What Birds Know

by Mark Jacobs

IT’S THE URGENCY not the November sunlight that fires the leaves in the trees alongside the house where the woods clamber down the gully to a no-account creek. Such color in such certainty of death. The brightness stabs Honey Eye, the jolt of it passing through her eyes into her heart as she stands. In the driveway reading Cody’s text. hurt bad come get me. But he forgets to say where he is, maybe he doesn’t know. She calls, certain he will not pick up. He doesn’t. Her brain slows, slows still more. One thought does not lead to another, it sticks at this, that whatever has gone wrong it’s Stetson’s fault. It’s not really even a thought, it’s a mountain. You don’t move a mountain.

Maybe Cody’s already dead, she’s a widow at twenty-two.

Cody is her man and rising daddy of the child in her womb, the daughter who as yet has no name because they can’t agree on one. Jane is what Honey Eye wants, but that’s too plain for Cody, he wants April May. If he’s dead, his daughter won’t ride horsey on his back as she ought and has every right to do.

Bear season in Virginia. He went out with Stetson, who picked him up before dawn. With their bows and arrows and a thermos of coffee. No guns no damn dogs, Cody likes to say, Bud Light in hand, daring contradiction, it’s just you and how good you listen, how good you track, how straight your arrow flies. Clean, he says, I want a clean kill. I don’t hate the bear but I will kill it.

Stetson is the worst big brother any man ever had, he is Cody’s curse.

She’s supposed to clean at the Gilstraps’ today. They like her and always give her extra. She puts the extra, whatever it comes to, in an old sock of Cody’s. She keeps the sock in the closet on the shelf, at the back. It’s new daughter money, or a start on some.

She calls again, texts again. Nothing. What should she do? Plank Hill. She remembers him and Stetson talking the other day about somebody seeing a bear in the woods on land over that way, it used to belong to the kyanite mine. Not just any bear, a monster of a male that must go three fifty, three seventy five, or so they said.

She takes Cody’s pickup, drives really fast to Plank Hill though not as fast as her heart is going. In ten minutes she is at the foot of the road that goes up the hill past the old mine entrance, where you’re not supposed to hunt, it’s posted, although that never stops Stetson, and Cody goes along with him, he always goes along with whatever foolishness his big brother proposes.

She goes up the road in third gear looking for Stetson’s truck. That’s how they hunt is they leave their vehicle in a likely spot and go through the woods moving the same direction a hundred yards apart, keeping pace. Two brothers, one good, the other bad. No luck. She comes out at the top of the hill where Plank Hill makes a ‘T’ at County Line, and there is no sign of the truck.

She learns that you can feel great internal anguish while being totally wrapped up doing a practical thing such as trying to locate the man you love who is wounded in the woods. The two lines run together through your mind’s heart, and you think somewhere ahead they will have to touch, but there’s no guarantee, it doesn’t work that way.

A text. off plank rd halfway up bleed bad.

She tells him she’s coming, turns around and heads downhill again. He’s in the woods on the mine side of the road, she’s sure of that, the monster bear having been seen on that side. She parks where she guesses is halfway, jumps out and hollers Cody Cody Cody. Listens in hope and hears nothing. There was rain yesterday. The ground holds the damp. Not far from where she has parked she makes out tire tracks in the leaf-muck and mud that might belong to Stetson’s truck. She plunges into the woods.

Cody Cody Cody.

The good brother not the bad.

She feels the baby kick, but maybe that’s her imagination. She feels clumsy and strong. Her feet are boats. She never thought to tell the Gilstraps she’s not coming to clean today. She checks her phone. It’s useless. She wants to heave it; better not.

Cody Cody Cody.

This is the loudest she has ever raised her voice, ever will.

She stops, listens. His voice is fainter than faint but unmistakable to her. She moves uphill and farther into the woods, finds him in a plantation of pine trees in regular rows. The floor is dead needles, nothing but dead needles. Cody lies beside a tree, on his back. There’s an arrow in his thigh, sticking up like the gravest of insults. Blood is everywhere except his face.

‘It was a accident,’ he says, too weak to swear it with enthusiasm which is what he would normally do.

‘Your brother done this. He shot you.’

Even now, even now, his first impulse is to make excuses for Stetson. Points with a trembling finger to the spot on his leg where his brother’s belt is tied as a tourniquet.

‘He done that. Went for help, but he done that ‘fore he went.’

Stetson has also cut away the pant leg so that the wound is visible. It’s raw, it’s foaming, it’s gruesome. It’s the leg’s sacred secret being told to the undeserving world. The torn red-white flesh is animal, the hurt is human.

There are nervous bluejays in the branches of several pines. Their call is as hideous as Cody’s wound, Stetson’s arrow, Cody’s agony. The jays are celebrating what Honey Eye is pretty sure is going to happen right soon. She feels strangely trapped and can’t catch her breath. Her arms won’t lift. She screams at the birds. The sound causes Cody to flinch. That’s not a bad thing because he seems to want to sleep, and sleep will be the end.

She obliges one arm to move and shakes him by the shoulder.

‘Don’t go. Goddamn it, don’t go, you hear me?’

His eyes have difficulty finding her. There is a terrible slowness behind them like sad music pitched too low for the human ear.

‘Your brother done this,’ she cannot help saying again, then wishes she hadn’t. Somehow it’s like blaming Cody for what happened.

There is still, for now, light inside those dignified gray eyes, but she knows what shock looks like, she used to work in Briery Community Hospital. She says what must be said.

‘I only fucked him once.’

It registers. She’s sure it registers. She clamps her jaw shut, will not say anything she might come up with that excuses or explains.

Stetson, bringing help, will be too late.

Cody wants to say something. She understands how important it is. The jays are all screeching at once now. They know what birds know, and not a damn thing besides. Cody is whispering. His fingers curl, doing their part in his mighty effort although he lacks the strength to clench them in a fist. It awes her, such ferocious effort in this moment of pure extremity. She bends low because she can’t make out the words, if words they are.

They are, or will be.

She smells the blood on him. It makes her gag. His eyes were just open, weren’t they? She’s not sure. Anyway now they’re closed so he can get the words out, finding their target in her stricken comprehension.

‘You want, you go ahead and call her Jane.’


Mark Jacobs has published more than 190 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Hudson Review. Stories of his have won the Iowa Review Prize, the Eyster Prize, and the Kafka Prize from the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review. His sixth book, a novel set in the Congo called Silent Light, is forthcoming from Evergreen Books. His website can be found at


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