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Bird Song

by Stephen Lewis

An excerpt from A Child Shall Lead Them [Published in North Atlantic Review, No. 9,1997]

The sun would be up soon, but now the last of the night air still lay like a sodden gray blanket between the waters of the bay and the porch where Seymour sat. After Robin had left, he and Rosalie lay in bed with his eyes closed, but he could not shut down his mind's imaginings, seeing Robin's terrified eyes, and hearing again and again the words "she has a gun," echoing almost like the sound of a shot ricocheting against the brick walls of a courtyard, and then transmuting to the slap of a hand against a woman's face, and finally coalescing in the story of Bonita Mercado. 

He had stumbled out onto the porch, sitting with his eyes dully open and staring into the darkness, listening for the first stirring of the morning. A bird now chirped off to his right, and then another a little further off in the same direction. The birds' voices sounded plaintive as though they feared what the day might bring. After a while, he discerned the rhythmical four note pattern of the oriole, with a stress on the alternate notes, rising into the still air until they formed words, the syllables of a name and a plea he had heard many years ago, and then he knew that it was his name now carried by the bird's song, as it had been then in the voice of a woman asking for his help. The words had poured from the mouth of the woman sitting in his office on Court Street in Brooklyn, words that spoke the unspeakable, and yet she said them over and over again, pausing only to brush a tear from eyes that still flashed rage. "My daughter," the words said in high pitched, clipped tones, not quite human, he thought at the time,"my daughter," she said, "it is not enough what he does to me, I know he has his eyes on our daughter, and she is not four years old." 

He was fresh out of law school and working for Legal Aid, and his client was a woman who telling how she feared her estranged husband. He had been beating her, abusing even the most sensitive and private places of her body,until she had left him, taking their daughter with her. But he had found her in the apartment, bare of furniture except for a mattress on the living room floor and a black and white television, where she hid. He had knocked, and for reasons she could never explain, she had opened the door, knowing he was on the other side. He beat her between her legs until she bled, but she would not cry out for the girl slept on the mattress in the middle of the living room. He forced her onto the mattress, and while their child slept, not two feet away, he raped her. When he was done her blood was smeared on his thighs, but still she was silent. Then, she said, he had stared long and hard at the little girl, before he left the apartment, and he would be back, she knew, again and then again. 

Seymour secured an order of protection, knowing that it would be as useful as a curtain of reeds against the winds of her husband's need to control, the urge to humiliate, to inflict pain even on his own daughter, to use sex the way some took a can of spray paint to tombstones, as an expression of rage at his own impotence. To understand the cause was not to forgive the behavior, and Seymour loathed the man, even as he filed the order he knew would not protect the woman from him. 

Somewhere beyond the ancient mountain ash, its orange berries just now visible in the first light, a blue jay screeched its harsh warning, silencing the song of the orioles. Seymour recoiled at the discordant note because it made him remember his almost forgotten anger and despair. He recalled, now, the end of the story, not in the words of the woman, for he spoke with her only much later, but as it was told to him by the police detective, a man in his late thirties with eyes as old as death, eyes that had seen horrors beyond utterance so often that they had lost the ability to register shock, peering instead at the world with an indifference that matched the flatness of a voice too weary to rise in indignation. 

As Seymour had expected, and as he had warned the woman, the husband had no difficulty violating the order,and the attempt to restrain him only fueled his anger. He assaulted her one more time, and she changed her tactics,inviting him the next time into her bed, luring him away from the child who sat stonily in front of the television set, watching cartoons. After he left, she began to throw her clothes and those of her daughter into shopping bags. Shehad just finished packing, tossing in a few cosmetics, when she heard his step outside the apartment door. She shoved her daughter through the window and onto the fire escape, but the stunned child crawled back through the window, her eyes fixed on the television screen, while the woman reached down to pick up the second of the two bags. By then, the man was upon them. 

He did not beat her. Nor did he attack the child, as she had feared. Instead, he bound them both together and to the pipe that fed steam into the apartment. All he could find for the purpose was a cord he ripped off the one lamp in the living room. He tied it around the woman's right arm, looped it tightly around the child's left, and then secured it to the pipe. There was not much slack, and their bound arms were no more than six inches from the pipe. 

It was winter. The landlord, on the order of the City Housing Authority, had just fixed the heating system. The steam hissed through the pipe, and the insulation around the lamp cord began to sweat and expand. The woman and her daughter pulled against the cord, but succeeded only in lacerating the skin beneath the knots. At last, the woman forced her arm between the pipe and her daughter's frail wrist. She held it there as her skin reddened and the tears rolled down her cheeks. She passed out, after a while, from pain or exhaustion. 

When the husband returned to the apartment, he thought he smelled burning flesh. He joked about it, saying he was hungry. The woman roused herself long enough to curse. He did not get angry. He seemed never to get angry any more. He removed a clothes line from a paper bag, and with it he tied new knots, which would permit them tocrawl several feet away from the scalding pipe once he cut them free of the lamp cord. While he worked, the woman clawed at him with her long nails, but the child sat in a silence from which she would not emerge for months. He smiled at the woman's attack, and brushed her hand away, gently, but with serious purpose. Then he told her to sit still or he would hurt the child, who did not respond to the threat, but sat there on the floor, her eyes fixed on someplace far away, rocking gently. The woman stared at her baby, and willed herself still. The man reached again into the paper bag, removed a tube, and applied a salve to the woman's burns and wrapped the wound in an old Tshirt. He heated a can of franks and beans on the stove, put them within reach of the woman and child, and then he left again. 

Neither of them ate. After a while, the dark from the city streets edged over the fire escape and into the room. The child lay down. The woman would not close her eyes. She was waiting for him to come back, and she was thinking how she could kill him when he did. Then she felt something warm against her bare leg, and realized herdaughter had urinated in her sleep. She tore off a piece of her skirt, mopped up the urine, and then threw the sopping material into the darkness of a far corner of the room. She was sure she would find a way to kill her husband when next he came back. 

The sun was now up, although the air held its night chill. The orioles had resumed their song, encouraged to greet the day more boisterously now that it had arrived. Their whistling wrenched Seymour away from the memory of the woman and her daughter. He could now see where the birds were in the birch tree behind the ash. Flashes ofbright yellowish orange darted among the leaves of the birch, and the thin branches dipped under the weight of the orioles as they landed. And then, after five or ten minutes of sustained but inscrutable activity, they flew off, twolarger shapes of the adults followed by the smaller fledglings, toward the bay. They disappeared in the now brilliant rays of the sun. With their departure, he felt a moment of relief, as though they had taken with them the memory of the woman and her daughter. 

He studied the quiet and still tree on which the birds had been perched. He recalled occasional trees that lined the street that ran by the house in which the woman and her daughter had lived. Those trees were maples that had once shaded brownstones, before those buildings were torn down and replaced by the projects. Now they gave the block a specious feeling of rustic serenity daily belied by shouted curses and bursts of gunfire. 

It was beneath one of these trees that Seymour had next seen the woman. It was a month or so after he had obtained the order of protection for her. He had not heard from her, and when he tried to call her he discovered that her phone had been disconnected. On an urge, he took a walk to her block, which was not too far from his office. As he approached her house, he saw a family approaching him, a man, a woman, and a child. It was she, and her husband and their daughter. She did not look at him as she passed him by. He was about to speak to her, when hesaw the new swelling of her stomach and then the tightening of her lips as her eyes followed his. The little girl's face wore the look of resignation one finds on an elderly person whom life has worn down. Seymour smiled at her, as one would at any child, but the girl retreated behind her mother. The man, though, grinned, as if to apologize for his daughter's bad manners, and that smile more than anything else haunted Seymour's sleep for many weeks thereafter. 

He had figured the man would violate the order of protection, and he knew that the police would be unable, or unwilling, to keep him away from the wife he was abusing. He had not, in his innocence, understood that she would have tossed away her hatred, like the urine soaked piece of her skirt, that she would throw it into a corner of herconsciousness, so far removed from thought that she could invite him back not only into her life, but into her bed. He did not know, then, when he saw the smug grin on the man's face that the woman had buried her hatred only to nourish it. A year later, with her infant son sleeping in the crib and her daughter staying at her grandmother'shouse, the woman obtained a shotgun. The police found the man, his face blown away, and the front of his skullseveral feet behind him, lying naked on his back on the bed. The infant son was crying in his crib. Next to him lay his mother sobbing. She told the police that she had intended to kill the baby and then herself, but with only one shell left she could not decide what to do. She hated the sight of the child because of his father's blood in his veins, but she could not bring herself to pull the trigger after she propped the heavy weapon on the rail of the crib. Nor could she imagine permitting the child to grow up motherless. So she did nothing, just lay on the floor, the useless shotgun at her side, until the police came. 

Seymour was no longer a public defender when her case came to trial. He obtained permission from her new attorney to talk with her, but when he did, she did not seem to recognize him at first. When she did, she asked him if he could get her another order of protection against her husband. The old one, she thought, must have expired by now. 

A jury found her competent to stand trial, and she was convicted of second degree murder. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and her children were placed in foster care. 

He waited for the orioles to return, but they did not. It was as though they had sung the woman's story for him, and then, their task completed, they had abandoned him to greet the sun alone with his memory, mixed as it now was with the image of another girl, Robin, who had come to him the night before, saying her mother had gotten a gun. 

He stood up and stretched. He had been sitting in that chair long enough to travel back to Brooklyn and another time in his life. 

Maybe this time he would get it right.

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