The God of Anytown - Ken Schweda
as we have countless times before, we meet to discuss the concerns of flocks throughout our land. for as long as my memory spans, every flock has reported happiness and plentiful seed-places. the only concern is mating rights. this time is different. my report to the group is the same as all others. our flock has not eaten in many cycles. seed-places that have provided in the past are now empty. mating concerns seem unnecessary. at the end of our gathering we all agree, the gods have gone.
this cycle i am too weak to fly, but young ones bring me news from the latest gathering. there is talk of a single seed-place on the outskirts of the land. it is plentiful. many flocks have moved to be near it.
“pale-wing, i need more than rumor to move our flock” i say to the youngling, presenting him with a down feather. “take this feather as my mark. fly to the elder of any flock that has already moved, and ask whether this rumor is true.”
as the youngling flies off i allow myself a single chirp of hope.
Out of necessity Stan never stayed in one place very long. His wife had long since left him, and he had never been able to keep a job for more than a few weeks, though not for lack of trying. Though he was illiterate, he could still make out certain words that appeared in newspapers, and the one he saw often was ‘depression’. He didn’t know exactly what it meant, but he knew it had something to do with the long breadlines he waited in almost every day.
Boxcars always stopped in big cities, so that no matter where he hopped off, there’d be a breadline nearby. Today was different though. This station was in the middle of almost nowhere. Only a long road connected it to a small town off in the distance. Perhaps out of sheer boredom, Stan decided to get off instead of staying on in hopes of landing in one of the usual places.
The town was the opposite of the other cities he’d been to. There were no cars and busses tangled at every street corner. There were no mobs to get caught in, only to take him away from the breadline. For a moment he thought he was in heaven. Then he noticed there were no breadlines either, at least not on this street, and certainly no one to serve out the food. Most storefronts were shuttered, and those that weren’t, had mostly barren shelves. Oddly enough, one of those stores was a pet shop.
Stan walked in to find the clerk asleep behind the register. This store too was mostly empty except for several barrels arranged along the back wall. He meandered over to them and found all were empty except for one partially filled with grass seed. He’d been homeless so long it didn’t occur to him that someone might in fact have a home that had a yard that needed tending.
“Interested in birds are you?” said the clerk, who’d since awakened by the prospect of a sale.
“Me? Are you talking to me?” replied Stan. This town is definitely different, he thought to himself. Folks actually talk to you not at you.
“Yes of course you. I don’t have much else but I do have a little bird seed left. Hardly anyone in town now, and those that are certainly don’t need bird seed. I’ll sell you my last twenty pounds for twenty five cents,” pitched the clerk. “I used to have so much, but it’d just sit here. Finally I just started putting it out back in a bunch of feeders I had from stock that stopped selling too.”
Because of the utter novelty of the situation Stan found himself rummaging for change. And today he hit pay dirt, enough to buy the rest of what was left in the barrel. He had no idea what he was going to do with so much bird seed. But he felt something hitherto unknown to him. It was the feeling of being rich, filthy rich. He also felt hunger, and so set out into the town. There had to be a breadline somewhere.
pale-wing has flown fast and the news he brings me is good. the rumors are true. tomorrow i will tell the flock and we will make the trip to the plentiful seed-place. i am still weak, but i will manage. we will all leave behind a down feather to honor the departed gods, who provided for us in the past. we have no doubt displeased them, but that does not mean we should ignore their past favors to our flock.
it has been only a few cycles since we migrated. today’s first gathering of new flocks promises to be refreshing, with the usual chatter about mating rights, now in our new land. but as the grand elder begins his report the not so distant feeling of dread returns. he says something has changed. his was the first to migrate here, and every new cycle since then has brought new bounty to the seed-places. but now the piles only dwindle and do not get refreshed. there is still plenty for all the flocks for several cycles, but there is worry too.
It’d had been days since Stan had anything to eat beyond a scrap or two thoughtlessly thrown out to a trash bin. Not only did this town not have breadlines, it barely had enough food for the locals. He decided to return to the pet store, to try to return the seeds that once made him feel so grand. Unfortunately it too was now abandoned. The clerk didn’t even bother to board things up, so Stan let himself in. Mindlessly he opened the register to make the obligatory check for change. Expecting nothing, finding nothing, he plunked down in the clerk’s chair to rest. His arm was numb from carrying the heavy bag of seed. Not a single pet was left, so there was no chance of what could have been a welcome diversion. The only sound was that of a dripping faucet. When he traced the sound, he discovered the clerk had also abandoned a small living quarters in the back of the shop.
Then it dawned on him. With the water and crushed seed he could make bread. It may not be leavened bread, not the luxury of a deli, but it would fill his stomach. And perhaps he himself could make a little money selling his leftovers. And so he did. Over the next few days Stan became quite the entrepreneur. He crafted small loaves, saved one or two for himself, and sold the rest. The earnings were enough for him to taxi to the next town, which to his delight had a pet shop. He convinced the owner that no one wanted bird seed in such tough times, and so was able to purchase enough to grow his little industry.
One day as he was making the daily batch of bread, Stan noticed the birds out back were chirping louder than usual. He decided to venture out onto the back porch attached to the kitchen, where he found a sizeable backyard. It wasn’t a backyard so much as a small field sectioned on two sides by a wooden fence, most of which was toppled and rotting. To his delight, there were literally hundreds of birds sitting and fluttering around in the surrounding trees that stretched as far back as he could see. And there were feeders too, at least fifty of them. He soon realized the source of all the commotion. The feeders, every one of them, were empty. Birds flew back and forth from the trees to the feeders, pecking away at empty shells and seed dust accumulated over so many days.
Stan’s little business was enough to provide a few loaves a week for himself, and occasionally a small jar of jam from the grocery store, obtained by bartering a day’s worth of loaves. He still felt hunger every day, but not the abject hunger from his days in the city. Before landing in this town, Stan was a vagrant in every sense of the word, and had he the wherewithal now he would waste no time buying a bottle of even the most bootlegged of bootleg whiskey. But he was not a bad man by any means. And so as he was making bread this day, realizing just how much he enjoyed the sounds of the birds, he decided to forgo making an extra loaf for himself, and used the seeds instead to fill two of the feeders. And as he did this, a feeling he’d only felt once before came over him. But this time it was different. He felt rich, not in the way a miser feels it, but in the way a musician or a painter feels it. The sense that one has some unrequested gift whose value comes in giving it away to others.
And so Stan lived, week in and week out, making his bread, and selling a little more each day. Eventually he was able to save off enough extra seed to keep all the feeders filled each and every day. He even allowed himself to whistle a little hopeful tune.
“it is good to have my strength back” i tell the gathering “and to see such life in our new land. pale-wing tells me every seed-place is bountiful each and every cycle. new gods have arrived.” as i speak each flock lifts up from its perch until all at the gathering are flying about and chirping with joy. and then i raise my wing, and all settle back and become silent. “we have much to be thankful for. let us honor the gods with our song. go to the seed-places and sing out as loud as you have here.”
Stan looked up from his work table, went over to the window and opened it. The birdsong was more beautiful than ever. He walked out onto the back porch and saw every feeder filled with birds pecking away, and every tree filled with birds singing. Only one thought came to him and he spoke it aloud, “no, thank you”.
Ken Schweda used to be a jazz musician, has a degree in Philosophy, drove trams at an amusement park, programs computers. He lives with his best friend and wife outside Chicago, Illinois. Read more at kenjeavus.com.