, where his pulse was beating. Childer could not see what depended from the chain. He wanted to press his thumb there till the pulse slowed and stilled. Till the heart ceded its function, surrendered, abstained.

He had thought to stay and offer the boy a ride home when his shift ended. But indecision gripped him. He felt restless in his own skin. He remembered the angel waiting in the garden. He wondered how he would explain the presence of the boy. The new body the inevitable grave. The earth was hard and to break it would take hours. The angel would watch him, unspeaking. Flowers would crawl from where the boy’s body was laid. Childer measured his want against the wan horror of this image: the flowers seething inexorably upwards, pity printed on the angel’s luminous face. When he pictured it he could feel his hands raw where they would grip the shovel. The red pain reminding him of what he couldn’t bear.

He walked rapidly from the bakery and came to rest with his forehead pressed against the truck’s front window. Snow wasn’t falling any longer, but the glass was cold, so cold he couldn’t feel it. It was a relief. He closed his eyes and pictured birds flying, dozens of them and then thousands, so many he could count them only by the sound of their wings. They flashed before his eyes, dark forms, bound for a new country.  He  wanted  to  follow  them,  but  they  had  no  set  direction.  They  moved according to a tropic pull, like plants that navigate towards sunlight, their secret course whispered to them in germination, destination obscure yet somehow plain.

 

For hours after leaving the bakery he drove without aim. Out in the cropped fields nothing stirred amongst the blunted rows of corn or cotton. The sunlight was closer to silver than gold. He tasted snow on the wind. Once or twice the tires of his truck skidded. He imagined leaving the tarmac, the truck’s body flipping, his head snapping against the windscreen before coming to rest. He had weighted the pick-up bed against such an accident, but now he found he wanted it.

When the sun had passed its summit he pulled off on the shoulder and parked the truck. He took the encyclopedias from the pick-up bed and began to tear out their pages in fistfuls, as many pages as he could seize in his hand. They were so thin under his fingers that he was reminded of the shells cicadas left in the summer, clinging like living creatures to the bark of trees. Wind lifted the pages and carried them over the fields until Childer could no longer see them. The photographs of aurora, gone forever; the diagrams of birds and all their migrancies. Floating like foreign snow over distant farms and townships, coming to nest in the bare trees. As each book emptied, he dropped the binding. His hands ached where the paper had cut him, but the cuts were not deep enough to bleed.

The angel was sleeping in the garden. Childer stood over it for a long while, watching. Its unconscious hands gripped at the roots of the plants that grew around it, milkweed and paintbrush and the dark ivy that had now overtaken the house’s wall. There was no sign in the garden that snow had fallen. Flowers were blooming, thick and lavish. Their scent intoxicated him. The leaves of the ivy stirred. Childer heard in the sound something that was almost language: a half-speech, subtle and inhuman. He bent and touched the angel’s face. Its skin was cold. It didn’t waken. He stroked its hair, like he would a child’s; covered its mouth, like he had done to Finn in his dream. An edge of sunlight stayed with it, despite the approach of winter. It was the most beautiful thing Childer had seen.

“Why did you come here?” he asked it. His voice cracked on the question. He could not  bring  himself  to  imagine  the  days  to  come:  ivy  overgrowing  the  doors  and windows, ryegrass creeping gradually through the cracks in the floor. The scent of summer from the garden, like a ghost of what had gone away. And the angel, lambent in its mercy, like a star whose brightness he could not contain.

He lifted the angel in his arms. Its body was very light. He carried it inside the house, through the kitchen, to the bedroom, where he laid it on the cotton sheets. Tenderly, Childer knelt above it, his knees on either side of its narrow body. He placed a hand against its neck, finding the pulse point.

The angel opened its eyes. It was still slow with sleep. It smiled and tried to raise itself on the bed. Childer prevented it. He applied pressure where he gripped its throat. The angel’s smile disappeared. Still it did not struggle. Could it die? Childer wasn’t sure. He no longer operated according to logic. Another instinct dictated the actions of his hands. He bore down on the body beneath him. The angel smelled like bruised grass, growing things. Its arms moved convulsively against him, then were still. For a moment  Childer  saw  wings  spread  out  against  the  Egyptian  cotton,  wings  of  a whiteness that put the Nile sun to shame. He turned his head; he couldn’t bear their radiance. They were large enough to carry a man away. He pressed his own forehead to the angel’s. A ragged sob escaped him. He felt the angel’s arms enfold him gently. There would be no release.

 

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