The backyard looked like another planet. A heavy blanket of snow magnified the cold and reflected the ineffectual winter sun. Ben squinted at the cold vista out his kitchen window while he scoured the burnt cheese from the bottom of an enchilada pan. A bluebird, blue and luminous as the heart of an iceberg, alighted on the metal and glass feeder strung from a nearby birch branch and nibbled at some seed. He watched it flit between the two main perches and the base. Every time it landed it glanced around as if it feared it had fallen for a deadly trap.
Ben had taken special pains to secure this bird feeder. The previous one had been dragged into the forest and demolished by some bastard raccoon. He hated raccoons. They were thieves who crept through the night and stole without any concern for the order of the world. He ran to the hardware store that same day lest the birds migrate to another feeder in someone else’s yard. The birds brought color and levity to his life. His mother had been an avid birder and he inherited her enthusiasm. His wife and daughter preferred their cat.
After a few pecks the bluebird flew off and was replaced by a pair of finches. Their brown and white feathers were a micro version of the snow and wood menagerie surrounding them. They eyed the seed briefly before plunging their tittering beaks into the holes and emerging with a spray of shell and crumb. Ben couldn’t say that he ever saw one actually consume any of the seeds from the shells they snapped open. But their beaks, like petrified lips and teeth and nose combined into one awkward instrument clapped frantically at the shells, somehow managing to separate some morsels from the shrapnel. It was amazing to watch.
“Daddy!” Megan sang, her small voice flying up from behind him as she came padding into the kitchen. She held their tubby tabby like a small sack of potatoes. “Charles is hungry!”
Ben looked over to the cat dishes in the corner, still half-full of the morning scoop of kibble.
“How do you know?” He asked her, putting down the finally clean pan and drying his hands on a towel.
“Because he told me.”
“Oh yeah?” Ben asked, kneeling and addressing the bewildered feline. “What are you in the mood for Chucky-boy?”
Charles flicked his tail and wriggled in Megan’s faltering grip.
“He wants cookies!” Megan said when the cat finally succeeded in escaping her tiny hands. He fled the room, the tiny bell on his collar tinkling down the hallway.
“He does?” Ben exclaimed with wide eyes, retrieving a cookie from the jar atop the fridge, “Well, how about you bring this one to him?”
“Thanks Daddy,” Megan said heading into the living room, away from the cookie-craving cat.
Ben returned his attention to the birds. A lone thrush, lemon yellow with little black wings eyed him from the feeder. A bright yellow spot in the monochrome yard, it could have been a photograph. He was about to grab his binoculars when it flew toward him, landed on the window sill, and pecked at the glass. He thought it was an accident until it did it again. Was there something on the window?
Expecting the bird to flee, he reached to where it had pecked and scratched the spot, as if he might be able to discern whatever was on the outside by scratching the interior. The bird held its ground.
“Bold little sucker, aren’t you?” Ben said, leaning in until his nose was practically against the glass. They stared at each other closely for a second, its tiny black eye locked with his brown. Its little bird chest inflated and deflated quick tiny breaths, iridescent feathers puffed out for warmth. Then it pecked again causing him to jerk back. And then it pecked again. And again.
In the living room a cartoon voice began singing about the letter “B.” B is for balloons, big bubbles and balmy afternoons. Ben slowly reached out and unlocked the window and lifted it open. The yellow bird hopped inside and perched on the sink faucet, again eyeing him.
“What’s your deal?” He asked the bird. It looked at him and then around the kitchen and then back at him. A cold draft blew in the cracked window.
“No more seed out there?”
The bird, still breathing quickly and jerking its gaze around the room, didn’t make a sound. Ben retrieved a plastic container from the cabinet behind him, expecting the bird to flee at any moment, but resolved to play out the scenario as far as it would go. It was such a beautiful yellow. The jagged white stripes on its wings reminded him of the cresting waves on a midnight ocean.
He shook out a small pile of seeds onto a saucer and watched the bird. It hardly hesitated before fluttering over to the plate and pecking at the various bits. It craned its head up at him as it ate, as if expecting a floor show, so Ben mimed a short tap routine in his socks. The bird stopped eating for this, but made no move to applaud.
“Tough crowd,” Ben mumbled.
“Tweating!” the bird chirped.
Ben stopped breathing and froze. The bird tittered and pecked some more seeds. Ben released his breath and ran his finger through his receding hair.
“That was weird,” he said.
The bird stopped eating and looked at him again. From the end of the hallway came the jingling of the cat’s bell.
“Your wife’s cheating on you,” the bird peeped and flew out the window just before Charles came trotting around the corner with an expectant “Mewl.”
“What the fuck?” Ben said. Chuck jumped up onto the counter and smelled the bird seed. Ben shut the window, cutting off the draft. In the living room, a cartoon voice sang, “F is for Forks, Farms, and Flags. F is for your Favorite Figs and Frogs.”
When Shelly came home that night, Ben was working on a puzzle with Megan. A Charles Mingus record filled the room with soft horn flutters as his daughter’s tiny fingers fiddled with the oversized jigsaw pieces. He smiled at her blissful indifference to the clear patterns of lines and colors.
Shelly threw her coat over the blue easy chair and dropped her purse in the seat.
“Ooh! A puzzle?” She asked, walking over and giving each of them pecks on their heads. She took off her heels and squatted, helping guide Megan’s piece into its proper place across the board. “You’re doing great!”
“How was your day?” Ben asked, taking a sip from his beer.
“Drinking already?” She asked, eyebrow raised.
He responded with his most casual shrug.
“Oh fine,” she yawned, grabbing her heels and standing.
“Daddy ordered pizza!” Megan announced through a blushing smile.
“I guess it’s movie night.” Shelly said. “I’ll get into some PJs!” She smiled at Ben and walked down the hall towards their room. “Open some wine for me?” She called back.
“Sure,” he said, getting up and walking over to her purse and jacket.
Megan picked up another puzzle piece and again attempted to mash it into the absolute wrong place. Ben lifted the jacket and sniffed it. Her familiar perfume, soft and powdery, nothing more. Dropping it over his arm, he picked up her purse and pulled out her phone. After a quick glance down the hallway, he checked her texts. Nothing weird. She texted him she would be late, and he had replied. Her mother sent her pictures of curtains for their new living room. Friends he recognized. Nothing. He checked her recent calls and saw a number with no name. Thumbing over to Messages, there was one from that number. His thumb hovered over the Listen button.
Charles rubbed up against his leg and he almost dropped the phone. Quickly replacing it in the purse, he rode out this fresh rush of adrenaline to the closet where he hung her coat.
“Oh, thanks hon,” Shelly said, entering the room in her pink-striped pajamas and plopping next to Megan. The record needle looped a faint popping. Ben took a deep breath as he walked over and with shaky hands flipped the record.
“Are you okay?” Shelly asked.
“Yeah!” Ben said, grabbing his beer and shaking it, “Just hungry.”
Shelly helped his daughter place another piece of the puzzle, and he took a big swig.
That night while Shelly snored softly, hugging a pillow, her back to him, the way she had slept for as long as he could remember, Ben stared at the ceiling. The bird had pecked on the window. It pecked repeatedly. Like knocking on a door. It had knocked so he let it in. And then he fed it. And it kept looking at him. And it said Cheating? In a very-human voice, Your wife is cheating on you. But Ben knew she would never do that to him. There was no way.
Watching Shawshank earlier, Megan asleep on the floor in front of them, they cuddled and laughed softly together at the same parts. The bird must be misinformed.
Snorting, Shelly rolled over and threw an arm over him. Its warm weight calmed him down, reassured him that neither her fidelity nor his sanity were in question. As her hot breath swam around his neck, he slowly succumbed to sleep.
The next morning, he woke up late and Shelly had already gone to work and dropped Megan at daycare. This was the regular Wednesday routine so he could focus on his novel. As he made his coffee in the morning, he kept looking out at the bird feeder. This morning, a giant red-headed woodpecker kept flying over and scaring the little finches, sparrows and bluebirds away. Just like a redhead to be a bully! The little yellow thrush did not make an appearance.
Ben had some breakfast and watched some TV, checked his emails and online profile, instagram feed, pinterest, reddit, and twitter feed. He couldn’t focus. Not even on the micro-blogs and memes. He scrolled down Shelly’s profile searching for any strange posts and found nothing out of sorts. Exasperated, he decided to go for a run.
He took his regular route out the backyard and through the woods. The snow had melted enough that the trail was passable, but he was still careful to watch for puddles and ice. As he ran, he let himself get lost in the music of the forest. Bird calls echoed sporadically high above his head. The woodpecker interjected its manic tapping. His running shoes crunched on the dirt and gravel. The cold air flushed his cheeks and cleared his head. He was writing about a dogcatcher who was had chased a dog into the woods and gotten lost. The sun had set, and the guy had left his phone in the truck, and he was now being pursued by a wolf. It was a dumb premise, but he believed that even a dumb premise could be won over by clever characters, so he was resolute to uncover this poor dogcatcher’s redeeming resourcefulness. As he ran, he looked around the woods and put himself into the mind of the dogcatcher. He ran faster as if he were being pursued by a ferocious wolf. Sprinting now, exhaling giant clouds of steam, he became the wolf, hunting the dogcatcher. A hunger grew inside him and tears streamed from his eyes. He bared his teeth, fighting the urge to give up, pushing himself harder, leaping over branches and sharp stones and murky puddles. He imagined catching the dogcatcher and ripping out his throat and then gorging himself on the guy’s guts.
Then he tripped.
His daydream was immediately replaced with a blur of frozen forest as his body pitched forward and bounced and scraped itself to a halt. Moans escaped him as he pushed himself onto his back and watched the plume of steam gasp out of him. After a bitter minute reflecting on his stupidity he pushed himself up and began checking himself out. His arms were a little scraped and definitely bruised beneath his winter jogging jacket. His left leg had scraped on a big rock and had suffered a fair gash. Nothing broken, thankfully.
“Fuck me,” he grumbled.
With a little extra effort, he stood up and realized he was a few steps from the river, which was where he usually took a break and then turned around.
He looked down at the slow meandering river and finished catching his breath. The wolf had caught him and torn him up. But he had survived. Maybe the dog he was pursuing would save his protagonist from the wolf. Domestication defeats primal. The dog would die, of course, sacrificing himself for the man, and the man would then have to re-think his career and life’s work.
Ben looked down at his bloody knee and decided to begin the long limp home.
When he got home, he wrapped a towel around his wound and sat at his desk and began hammering at the keys. A few pages in, once the dog had gotten between the dogcatcher and the hungry wolf, the chill of Ben’s cooling sweat overcame him and he headed to the shower. Writing about a dog fighting a wolf would be a challenge and he needed to be focused.
In the hot stream of the shower, he scrubbed the dirt from his wound. It was no easy feat. To distract himself from the feeling of needles chewing at his leg, he stared into the gathering steam and conjured images of the snarling beasts, the terrified and exhausted dog catcher, the steam of the animals’ breath as they lunged at each other and tumbled in the dark underbrush. A peck at the small shower window overlooking the yard broke his concentration. The yellow thrush had returned. It pecked again.
Ben rinsed the soap from his hands and body and gingerly opened the bathroom window. Cold air flew in with the small bird.
“Steamy in here,” it said, high voice reverberating strangely on the tiles. Ben stared at it, unable to come to terms. It continued, “Sorry to jet yesterday, but you gotta do something about that cat. It’s not safe for us.”
By us Ben was unsure whether it was referring to birds in general or just talking birds.
“What?” Dumb was never a more appropriate word for a person unable to speak.
“Your fucking pet cat,” the bird continued, “is a fucking menace. Do you have any idea what a contradiction it is to both have a pet cat AND keep a bird feeder? Are you a sadist? You get off on dead little birdies?”
Ben breathed shallowly. “It’s got a bell,” he said.
“Oh! A fucking bell! You think it doesn’t know that?!” The bird exclaimed hopping forward and fluttering its wings, “It can sneak its way within pouncing distance without so much as a faint dingle!”
“Fuck,” Ben said genuinely, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Bird said, regaining its composure, “Just keep in mind, it’s a frightful conundrum which should be addressed.” The bird looked at his wound dripping red down the drain. “Took a tumble, huh?”
Ben looked down at the red ooze. “Yeah.”
“Must be a bitch not to be able to fly,” The bird said, turning, about to fly out.
“Wait!” Ben said, moving the colder parts of his body into the spray of the hot water, “Did you say my wife was cheating on me?”
“Oh shit! Yeah! Sorry.” Bird said, “Cat just gets me agitated. Yeah. She’s banging an old high school friend she reconnected with on facebook.”
“What?” Ben’s heart froze in his chest and dropped like a fishing weight into his stomach.
“Yeah, sorry man. I know this isn’t probably how you wanted to hear.”
You mean from a bird?
“I followed her one day,” Bird continued, “I was bored and there’s a nice birdbath at the library across from the school. So I was over there trying to peck through the damn ice when I see this redhead chick walk up and put a note on her windshield.” Bird pecked at a drop of water by its feet. “At first I thought it was nothing, just like a substitute or something, but then when she comes and checks the note she calls you and says she’s gonna be late.”
A chick?! Ben shifted his body again. Goosebumps ran up his arms as the hot water warmed him.
“You okay?” The bird asked.
“Go on, please.”
“Cool. Sorry. Um. Yeah, so I followed her and they end up at her place and they, well, they did the dirty.”
“My wife slept with another woman?”
“There was no sleeping as far as I know.”
“How do you know?”
The bird laughed a high-pitched tweety laugh.
“Just say I got a ‘bird’s eye view’” it said, it was hard to tell, but it might have winked.
Ben’s head swam. His eyes wouldn’t focus. He turned off the water and wrapped himself in a green towel. “No. It’s not possible. She would never–“
He was cut short by a flash of feathers inches from his face. He flailed and stepped backward, bumping up against the sink. “What the–?”
The bird settled on the lip of the tub and eyed Ben coolly.
“Listen, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you can’t actually say that this is a surprise to you. Think about it. The late nights. The lack of a sex life. I mean, forget about poking the hole, she won’t even look you in the eyes for longer than a blink.”
“Listen!” The bird screeched. “If you were standing on the corner and saw two trucks about to hit each other, what would you do? You’d try and stop them right? You’d do whatever you could to prevent an accident that would mangle two people’s, if not more, lives. This is what we do, even animals. We don’t avoid the truth. We dash at it and seize the moment. You stupid humans, however, spend so much time dancing around and avoiding the obvious. You waste your lives asleep at the wheel on a freeway full of drunk drivers. It’s stupid.
“Now I know you’re still grappling with the whole talking bird thing, and that’s what it is,” the bird continued, “but don’t let my interruption into your peaceful ambivalence prevent you from taking this very real moment and realizing that your life has taken a very wrong turn and it’s about time you wake the fuck up. If you don’t, it may be more than your own life that gets fucked.”
“Megan?” Ben asked the space between him and the finch.
The bird stared at him with his tiny black eyes. Ben held the gaze for as long as he could, then sighed and looked down at his wound. He had been daydreaming when he fell and gashed himself. How many of the bad things in his life had happened because we wasn’t paying attention?
“Think about it,” Bird said and flew out the window.
Instead of returning to his writing, he dressed his wound and sat on the living room couch and turned on the TV. Mindlessly scrolling through the channels, he considered the bird’s proclamation. He and his wife had drifted apart in the past year. She was working more and he was always stepping out to write, so they spent little time together aside from meals and sleeping. She had always been faithful before as far as he could tell. They were high school sweethearts. Their sex had been amazing, when they had it, but maybe had gotten a little formulaic.
She joked about finding women attractive, had even made flimsy suggestions that they attempt a menage et trois, but nothing ever came of it. He always thought that if he had supported the idea she would think him coquettish, like it must be some kind of trap, but now he felt foolish. Maybe a threesome could have saved their marriage?
How could she do this to him? He dug his hand into a nearby throw pillow and bit back tears. Charles, like most cats, intuited Ben’s despair and climbed into his lap and purred, rolling onto his side and extending his front legs. Ben released the pillow and stroked his cat. The TV flashed ads for cereal and underwear at him. His breathing regulated.
What has he doing? He was envisioning the end of his marriage because of an apparent talking bird! He laughed and looked at this cat, “You ever seen a talking bird?”
Charles purred and tugged at an old blanket Ben was half-sitting on.
“Maybe I have a brain tumor.”
At two o’clock he picked Megan up from daycare and brought her home. He gave her a yogurt treat and worked on his story. The wolf and the dog went at it, tearing at each other, but, despite the wolf’s size advantage, the dog’s speed and litheness allowed for a few decisive strikes and the wolf bolted away, whimpering. Now the man faced the dog, his prey-turned-savior, scraped and bleeding, panting, maintaining its distance. He had chased down dogs like this one for years and put them to their deaths. His horrible profession clearer than it had ever been. He put out his hand. Here boy! And the dog growled at him and ran away. In the dark winter forest, the dog catcher was once again alone.
“Daddy?” Megan appeared next to his writing desk.
“I’m not a lumpkin!”
“What do you need, Megan?”
“Can we go see Donald Duck again?” They vacationed at Disney the summer prior and Megan had lost her noggin for Donald Duck.
“Sure thing, Hambone!”
“When?” She was a smart hambone.
“Let me talk about it with your mother and we’ll see. Now go play so Daddy can finish his story.”
“I’m not a Hambone!”
“I know Princess.”
At six Ben went into the kitchen to cook dinner and the yellow bird was already on the sill over the sink. He pecked twice. Ben walked over and tried to shoo him away. He pecked again. “Open up,” it said through the glass, “it’s cold out here.”
So Ben opened the window and let the talking fucking bird back into his kitchen.
“You’re messing with my head,” he said to the bird.
“I could go,” it said alighting on the faucet again. “You could just pretend I was a delusion.”
Ben thought this over for a second.
“Could you pour me a saucer of water?” The bird asked.
“How do I know you’re not?” Ben said retrieving a saucer from the cabinet, adding water, and placing it on the counter, “a delusion?”
“Thanks,” said the bird, hopping over and pecking a sip. “Well, I guess that’s the tricky part.”
“Do you have proof?” Ben asked, looking over his shoulder, worried that Megan might walk in.
“Well,” Bird mused, “I could stake out the dame’s house in a rusty Chrysler and snap some photos.”
Ben stared non-plussed. The bird pecked another sip of water.
“Oh wait,” the bird piped, “I don’t have fingers.”
“You’re sarcastic for a bird.”
“Oh we’re all like this. It comes with the Godly ability to shit on whatever you like.”
“Right.” Ben eyed the knife block. “Can’t you just give me her address?”
“Nope. Can’t read. Talking’s more natural.”
Ben sighed and looked at the kitchen clock. It was six thirty. Shelly would be home by seven or call soon. As if reading his mind the bird hopped up on the window sill.
“Leave the window open,” he said, “if she calls, grab the kid and we’ll take a drive. I’ll be at the feeder. Thanks for the water.” And he flitted over to the feeder and started munching some seed.
Ben sighed again and walked over to the fridge. He had been too preoccupied to think about dinner today so he hadn’t defrosted anything. Now he faced the dilemma of either making some falafel or ordering pizza again.
“Megan?” he called, closing the fridge. He heard Chuck’s bell jingle down the hall probably coming to get his own dinner. “You want samosa’s tonight?” Indian food was a better bet.
On the counter his phone buzzed to life. Shelly was calling. He looked out to the bird feeder where the yellow bird was still munching seeds. He waved, but the bird wasn’t looking. He accepted the call.
“Hi! Are you okay? You sound funny.” Her voice was calm as ever. He attempted to slow his racing heart.
“Fine. What’s up?”
“Okay. I’m sorry. Fucking Jerry has me working late on a PTA meeting. I probably won’t be home til ten.”
“Oh”, he said changing the phone to his other ear and looking back out to the bird feeder. The bird had disappeared. “That’s okay. We were going to order Indian food anyway. I’ll just see you when you get home.”
“Okay. Bye.” She hung up. He banged on the window. Behind him Charles’ bell jingled again.
“Just a second, Chucky,” He said, still scanning the backyard, the trees and bushes, for the yellow. Then a giggle behind him caused him to spin on his heels.
Megan was standing there with Charles’ collar in her hand. She shook it gleefully.
“Fooled you, Hambone!” She squealed, “I’m not Charley!” And she erupted in an explosion of laughter. Ben put down his phone and looked back to the yard. Still nothing.
Suddenly, the laughter turned to screams.
“AAAAAAaaahhhh!” Megan screamed and ran from the kitchen.
Ben turned. Charles had entered from the cat door, stealthy and silent without his bell. In his jaws was the shivering, bloody body of the yellow bird. He dropped it and pawed it playfully.
“No!” Ben yelled, reaching down and swatting the cat on its nose. It hissed and fled the room. Ben lifted the frail bird in his palms and carried it to the counter. “Shit! Shit!”
He stared at the little thing, red blood splotchy in the ruffled yellow feathers.
“Hold on! What do you need?” He shouted at the bird as its eyes flitted about manic with terror.
It stopped breathing then. Ben stood there in the darkening kitchen, alone again, unsure of what to do.
Shelly walked in then.
“Who are you talking to?” And upon seeing the dead bird in Ben’s hands, “Oh fuck!”
Ben looked at her and sighed, still holding the bird.
“We should talk,” he said.
Outside, the redheaded woodpecker ravaged the feeder.