Saturday
Mar052016

Birdkillers

Catherine Carberry


 

1.

My husband did not believe that I had shot and killed a bluejay. The truth is, I did not trust my own story. But I remembered lifting the gun, aiming. I had heard a long time ago from a teacher or a friend that bluejays were cruel, and after our son died, I wanted to kill something cruel.

It is easy to say this: after our son died. Because of course the timeline splits in two when a child dies, it creases. But our son's death was two years past, and saying it this way implies I killed the bluejay very shortly after, which is not the truth. It is only a fact of chronology that I killed the bluejay when our son was already dead, when he had been dead for some time. I was not thinking of him that morning. Usually I found myself thinking of him when I woke, and sometimes I would stay in bed for a considerable amount of time and I would think of him in a certain concentrated way that could lead one to madness, or be considered, already, just the thinking of him in this obsessive detail, a sort of madness.

I suppose you could say I killed the bluejay because I was not thinking of my son. I suppose we could draw this conclusion.

But it troubled me that when I showed the bird to my husband, when I carried it into our home because I did not want to see the dog get it, because I had assumed some ownership over the animal I had chosen to kill (are we not granted some ownership over our dead?), my husband said no, Maria. He said no, the bird must have been sick. Or it could have fallen. He looked at my face and not at the blood on the bluejay's crest.

I've come to understand that love can do this to someone. It can make a husband child-like, unaware of the possibility that his wife could kill a bird. Even if the signs are obvious, even if you push them forward for him to find, he will refuse to look. This does not mean he is a fool. This means the man trusts you entirely. It means you should quit your games, quit hunting cruel things.

 

2.

I had not seen her for a year, and when I did, I sounded like an idiot. I said: Look at you. I said, you have eyes, you have shoulders. I don't know how I'd forgotten. Of course, I'd known her body once, but since then she had moved to one of those states of unimaginative geometry in a part of the country divided by logical men. She had slept beside me, I had discovered everything one could discover about a body in your bed. But the body, after some absence, contains the surprise of itself.

Now that she has come to live with me, I am no longer surprised by her arms, the heat of her legs in bed, the shock of space she inhabits in my house. But when I see her from a distance, I think she is so small, and I am only marginally larger, and the two of us could be dust if we wanted it. Sometimes I think she wants it.            

Though she is no longer the woman on the phone, but rather the body beside me, she is no less a mystery. Sometimes I see her mud tracks in the morning, but she does not recall waking in the middle of the night, going to the yard and then coming back with grass pressed to her bare legs. She burns in her sleep, heats the bed like coals. When I press against her, I feel I am lying atop fire. She is not a magical woman. She is not a myth or a muse. I know this but I also know this woman who makes her sandwiches the night before work, who sheds socks throughout the house, this woman also rises at night and seems to call the fog to her. I have seen her rise from our bed in her sleep, walk to the front door and open it and become enveloped in the fog. I saw her cradle an injured bird as if it were a child, and then I saw the twist of her hands as she snapped its neck. I saw the arc of the bird's body as she threw it, saw how sharply it was pulled back to earth.

I see this bird when I look at her hands. She asks me why I've grown distant. She orbits, nervous, because she moved all this way to live with me. We told ourselves we needed to try it, as though love were something you could sample with caution and then, once you'd seen it, understood what it required of you, you could leave with a clear conscience, without regrets or longing.

 

3.

We'd caught two mice in a trap and he wanted to eat them. He considered this a last resort, but I did not agree we had come to this yet. We had saltines, bouillon cubes, a gun. We had come to this cabin to exile ourselves. We were finishing a translation of his grandmother's memoirs. His grandmother herself had been an exile. He read from the translations aloud and I did what we called interpretations, translating the words I caught, stringing them together. It was supposed to be a project about censorship. Neither of us had much faith in it, but still we rented the cabin to finish the manuscript, him calling out his grandmother's words in German and me writing them down as they turned into English midair.

But sometime during our second week here, we had gone to sleep and when we woke, the cabin was couched in snow. It snowed for two days, I think, or three. The sky did not darken during this time, but remained a light grey and we saw nothing but the snow. I suppose, if things got truly bleak, we could shovel out the truck, shovel out the road, find our way to town. But when this man, my lover and partner, caught the mice in the trap and suggested eating them, I told him it was not time for that yet. Instead, I took the gun. We'd brought it because we'd heard we would see bears. I knew neither of us would shoot a bear, but the gun gave us confidence in the woods. It made us feel as if we were completely safe, a foolish kind of security. A gun will not help in a snowstorm, except for this, when I decided to put on my boots and go into the snow.

"What are you doing?" he asked. He was poking the mice. We hadn't worked on the translations since the snow began, but now that it had stopped I was restless. There's a certain energy that comes with fear, challenges it.

"I'm getting us something to eat that isn't a mouse," I said.

"You can't be serious," he said, but he didn't stop me. He watched me as I climbed out the window. The snow came up to my hips, and I pushed through it as though I were walking into the ocean. Though the snow had stopped, it still fell lightly from tree branches. I held the gun in front of me as if I expected to be surprised, but when I saw the bird, I was careful to aim. I thought of this man's grandmother, the measures she took for her own survival: false names, forged papers, remaining silent while her father was taken. And her descendants, how they in response had worn their secrets openly, shirking false identities. I had once thought this man, the man considering eating a mouse, was exceptionally courageous. But I when I shot the bird I wasn't thinking of him. I was thinking of his hunted grandmother, and then I dug through the snow to find where the bird had fallen.

 I would bring it back and we would pluck it together, dig out the bullet. Ultimately we might not eat it. We might only use the bird as a reminder, during another time without snow and this cabin, of how hunger had threatened us.

 

4.

Everyone hates Susie. We hate how her pathetic curls get pressed down on her sweaty forehead and how she doesn't even try to fix her hair during recess. We hate that she has tits but it's only because she's fat. We hate how one time, in gym class, she asked us when was the last time we saw our fathers and she didn't even wait for an answer.

"At breakfast, right? Well I haven't seen mine since I was a baby and now he's coming to visit!"

We hated her for thinking that we ate breakfast with our fathers. Our fathers left for work before we woke up, and when they came home they slouched in front of the TV and some of them didn't know how old we were. We hated how Susie talked in exclamation points. We hated her father for coming back. We bet he'd run out the door the second he saw her.

We hated her because she would believe anything. It's amazing that someone could be so stupid. She believed us when we told her there wasn't school on picture day, and then she was left out of the yearbook, a dumb question mark over her name where her portrait should have been. She believed us when we said we'd all gotten our periods already and that if you don't get it by age twelve, it means you'll never get kissed. She believed us when we told her that the mushrooms in the schoolyard were edible. She even ate the mushrooms and told us they were, and we quote, yummy. We hate the word yummy.

When the class parakeet started shouting curse words and Miss Delaney said she would have to take the bird home for a while, we stole the bird because we wanted to save it. But we cared more about messing with Susie than we did about the bird, which didn't even have a name because when we voted in class, it was a three-way tie between Albert, Squawksalot, and Princess. If the bird were named Princess maybe we wouldn't have given it to Susie.

"It's your job, dummy," we told her. We'd hidden the bird with no name in a lunchbox, and by the time we got it to Susie after school it was kind of sleepy, a little suffocated. We told her that Miss Delaney said the bird needed to be executed.            

Susie said the parakeet was her favorite animal, which was ridiculous. No one's favorite animal is the parakeet. Our favorite animal is the dolphin because our cousins have super cute dolphin tattoos on their ankles. When we're older, we'll get dolphin tattoos on our ankles.

"We'll make a crown for you out of its feathers after you do it," we told her. "It'll be super pretty."

Susie started to cry, which had nothing to do with how we had beat her up a little, just a rope burn, just a pinch.

"Squawksalot never did anything to deserve this," she said. Which was the stupidest thing we had ever heard and she didn't even call it Princess.

So we helped her a little but we made sure it was her fingers around the bird's neck. The stupidest part was that she really thought we'd make her a crown. We just called her Birdkiller and turned her in to Miss Delaney. Susie was so stupid she didn't even tell on us, she just said she was sorry.

 

5.

My daughters brought me birds the way cats offer shredded mice. It was the effect and not the cause that drove them. Sometimes there is no use looking for a cause, for drawing a line between some past offense and this slaughter. They brought me wings, beaks, talons, all offered in their cupped palms as if some sort of gift. We spoke often of the foxes that killed the birds. We had seen the foxes in the yard, and I had never given them thought before my daughters began to bring me the ravaged birds. For years afterwards, whenever I saw a fox I became uneasy.

It was my fault for obliging them, for making them believe I had some use for these artifacts. I thanked my daughters, pretended they were giving me something of value, and I took the bird pieces and brought them to my studio, where my daughters believed I was working on a project that would somehow save us.

At night, I overheard them whispering. They thought I was building something with the bird bones; one said I was building a new house for us, another that I was building a new father, one with wings. How to tell these girls I had no need for their gifts, that I was doing nothing of any purpose. How to tell them that I put their offerings in a box and closed the lid tightly each night, shutting this collection of my daughters' truest hopes. I could not, and never did, explain that a new house or a husband would not save us, that even if they had a father, or a castle made of birds, I would still be their mother, hopelessly praising them for their gifts, saying soon we will all be better and the foxes will stop killing the birds.

Years later I learned it was my daughters who killed the birds. They had found a BB gun in the woods. They must have wanted to see how I would react. I had spent years cautioning them against the foxes, comforting them about a danger of their own invention. When I found out that my daughters had killed the birds, I felt I must have rewarded them for their violence. I felt, in some ways, this was a graver offense than my other faults as a mother.

One daughter is a teacher now, another a lawyer. The third is living with a woman who loves her. When they come to visit me, I see they are gentle, kind women. I do not bring up the birds or their childhood violence. I think it would upset them to remember the winged lives they shot down. But I wonder if they could still do it, if they've kept their aim.

 In the same way, they do not ask me about my collection of their gifts, about what I did with the bones and feathers they brought me. I wonder if they are disappointed with me, if they are resigned, or if they attribute their successes to the luck of the birds, that because of the birds we got ourselves out of that house, that I did remarry. They could be waiting for me to thank them.

 

6.

Listen, reincarnation isn't real but my mother believes in it. This started when I reminded her I was a vegetarian and wouldn't eat the chicken she cooked. She said, why not? Chickens are assholes. Then she told me that in her past life, she worked on a farm. In this fake life that never happened, my mother had to wake before sunrise and milk the cows. She remembers how their udders felt slippery like rubber, how the farmer sometimes joined her and they'd work together, making little songs out of the rhythm of milking. The milk against the pail sounded like a man pissing but also it's sort of beautiful. My mother told me this and blushed a little. After the cows she'd go to the chicken coop alone and she'd have to gather the eggs.

 On the farm, in her past life, my mother had her own technique to keep the hens from pecking. She would cup one hand over their heads, and then with the other hand she'd grope for their eggs. She said if you don't do this, they'll peck the shit out of you. They'll tear your hands apart.

She told me the farmer had another technique. He would stroke the chickens, thank them, call them sweetie or darling or honey. They never pecked him either, but her method worked in half the time and she didn't have to thank a chicken or call it darling.

Her favorite task was killing them. She'd bring a big cleaver down over their necks and the blood would pool up. She said it was a myth that they kept moving, or at least a myth that they could run around afterwards.

What does this have to do with anything, I asked her.

She didn't give me an answer, but I've started noticing how she holds eggs before she cracks them against the pan, as if she's saying sorry.

 

7.

Insane people see patterns everywhere. I knew a girl who read patterns in banana peels, in a mouse on her doorstep. She found an explanation, she went to the police. She disappeared after that.

Lovers look for patterns, too. Sometimes they grope for meaning: I use q-tips the exact same way you do, our brothers were born on the same day, our fathers are stoic but good-hearted men, we both prefer October over other months. Therefore.

 My husband dreamt he watched a phoenix emerge from ash. Then, you know what my dream-husband did? He shot the phoenix. The metaphor was too obvious to bring to a therapist, the dream too funny not to tell at parties until my husband asked me to stop.

But it's the slaughter that concerns me.

My husband's mother is a terrifying woman, all farm-grit and flannel. I wasn't supposed to feed the turkeys, but I fed them anyway, didn't know she'd be slaughtering them that afternoon. She pulled out the half-digested greens, looked at me with a smirk. As if, here you can't get away with anything.

We dipped the carcasses in hot water, pulled out the feathers. My arm shot backwards with the tug. That night, my husband and I fucked in his childhood bedroom. Our fingertips sprouted turkey fluff. I told my husband that his mother despised me, but all he said was, well, why did you feed them?

 Here's a fact: Robert Johnson sings, I have a bird to whistle / I have a bird to sing / I've got a woman that I'm loving / Boy, but she don't mean a thing. Joni Mitchell changed the lyric: If I don't have you, darling, birds don't mean a thing. The man elevates the bird, the woman elevates the man. The bird whistles and sings, oblivious.