Songbirds

by Devin Murphy

The new house is a quarried-sandstone ranch built in the late fifties on a wooded acre with a serpentine creek cutting through the backyard. The great room has a pitched-ceiling and three walls of high windows that flood the cherry wood floors with light. You loved it as soon as you went up the driveway. She liked the open, well-lit layout, and you liked how the lushness of the property made it seem like there were no neighbors. You both liked the idea of your son playing with his dog in the large yard, climbing trees, collecting pinecones, catching crayfish.  

You offered pizza and wine to friends who helped move, and by the end of the first day all the couches, love seats, and boxes were inside. The boy’s room was set up first so he’d have a comfortable place to sleep, but that night he slept in your bed, a hot, wiggling creature kicking you awake. The curled dog twitched at the foot of the bed. After years of living in crowded condos, this felt like arriving at what you’ve always wanted.

Early the first morning a quick thumping sound wakes you. You ease the boy’s arm off your shoulder and walk down the hall into the great room. Dust motes glow in the first orange rays of sunlight. The dog’s nails clack-clack-clack behind you. You walk to the sliding door to let him into the backyard. The yard which means 360 mortgage payments. Thirty years of your life here. Your son growing and you growing older. It’s strange, scary, and overwhelming all at once. You walk from room to room looking for what made the noise, and it’s nice to watch the light spilling across these new floors.

The dog scratches at the door. You let him inclack-clack-clackthen stand studying the yard and the trees until you hear a crunching from down the hall. The dog is gnawing on the bird in the center of the boy’s room. Feathers and blood spread around his paws.  

“No. No!” you yell, jumping for the dog, who mistakes this for play and dodges by you and runs into the hall, trailing black feathers with an oily blue sheen. Before you corner the dog in the kitchen, he devours the rest of the birdbones, feathers, feet.  

“What? What?” you hear your son say from the hall.  

The boy is looking at the masticated bird wing and all this blood in the center of his new room. He wears pajamas with teddy bears on them, and his stuffed rabbit hangs by the ears from his tiny hand.

 *

The next morning, another thump, like a piece of fruit hitting the floor. The dog gets up and runs to the door to be let out. You go out first and walk around the perimeter of the great room. The grass is wet and cool in the webbings of your bare feet. You pass the cracked patio that needs mud jacking to level the concrete and the rusted A/C unit that needs replacing. You don’t know how to do either task. At the base of one of the large windows is a dead grackle. You pick it up by the tip of its long tail feather and study the black retina at the center of its pale yellow eye. Its iridescent black neck hangs crooked. You carry it to the stream. The dog scratches at the glass door and wags its tail at the sight of the bird. At the stream’s edge, you fling the bird into the faster-moving center and watch it float away on the surface before dipping under.

*

Another bird crashes into the window later in the day. This time, the boy runs to the window, puts his forehead and hands against the pane, and looks down into the brush outside. When he looks at you, you notice the oil from his skin has left prints on the glass.

You give that bird to the stream, too.  

Through the first week, enough birds crash into the glass that you buy a five-gallon bucket and walk around collecting them in the morning before the dog is let out.  

You read that hanging CDs threaded by fishing line from the eaves can catch the sunlight and scare the birds away, so with a ladder you hang a dozen around the house.  

“That looks so awful,” your wife says. “What will the neighbors, our friends say? We’re not those crazy people warding off evil spirits. That’s not us.”

But the CDs help. Even though sometimes for the first month the dog comes in with feathers sticking out of the corner of his mouth, and the thumping of something moving at high speeds against the glass wakes you as the sun rises.

Then, on a Saturday morning, your wife calls from the backyard. She’s holding the boy.

He’s crying and pointing to the ground. 

“What? What?” the boy says.

A mockingbird is doing circles on its side by thrashing a wing into the dirt. Its little chest is heaving. The boy is ruddy with tear-glossed cheeks, and his hand opens and closes in an attempt to clutch the bird.

Perhaps it’s because of your son watching, but you bend down and cup the bird’s stillwarm and delicate body in your hands. Both the birds’ wings flitter against your fingers. You release your grip to see if it will fly, but it hops off and falls to the ground.  

“No, Dada,” your son wails.  

A feeling of inept foolishness sweeps over you. That familiar wave of uneasiness descends out of the endless blue sky.  

“That was smooth,” your wife says.  

Everything in you goes numb except for that hot, dark presence in the back corner of your mind that you try to avoid, where that sad, mealy-mouthed self-doubt emanated from.  

“What am I supposed to do?” you ask your wife.  

“Let’s take it inside and learn how to fix it. Let’s at least try.”

*

For the next week, the bird lives in a cardboard packing box on the kitchen counter so the dog won’t get it. The boy peeks through the holes punched in the top and side, and every evening sprinkles seeds down to the bird.

Every morning, you wake to the bird singing at the first light, a long, trilling sound followed by high-pitched squeaks. The box is alive, and it’s early when you sit next to it and imagine giving this animal to the river when no one else is around, but you admire the little bird’s full-throated heave, how it jumps and tries to work its speckled wings.

Its morning song spreads through the airy house, gifting away the silence. You have seen every sunrise from the great room since moving in. The boxes are all unpacked. The paintings are on the wall. The dog has established a routine of where to sleep throughout the day. There are 359 more payments to go, and you have to clean the chimneys, spray for mold in the crawl space, and work your way down an endless list of tasks your wife has written out for you, but there is this birdsong. Life in one place doesn’t seem as scary as it had felt to you on that first morning. Time moves fast, and with the birdsong in the house, you are more aware of the rustle of living creatures. You look for the starlings, finches, jays, even squirrels. The sound of the stream babbling and the bullfrog’s deep moans coming from the evening fog. Short-horned crickets. Tulips opening in the heat. The world is as new and alive to you as it surely is to your son. Newly opened fringes of discovery.

The internet suggests letting the rehabilitating bird wander on a string to get used to hopping and flying short distances after its neck or wings recover. The three of you go to the backyard and watch as the bird takes a few hops into center of the yard. In the sunlight, the white-streaked, brown feathers are ablaze. Other birds sing in the trees. Then the little bird jumps up and flies halfway across the yard. The fishing line around its leg unspools and the boy laughs.  

“Look at that,” your wife says, and does a fake little clap to get your son excited.  

Then a hawk drops straight down on top of the mockingbird and pins it to the ground between its talons. One reddish-brown wing stretched out shields the bird.

When the hawk flies upward, the fishing line pulls taught and becomes a living kite in your hands. It flies in tight circles above the yard, hovering like an apparition. You pull the line and every foot you take in, the hawk takes half a foot back. The fishing line falls in tangles at your feet and your son bends down and grabs the loose coils so the two of you are tethered to the hawk.  

The boy is doing a pained dance next to you, his body lithe with the discovery of its growing range, which is the deepest sort of beauty, and you feel all your love spilling down into your son as you pull the line in.

“What are you doing?” your wife yells.

“I don’t know,” you say, and in that moment a surprising feeling sneaks up on you and you mean that you don’t know what you’re doing with the hawk, with the boy at your feet, with your wife, and with this house. You mean for the statement to stand for your place in the world, and as you keep pulling, it feels you have confessed something you didn’t know you were hiding.

When the hawk is a few feet over your head, it still hasn’t let go of the mockingbird. The hawk thrashes as you hold the wild bird there like you’re Adam in the garden, about to give the creature its new and eternal name. You reach for its legs and the hawk strikes your forearm with its beak, breaking the skin. Then you let the line go; the hawk rises over your head and trails the fishing line, which unspools off the ground, through your little boy’s grip, cutting its course over his soft pink palm and loosening a fine track of blood from the heel to the webbing. His little cry of pain cuts you in half. Only when the boy cries do you really notice he’s holding the line too, and you see the last of the dangling teal thread slice from his grip and drift away.

You snatch up your son. Your wife opens the boy’s wounded palm and presses one cuff of her shirt sleeve into the cut. With the cuff of her other sleeve, she squeezes the cut on your arm and you stand in your yard staunching the blood, listening to the birdsongs and the babble of the creek harmonizing, which now feels like the pulse of a world you are finally coming to know.

 

Devin Murphy’s recent fiction appears in The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, and Shenandoah as well as over fifty other literary journals and anthologies. He’s been a winner of The Atlantic Monthly’s 2009 and 2010 Student Writing Contests, holds an MFA from Colorado State University, a Creative Writing PhD from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, and is now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University.

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