Each morning as we walk the farm’s perimeter,
we find victims of the butcher birds: grasshoppers,
beetles, lizards, frogs, snakes, mice, impaled on cactus
spines, thorns, or barbed wire. Sometimes we see one of the
birds itself, perched on a branch or fence-line, the black
mask around its eyes and hooked beak resembling the
masks of my childhood heroes. My daughter doesn’t
like the look of it, and she doesn’t want it to
shriek: she wants it to sing like other birds. She can’t
understand why I won’t let her take down the bird’s
victims. While I try to explain about nature’s
laws, about marking territory and mating
rituals and survival of the fittest, she
keeps on trying to grab hold of the barbed wire, the
cactus spines, or the thorns, trying to free the dead.
One day, when we come across a grasshopper, still
alive though impaled, his kicking legs frantic, my
daughter becomes hysterical, not believing
there is no chance for him to survive. For the rest
of the day, she is inconsolable. She sobs
over her mashed potatoes at dinner, and then
buries her face against my wife’s neck and shoulder.
In the night, her cries wake us. The murmur of my
wife’s voice, woven with my daughter’s sobs, reaches me
through the walls. Like the hum of my father’s voice through
the walls of my childhood home in the summer of
1969. Then, young boys from small towns all
over the country were coming home in boxes.
Others came home without arms, without legs, without
any light in their eyes. We thought the ones who came
home in one piece were the lucky ones, but even
they were broken, pierced by butcher birds on the far
side of the world. That was when my brother came home,
right after I turned thirteen, and we thought the war
was over for us. But my brother was damaged
in ways no one could see, impaled on his jungle
memories. One rainy morning, he went behind
the barn, put his pistol to his head, and slipped free
of whatever had caught him. I was the one who
found him. My father collapsed under the weight of
his tears, my mother rarely spoke afterward, and I
learned to hold my breath, to feel my way around sharp
corners, to keep watch during all the long dark nights.
When my wife comes back after soothing our daughter,
she says I mustn’t take the child with me when I
walk the farm, I must protect her from the butcher
birds’ atrocities, I must check all the barbed wire
and the thorn bushes around the house, and I must
remove the dead. All the dead. She doesn’t want our
daughter to grow up traumatized, and she thinks that,
somehow, I can protect her. The next morning at
breakfast, our daughter seems herself again, singing
to her doll between bites of oatmeal, twirling her
dark hair into ringlets around her finger. When
I finish my coffee and try to leave without
her, she objects. When my wife tries to explain, our
daughter cries and stomps her foot. My wife urges me
to go on alone. I am halfway across the
yard when the door slams, and I turn to see my wife
on the porch, holding our daughter by the waist. She
is so angry, our five-year-old daughter, caught in
that soft, maternal vise. No words could describe the
desperation of her anger, the helplessness
of her fury, her face contorted with tears and
shrieks, her tiny arms straining toward me, her weightless
legs kick, kick, kicking the heavy and blameless air.
NOTE: This poem is new: it does not appear in
Love in the Time of Dinosaurs
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© 2019 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. May not be reprinted or excerpted without written permission. Please do not support piracy of Intellectual Property. Note: This poem does not appear in Love in the Time of Dinosaurs
6 Responses to The Butcher Birds
Like Elaine, I will re-read this several times. There’s a lot here; a lot to digest slowly and process. But it’s exquisite, Alexandria. Thank you for sharing it.
Thank you very much, Mary. It took me several years to write: it was a lot for me to digest, too. Hugs, A
There’s some really powerful imagery in this! Love it.
Thank you, Lacey.
Powerful images and message. I need to read it a few more times. Thank you.
Thank you, Elaine. It took me a few years to write it, but the main images and message were always there. Hugs, A