there are tales
so deeply true
that only a fiction will do
where pages cannot be unturned
and stories remain best untold
there are tales
unfit to category
where such endeavor
is now your second mistake
against better judgement
RaShiiba rose from her sunny, lazy perch in the picture window to immediate and full alert. Her green eyes glowed against her black fur as they fixed on the prey beyond the pane. She instinctively crouched into a pouncing stance.
Sarah, sitting in her well-worn chair, noticed the cat’s movement and placed her book on her lap. She removed her reading glasses and leaned toward the glass to see a bird with a broken wing at the far edge of the yard. The bird, most likely, was one that Sarah had enjoyed watching many times before. A wren, she thought. Now, its right wing hung by its side as it hopped through the leaves in search of food. Sarah suspected she was watching a victim that had escaped RaShiiba on the cat’s most recent foray outdoors. While foraging, and after the turning of each dried leaf with its beak, the bird nervously cocked and turned its head in all directions. It was clearly on guard for another attack.
Sarah’s view from this chair— through this window frame—had changed slowly, but drastically over the years. Gone were the days of watching her husband working on their lush lawn and meticulously kept flowers and shrubs. In his stead the feral forest beyond slowly crept toward the house. In recent years Sarah rarely stepped beyond her small back patio. Once or twice a year she paid a particular laborer acquaintance to spend a few hours beating back the encroaching wildness, but this was a losing battle.
Sarah’s current view exacerbated her fear that the house was becoming perilously entangled in the untamed grasp of nature. From the once-sparkling picture window, now with cobwebbed corners, she watched the bird near a thick snarl of briars and brambles. She took note as it struggled to use its undamaged wing to propel itself across the ground in search of food. The drooping, broken wing was now dragging further behind. Sarah reasoned that a helpless animal in such condition wouldn’t last long, then settled back into her chair and returned to her book.
The next morning Sarah sat again in her chair with her daily coffee and romance novel. The peace was abruptly interrupted as RaShiiba jumped to attention on the windowsill. This time the cat paced the ledge, wanting outside. Her quick turns on the narrow ledge scattered bits of collected dust, along with flakes of crumbling paint. Sarah was surprised to see the bird had survived and was once again exhibiting the same behavior. After a few moments’ thought and observation, she placed her book on the coffee-stained side table and walked to the back door. Here, she slipped on the old clogs that she used for her short excursions into the untamed yard. Perhaps the bird, in dire need she thought, might allow her to catch it.
The door creaked shut behind her as she began her approach. As Sarah neared, the bird made a quick dash into the dense and prickly briar thicket nearby. Sarah stooped for a moment but quickly realized the bush was impenetrable. Its thickness and thorniness precluded human access, both physically and visually. She thought for a moment and realized that in its current condition the bird would not be able to fly to any water sources nearby. Sarah re-crossed the yard to an old planter box next to the house and dug through the detritus of leaves and weeds, amassed over many years. She pulled out the bottom water tray from an old flowerpot, the original inhabitant long dead and decayed. She located the water spigot among the overgrowth consuming the back wall of the house and filled the dish, then placed it next to the entanglement of brush where the bird had vanished.
As Sarah walked back toward the house, she could see in the window her own reflection, with the watchful cat framed in her own silhouette. The cat’s stare made it clear that RaShiiba was in a foul mood for having been shooed away from the door when Sarah exited.
In many ways, Sarah and RaShiiba were twin souls. As a kitten, RaShiiba had a beautiful black coat— darker even than Sarah’s youthful hair. The cat matured to resemble a small black panther, with a similarly antisocial disposition. She was not a conventional, cuddly companion, even as a kitten. For that matter, she was not really “owned” by anyone. In fact, Sarah was the only person in the world who could even stroke her fur. But even then, it was only at RaShiiba’s offering, and never for more than a moment before the feline flipped its tail and turned away. She was not a domesticated pet that would respond when called, even when food or treats were offered.
Once Sarah married, her husband tried to earn the cat’s favor. His efforts were never to any avail. One morning when Sarah was away on a business trip, the husband awakened to mournful wailing at the back door. He opened the door to find RaShiiba lying on the stoop emitting a hoarse howl, her front legs swollen so badly she could not walk. This was the first time RaShiiba allowed him to touch her. He took her to the nearby veterinary college where it was determined that the cat had been bitten by a poisonous snake. The husband was instructed on how to best care for the cat’s ailment. He took her home and created a place in the spare bathroom, not knowing whether the cat would survive. Once Sarah returned from her trip, the husband continued to feed and care for the cat, nursing an expanding area of rotting flesh around the snakebite. RaShiiba was in a state of delirium as her body fought the poison, and Sarah was afraid of her. So, the husband endured the bites and scratches until she was once again able to care for herself.
Many years later now—more than Sarah cared to count— watching the cat inside the window, Sarah could not help but note that RaShiiba’s feline beauty had deteriorated. Her underside area around the old snakebite never regrew fur, the patch resembling an old leather glove. The cat’s tail had a permanent kink from another unfortunate encounter, and one of her ears was missing a sizeable portion. Her scalp was beginning to show a ghastly gray through the dark, thinning fur, along with the scars from too many brawls in a wilderness that was home to snakes and other savage creatures. Sarah paused only a moment to consider that the image of the cat through the glass seemed to echo the decline and decay of the house now holding the large windowpane in place.
Adjusting her focus, Sarah could also see her own reflection, faint in the morning light. From the distance she struggled to recognize her own likeness, choosing to ignore the finer details mirroring the gray roots on her own head… and the dark eyes that had sunken over time.
Again, the following day RaShiiba was asleep on Sarah’s windowsill. Despite the years and scars (or perhaps because of them), RaShiiba still had keen senses and jumped up in sudden awareness. How the cat could detect the broken-winged bird from a deep nap, Sarah could not fathom. Perhaps cats have hidden senses that humans cannot comprehend, Sarah thought. But there was the bird, cautiously drinking from the water dish that Sarah had placed the previous day. Like RaShiiba— and like Sarah— this bird was a survivor. Sarah grabbed the notepad by her chair and added bird seed and a few other items to her shopping list.
Sarah’s shopping outings had grown increasingly infrequent. She had become a recluse in recent years and preferred not to go out in public. She’d quit her job at the community college shortly after her husband left. Much of the fuel that had expanded the growth of Sarah’s bitterness and life-discontent could be traced directly back to her husband’s departure. She returned from one of her business trips to find him gone. No note. He didn’t take much of anything. He just left. Sarah didn’t expect him to be strong enough to do so, and a brief moment of grief quickly turned to anger. This wrath grew and crept on her over the years, echoing the wildness of the forest beyond her yard as it snaked toward the house.
In this moment of rumination Sarah suddenly viewed the bird in a different light.
It was not long after her husband left that Sarah had seduced the young laborer working on property nearby. Although she did not think the young man was particularly handsome, she was in desperate search for something to make her happy… or whole… or at least Not Broken. She invested several days in experimenting with cosmetics and various outfits. But these efforts were complicated by her discovery of the young worker’s mental impairment. Sarah learned that she could leverage his simple-mindedness to her advantage. The combination of cupcakes dressed in chocolate frosting with dark hosiery and a tight skirt proved an effective lure. She remembered the day that she successfully led him by his hand back to her house… and to the bed that she now shared only with the cat. His childlike demeanor created some interesting challenges to her plans.
In the end, there was little satisfaction for Sarah in the culminating physical encounter. However, it was noticeably clear that this was not the case for the young man, as he fervently expressed his pleasure with the experience, showing no interest in departing. Sarah examined the resulting situation from every possible angle, but his continued and eager affections became an immediate and unwelcome encroachment. Forcing him to leave the house would require a bit of thought. After a time, she decided to pick up the phone and feign a conversation with the police. This sent her now unwelcome guest flying through the back door, across the patio and into the wildness beyond the yard.
The ensuing pregnancy was difficult. Now in her forties, Sarah’s body turned on her and created venomous toxins that nearly killed both her and the child. She and her premature son spent weeks in intensive care. She emerged from the hospital to find a stooped specter in the mirror—a hollow likeness of the Sarah she remembered. When her son was released from the hospital, she reacted with anger when doctors informed her of the great uncertainty regarding the infant’s prospects for cognitive development. As the difficult years passed, Sarah’s efforts to teach the boy to speak were frustrated by his inability to form words. He communicated through a mixture of grunts and moans. It was clear that he would never function independently.
The child’s disability provided an income for Sarah. As he grew, the boy’s guttural mumbling became increasingly agitated and difficult for Sarah to tolerate. Now that he was a teenager, he was even harder to handle. Unlike his cognitive development, his male hormones were in no way hindered. She often caught him doing what she considered unspeakable acts that made her sick to her stomach. So, she had begun to keep him in his own room most of the time.
As Sarah thought about her shopping list, she heard the familiar groans along with banging on the bedroom door. She added “adult diapers” to her list.
The next day the bird was back. The broken wing did not seem any better, but the bird was more adept at using its good wing to move around in search of food. Once it stumbled upon the small pile of bird seed that Sarah had placed there, the bird ate ravenously. It hobbled back and forth to the water dish to drink. Sarah tried once again to approach the bird, but it was quickly and defensively back in the dense bramble of briars.
Walking back toward the house she could again see RaShiiba in the window, watching her. Standing in a shaft of light that broke through the surrounding wild forest, Sarah refocused her gaze on her own reflection. In this bright beam she saw herself as if for the first time since her hospital release. Her features were once again refracted by time and framed by the wildness behind her. She blinked and struggled to recognize the frail figure before her, so vastly altered by time and circumstance.
Sarah had always considered herself an only child, even though she once had a sibling. The sister was much older than Sarah, and from early adulthood the sister had embarked on a long and anguished journey toward death. There were car wrecks and drug overdoses… sliced wrists. Each time the attention of all family members was diverted away from Sarah and toward the sister. The seeds of Sarah’s bitterness were thusly sown and nurtured over the years. She determined that she was truly alone in the world, and she embraced the concept of self-induced seclusion. The sister eventually died from a cancerous poison that devoured her from the inside. By that time, Sarah had given up on securing the devoted focus of her family and sought attention elsewhere, if at all.
Today’s obscure reflection in the window looked much more like the final image of her sister in her casket than like Sarah. Sarah refocused her gaze on the cat behind the glass. RaShiiba blinked her own green eyes very slowly and turned away.
Over the next several days the bird proved to be more of a survivor than Sarah had predicted. Clearly it could not live long in its current condition, despite such strong instincts for survival. But it persisted, day after day.
One overcast morning found both Sarah and RaShiiba waiting at the window for the bird once again to appear. Overnight, she had placed the water and birdseed inside a spring-door cage trap at the edge of the thicket of thorns. Over the years, Sarah had ample time for learning patience toward her own desired ends.
The quiet moment of anticipation was shattered by loud moans and banging at the boy’s door. Sarah decided to let her son out of his room. Perhaps his mind would allow him to learn a critical life lesson from this experience, she thought. Sarah placed another chair next to the window and ordered him to sit. Although he could not form words to communicate outwardly, he could understand when given simple directives. He sat. Sarah pointed to the cage and said “Bird. Wait.”
They watched. And waited.
The boy noticed the bird first and went into a loud and happy fit of convulsive expression, which Sarah immediately shushed. Outside, the bird was cautious about the new contraption, but it had grown dependent on the water and seed. For several minutes the bird circled the cage in clear frustration. It tried in vain to reach through the wires toward the food and water. At last, the bird entered the cage. The motion immediately triggered the snapping shut of the spring door. Thus entrapped, the bird reacted frantically, flapping and screeching and scattering seeds, water, and feathers.
Inside the house the boy jumped about, copying the bird enthusiastically. His joyful spasms always created an untidiness that Sarah would later have to attend to. By the time she had the boy calmed and back in his chair, she looked to see that the bird had also calmed. It was still, in one corner of the trap, no longer straining with all its might to push its head through the cage toward the safety of the briar bush.
Sarah smiled tersely as she slid her feet into the clogs and stepped outside. As she approached the cage, the bird again began flailing and squawking wildly. She turned toward the picture window to see the boy again mirroring the actions of the bird. Without her constraining influence she watched him knock over the reading lamp and spill her coffee, intensifying the mess that she would have to contend with when she returned to the house. But for now, she was focused on the task at hand. She stood and lifted the cage, turning it in every different direction as feathers floated in the damp, still morning air. Eventually, the bird settled into one corner of the cage, exhausted. She might have thought it had died of fright, except that she could see the bird breathing deeply and quickly through its open beak.
When she reached her hand into the cage the bird again fluttered wildly, but she cornered it, getting her fingers over the good wing with a grip that constrained the bird. She held her hand motionless like this inside the cage until the bird quit struggling. Then she gently removed the bird and held it up to examine it. Likely in shock, the bird offered no further resistance.
A glance back at the house and she could see both the cat and the boy anxiously perched at the window. Both watching. Both now as still as the bird. And she could see, through reflection on the glass, the view that they beheld of herself, holding the bird. She also glimpsed the fleeting, reflected shadow of something else, hidden from the eyes beyond the pane.
She placed the bird on the ground, facing away from her and in clear view of the large window. Still containing the bird’s good wing in her grip, she used her other hand to gently splay the bird’s broken wing on the leaves. Once fully extended, she clearly saw the damage and identified the broken area of the wing. Carefully, with the broken wing still outstretched, she straightened the good wing to examine it in comparison to the broken wing.
She looked at both wings at varying degrees of extension from the bird, which had become remarkably tranquil in her grasp. Satisfied that she had fully examined the asymmetry, she reached down and gripped the bird’s unbroken wing.
The bird turned its head to look at her. She could see her own orbed reflection in its pensive, perhaps trusting, black eye.
With one quick motion she snapped the good wing in the same place as the broken one.
As Sarah stood, the bird remained motionless on the ground, both wings now distended. Looking up, Sarah noticed the boy had returned to his chair and was holding both arms to his chest, rocking back and forth, avoiding his mother’s gaze.
When Sarah returned to the house, she held the door open for several moments before RaShiiba realized that it was for her. The cat exited slowly. Sarah quietly returned to her chair and her novel. There would be plenty of time to tidy the mess, later.
catharsis oft finds wing
feather’d thro’ the fiction
fate bestow’d in stead
upon a nameless soul
never to find flight
only time unbroken
sunken deep beyond the thorns
‘neath the murky depths
render’d blood to ink
dark stain from wither’d quill
wmdavid spent a career as a nonfiction writer where he wrote for newspapers, magazines, museums, and national parks. His work has been featured by the Associated Press and the National Science Center. This is his first publication of literary fiction.
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