The Language of Birds

In Issue 66 by Catherine Puckett

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Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

“We are not bodies only, but winged souls.”

Pythagoras in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Renata stares at the electric knifefish and eel exhibit at the New Orleans Aquarium. She thinks that if she knew there would be passion in heaven and that heaven existed, the whole thing would be easier to bear. Marital dissatisfaction, she suspects, is one of the great underlying reasons for belief in an afterlife.

She grips four-year-old Noah’s hand so he can’t wander away again. Noah is quick and curious, like she was as a child, and because he is like her, she already hurts for him.

“Look Noah,” she says, pointing to the aquariums in front of her. “This is my favorite exhibit.”

They stand in a small dim alcove, unlit except by the luminescent blinkings of lanternfish. Renata sometimes feels that her body is full of the same concentrated electricity that makes electric animals so invisibly incandescent, so dangerous. She wants to understand what glimmers in front of her, but all she can think is that passion is concentrated electricity, something that can only be seen and felt if one has the senses to perceive it. Electricity, she believes, squinting at the tank to see if she can discern the electric currents, is the only important part of human beings that can escape the boundaries of skin.

***

Renata is thirty-three and realizes her life won’t be as she had pictured it not so very long ago. She has married Mark, the good solid man whose feet are so firmly bound to the earth that in moments of exasperation she wonders if his soul is weighted with lead. She knows he loves her for the way she used to be in bed when she still believed in the possibility of passion and a connection between them, for her gracefulness, and for the way she walks with her feet skimming over the ground like an albatross’s wings over ocean waves – as though she will never land except for breeding and rearing young, as though she were made for flying.

She considers it oddly fitting that her husband studies birds – the animals whose habit it is to remain aloft, fighting gravity, singing beautiful but seemingly impractical songs to each other, songs full of indiscernible meaning her husband tries to discern. Sometimes, when Mark is home, he plays bird songs he has recorded and excitedly tells Renata, “That’s the bird’s mating song, isn’t it beautiful? Renata, if you could see the bird now, it would be dancing and throwing sticks in the air.”

Mark often travels in search of this bird or that – he is well known for his ability to find rare and endangered birds. For the last three years, he has searched each March through October for Bachman’s warblers, the rarest songbird in North America. The birds used to migrate from Cuba to the southeastern United States each year, where they bred and raised their young in remote swamps, and then left again in winter. Because nearly forty years have passed since the last confirmed sighting of a Bachman’s warbler, most scientists suspect there aren’t any more, but Mark has told Renata he has faith that if he walks and canoes long enough, if he searches hard enough, he will find one of the palm-sized brown and yellow birds – even one would be enough. Day after day, in the sweltering humidity of summer, when ticks fall from trees like a light brown rain, and in the blessed coolness of autumn and the emerald of early spring, Mark plays the recordings of the bird’s song in southern swamps, hoping that someday, somewhere, perhaps hidden at the top of a thick-canopied cypress tree, a Bachman’s warbler would recognize the melody and sing back, and there would be a duet of warbler songs again.

***

At night, when Mark is home, and it is Renata’s turn to put Noah to bed, Mark sits on the living room floor and carves birds from blocks of wood. He had told Renata that he likes to hear her sing to Noah. “I can’t sing,” he says. “I wish I could.”

But Renata loves how Mark sometimes sings to Noah anyway when Noah insists on a bedtime song, even though he is right – he cannot carry a tune. His voice is gravelly, and the notes scatter to the ground instead of rising into the air.

When the child is asleep, Renata comes into the living room and hopes that Mark will look up at her, talk with her, but he is lost in his carving, in capturing in wood the grace and feel of a feather. The silence that she loves so well at other times is now full of the aching feel of emptiness. He does not seem to hear her when she speaks to him or notice when she kisses him on the ear, so she sighs and folds laundry and does dishes and reads and dreams about writing stories, but she cannot write much anymore because she feels the words are being carved into her with their brutal truths, that she is becoming the words she can no longer write or say, that he can never hear.

They used to fight sometimes, about the amount of time Renata wanted for writing, the time he wanted for carving. Renata also realized one day that she fought because she hoped to arouse him to some passion, but he always walked away, or went outside to curry or ride one of the horses or feed the doves or ducks. She is now jealous of his birds, and she tells him once that she wishes she were a bird.

“But I love you,” he says, and leans over and squeezes her breast.

She gently pushes his hand away. “That’s not what I mean. There’s a difference.”

“Oh yeah? Why don’t you show me?” and she tries, but it is just fucking, it is just desperate lust for both of them, and when it is over, she is glad it is dark and that he cannot see the tears creep from her eyes because she wants to know the difference.

She wonders if they can only connect on this certain physical and shallow emotional level because that is all there is, and she is a fool to believe in the possibility of more.  She wants to know the consciousness of desire, of passion. What is the consciousness of trees, insects, birds? she wonders. Birds see in infrared light and can detect the magnetism of the earth even when blindfolded. Snakes sense the smallest vibrations and know an animal through its movement. The consciousness of trees gathers as indecipherable as dew gathers in the night – time on an unfathomable scale. She wonders if the touching of pollen to stamen is an orgasm, so slow and imperceptible to humans that they cannot see or sense it, but which nevertheless is there.

***

One night, as Renata edits a scientific paper, she watches Mark carve a Bachman’s warbler out of sweet-smelling cypress wood. He pays meticulous attention to the work, burning in a feather, then holding the wooden block out at arm’s length and turning it this way and that to see if it is what he wanted. His straight, fine blond hair falls over his forehead, and his thick glasses keep sliding down his nose. He absently pushes them up again with the end of the knife.

“Why cypress?” Renata asks as she looks up the spelling of the scientific name for Spanish moss. Mark, preoccupied, doesn’t hear her, so she asks again. This time, he answers.

“Because old reports say that the birds favored cypress trees – they were usually seen at the tops of the biggest cypress in the deepest parts of the swamps.”

“Do you really think you’ll find one? It’s been so long now.”

“I hope so.” Mark looks up, momentarily distracted from burning in the bird’s primary feathers. “I just have this feeling that if I don’t give up, I’ll find one someday.” He adds wistfully, “They’re beautiful birds.” He points to a picture in a book that lies open before him.

Peering at a page in Audubon’s Birds of America, Renata sees a pair of painted birds, a male and female perched on separate branches. She recognizes their plight.

“So,” she asks carefully, “they’re always searching for a mate of their own species?”

Mark nods, his concentration now on the crown of the bird.

“And they will never find one?” Renata persists.

“Probably not any longer,” Mark admits. “But if we find and capture even one, maybe we could cross-breed it with a sibling species.  We might be able to reintroduce the hybrid here.”

“But it won’t be the same, will it, Mark?”

He looks up again. “No, it won’t, but it’s the best chance they have.”

***

Renata and Mark live on ten acres of land six miles from the small South Louisiana town of Rayne, a town that has always been happily on the way to nowhere. The two biggest events in Rayne are the country Mardi Gras and the Frog Festival – Rayne is the frog capital of the world, and the city takes this title seriously. Their property has a small cypress pond out back, four acres of hardwood trees, and a pasture for horses, chickens, and ducks.          Renata is happier since they moved into the country after Noah was born – at least here she can turn her words onto the world that surrounds their house, the hawks that call fragrant songs to each other on wind currents, the frogs that cling to their windows at night, their bodies transparent in the light, hearts visibly beating, singing too, for sex, for mates, in a hopeless kind of desire Renata understands well.

Renata is grateful she has Noah and their place in the country, along with the horses, dogs, and other assorted drop-in animals, including at the moment a young possum named Van Gogh because one of his ears is missing; a three-legged turtle whose other leg was bitten off by an alligator; and a ribbon snake Renata caught eating one of the tree frogs that sang so thoughtfully each night on the windows of their house. She is grateful, too, for Mark’s loyalty and faithfulness to her and their child, but at night she dreams of flight, of journeys to places far away, of a passion and connection that take her breath away like clean mountain air.

***

Sometimes, alone, when Noah is at preschool, and Renata thinks she really should be canning or picking vegetables or scrubbing or making little marks on the papers of scientists who think they can scrunch the ways of animals into computers and come up with all the answers, she finds she can still write words that nobody reads, write a voice that flies off the page into the bright blue sky. Hearing it, birds hush, flies quit buzzing on the compost pile, chickens squawk only once, and even the chicken snakes quit slithering to listen. Nothing in her life really belongs to her except these words that no one has ever heard. Her child is just lent to her; already his body that at first tried so hard to inhabit hers again by pressing against her so deeply, grows harder and leaner, less needy.

Noah has been weaned since before his third birthday, but even still Renata’s breasts occasionally ache for the tender pain of nursing, the tingling feel of milk surging.

One cloudy spring day, Renata takes Noah on a walk and shows him the tissues of new green leaves within which she sees pulses throb in strange deep reds. She feels the sap that seeps and surges through veins long quiescent, making her long for another place, another climate.

The boy watches an ibis flock in the stormy sky, their wings luminescent white. She says to him, “When we die and become angels, I hope we move together with such grace.”

Noah stares at the birds, his red lips puckered as they were when he nursed, then looks at her face. “When we go to heaven,” he says, “will we grow wings?”

“Oh yes,” she replies, and believes suddenly that this is true.

***

The ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive after their long journey from Mexico. Mark and Renata wash out the feeders and hang them like talismans in front of every window in the house. Renata, like Mark, loves to watch the birds, their throat feathers flashing in the air.

While Noah is at preschool, if the weather is fair, Renata sits on the front porch in a rocking chair and edits scientific papers. The one today is about emerging hazards of DDT in the environment. Renata cannot concentrate because the birds are like magnets to her. She tucks her pencil behind her ear and watches the small birds, thinking that she, like the birds, is small and moves quickly from one thing to another. Somewhere she has read that early explorers named some hummingbirds for women they loved, and as she watches the red-capped crowns of the birds weaving the holes in her sky, she pretends someone named these birds for her. “Renata’s hummingbirds,” she says aloud. The words trip off her tongue and make her smile at her foolishness. It is easy, though, for her to imagine an explorer, lonely and far from home, finding some likeness to his beloved in these hummingbirds; the way the bird probed for nectar, perhaps, or the graceful prenuptial flight through the air.

Two hummingbirds fan their tails as wide as possible and fly at one another until their beaks touch. They sound like large bees, and Renata senses this is the sound of their passion, so she is not surprised when they tumble into the grass in front of her and one climbs on top of the other. She can almost feel the cool breeze ruffling their feathers, fanning their faces; she can almost feel the tender weight of dew on their feathers. She can almost see the concentrated electricity.

Renata wants to understand about Mark’s passion for birds, so she walks through the yard, picking fragrant blossoms from red hibiscus, coral honeysuckle, and wild roses. Carrying the flowers in her arms, she goes inside and pulls open the closet door, rummaging around until she unearths an old pair of red sweats and a red and black flannel shirt. With shaking hands, she strips off her clothes and puts on the sweats; she has lost weight lately and finds she must put a belt around her waist to keep the pants up. With bobby pins, she twines the flowers together and pins them in wreaths around her head, making garlands for her neck, wrists, and ankles. After crushing yellow pollen in her palms, she rubs it on her shirt, and then smears honeysuckle and wild rose blossoms on her skin, so that its scent is one of rich flowers. When she looks in the mirror, she blushes at her desire to know.

Outside the grass is damp under her bare feet, and she sinks into its softness. She bites her lips until they feel swollen and red with captured blood. After a few minutes, Renata senses that the birds know her presence, and she believes, with a wild skip of her heart, that she might learn about Mark’s desire for birds. A hummingbird whirs about two feet from Renata, its round eyes looking at her, at the flowers on her head, and she tries not to breathe. He comes closer until she can feel the rapid movement of his minute wings fan the stray tendrils of her hair. After shutting her eyes, she feels birds surround her, birds that flow like rivers through the sky, and she smells their sweet pollen breath. She wonders if their long beaks will probe the flowers she wears on her body or if they will try to drink nectar from between her parted lips and if it will feel like a caress or if it will hurt. She does not move, and the birds wreathe her head, form a necklace around her neck, bracelets on her wrists and ankles, and she feels the sting of their passion. When she finally opens her eyes, she sees that their claws have left tiny red stigmata on her skin, and that it bleeds with understanding.

***

At Christmas, Mark, Renata, and Noah leave Louisiana to visit Mark’s brother in Idaho and to hunt. Renata knows Mark misses fly-fishing and hunting Canada geese, goldeneyes, and other western waterfowl. They stay at the trailer house of Dakota, Mark’s younger brother who works as a farm machine mechanic and lives only ten miles away from Slim, Mark and Dakota’s father. Their first day there, it becomes clear that Dakota had to force Slim to visit his oldest son.

When they walk in, Renata and Mark find Slim ensconced in a tattered plaid chair, a grudging expression on his face, watching football. Slim barely looks their way, only nodding slightly, so Dakota, blond and full boned like the pictures Renata has seen of Mark’s mother, hugs Mark and kisses Renata’s cheek, saying he is so glad to meet her at last. Noah pets Dakota’s retriever and chatters with Dakota’s wife, Paula, who hands him a glass of chocolate milk.

“What are you doing now, Mark?” Dakota asks, and Renata knows he is trying to break the silence between his father and brother.

Mark tells Dakota about his search for Bachman’s warblers, and even though Renata senses Mark is guarded and doesn’t want to sound excited around Slim, he cannot help it when he talks about birds. Slim glances at Mark and then glues his eyes back on the TV.  He pulls a chewing tobacco canister from his pocket and takes some tobacco and puts it in his mouth.

Paula gently pushes a reluctant Noah toward Slim. “C’mon now, Slim,” she says. “It’s your first grandkid.”

Slim shakes his head at Paula. “Will someone tell me,” he asks, waving his tobacco can in the air, “why the kid’s named Noah?” Slim asks this without taking his gaze off Mark, who sits across from Slim with a stony expression.

Renata’s cheeks burn. “It was my father’s name,” she says, almost spitting the words at Slim.

Slim crosses his legs and stares at Renata with a frosty gaze that she meets with a hot one of her own. Mark’s father, she thinks, looks like an untamed Mark. “Mark was my firstborn – he should’ve named the kid after me – like he’s named after me.”

Renata gets up and walks out the door, taking Noah with her. She is glad Noah will never carry this grandfather’s name. A few minutes later, her mood lifts when she hears the trailer door bang shut and sees Slim walk outside, press his cowboy hat on his head, and climb into his old Ford pick-up truck. Noah smiles sheepishly and waves at Slim, and Renata feels like jerking the child’s hand down. People often want love from those who don’t love them, can’t ever love them, she thinks. She understands more of Mark now, and herself, so she stares unflinchingly at Slim as he pulls out of the driveway, a beer can already in one hand, snow lightly dusting the truck’s hood, until he must look away. Renata would like to feel triumph over this small matter, but she cannot. She only feels tenderness for Mark’s plight.

That evening, Mark falls asleep early next to Noah in the spare bedroom, and Dakota, Paula, and Renata talk over coffee spiked with whiskey at the kitchen table, Dakota occasionally and politely taking breaks to walk outside and smoke. Paula is knitting a blanket for Noah in soft blue and yellow yarn. Renata asks about Mark’s and Dakota’s childhood, a bit shyly since she doesn’t know these relatives at all, but Dakota seems approachable. Mark has only told her the barest outlines of his life, the essential facts, and she wants to know more, to understand.

Dakota laughs, crosses his legs just like his father did, one ankle over the knee of the other leg, making Renata wonder if it is a family trait or a cowboy trait since Mark did the same thing. Dakota is the only one who seems truly relaxed, though.

“Are you sure you want to hear?” he asks. “It wasn’t easy, and Mark had it harder than me. He was five when I was born. Mom was just fifteen when he was born, and Dad was sixteen. We lived in Grays Lake, right down the road, in a rusty, two-bedroom trailer the ranch foreman let us rent. When you go hunting tomorrow, you’ll be on the ranch, not far from where the trailer was. Ask Mark to show you.”

Dakota sips from his cup, then asks Paula if she would mind fixing him another. “If I’m going to tell this story,” he says to Paula with a wink. She smiles at Dakota, puts down her knitting, and brings the coffeepot and the whiskey bottle to the table.

“Maybe it’d be better if we just set the bottle right here tonight.” Paula looks at Renata. “We aren’t like Slim, you know, with his drinking problem. But when Dakota tells stories, especially this one, the whiskey helps.”

Renata nods, holds out her own cup for more coffee and whiskey, even though she rarely drinks and is already feeling the alcohol coursing through her body, making her muscles heavy, her body more grounded than it has felt lately.

“Yeah,” says Dakota, “Dad always did have a liquor problem.” He laughs again, leaning toward Renata. “Mark and I used to watch every day after school for Dad’s truck to see if we were safe or not. We’d be outside feeding the chickens or the ducks or some farm animal until Mark saw Dad’s truck. Mark said he could tell if Dad had been in the liquor by how much dust rose in the road behind the pickup truck. If there were only small dust clouds under the wheels, Mark would tell me it was probably safe, and we’d both feel happy. On those days, Dad would sometimes grab Mama around her waist and swing her around on the porch, planting a big kiss on her mouth. If we saw this, we’d throw down the rest of the chicken feed and run to Dad. On the best days, Dad would take turns twirling us around and around, until Mark would say he felt like he was flying, that we were birds in the air who wouldn’t ever land again.”

Renata is quiet; she can see that Dakota is back there. His eyes, even in the dim light of the kitchen, seem darker and more intense.

“On the bad days, Mark would tell me – remember I was five years younger – that the truck was moving fast, and we’d watch big clouds of dust spitting from under the tires. Mark would always yell to Mama to come outside, and we would watch her run out on the broken-down porch as the truck headed our way. Mama always carried an apple or a carrot or something then, like she could tell from Mark’s voice it was an angry day. She’d tell Mark and me to take a break from our chores and exercise Blaze, Mark’s Appaloosa horse. The one I was so jealous of, Paula,” he adds.

Paula pats Dakota’s arm, smiling at him. “Well,” she says, “you have your own now.”

“So, Mark and I would run to the barn, and he’d throw me up on the back of Blaze, not bothering with a saddle, and we’d just barrel out of that barn door. At the top of the hill, we’d dismount and look back, hearing Dad’s truck tires tear into the yard. To this day, when I think of Mama, I see her standing in the garden like a shriveled scarecrow in the white blooms of the beans. So, we’d sit on the hill and listen to the beer cans in the back of the truck still rattling, hear Dad slam the door of the truck, and shout at Mama.” Dakota looks in his coffee cup. “Seems like he’d always shout the same thing, ‘Goddamn it, Katie, get out of the garden.’”

The clacking of Paula’s knitting needles stops as Paula looks up at Dakota. “Tell Renata about your mama, Mark. What she was like.”

“You know, the thing I remember most about Mama is her telling us stories. Every night, she’d lie next to us in bed, one arm around each of us, both of us staring up at the ceiling while she told us stories. She made up this story where Mark and I had built this time machine in the barn, and we’d travel everywhere in it. We wouldn’t let her tell any other story to us. After the story, she’d always make us say the Lord’s Prayer and then she went out. I remember thinking that when she blew us a kiss at the doorway she looked like an angel, her blonde hair all glowing with a halo. Mark would tell me it was just the light in the hall and to go to sleep, but I remember thinking that he was wrong, and that Mama really was an angel.”

“How old were you when your mother died?” Renata asks. Mark has just told her he was in middle school and that his mother had died in a hunting accident. She is curious to know more.

“I was eight, and Mark was thirteen. It was a hunting accident. But Mark and I hated it because everyone kept saying how she should have known better than to carry a gun that way, so that when she tripped and the gun went off, the bullet killed her. It was hard for us then, for Mark and me, because Dad moved a girl named Jill into the trailer a few months later. It was hardest on Mark because Dad just didn’t like him. Never has. Like I said, he complained Mark wasn’t really his son, but anyone could see he was crazy, Mark looks just like him. He hated how smart Mark was, is what I think.

“But Mark took care of me, even though I didn’t really know that then. He taught me how to know when to avoid Dad, how to shoot guns and tie fishing flies, how to cook eggs and toast and pancakes, which we’d eat for dinner when Dad and Jill went out to the bars.”

“How did Mark get to like birds so much?” Renata asks.

“Yeah,” says Dakota, “Mark was always crazy for birds. He’d keep pet ducks and geese, but his favorite was a cockatiel, one of those orange-cheeked little parrots. We didn’t have money to buy one, but when Dad was away rounding up cattle or mending fences, Mrs. Jones, the ranch foreman’s wife, would sometimes hire Mark to cut wood or do some chore. I tagged along after Mark. He hid that money until he had enough to buy the bird. Dad grumbled about the bird, but he left Mark alone after telling him that he wouldn’t pay for birdseed.

“You know what Mark named the bird? Audubon? Now isn’t that something? Mark said Audubon was a great explorer who liked birds, studied them. He even checked out a book from the school library and showed me a few pictures Audubon had drawn. Mark taught that bird to say our names, and the bird always rode on Mark’s shoulder while he did chores. At night, that darn bird would run its beak through our hair while Mark read stories to me. Then Mark would take out some wood and start whittling some bird or another that he was carving until I fell asleep.”

Paula yawns. “Dakota,” she says, “Renata needs to go to bed if she’s going to get any sleep at all before going hunting tomorrow.” Renata is disappointed when Dakota agrees with Paula. She wants more stories.

“I’ll tell you more tomorrow,” Dakota says, smiling at Renata, and she realizes he knows she has not heard these stories from Mark, that she needs to hear them.

***

After Dakota and Paula go to bed, Renata lies awake on the lumpy pull-out sofa in the living room. The sofa and the trailer smell like stale beer and old cigarette smoke; consequently, Renata has asthma and feels she may never be able to breathe again, wishes she were a mountain bird that could exist on thin air. She climbs out of bed, puts a cup of leftover coffee in a pan to heat up, and clears the table of the night’s debris – the whiskey bottle, coffee cups, a bowl of chips. From the bedroom, she hears the faint sound of Mark lightly snoring and is drawn to the room where she peeks at Noah’s small, sweet face curled against his blanket, his father lying next to him, an arm flung over Noah’s middle.  At 4 a.m., three hours from now, she is to go hunting with Mark.

For months now, in their back pasture in Louisiana, Mark has been teaching Renata to shoot. For her birthday, he gave her a gleaming walnut and steel shotgun. On the wooden stock of the gun, he had carved a picture of a woman shooting up into a flock of geese. It was a 20-gauge gun, lighter than Mark’s, and Renata found it surprisingly easy to use.

“Pull!” Mark would shout, and the clay pigeon flew up in the air, and she followed it with her eyes and with the barrel and shot the pigeon apart. Mark would yell, “Good, Renata, now do it again!” She’d shoot and shoot until the pieces of clay pigeons lay about her, and her ears rang with the harsh song of gunfire and Mark said, “I think you’re ready. You’ll love it, Renata.”

She sits now at the Formica-topped kitchen table, drinking leftover warmed coffee, taking two puffs on an asthma inhaler, and soon feels better. On the table in front of her lie wooden cooking spoons with their handles cut off; as they had talked Dakota had cut off the handles for Mark and her to use as shotgun plugs. Renata tries not to think about how clay pigeons shatter in the air or wonder if a real bird shatters the same way.

At four, she kisses Mark on the cheek. “It’s time to wake up, Mark.”

He slowly opens his eyes and looks at her. “God,” he says, taking a deep breath, “it smells like my childhood. Coffee, whiskey, and cigarettes.”

They take Dakota’s truck, and on the way to the river, Mark talks more than he usually does, pointing out places from his childhood, talking about his old horse Blaze. He takes Renata’s hand, and she is surprised at the gesture, so long unfamiliar that his fingers are almost those of a stranger.

“We’re nearly there,” he says, turning onto a dirt road, which is covered with snow from the day before. Renata is already freezing, although she wears a pair of Dakota’s insulated and grease-stained mechanics coveralls, insulated boots, long underwear, jeans, several sweaters, and thick gloves. It is twenty below zero, and Renata has never seen such icy stars, such a big yellow moon. Stars, she thinks as she stares upward, are what give the night sky depth, give darkness meaning.

About a mile from the river, Mark stops the truck. “We need to walk from here, so we don’t scare the geese away,” he says. “When Dakota, Noah and I came out here yesterday afternoon, they were clustered in that bend over there.” He points to the silhouette of a cottonwood grove down the hill.

“We’ve got to be quiet,” he adds, and she nods because she has nothing to say; she has said it all already, and she is a vessel still, but an empty one that feels ancient and light with possibility. As Mark rummages behind the seat and pulls out two knee-length white lab jackets, Renata looks at the blond moonlit hair curling around his neck. She wants him to touch her again, and she reaches out her hand, but he just says, “Here,” and hands her a lab jacket. “Put this on and you’ll blend in with the snow.”

She puts on the jacket and sees Mark looking intently at her, but when she meets his gaze, she realizes that his eyes are only assessing and not intimate, so the heat in her dissipates as he bends his tall, thin body over hers and tucks a coil of her dark hair under the white wool hat she is wearing. She tries to pretend this is a tender gesture, but she knows it is just that her dark hair is stark against the white of the snow. Perhaps she is temporarily what she now thinks he wants, has always wanted: a blonde icy woman with cheeks as pale as snow, a woman of few words and needs, a hunting woman. Like the photos of his mother Dakota had shown her last night. Renata believes that Mark likes her appearance best when her unruly hair is neatly coiled, her earrings small and unassuming, and when she wears the western clothes – costumes, she thinks whenever she puts them on – he buys her each Christmas and which she quickly buries in the closet.

She takes her shotgun and is especially careful to carry it as Mark taught her to carry it – unloaded and pointed away from people. Last night, after Dakota had gone to bed, Paula and Renata had washed dishes together, and Paula had talked about the shooting.

“Everyone said it was an accident, but nobody was really sure about that,” Paula said in her matter-of-fact way. “The ranch foreman found her under some cottonwood trees. I’ll never forget how he told me that from afar she looked like Snow White, her body covered with the white blossoms of the cottonwood trees. Mark pretty much raised Dakota after that.”

Slung over Renata’s shoulder is a bag of duck decoys; Mark carries a larger bag of black and white Canada goose decoys. It is the geese he has really come to hunt; the other birds are incidental, and Renata understands this.

The softness of the knee-deep snow is unfamiliar to Renata, and she stumbles at first and thinks snow has rather the same pull as water, except she feels heavy and clumsy in snow and liquid and light in water. The cold air stings her cheeks and her eyelashes feel heavy, as if they are clogged with sleep, but she knows it is ice. The moon lights the field of snow. Her hell, Renata realizes, is not a hell of heat, but a hell of ice, of coldness, of the distance coldness puts between things, between metal and skin, skin and skin, air and skin, words and meaning.

“Hurry,” Mark whispers. “We need to be in place before dawn or the geese will leave. Walk in my footsteps and it will be easier.”

Renata hears rushing water ahead, and she realizes the water must be moving fast to avoid the frigidity of ice. Behind that sound, she hears another, and she knows this sound too, because every New Year’s Eve in Louisiana, Mark takes out his Canada goose call, and as the clock strikes midnight, blows into the southern air the strange, haunting call of a solitary goose. The sound always makes her sad.

Yesterday, Mark had taken her and Noah outside and pointed overhead. “There they are,” he said in a voice filled with the kind of desire she longed to hear for herself. She looked upward to where his hand pointed and saw the large ghostly shapes of Canada geese in the snowy sky.

“Why aren’t they calling?”

“They’re almost always calling. The snow just deadens the sound.”

Now he stops at a small thicket of bushes near the river. “This is our blind. Stay here while I put out the decoys. Be quiet,” he warns again.

She stands awkwardly in the bushes, then crouches uncomfortably until she realizes Mark and Dakota had put two stumps for seats in the middle of the stand. After brushing a heavy layer of snow off them, Renata sits down on one, unscrews the lid off the Thermos of coffee. Her asthma is gone, but she still feels she can’t breathe in this thin, light air. The setting moon slides slowly down into the river water, and the snow becomes gray; dawn is not far away. In front of Renata, Mark’s shape suddenly looms; Renata almost jumps, but she is too cold, her reactions sluggish. Silently, she hands him some coffee. They share the same cup, and she briefly wants him to feel the sweetness of her lips on the rim of the mug, although she knows that wish is foolish.

“It won’t be long now,” Mark whispers.

“Can we talk at all?” she asks, and he says, “Yes, but quietly.”

“Tell me about geese,” Renata says, and takes the cup back and licks the rim with her tongue, seeing if she can taste him anymore or if that has gone too. “Why do you like them so much?”

Only his silhouette is visible against the lightening sky, and he turns his head away from her, toward the whispering sound of geese and ducks rising from the water. “Oh, I don’t know. They’re just neat animals. I had one once as a pet.”

“You did? What was its name?”

Mark laughs and sits down on the other tree stump. “Honker,” he says. “I found it on the river. It had a broken wing. Dad told me to leave it, to shoot it for dinner, but I took it home. It used to fly next to the school bus on my way to school.”

“What happened to it?”

Mark is silent again, then says abruptly, “It died. Someone shot it.” He pauses, listening, then adds, “Both parents raise the young, you know. They’re fiercely devoted to their goslings.”

Renata wants to ask more about Honker, but she knows Mark well enough to know he won’t talk when he doesn’t want to. Instead, she asks, “How long does it take for geese to raise the goslings? Don’t most male birds leave as soon as they mate?”

“Geese usually mate for life as soon as they form an established pair,” Mark answers.  “Pair bonding is what it is called. They’re quite loyal.”

It is light enough now Renata can see Mark’s breath and the steam rising from the coffee mug.

“We need to get ready,” Mark adds, his head cocked as he listens to the stirring geese. He puts his lips around the wooden Canada goose call and sings to the geese, his eyes intent yet faraway, as though he is trying to speak the language of the birds, Renata thinks. When he stops calling, he points to the skeletal outlines of the cottonwood trees. “They should fly right over the tops of those trees there. You’d better load your gun.”

He hands her a box of shotgun shells. From the box, Renata takes two yellow 20-gauge shells, inserts them into the gun. She imagines hundreds of tiny pellet-sized balls meeting the soft feathers of the bird’s breast and wonders if the bird knows death as people do, and how it feels pain. She tries not to wonder what its mate feels as its other spirals down from the sky, earthbound at last, its gravity-defying days gone. She remembers again the powerful sound of clay pigeons smashing in the sky.

“Here they come,” Mark whispers, and Renata turns her gun to the sky and her eyes burn and her fingers are so cold against the metal, and she is numb, but she automatically pulls the trigger anyway when he says pull. Feathers flay from the sky, and she is crying and yelling, stumbling toward the goose, looking upward to see which bird is its mate, and she thinks she hears it calling. She sinks into the snow and cradles the goose, its feathers warm against her face.  She will never do this again.

She closes her eyes, but still hears clouds of geese singing harsh, accusing songs. When she finally opens her eyes, she sees that snow seems to be falling on the downed geese, hers and Marks, and that their wings are coated with heavy whiteness. They cannot fly away though they try.

***

At first Renata believes she is anchored by the ripeness of a Louisiana summer. She leaves the windows open, the fan blowing the humidity around like a languid southern hymn. Her body grows lighter and lighter, and often, with surprise and pleasure, Renata touches her wrist bones and knees – their flexibility and lightness amaze her. A sense of airiness fills her body, displacing some of the terror of leaving Noah, and she feels she is floating – the feeling she loves in water, the feeling of not being earthbound. Sometimes her elbows are hard to bend, and her arms ache and tingle as though she has just awakened after a long sleep. Her shoulder blades protrude sharply from her back; they drive her crazy because they feel like new teeth erupting. As she walks now, she finds that the upper half of her body leans forward a little, as though her center of gravity is shifting. Mark notices her thinness and reminds her to eat more. “You look tired,” he says, but he is wrapped up in marking endless maps, in traveling to remote swamps to search for Bachman’s warblers. Soon he is gone, and Renata and Noah are alone again.

***

After Mark leaves, fireflies as phosphorescent as ocean waves return. Renata wakes Noah one night to go outside. “Look,” she tells him, pointing, and together they run through the night with a net and a mason jar, until the jar is filled with captured light. Noah stumbles with tiredness until Renata rights him and takes him to his bed where she sits next to him, stroking his head and singing strange songs to him. As she sings, she notices Noah drowsily watching the fireflies glow in the jar next to his bed. But outside Noah’s open window, Renata sees that the trees are alight with their language.

In the morning, though, the sun rises again, scattering beams of light through mists clouding the rice fields. Large orbs of spiderwebs shroud the house. Singing frogs hop in the webs, and the golden orb spiders wrap them around and around with strong silken threads until they remind Renata of mummies. If she listens carefully, Renata can hear the dried frogs rattle like seedpods, and she thinks she understands what she will never know.

***

Her face feels tight, so tight, and each morning that autumn when she awakens, Renata runs a hand surreptitiously over her skin, seeing if she can feel the changes the night has wrought. It is as though a sculptor with a fine chisel stands over her while she sleeps, pondering the strokes to work upon her skin. Her lower face narrows but her forehead rounds, and each morning her ears feel a little smaller, as though they are folding in upon themselves.

Renata watches the red wings of cardinals flashing in the trees and wants to go where the birds go. At night, in bed, she is strangely restless, and listens to the dirges of whippoorwills, killdeer, and night herons rise from the marsh, throaty with the absence of light. She dreams of wings, brilliant yellow wings embroidered on hollow weightless bones. She wants them. One night she dreams she writes Mark a love poem that she presses against him in their sleep. They are two cranes dancing in winter snow in anticipation of summer rains falling.

***

At first the fear feels like salt on a snail, like shriveling. It sears like razorgrass on bare skin. It both surprises her and doesn’t that Mark hasn’t noticed the changes in her body, in herself, but he is away much of the time, searching for the warblers, always optimistic that one day he will find one.

Renata finally visits the rural family doctor, who is so ancient that she wonders what it is that still tethers him to earth. He tells Renata that her pulse is abnormally rapid and that the reason her back and bones hurt is probably because she did not get enough calcium in the nearly three years she nursed Noah. He scowls over her weight loss and says disapprovingly that perhaps it, too, is due to nursing Noah “too long.”

He wants to run further tests. Renata should go to the hospital in the bigger city of Lafayette and have them run immediately, he says, but Renata tells him she will have them done another day. Before she leaves his office, she mentions she cannot smell or taste much anymore. The doctor stares at her in surprise and looks up her nostrils and down her throat again. He sees nothing wrong, he says, except she has a severely deviated septum that might be interfering with her sense of smell and taste. After looking at her eyes, which protrude a little, the doctor mumbles, “Maybe thyroid.” Then he taps his long, bony index finger against her shoulder and says, “Make sure you go for those tests.”

***

Fall – and Renata’s life floats down around her, a skirt of brilliant autumn leaves. Then, at last, the spareness of winter limbs carved like scrimshaw. From her bed, Renata watches the heat of visible stars and planets throb in a diamond-cold sky.

One December morning, while getting milk from the refrigerator for Noah’s cereal, Renata feels an odd sensation as she nears the magnets holding Noah’s drawings on the refrigerator door. She takes a large magnet, holds it close to her forehead. It seems her brain moves toward the square, that it presses against the ivory bone of her skull. The magnet disorients her, though, and until she puts it back and moves away, she cannot remember the direction she must turn to get a spoon.

Slipping from bed that night, she walks outside in her bare feet and nightgown to watch the stars. Like the magnet, she feels their tug, and turns instinctively toward the south.

At times, especially when the day breaks on the horizon, she awakens and realizes she has been humming a wordless insect-like tune. She tries to imitate the sound when fully awake but cannot.

One morning while Renata combs her hair, she notices it seems thicker, fluffier, and she lifts the heavy coils and feels a light, flannel-like layer next to her scalp. Her head darts back and forth as she stares in the mirror with bright, curious eyes at the tufts of fluffy down. The shininess of the mirror fascinates her as much as the changing image that stares back at her.

***

The first day of winter, she awakens to frost on the ground and is filled with a longing for warmth, for tropical trees and clear blue-green water. Layering her body with clothes does not help; she cannot seem to get warm, even when she builds a fire in the fireplace and, with Noah, roasts marshmallows in it. Now it is both painfully difficult and essential for her to look at Noah; she knows well the hurt he will feel, she felt it herself as a child. Yet looking at him, memorizing him, is what she must do – his crooked smile, his green eyes, the way he leans against her and plays with her hair as she reads to him, his hand deliberately tangling in her curly hair as she reaches to turn a page.

After lunch one day, Renata and Noah take a walk and find a young green snake stretched out on the dirt road. The snake is the brilliant green color of early spring leaves, and Renata touches it satiny skin to her cheek, hoping for some remaining life, but the snake is cold. She knows it has frozen in the night, caught unaware with the early first frost. Still, she puts the snake in her mitten and loosely folds her hand around the snake’s cold coils, hoping her warmth will somehow diffuse into the snake’s body and it will move again. But it does not, and Renata is sad and afraid again, because she now has a great and inexplicable fear of cold and of freezing to death.

***

Her eyes grow rounder. The green irises gradually give way to a muddy brown, then to an intense shiny bruised black as though the pupil has expanded to fill the whole iris. The lightest down slowly covers her body; it is so pale and soft that she likes to fold her bare arms around five-year-old Noah at night and hold him against her. Immediately he grows drowsy, his eyes fluttering, mouth opening and shutting and opening again.

Trees fascinate her, more than they ever have. In the morning when it is still misty and before Noah is awake, Renata scuttles outside, and turning her head quickly one way and then another, and instinctively dodging the shadows of large birds overhead, she darts from tree to tree. She notices the different qualities of each in the roughness of live oak bark, the peeling skin of river birch, the feathery bark of the cypress. She is especially fond of cypress bark, which she peels back with her sharp, long fingernails to reveal ants underneath. At first, Renata only watched the scurrying ants, but now, using her lips, she plucks the strange but soft sweetness of the insects into her chapped mouth, swallowing them without chewing.

By late winter, the cold does not leave her hollow-seeming bones. It is all she can do to get Noah out the door and to kindergarten, to feed and hold him at night, reading book after book. Mark comes home from several months of fieldwork and takes one look at Renata before begging her to see the doctor. She is adamant about not going right away, though.

“I know what’s wrong with me,” she says, “and there’s nothing he can do. I’m going to eat more, Mark, take better care of myself.” Renata tries not to be afraid and really she is past most fear. It is only the thought of her child that is almost unbearable, but she knows she has no choice anymore, and that the child senses it too perhaps. At night, Noah crawls into her bed, and she tells him stories of angels and birds, and sings to him. She does not know that Mark stands outside the bedroom door, listening to her talk to Noah in her musical voice.

“Angels,” he hears her tell Noah, “are always with you if they love you. And I love you,” she says, and hugs him so tightly that he pushes her away a little.

“I know that, Mom. I know all about birds and angels.”

***

Although Renata refuses to go to the doctor’s office, Mark brings the doctor home anyway to see her, to look into her dark eyes, to see the strange thinness of her face, the prominence of her nose, the jerkiness of her movements.

When the doctor walks into the bedroom with Mark, Renata stares at the doctor a moment, then looks at Mark before climbing out of bed and walking into the bathroom. They hear the door lock turn.

“Renata?” Mark says uncertainly, but there is no answer, only the sound of bath water running. She stands on the other side of the door, listening to them talk about her.

“She looks pretty bad,” the doctor tells Mark. “Is she in a lot of pain?”

“I don’t think so,” Mark says in a low voice. “I just got home a few days ago, but she hasn’t complained. She doesn’t talk much, just stares out the window and sometimes hums under her breath. She can’t get warm, even though her body temperature is so high, her skin so hot.”

“I wish she’d let me examine her,” the doctor says. “I could tell you a lot more then. But Mark,” the doctor says slowly, “I have to tell you that she has that skeletal face of people with advanced cancer or serious thyroid disease. But with thyroid, she’d be complaining of heat, not cold. Does cancer run in her family?”

“I don’t know. She’s adopted. Both her parents are dead.”

“Can we take her to the hospital? You could sign the admitting forms.”

“Not today,” Mark says, and shakes his head, his generous lips compressed, his eyes concerned. “I want to talk to her first. Tomorrow.”

Mark sits by their bed that night, and because Renata cannot abide his touching her anywhere now but her small, bony hands, he holds them. “Renata, I’ve just never had the words you have.”

“I know,” she whispers, but her voice is thin and strange and high, and she wants to cry but she cannot, and she wants to give him comfort because he has had so little comfort in his life.

Outside the window, the leaves of the cypress have all fallen, and she feels the cold seeping into her as it did the leaves. She calls Mark the next morning, but she no longer understands the strange language he speaks as he bends over her, water rushing from his eyes, his chest, until his whole body is a river, and she senses he is going away. He presses his face to her chest, and she feels light bursting from her. Somewhere she hears a song, and she briefly wonders if he knows who is singing.

***

When the bird awoke that morning, it fluffed its feathers to stay warmer. Although it was spring, the morning was cool and breezy. The sun was just rising, and steam puffed off the water. Because that part of the Atchafalaya Basin is almost impenetrable, few, if any, people ever intruded on the bird’s world, but the bird, just barely awake from its perch in the top of an ancient cypress tree, watched as the man and the boy canoed through the thin, watery paths that wound among the tupelo gums and buttonbushes that crowded the water.

The boy, whose dark, curly hair poked from the bottom of his hat, sat in the front of the canoe, brushing spiders and ants from his clothes as the man maneuvered the boat through the buttonbushes. Ahead of the canoe were the ghostly silhouettes of the largest cypress trees in the Atchafalaya swamp.

Beams of sunlight penetrated the clear water, whose surface was still strewn with the coppery fall leaves of cypress and the red, star-shaped leaves of sweetgum trees. In the distance, an alligator’s bellow echoed through the swamp; it was the time of year for mating. The bird cocked its head, listening to another sound, one coming from the canoe – a song it knew and responded to, even though it had never heard the tune before.

As the canoe neared the cypress dome, the boy trailed his hand in the cool water, and the morning exploded with the songs of birds. Fully alert now, the bird flew to a low cypress branch, her small body mostly hidden by the feathery leaves of the tree. The boy looked up, his face amazed.

“Dad,” the boy said, and he turned around to face the older man, his green eyes damp and spidery with morning dew, his hat covered with spiderwebs. “Dad,” he whispered.

The man put the paddle down, and the boy scuttled backward until he was pressed between the man’s knees.

“It’s the dream,” the boy said. The man took off the boy’s hat and stroked his dark, damp hair, but the boy started crying, his thin shoulders shaking. He turned to face the man, who eased off the canoe seat and sat on the bottom of the canoe cradling the boy.

The bird began to sing.

The tape player beside the man was still playing the song of the male Bachman’s warbler and the response call of the female bird, but the man angrily reached over and pressed a button on the tape player, and the male bird’s song abruptly stopped.

The response song of the female bird continued. The man and the boy looked up, their faces startled. The canoe had drifted into a forest of gnarled cypress trees, and both appeared dazzled by the tallness and the great widths of the trees, the clear amber of the water idling around the trees, the ocher of the cypress bark, and the sudden silence in the trees as the bird stopped singing.

“Did we hear it?” the boy asked, his fists clenched. “Did we really hear it?”

“I think so, Noah,” the man whispered back.

“Dad, that’s the song in my dreams.”

The man looked up again, his grip on the boy tightening as he spotted the pale-yellow breast of the bird in a cypress limb a few feet away.

“Look,” the man told the boy, who lifted his head and stared at the bird, which was quiet a moment more, her dark eyes curious and bright. The bird fluttered her wings as the man began to reach for the mist net, then quieted again as he pulled his hands back from the net, even though the bird was in reach and could perhaps have been captured. The man did not reach for the camera or the tape player.

The man smiled at his son, and as the canoe drifted beneath the tree where the bird perched, he propped two lifejackets against the rear canoe seat as pillows. He lay down on his back, with his head on the life jackets, shifting the boy so that he lay at his side, his head on the man’s arm and chest.

The canoe gently rocked as the man and the boy watched the bird, the man staring so hard his eyes watered. The yellow feathers above her eyes and how the yellow changed to gray on the top of her head and on her nape. The graceful crescent of the slightly down-curved bill and the way the sun struck the pale gold of the bird’s breast feathers so brightly that the man looked away momentarily, as if blinded, but then quickly looked back again. The man looked into the darkness of the bird’s eyes. Then the bird sang again as she left her perch and flew above, winging through the trees.

About the Author

Catherine Puckett

Catherine Puckett has published fiction in Many Mountains Moving, and nonfiction nature/creative nonfiction essays in magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. Two more recent nonfiction creative nonfiction nature essays are “Beauty and the Beast,” an essay about women, mythology, culture, and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, which was published in the book Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species. Another essay, “Santa Fe,” was published in 2018 in the journal Collateral.

Her educational background is in wildlife ecology, journalism, and (later) creative fiction and nonfiction writing. In science, she studied wildlife ecology, specializing in herpetology, particularly tortoises, crocodilians, and (on occasion) snakes, and has also studied alligators and crocodiles in Florida, Venezuela, and Belize. Catherine is currently working on a book of essays, a memoir.