The Myna Bird

myna bird

When I was young, Grant’s department store had a Myna bird in the back, right behind the pet section.  Now that pet section was really something (this was back in the day before the abomination called “Walmart,” when each department store was personable and unique).  Grant’s had all kinds of beautiful, exotic tropical fish, from multi-colored to almost translucent.  Tiny birds as well:  canaries and parakeets, birds that could really sing a beautiful melody to brighten your day.  Birds that didn’t need any sort of encouragement — they simply sang for the pure joy of it.

But I was transfixed by the Myna, because the Myna could talk.*

And talk it did.

“Hello.  Pretty bird, pretty bird, pretty bird.”

Yeah, a bit narcissistic. I have since learned that Mynas are quite common in some parts of the world.  Not as special as I thought.  Common is not all that unusual in narcissistic creatures, if you stop to think about it.

Years later I’m on vacation in the Quarter, walking down Royal Street minding my own business, when this guy on the street corner says “Hey buddy, I got something over here that you might be interested in.”

I usually look at my shoes when I pass hucksters on the street, mumbling something like “Not today, thanks.”  But low and behold, this guy had a Myna bird in a gilded cage.

My interest was piqued.  “Hey” I said.  “Does that bird talk?”

“Well sure,” he said.  “That’s what Mynas do.”

“Hey good-looking,” said the bird.

Now I was interested.  I may be a bit of a narcissist too.

I glanced at the price tag on the cage.

“Why’s this bird so cheap?”

“Well,” he said, “To tell you the truth I don’t really know, but I can’t find anything wrong with her.  And not only can she talk, she sings.”

Always be wary of anyone who says “to tell you the truth.”  That means they lie most of the time.

“I don’t need another pet” I said.  “I have dogs.  Dogs are low maintenance and they are always happy to see you.”

“Well, I won’t lie to you.  You make a good point there.  But can a dog talk?  Can it sing?”

Always be wary of anyone who says “I won’t lie to you.”  That means they lie most of the time.

“Why don’t you come up and see me some time?” said the bird.

That sealed the deal.  Next thing I know I’m carrying a birdcage down the street.

I got that bird home.  Found a nice sunny spot next to the window.  I left the cage door open.  Won’t tolerate a dog on a chain or a bird closed-up in a cage.  A certain amount of freedom is essential to all living things.  It’s in their nature.

Silence at first.  Just a bit of preening.

“Hey Myna,” I said.  “How about a song?”

The Myna belted out a few lines of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”  Not bad, but a little flat.

The next few weeks that bird sung that song over and over and over again.  Then one day it stopped.  Silence, except for an occasional “Free bird, awk, free bird.”

For the next few months I tried to give that Myna everything a bird could possibly want.  Day-after-day, nothing but encouragement.  I said things in a tone that a grown man would be ashamed to say in public.

Eventually I realized that I’d been taken.  This bird was common.  As common as a crow, except a crow has more intelligence.

Finally I say “Hey, isn’t there anything else you know?  Say something different.  Anything.”

“Hello.  Pretty bird, pretty bird, pretty bird.”

From then on I left my back door open.  After a little encouragement with a broom, that stupid bird just flew away.

I learned a lot from that experience.  Now I always look at my shoes and mumble when I pass a huckster on the street.

But to tell you the truth, I hope that Myna is safe and happy somewhere.  I won’t lie to you, I would hate to think that it ran into a big yellow tabby with an empty belly.  Because in the grand scheme of things, freedom is never really free.

*Although this little tale is fiction, there was a Grant’s in my hometown when I was a child.  They never did sell that bird, although they eventually had to get rid of it because someone taught it to cuss.  So it goes.

The Lover*

The Lover

“Come away with me,” she whispers.

For a brief moment you believe she is sincere.  You must believe it.  Not because your reason tells you that it is true, but because you so want to believe it.  You yearn for her to be true.  She is what you dream of in the lonesome hours of each dark night as you lie in the heavy air of your bedroom, unsure if you are awake or asleep, afraid to exhale lest you miss the faintness of her whispered breath above the hum of the silence.

She is what you think of during the toils of the day.  You look for any sign of her coming–test the air for a scent of her strange perfume.  You are like a teenage girl, sitting by the phone on Friday night.  Ring!  Ring!  Oh, please ring.

She has become your fixation.  She is a drug and you are now her hopeless addict.  You have passed the point of want and entered the dark realm of need.  She is obsession.

You know she is a liar, a flirt, a tease.  She has no qualms about playing with your heart. She has broken it before, and doubtless countless other hearts along the way.  But you don’t care.  Like the addict, you tell yourself that this time will be different.  Just one more chance.  This time, she will be true to you.

She is, after all, so beautiful.  Eyes so blue that you can see straight through into eternity, and yet at night they seem so dark but still filled with the twinkle of a billion stars.  Her breath is soft on your cheek.  Her touch cool and caressing.  Her dress is hued in a thousand colors, so beautiful that she can make your heart feel that it will explode within your chest.  She refreshes you, invigorates you, somehow makes you feel like a young man again.  Perhaps this is the real reason you want her so badly.  It is not a desire for her as much as an unrequited need in you.

It matters not that she’s disappointed you so many times before.  It matters not that she is a straight-faced liar.  It matters not that you’ve been used.  You’ve played the fool on countless occasions, and like the dog who has been beaten again and again, you cower at her feet and hope that this time she won’t hurt you.  This time will be different.

She will appear at your side for brief moments and then disappear, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, leaving you sad and heartsick again.

She will always be unfaithful, and you know that you will never be able to change her. But that doesn’t diminish your desire or make you relinquish the false hope that you desperately cling to.

She is Fall in Alabama, and I long for her touch.


*Originally published here in 2010 and later by “The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.”

Meribah: Nocturnus

The final installment of a six part short story.  To read the entire story, first read Meribah*, Meribah: Descent, Meribah: Dangerous Things, Meribah: Prophecy, and Meribah: Twilight.


Until two weeks ago, ten years had passed since I last heard from Lee.

I was about to lie down for the night when I heard that little ding from my cell phone. The text message snapped me back awake, and I stood in the darkness, the white glow from the phone’s screen the only light in the cabin.  Nobody I know would text me at eleven o’clock at night.


My dog Anna whined as she watched me pull my boots back on.  She knew that something wasn’t right.  Dogs always know.

“It’s OK, darling,” I said.  “I’m about to do something I’ll probably regret.  But I’ll be back.”  At least I hoped I would.

Eighteen hours later I’m in the hollow, stepping careful with my old deer rifle, not knowing what I will find, what I would become a willing party to for the sake of an old friendship.

Now we sit in the darkness of midnight, staring into the glowing coals of the fire and saying nothing for long stretches of time.  The fire pops at intervals as the hickory burns. Lee jumps a little with every hissing crack, as if he expects a tongue of fire to leap out of this crude little altar to consume him for his sins.

The full moon that illuminated the hollow so completely is setting behind the ridge.  A coyote howls and is answered by a chorus of mournful yips and howls off in the distance.  It sounds like damned spirits grieving their fate, condemned to walk these hills and hollows until God puts out the light once and for all.

“I can’t go to prison,” he says.  He begins to rock in his camp chair, repeating the words over and over, like some demented Gregorian chant.

“I know, Lee.”

We both know what happens to pudgy middle-aged men who are sent to prison for child molestation — especially men who are former preachers.  Some lines can’t be crossed.  A man of God, even defrocked, has got to recognize the difference between wrong and right.

“You’ve got to get me out of here, man.  They’re coming for me.  Getting close now.  I can feel it.”

I say nothing.  The front page of The Birmingham News has covered the manhunt for the past week.

It is only a matter of time until they find his abandoned pickup on the logging road two miles away.  Then they will spread out and walk through these hills in long flanks with  dogs and guns, a small army of lawmen, auxiliary deputies, and volunteers, any of whom would love a chance to pull the trigger on a pedophile.  It’s not everyday you get to bag a trophy, and the reporters have stoked the fire of their rage by labeling Lee as “possibly armed and dangerous.”

He doesn’t look to dangerous to me.  He looks like a broken-down old man who can’t even find the courage to end this all himself.

“Mexico,” I say.  “I’ll take you down to Big Bend.  You can slip across the border as easily as the Mexicans slip in.  I’ll drive around and cross at Ojinaga.  Pick you up and head on down to Mexico City.  A man can get lost in that crowd for a long time.  You can disappear.  You’ll be okay there until things settle down.”

There is silence again as we both stare into the fire.  Deep down, we both know I lie.  My words come out flat and float away into the darkness of the hollow.

“I can’t go to prison.  I can’t go to prison.  I can’t go to prison.”

“I won’t let them take you.  We’ll leave at first light.  You’ve got to calm down, now.  Keep your head on straight.  I need you thinking clearly.”

“Help me, brother.  I messed up big this time.  Help me.  Please.  I can’t be locked up.”

“Hey,” I say.  “Let’s me and you pray about this, like we used to pray when we were kids. We’ll ask Jesus to forgive us.  He’ll help us.  I know He will.  He forgave that thief on the cross.  He’ll forgive us too.”

“I don’t think I can pray.  I can’t remember how.”

“Sure you can.  Let’s get down on our knees.  Remember how you used to say that men should always get on their knees to talk to God?  Kneel down with me.  I’ll lead and you repeat, just like we used to do before our football games in high school.”

We get down on our knees in the hardwood leaves, two sinners in the hands of an angry God.  I put my left hand on his shoulder to steady us before the celestial throne.

“Follow me now,” I say.  But my words sound empty, as if they are coming from someone else.

“Our Father which art in heaven.  Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I see Lee’s lips move.  His eyes are closed.

He doesn’t see the .45 as I ease it out of the waist band of my jeans behind my back.  For an instant, I see the reflection of us kneeling in the flickering firelight, a portrait in stainless steel on the side of the gun — two sinners before the Mercy Seat.

I swing the barrel up just above his right ear.  There is a flash and a crack in the stillness of the hollow.  In my mind’s eye it is like the lightning that struck the longleaf at the top of the ridge.

Lee slumps forward, face down in the dirt.

I continue to kneel for a moment, but I don’t finish the prayer.  The blood pools and forms a rivulet that runs an imperceptible slope toward the creek.

I get to my feet.  I have a lot to do in the six hours that remain before sunrise.  I will leave no trace of our presence here.  The hollow will look much the same as it did years ago when two boys first found it.

I focus on the task at hand.  I’ll have the rest of my life to think about what I’ve done.

One thing is certain.  I know that one day I too will stand before the Great White Throne to give an account of what I’ve done.  I’ll be asked for a reason.

Maybe I’ll answer that question with one of my own.

“What are friends for?”

Meribah: Twilight

Part 5 of the story.  Before you read this, read Meribah*, Meribah: Descent, Meribah: Dangerous Things, and Meribah: Prophecy.


I move on down the creek, past one hundred-foot tall yellow poplars that guard the banks.

I pass the rusted-out remains of a moonshine whiskey still, the ax marks still visible in the curled-in cuts where metal met metal of old 55 gallon drums.  Scattered metal tubing and half-broken Mason jars remain along the creek bank, a testimony to a man trying to make a living in a destitute era.  Some old-timer recognized that you could hide for a long time in this hollow.  The smoke from his cook fire would blend in with the morning mist rising into the mountain air, just like it hides Lee’s small camp fire when he chooses to have one.

The man had to work hard to cook in this spot, carrying in his supplies and hauling out his finished product.  I suspect someone ratted him out.  Maybe it was a jealous customer who didn’t like seeing his neighbor with a little cash.  Most likely it was a competitor. Your typical lawman sure couldn’t find this place.  He would need a guide, and probably need help finding his way back to town when his job was finished.

I hope the whiskey-maker got away and found a new location, suffering nothing more than the loss of his cook pot.

But I doubt it.

Ten minutes later I reach the camp, such as it is.  One man tent, stack of wood gathered for infrequent fires, food wrappers and tin cans scattered about.

Lee is sitting on a camp stool leaned back against a big white oak, his rifle across his lap. He is red-eyed and dirty, and he looks as if he hasn’t slept since I was last here four days ago. He looks right at me, but it is almost as if he doesn’t see me.

“Hey Lee,” I say.

“Were you followed?

“No.  You know I wouldn’t let anyone follow me.  I circled around and watched my back-trail five times on the way in.  Nobody’s following me.”

“They’re closing-in man.  I saw a helicopter fly over yesterday.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me, though.”

“No Lee, they ain’t after you.  Even if they were, they’d never find this place.  That helicopter was just a coincidence.”

I lie.  No need to make things worse.

“Why don’t you get in the tent and sleep a while.  I’ll keep watch.  Give me the rifle.  I’ll just tidy-up your camp.  I’ll build a little fire and fix us some supper after sunset.  I brought some steaks.  We’ll eat like kings.  Just like the old days.”

“OK,” Lee says, but the answer is half-hearted and without a hint of emotion.  “You watch that ridge line, now.  I though I saw a sniper moving around up there last night, but I could never find him in my scope.”

“Sure, brother,” I say.  “You rest easy now.  I’m here.  I got your back.”

I take the rifle and sit down in Lee’s camp chair.  It is a changing of the guard, like an old war movie.

“You go on to sleep now.”

I watch him crawl into the tent.  I hope he sleeps a couple of hours.  I’ve got lots to do.

Two hours pass, and I let him sleep.  I hear snoring from the tent, the rhythm of his breathing broken only by a periodic moaning, the kind of low guttural whine a dog makes when it hears a siren in the distance.

I use the time wisely.  I dig a hole in the soft bottomland ground and bury all traces of our presence.  The cans and food containers, all the trash people always leave wherever we go.  I wonder in the end if this is all we are — a few items buried in the ground that show future generations that we were here once.  Everyday things we take for granted that some archeologist will use to judge what we must have been like and how we went about living our short existence.  As if the sum total of our lives could be postulated in simple trash.

“The people of this period had a diet which consisted of foods contained in metallic cylinders and something called ‘Snickers’.”

I’d like to think we are more than that.  Our laughs and tears and loves and struggles mean more than what we possessed.  But one thing I do know as I clean up.  We never leave a place just like we found it.  It’s just our nature.

I rake leaves back over the disturbed ground and find the latrine Lee has dug just down the bottom.  I’m thankful he has that much woodsman left in him after all these years.  I didn’t want to spend precious daylight combing the brush looking for used toilet paper.  I fill in the shallow hole and cover it with leaves and a dead tree branch.

In the last light of day I survey my work.  I see a tent, camp fire, and a few camping tools. Nothing else remains to show that someone has been here.  Only leaves turned over that would easily be rationalized as wild turkeys scratching through the bottom for acorns.

Nothing left to do but wait.  I’m in no hurry, and I’m not going to wake the man up, even from a disturbed sleep.  We will both be leaving here soon enough, and at least one of us will be rested and ready for the journey.

I unload the rifle, pocket the shells, and settle-in by the fire.  A big full moon is beginning to peep over the ridge.  The hollow will be lit with pale light tonight, and no flashlight will be needed.

I recall that the Bible says that “what is done in the darkness will be seen in the light.”

I take no comfort in that thought.


Meribah: Prophecy

Part 4 of the story.  Before you read this, read Meribah*, Meribah: Descent, and Meribah: Dangerous Things.

water from the rock

Twenty minutes pass as I work my way to the floor of the hollow.  The last third of the slope is thick with mountain laurel and wild azalea, and I am forced to move through the hedge slowly.  The ground is slick from the water that seeps out of the hillside here, and the laurel branches are tangled and stiff.  The waxy evergreen leaves block my view of the ground, and I fight to keep my balance as I grab and push through the living wall. This place is an explosion of beauty in the spring.  White flowers in stark contrast to the lush green of the leaves.  It is one of God’s little paintings that nobody will see.

I hear the rush of the creek as I reach the bottom.  I take a few minutes to work my way along the base of the cliff to visit the source. I have three hours until sunset, and I’m in no hurry.  I want to see this place again.  Something in me needs to see it, or at least that’s what I tell myself.  A lifetime has gone by since we discovered it as teenagers.

I guess I’m looking for the comfort of an old memory here.  Maybe I’m trying to summon up some sort of courage.  One thing’s for sure.  I know that this will be the last time I ever lay eyes on this spot, so I want to linger here a moment.

The creek that originates here and flows through the hollow comes out of the base of the cliff.  Water drips down the slope around it, but there is a definite point of origin, a cleft in solid rock where the water pours out into a kind of hollowed-out rock basin before it forms the channel that will enlarge and become the creek.  The water is cold and crystal clear, so cold that it hurts my teeth as I take a drink from the pool.  I sit for a moment, calming my mind to the hypnotic sound of the water pouring into the pool.

If you were to try to find this place on a topographic map, the creek wouldn’t be depicted.  Not even a thin blue line to mark its entry from the subterranean depths to sunlight.  Even further down the hollow, down where he is waiting, the creek is wide enough that you can’t jump cross without getting your boots wet, but even there the cartographers didn’t bother to give it a name.

We have always called it “Meribah.”

Actually Lee named it Meribah the day we found it.  Even at seventeen, the boy knew his Bible.  He had to explain it to me, take a moment to tell the old story from Exodus.

It seemed that Moses and the children of Israel had wandered the desert for nearly 40 years.  All that time, they moved from waterhole to waterhole, eating what God provided, living from day-to-day.  The waterholes had gotten few and far between towards the end of the journey, and they complained to Moses.  They were always complaining.

“We’re hungry Moses.”

“We’re thirsty Moses.”

“Do something, Moses.  We’re dying here.”

Old Moses asked God for help, and God told him what to do.  Go over there and hit that rock with your staff, and I’ll send water straight out of it.  It will be another miracle you can show the people.  Another proof of how great I AM.

And that’s what Moses did.

But he didn’t do it exactly the way God commanded.  God said to hit the rock once, but Moses swung his magic stick twice.  I reckon he was probably just sick and tired of all that constant moaning and complaining.  I would have been.  Probably about 39 years before he was.

The water gushed out of solid rock, and the complainers drank and were momentarily satisfied.

But Moses, old faithful Moses who had put up with all that whiny crap for so long, who had dotted all his I’s and crossed all his T’s and did every little thing God had asked him to do for all those sunrises and sunsets — old Moses messed up by not doing exactly what God said.  Because he hit the rock twice instead of once, God told him that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the land they’d been promised for so long.

The moaners and complainers get to go, but you’re out, old faithful servant.  Sorry.

When Lee told me the story, I remember thinking that Moses got a bum deal.  I still think that today.

Lee didn’t think so.  He thought that Moses should have done what God told him to do.  He said that God is not in the compromise business.  No variance allowed.

I wonder if he feels that way now.

I don’t think it matters much what either of us think.  God is God.  He runs his business like He wants, and as far as I know, He ain’t asked for my opinion.

I re-shoulder my pack.  Time to move on.


Meribah: Dangerous Things

Part 3 of the story.  Before you read this, read Meribah* and Meribah: Descent.

mountain lion track

I reach the ledge that partially encircles the hollow.  My descent here will be tricky, as I face a sheer 50-foot drop of solid granite before the slope continues the rest of the way down to the creek.  I will have to work my way around to a cleft in the rock, where I can ease down to the slope below.

It will be dangerous, an easy place to fall, especially with a full pack of canned food and other supplies.  But I don’t have a full pack today.  Just a couple of frozen steaks, a six-pack of Coors, and a big bag of ginger snap cookies.  Ginger snaps were always his favorite.

I sit in the ledge for a few minutes, breathing the cool air and taking in the beauty of the hollow.  I think of what must be done.  I wonder if our roles were reversed if he would do what I am doing.

Beside my leg I notice a mountain lion track in the soft thin layer of dirt and moss that lies in patches on the granite outcrop.  The track is big and fresh.

So, we are not alone here after all.

The wildlife experts all say that the big cats haven’t come back into Alabama.  Country people see them on occasion, surprised to switch-on their porch lights in the middle of the night to see a six-foot-long-tailed cat eating dog food from a bowl on their back porches.  But the wildlife people always dismiss these sightings in the newspapers.  “What you saw was a big bobcat” they say.

Maybe they are trying to keep people from panicking.  Maybe they want to keep the cat’s reappearance into Alabama a secret, figuring some fool redneck will try to hunt it down and kill it.  Maybe the Department of Fish and Game is just stupid.  I don’t know.

Those of us who get off the trails — who have walked these wild places where roads don’t penetrate — we know better.

I reach behind my back and finger the .45 that is tucked into the waistband of my jeans. It would stop a mountain lion.  Probably even make a grizzly bear reconsider his position.

But I haven’t brought it for either.

Break time is over.  I have an appointment at the creek below, and I need to get moving again.

Meribah: Descent

For PART 1 of this story, click Meribah*

descent 2

I work my way around the rim of the hollow, walking carefully through dry leaves.  I leave the trail, choosing a more circuitous route that will allow me to go slowly as I make my descent.  Although I am expected at my destination some 500 feet down and a half a mile below, I don’t want to come unannounced.  No sir.  That could be hazardous to my health.

The hollow that I am hiking into is steep on three sides.  The fourth, a narrow canyon that leads away to the south, follows the creek and gradually widens out into a flat bottom that fans out into a broad green valley.  I suppose if we were out West, rather than in North Alabama, you would call this hollow a “box canyon.”  At least that’s what they were called on the old Westerns I watched when I was a kid.  They seemed to be a part of the setting of every story, and the cowboy heroes of my youth were always making their last stand there.  I can hear old Festus in his whiney drawl:  “Matthew, I believe them boys is holed-up in that there box canyon.  What we gonna do now?”

Anyone hiking into this hollow would likely take the path of least resistance, through the big yellow poplars and red oaks along the rocky creek, up through the narrow gorge that leads directly into this hidden place.

I don’t come in that way.  There are trip wires there, hidden in the undergrowth.  I know, because I help set them.  You don’t get into this hollow unannounced.

No one in their right mind would enter the way I do, especially if they are seeking stealth.  The crunching of the leaves under my boots, the openness of the forest under the big mountain oaks and shagbark hickories that cover the rim of this hollow — all of this makes me visible to anyone or anything near the creek below.  That is why I choose this route — to be seen.

Even now, I’m quite sure that I’m being watched through a rifle scope.  I take my time and keep my head up where my face can be seen.  I’ve hunted deer since I was twelve.  Raised-up with guns.  I know what an exit hole from a 150 grain 30.06 rifle shot looks like, even at this distance.  I’m not looking to get shot.  Not today.

The going will be difficult for the next fifteen minutes.  The first half of my descent down to the bottom is very steep, a sixty per cent slope that will put a man on his back in the blink of an eye, sliding through the dry hardwood leaves until he comes to rest against whatever granite outcrop or big mountain oak stands between him and the ledge below. It is the kind of ride we would have looked for as kids, using a flattened cardboard box to sled down hills like the kids up north got to do every winter in the snow.

I smile for a second at a memory — a cold December so many years ago.  We were ten, maybe twelve, and it was the kind of winter day in Alabama when the sun is so bright and the sky is so blue that it almost hurts your eyes.  It was his idea.  He was always the one with the crazy ideas.  Always the one looking for the next thrill, the next adrenalin rush.  We stood at the top of a pine-strawed slope, seeing nothing but the edge of a neatly raked lawn below.  We would slide down in tandem, giving no thought to what lay at the bottom of the ride, and certainly no thought as to how we would stop.  But stop we did — about a third of the way into old lady Johnson’s prize rose garden. Laughing, scratched to pieces and bleeding, we high-tailed it out of there, hoping we hadn’t been seen, but it was too late. He got off with a few rose thorns embedded in his arms, torn jeans, and a big scratch on his forehead. My daddy whipped me when I got home, and I spent two Saturdays the next Spring working in that stupid rose garden, old lady Johnson alternating between lecturing me and bringing teacakes and lemonade.

It was the way we spent our childhood:  me accepting his challenges.  Me getting the punishment when things didn’t quite pan-out and a window was broken or a rose garden defiled.  Him always walking away without consequence.

Times have changed. We aren’t kids anymore.  Debts come due.  There are always consequences, and although thirty years have gone by, I still have to wonder if things haven’t changed so much after all.

He is down there now.


Waiting for me.