The kind of thing she says
Back in those days our birds would give us dreams and then we would know what to do with our lives. All of that’s lost to you, and I pity you for it. Everyone had a bird. Not these shrunken fistfuls of song you keep in pretty cages. Our birds were as large as we were, massive companions perching in the bedroom corner, talkative if you were unlucky, coming and going with the moon. Mine was a beautiful stupid scrubwren and the dreams he showed me were commensurate—longings for glory and fame.
If you were meant for a dream on a given night it would start in your feet. The shudder of your ankles straightened beneath talons, kneecaps bruised, that was your bird crawling up you, a weighty intimacy settling on your chest until you could hardly breathe. You were awake by then, nystagmic tremble in your eyeballs the only movement possible, staring up into the moonglow bill and white lores thrust at your face, hearing the gibberish come at you—like a drainpipe with small bones in it, or a demon’s manic whisper—until your brainwaves synced and it was language. That vision of what you must do the next day arriving spattered or floating down like down into your being, the talons making their point in your chest. Drawing the blood.
When you woke in the morning you lived out your bird’s dream, or you lived into it, a precept that could bear you up on wings or crush you, but it wasn’t your decision to make. You might only have to bake a cake for the widowed neighbour, or you might have been told to get in your car and drive until you hit the coast. Or it might be more, learn guitar and form a band, become a politician. My wren told me to write a novel once, and I tried but I never got very far. You had to at least try. Everything of substance anyone did could be traced back to a dream. No need for government, or a god. To ask why of anything was silly. The mass murderer had had his vision. His dream precept told to him by his ptarmigan, icepicked into his skin, if anyone was inclined to check. The eight-pierced sign of the dream-visited.
There were dispensations of course, if the dream seemed impossible. The body might rebel, or the mind. A dream might be unimaginable. The only time I sought a dispensation was when my son’s bird told him to kill himself.
Things we find in her room
From her corner on the sofa Malley can see the birdhouse Dex set up in the backyard. It’s a horrendous contraption, an actual house in miniature, in the form of a pink two-storey colonial with gingerbread trim, streaked now with blood. She’s not sure what he was thinking, but it probably wasn’t this war. Daily while Malley watches, the starlings have descended on the birdhouse, making it their own. Starlings versus the world. Pecking at the prettier finches that try to feed, dive-bombing them with hive-mind flanking manoeuvres. Battles to the death, or so it seems to Malley. At times the evil starlings are three thick, hanging from the seed platform like a clump of bees. It’s the manner of masses, she tells herself and tries to look away, but the screeches bring her back. They’re cruel, she’s told Dex, though he denies it’s blood on the house, not really looking, dropping his tie over a chair.
“Clay.” He has an ejaculatory way of thinking and then speaking that she loves, entranced with his own ideas so that they bounce out of him. “Red clay from the creek-bed, from their feet.”
It’s murder, Malley knows.
She’s unable to paint during the day, listening to the screeches, the ochre lines she smears down the canvas causing a twinge in her abdomen, rubrication, an invocation of blood that never comes. At night she’s inside the birdhouse, giant feathered bodies pummelling the roof and walls of Dex’s tiny half-cape, shaking the foundation. She’s moved into the neighbourhood of violence. All houses shake where murders take place.
On Saturday she tells him. Dex sits at the dining table covering his eyes with one hand. This silence of his, after the loud house of her dreams, reverberates.
“Which one of us wasn’t being careful enough?” he says.
Dex is older, divorced. The arrangement was always precarious, Malley knows, a perch only, a handle either one of them might fly off of if the love were to stop. Move in with me, he’d said after three months of sticky, happy passion. Paint here.
Outside she hears the starlings attack. They batter the inner surface of her brain. Malley wants him to say something different, but everyone has a nature, he’s not an exception. She’s suspected this about him, but it’s as if she’s standing on the edge of a roof. She’s supposed to push herself off, take the initiative. Fly, but that’s so hard. So edgy.
“I just can’t,” Dex says finally. “That part of my life—where I might have. Been able to. That’s passed, Malley.” He holds out his hands toward her, long fingers curled to claws. “It’s an impossible thing to ask of me.”
Then he tells her what to do, with words like Otherwise, and I don’t see us together. He comes to her side of the table and touches her hair, kisses her eyes and her mouth.
After he’s left, Malley tries to paint and then rests her head against the easel. Against the renewed silence outside. Without looking out the window she knows the starlings have all turned toward her, waiting. It’s a self-fulfilling breakup. Either he leaves her because she can’t get rid of it, or she does and then she can’t be with him any longer, with a man who could issue such an ultimatum. Her thoughts clump, refuse to move, and that’s Dex’s fault too, the way a person can take up the pathways of the brain, until other thoughts can’t get where they’re going. Is it love or a traffic jam? She loves him, loves the way he mispronounces rhetoric. His hands are beautiful, she’s painted them eight times, never getting them right.
My Javier’s bird was a tyrant hawk-eagle that hadn’t bothered to show up until three days after he was born. Should have been a sign to me, I suppose. A morose little scowler. Little-big eaglet, with that tuft of feathers on its head that made you want to laugh and ruffle it, tickle the fierceness out of those amber eyes. I never could take his bird seriously. That tuft made it seem hatted, womanly somehow. When Javier was a toddler his bird was always in his room, always, though most of ours flew off during the day at least occasionally. Back to their hidden moon, was the going rumour. I’d walk in to wake Javier from his nap and his bird would shuffle aside, turn away from me, with its beak pressed up against the closet mirror. It never seemed startled to see another bird there.
When Javier was older it roamed the house, knee-high to me until the two of them got their growth spurt. Sometimes my wren, passing it in the hallway, would nudge it into a corner, schoolyard-bully fashion, and whisper things to it. That whisper set my teeth on edge. As if a car alarm had gone off somewhere down in my bone marrow, where I couldn’t reach to shut it off. I’d have a terrible urge then to shove them both, I could feel just how it would be to kick their fuzzy underbellies. Yet I also knew in those moments that—for all his paltriness—my silly scrubwren was being wise. Putting eaglet in its place, or trying to.
Did you ever swallow rage? It doesn’t digest. Javier was the most cheerful little boy. He looked like a dark flower. He had a giggle that was never mean. That’s hard to find in kids. He joined the photography club at eleven when his bird told him to and took photos that made everyone look twice. One day when he was fifteen he came to me. He touched my wrist and told me his dream from the night before and showed me the scratches on his chest, and the rage jumped out and ran around the room and then extruded back into my mouth, down my throat. Been there ever since, years.
His bird had told him to. He needed to understand the mechanics of it. He was asking me to help him.
Javier’s bird was nowhere to be seen, but my wren had joined us. Pacing in front of the couch, listening.
“You misunderstood,” I insisted to Javier. “You’re misinterpreting.”
“That happens,” my wren said.
Javier ignored him. “You don’t get it, Mom.” He told me the details, not only the tenet—he had been given the method and it was a terrible method.
Inside me all the glass in the world was breaking. Pieces cut me. “That’s not what the dreams are for.” I spun on my wren. “That’s not right. Is that what you’re for?”
“Not really, really. Rarely. Very rarely.”
“We’ll get a dispensation!” I tried to hug Javier and he was stiff, as if his skin had tightened on him. He glared away from me. His hair was unwashed.
“Maybe I could talk to my dad about it?”
Javier’s father had left when he was two. He’d never known him. “Javi, your father’s a nobody with a pygmy owl. Florida, somewhere. I don’t even know.” He was silent. “I’m serious. We’ll go for a dispensation. Dispense with this dream. It’s not unheard of.”
“So rare. Very rare.”
I had a minor breakdown then. Told Scrubby how useless he was, in terms you didn’t direct at your bird. Javier left the room. The rage in my stomach barrelled around and bumped into terror. Another indigestible.
There were those who moved around in their lives, running off faster than their birds could fly, it was said, living tucked away in woods or the cracks of cities, left to their own devices, their own decisions and indecisions. Nothing was absolute, even then, and still isn’t; teenagers can’t see that. We’d move away, leave our life behind, pack only love and stubbornness to take with us. I was already planning.
Scrubby shuffled closer. His downy chest moved in and out.
“Listen,” he told me and his voice held concern. “Running won’t remedy a thing. He’s a believer.” I knew it was true. I didn’t want my stupid bird to be this smart. He told me again how rare dispensations were, the stone court a hard place, how you had to argue. “They’re hard to make listen. But oh boy if you were to win, if they granted a dispensation. It’d make you famous, a celebrity. Make you both stars. Just think.” He puffed his feathers out.
At the clinic Malley is alone among women. There are no mothers, though she studies the faces when she can, the stories leaning against the wall or slumped in the cheap plastic chairs, searching for the one who knows what she’s doing, the matriarch. There is always one wherever women come together, Malley has discovered in life, a leader the others look to for sanction or sinew, though it may be the youngest among them. Yet the faces in the waiting room are all equally blank terror. We’re all mothers, and we’re all frightened children. The thought infuriates her.
Next to her on the table, among the tactless maternity magazines, lies a handful of brochures. The Birdseed Initiative. The Arcimboldo on the front shocks her slowly until she has to pick one up. It’s the one of birds, the human face illusory—a rooster’s comb for lips, hair a fan of tiny wren beaks. She experimented with this once in art school and was no good at it.
Inside, words leap out:
…the inversion. Will disgrace outweigh the beautiful? Will ugliness become beauty? Indecision is a right. If the many voices overlap, if you’re looking for a third choice… Come to us.
The address given is in an unkempt part of town, an industrial aneurism the city bypassed decades ago. Malley fingers the painting on the brochure as a nurse sticks her head around and calls in the woman beside her. Her fingertips can feel the inversion working, the man-birds-man riffling, as if the image is impasto applied straight to the cheap paper. Or remiges, spreading for flight.
When the nurse reappears, Malley blinks at her in apology and leaves.
It was strange to wait even one day without carrying out a given dream. Javier grew hazy, not all there. Lifting a glass of water looked like it took him effort. I kept him from school, kept him near me.
The evening before we went for the dispensation I cornered Javier’s hawk-eagle in the backyard.
At fifteen it had grown to stand slightly taller than me. It looked much older than it should have. That old-biddy hat of crest feathers had wilted to one side, a symbolic inversion, unphallic. I expected it to turn away to the back fence when I approached, but it only watched me stalk toward it. It put me in mind of ancient things dug from the earth, a body rotted through, which a breath might blow apart.
“Why do you never fly off somewhere during the day like the others?” It wasn’t what I planned to ask, these simpler whys, but the why at the core was still too new for me, too terrible to put into words. I stood close, in the hope my anger would ruffle it. It smelled bad. “Why don’t you ever say anything?”
No answer. A mite infection had left half its breast raw, the plumage pecked away. Across the yellow iris that it turned toward me something crawled. An infestation of eyeworms. Javi’s bird had never spoken in fifteen years outside of his dreams and I was too sad now to believe it ever would. What could it tell me that I didn’t know?
I raised a fist to batter at it. I couldn’t. It twisted away then, to the chain-link fence and the creek.
In the morning Javier and I took the ferry to the island. Aside from the boatman in his high house we were alone. Fog caught in our teeth, dampened the motor’s chug. We stood at the back with our hands on the cold rail and watched the city shrink.
“You know, when you were born you wouldn’t come out.” Beside me Javier stiffened. “I probably wasn’t pushing hard enough. Holding back. You read so much about ruptures and tearing. They want you to think women’s bodies are made of toilet paper. At one point, because you were taking too long, the doctor tightened his arm across my stomach, like a steel rod, and pushed down. Positively medieval. I think I screamed. He didn’t try it again. I knew then I had to do something myself so you would be in the world. The next contraction I stopped thinking, pushed with all I had.” The memory liquefied me. “And there you were.”
Javier looked at me. The tendrils moving in his eyes made me afraid his bird’s eyeworms had infected him. He said, “It’s not about you, Mom.”
At the landing a cobbled path led past hawthorn and burnet rose, winding up into the island’s interior. The morning was dark, as if someone had upended a bowl on us for the duration of our stay. Only the leaves shone a thick velvet green, catching unseen light. Everything smelled cold. At the top of the rise the path widened to a bald knoll. Giant statues ringed the clearing, all kinds of stone birds, their heads streaked with white from their real counterparts, the bodies below painted in faded ideas of colours I thought I might be imagining, the flamingo nearest us a washed-out pink etched in the granite. The flamingo’s legs and neck seemed too fragile to have been chiselled, but then it moved, one leg down and the other up. It turned to look at me. All of them turned to look at us.
Not stone, their grey was the grey of ceaseless standing in judgment. We were in the court.
“You’re very small.” It was the wattlebird near the centre that spoke, the only one on a pedestal. Others dipped their beaks. This was the presiding judge. The official red of its signatory wattles had been weather-baked to old blood, discernible only if you knew.
The secretary bird beside it coughed and craned its neck to get a better look at us.
“We’ve come for a dispensation.” I described Javier’s dream to them.
A black-neck swan eyed Javier. “You’re the son?” The voice was womanly, which surprised me. Female birds were few and far between, no one ever asked why. Javier shrugged.
He has to talk, I thought, he has to show them the iron in the ore, he’s worth more than all of them.
A silent consultation took place. Codes, transmitted through the trembling of wings, claws shifting, pupils pinpointing. A quail stepped across to huddle with a lorikeet before resuming its place, then nodded to the wattlebird.
“We will hear your argument,” the wattlebird told me.
My stomach turned to stone. “I didn’t prepare one.” It fell out of me. I hadn’t thought of arguments, too preoccupied with Javier’s hazy distance, with his dream’s details that were so impossibly cruel.
“She didn’t prepare one,” said the mockingbird.
“Mom.” Javier looked embarrassed.
“Yes, yes I did.” I felt time slip, time with him, laughing. My heartbeats, fast and unmeasured, slipping away.
“The length of time he’s been happy.” The judges cocked their heads at my changed voice. “And may be again in the future—must be measured against the time of his sadness. This dream that means no possibility of future dreaming…” I lost my thread of thought for a second in my thready pulse. “Cannot be treated the same way other, immediately enforceable dreams are. He should be made to wait, for at least as long as he’s been alive and happy, his entire life up to this time, and if after that—but only if—he’s still sad, then that sadness will outweigh all the good that’s gone before. And then. Then his dream may be carried out. I personally believe this sadness will pass. Life will sing again, he’ll pick up a camera one day and…” I was strangled for a moment, with him there beside me, and had to put a hand over my mouth. A parrot to the right of us looked astonished, but then they always do. “Children—teenagers—don’t understand the changeability of life yet to come.” I sought a word they would understand. “The moulting.” I realized my argument might be condemning Javier to years more of what he was going through. There was that possibility. I had to deny it. “This sadness will pass.”
They had all gone still, staring. I had them. A breeze brought the scent of nests from foliage below, brown and tarry.
The wattlebird rotated its head to study me until it was almost upside-down.
“What sadness?” it asked, perplexed. “This is about your son carrying out his dream.”
Her GPS falls into a hole and she circles the block twice before spying the small sign. The cars in the Birdseed Initiative’s parking lot are all shabbier than Malley’s. She’s on edge, the wariness kicking at her from within, but inside the tiny clinic building everything looks clean. Clinical, with flowers.
The receptionist’s smile is warm.
“Are you here to apply for treatment?”
“Apply?” She has cash from Dex. If they won’t take it, she’ll pretend to look for a forgotten credit card and leave.
“There’s no charge. But we do need an assessment to approve you.” The woman hands her a clipboard with a questionnaire, but keeps pressure on it for a second as Malley tugs. Loading it with significance, a church wafer. “Not everyone is right for us.”
Malley finds an empty cubicle along the wall. The questions are in the form of statements, with boxes to check yes or no.
She thinks of the sex she and Dex have, in which she is always conceiving, and checks No.
Yes. No. Please don’t be this ambiguous. The questionnaire goes on and on for pages. An illustration further down catches her eye.
The pictures range from a grain the size of birdseed, up to a giant homunculus much larger than the woman beside it and shown outside the woman’s body. Though she knows the birdseed is realistic for her, Malley circles one of the intermediate ones, about as large as a kneecap. The motion of her hand leaves her dizzy.
They’re all going to be like this. She feels sick, too soft for their nuances, the Yes-Nos. The right wrongs. She’ll never be approved.
From the next cubicle a woman sticks her head around the partition to peer at Malley. Some war involving the woman’s hair has left her exhausted. A mother, Malley recognizes, the conspiratorial type.
The woman sees Malley’s indecisive pen poised over 12. She glances left and right as if they’re being watched. “You know, you answer yes to that one, you get approved. They not even lookin’ at the other questions.”
“Really. Been here before.” The woman winks and it’s a mother’s sanctioning wink—no one knows what no one sees. “Listen to me and you in.” The head disappears.
After a moment of thought Malley checks Yes to number 12 and after another tremulous moment writes in the example space My birdhouse.
At the desk the receptionist gazes at her answer to 12 for a long time before going into a back office. When she returns, the form is stamped approved.
I kept him close. Watched, for so long after we came back from the stone court—should I say with an eagle eye? Ready to watch forever. I talked and I cried. I fought.
That evening we sat at the kitchen table and I tried to explain, how one could be a believer and still rebel, aim for some higher guide than your bird, only to find it in your own gut.
“We do things all the time that aren’t ordained. They can’t tell us everything. Life is too much. I pick up a glass of water or not. I open a window or not.” I touched Javi’s hand. The stiffness was still there, in every inch of him. “Maybe you could…just..not.”
“I know they don’t tell us the little things, Mom.” His steadfastness was a sheen on him. It held his back as rigid as an adult’s. “I know they don’t tell us everything.” I wanted to be proud of him, for believing when I couldn’t, but I couldn’t. “Only the important things.”
You can’t watch them all the time. One day soon after that he slipped away, like my minutes and hours have. He left a note on his bed that said Not about you.
I looked everywhere, phoned everyone, but I guess they all lied. A friend of Javier’s who lived three streets over called me a week later. Javier had been staying there. It was his chosen day.
I ran barefoot through yards. He was sitting in the street, acquaintances and strangers gathered. No one who would lift a finger to stop him. My dark flower glistened with gasoline.
There are signs and gestures apropos of nothing. We go blind if we look at them. I saw nothing of his sign, his meaningless gesture, fulfilling his dream. The brightness. I know I launched myself at it, a moth. I know arms held me back. I was the only one who made a noise, but I’ve forgotten how the noise went. Through the flames, when the flower was no longer, I saw his bird, which had been watching from the end of the street, turn and flap its wings and fly off into the sky. Horrid thing that could never go away before. Flapping a snappy beat, released. I remember thinking it would go to someone else now. Someone else burdened with the sad eagle for life.
I saw it all and I saw nothing.
I was gone for a long time then, into the woods, and when I returned no one had birds anymore.
You ask me if I would want the birds back. I don’t know. The system was good when it wasn’t bad. I’ve kept him close, my son, my phoenix grief, but I’m old—I can see that when I look at my hands—and my thoughts on anything don’t matter. Not to you. What all of you want nowadays is reasoning. You want to understand the why at the core of things and often you do. But some things are too large for understanding. What I pity in you these days, where everything makes sense because you make your own freedom, is that you may never know what it is to rebel against a thing you can’t change but should. What’s large enough to go to the stone court for.
She swallows the bird-shaped pill in the living room of the murderous house, alone, always alone. Dex has left for the day, saying he was going to get in his car and drive until he hit the coast. Malley didn’t tell him she won’t be there when he gets back. She follows the instructions on the printed sheet the Initiative gave her but they seem gratuitous, more suited to meditating monks, or a yoga class. Find a sunny room, open a window.
Why bird-shaped, she had asked the attendant who handed her the pill in the consultation room.
You know, he said. You read our brochure.
She’s afraid now she read the wrong brochure. After half an hour the pain’s making love to her legs and buttocks. The Initiative didn’t mention pain, no need to with women, whose abdomens are a theatre of war throughout their lives, all kinds of things reporting from in country. She’s readied a nest of towels and crawls in. Her belly’s grown huge in the same time, that’s not right, as if a child of air is sprouting from the bird pill, her abdomen bulging in synchrony with the pain, and she’s been an idiot, it was all a mistake, never trust initiatives. Too late. In a gush of fire, the ball inside her drops. Her hipbones, sliding doors stuck halfway open, scream on their flesh servos, but she’s Malley, she’s malleable, a changeable, melting, moulting sphere. In two pushes she’s pushed out a mess of feathers that tumbles screeching from her and unfolds bedraggled wings. A kind of hawk, still sopped in her fluids, its crest of feathers tamped down but trying to stand up. She ought to reach down and feel what birthing a beak like that has done to her, but there’s no time, the hawk is busy now, absurdly stern, practising. When its hops are strong enough, it gains the windowsill, teeters. For a second, seeing its grandeur, Malley wishes she could keep it with her, learn how to touch it, but it’s too fierce for that, she knows, too fierce for her or Dex or birdhouses, it’s the start of a different story entirely.
Story copyright © 2019 by Rhonda Eikamp
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Michelle MB
Rhonda Eikamp is a Texan living in Germany, where she navigates the labyrinths of German legalese as a translator. Besides previous appearances in Lackington’s, her fiction has been published in Apparition Lit, Timeless Tales, Riddled with Arrows, and Gorgon: Stories of Emergence. She has one husband (with a birdhouse), two daughters, and a cat too lazy to chase the birds.
Michelle MB is a Canadian freelance digital artist currently residing on the Slovenian coast after long stints in Germany and Italy. Her focus is predominantly portrait drawing, but after attending art college in the UK, she discovered an affinity for both digital and mixed media collage art. Inspired by music and stories more so than the physical world around her, Michelle enjoys experimentation and expression with technology.