There is a big black bird with gray tips on its wings that flies into your dreams and if you see it you will die. Cousin Mary told me and I stayed up all night because I didn’t want to see the nightmare bird and I didn’t want to die.
That was when we lived in the abandoned school bus in the field by the woods. Cousin Mary slept with her boyfriend Pal on a pile of blankets under the seats at the back of the bus and I curled up on top of a seat somewhere in the middle. At the front of the bus Pal had his workshop, which was really just a collection of broken electronics, mostly old phones he would try to sell.
My back and neck were sore from how I lay tense and curled on the vinyl seat, but I could not sit up to stretch because I was afraid the man outside would see me and come knocking on the window again with his pale face against the glass. It had happened the night before. At first I thought it was Cousin Mary’s dad Uncle Walrus, mad about her sleeping with Pal in the back of the bus instead of at home, but I must have been dreaming because then I remembered there was no home and Uncle Walrus was dead.
“It was probably someone trying to steal our stuff,” Cousin Mary said. “Pal says a lot of that junk is very valuable.”
That didn’t make me feel any better. “I don’t want some man coming in here at night while I’m sleeping,” I said.
“No one’s coming in here,” she said, but she sounded uncertain. I wondered if she was thinking about the nightmare bird.
The next morning Pal asked if I wanted to come with him to the dump to help him make some sales. It made me feel good because it was the first time he had asked me and now maybe I would become his apprentice. We splashed our faces from the rain barrel and said goodbye to Cousin Mary.
“Hunt us up something good for dinner,” Pal said, and Cousin Mary said she would.
The dump was some ways from the field and the walk was long and rough. Maybe I could get some new shoes, I thought, since rocks kept poking through these old ones. Pal looked down at me now and then like he had something to say. He kept starting and stopping and sighing and clamming up again.
Finally he said, “You know I really love your Cousin Mary. I’m going to take care of you two. You’ll never have nothing to worry about ever again.”
I nodded but kept my head down because I didn’t want him to see me cry.
The dump was piles and piles of stuff heaped there going back years, and people would come to pick through it all and also to bring things to sell and exchange. Pal explained how old phones had certain precious metals that could be extracted through a kind of melting process. He didn’t know how it worked exactly but he knew what kind of electronics were most desirable and therefore most valuable. He had earned a reputation, he said, for finding things that no one else could, so people sought him out at the dump. The story seemed strange to me at first–who would seek Pal out?–but it turned out to be true, and Pal sold enough to buy me new shoes, too big but sturdy and thick.
There was a part of the dump called the Furnace where people burned things. At the end of the day, Pal took the parts he couldn’t sell and let me throw them in. He pointed to the smoke. “Take a big whiff,” he said. “People say you can see things sometimes.”
“See things?” I asked. “What kind of things?”
“You know,” he said. “The future and stuff.”
So I breathed it all in as the wind blew the smoke in swirls and the sun was a red ball in the sky. The smoke smelled like radio static and emergency signals. I began to talk about the man with the pale face who lived in the woods and visited the school bus in the middle of the night. He carried a bird in his coat and fed it grapes he held between his teeth.
“This is what we’re in for, huh?” Pal said. He had a panicked look. He’d been breathing the smoke too.
I didn’t know what he meant but I nodded.
“Oh hell,” he cried. “Mary. My Mary.”
And he ran from the dump, following the path we had traveled back into the rocky wastes. I chased after him, but the new shoes weighed me down and I could only watch his form grow small in the distance and fade into mist.
I was alone when night fell. I picked my way across the moonlit stones and tufts of dry grass and the forgotten things too ruined even for the dump. I walked in a daze, unconscious. At times I thought I saw the pale-faced man keeping pace with me, but always at the edges of my vision, and I felt the bird’s wings flap against the wool of the inside of his coat as if I held it against my own ribs. I was cold and wished to be a bird kept warm by the heat of another’s body. Pal had run back to his Mary, but whose body did I have?
Cousin Mary’s voice called to me with song and I knew that by some instinct I had found myself in the neighborhood of the school bus. But the moon had set behind the woods and it was too dark to see. I had only Cousin Mary’s faint voice to guide me. What were the words she sang? Some simple refrain that wouldn’t come clear.
Then I saw him before me, the pale-faced man. The black bird perched on his shoulder with its wings spread wide and even in the absence of moonlight the gray-tipped feathers shone. I heard the words of Cousin Mary’s song on the wind.
Night bird, night bird,
What have you done?
Your momma got an ax,
Your poppa got a gun.
“Wake up,” Cousin Mary said. “Wake up.” She shook me, but I couldn’t rise. She had to pull me out of bed and out the front door. The whole world was on fire.
Night bird, night bird,
Where will you go?
You’re leaving too late,
You’re flying too slow.
I tried to run back. My clothes, my shoes. “Uncle Walrus is dead,” Cousin Mary shouted in my ear because everyone was shouting. I covered my head and coughed smoke from my lungs.
When I looked up the pale-faced man was at the window again, features smeared against the glass. I screamed. Then Cousin Mary was there, holding me in the school bus. She was crying.
“Pal never came home,” she said.
Something tapped the glass but I didn’t look, and it kept tapping long after I told Cousin Mary it was the nightmare bird had taken Pal.
“Do you hear it?” I asked, but Cousin Mary said not a word.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll take care of us. I know how.”
I sang a song Cousin Mary once sang to me long ago before the world burned.
Wyatt Bonikowski’s stories have appeared in Atticus Review, Fairy Tale Review, Necessary Fiction, New World Writing, Occulum, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and others. He teaches literature and creative writing at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts.