He’s a lovely man: you can see by looking. Forty years old—mature, with a wife and a child and a job, responsible in ways that matter in the world. He wakes at ease with who he is and the life he has arranged for himself.
There are times he is reminded of those events he still cannot comprehend. He might wonder, Who was that boy? What did he intend?
But why blame the boy? Don’t we know now that the human brain is not mature at sixteen? Not fully mature, science says, until nearly a decade later.
That boy made a mistake, and he didn’t know, and why should that mistake follow him into adulthood?
He sees her in a hotel lobby. He’s waiting to check out, she’s striding in. He glances her way. She meets his eyes.
Fuck. No. You bastard.
She’s wearing a slim wool suit, briefcase, chignon, boots with tapered hardwood heels. A fit, elegant man clasps her hand.
Do I know you? he decides to say if she confronts him. But she doesn’t pause—they don’t pause—except to press a button at the bank of polished elevators.
That night, without closing his eyes, he dreams in another vast hotel bed of what might be, now she’s found him: legal action, news coverage, a social media storm. Custody battle, unemployment, divorce.
For days he is sick with it.
He knows what he did. He knows. What he cannot understand is how it happened. In his memory, only puddles reflecting rain-dark sky and the woodcock’s manic courting flight.
The boy walks across the cold, marshy ground as if blessed with skin like rubber tires. He wears leather work boots and denim jeans wet up to the knees and his blond hair hangs lank around his ears. He heads straight for the rising sun.
He walks hard, fast. Thin grasses and small flowers collapse into the spongy ground under his traction soles—also the spent seed cases of bog orchids, reed stalks, stems of willow, bearberry and Labrador tea. He is barely aware of the day breaking open all around.
This is because of a girl. He can say her name. Hellie, Hellie Coffin. And he can summon an impression of her pale face and doe eyes, but he cannot recall the expression in those eyes. This must mean that he did not pay attention. He is often accused of not paying attention in school, on the days that he goes to school.
He steps into puddles concealed beneath shell ice that shatters in a twinkling, like glass.
What did she mean, last night, at the end of the night, when she said the thing she said, when she pressed her hand against his face? What did it mean that she looked at him like that?
The edge of the woods rises up. A sharp twig grazes his cheek. He can feel the sting of pain in the scratch and a sudden pang of cold.
He marks his place: willow and speckled alder giving way to old-man moss, popple, var, black spruce.
He tries again, pictures pale Hellie Coffin with her timid smile paining her, like a fit coming across her face.
He hadn’t meant for things to happen like they did. After, he’d felt more alone.
The boy walks into the woods and it is suffocating—dark, confining, silent.
Then comes a sluicing note and flash of blue. And though he has seen a thousand jays, still he thinks, bright as a star.
He is young enough, this boy, that the world can seem to change for him in an instant.
Later, when the woodcock flushes out of a clump of alder, the boy is startled, and fires automatically.
He hits the bird, a plump and homely kind of snipe, and the thing that holds the world claps open, closed.
The bird unfolds—wings veering absurdly skyward and beautiful, delicately spotted woodcock body falling, broken.
One day she will read that essay about men who try to teach you things and she will think, inarticulately, fucking hell.
She will think, Why is it always my job to be angry?
She will have drinks with two men—a colleague, a benefactor—and two women—a colleague, a wife—and this will happen: one of the men will try to teach her things. She and the wife will lock eyes. In the ladies, the wife will cry and say, You are so lucky to be free.
One day she will see the boy in a hotel lobby, and she will think: dull, over-compensating, afraid. He will seem pathetically relieved and disappointed that she does not acknowledge him.
She will be grown and remarkably, incredibly, all that happened will still matter. She will be grown, yet she will remain contingent as frost.
Every day, she is both thirty-eight and fifteen. She is split, as she has been split every day since that time, into two diverging selves. Why can’t she let that girl go? This is what her therapist clearly yearns to ask. It is what she asks herself. Soon she will be thirty-nine—and fifteen. Will she ever let that hurt girl go?
She wants to gather the girl, her skinny, fragile body and wounded soul, and say, Come, be an adult like me.
But the girl is ferocious, determined, her feet planted firmly on ground she’s perpetually defending. When something changes, I’ll move, the girl says. When something goddamn changes.
Every moment, she glares out of narrowed blue-grey eyes in the direction of the approaching boy.
Published, in slightly different form, in The New Quarterly no. 149, winter 2019
A man found a bird with its eyes closed lying on the sidewalk. When he peered closer, he saw that its tiny heart still flailed about inside its chest. He took a paper bag out of a garbage can and with a coffee stir stick nudged the bird inside. He folded the top of the bag shut and held it in the palm of his hand, the bird within a small, warm weight.
He entered a restaurant and explained his predicament to a woman wiping tables.
The woman gave him the number of a place that cared for dying animals. Maybe they would take the bird. She gave him her number too. She told the man that he reminded her of someone who had smiled at her once on the subway. The smile had been so extraordinary she’d thought of placing one of those chance encounter ads to try to locate the stranger. Not a day went by without her wondering what her life would have been like if she had. She asked the man if he was that stranger. He said he wasn’t. He added, Unfortunately. He wasn’t sure why. He couldn’t see any trace of himself in the woman’s description of the man with the ravishing smile.
The man laid the paper bag on the passenger seat of his car and drove north up the highway out of the city, leaving its towers behind. As he passed beyond the city limits, he heard a rustling. On the seat beside him, the bag quivered. With one hand he worked the folded flap open. The bird flew out and careened in dazed circles around the car. Terrified that the bird would either smash into the windshield or hit him in the head, the man pulled over. No sooner had he done so than the bird, small and yellow-green, perched itself on the rear-view mirror, looked him in the eye, and began to sing.
It sang of faraway forests of live oak trees. It sang of fields of strumming crickets, mountains stripped bare of foliage, lakes as vast and blue as the sea, horizons flooded with towers of light. It sang of all the journeys it had made and all the journeys other birds had made. It sang the love song of the life of birds.
Then it fell to the floor and died.
The man laid his head on the steering wheel and wept. His heart crashed about inside his chest. He wept for all the chance encounters that had not ended as he hoped. He wept for the missing who hover out of reach and tantalize us with the possibility that at any moment our lives might turn out to be entirely different.
Originally published in Brick no. 102, winter 2019