S. Frederic Liss
Slowly, deliberately, I raise my camera to my eye. I cannot frame a picture without the dead woman’s head intruding. I feel like an undertaker as I gently pillow her head on a mound of oak and maple leaves beside a cluster of late blooming Thalictrum thalictroides. Spring has been cold and damp, wintry, but the leaves are green and new born. Snow still lingers in the deep forest shade. Nature’s cycle lags behind by six to eight weeks. Summer will arrive soon, preceding spring as it often does in New England. Like prima donnas reveling in a standing ovation, the rue anemones, windflowers to casual gardeners, fling their petals skyward toward the leafy canopy. Their green leaves, whorled and lobed, are reminiscent of a child’s mitten. They bow before the warm sun like supplicants before their king. Far above, the loud, rising wheep of the Myiarchus crinitus scatters sunbeams. Setting aside my camera, I point my binoculars in the direction of the sound. Leaves rustle and the canopy expels a bird which descends like a glider riding air currents. It lands beside the dead woman’s head. Disappointment dulls its eyes. It is a handsome bird, the Great Crested Flycatcher, more commonly heard than seen because its habitat is high in the trees, its food source plucked from the air as its name implies. I eye it with the expectancy of a beggar seeking alms, a prisoner seeking a pardon. The day needs hope.
The bird’s belly sags with resignation, fearing I am a taxidermist intent on stuffing it and mounting it in a museum display case. If I had the power, I would criminalize taxidermy, at least of birds, a felony punishable by life without parole. I smile and the bird relaxes. Brighter yellow than a fresh lemon, it complements the color of the dead woman’s soft, leather handbag, a pale lemonade, light and summery, refreshing. Its thin white wing bars accent the raised white stitching of the purse. If the leather were a different color would a different bird appear, Turdus migratorius if the leather were orange, Siala sialis if it were blue? The forest is full of colors for those who open their eyes.
The dead woman’s purse has more zippers, more pouches and pockets, than a birdwatcher’s vest. My wife, my late wife, had an identical purse with as many pouches and pockets, as many zippers, except it was green, an unfortunate shade of green, murky like the water in a tropical fish tank whose filter had not been cleaned for weeks. Once, we had such a fish tank, my late wife and I, filled with bright colors and fantastic darting shapes until she stopped cleaning the filter and they all floated to the surface like pond scum on a vernal pool, hundreds of dollars we could not afford flushed down the toilet. Toss them out for the alley cats, she said, but I believed they had earned the dignity of burial at sea. She mocked me, my dead wife. One way or the other, she said, they end up in the sewer.
The sun dodges the lattice work of leaves and dapples the forest floor. I crave the pastoral the way Monet craved the gardens at Giverny. My wife never understood my passion for birding. To her, a ‘bird’ was slang for a woman, an especially sexy woman, mini-skirted, braless, with magenta hair and black lips and a loose top that flashed nipple when she smiled. No matter how often I showed her my journals and logs, my field guides, my membership cards in various ornithological societies, no matter how many times I begged her to accompany me, I could not persuade her that birds rather than ‘birds’ were my passion. The one time she did, early June the previous year, an ideal time of year, her impatience, her fidgeting, her smoking, frightened the song birds into silence. In her mind, the empty woods, my blank log book, confirmed her accusation. I know what kind of birds you hunt, she sneered.
Another wheep. A second flycatcher spirals down from the leafy canopy. Its belly is a dull, drab green, like the water in the fish tank. A mutation, I wonder, a glitch in the DNA, or, perhaps, the next step up the evolutionary ladder, camouflage to protect it from its predators, natural and unnatural, from taxidermists.
The flycatchers eye each other. Territorial they are, fiercely territorial, plucking feathers or worse from any who dare to invade their space. My wife defended her territory with the same ferocity. I have never seen flycatchers compete for territory. I am not sure I want to as only one would survive.
The dead woman, I figure, was not a birder, as disinterested as my wife in my field guides and the notebooks in which I log sightings, time, date, location, species, anything of special interest. She wears pumps, short heeled, rather than laced walking shoes or boots, beige slacks that show the dirt rather than denim cargo pants with their pockets and pouches, a silk blouse rather than cotton which breathes, no orange vest to warn out of season hunters, and she carries that purse rather than a backpack or tote. No hat. No bug spray. A fragrance which attracts mosquitoes rather than repels them; or is it the smell of death that attracts them? Lipstick and rouge. Eye lashes tumescent with mascara. She reminds me of Sleeping Beauty and I am tempted to lean over and kiss her on the lips. I would if it would bring her back to life.
I try to imagine the dead woman as a bird. It is a hobby of mine, one that evolved from bird-watching. Reverse anthropomorphism I call it, projecting the qualities of various species of birds on to people. My late wife, for example, was dove-like, not the white dove of peace or the dull brown dove of mourning, but columba livia, the rock dove, the common city pigeon with its iridescent markings and coloring that ranges from raven black to snow white. Her only feeling for birds was a virulent hatred for pigeons. Feathered rats, she called them, a characterization so common it borders on cliché. Some might call it ironic, my wife’s body being found on the roof of our tenement beneath my pigeon coop nestled where the shadow of the water tank intersects the shadow of the head of the elevator shaft. Others might call it fate. Irony or fate, I do not understand the difference between the two. Myiarchus crinitus, I decide, for the dead woman.
I feel like a petty thief, a pickpocket or purse snatcher, as I inventory the contents of the dead woman’s leather hand bag. I take stock of the items spread on the ground. For a woman so carefully made up, she carries no makeup, no lipstick, no rouge, no eyeliner, no mascara, no fingernail polish. Has she purposefully removed them or did someone else? I have never met a woman who does not have at least one item of makeup in her pocket book. Even my wife who flaunted the clean, scrubbed look with the vanity of a tabloid queen carried cleansing pads which, to her, were as much a cosmetic as anything advertised on the afternoon soaps or in the lady’s slick magazines. Identification is the logical place to start, but I find no driver’s license, no credit cards, no membership cards, nothing with a name, nothing with an address. After I inventory the contents of her purse, after I exit the woods, after I return to the city, I will phone in an anonymous tip from a pay phone in a public area, highly trafficked, a bus station or hotel lobby where numbers guarantee anonymity. After the inquest into my wife’s death, after the lawyer’s fees which ate my savings and my parents’ retirement funds, after the innuendos and rumors which caused former friends to distance themselves and cost me my job, I do not want, again, to be the most likely suspect for the death of a woman whom I do not know and whose body I stumbled upon while birding. My wife’s friends, her family, still doubt my innocence.
Or, better, I will use her cell phone. It’s black and glossy, sleek like a raven’s wing after a gentle rain. I see beauty in ravens where so many see only ugliness. Common though they may be, I would add them to the list of endangered species if I had the power. Her cell phone cannot be traced back to me. If I wear gloves, there will be no fingerprints. If I hold it away from my face, there will be no traces of DNA. Its GPS function will lead the authorities to the body. I used my wife’s cell phone when I discovered her body. The police did not accept my explanation, that I had left mine in the apartment. It was too pat. I still do not understand why using her cell phone made me any more of a suspect than if I had used my own.
Another oddity, like a flycatcher with a green vest. The woman in the woods does not carry keys, house keys, car keys, any keys. Perhaps all doors opened for her. My wife carried keys, two rings full, keys to cars we traded in years ago, to apartments we had skipped out of in the dead of night because we could not pay the rent. Maybe they gave her a sense of security, a sense she could escape the present into the past whenever she wished; maybe they took the place of family photos or other mementoes of happier times, not that I remember happier times. This woman, also, does not have photos, no smiling husband, no grinning children, no dog sitting proud, no cat luxuriating on the top of a couch in the morning sun. Maybe she is single – she has no rings, no indentations or tan lines on her fingers – or, if married, is childless, or married, then divorced. My wife did not wear a wedding band or engagement ring, but for her, that was a political statement.
Instead the dead woman has a pencil case full of ball point pens, fifteen counting duplicates, all from hotels, St. Gregory’s and the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., the Whitehall Hotel in Chicago, On the Ave Hotel in New York, several from China, the Sheraton Xian Hotel in Xian, the Hua Ting Hotel & Towers in Shanghai, the Peninsula Palace in Beijing, several which do not deign to disclose the city, The Warwick, The Omni, The Sutton Place Hotel, The Renaissance, as if anyone who sees these pens will be worldly enough to know the cities where the hotels are located. I am not that worldly. My wife and I rarely traveled. My pigeons, I often joked, travel more than we do. Travel Channel, she replied, is all the travel I need.
I parse the possible explanations for the woman’s death, for her location. The obvious, that she is a victim of foul play stripped of identification by her killer before being dumped where she will not be found for months. If her killer were a birdwatcher he would have chosen somewhere else. Still, there is no evidence her body was dumped, no drag marks in the dirt, no disturbance in the ground cover, no broken branches, no bent ferns, no rips or tears in her clothing; nor are there any visible wounds or blood stains. If anything, she looks as if she lay down to nap, like Sleeping Beauty awaiting Prince Charming’s kiss.
Perhaps she is a suicide, ingesting a pill or two or three, then positioning herself to die at peace beneath the leafy canopy accompanied to her eternal rest by song birds. Or, as unlikely as it is, perhaps she died of natural causes, a heart attack or stroke while strolling through the woods; but her face is too peaceful, too composed, for such a sudden death. An autopsy will solve this mystery. An autopsy solved the how of my wife’s death, but not the who or why. Rat poison. Force fed or voluntarily ingested, the autopsy was inconclusive. A tragic mistake was the face-saver spoon fed to friends and family, although this did not explain how she ended up on the tenement roof beneath my pigeon coop. I would never expose my pigeons to the trauma of a dead body.
Let the experts make the final judgment about the lady in the woods. I know enough to know watching certain television shows does not qualify me in forensic science. I am not a detective. I am not a script writer trying to figure out how to plot an episode of CSI.
A third wheep, a third fly catcher, white-bellied, another mutant, descends from the leafy canopy. Nesting season. Mating season. The three ascend into the trees. One, maybe two, will not survive to migrate south. Thinking about it sickens me.
A leaf falls from a branch and flutters down on the woman’s abdomen, then another, collateral damage caused by the unseen battle for territory being waged above. Leaves will fall from the branches, fluttering down to cover the dead woman, generation after generation of leaves until they create a natural burial mound. How many autumns will it take? How many wars for territory between flycatchers? Similar thoughts crossed my mind when I discovered my wife’s body beneath my pigeon coop, feathers on her blouse and slacks.
This incessant reminder of my wife troubles me. Am I seeing parallels where there are none? Am I mistaking causality for coincidence? I contemplate moving on, leaving the woman’s body to scavengers, those who fly and those who pad on paws, or to the next birdwatcher.
The woman’s cell phone, dainty and diminutive, reminds me of a raven chick waiting its mother to return with dinner. I reach for it, then hesitate. There is something about human intervention in this scene which seems a desecration. I thought the same about my pigeon coop as I watched the police zip my wife into a body bag and carry her down the tenement stairs like a rolled up rug. My stomach churns at the thought of footprints, the tracks of the gurney’s wheels, a quiet glade converted into an active crime scene, churning as it did the day I first saw stuffed birds in a museum display case, perfectly preserved and wired to twigs.
In the leafy canopy, the wheeps cease. There is now a victor and a vanquished. I wish it were otherwise. I do not want to know how it ended. I would rather they all survived. To the west, the sun now hovers at the tree line, the harbinger of sunset. To reach my car before nightfall, I must head out within the next few minutes. Using a leaf, I pick up the dead woman’s cell phone and flip open its wings. No signal, no G.P.S.
I contemplate carrying the cell phone out of the woods, calling from the city, then disposing of it in a restaurant dumpster or dumping it down a storm drain or in a trash barrel in a subway stop miles from my apartment. Before I can decide, I hear the sharp snap of a dead branch, a voice exclaiming, “Mother of Christ, that was loud.” “Scared me white,” another voice replies. Out of season hunters? Birders? Nature walkers? The law? I fold the wings of the dead woman’s cell phone and secure it in one of my pockets. I reverse my birder’s vest, wearing the orange inside, the khaki out. I ease myself away from the clearing in the opposite direction of the voices. There is no path. I wish there were a flock of flycatchers at war, their wheeps masking the rustle of my footsteps, then curse myself for wishing such a thing.
I move as quickly as I can, avoiding branches or anything which will shout my retreat. Anyone staring at me through binoculars will see branches shaking too much to be the wind. Ahead of me is a fallen tree, the victim of a long ago storm; behind it a slight dip. I roll over it and crouch down, peering over its rotting bark. I see the light of the open glade, but not the glade itself. I relax, confident anyone standing in the glade cannot see me. But, they will see the body and, if they are hunters, experienced hunters, they will be able to track me as if I were a deer. There is no path of escape, no way through the woods without leaving a trail.
Maybe they’re not hunters. Maybe they don’t know how to track game. Maybe they, too, will flee, not wishing to become involved, not willing to answer questions, to endure the hassle of becoming suspects because they discovered a corpse. In the distance, fifty yards I estimate, is a giant boulder, the excrement of a receding glacier. I can’t walk upright. The underbrush is too thick to crawl. There are trees between me and the rock. I count ten big enough to hide behind and chart a route, tree to tree to the rock. I aim my binoculars at the light of the open glade. It is even and undisturbed, no signs of shadows, no signs of interlopers. I hold my breath and move as silently as I can to the first tree, the second. My footprints are as obvious as those of a sea gull in wet sand. I wish I could fly. I look for a fallen branch with a crown of leaves to broom away my footprints. I dare not snap one off a tree.
From the third tree to the fourth, then the fifth, I am trailed by my own footprints. In the underbrush, I find what I need and retrace my steps obliterating the evidence of my escape. Returning to the fourth tree, I veer off in another direction to create a false trail. Walking backward, sweeping the branch side to side, I return to the fifth tree, advance to the sixth and seventh, the tenth, all the way to the boulder. To a casual observer, my path is unmarked, but to me, every leaf slightly out of place, every branch slightly twisted, every bent fern, every miniscule indentation in the forest floor creates tracks as obvious as if Sasquatch and Bigfoot, one chasing the other, bulled their way through the woods. I rest against the back of the rock. Through the woods, less than ten yards away, I see an open field speckled with the green glabrous flowers of early blooming Rumex crispus. I can’t go back. I can’t go forward. I can’t go to either side. I slump down, wishing for the night.
Voices. The men are in the glade. They have found the body. I hear their agitation, but cannot make out their words. I cower behind the rock.
A flycatcher, one of the mutants, flutters down from the leafy canopy to my rock. Its eyes gleam with revenge. The other two swoop down like hawks on the hunt and land beside it. There was no victor, no vanquished. I had it wrong. In unison, they wheep. In unison, they attack me, defending their territory, themselves, with the fury of a parent defending its hatchlings. I flail my arms, but the attack persists, escalates, synchronized. Flycatchers are solitary birds. They do not act in concert. They do not share space. I roll away from the rock, covering my head and face with my arms. Rage builds within me as it did that night on the roof of my tenement when I caught my wife trying to poison my pigeons. I grab one of the mutants as it pecks me with its beak, crushing it. Its innards coat my palm and fingers, sticky and viscous. I shake off bits of organ, pieces of feather. I stomp the other mutant with the heel of my hiking boot. I fling the natural, its yellow breast flecked with my blood, against the boulder. The impact shatters it. The other mutant flees across the open field, wheeping.
I sprint after it, preceded by my shadow which extends twice my height. I pump my arms. My elbows rotate in little circles. My shadow resembles a long, thin bird with two broken wings attempting to fly. Around me, reddish brown seed pods explode from curly dock and flit around my head like the last snow fleas of a dying season. Oak trees and maples devour my shadow as I approach the opposite tree line. I fall to my knees and look back. Murder must be punished. Tears stockpiled from my wife’s funeral drench my cheeks. I try to rend my vest, but my hands are too weak with grief, too weak with guilt. I whirl it above my head. The dead woman’s cell phone, glossy black in the late afternoon sun, flies out of the pocket, a raven soaring toward the sun. A siren wails. The surviving flycatchers explode from the trees, skyward, eclipsing the fading daylight. I push myself off the ground and head in the direction of the sound.
S. Frederick Liss, a Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize sponsored by University of Georgia Press, has published or has forthcoming 38 short stories and has received numerous awards and other forms of recognition for his short fiction including The Florida Review Editor’s Award for Fiction; James Still Prize for Short Fiction sponsored by Wind; Midnight Sun Award for Fiction sponsored by Permafrost; Third prize in the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction; Finalist for the Raymond Carver Award for Short Fiction sponsored by Carve Magazine; and Honorable Mention in the New Letters Literary Award for Fiction and the Glimmer Train June, 2014 Fiction Open. Liss has also been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Dogwood, The Worcester Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. In addition, Liss was a finalist in the Bakeless Prize Competition sponsored by Middlebury College and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Liss earned a MFA from Emerson College, Boston, MA and was the recipient of a Grant-in-Aid in Literature from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, Boston, MA where he leads a workshop in writing fiction.