NOTE: Thus starts the sixth revision to DOLEFUL CREATURES. Hopeful six is the charm. But I feel a good distance from the story, and that'll help. I keep thinking about it, with nagging little things coming to my mind as I'm in the shower or washing dishes or whatever. That tells me this is still a good story. So slowly I turn . . .
Chapter One: The Pain Goes Deep
Something in my mind has stored the screams.
This thing brings the screams out in the night and darkness, in the pale light and lightning strike, and polishes them, leering, as I try to forget. “Everything good you’ve done,” it says, “is stained with those screams. Why don’t you die?”
Behind the voice in my head, I hear her laughing. The Lady with the golden hair. She laughs at my misery.
I see by your face you know what I mean.
Do you know they say most leaders aren’t the best-suited in the group to lead, or the most intelligent? Most leaders are the first who speak up. Who notice something wrong, or that something needed to be done, and gets so sick of waiting for the others to take action that they take action themselves even though there are others in the group better suited to handle the occasion?
And the others follow.
Oh, they will bicker. They will point out the flaws in leadership of their leader. But they listen to their fears, and the demons inside who bring out their own special memories for a polish.
I spoke up first.
And I led them to bloody disaster, for which . . .
I should have kept my beak shut.
So I come here to perch on this rock, and I try to forget. Sometimes the singing of the other birds, the sunlight, brings me back. Back to where maybe I can lead again.
I’m here a lot when the sun shines.
Never at night.
That’s when the thing in my mind finds the screams again and makes them loudest, makes them echo and repeat and accompanies them with flashes of death, the gurgling of drowning souls, the smell of wet fur and moldy leaves and the near silent slup-slup of still water lapping against the logs of lodges no one will enter again.
I don’t want anyone else to have to hear the screams. So I try to fix things.
Most days, the screams are all the thanks I get.
The Purdys are going to lose the farm. They haven’t brought in a crop – decent, fair, or poor – in three years. The money’s gone. Yank’s a beak’s breadth from joining the navy, and Pa Purdy is delirious at the thought of losing him yet fearful he’ll be lost if he doesn’t go. So he’s letting him go, if he wants it.
Late at night, he hears his own screams inside his head, I know it. I’ve seen his eyes as he stares out the window over the farm to the mountains yonder. His eyes are where his screams are loudest.
So what if the farm is sold, many ask. So what if Purdy leaves and another comes in? We are all creatures beholden to nature. If the trees die and the grass withers from drought, we adapt. We flee. We die and He who notes the fall of a single sparrow welcomes us home and sends others in our place once the rains return and the grass is renewed.
So what if the farm is sold? So what if another comes in?
I know there is no such thing as stasis. It will never be an endless summer. Winter will come. And in the cold of winter, in the mugginess of summer, in the dark, in the light, in the rain and the snow and the heat, the screams will still be there, will still come with friends. Life goes on. There is no stasis.
But there is consistency.
Up where the canyon forms a box, where the creek tumbles down a waterfall, there is a jumble of rocks on the cliffside. From the right angle, they resemble a man with a long, snubbed nose. A clump of grass grows from a nostril, and he has a cap of buttercups and violets. One of his eyelids is chipped, revealing lighter grey stone to contrast with the darker stone of his skin. He has been there as long as I know it, and for many years before that, as I know my father showed it to me as his father showed it to him as his father showed it to him as well.
Consistency. The promise that when the screams come they will also go after a time, and that there are things you can do to make them go away faster. And that once they’ve gone again you can go to the mouth of the canyon and whisper to the man in the rocks, whisper to him about the screams in your head and, after a while, he talks to you.
“Tell me one more time,” the man in the rock says, “about those screams.”
I tell him. Because he is not The Lady. Because when I tell him the pain and the screams go away for a time and I can feel the warmth of the sun and food has its flavor once again. I trust him and know he will not tell anyone else.
He says what he hears flows through the rock and into the cliff and drips and trickles and squeezes through cracks to become part of the earth, which remembers all it hears but tells no one and forgives all. That is a comforting thing. Perhaps, when the earth recalls the story of the box canyon and the beavers and hears The Lady tell it, the earth will also hear my witness and hold a small part of its enormous heart open to the magpie who tried and failed to help others find the joy we have been promised.
The joy. It seems so long that I’ve searched for it. But the man in the rock says it is there. He can feel it within the roots and rocks and grass and water. He says I will find it, and it will find me.
But I talk, and the pain flows from those screams and makes my heart thump-lump and I feel cold despite the sun.
But as I talk, I hear her voice. The calm, quiet, lovely voice. I hear the swish of her wings as she flies overhead, not looking over her wing at me but coaxing me to follow. And I do. I follow those black wings with the white tips, and watch as the sunlight changes the black of the feathers to green to purple to blue then to green again. Oh, how I flew to keep after her. Then she lands and with the momentum of her flight carrying her forward, she loosens her grip on the wire or the branch enough to spin once around and when she is at the bottom of her spin she sees me and screams my name and then at the top she tightens her grip and stops her spin and spreads her tail feathers and waits for me to alight beside her.
Oh, when I think of her like that, the screams leave. They pour into the rock and the man in the rock takes them in and locks them up in the rock deep down, deep inside, deep underneath the earth. And though I still recall the screams, they sear less. They sear enough for me to know I don’t want to hear them again in the flesh; loud enough to goad me into action when I see new screams might arise.
That is why I lead. It is selfish, I suppose, in a way.
I don’t want to hear the screams again.
When I think of her the screams leave and time slows down. It has to slow down because if I let my memories of her scroll on, too quickly we arrive at the time of the screams and I know I will see her leave me again, a cold, broken body on the shore of a beaver pond amidst the other bodies and the darkness will descend once again.
The apex and the bottom of the pit, so juxtaposed.
I love that man in the rock.
He never makes me listen to the screams in his head.
I’ve tried to tell Aloysius this. But Aloysius is stubborn, as badgers are. As a family they keep the screams fresh. I think that is why they are unpleasant.
I’m sorry to tell you all this. I’m sure Aloysius didn’t warn you about that at all.