[Image Credit: “Dead Bird” by Julie de Graag”]
Sarah takes from the cardboard box a tarnished cartridge. She runs her fingers around its machined edges, silver cap color of the clouds above. She hands the box to Ellis who holds it delicate with two hands so as not to rattle its contents. She then slots the cartridge into the rifle’s long, metal neck.
“Actually, hand me another,” she whispers, though in the stillness of the air her voice is loud like the gunshot Ellis expects to soon hear. She extends her open hand, pressure from the bolt still imprinted on the skin, while continuing to stare up at the roof’s pointed corner, the ovate hole furrowed in by flickers.
Every day Ellis hears the bird from the wall behind his bed, the metric driving of beak into shingle. It is an activation of morning, and Ellis has grown to anticipate the sound as he anticipates the gold that accompanies sunrise.
He fumbles a second cartridge out of the box. In his hand it feels cold and unimaginably heavy, as though if dropped the pointed end would pierce the earth’s skin and burrow through until emerging on the other side of the planet; somewhere with tall green trees, men steering long boats on water smooth like a kitchen knife. Ellis has read about these places, seen black and white photos in a school textbook.
Sarah plucks the cartridge from his hand and holds it between her fingers like a cigarette. A strand of hair is held by spit to the corner of her lip.
“Do you know what it looks like?”
Ellis shakes his head no.
Sarah rests the barrel against her thigh. “You’ll know it from the white belly.” She places the stock of the rifle in the crook of her shoulder, angled towards the ground, ring finger tracing an oblong circle around the trigger guard. “Also the little tuft of red up here,” she points to the back of her head, “like a drop of paint.”
Ellis imagines the bullet ripping through the bird’s hollow body, feathers floating to the ground in languid arcs. Though he can identify the bird only by noise. In his mind it occupies an amorphous body: wings shifting in size, beak protruding and contracted, eyes red then yellow then black.
Ellis realizes that he’s never seen anything die before.
A breath of wind forces through Ellis’ denim coat and a shiver couches in his chest. He shakes it through his body, a little spasm. The box of bullets chime off one another. Sarah leans close and puts her finger to her lips.
“We want it to think we’re not here.”
The past week had been historically cold. Snow had fallen, clung to the earth as it froze from wind. The transmission lines that ran along the driveway were sheathed in ice, wound wires burdened low from the weight. At night the wind wailed through the house, a hollow noise that seemed to whistle through loose boards, shriek its way around an improperly sealed window. It isn’t until morning, when Ellis again hears the woodpecker’s percussive song, that it finally abates. It is as though the animal’s noise enacts the sun, which in turn burns away the hostile air.
Ellis’ fingertips are red, flush with blood from the cold and from gripping too tightly the cartridge box. In the far distance, across the highway, there is a barn, and against the white of the snowy ground its red paint finds Ellis’ eye again and again. He has never been close to the barn—the land was abandoned years ago—but through its captivating color, the way it ensnares his vision, if only for a moment every time he steps outside, he feels he knows intimately the structure, its wooden skeleton, beams crossed and crumbling. He imagines squares of hay stowed in a corner, baling wire rusted. There are the artifacts of animals—little rabbit and prairie dogs holes beneath the wooden slats, a pile of dry dung. He has accumulated it, its presence, from this looking.
Then, the rustling of his mother’s shirt, the sound of the bolt withdrawing as the empty cartridge is ejected into the snow. Of course there is the thunder of the firing itself, a sound which seems to ricochet off the side of the house and saturate the air. Ellis jumps a little, his muscles tensed in unison. He looks up at Sarah, who is steady. Breath steams from her mouth and nothing else moves until, as though a timer has expired in her body, she relaxes and points the barrel back towards the ground.
“Almost, I think. You alright?”
Ellis nods and looks up at the hole, within which he imagines the nest, the dry branches crinkling, little pointed bird mouths expectant of food that will never come.
“How long do we have to wait?” Ellis asks, the words coughed out, mouth dry and lips cracked, cracking.
“As long as we need to,” she runs one hand along the side of her shirt, wiping the sweat from her fingertips. She points the barrel of the rifle towards the downspout. “See that there, that little hole? I think there’s another. Your father says he can hear it.”
Ellis didn’t know there was more than one, but on hearing the news he can’t summon that spark of surprise within him that is expected. In its place is guilt of knowing. What his mother does not realize is that he throws seed out onto the ground below where he knows the birds to live. From his bedroom window he watches as little sparrows and kestrels wing upon the soil and rifle through the dirt with their beaks. He imagines there are woodpeckers too, that he brings them to the house. He likes the life, the spring of motion and the cadence of bird sound that he instigates. Ellis feels a slight power in both his summoning of the birds and his isolation in knowing.
Sarah again raises the rifle to her shoulder, squinting down the long barrel. She navigates the exterior wall, tracing the edges of the hole again and again, looking for that speck of bird beak to poke out. He has watched his mother work with the bodies of animals—cleaning a fish, cutting the spine from a chicken. But this is different. Her open eye opens wide, capturing something inside it, and enacts the gunshot.
There is the sound of falling, landing. Ellis pans quickly around the farm, rooting out that fallen thing, but sees nothing. Perhaps it was something inside, gravity finally unseating a plate or box, his father unloading something from the bed of the truck (was he even home?), perhaps even the sun falling further behind the clouds onto some unseen shelf of sky. In this unknown Ellis is afraid. Afraid that the bird has been killed, its body torn open, and in its subsequent absence a stopping of the sunrise. Ellis imagines waking up the next day to a world unannounced, quiet, forever dark and scoured by wind. While not yet crying, he can feel the warmth in his eyes, the blur of landscape, tears on verge of falling and freezing on his face. He lets out a little whimper.
Benjamin Kessler‘s work has appeared in Superstition Review, Hobart, What are Birds?, The Gravity of the Thing, and Portland Review. He reads for The Masters Review and lives in Portland, Oregon.