By: Stephanie Whetstone
The mountains rolled by in brushstrokes of tree limbs, tall green pines, snow, the black strip of road. We had just gotten onto the four-lane, driving home through flurries the day after Dad’s funeral. Alex chattered with his bear, Fuzz, in the back seat; Jay and I were wordless in the front. I didn’t have a clue how much longer it would be until we got back home, no matter how many times Alex asked. I didn’t even know what life would be like once we got there.
“Alex, Do. Not. Ask. Me. One. More. Time!”
Jay gave me a look and held it so long, I worried he might run off the road. I stared back at him, daring him to get angry with me now.
“De-escalate, Phoebe,” he said. He always thought he knew better, that I was too hot headed, but he didn’t know a thing about this. His mom and dad still called him every Sunday night. His dad still ran laps at the gym. My dad had never been to a gym in his life, except maybe when he was in the Army, but that was all before I was born, and it wouldn’t make any difference now anyway: he was dead. I looked away from Jay, out the passenger window. The weather was getting worse. I squinted through the snow shower. The road was disappearing in white. I could usually handle things. I could usually suck everything up and push forward, but not now. The blinding white felt like an avalanche, like something Biblical was happening, if not to the rest of the world, then at least to me. My world freezing over. Storehouses of snow, like Job.
There was a quick jerk, as if Jay’s foot had slipped suddenly, then a loud clanking came from the engine. Jay’s foot hadn’t slipped. In fact, he was pressing the gas pedal harder, leaning forward slightly and staring at the road as if to will the car forward. It lurched, but sputtered along. It might be saved if we could stop the bleeding.
The station wagon finally let everything go in one hot breath and slowed to a crawl. Smoke blew out of the long hood in a wet hiss, like an evil spell wafting through the V6. It came to envelop the whole front end. At first the smoke was white, but then it looked light blue. We couldn’t deny it after a quarter mile: this car was trying to disappear in its own magic trick. We wouldn’t make it home, at least not tonight.
“Shit!” Jay said. “Goddamn radiator.”
“Jay!” I said.
“This is bad, Phoebe. Don’t get on me right now.”
I had a spark that sometimes lit up into a fire, but Jay kept his emotion under control, kept our family in some kind of order.
“Let’s pull over,” I said.
He pushed on.
“Jay, let’s stop,” I said loud and firm, but he ignored me still.
“This car is dying,” he said. He was focused intently on the road ahead, leaning his head out the window to see through the smoke, gripping the steering wheel with both hands.
“Shouldn’t we pull over? Call for help?” The car was protesting louder, hissing out more smoke. “Jay, this is dangerous.”
“If I stop the car, Phoebe, it won’t start up again. I’m gonna see if I can’t make it to the next exit. I think I can get it to a gas station. It’s the radiator. It’s not gonna catch fire.”
He had calmed some, gone cool. I trusted him when he was like that. He was maybe the only person besides my dad I had ever trusted.
“Is it ok, Mama?” Alex said. He was watching us both intently, as if to record the experience. He was seven. When I had wished for someone to take care of me, I got someone tiny who would never miss a detail. Alex was an old man like that, ancient. You can’t imagine your protector.
“It’ll be fine, Baby. Go back to sleep.” April was deep asleep in her car seat, head tilted against the side, eyes closed, small pink mouth open in a heart shape, oblivious.
“You think we’ll make it?” I asked Jay. I had never tried to hold so much in before: the chaos of my whole life, filling me up before it might swirl down some gigantic drain. It was the pain that comes when you’ve been frozen and start thawing out. The warmth of your own blood stings. My inmost being is consumed with longing, the preacher had said.
“I’m gonna try my best,” Jay said. He steered the wagon onto the shoulder of the highway and drove slowly to the exit and through the tiny downtown. He had his eyes focused way ahead, determined.
“Come on, Baby. Come on,” he said. “Don’t quit yet.”
I whispered prayers we would make it, incantations like the preacher at the funeral: holy father, holy father, help us to accept the cycle, to move forward. No one heard me. The car was losing power. The engine flat out died as Jay took the turn, hard as he could without the power steering, and we coasted into the parking lot of a low-slung hotel, bumping along until we rolled to a dead stop not far from the building. Alex and I cheered. April woke up from the commotion and clapped with us.
“You did it, Daddy!” Alex said.
“No, Baby, I just got it to a good place to die.” Jay looked exhausted. Willing things on took work.
I sat in the car with the kids while Jay got a room. I hated to put another thing on the credit card, but hell, if God had the nerve to let the car break down when I’d just lost my dad, I figured he owed me. Daddy would have come and gotten us, helped Jay get the car to a garage. “Look what the cat dragged back,” he would have told Mama when we walked back in the house. We couldn’t go back now; we were stuck.
In the hotel room, we ordered a pepperoni pizza and ate it in bed. I let the kids watch TV way past their bedtime. The hotel room compressed life until time and space and rules shifted. I woke up at four seventeen and couldn’t get back to sleep. I thought I heard a barred owl hoot, but that might have been a dream. When I listened hard, all I heard was a car or two swishing by on the road outside and the questions repeating inside my head.
The yellow sign of an auto parts store glowed through the crack between the curtains, but I didn’t get up to pull the shades tighter. Faith is a light in these dark days, the preacher had said, and we sang “I’ll Fly Away.” That’s what I wanted, up and up, flying out of here, all of this, away, flashes of light in the dark, hallelujah, by and by. I stared at the yellow glow, and quiet sobs shook me. Jay’s chest rose and fell beside me. He snored and I nudged him in the ribs until he shifted to his side and settled back into calm breaths. In sleep he looked like a bigger version of Alex, innocent. I scooted closer to him so more of our skin would touch. He pulled me to him. I loved him for holding me here.
The kids were tangled together in the other double bed. My dad was buried under the heavy snow that fell last night, and all I could think of was the way the sunlight had glared off the white, so much white that we had to squint to see anything, and it still looked like a dream, and a hawk that circled the cemetery, over the neat lines of military graves, would not stop watching us, circling tighter and tighter. It wasn’t even scared off when the color guard gave the salute, guns and guns and guns that made me start, but the hawk just kept circling until finally, it joined its mate and flew off. That path no bird of prey knows.
I never knew my dad cared so much about the military, but I was glad now. I loved the order of it, the ritual, the perfectly lined up rows of dead, all with the exact same marker, returned to uniform dust. The Army knows how to have a funeral.
“You awake, Mama?” Alex whispered.
“Shhh, no. I’m just thinking,” I said. “It’s too early to get up. Go back to sleep.”
“How long are we gonna stay here?”
“I don’t know, Sweetie. Daddy will get the car towed to a repair shop then we’ll probably get a rental car. He has to get back to work. We’ll be home soon.” Home was still hours away, through a corner of Virginia and into North Carolina. We were still inside Kentucky. The dark and bloody ground had a hold on me. He overturns the mountains by the roots. I rolled over, tried to get back to sleep.
“I wish you all lived closer,” Mom had whispered in my ear in our last hug. It hurt just to look at her. I knew we looked the same, even though we dealt with the world differently. It was like she expected all this, never hoped for anything more than a life with Daddy, never wanted to plan past its end. Now what would she do? Most the family left when we did. She’d insisted on it, even though a couple of cousins made a fuss. A few neighbors said they’d check in on her, bring her food. I had no idea how she’d make it living alone, though. She’d never had to try.
“I wish I could stay,” I said. She nodded. In a week or two, I would sign her up for a computer class at the community college. I was plotting her survival. I’d have to plan my own later. “Aunt Ellen says she’ll keep an eye on you. But you could come home with us, Mom.” I didn’t really want that, but I wanted to want it.
“No,” she said. “This is still my home. Your dad’s too. You need to be with Jay and the kids.” Somehow, that settled it. I watched her in the doorway as long as I could, her yellow flannel nightgown fading to a tiny dot as we drove away.
“Mama, I’m bored,” Alex said. We’d been in the hotel for two days and the new had worn off. We’d ordered pizza again. We’d gone to the ice machine several times. We’d watched TV in bed. In the life span of a seven-year-old, that was a full vacation. Alex wanted to get out to play.
Jay kept calling the repair shop to check on the car. “I think I better go over there and take a look. They’re saying we did some engine damage by driving it off the highway, but I didn’t know what else to do, Phoebe. I couldn’t see a thing through all that smoke.” Jay liked for things to make sense, to be sure, but even the mountains shifted underneath the rock.
“It’s okay,” I said. “We’re safe.”
“You sure you’ll be all right here with the kids?” He’d been worried about me since we got the call to come to the hospital: machines beeping in the background, mom sobbing, come now, right now. Sometimes pain has no salve.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“I’ll be back in an hour or so,” he said. He leaned over and kissed me as I sat up in the bed. “Why don’t you all get out a little downtown today. Maybe we can get lunch then head home in a rental car.” He kissed me again on the top of the head.
When Jay left, I bundled the kids up and took them outside. The lady at the front desk, Shaina, told us we could walk to Main Street pretty easy.
“If you go all the way down Main and take a left, then go up to the top of the hill, you’ll see the extension office. They do 4H, things like that. This guy Frank, he keeps birds up there—owls and hawks. Once he had an eagle. The kids might like to see that.”
“Go, Mama!” April said. She was strapped into the stroller, bundled in so many layers her arms stuck straight out to the sides. It wasn’t fair to keep the kids trapped in the hotel, sitting in front of the TV while I slept or pretended to.
I had been to this town, Jenkins, for football games in high school. Otherwise, there was no reason to come here, except to cross the state line into Virginia a few miles away and buy beer.
The mountains hid the center of town from the rest of the world. Main Street was gap-toothed with empty stores, but there were a few relics still in business. It took us a while to get up the street because everyone who passed commented on the kids.
“What a fine young man,” a white haired lady said to Alex. “That little one looks like trouble.” She winked and waved at April, who hid her face for a second, then started playing peekaboo. People weren’t like that in the town we lived in now. They might smile at one of the kids, but then they would look away, to their own business.
If we had to break down, I was glad we did before the land flattened out and tried to call everything even. I was glad for more time before I left my dad in the frozen earth unattended, my Mom in her faded yellow nightgown at the house. There was so much of my childhood here, so much future far away, unknowable. It felt like I was leaving for a long, long time. I pushed the stroller up and up the steep hill toward the 4H center. Alex ran a little ahead, but waited for me at the door.
The building was new, all cedar and glass. It sat alone on the crest of the hill. The sun sparked off the windows. Shaina had called it the bird castle: it had a noble rounded stone tower, but the rest was a glorified barn. Inside, it was quiet. I could hear the electric hum of the computers, the clicking of fingernails on a keyboard.
“May I help you?” the girl at the desk asked. She couldn’t have been more than twenty. It seemed like a thousand years since I looked anything like her: long, straight hair, shadowed eyes, glossy lips. She was ready to go somewhere.
“We came to see the birds,” I said.
“Sorry. Frank’s gone today. He takes the birds to nature shows on the weekends. You can go see the bird sculpture out back if you want?”
“Thanks,” I said. We didn’t need much–just a little distraction until we could get back on the road, get home. Mine, not my mother’s, especially not with Daddy’s warmth gone. “Come on, Alex, let’s go see the sculpture.”
April clapped her hands when I pushed her stroller out the door. Outside, the hulking bird kept watch over the building. It was an owl with bicycle wheels for eyes. The rest was welded from recycled metal. It was a disappointment to me, unreal, but Alex was fascinated. “Wow! Look at the eyes!” he said. “Can we make one?”
“I guess we could,” I said. “I don’t see why not.” There was a project that would keep us occupied. In our future, we would build things–if I could get through this thick present. In some ways, I blamed my mother for letting Daddy die, blamed Jay for not getting us here fast enough. The past should have been different. Maybe the future would be full of giant yard birds, but I couldn’t imagine where we would put such a thing in our postage stamp yard. We were already outgrowing the duplex, but we couldn’t afford to move.
“Let’s walk over and look at the bird house,” I said. Maybe we can see through the windows or something.”
An old man was grinding something metal in the shed on the side of the building, making sparks. He looked up as we approached, stopped his work. “Hello?” he said.
“Oh, we were just hoping to get a peek at the birds.”
“Well, Frank’s not here, but I can show you. I’ve got the keys.”
“Really? The lady at the desk said we could only see the sculpture.”
“I want to see the birds!” Alex said. “Caw! Caw!” He spread his arms like wings and turned in circles, like a hawk. “I’m a bird, Mama!”
“Follow me,” the man said, like he’d been grinding that metal just to keep himself busy until we came along, like maybe he’d been waiting for us. He see-sawed left to right as he walked, one of his legs was stiff, or both. He walked right up to the birds’ enclosure and ushered us in. It was like an apartment building for raptors. The man opened the door of the room to the right. The smell of bird shit met us.
“It’s ok,” I said. “We can see the birds through the windows.”
“Come on in,” the man said. Alex followed, so I went in after him. A pair of tagged falcons huddled in the corner of the room on the right, yellow eyes glaring at us, then flew across to a makeshift perch high in the opposite corner. I pulled Alex close to me. Those eyes bore through me. I wanted to cover myself.
“They ain’t gonna bother you none,” the man said. He smiled. “They’re scared.”
That’s when you hurt someone, I thought, but I just said, “instinct.”
There were six or seven bird apartments in the cramped cinderblock building. We followed the man to each of them. One room held an eagle. It was bigger than I expected up close, like most mythic things. Its talons were at least two inches long. They could shred me. The eagle watched us. I stared back at it. It hopped around the room.
“That one hurt his wing. Frank’s got it healing. It should be out of here by springtime, but it’s got to practice flying.” The eagle looked like it was counting the days until it escaped this prison.
“You want to see one you can hold?” the man said. He shuffled toward another door.
“That’s okay,” I said. “We probably ought to get back to the hotel.”
“Mom! I want to hold one,” Alex said. He was yanking at my arm now, pulling me after the man.
When we entered the room, two small peregrine falcons swooped overhead then landed on a perch made of tree branches. The man reached out his rough hand, with no leather glove on, nothing.
“It’s all right, Journey. Calm down,” he said. He grabbed Journey and set her on his arm. “You can touch her. She won’t get too riled up.”
Alex started to pet her back and she moved up the man’s forearm in jerky steps. I pushed the stroller toward the door.
“Bird!” April said, pointing at Journey.
“Stick your arm straight out, like this,” the man told Alex.
Alex did as he was told. The man gently set the bird on Alex’s narrow forearm, and Alex grinned. I couldn’t make it stop, not with him so happy, so I held tight to the stroller’s handles.
“Don’t you want to hold one too?” the man asked.
“No, that’s okay,” I said. I couldn’t admit that I was afraid of the bird, what it might do since it was unsure. I knew how that felt.
“Come on, Mama. It’s so cool,” Alex said.
“This one here’s called Dorado,” the man said. “He likes to roam. Got shot by a hunter. Frank’s got him better though. He’ll let him fly soon.” He took my hand and slowly stretched my arm out. “Do like this,” he said. I did. He placed Dorado on my forearm. I stood as still as I could. I could feel the slight prick of his talons through my wool coat. He was fidgety, still wild. Neither one of us knew what was going on.
“Thanks. You can take him now.”
“You sure? He don’t mind it.”
“No, it was great. We just have to go soon.” I was sweating a little. The man took Dorado from me, stroked his gold and brown feathers, and set him back on the perch.
“Pet mine, Mama. Pet mine!” Alex was fearless. He held Journey out towards me, but when he moved his arm, she took flight. I ducked. The man chuckled.
“Come on,” he said. “I got one more room to show you.”
Alex followed close behind. It took me a minute to navigate the stroller through the door.
“Go!” April said. She had to be getting hungry. We needed to get back to the hotel soon. Maybe Jay had good news about the car. All I wanted right then was to be in my own house, in my own bed, to think of nothing. I just wanted to be, without having to try to be anything in particular.
“This here’s a red-tailed hawk,” the man said. He opened the door. Crouched in the corner of the room was a large light brown bird.
“I don’t see the red”, Alex said. “Where’s the red?”
“It’s on her underside, under her tail,” the man said. “Let me see can I catch her for you. She’s a little skittish. She was trying to eat something on the roadside, got hit by a car. Blindsided, I guess. Still don’t know what hit her.”
“Alex, we need to go home anyway. Thank you, Mr.?” The bird was looking right at me. She could see that I was afraid. Animals sense things. I had to get away.
“Thanks, Mr. Williams.”
“Come here Redbud,” he called to the bird. “Come on, Baby Girl.” She inched a little toward us, then hopped back toward her corner.
“Now, come on Redbud. This little boy just wants to see you, is all.”
Mr. Williams shuffled toward the bird, still toddling left to right. Alex was on his heels. April leaned forward in her stroller, pointing at her, “Bird, bird!” Redbud began to shriek, a piercing, bloody scream, over and over, a siren calling danger. I covered my ears and closed my eyes. “No!” I said, “Stop it! Make her stop! Make it stop!”
“Hush now, hush, Redbud. It’s all right. You’re fine now,” Mr. Williams tried, but she was not fine. She kept up her high-pitched alarm.
I was not fine. Alex covered his ears. April started crying. I began to shriek with Redbud, loud as I could, first Stop it! Stop it! over and over then something that wasn’t words, a murderous scream, until my face reddened, and I could no longer catch my breath. All I could think of was the white snow and my dad’s bleached white face in the white blankets and white walls of the room and the red lighted monitor beeping and beeping and no one wanting to turn it off and the girl at the counter came running.
“What’s the matter? What’s happening? Do I need to call 911?”
When Jay came to get us, I was in the corner, crouched next to Redbud. We were both quiet until Mr. Williams opened the door. Jay and the kids were behind him. Mr. Williams had gotten both the kids out of the room, but I wouldn’t let him touch me. Redbud wouldn’t let him near me either. I wasn’t sure who I was, what I wanted. Alex had called Jay, and Jay had come to the bird castle in the rental car, fast as he could.
“I don’t know what happened,” Mr. Williams said. “That bird started calling and your wife there just answered.” I looked at them gathered at the door, all wanting, and this time I led the call, and Redbud answered, then spread her wings and soared, talons out, flashing her tail, as if to protect me, or set me free.
Stephanie Whetstone earned her BA at Duke and her MFA in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro, where she was Fiction Editor of the Greensboro Review She has been a fellow at VCCA and Hambidge, and a Peter Taylor Scholar at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Her fiction has appeared in Drafthorse, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers 2011 and 2012, and Narrative. Her non-fiction received the Rose Post award. She lives in Princeton, NJ with her family and blogs at stephwhet.wordpress.com.