Marsha Giovanna completed the last incline of her morning run, the long, hot haul up Dunlin Road. She turned onto Grebe, the last leg of her run, a long stretch of road where the northwesterly wind sliced sideways across it. This particular wind carried the cold, damp meanness off the last great lake and slammed it, with intent to destroy, into any living being or thing in its path. There was nothing to buffer it here but wide open fields of aging cornstalks waiting to be harvested for silage. Soon, there’d be nothing at all to slow it down.
The Dunlin/Grebe intersection was Marsha’s cue to begin putting her jacket back on so her sweat wouldn’t turn to ice when the wind hit her like a brick wall. As she ran, she untied the jacket from around her waist and shrugged it onto her shoulders. She fumbled with the zipper but the wind was meaner than ever with a front on its heels and it kept wrestling the two sides of the jacket from her hands. Irritated, she switched to a jog and glanced down to manhandle the thing, but her eyes locked instead on a huge dead crow mashed bizarrely into the pavement on the side of the road.
It was one of those horror movie smacks to the eyes that cause a kneejerk impulse to hit the dirt or cover your head, but it’s too late. You can’t rewind and not see what you just saw. The image is already seared into the web of blood vessels in your retinas for all time. Close your eyes anywhere, anytime, and there it is, flashing amidst the accumulation of other freakish things.
Each day after that, Marsha couldn’t help but shoot a look over at the dead crow as she ran by. She watched over time as it flattened out thinner atop the pavement and dried out more and more until it was a network of sinews intertwining mostly bones and feathers that ruffled, lifting partially, suggestively in the wind.
She feared the day it might become dry and light enough for the wicked lake effect wind to slip under it, flip it up, and give it flight again. What if it happened right as she ran by? What if it flew at her and the sideways wind flattened it against her and she couldn’t get it off? Goosebumps covered her skin as the what-ifs ran rampant through her head creating images so terrifying that she nearly fainted at their sight.
The notion of changing her running route flitted through her head at least once per day but never held her attention for long. She loved her current route. It was so perfect with the beautiful countryside views and the flats and inclines spaced out just right. And although she shrugged off the notion of changing it mainly because, on the surface, it was ridiculous to be held mentally hostage by a dead bird, deep down she felt an unhealthy pull toward it that she felt powerless to short-circuit.
Eventually, her perspective became too skewed to dispossess herself of the dead thing. She began running every day instead of just weekdays, and running hard. With no chance for her muscles to recuperate, her body was wearing down. Any sane voices within her head that tried to warn her to slow down, to save herself, were by now so small and weak that they went unheard. And so the route never got changed. She ran it day after day until it finally happened.
She had run off Dunlin and onto Grebe and from a distance, thought she saw the flattened mass of bird remains vibrating, being buffeted by the high wind. She thought maybe that’s all it would do, that she could get by it today, and tomorrow she’d definitely change her route. But then, as she got closer, she saw one whole side of the bird flip up. Only part of the body and the left wing was still stuck down.
She gasped as a clammy wave of fear washed over her. Hopelessness followed. Everything felt empty, unreal. Her head felt like a cavernous theatre playing a horror movie in which she was the victim. She was only vaguely aware of a thought to turn around and go back but she couldn’t do anything about it. Her body just kept going.
She became aware of another thought to begin a speed drill now, to run by the flapping bird remains as fast as she could, to get way on down the road before the bird was loosed and went airborne, but instead she felt her heel strikes pounding in rhythm with the flapping. Aghast, she tried to sprint, to change the rhythm, and as soon as she did, the flattened mass lifted and spiraled toward her.
She screamed and spun around and ran from the thing, ran for her life. It occurred to her to try to run without touching the ground. She heard the evil wind laughing as the matted network of bone, beak, claws and feathers smacked into her head. She flew screaming, flailing at the thing to get it off, but it was tangled in her hair. She could feel the prick of the bones and the scratch of the claws and it was too much for her to take. She felt herself losing consciousness as she fell to the ground.
Every morning it’s the same. She wakes in an enclosed area to a smell she can’t place. She hears cawing outside the enclosed area. She crows back and waits for a reply, and when she gets it, she tries to take flight. And when she tries to take flight, she realizes that she’s restrained. She looks down and sees her feathers all ruffled and in need of preening and both wings and both legs strapped down. She caws and screeches and strains her neck and head around to peck at the restraints but she can’t reach them. She senses the presence of a stranger who comes to her, a danger, that gently enfolds her and pricks her with a slender silver spine. And soon she doesn’t worry about the restraints. Soon she feels herself soaring over cornfields, lighting in the tops of trees, cawing warnings to her fellow crows when strangers or other danger is near. Four caws for danger. Two caws for all clear. She hears voices outside the enclosed area, caws four times and tilts her head to listen.
“Oh, good morning, Mr. Giovanna!” the nurse said cheerfully. “You’re right on time, as usual, I see! Your wife has had her medication and is up and about, peaceably unrestrained at the moment. You can go on in.”
Mr. Giovanna smiled and nodded politely, “Thank you, Julia.” He started toward Marsha’s room, stopped and turned back toward Julia and asked, “Any new developments?”
Julia’s eyes filled with sympathy and she shook her head, “I wish I could tell you some good news…”
Mr. Giovanna’s hopes fell again, yet he managed a smile, “That’s OK, Julia. I just like to ask…in case…” He smiled again, turned and walked down the hall two doors to Marsha’s room.
It’s always the same. Before going into Marsha’s room, he makes a little clacking sound with his tongue that she seems to like. He keeps the noise up until he’s inside the room and she acknowledges his presence and caws twice. Then she tilts her head and squints at him, which feels as a fond smile, and she makes the same clacking sound. She begins preening her feathers and he begins brushing his hair and moustache, straightening his suit and touching up his tie. When she’s done preening, she shakes out her feathers and bird dust puffs up and out like a mushroom cloud and settles all around on the floor.
After that communal bird activity, Mr. Giovanni reaches inside his coat pocket and pulls out a small bag of Marsha’s favorite corn feed. On seeing it she tilts her head and squints with pleasure then takes two steps toward him and tilts her head in the opposite direction, waiting. He opens the bag and feeds her a kernel at a time telling her what a pretty, pretty bird she is and how much he loves her. Sometimes she lets him stroke her head or scratch her skinny bird neck. And as he does so, his heart sings as part of him cries. For he has noticed the new flight feathers coming in over the months she’s been confined here. And he fears the day a wind might enter her room and she will rise up and take flight.
Blue/black birds from “Flu Bird Horror” sci-fi movie at http://www.wlug.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/birld.jpg
Row of dead crows from http://www.partypro.com/mm_PARTYPRO_/Images/X1536.JPG
Missalister’s “About Mrs. Giovanna,” copyright © 2008, was spun off the Sunday Scribblings prompt “#137 – Stranger.” Click here for more on prompt #137 from other Sunday Scribblings participants.