darkness, a bird's whistle rouses him. He kneels in the mud and the
leaves where he has slept. He lurches up alert, not bothering to brush
the leaves from his prison
coveralls. The weight of the pruning shears in a
back pocket tugs down his coveralls.
He keeps to the woods until the light is enough that he
sees he must make his break. He moves under the trees with young leaves
turned yellow from the way the low reach of light shines through their
leaf skin. He watches the leaves flutter. Birds hop from branch to
branch. The birds are small, as fleeting as thoughts. Between branches,
as if he has imagined it, he sees a house. The house, surrounded by
plowed fields, stands starkly lit.
His work boots are muddied more. He walks as if in a dream he has
already had, knowing again the weight of his boots, the quality of the
light that is on him. Soon, he is
walking up to a window at the side of the house.
A woman moves about the kitchen. He watches her sip from a glass. She
talks to a child sitting at the table. She wipes the girl child's lips.
Voices move him away from the window. He hears music, a cartoon
gunshot, comic talk. He listens for other voices, for a man's voice. He
looks in the window to see if the woman and child have changed from the
way they were, changed shapes, changed the words the woman speaks to the
child in a language he does not understand. She speaks the language of
the birds flitting in the trees, nesting words, soft, so soft.
When the voices change to a man's voice saying there is
the possibility of rain, he kneels and snips the telephone line. He
pockets the pruning shears and quickly, angrily, walks around to the
back of the house. He opens the screen door without knocking and walks
into the kitchen.
"Who else is here?"
The woman and child look up at him.
"Look, I'm not kidding, who else is around?"
A voice from the television in the other room does the talking. He
grabs her and feels how small she is under the loose flannel. She is
little more than a child. Her bones feel hollow. She is another bird,
who will flit away if he is not careful.
He shoves her ahead of himself into the other room. There is the
television on the floor, cardboard boxes, a wooden chair. As if further
proof of what she is, on a wall is a
fan with painted, blood-red peacocks.
He pushes her upstairs.
In the first room there are toys scattered on the floor, on a child's
bed. He shoves her through this room and into the other bedroom. On top
of a chest of drawers is a mirror. A mud man--his hair standing straight
up--looks back. He looks from his reflection to the wooden boxes, the
brush, the comb, lined up on the chest. The bed has a white bedspread. A
man's cloth slipper almost hides where the bedspread hangs to the floor.
"There is only you and the girl?"
"I'm talking to you, Chinawoman, or whatever you are!
Don't act like you're seeing your things for the first time! All this
shit laid out, as if you was ready for somebody to come and take you and
your's off somewheres!"
"My husband will come," she says without bird talk, wind
She looks out the window. He looks too. Far down the road, like
another toy thrown at their feet, is a school.
"When's he coming?"
Her eyes come back to his. He holds the shears at her eye as shiny
black as a marble a boy would put in his mouth to clean. The shears snip
"Mama!" the child calls from downstairs.
She is almost past him when he has her arm, holds his face near her
face. Her eyelids flitter.
When he does let go, he follows her downstairs and through the living
room where he shuts off the television.
"I'm hungry," he says to her and the child. "I'm
hungry for a lot of things."
He stands at the open refrigerator, eating what he comes to as he
comes to it: a black beet, a bunch of long onions, something yellow he
drinks, a quartered head of lettuce,
a bag of cough drops, a seedy orange, milk he drinks from the carton. He
goes through the cabinets and eats a box of crackers. When he is done
swallowing, he puts the shears down.
He pushes her so her back is against the counter. He lifts her
nightgown, throws it over her head so she stands shrouded, a little
orange tree covered against the cold. Maybe the orange came from her
small breasts, her slight branches, the tree she is that she will change
back into as in the old stories.
She trembles as if against the cold. Less of her is hidden from him
now, not her golden skin, not her downy hair.
The child watches him when he puts a hand on the soft skin of the
woman's belly. He holds his hand there, draws his face closer to her
warm breath blowing out the flannel softness. He feels the heat from her
belly walk up his arm and into his shoulder, fill his chest, fill him
until he too breathes out.
He pulls the nightgown down from over her head. He picks up the
child, tugs her up, her legs hanging limp, like he is pulling something
green and rooted from the ground. The child turns her face away from his
muddy beard. Her hair is like the woman's hair, cut straight all around
so that her hair moves like the fringe of a silk dress, or grass in the
Carrying the child over his shoulder, he is out the back door. The
woman hurries after them. When she catches up, they walk the dirt road.
A crow, flying high above, caws, as if to kin. From that height, they
appear as paper dolls scissored from a book of cutouts, a child's dream
When they come to the school with the windows boarded over, they walk
in the shade of trees, the first shade since leaving the house that now
looks no bigger than when he first saw the house through the branches of
other trees. Behind the school, past the rusting tall swings, they cross
the ball field. Fading signs on the outfield fence tell them how NOTHING
RUNS LIKE A DEERE, MILK DOES A BODY GOOD, WILLIS HOME INSURANCE--ALWAYS
A HIT! The grass of the ball field is so new, so green, he could sit and
eat it, slowly, himself a deer, with the two quiet ones watching him
crop the tender grass giving him what he needs.
He brings them to the batting cage. Inside the cage, among the weeds,
are rotting rags. Netting, ripped and tangled, loops down. He lowers the
child to standing, helps her and the woman through a hole in the wire
into the cage.
Birds flush up from the weeds in the cage. The birds flap close to
the woman and child, fly out where the wire opens. One bird snags a
wing, hangs. What was once a bird, now a curve of wing bone, a claw,
hangs in the netting. The woman and child watch the living bird twitch,
tangle itself more. He goes to the bird, puts his face close, blows.
Feathers furrow, darker feathers show underneath. The bird stills,
blinks. The bird's eyes are rings within golden rings the color of the
He pulls the bird from the snarl of netting. He smoothes the feathers,
puts the wing back into place. The bird heats his hand. He feels the
bird's heart--the small beating, like what was at the throat of the
woman when she stood in the kitchen with her nightgown over her
head--and he throws the bird up into flight.
The bird whirs about his head, then flies to the trees along the
The sky looks empty.
He pulls the woman and child from the cage, hurries them to the
playground. Seating the child in a swing,
making sure her little hands are holding the chains, he pushes the
child from behind. Her hair lifts, falls.
He gets on a swing. He toes off from the scuffed
clay, points his feet. He gains height. His arms work as he pulls
harder. He moves faster, higher. The old swing shrieks him higher and
higher, his feet now over his head, kicking at the sun.
From that height, he sees the woman and the child walking together
under the far trees, their slipping away from him as his own life
has--and that is the moment he lets go, throwing himself higher,
farther, into the light that will burn him clean.