From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Sorrowbird

I. How to Build a Mourning Dove

First, take your husband’s awkward, enthusiastic letters from the night-stand drawer, the ones he wrote on his way from England to India. Take those smooth papers and wad them up tight. Keep your sorrow out of your actions; let the sadness of the letters speak. Use your anger and frustration to ball up the papers, and marvel at the unfairness of your life. Use the hurt of your loss to crumple each piece into one tight, circular shape. These papers represent the body of the bird you will make.

Consider what the sorrowbird will mean to you: a living worry stone, a brown-gold dream catcher. Then sigh, and speak to your future bird.

I know love; love chases wealth all around the world. Love cuts through jungles and lost cities, searching for starlit blue diamonds and exotic spices. Love writes you less often the farther away it travels, and forgets what it once was. Love loses itself in a foreign place and disappears forever. Love never comes home.

But your bird does not hear you, cannot help you yet.

After you have the love letters pressed into the rough shape of a bird’s body, set them on the table between a vase of dead poppies and the dragonfly glass. You look at the few remaining black flecks of magic clinging to the otherwise empty glass, and feel a similar emptiness at using your magic for the last time.

Next, gather autumn leaves with your wicker basket, and imagine you are picking berries. Your sunset-colored dress, the last gift from your husband, flutters against your ankles in October’s breeze. Brace yourself against the chill and carry on. Pretend that every almond-brown leave you pick up is a blackberry pulled from a thorny vine. Pretend every maroon colored leaf is a ripe red strawberry plucked from its delicate stem.

It’s important to keep up this ruse as you carry them inside, where you will cut a thousand slanted lines from edge to center. You will rip them from their berry-patch dreams of tall grass and sunlight, and throw them into the reality where they were abandoned by the only thing they ever loved—the ancient, twisted oak. You will dump their situation on them all at once, like cold water on a sound sleeper. They will remember how they slipped from the branch, and no limbs stretched out to catch them. They will remember floating down to the soft mat of their brothers and sisters, while their color changed and bled away with the season.

Imagine their screams as you cut, and force them to remember, but it does not break your heart. Your heart cannot be broken down any further; it is not in pieces, it is a fleeting pile of ruby dust.

Cut the leaves as fine as you can with your knife; fine enough, perhaps, to catch the currents of air and take off. Fine enough for flight.

Now you need a way to bind these dismal leaves as feathers to the bird’s body. In the attic you will find, among the abandoned artifacts of your old life, silver-white cobwebs strung in all the corners. Squint to see better in the dusk-light, and search for the most ancient, dust laden threads.

Pull the cobwebs down and gather them around your fingers like pale cotton candy. Downstairs, you will wrap the sticky web around the paper and attach the leaves. It will not resemble a bird at all, but it doesn’t have to. You will place it in its cage and with magic, change the sad artifacts into a living, breathing sorrowbird.

You will not keep your mourning dove in a cold metal cage, but in one made from woven briar vines. Leave your shoes beside the door, and take a walk at dawn, when the thick fog paints the world gray. On your way to the edge of the forest, you check over your shoulder and hope to see your husband, lost for so long, making his way home. Your black and orange dress moves against the still morning when you turn, and as always you see only an empty dirt road stretch to the horizon.

You arrive and find a briar thicket among tall brown grass, just before it fades into a sharp carpet of pine needles, pine cones, and fallen leaves. Squat down and ignore the sound your knees make as they pop in unison. Grasp the stems where the thorns are fewest, and with your knife, cut the vines away until you count out ten long pieces.

Next, step under the pine-branch canopy and glance at your hands. You weren’t careful enough, and scarlet drops well where you punctured the skin. It doesn’t matter; soon you will weave the briars into a cage, an act which will devastate your hands. Ignore the pain and bend down to collect two handfuls of pine needles from the ground and stuff them in the loose pockets of your dress. Notice the protruding orange-brown needles, and remember the scarecrow you and your husband made for the garden a few months before he disappeared on his way to India.

The sudden pain surprises you. How can it hurt this much after so long? You hate how the small memories always feel sharper than the constant loneliness; they haunt you then vanish just long enough for you to forget them, and return when you think you’ve buried them for good.

Every aching memory will disappear when you bring your sorrowbird to life. With this hopeful thought in mind, you reach down and snatch the briars up. As you carry the vines home, ignore the tiny thorns that puncture your skin in revenge. They have the same effect as little bees: they stab at you but can only die.

With sore hands sporting a hundred pinprick wounds, place the crumpled love letters, leaves, and cobwebs on the cage’s pine-straw bottom. You can almost see your future bird in the rubble: not jagged folded paper, but strong, arching wings, not crisp, fragile leaves, but beautiful, soft feathers, the graceful sweep of the head and neck, the tree-bark-in-golden-sunlight color.

You cannot make a sorrowbird in your first year of sadness, or your third, or fifth. You cannot make one until you have exhausted every other avenue of comfort. Everyday, you sat at the kitchen table and stared out the window as if your wish could make things right. Well, if it could, wouldn’t you have made things right ten-thousand times? You would have given up your whole allotment of magic—your mother’s legacy, to make your wish the final word, to see your husband striding down the dirt road.

But magic does not work in such ways.

Instead you spent the magic as a child spends money, without care and in the moment. You wasted it to make your touch turn things to gold. And after surrounding yourself with cold, uncaring jewels, marble fountains, and soft fabric, you found the riches did not make you forget, did not take away the hurt, and so you used still more magic to take the golden touch from your fingers.

You used your magic to conjure phantoms to dance for you. You drew the northern lights in the clear, new-moon sky to dance for you as well, and watched as they displayed the most brilliant color combinations over a city too far south to have ever seen them before. You used your magic up on a hundred other things, and none served to soothe your hurts or take away the pain.

Now, as you hold the small jar with three dragonflies etched in white upon the glass, you look at the remaining magic; these black ashes of your last hope, the tiny, dark grains that will bring your sorrowbird to life.

Use one fleck on the briar-vine cage to keep it sturdy and evergreen. The leaves will not shrivel, and the thorns will stay sharp. You cannot have your mourning dove flying about the house, unrestrained. Instead, you must keep the bird in its cage, and surround it with the sadness you will bring forth to hang upon the thorns.

Place the next fleck in a crevice of the crumpled paper, and hold the bird’s shape in your mind. A mourning dove, you say, my sorrowbird. Lay the next bit of magic beside what will be the bird’s head. You can do nothing more to make this work. If you’ve pursued happiness, only to have never touched it with outstretched fingers, if you satisfied the spell and built your bird with melancholy artifacts, then your bird will stand where the letters and leaves wrapped with cobwebs now lie in a heap.

One fleck of magic left. Touch the bottom of the glass with your finger, and come away with a black mark pressed in a space between your curving fingerprint. Run your finger in a line between your eyes, just above your eyebrows. You don’t have a mirror, but you look at the wide black mark on your finger, like charcoal dust, and you know a similar black streak marks your brow, an opening to pull your sorrows from.

II. Melancholy, Sadness, Love

In the following days your routines all change. Where once you paused at the window every time you passed, to see if someone now approached in the seconds between your last glance and this new moment, now you stop beside the briar-vine cage and stand on your toes hoping to see curious bird-eyes staring back. Every time you check, you see leaves wrapped in dusty cobwebs around crumpled paper. You pace around the house and try to distract your worried mind from dwelling on sadness and imagining failure—maybe you didn’t use the magic correctly, or maybe you weren’t sad enough.

Instead, you force yourself to think about the familiar questions you’ll never find an answer to: why is love all that matters when you can only love once, when such a love can be taken away? How can it hurt so much? What happened to your husband all those years ago? How can you bring him back, and why did he have to leave you?

The questions crash against you like waves, and leave you helpless and disoriented in their wake. On the counter you find the glass with the dragonfly etching. Overwhelmed, you hold the empty jar in your hands, empty as if it had never been filled with the ash-like magic. You just want another try to make your sorrowbird. That’s not how it works, though, and you know it. You have to use the last of your magic; there is only one chance.

You feel nothing but bitter fury as you fling the glass across the room, the dragonflies’ last flight. The glass shatters against the wall with a musical crash, and falls to the floor like ringing diamond rain. For a moment you relish the sound of ruin. Then something inside you breaks, and you feel fragile and scattered, because you loved that glass, and you loved your husband, and the sorrow keeps falling on to you, crushing you. Why couldn’t your husband just come home? Why won’t your sorrowbird come and take it all away?

You cannot deal with this disappointment any longer, and decide to go to bed. During the long hours when you cannot sleep, you stare at the lemon colored sunshine splashing into your bedroom. This doesn’t feel like giving up, it feels like losing. How, when you tried so hard, can nothing come from your efforts?

You give in on the third day, and hunger driven, you trudge to the kitchen. You don’t know what comes next, but you feel too empty to try and rise above the rising despair. Maybe it’s better to drown; to have the anguish forced from you and carried to the surface in tiny air bubbles. You’ll feel nothing at all, as if you’re asleep and dreaming. But even as you contemplate death in a way you never had before, you spread blackberry jam on a muffin to sustain yourself for just a little longer.

You look across the room at the briar-vine cage in the same moment you hear a loud, drawn out question.

who-ooo? who-who, who?

The knife falls from your hand and clatters to the floor, flinging the dark purple jam. The mourning dove looks at you, and in its ethereal voice asks again, who-ooo? who-who?

You beam at your gorgeous sorrowbird, and croon to it in nonsense words while the bird eats some seeds from a tin cup on the cage’s bottom. It cracks a seed in half and the shell pieces fall away from its beak. It pauses and looks up at you with perfect, expectant curiosity, and wonders aloud, who-ooo?

* * *

When the bird’s newness wears off, you still find yourself happy to hear its mournful call, to sit before the briar-vine cage and watch it step in staccato movements. You laugh with long-lost delight when it ruffles its feathers, and sigh through slightly parted lips when it stretches its wings. In all the time since you’ve made your sorrowbird, you have almost, almost forgotten the sadness for which you created it. But in the end, you cannot ignore such profound, haunting sorrow, only give it away.

You want to test transferring your sorrow to the bird with a new memory, something easy and fresh, rather than an aged, deep wound.

The dragonfly glass.

You regret breaking something you’ve had since childhood. You remember the glass fracturing, how it exploded against the wall, the quick change from anger to hurt; that’s the memory you will use. You close your eyes and pinch the magic stained skin above them. Then you take your hand away, as if pulling the center from a slender honeysuckle flower to lick the sweet nectar, as if pulling a parasitic worm from a body, careful not to break it.

Your sorrow shimmers and moves like smoke trapped between your fingertips. You move your hand and the sorrow trails behind it, a silver ghost. Your sorrowbird looks up at you, curious but silent. You lay the silver strand across a briar thorn, but when you pull your hand away, the sorrow-thought follows, not attaching itself as you expected.

You try again, and again, but it will not stay. On the last try before giving up you prick your finger on a thorn. The pain startles you, and you snatch your hand back. The silver strand stays attached to the thorn with a blood drop anchor.

Who-ooo? asks the sorrowbird. It puffs its chest and calls again, who-ooo?

You watch as the strand grows brighter, somehow more substantial, and fills the cage like a thin, settling fog.

The smoke circles the mourning dove and seeps into its body.

The bird has gone still as a wood-colored statue. You look close with your own breath held, and can see it breathing. Another motionless second passes, then the bird looks up at you, and moves about its cage as though nothing had happened.

You think about the dragonfly glass, as if tasting the memory. You remember the way the dragonfly and reed etchings felt rough against your fingers, the way the glass always felt winter-cold, even on the hottest summer day. You remember your mother leaving it to you when she died—half filled with tiny black flecks. And when you recall throwing it against the wall; the sadness has disappeared, replaced with a detached curiosity. Broken glass, shattered thing; it carries no weight.

You smile down again at your sorrowbird, and prepare to unload all your sadness.

* * *

Giving your sorrow away happens the same every time: you pull the sadness from your mind in dream-like silver strands, and attach them to a thorn with blood from a pricked finger. The silver turns from an insubstantial wisp to a blanketing fog and seeps into the bird. The bird goes still for minutes afterward, and then resumes its simple life.

You’ve given away your small sorrows so far, such as when your anniversary comes and goes each year, or when the azaleas bloom—remembering how your husband would pick a flower and tuck it behind your ear. You’ll never again frown when it rains, and recall the cold delight when a summer storm would catch you both far from home and shelter, and you both lay together in the field until the sun kissed you dry.

You’ve given away the impact, but kept the pictures in your mind.

You feel lighter with the sorrow removed, but you’ve yet to release the sorrow from your husband’s disappearance, and all the long years you’ve waited and tried to keep hope.

You decide that today you will give away the sadness from when your husband left for the last time. You stand before the bird’s cage, and take comfort from its presence. With your eyes closed you breathe in a calmness. You reach out to stroke a smooth briar leaf, and imagine petting the bird. The mourning dove pauses eating, and watches you. You hope it can survive such heavy sorrow.

Your husband kisses you on the corner of your lips. I’ll see you soon, he says, I’ll write you along the way. Be well, darling. He kisses your forehead and turns away before your arms can wrap around him again. You watch as he steps up into the carriage, and the horses start off, kicking up dust which tries to cloak your last view of him. He smiles at you as the road bends behind the trees, and waves just as he disappears from your sight. Just one more kiss, one more embrace, one more word whispered before leaving.

When you look back on this goodbye, you recognize a cold casualness you don’t remember from when you lived through the memory. You want to scream through the years to your younger self; hold him tighter! Let your lips linger with your kiss; don’t let go ever again.

You look at the silver strand between your fingers, and notice it looks heavier, a duller shade than the others. It doesn’t float behind your hand as you reach toward the cage, but drags, as if anchored to your mind. You prick your finger on a thorn and attach the memory to the cage. The fog settles just like before, but this time it looks thicker, more noxious.

You blow at the now hazy yellow fog as it fills the cage, but it does not dissipate. You grab your tea saucer from the table and try to fan the fog away to no avail. It swirls like thick cream around the bird. You panic when you can no longer see your mourning dove. The cage has no door, no way for you to free the bird, just the small spaces in between the thorn adorned vines. You try and reach your hand through, but the thorns tear at your arm. You bite your lip and squeeze your eyes shut against the pain, still feeling around for the bird, because you know you have killed it, you know it has left you as well.

The pain overwhelms you as it rips your skin in deep, jagged lines. Warm blood flows down your hand, and the fog burns your wounds. You stare at the cage feeling helpless, realizing too late you’ve killed the mourning dove. Just having it around took more sadness away than it ever did when absorbing your sorrows.

Something wet touches your foot. You look with disbelief at the blood running down your arm to form a puddle beside your feet. How did the tiny thorns cut so deep? You wrap your arm in a towel, and lay down in the hallway. You wipe your eyes with your undamaged hand, and think maybe you gave too much at once, or maybe you waited too long to make your sorrowbird. Perhaps your caution allowed your sadness to build up too much, and you have ruined your last chance at happiness.

* * *

You wake up sprawled on the floor. The sunlight shines into the kitchen window and falls into the hallway in a way it only does at dawn. A whole day and night have passed since you tried to escape your sorrow.

The bird!

You sit up too fast and your body aches all at once. Your back feels twisted, and you cry out, your knotted muscles protest sleeping on the floor, and you stand up with caution. A few steps toward the kitchen and you notice the trail of blood on the floor. You remember your injured arm, and peak under the blood-crusted towel to find your arm whole and healthy; not even scars remain.

You follow the rust-brown trail to the kitchen table where your sorrowbird’s briar-vine cage sits. So much blood: on the floor, the chairs, the table, the counter. You don’t understand, but cannot concern yourself with anything besides the scene inside the cage.

With the fog gone, you find the sorrowbird slumped against the briars. Its beak hangs open, and it pants in harsh, ragged breaths. You see feathers scattered over the bottom of the cage; some stick to the dried blood in the cage and on the table.

Oh! You reach into the cage, and give no thought to repeating the damage the thorns have done to your arm. Today only small thorns scratch you as you take the mourning dove and pull it back through the vines. It does not try to resist you, it just lays in your hand like a warm, pulsing stone. Its unaware black eyes stare at you, accusing and helpless.

You sit on the porch all day and nurse the bird back to health. The poor thing trembles against you in the sun’s purple afterglow. New feathers push through its smooth skin like hopeful shoots peeking from dark, wet earth. They are prickly against your hand. Its eyes now look bright and new, and it has resumed its curious call, who-ooo ooo.

The days seem too short. You love nothing more than just holding the bird in your hand, stroking its head where it has kept a few original feathers. You wonder what would happen if you gave the bird your most painful memory, the one where your husband never comes home.

You cannot bring yourself to try such a thing.

Instead, you smile at the bird’s renewed energy, and take pleasure in how far it has come in so short a time. It struggles harder now, and for longer, to free itself from your hand. You laugh when it stretches its wings and tries to fly; you feel the wind rush past your face, unsettling your hair. The feathers have not yet grown long enough for flight, but soon now and they will.

You will see this bird whole again, and you will set it free.


Sean Markey lives in Salt Lake City, where he is pursuing a degree in Elementary Education from Westminster College. You can find him online at http://www.semarkey.blogspot.com.

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11 Responses »

  1. Beautiful story, Sean. I enjoyed reading this a lot.

  2. Beautiful and understated. A true pleasure to read.

  3. I really enjoyed that. Beautiful story.

  4. I love this story! And I want a sorrowbird.

  5. A wonderful story, Mr. Markey.

  6. Oh my goodness, Sean. This was amazing. The emotion is so raw. Loved it!

  7. Absolutely fantastic man. Great prose…..perfect ending. I look forward to your future writings.

  8. I just got around to reading this one and it was wonderful. Lots of lovely prose to admire. I particularly liked this line:

    “You weren’t careful enough, and scarlet drops well where you punctured the skin.”

    I like how the author relates the small sad memories to little cuts, saying they hurt more than the big ones sometimes.

    The whole thing was just so lyrical. Wish I would have read it before the poll closed. Then again, it was hard enough deciding between the ones I did read. This magazine is good! I like it : ) Sorrowbird will stick with me for awhile.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for you kind words about my story. I’m glad you enjoyed it. :)

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