[Image Credit: “Heart Of Birds, La Scarlatte Illustration]
I never liked birds. I suppose it’s because my father used to keep them in a shoebox in the freezer. He collected them as he found them, all dead in their individual Ziploc bags, waiting to be taken out and used as models for his wood carving fetish.
We lived in the mountains in Pennsylvania, just at the border of Lancaster County. You know, Amish people, horses and buggies, Whoopie pies. The Amish kids were adorable with the boys in their overalls and straw hats, girls in their braids—and I loved watching the young couples, the teenagers old enough to go out on dates. A girl in her long dress looking like Laura Ingalls Wilder, walking hand in hand with a tall boy down the road. I would stare out the window at them as we passed in our station wagon, sometimes catching the eye of that one girl who I thought always seemed to glance at me and smile, as if she knew my desire to be like her, even though I didn’t.
Sometimes I still think about her, the one that stuck with me the most. The one who I pretended seemed to know me in those few seconds better than I’d ever known myself. She had long chestnut hair. I could tell that just from the bit that stuck out from under the traditional cap covering her bun. Blue eyes were set on high cheekbones that colored when she caught my glance and smiled. The heels and toes of her boots were caked in fresh mud, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“Bluebirds,” my father always said. “Bluebirds are some of the best birds to carve. The shading on the crown and tail are distinctive. And they’re larger. Not so damn small like those finches.”
He tried to show me his work, get me to help even. But I was always out in the driveway playing basketball. I got more practice running than anyone else on my high school team because I had to keep the ball from rolling down the gravel lane. It stretched for almost a half a mile down the hill. And if the ball went into the brush on the side of any one of the curves, it would have taken me forever to find. Forever turned out to be twenty-seven minutes once—it was a bad day.
When I wasn’t playing ball, I was up in the hunting stand my brother used during deer season. I climbed up there and read my books. In the winter, when the trees were bare, I could see all the way down the east side of the mountain. There was a dried patch of blood on the corner of the stand where my brother shot himself through the hand with his compound bow one year. He stayed in the stand for hours, stubborn as all get out, apparently forgetting that the deer weren’t going to come anywhere near the iron tang of blood. My father later threatened to roll his head down the drive, though my mother, as was usual, stood up for him.
“You know good and well Charley wasn’t going to come in until noon time,” she said. “You told him if he came in early without a buck he’d have to sleep in the stand.”
She loved my brother. I was left to my father to be his favorite, and I rebelled. I actually think I was more stubborn than Charley in that way. I haven’t seen him since he left for the Peace Corps. Booked a flight for Mongolia two weeks before my high school graduation, and never came back. Mom kind of shut down after that, and I moved out for college the following month.
I had a girlfriend for a while when I lived in Brooklyn. Her name was Miley, and she worked as a fashion design manager at a store downtown. She was a few years older than me, in her early thirties, but she said I had an innocence about me that made her want to love and protect me. I guess that was a compliment. Except, I sure as hell didn’t need protecting.
I was in graduate school, finishing up my last semester in child psychology—irony abounds. Miley had more than once sat cross legged in front of me as I graded papers and asked me to practice profiling her. I told her she watched too much Criminal Minds on Netflix, and asked if she had a suspicious past I should be concerned about.
She figured out real quick that I had this thing for birds. I was staring out the window one morning while she was getting ready for work. She could dress faster than anyone I’d ever seen, which was strange considering how closely she paid attention to selecting clothes. It was like she woke up every morning and ran through the mental catalogue of her closet, picking and swapping and finalizing. Me, I could walk around in sweats and a t-shirt all day and not think twice. A couple of times, I’d almost walked out the door in such attire until she stopped me, horror-stricken.
When she finished her ensemble for that day, she came to the kitchen and found me with my nose pressed to the glass, clutching the eggplant color drapes she had insisted on purchasing during a department store sale. I was sucking on a strand of hair, a habit she always reminded me was distasteful.
“You know that’s a distasteful habit.”
“Actually, it tastes like mint.”
She never appreciated my puns. “You used my shampoo again? Goddamit, Abby, I got that other stuff for you.”
“Yeah, I didn’t like it. Here, come look at this guy.”
She gave a half glance over her shoulder. “Look at what?”
“Don’t you see him out there on the railing?” I said. “He’s beautiful. Purple finch, I’m almost sure of it. My dad never really liked them, but I think they’re perfect. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a bird, Abby. I’m sorry, but it looks just like all the others to me. We’ve been over this.”
“I don’t like other birds,” I said. “At all. Just finches.”
“So you’ve said, but I really don’t see what makes a finch so different.”
“That’s because you’re not looking.” I pulled her to the window, gently, I thought.
Miley jerked her arm free with a huff, and straightened her dress jacket. Her auburn hair was wrapped behind her head, held in place with two sticks I’d picked up in China Town one weekend for her birthday. She didn’t look at the finch, didn’t say anything at all. Just grabbed a breakfast shake from her corner of the refrigerator and left. Her heels clicked on the linoleum and she may have muttered something, but I had already turned back to the curtains. I later realized that I’d forgotten to kiss her goodbye.
Sledding down the driveway used to be one of my favorite things about winter. I had an old toboggan sled, always cold on the backs of my thighs. I’d sit at the bottom of the hill by the road, feel the sun on my face where it was free to shine without the cluster of pines obscuring it. I got pretty good steering with the rope over the years, and soon I could maneuver the turns with ease going down. Charley sucked at it, but he liked to show off for his jock friends, and they’d laugh at anything. I tried to hock loogies at them from the tree stand until they dragged me down and shoved snow inside the fur hood of my coat, and Mom yelled at me from inside to stop annoying Charley and his friends.
One year while I was parked at the bottom of the hill, I saw a minivan drive by with a Christmas tree strapped to the roof. The family inside was singing, no doubt to some carol, and everyone was laughing. The kids in the backseat were even wearing ski hats and scarves. I wondered where they lived, who they were, and why they didn’t even see me as they passed.
I sucked on a tassel on the end of my scarf, clamping the knot of yarn between my molars. I eventually spit it back out and pushed myself up, frozen knees cracking and popping, to begin the long hike with the sled back up to the house.
I remember once while I was down there I found a dead bird lying in the snow. It must have fallen out of the tree or something. Maybe it froze to death and just decided it didn’t want to live anymore and keeled over. But it was lying there, rock hard. I picked it up and held it in my gloves, stroked a talon, lifted a frozen wing out as far as I could. I held it up to my face and made chirping noises to it. It was a female cardinal, brown and large. No crest on its head. It seemed especially large because of its puffed winter plumage and it being bloated and all. I dug through the snow and into the frozen dirt with my numb fingers, and pushed aside earth until I could lay it down. Then I smoothed its feathers and covered it back up, patting the snow over it where it would be forever safe against my father.
“What were you doing down there?” my mother asked me when I came back inside. She was mixing Hamburger Helper on the stove, wisps of hair sticking to her forehead. I glanced at the melting snow on my gloves, then at her, and then back at my clothes. The warm air in the kitchen hurt my face.
“Smoking pot,” I said, and went up to my room, stomping my muddy boots on each carpeted step. I passed Charley’s room and pressed my ear to the door, listening. He had a girl in there again. Sarah, a sophomore in the FFA. This one was different, Charley had told me. She lived just down the drive from us, and she often took the cut through the woods to slip up to his window.
I imagined a number of things I could do to embarrass them in that moment. Instead, I went and drew a hot bath, grinning a few minutes later as I slipped in and heard my mother yelling about how I was taking all the hot water again, and how was she supposed to wash the dishes without hot water. I sank to my nose in the bath and closed my eyes. If my legs weren’t so long, maybe I could have floated. But my head just leaned against the rim of the tub, and, under the water, I could still hear my brother going to town with Sarah. The sound was all warped, the way it is when you’re underwater in the pool and someone is saying something and you come back up and try to repeat what was said, but you always get it wrong. I could even hear down below where my parents were still shouting and throwing things.
I reached up and pounded on the wall that connected to Charley’s room. The bed stopped squeaking for a few seconds, and I pounded again.
“Abigail! I know you’re up there, young lady!” Mom shouted. “Stop banging on that wall! Your brother’s trying to study!”
I believe it was right then in that moment that I decided I didn’t care if Charley left for the Peace Corps. I’d seen the pamphlets in his backpack. I knew he wanted out. And he was actually going to do it before me, without Mom ever knowing who he really was. I felt like asking Sarah if she knew he was leaving. She ought to know. She at least knew the real him.
I never did tell Sarah. When Miley came back that evening from work, I asked her about it. We were finishing a dinner of chicken parmesan, her favorite. I’d bought cheap merlot from the liquor store on the corner, knowing she might complain but that I would be the one to drink most of it.
“What brought this up?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Was just thinking about him, that’s all. Wonder what he’s up to. Haven’t called home in a while to ask about him.”
“You haven’t called home to ask about anything in a while.”
I chewed around a lump of overcooked chicken. “This is true.”
“Sounds like you had other things on your mind at the time,” she said, “other than Sarah, I mean. Why did your mom favor Charley so much anyway?”
“He was the firstborn.”
She scrunched her nose at the way I’d said it without any hesitation, any confliction. It was factual. I didn’t need to think about it. Thinking about it wouldn’t change it.
“That shouldn’t matter.” She shook her head slowly and began twirling pasta around her fork, letting half of it unravel just to start again. I considered telling her the habit was distasteful.
“It matters when she never wanted another child after him. When she tells you that her mother never wanted a daughter either.”
Miley’s horrified face snapped up, pasta slipping completely from her fork. “She what? How come you never told me that? Abby, that’s the biggest load of shit I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Sweetheart, yes. Of course it matters.” She pushed the plate aside, and reached for my hand. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about what I said this morning about the bird. It wasn’t fair of me.”
“No.” I sipped the wine from my clear tumbler. Hers sat half full yet in her wine glass. “No, it wasn’t fair,” I said. “But that’s all right, too.”
“Oh, not again, Abby.” Her tone flattened, as did the worry lines on her forehead. She dropped my hand and took her plate to the sink. “I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong. The least you can do is stop deflecting the issue.”
“I thought you said that’s what you like about me, that I’m innocent.”
She made a face. She didn’t have to turn her head for me to see. I knew it in the way her shoulders hunched while she scoured the dishes with the brush wand, the way she turned the faucet louder. She had done it before, when I promised and failed for the third time in a week to have dinner ready when she got home.
“Innocent.” Miley shook her head. “That was a poor choice of words at the time.”
I drained the last of my wine and finished hers off. “Very poor.”
My father stopped me once on my way out to a Saturday night basketball game. Mom was asleep on the couch with another migraine. She got them frequently, she said. She liked to compare herself to Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, always complaining about her nerves, though I knew she had never actually read the book.
Charley might have already been at the gym. I sometimes saw him in the upper bleachers with his friends during the game. He was the only one in the family who ever came. I remember once when I scored a shot from near center court, and I looked to him through the noise and faces just in time to see him leap to his feet, fist pumping the air, mouth open. I wondered if he would have cheered had he been alone, or had his friends not known that I was his little sister.
My hair was in a high ponytail, and I was dressed in my shorts and jersey, all except for my sneakers, which I didn’t like to wear through the mud. Instead, I wore my pull-on ropers, Justin knock-offs. They were Dad’s hand-me downs. Kind of gross, but I’d practically saturated the insides with Lysol spray and tried not to think about it the rest of the time.
“Sorry I can’t be at your game tonight, kiddo,” he said.
“Dad, you haven’t been to a game all season. Why are you apologizing now?” I shifted my sports bag over my shoulder, hand half turned on the doorknob.
His face colored. I thought about telling him he needed to shave. With his amber beard growing full, he was going through the lumberjack stage again, where he only wore flannel shirts and thought no one noticed. I suspected he thought it went with the trade of his carving. A man’s look for a man’s work. Man glitter, I always called it when he came in from the shop covered in sawdust.
He pushed up the rim of his glasses, and scratched his head. “I just thought—I wanted to tell you, that’s all. You’re a good player. I follow the scores in the paper. Maybe I’ll make a game, yet. The papers still call you the ‘Super Soph’ even though you’re a senior now, you know that?”
“Yeah, Dad, I know.” I took a half-step out the door.
“Hey.” He searched for words. “I’m working on something for your birthday.”
“I don’t want a bluebird,” I said.
“No, it’s not a bluebird. I know you don’t like those.”
“Dad, I gotta go. If you’re going to come, that’s fine. I don’t care.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” He nodded, chin resting near the top button that was missing again on his shirt—though I knew for a fact Mom had already sewed it three different times. As I finally slipped out the door, he reached through and gave me a one-armed hug. He was wearing the Tim McGraw cologne either Charley or I had given him for Christmas.
“Have a good game, kiddo.”
I wanted to tell him later that we’d won, that I’d scored over half the points in the game. But I suspected he would find out sooner or later from the papers. I still made it home earlier than Charley, who stayed out all night with his friends at their favorite hole in the wall on Main Street. It was an underground club, below the level of the sidewalk. Wranglers. Real original name. It was an over-glorified basement is what it was. I told myself that I would go at least once, the way people say you have to go to a high school dance at least once. Yeah, I never went to Wranglers or to prom.
Miley put forth an effort to be extra nice to me the next few days after my dinner confession. She called it a confession anyway, but I tried to insist it was just another factoid of my life.
“But think about it,” she said. “How horrible of a childhood must your mom have had. To treat you like that means she’s—”
“Continuing a cycle of maternal neglect, yes. I know it’s not my fault.”
“Do you? Then why won’t we go to your place? Why won’t you take me to see where you grew up?”
I opened my mouth and closed it, thinking that if I said anything I would say too much. That it was for me and no one else. She couldn’t go there. She wouldn’t understand. She even pronounced it the wrong way, the way everyone who wasn’t from there pronounced it, hard on the consonants: Lan-Kaster County, instead of the fluid, one-word Lancaster, where the n is almost silent. The vowels were always more prominent in the Dutch communities.
“Abby,” she said, “just the other day you were telling me that I hadn’t seen real Amish until I’d been to Lancaster. And when I said I knew what a cow looked like, you dismissed me.”
“Because you’ve never seen a Lancaster cow. It’s true.”
“Well then, get in the car. Let’s go.”
“No,” I said. “I think I’ll pass. It’s too hot.”
“You get in that car, or I’m going myself and I’ll just drive around Ephrata all day waving to random people and stopping to take pictures of every damn cow I see.”
I found the carving on my dresser the morning of my 17th birthday. It wasn’t wrapped in tissue paper or wearing a ribbon around its neck or anything. Didn’t even have a card with it. It just sat there, the shaft of sunlight from my window nipping the end of its tail.
Staring, as though it might come alive and take flight, I crawled to the edge of my bed and leaned over, nose to nose with it. He hadn’t been lying when he said he’d been working on it for a while. Finches weren’t even his favorite, but I hadn’t seen more intricate detail even on the ones he sold at the farmer’s market. Sometimes, I could tell when he was rushing a job, when he messed up and worked around the mistake to fit it in. Every stroke here looked like it had been made with careful purpose—no shakiness in the lines, no extra pressure on the curves where he overestimated the turn blade and had to take the tip back over. The burn work was perfectly shaded. I knew from my own practice—he never knew I tried it when he wasn’t home—it was hard to keep the coloring so even. Sometimes the heat of the burner just eroded too much wood. Good wood is soft, the bumpy grains almost nonexistent. It’s harder to ruin. This, however, was flawless.
I reached out and stroked the left wing, petted the head and the beak. I could almost see how the sandpaper had rubbed over it, smoothing every single crevice and nick so that nothing remained but seamless art. I could have run my lips over it and never caught a splinter. I just stared at it, soaked in the detail, and traced it. It was just big enough to nest in the palm of my hand, but I let it sit where it was as I examined it.
Dad never asked how I liked my present, but I suspected he knew. When I saw him in the bleachers the last game of my senior year, sitting on the visitor’s side because he had come too late and the home side was full, I knew. And yet, it wasn’t enough. It had all come too late. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault—just the way the cards had fallen in our family. No one had taken the time to stack the deck. I had already moved on, and I knew would leave Lancaster itself for good as soon as I graduated.
I was miserable for most of the drive from Brooklyn. It was hot and muggy, and, just as I promised Miley, it reeked of sweltering bovine as soon as we passed the Pennsylvania line. Miley wore a salmon pink tank top and white shorts, expression veiled behind large designer sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. As I drove, her hand rested atop mine, shifting the gears with me.
It was a favorite habit of hers, to keep her hand on mine as I maneuvered the gear shift. She loved going from second to third, how my wrist flattened from its angle when it thrust forward. Sometimes at a stop she would grace her fingers around my knuckles, barely touching the skin until I flinched and ground the gears between first and second at the green light while she laughed. Between the lights and the cresting hills of the disappearing city, there was plenty of opportunity for low gear traffic—she insisted I take the scenic route. Abandoned lots turned to fields, run-down establishments to silos. Black ground to green, grey sky to blue.
As we entered the town I hadn’t visited in nearly ten years, I became aware of one thing instantly: Miley loved the Amish. They were in full dresses and overalls as always, the only difference being that they actually had their sleeves rolled up while they worked outside. I felt sweat rolling between my breasts just watching them. It was the first time I could ever distinctly remember not wanting to see these people I had grown up envying. As Miley grinned and laughed with interest, my face grew heavy.
“What are they doing?” Miley asked as we passed a large gathering of people working on a barn.
“It’s called a Barn Raising,” I said. “It’s something the Amish do together, usually to help out a family in need. There was a big one my senior year when a fire took out the Harris’ land.”
“Were there ever any Amish at your school?”
I thought about my father, who had gone to the same high school I did. In his day, he used to engage in “yonni-bopping” with his friends. It was a game where you’d drive up beside an Amish boy on his bike, roll down your window, and shove out the back end of a hockey stick that had a boxing glove on the end, effectively “bopping” the kid off his bike. I’m pretty sure Charley and his friends used to do it, too.
I pointed to the pasture out Miley’s window.
“What is it?”
“There,” I said. “See that? That’s a Lancaster cow.”
She laughed and made me pull over so that, true to her word, she could get out and take a picture with her phone. A horse and buggy came up and had to go around us. I shielded my face with my hand, but I still saw through the gap in my fingers the two little girls giggling at us. Just as I was about to roll down the passenger window and yell at Miley to get back from the fence, she opened the door and slid in with a wide smile and a peck on my cheek.
“Next stop,” she said. “Ooh, is that an Amish buggy or a Mennonite buggy? Let me take a picture.”
I pushed her phone down as I pulled away from the shoulder. “No. No pictures of the kids.”
“I wasn’t going to take a picture of them—”
“Not any of them. They don’t like it. They get it all the time from tourists.”
Miley crossed her arms. “I never knew you were this defensive.”
I watched the road between glancing at my speed and out my window. Over the hill to my left was the stretch up the mountain. I thought about climbing it, straining in low gear just as I’d done five years ago when I went home for the last time. When I’d packed my bags and said I was going up to New York for school. When, even as I left, I made sure that before I zipped up my backpack Dad could see the finch carving nestled near the top. Suspecting that he knew I never hated him was no longer enough—not for this step. I had to tell him in the clearest way I knew how that, while I’d come to care, while I’d forgiven him, I wasn’t coming back.
At the stop sign, I waited a few extra seconds. Then Miley and I turned right.
As I left Lancaster for good that night, I happened upon the same Amish girl I always looked for. I’d come up with a name for her. Melanie. It was stupid, I knew. She was still with that same boy—I couldn’t believe it. They were walking out of the Denny’s restaurant, the lights from the parking lot bright on their clean clothes. It was late for her to be out. I wondered if she would get in trouble.
When I drove along that same street with Miley, I glanced at the Denny’s, thinking for some reason that I would see Melanie leaving with that boy, both of them older now, maybe even with children tugging their hands.
I could never nail down why I was so obsessed with her, why I’d dreamed that her life must have been so perfect, so simple and clear. Sometimes, when I still thought about her hesitant smile, I imagined I saw it on Miley’s face. Maybe I’d been looking for clarity. In a home where insults were traded as readily as heartfelt gifts, there was a lot I couldn’t make sense of. Miley was clear and straightforward. Sometimes too straightforward, granted, but it fit. I didn’t want to take her to my family because I considered them under quarantine. I didn’t want her to get drawn into that deception and compromise until even she turned into one of us.
And even then, I thought about the dress she had always pointed out to me while we laid in bed. It was from a new line she was promoting at work. She’d said how much she wanted to see me in it, how well it would look on me. I didn’t tell her that I’d already bought it and had it hidden in the back of the car, and was planning on wearing it when I took her to a surprise anniversary dinner. And yet I thought, as we drove, that I would never end up wearing that dress after all. I would take it back to Brooklyn and give it to the college-age girl across the hall from us, or donate it to a thrift store. Miley had already had her way with enough.
While Miley flipped through the pictures on her phone, I saw a young mother hanging laundry in the yard from the corner of my eye. She shook out a white bed sheet, let it roll and flap in the wind before clipping it to the line leading from the side of the house to two different poles far out. This sheet didn’t have a single stain. I imagined taking a sheet that white, taking all the frigid birds out of that shoe box back home and wrapping them in it. And then maybe I’d release them all off the side of the mountain, and see if they’d fly.
Bryana Fern is a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is a member of the Center for Writers and teaches first and second-year Composition. She has served as Assistant Editor for Mississippi Review and her stories have appeared in Sou’wester, Red Mud Review, and Product. She has also contributed reviews and articles to Washington Independent Review of Books, Converge Magazine, Book Squad Goals, and Women at Warp. Follow her online at bryanafern.wordpress.com and on Twitter @bryanafern.