Path of the Ground Birds by J.L. Cooper


Here comes Julian, rounding the bend from his bedroom to the hall, fresh from the hospital and a quick change of clothes. Trauma surgeons aren’t supposed to be confused about what to do next, but this is where he stalls. The paths in front of him lead to the front door, atrium, and kitchen. But he’s lost, as if in London fog, and forgets the mysteries of trails; how he’ll choose one in the mountains because it winds near a stream, or fancy being held, bewitched in a dense forest, or come in need of the sound of bees in an alpine meadow.

He stops on the trail of halls, at the slider leading to the back yard. The yellow hibiscus will bloom any day; the first roses of the year are on the fade, still crimson, and as of yesterday, still sweet. He has no memory of finding his way to the kitchen and opening the refrigerator door, but this is where he next comes into focus, illuminated by the pale blue light from within.

Julian can’t tell his own story just now. Too numb. The refrigerator light will have to tell. The tables are turned, the light is soft and kind, like his recent surgery dreams, where the insides of people are telling him about the persons they inhabit; their separate voices speak in casual conversation with his diligent, skillful hands.

While performing surgery, he’ll say something like, “I don’t believe anesthesia blocks all awareness, do you?” The person is under, but he likes to intuit the whole from just the part. Yesterday, he found himself whispering, “I’m just visiting,” to a section of small intestine.

“I’m going to move you over to take a look around, take care of any problems, then tuck you back in bed personally.” Sometimes during a procedure, he hums a bedtime tune using a voice as close to his mothers’ as he can summon.

The surgeries of his day were unremarkable in challenge, filed in his mind in an inaccessible vault. Some patients were in critical condition, par for the course in the ER. Here, in the kitchen, urgency has no place. He doesn’t move a millimeter, as if competing for stillness with the halibut steaks in the bottom of the freezer. Food is there, but no hand reaches. Cold air spills, seducing and insulating his slight frame, while life goes on around him as usual.

Quails come to the backyard in mornings and evenings, out from under shrubs in neighbor’s yards. They take the passage under the fence, where rainwater makes a little riverbed. Every summer he waits for the first visit of the quail parents, scouting the yard for safety. A week or so later, the little ones rush from under a bush – in a moving cloud – as many as fourteen. It’s his favorite summer moment.

Julian wants the glow of the refrigerator light to stay on him a while longer – in a standoff with other motives. Neither the smoked gouda nor the fresh bowl of tasty olives can shake him from his post.

Any old refrigerator light can see he’s not ready to make a move. He might as well be dozing on a beach, listening to rumbling waves. Even if his name were called, it would be from another time, another world, where answering is discouraged, for the sand has spoken – Stay.

From the edge of awareness, he hears the familiar sound of his wife’s car in the driveway, followed closely by the opening of the garage door, then the jingle of her keys. The gentle sequence drifts upon him, dilating time, while shadows hint at becoming long. But there’s plenty of light left in the June day, and Julian’s self-awareness returns in the manner of a thin stream of water filling a vacant tub.

His breathing slows and tells of exhaustion. Even so, he notices the edges of perception, the edges of marriage to his naturalist wife, Emily. Usually, he calls her Em, but reserves the intimacy of her full name when they are deep in lust or close to an argument. He can’t explain it further.

Em is a naturalist at a nature preserve. She cut her teeth in estuaries of Southern California. Here, in Northern California, she’s immersed in an inland medley of songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors along the American River Parkway. She knows which native grasses are being pushed out by invasive species, and laments the water hyacinth, clogging the sloughs in the Sacramento Delta. Em would not have Julian’s work in a dozen lifetimes, but knows her piece of riparian woodland as well as he knows the vessels of the heart. She identifies a hundred birds from just their songs; the wrens will often hide.

She comes to the kitchen with a sigh, plops her burdens on the breakfast table, and turns to face her man. At forty-three, Em’s recent haircut makes her lengthy presence look French, which he quite likes, but that aside, she enters the kitchen in off-green pants and an ill-fitting blouse with patches of her bland uniform. She’s got her hiking boots today, since she’s fresh from the preserve.

She’s perplexed to see her frozen husband not offer his usual dancing dip or any variation of a greeting kiss. She could have had the thought that he’d be fine with a few minutes of not having to explain himself, but you know how bad timing comes with marriage.

She wanders into the conundrum through a different vein, wondering concretely whether Julian simply doesn’t like what he sees in the white box, or if he’ll soon make an announcement. Either way, his morass broadens to include her, and she’s having none of it. His remoteness bothers her. Game on. They are statues in a modern art museum, inviting speculation.

When motion resumes, their daughter, Kate, enters the kitchen in a brilliant display of ephemeral curiosity, in clear view of Fridgelight (Julian offered this name to the light, as a member of the family who knows everyone intimately by their refrigerator habits). Kate, recently thirteen, has been dropped off after soccer practice by the mother of a teammate. They don’t hear her come in, and wonder how long she’s been noticing the small drama from the portal to the kitchen. They greet her with poorly-tolerated hugs.

Kate growls that her English assignment is due tomorrow, on the subject of what parents bring home from work. The teacher deliberately made the assignment open-ended and refused to distinguish between physical and emotional matters. Kate offers her protest to the man blocking her way to the fridge, reaches around him for bottled water, announcing her parents should help with her assignment. She says it in a blackmail kind of way, as if they would not presume any higher priority.

Kate is bright; she’s mastered perfect timing, asking things in strategic ways. Emily is bright too, mentioning to Kate that self-observation can be a prelude to communicating with others – starting with the interesting trail Kate has dropped off in the last few seconds. There is the jacket she didn’t wear, now on the floor of the entry. There is the heavy bag of books hurled on the couch, barely missing grandmother’s vase, and the workout bag, dumped in the middle of the family room, with assorted contents spilling out. A soccer ball has rolled into kitchen as if it’s been following her all along.

Kate cleverly reminds her mother that her assignment is about parents, not her. She leaves the kitchen with an enviable pivot turn, somewhere between graceful and flippant, to grab a shower before dinner. Em yells down the hallway,
“It’s your observations that matter. There is no objective truth, sweet daughter.”

Their fifteen year old son, Lex, is in Washington D.C. on a field trip. His text message related that national monuments are cool, but he needs money urgently because he was arrested for chewing on a dinosaur bone at the Smithsonian. Can’t his own parents feed him? Plus, he’s decided to become a taxi driver because they zoom around corners so artfully. He can’t imagine a better career.

They miss Lex, but need a break from him too. It’s odd to not have his turbulent brilliance in the home. Lex makes things up to counteract the logical sequences he anticipates from Julian and Em, heading off predictable advice, giving himself breathing room. If he and his father are standing at the fridge,
and happen to spot the lone piece of chicken at the same time, Lex would choose the moment to announce he’s dropped out of school, just to distract his dad. Julian would roll his eyes or otherwise pause, and Lex would grab the chicken leg and run, with a chortle and a victory skip.

Julian speaks to Em, “Kate is smarter than us, you know.”

“How so?” asks Em.

“Well, she stays away from metaphor at just the right times. I can’t seem to master that. I’m a bit jealous of her nature.”

He pours a glass of red wine to warm himself, without a thought as to the other reds of his day. He never gets to know much about the moments leading up to his surgeries; his patients are mostly unconscious or raging in pain. A gulf is widening – between what he provides, and who his patients are. Lately, he’s been thinking of fixing machines without knowing their purpose.

Julian’s psychotherapist is aware of the gulf. He’s certain she enacts a version of it whenever she talks to him while looking at her bookcase. Someday he’ll tell her about herself. She’ll reach for her teacup, but half the time her hand never makes it to the cup; she’ll pull it back and rest it on the edge of her chair, as if the moment is too tender for an actual object to be allowed a role. She is both warm and coolish, depending on the moment: a little like the blue glow of Fridgelight.

Last session, Julian found himself uttering something that shocked him the moment he said it. “I am a doctor to unconscious people. I wonder how that’s playing out in me?” The same thought re-visits him in the kitchen, with fresh sadness. He thinks he should have mastered these pesky emotions, being a surgeon, zeroing in on the immediate needs of his patients. Emily sees his hand tensing on the door. She’s trying to be nice.

Normally, Julian looks forward to Em coming home. She’ll tell of her world: the sighting of a sharp-shinned hawk, a prairie falcon, or an otter up on shore. He loves the way she speaks of November, when the tule fog rises from the wetlands in morning, persisting no more than an hour after sunlight.

In summer, he swims the American River while Em walks the trail to meet him downstream. They walk back home on the levee, watching the harriers hunt, the cottontails hide. While not breaking her stride, Em might tell of a child touching an acorn for the first time, or an animal that died only minutes after being born at the preserve. They don’t intervene at any birth. He asks about the place of human observation – of sentiment and action. The theme plays between them as a thread of white ink on an all-red canvas.

During a recent walk, Julian kicked a branch out of his way and said,
“I’m all about blind intervention – for anyone who comes to the hospital. I don’t get to distinguish the person from the flesh. Doctors have this oath, you know.”

“So do naturalists,” says Em, “in a less formal way. My work can challenge the instincts of a mother. We have to let things be, but the price is to make rules for human visitors: no dogs (they chase the deer and turkeys), stay on trails, don’t go climbing trees, don’t plant or remove anything, don’t kill a buck, a quail, or catch a frog. It’s easy to hate the jerk that cuts down a healthy oak for firewood. The rest is not so easy. Like telling a child not to go where the eyes invite. We get complaints about bee stings and mosquito bites, like we should prevent anything unpleasant.”

Julian drifts in the persistence of Fridgelight’s glow, quietly fighting a summons from within, to tell Emily of his day. Barely looking up, he finally says, “I had a weird day and I don’t know why. Nobody died on the table, but I got to wondering how my patient’s lives were going before they got to the ER. I see the quail parents are back in the yard in mornings. I wonder if the little ones have hatched.”

Em takes two of her famous long-legged strides to stand closer to her man. She takes a look inside the fascinating recesses of the fridge, then backs off to scan the whole of him, some grey hairs already on his chest, though he’s only forty-five. After ten seconds of her own version of a freeze, she says the obvious; “You’re wasting energy. Why don’t you decide what you want, then go after it?”

“Just looking,” says Julian, with a bit of sharpness. “Can’t a man just look?” He tells her that compared to people dying in random accidents or destroying the lives of others, his standing with the door open is not a felony, and feels rather palliative. “I would like, just once, for the pieces of a day to fit like a Dickens novel. Mine never do.”

A train pulls away from an unexpected stop in the desert. Julian is on it. He tells her his first patient fractured a femur and other bones in a road rage incident, where the patient caused a five-car wreck. A man in another car, a father of three, died, but Julian didn’t learn anything about him. He had a live person in front of him. He didn’t get to know which quirks of the day set their fates in motion. The patient on the table would recover, thanks to his intervention. The police were outside the operating room. Blood tests were pending. The patient was cuffed to the bed for when he came out of anesthesia.

There’s plenty of black comedy in an operating room. A seasoned nurse speculated, “This is just the kind of thing that happens when you don’t let someone merge onto the I-5 freeway. It’s either a death sentence or a prison sentence for anyone driving in the hell of California.”

Julian quipped, tugging hard on a suture, “No argument, but where is it not hell for this guy?”

Emily softened. “There are these amazing places in the preserve where cool air collects and gets trapped.” She refers to the spot by the elderberry bushes near the river – a place in constant shade. Julian knows it well. The image reminds her of Julian at the Fridge. “I know, we were there just a week ago.”

With the door still open, Julian tells her his next patient nearly lost his eye. He sewed up a gash in the man’s face after being slashed by his wife, who was on a crack high, wielding a high-heel shoe. His patient was full of profanities, acting all superior, since he’d quit shooting-up a mix of speed and heroin the week before. His wife attacked him because he tried to flush her junk.

Em smacked her head, trying to lighten things up. “This is why you better not hide my dark chocolate. I have killer heels of my own you know.”

Julian thought of a clever comeback, but it didn’t reach his lips. He added how the man needed to be strapped down while treated; it was a no-brainer to order a psych consultation. He saw nothing but a revolving door, but felt the intimate madness between people who fight all the time. They can’t handle reflection or silence, so they scream or beat each other up. They say shocking, annihilating things, bash each other, and wake up, ready for more, under the same roof.

Now encumbered, Em, places her open hand on Julian’s face. She holds it there, which is the best of worlds and the best of languages. He gets the message. She’ll measure her response in a language of parallels, telling how people are abandoning animals more and more at the nature center. The list is long: cats and puppies, rabbits, turtles, guinea pigs, chickens and big white rats: all with the rationale that the creature will be all right because of “instincts.” She grabs a glass of wine glass for herself.

“What a load of crap,” she says. Fridgelight shines on the fact she offers a mirror image of what Julian is saying – about the futility of sewing people up after meth fights.

“People don’t care about what really happens. They go home smiling and lying to their children. I’m the one to find the remains of the pet rabbit someone got for their kid at Easter. People don’t think about hawks and owls, or coyotes.” She tells of pets dying in winter, right under the building that houses exhibits on the wonders of nature.

Julian grows weary at the parallel helplessness, and tries to change the subject. “I swear the branches of our cherry tree are growing two inches a day in the tender parts just now.”

Emily doesn’t comment; she looks out the window and notices an empty bird-feeder hanging from a cherry branch. Fridgelight shines on this too.

The same as when Julian reaches for milk from cows, but Em prefers her soymilk. Julian thinks of their debate over the constancy of seeds Emily provides for the birds outside. He’s content with seeing which birds come to the summer plants, while Emily offers a never-ending feast. It bothers her if the feeder isn’t full. You can’t call it guilt, but something close. He’s not happy when she cautions him to be motionless in his own backyard just because the hummingbirds are feeding. They’re always feeding.

Last summer, it became ludicrous; Julian, grown man and surgeon, complaining to some yellow warblers, “Why can’t you adapt to me for a change? How about a little reciprocity across species?” No answer, no surprise. Mostly the feast is quiet, the evenings long and sweet.

Em vents about a neighbor who thinks it’s cute when their cat brings home a dead songbird, probably from their yard. Julian says, “Some people get off on vicarious killing, or not so vicarious. We’re hunters you know, at least the earlier version had to be. Now we’ve got some choice, and look at the world of choice. More gunshot wounds than ever at the ER this week, and it’s not even a full moon.”

Most days, he lets tension sink to the bottom of the goldfish pond. Today, he reminds Em of the crawdad massacre last summer at the river? Their children loved them, would even name their favorites. On the way back from the river one evening, they passed another family with a bucket, all smiles, getting ready for a crawdad meal that wiped out the swimming hole.

Em quips, “I know, I know. Where’s the justice part, where a skunk sprays the cat who killed the warbler, or the cat gets attacked by a possum?” She limits her aggression to the water in a garden hose or a sudden clap of hands.

A raccoon gets their goldfish every few years. It’s the reason they don’t have koi.

Fridgelight knows all about priorities in the family; one person ignores the cheese but devours the carrots and hummus. Cats kill birds when you let them out, but they get a mouse or rat too, to which there’s no protest. “Birds are always out, people should keep their cats inside if they live in a neighborhood.”

Julian, emerging from the London fog, says, “Jays bully the finches. Crows bully the jays. A spider gets a fly. A mantis steals a hummingbird egg.” He adds, “Emily, we’re not really in opposition. We protect some species, discourage others. We have our favorites. I like amphibians.”

Julian likes walking at night to see what everyone has done with their landscapes. It’s like the old Thematic Apperception Test in psychology. There’s a story in the landscape about who lives there, and a story about what the watcher sees, or misses, or thinks about in the watching.

Em picks up the thread; “Are you talking about surgery, about not knowing the people you’re operating on?”

“I suppose I am,” Julian responds. “What a pair we are. I’m ethically bound to treat the injured no matter who they are. You’re ethically committed to letting nature balance itself with minimal intervention. But what about your war against the star thistle and red sesbania, on and on? You guys rip out those plants with something close to rage. Something’s frightening about the word invasive. Don’t get me wrong. I pull weeds too. I take out cancerous tumors. I get the drift.” Again, the proximity to guilt, more like futility, then a lowering of eyes.

“It’s anarchy if nobody intervenes. Humans sure as hell weren’t native. I suppose the termites will prevail. Weren’t they here first? There must be a reason they don’t need to evolve much to survive, but what do I know?”

He’s pleading to the inside of a refrigerator, suddenly close to tears. Em backs away at his unexpected turn. Julian pulls her in, needing her, reminding her they often share the same outrage, especially when somebody kills a beautiful, non-poisonous king snake simply because it’s a snake. Wasn’t it only last week he had to pronounce the death of a boy, just fourteen, hit by a stray bullet? Soon, Julian thinks, everyone will claim they’re endangered, even surgeons and naturalists, deserving special protection. “Who will provide it? What comes of all this caring?”

“I don’t know, but I know we need to eat, and Kate has to get on with her homework.” Em mercifully changes the subject. “I counted twenty-three species of birds in the back yard this morning.”

Julian thinks to ask her (again) the difference between a titmouse and a bushtit, but lets the question fade. All summer, hummingbirds and dragonflies dart and buzz, making the rounds of Zinnias and Dahlias. A Cooper’s hawk makes passes, looking for a mid-air kill.

Last summer a rattlesnake slithered into a vine at neck level on their patio. They caught the juvenile snake in a bucket using a rake, then released it off-trail in the parkway. They are in fine concert, mostly.

Julian finally tells the part he wanted to say when he froze coming down the hall: of a suicide attempt by a young man. He does not get graphic, but tells Em there is extra salt in the tears of a young man who tries to take his life but ends up in an ER with strangers. Em says she’s sorry for the young man she’ll never know.

Julian says he got to see how grief goes right through the bottom of the earth and returns in the form of tears falling on an untied shoelace. When he was done with the medical part, the best thing he did all day was put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, wishing him the other kind of healing. He called for a social worker, and right after that was paged for a hot appendix.

Em says, “Let’s not cook. Can we just order out for pizza?”

Julian says, “I can’t fix much. Sometimes I want to be one of those candles in a side chapel of an ancient church. That’s all I want to be, until I’m finished.”

Em wants to drift in the Northern Lights, looking down on a still-functioning blue planet. Fridgelight sees there’s something stubbornly good about marriage. Julian finally closes the refrigerator door, realizing he hasn’t faced Emily until this moment.

Em joins him, “My day was weird too,” but says it with the flatness of frozen tundra. Julian has seen her break pencils on sudoku puzzles rather than tell what’s bothering her. When he stops remembering this quality, she starts telling, leaning heavily against the kitchen counter.

She spent the last portion of her day looking in the dry brush for a fawn reported to be dying in the back acres, likely injured or abandoned shortly after birth. She wondered whether it was unacceptable to the mother. Everyone had a different worrying thought. They normally leave such matters alone, unless there’s an extreme reason to intervene, like when an owl was caught in the (human placed) netting near the golf course. Heroic saving is not what they teach or practice. At the nature center, they do not use words like victim, brutality, exploitation. Fear is visceral, realistic, necessary.

Julian sees the back of her hand against the dark cabinet door. She doesn’t open it. It’s a moment equivalent to his own.

The pizza delivery person arrives. Julian takes care of it, returns, and finds her lost. She comes slowly into motion, opening the dishwasher. Dishes are in there, but she’s not looking inside.

She speaks, as if to the womb of the universe, in monotone. Emily doesn’t know it’s a haiku. He feels the mystery of how she filters sadness of her own, offering this about the missing fawn: We tried to find him, or maybe her, in tall grass, far from any trail.

“Sweet one, you are sad just now,” Julian says, touching the back of her neck. She does not know she is this sad. Something in her stirs and settles, with her hand on the cabinet door.

At dinner, Em tells Kate about the fawn – saying that several people went searching, and some folks were beginning to trample the undisturbed areas of the preserve, and this became a debate. The search itself carried risks to native plants and burrowing owls and such, plus the tics were out, which also gave them pause.

“My God,” shouts Kate, pounding both fists on the table, “you both make life sound impossible to enjoy. Can’t it ever be simple? Look, I’m eating a piece of pizza. It tastes good. I made two goals at soccer, got a B on an essay. I refuse to feel deficient. Why can’t you be like me?”

Julian responds. “It’s complicated when you care about the parts you can’t know. By the way, what’s in the jar on the bottom shelf of the fridge?”

“It’s an experiment,” says Kate. “I’m not supposed to tell.”

Emily asks, “Is it part of your English assignment, like which parent notices the jar first and asks what’s in it? If so, dad wins, but in my defense, he was blocking the refrigerator door for fifteen minutes.”

Kate replies, “Sorry. Your question is off limits. I may tell you later, and I may not. My teacher says if a parent brings home grease on their shoes from their day as a mechanic, it’s the way they tell about it that matters. I’m gonna figure you guys out, I swear.”

The wise teacher was after the awareness that refuses to settle – the words, pauses, and trails taken through the house. Julian tells her a brief version of the boy who tried to die but didn’t really want to, and how, on the drive home, he was thinking about changing specialties to become a psychoanalyst. Then he’ll know much more.

Upon hearing this, Emily slumps and groans, nearly dissolving into her chair, bracing her head with both hands, saying, “Do you realize how long you’ll be holding the fridge door open if you do that?” The moment is so tender, the kitchen light demurs.

They smile and persist. Kate asks, “What am I missing here?” Neither answers. She goes off to write what she’s just heard. Fridgelight has been dark for a few minutes now, and tells no more today.

Still in the kitchen, Julian and Emily read a text from Lex.

“Dear family, Washington D.C. is ok, but I’ll be moving to French Polynesia soon. This girl I met says the water is so clear and warm, I’ll never want to go anywhere else. She’s blind and had to touch my face to know me just by feel. I was going to elope with her, except she went home yesterday. Don’t worry about my recent addictions; they’re too numerous to count. I’ll be coming home as planned. My only requirement is you don’t try to stop me on my quest. P.S. Pepperoni better be in the fridge. Love, Lex.”

Darkness opens the evening primrose; the delicate flowers greet a huge full moon on the horizon, peeking out from behind the redwood tree across the street. Kate’s essay is hers to know. She won’t show it to her parents. She’s not even sure she’ll show it to her teacher. All three walk out to see the moon before going to bed. It ascends above the atmosphere, transforming to white brilliance, casting shadows they don’t turn to notice.

Everyone sleeps until the sun resumes narration. The family of quails has come at last, taking the path under the fence, with twelve little ones safely in tow. The humans have learned if they’re quiet at the window, the skittish, vigilant quails go right on about their business.


J.L Cooper is a writer and psychologist in Sacramento, California. He is winner of First Place in Short Short Fiction in New Millennium Writings, 2013, and Second Place in Essay in Literal Latte, 2014. His short stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Manhattan Review, Oberon Poetry Magazine, Gold Man Review, Kentucky Review, Subliminal Interiors, temenos, The Sun (Reader’s Write), and in other journals and anthologies.