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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

Little Bird of Heaven

Little Bird of Heaven

A Novel

Joyce Carol Oates

For Charlie Gross

Well love they tell me is a fragile thing
It’s hard to fly on broken wings
I lost my ticket to the promised land
Little bird of heaven right here in my hand.

“Little Bird of Heaven,”
performed by Reeltime Travelers

Contents

1

THE YEARNING IN MY HEART! This was a long time…

2

REPROACH LIKE AN ARROW leaping from the bow, aimed at…

3

HE WOULD SAY I am innocent you know that don’t…

4

“HEY SORRY BABE, fuckin’ sorry sweetheart you got in my…

5

“IT’S OVER.”

6

“KRISTA. CLIMB IN.”

7

“WELL, SAY! Thought it was you.”

8

TWO YEARS, seven months later on a snow-glaring Sunday morning…

9

DADDY, we could not ask.

10

“YOUR FATHER WILL be staying with your uncle Earl for…

11

BUT I CAN LOVE YOU BEST, Daddy! I can forgive…

12

THE TROUBLE corroding our lives like deep pockets of rust…

13

FOUR YEARS LATER my father’s chiding words echoed in my…

14

349 WEST FERRY STREET. Where Zoe Kruller was found.

15

“EDWARD DIEHL? We need to speak with you.”

16

“SEARCH WARRANT, MA’AM. We need to come inside these premises.”…

17

I THINK THAT I should say bluntly This was the…

18

AARON KRULLER’S beat-up mountain bike.

19

“THAT WOMAN! Has she no shame.”

20

“THAT LOSER. You heard?”

21

NEVER RETURNED TO 349 West Ferry Street except in memory,…

22

DIDN’T SEE WHO IT was who’d hurt me. Never knew…

23

But this wasn’t right. Probably not. This was an exaggeration.

24

DEEP-THROATED CAME THE GROWL, caressing and scary like the scrape…

25

TWO-INCH GLOATING HEADLINES in the Sparta Journal—

26

IT’S A SNOW-BLINDING SUNDAY morning slowly he’s pushing open the…

27

THE WOMAN TURNED TO HIM, at his touch she turned…

28

THAT NIGHT. Only afterward would he think of it as…

29

ON THE DAZZLING-LIT STAGE at the park there was Zoe…

30

“MOM? HEY MOM—”

31

HE WAS ELEVEN. He’d been kept back in fifth grade.

32

THOSE YEARS. Krull grew.

33

SIX YEARS AT MINIMUM WAGE, treated like shit by prune-faced…

34

MOVING IN SOME OTHER DIRECTION. Have to let me go.

35

MUST’VE BEEN THE WEEK following Easter there came an unfamiliar…

36

WAKING HE HAD NOT KNOWN what day this was.

37

HERE ON EARTH to love one another.

38

DELRAY WAS SAYING he’d made some mistakes in his life.

39

DIEHL, B. ONE OF a dozen names of Sparta High…

40

AND THE GIRL. Ben Diehl’s younger sister.

41

MRS. HARE his remedial English teacher encouraged him. Returning Aaron Kruller’s…

42

THE GIRL. Eddy Diehl’s daughter.

43

DRIVING TO BOONEVILLE to haul a wrecked Dodge Colt out…

44

MID-AFTERNOON OF THE DAY following the night he’d been summoned…

45

“KRULL? OPEN UP.”

46

THESE WEEKS LATER, Delray was still missing.

47

“O.K.! I AM COMING.”

1

ON THIS DAY I saw him: Aaron.

2

“…WANT TO MAKE a blessing. Before I die. I want…

T
HE YEARNING IN MY HEART
! This was a long time ago.

“Can’t go inside with you, Krista. But I promise: I won’t drive away until you’re safe indoors.”

That November evening at dusk we were driving along the river—the Black River, in southern Herkimer County, New York—west and slightly south of the city of Sparta, in this long-ago time swathed in mist and smelling of a slightly metallic damp: the river, the rain.

There are those of us—daughters—forever daughters, at any age—for whom the smells—likely to be twin, twined—of tobacco smoke and alcohol are not unpleasant but highly attractive, seductive.

Driving along the river, bringing me home. This man who was my father Edward Diehl—who’d been “Eddy Diehl” and a name of some notoriety in Sparta, in those years—“Eddy Diehl” who would be my father until the night his body was to be riddled with eighteen bullets fired within ten seconds by an improvised firing squad of local law enforcement officers.

Daddy’s hoarse voice, always slightly teasing. And you love being teased if you’re a daughter, you know it is a sign of love.

“Just say we got held up, Puss. No need to elaborate.”

I laughed. Anything Daddy said, I was likely to laugh and say
Sure.

Always you had to respond quickly to a remark of Daddy’s, even if it wasn’t a question. If you failed to respond Daddy would look sharply at you, not frowning but not smiling either. A nudge in the ribs—
Eh? Right?

Of course Daddy was bringing me home just a little late, carelessly late. So that there was no mistaking that I’d been
brought home
and hadn’t taken the school bus.

Careless, that was Eddy Diehl’s way. It was never Eddy Diehl’s intention.

Daddy was bringing me home on that November evening not long before his death-by-firing-squad to a house from which he’d been banished by my mother and the circumstances of his banishment had been humiliating to him. This was a two-storey white clapboard house of no special distinction but it was precious to my father, or had been: a house Daddy had partly built, with his hands; a house whose roofing and painting he’d overseen; a house like others on the river road, paint beginning to peel on its northern, exposed side, shutters and trim in need of repair; a house from which several years before
Edward Diehl
had been banished by an injunction issued by the
Herkimer County Criminal Court, Family Services Division.
(Neither my brother nor I had seen this document though we knew that it existed, hidden away somewhere in our mother’s
legal files.
)

Our mother kept such documents from us out of a fear—it was an unreasonable fear, but typical of her—that one of us, presumably me, might take the
injunction
and tear it into pieces.

I wasn’t that kind of daughter. I think that I wasn’t. Clinging to a man’s careless promise
Won’t drive away until you’re safely indoors, Puss.

From what dangers might I be safe, by this action of my father’s, Daddy did not say.

I was very moved, Daddy called me
Puss.
This was my little-girl name I had not heard in some time. Though I was no longer a little girl, Daddy must know.

Having sighted him once, seeing me. Two years ago when I’d been in eighth grade. Thirteen years old and shorter by an inch or two than I was at fifteen, not an adolescent girl exactly though no longer what you’d call a
little girl
, yes but clearly a child, young for her age. And crossing a street downtown, several blocks from school, with two other eighth-grade girls. And squealing, and giggling, and running, as a tow truck bore men
acingly upon us, the (male, young) driver teasing us by driving fast and (recklessly) close to cause a small tidal wave of gutter water to splash onto our bare legs, and once on the sidewalk, safe but laughing, breathless, in the aftermath of a
frisson
of terror by chance I saw a man about to climb into a car parked at the curb, and how intently this man was staring at us, at our wetted legs and clothes, seeing this man—with thick rust-colored hair, in profile—fleetingly, for I didn’t pause in running, none of us did—I thought
Is that Daddy? That man
?

Later, I would think
no.
Not Daddy. The car he’d been climbing into hadn’t looked familiar—I’d thought.

Of course, I hadn’t looked back. Stared-at in the street by an adult man, at age thirteen you don’t look back.

That day, two years before, there’d been rain. So frequently in Sparta there was rain. From Lake Ontario to the north and west—from the Great Lakes, beyond—(which I knew only from maps, and loved to contemplate: these lakes like exquisite cloud-formations linked one to the other and so beautifully named
Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, Superior
where our father had promised Ben and me he’d take us sometime, on a “yacht trip”)—always a sky out of which rain-clouds, massive gray-black thunderheads, might emerge as if by malevolent magic.

Of that landscape, and of that parentage.

And so it was raining that evening. And on the narrow blacktop Huron Pike Road visibility was poor. Walls of pale mist like amnesia drifting in front of Daddy’s car, the car’s yellow-tinged headlights that had seemed so powerful were swallowed up in mist. In such driving conditions it’s possible to forget where you are and where you are headed and for what purpose for the infrequent houses were obscured in mist and mailboxes loomed out of the dark like sudden raised arms. “Daddy? Here—” I said for abruptly there was our mailbox at the end of the graveled driveway emerging out of the mist before my father seemed to have expected it.

Daddy grunted to signal
Yes. I know where the hell you live.

Now would Daddy turn into the driveway?—that long puddled lane leading back into darkness?—leading back as in a tunnel to our house
that, in the encroaching dark, barely visible from the road, glowed a ghostly white? There was only a faint light in the living room windows, the upstairs was darkened. It might have been the case that no one was home except I knew that my mother would be at the rear of the house, in the kitchen where she spent much of her time. If Ben was home, very likely he’d be upstairs in his room also at the rear of the house.

Before he’d moved out—before the court injunction banished him—my father had repaired the steep shingled roof of our house, that had been leaking into the attic; he’d done some electrical rewiring, in the basement; he’d bolstered up the back steps leading into the house. By trade he’d been a carpenter, and a good one; he was a work foreman now, for a Sparta construction company.

Everywhere inside the house, upstairs and down, was evidence of Daddy’s carpentry work, his attentiveness to the house. You would be led to presume, Edward Diehl’s devotion to his family.

Daddy didn’t turn into the driveway but braked to a stop on the road.

Almost I could hear him mutter to himself
God damn I will not.

For if he had, he would approach too closely the place of his shame. The place of his expulsion. The place of his hurt and of his rage that was at times a murderous rage, and it was too risky for him who had been banished from these premises by an order of the county court, whose breath smelled frankly of whiskey and whose face was flushed with a deep hot furious fire.

Would you think it strange that to me, who had lived all her life on the Huron Pike Road, the daughter of a man not unlike other men who lived on the Huron Pike Road in those years, the smell of whiskey on my father’s breath was not disturbing but a kind of comfort? (So long as my mother didn’t know. But my mother needn’t know.) A risky comfort, but a comfort nonetheless for it was familiar, it was
Daddy.

And the stubbled jaws suddenly ticklish-scratchy against my face as Daddy leaned over to kiss the edge of my mouth, wetly. Daddy’s movements were impulsive and clumsy as those of a man who has long
lived by instinct yet has come at last to distrust instinct as he has come to distrust his own capacity for judgment, his sense of himself. Even as Daddy kissed me, roughly, a little too hard, a kiss he intended I would not soon forget, Daddy was pushing me away for a hot rush of blood had come between us.

“G’night, Puss.”

Not
good-bye
he was saying but
good night.
This was crucial to me.

It had not seemed to be raining hard but as soon as I climbed out of Daddy’s car and began to run to the house, a chill pelting rain started. A mad flurry of wet leaves rushed at me. Awkwardly I ran with my head lowered, I was breathless and wanting to laugh, so awkward, my backpack gripped in one hand slapping against my legs, almost tripping me. I hated to think that my father might be watching me. Halfway up the lane I turned to see—as somehow I knew I would see—the red taillights of my father’s car fading into the mist.

“Daddy! G’night—”

 

Y
OU WOULD THINK
But he’d promised her! He’d wait until she was safely inside the house.

You would think that I was disappointed, hurt. And that I was not even surprised, to be disappointed and hurt. But you would be mistaken for I have never been a daughter to judge my father who’d been so harshly, cruelly and wrongly judged by others; and I would not wish to recall so trivial, so petty an injury, a misunderstanding, a moment’s carelessness on the part of a man with so much else to occupy his mind, a man drawn ever more rapidly and inexorably into the orbit of his death and his oblivion beyond the length of the graveled driveway glistening with puddles on that rainy night in November 1987 when I was fifteen years old and eager for my true life to begin.

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