Sparrows and Mourning Doves
It took Blackbird a moment to recognize the dead man in the marshes.
She had to crouch in the mud just beside him to peer at his downturned face, the eyes and mouth open. She would have known it right away had it not looked so bloated and white, like the bubbles in the lake foam just before they popped. The man’s name was Emery Hunt, a friend of her father’s from before they moved out of the city. He had a long face and small eyes with little wrinkles around them. “Kindness wrinkles,” as she’d thought of them. Kindness wrinkles were different from age wrinkles; Emery Hunt was not very old. Yet there were no lines in his waxy skin now, nor much else that matched her memory of his living self.
From behind her, the boy’s voice. “Do you think he fell from somewhere?”
Still examining, Blackbird made no move to look at him. The back of Emery Hunt’s head was smudged with red-brown, like rust from the chains of an old buoy.
“Or did…someone kill him?” The boy was never silent for long. Often in the evenings he rode his bike past her house near Maplewood, calling for her to explore with him, chattering all the while. Blackbird knew his age (nine—five years her junior) but not his name, and after several months it seemed far too late to ask. Sometimes she made up names for him, but in her head he was always “the boy.”
At last she stood. The reeds and lapping water tickled her bare feet; she’d taken off her shoes to enter the marsh. For a long moment she’d hesitated on the shore, but in the end felt she had to see the man’s face. Besides, the boy had been frightened and watching. “You shouldn’t have come to me first, you know,” she said quietly. “You should have had your parents call the police.”
The boy frowned. With his light eyes and thick, dark eyebrows, it had a comical effect. “I thought you’d want to see.” His eyes darted to the body and back again, as if he thought it would move if he looked away for too long.
To him, Blackbird knew, the discovery of a body was a morbid adventure. It was a sign of flattery that he’d thought to show her first. It wasn’t uncommon to see roadkill in the area—raccoons or possums, even a stray cat once or twice—and the boy always told her when he spotted a victim. He would lead her to the site, pedaling far more rapidly than she, and approach the carcass with solemn fascination. She’d watch as he studied it, circling until he thought he knew how the animal had been hit, sometimes even prodding it with a stick. But a human body was different. She was certain there had been no prodding of Emery Hunt. And if there had been, she wouldn’t want to know.
She started toward the road, her feet squishing in the muddy grass. “We should go back.”
“Who do you think he is?” The boy caught up to her, taking wide and sloppy steps. “Can the police find out who killed him? It couldn’t have been someone from here. Could it?”
He’d splashed water all over her legs. “Watch where you’re stepping,” she said. “Do you want the murderer to hear you, Little Elephant?”
It was mean, but she couldn’t help herself. The boy frowned again, still distracted by his questions. “How long do you think he’s been there? Maybe—maybe we should stay and look for clues.”
“I’ll race you to my house.” And she hopped on her bike before he could refuse, nudging the kickstand back with her heel.
The sun sank low over the marsh as she pedaled away, the boy on her heels, orange light washing over the dead man’s body for a moment before edging toward the shore.
Her father’s car was in the driveway when she returned. She waved to the boy and went inside, closing the screen door gently behind her.
Her father was sitting at the kitchen table with his crossword. “There you are, little bird. Were you on a walk?”
She went straight to the fridge. “Yeah, just a short one.” She took out the Styrofoam container, opened it to take out the sandwich and fries inside, and then stuck them in the microwave. “How’s the restaurant?”
He shrugged. “The usual business. Listen, when you’re done eating I was thinking we could go out in the boat. Take some binoculars, maybe see if we can spot the heron.” They often saw a heron at the edge of the pier, or skimming the water’s surface with its long body as it flew. A lone and regal bird, it always seemed to be the only one in the world, so that was how they talked about it.
After a minute she sat down and began to eat. At first her father went back to his crossword, jiggling the pencil absently between his fingers, then writing a word. He glanced up. “You’re quiet. The food terrible or something?”
She smiled, shook her head. “No. It’s good. I’m just hungry.”
Maybe she should tell him now, before the police did. Maybe that would be better. Orange light streamed through the window, making her father’s wiry brown hair glow from behind. Blackbird remembered the dark stain on the back of Emery Hunt’s head, and kept silent.
Surely it would shock her father to hear of it. He did not need the news of another death, especially that of a friend; he had already lost Blackbird’s mother five years before. She had gone into the doctor’s office for an appointment, and had come out with cancer. Blackbird remembered the hospital room, its white bed with a hundred medical tools attached; and her mother, always a pale person, now so thin and white she looked like an egret or a swan, sitting up with delicate grace as they entered the room. Blackbird’s father had even gotten loans from friends to pay for her treatment. Before, the three of them often went to zoos and museums to see the animals, and to the bird sanctuary where they would picnic and bird watch for hours. One day Blackbird’s mother couldn’t go to those places anymore, and then she couldn’t go anywhere at all, and then she was gone. Afterward Blackbird and her father had moved to their current home in Twin Lakes, which had been handed down to them years before, after his family decided to move away to Michigan. It was only meant to be a summer home, but her father had worked on the insulation and eventually saved enough for a new furnace, so it was perfectly cozy in winter too.
It was far from winter now, with sunlight still reaching through the window at dinnertime, and the thick hum of cicadas in the trees, and a lone cricket chirping somewhere below the windowsill.
Blackbird ate her sandwich and fries. Her eyes wandered through the doorway to the living room. The black bookshelf, a crinkled and stained copy of Birds of the Midwest facing outward. The other books were always aligned by two bronze gargoyles, but now several books fell forward, a cascade of tiny steps.
“Where are the bookends?” she asked with her mouth full, pointing.
“Mm?” Her father leaned over to see. “Oh, I dropped one of them. Shattered in more places than you’d believe. I figured the other one’d be lonely by itself.” He flashed her a smile. “Besides, we can use the shelf space. There’s that book fair next week in town, and I could use something besides these puzzles to stare at.”
Her father was not a clumsy person. She wondered if afterward he had thrown them into the garbage, or maybe into the lake. She found herself wishing she could see them again.
“I’m finished,” she said, standing to put the rest in the fridge. He always brought her big sandwiches with too many fries so that she could have leftovers. “Are you ready?”
He stood, with a quiet salute. “Yes, ma’am. You get the binoculars and I’ll meet you outside.”
She moved, images of diving kingfishers and sparrows already floating through her mind. Smooth and graceful, they tossed their fish-prey up in the air, crunching down with sudden force. It was funny, watching their dinnertime dance, how easily she could forget about the tiny murders they were committing.
It was two days later, biking up Shores Lane, that she passed the cop car in the boy’s driveway.
The boy spotted her and waved. His parents stood behind him, talking to a policewoman with short red hair that Blackbird recognized from in town. Blackbird waved back, wishing she were not pumping uphill, because it gave the policewoman plenty of time to call after her. “Excuse me, young lady?”
She had to wheel back around to enter the boy’s driveway. Before she could speak the woman continued, “This young man says you’re a friend of his. That true?”
Blackbird hoped ‘this young man’ hadn’t said much else. “You could say that.”
“And do you know anything about the body he found in the marsh?”
She had told the boy not to tell anyone that he had shown her the body first. So he had listened. That meant word couldn’t get back to her father. She would have given the boy an appreciative look, but that would hardly make her seem innocent. “He told me about it. But I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”
She was always polite, if not expressive. The policewoman looked puzzled, and Blackbird wondered what the woman would have done if she’d said, There were crickets and thunder the night Emery Hunt visited, and I don’t know where the gargoyle bookends went. “What’s your name?” the woman asked, with an uncertain smile. “And where exactly do you live, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“She’s Blackbird,” said the boy, as if the policewoman were a little slow. “It’s her real name, even if it is strange. She lives at the bottom of our hill.”
“Your hill?” Blackbird favored him with a tiny smile. He had called her name strange a million times, and she didn’t mind—it was a strange name, and not the first she’d heard of it. But it was the name her mother had given her. When she was younger her parents had often played the Beatles song of the same name. They would take each other’s hands on either side of her, forming a Blackbird sandwich, and sway back and forth to the music. Her mother had once told her it had been their wedding song.
“So…Blackbird,” the woman said, as if the name tasted funny on her tongue. “Where were you at around two a.m. on Wednesday morning?”
Blackbird shrugged. “I’m never up past midnight, ma’am. Is that when it happened?”
“Thereabouts.” The woman was writing in her little brown notebook. “We think, since he was found in the lake after all, it’s possible he fell off the side of a boat. Hit his head.” She looked up. “Something hit his head, anyway. We’ll know more soon. Can I speak to someone else in your household?”
“There isn’t anyone else home right now. My father’s at work.”
“Well, here.” The policewoman pulled a card out of her pocket, handed it to Blackbird. “When your father gets home, have him give me a call. We’ll be by soon, just to ask some routine questions. Nothing to be afraid of.”
Blackbird nodded. “Is that all, ma’am?”
“That’s it for now. Go on, enjoy your bike ride.”
“Wait,” the boy called after her, and made a beeline for his bike. “Are you going to ride down Mount Doom?”
Mount Doom was what her family had dubbed the steep hill that led into town. When Blackbird was younger she had often coasted down it, her father on his bike behind her. One day she’d hit a stray pebble while going too fast. The horrible lurch of flying, and then she’d skidded several feet on her stomach, so that bits of gravel embedded themselves into her skin. Back home her mother had wiped the blood that went from her knees to her socks, picked out the gravel and bandaged her. That was before, when Twin Lakes was only a summer home, and there was no cancer. Now Blackbird rode her brakes down the hill, and avoided the gravel.
“Maybe,” she said. “Does that mean you want to come?” It wasn’t really a question.
The boy pedaled just behind her. “How come you didn’t want that police lady to know I showed you the…the dead man?”
She often worried he would clip her back wheel. “Why don’t you ride ahead of me, Roadrunner?”
He obliged. “Well?”
A kind breeze blew her long dark hair off her forehead as she pedaled upward. “I don’t need to cause any extra trouble for my father,” she said, looking straight ahead.
“What kind of trouble? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“But I saw it.” They reached the top of the hill, turned their bikes to enter the development. “Parents worry about their children worrying. Seeing too much, and things like that.”
They rode side by side now. The boy looked thoughtful. “My parents get mad if I just come home after sunset. Even if it’s still really light out. When I showed them the body they weren’t mad anymore, but after they called the police they got mad all over again. They told me that’s why I can’t go riding around by myself when it’s getting dark out. But they didn’t know what happened to that man, so how could they know it was dark out when he died?”
“Just an assumption. They don’t want you to get hurt.” It was funny, how adults were as convinced as children that terrors came with the darkness. Let the dark keep its secrets, little Blackbird, her mother used to tell her, when she woke from nightmares that made her afraid of her room’s black corners. They won’t hurt you.
“I won’t get hurt.” The boy grinned at her suddenly, taking his eyes off the empty road. “I can ride fast and brake fast. No one can catch me or throw me off.”
Blackbird saw the grin falter a little. “You’re the best bike rider there ever was,” she agreed, and it grew once more.
“Want to race to Mount Doom?” The boy straightened in his seat, fear forgotten.
She was not much in the mood for racing. “Okay. You get a head start since your legs are short.”
“Nuh-uh.” He frowned his comical frown. “I’m the best bike rider there ever was, so I can beat you anyway.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, and waited for him to count off gleefully before pushing down on the pedal. The wind picked up with her speed, as if sweeping her away from something—forever—even if she couldn’t quite place what that something was.
Evening in the boat, and the cloud-mottled sunset made a liquid portrait out of the water. Her father let her hold the binoculars as the heron flew overhead, soundless.
“I saw a strange bird today,” said Blackbird. “It was blue, but not flat blue like a blue jay. More of a…shiny blue. The way seashells glint in the sun.”
“Like a metallic blue?” Her father leaned forward a little, a smile beginning to brighten his face.
“That’s the word I wanted.”
“Sounds like an indigo bunting. I haven’t seen one here in a few seasons. Where did you see it?”
“By the edge of the dead end road inside the development. But then that boy went too close on his bike and scared it away. Oh, and we saw a mourning dove, too.” Mourning doves weren’t rare, but Blackbird loved them anyway. They had been one of her mother’s favorite birds. Blackbird had once thought their name was spelled like ‘morning,’ which didn’t make much sense, since weren’t most birds awake in the morning? Now the real name seemed appropriate, and not just because of the low and melodic coo they made.
“Well.” He looked out on the water. “Isn’t this a good bird day.”
They sat in silence for awhile, until the sun was only a cap on the heads of the trees. Normally Blackbird liked the silences fine, but as the minutes passed her father grew tense. He would squeeze his knee with one hand, relax, then squeeze again, watching the lake all the while. At last he said, “Blackbird. I assume you’ve seen the cops around, haven’t you?”
“They came into the restaurant today, just for a few minutes. They—they’ve identified the body of that man. It’s Emery Hunt.”
He glanced up at her. Folded his hands, squeezed them together too. She only waited.
“Well,” he said. “Remember I told you he left before you woke up that morning? After he’d spent the night?”
“Well, I’m afraid he and I had a bit of a fight.” Squeeze, squeeze.
Please don’t say it, Blackbird thought. I’ll do anything if you would just not say it.
“He…wasn’t too keen to be around me, so he decided to catch a late train back to the city. I should have driven him, but I didn’t. He was going to walk into town and hitch a ride to the station the old-fashioned way, I suspect.” His hands were trembling now, even when he squeezed. “I thought he had made it to the train station. I don’t know what happened to him—we’d been drinking a bit, you know, so maybe he fell and hit his head somehow.” He looked up at her, his face contorted, his body slouched. “I’m telling you this, Blackbird, even though I didn’t tell it to the cops. I lied, Blackbird. You understand why, don’t you? How suspicious it all sounds?” He laughed shakily. “You were asleep, and there’s no one else to verify that it’s the truth. So they would suspect me, and maybe even arrest me, and then they would take you somewhere else.”
He leaned forward in the boat, taking her small hands in his shaking ones. “You know I would never let anyone take you away from me, little bird. You know that, don’t you?”
Let the dark keep its secrets, little Blackbird. “I know, Papa.”
“You understand, my girl?” He was still looking at her pleadingly. “You believe me?”
It was the hardest thing she had ever done, looking back at him. Harder than seeing Emery Hunt’s bloated face and blood-crusted head, and talking to the policewoman, even harder than two a.m. Wednesday when she’d woken up thirsty.
Think of birds, simple pretty birds. Kingfishers and mourning doves and great swans, and the heron, the regal lonely heron. Think of happy sparrows, twittering inside the evergreens.
“I understand, Papa.” And she did.
“There’s my girl.” For a moment he looked like he wanted to hug her. Instead he brought her hands to his mouth and kissed them, then sat back against the rim of the boat. Several moments passed, but when he spoke again his hands weren’t shaking anymore. “Well now, looks like the sun’s gone down. Shall we head in?”
By midnight the thunder had rolled in with the clouds. Blackbird lay awake and listened.
Wake thirsty. Kitchen. Two voices, rising. On the floor, shadows tearing. A thud. Then another. Silence. One voice. One voice, gasping, shuddering. Dry mouth. Bedroom window. A paddle on water. Crickets and thunder. Waiting. A boat returning.
Wake thirsty. Kitchen. Two voices, rising…
She rose from the dream that was not a dream.
She thought of the nightmares she’d had when she was little, how she would wake crying out in the darkness. Her mother or father would come to check on her, to smooth her sweaty hair and tell her to go back to sleep. Sometimes she would wake simply frightened, not enough to cry out, but enough to slip into her parents’ room. Even after her mother died, she would draw comfort from sneaking in to see her father, just for a minute, just to hear him say, It’s all right, little bird. Nothing bad will happen to you. It’s all right, Blackbird, go back to sleep. In the morning all will be right again.
Caitlin Raleigh is a crazy redhead who loves all things related to cats, the Beatles, and Christmas. (It’s fitting that her first widely circulated publication contains ‘furious’ in its name.) Her work has also been published in DePaul’s literary magazine, for which she has more recently been the fiction editor. She is currently a graduate student in DePaul’s Writing and Publishing program, and when she isn’t writing her many stories, she’s thinking about them. She lives and breathes equally Chicago, Illinois, and Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.