Under the Rope Swing — Evan James Sheldon
The husband thought things were going pretty well between himself and his wife until he found the dead birds.
He came home on a lunch break and while he was pulling up, a gust of wind tipped over the trashcan set out for the dump truck, sending a long crack along the side of the bin. Instead of the normal trash—food stuffs and whatever didn’t fit into the well-defined categories of recycling or composting—about twenty dead birds tumbled out onto the edge of the sidewalk.
They were different sizes and colors, and nearly all were at different stages of decomposition. A couple of small birds the size of sparrows were only bones and ligaments with a couple grayish feathers stuck on like an afterthought. A long graceful pale bird looked to have only just died, and he poked at it with a stick to see if it would move. It didn’t.
The husband didn’t know what to do. He took a picture of the birds with his phone and swept them back into the bin. That afternoon, he was about to send a text to his wife. But then he stopped. Why were there so many dead birds? It wasn’t as if something had happened to a flock and they’d fallen into the back yard because of some freak accident. There were too many kinds. The stages of decomposition suggested to him that something was killing the birds only occasionally.
The couple didn’t own a cat, as the husband was allergic. There were too many for it to be a random accident. So, the man decided that his wife must be killing a couple birds every week or so.
Back at work, he pulled up the picture of the dead birds and tried looking them up on the internet. Some were too far gone for him to tell what they had been, but others were easy to decipher. There was a Gunnison Sage Grouse, two White-Tailed Ptarmigan, a Mountain Bluebird, a Western Tanager, three Burrowing Owls, two Hooded Mergansers, a fistful of Calliope Hummingbirds, and the graceful one on top was called a Sandhill Crane. All were popular choices for bird watchers in Colorado.
This made it even more strange. The husband and wife lived in Northern California. Why would these birds even be close enough to kill? His wife travelled for work, sure. But she couldn’t be flying back with dead birds in her luggage. Could she? Maybe there was crossover between the birds. Like, global warming or something had changed migration patterns. He had read an article just the previous week that suggested Siberia was turning into a huge, flammable trampoline because certain microbes in the soil were becoming active due to warmer temperatures. If that was true, it certainly wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that these birds had simply flown here.
But how had she killed them? With poison? A tiny dart gun? A regular gun? He certainly hadn’t seen any bullet holes. And, he was pretty sure that they didn’t own a gun. But if his wife was willing to slaughter random birds, though he wasn’t quite willing to concede that the birds were in fact random, what else might she be hiding?
The husband faked a cough and left work early. No one noticed.
He got home and checked the trashcan first. Nothing. It was tipped over again, lid ajar, but no dead birds. He pulled it up into the garage and examined it more closely. It was clean. Not just empty, but no birds, no skeletons, no half-rotten beaks, not even a single feather. The bin positively gleamed. He ran a finger along the smooth interior surface as near the bottom as he could reach. Clean. It was as if it was a new trash bin.
Had his wife, knowing that it was windy and that there was a strong possibility that he might come home for lunch and discover the birds, driven home and cleaned the trashcan? If so, why? And why not simply return it to the garage?
The only reasonable answer was that she was killing the birds, knew that he might find out, and had made every effort to make sure that he wouldn’t find out. It was a terrible discovery for the husband. And how long had this been going on? He realized now that he hadn’t seen a bird in the sky for a while, for a long while. Maybe since Sam. He wondered if his wife had been burying birds in the backyard underneath the tree, under the unused rope swing all along. The husband had been meaning to take down the rope swing, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. So it just hung there, like a noose.
He grabbed a shovel.
There were probably fifty tiny, empty holes in the backyard by the time the wife came home. She looked at all the holes and didn’t say anything. The husband showed her the picture on his phone and she didn’t seem shocked. Things die, was all she said and went back inside.
The husband turned to yard and thought that all the empty holes looked kind of beautiful, much better than if they had been filled with bones, like he had unearthed all the birds somehow and they had risen up and flown away. But, he searched the sky and couldn’t see anything that flew.
Evan James Sheldon’s work has appeared most recently in Gone Lawn, Metaphorosis, and New Plains Review. His poetry chapbook, Shed the Midnight, is published by Ghost City Press. He is a Senior Editor for F(r)iction and the Editorial Coordinator for Brink Literacy Project.