Silas’s father shuffled out of the bathroom and down the long hall into the living room, white specks of medicine clinging to his lips. Silas chewed on his own lower lip and shifted in his chair. His father was rotting from the inside out, and much of their visits consisted of Silas sitting and waiting in the living room, trying not to listen to the sounds coming from the bathroom.
There had been little for them to talk about when the old man was well. Now, during his long decline, there was even less. Talking about Silas’s mother, who now lived in town, was almost always inflammatory. Silas’s new job at the social-service agency was too complicated and vulnerable a subject. The talk drifted to birds.
When Silas was a teenager, his father had received an Audubon Society citation declaring their home an Honorary National Feeding Station. The society praised the Landrums for “constructing and maintaining a year-round feeding station frequented by ninety-seven species of birds and animals, including cedar waxwings, cardinals, flying squirrels, raccoons, trumpeter swans, wild canaries, pheasants, blue jays, owls, and deer.” The old man had framed the certificate and hung it in the garage, above the bins of birdseed.
The certificate, Silas had noticed, did not mention the northern shrike that, in the waning weeks of winter, would swoop down on chickadees and sparrows and impale their remains on the thorns of the rosebushes and the spikes of the metal fence. Silas had learned that the shrike did not do this out of spite or cruelty, but to enable it to eat its prey more efficiently. Still, the knowledge had not made the sight of the torn carcasses any easier to take.
Silas’s father was in the bathroom again. Silas sat in the sunlit living room watching the sparrows peck at the suet strips. The shrike, it came to him, is the other side of St. Francis of Assisi — the dark, hidden underside. You feed a few birds, put some grain out on the snow, and more birds come. You build feeders, hang suet strips, put in a bath, and more and more birds come: so many sweetly singing birds that eventually you’ve got a wildlife social-service agency. Now the lame and the crazy and the weak and the despised come and congregate. More and more come until they spill out of the waiting room and into the street. Before long, the shrikes catch their scent and descend. Mercilessly. Naturally.
It was early spring. Along the edges of the road, the snow lay in mushy, filthy piles. The feeding station was dilapidated and shabby: no salt blocks, no trays full of seed, only a few overpecked strips of suet. And, Silas realized, no peanut-butter logs.
The logs were stout, two-foot-long sticks of red pine. The old man would drill one-inch holes up and down them; it would be Silas’s job to smear peanut butter on each log, packing it into the holes and then wading through the snow and hanging the sticky stumps from posts in the middle of the yard.
The winter birds would swarm over the logs, the rich peanut oil like fire in their small bodies. Stepping through the high, clean drifts of snow, the logs in his outstretched hands, Silas could not help feeling like a novice saint — a saint in his teenage years — wading toward purity.
One night, Silas had been slow and clumsy getting the logs ready. His father, impatient, had come out to the cold garage, picked up one of the unfinished logs, and hit him: once on the elbow, once on the shoulder, and, before either of them could stop it, once on Silas’s back.
Twenty years later, his back still hurt. Silas had learned to sit and walk and sleep and make love in ways that wouldn’t wake the pain. Apologies, medicine, and therapy surrounded the damage like layers of insulation, but it was still there.
How small his father had looked, swooping down, reaching for the peanut-butter log, and charging toward him. In the previous year, Silas had grown taller than his father. That night, and often through the years, the thought had occurred to Silas: If only I hadn’t seemed so large to him.
Afterward, his father had been shocked and scared. He’d gotten down on the cold, cement floor of the garage and apologized on his hands and knees. He’d held Silas’s hand all the way to the hospital. The doctor on duty that night had either believed or chosen not to question the story Silas told of slipping on an icy step.
I blame so much on that back, Silas thought, on that one blow.
On his job, Silas had been able to use the pain in his back as a bridge between himself and the junkies, cripples, drunks, whores, and sick and dying people who came into his cubicle. But it was not always a good thing. Just because he could smell and touch their suffering didn’t mean he always cared for them. Often it would be better, he admitted, if he never saw the open wound — let alone touched it. If only they could remain safe and abstract, then perhaps those people would not repulse him so violently.
The toilet ran. I am not a good man, Silas thought as his father shuffled toward him.
Silas wanted an end to words and laments. He wanted an image without sound, an image behind glass: Peanut-butter logs sway in the wind. A bird, say, a redheaded woodpecker, grips the bark with its talons and jerks its long beak in and out of the peanut-butter-filled holes faster than the eye can see. All around the woodpecker, multicolored birds peck at spilled seed. The sun clears the long, low clouds, and you have to look away — the light on the snow is so dazzling. At this moment, who cares that a northern shrike will break your heart?