For three straight days it rained and did not stop. The first two days, the birds in the rain did not sing. On the third day, the boy who lived in the house in the woods—not the boy who lived up in a tree—went out and sat out in the rain as the dirt on the ground went from dirt and grass to mud and then more mud. This boy sat in the mud—he loved the mud! How could he not?—and made mud pies with his hands. He liked the sound that the mud made when he’d pat it and clap it with and in his hands. The mud in his hands hung to his hands and when he brought his hands up to his face he closed his eyes and made his face to be a mud face. He rubbed his hands on his arms so that his arms were mud arms. He took off his boots in the mud and stood up in the mud and raised his feet up and down till his feet were made out of mud feet. He took off his shirt and he took off his pants down to the skin and brought his hands up and down to be next to his skin till the skin that was on him was a made out of mud skin. He was a mud boy, made out of mud, and he loved what he was and what the rain of the sky and the dirt of the earth had made him come to be. He danced in the mud and in the rain and when he felt the rain try to wash off the mud, he dropped down in the mud and rolled back and forth in the mud till the mud was all back up on him. He had mud in his hair and mud on his lips and the mud on his lips made him want to eat it. He licked at the mud till the tongue in his mouth was made out of mud.
On the fourth day, when the rains came to an end, the mud on this boy turned hard to be dirt. He stood in one place the way that a tree stands in one place as the mud that was on him turned to dirt. He stood with his arms held out by his side and up to the sky the way that a tree stands to hold up the sky. He did not move and then he could not move. The dirt on the heels of his feet grew roots that dug down through the earth. First it was just one bird—but not a bird with just one wing which was the thing that the boy had gone out to look for—and then more birds came to sit in this tree that this boy had come to be. Nests for birds to live in were made by these birds. The birds sang and then sang some more to bring in each new day. This was in the spring. New leaves grew in like hairs that make a boy look more like a man. In the fall, when the leaves fell to be with the ground, the boy did his best to bend down in his new skin to reach down to pick up the leaves that fell as the leaves do in the fall. The boy, he could not do it. The leaves looked up at him from where they fell and then rain fell for more days than the boy who was now a tree could count. When the dirt that held him in its place turned back to mud and as the dirt in the rain gave way to mud, the boy raised up his mud feet. The boy looked down to see that the hard bark of his skin now dripped with mud and when he saw that he was a tree no more, he walked back in to be in the house. Where have you been? the girl with no tongue in her mouth, had she had a tongue, would have said. We thought you lost your way in the woods. We thought the witch ate you, she said. The girl with no tongue said what she said with her eyes and with her hands that chopped at the air like an axe in the woods chops at a tree. The boy had no need for words to say where he’d gone or what he had seen or who or what he had come to be. He stuck out his hand that still had mud on its thumb. The girl with no tongue drew in close to take a look. If she’d had a tongue in her mouth, it’s true—the boy feared this to be true—she would have dropped down to her knees to lick it.
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The girl—let’s call her Jane for short—she liked to take walks through the woods with no shoes on her feet. She did not stub her toes, big or small, on the rocks on the ground, or on the twigs that fell from the trees. Jane walked. See Jane walk. Or skip. Look at her skip through the woods. As she skips, she hums a small song, but just the birds in the trees can hear it.
* * *
The bird with just one wing was not born with just one wing. It was born with two wings like most birds are born with two wings when they peck with their beaks out of the egg that they break free of when it is time for them to spread their wings and be birds in the sky that can fly. The bird with just one wing flew. It flew and flapped its wings more times than there are leaves that fall from the trees in the fall. It flew like this till the day when it flew too close to where the witch in the woods was down on the ground since that day when the boys threw a rock and then took a rock to the side of the head of that witch till it looked to the bird that this witch on the ground was a witch that like a tree on the ground was in truth dead. The bird with just one wing, that day —though it had two wings and not just one up till this day—it flew down to take an up close look at the witch who looked to be dead as she lay like a downed tree on the dirt of the ground. Like most birds, the bird with one wing liked to peck with its bird beak at things that it thought were dead. This bird, it thought that the witch was dead. She looked dead the way that she lay on the ground with her witch eyes closed and with a rock near her witch head and with a cut on the side of her head from where the rock hit her when it was thrown by one of the boys at her and when that same rock was then brought down three times by the hand of a boy to the side of her dead witch head. She looked dead, the witch did, so she must be dead, the bird with one wing (though it had both wings now) thought when it flew down to take an up close look at the witch and to peck at her eyes and at her lips and at the skin of the witch so that it could get down to where the meat was on this witch. The bird with just one wing (when it had both of its wings) flew down from where it sat in its tree and, as it might be said, went to town on that witch with its beak. It bit and pecked and picked and pulled at the eyes of that witch, at the nose of that witch, it was set to start at the head of the witch and to work its way down to the feet of that witch. But this bird (it could not know what it did not know: the fact that this witch was not yet dead) it did not get past the lips of this witch, for when it got to where the mouth of this witch was, the witch took hold of this bird, by its one wing (it had two at the time) and it bit this bird’s one wing off with her teeth. She was not dead, this witch, the bird now knew. She’d just been knocked out, it turns out, but the bird did not know this, not till the witch turned and did what she did to this bird to make this bird a bird with just one wing. The witch bit off the bird’s one wing, she did, and then she spit it, this wing, this witch did, out on the ground. Then she stood up and spat at the bird that ran off in the tall grass of the woods where it could hide with all the rest of the things of the woods that had to walk or crawl through the woods since they did not have wings for them to fly with through the blue of the blue sky that looked down at the hard dirt of the ground that held the trees of these woods here in this place.
Peter Markus is the author of When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds, Bob, or Man on Boat, We Make Mud, and The Fish and the Not Fish, and Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools. Other books include Good, Brother and The Singing Fish, and The Moon Is a Lighthouse. His stories have appeared in such journals as Big Other, Black Warrior Review, Massachusetts Review, Quarterly West, Alaska Quarterly Review, Puerto del Sol, Bomb, New York Tyrant, Unsaid, among others.