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Short Story

I DON’T KNOW how it was in other towns but here in Lifton the placards surfaced like mushrooms overnight, an eruption of truth-telling after a deluge of scandal and lies. Imagine the shock—the embarrassment—finding misery in the middle of your picture-perfect lawn, or envy casting its shadow over a garden filled with flowers, or monkey in a silk suit in big block letters, angled at a neighbor’s living-room window, when you’d only thought such a thing to yourself before. It was no laughing matter: desperately seeking brought on such a rush of suitors and scammers that the woman who owned the property had to move out of state. Surely, you’d think, there were easier ways of tackling the problem—but, if you tried to remove one of these signs (at your own expense), a replacement was bound to surface within the week. Only the shape—octagon, diamond, or pentacle—was apt to change. The things were cunningly crafted, as tall and solidly rooted as most official road signs.

Strange energies afoot!

Part of the mystery was that no one had ever been caught, let alone glimpsed, installing these signs. The things seemed to materialize out of thin air, appearing after a wild night, or a quiet night, during which (the recipients recalled only later) they’d heard a clangor of bells, far off. For what it’s worth, it’s usual enough on any night to hear dumpster lids clanging.

Useless to petition city hall, itself a target: the grounds there had become a permanent excavation site. Unless the perpetrators were found, the signs could not be proven libelous. Complaints to the traffic department and a flurry of letters to the editor of our local rag were unavailing. In the absence of a clear case of conflict with existing road signs or encroachment on the public right-of-way, no law on the books seemed to apply.

People took sides: It was serious business, or it wasn’t. It could be simply a prank, a publicity stunt—but, if meant as a joke, it wasn’t funny. Some saw the whole business as another one of those so-called art projects and worried that taxpayer dollars were involved.

For certain preachers in town, these signs were a summons no one could miss. Hunger for proclamation was rampant in the land—hadn’t they said so, time and again?  These signs were a foretaste, crumbs before the feast. Soon we’d be called, each by name, and our soulless insect-lives would cease.

I had no theory of my own. Once or twice, I wondered what message might be directed at me had I a lawn. I could think of half a dozen apropos, hurtful but safely hypothetical, nothing to nail me, no actual skin off my actual back. As a renter, not a homeowner, I remained unmarked, untouched, and felt no cause for alarm as I strolled past lawn after lawn, reading as I went, amused, or bored, or interested, as the case might be, a spectator merely, a tourist on the scene. I took pride in my exemption. Personally, I’d never even be caught wearing one of those T-shirts with writing plastered across my chest telling the world my business, or allow a brand name on my pocket, or sleeve, or anywhere on the outside where others could see. Even if you paid me for it, I wouldn’t.

So I told myself.

§

We’d been having a spell of Indian summer, leaves humming, the air full of languishing golden motes, a whole week of brimming, balmy days, and I wanted to savor every minute of every day, knowing that it wouldn’t—couldn’t—last. So I was walking home. I knew I had to hurry, though; there was much yet to do: intercepting Marge, my fiancée (the delicate part), then making it to Sue’s on time—a date, you might call it, had it been licit. It was nothing of the kind, of course. Why do I do this? I asked myself, not for the first time. To prove that flight is still possible, the will unfettered, the mind of man unknowable? (All too knowable, I fear. I wanted to have my cake, eaten and uneaten—plus an edible plate and fork, while I was at it.) I never learn! I’d done this before, been engaged before—to Loris, and my dalliance with Loretta (mere friskiness) had shattered it. Now here was Marge, a perfectly wonderful woman. I was well aware of how lucky I was in that respect. True, Marge was a bit older than Sue, and—how should I put it?—of a more muted plumage. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

It didn’t help that it was so lovely out. You know that special time, that magic liminal hour, not day, not yet dusk?

My first mistake was deciding to walk home. My car was at the garage, but if I’d wanted what I thought I wanted, I should have shared a ride with Ed, who’d offered. Or taken a cab—I could have afforded that if I didn’t make a habit of it.

If only I had!

Sue had laid down the ultimatum last week: she’d wait for me, allowing for traffic, ten minutes past the agreed-upon time, but not a minute more. So I had it all plotted down to the minute. If everything went according to plan, I’d be home to receive my fiancée’s what-are-you-doing-for-dinner call at precisely a quarter to six. I had to be at home to receive it. I’d considered buying a cell phone but decided against it; with a cell phone, my call could be coming from anywhere; it wouldn’t have given Marge the reassurance she needed.

Once home, I’d plead an overload of student essays. That wasn’t entirely a lie. The students still had a few days until deadline, but a surprising number of them had handed in their papers in advance. We’d had our last session on Yeats and, after struggling through “Leda and the Swan” with them in class, I knew what I’d be getting—the extremes, anyway. I can’t say which I looked forward to least: the feminists, aggrieved and not for an instant fooled by Zeus in his swan suit, his borrowed plumes; or the devotees of beautiful words, lofting high and gracefully over the brute fact of rape.

But about the call to Marge…I thought I’d throw in a headache for good measure, and promise a rain check for tomorrow. A five-minute conversation would release me from the obligatory, and I’d slip out the back door to freedom—my six o’clock rendezvous with Sue.

My sweet Sue…mine, I fear, no longer. My second mistake was stopping to read another sign on my way home for that phone call. So close to freedom, the seconds ticking away—how could I waste a one?  All I can say is that curiosity is a chronic condition with me. And I happen to be addicted to the written word; it’s a lifelong thing. So it wasn’t an impulse out of the blue, although, given my tight schedule, it’s something I should have squelched at the outset.

Should have!  The fact was, though, I was mightily distracted: the estimable Marge, on the one hand, silky, sultry, light-fingered Sue on the other, plus the superlatively fine weather, the world smiling all around me. And then there were all those signs—proclamations, left and right—every spirit waving flags!

I discounted a couple of endorsements for roofers, cardboard stapled to plywood, set in shallow earth. There were a few election notices of the same construction with the same temporary look. Passing a huge house with three fireplace chimneys, captain’s walk, and gazebo, I spied, half-obscured by a realtor’s placard—can we live this way?  I passed beware—bad dog, the warning tacked to a gate, but I seemed to recall it being there a year ago when I moved into the neighborhood, long before the arrival of the mystery signs.

I passed let ’em eat grass and humble grumble and the mystifying mister whirlicat, skimming along, enjoying them all. I wasn’t at risk, as I said, wasn’t personally involved—I remained a spectator. I wasn’t the only one. Weekends, lately, you’d see people strolling or driving slowly through the streets, touring and taking in the signs, same way they took in the festive lights and house decorations during the Christmas season.

So I was sightseeing and enjoying the splendid weather, no crime in that. Yet that was my undoing. I paused—just for a second—to check out a notice on a utility pole. Why it caught my eye right then, I’ll never know. The sign was weathered and fraying; it wasn’t new. I wondered how I’d missed it before. It was far too wordy—I could see that at a glance—but, once I’d taken in the first two lines, I couldn’t resist at least scanning one or two more.

PLEASE HELP US!!!
**LOST COCKATOO**
REWARD
ON OCT. 15, OUR COCKATOO CHRISTINA DISAPPEARED. SHE WAS SPOTTED ON OCT. 19 AT THE CORNER OF DEAL AND DUNCAN
WHERE SHE LANDED ON A MAN’S SHOULDER BUT WAS SCARED AWAY BY A DOG.

There followed a photograph of Christina—a photocopy of a photograph, to be exact—in shades of gray and white. I assumed she was mostly white; it was impossible to make out the intermediate colors, which were not described. Even without color, Christina was stunning, a queen, with her regal, back-sweeping crest. Only a bird, I know, but unmistakably a she—all sweet, sweet curves, from her mantle—the plump of her shoulders—to the tips of her folded wings. Whether her tail tapered or bunched or broadened out, I couldn’t tell: the picture was cut off above the tail. It didn’t matter. I’m not a bird fancier, but a bird with a torso like hers, shaped like a valentine, was clearly a heartbreaker. I had to read on.

IMPORTANT
IF SHE LANDS ON YOUR SHOULDER DON’T BE AFRAID! SHE IS VERY TAME, LOVES A CUDDLE, AND WILL NOT HURT OR BITE YOU UNLESS PROVOKED!

Here, I paused to take in the double underlining. Unless provoked. I gave the phrase due pause before continuing:

PLEASE TRY TO WALK SLOWLY BACKWARDS INTO YOUR HOUSE WITH HER ON YOUR SHOULDER. TO CATCH HER IN FLIGHT PLEASE OFFER
HER A SLICE OF BREAD OR SHOW HER A SMALL BOX AND SHAKE IT IN FRONT OF HER AND YELL, “CHRISTINA, CHARCOAL.” SHE IS CRAZY
ABOUT BIRD CHARCOAL.
WE ARE DESPERATE TO GET OUR BELOVED CHRISTINA BACK! PLEASE HELP US! CALL ANY TIME DAY OR NIGHT.

It occurred to me only after I’d crossed the street that the Christina notice had been neither tacked nor taped to the post, but must have been clinging to it somehow, perhaps plastered there by the wind. There wasn’t a breath of wind stirring, though.

I didn’t dwell on this because I was speeding then, my mind roving along, keeping pace with my feet. I thought of the lawn signs again, passing another new one with I’M STILL HERE in silver, reflector-paint letters against a black background, rising from a mangy patch of buffalo grass. The words must float eerily at night, I thought. I passed UNSUNG HERO—posted, no doubt, by the owner himself. So much desperate seeking—for attention, fame, validation, Christina.  I thought of my romp to come in Sue’s waterbed, our intimate dinner (Chinese-Cuban takeout by candlelight), then back to the lurching bed, our revels mercifully private, and wondered why others lusted so for publicity.

By now I was getting hot, and really hustling, as I should have been all along, minding my own increasingly urgent business. As I checked my watch I thought I heard someone chuckling. I glanced over my shoulder, but there was no one behind me. A car passed, drawing to a stop before turning the corner; its windows were closed. The sound I heard wasn’t coming from there.

Again! More chuckling, three syllables repeated, clearly inflected. I was being shadowed, yet—I made a sharp about-face to make sure—no one was following. No wandering dogs or cats in sight. No squirrels.

But there was something—a soft shuffling in the air, a shimmer. Something loitering, loitering with intent, moving slowly in a holding pattern, overhead. I was being shadowed from above. I glanced skyward, warily, making a visor of my hand. There it was: a local—all too local—cloud, silvery, then white, a dazzle of white tinged with gold. A small, circling cloud. And I was inside the circle, inscribed.

I knew at once who it was, even before I could hear the clapping of wings or catch the single word of her summons: “Chill!”  Then I felt the great webs of her wings stretch over me. It was Christina, without question Christina, and I—all I could think of was to cover my eyes. Why me?  What to do? What did I know about birds, actual birds? Not a thing, not a thing. There was Prometheus, of course—but those were vultures, weren’t they?—and there was something I’d read who-knew-where about an ordinary midsized pet bird who’d demolished a chain-link fence with a few chops of his tiny beak. The only other thing I knew was that birds ate incessantly, ravenously. Christina would surely be hungry after a week of foraging on her own. I feared for the soft pendants of my ears, the glossy grapes of my eyes; I could not turn my face to meet hers. All I heard was her insistent “Chill! Chill!” Indeed, I did chill. I stood stock still, I chilled, I froze in place—

—as she alighted on my shoulder, my left shoulder. Heart side. The gentlest of touchdowns, but I must have recoiled without thinking. With a flutter and puffing of feathers, she rose and hovered again.

Then she resettled on the top of my head.

My hair, though I cover it carefully, is thinning, and I felt, keenly, the precise, four-pointed imprinting, the distinct hieroglyph of each splayed foot on the tender parchment of my scalp. She did not scratch—for the moment, she chose not to do so. I remained motionless, a pedestal, as she settled on her high perch. Would no one rescue me?  But there was no one about, except for the body beautiful jogging, already vanishing, through the intersection ahead. I had to remain calm; I could not call out.

Slowly, ever so gingerly testing, placing each foot unsurely, I turned, facing the way I’d come, and started to step backward. Christina held.

§

And now here I am, plumed—ridiculously, ferociously, gloriously crested. It is not yet too late. If I were brave enough…. Why, oh why, did I ever stop to read that sign? What if I hadn’t stopped? I know I am losing seconds at every step. My game is almost up. Almost, not quite—I could still cut and run. I am only a few blocks from home. If I dare—

But, no, it’s all up with me! She is so close that her wings ruffle the short hairs around my ears; in a minute my phone will ring, no one will answer it; my feet, baffled, will not be hurried; never could I explain this and be believed, my head wrapped in feathers, my house at my back ever before me, my heart racing, racing—

 


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