On the Border
By Mélina Mangal
Illustrations by Harry Blair
First time I saw it, I knew right away it was hurt. Else it would’ve flown away like any other sensible bird when it seen me coming with the hoe. It fluttered and cowered in the corner of the garden, in between the rows of pole beans. Probably fell out of the tree, like so many baby birds come springtime. But I didn’t see a nest in the sweetgum behind the fence. I would’ve noticed it.
The bird was squat and black, like a lump of furry fat. It looked like some kind of duck, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Its tiny tail feathers was caked with mud. Dark marble eyes stared at me. Could it smell the chicken fat, liver parts, bone bits and blood sunk into my skin from years coating my smock?
It had been so bad when I’d started at the Royal Poultry Emporium, couldn’t nothing take the smell away. No matter what I tried — Jovan Musk, coconut oil, even Frank’s aftershave — I still smelled that raw, bloody chicken as I drove back across the border to South Carolina every night with Aunt Della and Sheryl Caldwell. After a few years, couldn’t notice the difference no more. But everyone outside the plant could.
It tore me apart to see my own baby girl shrivel and cry whenever I came near ’cause of the smell. Seemed like she only let Frank hold her and give her the bottle. Maybe if I had just fed her my own milk, she’d be alive today. Preemies better off on formula, they’d said. But maybe she could’ve gotten used to my smell. After all, Frank did. Wasn’t the smell drove him away. It was the operation. After they cut my baby girl out, they cut out my womb. To save my life, they said.
I raised the hoe, wondering if there would be a sound as it came down across that feathery skull. I didn’t need no bird getting into my vegetables, ’specially since I had to live off them now. The company had barely paid my medical bills, and the court said the state didn’t need to pay nothing, even though they had never inspected that poultry pit. Not once. I needed the money, but Lucifer’s serpents couldn’t drag me back to a place like that again.
Didn’t never want to touch no more meat, no matter how it was cooked. Couldn’t stand to think about it — that frying in hot oil, boiling, barbecuing. Hellish flames burning and tearing at flesh, burning screams and dreams right off the bone. Fire trapping and slapping bodies into a smoldering ooze.
I looked down at the dirty lump staring at me. Was it a haint come from the bloody ashes to get me? Had to get rid of that bird, that nasty smelly bird.
I could still smell it, like it was just yesterday, stinking up my hair, my skin, my air. From where I’d stood near the front entrance, I’d heard the rush of gas as it lit a wall of fire all around us. Heard the fire killing screams. Pushed and ran and ran. Hot, hot, black smoke, frying flesh, screaming screaming screaming. Donna Basnight Sheryl Caldwell Vonda Truelove Laquita Fearington Annie Gibbs burning at the door marked Fire Exit Only. I saw them pounding, faces twisted and trapped from where I crawled outside. Smoky mess, couldn’t open the door for them — blocked — my arms still on fire as I looked down.
That bird stared up at me, glassy black eyes accusing. “Why me?” I steadied the hoe between my shaking arms and raised it again, like a pickax. Had to get rid of that stinky bird. No more fowl. No more feathers. No more flesh.
The bird inched away, toward the fence, toward the ashes of the Royal Poultry Emporium. “Fly you, damn it! Why can’t you fly, you devil bird?”
I closed my eyes and with all my strength brought the hoe down. The sound of screaming filled my ears.
Stop. Stop the screaming. I brought the hoe down again and again, my eyes closed tighter to block out the cries. All I saw was black smoke.
Run. Run. Keep running. Stop. Stop the screaming. Stop.
I’d run clear across the field and was next to the highway. I leaned on the signpost to steady myself and catch my breath. Then I read the sign. Adopt-a-Highway. This portion of 177 adopted by Mason Hog Farms. The oatmeal I’d eaten for breakfast lurched up and out. I stood there until a horn honked at me.
My sister’s brown Dodge pickup stopped in the middle of the road. “Marilyn, what are you doing here?” Sandra’s soft voice coated me as she touched my arm.
“Just taking a walk. That’s all.” I knew what she was thinking. You never go nowhere. You’re afraid to leave the yard. But I couldn’t tell her what I was really afraid of.
I got in the truck with her and she drove me back home. After they released me from that burn center in Charlotte, Sandra let me stay in Michael’s room since he’d gone to the Marines. But my nephew’s room was right next to the kitchen. I couldn’t live that close to those smells. So Sandra’s husband had fixed up their old shed for me. I went right there and stayed the rest of the day, reading my Burpee’s seed catalog.
Next morning I went back out to the garden. The hoe lay in the dirt, next to five deep gashes where the blade had landed. I stopped to pick it up, so I could get back to my work. Felt like Grandpa Chaney, the way he used to bend to pick the beans and potatoes he’d planted earlier.
That’s all I want to do. Dig, plant, grow. Like Grandma Chaney too. Used to snap beans as fast as she knit. Snap plink snap plink as she dropped the beans in a bucket in summer. Click click clack when her needles connected in winter. And every so often she’d grab a chicken from the yard and twist and snap —
I heard a rustling in the dirt. I looked over and those hard wet eyes looked back up at me. Birds don’t blink but I thought it was dead. Should’ve been. The bird looked the same as I left it, a muddly black blob. Could’ve been a lump of dirt. Maybe it was.
I closed my eyes tight and counted to 10. When I opened them, the lump was still there. And it moved. I backed away. And kept walking, until I reached my little house.
I was shaking when I lay down on my cot. That damn bird. Fixin’ to eat up my seedlings. Sent here to scare me. I sat straight up again. No. No haint or bird or nothing was going to ruin my garden. I went back out to the far side and worked on my flower beds. Tulips, daffodils and iris about to bloom. This was my garden, no matter whose land it was on. I worked it, watered it, cared for it.
I lay down in it next morning before the sun come up. I felt all misty and cool and new, like the morning glories before they open up to the day. Like the deep purple pansies shiny with dew. I pretend to be one of them, with fresh new skin. Velvety soft and smooth, so smooth you want to lay your face next to one and breathe pure sweetness.
After the sun come up I got my tools and returned to the vegetable side of the garden. I inched closer to the bean patch. But I was going to work on the peas first. My fingers sunk into the damp black dirt. It felt good to not feel pain no more. I saw a flutter in the corner of my eye but didn’t want to turn. I kept playing with the dirt, letting it sift through my fingers.
I heard a tiny sound from the bean patch. I didn’t want to see nothing ’cept dirt and seedlings. But I saw the bird.
It was still a dirty black lump. Its head lurched forward and grabbed a thick graybrown worm. It snapped its beak and swallowed. The bird’s skinny throat bulged where the worm got sucked down. My hands were shaking. This bird wouldn’t die.
I backed up and ran to Sandra’s house. Had to do something, clean. Had to do laundry. I threw all their clothes from the basket into the washing machine, then ran across the yard to get all of my clothes. I did four loads and hung each batch to dry outside.
The next day I went to weed near the turnips and collards. The ground was still wet from rain and the plants looked all clean and green. I smiled at them. Then I stole a peek at the bean patch. The bird was still there but farther away this time. And it looked different.
I walked over to the bird and saw its shiny tail feathers. The rain must have washed all the dirt off. I moved in and looked at it even closer. It shivered. I saw myself in its mirror eyes. A hulking creature with stained and stretched skin holding a hoe in her hands.
Water leaked in through the door when it stormed that night. I cut out the light and stuck my toes in the cool puddle. I watched out the window as thousands of droplets fell from the sky. A rain parade showered my flowers and vegetables, like confetti in those New York parades on TV.
A flash of lightning lit up a corner of the garden, and I smiled at how pretty and silver it looked. But I jumped when a clap of thunder struck real close. I couldn’t stop shaking after that. Why couldn’t it have rained the day of the fire? Water would have poured over the flames, dousing them quick. Another bolt of lightning flashed and thunder crashed again, even closer. Why’d it have to happen?
Lightning lit the bean patch before me, and I strained to see from behind my window. That bird would be pelted out there, if it was still alive. Seconds later, I was out in the garden, sloshing around in the mud, looking for the bird. Rain washed over me, soaked through me, seeped into me.
I nearly stepped on it as the bird tried to hide under new tomato plants. I scooped it up and it pecked at me, but I ran all the way back to my little house with it.
I dried it with my towel and set it down on the braided rug next to my cot. It set there, still shaking, looking all around. After I dried myself and changed, I stepped over it to my bed. I lay there looking down at that shiny black mess of feathers. It smelled just like me, wet and muddy.
I didn’t get up for my morning walk in the flowers like usual. I was too afraid of stepping on the bird in the darkness. So I lay there until the sun poked in through the windows. The bird didn’t move when I stepped over it to get breakfast. I bent down and touched it, thinking it might be dead. Its eyes opened, but this time it didn’t shake or flutter away from me. Or try to peck. I stroked the back of its neck and was surprised at how soft it felt. Like a kitten.
After making toast for myself, I crumbled up another piece and put it outside my door for the bird. If I just fed it a little and looked after it for a while, it would fly off on its own when it could. I went to the bean patch right away after that and worked all the rows of vegetables.
A week passed before Pansy walked without looking like she’d topple over. I’d started feeding her corn and cereal and other scraps. She loved them. And her feathers looked silkier and shiner than I ever guessed they could. I still hadn’t figured out what kind of a bird she was. She had to be some special kind of duck.
When the mailman came around to my little house, I was holding Pansy in my lap, stroking her sleek feathers. He held out the white envelope and I took it with my left hand.
“Got yourself a new bird there, Ms. Marilyn?”
“Just nursing it till it can fly again.”
“You know chickens don’t fly much. That’s a Bantam. My brother raises ’em.”
He ticked me off when he started laughing. So I didn’t answer. I looked at the envelope. It was from Cameron, Tate & Howell, lawyers for the plant. I knew from the size it couldn’t be a check. So I set it down and stroked Pansy with both hands. I heard a cheer-cheer-cheer and saw a red bird land in the sweetgum. I blew it a kiss. OH
(From the book All the Songs We Sing, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective published by the Blair/Carolina Wren Press.)
Working at the intersection of nature, literature and culture, Mélina Mangal highlights those whose voices are rarely heard, and the people and places that inspire them to explore their world. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, Mangal opened up the first joint Public/School Library in Carrboro at McDougle Middle School. She has authored short stories and biographies for youth, including The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award. Her latest book is Jayden’s Impossible Garden.