That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic
In Recapture & Other Stories by Erica Soon Olsen, you’ll find a larger-than-life-size replica of the Grand Canyon, a southeastern Utah bookmobile, and silences preserved in glass jars—each story a bright facet of the once and future West. Who else but Erica to bring us the first-ever short fiction installment of That Thing With Feathers?
In the Dooryard
by Erica Soon Olsen
She’d taken to sleeping outside, in the dooryard. It was cold at night in April in northern Utah, but she wanted to feel the air on her face. She wanted the night breathing around her with its big, strong lungs. After it got dark, sometimes she’d see lights passing overhead, one after another, a bright disturbance from the west: a Starlink satellite constellation in low earth orbit. In the morning, she woke to the warbly racket of sandhill cranes paused, on their migration, in the fields to the east. She could drive down there sometime and look at them. Driving was allowed, and looking, looking was allowed.
She got up. She washed her hands, she washed them. We’re going to be OK, she told herself. We the house and the garden, we the people who live on this road. She went online and found a template for a will, she downloaded it. She began to fill in the fields. Then came the unbidden thoughts—about ashes, about ashes and where to scatter them. In the bedroom, her husband endured his isolation with his thermometer and his pulse oximeter. She brought food to the door, she brought drinks. She looked in, not too far in.
He wasn’t sick. But no one could say yet that he was well.
Evening, again. She’d been waiting, waiting all day. It was time to arrange her soldier’s camp: Thermarest and sleeping bag; flashlight and book; phone, water, whiskey (Defiant), an extra blanket. She could hear the toot-toot of the pheasant, like the whistle of a toy train, a sound at once cheerful and lonesome. Another call, another pheasant. Were they mating calls? If they were, the birds seemed unable to find each other out there in the old tall grass, one in this field, one in that field. The owls, on the other hand, hooted in a confident manner that was nothing like the pheasants’ reedy hesitance, that tin-whistle catch in the throat.
On the fourth or fifth night of the first long week, in the small, slow hours, she sensed movement in the neighborhood of her feet, and then the calm settling down of a cat.
You’re back, she said, delighted to have company.
“It had a fine sense of peril and self-preservation.”
The cat was a Manx, with a stub of a tail. It was living on the property when they took possession the previous fall. They used to see it sometimes, a panic-stricken little blur diving off the porch to hide in the overgrown juniper shrubs. It had a fine sense of peril and self-preservation.
In the weeks after they moved in, the cat had kept its distance. Small offerings—a sardine, a bite of grilled chicken—were consumed but were not considered by either party as an agreement or a basis for mutual trust.
On the first winter mornings, there were paw prints over the top of the snow, but after the new year, they saw no trace of the cat.
Now here it was, nudging her ankles.
She got up. She washed her hands, she washed them. She looked in on her husband. She found something for the cat to eat. She did one thing, she did another, until waiting was the only thing she had left to do that day. We’re going to be…
“She could dwell on we, and that was something.”
This sentence: it couldn’t be finished. She could really get only as far as we. She could dwell on we, and that was something. We who live in this house. We the pheasants and the owls. We the magpies going in and out of their dome nest on their urgent, shrieking errands. We the cranes. We the meadowlark, the mouse, and the vole. We the junipers. We the spring grass pushing up fast through last year’s grass. We the unbloomed daffodils.
In the dooryard, the cat looked expectant. It sat and stared patiently at the green slab of the front door, as if the door itself had magical properties and you had only to keep waiting, as long as it took, for someone you loved to walk through.
ERICA SOON OLSEN is the author of Recapture & Other Stories, a collection of short fiction about the once and future West, and Girlmine, a micro-chapbook (Inch #40, Bull City Press). Her short stories and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, High Desert Journal, Terrain, Culture, Gulf Coast, Stanford Magazine, and other publications. She has also written articles for Bike, Colorado Life, Edible Southwest Colorado, Fine Books & Collections, and other magazines. Erica works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and teaches online in the UC Berkeley Extension Professional Sequence in Editing.
This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.
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