The Country is Its Birds

Anna Kovatcheva

Every spring, the birds return to Kokoshevo and clog our chimneys with their nests. They shit on our benches. On the first of March, we tie red and white ribbons to our wrists to remember that winter is ending; when we must scrape stork shit off our windowsills, we know to tie the ribbons to the budding trees. With time, ribbons left out in the world turn gray and are absorbed by swelling bark. We can count the years by the fossilized knots in the branches. Today the trees are still bright with fresh ribbons, though they grow duller with every day of rain.

The stork master hovers over his ledger. His position is to keep our records of the birds. How many eggs, how many hatched, how many died. He is busiest in the warm months; it is August now. He stares at an empty row in the record book. He is meant to take the tally from this book to the librarian, who prints it on a computer and covers it with plastic so that we can post it in the town square. In summer, our artist paints storks onto small canvases and our sculptor whittles them from pieces of wood or carves them out of stone; we sell these souvenirs to the cars passing by on their way to the old monastery. Years ago, we edged a paving stone in gold, and chiseled it with the promise that from this spot in the square, visitors were afforded the best view of the nests.

The stork master stands on this spot and turns in a circle, pointing his binoculars to the rooftops, where there are no more white and black wings, only lumps of lightly respirating flesh. The birds have been carved to nothing. They are plucked skin over hollow ribcages, breathing. This is a month after they lost their wings and legs and breasts, two weeks after their bald heads disappeared into neat stumps. We cannot be sure, because they have no voices, but he insists that they are suffering.

Every year, the birds settle in the rooftops at the end of March. They leave on August the twenty-second; they observe this date without fail. The stork master looks down at his ledger. It is the eighteenth of August, and the birds have no wings. They no longer even resemble birds.

The yogurt woman is the first to see the storks arrive in March. She and the stork master are sitting on the steps of the general store, resting with her empty cart, when she points to the roof over the restaurant.

“There,” she says. “They’re here.”

The first two birds carry thin sticks in the needles of their beaks. The nest in the crook of the restaurant’s roof is under repair. The birds pull loose the rotten branches, weave in long grass and torn shoelaces.

“Already hard at work,” the stork master says.

A heavy, round-eyed car trundles up the hill and parks in front of the post office. A young couple exits. The woman wears a long orange skirt slit almost to her hip. Her hair is a shiny dark bulb on top of her head. The driver, her lover, wears a gold chain around his neck and another around his wrist. They step into the gold square on the bricks and shield their eyes against the sun, looking for the birds. They are close enough for the stork master to hear, but the language is almost foreign: their words half-meaningless, their pace electronic.

The yogurt woman claps her hands and plants her feet, brushes dirt from the wide seat of her skirt. “The house won’t clean itself,” she says. Her face is faintly toadlike when she smiles, but kind. “You should find your bird-counting book.”

They hover-kiss on both cheeks and part ways. Years and years ago, the yogurt woman was married to the milk man. He brought milk to the village and she left it out to turn to yogurt. Even after the milk man died and another dairy farmer came to take his place, the yogurt woman still continued to come to the general store once a week and sell her yogurt in glass jars to the shopkeeper. Since her husband’s death, the stork master helps her load the jars into the wagon and take them from her red-shuttered farmhouse to the store at the center of town. The stork master helps with many odd jobs, because he is only needed as stork master for half the year. In winter, he helps the widows chop wood; in the fall, he sweeps the leaves from our streets.

The quick-worded tourists go to the notice board with last year’s tally, stand respectfully in front of the chart, and then take seats at the green plastic tables outside the restaurant and order stuffed peppers. The stork master watches the yogurt woman disappearing down the lane, pushing her cart. He realized last winter that he was in love with her. They were making their slow way with her wagon full of ice-glazed yogurt, on a day when the only sounds in the air were the ash falling from chimneys and the creak of the wheels. She wore no gloves and he could not look away from her hands on the worn wooden handles of the cart, flesh sallow and puffed and pale like dough. He put his hand over hers. They walked the whole way to the store like this, hands together on the cart handle, though it was inconvenient, and then the whole way back the same, though the cart was empty, and weighed almost nothing.

The afternoon was darkening and she asked him to build a fire while she cut them thin slices of cured sausage and tore chunks off of two-day bread. They spread yogurt over the bread and ate. When they kissed, their mouths were sour. The stork master had never made love to an old woman, because he had never made love as an old man. He had been married once, as a young man to a young woman, but she had died so long ago he could not remember how much time had actually passed.

“My son still misses his father very much,” the yogurt woman told him afterwards, though the milk man is hardly remembered by any of us still left in the town, and the yogurt woman’s son, too, now has the worn, distended body that follows age. Nevertheless, the stork master had agreed to keep their romance a secret.

 

The birds arrive in small, familial flocks of three or four over the next week. By the end of the month, there are one hundred and twenty of them perched on the ceramic red rooftops around the town square. Every morning, the cook’s wife brushes loose feathers off the restaurant tables.

“Birds come here for clean water and clean air, for good breathing,” the librarian tells a group of Chinese tourists in halting English. He takes their pictures with small, flat cameras that shake in his curling hands. Mechanical claps echo down from the rooftops; they sound like gunfire, which is how the white storks sing. Later, the stork master will circle the town square asking if birds in other places lost their voices. Have we heard anything, have our children in the cities said? But by the time he thinks to ask, to check the national newspapers, he will find only stories about the ninth protestor this summer setting fire to her clothes because of the cost of electricity. The mechanic’s daughter knew the first to do it, a young artist. He had always been political, she said, but now his family could not afford to heat their home. In Kokoshevo, we burn wood in winter. In this, at least, our trouble is less.

In the orange afternoon, the stork master carries a ladder to each house, climbs to each nest holding a pencil in his teeth. In the nest above the post office, he finds the first egg of the year and marks it proudly for his ledger.

 

In early April, the librarian grows too ill to leave his bed, and black and white feathers fill the gutters in front of the library’s bolted doors. There are more feathers than there should be, the stork master insists. When he presses the binoculars to his eyes, he can see pink bald spots on the birds’ bodies and wings, like his own hairless shins.

“Molting,” the yogurt woman says. The empty jars rattle in her cart. He nods because this makes sense, but he frowns because he has seen the birds molt, and this is different.

Within a week, the birds are completely naked. The stork master takes a broom and sweeps piles of feathers into burlap bags, ties them into lumpy pillows. He goes to the sparsely green field behind his small cottage, weighs the bags down with large rocks, and burns them like he does the dead leaves.

When he was a young man, he had a friend who eventually did nothing all night but drink plum brandy, until finally his skin turned yellow and his arms were dappled with bruises from trying to reach into kitchen cabinets with shaking hands. We watched that man lowered into the ground. Now the stork master watches the feathers burn and he feels that same sense of loss: the sense of something carelessly allowed to slip away.

“They’re only molting,” he says aloud, watching the flames open a hole in the burlap, but he feels hopeless in a way he has not since he first settled into the routine of his old age.

 

The birds cannot fly without feathers. We realize this after a morning spent watching them teeter precariously at the edges of their nests. The postman goes to stand beside the stork master and peers through his binoculars, putting his head close to keep from detaching the leather strap.

“I’ve never seen them like this,” he observes, and the stork master agrees. This is new. It is strange, and not much is strange anymore. We are all of Kokoshevo. We were once of an Empire and once of a Bloc; we grew up with gas lamps and have seen men land on the moon. But we have never seen the birds like this.

In the afternoon, the first egg of the season hatches. Stork hatchlings are born almost bald, cracking pink and raw from their shells, their few feathers slicked to their skins. But when the stork man climbs a ladder to the newborn’s nest hours later, in the evening, there is no down on its body; its skin is the color of the rubber bands we unpeel from our mail.

The stork mother tips her head at him curiously. The birds know him, know that he will not wave brooms to chase them away, but she is weary. Both mother and baby are naked as butcher’s birds. The mother snaps her beak at him pitiably. Hungry, the stork master understands. The birds cannot fly and they are hungry.

The next day, he begins feeding them. He wakes early, dons his coat for the black morning, and goes with a tin pail to the soft mud near the creek to forage for worms and insects. He lifts damp, mossy rocks and pushes a stick through the dirt. By noon, he has collected half enough food. He spends the rest of his day going from roof to roof, rationing meals.

The yogurt woman finds him in the late afternoon. She is waiting for him on the steps of the church when he descends from the belfry, his bucket empty. “Have you eaten?” she demands, handing him a jar and a cloth-wrapped hunk of bread without waiting for his answer. They sit together on the church steps. He confesses that he is worried.

“The birds will be fine,” she says. “I’m worried about you.”

His stomach growls around the first bite, suddenly remembering hunger. Across the square, on the library roof, two of the birds are trying to mate. Their featherless bodies slap helplessly against each other; the male has no altitude, and cannot mount.

“Now that is sad,” the yogurt woman laughs, showing her own caramel teeth. She slaps the stork master’s knee. “We don’t have that problem. That’s something.”

The stork master screws the top back onto the empty yogurt jar. “They’ll die,” he says. Above, the church bells toll four. He looks down at his empty bucket.

“That isn’t your job,” the yogurt woman says. “Your job is to count them.”

The stork master lifts himself to his feet. He has been climbing ladders all day; he creaks like an old door. “Count what?” he says.

 

The next day, news comes of another human torch, this time as close as Krivograd. The papers say it is unrelated to the recent protests. Grief, they explain; the girl’s grandmother had just died.

The stork master goes back to the woods, but he has less luck foraging for food. He finds the hatchling dead in the nest, its mother’s body lying deflated beside it. She clicks her beak but does not eat when the he tries to give her worms.

That evening, the shopkeeper sells the stork master two bottles of brandy, and we do not see him for three days. He does not leave the house. He barely moves from his narrow bed. When light comes through the window, he hides his face in his thin, gray pillow. He pulls himself up only occasionally to drink water, to use the toilet. The pillow is a better place to be than outside.

The yogurt woman goes after him on the third day. She throws open the shutters and rolls him out of bed with his blankets, begins stripping the sheets. “These need changing,” she says. “Everything here stinks. You look worse than the librarian, and he’s actually dying.”

He can smell his own skin, but he says nothing. He sits on the floor in the pile of laundry, knees steepled together. The yogurt woman swerves around him like an automaton in a clock. She leaves the room and comes back with a jar and a spoon and puts them in his hands.

“Yogurt is good for the health of the brain,” she says. She leaves with the laundry and comes back with a glass of water. By then, he is halfway down the jar, and his eyes hurt less. He picks himself up and moves to a chair. The yogurt woman sits across from him on the stripped bed and watches him eat until the jar is empty.

“That’ll be five leva,” she says when he sets the jar aside, and toad-smiles when he coughs a laugh. “Listen,” she says after a pause. “Listen, something worse has happened to them.”

 

The birds have no legs. It is as though someone has sawed them neatly away in the night, but there is no blood, no scar tissue. No pieces left behind. They can’t quite balance, propping each other up with their wings and their long necks, curling together out of necessity. They eat when the stork master feeds them, but they make no noise and there are no new hatchlings. Three days later, their wings have vanished, too.

 

The librarian dies on a Saturday, but we do not learn of it until Monday, when his son finally staples the necrologs to the telephone poles.

“I couldn’t find the key to the library,” he explains when the stork master approaches him. “They’re always so nice now, printed on computers, but I don’t have a computer at home. My father used to make them at the library, you know. Whenever somebody asked.” He gestures vaguely to the telephone pole, cocooned in white, rain-wrinkled pages. As though to say, He made this one, and this one, and that. “I’ve left the door unlocked now. ”

Dead faces look out of the posters at them—mostly formal state photographs, never quite resembling the living. Annual remembrances recall deaths ten, twenty, years old; he barely recognizes their creased faces, though he must have known them, gone to school with them as a small boy. He has not posted his wife’s photograph in years.

The librarian’s son walks to the next pole. A large, white van pulls into the town square and shakes loose a dozen teenagers and a harried group leader, who yells after them to be back in an hour. Two girls place themselves in the golden square and peer out at the rooftops.

“The birds have gone,” the stork master tells them. It is near enough to the truth. The restaurant owner has been heard lamenting that the pieces simply vanish; surely fallen legs and wings could have been of use in a meal.

The girls whine their disappointment in a high-pitched language the stork master barely recognizes as his own. They say they read on the internet that the birds always leave on the twenty-second, and it is the nineteenth today.

“They left early,” the stork master says. He leaves the girls tapping away at their phones, trying to prove him wrong. From the ground, the storks are invisible now. But when the white van leaves, the shop has sold almost the entire stock of paintings and figurines, and only the stork master remains distraught.

That night, the yogurt woman boils wheat with lemon for the dead, and insists that the stork master join her and her son to eat it. Chewing, he thinks less about the librarian than he does the alien young girls and the wingless birds. Today on the radio, he heard that a seventy-seven year old woman showered herself in gasoline and lit a fire, having told her sister the day before that she no longer wanted to live.

At the door, the stork master kisses the yogurt woman on each cheek, and she takes his face in her puffy hands and kisses his mouth instead. Her son lowers his head but smiles faintly when the stork master shakes his hand.

Out in the cool summer night, the stork master walks past his own house and to the town square. He lays his ladder against the library wall.

The birds are nothing but pale skin stretched over the shells of bones. Their heads and necks have finally vanished. There are three bodies in the library nest, softly pulsing with breath. The stork master sits with the carved remains and tells them about the dead librarian, a man who preferred to experience the world through books than by traveling it, who every year when the birds came said to the stork master, “Look how determined they are, how they will cross whole continents but always come back to us here. I barely get as far as the outhouse.”

We are all of Kokoshevo. We have swept our streets of countless feathers. We have eaten countless jars of yogurt from the old woman’s farmhouse at the end of the road. There is no money here anymore. Our sons and daughters have crossed the opened borders for better. In Kokoshevo, we watch the highways but our departed children do not come back. We watch the birds return. We wash our linens, we make our living. In winter, we have fires to keep us warm. We shut the doors and stay in one room.

For generations, the birds have come in March and left at summer’s end. The stork master has counted them. One hundred twenty-seven, one hundred twenty-nine. This year the birds have watched the human smoke rising in the distance and found that is nowhere they should go.

The stork master takes his ledger to the shuttered library. It is, after all, a public record. He leaves it on the counter, waiting for a new librarian to someday find it space on the shelf.

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