Bird hangs up and sits on the stairs still talking, wondering if it might be true. She might be dying, that is, or only making it up. There is a code she doesn’t know, she thinks there must be, a sneaky, menacing tally. She lost seven teeth when she was pregnant: her gums withered; the yellow roots let go. She swallowed a tooth in her sleep one night and thought she had swallowed the baby, thought: I will have to give birth through my head.
“Like Zeus,” said her husband, teasing, “weird god of the fructifying bolt,” and walked out into the world.
What a fancy man Bird had married. Her boy calls him Fancy Man, too. Little Whale, White Moon, he calls the baby.
Bird cracked her pelvis, giving birth to that baby, and it hurts her still to walk. Not always, true, but all at once, going up. Plus the doctor had to go back in there—to get the last of the bone and the balled-up hair that the baby had left behind. Scrape it out.
Bird counts to ten—that helps—with her head down, sitting on the gritty stairs. Dog hair, dryer fluff—she doesn’t clean much. She doesn’t walk much. But she used to!
Bird takes the stairs the way she has learned to—sitting, moving backward, moving up, thinking of the seal and its flippers. Hands on the step: straighten your arms: hoist your big butt up.
She needs a bladder tuck—doctor said so. Her bladder sags, it pooches out of her—unmoored and inelastic—any time she stands. So she sits and tests it with her finger and of course she thinks baby. But this one will be pelagic and never come to land.
Bird reaches the landing and drags her mother’s robe across a nail poking up from the wide-plank floor. A scrap of cloth tears free when Bird stands up, a ragged wing her boy will bring to breakfast in the flat of his hand, saying, “Mama, I found a, I found a, I found a—”
But it is not, after all, a butterfly like the one that once stood on his nose.
For now, he sleeps. The boy sounds like seven men sleeping. He is small enough Bird could carry him still from room to room to room, if she could. He says, “Carry me like a baby. Feed me your milk like a baby. Feed me the kind that’s cream.”
She finds the rug with her feet, holds her hands out, blind, finds her bed in the dark.
“Who called?” her husband asks.
Bird doesn’t answer him: he’ll be down in a beat, in a long-drawn breath—a heavy sleeper, her husband, heavier since the children came. He sleeps through hunger, pestilence, flood.
Bird slides her cold feet into the heat he makes. She drops off to sleep for a minute, three, for a glimpse of a dream of Mickey, Mickey galloping over the prairie swinging a lariat over his head—roping gophers, roping coyote. Ho doggie. Not another two-legger in sight. But something whimpers, hurt, in the grasses, lost.
That’s the baby startled awake in her crib.
Bird moves toward her, the sizzle of panic starting up in her chest: she is too slow, too late, she always will be.
The baby sounds like a barking machine. She thrashes in her crib, unboned and blind, good as blind. The weight of her body pins her, strands her in the drift of her sheet: she’s been dropped by the wind, breached from the sea. Shored up here, needing.
Every living tissue, Bird thinks. She doesn’t want to, but of course she does. Bird wants a shirt that smells of her mother still to ball up in her hands. So to sleep. Sleep and let the phone go, let the school bus pass. Take the day in bed.
I can’t want that.
But she does.
She brings the baby to her breast in bed and tries to sleep. Nothing doing. She’s all stirred up. She smells smoke, or a hurricane coming. Smells the baby’s milky head. She has a tooth already, this baby, a little headstone poking through.
A little zing when she nurses. It hurts. If only it would hurt a little more, Bird thinks, maybe she would wake him. Take her man in her mouth and wake him, want him hard again. Gimme gimme.
She tries to want that, but what she finds to want is the mess of herself, the old dream that Suzie lives. Makes up, or lives, Bird cannot sort it. She cannot sort the news from the wishful, the actual from the dreamed-up muck of what Suzie fears, or Bird does, from what Suzie wants, or Bird does, or half the time what difference there is between wanting at all and fear.
She will turn a corner and find him there. She will never in her life again see him.
* * * *
Sacred, she thinks, and narcotic. That’s how it felt to her.
And now every word she utters or hears makes it feel flimsy and dull. But it wasn’t. It was sacred, she thinks, and narcotic. Doomed—but that didn’t matter.
That Mickey lived for weeks in his ragtop—summer then, the sumac high, down by the Brooklyn bridge. Didn’t matter to her. They climbed the trusses—in the wind, the rain, the dark of the night they met. They were lit. They were lights in the great swag of lights the river passed beneath with its garbage scows, its freight of darkened souls.
They kissed, and the air everywhere went sparky.
Sparky is her boy’s word.
May he never be a boy like Mickey was. May he never meet a girl the girl Bird was.
She draws the baby close against her. She can net her whole back with one hand. I will keep you from anything doomed, Bird thinks, and her heart picks up—with wanting, she thinks, and fear.
Appetite and revulsion.
Your life swings around, and you survive it, she thinks.
You make something other of it—life from life—keeping what you can. Even when you can’t keep much.
She would never in her life again see him.
But she keeps the cuttings of Mickey’s hair balled up in a drawer somewhere. She keeps the peel of the first orange they shared and a cruddy bloody tissue. Not much. He had demolished everything else: the little clay pot he had made for her, the painting of the silver-lined cloud. He rode her bicycle into the river. Mickey burned every letter he had written to her and the box he had made to hold them.
The note he left said, Forgive me. I talked to your mother while I wrecked that stuff. I don’t know why I did.
Of course Bird kept it.
The photograph of the dog in the ragtop, Mickey kept. He kept the photograph Bird took of her mother, newly dead, she had shared with him from shame: Bird’s mother in her bed before the coroner came. She looked terrified. She looked to be screaming, still bleeding from her ears.
Of all the things he might have kept, he kept snapshots of the dead. Think of that, Bird thinks—and count your stars. You survived him.
Or not. Because wasn’t surviving the worst part? The dreadful onset of the cure? There was nothing you couldn’t get over. You could sorrow all your life, but still you lived, you lived. You hoarded. You flew your mother on a string like a kite.
Of course it pulled. The kite was enormous. Her mother called down: it was lonely, dying alone.
But there was always more string to let out, Bird found, to keep from being lifted, to keep her mother lifting away. And Bird was heavy. She felt stuffed with sand when her mother died, the anchor and solace of grief. She couldn’t move; she couldn’t want to. Should she move, Bird moved against a current and the current wore her away. Even sleep wore her away: the dream that her mother still lived. Bird would turn a corner and find her mother still dying in some darkened room. Bird had forgotten her. She needed peanuts. She smelled of shit; she needed her ears to be cleaned. Daisies, she needed. Tchaikovsky. A nice bowl of kittens and peas.
I will never die, her mother insisted. And died. And died again.
From BIRD. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2015 by Noy Holland.