- Vol. 09
- Chapter 05
He had these prints up everywhere in the house, bird prints like John James Audubon’s. Even his kitchen wallpaper was avian-themed, with bluebirds, cardinals, and chickadees perched together in a fixed pattern. Included in the motif were other woodland creatures like squirrels, rabbits, and even, coiled up in one corner but not repeated anywhere else, a black rat snake.
My friend Lily was housesitting for the old man, Charlie, who was in the hospital suffering from some undisclosed illness. One of Lily’s professors, Dr. Ohlman, had asked Lily to do this favor for his ailing father in exchange for a place to live over the spring and summer, while she figured out what she was going to do after graduation.
Lily wanted me to see Charlie’s house one evening after class. Aside from the wallpaper, the house wasn’t terribly peculiar, just an old ranch style home from the 1960s. When we finished the tour, Lily led me out to the back patio. It was a concrete lagoon surrounded by blooming azaleas. Beyond the hedge of azaleas was dense forest which sloped away from the house down to the river. I’d been to the river as a boy with my brother to skip rocks in the black slow-moving water. There were stories about swimmers and hapless boaters drowning in that deep black water, so we’d kept our treks there a secret.
On the patio sat wrought iron furniture sporting antique curlicue patterns and animal paw feet. The white paint coating them was peeling, revealing blood red rust that looked almost black underneath. Charlie had erected several bird houses and feeders at various points in the yard. Lily pointed down to an iron vessel I’d assumed was a firepit. “That’s where the food
goes,” Lily said. “Food?” I said, surprised. “Yeah. Dr. Ohlman said his dad loves feeding all the stray cats that live around here. This is where he puts the food.”
“Isn’t it odd to lure stray cats into the yard when you love birds as much as Charlie obviously does?” I asked. Lily shrugged. “Wanna see what he feeds ‘em?” I was curious, as the answer was clearly not cat food. “Dr. O says his dad composts everything,” Lily explained. She walked over to a large Herby Curby. The stench was overpowering, much stronger than normal garden compost. “What’s in it?” I asked. “I have no idea,” Lily said, grinning.
I felt uneasy that night when I went home. I kept thinking about that coiled up black rat snake in the wallpaper, the death-like stench of the compost, the wrought iron furniture waiting on the patio for someone, some thing. I dreamed that night that I spied through the azaleas Lily pouring black food into the iron bowl, walking slowly and quietly back into the house, drawing the curtains. A dusky blue figure walked up to the bowl sniffing the air, a pair of beautiful azure wings folded across its back, a long black tail raking across the grass.