Magpies in June
by D.F. Paul
There are no endings and no beginnings; just uncertain lines that criss-cross events, connecting one to the other. Sometimes the lines are memories relived when they assert themselves upon us. Sometimes they are the imagination in search of meaning. Sometimes they are magpies.
A magpie is just a bird. It exists in black and white, without any shades of gray. Its lines are resolute, forceful. One color ends and the other begins. In that way, it exists outside the complicated rules we’ve attached to our lives.
But the magpie is supposed to be one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Unlike most, it can recognize itself in a mirror. It doesn’t see some phantom animal that has appeared from nowhere. It looks in and it knows itself. It is, at least in some respect, self aware.
This is me.
* * *
There is a man. In this moment more than any other over the past twenty years, but in the last week especially, he feels like a boy. In need of a guiding hand to show him the way past his own helplessness. But his hand is the last on the box; the five others have already gone. This is the most important thing he has ever done, and he is ashamed that he has noticed all the eyes behind him, as if he has taken the stage of his own tragedy.
What is left of his father is driven away; he will never be seen again.
* * *
The man is eight years old again. He doesn’t know loss until the moment he sees the doctor’s eyes. Everything is there before a word is spoken.
Beside the boy there is a man who is breathing still, not yet only a memory. That man does not yet see the truth the boy has seen. He is blinded by the traitor, hope, and cannot see past its diamond veneer. “How is she?” he says in a voice that must sting the doctor with its need.
Twenty years have folded in on themselves and pressed this moment against the last. Time is not rigid, but it is not ours to command. It comes and goes as it pleases, and we are at its mercy. It plays out exactly as the liar memory demands it must.
“Maybe we should have a seat over here,” the doctor says. The boy knows the words have said all they need to say. He knows the man must have heard them too, but the man does not show this. The man appears as he sounds: afraid, but not too afraid. It is possible he is playing a role, maybe for the boy, maybe for himself.
More words are spoken, but they do not matter to the boy. They are lies. He has already seen the truth in just a glance, in words that spoke around what they meant to say, but now he has decided they are false. Maybe a simple mistake, but more likely a blatant lie. “Heart failure,” doesn’t mean anything to a boy who has spoken to his mother only minutes ago. She will be gone, he knows, but not forever. Forever is a word made for happy endings.
* * *
The man is at work. There is a policeman to see him. Someone wants to know why. He does not know the answer to this question, and is vaguely insulted at the suggestion he should. At the accusation it implies.
The officer speaks in a soft tone. His first words come, but the rest linger, waiting to be spoken as if their delay might alter the truth, and spare him the news he must deliver. “I’m sorry we have to meet like this,” he says, and does not know that these words leave open every door that his presence might suggest.
The man who was once — and will soon again be — a boy, is afraid. He does not have a role to play because there is no audience save himself and this officer with a thousand shrouds for fear and not yet an explanation.
“I’m here about your father.” The rest of the words he speaks do not matter. Their existence in this world ceased as soon as they faded from sound. They were never heard, nor had they to be. There are images, though, crafted in the sort of dire forms only the imagination can manage. They are, and have ever been, worse than any truth.
* * *
“Go back to sleep.”
These are words that will exist forever, exactly as they were spoken. Wherever time decides to wind, the words will follow.
A woman sits on a couch that was once white. A boy sits on the floor, in front of a television. He has just awoken, and he has no intent of changing that. The world would not allow it even if he had.
“Go back to sleep,” she tells him. Her voice is tired. It sounds like sleep. The boy does not like the sound, but it is only the sound of sleep. Sleep does not make a boy afraid.
But soon he is standing before her. Her head is craned back. Her eyes are closed. Her breath rattles in her chest as it has never rattled. He is saying the only name he has ever called her, one she may have found unimaginable once. She does not answer. When he shakes her, he expects her to be annoyed, but he will be fine with her annoyance. She is not annoyed, and he is not fine.
He is not helpless. He knows what he has to do next. He has been taught it in school. The phone is not far, but he will never lift the receiver.
The man comes in the door. His pants are stained with the remains of what might have been a chemical spill. His face is painted with the sort of premeditated relief a man knows he must feel after a long night of work and driving. His relief will not last, and it will finally evaporate completely in a hospital hallway.
The boy speaks, but he does not know what he says, even as it is coming out of his mouth. These are words that must be, but only in the moment. They have no meaning across time.
* * *
An orphaned man sits on his bed. There is a closed book in his hands.
An hour before, he was speaking of things that two days ago were unthinkable. Everyone has been hanging on his decisions. He is not used to this, and hopes he never will be. They are the sort of decisions his father once made, but now they belong to the man. He made these decisions in the moment without forethought. It reminds him of a business meeting; everything is a negotiation, and in the end he will sign a contract. He is the director, and the director is not allowed tears.
Only moments ago he was looking through photographs, each a story in its own right. But the stories came from outside himself, as if he were speaking from far away. There are laughs, though they are quiet. There are soft tones and reverence. Absurdity will come later. There are no tears. Not there.
But now, sitting on the bed, with a book he does not intend to read in his lap, the tears come. They do not stop. The moment two days in the making only then becomes real, and it hits him with all the force it has built up in this time. It is a broken dam, and the river will flood the valley below.
He knows he must fight the sounds of sobbing — there are others in the house — but the tears are given free reign. They do not make their mark across time, but they do manage to stop its indiscernible flow. Nothing else exists in the time of tears. They define themselves.
The book was to be a gift. It will not be given.
* * *
The boy sees the man weep for the first time in the hospital. It is not noble. It is not strong. It is all the world crashing down on him, and he is crushed under its weight. It is a man falling apart in moments. It is the worst sight in the boy’s life: the picture of parental security reduced to ash.
They stand in a room now, away from all the ins and outs of hospital existence, away from faces of relief, faces of resignation, faces of recognition. They are alone with her.
She lies on a bed, silent. She seems to be sleeping, but the boy knows she is not. He will still deny it months later, but in that moment it is clear. It taints the room with its undeniable truth.
The man has asked for this moment. “Can we see her?” The desperate hope in his voice is terrible. There is nothing to see, but the doctor will not refuse. So, they have been granted this moment of refuge from a world that still breathes. The cost is the memory.
When he touches her — his hand barely resting on her stomach — he ceases to be a man. He is broken in a way that will never be healed, no matter the face he puts on the wound. He dissolves into a catalyst for time’s imperfect memory, brought to him in all its incomprehensible immediacy. There are a thousand warm touches all at once, and still it is only his hand on her stomach, cold.
He remembers the boy, and with eyes clouded by tears and lost to the past he looks down at him. He does not see that the boy is terrified by what he has become, by the illusion of unfailing strength lost in the same moment as the security of an assumed future.
“Do you want to touch her?” he says. The words almost certainly do not follow him out of the room, but they follow the boy forever.
The boy only shakes his head. Maybe it is because of what the man has become, that he is afraid he will do the same. Maybe it is because the truth of death is too terrible to touch. Maybe he believes if he does not touch her, then he does not have to acknowledge what has happened.
When he is a man, he will for a time say he only believes in the things he can touch.
The man does not react to the boy’s refusal. He begins instead to construct a new shell, a masque that the world will want to see, to know he is okay. It is a lie, but it is the one thing he knows in that moment he can do. So he will do it, if only because it is something to do.
The boy wants to leave, but he knows he cannot say this. Instead, he waits. He says nothing. When the man steps away from her, the boy takes his hand. They leave the room together, alone, and remain that way for many years.
* * *
“It was you,” the father says, somewhere back in the far reaches of memory. There is no gray in his hair when he says this. There is no woman waiting for him at home, and no son to remind him of her. He is barely a man. He stands on a doorstep, but he will not come inside.
He died of a broken heart, he tells himself. And the mother before him is to blame. Truth does not matter. Facts of poor health mean nothing to a boy who has spoken to his father only hours ago.
His mother says something to him, but the words do not matter. They never did. He has come here only to say what he has already said. Bitter words born in the dark hollows only grief can open. He does not mean them, and he will love his mother until he is no more, but in this moment the mere act of their utterance is the meaning of his life. It is all he does, because at least it is something to do.
He leaves her there on the step, and he walks. He does not know where, but that is not the point. He walks.
Whatever he thinks or said aside, he knows one truth: his father did die of a broken heart, whatever the cause may have been. It is a thought that will come to him again in a hospital room some years later, and he will wonder if he is to blame.
* * *
The pastor approaches, and the man fights the urge to run. He has nothing to say.
They are on the church steps. There is no one else in earshot.
The pastor knows his name, though they have never met. The two shake hands, and the pastor makes conversation. He is trying to comfort this person he does not know. But the man is beyond that.
“I didn’t know your father well,” the pastor says. “He wasn’t in church much.”
And the man feels the words are meant to lead him into an explanation. As a boy, he heard undeniable truth in vague words. Now, as a much older boy, he has added meaning where it did not exist. Age has empowered him only to confuse the situation.
“He was a very spiritual person,” he says, feeling more like a boy as he speaks. “But he thought his relationship with God was personal.” Then, without any reason but spite, he adds, “He didn’t need someone else telling him how to be faithful.” He feels guilty for taking some pleasure in these words, but only a little.
The pastor sees he is not wanted and leaves.
* * *
Words are often spoken around grief, but rarely to it.
The boy is sitting in his third-grade classroom. School is still out for the holidays, but he is here. He is coloring a picture. Or writing a story. It doesn’t matter which. The teacher is talking to his father at the front of the room. They speak quietly, but because there is no other sound, the boy hears every word. And he hates them.
They are not bad words. Nobody is in trouble for anything. It is only a teacher’s offer of solace to a parent. And a warning that the boy must not be forgotten, that he is now solely the man’s responsibility. They share tears, but the boy does not. The boy tries to make the moment end. He does not have that power, but he learns a very special skill he will often use as a child. He learns how to remove himself from the moment, to drift away to places unseen, crafted in his own mind to suit his needs.
He has been there before, but always for games, when there were monsters and armies to defeat them. Now he learns how to go there alone. Just for the quiet. So there are no words spoken around him instead of to him.
But, even with the monsters, he will later learn that it was always safer for him there. It was a world that lived by his rules, where only the villains went away, and heroes lived forever.
* * *
The father and the boy who is now a man are riding together in a pickup truck, taking this moment to be together, alone, as they had always been.
“It’s a miracle,” the father says, that he is still alive today. It is on blind chance he says this, the boy who was a man will assure himself later. And when an unnecessary roadsign directing traffic away from the only nearby entrance to a highway is ignored by all the traffic ahead of them, the man will choose the words, “It does my heart good to see that.”
It is less than an hour until the end.
They laugh, the two of them. They talk about the news, about sports, and about the man’s heart. He says it has never been better, and his voice is genuine. It is a miracle he survived two years ago, after three surgeries and countless complications. By all rights, this moment in this vehicle should not have happened. But it did.
They part ways. The younger is going to work, the elder to look for birds. They have plans for dinner that night. When the boy says, “See you later,” the man does not say, “Yep. See you at eight,” as he has always said when they have plans. He only nods his head, says, “Alright,” and watches the boy go.
The younger tells himself he is stupid for thinking anything of this moment as it happens. He thinks the imagination has too great a power to make us think things we don’t want to think.
* * *
An older man drives a pickup truck down a dirt road. Binoculars lie on the seat beside him. He is not thinking of death, but magpies.
His heart is failing him. It has been failing him for twenty years, but the doctors only told him this recently. For two years, his heart was the singular fact of his existence, the guiding rule by which all decisions were made. That is behind him now, only recently, and he is allowed to live again to a certain extent. And that life has often centered around birds. Mostly magpies.
And that is why on this day, at this moment, he is here in the middle of nowhere. There are no people. There are no phones. There isn’t even pavement. But there might be magpies. And all the time in the world.
Except his heart is failing him today, at last. Time is not as long as it seems to him.
He drives over the dirt road. His eyes are scanning the fenceposts to either side, and further back. But the fence is where the magpies usually land. He sometimes thinks they do this to be seen. It is a romantic notion for a romantic man, and he knows this, but does not care. Sometimes he thinks simply acknowledging the notion is just as good as believing in it.
It is a miracle he is still alive.
He pulls the truck off the side of the road and stops. He does not see a bird. This is the first moment he is not looking.
Something is wrong. That is the first thought that comes to him, but it is immediately overlapped by another. It is the dread fear that his heart is to blame.
Breath is hard to come by, and he feels like he might throw up if he can manage that much time. His head is spinning, and he knows he has only to calm down, get a deep breath, and everything will be set right again. He lets his hands slide off the steering wheel into his lap, and leans his head back against the rear window. His eyes are closed. He does these things not because they might help, but because they are something to do.
He turns his head, opens his eyes, and looks out the window.
There, on the fencepost just across the dirt road from him, is a magpie. It stares back and cranes its head to the side. He tells himself it knows something is wrong too, that it’s given him this curious look so he might explain. But he can’t explain. The notion is enough, though.
The bird blinks, looks away to the sky, then back to the man. It has told him of its leaving, and seems to be inviting him along.
When the bird is gone, he looks back and catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, his head craned back over the seat. It is a familiar sight to him, and for just a moment he sees her in the mirror instead. It is not the same position, that last moment he has forever since wished did not exist. He sees her instead the way he always remembered her.
She is laughing. Someone has said something genuinely funny, because she would not have laughed just for the sake of it. In that moment, as in so many others, he loves her.
But, no. He realizes his mistake, and she is gone from the mirror. She was never there at all. He looks again and sees the truth. His next thought is his last.
This is me.
D.F Paul has been writing since he was a child, when he uncovered a beat to hell typewriter cleaning out the garage. Many years and a lot of wasted paper later, he still doesn’t understand the process any better. A list of his published work can be seen at: dfpaul.wordpress.com