It was the year the floods carried off the woodshed and the woodpile, when the electricity went out for several days and the basements of neighboring houses turned black with standing water—the surface broken only by a floating bucket, a half empty bottle of engine coolant like a rudderless craft—everything wet and seeping—and so, of course, it was also the year his father died. The ground had only just absorbed the last of the snowmelt, in the first sweet, euphoric days of spring; the forsythia had come up golden around the mailbox. He received the call on the hall telephone, packed the car, and drove south through the Frost Belt and out into the summertime states of his childhood. Massachusetts Welcomes You, Connecticut Welcomes You, Maryland Welcomes You, and underneath, a bunch of black-eyed Susans.
The house—what had been his house, and was now his house again—stood behind a row of oaks, where the gravel popped off the road and into the undercarriage of the car. The trees dripped with Spanish moss, fanciful. He had shed his winter coat outside Richmond and it sat heavy on the passenger seat. He brought the car to a stop and got out with his shirt sticking to the small of his back. The screen door creaked; his key fit the lock.
His father’s boots still sat beside the back door, caked to the ankle in black mud, the heels crushed where the toe of one had been used to remove its mate, the soles worn along the outside by his crooked walk. Bloated oats floated in an inch of dirty dishwater in the sink. Mail slumped on the kitchen table. The smell of stale cigarettes and dust—soft, fat in the empty house—was cut by rot: two bags of trash in the mudroom, wire ties holding the white tops shut, and on the counter, a fruit bowl furred with flies.
He went up to the second floor. The door to his father’s room was open: the print of Albrecht Dürer’s Wing of a Blue Roller hung above the bed, and the desk overflowed with pieces of loose paper, some of them covered in neat handwriting, and others, in sketches of birds broken into their constituent parts. The sheets trailed to the floor. The little paned window was thick with grime. Beneath were stacks of cardboard boxes, numbered in an unintelligible system known only to one man, and that man now dead. Their corners were darkened with wear, water stained.
Down the hall was the room he had slept in as a child, where nearly nothing had changed. The plain blue comforter was heaped with dust, and so too were the bookshelves, and a collection of seeds and stones along the windowsill. Pressed flowers were mounted on one wall, now largely brown and brittle with age, and more sat between plates of glass on the little wooden table beside the closet. Inside, his church-going clothes hung like pale ghosts, collars starched. A row of tiny shoes sat underneath. The impressions his feet had left in the foam soles were filled with a fine grit. He set down his bag and lifted the windows, letting in the smell of brine that came, wingless, from some hidden beach he had known when he was younger. The crick and the marshes, the tall grass, also had their smells, familiar.
Once, he had waded daily into the silt at low tide, collecting plant specimens with a child’s gravity, his father in miniature, but that had been a long time ago. The little streams and deltas had surely changed their courses, acquaintances whose lives had continued without him. He could still remember the names of some of the things that grew in the rank mud behind the house: pickerelweed, cordgrass, bur-marigold—one still half-pressed on the table, brown head flattened and seeds milk white.
Something shifted and scratched in the attic, setting off a flurry of rustlings. He looked to the ceiling. The sounds subsided for a moment, then picked up with renewed vigor, responding to his movements. He went back out into the hall and up the stairs to the attic. At the top, his hand on the door, he paused, and something on the opposite side paused as well. He imagined surprising a family of rats, or a fat possum come up through a drainpipe and unable to get down; he imagined his father—the coroner’s mistake—digging through boxes for a book long misplaced in storage. “Have you seen Duncan’s guide?” he would ask without preamble, his flannel shirt stained around the collar. The rasping could be the sound of ancient packing tape being slit open with a key. He pushed against the door.
Several birds flew toward him, white and red. They wheeled up into the gabled ceiling and perched, rustling. It smelled strongly of bird shit, and the floor was coated in slicks of white. The boxes had been pushed to one end of the attic, under the eaves, and the rest of the space was full of open wire cages with nests of newspaper and straw, over two dozen in all. In the center of the floor were the bodies of two pigeons, each torn open from the back, their wet viscera pooled around them. There was a third under the window, its skull cracked. He looked into the rafters, where the birds waited nervously with their bloodied faces, shifting from foot to foot.
His father had once been desperate for an aviary—glass and steel in his drawings of it, situated in the garden like a greenhouse. A few of the beams had lain rusting in the grass of the backyard, but had never borne anything heavier than the weeds, crawling with ants. That had been the summer of the hurricane, when they had boarded the windows and stocked the basement and filled the bathtub with reserves of water, emerging finally as though from the ark into a world made surreal: boats washed up onto the highway, buildings left backless and gaping like dollhouses. The aviary was never built.
He opened the window and urged the birds out, tossing the bodies of the pigeons onto the lawn below, lying spread and bloody in the grass. Once the last of them were gone, he closed the entrances to the attic and went back down into the kitchen. He scrubbed his hands, scooped the sodden oats from the drain, and washed his father’s dishes, dried them, put them away. The house was fully quiet, still smelling rotten and stale. It began to darken as the afternoon light was blotted up like spilled water by the massive shapes of thunderheads.
On his father’s phone, he called the university—forty-six undergrads and eight graduate students who would be the first to miss him—told an administrator that he couldn’t be in for a few days, and then dialed the number for the mortuary.
“I was told I needed to come identify the body of Jay Buford.”
There was a moment of silence at the other end. “Is this Davie?”
“Davis,” he said.
“It’s Luke Smalls.”
“Hi, Luke, how’re you doing?” He could see Luke, thick and balding even in high school, leaning against a railing in the Smalls & Sons shirt, with the white rose embroidered on the pocket. Jay had never liked him.
“Good—I’m doin’ good. Are you back in Ritter?”
“I’m calling from Jay’s house.”
Luke sighed. “Look, Davie—Davis—they’ve still got your pop up at the station in Walterboro.”
“At the police station?”
“Why did they take him there?” He played with the coiled cord of the phone, wrapping it around his fingers as he’d done as a teenager.
“You know, I can’t say. The woman who, uh, found him called the police.”
“Who found him?”
“One of those new neighbors—Lauren or Laurel or—”
“Found him where?”
Luke paused again. “You know your pop wasn’t, uh—wasn’t all there, toward the end.”
“What are you saying, Luke?”
“Very smart man, not all there. Did you talk to him? In the last year or so?”
“I guess she found him on the lawn.”
He looked out the front window, through the slatted shutters, to the lawn. The grass was unmowed. The weeds along the verge of the road were encroaching. “On the lawn?”
“Maybe you should call the police station, Davie. That’s about all I know and most of it hearsay anyway.”
“I don’t understand, why hasn’t the body been released to you?”
“I think there are just some questions left.” He cleared his throat. It sounded as though he was shuffling through papers.
“What kind of questions?”
“Questions about if he should—if he can—have a—a Christian burial.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Call the police station. They’ll tell you more than I can.”
“It’s no trouble. And Davie? I’m real sorry about Jay. Like I said, smart man, real smart man.”
He said goodbye, hung up the phone and went back into the kitchen. He opened the drawer beside the fridge that stuck partway with a broken runner. There was his father’s soft pack of Marlboros, half smoked, and the cardboard book of matches. He poured himself a drink and carried the bottle, the phone, and the cigarettes out onto the porch. The clouds were heavier, threatening rain, and as he sat, lightning licked its forked tongue around the sweet rim of the horizon. He had watched those storms roll in as a child, standing in the open window of his room as they crackled and sparked around the church steeple like holy engine backfire. The air then was metallic with humidity. He lit a cigarette and dialed a number he knew by heart. It rang a few times.
“Grace O’Connor, may I ask who’s calling?”
He could hear her sigh. “Davis, what are you calling for?”
“You don’t answer your phone as Buford anymore?”
“I’m not a Buford anymore.”
“But you used to answer your phone that way.”
“Well, I don’t anymore. What are you calling for, Davis?”
He took a drag on the cigarette, let the smoke hang in front of him on the porch. “Jay died.”
Grace was quiet. He could imagine her trying to find something to say, switching the phone from one shoulder to the other and pursing her mouth. “I’m sorry, Davis.”
“I thought you might want to tell Cara.”
“She never even met him.”
“He was still her grandfather.”
“You’re going to confuse the hell out of that little girl.”
“Maybe I’ll see if I can find some photos to send her. If that’s all right. Is she there?”
“No, she’s at piano,” Grace said. “I’ll have to pick her up soon.”
“How is she?”
“She’s doing well.”
“Good.” He put the cigarette out in a plastic ashtray with water and a sludge of ashes at the bottom. A truck drove by, the dim figure in the driver’s seat squinting at him on the porch.
“Look,” she said, “I am sorry about Jay.”
“You know, I hadn’t seen him in almost ten years.”
“He was a sonuva bitch.”
“I know, Davis.” Jay had once adored her; had given her bird whistles and patterned scarves at Christmas until his interest grew thin and brittle and finally evaporated.
“They found him on the lawn.”
“I’m sorry, Davis, I’ve got to go.”
“Okay, say hi to Cara for me.”
“And tell her about Jay?”
She paused. The sink ran in the background and then shut off. “You know, she’s not sure most days that she’s got a father.” He lit another cigarette, exhaled. The last time he had seen Cara, she had been six and a half, angelic like her mother, standing no higher than his waist and throwing rocks at the icy Atlantic. He carried a picture Grace had sent him in his wallet. “If there’s a way for me to bring it up, I will,” Grace said.
“That’s all I’m asking.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
He set the phone back in its cradle at his feet, the cord stretched through the screen door. Any minute, he thought, it would start raining in earnest. He poured himself a second drink and kept his eyes on the tops of the oak trees, whose leaves had gone belly up like pale fishes. The sky was almost fully dark and limping through afternoon and into evening. One white pigeon circled the house forlornly, as though looking for an entrance, and then disappeared out over the marshes. Lightning flickered. His cigarette burned out on the lip of the ashtray. Any minute, he thought.
* * *
He woke, hungover, on the couch, the overhead lights on and the needle of the record player clicking faintly in the locked groove. From the rumpled nest of blankets at his feet, he could guess that his father had also found himself there of a morning. The whiskey bottle on the floor was empty. He could not remember haven eaten anything in hours. He sat up gingerly.
Light came in through the screen door, and through the windows over the table. The clouds had cleared, sun cooking in the flat, blue pan of the sky. He turned off the record player and Peter and the Wolf came to a stop on the turntable; it had been the first album he had ever owned. His clothes were rumpled now; his mouth tasted of cigarettes. He drank a glass of water standing at the door to the porch, looking out over the puddles that had formed on the dirt road to the house.
While he was in the shower, the phone rang. He reached it only in time to hear his father’s voice on the answering machine, forever saying, “You’ve reached Jay Buford, leave a message.” There was a click, and then another voice began, clearing his throat. “Davis. This is John Reynolds up at the Walterboro police station. I understand from Mr. Luke Smalls that you’re currently in town, and we’d like to have you come identify the body of Mr. Jay Buford, if you would. You’re welcome in any time, but we’d like to release Mr. Buford to Mr. Smalls for burial as soon as possible.” Reynolds coughed. “I also offer my, uh—my condolences, and hope you have a good—uh, a fine—day.”
He dressed upstairs, looking out over the marshes. The attic was quiet. On the way out, he looked again into his father’s room, already beginning to collect dust in its hollows. Light from the little window fell in a neat square on the bed. The spill of papers from the desk was in shadow. Every time he stopped at the open doorway, he expected—perhaps out of a kind of habit, a kind of muscle memory—to find his father engaged in one of his strange little projects: wiring together the bones of a thrush or making tracings from an open book. Jay had once advised museums; he had taught zoology.
He got in the car and drove north to Walterboro. The country was familiar: trees rose along the road, which passed over cricks nearly invisible in the undergrowth. Fields opened unexpectedly, soft with heat and punctuated by church spires. He passed the smoke shop with a wooden Indian out front and a neon Babylon of a strip mall that had been nothing but a gravel shoulder when he left.
At the police station he introduced himself as Jay’s son and was taken into Reynolds’ office.
“Please, Davis,” he said, settling into the chair.
“I’m sorry to have to call you up here like this.”
“It’s no trouble.”
Reynolds opened a file. His desk was clear and organized; a picture frame faced him at the head of his empty inbox. “I have no intention of leaving you in suspense—have you heard any of the details of your father’s death?”
He looked down, as though reading a script from the open file. “We suspect that some time in the second half of last Sunday, your father, Mr. Buford, jumped from the roof of your house.” Reynolds cleared his throat. “His body is showing considerable impact fractures, as well as internal bleeding, that is, uh—is consistent with a fall from about that height. Now, around eleven am the next morning, your neighbor, Ms. Laurel Hill, was passin by the house, saw your father, called 911, and Jay Buford was pronounced dead.” He folded his hands over the slim sheaf of papers. He looked uncomfortable.
“Mr. Reynolds, I didn’t have much of a relationship with my father.”
“So you don’t need to spare my feelings.” For a moment, he had a vision of his father smoking on the porch with the light off, his breath leaving him in great, opaque swells, while past the perimeter of the yard, the oak trees and the crick and the marshes put on their evening concert of croaks and cries, Jay naming the birds as they called.
“I understand that you’ve already spoken with Mr. Smalls and he’s expressed some concern as to whether this was, uh—an unchristian thing to do.”
“Yes, he said.”
“Now, he’s informed me that it is not only the—the potentiality of suicide, but some of the other circumstances of your father’s—of Mr. Buford’s—death.” He pulled a photograph to the front of the file, holding it up for a moment before handing it across the desk. “You father was found wearing nothin but a large set of what were apparently wings when Ms. Hill found him.”
He looked at the photograph. It showed a corner of the house and part of the lawn, Jay facedown in the foreground. The perspective was clinical. Attached to his father’s arms, one of which had gotten caught under his body in the fall and was horribly contorted at the shoulder, were wings of a sort. Leather straps crossed his naked back, supporting a mass of multicolored feathers.
“I don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Smalls in this,” Reynolds said, “but I believe he’s concerned that your father—Mr. Buford—was involved in a, uh, ritual of some sort.”
He looked more closely at the thing his father had built, at the elaborate care of it. “Jay was an ornithologist,” he said at last. “I’m sure he saw this as part of his work.” His father’s thin gray hair was neatly combed over the vulnerable nape of his neck. There was no blood.
“And the, uh—the nudity?”
“Weight, I’d guess. He’d have to be incredibly light.”
“Do you still need me to identify the body? I can tell you from this picture that it’s him.”
“I do, unfortunately, yes. As a formality.”
“And do you have the wings?”
“Yes, of course. I can release them to you, if you’d like.”
Reynolds stood. “Shall we?”
“Please,” he said.
* * *
He drove home with Jay’s wings on the back seat. The feathers were blown around by the wind from the open window; one or two drifted through the car like dead leaves. The body had been sent to Luke; the funeral, small, had been set for Saturday. He took a detour down 95 to St. Helena’s, to Hunting Island, to the Atlantic. Driftwood had washed up on the sand in eerie shapes, and children clambered over and around the dead branches. The two-toned lighthouse rose from the tree line like an obelisk, its black top funerary.
It was hot and so the beach was crowded, towels laid out under the palms and slash pines. The sky was cloudless. He walked out into the water in his clothes, past the swimmers and the inner tubes, until there was nothing between him and the horizon. The still face of his father, almost unrecognizable on the coroner’s slab, seemed to be reflected on the calm surface of the ocean. He was up to his chest. He held his breath and dove under.
* * *
In the afternoon, he bought trash bags and boxes. He began in the attic, which still smelled of birds and shit, though he didn’t dare open the windows for fear that they’d find their way back in. Sweat seeped into his damp clothes from the small of his back, under his arms. Salt dried on his skin. He started to go through his father’s things. Most of the boxes that had once been in the attic were gone and the ones that remained were largely overflow from the bookshelves downstairs. He opened the split tops of each and marked in pen the things that could be thrown away or sold. The books themselves were age-spotted and dusty, pages warped. Nearly all were on birds or birding, though he uncovered a few botany books he had owned in high school, a small collection of fiction—spines unbroken—and less than half of a twenty-nine-volume Encyclopedia Britannica.
In the box wedged furthest under the eaves, he found his mother’s wedding dress, moth-eaten to lace. Sweat ran down the back of his neck. He tried to lift it gently from the box, but it fell apart in his hands. Underneath were two photo albums, one a quarter full of his baby pictures, cutting off abruptly after two-and-a-half, and the other with pictures of his parents. There were so many stuck between the pages that the album wouldn’t shut properly, that the sepia-toned photographs slid out onto his lap: on top, his mother on the porch in a white and yellow dress, tulips planted in the window boxes, their red mouths open to the sky like baby birds.
He sifted through them: Jay in a sweater; his mother listening to records, going up the steps, standing at the sink. He had loved the pictures as a child, when looking at them had been like remembering them, but sitting in his father’s vacant house, they seemed the family photos of a stranger. He chose one for Cara—her grandmother and Jay sitting side by side on the lawn, her with a flower crown slipping over one eye—and returned the rest to the album. He stood and stretched his back. At his feet: less than half a box worth of things he wanted to save.
He ate on the porch and peeled through the last of Jay’s cigarettes. It was Southern springtime, the sun just beginning to dip. Beneath the tree across the road, the magnolia blossoms were wet and rotted. He cleaned out the bathroom: one toothbrush, one bar of soap, one prescription bottle of fluoxetine, expired and unopened. He threw out all but one of the pressed flowers, threw out his graduation gown, his plastic trophies, his few children’s books, his posters, his old clothes, a half-sized baseball bat, a seedpod collection, a box of graded schoolwork. He folded up the dust-softened comforter and the pillows and put those in a bag of trash as well. The room could have belonged to anyone, without all those things in it.
The sun had finally fallen below the row of oaks, a golden head slipping under the waterline. He brought his father’s whiskey into the master bedroom, turned on all of Jay’s lamps, and drank from the bottle. It smelled most strongly there, musty, the dirty bed sheets still indented on the left side where his father had slept, a halo of grease on the pillow like the impression left by a saint. He piled Jay’s clothes in the center of the bed, the pockets turning up receipts and stiff crumples of tissue. Jay’s taste hadn’t changed his entire life: holey flannels and pants he could wear into the crick. Some were still dark with pluff mud around the cuffs, unwashed.
The papers he piled into boxes, to be sorted through for a will. In went the drawings of plovers and wrens, in went his pages of notes. In the drawers of the desk, he found old lectures, a line or two standing out in his father’s uneven handwriting: “…rufous neck, black capped, with a thick yellow bill…influx of salt- and freshwater…” The desk itself was a solid piece of furniture—his grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s—with a high, pigeonholed back into which his father had put little skulls, feathers, shells. In one, a picture of Davis’ mother, facedown; on the back, Jay had written “Adirondacks, Summer 1956.”
If it weren’t for the specific eccentricity of the array, he could almost believe that everything belonged to someone who was not his father. Instead, these were variations on the drawings he had found around the house as a child. The man who had made them was more of a stranger than the little pen-and-ink sandpiper, the red-feathered spoonbill. He was unsentimental about Jay’s things but confident, too, that in saving his papers, he was saving the most recognizable parts of his father. He took the Dürer print off the wall and leaned it against the desk.
Last he turned to the boxes under the window, perhaps a dozen of them, all stained around the corners, as though they’d been sitting in water. There seemed to be some system of organization, but it was impossible to understand it. He opened the top box and was met with a wave of flies. The smell of rot grew close and sour in the bedroom. Inside were three black-throated razorbills, inexpertly taxidermied, so the eye of the topmost had sunk eerily into the cotton batting in its skull. The chest and tail were missing feathers and deformed, enough flesh left inside to have rotted completely. He stepped quickly back from the pile of boxes.
A few flies knocked at the window, or circled the room and then disappeared out the open door. He followed them to the porch, to the backyard, where he could stand with the whiskey bottle in one fist, looking over the semi-dark crick. The twilit air seemed to hang like mist around the cordgrass and the sulfurous smell of mud felt clean in his lungs. Something squawked and splashed into the water; crickets and cicadas made their frictious sounds. A dozen boxes sat in his father’s room upstairs, whose yellow square of light peered down at him on the lawn. The cheap whiskey burned his throat. Moths threw themselves against the back porch light, casting shadows on the lawn. He remembered what Luke had said—smart man, not all there. In the end, he thought, Jay had always been a nesting doll, each version of himself packed within the next, growing smaller and more mysterious toward the hard wooden nub of the center.
He went back inside. The eleven boxes were filled with partially stuffed birds: cormorants, flycatchers, warblers, doves—each, as Genesis said, according to their kinds, all local species. Perhaps most disturbing was the box of hummingbirds, iridescent green, the paper tags tied to their feet nearly larger than their decomposing bodies. The slick black beads of their eyes looked steadily up, flies traversing the glossy surface. He lifted the flapped lids of each box, peered down at the carefully caught and labeled specimens, decomposing into their tissue paper beds, and then sealed them up again to be taken to the trash.
* * *
He went to Jay’s funeral, the only attendant at graveside, and then drove north, with three boxes of things from the house and the set of enormous wings. The air grew chill again. He put his coat back on at a rest stop outside of New York where he could get cigarettes and a cup of coffee. Mist hung low over the parking lot, obscuring the long, hulking bodies of dead-eyed trucks. He imagined the house at the edge of the marsh falling in on the basement, burying the remains. He imagined everything decaying back into the black mud—Jay’s body, the photographs of his mother, the boxes of birds—his own body, eventually—and faintly, his father’s voice on the answering machine, impossible, saying, “You’ve reached Jay Buford,” over and over and over again.
Kit Haggard was born and raised in southern California, but currently lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, and Four Chambers Press, among other places. She can be found online, kithaggard.wordpress.com, or on Twitter, @kithaggard.