Fiction: How Far South?
A version of this flash-fiction piece first appeared in Star 82 Review, an art and lit mag edited by Alisa Golden out of Northern California.
The bobwhites huddled on my bedroom floor in a circle so tight that you couldn’t separate one set of feathers from the others. Their little beaks were facing away from the center, ready to shoot out and peck right through my bedroom windows, if they felt the need to.
This was in my dream, of course, but their beady eyes and Winston Churchill busts seemed so real that I told myself to remember, to search “why bobwhites sleep in a circle” when I woke up.
In the morning, the Internet said it was for strength in numbers, for safety, and for warmth in the winter, because their tiny feathers won’t let them fly far enough away.
The next night birds were back, only not bobwhites but gulls, all of them resting their bald white heads, beaks tucked under ruffled feathers. I had to blink in my dream before I realized that they weren’t just headless bodies attached to legs as thick as twigs.
There were seven of them, maybe eight, standing in a perfect J, like they’d landed in my bedroom after a long day of migration. I propped on one elbow to admire them sleeping peacefully, preparing for another day of travel to a faraway place drenched in sunshine.
I was alone in bed, although I knew as you sometimes do in dreams, that my wife would be beside me when this ended, when the gulls were soaring above us in the same perfect J, flapping their wings, riding on the wind to that faraway place.
When I opened my eyes, the gulls were gone. It was pitch black. My wife was asleep, her mouth toward mine, half open—I could smell her breath, stale and sweet from the wine. I followed her long lashes to the moon-white skin covering her eyes, skin as white as her bald head. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d watched her sleep, or if I ever had. I wondered where she’d gone behind her lids. Then I remembered how she hadn’t even looked up from her fresh-squeezed carrot juice the morning I told her about the bobwhites, about how it might be a sign, that bird-watching might not be a bad hobby to take up, to keep our minds off the calendar.
The next night I couldn’t sleep, thinking about how birds migrate, whether they’re born with maps in their minds, maps that will always guide them back home. Or if the sun and the stars speak to them, directing them. I wondered if we could hear the universe too, if we were quiet enough, if we closed our eyes when we were awake and simply listened.
My wife was turned away from me. I could feel the calm in her breathing, sense the steadiness. I put my hand on the small of her naked back, something I’d done before, although I couldn’t remember the last time. She rolled over, face to face with me, her dark eyes dilated and wide.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Let’s fly south,” I said.
She yawned and rolled over, facing the wall.
“How far south?” she asked.
“As far as it takes, I guess.”
I put my hand on the small of her back again.
“Don’t you want to get away?” I asked.
“Let’s fly south…” she said, letting the thought hang there, somewhere between the crack of the bed and the wall.
Then I felt the calm in her breathing return, sensed the steadiness.