It starts early one morning, before sunrise. Someone hammering away at a rusty typewriter. Or perhaps hail: god-heavy, insistent. The noise wakes the three of them up at nearly the same time. They stumble out of their rooms, still half-asleep, blinking. Bewildered. Henry and MeMaw and Papa. At first, they believe someone’s knocking at the door. They go downstairs and discover it to be, instead, a woodpecker—about as big as a softball—needling the house’s awning at a breakneck pace. A miniature drill, with feathers. With a mop handle, Papa shoos the creature away. After sharing a nervous laugh, they climb back up the stairs—Henry wide-eyed, MeMaw moaning about her knees—and settle back into their beds.
Not an hour later, the bird returns. And this time it drives Papa crazy, the incessant thwacking. He explodes from his room. Stomps through the old farmhouse, shaking the floorboards: “Where’s Dad’s rifle?” he says. “What have y’all done with it?”
To Henry, the sound of his father’s carrying on reminds him of thunder, only closer, more personal. His room rattles with it. The chest of drawers facing his bed leaps toward him, as if alive, and tilts, almost turning over, before—thankfully—falling back into place. Another door in the hallway slams open—the one to MeMaw’s room. Henry rushes to his own door, which is closed, and listens. MeMaw’s hollering at Papa, her son. She calls him a “shitass” and a “psychofuck” and a “sot drunk.” She tells him that he is acting a fool. That his anger has nothing to do with that pissy little bird and all to do with his wife who left him. “Delayed heartache,” she says, grunting. “You might as well face it like a man. If you can.”
Henry eases his door open and peers at them. Papa looms over the old woman, his jaw tight. She stands firm under his glare in her cottony nightshirt and bare feet—this is, after all, not her first row with her son Forney and sure as hell won’t be the last. Above them, the woodpecker keeps up the racket: a single pellet thrown at the same spot, over and over.
“Gun,” Papa says, in a fake calm voice Henry recognizes. “Where?”
MeMaw points in the direction of the boy. Frightened, Henry swings his door shut and sprints back to his bed. The drama is hurtling toward him now, and there’s nothing he can do about it. Seconds later, his father slaps open the door and flashes on the lights. Henry shuts his eyes. Keeps still.
“Where? Where? Where?” Papa shouts.
MeMaw trails behind him, taking long exasperated breaths. She’s become husky in her old age and is not accustomed to moving so fast this early in the morning.
She says, “In the closet, you idiot.”
Until then, Henry did not know the gun was in his room. MeMaw must have placed it in there for safekeeping. Away from Papa. His father’s a poor shot, and his aim only worsens when he drinks. Which is a lot nowadays. Henry also knows that MeMaw makes it a hobby to hide things that belong to Papa and bide her time until he notices they are missing before producing them. Henry figures she likes the power of knowing certain things that her son does not—his papa, who thinks he understands the world better than the rest of us, she says, all because he’s a writer.
“I’ll be goddamned.”
Henry opens his eyes in time to see Papa stumbling out of the closet. Toting a rifle. For an instant, Papa’s face looks hard—as if he’s about to point the barrel at MeMaw. Perhaps the thought does cross his mind. But who knows what goes on between Papa’s ears? MeMaw and Henry certainly don’t.
Papa shoves past MeMaw, carries the gun outside, and fires some rounds into the darkness. A few sharp ka-pows. Punctuated by a deep, all-consuming silence.
Life has a way of crushing the special ones, she often thinks. Just look at what it did to me.
MeMaw stays behind in Henry’s room. Grasping the chest of drawers for support. Catching her breath. There’s been enough excitement for one night. No need to follow him downstairs and stir him up even more. Instead, she decides to wait until her son returns to his room before she ventures back to hers. She notices Henry eyeballing her from his bed—that freckled face, that rowdy bush of red hair. Just like his mother’s. On that woman, such traits were handsome. On the boy, bless him, they’re rendered homely. And there is something else too. A differentness about him that she can’t as of yet place, but knows, instinctively, when it comes to a head, it will endear him to few, if any, in this life. Life has a way of crushing the special ones, she often thinks. Just look at what it did to me.
“Go back to sleep,” she tells the boy. “It’s over now.”
They both know she’s lying.
The bird’s scientific name is Campephilus principalis. Also called the American ivory-billed woodpecker. Not to be confused with his Cuban cousin, which is much larger. Ornithologists have classified the ivory-billed woodpecker as critically endangered, and many believe the species to be extinct, since there hasn’t been a sighting of one in nearly twenty years. Most of the time, these birds fly in pairs, mating for life. Like wolves and occasionally humans. This woodpecker hasn’t found its mate, however—and won’t, because he is, in fact, the last of his kind.
Territorial and antisocial, the woodpecker once lived amid a network of decayed water oaks, infested with black beetles and slugs, delicacies to the bird, but bulldozers destroyed his habitat the week before, to make way for a new outlet mall. The bird traveled for two whole weeks throughout the Alabama clay fields and Mississippi floodplains before finding himself here, at this farmhouse, desperate
for food. His wingspan of nearly thirty inches and the red-tipped crown atop his head make him an easy target for the man with the gun. But the woodpecker, nervy and suspicious by nature, is too quick for him. He easily disappears into the night when the shooting begins, unharmed. And he will be back, of course. Dense forest such as this is hard to find. Not to mention the roof of the farmhouse, alive with so many delicious termites.
Henry’s eyes open at dawn. Again, to the sound.
Peck-peck-peck-peck during breakfast (a modest bowl of Frosted Flakes) and peck-peck-peck-peck as he zips himself into a pair of coveralls and loads some paperbacks into his L.L. Bean book bag. The pecking’s softer now, less frantic. Almost melodic, which probably explains why MeMaw and Papa are still asleep.
He leaves the house that morning to seek solace in a tree stand out in the woods. It’s November, and most of the trail grass has turned gray and brittle and cracks underneath his booted feet as he hikes to the stand, a small covered plywood box, nailed securely into a thick pine. He often escapes there to do homework (he’s homeschooled), but another urge sends him today. There’s no danger of hunters lurking around; Papa’s property has been posted for years, and many think he’s too crazy and his land not worth the trouble to poach.
After he climbs into the stand, he sets down his book bag and retrieves a metal box from the far left corner of the squat room. Inside, he finds a scrap of paper he once tore from his father’s senior annual: a black-and-white photograph of the varsity swimming team. They stand in a row—eight boys in all, not much older than himself. By the looks of it, the picture was taken from a location slightly above the swimmers’ heads. Someone must have perched on a ladder to get such angle. Each of them gazes up, at Henry it seems, with bristling confidence, their jawlines acutely defined. Wearing black Speedos. The gray-scaled pool behind them, glistening. An illusion of undulation.
Henry props the picture against the box then leans against the back wall of the tree stand. Positions himself. Unzips his coveralls, and places a hand inside. He imagines them, the swimmers, battling the icy water with their lean muscly limbs. He stares at the photograph until his eyes are dry and he must, at last, blink. The swimmers look back at him, all the while, smirking. As if they know the power their broad chests and smooth feet hold over him.
When Henry returns home for lunch, Papa’s outside in the backyard, taking shots at empty bottles of Knob Creek and Four Roses set up along the creosote fence. He finds MeMaw prone on the couch in the living room, a damp cloth pressed over her eyes. “He’s target practicing,” she says. “Every two hours or so the bird starts up and I can’t do a thing with your daddy. Goes nuts. He shoots and shoots. Hitting only air, the poor bastard.” Between the bird and her son, MeMaw’s not had a good morning, and she’s come to an epiphany about her life. She has decided that all their troubles, the woodpecker included, can be traced back to her husband, dead and gone these forty years.
She leans up from the couch and takes the boy’s hands into her own. “Now hear me out.” She tries to keep her voice steady, so the boy will take her seriously. More seriously than anyone in her life ever has. But she must hurry before they start up again outside. That pounding! That shooting! Her mind’s liable to turn to scrambled eggs before it’s all over with. “Founceroy Barfoot,” she says, as if she were summoning him from across the room. “He’s the one that done it to us.”
The year was 1975, and MeMaw was pregnant and newly married and lived in town. Reuben Culpepper, her husband, and his younger brother, Lucas, had gone out one night to a bar called Fay’s. “Which had been run by real-life hookers,” she adds, but the boy looks unimpressed, so she continues on. She heard this story from Lucas, the brother, who was known to exaggerate, so who knows what really happened. But there must be specks of truth within it, she reasons. And some truth is better than none. The story went that Reuben won the deed to Barfoot’s land in a game of blackjack, and Barfoot, a half-Choctaw, accused him of cheating. Barfoot chanted something, it was said, supposedly putting a hex on Reuben. Claimed no happiness would come to the Culpepper family. “And it has afflicted us all,” MeMaw says, amazed herself at the words coming out of her mouth.
The boy pats her shoulder. She says, “We are cursed, baby. All of us.” Age gives her words the appearance of wisdom, and she believes in them with all her heart.
Henry, on the other hand, is not as superstitious. Never believed in Santa Claus. God, either. He does, though, believe in physics, nature’s magic. What MeMaw has just told him triggers something in his brain that he remembers to be true. Something about energy. He has studied popular theories and has even come up with a few of his own. The way he sees it, there’s good energy and bad. And energy begets energy, as everyone well knows. When his grandfather tricked old Barfoot (if indeed that is what happened), then he—his grandfather—set in motion a potent force of bad energy. Like a snowball tumbling down a mountainside, this bad energy kept on moving. Through his grandfather, through Papa, and now through him.
“We have to stop it,” he says. Speaking more to himself than to MeMaw.
Sometimes the old woman thinks the boy as vacant as an air duct, but at other moments, like this one, when he seems so determined, she wonders if he perhaps understands everyone and everything with the profound sort of knowing befitting a mystic.
“How?” she says, trembling. “How?”
The idea comes to Henry at the public library: a letter of pardon.
While MeMaw busies herself in the stacks, he researches the Choctaw Nation online, using a big clunky computer near the front desk that takes forever just to load a simple Wikipedia page. He first tries to find out about Native American curses, but comes up short. (It wouldn’t surprise him if “curses” are something the white man created; history shows them to be a mean race of people, capable of all sorts of darkness.) One site did say the Choctaws once worshipped Hushtahli, the sun, and they believed nature to be ruled by a good spirit and a bad one. Maybe “spirit” and “energy,” Henry reasons, are different terms for the same force tormenting his family. Then, he clicks on a link that takes him to the chief’s homepage—a woman, as it turns out. In the “About” section, it says she’s the first woman to be elected tribal chief. Using scrap paper, he jots down her address, and then, just for kicks, he googles “Founceroy Barfoot.”
The bird might very well be trying to tell them something. Tell her something.
Meanwhile, MeMaw wanders the nonfiction, looking for books on Morse code. For the moment, she’s forgotten about Barfoot and her husband and curses. She’s noticed, instead, a pattern to the bird’s pecking. And why the hell not? Most creatures in this world harness some means of communication. Bees use pheromones. Dolphins manipulate sound waves. You can even teach a chimpanzee sign language. Seems logical to her that a woodpecker’s no different. Evolution saw fit to bestow it with a sturdy beak, one that could be used for a multitude of purposes. Yes: the bird might very well be trying to tell them something. Tell her something. But the library’s collection proves to have little on what she is looking for, just a brief history of Morse code, plus one thin children’s book, entitled Morris Code.
She finds the boy at a computer, looking up stuff about the Choctaw Indians. On the way home, she tells him how the United States considered them to be one of the most civilized tribes in the country. Recounts for him how they even helped the rebels during the Civil War.
“What about Barfoot? He’s Choctaw,” the boy says.
She remembers her husband and Founceroy, the suddenness of the memory nearly making her swerve off the road. “Neither one had a good outcome,” she tells him, her voice the sound of falling gravel. “Your grandpa fell dead one hot summer day while shelling peas with your papa. And, not long after, Barfoot hung himself from a tree limb.” On the particulars of Barfoot’s death, MeMaw’s memory is fuzzy. Something about it she couldn’t quite recall. “Something you’re probably too young to know about anyway.”
Henry looks out the window as she speaks. Regardless of the details, he knows one thing for sure: bad spirits (energy) make more bad spirits (energy)—here, the air swooshes this way and that with a bad, bad spirit. He can feel it bone-deep, this energy: age-old, prickly, sad. Everything is infected by it.
Back home, Papa is shooting milk jugs. While MeMaw is in the shower, Henry sneaks into his father’s closet and finds his old electric typewriter, a Selectric. He takes it to his bedroom and plugs it in. The typewriter hums to life. He needs the letter to be concise and direct—after all, the chief has a whole nation to run. To be better organized, he lists their problems, starting with the most direct.
Problem #1: the woodpecker.
Problem #2: his mother’s gone.
Problem #3: his father and grandmother fighting.
Problem #4: his…
He can’t bring words to this last one. He knows that he’s different, and has come to realize that this differentness in him must be in others too. Surely, he’s not alone in this. Logic demands there be others. Filters on the dinosaur computers at the library choke out the more interesting sites, and books aren’t much help on the matter either. And he’s not about to search the card catalogue for something he suspects is in the restricted area. Or run the risk of the librarians getting wise to what he’s looking for. No, no thank you.
He’s gazing at the keys, wondering what to type next, when Papa walks into his bedroom. He asks Henry what he’s doing with that old thing, nodding at the typewriter.
Thinking fast, Henry says, “I want to be a writer. Like you.”
This is exactly the wrong thing to say. Henry knows it the instant after he speaks. Papa laughs bitterly. He tells Henry to want in one hand and shit in the other. “Just see which one fills up faster,” he says. He yanks the typewriter’s cord from the wall and carries it back to his bedroom.
Times like these, Henry has to bite his tongue. Close his eyes. And breathe. Some days, it’s all he can do not to set out on his own. Start walking and never look back.
He’ll write that letter, and mail it too. If it is the last thing he does.
And then: the pecking. There it goes again.
MeMaw’s in the shower when the woodpecker starts up this time. Sometimes, she thinks a bird lives inside of her, a small graceful thing aching to burst free and take to the sky. She grabs her breasts and squeezes them together. Allows the warm water to pelt her as she spins and spins under the nozzle.
The woodpecker skirts around another flurry of shots. He flies deep into the woods, going from one tree to the next. Eventually landing on the tree stand, which is filled with the musky scent of the boy. A smell similar to the pit of a nest. Curious, he darts inside, scurries around some dry leaves, some sticks and dirt. Taps on a metal box with his knifelike beak. Then, bored, he moves on.
By morning, the woodpecker’s back at the house, perched on the back deck. The boy comes outside and sits, cross-legged, on the ground and watches the bird. The bird watches back. The boy’s smell wafts up around the animal. Invades the woodpecker’s senses, overriding instinct. He hops off the ledge and moves closer, on his toothpick legs, toward the boy. The boy holds out his hand, and the bird alights on his open palm.
The purpose of this letter is to formally request a pardon, on behalf of my family, for an injustice we committed against one of yours many years ago. His name was Founceroy Barfoot, and the wrongdoing occurred sometime in 1975. We swindled him out of his land, which we still live on today.
The land hasn’t been a working farm since my grandfather’s time and, I assure you, isn’t worth much now. Weeds clot the ground and strangle the trees. And the house my grandfather built is a mess: we stuff newspapers in holes in the walls to keep out the wind when it whistles through.
This pardon will be our first, honest step toward something better. I’ve done some thinking and decided that if you want this paltry land delivered back to your nation, I’m positive something can be worked out. One day, these acres will fall to me, and I assure you I don’t want them. Not one square inch of it. When they’re left to me, I’ll sign them over to you. Gladly. You have my word, which I hope means something.
In the meantime, I await your pardon.
Henry J. Culpepper
Out of the corner of her eye, MeMaw sees the boy slide an envelope underneath the pile of other letters to be mailed. When she takes the bundle to the mailbox across the road, she doesn’t put the boy’s letter in with the rest of them. Instead, she slides it into the folds of her extravagant muumuu. To read when she’s alone.
Later that day, MeMaw rolls out an old record player from the hall closet and puts on George Jones. She and the boy square dance in the living room for a time. “Orange Blossom Special” is her favorite tune; she can listen to that one all day long. Once, she was told that she had the voice of a bird. A baldheaded man named Bishop told her that. He made a lot of foolish claims, though, and she believed every one of them. Followed that man to Nashville. Leaving her boy with some family in town. “I was too kind,” says the old woman to the boy, as they swirl about the room, “to be a star.”
When they finish dancing, she tells him he can have one of her Miller High Lifes. They are at the bottom of the fridge: long gold cans, the champagne of beers. Henry cracks open one and takes a sip. He makes a face. MeMaw says, “You get used to the flavor.”
She turns the record over, and George Jones’s duet with Tammy Wynette, called “Golden Ring,” fills up the house. MeMaw sings over the Wynette parts, her voice weak and achy. She imagines the little bird inside her being nudged awake. She sings and sings, her throat opening. She pictures the bird clawing up her ribcage, one curved bone at a time, then, seeing light, flitting out of her mouth hole and soaring away. Oh, to be a bird! To shed this wrinkly skin and become all feather and claw. Nearly reptilian.
The boy, becoming braver, downs the beer. Some of it fizzes down his chin, and MeMaw roars with delight. He wipes his face and comes in close, his face inches from hers, his eyes large and brown.
“I thought birds fly south for the winter. Why don’t it fly south?”
MeMaw takes the boy’s face in her hands and kisses it. “Because, baby, we are the South.”
Henry laughs and falls back onto the couch. The world spins, and he decides to shut his eyes. Play like he’s sleeping.
MeMaw’s singing Dolly Parton when Papa comes downstairs.
“Shut that off,” he says, and notices the boy on the couch, a can of beer still clutched in his hands. “You are the devil.”
Perhaps spending all his time focused on killing the woodpecker has drained him of some of his animus toward her.
MeMaw shuffles some in her large tent of gown. “Beer’s good for the constitution,” she says, and—thank God—her son snickers. Perhaps spending all his time focused on killing the woodpecker has drained him of some of his animus toward her.
He takes a seat by Henry and palms one of the boy’s bare feet. Though awake, Henry doesn’t stir. Keeps his breathing steady. The record has stopped, and the three of them sit, quietly, a commingling of sighs. Both strange and wonderful, this silence among them, and Henry wants to hold on to it for as long as he can.
MeMaw breaks it by saying, “Our boy’s like your daddy’s brother was.” Then: a quick pop of another beer can opening. “He’s in that way,” she adds. Papa grips Henry’s foot and says that Henry is too young to know what he is. “A woman knows,” MeMaw says, and Papa coughs.
“There’s no place for gentleness in this world,” he tells her.
MeMaw winces at this. She feels the little bird inside her quiver with the truth of what he’s saying. “Sometimes I think,” she says, “that we are forgotten—out here, all alone—and it don’t matter much what we do.”
She takes the letter out of her dress and hands it over to her son, who accepts it without question.
Ignorant of this transaction, Henry, eyes closed, fights sleep, desperate to hear more of their talking, especially since it’s about him. He wonders what they mean. In that way. But sleep wins, and he gives in to it so completely that he doesn’t hear the woodpecker.
MeMaw jumps at the familiar sound.
“Going to let this one pass,” her son says. “I’m tired of dealing with the damn thing.”
When Henry opens his eyes, he notices that someone (probably Papa) has moved him to his bedroom. Outside, the ground is covered in a sheet of ice, the trees look frozen. The year’s first frost. On the deck, he watches the purple-y sky turn pink with sunlight. That’s the best part about living out here, he realizes: the sunlight—it touches everything when it gets going in earnest. The whole deck, white with frost, reflecting light. He sits in a plastic chair after scraping away some ice crystals.
Out of nowhere, the woodpecker flies down and lands on top of the little glass table beside him. MeMaw’s wind chimes twinkle. The bird’s eyes look like tiny droplets of oil, and its beak, a tiny bone-colored blade. In books, he has read about boys and animals, how they form a connection, and then the animal most surely dies. And the boy learns something about the harshness of the world. But Henry needs no such teaching. He knows the harshness better than most already. Knows his father will probably never love him like he needs. Knows his mother isn’t coming back. Knows the pardon—how foolish he was!—will never appear in their empty mailbox. Knows, too, a bird like this, so familiar with humans, isn’t long for this world.
So he feels little when he snatches the woodpecker up in his hand and snaps its little neck between his thumb and forefinger: one swift, breaking movement. There isn’t any fight, or tremble, with the bird. Just acceptance.
There’s no place for gentleness here.
Afterward, Henry notices that someone is screaming. It’s his MeMaw, who has seen the whole thing. She has collapsed in the doorway, her yowls gutting the sky.
Papa instructs Henry to wrap the bird in a paper towel and meet him by his pickup truck. Henry does as he’s told; in his hands, the bird’s a bundle of sticks, mushy. When MeMaw quiets down, Papa comes out the side door, carrying a small spade. He tosses it in the back of the truck bed and says, “Get in.”
They drive into the woods, to the tree stand, parking a few feet away from it. Papa digs a small hole in the icy ground. He waves Henry over. He’s still holding on to the bird. Papa nods, and Henry understands: he drops the woodpecker into the pocket of exposed earth. Papa shovels it in, then he knocks the spade against the tree, shaking off the remaining dirt clods. Looks up at the little box house, some eight feet above ground. Carefully built. Still sturdy after all these years. “Read your letter,” he tells Henry. “You need to watch your MeMaw. She doesn’t know the meaning of personal property.”
Henry curses himself for his laziness in not walking the damn letter down to the mailbox himself.
“If you want to know the truth of it,” he tells Henry, “then here it is. Right here.” He gestures to the tree, the ground. “This, here, is where it happened. They said Barfoot hung himself, but most people knew what really happened. A group of drunks caught wind of his ways, with men.” Papa looks down, then back up at Henry, eye to eye. “You know what I mean, too, don’t you?” Henry shakes his head: yes, he does know. No point in lying now. “My uncle was the same way, but he was more quiet about it. More careful. Dad didn’t steal land from Barfoot. Barfoot left it, you see, to Uncle Lucas.” Papa goes on talking, for a good thirty minutes, telling Henry about how his Uncle Lucas built this tree stand and would wander out here at night, before he, himself, died. “A kind of memorial,” Papa says.
Henry touches the tree, feeling the crusty bark beneath his fingers. He glances above his head, to the empty branches creaking in the wind.
“You understand me,” Papa is saying, “what can happen to a person, if he isn’t careful?”
MeMaw is sitting in the recliner, and thinking.
They have left her. To bury the bird. Her chest heaves with ragged breaths; she’s dozing. But when she remembers Henry, she lurches awake. “The boy,” she says to the empty air. She clutches her arms, as if cold. That poor boy! Earlier, she heard him leave his room and go outside. She followed him, and watched out the kitchen window as he murdered that bird. So sad! She knew that look on his face—that final death glare—and yelled for him to stop before he ever put one finger on the bird, before he ever moved his arm, even. And when he did what he did—lo! It was like he had reached a hand inside of her chest and snuffed out what little life she had left.
Now, the bird inside her is in repose, mourning, half-dead itself with grief. It patters unevenly, and soon it will cease completely. She knows to keep this to herself, lest they think her crazy, but she knows, too, that just because it’s not really happening, the bird in her chest, doesn’t mean it’s any less real. She thinks: Forgive him, he knew not what he did! And: It’s like I just woke up in this body. I am still that girl with big hair. I’m still singing. On the inside. It’s the outside that went bad. And finally: My God, when did I get so old that I contemplate such deep things and quote from the Bible? Goddamn it, fuck. MeMaw reaches for the beer can beside the recliner. Tips it over, and beer suds pool around her feet.
But no! It cannot end this way. Not yet. She will get up from this chair. In just another minute, when her chest settles. She will go to the phone and order them a pizza from the nearby truck stop—yes, and have it delivered before they return. They will gather around the table and feast tonight, the three of them. Start anew. She will cram her face with slice after slice of oily pepperoni goodness.
“Who’d of thought,” she will tell her son, “that it would of been you and me, together at the end?” Yes, yes: it will happen just this way.
“You two better appreciate me while you still can,” she will tell the boys, her boys. “Tomorrow’s never promised.”
They will laugh at her. Forney will say, “Old woman, you’ll outlive all of us.” And MeMaw will shake her head and point to the boy, to sweet Henry. “That one there—he’s the survivor in the family.” Those words will be the truest ones anyone in this family, living or dead, has ever spoken; she will raise her beer can. (Still in her chair, she raises her arm, rehearsing for what will surely happen later.) “Henry James Culpepper, I bless you. I bless you with a long and happy life.”
At this, Henry, smiling, will grab another slice of pizza and say, most assuredly, “Amen!”
Amen, amen, amen!