Authors: Jim Grimsley
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Post Office Box 2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225
a division of
Workman Publishing Company, Inc.
New York, New York 10003
Â© 1984 Jim Grimsley.
Published first in the German translation, under the title:
Â© 1992 zebra literaturverlag, Berlin
The German edition was published by Edition diÃ¡,
St. Gallen/Berlin/SÃ£o Paulo in 1992.
This edition Â© 1994 by Jim Grimsley. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America
Printed simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Grimsley, Jim, 1955â
Winter Birds / by Jim Grimsley.
1. Family violenceâUnited StatesâFiction.
2. HemophiliacsâUnited StatesâFiction. 3.
BoysâUnited StatesâFiction. I. Title.
My thanks go to many people, but especially to Del Hamilton, Faye Allen, my friends at 7Stages Theatre, Frank Heibert, Michael Merschmeier, Thomas Brovot, Helmut and the folks at
, Ann Marie MÃ©tailiÃ©, Pierre LÃ©glise-Costa, Lisa Corley, Kit Corley, Greg Carraway, George Bacso, Susan Lindsay, Roxanne Henderson, Nancy Mattox, Kathie de Nobriga, Jo Carson, Celeste Miller, Elise Witt, Madeleine St. Romain, Max Steele, Doris Betts, Romulus Linney, Koukla MacLehose, Jim Baker, Bill Whitehead, and my deepest appreciation to Algonquin Books and Workman. On a personal note, thanks to my sister Jackie, my brother Jasper, and my late brother Brian; also thanks to my stepfather Don Hotaling and to Sarah, Kathryn, Corey, and Janet. Deepest personal thanks to my mother, for all the obvious reasons, and to Carlos SchrÃ¶der, for his great support and friendship.
For Mary Brantham, my mother
Out past the clapboard house in the weeds by the riverbank your brothers are killing birds. By the river flocks of wrens, starlings and a few faded female cardinals have gathered to feed on the leavings in the cornfield, and your brothers lie hidden in the weeds with their shared gun, waiting to burst open bird skulls with their copper BBs. At every shot you can hear your brothers laughing.
You brush bits of powdered grass from your fingers. You dread going to the river while your brothers are there, so you wait till you see them walking home on the road that divides the fields, three small figures swaggering through the dirt. They handle the BB gun carelessly, trading it back and forth, each slinging the barrel over his shoulder like a hunter in a frontier television show. You walk toward them over furrows of earth littered with cornstalks made soft by rain. By the edge of the dirt road you meet them. They are shouting your name, asking if dinner is ready yet. Grove, the youngest and littlest, grabs the tail of your coat and turns you around. His swollen
arm is still in the pressure bandage. Watching him, you are glad you have no hurt places on you today. The gladness makes you ashamed. Grove's face, turned toward yours, is bright and happy in spite of his arm. “Will it snow today?” he asks. “I never saw snow before.”
“Maybe so,” you answer, watching the clouds overhead, hanging close over the treetops, heavy with a load of something waiting to fall. “The weatherman didn't say for sure. He only said it was likely.”
Grove turns to Allen. “Tell Danny about the bird I killed. It was a little old wren wasn't it, Allen Ray?”
“Maybe it was a wren.”
“I shot it right clean through the head, Danny!”
You do not smile but simply watch Allen, who shifts his feet. Before you can say anything, Allen flushes, as if he can already hear you scolding him. “You don't need to give me that high-and-mighty look. It didn't hurt Grove to shoot that gun. There ain't enough kick to it to bruise a spider.”
“Does your arm hurt, Grove?”
“I don't care about this stupid arm, I hit that teeny bird right in the head.”
“Probably it was a buzzard,” Duck says, scowling toward the river, where the birds are chattering. “It was so far away you couldn't tell what it was. Probably it's not even dead.”
“I saw it fall from way up in the air. I did too! You're jealous because you ain't killed one bird since we moved here, and you wasted a hundred-fifty BBs.”
You tell them to hush. From the house you hear the sound you have come to escape. Duck, angry, says, “Don't tell me what to do, Mr. Big Shot.”
“I said hush and be still.”
He would go on arguing, you think, except he sees you are looking at the house across the field. They all fall quiet. Though their faces show no sign, you know how their bellies feel, the quick cool hollowness. The house is a square white box half hidden by trees. From it travels a flat thread of sound, and you feel yourself go empty listening to it. “It's Papa,” you say. A raw edge to the wind's flight over the fields, a sound like an animal would make. Allen frowns and says, “We can all hear it. You don't have to tell us who it is.”
Grove says, “Boy is he ever loud today.”
“Don't talk about it,” Allen says. “Act like it ain't there.”
Duck clenches his fists against his ears. Grove says, “I bet Mama is scared already.”
You say, watching Allen's hurt frown, “Be quiet Grove. We all know that.”
“I bet she's walking the floors.”
“Shut up,” Duck says.
“I can't hear it any more,” Allen says.
“It'll start again in a minute,” you say.
“Quit acting like you're somebody's daddyâ”
“Danny ain't acting like Papa!” Grove shouts.
“I ain't said he was acting like Papa,” Allen says, “I said he was acting like somebody's daddy. It's a big difference.”
He steps on a cornstalk to make it crunch. Duck swings the BB gun across the stiff weeds. “Mama and Amy are alone with him,” he says.
“I was just there,” you answer. “He hasn't tried to hurt anybody.”
“We should still go back there,” Allen says.
“I don't want to go back there, I just came from there,” you say. “I want to walk by the river.”
“You go to that old river so much you ought to be a fish,” Duck says.
“If you stay gone long you know Mama will get worried,” Allen says. Grove laughs suddenly, clapping his hands. “Now who's acting like the daddy?”
“Danny knows she will.”
You smell the hinted sweetness of the river water on the wind. You say, “I won't stay long. I promise.”
Duck tosses the gun over his shoulder. “Danny can do what he wants to, who cares. But I ain't standing here all day in the freezing cold waiting for him to make up his mind.”
“Well you better be careful with that gun,” Allen says. “Because I ain't going to fix it any more if you break it.” He takes Grove's hand and they begin to walk toward the house. “You don't fall on nothing else to get it started bleeding either. That would be all Mama could stand.”
“Yes Papa Allen, yes Papa Allen,” Grove chants, and dances over the corn rows behind the others. They kick a path through the stalks, shouting at each other. You stand there listening until the low clouds and the distance
shrink them and drink their noises. Beyond them, washed in filtered light, the house they walk toward huddles against the edges of the fields. You already feel it waiting for you to come back.
But you turn away, Danny the Lesser, and you ease toward the walls of pine whispering, “I will never go home, I will never go home.” You walk to the river to listen to the slow water drift between the banks, hoping you will find a place there to hide from this noise that begins again now, traveling low to the ground.
Today is Thanksgiving and you are freed from school. You can lie in your bed of honeysuckle vine and dream all day beside the river. Walking there, you hug yourself with thin arms, your dark hair blown by the wind. Overhead the branches sway back and forth. At night when you lie awake in your bed you can hear the wind sing in their tops, and the sound makes you believe a person lives in each tree.
As you walk you dread the things you have learned to dread: your Papa, your special blood, anything that shakes it. You place each step carefully so you do not fall.
Round a curve in the path Queenie sniffs this way and that in the grass, swinging her bony head. Maybe she is smelling to see where your brothers have gone. She sees you and runs to you with her tongue trailing in the grass. River smell clings to her fur. You hug her close, hearing her heartbeat, stroking her soft brown coat. When she lifts her wet nose to be scratched you scratch it.
Her distended belly sways back and forth, heavy with
the puppies she waits to have. You scratch the taut skin of her belly lightly, half-expecting it to make the sound balloons make when you rub their sides. Delighted, she rolls on her back, tail thumping dirt. Her naked white belly is hairless and smooth, and you touch it gingerly. Puppies sleep under this warm skin. Queenie watches you as if she expects this is the beginning of some new game. You say, “Don't worry, I won't try to get them out before they're done. I only wondered what colors they are.”
She settles her head in the dry grass. You touch her pink nipples, the stiff tips hot and moist. “Mama says she's going to drown your babies in the river,” you tell her. “Grove says he won't let her get your babies, he says he'll hide them as soon as they're born, but Mama will find them wherever they are. She says she don't want stray dogs around her house eating up everything in sight. Not when she's already feeding their stray mama.”
Queenie cocks her ear. Babies are easy to get, she says. I'm not scared of your Mama. I can make as many babies as I want to.
“You don't even care about your babies, do you?”
They're just babies, she says.
“But where do you get your babies from? And why do they feel so hot when I touch your belly?”
They're about to burn right slam up inside me, she says, with her tongue trailing into the grass.
At school the girls say puppies come from the same place babies come from, they slide into their mama's stomachs out of the sky, easy as snowflakes melting in your
hand. Never mind what the nasty boys say. “But how do they get out of your stomach?”
She gives you an arrogant glance. Why they climb out, stupid. That's how.
She touches your hand with a paw cold from being on the ground. She wishes you would rub her belly some more, but suddenly you are tired of this hungry look she gives you and you wonder if anybody could ever pet her enough to satisfy her. Mama would tell you to stop touching the dog this way. You say, “Go away stupid dog, I don't want to rub on you any more.”
But she goes on waiting for your hand. You stand and push her with your shoe. “Get up from that ground you stupid thing. Go away from me, you don't belong to my family and you never did and you never will either!”
When she still does not move you walk away from her. She simply watches you with her round black eyes, her pale belly pointing to the sky.
the pines must like the quiet, the same way God likes quiet in church, so you tiptoe through the underbrush. Under your breath you sing, “Shall we gather at the ri-i-verâ” breaking off the tip of a branch as you always do when you pass a low tree or bushâ“the beautiful, beautiful ri-i-ver,” you sing, stripping the leaves off the stems, tearing them to pieces and dropping the pieces to the ground. You love the way the bits of leaves fall, the air under them so solid it knocks them from side to side.
But soon you stop your wandering and walk directly
to the river, not caring how much noise your feet make in the beds of cold-stiffened leaves. You have a place you always go, a certain clearing beside a train trestle that you found the first day your family moved to this house. You like the place because the branches overhead are thin and sunlight, on a clear day, falls through them making nets of shadow on the ground. Today same as every other day something in you lifts as you enter the clearing. You jump over a fallen log imagining Mama warning you to be careful, don't fall on something and get yourself hurt. You sing the song louder, “Shall we ga-ather at the ri-i-ver, the be-oo-tiful, be-oo-tiful ri-i-ver!”