A Windmill in the West (Addition to an original story by Peter Carey)

The soldier wakes and is instantly aware his surroundings have shifted but he is unable to place where his suspicions lay. The caravan door is open and swinging, it is hot but that is no longer a cause for concern. The sunlight streams in through the doorway, from his angle on the bed he cannot be sure if it’s from the east or west, the disorientation frightens him. He reaches for his carbine and checks to make sure the magazine is full, the image of a burning plane flashes across his mind but whether it is a reality or a dream he remains unsure. The customary clank of the windmill brings his mind back into focus; he knows the windmill cannot be heard so distinctly from this distance; perhaps this is the change he can sense.

The soldier walks outside and looks to the windmill, it is still. In the ripple of the rising heat there appears an intimation of a figure. It disappears when he looks at it directly, but then reappears in the corner of his vision when he turns his glance. He is about to say something, to call to it, to recognize it, but then does not, knowing that to recognize it by any gesture or action is to give it a reality which it must not have. But it is a figure that he recognizes even though he does not let on. This is the figure that has been crossing the road day and night, just out of reach of his carbine, hopping amongst the dead scorpions that litter the bitumen road, surveying the dead, tempting him from his post. There is something unique in the way it moves like an animal adapting to a body that is not its own. He watches, mesmerized by the dancing little bird.

He can make out features from this distance, the iris, a light green-yellow, the black bill, its feathers with a grayish-brown tint, and the flash of white with each flutter of its wings. The bird continues to draw nearer barely registering the soldiers’ existence, the two make eye contact at 20 yards; the bird slows but shows no signs of fear, only a cool detachment from the world around him. In this moment the soldier realizes that the sound of the windmill is not coming from the windmill but from the throat of this misplaced Northern Mockingbird approaching him.

It was a suffocating little classroom in Dallas where he first learnt about the mockingbird, how it imitates not only birds but also other animals and sounds such as car alarms, a fact he found interesting as a boy. He had rescued one, nurturing it back to health only to be forced by his mother to set it free. He has never forgotten how it looked in that moment, the long legs and longer tail, the way the wings arched as it flew away. He wanted to be free, to share in the freedom of flight, to soar through the air, feel it surround him. He prayed to god to bring the bird back to him, when it did not return he was heartbroken, cursing god for ignoring his prayers. So fresh did these images came flooding back, that he was almost convinced it was the same bird from over 30 years ago, plucked straight from his memory.

Sensing no signs of a threat to his post the soldier lowers the carbine to his side, wondering how this bird managed to be so far from home. As if following his thoughts the mockingbird squawks, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather, Luke, 17, 37,” before adding, “You should look to your bible more often.”

The soldier is initially stunned but assumes this must be a well-trained bird from a travelling circus or judging by the religious comment, a church mascot, either way a cheap parlor trick for the simple minded or childish. He kneels, reaching out with the curled arm of a seasoned bird handler, the bird responds, landing just above the soldiers left wrist. The soldier turns and makes his way back into the caravan with the mockingbird observing him each step of the way. He drops his carbine on the bed and places the bird on the bench before seating himself eye to eye with his new companion.

The soldier is enthralled that he has a chance to converse and decides to test the birds understanding of the English language by referring to its last comment. “Do you understand that you are a mockingbird not a vulture?” To which the mockingbird responds, “I am as you see me.”

The soldier laughs finding the response highly amusing, doubting the bird has understood what he said. “What do you want?” the soldier asks, expecting the response to be water or crackers.

“I have come for you” replies the mockingbird.

The soldier is more surprised by this comment than the fact that he is having a conversation with a bird. Using simple English, words he believes the bird will understand he asks, “Okay, why me?”

“You know why,” replies the mockingbird.

“No I do not, explain it to me” The soldier smirks, knowing any explanation would be beyond the skills of a bird.

“I have come to take you home, you don’t belong on this side” the mockingbird answers.

“Where are you going to take me, home to Texas? I don’t think you could carry me.” The soldier laughs, “Besides, I have a duty to perform as a U.S soldier; you should understand that as well as me, you’re a patriotic bird of the south.”

“All will be answered in time if you come with me but you must have faith” responds the mockingbird.

“Why don’t you tell me now my little friend?” The soldier is still amused by the bird but believes this is as far as their conversation can proceed.

Mockingbird cocks its head. It seems to pause not from misunderstand but from how to word its answer. The mockingbird says “I have come from the ‘other’ side to collect you because you have finished, but I would happily leave you in this aluminum coffin to be devoured by scorpions forever if that is your choice.” As he talks the mockingbird rolls its head taking in the full interior of the caravan.

The soldier is shocked, the threat from the mockingbird unsettles him; he had not expected such an articulate response. “Forever?” He snorts, “Like you have any power over that, I can leave this post anytime I want.” It occurs to the soldier that this could simply be a symptom of dehydration, a mirage playing tricks on his mind, dredging up a ghost from his distant memory to his sight. The soldier collects himself before continuing in a more rational manner, “You’re not real, and how could you be? Nothing can survive out here, especially not a bird from the other side of the world.”

“Other side of the world?” the mockingbird cackles but it slowly turns into a dull mechanical clank. “You still think you are in the desert. I offer you a choice and this one chance to decide, nothing more. Be fully aware that you alone are responsible for the choice you make. I will not come back for you.”

The soldier is barely listening now, he begins speaking as much to himself as the mockingbird. “You are just my homesick imagination keeping me company” says the soldier attempting to discredit the existence of mockingbird. He takes an angry swipe with the back of his hand to confirm his theory but he hits only air and receives a sharp peck, the pain is real it shoots up his arm like an electric shock.

The mockingbird narrows its eyes at the soldier. “So you are arguing with your own imagination? That is the reasoning you are deciding to follow?” the bird pauses to allow the soldier to consider the point.” Everyone is given a choice, you must make yours.”

“I am going to leave, my own way; I have had enough of this place anyway.” The soldier picks up the phone, but hears nothing. He waits and slowly a sound becomes audible from deep within the phone, and like the swell of a high wind that comes rushing off a plain, he hears the reverberating sound of the windmill quickening in pace.

He drifts away, listening to the clanking of the windmill that once settled his mind. He thinks about the fence stretching across the desert, north to south, south to north, going as far as the eye can see, dividing the world in two, inside and outside and the mockingbird perched precariously on that line.

The soldier reacts to the pressure much like he has in the past, calmly rising above his physical body as it battles with the threatening presence of this mockingbird. He drops the phone, his military training snaps him back to the current situation; he reaches for his carbine, leveling it at the mockingbird before he says, “You come from the other ‘side’.” He smiles,” You don’t belong here, good luck finding your way home.”

The soldier fires and doesn’t stop until the magazine is empty.

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