This Bird Flies in Diminishing Circles
He is reclined, ten feet off the ground, his rump and shoulders sinking back and down away from him into the tower of dried tobacco. Sweet, floral, only just moist from the evening air. “Aye. That’s right, it’s right, it’s good.” In his right hand a cigarette, hand-rolled, the hand draped into the center of his chest. “It’s good, I say.”
The man is 24 years old and the sky above, he feels, must only be a bit older. Satisfaction has set like oil under still water. When he’d presented himself to the Governor, in that stand-and-deliver kind of way (he’d hoped that he would like the timber of his voice when the day came, and he in fact had), and the Governor’s man had listened and nodded and thanked him for his service – “This will be the only gratitude.” – he felt satisfaction’s first becoming: the moment at which a quiver becomes a hum becomes the false stillness of a hummingbird in flight.
“Bequeathed: manumission and enfranchisement via gubernatorial sponsor, five-thousand pounds of tobacco–” he’d said. Quiet set in, so he did not hear the rest, but he could read lips and knew it to be better.
He had been poor, he thinks. He had been owned. “Not anymore. Free now. Now that’s good.”
In Dorset, he’d thieved since childhood. It was just the fact of the matter; what one must do. Thieving is easier as a child. We often choose not to see our children. As a child thief, you somehow exactly fit the bill; parents do not nod or approve, but they must sometime, somewhere.
This is when he’d learned to read lips. He could look through closed windows and learn when people would be absent. Between his perfect child quiet and the empty midnight houses, it was as if he had never existed. To break and enter was to dive into a deep dark pool. To, at once, lose and gain himself in disappearance. To somehow become the sole and every thing.
But as an adult – even a young adult – large and lanky and without nature’s quiet, his skills as a thief atrophied. Not yet knowing his size, he got caught in the act, pinched, the rise of his covered head through a street-facing window and the tripping thump of his feet alerting the passing officer, the cascading panic and sound… so when the door swung open, lantern light flooding the foyer, he figured to just lay it all down. Hands behind my head, cheek to the floor. No more Dorset, if that’s what it must be.
The streets of Jamestown had been fickle; often unkind, hesitantly gifting on occasion, but never just one thing… but the ship across the Atlantic had been worse. One-hundred and forty-six days of filth and bilge water and the knocked-knee uncertainty off dry-land. His walk had an inward wave for days after landing - winding through dust in odd elliptical lines. Papers had been misplaced so his indenture had been paused. The cells were full. No housing, no food, no gifts of any kind. No care. Just a “don’t go running nowhere, we’ll come find you.” So he stuck around. Sleep was infrequent and al fresco, bare under the tropical Virginia sun. Blisters opened and filled with fluid: calderas on his forehead and neck and shoulders. Dry lips. Blood in his throat. The major-chord vibrato of a sow’s snore. Water from the trough– the toe of a boot in his ass as he ran. Weeks.
When the Governor’s men finally came to get him, it was by his armpits. He’d been dozing against brick in some dark commercial corner: fitful, sun-flayed arms folded tight over his chest, murmuring. The Big Man lifted him right off the ground with both hands. He screamed, half-dreaming. Another of the Governor’s men – well-fed, sun-kissed but not burnt, not so well dressed as to seem foppish: A Nothing-Man – spoke: “Mr…” He paused. A lapse. Fished some forms out from his rear pants pocket and read them close. “Mr. Mister. Mr. Mister?” Puzzled, again, but different.
Mister replied: “Me.” A rough exhalation more than a statement. “That’s me. I’m me.” He was delirious from the heat. He was hungry.
“You’ve got a stead. Come on now.” The Big Man took Mister and placed him on the back of a horse; shackled the intern to its saddle.
“-les around us. The Lord paints circles around us. The forest lurches out and in and the Lord paints circles around us,” said and said and likely still says the bearded wraith on the porch. His face had receded into his matted hair and beard, and he was tall. Even sitting, his long legs cut out like bridge ropes and kept his knees up toward his chest. The hanging brim of a gigantic hat shielded his profile from the late-afternoon sun. “The Lord paints circles around us. The Lord paints circles around us. The forest lurches out and in and the Lord paints circles around us. The L–”
Mister had been there some months now – tilled fields and hustled jugs, spat into the earth and seen the hairy little green turnip leaves just begin to crest the soil. He slept inside, pressed ass-to-chest against a man who farted and moaned in his sleep. Behind Mister was a quiet sleeper, but the man was touchy. He’d reach up and stroke Mister ‘s back in the night with the tips of his fingers, still asleep. The farter was Eliot; the tender toucher was Ruaridh.
They were out behind the main house, all three of them, the day after All Hallows’ Day, smashing the jack-o-lanterns for livestock feed. There were many gourds, as many children had come to the stead that day before to celebrate. The three men made a game of it: lifted the gourds over their heads, carved faces facing front, looked at one another and made introductions. “Here will lie Mrs. Thurston– taught grammar and oft itched at her wrist til it bled,” Ruaridh said, then brought the gourd down hard against the ground - pulp. “Hey there - this is Paxton. He’s missing all the wrong teeth in all the wrong places: let’s fix that for him,” rumbled Eliot, who did the same.
Mister ‘s memory had not been good, necessarily, but something rose up inside him at the squelch and pop of each pumpkin’s end: that guttural organ sound adorned in the laughter of his bedmates. He remembered being a truly small child at this very same time of year. His sister, much older than him, had left home and was back for All Hallows’. She showed the toddler Mister not just how to carve a pumpkin but why: “You and I are civilization. Ma and Da, too. We shape faces where there once were none.” She showed him how to carve crooked baby teeth, like his, and how to get a near-perfect circle at the jack-o-lantern’s crown.
The cradle of civilization: a hole in the crown for the coming of light.
He asked what happens to them after - what happens to these faces? “Tomorrow we’ll smash them on the ground for the pigs to eat.” Mister cried at this. Fitful toddler sobs. His sister grew sullen, serious, distant at his tears. The next morning she was gone, but he did go out with his father and smash the gourds, then watched as the pigs picked them over.
He felt, there with Ruaridh and Eliot, that he very much wished his sister had been there for the smashing of the gourds. A shiver ran through him and settled heavy in his sacrum.
From the porch on the house’s other side, a din-voice rose up then fell like sudden rain: a high sound that expanded, held shape, then suddenly gave way. It gave way to the starts and stops of words. The sounds of a tongue-tip too large, too ungainly, bounding against teeth and ridge as the throat behind shook and hummed and croaked out of kind; formed no words but violently abutted meaning. Mister ran around toward the noise, around the house: Ruaridh in front and Eliot behind.
The bearded man was curled into a tight quivering comma, his elbows and knees creaking up and down, away and toward each other. Boys pelted him with stones. His pure sound had narrowed and reduced into a word: “Atone!” he screamed. “Atone! Atone!” The boys clucked, laughed with tongue against teeth: short and percussive and to each other. Ruaridh fell to his ass and chuckled, lit a cigarette and leaned back on his palm to watch.
Beneath the clucking laughter and screams came the low roll of hooves in dirt. Here were the Governor’s men: the Big-Man on his shire horse and the derby-hatted Nothing-Man beside. At their arrival, the young boys dropped their stones, forgot the fetal bearded man on the porch – sauntered over like peers. On the porch, he still screamed, “Atone!” until he craned up and saw the government men.
Another high shining sound. He laid out flat and hard, knees together and elbows in the nooks below his ribs. Mouth upward, he yelled: “An American Ape! The American Ape!”
“What, on God, has visited him?”
“Sounds like crows on a hawk.”
And it did, in fact. The way the screaming man’s heels ticked and tapped on the porch’s soft wood. The throaty call of “Ape! Ape! Ape!” Everything together at once. Eliot slapped the house and propped a hand high on his side, smiling and smoking. Mister found yet no joy in it, the dull weight of his childhood sunk into his soil – the seed for a tree of gilded vein and viscera.
The Nothing-Man was squatting, offering the crow-boys something from his pockets. They ran off together; one slapped another on the head as they went.
“Where’s the ole boy who owns this place?”
The Nothing-Man took off his hat and entered the big house. Through a window, Mister could see him approach the Man-in-Charge – coyly deferent, his shoulders and eyes lying to each other. He tried to look closer, to read their lips, but the Man-in-Charge shot him a glance and closed the curtains.
Minutes passed. Eliot sat in the dirt wiggling a loose front tooth with his finger. Ruaridh and Mister silently smoked. With the Man-in-Charge not watching, they felt free to shirk busy work. The task would come soon, so they ought to steal as much time as they could in the meantime. While they lounged, a task did come.
The Nothing-Man creaked open the front door, re-donned his hat, then looked at the three interns.
“Which one of y’all can read lips?”
Mister looked up at him - on the brim of his derby hat, unseen at eye-level, was a dark oblong stain, amoebic and old. Mister raised his hand.
“Very good. And I hear you got two friends done got caught up for murdering an Indian?”
“Didn’t mean to kill him,” said Ruaridh.
“Chess-cheat,” said Eliot.
“Disagreement on the rules.”
“Did us both in. Two games, back-to-back.”
“If we’d been on your payroll at the time, we wouldn’t be having this dusty conversation.”
“We ain’t yet in the business of eradicating cheaters,” said the Nothing-Man. “And you won’t ever be on my payroll, anyway. Your boss is lending y’all to me for a spell. I doubt you’ve got things, but if you do, go on and collect them. We ain’t got horses for you, but I bet them feet are good and cured by now.”
The landing point was further south still from Jamestown, in the land just west of the maritime forests, way east of the Appalachian range - here where the young nation slopes down and feeds itself into the Atlantic. A particular island was the point of the journey: one of the largest of its neighbors, but not all that big at all. It was called Roanoke, and a boy once proudly averred that he’d walked from shore to shore in one sun-break. “With no hat, either,” he’d cooed. “Look at that neck and tell me that’s something to brag about,” replied his mother, then dropped down dead. “How do you expect me to look at my neck,” cooed the boy, then died himself. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
En route, Mister had had Roanoke Island pointed out to him on a map. He thought it was shaped like a severed index finger. “From whose and which hand was that severed, you think?” Mister had mused. “Not God. Too small – right hand.”
Base camp was elevated and on the coast so that you could look east and down at the sea. At night, the rugged dark of Roanoke would glow at its center with torchlight - a graded ring that expanded out then faded away at the black walls of ocean and sky. Though the weight at his sacrum had dried and lightened beneath the rosy sun of silent travel, Mister’s mood had not yet emerged. He had receded, furtive, crouched somewhere between mind and nerve in a calm that was not so much sanguine as deaf and mute.
The point was to determine when the colony’s guard would be down. At that point, under the cover of night, the group, under the strategic direction of the Governor’s Nothing-Man, would raid Roanoke and kill all present. Why was this the plan? What was there to gain for the eradication of this young colony? These questions did not occur to Mister. Even if they had, he would not have asked. Even if he had asked, he would not have received an answer. His reading of lips was necessary, then, in the construction of strategy - how does one listen and learn secretly and from afar?
He would only speak to report, to repeat, to translate distance into closeness. If he had been literate, he would’ve written it all down. But he was not, so he held the sweaty oculus of a telescope to his right eye and looked for any conversation down on the island, then spoke it as he saw it. A small, clean, mustached man sat knee-on-knee next to Mister and took notes, then brought those notes to the Nothing-Man who would discern import or otherwise: translation of translation of translation. The clean precise silence of Mister’s burglar youth stretched out through and before him like the long arc of a thrown stone. This rift between experience and meaning was less lost on him than having passed unnoticed like freight in the night.
Even now - in his living now, there now dozing atop his tobacco, cigarette to his chest, burning away like the silent pour of sand in an hourglass - he could not remember the actual killing at Roanoke. That reel cut abruptly at the colony’s log gates: his hand just touched the wood for a moment as men - the creep and reek and stretch of them - moved silently past. In that last moment of movement was the rotten next thing: into homes in smoke-whisper-curls, onto roofs, through windows, down through the dug-outs of once-future basements. He could not remember, yet there it was.
When he tried to remember the killing, something else arose.
Burlap. Scratchy and coarse. Too cold, not enough. Patchwork flamelight through it. Hiccuping little breaths - cannot sleep. Somewhere a sound, a breath, another breath more vocal, a spike of anger in the night quiet. Home. Home at night and bedtime. They ought to be in bed. I ought to be asleep. Sister ought to be in bed, too. She is leaving. She is angry and breathing: big high in and hard flat out – “eeee-nuff. eeeee-nuff.” She is angry and breathing and father, father is angry not yelling. The door creak sounds like the cry of a newborn goat. They come out wet and crying but not right now. Creak and cry, then shut and tap tap tap. She goes and goes and squelch, wet grass, and silent now. Father breathing, father crying, father lower lower to the floor. Big squealing breath in little hiccups out. Cold. Time. He falls asleep. I fall asleep. The burlap hurts - slowly, but yes.
He’s now asleep. The moon is high and not yet full. His cigarette is burning. In a dream, he gently pushes his way through a crowd; reaches down to his hip to grab something holstered there. He reaches down to his hip, lit cigarette still in hand. His hand opens and closes again, that thing now in-dream-hand, the glowing little iris of his cigarette now rested firmly in the dried tobacco. Moon high, more and more light. It fills him up.
In Carthage, once, Hannibal Barca awoke from dreams of fire – in a sweat, hot yellow panic up and down his back. He’d seen the arc of things down past the horizon. “Bring this night-fire to Rome,” the curve of it read. Elephants at midnight.
R.M. Corbin (CGU '24) is a writer of fiction, essays, and poetry from San Diego, CA. Their work has been featured in the City Works Literary Journal, New Forum, and Africa World Press.