Birds in the House
The men in my family gather at Oak Hall this morning to make birds. They sit in the dining room at an antique cherry oak table and carefully fold their paper cranes. My father and his three brothers fold tiny pieces of paper, squares of yellows and pinks and whites and blues and greens so thin that light passes through them, as if they aren’t there at all. I watch the brothers’ hands, callused and big like sledgehammers, as they struggle not to tear the cranes, not to snap a neck or rip a wing. My Uncle Mizell, pressing his oval glasses back onto the bridge of his nose with his thumb, talks about how, “Mama always made us do this horseshit. Fold up birds for sick neighbors. Burned my ass to sit there all day and make these things.”
My father looks up from his bird and scowls at his brother. “Show a little respect, jackass. Fold your sonbitch birds and we can get this over with.” He looks over at me, his son, seated at the far end of the table beside the lawyer, and shakes his head. He does not like this, being here. I can tell. All of the brothers look unhappy with the situation, uneasy and wary of their close proximity to each other. They are only here for the will, for the contest.
Until her death eleven days ago, my grandmother, Nobio Collier, lived here at Oak Hall, a dilapidated plantation in middle Tennessee built by my great great great great grandfather, General Felix Collier of the Confederate Army. The walls are soft from rot and feel like sponge against my fingers. The wood floors have warped slightly, each plank curling up at the ends like a half smile. It has seen better days, as has the Collier name. After the general died, shot in the back on a failed charge at the Battle of Mill Springs, the five children spent the next forty years fighting over who would get the mansion, who would raise their family here. The eldest brother was killed, one of the sisters jailed for shooting him, and another sister wandered out into a field one night and never returned, disappeared. Finally, the fourth born, Dwight Collier, a crooked lawyer who had been living in Mason, Tennessee, took up residence at the estate, which, upon his death, was then passed down to his first son, a slightly less crooked county executive. Since then, squabbles have erupted from time to time, siblings arguing over who should get what, the money in the family slowly drying up. Oak Hall is what reminds us of what was, of the good things. Folks in Tennessee now say, “The Colliers are bad news with four hundred acres.” It’s all we have left and so it’s not hard to understand why the brothers are gathered here today, taking silent measurements of the house that one of them will win, wondering where the TV and sofas will go.
We are all here to settle my grandmother’s estate, an estate that consists of the property of Oak Hall and some minor stocks and bonds. There is a small amount of money, but nearly all of that will pay legal fees and taxes. The brothers are here to participate. The lawyer, a thin man with pointy ears who twirls his pocket watch by its chain, is here to oversee the contest. I am here because, at twelve years old, I am the oldest grandchild, because it is what she stated in her will. The paper cranes and fans are her ideas as well.
The brothers don’t get along. They meet once a year at the mansion for the family reunion, playing lawn darts and eating cured ham and drinking whiskey until one of the brothers mentions some ancient grievance. Then we all form a circle around the combatants and watch them roll around on the grass until the police show. With my grandmother passed, they will no longer keep in touch. They will “see each other in hell,” according to my Uncle Bit.
My grandmother, understanding this rift between the brothers, this genetic hatred for family that runs in the Colliers, decided that, if they could not find something inside themselves to come together and share their birthright, one brother—only one—would receive the inheritance. There will be a contest, whose outcome I will determine, and the winner will take this house, and the other men will return home and live their lives joined in a collective hatred for that one brother.
We will circle around the oak table, a table that was big enough to seat over fifty guests in better times, where one thousand paper cranes will be placed—two hundred and fifty for each brother. These cranes will then be moved around the table by the force of four giant fans, positioned at each corner, until only one paper crane is left on the table. The owner of that single bird will receive the mansion. However, before any of this occurs, the brothers must make their cranes, all one thousand, by hand. It is what my grandmother wanted. It was her desire, her one last hope, for the brothers to gather here in the house they once shared, to make birds out of paper and maybe find something good, something that would sustain them. The men in my family are not doing a good job so far.
I want to believe that my grandmother could find no other way to make sure that the brothers all came together than to create such an elaborate game, unavoidable hours around a table. Faced with the finality of the decision, the possibility of losing this house, perhaps she hoped they would come to their senses and make one last attempt at reconciling. And yet, it makes me sad to think that maybe my grandmother, tired from years of unhappiness, has given in to whatever runs in the Collier blood that makes them hurt each other.
There are four hundred and eighty seven paper cranes scattered across the table and floor of the dining room. The brothers soak their hands in salt water after every twenty birds or so, cracking their knuckles and necks and backs and anything else they can get a sound out of to feel less sore. I walk around the room, gathering cranes in a giant wicker basket, checking each bird’s left wing for the black marker initials of one of the brothers.
When I bend over to pick up one of the cranes, my Uncle Bit flicks my ear, a sound like someone snapping their fingers. This is the extent of our relationship. He flicks my ear at reunions, twenty, thirty times throughout the day. Sometimes he’ll hide behind trees, wait behind doors until I come out, and he’ll flick my ear with a sharp thwack and run away, laughing to himself. When I look up, he is concentrating on his crane, trying not to smile. My father says Bit is just plain mean, always unhappy, acting as if God keeps poking him in the back. He is the most well off of the brothers, working a successful tobacco farm in Robertson County, and though he doesn’t need any money or plan to live at the mansion if he wins, he sure as hell doesn’t want anyone else to have it. I watch him fold the paper into itself, trying to get the creases right, and then he sets the bird down and shakes the soreness out of his hands. Working in the sun for so many years has left Bit permanently sunburned. The sun has bled into his skin so that he is stained red. When he shakes his hands, it looks like two cardinals flying.
I carry the basket over to the lawyer, seated at the far end of the table, and dump them at his feet. Mr. Callahan, the lawyer from somewhere up north, has long legs, almost obscenely long, and they cross and uncross over each other as he tallies each paper crane in his book. He is noticeably excited about the contest. He keeps checking his watch, twirling it for a few seconds and then bringing it back to his face. I sit beside him to rest before I start gathering birds again, and I watch the brothers.
There is something about their features that someone who has just met them would find elusive. Something about the eyes, the almond shape of them, the tight lines at the corners. Their hair is dark brown, almost black, and new acquaintances stare at them, trying to pin it down. However, their accent is too deeply Southern, too twangy, and it throws everything off. They are big men with thick necks and constantly tensed shoulders that seem always ready to lift something, to pick something off the ground, and these imposing bodies keep people from staring too long. But if someone saw my grandmother, it wouldn’t take them long to figure it out, what it is about these brothers.
My grandmother came to Tennessee from the east. She was not a native Southerner, the first Collier in family history not to hail from below the Mason Dixon Line. My grandfather, Tom Collier, met her while in the navy, stationed in Japan just after the Korean War. They hired Japanese teenagers to clean barracks, and he would watch her changing bedsheets, sweeping the floors. She would smile at him as she worked, when he would lift his legs for her to sweep under them. Pretty soon he was leaving little gifts for her on his pillow—chocolates and necklaces, a silver lighter. In return, she tucked paper objects under the sheets of his bed, origami birds and bears and ships. She liked the way he talked, the slow, easy way his words came out, and even though she could hardly understand a word, she knew he said good things, and that was enough.
When his time was up, time to go back to Tennessee and Oak Hall, she came with him. My grandfather brought home a Japanese bride, and the Collier name slipped down even further around town, to the point where there wasn’t any reason in trying to bring it back to a respectable level. So he bought a couple of liquor stores, and she swept floors and changed bedsheets in the giant house. The four boys were born, and he sat on the front porch and sipped whiskey, and she gradually learned to understand what it was he was saying, learned that the things he said weren’t very nice anymore. And this is how my grandmother spent most of her life, figuring out that things at Oak Hall weren’t very nice anymore.
My Uncle Tetsuya, who will only answer to Soo, though he was named after my grandmother’s father, finishes his two hundred and fifty cranes first and spends the rest of the time wandering around the living room, hovering over the other brothers. He is nervous, chewing a plug of Beech Nut and spitting into a plastic cup. He walks with me for a while, helps me load the basket with birds but soon grows tired of this and hovers over Uncle Mizell. Mizell is the biggest of the brothers, near three hundred pounds, with arms that look like they could uproot things, trees and telephone poles. He is so big he must use a machine to help him breathe at night; his third wife is doing five months for unplugging it late one evening. He keeps a towel around his neck to wipe away sweat that trickles down his face and glasses in steady streams.
After a few minutes of Soo speaking and then, thinking better of it, stopping with a quick cough, Mizell spins around and stares him down, says, “Fairies finish first, that’s what I heard.” Soo backs up, still coughing words away. Soo runs a near bankrupt company that makes chocolates shaped like old comic characters, white chocolate Katzenjammer Kids, Li’l Abners made with crisped rice, a nougat filled Barney Google. He has no money—people apparently don’t want to eat beloved comic characters or else don’t remember them. Now he spends a lot of time looking over his shoulder, as if another lawyer is hiding behind a door. He shoves another tobacco plug into his mouth and sits far away from the other brothers. Mizell finally turns back to his work, tosses another bird on the floor, and mutters, “Burns my ass, all of this.”
As the brothers grew older, my grandmother became even more confused, watching these boys of hers run around in the summer months with no shoes or shirts, constantly carrying BB guns and hunting knives. They didn’t mind her, and she wasn’t sure how to go about making them listen. People in town called them “yellow trash,” and this only made the boys pellet their houses even more. My grandfather only drank on the porch and said, “Boys shoot things, honey, that’s what they do.” They had sunburned skin and fine black hair with rat-tails. They fought constantly with jeering kids, and when there were no more left to beat up, with each other. And I think about my grandmother, sweating in the humid August air and staring out the windows at ragged boys who were half hers kick and bite each other with a ferocity that was nearly joyful. And I think about her staring past the boys, past the mountains on the horizon and thinking about somewhere else, somewhere far away.
I move beside my father as he finishes the last of the cranes. I cannot help him fold birds—my grandmother does not allow help— so I sit and watch his face, unblinking and staring hard at the paper. It almost looks like concentration, like he is focused on the birds, but I know he isn’t; I have seen this look many times in the past year, his staring beyond things in front of him. It reminds me of last year on the cattle farm, of the coolness that should not have been there in late August, the wind coming in from the north. An electric fence was knocked out in a storm, something my father noticed and yet neglected to fix. The cows crossed over into another farmer’s patch of crimson clover, where they ate and ate for two days before me and my father saw them grazing in the field. They’d gotten the bloat from the clover, swollen up until there wasn’t anywhere for the skin to go but out.
Cows exploded, actually opened up like popped balloons, and they fell over, insides scattered around them. We tried to save the rest, walked them around like crazy to work off the pressure in their stomachs. My father grabbed my Sharpfinger blade and slammed it just above the cow’s front quarter, all the way to the hilt, and then pulled it out, trying to open up air passages, but nothing helped. The crimson clover had sunk in too much, and so we stood around the field for another two days, cows exploding all around us. Finally my father gave up, went into the house for the Colt .45, and put a bullet between the eyes of every cow still standing until he stood in a cloud of red tinged dust kicked up by the fallen cattle.
My father used to be a good man, a hard worker. He took care of my mother and me although we never wanted much of anything, always had enough. But there is something gone from him, something important. After the cows, he started to drink more, leased out most of the land to other farmers and kept just enough for us to get by. He spent long afternoons on the front porch, drinking whiskey splashed with sweet tea and staring out at that field, at the filled-in ditch where we buried the dead cattle. Around the house, he wouldn’t stay in the same room as us anymore, seemed shocked when he happened upon my mom or me, as if he’d forgotten that anything around him was still alive. My mother said he would get better, but months passed and he had stopped caring about much of anything. He would walk the perimeter of our land and not return to the house until night, where he and my mother would argue until morning, when it would begin again.
One morning, I woke to find my mother gone and my father on the porch, drunk. “Where’s Mom?” I asked, and he didn’t say anything. I asked again, and he put his index finger to his lips to quiet me. I sat down beside him and stared out across the field along with him.
After an hour, he finally stirred, leaned toward me, and said, “Your mom decided that she needed to be away for a while.” I wondered why she hadn’t taken me, and then, as if he knew, he said, “I told her that she couldn’t take you. I said I wouldn’t let you go anywhere. You and me have to stay together, even if neither one of us wants to be here.” He started to put his arm around me and then stopped, as if he couldn’t understand how to proceed, and then finally, awkwardly, let his arm fall across my shoulders. It was only the two of us, the men in the family, left inside the house.
If my father wins the mansion, he tells me that he’ll fix it up, and then my mother will come back to us; he says that we will have the chance to start over in this huge house. He will also build a giant wall to keep my uncles out, protecting us from everyone else with our last name. We will sit in the living room and watch football games on a large-screen TV that fills an entire wall. We will dip the winning crane in bronze and keep it on the mantel, where we will stare at it during commercials. I want my mother to come back, though I don’t know if I believe my father. I feel that she has done what my grandmother could never do, escaped the Collier name, and I cannot imagine any amount of hoping that could bring her back to us.
There are very few pieces of my grandmother that rubbed off on the brothers. They eat pork rinds wrapped in seaweed like a second skin. That’s about it. They know almost nothing of Japan, of my grandmother’s life before she came to Oak Hall. They do not speak a word of Japanese, save for a few curse words that they coaxed out of her to impress other kids at school. They do not remember what all these cranes mean, that a thousand cranes will bring happiness and a long life to those who make them and those they make them for. They only remember the embarrassment of dragging sacks of paper birds down dirt roads to neighbors who were near death, of offering all these folded pieces of colored paper to baffled stares. “I don’t want anything to do with your mama’s slant eyed voodoo. Just get those things away from me,” and the brothers would carry them down to the creek, watch them float on the current before they ducked under the water, all those paper cranes sinking and washing away. And whether they liked it or not, the brothers were half Japanese rednecks in an unhappy family, and it must have been nice to watch something stay above water even for just a few seconds.
When Mizell finishes his last crane, the lawyer and me gather all the cranes, checking the book one last time to make sure we have counted correctly. The brothers mill around the lawyer, jostling each other, watching to see that no one grabs someone else’s crane and pockets it.
“Soo, I swear to God I will rip your arm out like a goddamned weed if you take your hand out of your pocket one more time,” and Bit looks ready to do it, no longer caring about the contest, just wanting the chance to hit one of his brothers over the head with his own arm.
“I’ll place my hands where I damn well please. If you’ve forgotten last year when you knocked the phone out of my hands and what you got, I’ll make you remember pretty damn quick.”
I remember that it was my father who knocked the phone away, but I don’t say anything, don’t remind Soo that my dad knocked out one of his teeth, had it stick deep in the skin like a splinter. However, before anyone can remind anyone of anything, the lawyer looks up from the book and states, “Gentlemen, the tally is correct and we can get on with this contest if you so desire. Or if you have other business to take care of right now, we can wait.” The brothers grow quiet, step away from the lawyer as if he has drawn a pistol. When the lawyer stands, unravels his legs and lifts himself out of his chair, we all hear the sound of paper crinkling, skiffing across the floor. The lawyer lifts one of his feet and sees a crane stuck to his shoe, under his heel, and he sighs, a deep, long sigh that feels like it will go on until he has no more breath left in his body when he finishes. He peels the crane off his shoe and holds it up, examines the MC initials on the wing.
“It seems I have either miscalculated or there is a renegade bird here. I have to recount now, do the count again to ensure that each of you has no more or less than two hundred and fifty birds. It will take a few minutes, a half hour maybe. You are free to resume your business if you desire, eat or drink or take a short nap if you choose.”
The brothers eye each other, no one wanting to be the first to leave the room, to leave their cranes unguarded, but finally my father places his hands on my shoulders and says, “Let’s get us some refreshments, Smokey, a little pre celebration drink.” And with that, all the brothers scatter throughout the house to wait, to look again at what may soon be theirs.
I do not remember much about my grandmother, saw her only a few times in my life. Christmas and Fourth of July and the family reunions. I remember that even though my father looked different from most of the men in Franklin County, slightly exotic in some way, he still didn’t look much like her. Her hair was jet black even in her old age, the skin underneath the roots a brown yellow color. I liked hearing about her life, little things about Japan. To entertain me, she would let me point to objects in the house and then she would fold paper into that shape, placing the finished product in my hand and waiting for me to pick the next thing. She showed me how to make the cranes and told me the story of their collective power as we filled the floor with what we’d made together, my single crane matching every seven of hers.
Once, she took out a photo album and showed me a picture of her and my grandfather in Japan, both wearing kimonos and sitting on a rug. She looked beautiful, her hair pulled into a bun and her face calm and clear. My grandfather looked less comfortable, his kimono puffing at the shoulders, his face twisted to one side, embarrassed like he had been caught trying on pantyhose and a dress. I asked her if she was happy that she’d left, and she told me, “One place as good as another . . . but sometime I think some places may be little better.”
My father sits on a stool in the kitchen, swirling the last bit of whiskey left in his glass. His arm is around my shoulder and he is smiling, but I can see his eyes are still far away.
“You okay, Smokey? A lot to take in, ain’t it? I know it’s been a tough year for us, but things gonna get better. I promise you that. Now, here is the thing, Smokey. Maybe I win and maybe not. That’s why it’s called a contest, but I want you to take this, just to have, just in case.”
He reaches down and unrolls his left sock, producing two cranes from the hiding spot; the birds are bright yellow with his initials on the left wings, black ink so dark it looks like it has been branded into the birds.
“Where did you get those?” I ask, and he smiles.
“I made ’em,” he says. “I made ’em when nobody was looking and now I’m giving ’em to you.” He hands them to me, but I shake my head.
“We have to play by the rules,” I say, and the look on my father’s face, the way his eyes turn to slits, makes me feel ashamed, as if I am going against the true nature of things.
“These are the new rules I’m giving you,” he tells me, the birds now barely touching my chest. “You take these birds, and near the end, when things thin out, you get real close and let these birds onto the table. It’s not cheating, really. Those birds still have to stay on the table, right?”
The plan can end in nothing but failure, the brothers yanking me out of the house and into the yard, accusations, more fighting. But he is my father. He is my family, what’s left of it, and though I don’t like it, it is what’s true. I take the birds from him, carefully fold the wings to meet each other, and slip them into the pocket of my jeans. I look to him, but he doesn’t say anything else, only finishes his drink and sits staring out across the kitchen. I don’t know what I want him to say, other than, “I’m sorry,” but I already know that he is, and I am beginning to realize that he always will be and it won’t make any difference.
The lawyer calls us back into the dining room. The count is correct, everything is ready to go. I begin dumping baskets of paper cranes onto the table, watch them scatter across the oak finish. It is hard to keep them all on the table, takes several tries to get them settled, but when it is done, the lawyer looks at his watch one last time and nods.
Around the table, there are four fans set up, large metal fans that my father says look a lot like, “those fans they use on chicken farms. Big sonbitches that blow trees down.” The fans are all rigged to one control box, whose switch I will flip, starting with the low setting before clicking up to medium and then high. The brothers stand together in a line on one side of the table, staring down at their birds, trying to figure out which ones are theirs, but there are so many, so many colors, that it’s impossible to know. Their faces are frozen in tight grimaces, as if the skin around their mouths and eyes is shrinking. When everyone is ready, the lawyer looks at the brothers, looks to me one last time and says, “Begin.”
I click the fans on, listen to them slowly hum. It feels like a slight breeze, and the cranes move slowly around the table, vibrating on the surface like plastic players on an electric football game. Several of the cranes already fall to the ground, tap the wood floor with bent beaks and broken wings. Uncle Bit falls to his knees and picks up the birds, checking each one for initials, yelling out either, “Hell yes, motherfucker!” or “Goddammit all, motherfucker!” depending on what letters he sees. I click the setting to medium, and now the birds are really moving, skittering across the table more quickly than before. The floor is filling up with discarded birds. All the brothers are now on hands and knees, crawling around the table in search of initials, elbowing each other out of the way, pulling on hair. Soo kicks out behind him and catches Bit neatly between the eyes, a red print of a loafer forming like a stripe down his face.
More cranes take off, slip off the edge and hover for a few seconds, hold there, before touching ground. My father and Uncle Mizell wrestle for a bird, ripping it into tiny shreds in the process. Bit stands up and runs into the hallway for a chair, returning quickly to break it over Soo’s back, sending tiny splinters of wood into the air with the paper birds. I click the setting to its final place—high— and the fans roar, pitch birds around and around the table like things trapped in the center of a tornado. I can hear cursing under the table, the sound of fists smacking against faces and arms and stomachs, yelps of pain. My father is now riding Mizell like a cowboy on a bucking bronc, digging his heels into Mizell’s kidneys and screaming, “Get along, little dogies.” Soo has taken his belt off and cracks it like a bullwhip across Bit’s back. The lawyer stands in the frame of the door and twirls his watch, his eyes lit up like a man looking through a peephole.
Birds are everywhere, flying to certain death off the edge, hovering two feet over the table or holding fast to the oak finish. Even cranes that have already fallen to the ground have been picked up again by the fans so that it’s hard to tell where anything is anymore—it’s just a thick cluster of colored paper birds. The brothers are still rolling around on the floor, covered in thin, bright red paper cuts. They occasionally stop pummeling each other to look up at the table and shout words of encouragement. Mizell’s head pops up like a groundhog and he screams, “Hold on you sons of bitches, hold on!” And I lean forward, hands almost touching the table, and watch this swirling mist of colors, of delicate paper cranes hovering, hanging, flying in the air. I sometimes have to hold my hands over my face to block cranes from crashing into my head. The fans put out so much wind that it feels like a monsoon, like the whole house is going to lift off the ground and touch down somewhere else. The brothers are bleeding and bruised and screaming profanity like holy men speaking in tongues.
The birds are flying, if only for a brief moment, and I watch a rainbow of cranes fly around the room, dip and loop and dive in the air. I reach into my pocket, feel the two cranes against my fingertips, but I can’t release them. I look at my father, his shirt ripped and his back scratched red with jagged lines, and he is crawling across the ground while a swarm of birds shoot past him so quickly that it seems as if they are attacking him. I have seen my father fight with his brothers before, have grown accustomed to the sight of his broken fingers, swollen face, and busted lip, still smiling. But today, in the midst of these cranes, it seems especially ugly, makes me sad that my father cannot share this moment with me. I am afraid of what will happen if we do not win this house, but it is even harder to imagine my father and me alone in all of these rooms, filled with so much unhappiness.
The cranes are still flying around the room and even though I won’t cheat, I can’t deny these birds in my hands the chance to move with the rest. I open my hands and let them take to the air, watch them lift out of my grasp like baby birds flying for the first time, and their yellow shade mixes with the swirl of colored birds above me. And it is beautiful to watch these things, these tiny creatures moving so quickly through the air, to watch them pick up speed and soar off the table like airplanes lifting off a runway. They take to the air and fly away, out windows, through the hallway, into deep parts of the house where they will never be found.
And then it happens—the crane.
All the brothers stop in midpunch, release chokeholds. They still remain on their knees, look up at the table with swollen eyes wide. The final crane, bright red, has been caught perfectly between the four fans, equidistant from each one, and this crane catches the wind and soars into the air, rises off the table, and climbs still higher.
The brothers are motionless, cannot even curse in their wonder. There is no way to make out the initials. The crane hovers four feet above the table, caught between the fans so that it hovers, levitates without moving. I think it is amazing, seeing something so beautiful flying inside the walls of Oak Hall. And for one moment it is wonderful to watch this single paper crane hang in the air like a prayer, like hope, like a single breath.
But when I look over at the brothers, on hands and knees as if praying, I know that all they can see is the mansion, the house that one of them will have when this bird touches down. They jab elbows into ribs, ball their hands into tight fists, and press the weight of their bodies into each other. They want only one thing, for that bird to fall, to drift beneath the current of wind. They wait for the crane to dive back to the table, where they will rip it open, tear it apart for the answer, while I watch it hover, want only for it to stay up there forever. The brothers are ready, watching it begin to wobble and lose flight. And just before it touches down, before the four brothers slam into each other to snatch the paper crane from the table, I think about my grandmother and hope that she is somewhere far away, somewhere that even birds cannot reach, and I hope that she is happy.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro