map Bird Walk

by Dylan Nelson

Published in Issue No. 34 ~ March, 2000

“Hey, Sloth,” my father said.

I was playing cards on the ground behind the tent. It was the only place in camp that had any shade, and even so I was half in and half out of the sun. My back baked like the dirt. I touched my neck to make sure I wasn’t sunburned, then I dealt myself another hand.

“Sloth,” he said again.

I looked up, squinting to make out his features. His temples were sweaty, and his blue eyes stared me down. Bedroom eyes, my mother said.

‘Sloth’ was a new one. Dad used to call my brother Grayson ‘Eddy’ for ‘Oedipus,’ and when they were still married he called my mom ‘The Jailer.’ I’m not the most energetic person – at least not willingly – so ‘Slug’ used to be mine, which was okay with me. New names, though, only come out in moments of truth. “Did the name ‘Slug’ lose its ring?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. In my game, the king of spades was up. I moved the ten of hearts on top of a jack and shifted the king into the empty space, then fanned three more cards from the deck.

Dad bent to survey the cards. His T-shirt stuck to his underarms, and he gave off a briny, acrid smell. “You can build on the six of diamonds to free up your second stack,” he said. Then he straightened. “Let’s go for a walk.”

As if it were an ordinary thing, running around the Texas desert in middle of a summer day. “Are you out of your mind?” I said. “It’s at least a hundred degrees out. Besides,” I patted my cheek, “I have to protect my delicate skin. I don’t want to get all wrinkly.”

“Sarah, you’re thirteen years old. And you’re already sitting in the sun.”

“But I’m not moving.” The neat rows of cards seemed to waver in the still air. “I want to finish this game, see if I can beat myself for once.”

“The game’s not going anywhere,” Dad said. He gestured towards a blur of trees in the distance. “We are.”

“Is that a command?”

“Grayson’s going. Maybe we’ll see the Colima.”

“At noon?” I heaved myself up anyway, brushing dirt off the back of my shorts. It was coming, whatever the moment was, and I couldn’t do much to avoid it now.

* * *

Grayson and Dad’s girlfriend, Cara, were already waiting in front of the picnic table, binoculars around their necks. Cara wore a pink quilted day pack and shorts much too short, I thought, for the occasion. But I smiled at Grayson, who was hanging onto Cara’s hand as we came up. He was six-and-a-half, a little guy with that crazy white hair kids sometimes have, and he didn’t get the picture. Cara smiled back. Her mouth stretched wide as she looked at Dad. “Oh, Sarah, I’m so glad you’re coming. It’s going to be fun, don’t you think? I packed us all sandwiches.” She patted the day pack.

“Sure,” I said. I had nothing against Cara. There had been others before her, I knew– others while he was with my mother– and it was only a matter of time before Dad made the break. He was like that: always looking for change, always looking for something different from what came before. I was polite. If it hadn’t been Cara, it would have been somebody else.

We started along the dirt road together, but pretty soon Cara and Grayson moved ahead, or Dad and I fell back. Our steps stirred up the red dust. It rose in fine clouds and descended to cling to my face, my neck, the hair on my arms. Heat shimmered in the air like shock waves. I thought of my Sea Breeze back at the tent. I thought of the equator and figured I would never go there, a place you carried umbrellas for sun instead of rain, where the light could blind you brighter than this. Even here, even Big Bend seemed too much, not quite real, like one of those Saturday morning cartoons where the coyote runs around in circles and ends up at the bottom of a cliff. There were the same colors and shapes: red rocks, blue sky, saguaro cactuses looming like people. But the foothills of the Chisos Mountains looked cool. There, in the shade, in the thickets of quiet pine, lived the Colima Warbler. It was a small gray bird with a reddish crown, nothing too thrilling except for the fact that you couldn’t find it anywhere in this country but here. You can see plenty in the bigger mountains to the south, but we looked for it here, in Big Bend Park, because Dad was a lister and he played by the rules. No Mexico, no Central America– species didn’t count unless they’re seen north of the border. When I was ten my family spent two sweaty days down in Brownsville. We were looking for the Roadside Hawk, a bird whose name made me suggest I wait for it in the air-conditioned car. When my mom found it, it was not by the road at all but rather perched happily in a tree on the other side of the Rio Grande. We couldn’t do anything. Grayson threw rocks, hoping somehow to scare it toward us, but it just blinked its eyes a couple of times and settled more solidly on its branch. We waited for three hours until finally it flew away into Mexico. To Dad, it was like he never even saw it.

He had seen the Colima. He and my mother took a trip here years ago, before Grayson and I were born, and they found it in the hills after a full day’s hike. It was one of the stories Mom told me last spring, in the evenings after Dad left. We sat on the screened porch that he had built, me in a wicker chair, Mom sunk into the sofa. She always held a glass of wine, and her voice was swollen, like she couldn’t choke back the wash of words.

There had been a pool at the side of the trail, she said, a natural spring, set off by trees and cool in the shade. They stopped there; it was late afternoon, later than they’d expected because Dad paused so often to look at birds. Nobody else was around. “It was a miracle, Sarah, that silver water, so silent in the middle of the desert. As if we were the only animals left in the universe. We were alone, and so in love then that even if people had been there it wouldn’t have made any difference. Your father would still have reached for me.” For a moment she was quiet, then she nodded her head like she’d decided something. She reached for the wine bottle. “Your father had a way,” she said.

I didn’t ask a way with what. The darkness was thin and warm, and in the distance I could hear the ocean. Across the causeway, taillights of cars going toward the city blinked and receded. Finally I said, “What about the bird?”

“What?” She held her glass. It took a few seconds for her to focus. “Oh, the warbler. We saw it on the way down.”

* * *

Personally, I didn’t care about seeing the Colima, on this trip or any other, and Grayson was too young to know the difference. Cara, though, seemed excited by the prospect. She seemed excited by any prospect. Sometimes I thought that was why Dad left Mom– new things to show her were getting harder to find. “The Jailer thinks she’s seen everything,” he’d say. “The Jailer won’t leave her place by the cell.” Cara was less discriminating. With Cara, he could relive the places he’d been before, and he was already an authority when they got there.

That morning, though, Dad walked with me. He went slowly, stopping every few minutes to scan the bush through his binoculars. I traced squiggly symbols in the dust with my sandal. I crossed my hands on top of my head, elbows like vees to cast a shadow, and I let out my breath so he might notice. I knew there weren’t any birds. Not here, not at twelve o’clock under a huge hot sky. Maybe a vulture or two hanging out in the updrafts, but definitely no little warblers. “Dad, we’re not even in the hills yet,” I said.

He lowered his glasses to look at me. “You never know what you’re going to see,” he said. He started walking. Cara and Grayson were way ahead by this time, and as Dad and I moved I watched them through the shifting layers of air.

“I wonder what they’re talking about,” I said.

Dad didn’t answer, just kept going forward, his hands on the glasses against his chest. Then he said, “Sarah, I’m worried about Grayson.”

Ahead of us, Grayson and Cara were swinging hands. I wiped my own sweaty hands against my shorts. “What do you mean, worried?” I said. “He seems fine to me.”

“I don’t think he’s fine,” Dad said. “You know how active he usually is. He jumps all over the place and wants to play catch and talks a mile a minute. Now he looks at comics in the tent at night, and he hasn’t made the womp-meep sounds when we play hearts. He doesn’t even pick on you anymore.”

“He doesn’t pick on me because he knows I won’t take it,” I said. “I’m stronger than he is.”

“That’s not it,” Dad said. “No. It’s like he doesn’t want to, like he doesn’t even have the urge. He’s listless.”

I shrugged. What did he want me to say? “As far as I know he had a good spring, scored some goals in Little League soccer and rode his bike off the big dunes every day after school. He probably misses that. He’s not used to being away from all his friends.”

“It could be your mother.”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I think he misses her, too.”

I knew that wasn’t what he meant. We walked in silence. A striped lizard skittered across the road and disappeared into the brush. The sun beat down, and the road’s heat came up through the leather of my sandals. I glanced sideways at Dad. He was gazing across the desert. I thought of all the things that could be going through his head: the fierce face Grayson makes running upfield, the soft thump of tires skidding on sand, light scattered on the sea and my mother staring out at it. My mother.

But he didn’t mention any of these things. Instead he said, “Remember Eddy when he was a baby? How he used to race around whenever the wind blew?” He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and gestured to where Grayson and Cara were walking ahead. “I’m just worried about how he’s going to react when I tell him Cara and I are getting married.”

I didn’t miss a beat. I pat myself on the back, not missing a beat when my father comes out with something like that. It didn’t catch me off guard. I stayed on track, kept my pace, and the heat waves danced away in front of me. “He seems to like Cara,” I said.

Dad reached out his hand. I watched its shadow on the road as it moved toward me, felt its weight as it came to rest on my shoulder. It sat there, not pressing, not stroking, not warm or cool, just quiet dead weight that had nothing to do with me. “Well, he holds her hand,” Dad said. “He volunteered to go to the store with her this morning. But he’s just little. He doesn’t understand anything or really know what’s happened.”

I did remember the wind. Grayson was two or three then, only a couple of feet tall, and inside his fat face he always had a strained look, as if a very thin person were moving below the skin. He didn’t talk much, but he couldn’t be quiet, and when the wind came up one day outside the house– first ruffling the new spring grass, then shaking the trees back and forth– he abandoned his crash-up cars in the dirt and started screaming, running after the gutter leaves scattering across the street, then rushing back to hold down the blowing newspapers, back and forth grabbing his hair screaming and screaming until Mom grabbed him in her arms and carried him inside. She was the only one who could calm him. Later we figured out that he had thought the wind would blow his head off.

“He is sensitive,” I said. I looked past Dad to Grayson’s little figure. Where the back of his neck met his shirt the skin had turned red, and he walked crookedly, still holding onto Cara’s hand. Marriage, I thought. A permanent flight. I thought of packing oranges for soccer halftimes, meeting Grayson alone after school, the days and hours left undone. I thought of Grayson’s still-round face and how it screwed up when he was trying to make sense of something. I thought of the coolness of wind from the sea.

And then I saw all of us, my family, around the glass table on the porch my dad had built. I saw us playing hearts in the early evening, in that cool sweet swirling air, playing hearts all four of us, the rhythm of moving around the circle and putting down our cards blending with the rhythm of the ocean spread out before us, the swath of blue-gray water endlessly sweeping the shore. The ice cubes in Dad’s gin and tonic clinked in his glass, and Grayson bounced up and down in his seat. Mom was winning, and as she stretched out her hand to bring in a trick, Dad caught it. “I have a new name for you, pretty girl, card shark,” he said.

She looked at him. “Which one is it?”

“Pretty,” he said, “pretty,” and he pulled her up from her seat and kissed her. They leaned together across the table, the wind blowing in their hair, blond against blond in front of us. When they sat down Dad was grinning and Mom’s ears were bright red. She smiled as she picked up her cards, and her whole face opened up, like a new world.

* * *

Dad and I had reached the sign for the trailhead. We were just standing there in front of it, an old brown post in the brown of the desert. Dust burned in my throat. I could feel the pores tightening on my face, making my skin hot and scaly, trapping dirt inside. Grayson and Cara had stopped up ahead of us. I lifted my arm to shrug off Dad’s hand.

That’s when the Colima came out of the scrub a few yards up the trail. Like it had planned it: I heard the call Dad had played from the bird tape in camp, saw Cara grab her glasses in one swift motion, Dad break into a run from where he stood next to me. Grayson was there, but I stood as if frozen. I had no binoculars. It was in the light staring stark against the sage and I couldn’t see a thing, not even a shadow, and the bushes rustled a little and the bird flew.

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Dylan Nelson grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. She currently studies fiction writing at the University of Oregon.