THE BIRDS

by D.N. Stuefloten

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     When he came over the top of the hill, he saw the farmhouse in the valley, looking as dry and tired as the brown hills. The sight filled him with pleasure because now, he knew, he would have food and water and a place to sleep. A stranger never went hungry in these parts, the people were always willing to share what they had. As he descended he felt very satisfied. He had come a long ways that day; he had walked steadily and easily; he was young and proud of his strength. But as he came closer to the farmhouse he suddenly heard birds singing, hundreds of them, and he saw them, fluttering and crying, rising in flapping swarms from the trees, from the roof of the barn. And he realized that all day he hadnt seen or heard a single bird, not one; it was as if all the birds from the whole countryside had gathered here, at this farm. But it was not enough to stop him. Birds did not frighten him. He was frightened of nothing. As he started moving again he saw a man come out from the house and move slowly, as though very heavy and tired, across the yard. A flock of the birds gathered around his head, and the old man—for his white hair could be seen now—dug into the pocket of his coat and scattered seeds onto the ground. All the birds descended, pecking and flapping, onto the earth. The old man smiled and threw more seeds. The birds seemed to be composed completely of wings, huge feathered wings, and darting beaks.
     When the young man came closer, he called out. And then a strange thing happened: immediately the old man turned, startled, and at the same time all the birds rose screaming into the air; for a moment it was like thunder, the hundreds of wings beating the air, the tiny plumaged throats distending with noise. As the birds got between the young man and the sun, the whole world went black, and all he could see were shadows, moving shadows, and he began to feel cold; a cold wind blew; and the sun, the farm, the hills, everything, it all vanished. But the moment passed. The birds flew higher, their screaming softened by distance. When the heat beat down on him again he almost staggered; he was blinded by the brilliance of the day. Then he saw the old man. The old man was lying face down on the ground, his white hair sprawled on the earth, his old clothes, tattered and badly fitting, disheveled on his body. The young man ran forward, crying out. He turned the body over: it was light, almost weightless, as though empty. The old man was dead. He could see that. But the eyes were wide open, pale and milky, and even in death filled with terror. The face was weathered and craggy, rough from the sun. But dead! It rocked him. He sat back dumbly in the dust. The eyes so full of fear! Suddenly he thought: I have to get away. But it wasnt his fault. He had done nothing. Perhaps it had been the heat, the man was old, his heart, no doubt, weakened with age. He stood up, looking for a place to run, to hide; and at that instant the door to the farmhouse opened and a young girl appeared. For a moment she stared without moving. Then she gave a shrill cry—a sound a bird might have made—and ran across the dry yard to the old man's side. She picked his head up and cradled it against her breast, and started rocking back and forth, moaning. The sight touched him. He felt pity for them, the two of them, one dead, the other lamenting. Then she turned and looked at him.
     “You killed him.”
     It wasnt even a question.
     “I swear,” he cried, “I didnt touch him!”
     She just looked at him, calmly and directly, her eyes searching his face.
     “No,” she said. “You killed him.”
     Before he could protest further the farmhouse door opened again, and an old woman came walking across the yard, carrying an embroidered shawl. Carefully, gently, she placed it over the man's body and pulled it over his face. She looked old and tired, her gray hair neat, tied tightly back into a bun at the nape of her neck. She was a small woman with little strength left in her, but the sight of her terrified him. The girl turned to the woman, sadly; and then gestured in his direction. “He killed Papa.” The old woman nodded, and looked at him; but he found he couldnt meet her worn, gray eyes. Instead he stared at his red hands, and saw the blisters the long days in the sun had left. “Very well,” sighed the woman. “Come with me.” Overhead he heard a bird cry forlornly. He followed them into the house.

     Inside was dusky, and full of strange scents, almost moldy, as though the sun never reached here. The woman sat him down in a chair at the head of a long table. The girl sat at his right, with her knee touching his; and every time he moved his leg away, she moved hers closer, keeping contact. The woman left the room and returned bearing a large platter of food. The steam from the food rose gray before her gray face. In the darkness he couldnt see the expression on her face; she sat down still bending forward, as though praying. “Listen,” he said, “I swear I didnt kill him!” No one answered him. “For God’s sake!” he cried. “If youre so sure I did it, why are you feeding me!” The woman raised her head and looked at him calmly, but without comprehension. In the darkness her skin was like parchment. Then the girl spoke:       “Of course you have to eat. Youre hungry.”
      “Yes,” echoed the woman. “You have to eat.”
      And the girl smiled, slowly moving her leg up and down against his.
     Soon they finished eating. The potatoes were unseasoned and lay heavily in his belly; the meat was charred on the outside, raw in the middle. It was easily the worst meal of his life, and he felt sick, his stomach muddled and confused by the onslaught of food. The old woman stood; the room had steadily been growing darker; the only sounds had been the steady chewing, the grinding of teeth, the clinks of the metal forks. From somewhere she struck a match, and the flare of light threw shadows across her lined face. She walked slowly around the room lighting candles, and the room steadily brightened; and each candle, he saw, was stuck into a brass holder on the back of a large, stuffed crow. The beady, dead eyes glittered. The wings were folded tightly against their bodies, the feathers unruffled and shining.
     “The birds are nice,” he said. “I’ve always liked birds.”
     She turned, still holding the match.
     “Of course,” she said sadly. “Of course you like them.”
     “I’m sorry he died.”
     “He was a good husband,” she said.
     “If there’s anything I can do—”
     She blew out the match.
     “Youll have to bury him.”


     A cold wind blew in from the desert. On the desert sands strange animals lived, the coyotes slinking among the dunes, lizards and snakes crawling across the ground, always hungry. In the desert there was perpetual hunger. The heat was hungry for death. At night the bitter cold celebrated, laughing, over the corpses, and during the day the buzzards circled, their eyes hard and glowing with famine. In the farmyard he was dizzy with his own hungry. His body was unsettled, off-balance. On the ground lay the old man. Standing around him were the woman and the girl, holding a candle. The wind made the flame dance. He looked at the dead man’s face. The eyes were still open; he reached down and gently shut the lids. “Where shall I bury him?” he asked. “Here,” said the woman, “where he died.” Where he died. His body heavy on the earth. Somewhere people lived, he thought. Somewhere people walked and laughed and death never touched them. Ah, Jesus, he sighed, and then thought: I call on a dead saint to help a dead man. Jesus was dead too, he never doubted that, they were all dead, or waiting for their death. The dark night, everywhere, was littered with bodies; men took their last breath; women died moaning in childbirth, their bodies distended and swollen with their own violence. Peace, he thought, peace, listen to the silence. He began digging. The ground was soft and rich, it was good land, the wheat would grow straight and golden. The dirt he piled on one side. Once the candle went out, and the girl made a soft noise, in surprise, or perhaps fear; but he kept digging, and when the candle was re-lit nothing had changed, the earth was the same color. When he finished he looked up from the bottom of the grave. In the uncertain light the woman's eyes looked dark and terrible, full of power; long shadows stretched under her eyes to her chin, from her chin to her breast, her body full of flickering darkness. The girl’s face, close to the candle, glowed brightly. He carefully climbed out of the grave.
     “That’s good,” the woman said softly.
     “Do you want to say anything?”
     “God bless him.”
     “God bless him,” echoed the girl.
     “Put him in,” said the woman.
     He tumbled the stiff body into the hole.
     “Cover him up.”
     The shovel was stiff and heavy. Clumsily he threw dirt onto the body. He had a sudden feeling that the man wasnt dead, hadnt been dead; but that he was dying now, as the dirt covered him. The feet disappeared first, then the legs, the belly, the thin chest and arms; and finally the head, the rugged, work-hardened face, red in the glow of the candle, covered with black dirt; and the man was dead and gone. Now there was only an empty pit. Sweat broke out on his body. His arms began to feel painful, his muscles weak from his long, dry, hungry walk across the land. He was conscious of a great weakness within him, a sort of emptiness, a tremendous lack. He felt a swelling of pity for himself. It cant go on, he thought, it cant go on forever, something has to change. His loneliness frightened him. It was something he could not communicate. Who could he tell? The old woman smitten by her husband's death? The girl, with her soft thighs, her glowing face? None of them knew him. The old man, perhaps—but the old man was dead. He felt a kinship with the old man. The man was buried under black earth. He, himself, was buried in the black night, under a black sky that did not change.
     He packed the last of the earth down.
     “Finished,” he said, looking at the woman.
     She nodded.
     “It’s cold,” she said. “I have a room ready for you.”
     “Listen,” he said, “youre very kind, I know this has been hard on you, but if you want me to leave—if you dont want me to stay—I can go on. I’ve slept outside before.”
     She stared at him her face dark.
     “I have a room ready.”
     “I know, but what I mean—”
     “Of course youll stay,” interrupted the girl. “Where would you go? You cant leave us now.”
     “Youre very kind, of course if there's anything I can do—but you dont have to ask me to stay, you know—”
     “But you have to stay now.”  The woman’s eyes were bewildered. “Now that youve come. Your room has always been ready.”
     He didnt know what to say to that. He longed to be up in the hills, even in the cold, he could be alone in the dark night. But they stood there staring at him. The candlelight wavered. The girl's hair he saw softly curled, her hand delicate and thin, her eyes on him steadily. He looked down at his feet. "Come inside," the woman said. He followed them back into the house. The faint yellow light in the house confused him. The musty, old smell assailed him. “It’s late,” the woman said. “Take him upstairs, Dora.” The girl took his arm, still holding the candle. He allowed her to lead him to the stairs, stretching above him, tiers of steps, disappearing into black clouds. Still with Dora holding his arm, he started climbing. He heard animals scurrying in the space between the walls, scraping and squealing, rats perhaps, voraciously eating, mouths filled with fine white teeth. “Is it far?” he asked her. “We’re almost there,” she said. But still they went. His legs were tired. The gloom parted before them, and closed in again behind. In the tiny glow of the candle the girl’s face was shining. “Surely we cant go any higher,” he said. “Just a few more steps,” the girl answered. “I didnt think the house was this big,” he said. “Yes,” she said, “it’s very deceptive.” “Have you lived here long?” “Of course,” she said looking at him. “Forever.”
     At last they reached the top. He had to pause, and the girl waited patiently as the strength seeped back into him.
     “Do you want to use the bathroom first?” she asked.
     “Yes, perhaps I’d better.”
     Still holding his arm, she led him down the corridor. Here the smell of age was more prominent, full of disuse; their feet seemed to arouse dust from the floor, the dust tickling his nostrils; he breathed as lightly as possible, as an old man breathes, shallow, walking slowly and carefully. The girl stopped him in front of a door, and led him in. The candlelight threw back the darkness, and in its glare he saw the bare pitted porcelain washbasin, with rusty fixtures, and a thin toilet with stains on the floor next to it. A draft blew in from somewhere, although he could see no window, and the room was bitterly cold. The girl stood there, holding the candle, watching him. For a moment he didnt know what to do. The girl made no move. Then he said, “I can hold the candle,” and her eyes widened, as though with surprise; but she gave him the candle and walked outside, leaving the door open. He wanted to shut it, but didnt dare. When he finished he pulled the chain above the toilet, but nothing happened. He pulled it again. It didn’t work. He tried the faucets on the washbasin, but no water came out. Feeling helpless and vaguely frightened, he looked around for a mirror; but there was none. He felt his face. It was bristly and unknown; an unknown face; he hadnt seen it for so long, he was no longer sure of what it looked like. But he could do nothing. There was nothing he could do. At the door the girl took the candle. Her eyes gazed steadily at his face, as though seeing something he didnt know. Involuntarily he put his hand up, but then she turned, and started walking, and he hurried after her, staying in the light.
     He was tired, yet he couldnt sleep. Things confused and frightened him. He wanted, more than anything else, to be free, free of this place and the people who inhabited it. The house was old and full of strange noises; the roof creaked and groaned continually; and there were rustling and chirping noises that suggested, to him, the presence of birds; an attic full of birds restlessly moving. The girl had lit a candle for him and he had seen it was placed, like the ones downstairs, on the back of a black shining crow. She left the room wordlessly, leaving the door open, and he had undressed as quickly as possible and blew out the light. The bed was hard and lumpy. He remembered nights he had spent on the desert and in the mountains, nights full of peace, the quiet stars, the soft slope of the land. Once he had seen the ocean—a vast tumbling expanse of gray water. The air had been full of spray, the wind hitting him like the lash of a whip. He lay there feeling his body stretched out uncomfortable. In the morning he would leave. They could not make him stay. He had not killed the old man. There was a limit to his responsibility.
     Then, slowly, the sound edging into him, he heard music.

     When had he heard music before?
     (A time too long ago to be remembered, the sad sweet strains of a violin slipping through him like a knife. He sat up, startled. He lay back down shutting his eyes tight. A melancholy dirge. The shadows in his head stirred. What could he do? There was nothing to be done. He could do nothing.)
     Where had he heard music before?
     (But he had been nowhere. His mind could stretch back, from this house, over the deserts, the snow-covered peaks, but it was all nowhere; added up it was all nowhere. He had wandered all his life that he could remember, but he had never been anywhere. No place had accepted him. Not ever.)

     He walked through the open door.
     Like whiteness gathered into a cloud she stood there.

     Who is playing? he whispered.
     Mother, she answered.
     He clasped his hands together.
     If there were only something I could do—
     Go back to sleep, she said. It doesnt matter.
     She must be terribly sad.
     Mother has always been sad.
     I cant help feeling it’s my fault.
     Of course, she said, it was you who killed him.
     And yet I swear I didnt! I didnt even touch him!
     You didnt have to. He had been dying a long time, because of you.
     How? How could that be?
     Hush...mother will hear you.
     What can I do!
     Sleep, she said. Youll have to sleep. There’s a lot to be done, tomorrow.
     I cant sleep.
     I’ll help you, she said moving her body against his, in the night, the flowing whiteness touching him gently with warmth, no more than a wind, a pale breeze; he moving back with her, into his room, whispering, I swear I didnt kill him, I didnt touch him, not at all; and she softly saying (the words white like the gown over her white body) Hush hush...mother will hear you...and across the floor and in the spaces between the walls the rats ran with scrabbling claws. Above him, in the attic, birds cawed and laughed, and from below, lifting through the rooms, in the black air, the thin strains of the violin delicately, slowly, gently touched his skin. In a moment a white gown lay billowing on the floor and she moved in front of him, white too, all of her pale and clear except for the soft darkness moist between her legs, opening up for him.

     In the morning he was alone. He awoke suddenly, sitting up, pressing his hand against his head, thinking, God, what happened? His memory was not clear. He looked around, and saw stuffed birds staring at him. He got up and stiffly put on his clothes; the morning was very cold. From downstairs he heard the clatter of pans and dishes. The sound was gentle, like music. He went out into the corridor and looked down the stairs. Now, in daylight, they didnt look so long; they were ordinary, old stairs, no different from a thousand others. He felt confidence returning to him. Last night he had been upset. That was the whole trouble, the man's death, his strange reception by the two women, had upset him. It wouldnt happen again. He had only to go downstairs and tell them he was leaving. They couldnt expect him, a stranger, guiltless, to stay. His affair with the girl, whatever it had been (and in the confusion of his memory he was not sure, after all, that anything had happened), could not be held against him. In any case, if he had taken her, it was more her fault than his. He could be blamed for nothing.
     He went down the stairs. The noise of his descending followed him, each step like a crack of thunder.
     “Good morning,” said the woman.
     She looked sweet and clean, a tiny old woman with a pleasant face.
     He answered her and looked at the girl. She was walking towards him, smiling, wearing again the flowing white gown folded across her and tied loosely around the waist. As she moved, her pale legs stepping forward, barefoot, the gown opened, revealing parts of her he did not want to see. She took his hand and leaned against him. From her hair came a pleasant odor, her whole presence was warm and soft. He didnt know what to do. She led him to the table and placed in front of him a plate of steaming bacon and fried eggs. “You have to eat, and be strong,” she said placing her hand on his leg. “Of course,” he muttered, staring down at the table. “It’s a beautiful day,” said the old woman cheerfully. “Pretty cool,” he said. “Yes, but it will be warm soon.” Coffee steamed into the air filling the room with its aroma. He ate slowly and desultorily. The girl kept her hand on his leg, in a proprietary fashion, sitting next to him; and whenever he looked at his plate he could see that her dress had parted, leaving her bare and white from her waist down. Her legs were long and slender. How could he tell them he was leaving? The old woman was kind and attentive. When he finished she took away his plate and filled his cup with more coffee. In a silver case she brought him cigarettes, and lit one for him. He sat there smoking and drinking and trying to think. They were against him, the two of them, they thought they could control him, take away his freedom. For a moment he hated them, even the girl, especially the girl, with her bare thighs. But the moment passed. They were good people. They were doing what they thought best. He would have to explain gently.
     “Listen,” he said, “if there’s anything I can do this morning—”
     He had intended going on, saying, before I leave; but the look on the woman’s face, a benign sweetness close to tears, stopped him.
     “Of course,” she said. “I know you want to help.”
     “Yes, certainly—perhaps this morning—”
     “Perhaps you could feed the birds. My husband always did that.”
     “I’d be glad to,” he muttered.
     “I'll help!” said the girl brightly. “I’ll get the seeds.”
     He waited for her.

     Ah, what a beautiful day! Outside the sky was blue and unclouded, the air touched with the beginning heat. He expanded with warmth. Inside everything had been cold, as though not quite alive. And when he had left, with the girl, out the door, like an icy wind the woman had said: “We don’t want you to do too much. Not now, your first day home.” He had said nothing in reply. The girl tugged him outside. In his pockets were handfuls of seed and crumbled pieces of bread. The girl was full of movements, as though she were dancing, her bare feet flying. He trod slowly over the soft earth. He felt small and delicate on the face of the world. In the background the dry hills rose swollen, choked with brown sagebrush. In the evening, night would swoop in low over the slopes, like a black wind. In the middle of the yard, waiting for him, arms outstretched, was the girl. “What a beautiful day!” she cried. He had to admit it was. He looked around for the birds, but saw none. “Where are the birds?” he asked. “Theyll come,” she answered. "Arent you glad just to be alive?” Next to her was the grave the earth still fresh.
     “Why do all the birds come here?”
     “Because father always fed them.”
     “He must have been quite a man, your father.”
     “Of course,” she said, dancing close to him. “You know that as well as I do.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “Well, what do you mean, asking questions like that?”
     “I never talked to your father, you know that.”
     She put her arms around him holding him softly.
     “Not my father, our father!”
     Ah, in the distance, the murmur of wings.
     “What are you talking about!”
     “Silly boy! You know as well as I, this is your home—this is where we all lived, before you went away.”
     Before he could answer (they were crazy, he knew that now, that had been the trouble all along) he saw the first cloud of birds, and it was such a glorious sight it took his breath away. They came in low and the sun was caught and held on their backs and in their wings, until it was like looking at the surface of the sea on a bright day; the sound of their flying a humming, a throb that could barely be heard. He looked with disdain at the girl. Her hair was blonde and lovely, curling gently over her head, and her eyes were so pale the blueness disappeared into the whites surrounding. He was seeing her for the first time. Perhaps she was mad, or some kind of brainless creature, her life warped by the desolation of this strange land. What would happen to her, and her mother, when he went away? She smiled at him, her teeth even and white. She knew nothing of what he was thinking. Beyond her in the distance he saw another flock of birds approaching. He dug into his pocket for seeds. The warm clearness of the day filled his lungs. He saw the girl reach into a pocket of her own hidden somewhere in the translucent folds of her robe. Then she was close to him, her pale face eager and friendly her lips moving. He felt so removed from her he had to concentrate, to reach down, below himself, to make out her words: “...you know that as well as I do, if you dont want to believe, all you have to do is look!” Her voice warm and innocent like the throaty song of a bird. She held something up, something that shone and glittered, making him blink. He tried to look away, mumbling politely—after all the birds had to be fed, there was no time for nonsense—but she insisted, all the time moving her lips, her eyes smiling; and so he looked, and saw his face in the tiny mirror. He could hear the birds now calling shrilly; they were circling around, high in the air, and he could imagine their tiny warm throats pulsing with their calls. He hadnt seen his face for a long time. First he thought it was a picture. Then he saw the lips move, his own now, as he tried to talk. As the lips opened there were revealed black rows of ragged teeth, as though all the whiteness had been charred off, even the gums black, hanging loosely, like a dog’s. The face was bright red from too much sun, from the desert sands. He blinked his pale eyes. They were bright and glowing. The face was rough, with a prominent nose, like the old man's, the man who was buried. The girl laughed, and cried, “You see? Youre my brother!” But all he could see were the eyes, deeply sunk, almost disappearing under the jutting bones. The eyes were on fire. Behind the eyes he was being consumed by the heat. He tried to scream, but couldnt. The girl removed the mirror, thrusting it back into the hidden pocket, as she moved her thighs flashing white and free. With a rush like thunder the birds descended around him. In the sudden darkness of their wings the girl disappeared. It was like the coming of night, crashing around him, the blackness broken by flickering shafts of light. Mechanically he reached into his pocket and threw handfuls of seed onto the ground. Long yellow beaks bit into the earth, and he moaned at their violence. Flapping wings beat about his legs. He let himself fall down to his knees. Standing was too difficult, it had always been too hard, to stand upright. He wanted to sleep; finally to be at rest. I have gone too far, he thought. The birds screamed at him. He lay down, and the birds, with no regard for him, dove fluttering into his pockets. Yellow beaks, white beaks, black ones too, all hooked and powerful, hit him like hammers. I have always gone too far, he thought. The hot bodies of the birds rushed over him. His pockets were nearly empty, but he felt them pecking at his legs, his arms; and then—feeling their claws on his head, in his hair—the long, raucous, hungry beaks tore at his lips, and then, at the source of his burning heat, at last, the hot fires in his eyes.


Text and photos copyright D.N. Stuefloten.
Contact:
don@dnstuefloten.com

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NOTES: Ah, the birds. I was very young. I was fascinated by the idea of "wilderness." I wrote several stories around the theme of a young man wandering in the wilderness (including one story actually titled "The Wilderness," and of course my first novel, begun a few years later). I am reminded of Faulker's comment that the past is not really dead, and it's not even past. Wandering in the wilderness we meet our past, we never escape it. This is a theme I have returned to, repeatedly. How old was I? Nineteen, perhaps, since it was before I went to work on the fishing boats.

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