E
Jul/Aug 2002 spotlight

Kansas

by Drew Colin McNaughton


Art by Bob Dornborg

 

Megan had just turned down the radio to tell me I could get out and walk the rest of the goddamned way to Denver when the birds started falling. The first duck hit the car with a clacking thud, left a tuft of feathers under the wipers and a splash of wet crimson where the beak cracked the windshield. Megan pulled the car to the shoulder, cut the ignition, and turned to me.

"Get out," she said.

But I stayed there staring at the windshield. I could see the small chip that the beak had made beginning to spiderweb through the cold glass, the cracks razoring their way to the edges. Amazing, the way fractures grow through glass. Smooth angles.

"Crazy," I said.

Megan held her fingers to her temples, rubbing in quick tight circles, and kept her eyes focused on the wheel.

We had been in Kansas now for about two hours, and the snow that had fallen the night before in Chicago had turned into sleet and had just recently ceased altogether. We were headed home from her sister's wedding, and we'd just decided there was no way we would make it together. The wind shuddered against the car parked there on the interstate. We weren't even halfway home.

"I didn't see it," she said, holding her palms up shoulder level, lifting them skyward.

"That's because it fell, I think," I said, peering up into the lone slice of blue in the flat gray sky. This, I was convinced, was where the bird came from. It fell through a rip in the clouds.

Megan got pregnant in Chicago. Or maybe I got her pregnant in Denver before we'd even left. We'd stood, bent over the plastic test applicator, together in the pale light of the bathroom, and watched the small, pink plus sign appear.

"Oooh, shit," I'd said.

"Nice, Eric," she'd replied. "You sound like you missed a fucking jump shot."

She'd hidden the test under some magazines in the garbage then, and I'd tried to hug her. I'd even said things about everything being alright—how we'd get through it together—but I had no idea what I was talking about, and had hoped even then that she'd see I was no more a father that day than I ever would be. She had let me brush her hair, and after a while said she was just as scared and confused as I was, but during the reception I had watched her spit out the champagne after the toast, and I knew she had made a decision. We had hugged her parents goodbye on their cold porch, and it had burned like hell when her mother pinched my cheek, saying that I was a keeper, sure thing, a keeper.

In the car I suggested we go back, see if the bird was dead. Megan yanked the parking brake and told me to go ahead. The bird lay sprawled on the road behind the small car. Some of the feathers torn off during impact floated up in the wind that was forming small tornadoes, whipping chaos through the cornrows.

"Promise you won't just take off? Leave me freezing out there?"

"Promise you're not going to haul that dead bird back here?"

The wind outside the car picked up speed from somewhere past the horizon and seemed to come from all directions. I knew the iridescent green and blue chevrons on the duck's wings meant it was a male. There was something wicked about the way the beak was splintered from base to tip, and the pale gelatinous ooze—it must have been brain—that seeped from the skull. I tried imagining the bird alive, in flight. All I could think of, though, was that cartoon duck: a stuttering, incomprehensible thing. This bird was motionless, smashed on the asphalt, its neck corkscrewed twice and a patch of down missing from its chest.

My neighbor had two geese when I'd lived in Maine growing up. A pair of honking things that would burst into a flailing mania of honks and feathers when anything approached. Those birds had beaks that began as bulbous orange knobs at the skull, tapering to flat shovels. If you were close enough, got them nervous enough, they would open their beaks between honks and somehow hiss like snakes. I used to sit at the edge of the chicken wire cage, tossing handfulls of pebbles to hear that sound.

When I bent to lift the dead bird off the asphalt, I noticed its wings were covered in a thick layer of ice. I remembered hearing on the radio once that geese, ducks, and other migratory fowl can sometimes get icing on their wings, the same way a 747 does. The birds that get covered with ice will exhaust themselves trying to keep up with the flock until the weight and exertion become too much and they free-fall. I thought about this as I lifted the bird and threw it, spiraling, into the tall grass of the shoulder. Down the road I could see Megan's head in the car, her neck twisted to see what could be taking me so long, out here alone in the cold. Her concern for me was touching, really, but all I really wanted was to take back that thing I had made in her.

I was eight years old when my family went on the Cape Cod vacation. I had come down with pinkeye, smallpox, or chickenpox, something that kept me from going. My family left me with my aunt Caroline for two weeks. I remember seeing her walk through the living room naked on my last night there. She was pale, loosely wrinkled, with a scar that sliced horizontally in a fold just above her graying pubic hair, where the doctors had once pulled out a stillborn baby boy. She'd told me some of the details when I'd asked the next morning, over oatmeal, what could make such a scar. Later that day, when my father had come, sea-tanned and sunglassed, to retrieve me, she'd told him that we'd had loads of fun, but all I could remember is that deep line of purple stretched out, folded, and the word caesarian.

Megan said we should stop for lunch soon when I got back to the car, and I told her that the duck was indeed killed on impact. I remembered the radio program about this phenomenon. How the wind, temperature and moisture have to be just right for the ice to form on the waxy feathers, but that when even a small amount accumulates, there is nothing the bird can do.

Just then another black and white shape streaked from the sky and bounced on the asphalt just in front of the car. Megan screamed and jerked the steering wheel, but we didn't miss the body of the thing, and it thumped beneath the tires. We swayed back and forth together in the car for a long time while she recovered.

"What the hell was that?" she demanded, her hands trembling on the wheel.

Looking back, I could see the shape of the new bird, still spinning with inertia over the pavement. Black, white and gray feathers snaked after us, caught in our wake.

"That, I think, was a Canada goose," I said.

I tried to explain what I'd heard on the radio to Megan, what I thought was happening to the birds. It felt good when she listened, like I knew something. There was an exit to a town called Lynnburg. As Megan flipped the blinker, we were talking about how scared the geese must be.

"Imagine that," she said, "all of your instincts screaming at you to keep up! Keep flying! Stay with the group! But still you just keep falling."

Earlier, before we'd run into the duck, Megan had brought up the idea of keeping the baby.

"We've been together for two years, Eric," she'd said. "It's not like we shouldn't be able to deal with this."

"It's a baby," I'd said, "I can't just deal with it like it's a flu or something... something I'll get over."

"Great, you just compared my baby to a disease."

"No. And influenza is a virus Megan. Cancer is a disease. A baby's forever, like a diamond, a little bouncing baby diamond. Is that a more fair comparison? A diamond?"

She started screaming about my irresponsibility, but I could only see her hands gripping the wheel. Each white knuckle glowed singular and white, and I was sure right then that if she'd bent that wheel into the shape of her fear, it would have saved me a lot of explaining. But she didn't. She called me a malignant waste of time and an asshole and worse, but I could only stare and worry how a child would ever survive those hands.

We pulled into Lynnburg's restaurant, a fifties-style diner called Big Buff Faye's, with a cutout on a billboard in the parking lot of a burly woman flexing a bicep and holding a dinner plate. When we got to the entrance, there was a note taped inside the window scrawled on a receipt that said "closed for a while," and I turned to show Megan, but she was staring across the road toward a barn in a wheat field.

When I followed her gaze, I could see a herd of people gathering in front of the barn doors. Some figures were just arriving and joining the crowd.

"Let's go see what's going on," she said, already stepping away from me. I followed her across the road, and as we drew near, I could make out the individuals in the crowd more clearly. Some were standing together in small groups, but most of them were bent over, tromping through the grass with their arms outstretched, chasing something. Then I saw the geese. There must have been fifty of them, holding their heads high, chests puffed as they waddled and scattered quickly. Some of them dragged their heavy, limp wings at their sides, rustling about with awkward difficulty. I reached for Megan, but she picked up her pace and went for the geese.

At the edge of the crowd was an old woman standing alone, her head wrapped in a gray wool shawl. She winced when I touched her shoulder and asked her what was happening. She explained that the geese had just started falling that morning, and that this group had come down all at once. Some of the geese weren't hurt at all, but many had broken their wings, so that now the others wouldn't leave.

"We're trying to get them into the grain silo," she said, nodding toward the gaping doors of the building behind me.

"What for?" I asked. They're going to eat them, I thought.

"Sort out the healthy ones. Some of those birds aren't going to be able to fly anymore. Plus the other ones are all icy and they can warm up in there. There's food they can eat. They'll fly off."

I could see Megan getting everyone organized into a chain, locking arms in a semi-circle, closing in.

When I was ten, I remember watching my neighbor kill one of his geese while I waited for the bus. I stood in my yard while it rained that morning, shielding the papier-mâché sculpture of Saturn, my astronomy project, with my raincoat. My neighbor stepped out of his door in his long underwear, and I crouched low so he wouldn't notice me. He was a large old man with broad shoulders and a long gray moustache. He had one arm like a sailor, hairy and muscular, while the other, gnarled and infantile, was cramped and bent to his chest as if always pointing at himself.

"Part dwarf, I am," he'd told me the first time he'd caught me staring.

I watched him stride from his front door straight to the bird pen, kneel down and extend his strong hand, palm up, toward the wire mesh, making a soft cooing sound in his throat. When one of the geese finally approached, put its head through the mesh and started to nibble at the grain he held, the man flashed his teeth and with a sudden overhand twist of his wrist, grabbed the goose by the neck. Then, still on his knees, he yanked his arm back like he was starting a chainsaw. The goose slammed against the chicken wire, flapping and straining, but the hand knotted on its neck would not let go, and I thought I heard a crunching sound just before the bird stopped flailing.

I came home from school that day and saw that he'd killed both of the birds. They hung plucked and pink from the cage, side-by-side, wired there by the neck. The neighbor brought us one of the birds the next day. He had cleaned out their entrails at some point, and I remember how my father, my mother, even aunt Caroline had teased me that Thanksgiving when I'd refused to eat the stuffing from that hole.

In the field, the line of townspeople had funneled most of the geese into the barn when I saw Megan break off from the end of the chain. She turned, backtracked a few paces and then stopped, reaching into the tall grass below her. I jogged over to her, but when I saw the dead bird on the ground between her feet, I stopped. Her back was to me, but I could tell she was crying by the way her shoulders kept jerking upwards, the way she slapped her hand to her mouth. I reached for her other hand and pulled. She wouldn't move.

"It's dead," I said. "Come on."

I leaned back with all my weight on my heels like a child, trying to pull her away. I remember that wonderful release: Megan snapping her hand away from mine. I could not have known that day that she would name the boy for a saint, raise him with a man named Chuck who filled vending machines in Des Moines, or that this world is full of secrets like mine. I only knew the crisp cold sting of the frozen wheat on my cheek when I fell. I knew the lone slice of blue in the gray sky, caesarian, and the crystals of ice on the delicate wing feathers of a dead bird pointing up from the field.

 

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