an excerpt from THE AVIAN GOSPELS
by Adam Novy
Short Flight / Long Drive Books
278 pp. $12.95
Morgan had begun to fear the surface. Norwegians were an inch away from rioting, many carried weapons, staves and clubs and bats they’d spiked with nails, not to mention guns, and he knew how the RedBlacks would react to any challenge. He feared what Jane would do to Katherine when she discovered proof of the affair. He found himself afraid to disappoint his father, and marveled at the way the man had gone about his business, had somehow stayed unkilled these many years. How had he done it?
Morgan spent whatever time he could with Katherine in the underground apartment, which she’d found while looking at schematics of the soup kitchen. The apartment had a shower, a daybed, an icebox, and a small sewer grate in the ceiling; she’d crammed it with rags. Morgan and Katherine lay on the daybed, beneath a checkered tablecloth. He bathed her in the shower and cooked for her, and wanted to do more, do domestic things, pretend to be the man he’d never be, but mostly it was she who cared for him, by giving him her body.
I wish you’d untie that knife on your leg, she would say. I swore an oath, he’d answer, to my swans, though speaking these words seemed pointless now, his vows unsaid themselves with saying.
Norwegians worshipped the dawn re-arrival of the birds, which blocked the horizon and the sunrise, sunlight blazing through fissures in the flocks. But Morgan begged the birds to stay away. They could all get killed, too. Surely the RedBlacks would attempt to crush the Norway insurrection; Jane had her response all planned—she would never stop attacking, would parry and return with all her strength—and Morgan was expected to participate, to help the revolution. People he knew would be killed. His father would try to protect him, which he would make impossible, for that was his gift: to ruin his father’s hope.
One morning, as the two prepared for work, he asked his father to collaborate with him on a birdshow.
I want you on stage with me, said Morgan. It’ll be fun.
The Bird Man had been polishing his shoes at the dinner table while Morgan rinsed dishes in the basin. Zvominir looked up from his shoes and said he hadn’t done a bird performance since he was a child. Actually, said Morgan, you do them every night, only no one knows but me. I don’t know how it would look if I got involved, Zvominir said. It would look like we were happy, said Morgan. People might calm down.
That night, they built trees of birds they limned in red, massive heads with wreaths of wrens, parrot-toucan-peacock rainbows, they even put on plays, in which the brown birds—sparrows; owls—made a stage, while ostriches and herons were the actors, with a crowd of egrets that sat among the real crowd of humans. Partridges zoomed at the stage, at Zvominir’s command. It turned out he liked chaos. He also made a cormorant kick-line, and a globe of the moon.
Jane had begun to plan the wedding, and Morgan would be a father, have a child of his own to protect. He could not protect himself, and Jane was not exactly engaged in safe pursuits. The child seemed doomed.
He couldn’t tell Katherine of the fires he had set, for she might tell her father—or, worse, her brother—and he needed her approval. In truth, he barely spoke to her at all, to keep from saying things he might regret.
More Norwegian kids joined the rebels every day. The arsons allured like something bigger than a trend: a cause, a calling from above, with Morgan as the messenger, and Jane as the crew chief, who drew up all the schedules and made everybody work more than they wanted, and dealt with terrestrial facts that seemed annoying, but which had to get done, as opposed to the Bird Boy, whose realm was silent magic.
She put the rebel number at a thousand.
The strongest recruitment tool Jane had, even stronger than Morgan, was the RedBlacks themselves. They enjoyed the tacit and unerring support of their constituents to kill, beat, maim, exploit and torture Norwegians. Newspapers didn’t even need to be suppressed: they censored themselves. Norway was used to abuse; inured, in fact, by many generations of exile. But RedBlacks were as bad as anything they’d suffered in Angola, Oklahoma or China. The Judge stoked the flames he meant to smother with his tactics of brutality: his cure was the disease. Looking at the city in flames, Jane wondered how people this dumb could’ve built a city in the first place.
During the parades, which Morgan dreaded, he had started shunting the birds to the forests in a bland and hurried manner, to defuse the angry crowd. He actually pitied the unsuspecting RedBlacks, for so many would be killed. He’d started to think that some of them were pretty decent guys. Of course, they were awful, and committed dreadful acts, but once you got to know them, they didn’t seem all that bad. In his birdshows, he purged any subtext of anger. He saw that it was easier to act on rage than it was to act on patience. His father grimly shook his head at him, while Jane planned for war. Katherine had always been satisfied with him, for she didn’t really know him. After the performance, wealthy children in pricey simulacra of Norway’s fashions asked for his autograph. He gave it, and tried to smile politely at their parents, as if to sell the notion that Gypsies were nice, and misunderstood. Perhaps if everybody liked him, they’d spaz the hell down.
He started begging Jane to stop the arson, with the usual success he found whenever he attempted to persuade her. Nobody would listen unless he told them what they already believed. Katherine felt present to him always, and he wanted to impress her, to explain all the things he had done, and repent of his transgressions, live a normal, little life. He wanted to be seen as a birdkeeper, a public health official whose field of expertise was birds. He wanted to be different. He thought, Dad, I want you to be proud of me.