Breaking in Mid-Flight
I fell asleep reading Flaubert and my head plopped on the desk and the book fell on the floor; it's still there
and I don't remember how far I read. When my head went down I was too tired to feel the pile on my
desk: loose change, paper clips, watch, pencils, headphones. Now, half awake, my eyes won't focus. I get
up from my chair, go into the bathroom, look in the mirror and shudder at how the damn scar on my
cheek still looks raw, months later. But it's more; I feel queasy, like the cheese I ate for lunch was bad,
that in-a-minute-you-could-toss-em feeling. And then I have this
I'm-not-supposed-to-be-here-I'm-supposed-to-be-somewhere-else gnaw in my gut. Nothing on my
calendar. And the sun is glaring through the windows and Leonard Cohen is singing "Suzanne" and where
is this all going? I don't know. I can't swallow, like something back there is blocking the swallow, back
where the tongue attaches. I think I'm not supposed to be here, but I don't know where.
I call Dick; he doesn't know, has no clue, and insists on being chipper as a jay bird. Hell.
Then my eye falls on the ceramic penguin my brother's wife made, with its ratty black stubby wing
feathers. It's sitting there on the floor, about ten feet from me. The wings look like they've been
moldering in an attic for the last twenty years. The tail feathers are worse; they were plucked from a baby
black bird, I'm sure. The bird has white high top sneakers with untied yellow laces. If it could walk, it
would surely trip. The bird's eyes are egg yellow slits. Its head and open orange beak are arched at an
angle, cawing about some indefinable un-sated injustice, though it's probably just my sister-in-law.
Actually I avoid touching it, though sometimes I have to move it to vacuum the rug. The surface is pebbly,
like the kiln was fired too high or the color applied unevenly. I put on garden gloves when I have to move
Cohen is now singing "The Sisters of Mercy." We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all
right. I've always wondered: like that? like what? but have been comforted by the thought that it would
still be all right. One year, at the end of the season, I was sitting with my lover, sitting on a swing at the
Kingsleigh Inn in Maine, looking at the sail boats in the harbor. The boat we sailed yesterday, sails now
furled, was where we'd left it, left it with our promise undisturbed. I remember the porch was glassed in,
large unnatural sized panes fastened between the porch columns; even so, the glass buckled when a gust
of wind kicked it. We were holding hands the way we did then, laced, thumbs playing on palms. We were
warm from bed and I know I started to think about what-do-we-do-from-here-that's-not-a-comedown.
The dreamy glaze that settled over her half-closed eyes made me believe the same thing was on her mind.
I think she was the first to notice the gulls over the water. We counted ten of them chasing a large black
bird. Later we found out it was a raven. It was faster than the muddy brown gulls, and could break
mid-flight, soar high, or dive. The gulls were clumsy but relentless. The birds kept moving inland, closer
to the porch, and closer. They dipped low, to eye level. Suddenly a sick crunching noise: the raven had
smashed the window and itself. The red and black carcass slid slowly down the window to the grass. The
chasing gulls wheeled and headed back out to sea.
She doesn't know this, but years later, I was looking through a shop near Tikal in Guatemala and found a
piece of sand-casted glass. Some of the local pink sand was embedded in the object. The glass was
about three inches square and warm in the hand; the surface, rough and pebbly. And the design was a
Mayan hieroglyphic of a quetzal bird flying over waves. I remember my first thoughts: her, the raven, the
water, death. I asked the shop keeper what the hieroglyphic symbolized.
He said, "Bigin ha yetel kaan hun ut om. When sky and sea are one, it will happen."
I bought the piece of glass and slipped it into its leather pouch. When I got back to my hotel I put it in my
suitcase and went to the bar. It was a long night. After that she disappeared from my memories, crowded
out by two tours in Baghdad. I forgot about that piece of glass.
A year or so after my last tour, in a bar in San Antonio, I thought about the quetzal. When I got home I
rummaged through my closet, found the suitcase, found the leather pouch, found the glass with the
quetzal and waves. Something hit me, emptied me out. My muscles no longer held me. I slumped to the
floor and cried. I was there long enough for my ducts to go dry. Then I slowly raised my head and
crawled out of the closet. I stood by pushing my back up the wall. I hugged the surface all the way down
the hall, then sat down on the stairs. I spent the next two months trying to find her. I didn't.
The ceramic penguin, its angled head and squawking beak, feels like an echo now. The bottom half of the
penguin, except for the feet, is circled by a plaster body cast that cracks open as the bird lurches forward.
Birds, the memories of birds. I get up from my chair and hurl the glass quetzal against the ceramic
penguin. Both shatter. I look at the pattern of the pieces on the floor: black feathery wings are hovering
over glass glinting red in the sunlight.
Townsend Walker’s stories have appeared in L’Italo-Americano, Crimson Highway, Static Movement, 971 Menu, The
Aggregated Press; Raving Dove, AntipodeanSF, Neonbeam, Amazon Shorts, The Write Side Up, Muscadine Lines: A Southern
Journal, and are forthcoming in This Zine Will Change Your Life and Cantaraville. On the non-fiction side, he published
three books, and several journal articles on derivatives, foreign exchange, and portfolio management. After a career
in finance, he went to Rome in 2005 and started writing short stories.