A crow has been calling in the front yard since the sun rose. It’s the beginning of November and my left breast feels heavy. I lift it and the pressure does not release. I think it must be my heart weighted, hiding under and masking itself as my breast. So heavy that it’s pressing through flesh. It will fall out or erupts through my thorax. I try to redistribute my weight to no avail. My right breast feels empty in comparison, but the pressure on the left is so immense that I feel a tug on my clavicle.
When the crow stops calling the sounds of the world become unbearable. The heater trundles. The recycling truck barrels down the street, a thousand-pound monster that clutches and crushes the glass in its teeth. I hear cars zooming at a distance.
Yesterday my partner cooked a turkey that had been in the freezer since last November. I ate from the right side of the turkey’s breast, so what I’m feeling has no mathematical logic.
Yesterday, a sick pine siskin appeared on my back patio under the bird feeder. I watched the bird for over two hours. It would try and eat but the food would fall from its mouth. It slept, small beak nestled into the dark and light brought stripes of its feathers, right in the center of the top stair. My dogs stared at it hungrily and six lesser goldfinch landed on the step, collecting birdseed around it, mere inches away, while the sick bird slept, before I finally got a call from the wildlife care center telling me what was going on. The Portland Audobon Society says there is an outbreak of salmonella. I brought in my feeders, sprayed down the patio. I placed gloves on my hands, took a cardboard box, and cornered the poor bird. It tried to flap its wings, but it couldn’t fly. It hopped and dodged. Eventually, I laid my hand flat in front of it. It stepped on to my finger and I placed it quietly on the towel in the box. On the 40-minute drive to the wildlife care center I placed my hand atop the box. “Shhhh,” I said, “Shhhh. It will be okay.” The birds keep alighting on the tree near where the feeder used to be.
There are birds on my skin: a crow on my right thigh reading a stack of books in a river, a dove flying under a quote about sharing burdens, a girl releases a small bird on my arm. Next week I’ll add a heron standing in the marshes of my hometown. The heron in his oversized grey coat. The heron stalking.
I awoke in a panic to the pressure in my left breast. There was a moment I was sure that the precancerous cells in my womb have confused my body, claiming it as a hospitable environment for the lesions and given them a pathway, a trail, a direct route to follow to reach my breast.
I think my breast is turning into a wing. Or they become wings at night as I sleep, and I only turn back into a woman as I wake. It is getting more difficult for my bird to make this transition every night.
When I was 17 or 18, I took mushrooms one winter night and drove home in the darkest night I’ll ever see. Around my room I busied myself, trying to outrun the fear that dogged me. I stood in front of the long doors of my closet that stretched out like teeth. Over and over, I changed my clothes, as if I could change who and what I was. A disguise. As I pulled my shirt over my head I looked down and saw my breasts pull from my body, extend out to the side, an extra set of elbows. This image still haunts me some days when I look down while changing. But now, looking back, I think they might have been wings not elbows. I was preparing for flight.
I’ve been trying to fly away from my own body for at least 13 years. Maybe longer. I’ve been sick since the winter I was born. Maybe if I had been born what I am—a bird, a bird—then I wouldn’t feel the weight of my left breast bogged down by my heart and I could fly up into the sky and scream.
Shilo Niziolek’s nonfiction manuscript, Fever, was first runner-up and honorable mention in Red Hen Press’s Quill Prose Prize. Her work has appeared in [PANK], HerStry, Broad River Review, Porter House Review, among others, and is forthcoming in Juked and Pork Belly Press’s zine: Love Me, Love My Belly. She has twice been awarded residencies with the Spring Creek Trillium Project on Shotpouch Lands.
featured photo by Shilo Niziolek