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Of a Feather

Communing with Bernard Malamud’s Jewbird

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The essayist, unhappy and blocked, nothing new to say and no idea what to write, opened the window to air out the stale odor of himself, but the moment he turned his back, a scrawny black bird sailed in and settled on the bookshelf. That’s how it is in this life. The only way to keep the world from bursting in on you is to open nothing: windows, doors, books, your mind.

When he saw the bent and disheveled-looking bird, the essayist leaped to his feet. He had a bad experience once, trapped in a small room with a bat that made strafing runs at his head. The essayist grabbed the trash can beside his desk, aiming to trap the bird and then fling it outside.

Oy vey!” the bird shouted. “I’ve eaten garbage and been treated as such, but never been shoved into a rubbish bin before, thanks God. If you have a merciful soul, I say simply don’t. I have a claustrophobia. You want me to depart, give me a moment to rest. I know where the window is. Although with my rheumatism, I’d be grateful if I was allowed more than a moment. These wings weren’t meant for the mileage they’ve put in.”

The essayist, still coiled tight and ready to spring, said, “How are you talking to me? This some kind of prank? Are you hooked up with a radio transmitter?”

“No radio, sorry. Though I’d be pleased if you had one. Talk of the Nation is on shortly. I try to stay current. Also, speaking frankly, after a while the drone of those NPR voices gets to me and puts me to sleep. At my age I need all the rest I can get.”

Joe Hill, illustration by Matthew WoodsonIllustration by Matthew Woodson

“Well, you’re out of luck. I try to keep things quiet around here when I have to write,” the essayist told him, lowering himself back to his chair and setting the trashcan on the floor.

“An artist! My best friend’s cousin Giselle was married to an artist. It was nice for a while, but there isn’t much romance in an empty fridge, and he spent more time worrying about when inspiration was going to come than when she was, if you take my meaning, and if you don’t, God bless. Now you, you seem to be doing okay for yourself.” The frazzled bird peered about the office at framed book covers.

“I wouldn’t call what I do high art,” said the essayist. “I write books about ghosts, scary page-turners, horror stuff . . . although I like to think my work has some aesthetic value.” He preened a little at this statement, smiling in a smug, self-important sort of way. He was, in his modesty, immodest. Then his gaze drifted back to the computer screen and he frowned. “Today I’m not even trying for low art, though. My assignment is straight non-fiction. Not one of my strengths. I’m better when I can just make things up. I’m afraid I took too much money to write an essay that doesn’t need to be written.”

“So give back the dough.”

The essayist laughed derisively. “Keep your beak out of my business and I’ll keep mine out of yours. When I need advice from someone who looks at a dumpster and sees a cheap buffet, I’ll give you a shout.”

“Why doesn’t this article of yours need to be written?” the bird inquired, and then hopped nervously from foot to foot when the writer glared at him. “If it’s no bother to ask.”

“I’m writing about Bernard Malamud’s bravest literary insight,” the essayist said. He sagged in his chair, and picked listlessly at a tuna sandwich on the plate by his computer. He had brought his lunch in to work with him, but had no appetite, and his first bite was a mouthful of clay. He spat it back on the plate and dumped the whole mess, unceremoniously, into the trash. “The problem is, everything I have to say on the subject, Malamud already said himself, and better than I ever could.”

Silence followed. It lasted until the essayist heard the soft churning of wings just over his shoulder—it sounded like someone shuffling a deck of worn cards—and looked around to find the great black bird roosting on the back of his chair, peering over his shoulder. The essayist screamed. The bird lifted his frayed wings in alarm, ready to take flight, but the attack he expected didn’t follow. The essayist only sat with a hand clutched to his chest, staring at the bird furiously.

“What the hell are you trying to pull? I don’t need anyone sneaking up on me and reading over my shoulder while I write.”

“So what’s to read? I see only a blank screen. If you were writing I would’ve let you alone. But you were just sitting there, so I thought, what’s the harm? I apologize for being curious to see what you had so far, but I have a hunger for the life of the mind.”

“Well, you’re going to stay hungry. What I got so far is nothing from nothing. Not an idea in my head.”

“So who needs your ideas? I thought you said this essay was about Bernard Malamud’s ideas.”

“Right.” The essayist leaned forward in his chair to hunch over the computer, and in this way, with his dark hair and shiny dark eyes, seemed a little raven-like himself. “He wrote an essay called ‘Why Fantasy?’ in a day and age when realism was considered the only literary mode that mattered. In Malamud’s heyday, if a literary writer deigned to write about an angel, a vision, an omen, a ghost—in a word, if they tried to write what is thought of as fantasy—they were accused of slumming. Malamud made a point, though, that all fiction is fantasy. Frank Baum’s Oz and Philip Roth’s New Jersey are both equally fictitious, pure inventions, fabulous wonderlands that exist only in the minds of the writer and his readers. Every work of fiction is an act of make-believe, which makes fantasy more valid than realism.”

The black bird was quiet.

“What?” asked the aggrieved essayist, sensing in the bird’s silence a note of disapproval.

“You’re right,” the bird said. “This essay of Malamud’s sounds pretty fantastish. What, this magazine that hired you couldn’t acquire reprint rights?”

“Naw. They wanted my personal slant on Malamud’s view of fantasy.”

“Why you? Did you do a dissertation on him?”

“In a manner of speaking,” the essayist said. “When I graduated from college, I was writing a lot of stories no one wanted to buy. Realistic stories about dysfunctional families, frayed relationships, people struggling through their midlife crises.”

The dark bird, though, wasn’t listening, his head drooping to rest on his breast, his eyes closing. His beak parted slightly to emit low, buzzing snores. The essayist clapped his hands, startling the bird awake. He rose into the air, wings thrashing clumsily, then settled on the edge of the trashcan.

“Apologies,” the bird said. “No offense meant.”

The unhappy essayist put his head in his hands and stared morosely between his fingers at the screen. “Forget it. Can’t blame you. This is exactly the effect my short stories had on the editors I showed them to. They congratulated me on my craft, but said my fiction bored them to the point of physical pain. The maddening part was those stories bored me too. I collected hundreds of rejections and felt I deserved every one. But at the lowest of my lows, I began reading a lot of Malamud, and eventually I found my way to that essay. It was the literary equivalent of a string of firecrackers going off in a trashcan, sent me leaping out of my skin and straight to my computer to write. Also, there was one of Malamud’s short stories in particular, as fabulous and unforgettable as Singer’s ‘Gimpel the Fool,’ which I read and read and read. From that one short story, and that one essay, I found my way out of the woods I had lost myself in, and back to a literary place I could call home. Everything I’ve written since has been informed to a degree by Malamud’s example and instruction.”

“You used the bones of his fiction to make something new and your own,” said the bird.

“Essentially.”

“Good for you. Why don’t you write about that?”

“I don’t know how.”

“Enh, you like ghost stories so much, maybe you should stage your piece as a conversation between you and Malamud’s spirit.”

“I’m afraid that might be disrespectful. Also, I’m not sure I believe Malamud would waste his time haunting me. I’m not exactly in his league.”

“Can’t argue with you there,” said the bird, with another uneasy glance at the framed dust jackets on the walls. “Although there’s nothing wrong with the kind of thing you write. Plenty of high school dropouts like to bring a paperback with them to the beach, to have something to put over their eyes while they sun themselves.”

The essayist scowled. “You’re dropping feathers. If you’re going to shed, take it to a telephone line.”

The bird said, “What if you invented a satirical imaginary conversation, between yourself and one of Malamud’s characters? Say someone from this short story of yours that you liked so much—what’d you say its name was?”

But the essayist didn’t answer. Instead, he sat a little straighter, and narrowed his eyes, peering at his computer with the dim beginnings of hope. “Satire. But well-meaning! Maybe you’re right. Borrow one of his characters and talk to it for a while.”

“Just pick a good one.”

“The best,” the essayist said.

“Let me know when you’re done,” the bird said. His voice had a curious hollow reverberation to it that the essayist did not immediately notice. “I’d be glad to read it and offer my editorial thoughts.” As the dark bird said this, there was a soft tinny bang, followed by a rapid ruffling of wings, a sound that echoed strangely.

The essayist glanced down to find the raven in the trashcan, half the tuna sandwich clamped in his beak. The essayist screamed and kicked the can over. The bird erupted from it, dropping the sandwich, and cycloning into the air.

“What happened to your claustrophobia?” the essayist cried.

“It was overcome by other considerations,” the bird said, circling overhead. “No creature can live on ideas alone.”

“Editorial thoughts . . . I got editorial thoughts for you,” the essayist shouted, grabbing his boot and trying to pull it off. “Never let a scene drag on too long. You got to know when it’s time to cut to the end.”

He hurled the boot, but the bird was already sailing out, through the open window and into the sky. The boot went after him, but lacking the raven’s natural aerodynamic tendencies, it plunged to the street.

“Carrion!” the essayist shouted out the window.

The black bird issued a series of harsh caws that sounded distinctly like laughter. “Look who’s talking.”

Joe Hill is the author of two books, Heart-Shaped Box, a novel, and 20th Century Ghosts, a collection of stories.

Bernard Malamud’s “The Jewbird,” first published in 1963, can be found in The Complete Stories.

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Of a Feather

Communing with Bernard Malamud’s Jewbird

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