Sotto Voce

July 4th, 2012

In honor of July 4th, I'd like to post this story about freedom.  It was originally published by   Wormhole Books as an Independence Day greeting card in July of 2002.  It will be part of my story collection CELESTIAL INVENTORIES, out next year from ChiZine Publications. - Steve


by Steve Rasnic Tem


            Almost at once it became habit.  During long days in the file room with no one to talk to, his hands normally unoccupied would snag some scrap of paper or trash and speak what he was unable to find words for. Staring at the scenery his eyes invented out of textured ceiling, out the window where gorgeous creatures reclined in cloud, he would catch his hands pulling and twisting at a candy wrapper, a hen-scratched Post-It, a sheet of lost and yellowing stationery, until at last the first glimmer of bird came through.

            He had no inkling of the long traditions of paper folding.  He knew far less than his hands knew: of bending, pressing, worrying free the shape poised for flight out of garbage.  And when he ran out of garbage he made birds out of the grim chronicles of neglect, disease, and grief salvaged from these long-dead patients? files.

            That first paper bird had been a strange thing: wings with the shattered angles of lightning, beak a twisted black tear.  Over the years the shapes refined: at times almost delicate in the ways the multiply-creased necks reached up to support the complicated heads, at times unsoundly fantastic as paper stub wings evolved into great wavering flyleaves of actuarial data ready to take the sad facts of a life and journey south over some dark and troubled continent to the nesting grounds along the far edge of where we all came from.

            There was no money in what his hands made, of course, but then he had no talent for money, or much else, working only to clothe and feed his small family.  Freedom was something fine and good in the antique gold-tooled novels his grandfather had passed his way, which he had sold after a single reading.  And he knew he was lucky to live in a country that had so much of it, although he?d never quite been able to grasp the details.

            Years later when they cleaned out the old hospital records, decades of paper and film and what no longer matters, carried the lot to bins and incinerators, they discovered the waste of his hands and heart: birds put away neatly in every folder, birds tucked into envelopes and nested in the gaps of the unused alphabet, birds secreted into record books, birth records, treatment plans, and autopsy reports, birds by the thousands spilling from the boxes the workers carried outside, caught by the wind funneled between the tall buildings, rising with the orderly progress of the flames, set free into air and light, and they all, all of them stopped their lives that day to watch.




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