Daniela Garvue, 2019 BLR Fiction Prize Honorable Mention
Rick learned to be a bird sometime in early February. After he brushed his teeth, he raised his wings in the bathroom to examine his smoky gray underfeathers. Then he kissed his wife goodbye, watched her Subaru pull away, and walked out to the deck. It hung over the west-facing edge of the house and looked over a network of plateaus and ravines that stretched out to the next hill, far away on the Nebraska horizon.
He climbed up onto the railing, looked over his shoulder sheepishly, as if Carol might spring out, shouting, “Gotcha!” But there was no one for at least forty acres. Only the cat, who stared from the other side of the glass door, following the track of a feather as it floated lazily to the ground.
Rick took off his slippers and let his pale toes grip the edge of the railing. The wind drew its breath and blew open his shirt, gently, only a puff, but enough to stir the white down on his cheek. He raised his neck to its full length, swept it left and right. His shoulders lifted, his wingtips reached four feet across, and he could feel the air sift through them, buoy him up. He could do it, easily. Slip into the sky and join the first cranes that passed over, calling to him, Come on, up you go. But his toes held tight to their perch. Each morning he let himself back down to the wooden planks, buttoned his shirt, slid back into his slippers, and went inside to his book.
He received the official diagnosis in March: pancreatic cancer. His children came home to visit, and suddenly his intestinal affairs were subject to family discussion. Was his pee still brown? Could a person live without his pancreas? His son feverishly googled every issue but found no answers. Rick kept his feathers a secret, something all his own to caress and probe. Overhead, the cranes migrated northward, hailing the house below.
Around the ides of March his daughter, Carmen, suggested they rise early and see the cranes roosting. Rick felt a cold thrill. Did she suspect? But he longed to see them up close, so they crept out of the sleeping house before the morning star had risen and drove the empty strip of Interstate 80 east. Rick parked near the Alda Road bridge, and the two crunched down the gravel track in the pre-dawn chill. Carmen lifted a line of barbed wire near a Private Property sign and nodded toward the river. It was the quickest way through.
“This is back country,” Rick said, grinning. “You know they shoot trespassers out here.” But he ducked under and held the fence up for his daughter to follow. They pushed through the dark, weaving around willow branches and cottonwood boughs until they reached the Platte, where their boots cracked the mud’s icy film. They stood at the bank, shivering.
There they were, ten thousand sandhill cranes, dark as smoke against the far shore. They flocked as if they owned the river, and in a sense they could claim squatter’s rights. They had been flying over this land for sixty million years – north in the spring and south in the fall – ever since Buffalo County was under an ice sheet, and before that, when it was all part of a shallow sea. The Platte was a braided verb to them, seeping up and disappearing according to its own seasons.
Their voices filled the dark, so low at first that Rick and his daughter could barely hear them over the river. Then, as the molten sun brimmed over the horizon, their whoops grew louder and wilder. They leapt up against the rising light and finally took wing, groups of five or ten coiling like black ribbons against the pink sky. He recognized a summons in the song but held his tongue. If he spoke, would it be in the crane’s language?
By April, both his children were gone, and the last crane had flown out of Nebraska. But Rick still woke to their high trills echoing in his morning-lit bedroom. Carol slept by his side, her hair rumpled, shoulders rising and falling. Rick held his breath, afraid to wake her. When she went to work, he would be left alone to a long, vacant day, in which every little sound set his mind on edge. The skirl of wind through the screen, the phone’s ring, the microwave’s ding, all made him look up sharply, as if someone had called his name. His doctor said the chemo could leave ringing in his ears.
In August he went back to work, to escape the empty house. During a hot survey job near the Niobrara, he heard a whole chorus trumpeting overhead. He scanned the sky but saw only a hazy blue.
“Hear that?” He nudged his partner. “The hell are cranes doing out here in August?”
The kid, barely 21 and only working for the season, kept his eyes on the GPS tripod. “Didn’t hear anything, but I never heard of cranes in the summer. You think it’s legal to shoot ‘em if they’re off migration?”
Rick laughed, but he spent the rest of the day glancing up with his hand over his brow.
In September he and his wife took a vacation together. They hiked along the San Juan bluffs and kayaked near harbor seals. It had been twenty years since Rick had felt saltwater dry on his face. Rinsing off in the bright hotel bathroom, he caught sight of his new reflection. His eyes had become larger, rounder. His hair was soft and white as eiderdown. Carol treated him as if he had hollow bones.
In October, when no one was looking, he dipped his beak into the creek and gulped down a frog. It was the sweetest thing he’d ever tasted. Carol asked what he had on his chin, and he turned quickly to slurp up a strand of algae.
In November the cranes came back.
He heard them from the hospital bed in the dark morning hours. Carol slept on the chair, her face soft in moonlight. The I.V. drip blipped gently. A light buzzed in the hall. From far, far up, through the closed window, the cranes sang a winter song.
When the nurse checked in, she chattered happily as usual, but Rick couldn’t understand her. He tried to speak, but his tongue was too heavy to lift. He could only squawk. Carol bent over his bed, said something, but it slipped out of meaning. Rick smiled and tried to tell her to open the window, but she just shook her head. He squeezed her hand and closed his eyes.
The Platte was shining at dawn. The birds were rising, coiling up and up and up, not just five or ten, but thousands of them. They opened their wings and coaxed him on, Time to go, easy does it. His feet slipped into the water, sank into the cold silt. Wind slid smooth as glass under his feathers. He could tilt them up or down, hold the air as if it were a ball he could cradle or throw. The most natural thing in the world. He opened his throat, finally understanding, opened his wings, saw the Platte, braided and bright, saw the cranes, dark threads in the sky, and lifted up away from the ground.