The Sore-eye Bird

A while back I posted a chapter from the book I am working on and received some great feedback–some of which I am still wrestling with. Here is another chapter draft. Please let me know what you think. Any and all feedback is welcome from simple typos to major issues. Thanks! I have been working on the book a lot this month, and hope to put some more pieces out there for your perusal soon, so please check back often. If you like it, feel free to share it with others. The more readers, the better.

The Sore-eye Bird

The boys stood around a small fire in a clearing, just a few yards into the woods. As the crow flies, they were only three hundred yards from the cabin, but between them and home was an unpredictable river and a lot of darkness.

“Birds are about to migrate,” Kimball said with all the authority a newly-minted thirteen year old could muster. “The leaves on the poplars are the size of squirrel’s ears. We’re right on time.”

Jimmy nodded silently.

“I reckon the migration will start tonight… if It’s dark enough for the giants. Birds can’t come ’til the giants do, you know.”

Up to this point, Jimmy believed everything his cousin told him, and why wouldn’t he? All winter his cousin had taught him volumes about the forest and river, but giants pushed his trust. “There’s no such thing as giants,” he argued confidently.

“Yes, there are, Papa told me that Me-maw saw one once. And you know Me-maw would only say the truth… and I heard them last year!”

Kimball knew that bringing up Me-maw would give his claim a special gravity. Me-maw (or Ms. Olive, as she was known by all the folks in the Gorge who weren’t kin) was a legend up and down the gorge and on both sides of Chestnut Ridge, and Jimmy was envious that Kimball had known her. Me-Maw passed away when Kimball was four years old, but he had heard so many stories about her, that he honestly thought he had known her personally. Her face, her long silver hair, her gentle voice were as clear to him as his memories of swimming in the river last summer. That’s the way memories are when you’re thirteen.

There were more stories about Me-maw than there were stories in the Bible, and folks said she knew stuff nobody else knew. Mama told them that her grandmother-in-law was part Indian, though nobody knew what “kind of Indian” she was, and that the stories she told were passed down through many generations. “You can’t find that kind of wisdom in books, or in school,” she told her son. “That is the wisdom of the elders.”

Kimball took what his Mama told him about Me-maw to be gospel, and so did Jimmy.

Jimmy leaned in, as Kimball continued. “Giants use the river like we use roads,” He said. They travel the rivers because if they traveled on land, they would leave footprints and then people could track them. There aren’t very many giants left so they have to be extra careful not to be found out by people.”

Coming from his teen-aged cousin, who once sat at the feet of Me-maw, this made perfect sense, and Jimmy nodded his head slowly to show his understanding then looked towards the river with wide eyes.

“You don’t need to worry,” Kimball reassured him. “They won’t come out until after we are asleep, and even when they do, they don’t want to hurt you. They will be busy talking to the trees. If you wake up in the middle of the night, you might hear them, but it will be dark. You won’t see them.”

“What do they say to the trees?”

“They wake them up. The trees fall asleep for the winter, and if nobody wakes them up, there won’t be no spring. That’s why it’s important that we leave the giants alone and don’t bother them. We don’t know the language of the trees. Nobody does. Only the giants know. They sound kinda like pine trees in the wind. You know, squeaks and stuff like that. I heard them for the first time when I was your age. Papa told me what it was. He said that Me-maw’s daddy could understand what they were saying but that there ain’t nobody around now who still knows the language. Papa says that the maple trees wake up first. You’ll see in the morning… if they come tonight.”

The boys stayed awake as late as they could, bundled in blankets beneath their little a-frame shelter strung between trees. Several times Jimmy heard noises and asked Kimball if it was giants, but the elder cousin explained each noise as it came—an owl hooting, a deer heading to the river for a drink of water, a raccoon digging for grubs, a flying squirrel landing on the ground. He had answers for everything and Jimmy felt safe as long as he had such a woods-wise companion.

The morning was cold, and the two adventurers stayed in their blankets until the sun hit the top of the west rim. Kimball got up first and piled twigs and leaves where the fire had been the night before. A hard breath revealed orange coals beneath the grey ashes and soon a small flame emerged. Jimmy watched all this from his woolen cocoon until the fire appears to have enough heat to ward off the chill. Kimball was unwrapping a small loaf of bread when Kimball walked up the fire and leaned in, rubbing his hands together for warmth. Kimball reached into his bag and pulled out a piece of cheese wrapped in wax paper, and made two crude open-face sandwiches out of torn chunks of bread and cheese. “Breakfast?”

After warming up and eating, Jimmy followed Kimball down the narrow path until they reached the river where their little boat, wet with dew, was tied to a persimmon tree at the shore. Across the river, smoke rose from the chimney of their cabin, and though Kimball secretly wished he was sitting on the hearth with a warm bowl of porridge, he was relieved he didn’t have to sit in a cold, wet metal boat.

“Look,” said Kimball, pointing across the river at the steep hillside above the cabin.

“What?” asked Jimmy.

“The maple trees—they woke up. The giants were hear!”

Across the river, above the cabin on the steep western slope of the plateau, scattered, bright red blotches glowed here and there on an otherwise dull, gray canvas. The two young boys stared in awe at the clear proof of the existence of giants, and the first evidence of spring.

“As the giants wake up the maple trees, the sore-eye birds follow the red,” said Kimball. That’s how they know where to go. You know about the sore-eye birds, right?” Kimball asked, knowing that his cousin did not.

A shake of Jimmy’s head gave Kimball permission to tell the next part of the story.

“You remember last spring, how Papa had all those allergies—all that sneezing and blowing his nose, and how his eyes got all red and swollen and itchy?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well, that is because nobody got him a feather from the sore-eye bird. Mama told me that Me-maw taught her that if you take a feather from a sore-eye bird, soak it in water, then bathe your eyes in the water, you’ll be cured of all that. Now that the giants woke up the maple trees, the sore-eye birds should be here. All we have to do is find one, and we can cure Papa of his allergies.”

Leaving Jimmy to ponder giants and magical birds, Kimball walked back to the camp and retrieved his slingshot from his bag. “I’ve been practicing all winter for this,” he said confidently.

Jimmy had spent nearly every waking moment of his first winter in the River Gorge, and had never seen his cousin’s slingshot, but he chose not to question Kimball’s assertion. Instead, he asked Kimball how they would find the sore-eye bird.

“It’s easy. We listen. Mama said that sometimes the sore-eye bird sounds like a robin with a sore throat. Other times it says chick-burr, chick-burr. We’ll find a good spot in the woods for listening, and when it calls, we’ll follow it’s voice.”

They walked further into the woods until they came to the old road. Beyond the road, the ground became steep, and Kimball decided a road would be a good place to listen, so they sat down. Jimmy looked north, Kimball looked south, and they listened.

It seemed like all the winter birds were singing that morning, and Kimball identified with authority the few he recognized. A white-throated sparrow called for Mister Peabody, a wren said teakettle, teakettle, teakettle, and a chick-a-dee said his own name over and over. There were many more birds Kimball didn’t recognized, and whenever Jimmy would ask him what they were, Jimmy would either pretend he didn’t hear him, hold up his hand to be quiet because he was listening hard at the moment, or change the subject to something that suddenly seemed very important, like wondering if skunks could climb trees or if giants were afraid of daylight.

Kimball was unsure what a robin with a sore throat sounded like, but he listened closely, and when a lot of birds were singing at once, he proclaimed, “There it is, the sore-eye bird.” Jimmy asked which one of the many songs heard was the sore-eye bird, but Kimball never seemed to hear it again. Kimball was, however, certain that the song came from the north, and he confidently led the search party in that direction.

“The sore-eye bird is bright red with black wings,” Kimball said. “Keep on the lookout.” And look, Jimmy did. He scanned the treetops, turning his head in search of every bird he heard. Being early in the spring, the leaves on the trees were tiny, so the canopy afforded good bird watching. After a few minutes of waling down the over-grown old road, Jimmy pointed to a flash of red high in the canopy. “Is that it?” he asked.

Kimball looked up to see to see the bright red bird high in a poplar tree. Jimmy smiled broadly, proud of his discovery. Kimball looked at the slingshot in his left hand, and sat down on a rock. “We’ll have to wait for it to come down. Keep your eye on it.” Kimball was trying to maintain an air of authority and confidence, but secretly he was hoping the bird would disappear. He had never shot at a bird with his slingshot, and the couple squirrels he had tried to shoot were missed by a foot or more. He looked away from the bird, leaving the responsibility for tracking it on his inexperienced young companion.

“There is goes.” said Jimmy. “Let’s go!” The sore-eye bird was on the move, flying away from the river and up the steep slope. The boys followed, clamoring over the boulders and scree that covered the hillside. The bright feathers of the sore-eye bird stood out in a forest whose young leaves were just beginning to pop out. As the boys stayed on the trail, climbing higher and higher, the sore-eye bird stayed out of reach until half-way up the slope the land leveled off onto a shelf. Ahead of them, a shear bluff would prevent them from climbing higher, but they wouldn’t have to. To their right, a spring seeped from the base of the bluff and flowed into a small pond. The sore-eye bird swooped down over the water and landed on the very top of a small elder berry bush at the edge of the water, not fifteen feet away.

Slowly, Kimball reached in his pocket and pulled out one of several small, smooth pebbles he had collected from the river. He loaded his slingshot, extended his left arm, and with his right hand pulled back the letter thong that held the rock. Looking down the stretched rubber cords, he took aim and, just as the sore-eye bird began to sing a raspy, flute-like song like a robin with a sore throat, he closed his eyes and released.

Jimmy watched as the pebble made a gentle arc towards the singing bird, and in an instant his cousin Kimball grew from questionable mentor to infallible guru.
The sore eye bird stopped singing and fell limp to the forest floor.

When Kimball opened his eyes, Jimmy was already standing over the most beautiful bird—perhaps the most beautiful animal—he had ever seen, dead on the forest floor. Kimball was shocked. Jimmy was awestruck. Both were saddened. Neither spoke.

A couple hours later they tied the boat off at the dock, unloaded their gear, and walked up to the cabin. Mama, who had seen them coming, was heating soup on the wood stove. “How was your adventure?” she asked as the boys dropped their bedrolls and approached the stove. “Did you hear the giants?”

Neither of the sullen boys acknowledged the question. Kimball reached in his bag and pulled out an odd little package. Through wax paper, the bright red and stark black of the sore-eye bird were as muted and dull as he felt inside. He didn’t understand why doing such a good thing for his Papa felt so bad.

Slowly he unwrapped the now stiff contents as his Mama looked on with furrowed brow. “What happened? Did you find him in the woods?” she asked, genuinely confused.

“It’s for Papa… for his eyes,” Kimball said slowly, handing the bird to Mama.

“Yes, but…” Mama did not finish her thought.

She took the package from her son and slowly unwrapped the contents. The sore-eye bird’s eye was closed, it’s neck was limp, and it’s head hung from a lifeless body.

You did this?” she asked softly.

Kimball looked at the floor. “For Papa,” he choked. His eyes welled with tears and he began to sob.

Jimmy, who had been looking on in silence from behind his cousin, began to cry too.

Mama took her boys, one in each arm, and held them tight. Tears began to trickle down her checks as well.

Finally, Kimball managed two weak words. “I’m sorry,” he said in a high, broken voice. The three of them sat down on the hearth, backs to the stove, Mama in the middle, arms around the two crying boys.

She could have told her boys that all they were supposed to bring back was a feather, and that it should be a gift from the bird. She could have said that, according to Me-Maw, killing a bird that provides medicine brings about the illness it cures. She could have told him that his Me-maw’s name, Olive, meant peace. There were many things she could have said, but didn’t. Instead, she sat silently with Kimball and Jimmy until all the tears were drained from their eyes, then she served soup which they ate in silence.

When they were finished eating, Kimball asked if he could clean up by himself. He took the bowls, cups and spoons out to the spring and washed them while Jimmy and Mama sat on the hearth.

“Tell me more about Me-maw,” said Jimmy.

“Well, your Me-maw was a very smart and very loved woman, Jimmy. And wise. But the two things I admired most about her were her calm spirit and her never ending thirst for knowledge. If anything ever upset her, she never showed it. And if she wasn’t helping somebody with their ailment, their injury, or their emotional problem, she was studying the plants and animals of the gorge.”

“How did she study? Did she have a teacher?”

“That is a good question, Jimmy. A lot of people wondered that. Your Me-maw spent countless days walking deep into the gorge, and sometimes climbing out of the gorge to the plateau. She never took anybody with her, and nobody knew exactly where she went, but she always came back with new herbs, roots, or recipes. Some people thought she met with an old medicine woman somewhere on the plateau who stayed behind when the native people were driven off. Other people suggested that she took magic herbs and had visions while she was on her walks.”

“What do you think, Miss Dorothy?”

The look on Jimmy’s face was serious and inquisitive. To Dorothy, her nephew looked like for the first time in the five months since he moved in with them, his focus was entirely on the moment, and not distracted by thoughts of his father. She tousled his hair that had not been cut since his arrival in the gorge and had become quite shaggy.

“I think it’s time I give you a haircut,” she said with a warm smile.

“No, tell me more about Me-maw. What do you think she was doing on those walks. Kimball told me that you have her journals and they have all of her secrets.”

“I do have her journals, and they have a lot of information about her many medicines—drawings of plants, recipes… Perhaps one day I will show them to you.”

The door opened and Kimball came back inside with a basket of clean dishes which he put away on the shelves.

“What are you boys doing this afternoon?” asked Mama.

Kimball looked at the wax paper package on the table and said, “I guess we need to do something to make it right.”

“I think that is what your Me-maw would say,” Mama responded.

Jimmy and his aunt exchanged a warm look and a smile, and Kimball wondered what it was about but didn’t ask.

“Come on, Jimmy,” said Kimball. Let’s go out to the barn and find a shovel.
Jimmy carried the shovel and Kimball carried the sore-eye bird as they walked across the yard from the barn.

“Where are we gonna bury him?” asked Jimmy.

“I don’t know. I think he should be somewhere where he can see the sunrise and look across the river at the ridge where he lived.”

Just below the redbud tree at the northeast corner of the property, about ten feet fro, the river bank, Kimball stopped. “Right here,” he said matter-of-factly. “This is the right place.”

Jimmy stuck the point of the shovel into the soil, and raised a foot to plunge it into the earth, but Kimball stopped him. “I need to do this,” he said.

He took the handle of the shovel with his left and hand and reached toward Jimmy with his right, gently handing over the little red corpse. The soil by the river was rich and soft and Kimball had an appropriate hole dug with only five or six easy shovelfuls. Jimmy then handed him the still-wrapped bird, and Kimball carefully opened the paper and lifted it out. “I guess we’ll have to find a feather for Papa’s eyes somewhere else,” he said somberly.

“Yeah, I guess we will,” responded Kimball. “He sure is pretty, ain’t he?”

“Yeah, he sure is.”

To the bird, Kimball said simply, “I’m sorry,” then knelt down and placed it in the bottom of an eighteen-inch-deep hole, sprinkled some dirt over it, and stood back up. “Should we say something?” he asked.

“Only if you want to. I think what you feel is more important than what you say. I think that might be what Me-maw would say.”

“Yeah, maybe so.”

Kimball took the shovel he had stuck in the ground next to the hole and scooped too three shovelfuls of dirt on top of the sore-eye bird.

“Wait,” said Jimmy.

“What?”

“I’ll be right back.”

Jimmy ran over to the porcupine tree and rustled around in the leaves, kicking them aside, then getting onto all fours and rummaging around through the thick litter. After a couple minutes he found what he was looking for and ran back to where Kimball was waiting with the shovel.

In his hand was a chestnut. “It’s been on the ground since last fall. Ya think it will still grow?”

“I guess so.”

Jimmy wiped the nut off on his pants until it shone like brand new and knelt down to place it in the dirt atop the bird.

Standing back up, he said “Okay,” and with that Kimball shoveled the rest of the dirt over the nut.

“I think we should give it some water,” said Jimmy.

Kimball said okay, and they ran back to the barn where they put away the shovel and retrieved a small pail which they filled from the river and slowly poured over the freshly mounded grave. The soil muddied and sunk and the boys watched as it slowly subsided.

“Want to go back over to the ridge and look for a feather?” Jimmy asked, trying to be helpful.

“Naw, I think we should wait. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Yeah, maybe tomorrow.”