by FRANK ARD
“This is the way Mom went. I know it,” Davy says.
You and Davy stand at the trailhead where sunlight shines through curling pecan leaves, splashing autumn colors on the tall grass. The trees are a decades-old reminder of the Simmons’ orchard. A long time ago, the Simmons had a farmhouse on this property, but they didn’t know the trail like you. They knew pecans like Davy knows his ducks. The footpath is overgrown with blackberry briers because you haven’t hiked the trail in years, not since the accident after Magpie moved in from San Francisco Bay.
Pebbles scatter beneath your feet. You look over your shoulder at Davy, and he’s okay. For a second, you worry that he will cut a foot on the crags, but then you remember he’s wearing the padded orange duck feet that came with the mascot costume.
What you can’t figure is how a Wilmington Ducks mascot costume made it to the Blue Ridge Thrifty Saver. Threads ravel from the zipper, kite-stringing in the March wind. Davy has worn the suit longer than the stitching has left. He is taller than the boy in your memory, and you aren’t sure if it’s him or you that’s on a slippery slope.
His face looks chubby with the hood’s drawstrings pulled tight, sprigs of hair contrasting with the yellow feathers. You can’t see his nose behind the plastic beak, but you know he’s smiling because his cheeks dimple. When he smiles big like that, his eyes squint into black lash lines.
A ways ahead, there’s a lake, wide and blue, between hills that stair-step to the Appalachians. The lake is the runoff from the mountains, lost and frigid with nowhere else to go.
Cows graze way down in the wild grass, black and white dairy spots in the mulberry shag, another reminder of when your property was viable farmland. The Simmons and all their children. Their menagerie and their orchard. Pecans and a hardworking family. Old man Simmons and his wife are dead, their children grown, flown to metropolises elsewhere. You grew up not far from here, one of a handful from your high school class who stayed in Blue Ridge. You wonder where you’d go if you could, and you aren’t sure what it looks like outside of Georgia’s ups and downs.
You pat Davy’s plush shoulder. He’s using the magnifying glass from his detective play-set to scour for Mom footprints. No one has been on this trail since you gave up tour-guiding after the accident, and Davy finds only lingering impressions of himself, three-toed marks in the dust.
“Which way do we go, Dad?” Davy asks, not looking up from the ground.
“See those cows?” you say. “We’re going close to them, but we’ll need to walk quietly. Somewhere in the herd is a bull, and as far as I can remember he likes to gore things. I once walked up on him goring a tree, just for practice.”
“How do we get past him?”
“We don’t. We wait until they’re done grazing, and we follow them to their watering hole.”
“Dad?” Davy scratches the ground with the plastic claw part of his feet. “Do you think that’s what happened to Mom—that she was gored by the bull?”
“It’s possible,” you lie.
Davy’s eye looks fat through the magnifying glass. “We should look for blood,” he says.
The Thrifty Saver was like a subterranean vault stowing vestiges of American culture. I could chart social trends by the shelves: banged-up big band instruments, doo-wop records caked in dust, bell-bottom jeans, black velvet paintings, disco lights, piano ties, a 1930 Singer sewing machine with ornamental metal stand.
This was one of those chain second-hand stores that crop up in strip malls. Blue Ridge had several, but Davy and I always came to this one because Davy liked the bigger electronics section. I came here for work clothes, today some dungarees durable enough to withstand a weekend picking up pecans. Since I stopped leading spelunking tours, I’d become a handyman. Gathering pecans was one job of many that kept us afloat.
We stopped at a row of milk crates piled with used electronics. Davy rolled his sleeves and dug in, rummaging through a nest of cables and circuit boards. I stood over him as he crawled bin to bin, yanking out interesting retro doodads, turning them in the light then dropping them. He threaded an ancient Atari though a cluster of AV cables and shook it to see if the innards rattled. “I’m gonna get this,” he said.
“Maybe there’s some games for it in there.”
He flipped the cartridge slot open and poked his finger inside. “Nah. I just wanna see what’s it made of.”
“Like taking apart a toaster.”
“Not really,” he said.
Davy dug back in. Shoulder-deep in electronics, he lost interest in me, and our conversation fell apart. I went to find some pants.
I was pushing through a patch of corduroys when Davy scuttled by. He dropped the Atari beside a clothing roulette, then dragged out a pudgy, kid-sized replica mascot costume with a Wilmington Ducks emblem embroidered on the breast. The costume was covered in dense yellow feathers, and orange pressure-glow LEDs ringed the feet.
“This is so cool!”
“I don’t know, Davy. What would you do with it?”
“Wear it to school maybe.” His shoes were already off. He hop-danced, pushing his legs into the claw feet. “Then kids wouldn’t laugh at me. They’d talk to me and ask why a duck was going to school.”
“Ducks remind me of your mother.”
“Okay,” he said. He pulled the belly of the suit over his and mazed his arms into the wings. “Do I look like a duck, Dad?”
“Ducks really remind me of your mother.”
“Quack. Now we can think of Mom all the time. Quack.”
“I don’t want to think of your mother.”
“Well I do.” Davy squinted hard, tears welling in his eyes. “Every day.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” It would be a phase, a very short phase, and then he would forget about her.
He fluttered to the counter and I paid for the costume. The cashier zipped him up.
He snapped the beak’s rubber band around his head. “Quack, quack.”
“Quack, quack,” I whispered.
When David arrived at the airport, he remembered he’d left the computer on at home. He and Magpie had exchanged erotic messages during Magpie’s layover. They had been chatting for a little over a month.
He reached the escalator and she was there, in the flesh, hand on the curve of her hip. She wore the faux fur coat from the webcam shows, heavy makeup and fake eyelashes over Japanese features. She dropped her bags, hugged and kissed his neck, leaving lipstick marks shaped like flower blossoms.
“We should get cigarettes,” she said, leaning into him. “I’m jonesing for a drag.”
They left the airport in his VW, stopped for a pack of Marlboro Reds, and ambled the single-lane road back to Blue Ridge.
They drove beside a field overgrown with tall grass when she said: “I really need you, David.”
His hand slipped on the gear stick.
She leaned close to him, lips to his ear. “I want you inside me. I’ve been wanting it so long. Let’s not wait till we get home.”
He spun the wheel. The VW choked up dust on a tractor trail, then tumbled through the wheat, air-spring shocks squeaking, suntanned stalks slapping the windshield. Magpie reached over him and killed the engine. The car coasted to a stop, and she unzipped his pants and slid her hands inside, squeezing him as he squeezed the emergency brake. They rolled in the seats, cramped and bent into odd shapes like a single creature with many limbs, and she popped the door handle and they corkscrewed into the grass. Her blouse was mostly off. She wore no bra, her breasts soft and white and pierced. He tugged her jeans off and began to peel back her socks.
“No,” she said, pulling him on top of her, “Leave them on.”
Her toes wiggled in the cotton as he pushed himself into her. They fucked for twenty heaving minutes.
“Light my cigarette,” she said, after he rolled off her. And he did.
They lay on their backs in the grass, David wearing only his boxers, Magpie naked except for her purple socks with baby ducks on the ankles. Overhead, jets winged in the cerulean sky like predatory birds.
Davy sobs at the trail fork. The cows move into the forest where they’ll wait out the coming storm. Mist falls at sidelong angles from smooth white-gray clouds, and Davy’s tears are lost. The cows vanish under a blanket of low-hanging oaks.
“We’ll never find that old bull now.” Davy wipes his face with his wing. He hunches, the sleeping bag strapped on his back. “They’ll sleep forever in there.”
You crack a stick and add it to the firewood bundle. “They’re just taking the long way to the lake. We’ll catch up, but right now we’re going to sleep in The Birdcage.” The Birdcage is what spelunkers call the shallow cave right of the fork, and you hope this will excite Davy. As long as you don’t tell him that a guy had disappeared in there years ago while on a spelunking tour with you. It ended up all over the news, killing your career. You lie without saying anything at all.
“Okay,” Davy says, stealing a glance at the cows through the fine mesh of rainwater.
I came home late after spending the day cutting down a neighbor’s holly bushes. As I closed my truck door, I smelled smoke. The Thompsons were burning their willow trees. Mr. Thompson waved, revving the electric chainsaw I’d sold him last month to make the trailer payment. I waved back.
I heard a cry from the backyard. Skirting the double-wide, my machete in hand, I followed the sound to the rabbit pen. Davy went through a rabbit phase at five years old, and I’d never gotten around to tearing down the pen. Desperate sobs came from inside, the sound of a little boy in over his head.
Davy’s feathers ruffled between the teardrop-shaped holes in the chicken-wire. He beat on the door with his palm. I’d rigged a spring latch, so the door would shut and lock automatically to keep the rabbits from escaping. Davy kicked, trying to see who was approaching, but the wire had him wedged.
“What are you doing in here?” I dropped the machete, snapped the lock, and tugged him out the tiny door.
Tears trickled dirt lines on his face. “Birds sleep in birdcages,” he said.
“This isn’t a birdcage, Davy.”
He started crying again, hiccuping and coughing, dribbling saliva from under the beak. “It’s not safe sleeping without protection. Whatever got Mom could get me too.”
“Come with me.” I picked up the machete and lead him to a crop of bamboo blocking the old trailhead. I slashed several stalks and piled them in his arms. “We’ll build you a birdcage fit for a duck, big guy.”
We chopped bamboo until the old footpath revealed itself, overgrown with blackberry briers. “Look there. A ways down there’s a beautiful lake where your mother loved to swim. She said swimming in that lake was magical.”
“She was a duck like me?”
“Can we go down there? I want some of Mom’s duck magic.”
“When you’re older,” I said. “I promise.”
A lie, but a pacifying one.
Magpie squeezed until her fingernails pinched tiny blood beads. David drew back, and she let up. She rested her hands against his chest like she was going to push him off her, but she didn’t and he kept going.
“You got to finish last time,” she said, drawing out the words as his face moved up and down in front of hers. “Wasn’t that enough?”
“I don’t know,” he finally said, and he really didn’t.
He tried not to look at her socked feet with the ducks on them, the cotton dusted red from walking on the sandstone where the driveway sloped toward the trailhead. When he looked up, she closed her eyes and turned her head.
She let out a throaty groan, and he felt very small. “Do your thing or don’t. Just make it quick.”
“I feel off.”
“Imagine someone else. Whatever you have to do.”
They went on for a while in silence, just the slapping of their bodies.
Magpie rolled on her stomach, webbed toes reaching toward either side of the bedsheets. David kept at it, partially covered by the blanket. The warm sea-blue blanket. He looked at her thighs and he thought about the tanned cashier from the supermarket, and after imagining the cashier without clothes, he came.
He and Magpie lay on opposite sides of the bed.
“Yeah,” he said, even though that was a lie.
“Good,” she said. “Listen, you should know that I’m pregnant. You’re definitely the father. I mean, I thought I should tell you that.” She pushed sweaty hair from her face. “You should also know that I’m having a friend over. Just until it’s all over with.”
Thunder echoes twice, the bellow softening to a contralto deeper in the cave. You and Davy sit under the limestone bonnet on sleeping bags. The rainwater tributaries bring red dirt from outside. Behind you, the cave widens, the limestone crowning like a chapel dome. The slick walls are stained with algae pastels.
The pine lighter log kindles into a greedy flame. “Hungry?” you say, breaking the seal on a can of beans.
Davy nods, drawstrings tight against his chin. “It’s gonna get dark in here, isn’t it?”
“It will, towards the back,” you say, “but we’re going to keep this fire going strong all night, and it won’t get dark anywhere near us.”
You take turns eating from the can and drinking water from your canteen. The fire illuminates Davy’s face.
“Dad,” he says with hungry eyes, “do you think we’ll find evidence?”
The lies you tell to protect a little boy’s heart. “We might. It’s been a long time, but there may be some clues left.” You hope it sounds sincere.
Davy digs the magnifying glass from his pack, then takes off, his bird feet splashing in puddles. He stretches his wings as he reaches the line of darkness at the chasm edge. Your feet tremble on the cold stone behind him.
“Maybe Mom went in here,” Davy says.
You nudge his wings down. You hoped he wouldn’t think of that, but somehow you knew he would.
“She could’ve gotten lost,” he says.
“She didn’t, Davy.” You think about all your considerate lies buried under that stone. “Trust me.”
It was Davy’s eleventh birthday, and the kitchen smelled like chicken. I slid his birthday cake on the counter, and we met eyes. The trailer was sweltering from the oven’s heat, and standing next to it, Davy looked fuzzy in his artificial feathers.
“You’re cooking? Davy, I told you never to tinker with the stove when I’m not home.”
It smelled fine and things looked safe until I saw the sink. Blood was smeared on the wallpaper, painting the magnolia blossoms. Water pooled in the sink, and the basin was stopped with long brown feathers.
I took Davy’s hands in mine, examined his scuffed, boyish fingers. Blood had dried under his fingernails. “Are you hurt?”
“No, sir!” Davy said, wiping his hands on his Peck the Cook apron. “It’s bird blood.”
I rubbed my forehead in sharp motions. “Bird blood. Right. A bird.”
Davy stared at the cake with wildfowl eyes. Sunlight peering through a hole in the foiled window, shimmering on his feathers. “When can I have cake?” he asked.
“When the bird sings it’s officially your birthday.” I pointed to the coo-coo clock. “That one. Not the dead one.”
Davy scurried to open the oven door. The smell was warm and fatty: potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic. I closed my eyes, was taken back to home, to Mom and late night dinners watching Johnny Carson. The red plaid couch. Wicker TV trays. Dad asleep in the other room. Mom talking about how good things are always smothered.
“It’s ready, Dad. Eat up?”
It took me a minute to realize he was asking permission. It was hard to discern his expressions, his face masked behind the beak. I’d learned to read his eyes first. The dark, sensitive eyes.
“Where did you get the bird?”
“The Thompson farm. Where else?” Outside the window behind him, a flock of geese flew in a V over the trail, heading south for the winter.
“They sold you a goose?” I knew better than to guess duck.
He doled red potatoes onto the plates, leaving little bloody fingerprints on the rims. “It’s a hawk. Mr. Thompson shot it with his rifle for trying to get his geese. Fat one too. Mr. Thompson called it a little shit, but it ain’t little.”
A hawk. Davy had plucked and cooked a hawk.
“Watch your language, Davy.”
“We aren’t eating that,” I said. “Put away the silverware.”
He stomped, the squeaky part of his heel wheezing like a dog toy. “But you said! Dad. Not fair. You said I could have anything I wanted for my birthday dinner, and you said I could have one thing I wished for. And hawks are a duck’s natural predator. I gotta eat ‘em. Those bastard hawks.”
“So you snuck down to the Thompson farm again, when I explicitly told you not wander off while I’m at work.” I paced in small circles. “To watch those geese again.”
“They’re my cousins. It just feels right.”
“Right,” I said, palm over my eyes. “How long has it been dead?”
“Since last night.”
The gunshot had woken me, and I had rolled over, sick with the impression of Magpie weighing down her side of the bed. When I rubbed my eyes, it was only the pile of blankets I’d stacked to block the morning sun.
“Let’s start with cake, shall we?” I said, lighting the candles.
“Cool! Yeah!” Davy blew out the candles before I said go.
“So what’s your wish, big guy?”
He cocked his head, icing clumped on the tip of his beak. “You said when I was bigger that we could go see the lake. Well, sir, I’m all grown up. I wanna walk in Mom’s footsteps. Swim where she swimmed. Find that bastard thing that got her.”
Randy from Connecticut was David, fifteen years younger. Nineteen, maybe twenty, plaid shirt with store-ironed seams, a price tag dangling from the left sleeve. His hiking boots were an awful color of pollen, laces looped into bows like a little boy had tied them. He and David stood under jutting limestone at the entrance to The Birdcage, sweaty from the hike down. David handed Randy a handkerchief, and the guy patted his face, then gave a perfect smile.
“I like your roommate, Dave,” Randy said between swigs of the canteen. “Got to know her before I came down. I think we really hit it off.”
“Join the club.”
“Plus she’s really cute. I don’t see how you’ve managed to stay just roomies. Wouldn’t be able to keep my hands off her.”
David snatched the canteen.
“I just want to thank you for taking me in like this.” Then Randy told David about how one time hiking he cut his foot on some “wicked” crags.
“If you want to get any spelunking done, we’d better head in.”
And they did. Their boots sloshed in puddles carved into the stone floor over centuries. Fungus painted designs on the crown. David tried to make out shapes. The yellow looked like a wheat field, the green like a crescent forest, the red like a longhorn bull. David made out the shape of a duck swimming in a dark sea, and when he looked away he saw Randy standing at the cave’s inner chasm. Randy began to descend, and David held the lantern, waiting for Randy to make his way down before going in himself.
“I hope there’s no hard feelings over Magpie,” Randy said.
Stalactites cast nervous shadows down the slope. A rust-colored stream trickled between David’s feet. “Why would there be?”
“Wasn’t sure if anything developed between you two, is all.” Randy inched forward, not looking back. “She told me you may have developed feelings for her when she did the deed.”
“You know, conceiving your child. That’s an amazing thing she did for you. Not just any favor, you know?” Randy’s voice echoed in the corridor. “I think you’re a regular hero. I mean, being a single parent isn’t gonna be a bed of roses.” The corridor shadowed him. “Dave, you can always call on me if need any help. Have you thought up a name? How about Randy?” Randy chuckled.
David flicked off the lantern.
“Whoa! What’s happening?”
“Can you get it back on?” Randy asked, and David heard him shuffling in the darkness.
“Watch your footing.”
David heard pebbles scatter under Randy’s feet, then a crunch as Randy tumbled over the drop-off and landed on the limestone below. Randy’s screams echoed up the chamber.
“Dave.” Randy panted. “Dave, I’m hurt.”
David dropped the lantern on the cave floor started up corridor toward the entrance.
“Where are you going?” Randy called out.
“To get help,” David called back, splashing toward the light.
“What should I do?”
“Stay where you are. I’ll come back for you.”
“My leg is throbbing.”
“Try to wiggle your toes.”
“I can’t. I can’t.”
“It’s probably broken.”
“I can’t get up, Dave.”
David ran out of the cave and up the trail. He found a bluff overlooking the lake where a boulder rested against the stone wall below. The boulder was supported by the twisted arms of a willow tree. David drank from his canteen and watched a bull with rust-brown hide ram the trunk repeatedly, horns chipping away bark. The bull’s hooves had worn a trench in front of the tree.
The bull slammed into the trunk again, rocking the boulder. Its horns hit askew, wedged between the boulder and a load-bearing branch. Stamping and snorting, the animal struggled to free itself, and David thought about Randy and then about the child in Magpie’s belly. He practiced the panicked tone he would use when he made it back.
“She didn’t get lost in the cave, Davy,” you say.
Davy looks long and hard into the chasm. “How do you know?”
“I just do. This couldn’t be where she died.”
He tromps back to the sleeping bag and straps on his backpack in a flurry of feathers. “I’m going in,” he says.
You hold his shoulders. “You aren’t going in there. Period. You’d never find your way out.”
“I’ll find Mom, even if you won’t.”
“I told you she isn’t down there.” Your voice rises and echoes.
“Mom’s down there and you don’t want to find her.”
“No, that’s not it.”
He sniffles, cheeks wet. “You know what happened to Mom?”
“No.” You pause. “No.”
Davy tries to break away, but you press your fingers into the suit. “Let go!” he yells.
“Listen to me. There was an accident.”
Davy stops. His eyes are dark.
“About three months before you were born, a guy who’d been on one of my spelunking tours got lost down there. Your mother never would’ve went deeper than this. She knew about the accident.”
Davy drops his pack into the water. “Did they find him?”
“The cave splits into so many small corridors and drop-offs that rescuers couldn’t search them all in time.”
“He’s still down there.”
“Some part of him,” you say, and immediately wish you hadn’t. Davy looks disturbed, his beak sitting crooked over his mouth, matted hair poking from under the hood. “Come on,” you say, “let’s get the fire going and warm up.” You put your arm around his shoulder. “You’ll find your answers somewhere else.”
Davy wraps himself in his wings. “I want out of here,” he says.
“Kids at school are still picking on you.” It was almost a question. I bowed the bamboo and tied it to the other stalks with cotton string. The birdcage crowned against the popcorn ceiling in Davy’s room.
Davy arranged the ceramic ducks on his bookshelf in a perfect row. “Not as much as before.”
“What have they been saying?”
He didn’t answer. We tossed handfuls of hay from the painter’s cloth into the cage bed. We moved seconds apart, awkward space between us.
“They call me names, Dad.”
I caught my breath. “What kind of names?”
“Like China Boy and Karate Kid.”
“Don’t listen to them. They’re idiots who think that Georgia is the center of the universe.”
Davy raked hay strands with his webbed foot. “That’s what you said before, but they started singing songs.”
I didn’t have to ask. The old teasing songs I sung when I was a kid.
Davy’s voice cracked. “Tell me again what happened to Mom.”
“She passed away when you were very young.” I tried not to look at him. “She loved you very much.”
“How did she die?”
“You need to take a bath, Davy. Let’s get that costume off and get you cleaned up.” It was a partial diversion. Davy did need to take a bath, and lately getting him to take the duck suit off to bathe had been a chore. Some weeks he skipped baths days at a time, until the costume reeked. “You can put it back on after you get out,” I conceded. It was the only way to persuade him.
“How did she die?” he asked.
I squatted on the hay-dusted carpet. I told him the story again. It was a ritual between us. “She died on the trail. She went hiking one day by herself and something got her. Rescuers came, but we never found her. That’s why I stopped hiking, and that’s why I’ve always told you never to play down there. You could get lost and hurt.” It felt all wrong coming out of my mouth.
“People at school were saying Mom was a kamikaze pilot in World War II, that she died at Pearl Harbor trying to destroy America. Billy Roberts said I’m the son of a terrorist so I’m a terrorist too.”
I felt flushed. “Next time they say that, you tell them Pearl Harbor happened in 1941 and that your mother was born in 1968.”
“Okay,” Davy said. He crawled into the cage and sprawled out. He looked at home, plump and protected and comfortable. “But last week, Dad, it was so cool. Since I’ve been a duck, some of the kids nominated me to be our new school mascot. They’ve started calling me Quackers. They laugh but I like it so I laugh too.”
It didn’t matter that they were laughing at him, not with him. Right then, he was smiling.
The baby’s crying woke David. He hoisted himself from the sheets that were covered in Magpie’s delicate skin flakes. She had a rare form of psoriasis, she said, that required constant moisturizing. The room smelled like a pharmacy.
She was pretending to sleep. He could tell because she lay perfectly still, eyelids flickering closed. She clung to the pillow with press-on fingernails. He left her and her disease and went to the bathroom.
The baby’s cries sounded muffled, strange and twice-echoed, like a creature he had never before heard, some creature from a story of a life that was not his own. His shadow doubled itself, too, by the light of the bare bulb. The two-pane mirror reflected a split self, and the pieces of his face did not meet one another. All twos: the dead guy’s voice repeating in his mind when he rocked Davy in the living room recliner, Magpie giggling from the bedroom while she chatted on your computer.
David splashed his face with water, then removed a pill bottle from the medicine cabinet, scattered the tablets on the counter and counted them out. Twenty-six. Enough to drop a bull.
He shoved them all in his mouth until he almost gagged, then turned the water on so she wouldn’t hear him if he started seizing. Davy’s stifled, newborn cries sounded in the first light of a new day, and David just stood there for a while with the pills sticky in his mouth.
He thought about Davy, born fat and healthy seven months after Magpie arrived, and he knew she was pregnant before she came. He thought of Davy growing up alone, hungry and scared in the next place she ended up. David spit the pills out and they disappeared down the drain.
He lay on the ceramic tile and listened to the boy squeal. Then he heard Magpie stomping in her patent leather boots, then sound of her dragging something through the living room. The front door creaked open, then shut. His car door slammed, and the muffler whimpered as she sped down the driveway.
David went back into the bedroom. He picked up the baby and sat at the foot of the bed and held him close. He looked at Magpie’s spot. She had left behind a dead skin silhouette of herself on the sheets.
Davy drops the magnifying glass in the dirt. “Dad, can I swim over?” he asks. “That’s how Mom got across. I know it.”
The clouds part over the lake, and it glistens blue-gold, the water motionless. Across the lake, an aged willow props a whitening boulder against the bluff. The cows congregate around the trunk. Your hand shielding the sunlight, you don’t see the bull’s rust-red sheen in the herd, but Davy seems to have forgotten about finding it, for the moment. He drops his backpack and runs ahead, chasing a pair of squawking ducks.
“I don’t know, Davy,” you call after him.
“Duck magic,” he calls back.
“Don’t go too far out.”
He splashes in and floats spread-eagle, his wings propelling him like oars. The ducks follow him out, and all three of them are soundless, at home in the water. Great brown hawks glide from the trees, unfurling their broad predatory wings. You walk along the bank, and when you reach the other side, Davy waddles into the grass, shaking water from his feathers and straightening his beak.
The willow hangs low with the weight of the boulder, branches twinning under the rock like an old man’s fingers cupping a baseball. Davy finds the bull’s skull, the horns still wedged between the branch and the stone.
He takes the skull in his small hands and pries, levering his feet against the boulder. It cracks free and Davy tumbles, stands, and puffs his belly. Holding the longhorns over his head, he sings, “The big bad bull is dead!” He bounces in a kind of duck dance. “The big bad bull that killed my mom is dead!”
The willow’s limb snaps, and the boulder rumbles free.
“Davy!” you gasp. “Davy, move!”
Cows bellow and stampede as Davy spins around, still holding the skull over his head. The boulder rolls down and crunches over him. He squeals as it pins him under its enormous weight.
You run to the boulder and shove it with all your weight, crying and trying to push the tears away. The boulder doesn’t move, but you angle your shoulder and keep trying. Davy’s small voice cries your name, ringing in your ear. You search the stone, try to dig around it, but the ground is still packed hard from the bull’s trench. Davy’s hand is all you see reaching from beneath the stone. The rest of him is buried.
“Dad.” His voice sounds distorted. “Dad.”
You hunch down and ram the stone as though you’re breaking a locked door. The impact knocks you down, but you get up and do it again. You feel a bruise welling up on your shoulder as you hit the stone, again, again. Davy sobs your name and you fall to your knees and take his hand.
“Talk to me, Davy.”
His voice quivers. “Dad?”
“I need to get help. Hold on for me.”
His fingernails dig into your palm. “Please stay with me, Dad. It hurts too bad.”
His palm is red. It won’t be long. Not long enough to hike back and then for Search and Rescue to arrive.
“I’m going to get this off you. I’ve got to lift the weight.”
“Tell me about Mom,” he whispers.
You try to tell him the truth, but you’re hoarse and the wind hurts. All you know are your considerate lies. “She was magical,” you say.
“She was a duck like me.”
“She sure was.”
“That old bull got her.”
“Yes, he did.”
“We found him. We found that old bull.”
“We sure did.”
He is silent for a long time, and is breathless when he speaks again. “Dad,” he says. “I’m glad I got to be a duck for a while.”
“Me too,” you say.