Fall 2001, Volume 19.1
The Nature of Birds
Lawrence Dunning has worked for the Dutch government, as a reporter for an international oil publication, and for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has published three novels with Avon Books and some 25 short stories in literary journals including Virginia Quarterly Review, Carolina Quarterly, High Plains Literary Review, and Rio Grande Review.
Clutching a souvenir Six Flags mug of luke warm coffee, Ella pushes the ratty front-window curtain aside and peers out at the street. The tire ruts left by Harris's pickup an hour ago furrow the deep snow by the curb—six inches overnight, the TV weatherman said earlier.
She sips the tasteless coffee and watches the Henderson boy across the street board the school bus. Somewhere, out there in the world far from this dilapidated house on the bad edge of Amarillo, her own son Bobby Ray is maybe doing the same thing. Maybe his bitch of a stepmother is watching, too, or maybe she hires somebody to do that for her while she goes off to a fancy job downtown. Ella guesses they live in Dallas now, though without joint custody rights she has no way of knowing. She will never understand how the court could have taken her son away from her—she knows she's not the smartest person in the world and sometimes she gets confused, but she doesn't drink nearly enough to be the alcoholic her ex-husband claimed she was.
She watches a robin peck through the snow to find something edible. Do robins eat bread? she wonders. She tears off a soggy crust left from breakfast and pitches it out the front door onto the snow, but the robin ignores it.
Still in her nightgown and robe, Ella thinks about getting dressed. What she thinks is that there's no reason to get dressed. She has nothing to do, really. She could clean the house, but Harris never notices one way or the other, or if he does for some reason, like on those not infrequent occasions when he comes home drunk from his drywall job, he just screams at her about what the hell she's been doing all day and maybe pounds her head against the refrigerator door. He's done that a number of times, grabbed her by the hair and rammed her face into the nearest piece of furniture. The refrigerator, for some reason, is his favorite. Or he'll slap her, sometimes punch her with his closed fist so hard she has to cover up the bruises with the thick lotion Harris buys her at the drugstore for that purpose.
It wasn't always like this. When Bobby Ray's father started spending time with the blond secretary at the farm implement company where he worked, not even bothering to hide the fact, and then spitefully took Bobby Ray away from her, Ella's world collapsed. After a few weeks moping around their rented house, she decided one day that enough was enough. She went into the garage where her old Corolla was parked, closed the door behind her, and started the engine.
Earlier she had thought about leaving a note, but to whom? Her parents had died when she was young, and her Aunt Myrna, who raised her, had also passed away. Her only other relative, a sister in Portland, hadn't spoken to Ella in years. There was Bobby Ray, of course, but how could you tell your only child you were killing yourself, have a nice day? Besides, her ex would never have let Bobby Ray see a note from her; she was sure of that. And her only close friend, Marge Wilkins, had recently moved to Fort Worth because of her husband's job transfer. Ella couldn't see mailing her a suicide letter—that might even be illegal, for all she knew. So she stretched out on the front seat of the Toyota and breathed in deeply, peaceful for the first time in ages.
At that moment Harris happened to be driving by in his pickup. On his way to a new job at the county jail, she later learned, Harris saw the smoke and thought the garage was on fire. After several minutes of banging on the front door of the house, he went out back and raised the garage door, found her, and carried her nearly comatose body inside. He walked her around, slapped her some (How could she know what would come later?), and when it appeared she would live, she begged him not to take her to the hospital, which he assured her he had no intention of doing.
He stayed for a while, rubbing her arms and face to get the blood circulating again but not saying much, except to ask her if she was married. She had to think about that, because the divorce wasn't final, but decided she wasn't. When he asked if he could come by later to check on her, she knew what he meant, but it was all right. He seemed nice enough, though he looked about fifteen years older than she was, and when she asked he mentioned an ex-wife in another state, but he didn't say where. And he had saved her life, though she hadn't wanted or asked him to. Truthfully, she hadn't the will to argue or resist. That night in her bed, when he tore her gown off and made love to her roughly, insistently, she thought how long it had been since any man, certainly including her faithless husband, had treated her like a desirable woman.
Harris doesn't like her to go out anywhere without him. Ella believes this is because he's insanely jealous, afraid that other men will look at her and want her. Fat chance. The way she looks to herself most of the time these days, tired and bruised and so old for her thirty-eight years, no man in his right mind would want to have anything to do with her. She would give anything to have a job, any kind of job, even some ratty thing like counter person at Burger World, but Harris won't let her. He says he makes enough money doing drywall that she doesn't have to work, which of course isn't true; they barely get by. And sometimes, when Harris gets laid off, they end up eating chicken livers and hurt vegetables for weeks. She hates chicken livers, always hated chicken livers, even before Harris. But they're cheap, and the onions and carrots are ones the store was going to throw out anyway.
Ella thinks about turning on the TV, but it's only soap operas, people who seem to have good jobs and plenty of money but still whine about their tiny problems. What do they know? Five years ago, when Harris insisted they get married and move to this dreary house because she could no longer afford the rent on the other place, she balked at first, some small fear scratching at her mind. He told her times were hard, things would get better soon. He told her he loved her, too—told her often, but it was odd how he never showed that love.
Almost as soon as the JP married them it was obvious Harris had plans for the small monthly alimony payment from Ray, Ella's ex. Harris insisted it was the man's place to take care of the family money, no matter the source, and she reluctantly agreed; after that, the alimony went into some bank account to which she had no access, and when she later questioned this arrangement, Harris hit her for the first time. He hadn't even been drinking. Afterwards he apologized, even brought her a small bouquet. But less than a month later, calling her a whore for no reason, he hit her again, breaking a front tooth, and there were no apologies that time. In the five years since, she has almost come to believe the abuse is a normal part of marriage.
Ella likes the love story movies on TV, and occasionally Harris lets her buy a paperback romance novel from the racks at Safeway. These she hoards, reading them over and over as she imagines a life away from Harris, from poverty and despair. Twenty years ago, the summer after she and Ray graduated from high school, she was as happy as a young bride could be as the two of them kissed and held hands down the aisle of the Methodist church. To witness the wedding there were only her Aunt Myrna, who had been like her mother all those years, and several school friends from her learning-disadvantaged classes, in addition to lots of Ray's relatives. But that was all right with Ella. She was happy, happier than she'd ever been in her life.
The first few years she tried to find some kind of fulfillment working behind the cosmetics counter at Walgreen's, while Ray did better and better at his job with John Deere. Everyone seemed to like Ray, though he spent less time at home than she might have liked. Little Bobby Ray's coming was a help, no doubt about it, because she got to quit her job that she didn't like anyway and spend all day at home changing diapers and mixing formula and playing mommy with that sweet little baby. But then Ray started not coming home when he should have (The blond secretary at the John Deere office wasn't the first.) and many nights she fed Bobby Ray alone and had only the TV for company. That was when she started drinking more than she should, a glass of wine or two with dinner, a glass or two after, sometimes a brandy to help her sleep. But not a drunk, never a drunk like Ray said later. That was just to take Bobby Ray away from her, to give him a new mother. The blond's name was Charlene.
Ella has heard that some women, even those with children, watch TV all day, sipping beer or wine or vodka, so drunk by the time their husbands come home from work they hardly know who their husbands are. Ella would never do that, though sometimes, after Harris has wrecked her face or shaken her so hard her brain hurts and her eyes won't focus, she thinks about stealing a bottle of Harris's Yukon Jack and taking it out back and just lying down in the snow, drinking until she dies. Sometimes she thinks that would be the best thing that could happen to her.
In the kitchen she pours another mugful of coffee. Not only does Harris buy the cheapest kind, but the way he makes it is to put in only about half the amount of coffee you're supposed to. What's the point, she wonders, what's the point?
She looks out the kitchen window into the backyard. Unidentifiable pieces of rusting junk—Harris's junk, old car junk, who knows?—poke up through the snow. There's a large dead tree at the corner of the yard Harris has been threatening to cut down for ages, but she begs him not to because it's a place for birds to light, and she loves birds. Harris says a bird feeder would be too messy, as if anybody would notice more mess than there already is.
Right now two more robins are pecking around in the snow, like the one in front. She thinks she recognizes them, even though they all look alike. It's so sweet when a male and a female are together, sharing their lives, making a place for young ones—the way it should be for people, too. Sometimes, she remembers, even after he's beat her up, Harris will lie down beside her and raise her dress and kiss the hurt places, whispering how much he loves her, putting himself into her in a loving way like it's supposed to be. He tells her he loves her so much that if she ever ran away he would find her and kill her.
How could she run? She's thought about it, many times, but no matter how hard she concentrates on the problem, a solution seems always just beyond her grasp. She has no transportation, for one thing. During a bad time a couple of years ago, to make ends meet Harris sold her Toyota. She could take a bus, to a job or to someplace else, but the nearest bus line is almost a mile away, and anyhow, where would she go? She has almost no money to buy anything for herself, including, she thinks, a bus ticket.
But that's not quite true. When she and Harris were first married she began saving a dollar here and there from grocery money, stashing the loose bills between the pages of an old photo album buried in her underwear drawer where Harris wouldn't find it. She's never touched the money since, thinking it too precious to squander on anything less than a full-blown emergency, and so far nothing, in her mind, has qualified.
Forty-three dollars, the last time she counted. She could probably get as far as Channing or Dalhart, but so what? And she'd have to change her name, too. Something biblical, maybe, like Esther or Sarah—she never liked the name Ella after the other kids at school began taunting her by chanting "Ella wants a fella" over and over. She did want a fella, God knows, but that was none of their business. And when she finally married Ray, no one cared anyway.
There's something at the top of the dead tree, a dark shape she can barely make out against the grey winter sky. Too large for any of the birds around here, but it's definitely something. She goes into Harris's private closet where he keeps his hunting gear and finds his binoculars. Adjusting the wheel in the center, she trains the glasses on the dark blob up in the tree.
It's a bird, all right, but not like any she's ever seen in town before. Large curving beak, sharp talons clutching the branch, a long rounded tail with stripes across it. And the eyes, staring as if beneath a terrible frown. She knows it has to be some kind of hawk, but the only ones she's ever seen have been high in the sky, circling, looking for food.
She goes into the bedroom and rummages in the closet for a little bird identification book she's had forever. Her Aunt Myrna gave it to her when she was just a girl, and she's treasured it all these years, taking it out whenever she needs cheering up, paging through the colorful illustrations, tracing with her finger the heads and feathers of birds so beautiful she can only imagine what it would be like to actually see them.
Back in the kitchen she checks to make sure the hawk is still there. As she flips through the section of the book covering various kinds of hawks—accipiters, harriers, buteos, falcons—there is movement at the top of the tree. Suddenly she sees an amazing thing—the hawk drops straight down from its high perch, spreading banded wings easily three feet across. It rockets toward the ground, toward the two robins pecking for bugs. One robin escapes with a furious flapping of wings, but the other is pinned to the ground, stapled almost, by the murderous talons of the hawk. Oh God, Ella thinks irrationally, I hope she gets away. She's sure it's the female.
Through the window Ella hears not a sound from the tortured robin, but its wings continue to flutter. The hawk, maybe to get a better grip, stabs its talons into other parts of the robin's rusty breast. Then the curved beak slashes the soft flesh, and blood spurts out onto the snow. Ella gasps, clutches at her mouth as this terrible scene unfolds less than a dozen feet beyond the window. She thinks she may be sick.
Over and over the hawk plunges its beak into the robin's flesh, raising its head now and then to gulp down strings of bloody meat. Hardly breathing, Ella refocuses the binoculars and leans close to the window-pane, so close that the rim accidentally taps against the glass. The hawk twists its head around, searching for the source of the sound. What Ella sees through the binoculars is the hawk staring straight at her—at her, no doubt about that. Its hugely magnified, unblinking eyes are red and evil like some drunkard's—like, in fact, Harris's eyes after a long night of carousing. The similarity frightens her.
Ella and the hawk continue to stare at each other as if locked in some awful trance. Can it really see her, she wonders, or is she simply imagining? Does it somehow know who she is, this woman in a robe and nightgown in the middle of the morning?
She doesn't need the book to tell her hawks have keen eyesight—how else could they spot their prey from high overhead? She continues to watch the hawk watching her through the circular field of the binoculars, and suddenly she imagines it can see her eyes through the lenses, too. She puts the binoculars down, her hand shaking.
Eventually, losing interest in what's behind the glass, the hawk returns to its work on the body of the robin. The flesh under the feathers, the soft throat, even the head become part of the hawk's meal. Ella wonders whether there will be anything left at all except the ragged film of blood staining the snow.
She picks up the bird book. "Cooper's Hawk," she reads, for that is what she has decided it is from both the color plate and the description, "has a wing span of up to three feet and a body fourteen to twenty inches long. Diet consists primarily of medium-sized birds. Winters from Montana south, when it may appear at backyard bird feeders as it searches for food."
But why in my backyard, Ella wonders, staring again at the hawk. The poor robin never had a chance, and now the hawk has killed her, maimed and tortured and killed her. Harris would probably have shot the hawk, but maybe not, the hawk being his kind of bird.
The hawk seems to hear her thoughts. After another one or two quick stabs with the hooked beak, the claws scratching at the snow a final time, the hawk suddenly spreads its unbelievable wings and flies toward the north, past the edge of the window and out of Ella's sight. She stares at the bloody patch in the snow, as though the robin might reappear, as though she has not actually seen the hawk ripping apart something that was gentle and alive only minutes ago.
She shudders, here in the kitchen, feeling a draft or maybe something else, a shadow passing over her life. Aunt Myrna, before she died, used to talk about things like that—dark shadows, souls, the Angel of Death. Ella has never had much use for God or souls or religion of any kind, since as far as she can see God left these parts a long time ago and hasn't been heard from since. What kind of a God lets evil get the upper hand all the time anyway? What kind of a God makes people, even little children, suffer? What kind of a God would let a man like Harris....
No, too much thinking about things like that can make a person crazy, Ella thinks. She pours what's left of the cold, watery coffee down the drain and goes into the bedroom to change clothes—a wool sweater, corduroy pants, scuffed leather boots. Even under the heavy clothes her body continues to shiver, and she doesn't know what to make of that. She hopes she's not coming down with the flu.
Back in the kitchen she takes an aspirin, and though she doesn't want to, she can't help staring out the window again. The blood, of course, is still there, though some of it has seeped down into the snow, probably from the warmth of it. She thinks about the robin, about how it had no chance in this world, and her heart aches for it.
She hears something—something she shouldn't be hearing at this time of day. But yes, there it is, the sound of Harris's pickup crunching the snow out in front of the house. Before she can think of any reason he should be home at this early hour he comes storming into the house, kicking snow off his brogans and cursing.
Without removing his jacket he comes straight into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, and pops a beer. As if just now noticing Ella he says, "Fucking framers haven't finished what they should've done two days ago. Lazy bastards—I can't very well do drywall when all the studs aren't in, can I? Goddamn wasted day."
Harris is what Ella thinks of as rawboned, with scars on his hands and face from his job or maybe from fights he never talks about. Mostly he doesn't talk to her about anything. God knows what he talks about when he occasionally goes elk hunting with a couple of guys he works with. They go for a week at a time, and she suspects they have women, but since she can't do anything about that, she simply lets it go.
He sucks back half the can of beer, and then his eyes fix on the binoculars Ella left on the kitchen table beside the bird book. "What the hell!" he shouts at her. He goes over and picks the glasses up, turning them around in his hand as though looking for damage. "What the hell were you doing with my binoculars?"
"Nothing," Ella says, "I was just looking at something in the backyard." She knows Harris wouldn't understand about the robins, or the hawk, either. He wouldn't care a bit, and would only make fun of her sentimentality over a couple of stupid birds.
"Here, I'll go put them back in the closet," she says.
Harris slaps her face, not as hard as sometimes. "If you ever touch my binoculars again," he growls, "I'll knock your damn head off. Stupid bitch." He grabs the bird book, opens it, rips it apart down the spine, and tosses the pieces into a garbage bag under the sink. "Now I guess you won't have anything to look at," he says. Muttering to himself, he leaves the kitchen with the binoculars.
Ella stands shaking, rubbing the place where he slapped her. She refuses to cry—Harris would like that. On impulse she grabs an old car coat hanging by the back door and goes out into the yard. At the spot in the snow where the hawk had been there is a rough circle of feathers, most of them tinged red or pink with blood. Leaning down close, she sees something else, a dark triangular object that must have been the robin's beak. Even a hawk wouldn't eat that.
Then she hears it, the sad, clear, whistling song that robins make. At first she imagines that her mind is playing nasty tricks on her. But then a slight movement up in the dead tree catches her eye. Another robin, no doubt the mate of the one that was killed, is perched on a leafless limb staring down at her. Did it watch its mate die? she wonders. And, if so, what will it do now?
She finds a shovel at the side of the house and digs a hole through the snow at the base of the tree. Scooping up the pitiful remains of the dead robin, she deposits the stained feathers and beak in the place she has hollowed out for them and carefully covers them over.
"I'm sorry," she says to the ground. She looks up into the tree. "Sorry for you, too," she says to the other robin, the one who escaped.
She shudders in the cold, but still she stands there leaning on the shovel, her boots several inches deep in the snow. She stares at the grey, empty sky, wondering where the hawk has gone. It was beautiful in its way, its wings spread so wide, its powerful eyes searching, searching….
What comes to her then is a moment of peace, a warmth flooding over her body. It is only an idea, but it seems right.
"I'm not a bird," she says aloud. "Not a hawk, for sure, but not a robin either." She starts back into the house, hoping she can avoid Harris long enough to sneak into the bedroom and count again the dollar bills she's hidden in the photo album. There might be enough, she thinks, though it would be the first time in her life anything worked out the way it should.
Scared and excited, she wonders how often the Greyhound bus runs to some faraway place like Colorado where Harris couldn't find her, and how long a trip it would be.