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Mr. Bird Whistling in the Night

by T. Fox Dunham

In my cell at night, Mr. Bird whistles at the dark. The old Inuit watches for it, waits for it. It lives in the ever-midnight world above the Arctic Circle where people are thrown away, forgotten. Mr. Bird gazes into its heart, and the darkness gazes into Mr. Bird.

The jury never takes into account the special, teeth-breaking rage only a woman can provoke in a man. I tried to convince that pimply, wet-behind-the-ears public defender to put in a defense of Not Guilty by mental defect. I wasn’t in my right head. I felt I was floating when I tore a club from the stair balusters — breaking my hand in the process — and cracked my brother’s and Jenny’s skulls.

I whistled while I killed them. I never could whistle before. I couldn’t get my lips shaped right. I couldn’t whistle afterwards. That’s how I knew.

I tried to tell the judge I’d been possessed by something, taken over by an old spirit of the land that speared the bottom of my boots with roots, then my feet, infecting me to my core. Man had drilled into its heart in Alaskan lands without respect, sucking out the crude. The land demanded blood in return: the mangled elk face, fur rotting, eyes dripping pus, maggots chewing on its carcass. It raised my hand like a puppeteer and guided the club, pulping their heads.

Then it left me and returned to the violated earth. I wept. I sobbed for my wife, my brother. And I sobbed because it had abandoned me. I’d been left with no family.

Left with no god.

“Feel it watching me,” Mr. Bird said. Then he’d resume whistling a song low in pitch. He just stared out our cell portal and whistled. I never saw him sleep.

Mr. Bird’s almost perfectly square head looked as though his mother and father had chopped him out of firewood. He’d tattooed himself on his right cheek with an improvised needle from a sewing kit and ink drained from pens: a crimson eagle thick in lines, warped in shape with many blossoming eyes. This was a common symbol of his native Eyak tribe, I assumed.

I never could get more than a few sentences out of my cellmate at Cold Creek Correctional Facility, north of Fairbanks. He just spent the melting-glacier time staring through the porthole, out onto the prison yard and further to the mountains, watching something with raptor eyes.

Some of the prisoners fermented liquor from potato skins traded from the cooks. They called this toilet wine Sunshine, popular during the winter months when the sun abandoned those of us living above the Arctic Circle, the lost months when we lingered in forever night. A man gets bored enough to start boring holes in his own skull. I traded some porn magazines for a coffee can full of Sunshine wine and shared it with my taciturn cellmate.

After ten gulps, enough to kill a man, Mr. Bird ceased his whistling and finally turned from his important business outside the cell window. He looked me over and cracked a grin on his block face.

“It’s clawed a hole in you,” Mr. Bird said.

“I wish you had testified for me.”

He spoke through cracked teeth. “Darker than dark. Blacker than night. Watches me from the hills. And I watch it.”

I took the can from him, gulped wine down till my eyes caught fire.

“It wears the dark like elk fur,” Mr. Bird continued. “Like black feathers. Got to look sharp for it. Where it sits, the night looks deeper, a hole in the dark that swallows a man.”

I’d never encountered what he’d described, growing up in Anchorage, keeping to the streetlights, car headlights, always having a flashlight close at hand. Light banished the night. Humans had a fear of the dark in our folk memory. Something lived in the night, wore it like a cloak, camouflage. We all knew it but would never admit that anything dwelled outside our domain.

“One night it came and sucked up my mother and father,” Mr. Bird said, turning back to his cycle of gazing through the portal.

“They stuck you in this hole for murdering them?”

The moonshine’s effect dwindled, not lasting against Mr. Bird’s constitution. Still, I had his story, so it made life in our shared cell a bit easier.

On the first night of those winter months, when we stumbled in the constant night like children forgotten by a neglectful mother, Mr. Bird started to sway like a pendulum, gripping the window frame with white knuckles. “Black river,” he said.

I looked from beside him into the yard. At first, I only saw the yard and fence outlined in the sickly, tower lights. Then I followed Mr. Bird’s eyes. In the voids missed by the sallow lamps, an ebony stream, finer than the surrounding darkness, oozed down from the hills. It was so close now, licking at the cinderblocks of our cell wall. The darkness looked into me, growing ice crystals in my chest. I crawled into my bunk like a scared child, shaking so hard I bit my tongue.

“Help me,” Mr. Bird said. He reached for me but couldn’t pull his right hand from the window.

“Take him,” I whispered. “Take him and let me be.”

Aphotic tendrils poured through the Plexiglas, wove around the bars and tangled Mr. Bird’s fingers. Eels sucked the color from his husk, etiolating him to monochromatic outline. I heard him exhale hard, letting out the remainder of his hot breath before he drained entire into the oily stream.

I kept my eyes averted from windows until day returned to our year.

The warden didn’t raise much of a fuss and marked him as missing, but he didn’t bother looking for him. The warden knew.

I got a new cellmate a few days later, some punk who had robbed a liquor store and unloaded buckshot into the cashier because the liquor store was out of Kentucky whiskey. The kid shaved his head in the sink to look mean so no one would mess with him. He tossed around in his bunk that first night, going mad from the noise.

“You better stop that whistling,” the punk said. “I’ll cut your heart out.”

“That ain’t me. That’s Mr. Bird. You’ll get used to it after a time.”

Copyright © 2012 by T. Fox Dunham

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