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FICTION / Harry's Bird / Sky O’Brien

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Harry raises his voice. “Goddammit! Did you see the size of that bird?”

I open my eyes and blink away the dreamy image of my bedroom back home in Perth. We’re in the car, moving fast. Harry is sitting next to me. He keeps talking as I feel for my phone on the backseat. The seats are cold and soft.

“It was huge!” He turns to me. “Did you see it?”

“What?” I say. I pretend to be confused and postpone rubbing my eyes. “It’s dark out,” I say. 

“But the bird.” Harry presses his cheeks and eyes against the glass, looking out the window like an excited kid. “How could you miss it?”

Mitch is driving. He says nothing to Harry. He doesn’t even turn around. Next to him in the passenger seat is Jess, his girlfriend. She has her eyes closed. Together they nod and shift and shake to the music like synchronized robots. I nod, too. It’s late. We’re all high from a terribly refreshing blunt.

Outside on our left the Mississippi lines the road, dark and big and silvery flat like a surface of thick, unbreakable glass. On the other side of the car the bluffs, tall and white, follow us like a giant wave frozen in time. Between the river and the bluffs the occasional headlight runs up the road and passes us on its way to Alton. 

“I don’t know how you missed it,” says Harry. He’s sure he’s on to something. “I’ve never seen a bird like that in my life.”

“Harry, you’re being so extra right now,” says Mitch, breaking the line between the front and back of the car.

“I mean, what the fuck are you talking about?” I say, siding with Mitch. I find my phone and start flicking a finger down the screen. Harry, I think, is making a show about this bird and being so fucking inexact. “Harry,” I say, looking up from a news feed.

“It was back there.” He points toward Alton. “Near the bluffs, just floating, this big thing. Its eyes were wild, bro.” He pauses. “You didn’t see it?”

“No.”

Mitch, his tone mocking, says, “The Piasa Bird?” 

“The what?”

“Piasa—the bird on the bluffs. The mural, bro.”

“Seriously?” says Harry.

“I don’t know. I didn’t see shit.”

“Fuck’s sake,” says Harry. “Then I’m high as fuck.”

Mitch turns up the music and we drive back to campus without another word, nodding our heads and tapping our knees to the sound.

Later, in bed, I think of Harry and the bird on the bluffs. The big creature rises out of its paint job and flies next to the river, casting its red eyes and deer horns over the earth. It follows me and Mitch and Harry and Jess like an officer, its uniform a skin of thick brown scales. A bird like that could swallow our car. It could swoop down and lift us with its talons and take us deep into its world.

 

The next day I’m in the car with Mitch. We’re on our way to Alton to drink coffee and write essays. Before we pass the minerals plant and the Irish pub and the flour mill, I see the Piasa bird on the white rock of the bluffs, smiling or grimacing at us with its large horns and long tail.

“Yo,” I say to Mitch. He’s behind the wheel. Shades on. Hair messy. Two buttons undone on his flannel. “There’s Harry’s big fucking bird.” He turns to his left and looks out the window. He catches it for a second. He’s seen it a thousand times. He smiles.

“Yo. Check it out, bro,” he says. “Huge!” His “u” is long and breathy. He laughs and sniffles.

“Watch out, man” I say. “It’s following us.” He presses his foot on the accelerator and we laugh. 

We continue down the river road and stop at traffic lights outside the flour mill, idling, dwarfed by the building’s tall and gray columnar precipices. On one of its rounded walls the words “Welcome to Alton” fly above a rendering of the American flag. The flag’s red and white lines wave like currents.

“See the turkey vultures?” Mitch says, pointing to the air above the casino on my right, just down the way from the mill. “Must be five or six of them at least.”

“You know they’re turkey vultures?”

“What else could they be?”

Rising up from the casino are these two red masts and, above them, the vultures, black and small and quiet. They seem to float in the air like tiny feathers, weaving in and out of circles around each other. Small bubbles elevating to the lid of a sparkling water sky.

“Maybe they’re waiting for a poker table,” I say.

“Or the buffet line is too long,” Mitch says. 

At the café we read our books and think about writing our essays and pause every so often to fix our emptied glasses at the coffee drip. A few hours pass and, filled with black liquid and words, we return to campus. On the way we stop by the river and do justice to a joint. We pass the casino and the mill and Harry’s bird. It may have belonged to the Illini once, but it’s Harry’s now. 

 

Later in the day I walk atop the bluffs. The air is cool. The light is fading. The grass is beginning to rise from its winter hearth and the trees are starting to bud. Perched beneath an old willow, I look down at the brown and blue waters of the Mississippi, as foreign to me as the people and boats and birds that use it. Here, in the southwest of the state, the water is halfway between lake and gulf, halfway home. I think about Harry’s bird and the turkey vultures and hawks and eagles and other birds that live here. I want to fly with them, to see what they see and feel what they feel. And so I do. I lift myself above the Mississippi, higher and higher. Fly far enough and I’ll make it home.


Sky O’Brien moves between Kelmscott, Western Australia and Elsah, Illinois. He recently graduated with a B.A. in creative writing from Principia College, where he received 1st place in a 2018 creative writing contest and currently works as a teaching intern. His work has appeared in Mistake House Magazine and is forthcoming in NonBinary Review and Puerto del Sol.