Wendell Berry: The Wild Birds

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 1

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“It’s wayward, Wheeler. I knowed you’d say what you’ve said. Or anyhow think it. I know it seems wayward to you. But wayward is the way it is. And always has been. The way a place in this world is passed on in time is not regular or plain, Wheeler. It goes pretty close to accidental. But how else could it go? Neither a deed or a will, no writing at all can tell you much about it. Even when it looks regular and plain, you know that somewhere it has been chancy, and just slipped by.”

In Wendell Berry’s short story “The Wild Birds”, Burley Coulter is an old man seeing Wheeler Catlett to draw up a will – a will that leaves his farm to his son Danny Branch who was born out of wedlock to Kate Helen Branch. Burley has treated Danny as a son but never married Kate Helen who has already died.

This is one of Wendell Berry’s stories in which it’s helpful to have read his other works involving the small Kentucky town of Port William. The circumstances between Burley, Kate Helen and Danny are well-known to the rest of the community and there is an interesting on-going tension. Nobody really outright condemns Burley or Kate Helen and in many cases treat all three as family – not just to each other but to the community as a whole. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t unspoken thoughts and judgments that have lingered for years and that’s the case with Wheeler Catlett, Burley’s lawyer.

Distant Land

The lengthy but touching conversation that takes place in Wheeler’s office occurs with Burley’s relatives who would most likely inherit his farm if a will was not perpared. They are on Burley’s side as they already have a farm – and don’t need more.

Berry movingly brings the conversation to a realization on the part of both men that the underlying hurt doesn’t need to go on. Much of the conversation involves stories and memories of when the men were younger and ultimately the need for forgiveness emerges. A forgiveness that both men willingly give and accept:

The office is crowded now with all that they have loved, the living remembered, the dead brought back to mind, and a gentle, forceless light seems to have come with them. There in the plain, penumbral old room, that light gathers the four of them into its shadowless embrace. For a time without speaking they sit together in it.

This story is included in Wendell Berry’s collection of short stories That Distant Land. I read it when I selected the Ten of Diamonds for Week 1 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

6 responses to “Wendell Berry: The Wild Birds

  1. Interesting. I found the passage “the plain, penumbral old room, that light gathers the four of them into its shadowless embrace” rather oxymoronic, but somehow it still feels right. (Doesn’t penumbral refer to shadows? I’ll have to look that up.) I’m working on my first DMI2019 post during my lunch hour today. Gonna try to post more often this year. We’ll see how that goes 🙂

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