One of those where there’s nothing between you and the horizon except for a couple of utility poles and the odd lonely tree. That wasn’t a coincidence. The house was built out there on purpose, away from prying eyes.
It was a wooden house at the foot of a steep hill, a big porch out front and a pickup truck parked beside it. A nice place, right at the frontier between the yellow plain and a small chain of green hills.
There was a boy sitting on the porch, staring into the distance.
It was a long road and that was a hot dry day, with a bright yellow sun in the sky. One of those days that makes sweat instantly stick to your skin, before it can even run down your face. That’s why most people in that part of the country still wear hats.
Every character in this story wears a hat. Cheap braided hats, all of them. The boy on the porch. His father. The kids. Everyone but the birds.
It was a long road and a dry hot day, so the kids must’ve had a reason to go there. They wouldn’t have walked all that way, under the sun, if there wasn’t something they needed to do in the house.
The boy sitting on the porch wondered what it could be, as he watched them approach. He knew them: younger kids, always surrounding him and jumping on him every time he went to town. He’d already played with them a couple of times, though he couldn’t remember their names (and of course they didn’t know his real name was Lumien).
In his presence, the kids’ eyes would grow wide. They couldn’t take their eyes off of him, as if he could disappear at any moment. That always made him feel self-conscious.
They knew about him, of course. Everyone in town did. They pretended otherwise, some maybe didn’t even believe it, but everyone heard one story or another about “the Jones boy”. They were discreet though. They followed the ancient wisdom that said it was none of their goddamn business. Except for old lady Doris, of course. But she was the exception.
Apart from that, once in a long while, someone would come. Sometimes really late at night, drunk, falling on their knees, their eyes already red from crying, crumpled dollar bills emerging from their pockets.
Some would hug his father’s legs as they begged.
Some of them came during the day. Women used to come in the daylight. Old people, in the afternoon, when the sun was lower but it’s warmth was still felt. Their faces were sober, serious.
They would speak slowly, calmly, eyes on the ground. They always spoke to his father, never to him.
All of them offered a lot of things, but every single time Mr. Jones decided to help (and it could not have been more than ten times), he never took anything. He would simply state it would happen either that night, or the following one.
The person would thank him, some of them rather effusively, others just a nod. After saying thanks they would turn to him for the first time, his father always beside him, with a watchful eye, and they would kiss him. They always kissed him. Sometimes in the face, sometimes on the hands, sometimes on his feet. And then they started walking back along the road.
It was a long road, but they always came on foot. None of them ever came by car.
One day, as he watched a particularly old man limping away, Lumien asked his father why did they always choose to walk.
Mr. Jones explained that it was a sign of respect, like a pilgrimage. Lumien didn’t know what pilgrimage meant, but he nodded. As time went by, he decided that a pilgrimage was when someone walked a long way to ask for a favor.
After the pleaders left, the day would pass normally. No one mentioned the visits and they would talk platitudes as if nothing had transpired. By nightfall or by the following night, whenever it had been agreed upon, Mr. Jones would go to the truck and whistle. Lumien would emerge from wherever he was and run towards the truck. And they would drive away down the long road.
For the first stretch of the journey, it would be silent. Sometimes the father would mutter, almost as if he was rehearsing what he was going to say next. As they approached their destination, Mr. Jones would start talking about the person they were helping. He would always start by saying how good the person was: “Dr. Milo is a good person,” “The widow is such a good person” or “The sheriff is an honourable man…”
And then he would go on and on about all the good the person had ever done or all the hardships that he/she had suffered.
Lumien didn’t like that part. It seemed as if his father needed to convince him, when the truth is that he would gladly help, even if he wasn’t asked.
On the trip back home, they’d listen to music and talk platitudes again.
Upon arriving home, his father would hold him by his shoulders and kneel until their eyes met and he would say: “you did well, my son.” Lumien really liked that part.
And they would never talk about what happened, ever again.
Mr. Jones was a big man, with a wide jaw and tiny, adamant eyes. He was a man of very few words, so Lumien learned to treasure them. They were opposites, father and son. The boy took to his mother.
There was a sad music in the air, filling the hot dry day with some strange, almost lyrical, melancholy. Like they were at the stage of the final act of an opera.
Lumien had never heard anything quite like it before. It fit well with the image of the approaching children. They were close enough now that he could see it clearly in their faces: it was a pilgrimage.
It made sense… the children knew. He’d done it once with a frog, right in front of them. They could barely contain their emotion, but he made them promise not to tell.
They promised, but it didn’t help much.
One week later, old lady Doris was screaming about it in the town square. She used harsh words, like “Antichrist”, and suggested radical actions.
“If the people here are not gonna help me”, she said, “There are cities where they will.”
To this day no one knows how she found out, but Lumien didn’t think it was the children. Since then, however, his father had become even more cautious. There were no more pilgrimages and the shotgun was always at arm’s length. New times: Lumien shouldn’t expose himself any longer.
It was a long road, but it had come to an end. The kids reached the porch. They all had gloomy, somber faces and they didn’t say a single word. After a small pause in which they whispered to each other, one of them came forward holding something in his clenched hands. Slowly, his hands opened, revealing a small bird.
The bird had a hole in its chest where the lead bullet entered. It was probably still alive when the kids started walking, because the kid’s hands were wet with warm blood. It was a fine bird.
Lumien shook his head, unhappily.
“I can’t”, he said finally.
“Please”, asked the child.
“I can’t fix your mistakes”.
“Please!” The kid insisted.
“Why did you do it?”
The kid seemed about to cry for an instant, but swallowed the tears and took a deep breath. It seemed evident that he had anticipated that question and thought about it the whole way there.
“It was a mistake”, he began. “Kind of… We really did want to hit it. And when we did we were so happy! I was… I even wanted to hit more birds. But then we heard it. His mate, she’s heartbroken.”
The kid turned around and looked atop the nearest utility pole. Above it stood a bird, one just like the one in the kid’s hand. It sang the sad wailing song that now dominated the atmosphere.
“It’s the saddest song I’ve ever heard”, said the kid. And he meant it. “She really does miss him a lot. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know. Now I do.”
Lumien stared into the child’s eyes, making up his mind.
The kid’s face was red, but he did not cry. “Just this once.”
Lumien took the small creature from his hands, with care. She stepped back, slowly, until he finally rejoined the others. They all stared at the Jones boy, his eyes closed as he focused. It seemed to them as if he stayed like that for a really long while, long enough for some of them to feel uncomfortable.
Then, all of a sudden, he threw the bird at them. The animal flapped its wings and rose upwards, leaving white and brown feathers in its wake.
It was magic.
It was as if time had been suspended. The boy with his hands raised and all the children staring up with gaping mouths. The bird flew a few meters above them, feathers shimmering in the sunlight around it.
The creature wasn’t confused. It didn’t wonder what just happened or how. It was just happy to be alive, it’s tiny heart racing inside its chest. And no lead inside its body.
It flew directly to the utility pole, where its mate waited for him. Just a few hours earlier it had concluded its courtship. It was official: they would nest together that summer.
The boom came like a wave and it hit them one by one. The magical moment was over.
The bird fell again to the ground, raising a tiny cloud of dust.
All of the children jumped in shock and turned to the sound’s origin. Behind Lumien, Mr. Jones raised the shotgun to his own mouth and blew away the smoke that came out of it.
“What the hell do you guys want here?” he asked.
The kids didn’t answer at first, slowly grasping what just took place. Only when he repeated himself louder, one of them spoke up.
“We came to bring the bird”, he stammered. “We wanted it to be alive again”.
“That’s impossible. Something that’s dead can never live again” Mr. Jones replied in a grave tone. And he added, “That is the law of God”.
The kids were young, but not stupid. None of them thought about answering. They knew he knew and they got the message. Unsure of what to do next, they stared at the man with the gun, afraid to move.
“Don’t you kids know the law of God?” he insisted.
“We’re sorry!” the bloody-handed kid begged, finally giving in to the tears. “We just wanted the sad singing to stop!” and he pointed to the utility pole, where the wailing had resumed once again.
Another boom. The man blew the smoke from his gun a second time.
“It stopped”, he said, and it was true. “ Now get.”
The kids turned back to go, without another single word. They kept a respectful distance from the fallen birds as they walked away. The crying kid tilted his head back and took one last meaningful look at the Jones boy, then joined the others.
Mr. Jones leaned his shotgun against the wall and sat down beside his son, where he started rolling a cigarette. Lumien watched as the children went. It was a sad sight to see, those small silent kids marching away under the sun, their slow defeated steps leaving footprints on the road.
And it was a long road.
Lumien now knew that pilgrimage was the word for when someone walked a long way to ask for a favor. He wondered which word described the walk back after the favor had been refused.
“I thought we talked about this”, said Mr. Jones as he lit his cigarette, when the kids were too far away to hear them. His eyes were still on the horizon.
“I’m sorry…” said Lumien. “It was only a bird, I didn’t think there would be a problem.”
Mr. Jones was a patient man. He stared at the plain for a long time before answering.
“Birds are not a problem, son. Birds never hurt anyone”.
“I know…” said Lumien.
“People are the problem. They…” He stopped, realizing there was nothing more to be said. “People are the problem.” He repeated.
Silence is the most important part of a dialogue. Mr. Jones knew that.
The kids were still visible, though mere blurs now, distorted by the heat. The few trees ahead of them were really green, and they projected good large shadows, inviting passerby to hide from the sun. A few meters before them there was a dead bird. At the foot of the utility pole, stood another one. People are the problem.
“Do you understand that?” Mr. Jones asked when the silence ended.
“You promised me you’d never show yourself like that again” he went on, now staring into his child’s eyes for the first time since he got on the porch. “You should never let anyone see these things you can do. Can you remember that?”
“They’re just kids…” Lumien said without conviction.
“And old Doris was just an old lady. But even so, she got scared. She got scared because she didn’t understand. She wanted to hurt you, she really did. And if she didn’t do it, she’d soon find someone as scared as her, but with a little more determination. Promise me again, son. Promise me you’ll never show yourself like that. And this time I want you to mean it.”
The boy promised. This time he meant it.
“Good”. The father looked back to the horizon and smoked his cigarette.
They remained like that for a while longer, as Lumien amassed the courage to ask the question that had been eating at him for the last month.
“What about old lady Doris? Do we need to worry about her any longer?”
“No.” Said Mr. Jones.
“What if someone finds her?” the boy ventured again.
The father shook his head again. “Don’t worry about it”.
Mr. Jones was confident. He and the sheriff had placed the body deep under a rocky bed. Even if some lost coyote wandered all the way up there, it was unlikely to go through the trouble of trying to dig her up.
Mr. Jones dropped the cigarette butt on the ground and stepped on it. Then he rose and lazily stretched out. He then turned and took his shotgun.
“Will you keep your promise?” he pressed.
“Yes”, said Lumien. “No more miracles.”
“That wasn’t that”, the man replied. “Just don’t show yourself”.
Lumien looked at him, puzzled. Mr. Jones looked at the birds and then back at him, then he smiled. The boy smiled back. The father entered the house.
Lumien stared into the distance and waited until the kids vanished over the horizon.
It took a while. It was a long road.
As soon as they were gone, the Jones boy got up.
Less than five minutes later, the birds were flying over the hills. They played and twirled around each other, as they followed a hot air gust, blowing south. The female sang a happy song about being alive, about reunion. The male circled around her, as in a trance, as he wondered where they should set up their nest. Their shadows disappeared over a large rocky bed.
There was no sign of coyotes for miles and miles.
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