The Kingfisher

an excerpt of a novella by Daniel Chase


Part I

The drive took them out of the city limits, down a westbound interstate. Maddox saw a sign labeled “Scenic Viewpoint”, and as they rounded a bend an exit became visible. He turned in, following a gravel road, and parked after a short drive beside a metal pavilion, set within the break of a rock outcropping. He and Aurora entered under the shade of the pavilion, and came to a stop at its east-facing side. There was a plaque attached to the railing, with a bronze cast paragraph telling the history of the Kaw, Wichita, Osage, and Pawnee tribes, and the peoples who had inhabited the landscape before them. Above them, dozens of barn swallow nests, which looked like ovular mud cups, clung to the ceiling, their residents calling out and crossing the hexagonal structure along its rafters.

They descended a staircase that cut around the edge of the outcropping and became a narrow path leading to another plaque at the edge of a cliff. This plaque described the continental uplift that brought the land before them out from underwater. Aurora took a picture of the view with her phone, and Maddox looked across the land, imagining its genesis. Further outcroppings of limestone, speckled with flint, broke apart the assemblage of switchgrass and bluestem as far away as could be seen. Maddox had heard someone on the radio the day before say “I returned from it wondering where I had really come from. You can never return home. You can only visit a new coordinate of the solar system”. Aurora and Maddox walked back to the car, passing another pair of people admiring the barn swallows in the pavilion.

When they returned to the city, they stopped by the supermarket so Aurora could pick up her prescription. Aurora and Maddox approached the store, passing a SUV with a window replaced with a garbage bag and a pregnant woman in a tan uniform collecting grocery carts, some parked crookedly on grassy medians and others rolling away in the wind.

The way milk fills up a glass splashing drops around the rim, little beads soaking into the fibers of a paper towel. The white liquid soaking up the feathery tarp. The sound of the hard, steel, face of a hammer cracking down onto freshly cut glass wrapped in butcher paper.

When they were in the grocery store, Aurora went back to the pharmacy. Maddox passed the time walking through the departments of the store. He walked in the pattern of the veins of a leaf, or a spread palm, returning to pass by the deli between aisles, beyond which he could see Aurora posed against a partitioned counter. He passed down an aisle of paper cups and spatulas and pens and small plastic trays and toys like water guns and remote control trucks that were spread under rows of school supplies. Maddox moved past a display of electric toothbrushes and then through an enclave of rose and daffodil bouquets.

As they left the supermarket, Maddox watched a man wearing a red tank top squinting down at a large packaged padlock. Sensing Maddox passing, he looked up, and without pause asked them an esoteric question about shackle to tumbler locking systems. Maddox told him he didn’t understand the question. The man took Maddox’s confusion in pace and introduced himself. He continued to explain that he was an American expatriate living in the Canadian town of Drumheller, though he called it “Dinosaur Town”. He was a petroleum engineer and on and off again UNESCO volunteer who oscillated across the border. Without prompting, he described the badlands a few kilometers away from his condo where he lived, and the constant process of the volcanic clayey soil swelling and presenting the bones of an ancient mass dinosaur death. “Bentonite.” he kept repeating, “They put it in toothpaste.”

Maddox and Aurora walked back through the parking lot, Thirty-First Street traffic fanning them from the north.

They had to walk a few blocks to his apartment, leaving the truck with the other hot cars on the shoulder of his street, the contracting exhaust keeping time behind them as they walked. They sat on his front porch and Maddox kept Aurora company as she finished her cigarette. He sat on the veranda railing, trying to remember something he had been thinking about while going to sleep the night before, something about a gym coach from grade school. He was telling Aurora how weird it sometimes felt to use his body and not know how it worked, before he realized the shallowness of the thought and postfaced the statement, “I don’t know if you care about me saying things like that”. She said she did.

He looked across the street and he realized there might not be enough time to ask her another question like that, and he mused over what a privilege it was. They sat quietly, and he watched litter flip back and forth across a neighbor’s driveway in the wind as a steady crescendo of an engine, accompanied by a radio rolled over the hill that his apartment stood on. A dusty Buick LeSabre rushed over the peak of asphalt with windows down, filling the neighborhood with music. The sedan sailed past them and Maddox could see the driver, slouching next to a large black dog that sat in the passenger’s seat as the vehicle passed over an enormous limb lying in the shaded lane, under the walnut tree it had fallen from. The stick broke in two and crawled under the car, wedging itself up under the axle, whining and screeching against the car and the road all the way down the block, blocking out the radio as smaller twigs and bits of bark broke off and shot onto the sidewalk. They saw the brake lights beam down the street and now the driver, just a silhouette under the already low evening sun, get out on all fours and begin to tug at the limb.

They went inside and had sex and lay in sweat on the comforter together sharing a water bottle. Sometimes when falling asleep Maddox would imagine a gymnast hovering above a balance beam, gripping it with chalky fingers in a handstand. It was sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. He could only ever make the gymnast hold their balance for a second of two. It was unclear to Maddox if he was watching or controlling the figure, but their hand would tremble, or their legs would tumble over, or their arms would give out and they would fall to the floor. They would keep hitting the floor mat as Maddox, the onlooker, kept trying to balance them on the bench. The more times it happened, he realized that he was not able to balance them at all, not even for a fraction of a second, and that in the space of time in which the gymnast was raised vertically over the bench, they were still only falling more slowly. They would bang into the nondescript grey floor, and slump over many times before he fell asleep. The thought of the athlete balanced became an after image, a negative. He reached over and turned on the oscillating fan and looked over at the TV, on which a BBC natural history program was playing. He watched an enormous great white shark torpedo out of the ocean to swallow a porpoise whole, it’s entire shining length hanging over the waves. Lying next to Aurora, he could watch the gymnast, female this time, hovering above the beam, her torso taut, balanced neatly, gently heaving forward and back, casting a humming breath through her frame. He watched the Great White, rainbows slowly reflecting across its slick hide, like sunlight across oil, clutching the porpoise in its rows of teeth, dripping salty blood and water back into the ocean.

He had seen a rabbit in someone’s front lawn, and as he walked by it, the rabbit, not turning its head, saw him and darted forward several hops. It quivered in the dark grass, striped blue by the wrought iron fence that ran alongside the path. He continued forward, not breaking stride, and the rabbit took a few more short, tentative hops and they went down 43rd Street together, up the sloping hill. After a while the rabbit didn’t hop forward and Maddox kept walking, drawing closer to it, and studying its back legs, which were pulled tight like fleshy cords under its taupe colored pelt. Maddox reached the rabbit and still it didn’t move and it didn’t look at Maddox, though its advertence was still more betrayed by its stillness and its unturned head. Once, Maddox had seen a rabbit killed and eaten by a hawk and he understood why they were afraid.

He passed onto 44th Street. The trampled bearings of the mulberry trees colored the pavement indigo. By this late in the summer it was hot even at night and the mulberries swayed, still casting their shade under street lamps. The pavement under them was colored dark blue, except where dots of light beamed through, blinking between the blots of berries like a stony reflection. He walked further and a man appeared, coming down the street toward Maddox. Maddox had recently dreamt about passing a man on the street at night. He gripped his ring of keys in between his knuckles inside his shallow pocket. Surely he’ll attack me when we pass. Surely he will try to kill me. Maddox tried to imagine what a bullet going into his belly would feel like, and he thought about how it had felt in his dream; the dream had ended painlessly. He could feel, however, the warmth of his blood as the little piece of metal sank into him, beside his belly button. He thought to himself, the harbinger.

The lights of the art museum were off and he stood in front of a Northern Cheyenne headdress. Its feathers were still softly illuminated by the emergency lights across the hall. He could see the edges of his own face reflected on the glass case, superimposed over the war bonnet. The elevator called down the hall in the marbled dark. He thought of dead eagles lying between trees or in grassy plains, feathers bent over one another, dirty and crawling with ants.

Maddox had once talked to one of the museum guards, Mike, about one of the paintings in the contemporary section, as Mike had brought it up. At first they had been speaking about a second phase Navajo chief blanket on display. Mike had been in the Air Force when he was younger and spent almost a decade serving at two different bases, both of which were in Missouri and housed no planes.

“And he was in tears”, Mike had said, his thin eyebrows raised high. “In tears looking at this painting. A painting by Barnett Newman was the one.” he continued, slowly enunciating each syllable of the artist’s name. “And this painting is really just about a, oh i don’t know, maybe four foot by six or seven foot rectangle, all blue, with one vertical line going down it. He looks at it for a while and I’m at my post right by it and he turns to talk to me, probably ya know just because I was the only one in there. Uh and he said ‘I drove for a whole day to get here just to see this painting’, and you know he’s got tears going down his cheeks, he’s kind of pacing around- no he said he took a plane here from another Omaha – but he’s pacing left, uh, to right looking at the thing and half talking to me and half to himself, or maybe talking to the painting too. And I just said ‘Okay’.” He dragged out the “okay”, closing his wrinkled eyes and leaning back onto one foot. “And then he just walked back out of the exhibit. I don’t think he looked at anything else except for maybe a glance.” And here Mike laughed and wiped his nose with his handkerchief, “Probably just got a cab right back to the airport and went home, seemed like he had seen enough. But really though, I always think of it as, well we had these uh, uh geography textbooks in high school, back about fifty something years ago now, and the textbook was called “Geography Through the Stereoscope”. They came with this set of stereoscopic glasses. Right, so you’d put them on and look at the flat image of a particular geographical location like a desert, or a mountain, or something, and you could put on these glasses and you could see the landscape or mountain in three dimensions. It would pop”, and here he made a sort of popping up gesture with his hands – “right out of the book towards you, the highest elevations closest. So anyways maybe someday someone will come along and give me those glasses for the contemporary wing.” In memory his words seemed more written than spoken.

On the same day as that memory, Maddox had crossed a busy street, between intersections where Sunday traffic had filled the lanes with stationary cars idling at the light and passed by a girl with golden brown hair in between two cars. He had looked at her, and thought she looked like Aurora; she was wiping tears out of her eyes. But he had been holding Aurora’s hand, which he squeezed, walking side-by-side with her through the cars. She had gone to the eye doctor while he was at the museum and was prescribed anti-UV temporary roll up glasses. The dark opaque glasses fully hid her eyes. Maddox pictured the stereoscopic glasses to look like the ones she had on, and he wondered what she could see in them that he could not. Maddox remembered that day feeling like the moment of a lightning strike during the night, but elongated across an afternoon, and everything was illuminated when it should have been hidden and kept safe.

A few weeks later he had walked down the same sidewalk and realized it was also Sunday. He squinted up at the sun. Somehow since then he made a point to only walk on that stretch of the street on clear sky Sundays, and would take alternative routes on any other day of the week if needed. It became a simple, unacknowledged rule, so that each time he crossed the block from 40th to 41st, whether it was the time he walked with Aurora or another, it was as a bright completion of a memory.

On another day, he walked across the fresh asphalt which was growing hot, though it was still early in morning. He walked and listened to a lawn mower out of sight behind the rows of apartments and he smelled the hewn grass and the gasoline and the fresh tar. Clear sprinkler water seeped from the grass onto the corner of the sidewalk, over the curb, and into the street, flowing over the black floor, striped with yellow, shining the light from the morning sun at its folds. Water forked into a parking lot, flowing across a big blue square with a wheelchair marked in its center.

It was on this block, at this bus stop where he had left Aurora the previous day. It was even hotter that day and cars went up and down Main Street beside them, and he could see her Chicago Bulls sports bra peeking out around the edges of her tank top, and he watched her rope sandaled foot bob up and down, her legs crossed one over another. After keeping her company a while, they said goodbye and he walked away down the block. He kept that portrait in his head as he paced down the city street, walking abreast of the passing traffic and knew that in the future he would think back on it and it would become an important image to him. He would remember the last time he saw her and remember her sitting cross-legged at the 43rd street bus stop. He didn’t want to turn around and refresh that picture but he lacked discipline, and looking around he saw her still sitting in the same exact position, the same crimson sports bra crowning out around her blouse, the sandal bouncing, and the ashes dropping into little piles before blowing across the sidewalk. He was farther away, but she was sitting just the same. He could see her in a wider frame, more cars passing all around her, more buildings standing above her, more sky behind those, her body’s cells constantly being born and others died. He stood on, assured that she would turn and see him watching her no more than would the subject of a photograph. At the end of the block, where he turned back into his neighborhood he looked back again and could see a little mark that was her. Cancer was all he could think. She has cancer. In an hour she would be at the train station downtown and then in another hour she would be on a train.

Today, he could call her and see where she was now, but he didn’t and walked in the water, with hairy cottonwood seeds fanning longways across the troposphere above him.

Later he went to a diner on the west side, near the state line. His truck was fixed and it seemed unnatural to drive down the streets when he had become so familiar with the narrow sidewalks. It felt strange to not walk between the square lines, strange to not watch his left foot land just before the crack and then his right foot another few inches away from the next crack. He began to attach letters to numbers and he remembered how worried he had been as a child that he wouldn’t be able to read. Two was ‘s’, five was ‘b’, eight was ‘c’, four was ‘h’. His left foot landed even further away from the next line and then the right was even further until his feet landed in front of the cracks and one became ‘t’. He counted to ‘t’ and listed the alphabet up to one until his feet got closer and closer before finally falling back behind the lines and two became ‘s’. The pavement had become like a treadmill under him and he would stretch each step to avoid landing where the square segments split and he would take stunted half steps to pass over networks of cracks that broke across the surface of the cement as it expanded in the summer heat.

He ordered a grilled cheese and a coke. He balled up the receipt after he paid, still sitting at the booth, watching a grey old woman who had been sitting at the bar. She wore a beige sweatshirt that said ‘Old Navy’ on the front in blue letters and she faced away from the counter smiling vacantly. Occasionally a busser or a server would sweep by and she would look wide-eyed at them, and smile so emphatically that it looked like it hurt her cheeks. Maddox heard a manager standing just outside of the back of the house talking with a cook, “No, she doesn’t know where she is.”

Maddox looked down at the crumpled receipt “y-7. r-9 r-9”. He imagined the woman as a wild animal traversing a field. She looked like his Aunt. He drove home thinking about the woman in the Old Navy sweater sitting in a shelter on a cot smiling and looking so frightened. He looked at the wrinkled receipt and he made the lines of the letters bend and straighten into new letters and the numbers form into new numbers, and he looked over and watched the sidewalk speeding past him in the darkness.

He arrived at his apartment but as soon as he stepped inside he remembered that he needed to go to the grocery store. He looked through his kitchen into the darkened sitting room where only the lip of a table and the edge of a chair could be seen, and in the adjacent, further room just the outline of the window glowed yellow. He tugged on the pull chain above him and bolted the door behind him as he descended down the porch deck stairs. Behind his building was a large field that extended down to Forty-third Street. Until a few years ago when a tornado had blown through the area there was a trailer that stood in this lot, facing west, which belonged to a man he’d heard called Mr. Chapman. Remnants of the tornado-struck trailer still lay in the field and Maddox could not distinguish those artifacts of Mr. Chapman’s life from the normal litter that circulated his block. The land on which the trailer was built appeared itself as a surface on which the structure’s history could be fossilized and recounted. There were no lines in this field, no segmented blocks, no numbers or letters, save for ones printed on crumpled in soda bottles and rain damaged scraps of paper, broken pieces of plastic with inlaid typeface, and other garbage. He saw a closed sunglasses case lying between yellowing blades of grass, the bottom end of it stuck into the dirt. Maddox wondered if that had belonged to Mr. Chapman. Had it been sitting on a dresser years ago before the cyclone struck or had it only been deposited there today? It seemed too heavy to end up somewhere by accident and Maddox didn’t bother to see if there were sunglasses in it. Some of the rebar and wooden studs that had buttressed the mobile home’s crawlspace remained, stuck crooked in the dirt. Farther across the field was a community garden which had been recently created by Maddox’s neighbors, and beyond the garden was an enormous hole in the corner of the lot, where a hotel would soon be built. Maddox crossed the dark field and soon reached the store. He bought a half-gallon of milk, two cans of soup, a can of red sauce, a loaf of bread, and a two-liter container of tea. The store was situated right at the anchorage of the Memorial Bridge, which was wedged into a hill that swept down to the East Side Park. To the west there was a gaping drop-off formed around the interstate that bisected the metropolis. Maddox walked along the pathway up to the bridge; he’d only add a few minutes to his trip back to reach the drop off point and stand to watch for a while. He sat his groceries down on the ground and watched the city lights. The grocer had put his cans of soup, his can of red sauce, and his two-liter of tea in the same double bag. He picked it up and held it out in front of him, his forearms resting on the steel handrail that vibrated as cars sped past. He held it in both hands for a moment and then let go with his left so it slung only over his right. He unclenched all his fingers until only his index finger and thumb held it in his grasp; he felt an involuntary spasm of anxiety. He transferred the bag to his left thumb and forefinger. He relaxed his finger and thumb and thought about how it would feel to release the bag. He grabbed it up with both hands, cradling the contents from the bottom and hauled it back over the railing to rest safely on the ground. He stood up and looked down the drop off and watched the cars passing below. He took out his phone and held in both his hands, with his forearms again resting on the railing, cradling it with one hand and then the other, transferring it slowly from one palm to the other. He held it in his left hand, palm facing towards the dark sky and released his curled fingers to repose, parallel to the distant ground, so that the phone remained on the surface of his hand only by the force of gravity. He raised and lowered his hand and watched the phone rise up and down with his movement. His ears rung and tickled faintly, and his body’s electrochemical circuitry worked to control the phone. He pictured in his head, turning his hand over and tipping the phone down into the gulch; he looked at the phone resting on his palm. He slowly tightened his fingers over the phone and withdrew it back across the railing. He was a five minutes walk back home, plus a few minutes. He removed the dirt covered sunglasses case from his pocket and held it over the railing just as he had done with the bag and the phone. He felt disappointment and quickly released his fingers and let the case drop and turned around, not watching to see it break open on the highway below.

He started back down the path toward the grocery store, two minutes until he would reach it. When he came to the store he walked past and continued on, nearing Chapman’s ruins. He stopped beside the construction hole, which had been carved from the hill that rose over the eastern side of the lot. He observed the different heavy machines, a tracked loader, an excavator, a bulldozer, and others, parked in the bottom. A desire path had been created by the caterpillar tracks of the vehicles from the street to the excavation, and due to rain a tributary had formed, trailing off into the field. The slow running brook flowed towards the garden, and then over a hillock, tapering in its descent to become runoff in the grass that seeped into a gutter adjacent to the field. Maddox walked along the water and noticed two small birds burrowing into the side of the cavity at its deepest point, only a few feet deep. By this point in the summer most bird species had returned from the north. Maddox wondered why it was here, burrowing into this dirty city lot and he wondered where it had been living previously. He was two minutes away from his apartment and he hauled his bags with him across the field. In two minutes he would turn his key into the lock and push the door forward. In one and three quarters minutes he would set the bags down onto the counter and tug the pull chain above him. In one and a half minutes he would walk into the sitting room and click on the floor lamp and reset the window unit. In one and a quarter minutes he would walk back into the kitchen and store the items in the refrigerator. In one minute he would change into shorts and wash his hands in the bathroom sink. In three quarters of a minute he would set his alarm clock for the morning. In half a minute he would sit down on the sofa in the warm lamplight and rest his chin on his hands. In a quarter of a minute he would close his eyes. He turned his key into the lock and pushed the door forward.

Maddox heated up one of the cans of soup and ate it while he read an email Aurora had sent him. It was a poem:

“I never really knew you

but I miss you so much

and you scare me.

Sometimes I’m acting like I’m not trying to be myself

or like I’m tough or interesting

Then sometimes I’ll touch my face or look into traffic

and be surprised that I am myself

and I keep walking and moving forward

outside from everything,

a friend to no one, and in love with nothing

in twilight.”

Was “in twilight a good last line? He couldn’t tell if Aurora was a good poet or not. She was walking and moving forward outside of everything, not a friend or in love. So that leaves her in darkness, not in darkness but in twilight, which is a lovely word. He pictured her writing at the Forty-third street bus stop, and watched all the bystanders and pedestrians walk away or board buses until she was alone, and the sky faded into a polluted gradient of mauve twilight. I never really knew you.

He raised the spoon to his mouth, and where the light from the floor lamp lipped the curve of the metal, he saw a strange formation in the sylvan reflection, a bright ovoid on the side of the spoon, glimmering, shifting as he held it, sliding along the edge of the steel beneath his eye. The shapes of light began to form a picture of a husky little man gathering firewood in the forest, and Maddox watched him pick up kindling and form it into a bundle and stack a generous pile of tinder between the conifers, fumbling for a spark. He washed the spoon, turned out the light, and went to bed.

It had been a week since Aurora left, and it was now early July. It rained for three days straight, beginning Monday afternoon. He did not see the sagging, blue-grey storm clouds approach from the west. When the sky grew dark, he did not anticipate rain. On the second night of rain Maddox ran out to his truck to retrieve his tool bag, which he kept on the rear jump seat. He reached his truck and noticed a wide median a street over, the concavity in it now transformed into a river running between the streets. It looked like an ordinary bayou, tree branches dipping into the water, and between the branches, yellow lamplight projecting leaf-shaped patterns to shift on the current. He crossed the street. The only immediate signal of the watercourse’s ephemerality was the bank, just grass, which looked like synthetic turf washing under the water. The intensity of the downpour could easily be misinterpreted as a leap forward in time. Maddox stood in between the water and the road while passing vehicles sprayed his back, reminding himself that the river system would be gone by the next day. Blocks away, he found an abandoned van sitting in an oversized puddle with its hazard lights blinking on and off. He jogged further through the downpour, following an orange light, which he noticed cast across the puddle, then on the houses and apartments along the street, and then, upon looking down, on his own shirt and pants, now soaked wet, behaving more like a mirrors than garments, producing an unfamiliar nakedness. Maddox stood at an intersection, beside the traffic light whose post was bent in an ‘S’ shape like a spine curved by scoliosis. Its unlit gantry drooped over the roadway. A blackened hole had been torn at the most dramatic point of the post’s curve, cables trailing out of it, the exposed copper ends striking the crosswalk below like phosphorous-tipped matches. The wind thrusted against the cables, tangling them in stochastic patterns described in fire. The falling rain seemed to extinguish and ignite the flames in regular intervals, between which plumes of smoke escaped. Maddox watched, and then looked down again at his body, now indistinguishable beside the blaze, throwing amber light back into the night.

The rain ended on Wednesday evening and Maddox went walking through the neighborhood. Trees had been knocked over in the days of rain and lay like busted statuettes in front lawns or driveways. Children’s toys lay wet and soggy on front porches. Maddox looked up at the sky, and to the east, saw the expanse of thunderheads pushing their way closer to the horizon. To the West, from where they had come, unnoticed by Maddox, there was now the moon growing more visible as the sun left sight. The sky became darker and the air was cool and full of unspent moisture; beside the moon Jupiter looked small and dull.

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