'The Rainbird'

by Steve Curtin

"The Rainbird"


Steve Curtin

This is how it must feel to be dead, the man thought, sitting up in the splintered field, pulling bits of grass from his coat, his hair, his mouth. He felt severe pain in the back of his head, and great confusion. His eyesight was blurred. He could see his frozen breath, and felt numbness in his fingertips. He was without reference point, without familiar thoughts or memories, feeling an emptiness, a void into which every stirring fell.

The sky, filled with slate-gray clouds, was too bright for his eyes, and through the hazy light he saw a road raised up over the faded ruts that lined its edges, the view tunnel-like, shrouded by the trees, like something attempting to conceal its purpose. It was a dirt road, very straight, vacant of any sign of life. Spruce trees lined its boundaries on both sides, their shadows filling the road. What sunlight he saw was slanted, struggling through the trees.

He saw no houses, no cars, heard no people, no barking dogs. A trickle of water was the only sound, flowing through the grass into a round depression near where he sat, forming a small pool cut by spears of grass; hidden from sunlight it looked like a thousand broken mirrors. Slowly, he turned his head. Was someone watching? A sound like a cry swept through a tunnel of air, something passing overhead, a large bird with silver-tipped wings. Its call was eerie and familiar.

He brought his fingers to his face, then his neck and chest, searching his memory for something familiar. He glared at his hands numbly, as though demanding an answer, turning them over and over as though they might offer a clue. But they were only empty hands, bony hands, in fact his entire body was skinny; not the thinness of a healthy person, but of someone suffering malnutrition.

He fell to his knees near the pool, reeling, pain in the back of his head, throbbing. He noticed his clothing; it was layered, with the loose dreariness of clothing that hadn't been changed or washed in a long time. And he was barefoot. His hair was stiff, unwashed. He rinsed his face with cold water from the grass and stood up, edging to the road. Further on he saw a crossroads and a toppled sign, and he walked, his footsteps primitive, loose gravel cutting into his feet like broken teeth.

He was struck by primal thoughts; the first man taking his first steps, the empty vault of an infant's mind waiting to be filled, being written on with each sight, taste, touch and sound...a new child in the world, one with a lifetime of vanished memories.

He approached the sign and turned it over, brushing clumps of dirt from it with his feeble hands. But the letters were worn, indecipherable, and he suddenly sensed motion near his feet, the grass under his bare feet moving with the bodies of a dozen or more snakes, their bodies winding without purpose through the grassy currents. They looked homeless, drunk. He dropped the sign and leaped back into the brown dust of the road. His throat seized with dryness. He heard the strange cry again; it was the large bird, flying north. A flicker of memory taunted him and he followed.

The road flattened after an hour or so, at a point where the forest began to diminish. Soon he saw cows drifting in grassy fields, their heads lowered. Grain towers were silver against the sky. He saw the earthy orange of pumpkins rooted to the land, columns of apple trees in tidy rows, tunnels of light between them. The air was mild but spiked with a coolness that smelled of Autumn.

The first houses broke through the trees. A woman emerged, a screen door flapping, and she watched him from the porch, seeing something like recognition in her eyes, and a darkness. She fumbled with the latch and scurried inside. A train whistle blew from ahead, the way he had been walking, breaking his stare.

Soon he saw school yards and churches, a seed store, the pointed hats of grain elevators. He passed the depot and the stockyards, the graveyard for old freight cars and older men. The people in the streets were workmen; farmers, mechanics and merchants, machine workers with streaked trousers and faces. No one looked at him. Snowy mountain peaks rose to the northwest, a jagged rim edging the horizon.

He circled the town and crossed the coal-studded railroad tracks, watching the arc of the sun and the shadows springing from the backs of buildings, the vacant lots overrun with weeds and litter, a rusted trailer park where clothes were strung on lines and fences. Junk filled the open space between the structures. There were sparse trees, looking like dead, human limbs.

The liquor store seemed out of place where he stopped, wedged in between an abandoned office building and the rear of the trailer park. The street was open but the store caught no light, the shade like a mask, low and peering, and the barefoot man approached, drawn by a wisp of failed memory.

But his reflection in the streaked window stopped him; a skeleton glared at him through a pane of glass, a fun-house specter with bleached skin and cavernous eyes, with grooves plunging downward into great streaks of rust; gaunt cheeks, a dark, stubby beard like a black tongue of flame across his face. His form was a pretense, willowy and without mass, ready to float away in the first strong wind. His eyes were bloodshot, swollen; they were the eyes of death.

To look at yourself and see a stranger, the man thought, to feel no recognition in the lighted reflection of your own face was a horror without name or description. He couldn't move. A span of time passed without reference to the space where he stood, time not measured in moments or seconds, but in the vagueness of those staring, swollen eyes. Then he saw through the glass and into the liquor store, where a tall, heavy man was bent over a column of boxes, slicing them open with a razor knife, tearing off the lids and stacking the bottles in neat, shiny rows. The man's eyes were dark as coal, and he had a beard that was thick and gray.

The door creaked open and another man exited, holding a bottle in a paper bag. His clothes were draped in layers over a frame that sagged like and old fence. A derby hat, brushed clean and straight, was a point of distinction in an indistinct form. His eyes were brooding and intelligent, and displayed recognition when he looked at the barefoot man.

"Parnell!" said the tattered man. "Where have you been? What's the matter with you...it's me, Grayson." Grayson approached him, walking with a kind of indolent shuffle, his body oddly shaped, with narrow shoulders and wide hips, and feet that appeared to be rounded on the bottom so that he rocked from side to side when he walked. He had a beard of fine gray-black hair, trimmed meticulously, and very round eyes, alert, watchful, intelligent. "What happened?" he asked. "Did the cops pick you up?" Parnell's head was spinning. He couldn't answer, but he followed the man outside.

Parnell felt the need to talk, and he did, explaining as much as he could remember, which wasn't much. Grayson seemed indifferent. "I always told you that someone would bop you and take your shoes someday," he replied. "Best damn shoes I ever saw. Shoes are gold around here. You know better than to walk around alone at night. We get all those transients because of the depot, you know that. Especially during the harvest." He coughed, a deep, wet sound that exploded in the silence of the narrow street. He led Parnell to a lot adjacent to the trailer park, where a row of willows on one side and a line of cardboard on the other formed an alleyway.

It was dusk, a shadowy wind spiraling up from the street, sweeping across the stockyards and silos, to the cottonwoods, willows and cardboard that formed an inner world. Some of those in the lot looked at and greeted him, others did not. But all of them recognizing him, and all were dressed as he was. They huddled together and sat on crates and skids, eating from tin cans. No one asked anything of Parnell. They seemed to regard Grayson as a leader of sorts, asking him questions and looking after him. Parnell watched him shuffle along the alleyway, pouring rye into outstretched paper cups.

A man named Duncan seemed especially irate. He wall tall and wiry, pacing along the narrow strip like a trapped animal. He had long, spidery arms and blotchy red cheeks, and shoulders that sloped together into a narrow V. Parnell sat also, taking a tin of food from a man called Wilcox, a quiet, brooding figure who had a habit of starring. Another man sat alone at the far end, chattering to himself. Grayson called him Clay and brought him food and a cup of rye. A smell rose from a nearby dump.

A woman stood and crossed from the willows, towards Parnell, dusty blue eyes looking up from her lowered head. She wore a wool cap pulled down sadly over her ears, with yellow hair like straw hanging from the sides. Parnell had thought her an old woman, but as she sat near him he could see how young she was. She passed Parnell a cup of whisky which his hand grasped, which he smelled and glared into, but did not drink. He seemed to be seeing a distance of time in its black depths, a march of years fragmented by the failure to remember. He passed the cup back to her without drinking. Duncan saw him and approached. "What's wrong, Parnell? Have a drink with me."

"No. Thank you."

"What do you mean, no?" Parnell looked up, unable to answer.

"Leave him alone," Goldie said, her voice quivering. Duncan's spidery arm reached out, grabbing the cup and taking it in a quick gulp. He crushed it and threw it into the street, Goldie's dowdy eyes crushed under his glare.

When Grayson went to sit with Wilcox, who had become agitated over something, Goldie swallowed from the paper cup and looked at Parnell. He sensed the openness of her youth and questioned her, learning in her answers what he had not wanted to learn; for two years he had lived among them, here in this alley, a drifter, a homeless alcoholic. His eyes sought the wind, allowing it to strike his face, welcoming the pain.

"There's more," Goldie said. She watched his fists clench, his mouth growing taught.

Parnell forced his eyes open. "What is it?"

"There's something else," she answered. Her voice was low and her eyes darted. "We sort of....well, you and I....we kind of go together. At least we did before you lost your...." She lowered her eyes, ashamed, and Parnell reached over and touched her cheek. She responded, her body folding, curled like a cat's. Her skin was the only part of her that appeared aged; her mouth and eyes were youthful, her teeth white and straight. But her eyes were feeble, and seemed to be losing their light as he watched.

The suggestion that they had been lovers did not seem incredible to him, it did not stir him at all; perhaps because it was true....perhaps there is a sense beyond memory, he thought, an unconscious consciousness guiding him, like some internal compass that functioned devoid of awareness. He felt the bewildering duality of thinking of himself in the second person; what did this man, Parnell, believe? he thought. What does he stand for? What had brought him to this?

Later he drew away and curled up under a cardboard roof, his head tilted on a pillow of straw. His eyes were open, he smelled the wet hay. He wrapped his feet in rags and listened to the sounds of uncovered darkness, to the syncopated voices of Grayson and Goldie, and the chain of boxcars that clattered throughout the night. The air cooled, he could see his breath. He heard other voices; "I don't care what anyone says," the one called Duncan was muttering to someone. "I don't trust anyone who won't drink with me." Parnell lay still, wondering how many minutes there were in a cold night.

"Are we going to feed one of the bums today, Mommy?"

"Dear, don't talk that way! They're not bums, they're homeless, just ordinary people down on their luck."

"Janie says that they beg for money and drink alcohol."

"Well, they can't help that, it's a kind of sickness. They just need to be shown a little kindness, that's all, kindness begets kindness. It could be us but for the grace of God. Dale, are you getting ready?"

It was the custom of some of the families in the neighborhood to bring one of the unfortunates home for a Sunday dinner, to share for a day the warmth of normal family life.

"We're going as soon as your father is ready," said Mrs. Everson, in answer to her daughter's tugging of her arm. She continued to fuss and primp in front of a hallway mirror. The flowered dress she wore only to church, that hung stiffly in the closet until Sunday, crackled when she smoothed in out. Her eyes were a blazing green, the color of spring leaves. Her cheeks were like the skin of apples, shiny and red.

Mr. Everson did not object to this ritual. A quiet man of good character, who had spent his life working with his hands, he did not quite possess his wife's positive outlook on life, nor her innocent trust of strangers, but he admired these qualities greatly. He had a broad forehead which was furrowed with lines when he worked with his tools in the garage, or was fixing something in the yard, lines displaying attention to his task, content with the provincial life he had chosen. He reached out a hand as hard as the tools he worked with and squeezed his son's shoulders, softly, the boy looking up at him, his teeth gleaming.

They drove across town in an ancient truck, the family packed in tightly, Dale driving in silence, waiting for instructions from his wife. Ruth's eyes were like a cats, scanning the lots and trailer parks, the stockyard, telling Dale with dry lips and moist eyes to slow down, to turn there, to pull over.

"Look Dale, over there . . ." A man walked alone, a man with sunken eyes and no shoes. "He's not wearing any shoes. Pull over Dale, pull over there...." The truck stopped and Mrs. Everson leaned outward, eyes blinking, explaining with flushed intentions, the man disbelieving and wanting to walk away. But he looked at Dale, and Dale nodded in confirmation, and the man hopped up into the back of the pickup, a hollow thud ringing as his bare feet struck the metal ribs. The children's faces studied him, shining through streaked glass. Their mouths were moving, they were asking what had happened to the man's shoes, but Parnell couldn't hear and turned away without expression.

"How dreadful," Ruth Everson said while exiting the truck. "Out all night with no shoes. Dale, don't you have a pair of old work boots in the garage? And socks, some wool socks." She led them inside, orange leaves lining the walkway, scattered and burnt orange, the color of whisky. Parnell felt a lapse and stood still, starring at the pile of leaves. "Come in, Mr... Mr. Parnell, come right in, don't be afraid."

The house smelled of baking apples and brown sugar, and Parnell felt his feet warmed by the carpeting. Mrs. Everson was already in the kitchen making coffee, running cold water over a bowl of potatoes, preparing fresh corn in tin foil. She carried bowls to the table, her footsteps rapid and heavy. Parnell watched her as though searching a memory.

Sit down, sit down," she said, placing a mug of hot coffee in front of him. "You don't remember when you've eaten last? Well, get ready for the best meal in town! Children, stop bothering Mr. Parnell, I need help in the kitchen." Parnell said that it was no bother and sipped his coffee, warming his fingertips on the rim of the cup. "Coffee pot is always brewing in this house," she was saying, flitting like a bird between the living room and the kitchen. "People are always dropping in. We like our coffee here black and strong. Dale, I don't know why you have to jump out of your Sunday clothes right away, you look so handsome in them."

Parnell felt a tug at his memory, like at the liquor store, but sharper. Moments later Dale emerged from the bedroom with a pair of work boots, a flannel shirt, and several pair of wool socks.

"You can put them on now, if you like," Dale said, indicating the bathroom.

"Thank you," Parnell said. His arm was steady as it reached for the clothing. Whatever strain Parnell had felt was gone when he sat at the dinner table. It was well lit, with flowers in a wicker basket in the center. Mrs. Everson quieted the children and served out slices of roast beef and baked potatoes, ears of corn rich with butter. She poured gravy over his meat and fussed with his silverware. The air was vented with the aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon.

"Wait 'till you see what a meal and a pair of shoes can do, Mr. Parnell." She filled his plate and fussed over him, and when she sat kept glancing at him through the conversation, watching him eat and wishing she could feed him.

Parnell smelled the beef and gravy and felt a stirring in his stomach. He felt the edges of the dining table, the cloth towels and warm light, everything distant and familiar at once. One of the children looked at him and he smiled. "See what I say?" said Mrs. Everson, "about a meal and warm clothing? That's the first time I've seen you smile. Here, have another potato." Parnell ate slowly, tasting each bite of food, taking the time to lightly butter his rolls and drink cold milk.

Later, she placed hot tins of apple pie on the table. Brown sugar bubbled up through the crust. "Made with fresh apples from Floyd's orchards," she said, slicing wedges into the pies with a long knife.

"We picked them ourselves," one of the children said.

"That's right," Ruth agreed. "It's such a wonderful time of year, the apple harvest."

After dinner they sat outside. Parnell noticed the clean windows, fresh paint on the porch, the trimmed lawns up and down the street. He felt the completeness of a full stomach. Then in his mind's eye he saw the weeds and scattered debris of the lot, and thought he could smell the odor of wet hay and cardboard. Parnell thanked the Eversons and prepared to leave, and as he did Mrs. Everson gave him a bag of leftovers and insisted that he take it.

"Is there anything else we can do for you, Mr. Parnell?" Ruth Everson stood motionless, wondering what it was about him that was so different, that made her want to reach out to him.

Parnell had been gazing at the houses and farms up and down the street. "Is there work in town?" he asked. A brief silence followed.

"You mean, a job?" Dale answered. "I don't know. What can you do?"

Parnell looked away again, up the street to the orchards where shiny apples hung from red, lazy limbs; "I don't know," he answered. He thanked them again and turned.

Something quick and black arced across the sky and drew their eyes, flying straight and high, the large bird with silver tipped wings he had seen in the grass, at the edge of town, and a sharpness passed over the dimness.

"Look Dale," said Ruth, "it's going to rain." Parnell removed his hands from his pockets and stood up straight.

"What? What did you say?"

"Why, Mr. Parnell," said Ruth, "I'm surprised. You don't know about the legend of the Rainbird?" She saw the question mark in his eyes and continued. "When it flies due north over the orchards it brings rain." The black and white bird was deep in the sky, and Parnell eyes followed it's path. "Is something wrong, Mr. Parnell?"

He said good-bye, took a bag from Mrs. Everson and walked away.

"Is he alight?" Ruth asked. "What happened?"

"I don't know, Ruth. Are you coming in?"


"I know what you're trying to do, you little tramp! Trying to make him think he wants you....what a joke! Look at you, who could want you! You think no one heard you, but I heard....I heard!" Goldie was still and silent; she thought she could see Duncan's jaw-bone through his skin, the sinking, half-moon eyes, and it terrified her. His jaw was wide, much wider than his face allowed for, and it pointed at her. A bony face, she thought; a skeleton face rattling in the cool, twilight sun. "What if I tell him?" he said, his arms shaking. "Tell him what you did, about the story you made up. What would you do then, huh? What would you do?"

"Leave her alone," someone said, and Duncan spun on his hollow legs.

"Shutup!" he snapped. "I'm talking, aren't I? Shutup!" He turned back to her, his eyes murderous. His tall, thin body looked like a scarecrow dancing on a stake. Goldie's cheeks seemed open to the cold, her eyes turned inward, unable to adjust to Duncan's attack. She felt her face dented by his words. She looked around for Parnell.

"Who do you think you're fooling?" he pressed, expert in spotting weakness. His skeleton arms shot outward; "I can see right through you...if he had any brains he would too, he'd laugh, laugh at you!" Goldie's eyes fell and she cried, her face shattered by the tears. She fell against a bale of hay and lay sobbing as Duncan watched her, satisfied. It had started to rain, a light sprinkling that kicked up street dust and pushed its odor over the lot. The moon seemed black poking through a tear in the clouds the way it did, the only shafts of light from it narrow wedges, flickering wetly into the trees.

Grayson stood up. He quieted Duncan and sat by Goldie, handing her a paper cup of rye which she drank. Tears lay against her white cheeks. "Don't listen to him," Grayson was saying. "He's a bastard. He hates everybody, you know that. Don't listen to him."

"He wouldn't talk like that," Goldie said. "He wouldn't talk like that if Parnell was here."

Parnell's footsteps brought silence. Goldie turned to him, saw his new boots and wiped away the tears. He looked at her, then looked in the direction of Duncan at the far end of the strip; he saw his face in profile, the stub of a cigarette crushed between his lips, muttering to Clay and Wilcox. "Here," Parnell said, handing the paper bag to Goldie. "From the Eversons. Meat and bread, and apples. Are you all right?" He saw how young she was in Grayson's arm, the small fingers and dusty eyes, the glance devoid of hope. Her eyes were like blemishes against her face. She opened the bag and handed out food to Grayson, and took some for herself. They offered Parnell a cup of rye but he sat without taking it.

It was a long night, with the kind of damp cold that seeped into bones and pressed against the flesh. Parnell lay awake listening to raindrops flatten on the street, a green eye fixed on a weed that was pushing through a crack in the pavement. He glared at the narrow shoot, at the valiant struggle for life being waged in silence, without notice.

Sunrise came soft over the frosted pumpkins. They rose together and walked to the edge of town, where the Salvation Army served breakfast in a reconstructed building, waiting on line for coffee and rolls, the sound of shuffling footsteps and labored breathing laying over the silence. Later, Grayson and Goldie would shuffle through the streets panhandling change, on corners near a market, near City Hall, wherever people gathered for a few moments of idle conversation. Duncan, Wilcox and others waited at a convenience store near the interstate, then drifted to the train depot at intervals when travelers loaded and unloaded. They met at the lot in the late afternoon and pooled their change, sending Grayson to the liquor store. Money was never spent on food or clothing, these were acquired by other means. Many days passed, all the same.

The night was the longest part of the day. Parnell marveled at the ability of the others to sleep without waking, apparently comfortable, twisted in grotesque shapes, wedged in between boxes and planks, on beds of straw and paper. Sleep was an escape, he thought, and he sought its black depths. He turned continuously, woke shivering many times, hid body stiff and cold. He heard the others breathing, heard their coughs.

The sky seemed high above the lot, cloudy and indifferent, the moonlight less guiding than on those nights when the veil didn't rob it of its light. What light there was fell in angles that were different levels of darkness; triangular wedges in black corners, a shifting grayness along a twisted tree, a tawny glint that was a strip of metal or an aluminum can, an empty bottle of whiskey. Starlight flickered, and only a great weariness kept him from knowing that the things he was unwilling to give up were the things that meant the difference between life and death.

The earth was unaware of him. On these cold, sleepless mornings he rose in the darkness and walked the black streets of town, weightless and hollow, the silence impervious to his footsteps, the brittle air indifferent to his flesh. He moved like a ghost, a shapeless thing with no effect on its surroundings, with the absurd notion that his body could pass through solid objects. He moved through the night as through in a tunnel, his own neutrality a form of protection against the sense of unreality and detachment that enveloped him and his world. The ghost town of his memory provided a kind of tunnel vision of the mind, freeing him to walk within the aura of his own sensation.

Then he walked back to the lot, to another morning at the breakfast center on the edge of town, drifting and pressing against the dirty bodies and clothing of others like him. Then the shame of panhandling that Parnell seemed unable to take part in since his return, but which the others didn't seem to mind.

They all seemed to know that he was different since his return, they had sensed it before he had, and Parnell had time to think of the keen sense of wild animals. He felt a longing without direction, he felt his own inertia, his sense of being caught between two worlds, both of which he seemed to live in yet didn't belong to; the town with its factories and hay lofts, its industrious people resentful of his inaction, accepting his existence as a given, requiring no thought or action. And the tattered, layered lives of the homeless, with their bitterness and evasions, their sloping faces and eyes like jaded pearls.

Goldie was always near to him, her shoulders sloping gaily under layers of wool and a broken smile, her dusty eyes moist when she looked at him. Her eyes made him think of the concept of childhood and its essence, the time of growing, reaching, learning.... and brought him an emptiness so deep it sucked away even his desire to understand. He watched her with fascination, wanting to hold her close, to reach through the layers of clothing that she wore like protection so as to touch her flesh, to feel something that was alive...he wanted to remember what they had been to each other so that he could give meaning to the hope he saw in her eyes. But he couldn't reach through it, or out of it, and his attempt became a burden that his pretenses couldn't maintain.

She watched him as if thinking the same thoughts, though he knew she wasn't. She was bold when she drank too much, shy and withdrawn at other times, moving with a shuffle, aware of her surroundings yet acting as if unable to appreciate their importance. She was a woman then a child, a companion then a temptress. She regarded him constantly, always aware of him and where he was standing, what he was doing. She had to know where he was at every moment.

It was late one night and they sat together in silence, their secret thoughts unfolding. Goldie moved her fingers and touched his arm, a dreamy, tentative motion that wanted to destroy its own purpose. It was soft and perplexing in the vacuum of her glare, and Parnell felt the approach of something he desperately wanted to remember. When she removed the wool cap he saw the silk of her hair in the moonlight, feeling a sense of identity without knowing who she was. He watched the schoolgirl eagerness in her face, a grimace that wanted to be a smile.

She turned and aimed her body at him, her glance not fading. Her hair was wet, he could smell her skin and feel her glow. Her mouth appeared soft and timorous in the pale moonlight. Her hair fell, and Parnell touched it. He touched her arm. She pressed herself into his chest.

He took her into the woods beyond the trailer park and made love to her. Her flesh was young and excited him, her fingers light and silky. Her lips were cool in the dry wind. She moved slowly, mixing passion with restraint, looking up at him frequently, demanding his eyes, and more than once slowed their pace, as if wanting to hold the moment for as long as possible. The wind was light, skipping across rooftops and the silent trees, rocking in circles through the empty streets and into the branches where they lay.

After, they started a fire. They touched each other's fingers and wrists, talking late into the night, Parnell aware of the nearness of her body, of the warmth she was capable of providing. A web of stars glittered through the tree tops.

"Goldie," he asked her much later, "did I ever talk about my family? About a home, a past? Anything that...."

"What family?"

"You know....about what I used to do, before I came here."

"You've always been here." Then she looked away, abruptly, her cheeks sunken, a solitary, distant light crossing her face. Some yellow hair fell, exposing her neck. It looked frail and unprotected, with a false glow.

"Two years!" Parnell said. "What did we talk about?"

"Just the day. What to do, where to get food, coats...."

"No, no....didn't we ever talk about....other things? Of what would come, of the future?"

"What future?" He stopped. The moment was gone.

They seemed crushed under the willows where they lay, in view of the trailer homes with their sagging rooftops weighed down with leaves. The windows were black and empty. A wind rose from the structures instinctively, an unsettled one that sounded like voices from a tunnel, or sounds rising from a hollow tree; the spirit of the wind, he thought. It was moving away from the trailers, an instinct at self-preservation, Parnell thought inexplicably.

He had wanted to feel something for her, and in fact he had. He saw the slack jaw and blank eyes, a contrast to the milk-bleached skin of her cheeks, the rim of her forehead, her young mouth. He paused, as though the span of time was something irrevocable, and as though he knew it. But he saw only the crushed face, the dowdy eyes and tufted hair, the pockets of betrayal that invaded her expression.

Weeks passed. Parnell began to wake early every morning, disappearing for hours, the long walks through the streets of town replacing sleep. He grew accustomed to his own footsteps again, to a green square in the center of town near a park, peering at the picture windows of the homes trying to imagine the families that lived inside. The black windows glared back at him, silent, empty.

He varied his path each day. Sometimes he walked to the orchards in only starlight, up beyond the hills and ranches, past the home of the Everson's and along a row of cottonwoods that lined the road. On such nights the orchard was like a graveyard for trees, but a silent and benevolent one, without pain and suffering. He liked to watch their twisted limbs under moonlight, against the starry background. The apples hung in earnest stillness, waiting. He continued to walk, unaware of the concept of time, restless and weary at once, a traveler without destination.

But he had to keep moving; while moving he felt hope, he felt his heart pumping, the strain of muscle and the pull of bone. His walk was purposeful, natural; there was something he needed to know, and while moving the answer seemed attainable.

Each night when he returned Goldie was waiting under the willows, and he went to her, seeking the warmth of her young body, the cool dryness of her mouth. But he sensed danger...not from her, but something else, something distant yet related to her presence.

On one of those days an earth-studded flatbed crunched over the gravel and parked near the lot. Sunlight struck the driver's side of the truck where stenciled letters read: HAYDEN'S ORCHARDS, underneath the design of an apple tree. The man who emerged walked in the self-assured manner of a man of purpose, scanning the street with lupine eyes that were blue and fighting the morning sunlight. They were eyes that wasted no time, belonging to a man who snatched something important from every minute of every day. He wore a checkered shirt and overalls smudged with topsoil. His hair was the color of beach sand, cut short, and he spoke in bursts of short phrases, pausing at the end of each burst. He was not overly tall, but everything around his coiled body seemed dwarfed.

He approached the lot; "There's work at my place," he said. "Clean, honest work with hourly wages....and a hot meal afterwards." The man looked away for a moment, waiting, but waiting as though he knew the answer.

What Parnell saw first and remembered later was the man's hands. They were immense and rounded, with red knuckles and deep cracks, the cracks filled with dirt. His fingers were so long they looked deformed. They were callused and lumpy, the skin tanned on his wrists and forearms. His neck was muscular but thin, the skin rippling to a tight chin and muscled jaws. Parnell felt something rising in the lift of the man's chin, in the towering erectness of his stance, the strong, even keel of his shoulders.

Then he noticed that Grayson and Goldie knew who he was and would not look at him, and that Duncan's eyes were coiled in resentment. Others moved to the far end of the lot, away from the sound of the man's voice. The man waited another minute then turned and walked to his truck, alone. Parnell stood up and took several hurried steps towards the pick-up; the others looked at him.

"What are you doing, Parnell?" It was Grayson's voice, its uneven tone severed by the wind. Parnell looked back at him, startled.

"It's a chance to work," he replied.

"You mean, a chance to break your back all day for a few bucks," Duncan said, spitting into the street. "A chance for him to get rich on your sweat." A bony finger pointed to the truck.

"Sit down and have a drink," said Wilcox. "What are you trying to prove?"

"You've never done anything like this before," said another.

"Yea, what's the matter with you?" They spoke as though he was hurting them, their faces aimed at him like muzzles. Leaves fell in the plunging air. They stood in the falling sunlight, beckoning, their glares like something ready to catch fire. It was more emotion than any of them had shown since his return. He was bewildered and stood motionless.

"Oh, let him go," said Duncan. "If he thinks he's better than us . . . " The sentence fell into the dust. The truck engine started.

"Come on, Goldie," Parnell said. "It's a chance." His eyes reached out to her, his hand hovering in the air, but she lost color and looked away, the air between their glance dropping into the dust. Parnell glanced at them once more then leaped to the cab and said something to the man, and a moment later leaped up into the back of the truck. The last thing he saw was a yellow gleam from Duncan's broken teeth.

The stockyards were clouded with white smoke as they clattered across the tracks along the edge of town, through the orange and yellow leaves of the homes, north up an incline where the houses ended. There Parnell saw a wood and brick ranch in a clearing between the pines and the orchard, its entrance an archway that looked like a smile. He worked alone in an isolated section of the field, endless rows of trees spread in all directions. He felt the wind in the hollow of his spine, through the branches. The earth was soft with crushed apples. He liked the sensation of the apples cradled in his hands, the perfect skin and pulpy insides that had once belonged to the earth. They snapped neatly from short, red stems at his touch.

He learned that Floyd had started twenty years ago selling fresh fruit from the roadside. Now his acres spread in all directions. He was not overly friendly, but neither was he cold, treating Parnell as an equal. He never asked personal questions, but did notice how hard Parnell worked, and that he seemed to have a special affinity for the trees.

Instead of gathering with the others Parnell ate his lunch alone, seated at the base of one of the trees, turning a fresh red apple over and over in his palm. The shade cooled him, he felt his own perspiration and the warmth of fatigue. Then his arm dropped and he stared into the horizon, not moving.

In the afternoon the sun grew warmer still, Parnell working tirelessly until the drop in temperature signaled the coming dusk. He was the last one to come in from the fields.

Colored bowls were spread over a checkered table, filled with salad, biscuits, fruit. Chicken and ribs were served on a long platter to other nameless workers, there for a days' work and a meal. A plate of corn was still wrapped in the tin foil and butter it was cooked in. Floyd, his wife Sara and their two boys, sat outside and ate with them, setting jugs of cider at each end of the table, the boys especially fond of the cider and fighting over the same jug. "We make our own cider," Sara explained, seeing Parnell watching them. "The boys made this batch themselves." Parnell listened but said nothing, watching as Sara ruffled her hand through the younger boy's hair, the boy glancing at her with eyes flushed and red.

When Parnell returned to the lot he dropped two small sacks of food on a cardboard box next to Grayson. They contained apples, bread and cheese, and except for Duncan, whose crooked nose seemed like a pointing finger, they were all happy to see him.

Goldie did not appear resentful, she was there for him when he wanted her, waiting as though enveloped in a great, brooding silence. She had brushed her hair, and he could see the faintest smear of mascara across her eyes. She smiled when she saw him, but the smile warm but alien.

He could sense an awareness in her, in the struggle of her body, the silent grip of her fingers, a wordless barrier that both sensed but could not speak of. Both felt themselves falling from the same end of a slanted roof, downward in opposite directions while watching each other's startled, helpless eyes.

Floyd returned several days later looking for him. Parnell was ready, and again Duncan, Wilcox and the others retreated to the rear of the lot, their heads lowered, their broken bodies gray and still. They would not look at him. Parnell felt his desire and their lack of it, felt them as a single blow, aware suddenly that he had been content to sit with them and drink away the years of his life. Something he could not remember had changed everything. He fought his minds attempts to remember.

Sunlit hours passed quickly in the groves. He worked alone, seeing the sky through the red branches and sturdy, gray trunks, breathing in the aroma, the spicy, spiked air, watching clouds as they drifted with the flow of the river. Later in the afternoon, Sara taught him how to tend a tree farm, where young spruce and fir were being cultivated for Christmas trees. Sara worked as hard as Floyd in their many ventures. She had wide blue eyes and a lighthearted smile, with darkly freckled skin stretched across an oval face. She developed a habit of smacking Parnell's thin ribs with the back of her hand, joking about filling them in if he kept eating the way he did.

He wandered through town later that night and the following morning with dollar bills folded neatly in the pocket of his trousers; his first paycheck. He kept touching his pocket where the bills lay. The sidewalks were empty, the panes of glass from the buildings reflecting the patchy light of early morning. The odor of coffee and frying bacon hovered in the doorway of a corner restaurant. Those who passed shielded their eyes from him.

Across the street he peered into the window of a barber shop, empty except for a tall man in a blue shirt who was sweeping the floor and arranging combs and brushes on a mirrored counter. The man seemed to sense Parnell, and turned to look at him through the window. He indicated an empty chair with an exaggerated flourish of his arms and a wide smile, and Parnell couldn't resist. He entered and sat still in the chair while he was clipped and shaved, unable to look away from a canister of combs standing straight in clear, blue water, the tall barber speaking in unbroken rhythm.

When he continued his walk outside he was drawn to the glass windows where he could see his reflection, stopping at each shop window to look at himself. Shaved, his hair neatly parted, he saw that he was handsome, and quite tall, though not as tall as Duncan or the barber who had cut his hair.

He entered a clothing shop where a saleswoman smiled at him, unafraid, helping him to select a shirt and work pants as she did with many others customers that day. Her hair was tied with a red ribbon and she smelled of a light and pleasing perfume.

At a hardware store he bought a waterproof tarp and returned with it to the lot, stringing it over the shanty roof the panhandlers lived under. "Well look at you," Goldie said, her white teeth gleaming. "Just look at you . . ." The others were not so generous with their remarks.

"He's not one of us anymore," Duncan whispered to anyone who listened. The stubble of a cigarette distorted his face, the black rim of his eyes lifting above the crust of his cheeks, a wild, red tint in the center of his eyes like a point of hot flame. Parnell could feel their wounded glares, their aimless milling as a silent protest to the changes in him of which they did not approve.

Only Goldie was still friendly, and Grayson to a lesser degree. But he did not sleep with Goldie that night, and she did not wait for him.

Floyd no longer came looking for him. Parnell rose early every morning and walked across town in his new work boots and denims. On days when there was no work he wandered through town and stopped in familiar spots, unaware that people were looking at him, aware only that the rays of sunlight were open, and less harsh. The tall barber nodded when he passed the shop. Others began to nod. He bought a newspaper and ate lunch at the corner restaurant.

October days passed quickly, and the small town, with its robust and casual people, its porch sitters and Sunday dinners, its silver granaries etched into the sky, began to acquire an identity. He was soon working at the orchards everyday. He did repairs, spent time with the boys, he learned about potato farming from Floyd and beef cows from Sara. He cleaned stalls and fed animals, and began driving Floyd's truck into town to pick up supplies. Once when there was nothing to do he helped the boys erect a wooden fruit stand they had been struggling with for hours. They worked and laughed in the sunshine, Parnell staying until the first cars began to pull over to buy fruit from the boys.

"Wait, don't go," one of them called when Parnell started back to work. "We need you."

Parnell stopped, hearing the words. He saw a face, a face something like Mrs. Everson's, with her red cheeks and bubbly spirit. He smelled coffee. The vision faded.

"We need you," the other echoed. Parnell turned and saw the boys, their faces framed in the wood supports of the fruit stand. He felt the warmth and fear of a promise, aware of the whimsy of both, knowing that everything gained since that day in the grass was fleeting and could vanish, that it could disappear as quickly as a bottle of rye being snatched from a shelf. Something had reduced him, something terrible had sent him to the streets. This was the fear, and it was a staggering one; what if his memory returned? What if the dark secret he couldn't remember and had been unable to deal with in some forgotten life returned to send him back?

It was almost sunset, and Sara was in the corral caring for the animals, brushing the shiny hair of a stallion. She had a gentle way with the horses, able to calm them with a whisper and a soft hand. Parnell approached the fence and smiled, and Floyd was there too, his hand resting on the wooden post. "Been wanting to talk to you, Parnell." The smell of burning leaves lifted to the slanted roof of the barn. Sara joined them, tying the horse to the post. Their feet kicked up the dust of the earth.

"The boys have gotten kind of used to you," Sara said, hooking her arm into Floyd's. "So have we," she added. They then offered him a full time job.

"We've come to depend on you," Floyd said. "In fact I don't think we could get along without you. There's an outbuilding at the eastern-most grove, a large one. It isn't much, but it's shaded and it faces the valley. We could fix it up for you."

"We've got a cot and a gas heater, don't we Floyd?" Sara said.

"You think about it, Parnell." Parnell turned away, into the sun, not to let them see the emotion that had suddenly welled up in his eyes.

Late that night while the rest of the town was sleeping he returned to the groves to be alone. The open lanes between the trees were moonlit tunnels, the stars still; it was the apple trees that glittered, their branches holding up the sky, reaching out and touching, like human fingers. The lines in the bark were the grins of comrades. His legs drew energy from the soil. When he looked at the stars he felt hope emanating downward. When he saw the apple trees in the dark light he felt a clarity, a stillness, a kinship that had no explanation and no end.

He accepted Floyd's offer the next morning. His first chore as an employee of Hayden's Orchards was a personal one, the fulfilling of a promise made to the Eversons.

"I told you I'd find a way to thank you proper," he said to them, dropping two large sacks of apples on their kitchen table. They were hand picked for baking, tart and moist, and green with freshness. Mrs. Everson wore a white blouse with a pin. The pin was yellow, a shock of wheat trust up by a thin, green band. Light from a window highlighted her bright red optimism and she flushed, calling for Dale and the children. "Why this is wonderful, just wonderful," she gushed. "A permanent job? And just look at you. Isn't it like I always said? See what a meal and a pair of shoes can do?" Even Mr. Everson, normally temperate and restrained, was over-animated, slapping Parnell's shoulder and pushing him into a chair.

"From now on you'll get only the best apples," Parnell said, an unmistakable note of pride in his voice. And then he spoke to them for a long time, an equal now, telling about Floyd and Sara and about the business, and the outbuilding where he would be living. His eyes kept returning to the yellow pin on Mrs. Everson's blouse.

He returned to the lot and dropped a sack of food next to Goldie, Grayson silently cutting bread with a pocket knife. Goldie coughed and tried to smile, looking up at him as though she knew what had happened.

It was a clear night. Parnell kept looking at her, needing to talk but unable to find the words, unable to break through the neutrality of the air that seemed frosted around her. "You're leaving, aren't you?" She said finally, simply, without emotion. Parnell was startled.

"Come with me, Goldie. Get away from this."

"I belong here."

"You belong in the world. You belong...with me." But she turned away and reached for the bottle. Her fingers touched her own forehead, her cheeks; he could not see her face. And as she drank he could feel the whiskey against his own lips, he could smell the bottle as though he held it in his own hands. She moved away, and he did not follow.

There was tension in the lot that night. Two empty bottles of rye had been tossed aside, and Duncan was pacing, muttering to Wilcox, and Parnell thought he heard his name. Seeing Parnell in that moment marshaled his anger and gave it direction. "Well, look who dropped in," Duncan said, his eyes bloody. His face was dark, and he walked with the swagger of drunken confidence. "Too good to be here with us during the day, Parnell? Well, maybe you shouldn't come around at night either." He scanned the others for support, swaying on skeleton legs.

"Leave him alone," Goldie defended. "He brings us more food than you do." The blue cap covered her head, and shaky fingers were fumbling with the buttons of a baggy sweater. Duncan's eyes were ablaze.

"But he never comes up with any cash. How about it, Parnell? How about cutting loose with some of those bills you've been tucking away in your shiny new denims? For some whisky. What's it for, Parnell? All that cash, I mean."

Parnell stood like a tower, no weakness visible in the even lines of his face. "Not for rye," he said. Duncan looked hard at Parnell, seeing that his ribs had filled, that his once skinny arms and legs were now toned with bands of muscle. Duncan's glance moved between Goldie and Parnell, chuckling. He bobbed his skinny head.

"Almost worked, Goldie," he said. "It nearly...."

"Shutup!" she snapped. "Shutup and get out of here!" Parnell looked at Duncan then at Goldie. He looked at her for a long moment in the echo of Duncan's laughter, and it was not Duncan's manner or tone that gave Goldie away to him, it was her own eyes. And in the instant that their glances met, he saw what she had done and why she had done it. But his surprise was stillborn, because in the same moment both knew that it didn't matter.

He woke early and left while the others were sleeping.

Floyd and Sara were pleased. "There's no work for you today," Floyd said, a huge hand on Parnell's shoulder. "You just take the day for yourself, get used to things, you know. Come on, we'll show you the place."

The outbuilding was cabin-like without the confining feeling of a cabin. It had a high sloped ceiling with windows on two walls. There were no rooms or wall separators, and an old desk and chair were pushed up against a wall, just under one of the windows. The view was to the north orchard and the jagged mountain peaks beyond. He breathed in the aroma of moist hay. Sara had left a jar of flowers on the desk. "To brighten the place up a little," she had said. He felt alone without feeling lonely. He thought of wet cardboard and bottles of rye.

He could not sleep that night. In a warm, comfortable bed for the first time in....how long? He paced the cabin most of the night. He slept for an hour or so before dawn, dreaming continuously about Mrs. Everson. And there was something else. He dressed and went outside.

In the dream Mrs. Everson's face had phased into someone else, someone he recognized. Her body remained unchanged. Then suddenly her face changed again, to her own, and the transformation continued. She was making coffee and fussing with the children, then speaking of the tornado that had toppled the barn and scattered the horses; then another shift and she was talking about the Rainbird, how they hadn't seen it in so long, about how much they needed to see the Rainbird....

The sky was unfocused, he thought, or maybe it was too focussed. His head was raised. He was gripped by a vision and strange details that were highlighted by the dream; Mrs. Everson's pin that was a shock of wheat, the cry of the Rainbird, the apples, her red cheeks; he liked Ruth, he liked her warmhearted spirit, her bright red optimism, she reminded him of his mother, of her energy and her spirit, the way she had always made everything seem more wonderful than it was, the way her coffee pot was always....

Then...he saw...he remembered.

He was still under the dark sky of morning, his head raised, his eyes open wide, seeing now what had been hidden from him; a childhood on a farm in Kansas, a happy childhood, almost too happy; his mother in possession of a spirit that could not be rivaled or dampened. He could see now that the memory of the Rainbird was tied to her. More than a water messenger or a representation of freedom, the Rainbird had become a symbol of everything good in that parched and drought-stricken region of the country, a symbol of flourishing crops and silos filled with grain, of green pastures and golden fields. For Parnell it was the symbol of his mother's spirit, of her love and optimism, an optimism that had abandoned him at some point in his youth and which he had been unable to recapture.

He remembered now a flow of nameless towns and a drifting sense of purpose, an endless string of jobs that left him empty and alone. He became an observer of his own life, one who stands on a hillside and watches the world turn, unable to understand, unable to find his place. He started to drink, slowly at first, then desperately, betraying himself, his mother, her spirit, basking in the unahappiness that he knew was a betrayal. And with each stab of guilt he felt, he had sunk deeper and deeper into self-pity and the bottle from which it flowed. The cry of the strange bird had never touched him in his youth, had not broken through the neutrality that had patterned his days. But now it reached out through the years and confronted him, faced him with every memory he had tried to toss away, remembering in one slow, long-moving instant, the second-hand of a lifetime sweeping across the decades, the images and moments that had made up those years.

Parnell felt the warmth of his own tears against his cheek as the pain rose up inside and reached its peak; and then it was gone, transformed to knowledge, understanding, acceptance. The fear was gone. The past held no dark and terrible secret, no tragedy had descended to destroy him...there was only a quiet and dispassionate silence, bewilderment, and a retreat from life. To retreat is an act of choice.

His mind's eye saw the homeless panhandlers in their rags, sleeping under cardboard in huddled groups; he heard the coil of Duncan's laughter, saw Grayson's indolent shuffle as he tilted his way to the liquor store, dry eye sockets reflecting glass and rye whisky. He saw the dusty-blue of Goldie's eyes, remembering the warmth of her flesh, the touch of her mouth, and by contrast saw the stark bitterness of their lives. What could he offer them? A shirt? A pair of shoes? A meal? Parnell wanted to give them a job, a family, a home; he wanted to give them desire. But how does one do this?

In the rising flame of sunrise a train whistle blew, shaking the steel rails with melancholy clatter, the box-cars linked in unrelenting loyalty. The years were reduced to a single image, a beam that focused into a single point; that there is a limiting point in a man's capacity to offer or receive help, a boundary that permits no penetration, a boundary of will and of the essence of man, which is his capacity to choose. Yes, there was the kindness of the Eversons', the friendship and good fortune of meeting Floyd and Sara. But helping hands must be met by open hearts, and by minds willing to choose, and without the faculty of choice good intentions will not change a speck of dust in the world.

Each human life is an axiom, holding a sacred truth, but more; it holds the vision to see that truth and to accept or reject it, and the sum of all those lives is the power to see and stand by this truth. His own truth had always been there, but hidden, like his own memory, veiled by the darkness of his own omissions. Moonlight bowed down on him, touching the silk of his bones, going even deeper, to a point where a truth was unveiled; that our souls are written on by our own hand and always will be. And if this is true, Parnell thought, then a man fails or succeeds within himself.

The train whistle faded. He looked up to see that the darkness was lifting, clouds floating past and leaving swift tails, light and funny and purposeful, their underbellies crimson with a sun that had not yet shown itself. Tree branches were grinning comrades. In their lanes the fruit trees were shrouded by a mist that hid only the trunks, leaving the crowns exposed, a column of green sprouting out of the clouds.

He lifted his head to the sound of the Rainbird; it appeared black and silver, flying north, the direction it had been flying when it had led him into town. Its cry was clean again, lucid and happy, the way it had sounded in his youth, flying high and straight and in redemption, purged of the past. Parnell listened closely because he knew that this would be the last time he would ever hear that peculiar sound; at least not the way it sounded on that clear, crimson morning.


Rate this submission


You must be logged in to rate submissions

Loading Comments