The Yellow Birds
– Fierce Fiction by Kat McNichol – November 12, 2018
He guides his 1950 Massey-Harris tractor out the battered grey doors of the old barn. The rusted hinges of the barn door match the faded paint of the tractor: brittle, crumbling, but holding on. He too holds on, just barely.
On this day, like every other, he woke at the crack of dawn to the rooster’s crow, pulled on his worn blue jeans and cinched his leather belt another hole tighter. Out of habit developed from years as a journalist, he tucked a notebook and pen into the front pocket of his yellow plaid shirt worn loose around his aging neck, before slowly padding down the hall to the kitchen. There, he brewed his coffee, and as it sputtered through the grounds into the pot, he stared out the kitchen window, acknowledging the sun rising over the green field and distant forest, before turning his thoughts inward. Although the dew glistened in the rays that shone through small openings in the overcast sky, dancing prisms across the grass that flowed and folded in a brisk breeze, he was blind to it. Where once this place had brought him joy, now he felt only emptiness.
Climbing with effort onto his tractor, he pauses to catch his breath and to let a shudder pass through his chest, before driving towards the open field along the forest edge. He’s hopeful the day’s work will take his mind off the ache of loss that sits at his core. He needs to forget, he wants to forget — her. She eats at his heart, an insidious mist that fogs his brain, so day after day he plows deep furrows in even rows, letting the rhythm of repetitive labour still his mind and its ruminations. Trapped between living without her and dying into a lonely darkness, he exists in limbo, creating patterns that allow time to pass.
Without meaning to he thinks of her laughter, high and rich; a lovely trilling sound that once filled his heart with joy, it echoes in his memory like a rough copy of a beautiful masterpiece. Shaking his head to kill the thought, he arrives at the field and looks at his work from the day before. The rows in the soil, their simple pattern, settle his mind. Like counting sheep, the sleepy rhythm tracks his day. Beginning a new furrow, he keeps his progress slow, wanting the rhythmic motion to last.
Exhaling, he wonders, how do you write the sound of a sigh? If he still could, he’d find the words, but he isn’t a writer anymore. Once he wrote beautiful stories with just a hint of haunted longing, like the sound of trucks passing on the highway, but he hasn’t written since she vanished from his life and that longing became too real. This pressure on his mind lies heavy, his muse smothered under the weight of it.
A rumble of distant thunder makes him think of violin bows moaning across strings. The music he imagines, the music she played, seeps into his brain like tendrils of smoke. He tries to pretend it soothes him, like rocking in his mom’s arms when he was just a boy, but the thought feels faint and forced. He can’t shake this despair. The music takes on the tone of his loneliness, like the howl of wolves at nightfall.
As the thunder deepens, he remembers moss underfoot and stepping over crevices that appear to have no bottom. He thinks of blankets of trillium flowers carpeting the forest floor as they walked together among ancient trees. They’d explored the woods many times, but one time in particular stands out in his mind – the day they saw the bird. It was yellow, small, and delicate, and as it passed it tipped its wings in what seemed like a wave of hello.
“Let’s follow it,” she’d said, pulling him along behind her.
They followed the bird to the far side of the forest, where they found it was possible to step out from the trees to a flat rock ledge. Unable to go further, they watched as it soared out over the river, the water far below gleaming with all the colors of the setting sun.
Out on the escarpment, in that spot they came to call the lookout, they stood in awe as the sun separated into every shade of gold and red that could possibly exist, the little bird darting among the setting rays with such an intensity of joy he’d thought his heart would burst open.
“Do you feel it?” she’d whispered, but his throat was too tight to speak the words in his heart, so he could only grip her hand tighter in his.
That day, he’d felt found, like something inside him opened up. He’d never wanted to forget that feeling.
Now, he’d give anything not to remember.
“An elephant’s memory,” she teased, whenever he corrected her recall. She’d flitted through life like a butterfly, gentle and carefree, and he’d envied her lightness. He tended to dwell on the past while she focused on a hopeful future. Together, they’d balanced.
But now, he’s desperate for relief as his thoughts take him back to the terrible sound of brakes squealing, shattering glass, and the painful jerk of the wheel in his hand. He remembers the terror in her eyes as her pupils grew to black oceans and the moment those eyes became nothing but matter, blank and empty.
He wants to sink into the silent blackness of that last second of her life, but he’s alive and alone, and he can’t stop the whole terrible memory from playing on repeat, bowing his shoulders low, bending his back. The guilt, razor sharp, cleaves him apart.
It was a night like any other, a drive like any other, and as always, he’d turned without looking onto the remote road that led to their farm.
He feels the prickle of tears behind his eyes and an ache in his throat, a sob that soon he won’t be able to hold back, because he’s just so tired, and he cannot deny for too much longer the scream that waits inside him.
Moving his hand on the tractor controls, he stops mid-field. Eyes shut he tilts his face to catch the breeze on his aging cheeks. His skin is wrinkled, pitted with crevices, but the man he’d been remains visible underneath, strong and kind. The breeze feels cool on his face, like a caress touched with moisture, almost a kiss; it soothes his burning skin and aching throat. In that moment, the sun and breeze embracing him, he feels young again, and remembers her spirit as he’d known it then.
She’d been his constant from the time he’d toddled across his lawn to look at the creature in the yellow bassinet next door. They’d smiled at the sight of each other, sharing the same smile on their wedding day, at the birth of each of their children, and when they’d bought this farm.
Opening his eyes, he sees the bird. It’s far in the distance, crossing the sky towards him through the rays of the morning sun that lies low like a harvest moon. He hadn’t noticed the shifting position of the sun, lost in his thoughts as he was. But now, the bird and sun, they feel like a message. He looks around but sees only rolling farm fields, the grass darkening to a rich green in the half-light of a looming storm. Is he missing something?
On the day they purchased the farm, they’d found a bird trapped between two window panes of the master bedroom upstairs. As she’d watched from below, he’d dislodged it, and stroking its yellow feathers to ease its fear, he held it out the window and watched it fly off his palm into the woods beyond the field.
“That bird was the spirit of the lady who built this place,” she told him later, as they unpacked in the bedroom. “When you helped her go, I think she gave us permission to live here.”
He laughed indulgently, used to her fancies, but she only smiled as she pulled her yellow quilt from the first of many boxes.
Now, the yellow bird flies across the field before him and his feeling of awe is exactly like those moments of contemplation that once filled him with words. It’s a feeling of magnitude, like when she talked him into jumping out of the plane and the world opened up under his feet, and falling didn’t feel like falling at all, just weightlessness. The brilliance of the storm-light around him brings with it a sharp clarity. As if through a telescope, he sees hundreds of iridescent yellow feathers on the wings of the bird and remembers a filmy scarf that fluttered out behind her in the breeze, and yellow tulips in tall vases in every room she inhabited. Then, with a flare of his nostrils, he smells it, sweet but not too sweet, the smell of freshness and the easy comfort that came with her presence.
He senses her with every part of himself, like the sound of a trumpet filling the air and all the empty, lonely places inside him. She’s in that bird floating across the horizon, in the low-hanging sun, in the sky darkening with clouds, and in the words he’ll use to write this moment.
The grass swirls around him in circles, tiny tornados all pointed upwards. Following the motion of the wind, he sees the bird tip its wings toward him before disappearing in the distant woods. He will follow it, as they did before, but first, he will write. Inhaling the electric energy around him, he reaches into the pocket of his yellow plaid shirt, the shirt she’d given him on their last Christmas together, and pulls out his notebook and pen.
He guides his 1950 Massey-Harris tractor out the battered grey doors of the old barn… he writes, haltingly at first, as if coming out of a long sleep, then faster and faster, sentences pouring out like they never have before. He struggles to keep up but he’s determined to get the story written. Somehow he knows it will be his last. She’s waiting and he’s ready to go, but not before he writes his story. She’d want it that way.
He writes the final word — alone — before carefully closing the notebook and tucking it back in his pocket with a sense of lightness that he hasn’t felt for years. He looks with fresh eyes at the scene around him, the field stretching out to the edge of Cathedral Woods. She’d always said the name was fitting for a wood so clearly touched by an ancient holiness. Although tolerant when she talked of spiritual things, he’d never believed in anything other than what he could see and feel and touch. But after that moment with her on the cliff edge, he’d felt like maybe, just maybe, there was more. Today, he has that same feeling as he senses her energy around him.
Climbing from the tractor, he rubs at a painful twinge in his left shoulder, and then with a last look around, he walks down one of the furrows, the yellow bird flying beside him. It comforts him to know it’s there. Soon, the field ends. Stopping on a patch of clover at the forest edge, he looks back towards the tractor standing vigil mid-field beneath the swirling storm clouds. This, too, he finds comforting.
Easing himself to sitting, he holds his arm to his chest, lies back in the clover and stares into the rumbling sky above. As he watches the rain fall towards him, pain flashes through his chest and for a moment he’s afraid. Patting his pocket, he finds the notebook. Reassured by its presence, the story, and especially, the ending that it contains, he nestles further into the ground and lets the rain wash the heat from his eyes. The nearby trees provide some shelter, their branches like the peak of a church’s steeple, their leaves creating patterns of light like stained glass.
Despite the storm, the afternoon light grows brighter, filling his eyes like the lights of the oncoming car the day everything changed. But this time he welcomes it. This time he’s ready.
“I feel it,” he whispers, and as he closes his eyes, his mind floats peacefully, lost in the sound of the rain on the treetops, the air breathing around him, in, and through him.
He lets the ache fill his chest until his ribs rise with a shudder, and his notebook, slipping from his pocket, falls beside him.
And then he’s soaring above the clouds, his yellow shirt billowing, his bones like a kite holding him aloft. He sees a glimmer of yellow beside him, and knows she’s there and that he never was, and never will be, …
“The Yellow Birds” by Kat McNichol was previously published in Cold Mountain Review.
About the Author of The Yellow Birds – Kat McNichol
Kat McNichol is the Editor-in-Chief of Dreamers Creative Writing and the Co-Editor for the Journal of Integrated Studies. She is also a Director of Marketing-Communications in Waterloo and has spent the past 12+ years writing marketing copy for the high-tech industry. She holds a B.A. in English Literature, and an MAIS in Writing and New Media, and Literary Studies, and she is working on a PhD in Career Writing at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands.