R. T. Smith
As Kingsley Fishpaw rocked his chair in the forest, the creak of bent hickory on the platform's barnwood planks spurred the ostriches to pace their pen. Nearly seventy, a half-breed with thousands of miles on his engine, he was not ready to be old or weary. The wicker seat beneath him, however, was rotting with weather, the boards of his raised sentry platform frayed and splintery. The sun paused briefly on the horizon, the pine spikes on Whidbey's Ridge an opal-blue with weather and distance. A few dogwoods waved their petals in the wind. Thank goodness, he thought, no one comes to gawk at the birds. Someday, maybe, boys will come to spook them, or adults to point and laugh, the world being full of mischief as it is, but not so far. Not this particular evening.
He sipped instant from his thermos and ran his hand along a bristly cheek and jaw. Soon the deer would be moving, foraging for the early shoots and remnant mast, leaving their sharp marks in the mud. The moon would come up, and he could go home to supper and Big Dipper's "Easy Grass" program on the radio, but for the moment, the aroma of the coffee was pleasure enough.
Since spring he'd followed this trade savoring all the solitude he could wolf down in the open air while shuttered from the sun and wind by three full cedars. He liked having freedom to move about with nobody watching over. Weekly pay envelope, steady shelter. The easiest job, his poor mother had said, would be the last one, and he wondered if that stage had finally arrived.
Afternoons he fed the creatures, watching them beak up the greens and dog food, their heads like war clubs with a jutting pike point like he had seen in the Geographic. Iroquois carried those. The black males with rude plumage, the females colored like cowbirds. They tended to drink peculiar, staring at the sky while the water runs down that long neck. Bald-looking. They could run fast as foxes, and their kind do not bury their noggins in the sand. O'Donnell tried to fill him in: African origin, kin to emu, omnivorous and so on. He didn't care. When did you feed them? How much water? What if one gets out? O'Donnell claimed they were the largest living birds, and King asked if that meant there were other species that got larger when they died. Bloat, maybe. He chuckled. These were already about seven feet, he reckoned. Almost two dozen. Weak wings like some creation joke, or just obsolete. Either way, just embellishment now. He'd grown tolerant of their squabbles and haughtiness, but even now, he bore them no affection.
What he savored was the quiet. Birdcall, a dog in the distance, cows lowing back in the pasture, pleading "moon, moon." At night there were coy dogs in the hills, but his own shift ended around dusk. Part-time. The main responsibility was to keep them fed and watered and contained. Not wrangling, just keeping watch. At night, it seemed, they were calmer, more content to nest, and the Stevens boy keeping the sheep safe from canine raiders of all sorts would patrol them steadily when he finished up his other chores.
Backward and forward in the ladderback rocker, like a small boat moored against a slow tide. Pulse-rate. He remembered the old jobs, ran through them daily, calling up the pictures and smells. Just this afternoon, thoughts of Lisel, a blue-eyed German girl, would not leave him alone.
He had been a pin boy in khaki coveralls where the lumbermen came to bowl duckpins and unwind. "Kingbird," they finally called him, but at first it had been "King Breed." He shared the work with Elvin, and they would alternate smoke breaks on a busted mattress behind the alley. You had to be nimble. Those woodjacks would roll the muskmelon-sized balls at you when they got a snoot full. He was already shaving then, not a small boy, and he knew how to glare at a man dangerously. The fishhook scar on his brow and the dark skin made him look like a fighter, and his name sounded like it was won in a ring. Nobody grabbed or swatted him like they did Elvin. They poked some rude fun and moved on.
Lisel worked in the Ty-D Laundromat next door and would stuff all the front loading machines, switch them on and slip out to stroll in the moonlight. First time, they talked about the timber company and the Peavey Grill. The second time she passed him smoking in the dark, his cigarette like a firefly beside the bricks. She twirled about and approached him, then said, "Fishpaw, you know you like me, do your duty." Then she was kissing him, and he was helping. Before long her pale breasts were visible, the olivewood cross swinging back and forth as the two of them swayed together. He could hear the rumble of bowls down the waxed wood, the clamor of pins scrambling. In the corner of his eye, white suds gurgled from the Ty-D's drains like some mechanical variation on snow.
Maybe that was what brought her back now, the rhythm of his rocker like sex after the suddenness passed. She was the dangerous one, and when he left the next summer to sell hardware in Silva, she swore to kill him. For a year she sent letters, general delivery, but after the first one, he never opened another. It had said, "King, there will always be women and women, but they can't all bury you. Just one. Lisel."
The cock ostrich brayed at him and stamped. He had the guard gun, an old Remington lever-action, and he had the power to free the world of this odd thing that made gargoyle noises and looked like a Martian. "Click-and-clack," it said like the rocker, like cranking a shell in. Who would eat such flesh? But tourists did at the Southern Grill, paid plenty. He figured it would be string meat, a bark taste. The feathers went in women's hats once, but now they were to decorate your guest room. He could shoot it and stop the racket, but then he'd have to find another job. Slip off by night. He'd done that enough times already, and what other boss would let him whittle, his shavings like pale fiddleheads spilling on the ground? Who else would let him cup a grass blade and call out to crows and sparrows across the green evening, all on the clock, the pleasure all twined up with making a wage
The worst job had been cotton, fifty years back. He'd tried peanuts, but the crop went bad early from a slack farmer's fertilizer misstep, too much nitrogen, so there he was, central Georgia, a world of dust and the local cotton coming up. He hoed till his back nearly broke and blisters covered his hands. When he rode the wagon to the gin, he saw white men wave pistols at each other over money. The Thirties, hard times. Because crackers down there believed he was a Negro, he settled into Darktown, just an orphan boy himself by then, or so he reckoned. In the workers' shacks he tried his first frail at the banjo and saw he had a knack for it. Walking the pastures, he liked most of all to watch the egrets picking bugs off the backs of cattle. Sunlight sparked on the Chattahoochee River. Seeing no other prospects, he stayed for winter, helping mend things, learning to drive a nail straight without bending it or scaring it silly with near misses while he bashed and damaged the wood. He had gloves and a swollen thumb, but before long he was able to take pride in the unbent steel and nickel. The morning it snowed down therepeople said first time in ten yearsthe children hid under the bed, afraid it was some new brand of winter cotton they'd have to pick.
When he went back to the highlands near Rabun Gap, his brother Spatch took him to the alley. "Duckpins," Spatch said. "You just set em up and set em up and set em up. Roll them balls back down the runnel. Keep moving. This here's Elvin. You watch what he does."
When a bluebird from nowhere darted in and perched in the service tree, King shook free of the reverie and wondered what the bird had to be shy about. He had reasons himself. It was at the Bristow furniture plant up in Carolina where he first met Taddy O'Donnell. He was thirty, "unskilled," as the foreman and bosses in string ties called him. It was a loud place, bad with shellac fumes, and it eventually took two of his fingers. That was where he had his first dance with John Law after a fight at the Fiddling Fool Club. Trouble will follow a half-breed, but Taddy had bailed him out.
Working wood. Skill saws and band saws, the blades always singing their war song. Men from the spraying room came out with their breather masks and goggles on, splattered and coughing, worse than the picture show's space monsters. He learned the draw knife and stain mixing, saw the wood dust spray out like snow in the wake of a roadplow. From across the room it was a flurry, a sweet scent, but up close, just so much grit-shot. It could choke you. It could blind you. One day at a time, it could make your death.
Even now he despised the grind and whine of a triple drum sander, its pitch a fierce yearning like a sequence of harrier hawks. He also hated the boring machine and the glue made of fish guts and horses. It was a nightmare, a prison camp for misfits who lived in shabby bungalows and rusting trailers. The routine of running the template and jigsaw, template and jigsaw, working the kiln-dried wood down to lazy curls, had been enough to drive any man crazy. It had snatched at him, a bent saw blade wobbling off center, and taken two fingers at the joint, like a tax it was owed. When he got back to work, his stubs stiff and tender, they put him on the lathe, no place for a cripple, but he'd managed well enough, learning how to turn a sweet spindle before they side-moted him to security guard, adjusting his banjo picking until it was a weird hammer-claw, comfortable and strange.
It pleased him now to scan about and know O'Donnell had no plans for these trees around the pen other than to stovewood the blowdowns. No Early American dinettes or Great Northwest bedposts. Maybe another shelter in summer when the eggs came, just a lean-to requiring no major felling. The leaves could just keep budding and curling open, blazing and browning and floating down to the understory according to the natural scheme of things.
Thinking back on those years made him antsy. He would have rolled a smoke to calm himself, if he hadn't taken to wheezing a few years back. The doctor said tobacco would kill him. Now he reached down into the pocket of his denim coat for comfort and rubbed the porcelain door knob, feeling the hairline crack like tiny lightning. It wasn't a habit to start with, but more practical, the only way to keep his cabin private. He just twirled out the side screw and plugged the knob in when he came home, dropped it into his coat pocket when he ventured out. Sometimes he'd think he had forgotten to remove it and had to push his mangled hand in to make sure the knob was there. His palm found relief in the cool, polished thing.
Somewhere behind him, a limb snapped, but when he turned, nothing was visible. Jumpy, he thought. Just another hour. Just the wind.
The only trouble at this place had set in with O'Donnell's other hired man, Victor. Raising the pens, the foreman had caught him hiding some wire snips, and in his cabin behind the milk barn they'd found other tools and some silver knickknacks Taddy's wife thought she'd misplaced. King wasn't in the picture then, had settled, he thought, in the back of the community shelter. A broom closet, really, and what he did was sweep up, clean the toilets and lock the doors every evening. He had a bunk and a radio playing old time tunes, a library card and his Silvertone with a splint on the cracked neck. "Napoleon's Retreat," "Turkey in the Straw," "Shenandoah"he could still strum up a few.
He washed his teeth in the big sink and bathed in the basketball showers. If it was like living in a cell, it was a welcome one, a sanctuary. Not easy street for a man in his sixties, but better than death or a hospice, he figured. Vigor still ran in him, and he liked to stroll about, get into things with his hands, carve a bird or cow out of softwood.
Of course, it wasn't that simple. Victor was an old rival from Bristow, somebody Taddy and King had known before Taddy's daddy left him the farm. King had pilgrimed about for two decades, had a wife and lost her. No offspring, which was lucky, considering his uncertain economics. Then he was back, stumbling onto Taddy at the Food Lion just after Victor's stealing episode.
"Come on out," his old friend had said. "We've got the renovated blacksmith cabin and need a man for some daylight hours. The birds are my great experiment."
And why not? Taddy was the cheery red-headed sort with a kind streak, and King could always get to his funny bone. "What about the talking gander?" he'd still ask, just to re-hear the story, just to have the laugh. "And the salesman and the Swiss farmer's daughter . . . andyouroladytoo." They both took a drink, but nothing to excess, and they were matched for working together, though the Irishman was ten years younger. Or had been matched. Now Taddy's boy did the real work, and the old man had his hobbieswine grapes, the CB station, flat-picking an old Gibson, and now the ostrich scheme.
The real trouble at Bristow, King reasoned, had started with pranking. Victor used to like yanking on his chain and whispering "redskin" just barely in hearing range, just to get his goat. "Breed. Hey, breed." A bunch of them would take their sack lunches to the canteenHawk (shipping), Preach from the rub room, Cleatus Moonrobin, a full-blood Chippawa who hailed from up north and was a finisher, Tayshan in spray. Victor had the sharp tongue, the smart mouth from the sanding room. The wood flour had worked into his skin so intimate he was oaky.
"Didn't you do some chiefin, wear feathers up in Cherokee and pose for the gawkers? Didn't you play one of the bare-ass savage avengers in that 'Unto These Hills?' I believe I saw you once when I was up on vacation."
"Never been to that reservation," King would answer. He didn't even know for sure what tribe he was. His father's side, and he'd not known the man.
"Wadn't the Kingfisher some darkie in a TV mystic knights club?" asked Preach.
"You mean Boston Blackie?"
"Naw. Some smoothie city Knee-grow." And some of them would laugh uncomfortably as King finished his pineapple and peanut butter sandwich. Then he'd open that hawkbill knife and commence to whittling on a remnant. Looking back, he no longer wondered if they saw it as a threat: he knew they believed he was brandishing, a warning to navigate the conversation in some other direction. That was alright. The banter swirled and dipped, repetitious, tireless, with Victor the engine of its predictable rhythms.
Once the sander asked if his name was a secret clan or society, "Fishpaw, like a raccoon using his sneaky paws to corral trout?" King didn't know.
"I'm a loner. I'm not a raccoon, not so much nocturnal by nature. I like to see what I'm catching." Then the knife again, whicking a chair scrap to a point, harmless but emphatic, the ominous sound of sharp steel moving. Usually Victor's voice would back off and Preach would presto his mouthharp from nowhere to treat them to a golliwog song or "Betsy Gal."
Friday nights they took the whole act to Stroud's fish camp where Ester Jean was the target of jibes. She gave back as good as she got, always carrying a pot of scorching coffee, just in case. She sort of liked Cleatus, though King walked her once to the fire tower when the rhodies were in blossom and filled with bees. A hot day, and she shucked off her shirt, the braids tapping on her shoulders. King had to walk behind, but he saw enough, knew by the time they pried that lock on the ranger hut that he was going to get the high ride people whispered about. Unlike the others, he never told, but Victor eventually sensed it, saw the lack of teasing when she brought more hushpuppies, crispy and hot with cane sugar taming the cornmeal and onions.
They'd been enemies since Victor caught on. The man didn't say it, but King knew. When the company moved him to night watchman, he suspected Victor of some of the petty vandalismspray paint, missing drink crates, a jimmied outbuilding. No real evidence though, and since King wasn't around for lunch, they passed from each other's sphere.
Evidently hunting season pretty much occupied Victor's thoughts and spare time. He was caught up in his archery feats and the tail end of a new cashier at Biner's. He had a new audience, new victims. Within a year, King had gotten restless and moved on.
Now he was thinking of hen eggs splattered on the griddle, the briney ham hissing in the skillet like a varnish sprayer. He liked the sharp smell from marrow in the center ring of bone. The biscuits would rise golden, the ham fat crisp out. It was a deluxe daydream, but no ostrich eggs. He'd heard they were strong and gamey, likely to show a thread or two of blood. No, let the birds raise their kind and eat their salad and gruel. When he got home, he'd pitch in kindling and get the stove bolts to talking, fry himself a treat.
Suddenly, as much as he wanted to be wrong, he realized something was moving behind the stand of laurels. The wind was riffling the new blossoms of dogwoods. This was his favorite part of springthe redbuds signaling Easter, the forsythia bushes around O'Donnell's house gone hysterical with yellow. But something was lurking, creeping, holding close to cover. Then he heard, as if his memory had called up a ghost, Victor's voice with its unmistakable edge.
"Fishpaw! Redskin! It's over for you. I've got you surrounded."
Nothing he knew about the ex-marine was promising. He was pretty much your standard-issue bully who used words like throwing stones but could not always be depended upon to back down when openly defied or thwarted. And now, evidently, a thief, caught and expelled several months ago, replaced by an old enemy. Victor was a man who might feel he had to avenge himself against somebody, and Taddy, who had fired him, was probably too settled, too known and respected to be the target. Maybe this was no more than a braggart's ruse. But King knew he was himself no more than just a half-breed, a transient who had sort of stayed. He was not protected, would not be much missed in the event of trouble, and there had been a few stintsbrief ones, misunderstandingsin custody when he'd been young. He couldn't bear too much scrutiny.
Last year's dry leaves rustled again. Just barely, but he knew that Victor's claim to manly reputation was outdooring. He'd brought trophies to work and medals. Canoes, 'sang and galax gathering were his specialties, bass fishing, hunting. The bow was his boasted weapon, and he had liked, years back, to describe the way the razored broadheads went in, breaking bone and chewing up the vitals, dooming the target animal.
"You can kiss them stupid birds goodbye, Fishpaw. I'll show you all who's the king."
An arrow zipped past him and stood trembling in the nearest cedar. It was aluminum, and it caught the light. King leaned over for the rifle and swept it up, moving at a pace he thought was pretty fast toward the shed with tools, water jugs and Purina sacks filling its shadows." Victor, you don't want to do this, man." Holding the weapon, he let his right arm swivel in the socket, his stiffened wrist like a cam shaft, then back. The bullet eased into the chamber with a sweet click, the whole lethal machinery in sync. The hammer had cocked back, showing its bantam profile, and he was ready, but he had never before fired this rifle.
When Victor called out, "You ain't safe," King could hear the spirits in his voice, probably blended whiskey, cheap stuff you could get by the jug. Even on beer, the man could be a belligerent drunk, but this was beyond guessing. What next?" King wondered, but just then another arrow passed overhead, whispering through the evergreens, lodging nowhere. The words that formed in his mind were, "What is he planning?"
But that wasn't quite it, either.
"I don't know that I want you dead, breed, but I want you gone, and I mean to barbecue me some of that dodo meat before I light out. We got to figure a way to work this, you and me." The hyena laugh that followed was no guarantee that Victor was to be trusted about anything, and King felt his recent promises under fire: he had told Taddy he'd look after the birds, he had said he was up to it. He had not said he was fearful. He had not said he'd abandon them if things got stormy.
"Not joking you, breed, not pranking you. I can pick off them goofies with my eyes closed."
But his eyes evidently weren't closed, as the next arrow thwacked into the huge body of a hen, which voiced an ungodly squawk and fell dead in a spray of its own blood. The shaft appeared to have kept going, perhaps in search of another easy victim, and King could imagine a scene of complete carnage, depending on how many arrows Victor had brought along. He thought six or eight was normal for a bow quiver, but there was no way to guess it, and he knew he would have to act, would have to use the rifle. He swiped sweat off his forehead, and he knew his shirt was wet. Would a warning shot solve anything? Maybe with a sober man, but this was different. Warning was not what he needed to do.
When King pivoted around the corner to get a look, he shouted, "Victor Westy, how many arrows you got there?"
The responding "Nuff" gave him an idea where the voice was located, right at the north edge of the stinkbush stand, just under a cloud of dogwood flowers, some of the petals flurrying down. What King meant to do was to shoot close, use the whole element of surprise, since his attacker didn't seem to know about the rifle. If he got close, showed any hint of proficiency, even a fool like Victor was likely to turn tail. That was why he aimed high, but he had not counted on the drunk rising to run for another vantage, had not intended to even approach hitting the man. Neither had he expected the birds to stampede.
Everything went fast, like a whirlwind. The bow made a spanging noise as Victor flung it outward to grab his head. The arrow went off toward the meadow as the archer howled like a sledged calf. The noise the birds made as the herd broke through the rails was ghastly, so many angry ghosts, and they caught King stepping free of his shelter, terrified that he had killed Victor.
He took a minute to understand he'd been trampled, that the bushy bodies of his livestock had rushed out in full panic, pumping their tinker toy legs, leaving him mouth-down in the dust, feathers all over him, their footprints on his jacket, and of course, they had shat as they ran. The air was putrid with the smell of it. His good hand was grasping a glop. It was on his cords and in his tied-back hair. But the worst part, as he stood up and inventoried his bones and functions, was knowing he'd just killed another human being. Memories of lock-step marching and shake-downs, the cells and shackles and clammy grime of animal despair shook him. He breathed hard and trembled as he ran.
Maybe, he thought later, he had been lucky, but he couldn't say for certain if it was good luck or bad. Thrashing through the bramble, he heard the moaning, and as he stood on the small bluff above where Victor had fallen, there was blood everywhere. Victor's windbreaker had been a spruce green but now it was slick with red. Blood was all over his jeans and brogans, but he was lashing and kicking out with too much energy to be mortally hit.
When King got his tormenter still enough to examine, he was astonished to see the snaggle of flesh where the ear had been, but under the blood, which was now covering King's neckerchief, it looked like somebody had just snatched it off, cauterizing the remnant shreds. Victor's face was contorted like a face jug.
"Oh, God, I'm killed, goddamit. Damn it, damn it, you black Indian." That was pretty much his wail, and Kingsley could hear the riddled muffler of the Stevens boy's Chevy truck as it bounced over the pasture terraces. Maybe the shot had actually brought Jimmy, but it was about time for him to relieve Fishpaw anyway. The most astonishing sight before King's eyes was the clutch of ostriches, now calm and looking merely puzzled, clustering in the field and allowing themselves to be truck-herded back toward the pen, as if the muffler noise were the day's only distressing feature.
By the time the truck rolled to a stop where King was sitting back in his chair with the Remington across his knees, Victor had disappeared over the ridge, and a frosty wind riffled the leaves behind him.
"What the hell was all that noise? I thought I heard gunshots and people screaming."
"Ostrich rustlers. Redskins. A whole war party of them with bows and paint and shit."
"I reckon shit is right, seeing what's all over you. How many birds did they take?"
"Looks like you've rescued most. One's dead with an arrow in it. When you get the others rounded into the corral, we'll drag the casualty into the truck to show Taddy. I guess it's time that bird came to dinner." He was pointing to the single downed bird with his two nubs, which seemed to make the boy blink in confusion.
Wheeling back to the round-up work at hand, Jimmy said, "Looks like a little snow tonight, maybe the last of the year," then under his breath, "But rustlers?"
The bluebird lit again at the heart of the service tree, his azure chest flickering in the sunlight's last rays as he preened, a blue pilot light keeping the faith, keeping life glowing. King ran his palm across a whiskery jaw, sipped the last of the instant, rocked on, breathing the savory steam.
"Savage avenger," he thought and let his hand fall into the denim pocket where it found the doorknob's familiar contours, its satisfying heft and cool seam.
* * *
R. T. Smith's most recent stories are forthcoming in Southern Review, Best American Short Stories 2004, and New Stories from the South.