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Us brothers, ever since the day when we, with our eyes, first noticed birds, those feathery flashes flying above our boy heads—seagulls and robins and pigeons and crows—we both of us brothers knew that flying was something that we wanted to one day do. So what we did to make this one day come to us brothers some day soon was, we started looking for, and picking up, and collecting, all of the bird feathers that we found fallen down on the ground. Crow's wings—shining black and slickly oiled, thickly feathered too—these were the biggest and, therefore, to us brothers, these were the best feathers for us brothers to find. Sometimes, us brothers, we might find us a gull, or if we were lucky a mallard duck—orange-billed, green-necked—washed up dead on the river's muddy shore. Birds like these, with their wet-with-river feathers, we'd cut off the wings off of birds like these—the bones and all—with knives that were most often used, by us brothers, to chop off the heads of fish. These feathers, we'd stuff these feathers inside a cardboard box that us brothers, we kept the box hidden, out back in the back of our back yard, back in the shed that was our father's, where our father kept his coffee cans full of rusted, bent-back nails, and his cigar boxes full of nuts and bolts and screws, and those bottles of his that were half filled with whiskey. Here, we knew, back behind these half-filled bottles, stacked behind those rust-muddy buckets, our father also kept his stash of twine-tied magazines with the girls gazing out from the dusty, finger-smudged front covers. These girls, oh the teeth on these girls, believe me when I tell you you have never seen teeth so sparkly white. And legs! These girls had legs that made us believe that they were trees. Us brothers, we sometimes liked to picture our father falling to sleep in the grassy shadow of these trees. But these trees—these girls—they were not made, they were not put on the earth, for us brothers to climb up. Which did not bother us. Us brothers, we had a girl all our own. We called this girl Girl. We called this girl Girl because that was what she looked like to us: G-I-R-L. We liked that word, girl. We took a stick and we wrote that word girl into the mud. The mud, with Girl in it, with Girl gazing up from it: the mud, it never looked so alive. But that is its own story. The story we are putting into these words now, this story is about birds, the bird feathers that us brothers put into that cardboard box that we kept hid out in the shed that was our father's. But this box, with those bird feathers inside it, after a while, this box, it got too small: the feathers, all of them put together—gull feathers and crow feathers, robin and pigeon and duck—there got to be too many feathers to fit inside just this one cardboard box. This box, it was not small. This box was big enough to hold inside it a tv too big for us brothers to lift. And so, what us brothers did was, we got ourselves another big box, but this other box, after a while, we filled this box up too, and this box was even bigger than that first box. So then, us brothers, what we did next was, we got ourselves a bag, a big plastic bag, from the box full of bags that our mother used to put in the garbage. And into these bags we stuffed all of the feathers that we found, when we went down to the river to go feather hunting, some of them sticking up from the mud, flowers waiting for us to pick them up. We did not stop picking up all these bird feathers from the muddy ground until each of us brothers had us a box and a bag filled with feathers for us to call our own. This, we figured, this should be, it looked like to us, enough bird feathers for us brothers to make us each a pair of birds' wings for us to become two birds. This is how we did it. Watch: we took our bags and the boxes filled with feathers and we went with them in our arms down to the river. Brother, I said this to Brother, you can go first. Hold out your arms, I said. Like this. I held out my arms. Like a bird, I told him. Brother did just like I told. But first, I said, I forgot one thing. Take off all of your clothes. Again, Brother did like I told. We were brothers. Good, Brother, I said. Brother kicked off his boots and stripped out of his trousers, then slid off his undershirt and took off whatever else it was he was covering up his body with. Brother was just a little bit shivering. It was only just a little bit cold. When we breathed, us brothers, we could not see our breath rising up from our lips. The sky up above us, that day, for the first time in forty-two thousand days, was blue. The sun in that blue sky, it was shining. The earth was a good earth—good and muddy. Even the flowers sticking up from the ground were flowers made out of mud. It was clear to us brothers both that the sky above us had been good to those of us down below. Us brothers, we raised our hands above our heads and then dropped down to our knees. The mud beneath us, it was good and sticky. This mud, we took this mud by the fistful of it up into our hands and we started to cover Brother's body with it. We did not stop with the covering up until Brother's body, it was a body made out of mud. Only the whites of Brother's eyes, only the whites of him shined through. Moons was what I told Brother his eyes looked like when I looked at him here now in the eye. Now, are you ready to be a bird, I said. Brother nodded his wanting to be a bird head. And so I took his box full of bird feathers, I took his bag full of feathers, and I dumped out, I shook, the feathers out over the top of Brother's head. The feathers floated down over his head and the mud on Brother's body, the mud reached out to catch what was falling. The few feathers that did not stick, those feathers that the mud, it did not reach out to catch them falling, these few I stuck on by hand onto those spotty places up and down on Brother's boy body where the mud still shined through. Now it's your turn was what this bird, it sang out this song to me. This bird was my brother. His voice, it was the voice inside my own head. So I stepped out of my boots and my trousers and pulled off my shirt over the top of my boy head. There was no part of my body that a bird flying by couldn't see. I stood like this like the sky was a shower and the river was a bathtub waiting for me to get up all good and muddied up with mud. So I got down in the mud and so I started, in the mud, to roll around in the mud until I was just a boy all covered up with mud. Good, Brother, I heard that bird voice say. Brother then took up with his winged hands that box of bird feathers and that trash bag filled with those feathers and then he shook these feathers over the top of my boy head. Just how many feathers snowed down over the top of me, I could not keep count. All I do know is this: that my body, which was once covered with mud, it was now covered with mud and feathers, and I was a boy about to fly. Us birds, Brother and I—look at us now—we walked, with our feathery wings stretched out to catch the sky, and with the whites of our boy eyes leading us on our way, we walked over to where the steel mill stretched: it was a shipwrecked ship with no treasure left inside it. There were no more rivers of molten gold running through it. Even the smokestacks sticking up from this spine, even the steel shivered from being so cold. And the sky above it all, this sky was so lonely, it longed for smoke. So us brothers, us birds, we kept on walking towards where the smokestacks stuck up, all three of them rising up to form, for our eyes, a sideways-lying letter E. We pictured eagles and seagulls calling down to us our name. Brothers, we heard them say. So we climbed. We climbed the side of the middle smokestack, rusty rung by rusty rung, and the rust of the metal turned our feathery fingers to rust. Every once in a while one of our feathers would come unstuck from our mud-covered bodies, and we'd stop climbing up, just for a moment, so we could look to see it, floating, falling, to the earth below. But this didn't stop us. We climbed on beyond that point where the smokestack itself, the steel of it, it whispered into our ears: Stop. Go back where you belong. The sky, it said to us brothers, it's no place for boys to be. We didn't listen. This smokestack did not know who it was talking to. It must've been mixing us up with some other boys. Us brothers, we were more than just boys. Not only were we brothers, us brothers: now we were birds. The sky up above us, where that smokestack only wished that it could go, it kept on calling. What it kept saying was, to us brothers, Do not stop. We did not stop; we did not stop, not until we got up all the way up to the smokestack's top, up here where there was this red light up here: it was blinking on and off. Brother thought that it was a firefly, until I told him it was to keep the planes from flying into it. The look in Brother's eyes, what it said to me was, You mean we're up that high? I nodded my head and said for him to take a look. You, too, take a look. Up here, above our town, our town—this town that was the only town us brothers had ever known: it was ours right from our beginning—our town, and the houses in our town, and with us brothers looking down at it, from way up here, it did not look to us any smaller. Our town, to our eyes, it looked to us then, at that moment, to be even bigger than we could picture any town ever being, or ever needing to be. But the moon, Brother—the moon, more than ever before, the moon from up here where we were looking across at it, the moon, it looked close enough for us brothers to touch. And this, yes, this, touch it, this is what us brothers wanted to do. We wanted to touch the moon—no, not just with the stub tips of our sticking-out fingers. No, we wanted to palm that starfish of our hands onto the moon's moon face. And this, us brothers, we did do. On the count of one, two, three, go, go, go: like so, us brothers, with our arms outspread by the sides of our bodies, we jumped out from our smokestacked steeple top and we hung, we soared, we were held up by the sky, and we flew: up to the moon, us brothers flew. Up to the moon we stood, hovering there, face to face with the moon. Look, Brother said, and I looked. I knew what Brother was looking at. It was us, our faces, in the moon, gazing back at us. The moon is a mirror, I said. It is a magnet, too, Brother said to this. We were both right. We could feel the moon's pull pulling us in, pulling us into ourselves. We flapped our arms, our wings; we flew headfirst into the moon. The moon shattered into a billion pieces. Each broken chunk became a star.



mud & feathers, or, the moon is a mirror: revisited

peter markus