Tiny Points of Life
Little Green Men
Wyatt Culpepper looked at Preacher Ben, tears pooling up in his quiet eyes.
“Calm down,” said Preacher Ben, who sounded like he might just be talking to himself about calming down because, as a man of God, Preacher Ben was easily excitable. The Devil and all of his many tricks and disguises figured prominently in the weekly sermon. Talking to him about something important was not unlike talking to a jittery, sleep-deprived bomb diffuser.
“What do you mean she’s gone? What’r you talking about? What do you mean? What do you mean?”
“Bird’s gone,” said Wyatt. “One minute she’s there. Next minute … ” He shook his head slowly, then held out his hands to show Preacher Ben that she wasn’t hiding up his sleeves.
“She run off?”
“Looks that way.”
“Wyatt, that ain’t like Birdie. You checked her sister?”
“‘Course I checked her sister. Checked everywhere.”
“She been…” Preacher Ben paused. Swallowed. Picked his words. “She been extra friendly with anyone? Anyone been comin’ ‘round the house?”
Wyatt shook his head. He lowered himself down onto the first pew, where he never liked to sit on Sundays because Preacher Ben always seemed to be talking directly to him and to Birdie. And that made him uncomfortable, just as feeling everyone’s eyes drilling into the back of his head made him uncomfortable. Wyatt liked to sit in the back of the church and observe the congregation from behind where he could listen and make up his own mind about things.
“You think she’s been taken? Someone come by when you were out and… Wyatt, the Devil lives in these woods. You know that?”
“I know,” said Wyatt, nodding. Most of the roads in the preacher’s life cut through the Devil’s front yard. “Yeah, I know that. But it prob’ly weren’t the Devil.” Wyatt rubbed his face with his big hands, wanting to cry. Wanting to pocket the truth Preacher Ben was offering. That was why he had come.
“Wyatt!” Preacher Ben stomped his foot and the sound slapped its way around the tiny wooden church. “How do you know? Just how do you know? You smelt any sulfur near your place? Had any strange dreams?”
Wyatt took his hands off his face. The two stared in silence at each other. The sun was finally up. The stain glass was setting fire to part of the ceiling. Outside, a pickup with something hard and loose in the bed rattled and bounced down the road. Preacher Ben’s expression was frozen; contorted into the shape of his question. “Wyatt?”
“Yeah,” said Wyatt. “Had me a doozey last night. Got me all upset. It’s why I come to see you.”
“What was it?” Preacher whispered. “Tell me.”
“I dreamed … I dreamed I was out lookin’ for Birdie. Like I been doing every night for a week. Up and down every road on the hillside. Only in the dream I was walkin’, not drivin’. Walking like Birdie used to do.”
Wyatt stopped. Listening to the past tense echo in his head. There was no going back to change it. He pushed on.
“Anyway, it was black as pitch. Couldn’t see my own hands. All I could see was shadows of things. I was callin’ her name but it was like the darkness in the air swallowed up all the sound so it wouldn’t carry nowhere. I could barely hear myself. But I kept callin’ anyway.”
Wyatt paused again. He wiped his forehead with the palm of his hand. Preacher Ben sat down on the pew next to him. “Wyatt,” he whispered.
“I got up to at the end of Backstitch Road, near the pond. The moon was out there. Just there. Nowhere else in the entire county. Just that one spot. Just hangin’ there above the pond. And that’s where I seen her. On the road. Didn’t have no clothes on. Draggin’ her apron in the dirt. Rest of them was naked too.”
“The rest of ‘em? The rest of ‘em? Who, Wyatt? Who?”
“She was kinda’ in the middle of the pack. Musta’ been a dozen or so. They was small. And green. Like vegetable children. Heads come up to ‘round Birdies’ shoulders. They had their little green hands on her… on all her parts. Then they all turned ‘round to look at me standin’ there on the road. All of ‘em ‘cept Birdie.”
“They weren’t no children, Preacher. They was all men. The moon behind them was so big and bright it burned my skin. I was burning.”
“Oooh, Wyatt,” said Preacher Ben, slow and soft and terrified like he was seeing the back legs of a poisonous spider slipping down into the collar of Wyatt’s shirt. “Oooh, Wyatt.”
Wyatt felt like the pew had come unmoored from the floor and was swinging beneath him. This set his head to spinning and he closed his eyes so not to be sick. Preacher Ben started in about the Devil. All he could do was bury his face in his hands and mutter to himself.
“Birdie’s gone. Birdie’s gone. Birdie’s gone.”
Birdie came up the lane a step at a time. She slowed near to a full stop. She squinted in the dark, switching the bag of sugar for the umpteenth time from one hand to the other. A red dot was glowing up the hill inside the screened porch. It inflated and then died away. Like a lightnin’ bug taking an enormous breath and then letting it go from its little lightnin’ bug lungs.
Wyatt was up there smoking one of his home-rolled like he liked to do. He liked to sit out in the dark and listen to the crickets and the hoot owls when the air was heavy and still. When the moon was new and the night was truly dark. He smoked his cigarettes and drank his beer and listened. If it had rained recently, Swallows Creek would be running high. Wyatt had been known to sleep out on the porch, drifting off to the sound of water. But this had been a hot, dry month and the creek was low. You had to listen for it through the crickets.
“Bird?” Wyatt called out.
“It’s me, Wyatt,” said Birdie, shuffling forward again. She trudged up the hill toward the dark house, pulling herself up on the smell of Wyatt’s tobacco like it was a rope or a railing. She opened the screen door to the porch, stepped inside, and let it slap closed.
“You get the sugar?” he asked.
“I got it,” she said.
“What you gon’ make anyway?”
“I don’t know. A cake maybe. Lemon cake.”
“That sounds good,” he said after thinking about it. “How’s Louise?”
Birdie set the bag of sugar by the front door into the house.
“She okay. Goin’ to Florida next week.”
“Flor’da?” Wyatt took another drag and blew out the smoke. “Why she goin’ to Flor’da?”
“Earl’s takin’ her on vacation. For their anniversary. Goin’ to see the kids. Disney World too.”
Wyatt leaned down for the bottle next to the swing. He took a drink and dangled it over the floor between his fingers. He swallowed and took another drag on the cigarette.
“Well, I’ll be. A vayyy-cation.”
“Mmm hmm,” said Birdie.
“Earl won’t last ten minutes at no Disney World. That’s for damn sure. Glad you don’t go in for such nonsense, Bird.”
“Mmm Hmm.” Birdie smudged a rough spot on the floor with the toe of her shoe like she was trying to smooth it out. Her legs were tired from walking.
“What’s wrong, Bird?” asked Wyatt in his knowing tone.
“Nothin’ wrong,” she said.
“Oh yes there is too, my beautiful Birdie. Somethin’s wrong. I can hear it in your voice. Can’t see your face, but I don’t have to. I can hear your voice. Your sad little bird song.”
“No. You can’t.”
“Hell I can’t. Thirty-four years? Ain’t no sound you can make that I don’t know what it means.”
Birdie looked at him. That rugged face she could never resist. She could not see his eyes from so far away. But she could feel them trying to find her shape in the dark. And he was right. Just like Wyatt was always right. He did know everything there was to know about Birdie Mae Culpepper. Which maybe wasn’t that much. But still.
“Come on Bird. Come have a seat. Tell me.”
Wyatt set down the beer and patted the cushion on the seat of the swing that was to be hers. In the daylight, the two cushions on the swing were a worn, dirty grayish color with darker shapes of tulips here and there. Birdie had made the cushions herself, covering old sofa pillows with material from a town dress that she never used and that no longer fit her anyway. The dress had been a bright butter-yellow with deep purple tulips in a pattern of clusters.
“Come on,” he said again.
Birdie walked across the screened porch to the swing and sat down next to Wyatt. The swing creaked and the cushion wheezed a little as she sat. Her shoes scraped against the dirty plywood floor. It needed a good sweeping, she thought.
“Tired?” he asked, pushing off so the swing began to move. Wyatt knew what she liked.
“I guess,” Birdie nodded.
“Long way to go for some sugar. I coulda’ took you over there in the mornin’.”
“I like walkin’,” she said. “Get’s me out.”
“Yes, you do like walkin’. You sure enough do, Bird. You walk a curious amount for someone named Birdie.”
Birdie smiled a little at that and Wyatt, seeing this, gave her a playful little push on the shoulder.
“You always take the truck anyways,” she said.
Wyatt stopped the swing.
“Now, we been through all that. I take you wherever you damn well need to go. I will. But I need the truck. I can’t have you drivin’ off to see your sister or Louise or your cousin’s pig farm or any other damn thing if I might need the truck. And if you was ever to run that truck off the road … in these hills…”
“I know. I know. I like my walks.”
“I know you do.” The swinging motion started again. “Now, you gon’ tell me what’s on your mind?”
Birdie took a breath, not quite sure how to answer. There were three pops in the distance.
“Winston Groat,” she said matter-of-factly. “No doubt shootin’ at a bottle on a stump. This time a night.”
“Bird.” Wyatt patted her on the knee. Birdie sighed.
“I saw a light, Wyatt. I saw a light. I know I did.”
“A light? What kind of light? Where?”
“Up. Up in the sky. Between Digger’s Peak and Hounds Tooth. ”
“Mean like a star?”
“No. Weren’t no star.”
Birdie fell into silence. The din of crickets seemed to hush a little and she could hear Swallows Creek up behind the house. Only tonight it did not sound to Birdie like the sound of water flowing so much as the sound of something emptying. Something trickling away. Another three pops.
“Like a … like a spaceship. I saw a flying saucer, Wyatt. Only I couldn’t see the actual saucer because it was inside a bright, bright light.”
Wyatt took another drag. He held this one awhile and then blew the smoke out slowly.
“Mmm hmm. Between Digger’s Peak and Hounds Tooth. ”
“What time was it?”
“I dunno, Wyatt. Maybe eight o’clock.”
“Didn’t think so. What day was it?”
“My birthday night. Eighteenth.”
“Mmm hmm. So two weeks ago then.”
“That was the full moon.”
“No. Wyatt. I know the difference between the moon and a flying saucer. The moon was up there too. This was different. This light was kinda … kinda’ shimmery glowin’ more than shinin’. And it moved real fast. Zig-zaggy like.”
Wyatt snubbed out his cigarette. He pulled a red and black lozenge tin out of his shirt pocket and opened it up on his lap. On the empty lid of the tin he laid out a rolling paper and then laid some broken tobacco leaves on top. He paused to take a drink of his beer, set the bottle down, and then finished rolling the cigarette. He put the tin back into his shirt pocket and in a single smooth motion extracted his blue lighter. He lit the cigarette, pulling air through the broken leaves until the tip glowed.
Birdie waited in silence, listening to the crickets and the draining creek and Winston Groat off in the distance plugging a stump from a chair on his front porch. She almost stood up to go inside. She had sugar to make a cake.
But she didn’t stand up.
“Bird,” Wyatt said. “You remember when Buster got loose and got himself hit by Elmer and Becca Flanders on their way down to the store?”
“Yeah,” said Birdie, knowing what was coming. “I recall. You was angry with him cuz he chewed up your shoes.”
“And your shoes. And your hat and every other damn thing in the house. Told you dogs belong outside. You remember?”
“And he got himself hit. Ain’t nobody’s fault ‘cept Buster’s. Am I wrong?”
“You right, Wyatt,” said Birdie.
“You remember how you swore for days after that you had seen fairy sprites down near Possum Flats out there in the woods holding hands and dancing in a circle? You remember that?”
“And you remember that for maybe a week after Buster died all you could talk about was them fairies until at church I asked Preacher Ben to talk to you and he told you that there was no such thing as fairy sprites? Remember that?”
“And Preacher Ben told you that those kind of imaginings was the same as invitin’ the Devil inside your head to play. Then you got to worry ‘bout getting the Devil out. And he talked to you about all of the things you needed to do to get the Devil out? And so you decided that you had been mistaken about the fairy sprites?”
Birdie cleared her throat. “Yes.”
“And do you remember when your momma passed and you went on and on about wakin’ up in the middle of the night six feet off the ground?”
“Yes, Wyatt. I re…”
“Said you could float? Said you spent the wee hours every night flying through the house?”
“Said I was floatin’. Not flyin’.”
Wyatt sighed and leaned forward on the swing so that his elbows were on his knees. He took a big pull and let out the smoke, shaking his head. Birdie waited. Wyatt leaned back again.
“Okay,” he said. “Floatin’ through the house. Not flyin’. You remember that?”
“And what happened, Bird? What happened then?”
“Oh, don’t give me that, Birdie Mae. You do too remember. I may have been born at night, but I weren’t born last night. You do too remember. What happened was we got into a big ol’ hollarin’ fight ‘cause of you carryin’ on ‘bout how I was always tryin’ to keep you and your momma apart or some such nonsense and you said she was payin’ you visits from the hereafter. Teachin’ you how to float, is what you said. And then I stayed up all night one night just to prove to you that you was not floatin’ through the house. I sat right there and proved it to you. And then you said you must have dreamed it all. You remember now?”
“Yeah. I remember now.”
“An you remember when Billy met himself that girl, Carla?”
“Just makin’ sure you remember. Darla’s right. And Billy, all of sixteen, came to you and said, Momma, I’m in love and I’m moving to Nashville to race cars? You remember?”
“‘Course I do, Wyatt. Our only child and you just let him go.”
“Got to become a man sometime, Bird. No sense putting it off.”
“Wyatt we don’t know if he’s alive or dead. Ain’t said boo for eight years.”
“My point is, Bird, that for a month after Billy left you claimed that the chickens and the pigs up at your cousin’s place were talkin’ a kind of language. You walked all the way up there near everyday – four miles if it’s a foot—and when you’d finally come home, usually late like tonight, you’d tell me that you and the chickens and the pigs were tellin’ jokes and talkin’ politics.”
“Weren’t politics, Wyatt.” Birdie snorted a little and swatted at him with the back of her hand.
“No, not politics,” said Wyatt, “but some kinda nonsense for sure. And it weren’t ‘til I took you up there myself and asked you to translate that you decided that maybe you had just sorta imagined what they were sayin. You remember?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“Alright then. You want to know what I think?”
“I know you don’t. I know. But I’m gonna tell you anyways. Because this is somethin’ you need to hear and because I don’t want to keep doin’ this. Okay? I think, Birdie Mae, that you don’t take so well to bad news. I think you’re a sensitive sort. And that’s a good thing, mostly. It is. But when something in the world happens that you don’t like, your mind runs for the hills. You protect your feelings by hidin’ in a wet pile of nonsense.”
“No, no. Hear me out, Bird. I think your nerves can’t take disappointment, see, and they whisper things up to your brain to create all manner of distractions. And then, when enough time passes and you calm down, you come on back to your senses.”
“So when you come up here tonight and tell me that two weeks ago on your birthday you saw a flying saucer,” Wyatt put the cigarette between his lips and grabbed both of Birdie’s hands in his own looking hard into her eyes, “Bird, I know that just ain’t true. That dog won’t hunt. Okay?”
Birdie did not respond.
“Now… I know… that that night … you walked up to your sister’s house hoping to find a cake and a present or at least a birthday song… and that instead what you got was a big fight about who your momma loved best.”
Birdie looked down at her tiny hands in his.
“How do you know that?”
“Ain’t no dummy, Bird. I saw Buddy the next day. He said you two were fightin’. He said you were upset. And what I figure is that you were walkin’ home as that big ol’ full moon was rising up between Digger’s Peak and Hounds Tooth and you just had one of your reactions to disappointment. Your imagination looked up and found that moon and decided it was a flyin’ saucer. Because the moon is of this world and a flyin’ saucer ain’t. And now here you are, tellin’ me about a light in the sky.”
Birdie was silent. She pushed off on the floor with her feet to get the swing moving again, but Wyatt kept it still. He squeezed her hands but she would not look at him out of shame.
“Bird,” he said in a more philosophical tone, “bad news is like a bully. Disappointment is like a bully. You gotta start showin’ the bad news and the disappointment who’s boss. You can’t keep ‘em from comin’ round. You can’t always keep ‘em from ruinin’ your day. But you also can’t let ‘em run you off from your own life. You got to learn to stand up to disappointment. Even heartbreak. You got a damned life to live, Bird. You can’t be runnin’ off to a pretend land with fairy sprites and talkin’ pigs and flyin’ saucers every time your life disappoints you. You got one life and you gotta live it in the real world.”
He let her sit there quiet for a good minute. Then he set the swing to swinging and let go of her hands. He took out his blue lighter and relit his cigarette and slipped the lighter back into his shirt pocket. He tousled her hair and nudged her gently in the ribs with his elbow.
“Flyin’ saucers,” he said. Birdie made a sheepish sound. “You know I’m right, don’tcha Bird?”
“Yeah,” she mumbled. “I spose you are. Prob’ly just the moon.”
“The birthday moon,” he said with another elbow prod.
“Yeah. So pretty shinin’ on Catfish Pond. On the water it looked just like a flyin’ saucer, Wyatt.”
Wyatt slowed the swinging enough to send a message.
“But I know it just looked that way. I know. It was prob’ly just the moon.”
“Atta girl. You keep your feet in the real world. Show the disappointment who’s boss. Send that mess packin’. You don’t need no flyin’ saucers and little green men.”
“You right, Wyatt.”
“Go make us a cake. Go on. I’ll be in.”
Birdie stood up and walked over to the door and stooped to pick up the bag of sugar she had borrowed from Louise, who was off to Florida to see her kids on an anniversary vacation. Disney World. Take the whole bag, Louise had said. I got another.
“Hey Bird,” Wyatt said staring out into the dark. She turned. “What the hell were you doing all the way over at Catfish Pond? That’s all the way on the other side of the hill from Buddy’s place. You musta’ been some kinda’ upset.”
“Oh,” Birdie said, moving the sugar over to her other hand. “I was walkin’ right down Ridge Road and I seen your truck turnin’ off on to Backstitch, so I turned off too. I waved but you didn’t see me back there in the dark. Thought maybe you got worried and were out lookin’ for me. I waved. I got all the way out to Catfish Pond and I saw your truck at Tandy Miller’s place. I went up to knock figuring that I may as well get you to take me the rest of the way home. Ya’ll were upstairs with the windows open. You know…”
Birdie paused. Swallowed.
“…carryin’ on. So I left not knowin’ what to think and I was upset and I stopped at Catfish Pond and that’s when I seen the light. That beautiful spaceship inside a light.”
The porch was silent. The swing was still. For a moment the crickets stopped and Swallows Creek ran completely dry. Birdie Mae Culpepper listened to the world around her for an echo of her own heartbeat and heard nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Her eyes blinked once in the dark.
“I know. You right, Wyatt. It was just the moon. The birthday moon. I know I got to stand up to disappointment better than I do. Got to send it packin’ as you say. Got to look out after myself. Bein’ as I only got one life.”
“And I ain’t never needed a bunch a little green men from another world.” Birdie opened the door and took a step. “Just one good one. That’a done me just fine.”