Matt Rowan sometimes tries to affect the gravelly voices of the late actors George C. Scott and Lawrence Tierney, because that's how he keeps...read more them, in his own little way. He also edits Untoward Magazine (untowardmag.com), which is a thing he'd like for you to see.
LAST TUESDAY, MY DAUGHTER AND HER BOYFRIEND invited me to dinner at the boyfriend’s parent’s house. They said it was an important “next step” in their relationship, all of the parents finally meeting. I am not a sociable man. This was true before my wife died and it remains probably truer since her passing after a lengthy battle with colon cancer just over two years ago.
But my daughter is my daughter, and I confess, if there were anyone living who could get me to step out of my “shell” and down from my happy perch of isolation it would be her. This was a difficult thing to agree to, nevertheless. I’ve grown accustomed to my privacy, which primarily consists of studying my birds, tending my collections of amateur ornithology equipment and miscellanea, and spending most of my time with idle thoughts affixed to birds of all kinds, real and imagined. Oh yes, the birds I’ve made come to life in my own mind.
At my daugher’s persistent insurgency cut with remonstrations and harangue, I finally gave ground and offered that I would attend dinner provided she would, for the time being, let me return to my birds, which she happily did. Then she physically left, and I returned to concentrating on birds, as was my preference.
My daughter phoned me a day or two later and said she was certain I’d enjoy the company of the boyfriend’s parents. Evidently before they retired they had held quite significant renown in the profession of taxidermy, and had a special affinity for birds’ preservation. I met this news enthusiastically and, for the first time, brightened at the thought of meeting them. I will consult them of their joy for birds, I thought.
I wore my best flannel, a collared shirt crosshatched in the traditional red and black stripes. Further accoutrement included blue jeans, gray socks and my favorite pair of shoes, the white ones with Velcro. The shirt may have been washed recently or set on a line to air out for awhile, either possibility now rapidly become an extraneous detail I have since put behind me. Without prompting, my daughter said my casual dress was fine, rather well anticipated.
She and I arrived on Saturday morning at a whitewashed and gabled cottage, said to be the parents’ summer home. It was free of much in the way of decoration, as for example, there were no frills adorning the gabled roof. There was a rosy smell in the air, attributable no doubt to the rosebushes that comprised the lion’s share of personality extant in the vicinity. Besides that, they had an antique weather vane propped up on a pole among their garden’s roses. For reasons I feel will be obvious, it immediately attracted my full attention.
At first glance the weather vane appeared to be an aged brass rooster set above the weather vane’s compass, per custom. However, being the studied bird enthusiast I am I noted the engraved plumage’s detail was all wrong; its bill was that of a bird of prey, though relatively small and somewhat blunted for its size; and it was missing the characteristic comb and wattles so immediately identifiable as rooster.
Now I was obsessed with the weather vane. I didn’t hardly notice my surroundings when finally entering the cottage. I sat in a living room, plain and white as the outside, where I halfheartedly acknowledged the boyfriend and his parents and sat down to tea. I halfheartedly drank my tea, all the while ruminating over the weather vane and nothing else.
I should have known that bird, but I did not and it beguiled me beyond my endurance.
When I came to my senses and earnestly inspected my hosts, I saw something was amiss. Only my daughter and the boyfriend were talking. The parents remained fixed. Placid.
The mother and the father both had complexions that appeared glazed in lacquer. Their eyes had been replaced with glass. They were, it seemed, as dead as doornails. Worst yet, my daughter and her boyfriend engaged them in Norman Bates-esque conversation, as though they were equal participants.
Thus I spake, “Honey, please explain why you’re talking to dead people.”
“You’re being rude, Dad. You interrupted James.” James was the boyfriend’s father.
Perhaps I should have been horrified, but I was annoyed. My hosts were deceased, my daughter and her boyfriend at least mildly deranged. But what about the weather vane?
Mercifully, James’ face began to make a crackling sound; his jaw had forced itself unclenched. His mouth resembled a broken ventriloquist’s dummy, forming blocky words as flakes of his skin steadily crumbled to the white carpet. “I’m not dead, neither is my wife, Claudia. We’re alive but we’re preserved. We had our guts removed for science. And now with all the guts and stuff gone, we’ll live forever this way!”
“That’s fine, but can you tell me about your weather vane? The one with the bird on it.” I said, a touch impatiently but I’d waited long enough.
“Always loved birds. My favorite of course is the Napoleonic Crow. Happy little critters that flourish up north, near Alaska. Canadians call them Oddie Birds. I can see why, given their tiny bodies and the queer high-pitched caw they emit when they’re threatened.”
“This was not a crow on your weather vane. This bird was not even of the Corvus genus. Maybe it’s an imaginary bird? One that doesn’t truly exist? I too have imagined birds, so you know you can tell me. It’s safe. You’re among friends.” I’d begun involuntarily tapping my foot and, more voluntarily than not, looking at my watch.
“Claudia takes care of the gardening,” James said, his neck made the sound of a twisted tray of ice cubes, moving his head slightly in the direction of his wife. “Claudia, know anything about that old weather vane?”
A tear slid down Claudia’s cheek.
I got up from my seat, reacquired my things and left slamming the door. Outside I brisked through the garden, aware of the horrible insects I’d earlier ignored while captivated by the old weather vane and its nameless bird.
Even now, thinking of it reminds me why I dislike people so intensely.