The redshirts had started going through Uncle Fulton’s boxes. Not gently and with love, like a man with his wife’s antiques, or like Holly might have. They had found Fulton’s maps and grasped and pulled at them and were hollering about Rhodesia! Rhodesia, more like Ho-desia, ha ha ha. And now they had Holly’s favorite map, the one she meant to take home and pin above her bed, the one of the Arctic Circle with the smudged blue ink. The delicate thing ripped in their hands, sundering the image of the earth in two.
Holly said nothing and left the room, rubbing her eyes. In the guest bedroom, the perch stood where it always had, near the dresser. Uncle Fulton had birds when he was still around. Not neurotic cockatoos. Real birds. The last one she remembered was an Arctic tern. Its name was Voltaire. It had talked to her when she was little. But for the life of her she couldn’t ever recall what it had said.
Carlyle appeared next to her. He grasped her shoulders, hard, in a way uncomfortable for her and yet somehow protective.
“You know how they are,” he said.
She said nothing. The redshirts were two girls, two guys. Mia and Emily, Tim and Georgie. So-called because Holly’s Trekkie mom couldn’t distinguish them. They had overly-shiny fairy eyes and were probably lovely somewhere inside. Holly tended to look upon them the way you might look upon a toddler, in wonder at all the potential this undeveloped thing might have. But.
What had Voltaire said? The best of all worlds was this one? No. That was the real Voltaire. She had read his Candide in European History class at school. What did the Arctic tern say?
“Uncle Fulton is–he’s like–my Merlin,” Holly said. Three private investigators hadn’t caught a whiff of Uncle Fulton’s whereabouts in ten years. Didn’t surprise Holly. A certain movie star mystique surrounded him and always had. Her family had him declared dead just weeks ago, though death, really, seemed too small for him. They meant to sell this old Tudor now, despite Holly’s pleading. Aunt Deb had dusted it and everything.
“That’s your issue, Holls,” Carlyle said. “You don’t live in the here. You write a story for yourself and you don’t ever get real.”
“Now go tell them you’re mad at them and grab shit by the horns for once.”
She couldn’t. Everyone had a story and conflict was not in hers. Carlyle patted her cheek, eyes ablaze. There were the redshirts and then there was Carlyle, all noise and light. He wasn’t really her friend but then none of them were. She just liked what they could be and what they were in her mind. And she had wanted to show them this place before it belonged to someone else.
One of the girl redshirts came in and said, “Carlyle, come see this. Come see what we found!” Her mouth hung open like a dog’s. Carlyle shrugged at Holly in a what-you-gonna-do kind of way.
When Holly went into the kitchen, the other redshirts were gathered around the window, curled among the yellowing, billowing curtains. They were murmuring among themselves, heads dipped in towards each other. At least–at least if they had become enamored with Uncle Fulton’s flock then they weren’t screwing with anything else.
“Now what,” Carlyle began, “the fuck are you kids looking at?” He pushed himself between them as he always did when they were all together, then let out a gasp. He gestured for Holly to come closer. Holly picked at her fingernails.
“Is it the birds?” she asked.
“You’ve seen this before?” one of the redshirts–Mia?–chirped.
Yes. She had. Pride welled up in her belly, as well as a hot possessiveness. If you looked out the kitchen window you would see–well. First Uncle Fulton’s pool, unused and uncovered, seven feet deep at the far end and filled not with water but with feathers. Just feathers, soft and downy and gray-white. Then.
Carlyle tugged her closer, pulling on the hood of her sweatshirt. She watched with the rest of them.
Then you would see all the birds. Arctic terns, all like Voltaire. A thousand of them, it seemed, all waiting around the perimeter of the pool, staring into it, talons grasping the edge. They stood sentinel all day, as far as Holly knew. They didn’t move.
“You done any investigating?” Carlyle asked her.
“I was–with my mom here, a few months ago,” she said. “That’s when I first saw them. I went out and threw a pebble at them. They just, sort-of. Shifted. To the side. To avoid it. Didn’t fly away. There could be–could be a dead body in there. Seriously.”
“Not totally convincing evidence,” Carlyle responded. “Though, I have to admit: this is definitely how Jack Ketchum novels begin. And you guys know how much I love those fucking things.”
They all followed Carlyle as he trotted outside.
“It doesn’t smell like a dead body out here,” Carlyle said. Though he really meant that Holly was a liar. She felt hot in the face when he got down on his belly to watch the troop of terns around the pool’s edge. The birds paid no mind to him.
“I wonder what dead bodies even smell like,” Mia mumbled. Holly glanced over at her, a little startled.
Tim, meanwhile, looked at Emily, and she at Georgie, and one of them said, “Other than the birds, I mean–this pool’s not so interesting up close.”
Holly only whimpered. This was her territory. She was Uncle Fulton’s heir. If only in spirit. They were insulting this place and so were insulting her. But.
Now Carlyle was rubbing her shoulders again. Standing behind her. Leaning too close. She tensed her whole body. It occurred to her that she didn’t know when she had started hanging out with Carlyle. Only that he existed in her social sphere, and existed hard and bright. A supernova of a kid. Too hot.
“I don’t like liars, you know, Holls. I’m gonna have to get you for this,” he said.
“Go–go in, then,” Holly whispered.
“What’s that? Go in? Did anyone hear her?”
“I did,” Mia said. She was grinning, biting her thumbnail. The other redshirts seemed horrified that she had spoken up at all. “But, if you don’t wanna, Carl, I mean–we understand.”
“Birds are dirty,” said a panicked redshirt.
“Yeah,” Mia agreed, “pick one up and these mite things crawl up on you. They get in your bed. All that stuff. So.”
“I don’t have to do shit,” Carlyle said.
“He doesn’t,” said one or all of the redshirts–except for Mia, who laughed. It was foreign-sounding, harsh, like jet engines roaring above a farm.
“I’ll do it, then,” she said.
Carlyle bristled, frowning grotesquely. He let Holly go and shoved Mia aside. A few terns parted for him as he approached. They moved mechanically, without fear. As if they were pulled along a track on some carnival ride. Not a sound rose from the redshirts, or Mia.
“It’s–really deep,” Holly said. Something inside failed her. It seemed like a good idea to walk away now. But–her territory. “I wouldn’t just–jump in.”
“Oh, the feathers will cushion him, I’m sure,” Mia said.
“Feathers!” Carlyle said, peering into the pool. “Feathers! What the fuck.” He stepped back and, galloping horse-like, took a running leap over the birds. While he was suspended in midair he outstretched his arms and looked crucified there against the sun. Black-tipped feathers tumbled up above the rim of the pool when he landed feet-first. He disappeared into the rolling hills of plume and down.
Behind Holly, one of the redshirts started wailing that Carlyle was dead, he was dead, and what would they all do now that he was dead, and how could they go to college knowing someone was dead? And then Mia told that person to hush, that she would take care of them all, and that was if Carlyle wasn’t okay, which he was.
The feathers stirred. Some kind of chickenhawk flapped wildly up from the pool. It looked flustered and drunk as it landed on the lawn, opening and closing its wings repeatedly. The terns around the pool’s edge did nothing besides swivel their heads to watch.
One of the redshirts let out a squeal.
“Carlyle?” Holly said.
The hawk stumbled towards them all and outstretched his wings.
“He’s the bird,” Mia said. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. He’s the bird.”
“I don’t think so,” Holly replied. Her voice sounded disastrously small. “Could someone. Maybe. Go in and check to make sure Carlyle’s okay?”
The redshirts looked at one another, holding their elbows. Mia snorted, hard, hiding laughter behind a closed fist.
So Holly inched forward towards the hawk-who-was-Carlyle. Not that she believed that had happened. That would mean–magic, or something. That would mean something existed that allowed anyone, free of charge, without consequence, to rise above–things. Things like putting your faith in your uncle, and your uncle’s maps, because when you put your faith in actual people they became disappointments real, real fast. Could you rise above that?
No, there was no magic. But.
“I’m gonna help him,” Holly said.
“Aw, don’t,” Mia said. “Come on.”
Without struggling, the hawk–Carlyle?–shimmied and flapped into Holly’s arms. She held him by the sides, under the wings, as, she imagined, you might hold a chicken. He was a good person. Somewhere. Maybe not on the outside, but. He hadn’t ripped her maps and he hadn’t really done much of anything wrong. Except glow fiercely, sharply, like a window in the dawn.
She tossed him back towards the pool, where he fluttered and landed, again, in the feathers at the bottom. There he disappeared completely, engulfed. The terns did not stir.
Carlyle, the real Carlyle, emerged from the deep end of the pool. A mass of birds parted for him as he crawled up onto the grass and curled into a ball on his side. He seemed at peace. As if he had just watched a long-suffering grandfather pass away.
“Go in,” he said.
Holly said, “I don’t. This is.” It was Uncle Fulton’s. This pool. It was his magic, if magic it was. Maybe he hadn’t disappeared at all but had gone flying away somewhere. She wanted to laugh. She also wanted to cry.
But, in the end, Carlyle goaded the redshirts in. They leapt together, clutching each other. Mia followed, rolling her eyes before the jump. And then Holly went, finally. After all, she didn’t want to be alone there.
Behind her, she felt Carlyle jump again–
She emerged last. Before her, three farmyard geese and a shrike marveled at themselves. A dreamy lightness had settled in Holly’s bones. To go back to being a monkey, a dense and thick ape, for any long period seemed unthinkable. Strange that she had ever wanted to be human at all.
Something that sounded like Mia said, Are you a goose too, Holly? Holly focused her eyes. Mia was the shrike, and when the wind picked up, she held a wing out, and her voice emerged from somewhere around her. You look like one. Or you could be a swan, maybe. Can’t tell. All birds look alike.
The redshirt geese crowded around Mia. She preened them.
In time, they–the geese and Holly and Mia–floated towards the birch that hunkered over Uncle Fulton’s backyard. Carlyle-the-hawk was there. A dull animal expression had curdled in his eyes. One of the geese honked at him. Carlyle responded by pressing the goose (Tim? Georgie?) to the branch by the neck with his talons. Not to injure, Holly saw. Not enough pressure for that. Just to bring attention to himself.
No one else knows about this. I don’t want anyone else to know about this, Carlyle said in the wind.
There Holly agreed. That was the only way. She felt distant, suddenly. As if watching everything through a microscope.
Mia, next to her, dipped her gray head low. Like she was giving in. But she wasn’t. Wouldn’t. Holly knew that.
Are you all paying attention? Are you all paying attention to me? You know what I haven’t played in a long, long time? Carlyle asked. Tag. I’m it.
The tree in which Holly hid was some kind of pine, thick and bushy. It would take an eagle-eye to see into it. And yet she felt naked.
She said to herself, It’s just a game.
She said, Carlyle is your friend.
One deep breath. Two.
Holly didn’t want to bleed. That was all. She didn’t like blood. Carlyle had chased all the geese down and taken them into his claws and grasped. Too roughly. He didn’t know his own strength. Gentle giant. That was Carlyle. He had said he didn’t mean it, and she wanted to believe him. But. He’d left deep gashes in the geese. In their bellies and necks. Gashes that, Holly supposed, would scar when the geese emerged as human beings again.
It was instinct, maybe. Carlyle was a hawk now and he couldn’t help but like it.
No sign of Mia. She’d gone the other way, towards the south end of town.
The poor geese.
Though maybe they deserved it. The maps. They had ripped Uncle Fulton’s maps, and so they’d ripped Holly’s maps. She would have used them to find him, and he would have taught her all about the magic. But. No.
What did Uncle Fulton’s tern used to say? What did Voltaire used to coo in her ear when he perched on her shoulder? You gotta be real. That sounded right. She wrote stories for herself and she never got real–
The boughs in front of her rustled. She hopped back, pressing against the tree, hoping, by the same kind of miracle that allowed the pool to exist, that she might blend into her surroundings. Disappear. She was good at being faceless. But then a shrike sidled in next to Holly and Holly relaxed.
I’m leaving, Mia said. I’m going to find your uncle.
Holly had to go back to Carlyle. Had to. He had always helped her, uncomfortable though he made her. Any alternative seemed unlikely. And anyway Uncle Fulton was anonymous as a pigeon now. He didn’t want to be found. Holly told Mia so.
Mia’s eyes, inquisitive and avian, seemed to plead with her. It’s like this time I was in my grandpa’s attic and I only found the corner of a group photo. And that little piece had my grandpa in it, but I wanted to know where all the other people were. There was so much that wasn’t him. And so much that isn’t me and isn’t you.
You ripped all the maps, Holly replied.
They can be taped together, Holly. And anyway. Look. Look down at the pool. You can see it from here, right? The terns are gone. You know where they went? North, I think. I think they went north. To your uncle.
A hard silence fell between them. And then understanding.
It just wouldn’t end well for me, Holly offered. I’m. I’m always making things up.
I see, Mia said.
Do you know where Carlyle is?
Up near school, somewhere. He’s been–chasing the geese.
With a finesse reserved for natural-born birds, Mia dropped from the branch and soared off, far, until Holly could not distinguish her from the cirrus clouds scattered across the horizon. Freedom. That was freedom, the kind you really thought about, the moment-of-silence-during-morning-assembly-kind. Intangible and abstract. Like the idea of finding Uncle Fulton.
She wanted to sing, but didn’t. She wanted to sing a hymn and have all the humans in town look up and wonder and then brush it off as coincidence. She wanted the world to be dripping down the sides with hidden magic. Just like that.
But she went to go look for Carlyle.