Chapter 16
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Book Excerpt: Kingfisher Days

Each Page a Ghost


But where to file this memory? Umbrellas of milkweed fluff poppinsing backlit over cars, the low sun’s Regency glow on domestic brick but on cars’ metal blinding. A vagrant skink lolls in an office dooryard, a mockingbird bathes where a sprinkler rains. Reliably that parachuting maple leaf, how its shadow runs to catch it.


Killdeer wear a clever ruse, disruptive stripes that break up the body shape and declare: I am not a bird. Your eyes were mistaken. To trespassers they feign a cynical injury, a broken-winged drama complete with calls for help. But are these charades nobly maternal or a panic short-circuit? Experts disagree.


This scene has no sound track. Cold Christmas morning on the Cumberland Plateau, the sky white, and Hollywood’s best snowflakes lazily parachuting to the white page of ground. I don’t recall unwrapping the microscope. But I remember my squeal, well no, I see myself mouthing a silent film O, and look out the window and a Keaton double-take: A snowflake under the microscope!

So this dim budding scientist, he runs out and back in with a handful of snow which under the microscope is water. Twice, what a moron, the slide scoots under the lens to magnify a puddle. Then the revelation, the comic scene of convincing Mom, no dialogue titles needed, the mad rush out without coat, a shivering squat on the ground while the microscope cools.

The next shot, the insert of the snowflake? You know, I think that secret lace, that breath frozen into amulet—its edges are too crisp. I think it’s from a book I read.

But all those beautiful microscope secrets: Ants are monsters. Mosses trees. Letters are canyons in the page’s landscape. Up close, photos are a million dots of floaters in your eye. I look up, a cartoon pirate, aim my one-eyed microscope squint at the fat supper belly of Skipper the dachshund out there on the path between our house and Bud’s—he gets fed both places—then I look at Mom’s metal boot salt shaker on the what-not shelf, at Jesus on the wall. I’m trying to see the dots. Oh for Superman vision! Then back to hidden worlds: grains of salt are asteroids.

“We eat rocks,” I say to my brother.

“You eat rocks.”


Moon shadows in my telescope. The moon flees the circle of light like a flung ball, and its circle in space becomes as real as leaning sideways into Mom on a curve on Highland Lane. And a pocket field guide to pond life, a lyrical diagram of how light refracts—cattails cut off at the waist, underwater their one leg to the side: sawn halves of a magician’s assistant. Oh, and my chemistry set’s beautiful glass test tubes upright together in their holder, their metal holder, metal blue and white holder. Mom helps me mix poison. It eats through the bowl.


Still in Bud and Matt’s yard, still throwing that plastic ball to Uncle Herb: he moves only his eyes through a cigarette genie, the ball arcing through space and thump and roll now at his feet and he looks down and back up at me. He moves only his eyes. Aren’t his arm muscles twitching? I will catch, I swear as I walk the path back home, I will catch every ball that is thrown.


But I don’t.


Letters on the page like tracks around a pond: Mom translates them night after night. I feel her voice through my back and side. Her body a part of the story and me a part of the story. When she takes a deep breath, I rise up with her. When the story is angry she doesn’t breathe. Neither do I.


Soon the rambunctious joy of typewriter keys carving letters on the page.


We drive up the mountain from Sparta, pass a coal-fired factory, glimpse doors open to orange flame.

Mom: “Think what hell would be like.”


When bare feet cease to braille their way on summer nights, the path forgets the route between houses. Now Mom sits alone at home. One light for night fiction, but next door dark beyond the trees, no yellow-bulb signal on the porch. The yellow light once meant that Matt was ill, or Iva in from North Carolina, or come and share tomatoes Bud brought from Grassy Cove.

I didn’t go home for Matt’s funeral. She hated hospitals and funerals, illness and death: for years hers circled like villains. I still regret that I didn’t go. We saw them at Jo’s six months before, Matt frail as an ancient bird, Bud smiling his deafness and again in shouts counting his ambulance rides. I held Matt’s paper hand. She gave us a quilt for our marriage bed, and I photographed her but forgot to set the focus. Her face is blurry but the walls stand firm.

I’m nine. Along the curving path, my naked feet find their way through darkness between two lights. Pebbles are frogs and then not. Screen doors broadcast laughter from a card game in the kitchen. Bud in the gravel carport cranks the ice cream maker; seated low on the cinder-block wall, he is just my height.

He grins: “Ain’t you afraid, barefoot in the dark?”

“Nah, I walk that path every day of my life.”

After Bud moves to the nursing home, Laura and I visit whenever we’re in Crossville. Always he lies in bed, both flat and curled, a little boy home from school with a sore throat. Sometimes we catch him asleep, so we go downhall to visit first with Em, grinning blind widow of his brother Leslie. Always when she hugs me she hugs me on my ninth birthday. Then Bud is awake, looking out the window at the winter white sky, at the bird feeder that Jo placed just beyond the glass wall. Like a Raphael painting, the window has a resident goldfinch. Smiling as much as ever and even more deaf, Bud loudly worries that nurses put drugs in his chocolate milk. The TV hangs silent above us. Two greeting cards stand on a table; another lies down to rest. A ghost in the hall waves hello.


Angelic, horrible, the cicada’s articulate skin rests among cut grass and pruned twigs, split down the back like a hospital gown. I lift this ghost in my affectionate glove. Veteran of a season’s wars, his tooled armor stilled into a life mask.


On the Plateau a black-eyed archangel, a barred owl with epaulettes of snow, rises up from a cemetery glade in the woods behind our house. And that parachuting maple leaf. Spinning.


Famous faces crowd the window of the video store, like children watching snow, as I pass in the very moment of darkness. Neon promises a city where it’s never dark. But look, that crescent moon, white yacht in the volcano sunset.

Stroll from office politics to urchin games of starlings in the parking lot. Children playing at University School call my name and I turn but they aren’t looking, and it wasn’t my name. Birds congregate, their numbers calling my eyes: like snow, dust, riot. A starling alone? As invisible as Chesterton’s mailman in that story, you know that story.

Then a winter day they barter singularity, reply to dusk in twos and threes and merge into plural noun. Watch: time rewound. Film in reverse, they fill the trees, autumn leaves returning.


This morning, after cold rain and wind in the night, our first snow, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar, melts into smear on the porch, while in the yard the big stone becomes the Rockies from a plane. Other passengers sleep. I stare at dazzled peaks below my cloud, above Maxfield Parrish shadows on the mountainside. I admire the climbing light like Galileo watching shadows on the moon. His candle gutters in the wind that spits sand-grain snowflakes at my ear. Memory, history, letters on the white page of snow: that old notebook from typewriter days, soaked years ago in the basement flood, its carved lines of type—verso braille, pinhole exclamation points, on each page a ghost of the one before.

To read an interview with Michael Sims about Kingfisher Days, click here.