The mountain cuckoo: Jerome Berglund

Jerome Berglund

Jerome Berglund


How to explain the bird?   

Her sister was not even cold in the ground, and here Maribel was breaking new, hard earth in her sibling’s longtime yard as dawn itself broke languorously over the horizon, with a rusty spade she’d located with some difficulty strewn at bottom of a dusty pile in the corner of the unfinished basement.  The earth was stiff and unaccommodating to this enterprise, Maribel discovered as she stabbed feebly again and again, stomped the rectangular head and with great difficulty managed finally to penetrate, slowly and gradually wore a cavity out of its surface, skimmed bit by grudging bit away it seemed about one measly handful at a time. 

She did not require a large hole.  Still, her hands were quite senseless and her face red by the time sufficient soil had been scraped away, the sun having assumed its lofty station above the trees looking down upon her with what could only be interpreted as disdain.  Rather than warm her numb cheeks, it withheld any allowance of heating, rather indeed presided over a slight sleeting which presented itself without apparent source, through the clear grayish sky, smearing Maribel’s insufficient jacket and wetting her hair.

She hoped the moisture would not damage her antique cellular telephone as she retrieved it for the tenth time that morning to check, wiped the muck from its face all the while praying the damp should not penetrate through the several prominent cracks running along the length of its surface, to wreak havoc upon its inner machinery.  Maribel tried her best whenever possible not to bring it out with her through inclement weather and the elements’ badgering, to avert potential hazards damaging its delicate infrastructure. But she so wanted to confirm her daughter Lindsay’s flight had arrived safely, that she had gotten home without incident… 

It had been exceedingly generous of her to return from the east for her aunt’s service on such short notice, but Lindsay’d then had to hustle right back off the moment things wrapped up, so as to resume her momentarily relinquished, imposing responsibilities stewarding a burgeoning, somewhat demanding elite young household.  Her hubby had some mid-level managerial posting in finance, as Maribel rudimentarily understood it, and could not be bothered with delegation to his care for even an instant those most fundamental components of elemental husbandry.  Managing their family judiciously, thus, reportedly demanded her near-constant attention, and the star daughter had her work cut out for her with coordinating gluten-free healthy dining option, French immersion schooling, piano lessons and tennis coaching for her three grandchildren.  Juggling the responsibilities of overseeing these ubiquitous burdens nearly drove her daughter stark raving mad, straight off the deep-end on the reg, that much was readily apparent, but she even so professed unqualified satisfaction with the arrangement—alleged she would not, in fact, wish it any other way.

Maribel had also been reservedly holding out a grain of hope for some communication from her other daughter, Lindsay’s—at least chromosomally—identical twin and the self-identifying black sheep of their nuclear cluster, who seemed ever destined to be the one in the pair favoring and following in the ignominious footsteps of her husband’s side of the family.  Leah was considerably more of a maverick than her duplicate sis, most pertinently, and would never dream of allowing herself to suffer any substantial baggage or encumbrances—that was to say, the briefest passing notion of a mewling whelp in a björn tying her down for even a millisecond conjured the most appalled antipathy, evoked palpable visceral revulsion that shook her to the very core unmistakably. 

She was harder to get a hold of these days, or even pinpoint the current location of since Leah had taken up with that busker and followed him on the road.  Their circuit—accompanying on tambourine, chasing down bouncing coins — had taken her on a flamboyant pilgrimage through the Pacific Northwest of late, though there had been recent sustained murmurings of next trying their luck through the hostels of Central America while waiting out the harsh winter.  And definitely, it was wholly possible that was where they were traversing at this very moment, or they were thereabouts en route towards.  Maribel’s flighty second daughter was furthermore difficult to keep tabs on since she had one day abruptly elected to eschew the Orwellian intimations of smart phone technology and social media both, citing privacy concerns and metadata collection, surveillance and monitoring—what for most law-abiding citizens might be an irksome pet peeve of little import or concern, with the bohemian who will regularly disappear for whole weeks at a time in the desert on mescaline tea-fueled vision quests, upon closer scrutiny becomes less of an outlandish or unreasonable policy, her mother reluctantly acknowledged.

Still, in practice that all made for copious heaps of excruciating inconvenience for those who wished to contact her, and meant that should anything with whatever measure of urgency present itself Leah would de facto receive the information belatedly, when she sooner or later got around to checking her nearest P.O. box, an arrangement that pleased this daughter as much as it irritated those nearest and dearest.  Leah no longer in possession of an email or chatting account she monitored the message boxes of, Maribel had been forced to relay news to her daughter of aunt Martha’s passing through some dodgy channels: having no alternative, she transmitted it first via postcard to the last forwarding address of record, and then followed up by leaving a terse voicemail at the most recent burner number she had contacted her mother from.  Neither were especially promising—a carrier pigeon might have had a comparable likelihood of succeeding—and unsurprisingly Leah had neither showed for the ritual proceedings, nor expressed any condolences or indication the news of Martha’s passing had been received.  And foreseeably, quite possibly her daughter might not for some time still, going purely by her track record. 

It concerned her mother to no end that Leah seemed to take after her father more and more with each passing day.  Her expressed interest in retracing the route which in effect encompassed his last stand only further subtly disturbed her, though Maribel would never dare voice these concerns to her daughter openly.  The paranoia had presented in her husband gradually and insidiously, was almost imperceptible at the outset of their courtship but for a hint of gleam in the back of his eyes.  Only time allowed it to shine through freely and alarmingly, like a brushfire given rise from an ember. 

Thankfully her daughters retained little memory of their early years, to all appearances did not rightly recall outright their father being hauled off the telephone pole by local authorities, citations and subsequent community service obligations’ fulfilments for dismantling municipal electric boxes one one occasion, smashing the bulbs in two city blocks worth of light poles on another.  Nor had Maribel complied with his requests to pass the receiver to the twins when he telephoned from some Costa Rican flophouse on the lam to update her about his exodus and the entailed swirling minutia of details surrounding it, manically fill in the gaps vaguely with delighted crypticism, expressing ebullient optimism upon future prospects and hopes of reestablishing themselves in a more ‘conducive’ environment. 

The instances of contact were sporadic at best before dropping off entirely.  That was shortly before a liaison at the consulate telephoned to inform Maribel that his body had been drug from beneath a waterfall, unclear about whether the fatality had resulted intentionally or through accidental mishap.  Autopsy of the damp remains further discerned that the eyeball they were noticeably missing had not been lost during the misadventure, but had been removed intentionally through a crude, self-inflicted surgical procedure at an earlier date, a fact verified by haphazard instruments and dressings still undisposed of evidenced in the decedent’s residence upon investigation. 

Suffice to say, Maribel’s less conventional daughter’s recent romanticizing of her absentee pater familias’s hardships, her ambition to survey, nay reconnoiter and personally tread through the country he spent his final time wayfaring, never boded well precisely in Lindsay and her minds.  But should they balk, it would only cement Leah’s resolve, so the pair kept their own counsel and waited with bated breaths for this particular—if uniquely disconcerting—phase to peter out for the frivolous lass.  They always invariably did, eventually, if you could only endure them long enough, and then Leah could be counted upon to redirect her abundant excess of energies toward some other worthy cause, interest, or purpose elsewhere, with the same monomaniacal zeal.  But of all her daughter’s various expressed infatuations and peculiar focuses to date, this one certainly took the cake in potential for skewing problematically.

To further complicate this precarious equation, Leah was the only person in their family, the solitary one who over the years had by some means remained close with Maribel’s deceased sister.  That was the chief reason her mother had held out some cautious hope of reply and potential appearance, and intuited a reasonably pressing need to commiserate and provide consolation with the grief constituted by this unprecedented loss, the instability such would no doubt mercilessly exact for her traditionally so detached daughter. 

When a dinghy can only carry a limited number, the loss of any dedicated anchor will leave it frightfully unmoored, particularly when rudderless. If one has a narrow circle of contacts, removing each successive link in that chain shortens it exponentially, with each contraction becomes more profoundly detrimental.  Such was only natural. 

Martha and Leah’s acquaintance was something Maribel had never quite understood all these years either, as it made so little sense on paper—the former a hard-nosed spinster, career elementary school teacher at a parochial elementary, independent and punctilious, staunch and willful, who kept to her faith strictly and prided herself on discipline and self-sufficiency—but with recent developments was finally beginning to assume a somewhat plausible, if slightly sinister character and jarring logic all its own at long last in the aunt’s sudden absence.   

Maribel, additionally, had some topics she very seriously wanted to interrogate her daughter upon.  In a sense it was a stroke of luck her more orthodox twin had not lingered in the aftermath to paw through what smoking wreckage had been left behind, so her mother could spare her revelations she might not care for learning, have some difficulty wrapping her tender head around or reconciling herself with. 

For one, all of the drug paraphernalia.  Martha had kept the progression of her illness private, entirely to herself essentially for the course of its affliction, had sought neither examination nor treatment, in essence opting rather to allow nature to run its course, which it did swiftly and unrelenting.  Maribel, of course, cold not then have faulted her sister, sensibly, for seeking the pain relief of holistic remedies so to speak, which—lacking formal diagnosis—were most readily and affordably available at the street level.  Where her old house was nestled in the Minneapolis projects such accoutrements could be procured with the greatest of ease, it was well known.  But that did not exactly explain the veritable trove, practical pharmacy of every conceivable illicit variety—including some scripts and containers of contins and codones, vikes and benzos which went back years, perhaps decades, must necessarily have long predated the carcinoma’s appearance or manifestations—Maribel had stumbled almost immediately upon during her preliminary fact-finding foray, which she had engaged in compulsorily across her sister’s domicile.  And clearly, the task had been left to her explicitly, was consciously earmarked by her sibling when she had quite unexpectedly deeded the property to Maribel of all people.  When the astonishment passed, shock had given way to ominous foreboding, which rapidly proved anything but unfounded.   

It seemed beneath her collected, painstakingly orderly exterior Martha had kept many cards in her hand well-hidden, and upon passing had left no obvious road-map to plainly guessing at them.  Inference, then, certainly made for tricky business.  Which was where the birdie came in.  It entered center stage unannounced, one could say, if static made for a crashing introduction—like those cadavers in cold opens of the police procedurals Maribel viewed winding down from her job each night.  Indeed, a part of her deep down had to wonder first off if her sister had staged the whole confusion for her benefit, in tribute to the passion they had fleetingly shared for closed room mysteries growing up, one of the only interests which had ever overlapped and bound them somewhat through those early girlhood years before inevitably growing apart and became permanently strained and estranged for the bulk of their adulthoods. 

Regrettable mistakes compounding into a path which at this point could not be corrected or reconciled any longer, might only be faced with an itching feeling of remorse, plucking at her innermost heartstrings like a lute’s.  But there had been the slightest, most ephemeral transitory moment in their adolescence when the two had grown a tad close, albeit briefly, through finding mutual solace in untangling the inscrutable webs woven by Edgar Allen Poe and Gaston Leroux.       

The ambiguity at hand was deceptively understated on the surface, and could not even be accurately termed a whodunit necessarily, as it was uncertain a thing had even conclusively been done to Maribel’s demanding standard of satisfaction.  She had spent her career working as a registered nurse in her state’s refugee health program, assisting recent immigrants with securing services they qualified for, monitoring and facilitating care and treatment’s sufficient allocation, and some of that required sniffing out potential malfeasance and abuses, investigating and ascertaining whether anything untoward had in actuality occurred or was in progress—if so, pursuing corrective remedies.  But that required objective, definitive proofs be produced, documentation and smoking guns’ obtaining.  Red flags, the distinct smell of fumes, while compelling further investigation, was far from incriminating in and of itself, alone.  Their standards for corroboration was stringent, obligatorily, since the stain of allegation could be quite irreparably damaging when they proved incorrect, conclusions had been hastily jumped to.  This Maribel was well apprised of and acquainted with. 

So here were the salient facts of the matter.  Upon assumption of ownership, transition of her departed sister’s property into Maribel’s hands, when first entering—as a matter of fact, after years of not gracing the home with her presence for nigh-on two decades, since shortly before her husband’s disappearance—she had spied the bird in the shoebox she was gingerly placing into the hollow just uncovered, and was preparing to refill over with dirt.  It was a handsome animal, fully grown and brightly colored, Maribel had yet to identify it in the Audubon guides scattered about the place but she could not immediately recognize it as something common to their region.  The location of the feathered creature, its placement in the space, was the curious part, and as of yet she could not explain it in any semblance of a rational fashion. 

The perished bird had been resting rigidly closed between a pane of window glass and a screen.  At first this had only struck Maribel as peculiar, and stuck in her logical mind as an anomaly begging explanation she’d initially guessed would be easy enough to provide.  But mulling over the facts, the duty became increasingly difficult to fulfill.  She parsed over the immaculate screen meticulously, with fine-tooth comb, yet was unable to find the slightest gap or opening through which it could have entered via.  To her imagination, it seemed entirely unlikely either that the thing had someway wriggled through embryonic, spent its entire lifespan inside feeding upon the rare mosquito and fruit fly which inexplicably broached its microscopic egresses. 

So how had it gotten there?!  The few explanations which presented themselves were equally frightening to contemplate.  Starting with the most innocent, had it somehow flown there from inside of the dwelling, by astronomical ill-fortune in whatever way triggered the window’s slamming shut like a primitive trap?  As Maribel recalled, the windows had been difficult to keep up, Martha had long ago mentioned their not being to code, her need if caring they remain open to prop with some instrument’s rigging.  Still, that scenario seemed the most highly improbable. 

And what would the bird have been doing there?  Her sister had no cage on the premises, nor seed for caring for a pet, or feeders hanging about the property.  The books on ornithology were not especially significant, merely components of a grandiose library accumulated over years of teaching and researching every variety of obscure subject, and did not testify to any particular express interest.  Jumping off from that purely innocuous coincidence, the explanations remaining became progressively sordid by varying degrees. 

Maribel stamped down the earth atop the newly impressed ground, and could not help but recall too then her sister’s final destination she had so recently returned from, drawing parallels in their similarities.  As she speculated upon possible solutions to this puzzle Maribel realized taking into consideration her sister’s soundness and state of mind, her mental balance and capacity was certainly relevant.  They had not spoken in the year before the news of her passing was conveyed impersonally by a coroner.  What had those final months, days, hours looked like, felt for her alienated sibling?  Had she confided her final struggles to anyone?  Her neighbors, coworkers, dealer/s, any of their fragmented family members?  How Maribel so wanted to grill Leah as to her awareness regarding that query and several other conspicuous nagging questions which had recently presented themselves, strongly behooved if possible laying to rest. 

From least to most disquieting, the remaining interpretations appeared to her as follows.  Martha had found the bird somewhere post-mortem, or purchased its remains, and placed them there on display to baffle and befuddle her sister.  This was not impossible.  Their family was Scandinavian in every sense of the word, and a strain of malicious passive aggression pumped heartily through their veins like snake blood, had been passed down through the generations as a carefully guarded heirloom.  That Martha’s final bequest and statement to Maribel could be such a shrewd enigma was undeniably within the realm of possibility, not whatsoever inconsistent with her established character… 

But were that the case, Maribel extrapolated frenziedly, could not events even have been a shade more terrible then?  On sudden permanent sabbatical from the only vocation and structured, meaningful activity she had ever known, secluded from her colleagues and peers in education and the church, smoking crystallized cocaine by the bowlful, shooting her arms full of cooked black tar and rereading from her many well-pawed stacks of Nietzsche piled strategically around the apartment, was it so far-fetched to imagine her sister, withering without and within from breast cancer’s aggressive onslaught, to have sallied forth on a mission to the nearest pet store, and having purchased this resplendent beast on a mad, bitter whim, then continuing on to intentionally seal it there within that final destination, so that she might watch its last throws while grappling with her own, in some ghastly solidarity—immured as a martyred saint or sacrificed retainer in the service of an Egyptian pharaoh.  Maribel did not want to think too long or hard upon this possibility, but it nevertheless seemed to her perception and instincts the most obvious and credible regardless, the one William of Occam might favor as requiring the least number of assumptions, without any too great of stretching in reasoning to become feasible…

She placed an ornate ceramic cross over the bird’s grave to mark it.  This too had separately raised some incomparable unrelated reservations, punctuated question marked Maribel would have answered and transform into periods ideally, but those were even more difficult and incomprehensible if that were truly possible.  She had taken the thing from a place where it had been accompanying a small shrine tucked away in Martha’s back closet, which for reasons entirely inexplicable and unbeknownst to her sister had gotten erected ages past in dedication to Maribel’s erstwhile absconded husband, and contained pictures of he and Martha over many apparent years of acquaintance, some predating his marriage to Maribel, and even including several of them together in Costa Rica—which must have been recorded during time thus far unaccounted for in any existing timeline, between his flight and when the cremains were ultimately collected.  Lost in thought, Maribel absentminded glanced down and observed that her cellular was vibrating, Leah was telephoning from parts unknown, who knows where, over her prepaid mobile…

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