Fiction · 09/19/2018

Field Guide to Lonely and Secretive Birds

Before her students arrive Kayla spends several minutes at the blackboard dotting her i’s and grinding the chalk for periods to end her sentences. She wants the instructions clear. She unhinges the classroom’s large window and runs a nylon string from wall to wall. She dangles small chunks of rabbit meat across its length. When the children arrive she greets them at the door with a finger over her lips. They look at her, look to the board and string, look at each other, and giggle a little. But they settle in their seats and do as her message asks: Sit SILENTLY. Do NOT open FOOD or DRINK. Be QUIET!!! Wait patiently and we will SEE what we SEE!

The Southern Appalachian bloody-footed diving jay prefers squirrel meat, they say, but rabbit is the best she could do. She bought it from a man with a wall of pens on his back porch, who charged extra to kill and dress it for her. I ain’t a butcher, he said, but he did it anyway, insisting she take the extra beyond what she needed. Not that it would do her any good, he promised—everybody knew the diving jay could smell a trap a mile away. Most say it’s a myth, the scarlet-standing blue-plumed bird of prey, but Kayla’s seen it. She’s sure it’s dropped from a tree in front of her house and dove across the path of her car on her way to work. She doesn’t have much in mind in the way of science, field journals and anatomical diagrams, but she wants to show it to her kids, share a piece of magic, prove to herself what she’s seen.

They wait in the easy chill of the fall air. The children are surprisingly patient. They read, some of the girls pass notes, and a clearing of Kayla’s throat ends the paper-football flicking game before it can really get going. She stretches at her desk, rocks in her seat, and watches the window. She listens for the hopping of feet or rustle of wings. She passes worksheets around for them to color and draw on and at lunchtime reluctantly sends them to the cafeteria. She worries it will come while they eat or when they go to the gym for P.E., but she’s alone until their return. Together they count the pieces of rabbit meat along the line, making sure they haven’t missed anything. It’s begun to smell just a little sickly sweet, and with fifteen minutes left before dismissal she begins cleaning up, throwing away, shutting down. She closes the window and for the first time all day she speaks: Be ready to work tomorrow.

Kayla watches along the highway, going home. She stands in her driveway looking up and down the street, into the magnolia tree, until the sun begins to disappear behind her neighbors’ houses. Mark comes home and they prepare dinner. She tells him all she’s read about the Southern Appalachian bloody-footed diving jay: They mate for life. They have 32 teeth. They followed the Cherokee west on the Trail of Tears and sang mournfully over Confederate wakes. A small cottage industry developed around them in McMinnville, Tennessee, and online she’s seen the Bigfoot and Loch Ness quality videos of them hopping, jumping, disappearing into trees. Careful voices whisper on the tapes: Look, there. No it’s not a goddang finch. Did you see the feet? I can’t see the feet.

Maybe they hunt at night, her husband offers. They watch TV, she works a crossword, and they talk about making love. They stretch and yawn and decide to let it wait another night. Before bed she opens the window over her dresser. While Mark is in the bathroom brushing his teeth she pushes the screen out of its frame so a body could come or go if it wanted. She reaches a hand out into the night and draws it back just to be sure. They lie together through hours of the dark, and beneath his steady snoring Kayla closes her eyes but goes nowhere. She listens for some sign. She finally climbs out of the bed, peers out, can’t see. In the kitchen she takes the last of the rabbit from the refrigerator and carries it into the yard. The neighborhood is quiet and poorly lit. She stands in the damp grass and feels a shiver work its way up from her feet. She takes a tiny cube of meat and tosses it into the air. She can’t see where it goes, how high, if it lands or is snatched away. The earth is empty but full of possibility around her. Anything could be there. She lets loose a long, low whistle, the sort of sound she imagines a lonely, secretive bird would make. She can’t be sure what she’s seen anymore, she doesn’t know, but maybe this will draw it loose.

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Marvin Shackelford is author of the collections Endless Building (poems) and Tall Tales from the Ladies’ Auxiliary (stories, forthcoming). His work has, or soon will have, appeared in Kenyon Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee, earning a living in agriculture.