The Book of Names and Leverett, Two Stories
The Book of Names
Jake wrapped his fingers around a different clump of feathers. The wind slapped at this altitude and it was difficult to hold on. Sometimes he rested his head down on the bird’s neck. He felt its muscles flex slightly as it tilted its head to see more of the sky or some crawling thing on the ground. With his eyes closed he’d also get curious about the ground a thousand feet below, or about Caroline on the other bird.
Hey, he yelled to Caroline but she didn’t hear. She often looked over at Jake so even when his yells went unanswered she was looking over anyway. She waved.
Are you okay? he yelled.
What? she yelled.
I said how are you?
Cold, she yelled and smiled and waved again.
The birds took them down below some low-lying clouds. They flew over an open grassland. It was golden with occasional trees. Sometimes there were other birds, which Jake and Caroline’s birds avoided. They had to hold on as the birds soared sideways, necks twitching, eyes looking away away away until the strangers had passed.
How long do you think? Jake yelled.
I don’t know, Caroline yelled. She wasn’t thinking about how long it would take to get there. She was thinking about promises she had made and broken. When she was a child she promised she’d never steal or lie. She thought those were good things to make children promise. These promises reminded her of the ones she made to people in her life. Some to Jake. Some to herself. She’d been with other people since then but she couldn’t help but think about it. He was staring her in the face every time she turned. She tried to think about something else but the only other thing was the worry about starving to death or falling to death or freezing to death.
When the birds got hungry they tilted their bodies and glided down to the floor of a forest. As they pecked at grubs or nuts on the ground Jake and Caroline slid down to the smalls of the birds’ backs so they wouldn’t get bucked off. Jake took out some of the dense bread in his bag and ate it with some water.
Do you have enough water? he said.
I think so, Caroline said.
I need to sleep, he said. His bird hopped. It sent him up in the air and back down so he almost fell off.
When the birds’ bellies were full they jumped and took off. Jake and Caroline had to hold on tight and then climb up towards the big squawking heads. This time the animals stayed low as if they were looking for something. They flew close together and it was easy for Jake and Caroline to hear each other.
She smiled at Jake but he didn’t smile back. Jake was worrying about finding the village. He hoped the birds would hold out. He looked over at Caroline. She looked filthy. He started to think about their years together but pushed it away. Instead he looked in his bag for his skull cap.
The birds flew over a lake. They were low against the water as the sun was setting. The entire lake was orange and it looked like beaten metal. Shallow waves crested into each other. The birds’ wings stretched out like two wires that connected them to the horizon. Jake closed his eyes and fell asleep. Caroline looked back to the tail of the animal. Its feathers were layered on top of one another into a fan. The feathers looked still in the wind and the tail was so close to the water that she expected to see a wake trailing it. She looked up to see their progress: the forest, the mountains, the cloudless light sky fading to dark.
In the night the birds fed once. Jake and Caroline, sleepy, went through the routine. They ate a piece of dense bread and drank a little water. They jumped off and squatted in the bushes to relieve themselves. The birds, also used to the routine, waited for them. In the morning the sun grew hot and they covered their heads with sweatshirts.
Jake stretched his leg. His hamstring spasmed and he yelled.
Are you all right? Caroline yelled.
No, I’m not all right, he yelled and let the sun beat down on his face.
It can’t be more than a couple days, right? she yelled but Jake didn’t answer.
The next time the birds stopped to feed Caroline slid off and sprinted around. She squatted and stretched. I don’t think my body can take much more of this, she said.
You better get back on or it’s going to leave without you, he said.
Caroline crawled onto the back of the bird and as she got to its shoulders it gave a loud squawk and flapped its wings. Too many feathers came off into the air. Caroline saw the bare spot on its wing.
Jake, the bird’s missing feathers. I think he’s got it, she said.
Are you sure? Jake said but he didn’t need to hear the answer. If yours has it, then mine does too.
Are we going to make it? Caroline said. Her expressions were always more bold than she felt, but
Jake saw the wrinkles above her brow that he knew well. They were confirmation that she was heading away from worry and toward panic.
Let’s go, he said in a way that made her turn onto her stomach. He did the same and the birds took off. In the coming hours, a thousand feet up, the birds lost more feathers. Bunches pulled from their skin as they flapped to maintain their glide. The feathers flew into the cold wind like leaves from a dead tree.
In the morning the birds stopped on a bare hill. They could see down into the valley. There was an old riverbed, dusty and brown. The trees along it were droopy and in need of rain. Caroline’s bird didn’t eat. It sat there quiet, its eyes glazed over, stomach upset and muscles sore. It squatted and hunched as to curl into a ball that its bird body couldn’t manage. Jake’s bird was still foraging so he told Caroline to climb up.
They had to sit close so they wouldn’t fall off. At first they tried to ignore that they were touching. Jake didn’t turn around or say anything once Caroline was clinging to him. The bird flapped and took off.
Caroline’s bird stayed put and got smaller as they went higher.
Will you talk to me, please, Caroline said after a while.
I see something, Jake said. They squinted at the future.
The main road of the village was matted with dead grass and it had patches of open dirt. The buildings were musty huts. At night the people lit lanterns and danced in celebration at what there was left to celebrate. Some stayed in their huts, too hurt or afraid to guess at what might come next. Children were born. The elderly died. Food was grown outside of the village in old sallow fields. There was just enough. More people meant more labor and every few weeks a few stragglers came rambling in. They were dirty and tired and sometimes spoke a different language, but they were always grateful, as if the village was the place for which they had been looking.
Malorie, the woman that everyone turned to for decisions, made newcomers feel welcomed. She orderednew huts built, another field cleared and planted. There was a three-shift lookout on the shore because every so often travelers came in on the backs of exhausted animals and when they came the villagers rejoiced. They held a celebration and danced all night, ate and drank to the growth of the citizenry. In the morning they went about their business, sweeping the dirt floors, digging trenches, inventing games and having arguments.
Oy, Turner yelled as through the mist on the water came a hulking bird with a dark lump on its back that meant only one thing. Malorie ordered water boiled, beds made, and she hushed the gathering crowd as they began rumors about who the newcomers might be and from where they might have come.
Malorie went to her hut to retrieve the Book of Names. It contained the oaths and signatures of all the villagers who had agreed to do their share, to care for one another. She took it to the shore where the bird would touch down. All the birds that brought newcomers came to this spot because the villagers threw down grain for them to feed on. When a new bird came it could see the grain from a great distance. She opened the book and sat with it in her lap. She took the chiseled pencil from her pocket and drew two lines. Then she turned back the pages to the first so that the newcomers could read the oath they must take, or if they could not read, so they could see words that would be read to them. She worried, as she did every time, that these travelers might bring with them evil of some kind, weapons or muscles that would be impossible to defend against. She worried the weariness of the villagers might outweigh that of the newcomers. Then she bowed her head and this made everyone looking on do the same.
Her mother told her she was a quick birth and that she was born just after midnight. Her father was a security guard. His arms were small but Gillian remembered them being like a gorilla’s.
Her best friend in fifth grade was Rebecca Herrington. Rebecca had a sinister giggle. They were best friends for eight months.
On family vacations Gillian’s parents took her into the country to a small town called Leverett. Leverett had one traffic light, a Methodist church, and three stores that all had deli counters. Gillian talked to a man outside Baker’s Five and Dime. He told her she ought to grow up and use her brains, not her back. She looked at her father as if to confirm that this was a sound idea, but her father stood silent with his eyebrows raised. In the car when they were alone her father said, did you listen to what the man told you?
In tenth grade she read about Rosie the Riveter and wanted to become a welder. Her college offered few welding courses so she dropped out and became an apprentice at Mr. Bolano’s metal shop. She fell in love with Frederik, Bolano’s son. Gillian and Frederik didn’t understand each other and this made them want to kiss a lot. She told Frederik to go off to school and he did. She spent a lot of time alone for the next few years. She built things and listened to the same twelve albums over and over.
She volunteered at the YMCA. She met Erik there and he walked her home everyday. She welded him small metal sculptures which he named and put on a long shelf in his apartment. After two years Erik proposed. Gillian always thought marriage wasn’t for her, but it felt wrong when she thought of saying no to Erik. They married in Leverett.
Her mother passed away just after Gillian’s thirty-fifth birthday. Her father walked slowly from a bad knee. He didn’t speak much. I love you papa, she said and hugged him as he stared out. Erik said her father should move in. Gillian was happy and put her hands to Erik’s face as she did when he was being sweet, but her father passed before his things were moved.
Their first child, Amelia, was born on a Tuesday. You came out quick, Gillian told Amelia. Amelia’s little brother, Thomas, was born when Amelia was five. Is he a baby? Amelia asked. Yes, he’s a baby, Gillian said. Amelia was good at math. She drew a lot of pictures of the houses in their neighborhood. On Thomas’ first day of school he missed his stop and stayed on the bus until it got to the end of its run. The bus driver took him back to the school where Gillian was waiting for him.
Gillian developed a lesion on her gall bladder. She was some variation of ill for three years. When Amelia was old enough to babysit Thomas, Gillian and Erik took trips to Leverett. Why don’t we move up here, Gillian said. And move the kids? Erik said.
Erik retired when he was fifty-five. Gillian sold her metal sculptures on the side. Amelia graduated with honors from college and was studying to become an architect. Thomas dropped out and was hired as a line order cook. Gillian worried for Thomas. Erik told her he would find his way. Maybe we’ll take a real trip, Erik said. Europe, Gillian said.
At noon Gillian felt under the weather and went to bed without supper. The next day she pulled weeds from the flowerbeds. Erik made grilled cheese sandwiches. They ate the sandwiches with milk and nodded at each other all the things they were thinking. In bed, Gillian drew some sketches for a building and made a mental note to tell Amelia about it. Erik fell asleep while the lights were still on.
Gillian died in her sleep. Amelia flew in from Chicago and Thomas drove up. Her body was cremated and the family gathered but there was no formal service. Amelia and Thomas helped Erik move into a smaller place. What about Leverett? Amelia suggested. I’ll be fine here, Erik said. His new place was a one-bedroom apartment a town over. He settled in to new, uncomfortable routines. He hung Gillian’s sculptures around the apartment. The older ones he put on a shelf like he had years ago. The leaves changed. He went downstairs to shovel every time it snowed, but the building had a service that cleared the snow early in the morning, so he looked forward to warmer weather.
In the summer he drove up to Leverett and walked down Main Street. He bought a pickle at Baker’s. It was sour and tasted good. The sun was out and the town smelled of pine. Cars drove slowly by. There were metal cherubs hanging from a wooden railing in front of the store. They swung in the breeze and hit each other, their chimes ringing out.
Erik thought to stay for supper. There was a good diner on the edge of town. Plus it was close to 63, the winding country road back. But then he realized it would be dark by then and there would be nothing to see out the window anyway.
Brian Mihok’s work has appeared in Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. His novel The Quantum Manual of Style was published by Aqueous Books in March 2013. He is an associate editor for sunnyoutside press and also edits matchbook a journal of indeterminate prose.