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Saturday short story: Jesus and the ostriches, by Frankie McMillan

"Then just when I thought I’d die of boredom, Jesus visited again": a story from a new published collection by Christchurch writer Frankie McMillan.

1.

Soon after Roland began sleeping in the caravan I saw Jesus. He was just a shape at the bedroom door really and my first thought was that it was Roland so I lay there with my eyes shut. But when nothing happened I slid open one eye and that’s when I noticed the figure had a thing on his head. A crown of thorns. A ray of moonlight played over the twisted wood. “You’ve got the wrong room,” I wanted to say. “The old woman’s across the hallway.”

Roland’s mother was always on about Jesus. “He will guide us,” she said. When the first breeding pair of ostriches escaped through the wire fence and drowned in the river she said it was Jesus’s way of warning us the fence needed to be higher. He warned us again when the chicks got diarrhea. All this Jesus talk didn’t bother Roland. “Can’t you just ignore her?” he said, “Can’t you just do that for me, honey?”

When I think back to this, I should have tried to make things good again between Roland and me. Sometimes I’d imagine myself, crossing the yard naked, quietly slipping in through the caravan door. I’d pull back the bed covers and he’d wake to find me lying on top of him. But the thought of walking past the ostriches, lumped there in the yard, bare necks raised to the dark sky, kind of put me off. I’d only get as far as the veranda before I’d turn back. Meanwhile his mother started pinning up encouraging notices around the house.

Each bird yields 30–35kg of low fat meat, 1–2 square metres of leather and 1–2kgs of feathers.

I said I didn’t think there’d be any money in feathers but she said that’s where I was wrong, hadn’t I heard of the fancy plumed headdresses showgirls wore, hadn’t I heard of the growing market? She said I had to forget about the setbacks, ostriches were the way forward and I should pull myself together.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. After he visited I couldn’t sleep for thinking about that beautiful crown of thorns. Then I heard the toilet flush and the sound of my mother-in-law’s quick footsteps returning to her room. It was early morning; already the birds out grazing, the faint noise of tearing grass. I sat up. Jesus, I thought. I’ve seen Jesus. I walked into the kitchen. Roland and his mother were peering out the window at a male black on his knees, flapping his great wings in a rowing motion. “That’ll be the third time this morning,” she cried as he mounted a female. Roland turned. He waved his half-eaten toast at me. “I’m ploughing all day,” he said. “Maybe you could help out in the incubator shed …”

I looked at his mother, still staring out the window. She’d been for an early morning swim, her wet grey hair loose over her shoulders. She yanked up the straps on her yellow swimsuit. “I can do the trays myself.”

“No,” said Roland, “you’ve got a bad scratch on your hand. Show her the scratch.”

“It’s nothing …”

For some reason it annoyed me she wouldn’t turn around so I told her the scratch would probably get infected … I’d heard a person could die from a bird scratch. 

The old lady stiffened. “You’re talking before antibiotics,” she said, “you’re talking before 1940 ...”

“No. I’m talking about tetanus.”

“Tetanus!” She turned towards Roland. “Dear God, now she thinks I’ve got tetanus …”

That’s when I left the kitchen. I didn’t tell them I’d seen Jesus, I kept that to myself for quite a while. 

2.

A hot wind blew over the plains and the distant hills browned. At night the irrigators sprayed water over the grass but it never seemed to be enough. Small bowls of dust formed, made worse by all the male ostriches fighting among themselves. I watched them whirl and strike out, forward and down with their legs, their sharp nails slashing the air. When a defeated male pranced away, all bloodied legs and tattered plumage, I hammered on the window. “Fucken stop that!” Meanwhile Roland went back and forth on the tractor pulling the plough behind. Doing his best to get the paddocks ready for the new birds but he was already a month behind schedule. The old lady told me not to worry. “You’re not up to working outside,” she said, “you’re better off inside.” So, I stayed in the cool house, away from the heat, the flies and the dull monotonous booming of the males. I sprawled out on the couch watching all the soaps on TV. Then just when I thought I’d die of boredom, Jesus visited again.

3.

It was the night of the storm and the old woman and I had settled down to watch a chainsaw massacre about a crippled killer. It was about the only horror movie left in the Video Ezy store she hadn’t seen. “You can tell that kid doesn’t really belong in a wheelchair,” she complained, “look at the way he’s got his legs crossed.” I sat on the couch, spooning crumbs of chocolate fudge into my mouth. I’d beaten the fudge too long and it had already set in the pot. Now she was going on about how the kid couldn’t possibly handle a chainsaw from his chair.

I scraped the spoon carefully around the metal sides. “No one ever really knows what people are capable of.” The old lady leaned forward. She was working herself up to contradict me when a blast of wind caught the side of the house. “Listen to that, will you,” she cried. She leapt up and peered out the door. “Dear God, the caravan’s rocking …” she began. “Poor Roland …”

I put the pot down on the carpet. “Well,” I said, “God must want us to have a storm.”

She turned to face me, hands splayed on her scrawny hips. “Listen to Lady Muck!” Then she began saying that she felt sorry for Roland, I wasn’t a proper wife, there was something wrong with me, I ate too much, she was only living with us because without her the ostriches would go under …

I let loose then. Kicked the pot of fudge so that crumbs went flying out over the carpet. I felt my spurs rise. “Bugger you!” I screamed. “You wouldn’t know Jesus if you fell over him!”

Faith is to the human what sand is to the ostrich.

4.

I could hear her praying, a long distant mumble. My fists clenched as I thought of a throbbing chainsaw, a Mighty Mac chainsaw and all the terrible damage I could do with that. It was so real I felt the bed shake. The next thing I knew, someone was shining a torch in my eyes. Only it wasn’t a torch it was Jesus. He wore the same glowing clothes as the picture in the old lady’s room: a long white gown, a golden girdle and a pair of thonged sandals. His eyes bore down at me, brown and huge like Bambi’s. I wanted to say I thought you’d have eyes of fire … not Bambi eyes. Jesus raised his hand. His nails were very clean. “Cleave to me,” he said, “I am your true husband.” That’s when I knew I wasn’t in a dream, I didn’t know that sort of old-fashioned language. I sat up, shading my eyes against the brilliant light. Jesus smiled. He placed his hands over his chest then slowly began pulling at the folds of his gown. He was about to show me his bleeding heart when there was a tap at the window.

I thought it was a branch, but no, there was Roland’s pale face against the glass. I told him to go away, turned back to Jesus. The bleeding heart was surrounded by a little circle of thorns but the dark red organ was pumping vigorously. “Cleave to me,” Jesus said again and put his hand on the bed cover. Roland knocked again. I couldn’t believe the bad timing.

“Don’t open that window,” said Jesus. He lifted up his gown to climb into bed and that’s when I noticed his hairy brown legs. He’s come as a man, I thought, not a god … that makes sense. He lay on his back for a while as if he were thinking. Then he turned towards me. The knocking at the window became furious. I leapt up and this time I screamed at Roland. “Will you go away, damn you!”

5.

I had never screamed at Roland before. The only time I’d raised my voice was when he told me, just three days after the wedding, that his mother would be living with us. “She’s got no one else,” he explained. I don’t remember what I said, just the pained look on Roland’s face. We were in the honeymoon suite at a Rotorua hotel, both wearing matching white bathrobes we’d found hanging behind the door. “I want a harmonious life,” Roland said, tugging at his robe belt, “I don’t do fights.” I told him I was sorry – I wanted whatever he wanted and that made everything okay again.

I told all this to Jesus as he lay there. “Sshh,” he said, rubbing his feet over mine. The room had darkened and I was thankful for that. I was one year off forty and already had quite a few moles on my stomach. I rubbed Jesus back with my feet. A foot thing. There was a long silence and then Jesus propped himself up on his elbow “You do know what cleave means, don’t you?”

6.

In the morning he was gone. There was a faint smell of his hair on the pillow – incense and what I imagined was camel. I felt sick and depraved. It was like waking from a dream where you have sex with your own mother. And the house was quiet, too quiet. I leapt naked out of bed and tore into the darkened yard. Suddenly I needed to be part of the world again … grass and dirt and sky. I went looking for the ostriches, found them near the shed, their bodies clumped together like a row of thatch. They stirred nervously as I approached. I came closer and I know this sounds funny but I felt if I could just connect with a living creature I might steady myself, might come back to myself somehow. I reached out, tried to grab a female by the wing but she sprang lightly away. I followed. Tried backing her against the wire fence but she sidestepped and with a toss of her head shot past. Shit skidded down her leg. The other birds raised their necks in alarm. I watched the group whirl then flounce off down to the end of the yard. Then I sat down and wept. Not about the ostriches, but what was really troubling me. Jesus. I knew normal people didn’t see Jesus.

I hugged my arms over my chest. Tried telling myself that everything would be okay, I could live with the fact that Jesus visited, in the same way as somebody lived with diabetes or one leg … it was nothing major and who would ever know anyway? All I needed to do was keep my mouth shut and not let anything slip, especially to Roland’s mother. Life would go on. And that thought comforted me as I squatted there, digging my cold toes into a mound of dust and feathers.

As the ostrich when pursued hideth his head but forgetteth his body, so the fears of a coward expose him to danger.

7.

I watched the light creep over the top of the green caravan. A rooster crowed in the next paddock. Any time now Roland would emerge from the caravan in his blue checked shirt, holding onto his unzipped jeans. He’d take a leak under the gum tree before noticing me. He’d stand still, watching me for a second. “Sweetheart?” Later his mother would arrive, running in her swimsuit as she tied back her hair. “Come back into the house,” she’d say, “let’s get you back in the warmth …” But that didn’t happen. No one came and after a while I walked back inside by myself. His mother had a towel around her shoulders and a telephone book open on her lap. Her mouth dropped open. I told her not to bother ringing anyone. “There’s someone else in my life,” I blurted out. “So this is goodbye.” She jumped up, looking flustered but I pushed past her. I went down the hall, grabbed some clothes then threw open the door to the veranda. She came running and skidding behind. “One day you’ll have to stand before Jesus,” she cried. I laughed so hard I could hardly keep going through the blizzard, or was it a flurry swirling towards me … feathers … not the drabs or tail but white plumes rising and falling like a hundred chorus girls. 

From the new collection of stories The Father of Octopus Wrestling by Frankie McMillan (Canterbury University Press, $28).

Next week's short story is by Auckland writer Charlotte Grimshaw.

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