The Girl and the Bird

At the Cross Creek intersection, Melissa Burchett suddenly came upon the bloody posters, large placards at each corner. The congested traffic slowed for the spectacle. The light turned red. On the corner outside her window, two young girls, one maybe ten, the other seven or eight, held before them posters like shields. Their small blond indifferent faces floated above ghoulish enlarged photos of a dismembered fetus. On the corner to her right, a short, severe man with enormous eyes squawked scripture into a bullhorn. From across the street his angry, toad-like eyes drew a bead on Melissa. She looked away, up to the light.

"Abomination!" he shouted, slinging sweat from his hoof-shaped chin. "Abomination!"

Melissa covered her ears and squeezed shut her eyes. But the man's caustic incantations clawed through her trembling fingers. When the light turned, the screaming bullhorn followed her into the intersection like the panning action of a movie camera.

At home, she flung off her clothes, tossing the dry nursing pads into the bathroom trashcan before she stepped into the hot shower. She had bathed earlier, before the doctor's visit, but she always felt the need after an examination. Especially this one, her last.

A dark shadow swept across the highway like a giant black wing. A flash of raindrops the size of quarters instantly transformed the scorching black asphalt of Ebenezer Church Road into dense steam that hung over the windshield like a white veil. John Burchett felt for the wiper switch, touched his foot to the brake and imagined where the road ought to be. Then laser-like sunshine blinded him. When he looked up again, the bright road ahead was writhing with coils of damp heat, like ghostly serpents ascending from the blacktop. The sky above was blue.

He would tell his wife about the freak rainstorm, and maybe they would have a conversation. He gestured as he rehearsed. "Out of nowhere." He snapped his fingers, "Like 'at!" he said.

But upon entering their small living room, John thought better of it. Melissa sat wrapped in a thick white towel, her face turned to the window, away from the muted television screen. John waited at the door. Cast in the soft yellow sunlight, her figure brought to his mind an ancient painting from a book of Bible stories: one raised foot resting on the sofa, her knee up almost touching her breast, a wrist folded over the knee, the hand falling loosely, fingers hanging in the air, her eyes looking out at nothing. He shut the door as gently and deliberately as an intruder.

"Hey," he whispered.

"Hey," she said to the out yonder.

John waited at the door, then spoke again. "I'm getting us a cold beer," he said.

"Okay," Melissa said.

He shut the refrigerator and set the two beers on the counter. Outside the kitchen window, the blistering afternoon heat beat down upon the mobile homes that stepped up the Cumberland Mountains above Harrogate, and from their rooftops-turned-radiators, he saw the rising currents, twisting and fleeing like spirits. The surrounding dark forest shimmered.

John sat on the sofa beside his wife. They both drank. He considered curling his arm around her, then thought again. They raised their beers in silent unison. Then he did lift his hand and softly stroked her bare shoulder. He searched for good news. John wanted to give her good news. His wife deserved some good news.

His fingertips caressed a divot in the center of her back. "What's that?" he said.

"Where my bra snaps," she said. Again that vacant look settled in Melissa's eyes. "There was a protest at Cross Creek today," she said, turning her face toward him for the first time then quickly looking away.

"About what?"

"I got trapped at a light. I wanted to run it." He touched her hair, but she pulled away. "There were two little girls, probably sisters, holding up these huge posters of baby parts, with Ten Weeks and Twelve Weeks written under the pictures. A man, their daddy I'd guess, held one of those speaker horns at my window and shouted scripture." She stood, hugging the white towel and turned away from him. She spoke to the wall. "'Abomination!' he shouted. ‘God's wrath!'"

"But that's not the way it was," John whispered. "That's not what happened." He looked down at his empty beer can. "That had nothing to do with you."

"You'll never know," she said. "I'll never know. I don't know nothin'. The doctors don't know nothin'. You don't know nothin'. I don't even know who you are no more."

"Baby," he whispered, reaching for her. She pulled away from his touch. Her words trembled. "It tore me up, Johnny. It tore me up."

He took her hand. "I know," he said. She slowly turned, her eyes ablaze.

"You don't know shit," she said.

John looked down at the empty can, rolled it between his palms. "They'll move on to some other town tomorrow. You won't see them no more. I promise."

"You promise, huh? I had a promise, Johnny. I had a promise and I lost it. You promise? You promise? You can't imagine. What do you know? You got no idear."

She walked toward their bedroom. "We'll get through this," he said. "Time will heal." John didn't know that Melissa's obstetrician had said those words two hours earlier. His wife stopped and turned.

"I don't know who you are no more, I hate you."