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Harli James short story

The Affair of the Bird

by Harli James

            From the third floor window of the lurking mansion, I spied a hulking black form in the distance. I peered beyond the estate grounds, where the forest stretched into farmland and a brown river ran through the valley. And there, the strange figure presented itself—an obscure mass against the spent and shorn cornfields.

            What is that? I wondered. Was it a bird statue? A tall haystack darkened with rain? The form seemed almost chimeric, an absurd creature imbedded in a landscape that was not its own. The other guests were arriving, bumping their luggage down the hallway outside my room. But I could scarcely notice them, and before I knew it, I’d laced my boots and was heading outside for inspection.

            It was necessary to stretch my legs after the long trip down from Boston into these blue ridge mountains. I found that as I ventured further from my home, and the rolling hills of Virginia turned to brown walls of mountain, my chest tightened. The topography looked like heavy blankets bunched against the sky, and my head grew dizzy with acrophobia. I’d consoled myself, believing that once I arrived at this conference with the other botanists, the grounding of science and intellectual discussion would cure me.

            As I walked along the damp path I felt myself subsumed by the landscape, hemmed in by the loping river on one side and the open fields on the other, where a few rows of dead cornstalks remained. I reminded myself I had to be back shortly for dinner. Though when I’d first arrived, a steady drizzle pelting my collar and my bags deposited at my feet, the staff informed me that my hosts would not be attending the conference.

            “I regret to inform you that your hosts were called away on a family emergency,” the woman at the door had said, her cheeks bitten pink with cool air. “But I assure you the week’s activities will not be interrupted. The staff has been instructed to carry on the workshop as planned.”

            When I stepped inside the home a stunning marble stairwell spiraled upstairs to my left. To my right was a conservatory—a room chock full of plants where in the center stood an over-sized onyx sculpture that resembled a large, leering bird.

            “Your name, sir?” the woman asked with a slight southern lilt.

            “Edwin Carver,” I said, self-conscious of the rain dripping from the hem of my coat onto the polished floor.

            “Mr. Carver, I’ll show you to your room.”

            As we ascended the stairs, I glanced another attendant scurrying to open the door. A rush of sweet, wet air lifted through the stairwell as the guest stepped inside. Her boot entered first, a pointed toe and silver buckles, then the rim of her hat. She was probably one of just a few women attending this botany conference. As I rounded to the top step she looked up, and I caught her lovely eye.

            I was looking forward to meeting her and the other guests at dinner. But without our hosts, I wasn’t sure if it would be much of a formal affair. We were all just botanists here after all, not dignitaries. There were no Rockefellers among us. A hunk of bread and jam with hot coffee was enough for me on a damp evening like this.

            The nip in the air cut through my jacket, and I decided I should turn back, but just then a black mass caught my eye. An enormous dark figure sat—or stood—in the middle of the field. I jerked to a stop. It was a gigantic black bird. It was taller than a man, nearly ten feet as it perched.

            “Dear God,” I muttered. The thing was preposterous. Too afraid to take a step closer, I strained my eyes and jutted my neck. I tried to transform the vision into something more plausible. Could it be a large water trough for cows? A grain bin? Perhaps some type of irrigation system? I stared, heart banging, and tried to believe it was farm equipment. But, no, it was a bird.

            The sun had dropped behind the mountains, and a melancholy gold had cast through the gloom. A gleam of rifted feathers textured the side of the bird. Yes, they were definitely feathers. Again, I transfigured the image in my mind. It was too still to be alive. I wondered why they’d put a statue in a cut-down cornfield, but it was the only possibility.

            The air felt suddenly cold, and the evening was growing dark. I rushed away from the statue back down the path I’d taken. My legs moved briskly, but I couldn’t shake the unease of having the giant figure behind me. I glanced backward.

            Its head swiveled toward me, a lone eye in my direction. I shrieked. Its sheer size! The wings it bore! Those scaly feet that could slice a heart! As I barreled away from it, I couldn’t help but look back. Its wings expanded a shocking width. The great bird raised into the air, lifting in my direction.

            I stumbled forward, arms out to protect myself from a fall. The great bird soared overhead, its draft bearing down on me. Then it surpassed me and flew over the trees and out of sight. I raced back to the side door of the house and slipped in, shaking but unnoticed. I careened to my room, slammed the door behind me, and fell against it, heaving and bewildered.

            An hour later I had composed myself enough to join the group in the dining room. I had spent the last hour gathering my wits and putting on dinner attire with shaking hands. I felt like a mad man trying to make normal.

            A long table ran the length of the room, punctuated by a giant stone hearth with a blazing fire. With luck, the woman I had seen arrive earlier sat across from me. Her eyes were slightly askew, and she had an unusually strong jawline, but nevertheless was pretty enough that she was hard to look at.

            “It’s a beautiful place, don’t you think?” she said. “The isoprene really does make the mountains look blue.” She placed her hand beside her mouth as if to reveal a secret. “Though I did feel a bit queasy driving in through the twists and turns.”

            “I too had a difficult ride in.” I reached for the salt but knocked it over with the back of my hand. She picked up the shaker, offering it to me. The tips of her fingers brushed mine, and I was seized with attraction. “However, I got some fresh air during a walk around the estate,” I said as I over-salted my soup. I stole a furtive look at her, embarrassed somehow of her asymmetrical beauty. She had slight lines around her eyes, which had probably spent as many hours peering through a microscope as mine had. She bore no ring on her finger.

            “I walked a bit myself this afternoon,” she said, “around the back of the home. Did you go far?”

            “I made it down to the river. The landscape makes a subtle shift in the valley.”

            “Did you see any notable specimens?” She sipped a spoonful of broth.

            I racked my brain, trying to blot out the bird and focus on the plant life. “Loblolly pines and a couple of Carolina Hemlocks.” The names of other plants I might have seen escaped my mind. “I suppose I was distracted and didn’t explore very closely.” I felt my cheeks flush.

            “It would be easy to get distracted in such an unusual place. I imagine a long walk on the grounds would provide much to see. There’s plenty of time for documentation later this week.” Her warmth settled my frayed nerves. “I think it’s because it’s such an unusual place,” she continued. Her hair was plaited to the side, and the shadows from the dinner candles created darkness below her eyes. “It’s almost mystifying.” Her words felt heavy with meaning.

            “Indeed.” I attempted to convey a similar sentiment. “Almost peculiar.”

            Her face lit up. “Yes! Peculiar. This place is gloomy, and well,” she leaned toward me, “I know the estate is renowned for its botanical specimens, but I saw animals too. Do you know if they have a breeding program?” She lifted her glass to drink, as if to take the place of her words.

            Had she seen the bird as well? If not, I didn’t want to mention it and have her think me a lunatic. I considered my response a moment too long. 

            “Evening,” the man next to her butted in with a solid western twang. “I’m Bennett. I couldn’t help hearing your conversation.”

            “Hello, I’m Rebecca. And this is,” she hesitated.

            “Edwin,” I said, running my hand against the back of my head. The stiff tangle of my too-long black hair brushed against my neck. This Bennett was dashing. He loomed over Rebecca in a familiar way—the way these sorts of men do.

            “I took in the grounds by horse today,” he said. “I saw the wildest creature down by the river. A bird so large I could barely believe my eyes!”

            Rebecca jumped in her seat. “I saw it too!”

            “That bird?” said a man two seats down, a pair of pince-nez glasses firmly in place. “I’m glad someone else saw it. That thing was downright abominable!”

            “Perhaps they are studying ornithology here?” asked one of the other women.

            “It’s Frankenstein stuff. Genetic manipulation,” said the bespectacled man.

            A frail-looking man next to me interjected, “Your eyes must have deceived you! It’s the altitude.” He swept his hand across his brow, as if exhausted.

            “You’re all trying to reason it!” a blustery man with a bow-tie bellowed from the end of the table. “We scientists demand rationality in everything, but there are dark forces in the world that can’t be explained.”

            The table fell into an awkward silence until the man with glasses broke the tension. “Nonsense,” he said, slamming his fist on the table.

            The room erupted in a jumble of conversation. Rebecca was at the center of it, engaging each new observer. The moment had been ours, but it had vanished in the cacophony of voices. I sunk back, shaken by my own encounter with the bird. I couldn’t reason it. We were scientists. We couldn’t be taken by fantastical ideas that had no empirical merit. The more the bird din grew, the more I wanted to slink away from it. My body stiffened with discomfort.

            Before long the porcelain bowls of soup grew cold. The staff brought plates of pheasant and soft potatoes. I searched their faces for signs of secret or worry, but detected nothing.

            After dinner the group retired to the billiard room. Rebecca perched in a chair, drinking from a crystal glass. The light from a nearby lamp reflected gold in her hair. She had the studious look of a botanist, but her arms and hands had the softness of milk and honey.

            My boots still had a little mud from the estate on them. I had not brought a change of shoes for dinner. My jacket was rumpled. I knew I was not to her standards.

            “Edwin!” she waved me over with a smile that overlooked my shortcomings.

            I crossed the room. Through the muted air, matches scratched to light cigars and billiard balls tapped one another. The chair she sat in was covered in a patterned fabric, and when I sat next to her I noticed the unravelling of the seam in the upholstery, a trail of thread hanging down.

            “I wanted to ask you at dinner,” she said, “is your last name Carver?”

            “Yes,” I said eagerly. Did she know my work?

            “I’ve read your articles in Botanist Quarterly! You’re brilliant!” Her eyes flecked with excitement.

            A desperate warmth rushed through me. “That’s kind of you, but I’m not—”

            “Don’t be humble,” she interrupted. “I’ve been an admirer of your work for years. I live just outside the Boston area too. We’re practically neighbors! We should meet sometime after this retreat to discuss our work.”

            It struck me then—she should be my wife. We’d sit in the parlor after dinner reading scientific article togethers, laugh at the new-fangled ideas, and seriously discuss our own studies. Yes, she was the perfect woman for me, the pink of her lip, the slightly askew eyes, a too-square jaw line that made her just less than exquisite.

            “Yes, I’d like that,” I managed. “And how has your evening been?”

            “Well,” she leaned in, “some of us were talking in the powder room about this bird. The group sitting at the far end of the table during dinner know what’s going on.”

            “They do?”

            “The poor creature is a captive!” She was flush with the secret.

            I felt my eyebrows turn down. “I can’t imagine that’s the case,” I countered.

            “No, it is! Each one of us saw it in a different location, each time tethered with a chain on one of its legs. Someone on staff must have been instructed to move it to and fro, like feeding a cow, or a goat. It probably eats bugs and worms. Can you imagine what it would take to feed that beast?”

            “I saw it fly,” Bennett boomed from behind me. “It wasn’t chained.” His evening jacket fit stiffly over his wide frame and his hair was slicked back.

            “You did not!” said Rebecca, perturbed.

            “I most certainly did.” He stood in front of us.

            Rebecca glared at him and then turned back to me. “We’re going to do something about it.”

            Bennett laughed and shook his head. “You can’t do anything about it.” He swirled the ice in his glass. “It’s foolish to tangle with wild creatures. You all should just let it alone.”

            I couldn’t shake the chill of the bird’s draft when it flew over me that afternoon. It had not been captive, and it had chosen a flight path directly over my head, as if a threat. I wanted nothing to do with it, whatever it was.

            Rebecca crossed her arms and looked away. I didn’t want to think of her as a person given to fantastical notions. But too, shame flickered within me. How could this woman be so bold to be willing to get involved in the affair of a beast twice her size? I looked at my hands and thought of the years spent turning pages, studying the physical world, and suddenly I couldn’t bear the question of how Rebecca viewed me. So I excused myself for bed. But as I left the room, I felt her eyes on me.

            That night, I slept fitfully. A few hours in, I heard a whisper in the hallway, then footsteps. The covers tangled at my waist and I fought to remove them. I stepped onto the cold wood boards with my bare feet. The moon through the window lit the room enough to find my pants on a nearby chair. I slipped them on and pressed my ear against the door.

           More footsteps trod down the hallway, and then came a timid knock. As I turned the knob I imagined Mr. Bird on the other side, head cresting the threshold, beak careening down at me. Shivers ran down my arm as I opened the door. But it was Rebecca.

            “May I speak to you a moment?” she asked. I imagined her inspecting my wild hair that must have stuck out like Albert Einstein.

            I stepped into the hallway. “Is anything wrong?”

            “One of the men found the bird chained in the stable. The poor creature! It’s just cruel.”

            “We don’t even know what it is.”

            “Yes, but it doesn’t belong here. Perhaps it belongs up north in the icebergs.  Keeping it here is unnatural. It’s not right.”

            “I saw the thing fly. It’s not captive. If it wants to leave, it will.”

            “We’re going to set it free.” Heat emanated from her. She smelled like wet leaves and night air.

            “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

            “Birds don’t live in stables,” she said.

            “Birds don’t grow that large!” I put my hand on her arm. “Rebecca, please, don’t go down there.”

            The faint light of the moon allowed me to see the outline of her cheek and the fine frame of her hair, a few strands standing out from her head. The smell of her, the fire in her cause, it rushed on me and I pulled her toward me, surprised by how easily she drew in. In a second her lips were on mine. I kissed her brazenly, and she reached her arms around my back. But then she stepped away.

            The darkness in the hall pulsated between us. The brief encounter left me puzzled by the elephantine emotion I felt for this woman standing in the hall, asking me to join her on a dangerous nocturnal mission. Was she goading me? Was I a fool? My chin trembled.

            “Please come with me,” she said between breaths.

            I considered it, imagined us creeping to the stable with a group of botanists to release the man-sized bird. But I couldn’t do it.

            “The creature can manage itself.” I was resolute.

            She stepped away from me. “Then why have it chained in the stable now? It’s unconscionable to stay here as guests and condone this cruelty. If you won’t help me, so be it.” She spun around and marched down the hallway.

            My voice caught in my throat. I wanted to call her name, but nothing came. The fabric of her dress ruffled through the dark. I sank back against the wall as a chill spread through my heart. Footsteps to the far left revealed someone coming out of the shadows, perhaps from the servants’ stairwell. I stiffened.

            “They think that damn bird is trapped,” said Bennett, stepping into view. “They’re going to get hurt.”

            I looked back down the long hall toward the emptiness where Rebecca had departed.

            Bennett continued, “These people are crazy. I heard them conspiring after dinner. They got no idea what that bird’s capable of. One time, when I was traveling out west for work, I had a nightmarish encounter with a gila monster. You ever seen one of those things?”

            I shook my head. A draft came through the hallway, and I imagined air wafting up from the door downstairs as Rebecca stepped outside.

            “My crew wouldn’t pay me any mind when I told them to watch out for them suckers. I tied my sleeping hammock between two Joshua trees, but the rest of the men slept on the ground. Sure enough I woke to one of them screaming, I mean screaming like hell. I nearly fell out of my hammock trying to turn on my flashlight. A gila monster had bit the toe clean off one of my men!”

            The sweetness of bourbon on Bennett’s breath drifted toward me. “It’s best not to interfere with wild animals,” I said.

            “There was blood all over our damn camp. You wouldn’t believe it. I mean it looked like a war zone. The guy was screaming and hopping around. I wanted to puke when I saw blood smeared all over the place, and Joe leaping around with nine toes and a hole at the end of his foot. God!”

            “Should we stop them, then?” I asked.

            “The guy finally passed out. That’s how the screaming stopped.”

            “Let’s go stop these folks.”

            “I’m not getting involved. They’re idiots.” Bennett turned and shuffled down the hallway.

            My heart pounded as I returned to my room. I peered out the window again, as if I’d be able to see the bird through the darkness. Though fearful, I was gripped by a need to stop Rebecca and cage this madness. My hands clutched the window sill. Wet night fogged against the glass panes. Epiphanies are rare. They require the carved grooves of our beliefs to slacken, and for us to admit we’d been wrong. It requires us to relearn ourselves, but it happened. I realized right then, I’d been lonely for years. I’d only been pretending to be saved by science.

            I laced up my boots and did not recognize my fingers as they worked. When I reemerged into the hallway my legs moved on their own accord. What am I doing? I thought as I descended the stairwell. This was madness, but I was compelled to stop Rebecca from engaging in an act that might get her kicked out of the house—or worse, hurt.

            At the foot of the stairs, plants loomed in the conservatory, like arching arms embracing the foul bird statue that stood there. I wanted to return to comfort of my bed, but instead I slipped out the front door and down the stone steps.

            The enormous front lawn spread bluish-green before me. The moon was at its full power as I traversed the grounds toward the stable, a sense of indignation rising in me. It was foolish of Rebecca to vex a wild animal about which she knew nothing.

            The fact that I was out in the cold in the middle of the night to stop this crew of vigilantes drew my ire. How inconsiderate of them! Rebecca had seemed bright and warm in the house, but the memory of our clandestine kiss faded as I grew angrier with each step.

            My feet crunched through gravel. What kind of woman kissed a man for no good reason in a hallway? We’d just met! It was improper. True, I had initiated it. But it was as if I was under some spell—her hair and the cloaked darkness outside my room. Now we had to spend an awkward week together. And had Bennett seen us?

            Outside the stable, three people stood—the two men who had been standing in the corner of the billiard room earlier, and Rebecca. I cleared my throat.

            “Ed! You came!” The curl of Rebecca’s voice constricted my breathing.

            “I came to stop this madness.”

            One of the men stepped forward. “It’s already in motion. Frank here has located the key to the bird’s shackles, and Veronica is standing watch at the barn.”

            “Why are you doing this? Leave the thing alone.”

            “This bird deserves its freedom!” he said. “The Society of Botanists could find out we sat idly by while it was held captive. And if that’s not enough for you, consider the risk to our own lives if we agree to stay here for a week in its presence. It’s safer to let it go under our watch than allow it do God knows what.”

            “Have you seen it?” The man with the bow-tie at dinner stepped forward. His pasty complexion shone queer in the moonlight.

            “Yes. It flew right over me earlier today,” I said. “It paid me no attention.”

            “It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s something grand, something,” he turned to a whisper, “special.”

            I recoiled. Everyone looked greenish in the dark, the whites of their eyes flecking anxiously, as if they’d all been transfixed with the notion that unleashing the beast was an inevitable course of action no matter the consequences. The key dangled in Frank’s grip and my palm itched for it. I told myself that I could grab it and run away with it, but some alternative course furrowed through my mind—an image of myself unlocking the barn door. I shivered.

            Frank leapt forward, wild-eyed. “Let’s go!”

            “No!” I murmured, but my voice was weak.

            The crew headed to the stable but Rebecca hung back, re-examining me for a brief moment. I managed a step backward toward the house, still hoping we might leave this calamity together. But as I did, Rebecca turned and darted toward the stable.

            Muffled, disorganized voices emitted from the barn. Someone shouted and a chain clinked. I imagined them crowding around the bird and wondered which of them would be brave enough to approach it and handle the lock—they could be pecked to death. I was angry at Rebecca, that reckless activist, for putting me in this position. But I couldn’t compel myself to leave.

            A great fluttering came from the barn, like the sound of ship sails whipping in a storm. Rebecca cried out. I ran toward the stable in a frenetic attempt to save her. But just as a I did, a wild shuttering sounded and the stable doors burst open.

            The enormous bird erupted from the dark interior, lumbering to exit the confines of the doorway. It shot into the night, its wings flinging open, knocking me down. The men and Rebecca stumbled from the stable after the bird, which careened past the bare Dogwood trees.

            “You stupid people!” I screamed, jumping up. The men stopped, seemingly satisfied that the bird was free and could choose its own course, but Rebecca chased after it. She tore through the field, following the low-flying bird.

            How could the bird keep the enormous burden of its body lifted at such a slow speed? Rebecca could be crushed under its weight if it stopped.

            “Rebecca!” I yelled. I hated her at that moment.

            I sprinted after her. The wretched woman darted through the grass. As I followed, the uneven surface roughed my ankles, and shoots clawed at my pant legs. Rebecca was like a dark apparition in the moonlight, her green dress a thrash of fabric through the pasture.

            The bird was just ahead of us, its massive wingspan lording overhead, plodding and slow relative to Rebecca’s wild flailing. She reached her hand out to pluck its feathers—whether to stop it, or possessed by some madness to have a piece of it, I don’t know.

            I lunged for her, filled with disgust for this woman, readying myself to take her down and lash out at her for all of her moral failings. How dare she put me in this position?

            My fingertips touched the fabric of her dress just as her hand reached the oily feathers of the bird. I cinched my grasp on her gown, yanked her back, and saw her hand slip away from the bird, clutching a handful of feathers.

            We tumbled, my body lurching toward hers, and her body, stopping in mid-run, spooled back by my hand. We landed with a thump on the scratchy ground.

            “Oof,” she said when she fell.

            I toppled over her, rolling to the side, my body crashing on the cold ground. I dropped my hand and it fell on top of her arm. When I felt her skin, warmth jolted through me. I remembered the touch of her arms around my back in the hallway.

            The bird flew on, rising steeply in elevation. I remembered the sound her dress made when she walked away from me.

           The giant bird was far away now, black against the black sky, almost unseen. My hand still rested on Rebecca’s arm as we caught our breath. In that mad dash, how had I forgotten who she was? She was lovely. She was imperfectly lovely. She was the woman with the jaw line that was a little too strong, falling just short of exquisite

* * *

      The little courtyard behind my cottage is small, but private. Ivy clings to the tall brick walls. Ferns bush in the corners and Snowdrop Anemone edge the back perimeter. The shining crown, however, is my gilded bird cage. Its ornate door is embellished with a portico, and the runged dome gleams in the sun.

“Hello my sweet,” I say, offering a palmful of food through the sunlit bars.

She nips the kernels I’ve dropped at the bottom of her cage. She preens her feathers, which with careful study, one can see are truly forest-green, especially beneath the clear sky, which jewels above. She tends to her grooming studiously, one eye on her plumage, another on me.

When her back is to me, the silky luxuriance of her feathers calls to my fingertips, and I hazard a touch. Just as I grasp the texture of them she jerks around, and I retract my hand. Her glare is impenetrable.

“There, there,” I console her. “You’re safe here.”

She ruffles, and I decide this is understanding, though her eye is sharp. In truth, there is sharpness every where—the clinch of the talons, the curve of the beak, the square-like shape of her head.

I tug on the lock to test its surety, then step back and take in my sanctuary. The molting of her feathers gather in the crevices of the walkway and bunch at the flowerbeds. My garden is complete, and even the Lily of the Valley have grown beautifully this year.


Harli James is a writer living in Asheville, NC. Her stories have been published in Jabberwock Review and Bangalore Review. Her hometown is known for the grand Biltmore Estate, and one time while visiting, she saw a watering trough that she could have sworn was a large bird.