Owl II, 2014 © Deanna Pizzitelli / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

Zugunruhe

by Katie Cortese

In her new home, the girl was lonely and alone. She played in the woods. There were a stream and several foxes, a family that seemed friendly across the bank that would stop their tumbling, growling, ear-biting play to lock eyes and pant with something like a smile. She imagined a kingdom in the oaks and a village suspended in the branches too high for climbing and spent every summer hour not needed for chores or meals dreading and yearning for the start of school in equal measure. Her classroom used to be the back of a van crossing vast continents where her parents taught biology and zoology and sustainable farming and on occasion built wells, or else in huts where she’d scribbled in workbooks until she could no longer resist the frenetic hum of kids massing outside, finished with their half-day lessons in French.

She hadn’t wished for an end to that education, but in the last country, there’d been a boy, a friend who weaved her through nighttime jungles or ranging over plains in the day, and once they found themselves too far to return the same night through a predators’ moonlit paradise. In  the morning, jubilant, full of bush mango and bottled water, notebook richer by three new sightings (pygmy squirrel, climbing mouse, and a bird she drew but couldn’t find in her field guide), her parents said it was time for her to migrate to the town of their youth in a country she’d visited only once, fourteen years before, to be born.

A pair of maiden aunts took her in in exchange for a monthly stipend, wild thing that she was. She arrived with a backpack of jerky and three rumpled field guides for their region, presents from her parents years out of date. Plants, animals, and a phrasebook of American slang. She found the clubhouse on an ordinary Tuesday, after lunch but before the hordes of mosquitoes sprung thick and hungry directly from the afternoon’s heat. It was built on stilts, leaning against a tree, an old deer blind, maybe, abandoned and then repurposed with the same Yankee ingenuity that forged four different meals from Sunday’s desiccated turkey carcass.

The day she discovered the blind, the girl examined its contents: scattering of baseball cards, curled at the corners, and colorful action figures with bald patches over powerful biceps, wrappers for candies she’d never tasted, except for the ubiquitous M&Ms, and a pair of plastic binoculars banded to a spiral bound notebook. When she unwrapped it like the relic it was, she found a kindred spirit, long vanished, who’d left his trove of sketches: sparrows, jays, chickadees, robins, cardinals male and female. These, she studied, especially the woodpecker, head cocked, black eye somehow bright even rendered in lead. All ordinary birds, plain and neat and exquisitely recreated until she flipped the finch to an image drawn in lines so faint it might have been a mirage: a woman, naked, stepping into the stream chuckling not ten feet from her perch. The cleft down her back was drawn deep and shadowed, hair gathered into a twisted rope that fell over one shoulder and peeked out from under the arm she’d lifted for balance. The face was turned away but fine in profile, the nose small and delicate, lips thin, the whole figure just this side of familiar.

She traced the lines, matched trees and bank to what she could see from the hideaway between the weathered boards and ramshackle, leaning roof. She fell asleep with the lady splayed open behind her, and waking, found it near a dusk shattered every so often by fireflies showing gold, red, and green against the falling dark. She tucked the notebook into the waistband of her jeans and raced home over fallen logs and brambles, thinking of it that way for the first time: home.

The aunts knew nothing of the blind or any children that played in those woods now or in the last decade. It had been as long since they’d sampled the blueberry bushes she raided daily at the edge of the yard, and she couldn’t imagine them venturing into the cool depths of her wooded playground, picking out firm ground between velvet moss and pine needles heaped everywhere, silky and brown and slick. Aunt Bertie worried she would catch a tick sickness back there and devised ways to keep her home. Weeding the tomato garden. Baking a new sourdough loaf. Once an outdoor concert at the bandstand where the girl fell to talking with an ice cream vendor, a girl from the high school who invited her to a bonfire later that evening. The girl pictured herself there, holding a can of something forbidden, standing in a way to emphasize her narrow hips, and thinking of that portrait—sinuous, pure Eve before the fall. She woke up at the appointed time, crept down the creaky stairs, and emerged into the silvered living room where a window stood open to the porch. No telling why she stopped, except, maybe, that she’d been banished once for spending a night out, and if she were sent away now, where was left to go?

“Shoe shopping,” Aunt Bertie said one August afternoon, raising bifocals to peer at the girl’s gray sneakers stippled with sticky seeds. They sailed downtown all three in a boatlike Buick with all the grace of a Queen Mary III. The mall was a rude corridor of fluorescent light that made her feel like a hamburger under a heat lamp. They bought tennis shoes and jeans with even hems, three shirts that V’d at the neck and a dress the aunts’ insisted on for the first day of school, now nearly upon them. It was navy, A-line, and turned her into? someone she glimpsed sometimes in the mirror, but had never yet looked full in the face. The girl carried the bags, staring at a gaggle of girls in the food court where the aunts paused for steaming plates of salty lo mein and chicken fingers. The girls wore jeans aglow with rhinestones and gold thread. Hair was bobbed or straight or braided into narrow, intricate lengths. They laughed with hands affixed to mouths, hiding perfect teeth, trilling calls to cathedral ceilings frosted with sun. Watching, she drew a hand to her face, covering a smile, experimental, cocking a head, squinting then widening eyes, learning the language.

On the way home, she drew the girls from memory, beaks glassy with gloss, elbows wing-sharp. In the last days before school, she took to wearing her dress into the woods, careful to clear thorns and rough bark, and went straight to the stream, slipping the smooth fabric over her head and draping it over a bush, then standing at the edge of the water, toeing in bit by bit, fox cubs emerging when she grew still enough, then going back about their yipping, scampery business. What did she look like from the treehouse, she wondered. Would she recognize herself drawn in lead?

Even with her observations and practiced behaviors, fingers twirling hanks of hair to loose spirals, pen caught between teeth as if in thought, legs crossed and heel tapping like a woodpecker’s powerful rap, she stood out. A moat surrounded her at lunch, definitive as the length of sluggish water between her and the fox cubs, who were growing lanky now, veering farther from the den, growing up before her eyes. Her slang was outdated, typing two-fingered, fashion imported from an era bygone or never-was.

When the novelty of exploring endless, tiled halls burned off like morning fog—corridors reduced to pure pattern, classrooms the same boxes to be filled with a shifting sea of strangers’ faces—she began to seek out windows, to stare at the sky, to eat lunch on a stone bench beneath a fir tree, toeing the needle-strewn ground. Each morning it was harder to force herself into the cool building, air machine-cooled to an iron lung that kept her still and barely breathing. Each afternoon she thrilled to bike new routes home through backyards and broken fences and stray dogs who followed, friendly, for blocks.

In time, there was another boy. He brought a sandwich to her bench, locked a bike next to hers, showed her empty barns on the edge of town. Private beaches abandoned by owners now flocked south in advance of the winter. In return, she showed him the treehouse and the birds, sparser now in the evening’s chill, and the notebook. He studied the woman for a time, brows knitting, then set down the page, slid down the girl’s jeans, lifted her shirt, made of them a nest just big enough for two. She knew now why her parents had sent her so far. Finally, but only to herself, she thanked them.

They spent afternoons in the woods, he hiking as the crows flew, dark sentinels that seemed more plentiful now in the foothills of the winter, or perhaps just bolder, louder, bossier than when the trees had worn more leaves to hide them. Under bare branches, the birds cawed through their embraces, the plans they spun between giddy puffs of frozen air that took on the shape of endless futures made and remade.

It was Aunt Margaret who found them nestled like an egg to spoon the first time. The parents had called on the desktop, a rare and treasured occurrence, and the woman hiked the well-tread path with a stick and snowboots, teetering over roots and calling out in a cracked soprano that sent the foxes to their den.

The hideaway was not, after all, well hidden. The boy leapt without ladder and vanished like a white-tailed deer in the brush. Aunt Margaret gave the shivering girl, shrugging on her sweater, no real choice. “Home, now, and we will say nothing.” The next time, Bertie borrowed the boots and did not announce, but crept tree to tree until the tryst was laid bare. Again, the boy fled, and the girl herded home with nothing decided until the next day, after school, when both women waited in the dining room until the front door swung in, the girl’s voice rang out, backpack thudded to the floor.

Bertie had a lover once, before he went somewhere to fight and married there, made himself a stranger, never came back, but Margaret had clerked at town hall all her grown life, stayed a maiden, and then what the card game called an old maid. While the slathered bread with peanut butter in the kitchen with its stone sink, Bertie whispered, “Close the fist and she’ll just slip through.” Margaret whispered back, “Then let her fall.”

Winter was full and white upon the town. Where could she go that breath would not freeze in her lungs? The girl shook snow from her hair and listened to the decree. After, she lingered longer than she meant to. Each new day found her pressed to the living room windows, hands set on glass cold and hard as ice until she warmed it with her breath. The compass was a gift from the boy. An heirloom to guide their travels. She followed needle to glass again and again as one year turned to the next.

Migratory restlessness, she self-diagnosed. Zugunruhe. Her mother had told of a sparrow she hatched as child when its mother abandoned the nest. Raised in a wire cage, that first winter it fluttered day and night, frantic with unease until she unlatched at last the little arched door and watched it fly in circles through the house, alighting on bookshelves and lintels, pecking the paint from the walls. Crying, she’d shooed it out with a broom and never saw it again.

The girl filled her backpack once more. Granola bars and three V-neck shirts, fifty dollars from the baked bean can beneath the sink, her book of birds, and the ancient, banded notebook. In the basement of the farmhouse where the boy lived, she laid out an atlas, all roads pointing south. “Marry me instead,” he said, seventeen and proud, imagining himself wide as the world through which she’d once rambled.

She tore the woodpecker from the notebook, folded it to a square, and slipped it into the pocket of his shirt. “One night,” she told him. “I’ll stay one more night.” In the morning, she laced on the boots he offered and accepted three pairs of clean socks. Still, she wasn’t sure until he drove her to the overpass and pulled off where the pickups had parked during hunting season, noses to tailgates like elephants walking trunk to tail. She faced the woods lining the highway, passing cars behind them lifting her hair and fanning it over coat and scarf and cheeks, each strand feather light, crackling with static, as at last she began to walk.

About Katie Cortese

Katie Cortese is the author of Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Editions, 2015) and the forthcoming Make Way for Her and Other Stories (University Press of Kentucky, February 2018). Her work has most recently appeared in the Indiana ReviewThe Writer’s Chronicle, and Mojave River Review. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University and serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.