“We Followed the Goldfinches”: A Bad Survivalist Short Story by George L. Hickman

 

THE YEAR THAT JACK AND I rejected everything man-made, we drove into the mountains. Our 2010 Corolla was man-made, but we didn’t mind that. Its low hum encased us, carrying us through rolling hills. How strange to plunge into our new life in the outdoors from behind the walls of a sturdy metal tube. How strange, I said, that Jack would pick handfuls of stinging nettle to make rope, but stopped at fast-food restaurants when we needed to switch drivers. He always came out with a large soda in his hands. A greasy paper bag he would try to hide with the angle of his walk. Where do you draw the line on man-made exactly, I asked.
All of the things we were searching for—a home, a purpose, a rebirth—would follow, Jack said. These towns need full-time residents, people to care for the parks when the tourists are gone. It will be easy.
It took me a few weeks to realize that he didn’t have a plan. It took a few restless nights sleeping in the backseat, pushing against the door to stretch my long legs. It took a few cold sunrises, watching the goldfinches hovering above the mud puddles. Flitting from fence post to telephone wire. I started to wake up and wait for them. Then, I realized, as we drove south down the Appalachian Trail, we were migrating alongside them. Maybe we’d end up in Mexico, too.
A cold wind whipped at our windows the day he told me he loved me. He did this from the passenger’s seat, and I felt that I couldn’t turn to look at him. I felt a little sick, a little strange. I told him I loved him too, because I did. Love can mean a lot of things.
He got a job at a front desk somewhere, not the kind of bushcrafting-river-guardian job he had dreamed of. I was a homemaker without a home. It’s just a start, he said. We both knew we had to start somewhere. We followed the curved roads to a little town, where we began to look at apartments. There were no internet listings, so we had to pull over on the side of the road and write down the phone numbers into a notebook. He’d call them one by one. Let me do the talking, he said.
I started listening for the goldfinches earlier and earlier. I was a prisoner to my new bodyclock. I had suddenly become an early riser, without curtains to block out the sun. I’d go for morning walks alone, only to return to him insisting on knowing where I’d been. “Birdwatching,” I said.
I began to trust machines more than nature, the exact opposite of our plan. I asked to drive more. I started to wonder at the intricacies of technology, started to wonder about this slender rocket that barreled us through our romantic scenery. One day I took apart the car radio. I fucked up putting it back together. From then on, we drove in silence.
In silence, I left him, the next time we saw a train station. I knew I had to leave while I still had money. I knew that I couldn’t explain why. I couldn’t put words to it. To reject him was to reject our shared philosophies. To reject him was to reject the very ideas of faith and independence and survival, things that I wasn’t willing to part with.
When I slouched into the window seat, gearing up for the 12-hour ride back home, I saw two yellow-winged birds fight, leaping up from the ground to pierce each other with their beaks. I had never thought those squat little goldfinches could be so vicious. I watched them as the train pulled away. A few hours later, I walked up to the conductor’s cabin, knocked on the big metal door. The ticketer leaned against the cabin wall. I asked, “Are passengers permitted up here?”
“Why’s that?” the ticketer asked.
I gave him a wistful smile. “I don’t know,” I said. “Do you think I could learn a little bit about how this thing works?”

 

 

George L. Hickman is a trans/queer writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He serves as an assistant fiction editor for Barrelhouse and his work has recently appeared in Flashback Fiction, The Nottingham Review, and The Louisville Review.

Image: newportthisweek.com

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