Spanish Moss

for Daniel Elias Galacia

Lenore was happy to sever her friendships. It’s for a higher cause, she wrote in her journal the day before they left. And though she feigned sadness when many of them showed up to help load the U-Haul, her heart lifted when her father finally turned the truck onto the interstate and began the six hundred mile journey to South Carolina, leaving her old relationships behind. She had always wanted to be a writer, a real one and not a dabbler like the rest of them, but the timing never seemed right. Now is the time, she wrote. She wiped a tear from her cheek and her mother patted her pale-white wrist and told her that her friends were welcome any time. “I know,” she said. “I just miss them already.” She leaned her head against the window and watched the mountains grow flat and the landscape turn green and heavy. Yes, change was good.

Their new house was big—a graceful southern belle, she wrote—and she chose a room upstairs. Her parents, of course, took the master downstairs. Her room had three windows, two that faced the front lawn, a wide expanse of grass with three old magnolias, and one, a dormer window, that looked out over a back yard, overgrown with live oaks. She had always written lying down, on her bed or on the floor, but she now she needed a desk. Her father told her that he would get her one when she decided to go to college—isn’t that what everybody does after high school?—but she sidestepped him and made her own desk. Screw college.

She had, in fact, just finished fashioning her desk from four large moving boxes (the boxes that had carried their quilts and linens down from Virginia) and an old wooden door that she found propped against a wall in the basement, when she heard something thump against the dormer window. She patiently finished organizing her new desktop—three sharpened pencils, two pink erasers, a straightened stack of clean paper (college ruled), a glass for water, an ashtray, and her journal (a black Moleskine), all perfectly placed—then went to the window. She pushed it open, looked below her, and noticed something thrashing in the bushes below. She ran down the hall past both spare rooms, took the long flight of steps two at a time, and ran through the kitchen into the back yard. The air felt like a warm bath and her shirt stuck to her back. She walked carefully through the yard, like her father had taught her when he took her on his mycelial expeditions, and listened for the thing in the bushes. All she could hear was his voice inside her head: “Use your ears like an eye and your eyes like an ear, and only then, Lenore, will you really see and hear.” He was fond of saying Zen shit like that. She dove into the shrubbery and there it was, the largest crow she’d ever seen, black as coal and slick as Vaseline. It was beauty incarnate, she wrote later.

She pulled the still-warm bird from the tight tangle of woody plants and laid it on the grass under the shade of a live oak thick with beards of Spanish moss. The headless bird was surprisingly light, really no heavier than her paperback copy of Anna Karenina. She carefully spread its wings then plucked a feather—how cool would it be to write with a quill? Certainly that would help jump-start the writing. She pulled out her pocketknife and sliced into the bird. It was a strange compulsion, come to think of it, to want to open up a bird; and even though she’d heard of mystics who could extract some sort of meaning from scrambled guts, she wasn’t sure of what she was looking for. Her biologist father would have said that everything looked normal (besides the missing head, of course): an alimentary passageway, a heart, reproductive organs, some frail-looking bones. The bird was beautiful.

Along the peeling fence that separated her family’s house from the large, overgrown lot next door was a bare patch of ground where she decided that she would bury the crow. The fence was old and rickety and, in places, missing slats. She had seen her neighbor’s house from the road, an old two-story with clapboard siding turning black with mildew, but she couldn’t see it from here: the fence was too high and the foliage too thick. During the one week that they’d been in their new home, she hadn’t seen anyone leave the house. She wondered what it was like inside, probably dark and dusty. Yesterday when she was out front, she noticed movement in the yellow drapes covering the picture window beside the front porch. Someone’s very shy, she thought. She snapped a stick off the live oak to use as a shovel for the bird’s grave, and when she did so, she brushed against the moss, which was a dull green color, a little like her mother’s split pea soup. The moss was epiphytic, her father told her when she asked him about it, not quite parasitic, yet neither was it able to live independently of its host. “Like orchids,” he had said. The moss left dusty marks on her hands and wrists and wasn’t nearly as soft as it looked.

The ground was warm and sandy, easy to dig through, like the sugar in Pixie Stix and not at all like the rocky ground back home, the Virginia dirt (if you could call it that) that bent spades and jarred bones and made her good Lutheran mother cuss Jesus. She quickly had a hole ready for the headless bird, and just in time, too, because the red ants were marching Jericho around it.

“The opossum will get it.”

She jumped at the sound of a woman’s voice, which sounded like water trying to get through a half-clogged drain.

“It’ll come in the night and dig it up and take itty bitty morsels back to its babies. And they’ll hiss with delight and—” The woman’s voice ended in a coughing fit.

She looked down the row of fence slats and there she was, her face as shrunken and wrinkled as an old apple. The woman smiled at her and slipped through a narrow space in the fence, stretching her arms above her head, then touching her toes. She did this several times, then sighed contentedly.

“Nothing like a bit of exercise,” the woman said. “They call that yoga, I believe. You ever heard of it?”

Lenore nodded her head and the woman looked at her as if noticing her for the first time. “Well now, look at you,” she said, “all fresh and new.” Her lips were thin and cracked.

“We just moved in from Virginia,” she said. “I’m Lenore.” She extended her hand, but the woman ignored it and dug through the pockets of her stained housecoat instead. She found a cigarette and promptly lit it, then snubbed the smoking match with her dirty pink slipper. The old woman smelled funny, kind of like juniper berries, maybe turpentine, she wrote later. While she smoked, she fingered a gold key attached to a necklace that hung around her blue-veined neck.

Lenore touched the moss hanging from the tree and said, “We didn’t have moss like this in Charlottesville. It’s like being in a jungle here.”

The woman took a long drag from her cigarette. “Filthy as sin,” she said. “Nasty, nasty.”

She didn’t know which of the old woman’s rheumy eyes to look at: one was a stray, looking off over her shoulder and into the yard, and the other seemed to look right through her. She decided to give both equal time.

The woman took a few steps toward the crow and nudged it with her foot. “Ants think they’ve got this one,” she said, “but they ought to know Miss Carrie better than that.” She reached into her pocket—what didn’t she have in her pockets?—and gently unfolded a large yellow handkerchief with purple flowers appliquéd around its edges. It was pretty, much too nice, really, to use to pick up a dead bird.

“Shroud,” the woman said, squishing her cigarette under her foot. She carefully wrapped the bird and tied the fabric in a knot around its still-exposed furled claws. They looked like they were grasping for a branch.

“Now don’t you go being all shy on Miss Carrie,” she said. “Be neighborly and bring me your birds. The last people who lived here couldn’t stand the birds. I reckon you all got a good deal on that house.” She reached into her housecoat and retrieved a small bottle of gin with her free hand. She opened it one-handed, swigged a bit, then silently slipped back through the slats.

It was, at first, a burning sensation in her arms, not really localized in any particular spot—sometimes in her elbows, other times in her shoulders—but eventually the pain settled in her wrists. And even though the air was hot, she wore long-sleeved shirts to hide the faint splotches when she went out, though she wasn’t too concerned about it, just a rash, should disappear soon. Her father told her that the rash was from biting no-see-ums. They were all over down here, he said, particularly in the epiphytes, so for God’s sake, stay away from the moss.

One evening, the day the pain left dark red smudges on her wrist, Lenore dug through her parents’ medicine cabinet and found some aloe salve in a green tube. She sat on the vanity and dabbed the cream on both wrists and waited, remembering how the aloe helped cool her sunburned face in the summer, how her mother broke stems off the plants that grew in the bay window of their old house, how her mother’s fingers were always cold, bone cold, and could chill her cheeks even in the middle of summer. How could someone so cold be alive? The burning subsided only a little, and she wrapped her wrists in two thick socks.

And that was the evening she began to write, really write. Of course she’d had the desire to write before, but this felt different, more sudden and urgent. She felt a sense of duty toward her story, an utter necessity to write it, so she sat at her desk in her bedroom, long after everyone else had fallen asleep, and picked up a her new quill. Her tiny script was hardly legible, as if the newborn words had to be coaxed into talking—perhaps before they were ready, she feared—but the words came out anyhow, and she was addicted. In a few hours she had a story in front of her. She titled it “Spanish Moss,” then fell asleep with her head in her arms.

The next morning, after she had taken a shower and was pulling on her jeans, Lenore heard a thwack at her window. She spread a little aloe on her wrists, threw on a shirt, and went outside. It didn’t take her long to find this one: another headless crow, though not as large as the first and not quite as black. It was still strangely alluring, however, and she couldn’t stop staring at its iridescent sheen. Who knew that there was so much color in the blackness? She looked up at the white sky. Where were these things coming from?

Miss Carrie took some time to reach her front door. Lenore could hear her moving about the house, the sound of her hobbling getting closer, until, suddenly, the house grew quiet. She sensed Miss Carrie on the other side of the door, waiting, listening. She knocked again, and Miss Carrie finally opened the wooden door. She had an oak cane topped with a brass bird. Its beak curled upward so that it looked like it was smiling. Or maybe it was snarling. She couldn’t tell which.

“My goodness,” Miss Carrie said, stepping onto the porch. “What have you got for me?”

Miss Carrie leaned her cane against the siding and pulled the bird out of the plastic grocery sack. She studied it and said, “Not a perfect bird, but it will do.”

Lenore noticed a tremor in Miss Carrie’s hands, which glistened in the morning sun. She asked her where these things came from.

Miss Carrie laughed and reached into the pocket of her white housecoat. “And it’s not good manners for me to sip without giving you a little nip.” She wagged her gin bottle in front of Lenore’s face.

“Oh, no, thank you,” she said.

“Don’t be such a girl,” Miss Carrie said. “Juniper, coriander, spirits—all gifts wrought from God’s creation. What are you, twenty, twenty-one?”

“Eighteen,” she said, “but where do the crows come from?”

“Well no one’s looking but me,” Miss Carrie said. “Besides, those rules are stupid and say nothing about the character of a girl. I’ve been drinking gin since I was your age, and you know what?”

Lenore didn’t.

“Haven’t regretted a day of it,” Miss Carrie said. “Boys don’t like bashful girls nowadays. Here.”

Lenore took the gin. “I’ll drink it if you tell me where the birds come from.”

“You’re a virgin drinker, is that the problem?” Miss Carrie said, moving to her porch swing. She fished a rosary from the pocket of her housecoat a fingered the beads. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. After she went through ten beads, she slipped the chain back into her pocket. “One decade down,” she said. “Drink.”

“The bird?” Lenore said.

“What does it matter?”

“Usually the sight of blood makes me queasy,” she said, “but I can’t look away from the birds.”

Miss Carrie nodded and said, “I watched my son Paul—a wanna be priest, mind you!—bleed to death. There’s no smell in the world like it—wet iron horseshoes. I found him in the bath, his water red as cherry Jell-O. He took my butcher knife to his wrists. When I came in he opened his eyes and looked at me, but he never shut them again. I couldn’t look away.” She was silent for a moment, then said, “The bastard dulled my blade.”

She had the feeling that this little excerpt from Miss Carrie’s life was well-rehearsed, a story from which she’d wrung a lot of mileage, but what a horrible thing to go through! She tried to give her regrets, but Miss Carrie dismissed her sympathy with a sharp wave of her hand. “He had a depressive nature anyhow,” she said, leaning close to her ear, “and I can’t say that I was really surprised.”

“I bet you miss him,” she said.

“How can I question the Lord’s will?” Miss Carrie said. “Like the birds: I take what He sends me. There! Now take your drink.”

Lenore twisted off the bottle cap and took a swallow. She coughed.

Miss Carrie took the bottle and laughed. “Like I said, a virgin.”

The birds came regularly, about two per week, all of them hitting her window like someone was throwing them. Usually the birds were crows, though there were others too, sometimes jays, once a mockingbird with a snow-white band of feathers across the expanse of its wings. But all of them were all headless. Her father didn’t think too much about it.

“These kinds of things happen,” he told her one evening from behind his newspaper. “A whole flock of birds once dropped dead from the sky over Arkansas.” How could he be so nonchalant? But after time spent researching online and in the library, she finally accepted Miss Carrie’s answer, that the birds were from the Lord, as weird as it sounded, because it was easier to believe than not to.

She dutifully took the bodies to Miss Carrie, who was grateful for God’s booty. She had asked her early on what she did with the bodies, but Miss Carrie scowled and said that when Lenore was ready, she’d show her. Until then, she’d have to wait.

She considered not taking any more birds to her until she showed her what she was up to, but Miss Carrie, for all her crustiness, was growing on her. She was like the crazy relative every family was supposed to have. And besides, she was fun to write about: Lenore had several stories now, all of which featured Miss Carrie, and she was proud of these tales. They felt good to write and all seemed like sincere portraits of a real life, a life on the brink of something, not like the superfluous stuff she wrote last year in high school. That was crap. Who would have thought that I’d have found my muse so early in life?

But along with the writing came pain.

It was, at first, a burning sensation in her legs, not really localized in any one spot—sometimes in her knees, other times in her hips—but eventually the pain settled in her feet.

Just a rash. Should disappear soon.

But the wounds on her wrists showed no sign of going away; they had, in fact, began to seep blood, as if her skin were a sponge that someone had decided to wring out. She kept this secret hidden from her parents which was, as fall approached and they started their new jobs at the university, easy to do.

Lenore was startled by the squawk of Miss Carrie’s voice.

“How’s my girl?” Miss Carrie called.

Lenore hadn’t noticed Miss Carrie sitting there on the porch swing, wearing clip-on shades that wrapped halfway around her tiny head. She looked like a giant bug.

Lenore greeted her and tried to keep walking, but Miss Carrie said, “Where you off to in such a rush?”

“The library,” she told her.

“A complete waste of time, especially considering we don’t read the stuff we’ve been given,” Miss Carrie said. She motioned Lenore up to the porch. “I’ve been waiting for you.” Miss Carrie flipped up her shades and smiled. She was wearing a shiny set of dentures that clacked together when she talked.

“You like them? I put them in for you. Only thing is, they make me drool like a dog,” she said, wiping little balls of spittle from the corners of her mouth. “Now help me up.”

She was light, more air than body, she would write later that evening, only a little heavier than the birds she loved.

Miss Carrie led her into the drawing room. The room was dusty and dim, the wallpaper faded. A clock on the fireplace mantel was stuck at 3:30, and behind an ornate secretary desk was a large case lined with books. And what was that weird smell? Hot wax?

“No one’s touched Paul’s books since he died,” Miss Carrie said. “These were his. He liked this room. Studied here all the time. He wanted to be a priest, you know; that’s why floor to ceiling they’re all religious books.” She chuckled. “Didn’t do him much good now, did it, ending up dead in a tub full of cold water.”

Miss Carrie led her down the hall past the living room and into the kitchen. The wallpaper, a repeating pattern of strawberries and ivy, was ripped in places, and the cracked plaster ceiling above the stove was blackened from grease. On the counter, fruit flies hovered over a cluster of brown bananas next to boxes of Hamburger Helper, Cajun flavored, looking like a tidy row of sober novels. Miss Carrie removed her housecoat and hung it on a hook on the pantry door, the skin hanging from her arms like bat wings. She offered some iced tea.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’ve got nice manners,” Miss Carrie said, pulling the lever back on her aluminum ice tray. Shards of ice exploded onto the table. “Most girls just blather nonsense these days. Now I’ll have you know that my tea’s not from a mix. Can’t make good tea from a damn powder. The secret’s orange pekoe, plenty of sugar, and exactly five ice cubes.” Miss Carrie fished out the required cubes with her bony fingers and plopped them into Lenore’s glass. She pushed the tea across the table, then added a splash of gin to her own.

On the window sill above the sink sat three orchids, and Lenore was astonished by their beauty, how they absorbed the forceful mess of the kitchen and filled the air with color and fragrance instead. How did they grow in such gloom? Her mother’s aloe would have suffocated in here, no doubt about that. Funny where life grows, she thought, funny how it surprises me.

Lenore was surprised when Miss Carrie didn’t put up a fuss after she thanked her for the tea and told her that she really had to get going. She put Lenore’s cup in the sink and quickly grabbed her hand, leading her through the dining room and into a dark, long hallway. At the end of the hallway was a small picture in a wooden frame hanging lopsided on the wall. Miss Carrie flipped on a spotlight. The picture was an icon of Jesus crucified, naked and bloodied. He stared at her, and she had to look away.

“What’s wrong? Don’t you like Him?” Miss Carrie asked.

“It’s His eyes,” she said softly.

Miss Carrie smiled and pushed her into the drawing room. “I’ll show you the rest later.”

It was, at first, a burning sensation in her abdomen, not really localized in any one spot—sometimes in her stomach, other times low in her gut—but eventually the burning swelled inside her chest and located itself between a couple of ribs. She stood shirtless in front of the mirror in the bathroom and studied her torso; and although she felt healthy, she was surprised at how thin and stretched out she looked, like the wobbly circus freak she once saw at the fairgrounds who could tie herself into a knot, legs behind her head, arms wrapped around her back. The scarlet wound under her right breast was several inches long and shaped like the quill she’d plucked from the crow earlier that summer. She touched it; the blood was thin, like watercolor paint, and didn’t smell anything at all like wet iron horseshoes. When did this change occur, that the sight of her own blood made her feel strong and alive instead of queasy? Maybe it was excess life oozing from her pores; maybe there was enough to go around. She searched for gauze in the medicine cabinet and taped it to her side.

During the weeks that followed her foray into Miss Carrie’s house, Lenore collected the birds that fell from the sky, but didn’t set foot near the woman’s house. They were crows mostly—except for the one that fell Thursday morning, a woodpecker with spotted wings that seemed like shadows—and she slipped the headless birds into Ziploc bags, and nesting them behind the applesauce and lamb shanks on the bottom shelf of the deep freeze in the basement. That Jesus and his magnetic eyes pulled her through the weeks, and the more she tried to forget about him, the more she couldn’t help thinking about him. And then, after the woodpecker fell, she decided it was time. Lenore took the bird, along with the six frozen ones, to Miss Carrie.

“I thought you’d forgotten me,” Miss Carrie said. She was holding a bag of onions. Some of the soft bulbs had sprouted, forcing bright green shoots through the mesh bag. “Come in, come in; don’t be slow.” She stood aside and Lenore walked in and gave her the birds.

“You froze them?” Miss Carrie said.

“They’d rot otherwise.”

“Never used a frozen one.” Miss Carrie peered into the bags. “I suppose I’ll have to let them thaw. You could have brought them sooner, you know.”

“And here’s a woodpecker,” she said. “Still fresh.”

Miss Carrie took the bird without looking at it. “Carry my onions,” she said, closing the door behind them. Lenore followed her into the hot hall past the dark grotto. She stopped at a door, fished the key from around her neck, and unlocked the knob.

“This is my nursery,” Miss Carrie said. “All of them are here.” She opened the door and Lenore followed her in but stopped because the room was gloomy and she wasn’t sure where to walk. Miss Carrie dropped the birds and moved gracefully through the room, and when she turned on a light, she said, “These are the brothers of Christ.”

Lenore looked around the room. Headless crows, three in a row, hung from the high ceiling with their wings extended in flight. Their underbellies glistened in the table lamp’s light. On a bookshelf in front of the shaded window six crows were taking tea, the smallest one dumping its cup down the neck hole of the largest one. On the wood floor were two ridiculous crows in lederhosen perched atop an old toaster. One held a beer stein. Another’s crow’s foot protruded from the opening of a vase. A crow was impaled on a Pez dispenser. There were seven crows breaking the seven deadly sins, the most astonishing being the lusty crow with the limbless Barbie—how did she get the bird to do that? And hung high above Miss Carrie’s work table was a crow attached to a wooden cross with a metal halo where its head should have been, a crucified crow.

Miss Carrie dragged her ladder across the floor and took down the bird. “Touch it,” she said, rubbing her hand across its body. “Isn’t it beautiful? It’s my crowcifix.” She chuckled.

She touched the bird. “Where are the heads?”

“I figure the Lord eats them,” Miss Carrie said.

“It’s a little sticky,” she said.

Miss Carrie pointed to a Crockpot on her table. “That’s the beeswax,” she said, pulling the bird away from Lenore. “After I gut and arrange the fellows, I preserve them with the wax.”

“They’re certainly nice taxidermal birds,” she said.

“It’s not taxidermy, it’s writing,” Miss Carrie said, frowning. “You of all people should know that. To think that I thought you’d get it.” She climbed the ladder and attached the crucified bird to its nail.

Lenore stood. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll go.”

Miss Carrie smiled suddenly. She picked up her bag of onions and said, “Stay put while I get the iced tea.” She left a trail of papery skins behind her.

The old woman wasn’t stable, that’s for sure, Lenore thought—she had noticed that from day one—but there was something about her, something deep-seated and genuine. She reached into the Crockpot and tapped her finger on the hard wax. She glanced around the room: on a side table next to her, resting on a pile of envelopes, was a silver letter opener shaped into a crucifix. It looked like a dagger—someone could get hurt using this thing; it could draw blood. She turned it over and looked at the face of Jesus, which was twisted in sorrow. Despite her Lutheran upbringing, she found the sad Christ alluring, even beautiful. Maybe beauty was the one thing to which death was subject, she thought, and before she realized what she was doing she kissed the crucifix. She immediately felt shame—what was happening to her?—butshe couldn’t shake the feeling that beauty was making a deal with her: You give me what I need and I’ll give you what you want, she wrote. Deal or no deal? She put the crucifix back on the table when Miss Carrie returned with the tea. The ice cubes clanked against their glasses while they drank.

“They’re writings because they tell stories,” Miss Carrie said all at once, “but thing is, no one wants to hear because no one cares. That won’t stop me though—do you hear?”

“You’re telling the story of Jesus,” Lenore said.

“No!” Miss Carrie said, slapping Lenore’s knee. “It’s the story of blood—a body has so much. You should have seen him. It came stampeding out like it was some sort of invincible thing—he just bled and bled and bled. But this skin,” she said, pinching her arm, “these lines here, they try to keep the blood in, try to hold itty-bitty pieces of God inside. Likewise, the lines of these birds hold their blood long enough for me to get the story. It’s pandemonium and chaos, but that’s what the writings are all about.”

Lenore put her empty glass on the side table and said, “I see.” She stood, but Miss Carrie grabbed her wrist.

“Don’t go,” Miss Carrie said. She jerked her down and inadvertently pulled off the bandage. “What’s that?”

“It’s just a rash,” Lenore said. “I’ve had it all summer.”

“Jesus Christ,” Miss Carrie whispered, “you’ve been pricked. I used to be you. I know what that is.” She peeled the wrap off of Lenore’s other wrist.

“It’s nothing to fret over,” she told her.

Miss Carrie kneeled and told her to slip off her shoes. Lenore hesitated.

“Come on—I haven’t got all day,” Miss Carrie said.

Lenore undid the laces of her Converse and pried them off with her feet, first one, then the other. She watched Miss Carrie undo the bandages, cross herself, then wipe her finger across the seeping wound. Miss Carrie’s finger was cold. She stared at the blood on her finger.

“It’s only a scratch,” she told her.

Miss Carrie quickly retrieved her bottle and took a clumsy swallow, splashing gin onto Lenore’s feet. She dried them with the sleeve of her housecoat, which was softer than the scratchy gauze wrapping. Lenore felt her throat tighten, her jaw tremble, but she held back her tears.

“Let me teach you to write Jesuses,” Miss Carrie said, undoing the lace from Lenore’s right shoe. “You could by my apprentice.” She yanked the shoe free and stuck it in her pocket along with the gin.

Lenore announced that she had to leave.

“You can leave, but it will only be a matter of days before you come crashing back down because you’re like the crows now. The king of birds has called on you and you can’t escape,” she said. “That’s the funny thing about him: he finds your rotten flesh lovely as an orchid.” She pointed to Lenore’s side. “And you have it here too, under that bandage, don’t you.”

“What does it matter to you?” she said softly.

Miss Carrie held up her bloody finger and said, “You’ve got extra. I used to have extra, but it left. Be a dear and give me a little?”

Lenore suddenly felt jealous of her blood. Who did Miss Carrie think she was asking her for blood like that? That’s just not normal—it’s all so fucking crazy! She asked Miss Carrie why she wanted it, and Miss Carrie said that it would help her writings get better. “And besides,” she continued, “if there’s one thing Jesus knows it’s blood. He responds to it because he can’t help himself.”

“You’re manipulating him?”

Miss Carrie shrugged. “I’m getting him to help me do my job, which is to just write the damn birds and let the rest fall into place.” She took a cup from one of the tea birds and handed it to Lenore. “Let it seep into here. I won’t watch.”

Lenore held the cup to her side and watched her blood turn pink in the nacreous cup.

The season changes. Imatatio Christi, she discovers from a book at the library, 13th century. Catherine of Siena, Marie of Oignies, Elizabeth of Spalbeck. Beguines and their bodies and spiritual expression. She holds these women near and routine becomes her armature. She washes her wrists and feet; she bathes her side. What terrifies her most is for her days to become immeasurable, to have her lauds, prime, tierce, and sext become empty; for none, vespers, and compline to vanish like smoke. What terrifies her is to become ordinary, to be just Lenore with the dimple and the long straight hair, her mother’s daughter. The warm cotton towels, the aloe salve; the mirror on the door and the quill-shaped slit in her side; her probing finger, the red gash. Blood. Sometimes the wounds are painful and she feels as though her limbs are being rent from her body. Those nights she cries into her pillow. Sometimes the wounds are more closed than opened, like sleepy little eyes, and she feels nothing but a dull ache. Those nights she crawls into her bed and reads a book. But, either way, the sweet, somnolent smell of aloe soon overcomes her and she sleeps.

Morning. She unwraps her bandages and reads the red. It’s an oracle and her confidence grows, her writing improves, her cadences lengthen. Shower, then aloe salve. Band-Aids and gauze. Good words and lovely sentences. She grows pale from time spent indoors and she doesn’t organize her desk—it has, in fact, become a complete mess, stacked with crumbled papers and empty teacups and spilled ink. She wonders how she had ever gotten along without the marks. Her blood is beautiful and the stories float on its current like dandelion fluff in the wind. Pity the soul that lives in plainness, she writes, may Beauty have mercy on its pedestrian existence. She feels Miss Carrie’s presence everywhere sees her translucent skin and white housecoat, smells her fragrant gin and orchids. What does it matter if she hasn’t taken her birds in weeks? The bird icons haunt her and she dreams of onionskins and Miss Carrie is draped over her consciousness like Spanish moss—not quite alive, not quite dead.

The day the heads fell from the sky should have been a sign. I should have known, she wrote, should have been prepared, should have checked in on Miss Carrie more frequently,but she was caught off guard instead. She heard them hit the roof early in the morning while she was still in bed, a little flurry of furious hail smacking the shingles and the gutters. She pulled back the shades on her dormer window and there they were, bird skulls scattered across the back lawn like seeds sown from a giant sower. She pulled on her sweatshirt, found some jeans, and went outside. The things were surprisingly solid, and she gathered as many as she could carry into the folds of her sweatshirt. She wondered what Miss Carrie would have to say about this.

Back in her room she lined up twenty-one bird skulls, mostly crow, on her windowsill and then went to tend her wounds. She undid a bandage but the gauze was snow white. She unwrapped her side and stared at the clean gauze. In the shower, she slumped on the white-tiled floor and watched the crystal-clear water swirl down the drain. Her skin was perfect, her body new as a baby’s.

She locked herself in her room for three days and tried to write, but without the blood there was nothing. It’s like throwing up when your stomach’s completely empty, she wrote. My flesh is out having its own thrills, leaving my soul hung out to dry. Miss Carrie would know what to do. She was me.

Lenore saw the car right away, a black Cadillac with an angry grill, whitewall tires, and Florida plates backed up to Miss Carrie’s front porch and parked in the azalea patch. The trunk was open and full garbage bags leaned against the car doors like a hot highway crew on break. She stepped onto the porch. Miss Carrie’s house felt strange and deflated, as if it had given up and suddenly exhaled its long-held breath. It took her a moment to realize that she felt this way because the shades on all the windows in the front of the house had been opened. Sunlight illuminated the drawing room, and everything in it cowered like frightened animals, everything except the corpulent man behind the secretary desk who was casually pulling down books from the shelf and packing them into a wooden crate. Maybe the room, too, was recoiling from his large presence.

Lenore walked into the house and said, “What are you doing in here?”

The man turned and smiled, closing the book he was thumbing through, James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. His face was plump, like a steaming cinnamon bun, and his hair looked as white as the icing, the type of man accustomed to the empty pleasures of Old Spice and Brylcreem, she wrote.

“Who’s the little missy?” he said, stepping around the desk. It creaked when he leaned against it.

She stared at him and said, “Where’s Miss Carrie?”

“I’m just getting my books,” he said, raising his arm toward the shelf. He had sweat rings under his arms. “I figured as long as I was here I might as well. Mother will never read them.”

“You’re Paul,” she said. She tried to place his age—sixty-something maybe?

“She actually talked about me?”

“She said you were dead is all,” she told him, “that you killed yourself in the shower.”

“Well that’s something,” he said, rubbing his hands together.

She noticed his clerical collar. “You are a priest?”

He sighed, wiped his forehead. Shifted his feet. “I am. Soon to retire though. Nearly four decades in the Lord’s service.”

“She didn’t mention that,” she said, folding her arms across her chest.

“She never was for it,” he said, smiling. “Stubborn as the day is long.”

“Where is she?”

He circled his fat finger around his ear and laughed. “Who knows where she really is!”

“She’s not crazy,” she said.

“I took her,” he said.

“A savior priest,” she said.

“I just did what any son would do and now she’s in a home thank God,” he said breathlessly. “She can’t live on her own. My contacts told me so. They called me and said so. And did you see her birds—crazy as a bat!—so of course I had to come, good son that I am, I just had to come.”

She wanted to tell him that she could get along well enough on her own and certainly didn’t need him or his big fat intervention, thank you very much, but Lenore didn’t open her mouth—she couldn’t. I felt hollowed out, she wrote that night, as if someone had clamped my tongue and split me open and served me up like a watermelon at a picnic.

“So I’m cleaning up,” he said, dropping the book in the crate. “The place has gone to hell in a hand basket.” He looked around. “Filthy as sin,” he muttered. “Nasty, nasty. Come look at this.” He walked past her, his weight causing the cups and saucers to rattle in the corner hutch. She followed him.

The shades were up and the windows opened, flooding Miss Carrie’s studio in bright light. All the birds were gone except for the crow crucifix hanging on its nail above the door. She asked him what he did with all the birds.

“I’m glad the Lord sent you to me, actually,” Father Paul said, breathing heavily and pointing at the bird. “I can’t reach that devil without a ladder, and I get dizzy when I go up high, so won’t you be a dear?” He wiped his wet forehead and pointed to the stepladder.

Lenore put her hands on her hips—she would rescue this one, she would save it and take it to Miss Carrie.

He smiled and said, “Don’t get angry now, little missy.”

She asked him again what he did with the icons.

“Icons!” he said, waving his hand in front of his red face as if to shoo away a bad smell. “She called them that?”

“She said she writes them,” Lenore said, “an iconographer.”

“The faithful get carried away,” Father Paul said. “The birds are in the garbage bags out front. Off to the dump, those devil birds. And you know what else I found?”

Lenore dragged the ladder from the corner and climbed to the very top. She took the crucifix from the nail and held it out. “No, what.”

“Blood,” Father Paul said. “Dried blood in a pretty little teacup. What do you make of that? Who’d spoil a white teacup with bird blood?”

Lenore trembled. “Maybe she can’t know God any other way.”

“Then she is out of grace, for it is only through Christ—” but Lenore hurled herself from the ladder before he could finish and he fell backward, hard, onto the floor, rattling the whole house. She sat on his stomach and put her face in his. “It’s through beauty that she knows light.”

“Damn you,” Father Paul said with a wheeze. “Goddamn you!”

His vinegary breath. Wet nose and flushed cheeks. The room was so bright, too bright; the crow crucifix lighter than air. His teeth as yellow as beeswax. Wiry hairs making empty nests in his ears. The crucifix’s splintered wood, her quivering hand. She brought the cross down and smacked his face. Why must it be so bright in here? Who’ll water the orchids? His cheek and nose were bleeding. Ketchup on a hotdog. She hit him again. Who’ll make the tea and who’ll crack the ice? Another hit, and the father’s eye was swelling shut and cross-marks were appearing on his cheek. He whimpered, and she grabbed his collar. “ Where’s my blood?” she whispered in his ear. “Why’d you take it from me?”

The wind picks up and billows the curtains in her room, and she knows it as the spirits of the birds, God’s breath close at hand. She rips the halo from the bird’s neck and chooses a skull from the windowsill. Superglue, but the crow head is a mismatch and simply lolls to the side and rolls into her hands. She jabs the crow crucifix into her side, first slightly, then with determination. She cries. There’s no blood, so she digs deeper—I’m a well digger—until her blood flows, running down the blade and dripping onto the wood floor, an orchid, a bright red orchid waiting to be picked, and the hole in my side will hurt like hell,she writes.

About the Author

Chad Gusler

Chad Gusler teaches English composition and creative writing at Eastern Mennonite University. He earned his MFA in fiction writing from Seattle Pacific University. "Wild Geese" is adapted from Requiem, a novel-in-progress.