We came carrying platters of foods to suit the season: asparagus, frittata, homemade bread, and for dessert, carrot cake cupcakes with frosting carrots and green stems. For the children, we had stayed up past midnight filling gaudy plastic eggs with treasure: shiny silver bells, pieces of colored glass, whistles and shells. Now they hunted through the ivy and up the garden paths as we parents watched with pride, knowing that nothing was lost on us, for we could see the children and the hidden eggs and the narrowing distance between them.
We had set out tables under the longed-for April sun. We counted our blessings this Easter morning not in prayer, but with each bite taken and story told. The men talked about nothing really—vacations and the cutting of shrubs with electric tools, telling jokes on themselves as both hero and side kick. They laughed in pale sunlight while the women huddled around the tables, arranging dishes they had brought. They whispered about a car accident that had almost taken one of these families earlier that winter.
The car had spun out of control on black ice in another state. It flipped and landed somehow beneath a highway bridge. The husband had a broken collarbone and several broken ribs, the toddler a broken arm, the mother a punctured lung. Pinned to the ceiling, she silently begged each passing car to notice them below. Long, dangerous minutes passed as they waited in the upside down car in the freezing rain for someone to come. Then the child noticed the missing dog and let out a shrill cry the mother had never heard before.
The dog had jumped out on impact and run away. No sign of it until several days before Easter when a phone call came from a couple back in the other state. This family, our friends, drove all that way to retrieve the pet that now stood beside the mother, its tail wagging at the smells of food, waiting for fallen scraps.
“He lived an altogether different life,” the mother said, looking down on the jovial creature at her side. “Can you imagine? The children think it’s normal to disappear like that and come back from the dead, but what are the chances?”
She did not wipe the tears stalled at the edges of her eyes. We stood listening, reached for her elbow, handed her a paper cup of punch. Each of us wondered if the rumors about her husband wanting to leave could be true. Perhaps the whole family would up and move and start a new life. It was hard to guess and impossible to ask, but we knew that the tears weren’t only for the returned dog.
Then the children came running, Easter baskets banging against their knees. We filled their plates with food, secure in our knowledge of their likes and dislikes. They cracked open the plastic eggs and spilled colorful treasure onto the grass, small miracles released from sweaty hands. Soon these trinkets would wind up lost in plastic toy buckets, hidden in the bottom of drawers, or sit unclaimed atop clothes dryers, all having lost their shine. But for now, there was nothing more cherished than a small whelk, pink at the fluted mouth, or a shard of blue glass, or a small silver bell.
Distracted by this plenty, no one looked up when the young man arrived. The hostess was the first to welcome him. She had known he might come. We others paid no attention to the man with the ponytail and uncared-for goatee whose pale skin shone through the fine weave of his white shirt. Someone said he was a Ukrainian graduate student. No one quite caught what he was doing here. We handed him an empty plate and pointed him towards the buffet. Soon he filled his plate and took up a seat on the patio beside the potted palm.
As the hostess set down food before her son at the children’s table, she heard the first mention of the bird. One of the older boys said, “Come on, you didn’t really save it, did you?” The mother turned away, then thought better and went back to ask.
Quickly the men became involved. The boy’s father stood before his son and said, “You’d better show me.” So the seven-year-old left his half finished plate on the table and tromped upstairs to his room, followed by his father and two other men. The mother called across the patio to the Ukrainian student, stumbling publicly over his name, and asked if he might help. He nodded politely, set down his food and made his way through the kitchen and up to the boy’s bedroom.
The boy stood blocking his bedside table. “It’s OK, Dad. Really, it is.”
The father knelt. “Darling, when something dies, it’s dead.”
The other men looked around the room. They had come to see the bird.
“Excuse,” the student asked when he appeared at the door, “what is problem?”
One of the men said not to worry, just a typical boyhood thing. A grackle, the father explained, had crashed into the kitchen window and died. He and his son had buried it in the backyard, but apparently the boy, being curious, or sympathetic, had dug it up. No big deal, the men nodded.
“Where is bird now?” the student asked.
The boy stepped aside and pointed to the bottom drawer.
“Jesus,” the father said, “it’s in there with your toys and things?”
“I’ve been taking good care of it.”
“How many days?” one of the men asked.
“Please don’t take it away.”
“Perhaps,” the Ukrainian student suggested, “we move small furniture outside?”
The other dads lunged at the little table in their eagerness to help and carried it down the stairs.
“I don’t know what to say, son,” the father took the boy’s hand and followed the men out. “When something dies its soul goes up to heaven, but its body stays here and falls apart. It’s not something you really want to see.”
The student returned to his plate of food, while the men stood around the bedside table on the driveway, one of them picking at a Superman sticker on top. They waited for the father to finish with his son. The boy had wedged himself between two trash cans and was crying.
“I was taking care of it,” he repeated.
The men wanted to open the drawer to see inside, but they deferred to the father. Would he make the boy look with him? Their fathers would have. That’s when the smell of the bird hit and they called for the father to hurry. He squeezed his son’s shoulder and the boy ran off.
It was the father who opened the drawer first and saw the slick black bird lying on its side, neck flung back as if in song, its body writhing with maggots. The three men bent over the carcass and studied the swarming white movement. Some of the worms moved in and out around the open eye that faced them. Others crawled through the mouth and around the yellowish beak. The hot sun, they noticed, made the worms writhe more actively. They curled around the plastic action figures and marbles left in the corners of the drawer. The men said nothing. Then, when they had satisfied their curiosity, they stood and surveyed the back yard, as if they were members of a mountain expedition arrived at the summit.
Seeing such somber faces, the hostess rushed over. She tried not to gag when she looked down. “Oh, Christ,” she said and reached for her husband’s arm. Then she looked back to the patio where we seemed to be having such a good time. For a moment, the distance from the dead bird to the party was hard to fathom. She called out to the Ukrainian student for the second time that day. He set down his plate again and walked carefully around the children who were sprawled on the patio eating chocolate eggs.
The young man glanced without expression at the bird. “Yes, madam?” he asked.
“You’re one of the University Fellows, aren’t you? But what precisely is it that you study?”
“Your husband’s firm is kind enough to support me. I am divinity student.”
The husband nodded. “Yes, of course, that’s the connection.”
“Perfect,” the wife said, the champagne punch kicking in. “And what divinity is it you divine?”
“The Orthodox Church, madam.”
“Fine, fine, then you won’t mind helping at this difficult time.” She patted his bony arm and looked at the bird.
When the proper moment came, the children gathered around the young man whose white shirt was now soiled from digging in the garden. He raised his hand over the grave by the back fence and made the sign of the cross. He spoke in an ancient language none of them knew. It made the younger children snicker and the older ones squeeze up their faces as if they might understand. Several parents watched from the lawn, suddenly somber, Bloody Marys stalled at their lips.
Then the little girls began to cry and even wail about the departed creature. The boys pelted them with tin foil from their chocolate eggs and chased them back onto the patio and around the garden, leaving the student alone beside the grave. He tamped it down with his shoe and carried the trowel to the tool shed.
Bleary now and worn, the hostess leaned against the porch banister. She watched as the young man slipped into the darkened shed. He stumbled back startled when he noticed the boy inside. Deep in shadow, the child sat in a red wheelbarrow, his head bowed. At least that’s what the mother thought she spotted from the distance. Then the red of the wheelbarrow became a flash of bright wings. The mother couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw a cardinal, both common and surprising, fly out of the shed where her son had sat. It rose up and over the student’s head. She followed it with her eyes, amazed.
The mother stumbled down the steps and over the lawn, elated at the sight. It seemed entirely possible that her son had become a bird. Not a likely occurrence, she knew, but somehow believable on this of all days. She panted, the bright sunlight and champagne punch making her dizzy. When she reached the shed door, she shut her eyes and prepared herself for the miracle.
Then she opened them and let out a disappointed sigh. Standing before her was her son. He took the shovel from the student and placed it where his father had taught him it belonged. He was a good boy, a sweet boy, his eyes not yet dry. Too much excitement for one day, the father would say later and tuck him in early.
“Honey,” the mother asked, “did you see the bird?”
The boy frowned at his sneakers, his face unspeakably sad. The student nodded as if he understood both the mother and the son, but who could say what he knew, this stranger from another land. The mother turned back to us, her friends on the patio, and pleaded softly, “Did anyone see?”
Virginia Pye has published short stories in literary magazines, including The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, The Potomac Review and failbetter.com. She holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. In Richmond, Virginia, she’s chair of James River Writers and is at work on a new novel.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: At a young age, my son found a dead bird and hid it so we wouldn’t bury it. Over the years, we’ve hosted brunches in our backyard and, once, a foreign student came. Cardinals dart around us all the time. How and why these facts fall together to become fiction is anyone’s guess. I write to see such things happen.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: I’ve loved writing since I was ten years old. I wrote a poem comparing a snow flake melting on my wrist to a match burning down, and then both of those sad occurrences to a life ending. Clearly, I was excited about the possibility of metaphor to capture something significant which I didn’t have another way to express.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: I am a flute, though I’ve never thought about it before, but perhaps that’s true of all flutes: we just dart around, making light music and waiting for the hard-working piano or bass to clue us in to what’s really going on.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: I love being in the midst of a story where I have some sense of what I’m doing. The very beginning of a new piece is hardest, partly because I know I’m going to chuck those first pages once I reach the true beginning. Best of all, though, is being at the pulsing heart of invention: I’m still that girl thrilled with my observations about the snow flake on my cuff, eager to
jot it all down.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on short stories and a new novel set in contemporary Richmond, Virginia. “We All Fall Down” is about two women who don’t know each other, but whose seemingly-perfect marriages implode from betrayal. They eventually find one another in friendship and, after all sorts of trials, invent new, more real lives, one with her husband, one without. How they do this is the question.