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Authors: William J. Cobb

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The Bird Saviors

BOOK: The Bird Saviors
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Intro
T h e    B i r d    S a v i o r s
A l s o  b y  W i l l i a m  J . C o b b
The Fire Eaters
The White Tattoo

Goodnight, Texas

T h e  B i r d  S a v i o r s
William J. Cobb

U n b r i d l e d     B o o k s

This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents
are either the product of the author's imagination
or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to
actual persons living or dead, business establishments,
events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Unbridled Books
Copyright © 2012 by William J. Cobb

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in
any form without permission.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Cobb, William J. (William James), 1957–
The bird saviors / William J. Cobb.
pages cm
ISBN 978-1-60953-070-9
1. Parent and child—Fiction. 2. Environmental degradation—
Fiction. 3. Southwestern States—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3553.O199B57 2012
813'.54—dc23
2011045575

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
b o o k d e s i g n b y s h · c v
First Printing

For Elizabeth & Lili

Pa r t O n e

The government killed more than 2.7 million "nuisance" animals last year, including starlings, troublemaking birds that destroy crops and contaminate livestock feed. Also killed were wild turkeys and chickens, black bears, coyotes and wolves. The animals were mainly killed because they threatened livestock, crops or people in airplanes. . . .

The largest number of animals killed— 2.3 million— were starlings. . . . Critics say the poison used also kills owls,

hawks, magpies, raccoons and cats.
—" 'Nuisance' Animals Killed in U.S. Program,"
New York Times
, 11 September 2005, 
Horses in Red Snow
L o r d   G o d   i s   t a l k i n g   a g a i n .  H e   d o e s  love to hear himself speak. A graybeard loon, he sits hunched over the kitchen table, his arms sunburned, nose hooked, hair thin and wiry, ranting hoarse- voiced about sinners and socialists. Outside the foggy window Smoke Larks flutter liquid as living shadows to perch atop the woodshed. When they settle the morning sun backlights their black silhouettes like burnt figures on a woodcut.
    Ruby shifts the baby girl in her lap and thinks of the birds, how they must be cold of a morning like this. She's seen twelve this week whole. She counts the birds and invents her own names. She knows people call them by another name, but she calls them Smoke Larks. Swirling in vast flocks in late winter, they look like smoke from a great fire, burnt souls twisting in the wind. Purple- black, dusky, and speckled, the short- tailed birds scatter among the twisted junipers in the backyard, pecking in the dry hay grass.
    Ruby began counting all the birds two years before, when she noticed how quickly they seemed to be dwindling. They are disappearing and someone has to note this, to keep it in her mind if nowhere else. The going away of things has to be noted. Especially a thing as perfect as a bird, even the squawky Blackjacks, or an old Grief Bird with claws like voodoo earrings.
    Only a handful of Smoke Larks came this winter, rare as snow. She remembers home- school years not so long ago when both snow and larks were common still and taken for granted. She remembers being trapped in the house and staring out the windows, watching the birds, wondering when she would go to school like normal children. And when she did, at age thirteen, she wasn't prepared for it. The smiles and touches. The looking at you and teasing, the telling you how funny you talk, how pretty you are. After years of harsh soap and chores and the warnings against vanity and foolishness. The wanting something from you, something unspeakable but familiar.
    She remembers the Smoke Larks in her home- school years, outside her window, her untouchable friends. The cottonwoods in the gulch used to wear them like black leaves every February. Now more often than not the skies are clear and hateful, not a bird shadow or silhouette to be seen. Taken for granted are fires in the foothills and dust storms off the plains.
    The world has gone wrong. They pay men to hunt and shoot birds. The fever has the city people spooked. They blame it on the birds, stupid stupid. It's a shame is what it is. Nothing to do but count to the last one. Ruby hasn't seen a Moon Bird in over a year, and Squeakies are just a flicker of what they used to be.
    Baby girl Lila tugs at Ruby's nipple and puts her hand on her breast. Lord God says the world is Lila's to inherit and see through to the end. Ruby wants her to grow up in a world of birds and the beauty of spotted feathers. She worries that the last of the birds will be gone before Lila has a chance to recognize their leaving.
    Things don't stay around forever.
    People don't either. Like her mother. She's been gone for two weeks and Ruby can't take life without her. Life in this house. With its mouse scratchings and bacon grease and Book of Mormon on the table. The sense of Lord God breathing down your neck. Ruby's eyes well with tears as Lila's hand rests against the pale skin of her breast. The baby girl's eyelids blink as if in slow motion, her arms creased with fat wrinkles at the wrist, fingers splayed like the rays of a starfish.
    Across the kitchen table Lord God is going on about how he needs to trim the toenails of his one good foot. And the danger of the bears. How in droughts like this they come down from the mountains. How you have to be careful. They could be out there, lurking behind the woodshed. They can smell bacon five miles away, he says, his voice raspy as that of a biblical prophet.
    Ruby turns her face to her pancakes. She doesn't want to hear such nonsense. She doesn't feel right herself this morning. Her nose has been running and her cheeks feel hot and flushed. She fears the fever but doesn't dare say a word. She will pretend Lord God doesn't exist if for one second he will just shut up. He holds out a plate of bacon and eggs, urges her to eat. He has cooked their breakfast and the least she can do is enjoy it. She needs to put some meat on her bones, she does, and he has blessed the food especially for her.
    She lifts her face and tells him Lila is almost finished feeding, she'll eat in a minute. She speaks in barely a whisper, stares out the window at the parched fields of prairie and high desert, the Sierra Mojada in the west turning pink with the sunrise, above it a wall of dark curdled clouds. Opposite the mountains comes the day's light casting its long morning shadows onto rabbit bush, sage, and bunchgrass.
    Behind the shed the crooked wooden fence posts lean this way and that like tombstones on a wind- bitten hillside. Lord God's land is miles outside Pueblo, off Red Creek Road West. The edge of nowhere, its face to the hills and back to the town, true to his isolation- scenario mind- set. The fence is a last stand before the coyote howls of emptiness beyond.
    Wind gusts make the power lines hiss and whistle. In the west the sky above the mountains looms russet and solid, an ash cloud of trouble coming. Like wet walls of the Red Sea parted and waiting for that moment to swallow up the world once again. The weather people don't know what to make of it. Snow and dust storms at once, a thing both strange and ordinary now as a sky without birds.
    Lila falls asleep with the nipple in her mouth. Ruby does her best to tune out Lord God. She strokes her baby's cheek for a moment, heartbroken at what's in her own mind, the anguish she faces. She eases Lila into the wicker bassinet between the kitchen table and the woodstove. Before the stove she squats to open its black cast- iron door, adds a couple split pieces of aspen from the cardboard kindling box. A wisp of smoke belches out, the gusty wind backing it down the stovepipe chimney. The heat makes her face flush, a smoky tang sharp in her nose.
    That's enough, says Lord God. Until this wind dies down it's a bother. Another gust and this house will be smoky as hell.
    Ruby stands and refuses to look in Lord God's direction. She rinses plates and cups at the kitchen sink. Outside the window a pair of Grief Birds perch on the fence rail. These are bigger than crows, lonely, speaking in tongues of portent. The closest Grief to the house croaks and shakes its ruffled neck feathers like an African lion its mane. Lord God is asking her something, again, but she doesn't catch what he says. She has to concentrate to decipher the sounds that issue from his perpetually hoarse voice.
    You aren't ready for the world, he says. Do you know what it's like to live in a Muslim house? I've seen it. I've fought in their streets. You leave the house without your face covered? They scar you with whips. You fall for a man not your husband? They stone you to death. It's a circle of shame there and they want to make us their slaves. I've seen it. I know. And now I'm returned to set right the scales of justice in this fallen, sinful world of Mammon.
BOOK: The Bird Saviors
5.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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