18-eat-crow-copy-buckley

“Strange Birds” by Lisa Bubert

09 December 2016 on Fiction   Tags: ,

Wyeth Normund, cowboy all of forty years, sandy hair that grayed considerably the winter prior, no stranger to the oddities of life, stood before the sycamore tree at the west end of his pasture and pulled at his cigar. There, in a low-flung branch, sat a parrot.

It was large, red-breasted, and red-headed with bright blue feathers circling the neck and fading to a deep green on the back. Its eyes were yellow iris with a tiny dot of black; the whole of it glittered a purple hue against the tan backdrop of the prairie and seemed to nearly glow under the setting sun. All told, it was a regal bird, save for the downy feathers that fluttered up like a gusting flag from the head. They stared at each other, Wyeth gnawing on the end of his cigar, the parrot still, save for an occasional cock of his head. Curious, as if Wyeth was the anomaly.

"Now where the fuck did you come from?" Wyeth said. He coughed, worked up some phlegm and spit it to the dirt. The bird regarded it, then heaved his chest and puffed his feathers around his small neck and let out a wretched squawk that seemed to require all of him.

"God damn," Wyeth said and shook his head.

For the entirety of Wyeth's life and that of his parents and his grandparents before him, this south Texas country had been nothing but craggy, scabrous fields of mesquite, small shrubs that sprouted tumbleweeds large as cattle heads, and a littering of cowboys come with the misguided notion of making something here. The land had been divided up, lines drawn with barbed wire, families having claimed pasture so long that the roads cut through them were named in their honor. Each knew the other, and for decades each considered themselves to be part of a tribe, secluded and sequestered in this hidden kingdom, until recent years when the land started selling off and stranger and stranger people began moving in.

The field neighboring Wyeth's sycamore tree had always belonged to a family named Lehmann, but sold last year to a young-ish man who bred bulls for rodeo and simply went by the name of Camilo. He wore a large ring with a blue sapphire on his right hand. Wyeth suspected his boots--ox blood, ostrich-skinned and pointed--were from Lucchese. He got a check every time one of his honeys came out of the chute, or so he said.

That day, one of Camilo's bulls had smashed through the fence to get at the heifers Wyeth was saving for auction. He'd told Adam, a boy from a new family and one of the only ones still interested in the work, not to leave the heifers in that field, backed up as it was against the large animal. It was a Brahman, mean as all get out, and it wouldn't be deterred by losing blood on barbed wire. But Adam was deaf, dumb, or forgetful; he'd left them in the pasture overnight and now here Wyeth was, standing between a broken down fence and three ruined heifers, while an odd parrot stared dimly on.

"One fucking thing after another," Wyeth muttered as he rummaged through the console of his truck for Camilo's silver business card, which had been slipped to him between two fingers as if it were a tip or a secret. He found it at the bottom, stuck under other papers and grit and went to the house to dial the number embossed under the ink.

It rang three times before an answer. Camilo picked up, sounding bright at first and then more bothered as Wyeth went on. He agreed to pay for the repairs, though he didn't acknowledge the problem of the heifers. He would send someone out the next day. Anything else? Wyeth didn't like the tone.

"Yeah, one more thing," Wyeth said. "Your parrot's loose out here."

"Parrot?" Camilo coughed into the phone. "No man, I don't have a parrot."

"Well, someone's got one and it's holing up in my tree."

"Well, I don't know anything about it," Camilo said. There was silence on the line.

"Alright," Wyeth ventured. "Fine. I go out there and see it again, I'm gonna shoot it before it starves to death."

"Be my guest," Camilo said and hung up.

 

That night at the Salt Lick, Wyeth told the boys what he had seen.

"Big, fucking parrot," he said, gesturing his arms wide. "Just sitting there like he got all the time in the good god damn world."

"There ain't no fucking parrot out there," Martin said, ashing his cigarette. Martin had always been a prick. He was younger by only a couple years; his hair buzzed short for a military he never got around to joining, and a gap in his front teeth that would forever look childish. He and Wyeth hadn't been friends in high school, Martin being too young, but they'd worked together at the mill after that and even now, years past quitting that job, Wyeth couldn't seem to disengage the boy from his leg.

"You sure it was a parrot?" Bill said. Older gentleman, graduated from the high school a few years before Wyeth. He wasn't as much a prick, but he had a tendency. He had also worked at the mill with Wyeth but retired a few years prior when the work was ruining his back and knees. Now, he grew row after row of peanuts for a company in Houston that only sold organic, locally-farmed produce, which Bill said was fine by him whatever all that meant.

"You sure it wasn't no buzzard or nothing?" Bill said. "No red-tailed hawk?"

"I know the good god damn difference between a buzzard and a parrot. This was a fucking parrot."

"You ain't even seen a parrot in your life," said Martin.

"I know one when I see it."

"Well," yawned Bill. "I guess I believe it. You seen some of the houses they're putting in near Hex place?"

"Shit," sneered Martin. "Ain't Hex place no more. Last I drove past it was all roped off with a big 'Coming Soon’ sign for some kind of something, I don't even know what."

"That's the way of it." Bill sighed. "Used to just be the oil field wanted your land. At least you'd get something in return for it."

"Oh, Hex got something in return for that piece," Martin nodded, his eyes wide and knowing, like he'd just seen the UFO. "They paid him a pretty penny."

"They can have my land over my dead body," Wyeth said, snubbing out his cigar too hard in the ashtray.

"Well, here's to you then," Bill raised his glass. "See you in the great hereafter."

"You think they got parrots in hell?" Martin said. Wyeth grimaced.

They all three clinked glasses and drank deeply.

 

Next evening, Wyeth went out to check the fence and there in the tree was the parrot, exactly where it had been before. It stared at Wyeth, the black dot of its eyes like rosary beads, the tip of the beak coming to a sharp point. It leaned forward, clacked the beak and squawked.

"Son of a bitch," Wyeth said and stomped back to his truck. Against the back headboard was an old .22 he kept for snakes and raccoons. He pulled it from its perch, checked to see if it was loaded and clacked it shut as he carried it to the tree. The bird waited.

Wyeth lifted the gun to his eye, pressed it against the muscle of his shoulder. He laid the sight right at the parrot's breast. He inched closer. The parrot stayed where it was. He inched closer again, close enough that the gun's muzzle hovered at the bird's heart. The wind stilled. The sun set against humid air that draped light around the bird like a blanket. Its feathers stood out stark, colors glowing like stained glass in a dazzling effect, as if the bird itself was a prism of light.

Wyeth lowered the gun, closer now than he ever had been before to such a strange bird. On an impulse, he reached his hand out, slowly, closer still, until the tip of his fingers just grazed the bird's breast. He could feel the animal take a short, shuddering breath. The feathers were warm and soft, downy and a touch slick, like oil. They felt as if they should feel familiar and yet Wyeth couldn't recall a single other thing quite like it.

The bird flapped its wings and shook Wyeth off, waddling back up the branch out of his reach. But Wyeth could still feel the warm silk on his fingers. He rubbed them together, thumb to nail.

 

Rains fell that night, heavy and long, and Wyeth tried not to think of the bird huddled in the tree. When morning came, he took the long way to the ranch, which also happened to be the way that went by the sycamore tree, under the guise of wanting to avoid flooded roads. He slowed as he passed. There, on that lowest branch, Wyeth could clearly see the tiny outline of the bird and the halo of red that surrounded it. It spread its wings and shook the water from its body. Satisfied, Wyeth sped on.

 

The detour had Wyeth arriving late and Adam, making up for the loss, had soldiered on without him. He penned the heifers into the lot where they waited to be loaded up for auction, despite the fact that the rains had turned the dirt floor to mud that sunk each up to the knee, and despite the fact that they would need to wait now to see if any of them grew round at the middle. The boy ran on auto-pilot, Wyeth thought. He did what he knew and he didn't know much. Wyeth found him in the barn emptying a sack of feed into the trough before he could stop him.

"Let them out of here before they get hoof rot," Wyeth said. "And for God's sake, don't put them in the west end."

Wyeth scooped the feed, kernels of grain and molasses, back into the open sack. It smelled sweet and gave him a warm feeling, which gave him an idea. From the barn, he fished out a small cloth bag to fill with the last of the feed and hid it in his truck.

At the end of the day, Wyeth drove out to the tree. His truck lolled softly against the hog-made pits in the earth and everything tumbled along with it, but he kept the sack of feed held fast in his hand. The sycamore tree guarded the pasture like a sentry. From behind the wheel, Wyeth could see the darkened silhouette of the bird.

Wyeth parked a ways back so as not to frighten the bird, which he did not, but he was disappointed to see the Brahman bull lumbering over to the fence, lured by the sound of the truck and the sight of the feed bag in Wyeth's hand. The gray, snotting thing waited, eying Wyeth like an enemy, the engorged hump at the back of his neck like an unhealthy goiter. His hooves dug in mud up to the joint. He pawed them on the ground and opened his wide mouth to bellow a warning.

"I ain't looking at you," Wyeth muttered and fixed his attention to the tree.

The parrot puffed its red chest and belched a loud squawk. It seemed smaller, less regal and more pitiful than before. Hungry. Wyeth sifted the feed kernels though his fingers gently, enjoying the feel of the grain. He offered up a handful to the bird. It hesitated, mistrusting of Wyeth. Then, it inched closer.

Wyeth waited and then dealt his hand, scooting it toward the bird. The bird backed off and backed off again and again each time Wyeth advanced. So Wyeth stood there, supplicant, his arm outstretched with the offering. He would out-wait this bird. It would come to him. Sweat rolled down his temple, his arm trembling. Finally, the bird stepped closer and closer until it came just close enough to touch.

At the fence, the impatient bull bellowed, loud and long and screeching, demanding the feed Wyeth hoarded in the bag. It echoed across the empty field and the sound of it startled the bird back up the branch.

"Damnit!" Wyeth rested his arm against the branch of the tree. The bull called again.

"God damnit," Wyeth yelled. "Shut the fuck up!" Wyeth tossed some kernels to the bull's side of the fence. He sniffed at them, lapped them up with his tongue and walked away.

The parrot looked at Wyeth, expecting. Wyeth's arm tingled. He could feel the blood rushing back, pushing down to his fingers. The wind picked up speed over the flat prairie until it whistled in Wyeth's ears like a siren. Northern clouds were moving in; tonight would be a cold one. He took a handful of kernels and spread them over the lowest point of the branch and walked back to his truck, where he watched as the bird ate.

 

Their life went on like that -- Wyeth arriving at the tree by early evening to see if the parrot waited for him and the bird was always waiting. The bull waited as well but Wyeth had grown fonder and fonder of ignoring him. Some days, Wyeth thought the bird wore different colors on its feathers -- one day a bright, gleaming red, the next, a dull green, some blue around the edges. Once, no matter how close he came to the bird, he could only make out a gray hue under dark clouds and little sun. Every day he offered it meal from his hands and every day the parrot refused it, until Wyeth spread out the kernels and backed away. He knelt under the shadow of the tree while the bird perched above him, each watching the other, each devouring their daily bread. Beyond them, the bull hollered.

The boys asked after the parrot on occasion and Wyeth confirmed that it was still hanging around.

"You ain't feeding that thing, are you?" Martin asked.

"No," Wyeth lied, sipping his beer.

"Lord almighty," Bill muttered, stretching the muscles in his back with a scowl.

 

One day, just like the others, Wyeth journeyed out to the tree. But when he arrived, the bird was not there. No feathers, no claw marks on the bark, not even leavings on the ground. He held his breath and listened. A cold wind breezed against Wyeth's chin and he shivered. Tomorrow, he thought. I'll try again tomorrow.

But when tomorrow came and he parked his truck at the base of the tree, the parrot was still nowhere to be seen. His eyes scoured the higher branches, thinking perhaps the bird had simply gone up. He called; he called using the same call he used for the cows and felt stupid as soon as it left his mouth.

"Fuck," he muttered, scanning the skies. Across the field, the bull lowed in return.

 

That day, Wyeth moved from one task to another, completing nothing, and working with an ineptitude that embarrassed him once he took stock of it. Tools were left strewn around the barn, gates left unlocked, and a blood stain on his jeans revealed a long cut on his pointer finger, but he had no recollection of when it might have happened. As he bound the cut with cloth, Adam came to him with the notebook and pointed out five calves that were overdue for vaccination and tagging.

"Good catch," Wyeth nodded. Adam grinned.

They rounded the herd up and ran each through the pen until the five calves were the last left, their mothers waiting nearby. Adam manned the head gate; Wyeth did the herding. Four calves had gone through without problems but the last, a small white charolais with red-rimmed eyes, stayed pressed against the far fence.

Wyeth stomped behind the calf, pressed, slapped, but the small thing wouldn't budge. He lifted his cane high and crashed it down on the fence in a loud, echoing boom. He hesitated, then caned the back of the calf's legs, just once, and she jolted forward but stopped when Adam braced himself.

"God damnit," Wyeth said. "You gotta stand still." Adam nodded.

Wyeth mulled over his options. He went to his truck to retrieve the Hot Shot. He didn't like using it; it was always the last resort as it was always too effective. He zapped it level at the calf's ears, let her hear it.

"Alright," Wyeth said to Adam. "Ready yourself."

Wyeth touched the electric end to the hide. The calf jumped forward. Adam was quick, and caught the calf at the shoulders, the doors screaming shut. The calf yanked her small body back and then forward, the little legs bucking and kicking in a panic. Wyeth rested his hand on the calf's back and whispered a hush until she calmed down, shaking, right down to her tail.

Wyeth set a new needle and measured out medicine from the bottle while Adam loaded the ear tagger and handed it over. Wyeth pulled the ear taut. He knelt and found the two blue veins and aimed the point of the gun between them. The calf breathed deep and snotted the ground at Wyeth's feet, spreading dust and old dried hay over his boots.

"Hold it steady, little girl," Wyeth whispered. Adam lingered wide-eyed over his shoulder.

When Wyeth squeezed the trigger, a shadow of something large flew ahead and raked against his vision. The effect was immediate; Wyeth whipped his head around to search the sky. Startled, the calf bucked, reared itself up, and Wyeth, still holding the tagger tight in his hand, felt the ear rip as he fell backward.

A clean line had been torn from the center of the ear out through the top and Wyeth could see the white meat of the skin before blood seeped around the edges, lines of red streaming over the calf's white fur. She screamed, bellowing again and again, as the waiting herd advanced, the mother trotting up and staring between the bars of the pen. The calf jumped again, slipped on the muddy ground and fell, her head still locked in the gate. Her tongue lolled out and blood dripped on the bars, the earth, and Wyeth's hand. Adam, pale-faced, stood back watching the scene in shock.

"Let her out!" Wyeth yelled. "You're choking her!" He reached to throw the lever on the gate. The doors opened and the calf skittered up and ran out to the pasture to meet the others, blood dripping all the way.

"Gotta pay fucking attention," Wyeth whispered. He pulled himself up from the ground, feeling distinct pain in his hip, and brushed the mud from his jeans. Behind him, Adam took a shuddering breath. What sounded like a distant squawk echoed over the field and Wyeth turned to search for the source.

 

That evening, when Wyeth laid eyes on the waiting sycamore tree, it was still frustratingly empty, no small knobby head balancing on the lowest branch. But he approached it anyway, his feet crunching quietly in the weeds. The neighboring field was empty, even the bull absent, nothing but slow wind rustling through the grass like a snake.

Wyeth regarded the tree; it towered over him, its branches raised high like warning fists. Wide and stocky, it looked more like a squat warrior with arrows in the sling. The word historic floated across his mind and Wyeth wondered how old the tree could be. It had always been in this place, large and imposing since his earliest memories. Absentminded, Wyeth peeled the bark, leaving the fresh wood bare, lighter brown under the wounds and tossed the discarded chunks aside. Standing before the tall tree, he felt as small as a child. And foolish. All the time wasted waiting around for a bird that had been nothing but torment? He could feel the foolishness creeping up his neck and into his cheeks.

He rested his forehead on the soft wood. There in the mud, his gaze caught a glimpse of color at his feet -- a single red feather waiting in the grass like a note.

 

Wyeth went home and packed a bag of jerky and water. He put on warmer clothes and pulled an old camp chair from its corner. He threw both in his truck, the sun long down and darkness having fallen like silent snow. He climbed into his truck where the gun waited in reserve. He checked his tool box for extra bullets. After a second thought, he went back to his fridge and grabbed a six pack.

Wyeth drove back out to the tree and set his chair in front of the branch, bowed low and empty in a wide grin. He knelt as he loaded the gun and thought of saying a prayer. He cracked open the first beer. Finally, he sat in his chair and waited, the gun resting across his lap, the time for foolishness now come to an end.

Even against the night sky, the tree was still darker against the horizon. A full moon rinsed the grass blue, light tumbling down the hill like a waterfall as the prairie slowly woke to the night. Clicks of beetles and the chirping of crickets filled out the silence. To Wyeth's left, something scampered through the grass. Hour by hour, the stars twinkled out, more and more catching on until the sky was full of them. The wind picked up, tugging at Wyeth's hat and the collar of his shirt. He shivered and wrapped his arms around his chest, opened another beer. He was hazy but Wyeth kept his eyes dutiful, steady on the tree. Moonlight glinted off the steel of the gun's muzzle as he squeezed the rifle closer to himself.

It was peaceful, he thought, being out here with nothing but the prairie. When was the last time he'd done a camp out like this? If a person could call this a camp out. Used to be, he and Martin would come out, build a fire, open a package of hot dogs and sit out all night drinking beer and congratulating themselves for taking the higher road in life. Used to be, Bobby Dearing would come out with them too and that would always be real fun. He was a card, that boy. In fact, Wyeth thought, that had been the last time they'd come out like this--with Bobby. They drank, they sobered up (or so they all thought) and they each drove home; Wyeth and Martin got home right at sunrise and Bobby ran his truck into a tree. After that event, they hadn't much felt the need for camp outs anymore, Wyeth guessed. Just as well. But still, where had the time gone?

After the last beer and right as the purple of the rising sun glowed at the east hill, the coyotes began their yipping. They went back and forth in a call and answer, shrill and loud enough to seem like they were upon him. Their howling devolved to screeches, cries, and finally, screams. They cried as if one half was lost and looking for the other--like children looking for their mothers. It had a way of chilling him more than the cold wind. It hollowed him right out at the middle. Lonely, he thought. They just sounded so lonely. Wyeth tipped his head back, ready to offer his own voice up.

But they hushed. They hushed so quickly, it was as if the air was sucked right out of them and Wyeth felt like a man sucker punched. He had only a moment to swallow it before hooves crashed down over his chair and he felt himself bowled backward, rolling across the grass.

The bull, spooked by the coyotes, had broken free. He was on Wyeth, every instinct in him keyed into feet that bucked and kicked and slammed down again and again. Wyeth twisted and felt pain sear up his leg. He ran his hands over the grass, searching for the rifle. The bull reared up and came down a few feet to his right and Wyeth scurried, hands and knees, his boots kicking up grass and dirt. A hoof stomped on his thigh and then another on his back. He opened his mouth to scream but the bull had him pinned and his lips and breath inhaled dirt to his teeth and tongue.

The bull kicked away. Wyeth shifted his weight and, under his leg, could feel something hard and metal. He reached for the gun and turned himself over, his back a morass of raw skin like burned wood. A twig snapped beneath him and the bull turned back, running fast. Wyeth leveled the gun against his chest and fired.

The animal fell to its knees, a cascade of heavy muscle over Wyeth's legs. He cried out under the pressure of it, his legs threatening to snap like small branches. The bull struggled, still craning and waving its head, still fighting. It ground against Wyeth's knee. He could feel warm liquid dripping against his jeans. He aimed the gun a second time, the muzzle on the bull's forehead and fired again.

Silence dropped like soft cloth. Even the crickets had stopped their chirping. Behind Wyeth, purple dusk from the morning sun painted the hill, illuminating the base of the tree. Wyeth laid in the grass, squinting at the upside down world. There, in the low-flung branch, he could just see a small circle of red, green, and blue shimmering in the pale light. The parrot ruffled its feathers, colors sparkling against the wet air, just as dandy as a motherfucker.

Wyeth pulled the gun around. His arm burned, the strength of it nearly gone. He placed the butt against his shoulder and squinted through the sight. The bird perched in front of the rising sun, shadowed, like black pupil and yellow iris. Wyeth pulled the trigger.

The shot was low; it zoomed under the branch where the parrot sat. The bird jumped and flapped off, its wings beating soft wind over Wyeth's cheeks as it flew over.

Wyeth rested his head against the ground for only a moment more. Then he tugged himself out from under the bull, his leg scraping against the earth. He grimaced at the shooting pain in his legs and back. There was blood across his body, some his but most not. He stared down at the bull that laid before him. Flies already crawled across the animal's eyes and the tongue splayed from its lips, resting in the dirt. Mean as it had been, it seemed so much smaller now and Wyeth didn't like looking at the blood rolling between its eyes. No matter what they had done, all animals were forgivable in death, even the snakes. Wyeth reached a hand down and caressed the animal's large gray hump at the back of its neck. It was soft, like cloth rolled tight. Wyeth thought it would have been harder.

 

It was Adam who found the dead bull and Adam who found Wyeth's truck left sitting where he'd parked it the night before. But it was Bill and Martin who found Wyeth lying face down in the tall grass that afternoon. His boots pointed from side to side, his palms faced up -- like a man who lost a duel.

"Aw hell," Bill said, laying a soft hand to Wyeth's back.

"He's still kicking." Martin had fingers on his pulse, a year of EMT training not having gone sour.

They wrapped him up in their arms--Martin did the carrying on account of Bill's back--and shuffled him off to the local hospital to lick his wounds; a couple of broken ribs, twisted ankle, bruises and gashes all up and down the back and knees and somehow, God be good, no internal bleeding. He'd pull through just fine, save for his pride.

The boys went back to deliver Wyeth's truck to his house, gassed it up before they dropped it, and then went back again to load up the bull and cart him over to Camilo, who wasn't home. They called his cell and received a foggy hello before giving him the story. Camilo asked question after question about the manner of the events and only one about Wyeth, which was if he would live and they said he would, he would be just fine. After some time, Camilo said he would sue.

"Sue all you want," Martin said. "That animal nearly killed him and we can damn well testify to it."

But Bill remained silent as he was wont to do. There were two things he knew for sure and they were this: one, money has a way of bringing out the true character of a person; and two, a man with money who felt wronged by the world was a dangerous thing. Retribution was retribution. Camilo maybe didn't love that bull but it was worthwhile to him. And while Wyeth didn't have much liquid money, he had plenty tied up in the land. The question came down to what type of man Camilo was and Bill, for the first time, had to admit that he did not know the character of his neighbor.

After that business, Martin huffing and puffing as he was, they did the only thing that made sense and went to the Salt Lick to finish the day with a beer. They both sat at the bar in their usual places, elbows on the table and their backs hunched forward, hugging their middles and leaning into their mugs. The place was nearly empty, which was not unusual, though there was another man at the end of the bar that neither of them recognized. Bill waved, but it went unreturned.

"It's bullshit is what it is," Martin started in. "That man's a son of a bitch if I ever saw one."

"Quiet down," Bill murmured. "We don't know who's who in here."

Martin looked around at the unknown man sitting at the end. He threw his hands up, uncaring of it all, but he didn't say anymore. The conversation resumed its normal thread. Bill complained of an ache in his back and Martin griped over his knees. Both of them had felt a heaviness of late, and they commented on it.

"Like something's wearing me down but nothing has changed," Bill said.

Martin nodded quietly. "Bone tired, I guess," he sighed.

"Something of that nature."

They tipped their beers up and drank.

 

Lisa Bubert is a Texas-born writer now living in Nashville, Tennessee. She attended the University of North Texas and works a second career as a librarian. Her poems and stories can be found in Drunk Monkeys, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Gnarled Oak. To read more, visit her website or connect with her on Twitter @lis__kb.


Artwork by Linda Griggs

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