Fiction · 08/03/2011

In Winter

Frozen birds fell hard and bounced in our yards, brittle feathers frosted to sparkling. We came out bundled in the cold, gathered the birds in barrels to keep them through the winter. The children, never so gentle, bent over and cupped the birds in their palms. The elders laid the birds on the barrel floors one by one, three elders to a barrel, one to receive from the children, one to wrap each bird in burlap, one to arrange the layers as they filled the barrel, wrinkled fingers tucking cloth corners with care. The strongest women and men shouldered the barrels to basements below our homes, where once a week, the day the birds had fallen, an elder in each family descended counting wooden beads, praying for the birds to keep well.

In the spring, we brought the barrels up, the elder groups reformed: one to remove each bird from the barrel, one to unwrap, one to lay them bird by bird in the sun. In warmth they fluttered to life on our kitchen tables, our sun-bleached shelves, our porches. Gray flappings of fear until they flocked from our windows and chimneys, smoky streams clouding into a lake. All the children in the yards, men and women in the fields, elders on chairs and under trees, stopped and faced upward to watch the migration. The birds climbed and faded from sight, until next winter when again they would rain and pool and need our hands.

Once, a bird returned in summer, heartbeat boiling, flitting arrow quick between eaves, posts, and trees, children chasing, cheering. The elders flooded from their doorways and knelt in the grass, as if their careful tending of barrels, thawing of bodies, praying to life for life to be sustained, year after year, had at once all come to reward.

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James Dunham’s work has appeared in Plain China and Glossolalia. He currently writes fiction at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, where he is assistant editor of Mid-American Review.