Pile of Feathers

Pile of Feathers

The pile of feathers was right in the middle of the dirt side-path, leading to the ruins of a tobacco shed. The feathers were clean, June noticed that first: as if freshly plucked, no hint of parasites or smell of decay.

“Get away, Elvis.” The hound dog abandoned his tentative approach at her command; then, nose in air, he bayed and bounded up the ridge. The portly chocolate lab Riley followed, barreling recklessly from the gravel road and through the stickers of the wineberry patch.

She took her thin aluminum hiking pole, the metallic teal poking into the black and brown and white heap, widening its diameter. No markings to give the species away: and no flesh, only ivory bones at the base, the downy assemblage hiding the ossified parts below. Not a small creature, but hardly a hawk or eagle either.

A faint growl of thunder came from the gathering clouds on the far end of the valley; with the vagaries of summer storms, she might not have much time summit and return. The pile bothered June, hiking as quickly as her knees allowed—all the way up to the bald at McFalls mountain where the Starkeys used to bring their cattle to graze each season, and then down the back way, along the steep, abandoned logging road.

■■■

One May, eight or so years ago, a headless bird appeared in her yard. But that bird was intact otherwise, its inky-black feathers and red talons undisturbed. One wing sprawled out, the other tucked under, as if in its natural state of rest. Nothing to suggest the guillotine.

The dogs performed disinterest. She walked the perimeter of the yard proper, defined by the creek and the gravel road to the north, the woods sloping up to the ridge on the southern side, the park mountains to the west, McFalls Mountain to the east. No other disturbances.

She buried the corpse under a dogwood by the driveway—only a foot down, but hoping the proximity to the house would be enough to deter the coyotes.

Two weeks later, when she came back from picking up the tomato plants they had on hold for her at the nursery in town: carnage. Nineteen headless fowl of varying sizes strewn about the lawn. But—she could tell this time—all chickens. Like some elaborate and devastating mass ritual had been conducted.

■■■

George Young did not bear the loss of his poultry easily.

“I catch them dogs on my land ‘gain, I’m gonna shoot ‘em. No more pot shots. That one, the big brown one, I tried to get him in the rear this time at least, but I ain’t gon’ be so forgivin’ next time. That there’s a monster.” Riley gently snored from his orthopedic bed, back leg twitching—most likely dreaming of the melee. “All twenty-three of my chickens, those dogs killed. Dug right under the fencin’.”

She could imagine George Young: overalls and old white t-shirt, pits stained, hems frayed, work boots and ball cap, standing in his kitchen with its pine wood panelling and yellowed linoleum, chain-smoking as he spoke into the mint green phone hanging on the wall, resolutely staring at his gun rack by the tattered blue recliner in the living room.

“Do you remember, Mr. Young, when we used to come and visit, when Mark was little?”

A confused pause: a slight sense of a trap. “Sure. Always knew when y’all were comin’, on account of the party line with your folks.”

“Indeed. Your wife always brought us the best apple butter.”

“Yes, well. She was always one for spoilin’ children.”

“Yes. And I don’t know if you recall the time she was out of town, and we invited everyone for Mark’s fourth birthday party, and your horse wandered on over and up and died in my parents’ vegetable garden, right before the cake…”

A strategic break, to conjure forth the screams and the sobs over the uneaten cake of the traumatized birthday boy. Mr. Young had heard them, when he hurried from the next ridge over; Mark snuck out of the house and began anew, as the adults encircled the dead horse’s body amidst the zucchini and considered their next steps.

“No accounting for animal behavior, really,” June reminded him.

“Yes, well…suppose that’s the case, yes.” Mr. Young’s combative tone diminished, sunk lower by his defeat: guilted by this Yankee-fied snob, who didn’t even move back home to take care of her parents properly, when they aged and sickened. June just tucked them away in a home. And then, only a few months before her parents died, one after the other, she came waltzing back down with her teenage son, and all her plans to update and fix the homestead. Her accent polished away with all that book money.

They settled on a number to pay back Mr. Young for the chickens, and June got a contractor out to fix the coop within the week.

■■■

“Are you suuure it wasn’t another chicken, Mom?”

“It was not a chicken,” June snapped, wondering why she had told him about the hike.

Even over the phone, she heard the edges of his smile. The chicken massacre story and its aftermath was a favorite of Mark’s—he probably embellished on it at dinner parties in the city, at friends’ and colleagues’ houses up the Hudson Valley, by crackling fireplaces after a day of skiing in Vermont. Telling them what it was like to live a real country life. Pausing as his audience laughed incredulously at the image of the decapitated chickens and fallen horse among the squash, to sip his single malt—rolling the peat and smoke around his tongue, tasting what it meant to move rich people’s money around, and make them richer.

But who was June to judge; she had sold out in her own right, eventually tiring of her fraught creation that made her so financially comfortable. Ghost writers at her publisher now churned out the latest best-selling crimes to be puzzled out by the New Orleans lady detective June gave life to thirty years ago.

“Well,” Mark said, “if the remains are still there when we go for a hike, you can show us.” His tone was placating, almost patronizing.

Us. June did not begrudge her son his second wedding—not the bloated budget, nor the awkward politeness involved at the event, sitting yet again with her ex and his husband at the shared “family” table, making small talk with Mark’s father: as if they shared anything beyond the formation of a zygote and a few horribly inadequate years together. But June didn’t entirely understand the second marriage, either; she simply couldn’t grasp the compulsion to try again. The naive optimism that propelled her son entirely eluded her. Mark’s first marriage to his college sweetheart ended abruptly after five years. June never received the particulars on that beyond “we outgrew each other”—but then her relationship with her son was politely antiseptic. They knew each other’s movements from afar, dutifully charting and plotting out their existences in their weekly Sunday phone calls.

“Remember the train gets in late on Thursday, you sure it’s not too late?” As if she hadn’t put it on her wall calendar two months ago: “Mark + Kate 10pm Train / Crescent.” And then, a few days later, “Mark + Kate 10am.”

“Yes, I’m still perfectly capable of driving at night.”

A sigh. “That’s not what I meant, Mom.”

What he meant was he felt how the air tingled and tensed when other people came into June’s valley. That he knew about the sacrosanct ways in which she wrangled her hours—routines born from decades of solitude. How dishes were washed every night, since there was no excuse when typically only one place setting was involved. A cloth napkin was used for precisely two days, unless an egregiously saucy dinner disrupted the schedule. The temperature of the bedrooms upstairs at night, the way towels were folded, the chairs that were used more often than others: Mark saw how the materials and spaces of her life were curated. How after three days—even with her closest friends and increasingly infrequent lovers—the maxim about guests and fish prevailed. Mark had only the tiniest taste of what that meant, to cultivate a life alone: but he knew enough to sense the limits of his mother’s hospitality, and how she failed to acknowledge them in turn.

“I’ll be there at ten,” June told him.

■■■

When the good city of Lynchburg renovated the train station in conjunction with the commuter rail service, they decided the narrow cobblestone street that precipitously dropped into the tiny, eight-car parking lot below, down by the tracks, was too difficult and too quaint to alter: and so, as the trains come and go, one can hear the angry jostling of rolling luggage and the sometimes rancorous cries out of rolled down windows as cars attempted to execute six plus point turns in the confined space and work their way back up the slope.

“Just park at the top by the far set of stairs,” Mark had texted her. “It’s easier.”

And she saw him, her boy, from her station wagon at other end of the station, as he instructed: first the carefully groomed salt-and-pepper hair, then the build with the slightest suggestion of the tended-to musculature below, the inoffensively charming features—except why, oh why, did he have his father’s lack of chin definition. Mark was carrying both their matching bags, and Kate followed shortly after; yoga-toned, a wisp of a thing, with long thick dark hair that fell in perfect layers, the lightest of makeup, a cashmere cardigan draped over her shoulders for the over-air conditioned train car—all softness and roses and cedar as she hugged her mother-in-law. Kate sat in the passenger seat, Mark in the back.

On the forty-minute drive to June’s house, they spoke of the train ride down: the children who didn’t stop crying, the people who didn’t wear headphones, the over-priced beer in the cafe car. Then June heard all about the couple’s recent trip to Sonoma and the impending renovations to the brownstone they just closed on in Park Slope. It was Kate’s first time down to visit, and so she commented on the darkness, the solitude, the way no other cars appeared, the lack of demarcation on the paved road.

The dogs somehow knew—sensed the additional presences in the car as it rolled down the hill into the valley. Mark returned their exuberance; Kate winced as her husband sank down into the soft summer lawn, the mud and clay gathering on the knees of his jeans as he buried his face into the fur and tongues and slobber offered up to him.

■■■

Early Saturday morning, before the heat and humidity could smother their resolve, they prepared to hike up McFalls.

“It’s so relaxing here,” Kate sighed as she watched the ruby-throated hummingbirds dart and joust each other around the feeder hanging off the side porch, waiting for Mark to finish coating himself in all-natural insect repellant. June found Kate’s incessant wonder slightly irritating, by this point. How Kate found it freeing there was no cell phone service and only the barest of Wi-Fi. How Kate thought it was charming that you had to walk a half mile down the private gravel road to get the paper and the mail. How Kate was certain that the untrained orchestra of crickets and tree frogs at night was better than any sound machine you could buy.

As they hiked and the tobacco shed was about to become visible around the next bend, June realized she had no intention of bringing up the odd feathers. Not after Mark’s teasing on the phone call. She hoped he’d forgotten.

“Hey Mom, wasn’t that bird’s body around here somewhere?”

The pile was still there, almost exactly as she had left it; there was some slight shifting from that sudden downpour on Sunday, perhaps a few feathers less. But it was still clean: the bones, the shiny sleekness of some feathers, the fluffy billow of others.

“That’s weird. Still no clue what kind of bird it might be?” Mark scrutinized the remains, hovering just above them on his haunches.

“Maybe a falcon of some sort.” June said. “Hard to tell, with it plucked like that.” 

“And how did it get like that?” Mark wondered.

“It’s just like one of your mysteries!” Kate happily declared, watching them from the gravel road, unwilling to poke around in dead animal parts. 

“Yes,” June’s smile was thin and tired. “Just.”

■■■

For their last meal together, June grilled Silver Queen corn and local heritage pork chops from the farmer’s market, along with thick spears of zucchini from her garden; she arranged slabs of the heirloom tomatoes picked two days ago and ripened on the kitchen windowsill, lightly salting them— they needed nothing else. She brought over a decanted bottle of 2000 Bourdeaux she had saved for a special occasion, and Mark and Kate set the table. As they sat and dishes were passed, June started to pour for them.

“Only a small taste for me, thanks,” Kate said.

That sweet, dumb little thing. As if June hadn’t noticed how Mark poured wine for himself and June as they ate dinner or watched a movie, but never Kate— how she hadn’t touched the pots of coffee June and Mark worked their way through steadily in the mornings.

“How far along are you?” June asked.

Mom.” Mark was mortified.

Kate beamed in surprise. “It’s early, still. We didn’t want to make it a big deal or anything, yet. I lost the last one.”

June felt, rather than saw, their hands clutch under the table; she knew the shape and weight of their grief, the days of blood and tissue and loss that leaked out of the body. Protracted, pulled out, so much for what should have amounted to so little, pound for pound.

“Last time it didn’t get far enough, so we didn’t get around to asking you—”

“It’s a boy.” Her son interjected.

“Yes, a boy, and…are there any family names? Mark couldn’t remember anyone beyond the most immediate family, but none of them sounded quite right. Mark’s father suggested naming the baby after Uncle Frank, but, well—we’ve heard the stories about him, and after the way he behaved at the wedding…”

June softened, as if something had been splayed open inside her. “Hugh,” she told them.

“Who’s that?” Kate asked.

“My brother.”

The girl was perplexed; Mark blank and stunned. “What brother?”

It was the kind of deep winter cold that stabs your lungs when you take that first breath out the door. The dogs that existed and roiled around that valley fifty years before could also announce an arrival before any noise calibrated for human ears crept fully over the ridge.

But June and her parents had expected the usual when the dogs began barking that January night: the sucking open and shut of the outer mudroom door, and then a quick parting of the inner door so dogs could swarm and jump as feet were stamped free of debris, as layers were peeled off. And then her father would grumble, from his recliner, behind a book: “close the door, Hugh—you’re lettin’ all the warm air out.”

They had expected this familiar thing, and not a knock.

“Get that, June.” Her father heaved himself out of the recliner, as June quickly left her Social Studies homework on the kitchen table to open the doors. “Who’s that?” Her mother called out from upstairs, folding laundry into piles on the bed.

Only the pink nose, dark mustache, and tiny red-rimmed eyes of the county sheriff peeked out from the balaklava. Sheriff Jonson was known for putting a touch of moonshine in his coffee after noon. For this, he had drunk some straight from the Mason Jar he kept tucked in the glove box.

“Miss June. Hi there, Rich.”

“Eddie,” her father put his hand on her shoulder, and she heard the calluses grate against her sweater.

Sheriff Jonson was still staring at June’s father even as he told her, “Little lady, you best be gettin’ to bed. Go on, now.”

And that’s what she remembered, as she turned to look from the kitchen, before heading through the living room and upstairs: Sheriff Jonson, now holding his hat in his hands in front of him, her father’s hand tensing around the door knob.

Her mother’s wailing started only a little later.

■■■

June did not anticipate Mark’s reaction; he paced, propelled by some furnace of anger. Kate fixed her attention on the dinner dishes, desperately seeking something to do with her hands, to both be there and not for this conflagration.

June told them what she could. A night studying for an exam with a friend in town, a patch of black ice on a tight curve, and Hugh’s pickup took a tumble down and over the edge of the road, flipping, and Hugh had gone through the windshield and landed just so—defying June’s belief that her brother was invincible. He dispatched six-foot rattlers trying to take up residence under their front porch stairs with an axe; flung himself from a rope at the height of its arc, high above the James River; scaled rocks seemingly without holds; clambered onto the backs of surly horses and tamed them.

“It was an accident,” June said, losing patience at her son’s petulance. “It wasn’t about genetics, there was nothing to be inherited. Nothing relevant to any medical history.”

“He was my uncle,” Mark spat.

“He died before I could have even conceivably had you.” She didn’t mean to raise her voice, but the logic was so clear, to June.

“I’m going to bed,” Mark declared mid-pace. June offered up no protest, only an unreturned, “Good night.” 

She sat at the kitchen counter as Kate finished the last dish, softly said, “Night,” and retreated upstairs.

■■■

June made her way—glass of wine in hand—to the backyard and set out the lawn chair she kept folded by the side porch. She watched as the tiny squares of light cast from the guest bath on the second floor onto the slightly overgrown grass below disappeared, and then as the lamps in Mark’s old bedroom went out.

And then, she stared at the sky.

There’s a certain space carved out when someone dies. Cells stop moving. Matter is not displaced: but particular motions cease, energy dissipates. A space of emptiness, of nothing, where once things took place.

She thought about these empty spaces at night: especially at night. When it was a new moon, or slow to rise, just as it was that night, she would sit on her family land with a stemless glass she could nestle in the grass beside her. The black matter between the stars, so sharp, so clear—light trickling down from centuries, eons away to shine down on her little valley.

June had a grasp of physics—knew it not to be scientifically true: but she felt that blackness echo and resonate with the lack, as if it was a buffer for the vibrant energy around it.

■■■

Elvis and Riley woke June up at five to go out—even earlier than usual: as if they sensed something in the house was amiss, and were eager to escape. She poured coffee and sat on the side porch in one of the two rocking chairs, listening the dogs’ barks bounce in and around the valley, watching as the barest of glows began in the east.

The mudroom doors opened and shut, and Kate stepped out with mug of raspberry tea cupped in her hands; she slid and sat with her back rigid, unwilling to fully submit to the rocking chair.

“You should have told him,” Kate finally said, after a minute of June’s rocking, their eyes locked on the ridge. It was said without rancor or recrimination—just a plainly stated assertion.

“Maybe,” June shrugged—surprised by her own lack of defensiveness. They watched as the pink began working its way around the edges of the mountains, like paint bleeding through thin silk paper.

“Nothing would be different, if Mark had known,” June told Kate. “Nothing in his life would have changed.” 

Neither of them turned or changed their gaze, but from the corner of her eye June saw Kate nod twice, and then sink back into the chair. They moved slowly then, out of sync.

“Hugh’s ashes are buried under that bench, up beyond the vegetables. In case you and Mark want to visit before you go.”

A few minutes later, and Kate was alone on the porch, rocking.

From her bedroom window after a shower, June saw Mark and Kate holding hands up past the garden, standing in front of the bench—by the row of flame azaleas, trumpet vines wound around their branches, blazing orange and red in the fullness of the summer morning sun.

■■■

Just a bit up the slope from those azaleas, a little beyond the bench, Mark built a fort one Christmas when he was ten.

That was the last year Mark tried to feed the chickadees from his hand. Mark was a toddler when he first witnessed the voracious little things dance across his grandfather’s shoulders, then hop down June’s father’s forearm to take sunflower seeds from his palm. Mark clapped from the porch, his three-year-old fingers splaying and never quite meeting. The chickadees refused to eat from June’s father when Mark was too close; the toddler stood on the boot bench in the mudroom so as to see them swarm as the feeder was refilled, anxious breath mottling the window.

But that Christmas, a ten-year-old Mark refused his gloves, hoping to feel the light scrapes of chickadee feet. June watched his ministrations from the warmth of the house. Mark positioned himself near the feeder, barely moving for up to ten minutes some days: switching the mound of sunflower seed from one palm to the other when his fingers started to freeze, shoving the empty hand in his coat pocket—holding his breath every time one braver chickadee worked its way down to the lowest-hanging branch of the ash tree. Eventually he would grow bored and retreat to the woods, dragging dead limbs and brush down to edge of the yard, about twenty feet up from the row of azaleas.

“When can I see it?” June asked every afternoon as Mark unbundled.

“It’s not ready, Mom.”

“Patience is a virtue, June,” her mother chided from behind a crossword puzzle, a book. At the week’s close, Mark knocked the snow off his boots along the mudroom sill, but didn’t cross the threshold into the house proper, bellowing—“Come see!” He dragged his boots through the last bits of slushy snow from the night’s few inches on the porch steps, waiting for the women to pull on their winter gear. His grandfather was in town, fetching groceries and seed.

The fort was lopsided on the western end, and the eastern side was only saved from toppling due to a strong horizontal brace: a thick piece of cedar, unfinished, two-feet wide and three long, at least six inches thick. June saw the furrows of dirt and snow where the plank had been pushed and flipped up the slope, stripped from the foot-high stone and cement pillars below the azaleas.

“Mark.” Something in June’s tone made Mark stop mid-motion, arms sweeping towards his architectural feat. “Why’d you take that from the bench?”

June’s mother halted in the last few steps to the structure, the ruddiness of winter draining from her face.

“No one ever sits there,” Mark said—not a challenge, just a fact. “You can’t do that.”

“I was gonna put it back—”

“You can’t do that. That bench is special to Grandma.”

“Why?” A childhood of whys, but it was only now that June felt reason fraying, with words she couldn’t give shape or form to.

“It just is.” Guilt, confusion, suspicion, flitted across her son’s face. It was as if she had drawn a demarcation of sorts there between them, like making a line in the dirty snow with a brittle piece of pine.

“It’s okay, Mark,” his grandmother assured him, her voice low, and heavy with the forgiving. “I never told you it was special.”

Mark didn’t ask again; he took the fort apart the next day, returning the remnants back into the forest, the cedar to its stone and cement supports.

■■■

On the ride back to the station, June and Mark managed to pretend the fight never happened, and Kate delicately obliged, keeping the conversation safe and quotidian. They took turns embracing at the station—and surely, they asked June, she’d be up to see the baby and their new house? “Of course.”

■■■

The next morning, June took a dose of her arthritis medication before starting up the mountain. Even from the gravel road, she could see that the pile had shrunk. Up close, the feathers had crusted together with grime, the bones were muddied and dull, and a whiff of deterioration rose from the mass. Even though it was worse on her knees, she knew she’d take the logging road back after she summited, so as to avoid the pile—hoping it would somehow fold and collapse into the dirt before her next hike.

Back at the house, June reheated a cup of coffee, and then sat down to catch up on emails she largely avoided during the visit; at the top of the inbox was an attachment from Kate, sent only an hour ago.

An image: greys and blacks cut through with white contours, and only a line of text below: “Say hello to baby Hugh.”

Bethany Holmstrom is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Originally from Bedford County, Virginia, she now resides in Brooklyn and is pursuing her MFA at City College, CUNY.

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