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And then there was the bird.

It never moved, not once, through all the commotion at its feet, through all the noise and confusion, all the speculation regarding its needs, condition, origin, species: it never moved. It was a statue, eyes unblinking, only the wind-rustled feathers giving it away for flesh and blood, for living bird. “It’s a crane,” somebody said. “No, no, it’s a herring — a blue herring.” Someone else thought it was an eagle. My father later confided that he believed it was a stork.

“Is it sick, do you think?” Mrs. Novak said.

“Maybe it’s broke its wing.”

“It’s a female,” someone insisted. “She’s getting ready to lay her eggs.”

I looked around and was surprised to see that the crowd had thinned considerably. The girl in the college sweater was gone, Michael Donadio was back across the street pumping gas, the man in the Studebaker had driven off. I scanned the crowd for my father: he’d gone home, I guessed. Mrs. Schlecta had disappeared too, and I could see the great bulk of Mrs. Novak receding into her house on the corner like a sea lion vanishing into a swell. After a while Sidor took his lamp and end table back into the store.

One of the older guys had a rake. He heaved it straight up like a javelin, as high as the roof of the store, and then watched it slam down on the pavement. The bird never flinched. People lit cigarettes, shuffled their feet. They began to drift off, one by one. When I looked around again there were only eight of us left, six kids and two men I didn’t recognize. The women and girls, more easily bored or perhaps less interested to begin with, had gone home to gas ranges and hopscotch squares: I could see a few of the girls in the distance, on the swings in front of the school, tiny, their skirts rippling like flags.

I waited. I wanted the bird to flap its wings, blink an eye, shift a foot; I wanted it desperately, wanted it more than anything I had ever wanted. Perched there at the lip of the roof, its feet clutching the drainpipe as if welded to it, the bird was a coil of possibility, a muscle relaxed against the moment of tension. Yes, it was magnificent, even in repose. And, yes, I could stare at it, examine its every line, from its knobbed knees to the cropped feathers at the back of its head, I could absorb it, become it, look out from its unblinking yellow eyes on the street grown quiet and the sun sinking behind the gas station. Yes, but that wasn’t enough. I had to see it in flight, had to see the great impossible wings beating in the air, had to see it transposed into its native element.

Suddenly the wind came up — a gust that raked at our hair and scattered refuse across the parking lot — and the bird’s feathers lifted like a petticoat. It was then that I understood. Secret, raw, red, and wet, the wound flashed just above the juncture of the legs before the wind died and the feathers fell back in place.

I turned and looked past the neighborhood kids — my playmates — at the two men, the strangers. They were lean and seedy, unshaven, slouching behind the brims of their hats. One of them was chewing a toothpick. I caught their eyes: they’d seen it too.

I threw the first stone.

The Overcoat II

There was a commotion near the head of the queue, people shouting, elbowing one another, wedging themselves in, and bracing for the inevitable shock wave that would pulse through the line, tumbling children, pregnant women, and unsuspecting old pensioners like dominoes. Akaky craned his neck to see what was happening, but he already knew: they were running out of meat. Two and a half hours on line for a lump of gristly beef to flavor his kasha and cabbage, nearly a hundred people ahead of him and Lenin knows how many behind, and they had to go and run out.

It was no surprise. The same thing had happened three days ago, last week, last month, last year. A cynic might have been led to grumble, to disparage the farmers, the truckers, the butchers and butchers’ assistants, to question their mental capacity and cast aspersions on their ancestry. But not Akaky. No, he was as patient and enduring as the limes along the Boulevard Ring, and he knew how vital personal sacrifice was to the Soviet socialist workers’ struggle against the forces of Imperialism and Capitalist Exploitation. He knew, because he’d been told. Every day. As a boy in school, as an adolescent in the Young Pioneers, as an adult in on-the-job political-orientation sessions. He read it in Pravda and Izvestia. heard it on the radio, watched it on TV. Whizz, whir, clack-clack-clack: the voice of Lenin was playing like a tape recording inside his head. “Working People of the Soviet Union! Struggle for a Communist attitude toward labor. Hold public property sacred and multiply it!”

“Meat,” cried a voice behind him. He squirmed round in disbelief — how could anyone be so insensitive as to voice a complaint in public? — and found himself staring down at the shriveled husk of an old woman, less than five feet tall, her babushkaed head mummy-wrapped against the cold. She was ancient, older than the Revolution, a living artifact escaped from the Museum of Serf Art. Akaky’s mouth had dropped open, the word “Comrade” flying to his lips in gentle remonstrance, when the man in front of him, impelled by the estuarine wash of the crowd, drove him up against the old woman with all the force of a runaway tram. Akaky clutched at her shoulders for balance, but she was ready for him, lowering her head and catching him neatly in the breastbone with the rock-hard knot in the crown of her kerchief. It was as if he’d been shot. He couldn’t breathe, tried to choke out an apology, found himself on the pavement beneath a flurry of unsteady feet. The old woman towered over him, her face as stolid and impassive as the monumental bust of Lenin at the Party Congress. “Meat,” she cried, “meat!”

Akaky stayed on another quarter of an hour, until a cordon of policemen marched up the street and superintended the closing of the store. It was 9:00 P.M. Akaky was beat. He’d been standing in one line or another since 5:30, when he left the ministry where he worked as file clerk, and all he had to show for it was eight russet potatoes, half a dozen onions, and twenty-six tubes of Czechoslovakian toothpaste he’d been lucky enough to blunder across while looking for a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Resigned, he started across the vacant immensity of Red Square on his way to Herzen Street and the Krasnaya Presnya district where he shared a communal apartment with two families and another bachelor. Normally he lingered a bit when crossing the great square, reveling in the majesty of it all — from the massive blank face of the Kremlin wall to the Oriental spires of Pokrovsky Cathedral — but now he hurried, uncommonly stung by the cold.

One foot after the next, a sharp echo in the chill immensity, ice in his nostrils, his shoulders rattling with the cold that clutched at him like a hand. What was it: twenty, twenty-five below? Why did it seem so much colder tonight? Was he coming down with something? One foot after the next, rap-rap-rap, and then he realized what it was: the overcoat. Of course. The lining had begun to come loose, peeling back in clumps as if it were an animal with the mange — he’d noticed it that morning, in the anteroom at the of fice — balls of felt dusting his shoes and trouser cuffs like snow. The coat was worthless, and he’d been a fool to buy it in the first place. But what else was there? He’d gone to the Central Department Store in response to a notice in the window—“Good Quality Soviet Made Winter Coats”—at a price he could afford. He remembered being surprised over the shortness and sparseness of the line, and over the clerk’s bemused expression as he handed him the cloth coat. “You don’t want this,” the clerk had said. The man was Akaky’s age, mustachioed. He was grinning.



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