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 it.
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
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.