Jack’s wife, Willa, bought a pair of scissors and a book on salon practices at the thrift store around the time they realized there wasn’t going to be a winter that year, and she started cutting the neighbors’ hair—a few dollars for a trim, and free if they let her turn the chair away from the mirror and try out something new. She had her regulars, mostly women, who came to the house one morning a week to have their hair trimmed, washed, or braided. Sometimes Jack’s daughters came by in the evenings for one of Willa’s starchy up-dos before going off to a nice dinner or a “cocktail night” that went on for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Grandchildren crouched under tables, piled onto the La-Z-Boy recliner when the daughters came—even two or three of them could make the carriage house feel bloated. After their mothers left, Jack hustled them into draping old flannels, the sleeves tied in front for makeshift smocks to keep the hair out of their collars. Jack knelt behind them, holding their arms if he had to, and finally still, they scarcely had words for Willa. “Be good for your grandmother,” Jack might say for an older one to whisper, “She’s not really our grandmother. . .” over the rustle of Willa’s soft handed clipping and a nervous cooing of laughter.
But usually it was peaceful, intimate, between Willa and her customers. Bits of hair collected in the woodwork, between the sofa cushions, even in their bedroom from time to time, some unfamiliar strands swept into their covers, drifted in from the converted dining room where she did her work.
After winter missed its appearance, and the heat and humidity never built into anything like summer, Jack started recording the temperature and rainfall throughout the day, tracking it for something erratic. Grandchildren brought him buckets of rainwater when their mothers left them there indefinitely. They scribbled out temperatures, imprecise numbers only—they were learning how to round in school. A drastically off number gave him hope, but then he checked himself only to find the temperature a stable 76.2 as if the warmth was measured out by a careful hand and sifted slowly into the atmosphere, risen fully by noon. Rain only fell in gentle downfalls when it was needed. The weather felt like a statement, not unkind but non-negotiable: Here’s what you get.
It was not long after Jack took notice of the weather that the birds started telling him what all they wanted—mostly small things like the pile of corrugated boxes in the cellar, half rotting, and some old quilts, pieced together by a long dead relative and hand-quilted poorly by Willa, the odd requests piling up like a wearing joke. Then there were the obvious things: the plantation house crowning the west side yard, each sunrise etching strings of light through all the cracks where vegetation slinked inside. Obvious for its weight, its history—they thought he should have known to give it long ago.
The grandchildren were starting to notice the birds, the way the sparrows could hone in on something with unnatural fixation. They didn’t have words for it yet. Their mothers finally came and collected them.
When summer should have been ending, Jack announced the day of the hunt in secret, only to Willa and not to his daughters. Instead of picking a grandchild, he picked the straggly but plucky neighbor girl to go with him. It was a chance for the girl, Dee—only ten and already confiscating dead birds left by bullies in her bike basket with delicate grace—to see how to fire a rifle or how to wait and be very still, how to know when one was better to do over the other. His own grandchildren pined for the opportunity each year but were always putzing around the gun case, smearing their sticky fingers all over the glass. This year there wouldn’t be all the commotion over deciding based on arbitrary guidelines like height and age.
Willa flourished a white smock and shook it over the porch rail as Jack told her his plans. “It’s almost like a ritual, something that should stay in the family,” she said but didn’t persist, laying the smock out and pulling the remaining long gray hairs off one by one. Jack figured they were something the birds might have wanted but wasn’t moved to give them anymore than what they asked for. Dee’s father may have collected them up if he saw them there, having been born and raised with the stories like others who lived near the old wood. Sometimes when he came around to drop Dee off for Willa to watch, he would get too righteous talking about what he was leaving out on the stoop for the birds, really only trivial things like bits of bread and colored string. He taught Dee little chants to say to the wind, which she murmured abridged versions of under her breath while playing with skinny plastic dolls in their back yard. “No more turmoil, sky, no more forever.”
Willa thought he was eccentric and pocketed the string and beads he would bring, eventually transferring them into a cabinet drawer to use later in girls’ braids. But Jack was afraid he would put ideas in Willa’s head over time, that the stories would become embedded half-truths and blossom into reality when she least expected it. He put everything into keeping the birds from her, couldn’t imagine what she would do with such a reality unwoven before her—it would settle inside and make her try to love them.
“Does it have to be today?” Willa asked. “Stay at least until the bulldozers get here?”
“You tell them where to load the dumpster. I don’t need to be around for any of that.”
They were coming for the plantation house—the quickest he could follow through with the birds’ request. Willa tip-toed around the subject of the house, trying to be understanding but trying also not to infer any sentimentality where there was none. “We can just take one last walkthrough, a quick one.” By last, she meant for the first time. They had never been in the house together.
There wasn’t any time to discuss it. Dee’s father came around the bend in his truck on his way to work, parking haphazardly in the grass. He pushed the passenger seat door open and shooed Dee out before reaching to stop her and stuffing a wad of string into her bag. Jack was already down by the curb, a hand clasped on the door to propose his hunting plan. Dee’s father was delighted, nodded vigorously while turning the ignition: “Good, good. Make sure she leaves her offerings out there for ’em. Tell her to give thanks.”
The girl tottered up to the porch, waving mildly at Willa who briskly shook another smock into the breeze. Dee tried to grab it, fingers splayed. “Back…come over here with me, dear,” Willa said. She left the smocks hanging and pulled Dee inside by her wrist—the girl was like a doll, unchallenging and agreeable, mostly silent.
She had one of Willa’s distinctive cuts accented with tapering streaks of blonde from sitting all day in the sun with lemon juice in her hair. From month to month, she was given a new style when Willa tested something out, and Dee gave her head over to art whether or not she wanted to. But the natural dyes and texturizers washed out over time, and now, in the middle of summer when it should have been a scorcher, the humidity usually laying heavy over temperamental curls, frizzing them into wild rose bushes and putting up fits against the hair pins, Willa was going for something different. Something earthy and less touched.
Dee’s blunt bangs from the last cut were growing out over her eyes. Kneeling at her level, Willa took a comb to the bridge of her nose and pushed half of the hair to each side of her face and pulled the loose strands into tight little braids, which she left un-tied but tucked behind her ears where Dee pushed most of her hair anyway. “There,” she said. “You need two good eyes free for where you’re going.”
There was a subtle trepidation in her voice when Willa spoke about going into the woods, but she couldn’t know—about the birds, about anything.
The forest began at the end of the barren farmland and sprawled out before it driveled into obscurity farther on, skirting the highway leading out of town. Jack remembered being young, a teenager selling scraps of dried meat he pilfered from his father’s farm, herding people behind the carriage house to take their loose change. He remembered being forty-something and living in the carriage house, making tepid soups over the miniature electric stove and waiting for his father to become the ashes he would spread around the back yard of the plantation house.
His voice dry and meandering, he dispensed these bits of his past to Dee, and she took them in, unwrapping them carefully as if they were candy from the old man’s shirt pocket.
“And where are the ashes now?” she asked, an air of assumed insightfulness weighing on her words.
“Gone. Ashes are just like dust. They blend with everything else. You know the gray pieces that come off of a fire pit? They’re nothing.” Jack was sometimes troubled by what Dee didn’t understand. He wondered if her father ever taught her anything besides worthless incantations, if he ever pointed to things and put their meanings into her head or if he was just putting vague storybook formulations of birds and magic up there. It must have seemed exquisite, like something out of a fairy tale to her.
Dee took her baton in hand and flopped it lazily over her head, only managing three-fourths of a twirl. The heavy blue and green beads slid from one end to the other and rested there as she followed a few paces behind.
“I took advantage of things back then, you understand me? I took more than I deserved to have. That’s what I’m getting at here.” The birds of his youth were obscure and flickering, haphazardly scattered in his father’s stories but never meant to be real until it was too late, and Jack had already sucked dry every sanction the land had given him. He had loved, stolen, had not lived carefully enough, was never tender or grateful.
Dee nodded solemnly and started pulling at her long skinny braid, twisting it around her two fingers and back out again, working at it jerkily. When she did this, Willa would sometimes bat her hands away or hold them like she would hold a clutch of eggs in her palms, depending on how tender she felt towards the child in that moment. This feeling came in waves, unlike the steady outpouring reserved for the grandchildren whose visits were long but often unresolved as they were herded away without notice, icy lemon pops in hand, without goodbyes. They were fixtures in the home for long sunny days then left freckled but the same. Willa reached endlessly for them, cooking elaborate roasts in the half-sized oven and tying crowns of flowers for the girls, trying to become a fixture in return.
He knew he was going to disappoint Willa by then, coming home without venison, would have to tell her a story about all the deer that got away. They had been walking for a couple miles, not straying from marked trails. When he spotted something, he crouched and pointed the gun like he was aiming to shoot—Dee would squat in the dirt, hugging her knapsack close with hands hovering over her eyes, baton on the ground. But if he made a kill this time with the birds watching, it wouldn’t make a good impression—they would think he was distracted.
Jack saw the deer-tower in the distance where he planned to station Dee, who was starting to drag her feet. She could have the other yellow walkie-talkie. She liked to fake-record little made-up ballads when alone in the yard, unaware of how her nasally muffled voice carried in through the cracked open windows, and static-y bits of the song came through the other handheld in the kitchen like an eerie duet with herself. He had to explain in careful, plain language to her what the walkie-talkie was really for. But she was wiry, good at climbing things—Jack often referred to her as the feral child under his breath to Willa so she could hardly hear and couldn’t scold him for it.
“Do you see that blind up ahead?” he asked, and Dee peered in the direction he was pointing. “That’s not a tree house. It’s where you spot the deer from. You have to be real quiet and keep that thing at your side now.” She put her arm down and all the beads clacked to the bottom of the baton.
When they got to the tree, he peered up into the narrow entrance. “That’s where you’re going to sit, just for a bit while I go and look into something else.”
“When I see a deer, do I go ahead and shoot it with that?” She touched the hilt of his gun with her index finger and he pulled it out of her reach. “Or is there a signal I should give? I could wave, or I could do this—” Her arm shot up to toss the baton, but Jack caught her wrist before it could leave her fingers.
He crouched down next to her and gave her the walkie-talkie. “No, you’ll stay real still and flick this button on. Put your lips right up to the speaker and whisper ‘buck’ or ‘doe’ depending on what it is, and I’ll come back for it.”
A low breeze came over her that Jack couldn’t feel himself, but it picked up the skinny braids and the choppy strands of hair and flocked them around her shoulders and chin before coming to rest in the collar of her shirt, storing the frayed ends there as if reserving them for later.
“When will you come back if there isn’t a deer?”
He beckoned her towards the rickety ladder he had put together himself with scraps of wood from the old garden fence that used to line the perimeter of the plantation house. “Soon. But be patient with it. Be alert. You’ll see something if you don’t treat it like a game.”
She stuffed the walkie-talkie and baton in the sequined knapsack strung around her shoulders and began the ascent, getting distracted every so often by a bird’s unfamiliar repertoire and staring off into the branches, hands and feet frozen mid-climb before she would proceed, more hesitant than before. Jack thought it was a good quality to have, to be self-aware of being misplaced or unwelcome, to recognize a feeling of not fully knowing what’s out there. He waited until her gray sneakers were tucked up inside the blind and for fractions of her face to appear through the wooden slats before he continued on.
There was a sense of something building in the woods, the way the trees all swayed in heavy unison as if beneath the flap of old wings—perhaps the same ones from his father’s time, the ghost of an ancestral wind. The whole canopy seemed to shift, tottering between something old and something just beginning. He couldn’t feel the wind that trembled through the enormous branches, could only see the way it passed over everything else.
He remembered being fifty-something, meeting Willa after his first marriage dissolved. She moved into the carriage house with him, and unlike his ex-wife, she never tried to weasel her way into his father’s plantation house which, steeped with history, had no room for another family to settle into. It didn’t belong to anyone after his father died.
A gardener, Willa only took on patchwork pieces of the land to poke her little seeds into the earth and coddle new growth in her gloved hands—heirloom tomatoes by the back porch, okra mid-summer in the sun garden, trumpet creeper encroaching up the trellis in the side yard, and perennials propped up with sticks all over. These new additions grew wild and sprawling now without the brief pause for winter in January and February. She used to take a tape measure out to see if they were getting heftier, ballooning out of proportion compared to normal plants with the constant warmth and predictable rains, but then she grew distracted with the neighbors’ hair, trimming it dutifully and regularly while the growth outside surged almost out of control.
The ground was getting hard to walk on closer to the swamp where soft soil piled up around decaying snags jutting out of the earth, coiled with Virginia creeper. Surface decorations. Jack trudged over roots, snapping sticks under his feet, but otherwise everything felt softer, the substance of the ground more prone to sink like the worn out couch cushions they kept flipping over and back again to give the room in the carriage house new life. Willa was always trying to reinvigorate things in their house with new soaps and contact paper, molding what she was given into a home like the old rutted oaks fleshed with new greenery, towering in Jack’s wake.
Closer to the water, he started to hear cormorants grunting over the steady hiss of cicadas. It was always the cormorants, seabirds from just a few miles out—never any of the immediate locals—who voiced the demands. The walkie-talkie rested silently in his jacket pocket. Willa had said before he left, “You be careful with that little girl—don’t let her see anything that can’t be unseen.” The cormorants circled around a gap in the canopy, slow and watchful, until one finally dislodged itself from the group, swerving and spiraling down, landing on a tall snag and thrusting its wings out to catch its balance.
The bird’s face was carved, its beak projecting a nose like his father’s, brittle and aged, but hooked on the end. The calls, simultaneous and interrupting, rippled from the single bird’s chest like there was a whole cave inside. The dominant voice came out like a human voice choked mid-cry.
In gargled, sputtering speech, the bird managed the words, “Can’t see no one down ‘ere with you. You bring her to us like was asked?”
He remembered being twelve looking out on the field behind the plantation house and seeing the same faces, the coiled necks, stalking the roof, the way they seemed out of place, waiting there as if called upon. A murmur, “Not too close, now,” from behind his shoulder. And how he thought it was his father’s voice from across the room, but later he wasn’t so sure where the warning came from. There was something familiar in the bird’s voice like scratching wood, or a tapping reminiscent of noises from his childhood bedroom in the plantation house, intimate and creeping.
“Got rid of the house like you wanted,” Jack managed. “It’ll be matchsticks by sundown.”
But it was Willa the bird wanted now, Willa crouching on her hands and knees over the vegetables, Willa telling Jack not to mow the grass anymore, to let it grow out and see “how it will go on for miles and miles,” she joked. Willa, the mother to cowbird eggs dropped in her nest, Jack’s aging belligerent children and their offspring. A bird herself, the neck of an egret and fingers almost feathers—he knew he loved her but never this much before, to face the cormorant for her.
From his pocket came a soft crackling as the static broke through and then an urgent voice: “Buck,” followed by several more whispered syllables.
“You need to give me some more time,” he said, only wanting it for the sake of stalling, for holding out as long as possible without meeting their demands. The bird had already grown a foot since they had began speaking, its neck un-crimped and black wings outstretched. It continued to grow, the feathers splaying over pointed shoulders that stretched into the vague outline of oily arms, held raptor-like at its sides.
“Buck. Buck buck buck. Buck!” Soft enough that he could hardly hear the muffled words over the static.
“We’ll be needing her materials soon,” the bird croaked like it was choking up fish bones. “Hairs and strings, not-too-ripe skin. A tender human, right Jack? Will make good materials for nest building. Won’t be needing that litter and scrap thrown out by others.” Jack knew they were done asking for permission, negotiations tabled months ago—the proceedings were always long and drawn out but settled like this with one more chance to offer the thing willingly.
“We’ll hang up what’s left after all is finished. Humans do something similar? Make little take-aways, trophies of the hunt?”
He was prepared for this moment. “Yes, something similar. Let’s try to be quick about it. I’ll take you to her.” The cormorant swayed at its post on top of the snag sinking into the moist ground, lifting one foot and then the other in a shifty dance. Its neck unraveled to meet Jack’s face, wings touching down like hands, crouching towards him, two jeweled blue eyes gauging his compliance, accepting it with a heavy blink. All at once, the bird shook itself back into its ordinary size and rose to the canopy.
“Buck…mister? Buck!” The static words, close to his face, drowned out the exuberant calls for a second, and he imagined his wife—the stringy waves of gray hair mingling with her eyes, green eyes, her straight nose and nimble smile, hidden but recurring every morning for him—fashioned into a ratty doll, a disintegrated keepsake, her waves of hair tangled in a nest.
The static cut out before he could reach the blind. The deer must have pranced away, causing Dee to stop her shy chanting. He moved with stealth anyway, concerned by Dee’s ability to notice things, that she would spot him and erupt with noise, which the cormorant would find distasteful. Her youth and fragility—those were things they would covet, things Willa couldn’t give them.
Of course Willa could never know about the cormorant, he thought, because then she would piece together what happened to Dee. He would give her mournfulness for a while, regret and guilt handed over in small tokens, like the way he would stay up at night rubbing his face in his hands or gaze longingly at the dead girl’s baton propped up by the back door. “My love,” he would say, using the word “love” less sparingly than he had before, “I know it was a mistake, but sometimes I just…” and then trail off, the unspoken words sputtering out. But she would catch them and forgive him in the end, knowing it was the girl’s fiery personality that convinced Jack to let her climb the blind at all, his judgment bent by her charm. An innocent fall. The body, removed of trinkets, braids plucked away, would be cause for alarm, but after all, “he didn’t find her for several hours later,” neighbors would say, and they all knew the tendencies of birds in these woods.
If anything, at least he could buy time, using the girl. The negotiations could go for years at a time. Years with Willa.
Jack wasn’t worried. Not until he got close enough and saw that the lookout post was abandoned, no sign of the girl except some blue beaded strings, remnants of friendship bracelets Dee sometimes wove with idle hands. The cormorants were already perched, their necks curled and jaws snapping, tossing around the string and tearing up pieces of wood from the blind one by one. They were animals again, looking lost and weary, dislodged from reality or just noticing for the first time how close they were to it. They were ancient—an old story, feeling irrelevant to the moment, tricked out of their prize for now, but he knew it was only temporary. Unlike his father, who took land, filled in swamps, felled trees, and did all these things without asking, the birds always sought out permission at least once before going ahead with it. They didn’t need him anymore to proceed.
Softly he breathed into the walkie-talkie, “Where’d you disappear to, girl?” There was static and then the words, “Got hungry. Deer went away after all. I’m almost home.”
“Good, head on home to Willa.”
At the end of his life, lying shrunken and still half-enamored with life in a four-post twin, Jack’s father told him that the old growth wouldn’t bother him if he didn’t have anything it wanted too keenly. Jack had thought it was his lucid mind finally departing or a commentary on growing old, wanting too desperately to cling to physical strength. Now he knew he was talking about the forest, or a multitude of things all balled up into weighty sentences at the end of his life. All his life, his father had everything, except for the brief intervening moments where he had nothing—where he had dead crops from an early frost or livestock dead from a flu. Back dropping all these scenes were murmured calls and heavy wings pushing and pulling the wind from his lungs.
At home, the bulldozers were pawing at the frame of the plantation house, punching at the siding and pulling it down mechanically, methodically. The echoing crack sounded prehistoric, like something ancient split at the seams. He could see Willa’s trumpet creeper had already made its way inside and was settling in when the first walls came down. The way the sun pulled it, the plant looked like reaching tendrils, grasping towards the place where Willa sat outside the carriage house.
Dee was in the yard, completing twirls and rummaging around in the grass for the baton when she didn’t catch it, which was most of the time. Willa sipped a cup of tea from the front porch of the carriage house, watching the trucks idly the same way she watched something on TV that she didn’t quite care for but wasn’t invested enough in watching to switch it. She always seemed to be outside, dulled by the mild weather, undeterred about the odds of each day holding the same thing in store. He was experienced in coming home and telling his wife all different kinds of news—the number of deer he shot, the number of pheasants he shot, the numbers on the rain gauge and barometer. News of his children’s and grandchildren’s plans, the incorporation of them in her life or news that they were seeing a different hairdresser. But he didn’t know how to tell her about the birds.
She turned sometimes to the back yard as she lightly clapped her hand against the side of the full mug—he could almost hear her wedding band clinking on the ceramic—when Dee caught the baton. Mostly the girl bush-wacked through the heaping grass like a tiny adventurer, trekking bravely across the giant’s head of hair.
When Willa spotted him, she straightened up and raised her mug to him, smiling, as if he were returning from a noble venture, as if to say “cheers” or “congratulations,” but he knew that was just her way of greeting him, her eyes always gleaming a little before the news came.