ABOUT THE BIRD
This bird appeared as the banner on my website from November, 2009 – January 2, 2012, with this original caption: Yes, that’s a dead bird as my header. A very large dead bird that was discovered in our chimney by a freaked-out sweep in the Fall of 2002. Imagine how much more freaked out he was when we asked him to bring it in and lay it on the fireplace flagstone so we could photograph it. Life is beautiful.
We’d had a cold spring that year, and had used our fireplace more frequently than normal. Charles and I had two cats at the time, Taffy and Muffin. Sometime in April or May, they started acting strangely—sniffing around the flagstone, or hissing and growling at the fireplace. We noticed their behavior, but really didn’t think much of it—cats are cats. Who knows what they’re thinking? In a couple of days, they stopped, and everything returned to normal.
Shortly thereafter, the living room developed a terrible smell—something like molded socks, spoiled milk and sulfur. We searched the house for its source, but found nothing—and in a couple of days, that went away.
We shrugged the whole thing off and forgot about it.
That fall, we were preparing for winter, so Charles called the chimney sweep.
In the middle of the sweep’s cleaning, he knocked on our door. He stood on our stoop, holding the bird by the legs.
The bird was burnt, cooked, and looked almost like it had been desperately clawing its way out. It was sickeningly beautiful and grotesque to behold–I simply couldn’t stop staring. Of course, I thought, this is what the cats had detected. This is the source of that god-awful smell.
The pale chimney sweep, meanwhile, had been waiting for me to say something. He cleared his throat. “I found this in your chimney,” he said.
I called for Charles, who also found the specimen exquisite. He asked the chimney sweep to bring the bird in and set it on the flagstone so we could get a photo. The poor kid hesitated, but finally did. I can only imagine that he’s scarred by the whole experience and to this day when he’s drunk tells the story about the freaks who wanted to photograph the dead thing that had come out of their chimney.
And there you have it.
But the image haunted me for years. I tried, in fact, to use the bird in several short stories—among them “Matchbox,” “Candle Garden,” and “Deconstructing Fireflies.” But he never seemed quite right for the piece, so he always got cut.
Still haunted not just by the bird but the fact that I seemed unable to exorcise him, I stumbled across something called The Sadness Museum in early 2009. I thought the bird would make a perfect addition, so I wrote up the following:
“In 2002, a sweep extracted this bird from our chimney. Its desperate expression haunts me—like a victim of Pompeii, it probably spent its last moments clambering for that square of gray sky to escape the intense smoke and heat, begging please, just a little further.”
I submitted the photo and description, and a few months later, I got a package back in the mail.
They had made trading cards of it.
That still, however, wasn’t enough to satisfy my subconscious.
Fast forward a few years, and I was working on the final story for my graduate thesis (the collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks which would later become Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole—Tales from Haunted Disney World).The final story—“Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole” (originally titled “Digging Dirt in River Country” for those of you trivia nuts)—was rolling along nicely.
Suddenly, the bird showed up. Unplanned.
And he was perfect. He was where he belonged.
Here is the section in which he appears in the story. If you need a little context, the narrator is a woman who photographs dead animals for a living; her husband is a taxidermist who can’t work anymore because he’s been cursed: he can suddenly hear the dying thoughts of animals. He’s asked her to give up her passion, which she does–only to fall into the trap of having an affair:
* * *
Over the next three weeks, David did not have a single flash.
Then the smell pervaded the living room: like rotted bananas, rancid meat, and dog shit. I knew that smell, and I knew what it meant: some animal had died in the walls.
It had happened when we’d first bought the old row house. We’d had to live with the smell until the creature had completely deteriorated—we certainly weren’t going to start sledge hammering the place to try to find it. It had been an inconvenience for a few days.
But this was panic time. This thing of David’s, this thing that had mercifully stopped, was it triggered by something, like an allergy? What if he came home, smelled the decay, and we were back in la-la land? I fished out every reed diffuser I had and went nuts with sugar plum and autumn spice.
David came home. “It smells in here.”
“Yeah.” I rummaged in the freezer for the Chicken a la King Lean Cuisines we were going to have for dinner. “I figured I’d…freshen up the place.”
“No, I mean, like something died. You’re not fooling me, honey. You think I wouldn’t know the smell?”
I closed the freezer door and set the dinners in front of the microwave. I heard the ca-chunk of his extending the recliner, the rustle of his newspaper; I waited.
I ripped into the ends of the dinner boxes and slid out the meals; then I heard him set down his newspaper and get up from his chair.
“Stuck,” he said.
Oh no. I shut my eyes, afraid to look. Please, please, please let me not see what I think I’m going to see. Please let me not see him reading stuff out of the air.
I took a deep breath and peered around the corner.
He was on his hands and knees in front of the fireplace, peering up the chimney.
He turned and looked at me with a satisfied gleam in his eye, a gleam I hadn’t seen in awhile. “No, honey.” He got up off his knees and brushed his hands on his jeans. “I mean, I really think something got stuck and died in the chimney. I only smell it when I walk by the opening. It’s nowhere else in the house. I’ll call the sweep tomorrow.”
I tried not to heave a visible sigh of relief.
* * *
On Friday, Joey from Chiming Chimneys of Baltimore showed up. After he’d been working for a while, he rang the front door bell. He held the carcass of a giant bird.
“Look at this, ma’am. You need to have a cover on that chimney. Poor thing prob’ly tryin’ to make a safe nest for its little ones, you lit a fire, it burnt up like a nice crispy chicken at the KFC.”
“What…what kind of bird is that?”
He shrugged. “Bird of prey of some kind I think, hawk, eagle, whatever. I’ve never seen anything like this before, but it’s too big to be just like a robin.”
The bird was extraordinary. Its wings were only burnt at the tips, and its body was charred in some places and the color of burnt sienna in others. Its blackened beak was slightly open, and its talons were gnarled. It looked like it had been screaming as it had tried to claw its way out.
I really, really needed to photograph it.
And David wasn’t home.
“Ma’am.” Apparently Joey was still talking.
“I said, you want me to install a cover on there so this doesn’t happen again?”
I remembered. “It’s got to be up there somewhere, the cover. We just bought a really expensive one and had it installed last fall. You guys did it, in fact.”
But Joey looked confused.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Just…just put the bird down and finish up, come back, and we’ll pay you.”
“Ma’am, we’re supposed to dispose of the…”
“Look, Joey, you’re a nice kid. Do your job.”
“I’m really supposed to—”
“Joey. If you want a big-ass tip, you’ll do what I told you.”
He hesitated, but then stepped into the foyer and put the bird down at my feet. At last he left, and I slammed the door.
I raced upstairs, seized my camera, and got to work. I tapped the bird’s legs with the tip of my boot.
Click, click, click. I gently tilted its head. Click, click, click.
“Someone put me here.”
Jesus. David was home.
He startled me so much I dropped my camera and accidentally stepped on the bird’s right leg. The bone shattered and the leg fell off.
David appeared in the doorway, reading the air. I toed my camera under the foyer table.
“Someone put me here.” David said.
I had a pretty good idea who that someone was. I snatched my cell phone and keys, and ran out to the car.
* * *
The bird hasn’t bothered me since. But he was so unique, disturbing, and a perfect thematic match with my work that when it came time to choose a banner for my website, he was the natural choice.
So there you have it. The whole story behind the bird. And why, even though many readers’ toes curl when they see his picture, he’ll always be prominent on my website.
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