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I first met Emmitt Griffin when we were cadets at West Point. I had a facility for elocution and my parents thought by enrolling in the academy, I could put it to patriotic use. I was not receptive to some of West Point’s core creeds, however, and used my gift to talk myself out of punishments for dereliction. Emmitt’s detachment made him even less suited to the campus. A gruff-voiced sergeant would demand to know why he remained immobile when everyone else was marching. After a few pregnant moments, a look of recognition floated to the surface of Emmitt’s eyes. He’d say, “Oh, right,” and hurry to catch up to the marching group.
He didn’t fit in any better during the off-duty nights. While everyone else was drinking and chasing women, he stayed in his room and wrote desultory poetry about the fairer sex, to which, I’m not summarily opposed. However, they were generally of the deceased variety. I’m not an expert on verse, but the epic poetry I’ve read had people doing something before they climbed into their deathbeds. That’s where Emmitt’s poems usually started. As he had some ability as a lute player, he also tried his hand at writing songs. Most of them were thinly veiled critiques of the academy, such as “I Hate a Parade” and “We Are Our Own Best Targets.” I asked him why he’d enrolled at West Point. He said his foster parents thought it would give him structure.
Alas, the only structure he gained was something to rebel against. After a year, Emmitt stopped reporting to classes and was dismissed from the academy, at which point I lost track of him. His absence put in clearer focus that I didn’t belong there, either. It wasn’t that I was unpatriotic, but I liked to talk things out, while my instructors wanted “people who would fall in line.” Twelve months after Emmitt left, I resigned. My facility for conversation pushed me into the salesman trade. I drove a wagon full of coffee, sugar, clothes, medicine—whatever I thought I could make a profit from. This necessitated an inordinate amount of traveling, which over the years precluded me from settling down and starting a family. I had my mail forwarded to my sister’s house and tried to stop there at least once a month. On the most recent of those stops, in the heat of July, I received this letter from Emmitt, our first communication in two decades.
You probably don’t remember me, though I now look on our misadventures at West Point as a highlight of my misbegotten life. I have done my best to make a living as a poet and writer of essays and reviews, but the wolf of poverty has never been far from my door. As a matter of fact, I would welcome a wolf at this point, because for the past month a raven has been perched on my statue of Pallas and stolen what little is left of my sanity. I am not long for this world and wish to thank you for our long-ago friendship before I shuffle off to the next world.
Yours in anguish,
Life was difficult, but I liked to think that after missteps and plans gone awry, everyone eventually found their way. That Emmitt was just as maladjusted today as two decades ago filled me with gloom. Up to now I’d used my gift of speech for superficial purposes, to avoid trouble and to convince people to buy things they may or may not have needed. Here was a chance for me to make a difference. I posted a letter to my suffering friend, telling him I would arrive for a visit seven days hence.
Emmitt lived above a tobacconist in a rundown building located in the center of a small western Massachusetts town. He had been born in Boston and never had a good thing to say about it, so I was surprised he’d returned to the state. I climbed the uneven stairway to the third floor and rapped three times. When he didn’t answer, I knocked again, thinking he wasn’t home. Finally, I yelled “Emmitt! It’s Cornelius!”
I heard a slow procession of footsteps and the pulling back of a deadbolt. The open door revealed a man not greatly changed from his student days. If anything, Emmitt had lost a few pounds from his already thin frame. His hair was slightly longer and unruly, but Emmitt had always thought combs discouraged hair’s individuality. The one difference was his eyes. If eyes were the windows to the soul, his were boarded up.
“Hi Cornelius,” he said softly. “Sorry I took so long. I thought you were the wind and nothing more.”
“I came as soon as I got your letter. You said something about a raven.”
“Yes, it’s still here. Come in.”
He led me into his modest three-room apartment. His living room was lined with cheaply made bookcases, though some of them didn’t have any books in them. A pink, rumpled couch had pride of place, clashing violently with the brown wallpaper. As the letter stated, a raven perched on a bust of Athena, which was set on top of one of the empty bookcases. I looked at it. In response, it turned its black head sideways and looked at me.
“Does it ever go out for food?” I asked.
“I’ve begun feeding it. The only thing worse than a raven stuck in your apartment all day is a starving raven.”
“Have you tried to get rid of it?”
Emmitt emitted a full-bodied laugh, which unnerved me because I’d never heard him laugh before, except once when a cadet asked him what his favorite presentation-of-arms position was.
“Of course I’ve tried! What do you think this is? An aviary? It refuses to leave and all it says is ‘Nevermore.’”
“As I said, its vocabulary is limited, but go ahead. Strike up a conversation.”
I was unsure of what to say to a raven, but I could talk to anyone. I questioned the reason for its unnatural behavior. Weren’t some key needs being unmet? Why have wings and not use them? It remained mute, not even saying “Nevermore,” but then, that response didn’t fit any of my questions.
“Ask it when it’s going to leave,” said Emmitt.
I shrugged. “When are you going to leave?”
“Nevermore,” it croaked.
That got me nowhere.
“He’s here because of Lenore,” said Emmitt.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“A woman named by angels. She’s dead.” That seemed typical of the type of women Emmitt met.
“I assume you met her before she died.”
“Of course,” he said, with a trace of indignation.
“All right,” I said. “We need to increase this bird’s vocabulary, then we can better understand each other.” I inched toward the raven. “People make assumptions based on vocabulary. Have you ever heard a foreigner with a poor grasp of English trying to talk in this country? He could have the brain of Michelangelo, but he’d still be ridiculed. So, let’s try another word. How about ‘exhilaration’?”
“No way,” the bird croaked.
“That’s progress. ‘Empathy.’”
“I’m still detecting a negative motif. How about ‘altruistic’?”
“Not on your life.”
I folded my arms. “Let’s try a different tack. You’ve made your point. Staying here and beaking strategic ‘nevermores’ is overkill. And who does it hurt the most? You. Surely you have nests to build and worms to catch. There’s a whole world out there that you’re missing because of a misplaced obsession. Return to your avian brothers and sisters! Take these unused wings and relearn to fly!”
My exhortations were, like Athena, a bust. The raven stared at me in defiance. I met the stare and held it, feeling if I turned away, my friend would be lost. The ocular duel lasted minutes until finally, the raven squawked and flew out the window.
“Eureka!” I said, shutting the window, despite the heat from the summer sun. “You are free, Emmitt!”
Emmitt wore a frown like a full-body coat of paint. “I can still hear it.”
In the ensuing days I tried to break my friend’s mood by engaging in activities reminiscent of our younger days. I introduced him to women, encouraged him to keep a diary, and dragged him to nine-pin bowling, but it was too late. The raven had made its point and lodged it into Emmitt’s soul. Flummoxed, I made a final offer: he could travel with me, meeting a variety of people and escaping his imposed prison. It was a chance for both of us.
I admit I was relieved when he declined, though it unnerved me that he did so by saying “Nevermore.” As for Lenore, I learned nothing further, though I’m convinced she, as well as the raven, were secondary players in a life predisposed to isolation. Eventually, the last turning point lies too far behind us.
Interview with Richard Zwicker, Author of “The Bird Whisperer”
What inspired your story?
I am an English teacher and a lover of Poe’s work. Obviously, this story was inspired by “The Raven.” There’s probably a little bit of Melville’s “Bartleby” in it as well. The title is a play on the 1998 Robert Redford movie, “The Horse Whisperer.” The idea of trying to increase the raven’s vocabulary beyond “nevermore” struck me as funny.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Probably “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I’ve always liked the eerie atmosphere of gothic literature, and “Usher” is one of Poe’s most unified longer stories.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since grade school. I’ve been selling short stories since 2008.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
No doubt I repeat myself, but I’m always trying to come up with different ideas. Perhaps a recurring theme for me is the importance of humor.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its students.”
– Hector Berlioz
What are you working on now?
I’ve been lucky enough to sell seven short stories in my “Frankenstein, detective” series (the monster of Frankenstein, after surviving his encounter with Victor in the Arctic, returns to Switzerland to reinvent himself as a consulting detective. Motto: “No case too monstrous.”). I’m currently working on a novelette, which I hope to package in a book with the seven stories.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I am an English teacher living in Vermont with my wife and beagle. My short stories have appeared in “Hybrid Fiction,” “Heroic Fantasy Quarterly,” “Penumbra,” and other semi-pro markets. In addition to writing and reading, I play piano, jog, and fight the good fight against middle-age. Two collections of my short stories, “Walden Planet” and “The Reopened Cask,” are available on Amazon.