plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue Two

The Art of Birds


by Allie Simmons

Sioux Falls Mill by Benjamin Etten Sioux Falls Mill by Benjamin Etten

Cam’s father is a miner. His large hands are defined with rings of dark beneath his nails, rings Cam hears echoed in his father’s raspy voice. Cam’s grandfather was a miner, before the cancer got him, and his father before him and so on. Mining is not simply in Cam’s blood; it is his veins, cavernous and dark and secret beneath the surface.

Cam is almost twenty and his birthright is the dirty mantle his father bears up from underground. He would be at his father’s side, surrounded by the heavy thrum of the earth, if it weren’t for his lungs. Asthmatic, the doctor said. Cam is often sick and never really well. His lungs can’t move the air like his brother Jacob’s can; the air moves them. His father is silent and tight-lipped and still as rock, but Cam feels his disappointment in regular waves. Cam knows how to read people.

Jacob has none of Cam’s talents, but behind his ribs, locked out of reach, are the lungs that should be Cam’s. Though he bears miner’s lungs, Jacob is not a miner. Jacob cannot read rock, anymore than he can read the solid char of their father’s eye, and yet Jacob is their father’s heir. Jacob is prince of the underworld and Cam lies out in the summer sun, chest pressed to the soil, wishing he could sink down and through, like water, airless and effortless, until he fills the earth. It is Cam’s job to teach Jacob how to read rocks and people. It is Cam’s job to teach Jacob how to use the lungs that should be Cam’s.

When Jacob was only eleven and Cam was a gangly-limbed seventeen, their father caught Cam’s wrist at the breakfast table as he made to follow Jacob out and down the road to the school. “You’ll have to teach him,” their father had said. “Can’t do it myself, not if I’m supposed to put food in your mouths.” That wasn’t the reason, but Cam didn’t tell his father that he knew, had always known, that he couldn’t stand the sight of his own sons. “I’ll take care of that, you just put some sense in that boy’s head, you hear me, Cameron?”  His father only calls him that when he needs to; Cameron was his mother’s choice.

Cam could say nothing but, “Yes, sir,” and dart out of the house before Jacob came back looking for him. His stomach made itself a hard, stony fist when Jacob asked where he’d been. “We’re gonna be late,” he replied.

“We could always run,” Jacob said, even though he was old enough to know Cam couldn’t, shouldn’t. He says these things sometimes, like he’s peeling up a scab, digging at a hole, a hole just gaping in Cam’s weak chest. Jacob running and hollering around like he does only forces Cam to touch the ragged edge of that hole, to remind himself just how extensive the damage is.

Jacob wasn’t born with the sense God gave a blackbird.

It isn’t an easy thing to teach rock, especially to a boy like Jacob who can’t see the difference between obsidian and coal. Cam does his best, but it isn’t like he can take Jacob down into the drifts and press his small, unscarred palms up against the walls and say, “This, this is what a rich seam feels like, this is where the metal wants to come out.” It’s not as if Cam even knows all of this from the more than hazy memories, at least half dream now, of his father taking him down to the mines before the doctor said he couldn’t anymore.

Before Cam became so sickly and weak-breathed, he and Jacob were better at being brothers, he thinks. Cam would kneel by Jacob, peaceful in his bed, and whisper stories he remembered their mother telling him of princes and castles, dragons and caves. This was when their mother was too busy to tell Jacob the stories herself. Now he can’t even tell his brother simple things, true things about how the mine is important, is alive, is a member of their family, is their family.

Cam once pressed a piece of lead into his brother’s hand, sun-warmed, and listened to him whine about its warmth and weight. Jacob’s fingers tightened and loosened, pulse-like over the lump of lead in his fist. He twitched in his shirt, the blue fabric sheet-thin and tugging at his shoulders and said, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” He said, “Like Ma,” and Cam had to bury his fists in the grass to keep from burying them in Jacob’s stubborn, senseless jaw.

Cam tried but couldn’t open his mouth to tell him that all things like to be touched, and the trick of it was to let them tell you how to touch them right. Instead he looked out at the Appalachians, familiar in their immensity but still bright new things, like the morning sun remade them every day, whispering the columbines over their feet and lifting the pines up slow like you might raise a barn. He thought of Jacob, and wondered what was the way to raise him up, to bring him down.

Cam thinks their mother would have known.

After school, when they were younger, before their uncle died and left Cam his truck, Cam and Jacob used to stop for sodas at the diner on the edge of town, just before the long part of the walk that took them out of Rhodell and almost a mile back to their father’s house. In cold weather they drank cocoa and lingered as long as they could, Jacob charming the waitresses with his guileless, open-ended smile.

This was before their mother disappeared and Cam remembers a group of three older women around him, their backs to him, the strings of their aprons making soft, motherly hills in their doughy middles; and the comforting smell of baking apple pie, and one of the women complimenting Jacob’s pretty blue eyes.

“Blue as a jay’s wing, ain’t they?” she had said, nudging one of her sisters.

“Just like his mama’s,” she agreed.

“He’s his mama’s boy, alright,” the third offered.

“Like they’re making to fly away south.”

After their mother had gone, when he and Jacob were lying in their beds listening to the shuffling clumsy sounds of their father from downstairs, Jacob asked Cam when he thought she’d be coming back. He was seven and his voice was small, girlish, and whispered quiet enough not to mask the pop-hiss sound of their father opening another beer down in the kitchen.

Cam said, “Soon,” but he stumbled on the lie and wished he could set his jaw tight, the way their father had a month after their mother had gone, a month without a single word from her, without farewell nor apology nor promise. Cam wished he was older, that his body was strong enough to wage a real fight against the things that raged and swirled in him, instead of rolling helplessly, soundlessly, the way it did between desire and despair. The weight of his misery, pressing all around, seemed enough to cave him in. “Let’s not talk about it,” he said. “Go to sleep.”

He rolled over and looked out the window, watching the slow stars shoot and swing, coming in and out of view between the mysteriously shaped branches of the poplars in the backyard.

“I wanna leave someday,” Jacob said. “I wanna go someplace else.”

“You won’t,” Cam said and a tightness sparked, smoldered and caught inside him, gathering and pulsing until he thought it would tear him clean apart. He couldn’t breathe and he swore against his lungs, his heart, his mother, his brother. He turned back to Jacob. “You don’t know anyplace else,” he said.

“No, not yet,” Jacob agreed, “but I’ll go anyways. I will.”

He shot a grin at Cam in the dark with expert aim. Cam only saw it because the stars were at his back, and though the moon was small it was bright enough to see by, enough to see Jacob’s small teeth shining in the dimness, looking far away as stars.

“Go to sleep,” Cam said again.

It’s important to make Jacob understand that theirs is a dying breed. It’s important to help him understand that miners beget miners, that what they do is important and that no one else will do it. There aren’t many men like our dad, Cam wants to tell him, and men like Dad got enough to be worryin about without their damn fool kids entertainin wild notions of runnin off for no earthly reason. He wants to make Jacob understand the importance of sacrifice, especially when it’s for family.

He could remind Jacob of the time with the comet, if he was the type for metaphors, but he’s not. He’s not the type for comets either, but Jacob is, and that would have been the point.

“Please, Cam,” Jacob had said, eight and wide-eyed as he held up the article for Cam to see. “It’s a comet. I’ve never seen one.”

“You can see it out the window just fine,” Cam said.

“It won’t be the same. What if you can hear it when it comes? What if you can only hear it outside? I wanna hear it if it makes a sound.”

“Don’t be dumb, it won’t make a sound,” Cam said, but it had been a warm March, and their father was out for the night, and propping up their old tent in the backyard seemed like a better option than enduring Jacob’s crumpled pouted mouth for a week or more. “Christ,” he said. “Okay. Alright.” Sometimes Cam thought someone needed to give Jacob a good smack, just once, but no one had ever done it.

They sat huddled in blankets together for hours, watching the stars come out in droves, moth-bitten holes in the endlessly rolling sky. Jacob dozed in and out until the comet came overhead, just before sunrise, when the horizon was just a stain of warming ash-colored sky, rising up from the earth.

Cam nudged Jacob’s shoulder, once lightly, then again with more force as the streaking light approached them. In spite of himself, Cam strained his ears to hear some kind of cosmic Doppler rush, muted by unfathomable space. There was, of course, nothing of the sort. “Jacob,” he said and Jacob had mumbled in his sleep and pressed his face into Cam’s leg, hiding his eyes from the soft predawn light.

Cam watched alone as the comet split into two, like it had been unzipped, the tails lingering together, gapped in a momentary V before truly separating. Both halves charged onward over the horizon, maybe to the same destination, maybe not. Cam didn’t know about comets, if they did this thing all the time or if his eyes were playing sleep tricks on him.

“Jacob, did you see it?” he asked, but Jacob was asleep. Cam was annoyed but he lifted Jacob into the tent and tucked the blankets in around him before crawling into his own sleeping bag and closing his eyes.

That morning, as Cam slept through the dawn, he dreamed of his father, a king draped in a dark cape with a strange blue-green sheen to it. He dreamed of his mother, somewhere just above him, but his head too heavy to lift up to her. He dreamed of his brother, small and wearing Cam’s weak body, his long and awkward colt-like limbs. He dreamed he touched Jacob at the throat, the soft belly, all the vulnerable places, while Jacob trembled at his feet. He dreamed he wanted to kill Jacob. In his dream, Cam’s father opened his cloak and spread his arms wide. Cam felt dizzy and his chest ached. The cloak became an unkindness of ravens, hurling themselves at Cam, swooping beneath his flesh and burrowing into his bones, dark and weightless where the marrow should be, cavernous and sinister, and Cam felt himself floating upwards.

He jolted back to himself upon waking, all of him throbbing and tumbling in some uncertain, unknowable direction. A second crash against the flimsy wall of the tent made him roll against Jacob and come to his senses. The two of them scrambled out of the tent into the knife-sharp first breath of early spring morning. Their father kicked the side of the tent again, the movement shaking stale bar smell from his coat.

“What’re you doin out here?” he said, voice raw from the whiskey or the morning.

“The comet,” Jacob said and then again, more frantic as he remembered, “The comet!”

“Gonna catch your deaths out here,” their father grumbled, kicking the tent again.

“Sorry, sir,” Cam said. The tent was sagging in the middle. Cam, worn out and cold, knew how it felt.

“You should know better, Cam. Your lungs can’t take this kinda cold. What the hell were you thinkin?”

“I wanted to see the comet,” Jacob said, but their father ignored him.

“Get in the damn house,” he said.

As Cam walked past him he laid one broad hand on Cam’s neck, the familiar scars of each finger discernible against Cam’s goose-pimpled skin. His fingertips lingered like how he might have touched somebody he loved, somebody he could protect from something. Cam shuddered, suddenly full of the awareness of all of his depthless want and stupid love and all of that going-nowhere hope. All of it hurt.

Cam quickly got sick again and was bedridden for almost a whole week with a rib-cracking cough and a raw throat. He curled in on himself and hated everyone, Jacob and his comet, and his clumsily fond father. He fell asleep like that and dreamed nothing. When he awoke Jacob was there, sitting cross-legged at his bedside holding a mug. His face looked guiltlessly young as he handed it to Cam. A sip revealed it to be their father’s favorite cold remedy: whiskey and lemon tea with honey, something their mother might have brought him. Cam took another sip and something in him buckled and relented, absolved Jacob of his selfishness and foolishness, and, weak with fever and forgiveness, he complied when Jacob said, “Tell me about the comet.”

Sometimes Cam thinks that the problem isn’t that their father doesn’t want them, but that he doesn’t know how to keep them. When their mother left things changed and it became harder for them all to speak. Cam supposes it could have been worse; the drinking could have been heavier, their father could have hit them, but he also suspects that for Jacob the mines are punishment enough.

After one of the fights, when their father told Jacob to leave if he was leavin, to quit wastin time and money they don’t have if he isn’t gonna pull his own, Cam and Jacob lay stretched out on top of their blankets, summer night heat making them too warm for sleep and Jacob whispered into the dark place between his bed and Cam’s.

“There’s nothin down there,” he said. “There’s no space, just nothin. I can’t take that, I can’t, I’d go crazy.”

“You won’t go crazy,” Cam said. He wasn’t sure if that crossed the lines he’d intended, the borders between dismissive and protective. He wanted it to sound like fact, but Jacob’s breathless silence told him it didn’t.

“There’s too much,” Jacob muttered, so quiet Cam could barely hear, wasn’t sure if he was supposed to. “There’s too much to fit in that place. I can’t breathe.”

Cam couldn’t think of what to say, couldn’t imagine a word strong enough to take the yearning from his own chest and plant it, like one of their mother’s carnations, under Jacob’s skin, behind his ribs. He sighed and turned over, away from Jacob and shut his eyes against the moonlight.

“When’s Ma comin back?” Jacob said, but by this time Cam had lost track of how many times Jacob had asked.

“Soon,” he said, repeating his lines, cementing this new family tradition of questions with shallow answers, weightless as silt. His voice didn’t cross any lines, didn’t sound anything at all. “Go to sleep,” Cam said, because that was what came next.

These days it has become harder for Cam to put himself between Jacob and their father. The fights, more frequent, more weighted, are dark like low clouds before a storm. After the most recent, Cam found Jacob outside, limbs laid out in the cold soft-springing grass, eyes turned up towards to the glimmer of new stars. Cam paused to watch him, could feel from where he stood, almost twenty feet away, the mad rush of Jacob’s blood, still throbbing with anger and something else, gushing recklessly upward like oil escaping from a struck well. Jacob could feel his brother’s desolate heart, laid out skyward, straining against gravity, thrumming radiantly, desperately, like the wing beats of a trapped bird. Even his heart doesn’t have any damn sense, Cam thought.

Jacob, who had been watching Cam’s face out of the corner of his eye, said suddenly, “Hey.”

“Jacob,” Cam said.

“I really am leavin,” Jacob said. “When I turn eighteen I’m gettin out of here.” He looked away from the moon and put his eyes up against Cam’s. “Ma would’ve understood,” he said.

Cam said nothing because he didn’t know what she would have thought and still doesn’t. It has been six years and he feels as if he hardly knew her at all. Even the memory of her seems miraculous, easily revoked. And yet, vividly, he can recall her scent, earthy and sweet, like honeysuckle after a rain, and the sound of her voice, quiet and toneless but round and surrounding as an echo. He remembers how she was in the months leading up to the day she left, her whole body jangling like a wire as she painted and repainted rooms in the house, lurid greens and purples, yellows so pale they seemed white, blues the color of veins seen through skin, red the color of dried blood, blacks as dark as the mine. He remembers how she tended the garden, her skin going brown and dry in the sun like an autumn leaf, how meticulously she planted and watered. For months afterwards no one did anything about the carnations, the columbines, the rose bushes or the snapdragons. After the winter sent them hiding underground, they grew back under a growth of weeds that no one has meddled with.

The day she left Cam came downstairs to find breakfast laid out, all the doors locked, her keys still on their hook by the door and her car still in the garage. Cam doesn’t know for sure, but he could swear her pink carnations, still growing peacefully in the window box off the front of the house without her, were mysteriously striped through with white after that day.

He never mentioned it to Jacob or his father.

It’s old-fashioned, but Cam and his father agree that Cam and Jacob ought to buy a canary. Jacob sits silent and sullen in the passenger seat of the dusted pickup while Cam tries again to explain about good luck and good thoughts before going down in the mines. Cam watches Rhodell slip by in the rearview, buildings built up from the ground random and sudden, like stalagmites. Jacob is looking at the sky.

“There’s no clouds in the mines, Cam,” he says, and he’s still looking at the sky.

“Lookin at clouds has never been no use for anybody. These are mine birds now and they’re just gonna have to get used to it,” replies Cam tightly, and he glances at the glove compartment that holds his inhaler. Sometimes he has to remind himself how he can’t have this. Otherwise it just sits there, somewhere in the pit of his gut, and rots.

Jacob makes no reply, and the silence grows heavy in the cab of the truck as the brothers near the pet shop. Jacob’s eyes are still skyward while Cam’s are fixed down on the sparkling pavement.

They pull up outside of the pet store and exit the truck. The doors creak and complain in their old joints, and Cam feels as if the pickup is an old relative, perhaps the grandfather he barely knew, and he pats its hood affectionately.

“When’re we gonna get a new one?” Jacob asks, looking at the dirty streaks on the side, the dent in the bumper from Cam’s first driving lesson, the old tires, the cracked rearview.

Cam doesn’t know how to teach Jacob about memories and about family, so he says nothing. He sees Jacob like sunlight. He only has the appearance of attachment when he’s really immeasurable miles away. Maybe he’s a comet, peeling away to destinations unknown. He doesn’t know a way to hold something like that down. They go inside.

Inside is the earthy, compacted smell of animals, the smell of things that belong outside but are trapped behind glass. It’s an oppressive smell that envelops instantly and Cam breathes it in as his father would breathe air from the mines; he feels it blacken his lungs from within. Jacob, to the left of him, wrinkles his nose and looks ill, perhaps a bit scared, but Cam doesn’t know how to teach him what this wanting is like, because Jacob, with his strong lungs, will never know it.

There is an art to birds, Cam thinks as he and his younger brother watch them flit from perch to perch behind the glass. There is a way to look at them and a way to whistle, just so, so they will cock one eye at you and go still. Cam thinks he understands birds, as he understands his father and what goes on beneath the earth.

Cam picks a pair of canaries because, in the back of his mind, he can’t help but suspect that the first might have weak lungs. Cam picks up a cage for the birds, a simple one of good metal, and Jacob is still silent, eyes on the birds and something like repulsion growing in the corners of his mouth.

They pay for the birds with crinkled bills from their father’s wallet that he had pressed into Cam’s palm after breakfast this morning with a look of askance, with a reminder of his promise to guide Jacob into his father’s footsteps, down below the earth. With this promise in mind, Cam says to him as they leave, “How about you name those birds, Jacob?”

Jacob’s look is indiscernible. “Birds don’t have names,” he says quietly and he quickly looks up again. The canaries on against his chest follow his gaze. The brothers cross the paved lot in silence. Cam takes the keys out of his jeans pocket and starts to put them in the door as Jacob finally says, “Please, Cam, don’t put them down there.”

Cam looks up at his brother and thinks this is the fragile boy who should be wearing Cam’s weak lungs. “What the hell d’you think we bought ‘em for if we’re not gonna put ‘em down there?” he demands.

“Please don’t,” Jacob says again and his eyes are hard as bedrock. He clutches the cage to his chest and the birds hop closer to him, staring at Cam with his brother’s eyes.

Cam remembers the only other time Jacob looked at him like that, several months ago now, the first time Cam hit him. Jacob had never been hit, not by their parents or boys at school, not anyone.

Cam had spent two years trying to teach Jacob things about family, about people, about rock–things that you can’t teach some folks, no matter how you try. Cam understands about limits, mostly because they echo in him like a heartbeat. He felt them acutely when Jacob rolled his eyes and said, “What do you know about minin anyway? Not like you’ll ever be able to do it, not like you’ll ever be able to do anything useful,” and fixed Cam with that hard stare, malice settling like a crow on his bones, all that infuriating, illogical, groundless teenage authority burning from him like the tail of a comet.

Their mother used to say, “Bees don’t lack honey. Buy the sting with the sweet.” She taught them how to be mean in their honesty. Their father taught them how to duck. Jacob took the first lesson to heart but not the second and Cam’s punch caught him at the corner of his jaw, rolling into the soft part of his cheek. He felt his knuckles scrape against Jacob’s teeth as he connected. Jacob went down and Cam dropped beside him, landing another half-hearted punch on Jacob’s chin before he stopped, shaking.

Cam felt frantic and on edge, trapped in his own sinking body. His heart was beating so hard he thought it might shatter the feeble joints and cartilage holding his skeleton together and he would just fly apart, gravity-less and directionless. The denim sky above them seemed to press down and Cam struggled to take a breath, to say, “Jesus. God. Jacob, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Jacob.”

“S’alright,” said Jacob, almost sleepily, hands folding Cam’s fist between them, and Cam wanted to struggle, to yell and kick, to hit Jacob again, could have taken any retribution, any retaliation, but not this unthinking, unbearable forgiveness. It was like Jacob wasn’t even there, like he was existing somewhere else entirely.

You’re my brother, he wanted to say. I hate you and I love you and it’s not all right, it isn’t at all.

Cam is quiet for a long time before he says, “Go on, Jacob. Let those birds out,” and opens the creaking car door. He catches Jacob’s face in the cracked rearview.

His smile is an arc like the art of birds, like their yellow sun-lit wings as they paint a definite, delicate path through the sky-land that Cam will never know; the land for which Jacob was born. Together, sitting in the truck, they watch the birds go smaller and darker and settle somewhere on the power lines in the distance, invisible in their stillness but not hidden, not unknowable.

Cam glances sideways at Jacob and wishes for the words to ask him for a favor, to ask him to go like those canaries when he leaves, not to go like their mother, who they wouldn’t even take back if they could, wouldn’t begin to know how. Cam wants to tell Jacob that he understands, that their family was broken before Jacob became who he is, that this isn’t his fault at all, isn’t their father’s either, isn’t Cam’s; there’s no one you can blame for the way folks are. Cam wants to say all these things but his father never taught him how. Maybe there isn’t a way to teach something like that.

So he rests his eyes on Jacob’s hands, still spread wide with air thick between his fingers, and at that look in his eyes, something higher than what Cam knows, something Jacob can never teach him.

About the Author


Allie Simmons

Bennington College

Allie Simmons grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, writing stories to kill time on road trips. Now a senior at Bennington College, she studies literature and anything else that catches her interest. In her free time, she enjoys Russian novels, horror movies, and baking.