Time to Leave, Raima Larter
Originally published in Writers’ Journal, a print magazine that is now defunct. “Time to Leave” won third place in the fiction contest in 1998.
A great whoosh of wind, smoke and sparks explodes from the fireplace. I jump, my heart pounding wildly. Has a log exploded? The flurry becomes a frantic beating of wings, fire and fear. A bird is somehow trapped behind the burning logs. Its wings beat crazily into the fire as it struggles to escape the flames that have already badly scorched its feathers.
I think about grabbing the firepoker to push the logs aside. I might be able to reach in and grab the bird, pull it out. As I reach for the poker, the bird makes a mad plunge through the flames, landing with a soft thud on the hearth. I rush to it, bending down, hands outstretched. The bird is on its side, one wing sticking out at a crazy, unnatural angle, rapid breaths fluttering its small body. The brown feathers are singed with sooty black and give off an acrid smell. As I reach to pick it up, it suddenly turns its head slightly toward me and I am stopped by the flash of an angry black eye. Or is it fear I see there? I hesitate a moment, suddenly unsure if I should touch this wild thing. An injured animal is the most dangerous kind. My moment of uncertainty provides an opportunity for escape and the bird is suddenly gone, half-flying, half-crawling across the rough wooden floor of the cabin.
I sit down to think; maybe I can't help this bird. It doesn't seem to want me near it. Maybe I will just have to leave it as it obviously wishes to be—alone. That wing looks useless, though. How will it ever be able to care for itself in the wild?
I picture it as it must have been moments before, soaring through the trees in the woods outside, attracted by the light, or more likely the heat, of my fire. Circling above the cabin, gliding through the column of warm, rising air, the bitter cold of the New Hampshire night bearing down upon it, urging it on toward the chimney, a thermal beacon in the frigid air pointing the way to warmth and comfort.
I, too, had been drawn to this cabin earlier in the day, the gray Friday afternoon finally driving me from my self-imposed frigidity. I, too, sought the warmth of solitude and the non-judgmental acceptance of this isolated mountain-top retreat, our family cabin. Until today I had buried myself in work, trying to blot out the pain in my gut and my heart, the rejection I could no longer bear to look at, the endlessly repeating pattern I could never seem to break. Last night's rage had begun the slow-thaw, the first cracks in my frozen facade appearing as I threw the heavy key ring at my teenage son saying, just go then, leave, stop hurting me. Moments before he had shoved me away, saying "Let me go! You're just mad at me for growing up." His words had hit me like a fist and I lashed out, throwing the first thing I could find: the keys he needed to complete his flight from me. He slammed the door behind him as he stomped out, leaving me sobbing in my angry hurt and grieving for the child I once had, now just another man wanting to leave me.
The bird has now stopped its frantic flapping, and is again lying on its side, this time in the corner of the one-room cabin, that one wing still jutting out at an awkward angle. I slowly approach it, bend over and see that its eyes are now closed, those black globes no longer warning me to get away. I reach out both hands and slide them slowly under the bird, carefully cupping its tiny body in my hands. It startles slightly as I lift it but does not awaken.
I walk to the door, work the knob open with my two small fingers and step outside into the bitter cold. The blast of cold air seems momentarily to revive the bird. It lifts its head, opening its eyes, and pulling the damaged wing in close to its body. Its small frame begins to tremble and I see, again that look of fear—or is it anger?—as it realizes I am restraining it. It begins to struggle in my hands, turning its head from side to side, now pecking at me. Small spots of blood appear on my knuckles as it begins making frantic, panicked cheeps with each peck, its body straining against my hands. It feels much stronger now than it had moments before, lying unconscious in my hands, accepting my care. It struggles to free itself from my grasp; if it could talk, it might also cry out "Just let me go!"
But I can't do that, can I? It's hurt. The truth, though, is that I don't know how to help it; I don't know what to do. Maybe if I step back inside and let it try out its wings in the cabin, I can see if it can fly before I let it out into the cold . . . . The idea trails off, stopped by another worry. What if it can fly? How will I ever catch it again if it starts flapping around inside the cabin? I hesitate, too long, thinking over my half-baked plan. The bird takes advantage of my inattention and surges upward with a final burst of power. It breaks free of my hands, strokes the air with both wings and soars competently up into the trees, disappearing into the darkness. I peer out into the night, trying to see where it went, but can detect nothing but black. The only light for miles around is the faint glow from my dying fire, back inside the cabin.
It is suddenly very quiet. No more flapping wings, no more frantic chirps, no evidence at all that the bird was ever here. I stand quietly for a few minutes, wondering if I might catch sight of it flying through the darkness, but I see and hear nothing. My fingers begin to stiffen from the cold, so I step back inside and close the door.
That night I toss restlessly in my sleeping bag spread upon the floor by the fire, waking several times to put on another log and poke at the dying embers. When sleep does come, I dream of birds mixed with images of my son, his father, my father—all swirling around in an angry mob of men and birds, all bent on rejecting me, no matter how much I need them, nor how much I need to be needed. I wake repeatedly and think about how I have tortured myself for weeks looking at photos of my son as a baby, wondering if I would have ever had him if I had known it would hurt so much 18 years later. When the sky finally begins to lighten and the temperature drops to its coldest point of the night, I wake, shivering, to find that the fire has, finally, gone completely out. I crumple more newspaper and pile more logs and search for that damn box of matches which is always lost up here. I finally find it under a pile of kindling. As I strike the long wooden match and touch it to the newspaper, I cross my fingers and hope that no more trusting bird-souls will find their way down the chimney. The memory of last night seems so vivid, but still unreal, as if it might have been a dream, a very important message visited upon me by a winged messenger.
I stand and stretch and walk to the sink to look out the window at the new morning. The sun has just cleared the top of the hill across the way and the snow sparkles with millions of icy diamonds. In the clearing this side of the trees hangs a mist that could be smoke, but is, as I know from previous winters up here, small frozen ice crystals suspended in the air, waiting for the temperature to rise and turn them to dew. I scratch a small circle of frost from the window and squint to read the thermometer nailed to the outside frame: 15 degrees below zero.
I gaze at the winter-bare trees for a few moments, sleep still fuzzing my mind, before I finally notice the trail across the snow. Actually not one trail but three: one skinny path in the middle flanked by two rows of semi-circles. The trail starts near the cabin and curves off across the clearing, a delicate strand of lace that ends in a small, dark pile near the trees. The ever-present hole in my gut begins to open as I look at the path drawn by two small wings scooping snow instead of air.
As the hole, the bottomless pit that has become my constant companion, yawns wider inside my stomach, the frozen slab of ice on my inner river breaks loose all at once with a loud crack that would thunder through the woods if this were an actual spring thaw. I swallow hard and know that I must face this. I have been a party to this pain, and I must not look away. I sit on the rickety chair and slowly pull on my boots, my coat, my gloves and, finally, my hat. I open the door and step out into the bright, icy day. The moisture in my nostrils freezes instantly as soon as I step off the porch. As I walk across the clearing, my boots make squeaking noises and occasionally sink through the snow, little drifts sifting into their tops but not melting; the snow sits there frozen, cold and dry against my ankles. I get halfway across the clearing and stop, looking in dread at the small dark pile. Whatever foolish shred of hope I had that it was not the bird, or if it was, that it might still be alive, evaporates. It's the bird all right, frozen in death at the end of a path marking its final struggle to get away from the cabin, away from the fire that had hurt it, away from me, the one it had blamed, but also the one who had let it go.
The bird is still a few feet away from where I remain frozen in uncertainty. Do I need to go any further? I can see all I need to from here, can't I? I shake off my hesitation and walk the last few steps to the edge of the woods. I stoop down beside the small form and look at the birds' tiny, frozen body, both wings outstretched as if it had died thinking it was flying. Its eyes are still open and that look of anger—or was it fear?—is no longer present. In the bright clarity of morning, fear seems the more reasonable emotion: the fear of an injured wild animal, desperately self-protective, instinctively fighting the one that is trying to help it, its rage the most natural thing in the world.
I pull off one glove and briefly stroke the dead bird's body, smaller than my hand, then swiftly smooth a rounded mound of snow over it. It takes only one handful of snow to cover the tiny creature, so small and yet possessed of a resolve that easily overpowered my own uncertainty. When it's time to leave, no amount of holding on will prevent it. I stand up, replace my glove slowly, then turn and walk back to the cabin. It's about time to head on home.
Before moving to Washington DC, Raima Larter was a college professor in Indiana who secretly wrote fiction and tucked it away in drawers. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Chantwood Magazine, Mulberry Fork Review and others. Her first novel, “Fearless,” will be published by New Meridian Arts in early 2019. Her second novel, “Belle o’ the Waters,” will be published by Mascot Books, also in 2019. Read more about Raima and her work at her website, raimalarter.com.