The Man Who Loved Birds

Harold Shorsey awoke that morning certain that a freight train had collided with the front of the house. The bucking and shuddering of the daybed in his study bounced him up in the air and then onto the floor. From an epicenter fifteen miles away, a previously unknown fault fishtailed upward, emerging to grind into the surface rock that formed the Santa Monica Mountains.

All around Harold was the creaking judder of load-bearing walls straining at the foundations. Glass crackled and fell in sheets. Heavy furniture toppled forward onto the carpet. CD recordings flew like Frisbees across the room. There were several blinding flashes that Harold realized later had been transformers blowing.

He heard his wife Mei-Chun shouting from the next bedroom and tried to rise to his feet just as a bookcase, not bolted to the wall, splintered and flung hundreds of scientific textbooks into his frantic path as he clawed his way out of the room.

It was black dark. His heart was beating so fast, a coronary seemed imminent. He staggered into the living room, stumbling and falling over the stereo equipment tossed the length of the connector cords from the shelves. Mei-Chun grabbed at his arm and fell with him, her small body landing hard, cross-wise against him. She was screaming into his ear, but he could scarcely hear her amid the avalanche of kitchen cupboard contents falling and smashing on the floor.

It stopped finally as anything so terrible must. In the eerie silence that followed, he heard dogs barking and car alarms going off up and down the city street. Mei-Chun struggled to sit up.

Harold could see nothing but impenetrable, palpable thick darkness. He kept his hand on Mei-Chun’s shoulder.

“That was a big one,” he said, his voice breaking.

Mei-Chun pulled herself away from him. He heard the crunch of music cassette cases splintering under her feet as she walked from the room.

“Put some shoes on,” he ordered her, trying at this late date to take charge.

He heard her punching numbers on the phone.

“They need the phone for emergencies. You shouldn’t use it.”

“I want to call the boys and tell them we’re all right. The phone’s dead.” She flung the phone away from her and plunged into the dark. She’d naturally think of the boys first, off at Yale now, a continent between themselves and their father.

His little flock of sparrows were silent, unmoving from their perch in the service porch. From somewhere in the living room he heard the flutter of the raven’s wings, a broken-off ark-ark. Harold tentatively stood up, becoming aware of fine plaster sifting down from the ceiling. The house jerked leftward sharply with the first aftershock and Harold crouched down again, waiting for the roof to fall in upon him. He felt his way to the closet and found a flashlight, shining it around the living room.

“Mei-Chun, Jesus, look at this. Jesus.”

Silently his wife came to stand by him. She was already dressed and had a backpack over her shoulder, and a flashlight in her hand.

“I’m going,” she said shortly. “I’ll be needed at the hospital.”

Harold bit back saying I need you too. Look at this mess. After the boys left, he and Mei-Chun had become independent, staggering their work schedules so they rarely saw one another, leaving notes on the kitchen table, doing their own laundry, buying their own groceries, staying together because they could not afford to divorce.

“You think the birds are all right?” Harold said.

“None of them got away, I’m sure,” she said sarcastically. Then Mei-Chun fell over a breakfront that had pitched forward, crashing down into the glass coffee table. She cursed in Chinese, clambered over the breakfront, and pulled and yanked at the front door until it opened.

“You’re just going to leave me here with all this?” Harold said, shining the flashlight onto her face, the beam glinting off her glasses. “There’s going to be more aftershocks. Maybe that one was just the precursor.” He heard his voice rise, becoming panicky.

“You’ll manage.”

His heart still pounding, Harold made his way back to his study, treading gingerly. He got his hands on something that felt like his sweat pants and struggled with them until he realized he was trying to get his legs into a sweatshirt. Another aftershock racked the stucco bungalow. Hugging the sweatshirt close to his chest with one hand, Harold blundered to the closet and yanked the first pair of pants he found off a hanger. He stuffed one foot into a tennis shoe and the other into a wingtip in his haste to get away from the creaking walls.

Outside he heard neighbors shouting and looked out the window to see a faraway column of fire shoot into the air. Harold lectured himself to think clearly but it was as if his intellect had turned to gelatin. He was a scientist, a botanist who had spent his life cracking the micro-code of corn plant morphology, yet he couldn’t seem to follow one line of thought. His brain darted about, olfactory nerves sniffing for gas, identifying a wetness in his right shoe as blood; his interior balance mechanism had gone awry with the floor continuing to jiggle every few moments. His heart beat hugely in his middle-aged chest. It wasn’t as if Mei-Chun was any comfort to him, but he wished she were here now.

The aviary! Harold kept a pair of ravens in an airy enclosed structure attached to the carport. He shuffled through broken glass and made his way into the kitchen. A quick survey with the flashlight told him he’d need a shovel for this. He shut the fridge and freezer door, leaving their contents strewn on the floor, and tipped the oven door shut as he passed. His little flock of sparrows in the service porch moved about nervously as he entered the room. A fluttery cloud dipped past him into the kitchen, settling on the edge of the sink.

He heard his next-door neighbor crying out, sobbing, her flashlight casting about on the ceiling in her bedroom.

“Harold, Harold, is that you? Mei-Chun? Help me. I think my leg’s broken. I can’t move.”

Harold stood still and turned off his flashlight, scarcely breathing. He listened to Evelyn McIntyre wail. A fresh shower of glass came from the side of her house and Harold saw a section of the eaves give way. From inside, he heard the woman scream, the sound now more muffled. Harold grinned.

In a moment he was at the padlocked door of the aviary, the ravens’ rustling about in the pitch dark. He shone the light in and saw them side by side on their high perch, their yellow eyes glinting. Beautiful creatures, doomed beautiful creatures. Harold had trapped them out on the desert and brought them home to shelter them from predators.

Gazing at them, he felt calmer. The ground under his feet rippled like a shiver that ran the length of a dog’s back. Around the neighborhood he heard shouts, car doors slamming, and children crying.

He scuffled his way toward the back door and heard Evelyn McIntyre mewling, crying out his name, begging him for help. He waited a moment in triumph, listening, and then went in and slammed the door loud.

Harold moved a lamp that had fallen across his armchair in the living room, swept the glass off the cushion, and sat down, waiting for light. Dawn softly lit the bed sheets that covered the windows. Wild birds, loose in the house, would fly headlong into the glass unless he protected them with the sheets covering the glass. Mei-Chun hated the bed sheets. Harold didn’t care what the neighbors thought. When the boys were little they understood that humans had an obligation to wild things. They shared his love of birds and absorbed what he tried to teach them about the natural world.

Unlike Evelyn McIntyre, who disputed him whenever he opened his mouth to tell her anything.

When the boys were little, Harold had loved waking up in this house. He waited as long as he could to fall asleep at night, happy, not willing to waste a moment of consciousness. When they were old enough to play the piano, Harold sat close to them watching and supervising their practicing. He had tried to protect them from Mei-Chun’s smothering Chinese love, little of that love spent on him. There was Family Time, which Harold structured around games he enjoyed and books he liked reading.

Both boys were academically gifted with startling talents for the sciences. Harold knew they would surpass him, Gary in geology, Wayne as an astrophysicist. Hour after hour, Harold worked with them over their homework until Mei-Chun called them to dinner. She would sit opposite him, eating with all the grace of a farmhand poking hay into a barn, silently criticizing him while he tried to impart to his boys the lessons they would need in life.

Harold disciplined himself to sit amid the chaos in the living room until he was calm. The house was now silent. No refrigerator motor, no tick-tick from the gas heater, no hish of tires from cars passing. Crazy thoughts came to him. He remembered crouching in a basement with his parents while a tornado howled and shrieked above them. He wondered what had happened to the happy family photograph in the lab that had been his until he lost his grant. His mother’s brother, a gentle farmer, had taught him about the natural world during the summer of the enchanted year he was twelve. Creation came alive with the hoot of the barn owl and the sharp twitter of the blue jay.

Remembering his uncle, a wave of grief swept through Harold. He gave an inarticulate blurt of emotion that made the raven wheel around to gaze at him. It occurred to Harold that he was lonely. Yet he’d known himself to be chronically lonely, immersed in his work, and gathering meager sustenance from the most superficial of contacts with his fellow beings–though happy enough, if he’d ever paused to think about it. It was the ill will of his colleagues that had caused him to lose his grant. They had always been against him.

He had no one he cared enough about to ask how they had ridden out the earthquake. No one would call him. Mei-Chun’s brothers and sisters would call her at work. It was most likely she would go to her mother’s house, where they all gathered to gossip about him. Once again, just in case, he tried the telephone to call his absent sons, but the line was still dead.

He got up finally from his chair and pulled back the bed sheet from the front window to look out. Harold was a dry, peppery man with standing-up grey hair. In the last years he’d put on quite a paunch, comforting himself with the vending machine at work, and sorties out for greasy fast food. Across the street a cluster of neighbors dressed in a motley assortment of pajamas and dressing gowns stood talking on the front lawn. They were taking turns making panicky calls on a cellular telephone. Children, normally boisterous, hung close to their mothers.

A siren cut through the silence. Harold followed the progress of a paramedic van up the street to note it stopped next door. Matter-of-factly the Paramedics walked quickly up the front walk. Evelyn McIntyre, who hated his ravens, turned her head and gave Harold a poisonous look as she was carried out on a gurney.

There was no point in going to the university. His lab equipment, what was left of it now, would be shattered. The new research team, set to move in at the first of the month, could clean it up. He was now a researcher with no lab and no prospects.

Harold sat in his chair and talked to the ravens while the daylight hours passed in a drowsy funk. Through painstaking effort he had taught his favorite raven to say hello, which never failed to delight him. When it was dark he crawled into a sleeping bag on top of his unmade bed and fell asleep, startling awake with each aftershock.

Mei-Chun worked long shifts at the hospital, serving at the shelters after hours so that Harold only saw her once in the first week after the earthquake. She shoved open the front door and edged in to find Harold sitting amidst the mess, in his chair, the raven perched on his shoulder. She bent down and started picking things up off the floor, then whirled around to face him.

“What have you been doing all this time?” she said.

Harold looked at her. “I’ve been writing another grant, dammit.”

“For Christ’s sake, you could have cleaned up. This place stinks of you and those goddamn birds shitting all over everything. I’m not coming back until you clean this up.”

In a temper she threw a fossil that she and Harold had chipped out of an Arizona butte long ago when they’d been students. A piece of the sandstone flew up and cut Harold.

He retrieved it, setting it up again on its side. Mei-Chun looked remorseful, then stamped her feet angrily.

“Damn you Harold, damn you!”

“It’s all right,” Harold said to reassure her, so that she would stay. “See, it’s still okay.”

He turned the fossil in his hand to shield the broken part from her. But the fossil crumbled and could not be put back together again—ever. Harold wanted to cry, watching her set face.

Mei-Chun bent down and swept all the photos of her family and the boys into a shopping bag she’d brought with her. Giving him a glance of malice, she picked her way through the living room and went to the master bedroom. He heard her slamming dresser drawers, cursing, and once, he thought, crying. She left carrying clothes on hangars. Harold listened as she started up her car and backed down the driveway.

He decided to start cleaning up. He picked up a vase that was broken in two and carried the pieces to the kitchen. There he opened a new package of black plastic garbage bags and bent down to throw in shards of glass from a jar of molasses which had mixed with a bottle of vinegar. He tossed in a couple of cans dented by their fall from the cabinets, and then sighed heavily and quit. It was too much.

Outside he felt better when he gazed into the aviary and watched the ravens restlessly move about. Their ark-rrk cry was haunting and beautiful. Evelyn McIntyre bitched about the ravens waking at dawn and crying out their joy at being alive. She would not hear Harold’s explanation about why he kept the birds and embarrassed him by shouting at him in front of his boys.

She and Mei-Chun had been friends of a sort while the boys had been young, but Harold had always hated her pushy ways and her unruly children.  A chinless woman with a large aristocratic nose and a Boston accent, she had a lot of feminist notions.

Harold believed, without proof, that it was McIntyre who filled Mei-Chun’s head with a lot of ideas about going back to school. She was always borrowing things and telling Mei-Chun her problems with men. Unlike McIntyre’s children, his boys had no time for rowdy games of soccer on the front lawn or pitching a tent in the back yard, for behaving like wild Indians long into the night.

Evelyn McIntyre came home from the hospital a few days after the earthquake, her leg in a cast to the hip, her arm in a sling. Harold was unloading groceries from the car when the ambulance arrived. She gave him a frigid glare and when he made as if to speak to her, she hissed, “You son of a bitch.”

Harold wheeled around with a bag of potatoes under his arm and slammed the car door. He entered his own house and flung the bags into the kitchen cabinet, which were empty because everything was still tumbled on the floor. She would harm his ravens if she could. A woman like that would go to any lengths. He hurried out into the back yard and put an extra heavy padlock on the aviary. But she could also slash the chicken wire that fenced the enclosure. Harold imagined what she might do. He watched her halting shadow pass back and forth against the window, hating her and all the crowds of her friends who visited bringing flowers and casseroles.

With the aftershocks he slept lightly, and he too was aware the ravens woke at dawn calling to each other. He heard McIntyre open her bedroom window and screech, “Shut up, goddamn you. Shut up. Shut up.”

Harold got up and monitored the aviary out the kitchen window, waiting for her to storm down his driveway with a wire cutter. She might fling something in the aviary to poison his birds. He found a galvanized tin pail in the closet and went outside and filled it with rocks. Harold shook the pail, which made a large satisfying noise. Enjoying himself, he grabbed an empty garbage bin and dragged it around in circles on the cement, screeching and grinding. He then took a tennis ball and bounced it against the wall of her house, expecting at any moment she would come roaring around the corner to confront him. He was ready for a good fight.

Instead she fooled him. The next morning he was standing at the kitchen sink eating Vienna sausages out of a can when there was a knock at the front door.

“Mr. Shorsey?” It was some sort of official in a uniform standing on the porch.

“Mr. Shorsey?”

Harold opened the door a crack and slid outside, not wanting to let the birds escape. He thought it was someone from the Gas Company. There was still no heat and it was cold at night.

“Officer Mike Gale from Fish and Wildlife, sir. We’ve had a report you’re keeping wild birds.” He handed a business card to Harold for his inspection.

Harold caught his breath at the audacity of her move.

“I don’t have any wild birds. My boys had a pair of finches once.” He bobbed his head up and down. “No wild birds. Who told you that?”

“Anonymous source, sir. I need to make an investigation to finish my report. Do you mind if I come in and look around?”

“No, no, you can’t do that.” Harold thought quickly. “Uh, the structure’s unsound. It could come down any moment. I was just leaving myself. There’s diagonal cracks all over the place.”

“Why isn’t there a red tag on the door?”

“I can’t get a structural engineer out right now. Um, I just made an appointment with one for next Tuesday. A friend of mine’s an engineer and he says the place it could come down any time.”

Officer Mike Gale clicked his ballpoint pen up and down. “I’ll be back a week from today then. And I’ll need to check your backyard as well. According to the Fish and Wildlife Act, game officers have a legal right to enter and check premises on which a report has been made.”

“An anonymous report?” Harold scoffed.

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a system.”

The man turned and walked down his drive to the curb where a state car was parked. Harold followed him, holding his sweat pants up with one hand. The cord had been lost somehow. He was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt buttoned to the neck, and was now ten days unshaven and unwashed because there was no hot water.

“I’m an environmentalist,” Harold said as Mike Gale got in the car, stowing his clipboard in the back seat. “If I did have any wildlife in the house, it would only be to protect them. People out in the desert shoot birds, did you know that? Shoot at them for target practice. Even trap them. Cruelty. This is a sick, miserable society. People have no respect for each other. No respect for family or discipline and hard work.” Harold was talking so fast, spittle flew from his lips.

The young officer from Fish, Game and Wildlife put on sunglasses and started the car. Harold leaned in the window.

“Anyone who tries to live decently…you can just see. Look at all this destruction. This earthquake. I mean, just look. What can you do about it? What do you think an earthquake like this means?”

While he was still talking, the car began to edge forward slowly.

The young officer stared ahead. “Next Wednesday, Mr. Shorsey. I’ll be back then.” He began to roll up the window.

Harold grabbed hold of the side mirror and took a couple of steps forward to keep pace with the moving car. “I’ve watched people. It’s a mercy to protect birds and wild creatures. I’ll admit it. I’ve got some desert tortoises.” His words came out loud and belligerent.

“That’s not illegal. Let go of the car, Mr. Shorsey. Let go of the car,” Mike Gale said with an expression of uneasy distaste.

Harold couldn’t hold onto his pants and the car at the same time. He let go of the mirror and watched the car move up the street, past several old ladies who were watching him. He went back into the house, glaring at them. Biddies. McIntyre was watering potted plants on her little patio, endeavoring to look innocent.

A sudden vise of anxiety tightened around Harold’s chest. He scurried inside the door and stood with it against his back, feeling her great enveloping female presence. The birds swooped in to be with him, sensing his need. The sparrows rose and fell like a little cloud, settling on the back of the sofa, watching him, loving him back. He felt at one with them, felt their small hearts beating with his. He fought to come up with a plan. He was a scientist. He could think this through.

Dusk came and dark settled with the sparrows roosting on the top of the piano. Harold continued to draw strength from their presence. He would fight back. There was no way he could have resisted when his grant had not been refunded. Nothing he could do when Mei-Chun set out to flout him with all her classes and union meetings. And his silent boys had left, one after the other, to attend school so very far away, no longer under his care and guidance. This wasn’t the way my life was supposed to be, his soul cried out.  Harold made a little nest on the floor for himself in the chaotic living room, close to his wild birds, but he could not sleep.

And why should Evelyn McIntyre be sleeping. Why? He crunched through the house in tennis shoes and out to the back yard, where he stood looking at her house in the dark. It was silent.

He stole into the garage and found a crowbar, came out, and stood gauging things, waiting. When it was light enough to see, he inserted one end of the crowbar into a place where he had calculated the stresses carefully. Slowly, reaching up, he applied pressure to the last buckle that held her chimney until the steel buckle snapped.

Harold jumped back and waited. He could see the narrow crack between the line of bricks and the outer wall of the house widen, but nothing happened. Inwardly he danced up and down with joy at this new plan, imagining McIntyre’s horror, imagining the money and torment he was costing her. And she would never know! It came to him that in the dark he could slowly, patiently pry her house apart and leave it to fall down in shambles around her, and it would all be blamed on the earthquake. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a bulging window frame that he could just gradually, gradually jimmy with the crowbar and cause this whole end of the house to list.

He leaned a little further outward, gazing at the window, calculating stresses. Harold was full of the thrilling accomplishment of revenge, planning a grand epiphany of destruction, and in that moment the brick chimney, held together with old rotten mortar, yawed silently away from the house.

The chimney buried him as an aneurysm of catastrophe burst, full and glorious in his head. He was righting all wrongs and injustices suffered, a man taking his opportunity to fight back, as the top section fell whole on him with a final sound like an explosion.

About the Author

Mar Preston

I came of age in Santa Monica. I happened to be in my 40s, but that’s when I found myself. Living at 7th and San Vicente was my little paradise. I looked out on a row of exotic coral trees. The neighborhood soundscape was the slap of joggers’ shoes and the roar of Big Blue buses taking Latinas to jobs with rich households in the Palisades. I worked every Santa Monica election and became involved with the living wage movement. Excitement and political drama made it the time of my life.

y648

ADVERTISEMENT

In This Issue

Fiction

Nonfiction

Follow Us

Follow us online at Twitter or Facebook, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed.