On the Wings of a Cormorant
He rocks with his grandfather on the front porch, squinting into the sun, looking out over the Tennessee River. It is summer and his grandfather is shirtless, blue-jean shorts, no shoes, his stomach spilling over his belt. His grandfather takes off his bifocals and grabs a pair of binoculars. “Them’s Cormorants,” his grandfather says of the black birds floating on the river. His grandfather says that the Orientals still tie a string around the necks of Cormorants, sending them diving deep into the water to catch fish they cannot swallow.
“You mean Chinese?” he asks. “Or Japanese?”
His grandfather lowers the binoculars. “Orientals,” his grandfather says.
His grandfather goes inside and comes back with a World Book to show him a picture of a Chinese man in a coolie bamboo hat, a Cormorant next to him in what his grandfather calls a “Jon” boat, although he knows it to be a bamboo raft. There is a noose of thread around the bird’s neck. He searches “Cormorant” on his phone and shows his grandfather how simple history can be found. He and his grandfather study the thin beak, the top bill crooked to better snag a fish, the bat-like wing span. He X’s out the page and a picture from his recent trip out West appears on his background — desert, cacti, and mesas for miles.
“It’s like the Indians will come out and snatch you up any minute,” his grandfather says.
“Native Americans,” he says.
His grandmother opens the door onto the porch and hands them each a cup of coffee. She also wears bifocals and a loose-fitting T-shirt, white-and-red striped. Her pants cut off at her shins, “clam diggers” as she calls them. Her hair is permed and white, but thinning. She sits in the rocker next to him, his grandfather on the opposite side. “Why would a man want to be a woman?” she asks. “I can tell him right now he’s better off the way he is.”
“It’s biological,” he says to his grandmother. “He’s trapped inside a body that isn’t his.”
“That ain’t the way the Lord made him,” his grandmother says. “Plain and simple.”
A Cormorant dives into the water and emerges with a sparkling fish in its beak, gulping it down whole.
“What kind of birds are them?” the grandmother asks. “The black ones?”
“Cormorants,” the grandfather answers. “The Orientals use ’em to fish with.”
“Chinese,” he says.
They sip their coffee.
“You think we’re the bad guys?” the grandfather asks him.
“I think we can be better guys,” he says.
“What about all them out there?” the grandmother asks.
“Who’s them?” he asks.
“The Black Lives Matter business. I never thought nobody’s life didn’t matter. I don’t have a problem with the gays, neither, they’re just livin in sin out in the open, instead of hiding it like the rest of us. They gotta answer to that, just like I gotta answer to my sins.”
“Why is being gay a sin?” he asks.
“The Bible says a man ought not lay with another man,” his grandfather says. “It just ain’t the way the Lord made us.”
“What if a person doesn’t believe they were made by the Lord?” he asks.
“Then Lord help ’em,” his grandmother says.
“Ever wonder if you hadn’t been born here, this color, how life would be?” he asks.
“Ain’t no sense wondering about the way things are,” his grandfather says. “All in the Lord’s way, in the Lord’s time.”
“Amen,” his grandmother says.
He rocks and drinks his coffee. He counts the Cormorants floating across the river — three of them he can see, although he wonders how many have disappeared underneath the water, searching for sustenance, but hesitant to surface with their prey, for fear that a man might take it from them.
LaRue Cook was a researcher and editor at ESPN The Magazine for seven years before returning home to Tennessee, where his new title is Existential Mess. He drives for Uber and Lyft while putting an M.F.A. from Fairfield University to use writing short stories, which have appeared or are forthcoming in Minetta Review, Noctua Review, and Barely South Review, among others. He’s been admitted to Georgia State’s doctoral program in Creative Writing and will be a graduate teaching assistant beginning Fall 2017. You can follow his Uber/Lyft chronicles at My2ndFirstStep.com.
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Image: detail of historical postcard