“Spies” by Timothy Schirmer

I was nineteen when my mom remarried. It was the smallest wedding I’ve ever been to. They wanted it outside, in God’s country. Her God. The sky was clear and the air smelled of pine trees. The mountains were a red clay color and they surrounded us in elegant formations. The minister wore all black and I think that bothered my mom because he looked too formal, he looked like a priest with his shirt buttoned up so tight. In a cage that sat on the ground the minister had with him two white birds. My brother tapped me on the shoulder and he whispered, “What’s happening with the birds?” I said, “I’m not sure.” They were fluffing their feathers and making soft hooting sounds in their throats.

When we were boys our mom told us she was an atheist. Sometimes though—on rare occasions—she could be overheard saying to someone, “My church is at the top of a mountain.” Or, “My church is when the sun comes up and I’m on my bike.” Back in those days she was a triathlete. She would wake in the dark to run and bike and swim each morning before work. Her muscles looked like stones under her tanned skin. Now, once a month I go to a gym and I check for this inheritance inside myself. I still can’t jog for more than ten minutes without laser beams of pain in my chest.

She wore a simple dress that ended at her knees. It was white with shoulder pads and beads on it. That’s the first thing my dad wanted to know, and that’s what I told him, almost verbatim. I only mentioned the shoulder pads because I remembered once when he said that shoulder pads make women look like middle school quarterbacks. Then he asked my brother a different question. Our strategy was to answer him honestly, but with scant, colorless details. We were like captured spies, obtusely cooperating. Though there wasn’t much to tell. It had been a small, quiet wedding.

A few days passed and dad was still asking questions. He said, “There were birds there. What were the birds for?” I wondered if he had seen a photo somewhere, or if the birds had been thoughtlessly included on my brother’s end. I said, “After the ceremony, each of them cupped a bird in their hands, and then it flew away.” “Where did they fly to?” He asked. He was smiling painfully. “I don’t know,” I said, “why won’t you stop asking us all this stupid fucking shit?” I had never cursed at him before. It was like I had flashed a weapon. I could see a washed-out look on his face in the moments that followed, and suddenly I wished that I was a child again. I wanted to be forgiven like a child, quickly and easily.

I knew where the birds had flown to. My brother and I stood watching their little shark-tooth bodies cutting up and up over the mountains. The other guests had started walking down the trail to their cars, but the minister stood with my brother and me until the birds were a dot in the sky, and then they were gone. I said, “How will you get them back?” He said, “My house is that way, when I get home they’ll be on my balcony in their cage.” Then the minister lowered the volume of his voice, “There’s a dish of snipped up worms for them there. We do that every time now, or else they get rogue ideas. Sometimes they float up and circle around the house with other birds. Big, dark birds. Hawks, I think, or eagles. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell because they’re so high. Anyhow,” said the minister, as if he was a little bored of the whole process, “my wife does the worms because I don’t like worms. Honestly, I don’t have the stomach, the way they curl around your fingers, and you have to cut them into tiny pieces before they’ll stop moving. She likes the birds,” said the minister, “they’re important to her. After each wedding she stands out back, and she waits for them.”