Part I- Eleanor
Had Eleanor known she would give birth to a bird-girl, she would have taken her grandmother’s advice and gotten an abortion.
Sitting in the oven-like trailer in Florida, the curtains drawn to hold back the piercing sun, Eleanor had watched as her grandmother manipulated Scrabble tiles like Tarot cards.
“Nothing changes you like a baby,” her grandmother said. “It rips out of you, and there’s your heart walking around in the world.” She paused to take a pull from her cigarette and to lay down a word.
“Just look at your mother,” her grandmother continued. “She ran off at eighteen, took you with her, and what was I to do? What could I do? Huh?”
A-b-a-l-o-n-e, her grandmother spelled.
“I didn’t meet you until you were a teenager. And then it was too late.” Another creaking pull on the white stick and a puff of smoke wisped into existence. “Let me say this,” the old woman said, “to give you what I couldn’t give your mother. In the end, Eleanor, you will hate your child.”
I-m-m-e-r-s-e. The tiles clacked against the board like teeth.
“I did,” her grandmother said.
Eleanor leaned back in her chair and placed a hand on her already swelling belly. Outside cicadas buzzed monotonously. Her grandmother lit another cigarette. The faint red glow flickered and died like a single winking eye. Somewhere, Eleanor thought, she could hear a heart beat.
“Get rid of it,” her grandmother said.
On the flight back to Wisconsin, Eleanor threw up twice. The second time, on her way back to her seat, with the taste of battery acid still in her mouth, Eleanor was stopped by the stewardess.
“Congratulations,” the woman said. She had bright red lips perfectly colored. Her skirt had a small stain near the hem.
Eleanor smiled and nodded. She didn’t trust herself to open her mouth.
“We’re trying,” the stewardess said. Her eyebrows lowered confidentially. “Some day,” the stewardess said.
Eleanor returned to her seat. She watched the no smoking light, holding onto it like a life raft. The last real thing in the world. She waited for the ringing to leave her ears.
Ever since she’d found out she was pregnant, or rather since the world found out she was pregnant, her body had become a public piece of art. A combined object of satisfaction. The species would continue. There was much to celebrate.
Jim reveled in the public fawning. He loved the excuse to discuss diaper brands, strollers, proper schooling, the necessity of breast milk. He loved the hearty handshakes he received from other expectant fathers, the looks of envy from younger men.
Eleanor could only stand there on those occasions and play again that internal film she called, “Where it Began”.
It started on the night they moved into their new home in Monroe. There they sat, Eleanor and Jim, eating the pad thai they had brought with from Madison. The boxes stacked into tree trunks in the empty expanse of the dining room. A single loveseat crouched in the recesses of the living room. They were happy. They were tired. They had been married for all of one exhausting year.
“Why don’t we have a baby?” Jim had asked. He was an artist and prone to impulse, emotion, and color. When he proposed he had taken her up to the top of a mountain at sunset. They had had to feel their way back in the darkness, and Eleanor had twisted her ankle.
“A what?” Eleanor had asked.
“Kids,” Jim said, “children, you know, young ones. We oughta get us one of them.”
They had discussed children before. Vaguely. And yes, Eleanor did want them. Sometime. Down the road. By this she had meant adopting a golden retriever when she turned fifty. For Jim down the road apparently meant the mailbox at the end of the driveway.
“It’s not the right time,” Eleanor said.
“Why not?” Jim asked.
“It just isn’t,” Eleanor said. Jim, Eleanor knew, saw the world in shapes and patterns, in brushstrokes rich with paint and charcoal shadings on the edge of darkened forests. Eleanor was a genetic counselor. She traded in karyotypes and polymorphisms. Single deletions leading to disfigurement. Or death. A tiny shift creating endless ripples to be played out again and again by the forming body.
Some days she wished she could pull out her laptop and show him. Pull up image after image of flattened noses, stunted fingers, webbed feet. Blue children peering out of jars of formaldehyde. But these things were not real to Jim and could not be made real.
“What are we waiting for?” Jim asked. “We’ve got steady jobs. A new house. We’ve never been more in love.” He took her hand and kissed it.
“Why spoil a good thing?” Eleanor asked.
And that was it. The film jumped to several months later.
Eleanor went into Jim’s studio looking for the mail. He had the bad habit of taking the mail and losing it abruptly. Eleanor opened a drawer in his desk and found herself looking into a mirror. There in the drawer lay a charcoal drawing of her face. On her bare breast rested a child. It’s face was blank. A head, rounded and curved, with light traces of hair and only the faintest impression of a nose and a place where eyes should go. Eleanor stood for a long moment examining the drawing. She put the drawing back in the drawer and left the studio.
That night she told Jim that they could leave children up to chance. It wasn’t until later that she fully realized the true meaning of the word.
The film skipped ahead three more months and there Eleanor sat on the bathroom floor, her head resting against the cold porcelain of the toilet bowl, in her hand a white wand. Eleanor was trying not to laugh. It was a joke, though, and funny at that. Here, this common symbol, a universal sign for positivity transformed into an incomprehensible rune. And here her body, what had once been hers and hers alone, transformed into a vessel.
She sat on the floor tracing the pattern of the tiles with her eyes until her gaze was drawn up to the ceiling. She saw for the first time a dark splotch of mold spreading out from the corner. She should tell Jim, she thought. He would want to know. That there was something. Something alive and pulsing. It had settled deep in the foundations of the house without her even knowing. Something growing.
That night Eleanor had a dream, she was in her childhood home with wasps in the attic and spiderwebs in the kitchen. Out behind the house was the birdfeeder that she had plundered for seed as a child. Her mother had caught on eventually and stopped filling it, but Eleanor still felt a certain fondness for the little plastic container. In her dream, she was small enough to perch on the edge of the feeder. She quirked her head to one side. She heard in the distance the crinkled laughter of an old man. She pecked at the seed, took one in her beak. Something told her not to swallow, but she was so hungry, filled with an aching emptiness. She swallowed the seed. And fell back from the feeder, jolted by an electric shock. When she hit the ground her wings splintered and fell off. She lay broken and useless watching the sky spin above her. She woke up in a sweat.
Jim slept peacefully beside her. He had slept well every night of her pregnancy. And that’s where the film ended. Jim snoring peacefully next to Eleanor. Her eyes open staring up into the endless dark of the ceiling. Something growing.
The baby came a month early while Jim was away in Chicago. It started with a sharp pain in Eleanor’s abdomen and a fluttering of her heart. She took a taxi to the hospital. She walked when the doctor told her to walk. She sat when the doctor told her to sit. She breathed when she remembered. She wished suddenly and absurdly for her grandmother’s cigarette smoke.
In the early hours of the morning, the baby came out of her. It was easy, she would later recognize, compared with what followed. Just half an hour of sweating and screaming in a voice that couldn’t have been hers, and then there was silence.
In that first moment of utter stillness Eleanor thought the baby had died. Then she thought, hopefully, that she had died instead. The afterlife could be nothing but quiet.
But the breathless moment was broken by a sound Eleanor had never heard before. It was a cry, harsh yet rounded, the cooing of a dove crossed with the scream of a jay. It was beautiful. But the doctor’s face was blank, and the nurses weren’t speaking.
“What is it?” Eleanor asked.
The crowd of people in blue scrubs converged to form a wall between her and the child. They conversed in hushed tones. A murmur, rising and falling pointlessly.
“What is it?” Eleanor asked again, louder this time.
At last the doctor turned to her. She was a tall woman with long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She had a single chipped tooth. Behind her instruments buzzed and beeped at random intervals. The bed sheets crackled as Eleanor turned slightly.
“We don’t know,” the doctor said and placed a small bundle into Eleanor’s arms. “We just don’t know.”
Eleanor had never gotten an ultrasound. The doctors hated her for it. Jim didn’t understand. Eleanor couldn’t bring herself to see the child growing in her belly, stretching her skin, twisting her bones. She worried that if she saw it she would hate it.
Now, looking into the dark brown eyes of her child, she realized that she had never been more wrong in her life. There in her arms, was her heart beating softly and steadily outside her body.
Part II- Birdy
Sliding glass door, open, out out out into the yard. Across the back porch, crunching dead red oak leaves. Leaves koho leaves. Hanging from the branch of the oak. Birdfeeder.
You have never heard the word birdfeeder from Eleanor. It is a word you learned from kids at school. But it’s there. Hanging from the oak. Covered in seed seed seed. Koho seed. And you are light and strong and can leap high and with just a flick of your wings attack the seeds with your beak. Snap snap.
And Eleanor comes outside. Screech. Sliding glass door open, crunch dead red oak leaves. You can tell she’s angry because she’s talking fast and you can’t understand her when she talks fast. Not the words anyway, only the feeling behind it, but here you feel it. Shame. Hard and painful, crabbing its way up your wings, so you fold them and shuffle your feet. You look up at Eleanor because you don’t want the shame to stay there and fill in your bones which Eleanor told you are hollow, so be careful Judy.
You have two names, Judy when Eleanor is happy and remembers. And Birdy when she is not and does not. Now she is calling you Birdy and the name brings the other words into focus.
“Thinking, Birdy? Could have hurt yourself! Don’t do it again, okay? Honey, do you hear me?”
She stops talking and you look up shyly at her. She is so pretty you think. She has soft nice dark skin and soft nice dark hair and eyes that look just like yours. You say what you always say when Eleanor is mad and you don’t want her to be.
“Koho,” you say, because Eleanor read it to you from “The Trumpet of the Swan” and she hugged you very gently then and looked at you with that glinty look in her eyes so that you felt very big and very small.
Now she stands in front of you with one hand pushing hair back from her forehead and one hand on her hip and doesn’t say anything but just looks at you. You scuffle your feet some more and then go inside. When you turn back she is still standing there looking up at the birdfeeder. The next day it is not there anymore.
In kindergarten the other kids just threw things at you and called you names. It was kindergarteners who dubbed you Birdy to begin with, they heard Eleanor calling you it once and the name never went away. In middle school they grew more sophisticated in their torment, so you grew more sophisticated in your response. When they built a nest in your locker you put rotting eggs in theirs. When they started asking you about your mating rituals you started asking them about their ovulation. Eventually they just stopped talking to you.
You didn’t mind. There were more important things to worry about. You spent whole afternoons in the library reading everything you could about ornithology, about genetics, about witchcraft, about very very old men with enormous wings. You remember the day you found a picture of a pregnant kiwi in the library. You ran home crying to Eleanor at the sight of that huge black outline of an egg pressing up against the bones. When you explained it to her, she sat you down on her lap and stroked the feathers on your head until you were calmer.
“It can be scary,” Eleanor said to you, “but it can also be beautiful.” She wasn’t looking at you as she said it. She was looking down at the hardwood floor glowing warm in the sun. “You don’t need to worry about it for a while.”
Now in high school, you don’t think you’ll need to worry about it ever. You’ve seen enough TV by now, read enough books to understand that there will never be romance in your life. You wear baggy sweatshirts to school to hide your bright blue wings. You wear skinny jeans to emphasize the humanness of your legs. On days when you have to meet strangers you wear a surgical mask over your face. You’ve drawn a sloppy mouth on the mask, a mouth pulled back at the corners into a grin. You have never smiled in your life. Your beak will not allow it.
You have read by now about the FOXP2 gene. It is a gene that is required for human speech. It is also a gene that controls song imitation in song birds. You do not sing in choir. You do not sing ever. You used to sing to Eleanor when you were little. You would sing songs you heard on the radio, songs from the cereal commercials on TV, your favorite songs, though, were the ones you learned from them.
It’s a strange feeling watching them. They flit around, they hop, they are ungainly and graceful. You do not understand the way other people describe them as free. They do not look free to you. They are paradoxes and when you see them you feel at once confused and certain. You used to sing their songs with them, intricate and multi-layered. Songs that started in your gut and dripped out through your beak. You aren’t sure when you stopped, except maybe it was around the time Jim left.
You never really felt comfortable around Jim. He was very quiet and gentle, but something about him felt slippery. You remember how many times he took you into his studio to draw you. You remember having to sit very still as he looked through you into something beyond. His studio filled with drawings of you. You’d sit there and watch yourself from every angle, crawling, hopping flowing over the wall. The feathers that ran from the top of your head down to your pelvis, the softy curve of your beak, the stretch of your wings offset by your slender human legs, replicated over and over above and around you. All you could hear was the scratch scratch scratch of pencil on paper and the occasional cough from Jim and the fluttering of your own heartbeat. You remember when Eleanor saw a drawing. You could hear the shouts coming down the hall from their room.
“She’s not like this! Not a monster!” you heard Eleanor say.
“You’re seeing what you want to,” Jim said back. He was quieter than Eleanor, but somehow he seemed to be angrier. You got up out of your bed with its pale green striped bedspread and tiptoed down the hall to hear better.
“You have no right,” Eleanor said. “She’s your daughter, too, Jim. You can’t do this to her.”
“She’s not my daughter,” Jim said and he sounded like his jaw has been wired closed. “I may not know much, but I’m not stupid.”
“What can I do, Eleanor?” Jim asked more softly than ever.
You crept back to your bed then because you didn’t think you wanted to hear anymore. The next week Jim moved out. He left you a single drawing on your bed. It was of you. You looked at it carefully over the next few weeks and then months and then years. You couldn’t quite see why Eleanor was so upset. It was you with your beak open as if to sing or to scream. Your feathers were sticking out at odds and your wings were pulled back from your shoulders at sharp angles. Your legs were bent to spring. But your eyes were what drew you back again and again. Your eyes were stretched open wide staring at the viewer. They were your eyes dark and wet and shining, but there was something in the way that Jim drew them that you’d never seen before. Something deep and dark and wild that you don’t think you will ever understand.
In your senior year of high school you met Gladys who was from California. Whose father had gotten a job at the lumberyard. She was not like anyone you’d ever met before. She told you how she used to be identified as male, and you felt you could connect, being something different inside. Gladys had long straight dark hair and a nose ring. If you had a nose you would have gotten a ring like that.
You brought Gladys home to meet Eleanor once. Eleanor acted stiff around her. You’d never seen her act before. You decided not to tell Eleanor things anymore.
You started having feelings. Feelings that other parents would have described in “the birds and the bees” talk. You had these feelings about Gladys and then about your English teacher Mr. Kandinski and then about anything that moved. You wondered when it would all stop, the aching and the yearning and moving.
You watched them in the treetops. You watched them on nature documentaries late at night with the sound down low. You found out about penguins and parrots who are monogamous and about red-winged blackbirds and turkeys who are not. You knew you were most similar to an indigo bunting who are usually monogamous, but not always.
You wondered how Eleanor could stand it, to be alone all the time.
You made a necklace for Gladys with a single feather from your wing. She wore it around her neck at school. You wished you had lips.
You went to the movies with Gladys. You went to restaurants that served whole-grain foods. You went to the lumberyard at the back of the town. You stayed out late until the stars came out overhead and you talked about nothing and everything and nothing again.
You heard about her family. Her older sister who loved her and her mother who did not. You told her about your father who was not your father and your mother who moved in a distant orbit too far for you to reach. You told her about your love of them and your obsession and she said it made sense.
“It’s still in you,” she said. “It’s a part of you, but it’s a part of me, too.”
And you felt you could share a life with her if only you had enough time and were not quite so young.
In February people found out about Gladys. And about you. And about you and Gladys. Though you weren’t even sure if there was anything to find out. They paid attention then. They started leaving threats in your locker.
“Fly away home” pinned to a dead starling. You stopped wearing bright colors.
Gladys had it worse. They attacked her after school one day in late March. Mr. Kandinski was there to stop it but not before they broke her nose. Her nose ring had to be taken out for a long time. Gladys stopped coming to school. When you tried to call her, she wouldn’t answer. She didn’t want to make it worse, her sister said.
She transferred in April to a private school. A solitary migration. Heading the wrong way. Heading south in spring.
You did not have the words to answer. You had only the roof where you sat all night singing without sound. They began to come around you, sitting near your window at night, perching on your shoulders in the day. This was a pain that needed to be shared. A dark heartbeat in the night.
Part III- Flight
The brightest in school. Valedictorian, best of the best. We are not surprised when she is chosen. Birdy, that bird girl, Birdy.
It’s graduation day, and the weather has agreed to take part. Fluffy damn clouds. Bright sun. It shines off the blue feathers of the bird girl as she stands up in front of the whole audience, as she stands up in front of us.
We are barely conscious. If the eye wanders it picks up only the movement of programs fanning back and forth. Flick. Flick. Quick. A breeze, somewhere a breeze.
We have made it here. After the years of feet-dragging, of derision, sarcasm, and downright cruelty. We have suffered our little defeats and achieved our great victories and we are all, however hidden it may be, proud.
But our growing sense of satisfaction is punctured by the sight of this creature on the old podium before us. We do not know her. Or we know her and will not acknowledge her. She is not one of us.
She coughs once. She is wearing the traditional black gown, but the cap is off. Perhaps it does not fit on her head. Perhaps her feathers are too slick for the cap to stay.
She clears her throat again. Somewhere in the audience her mother is seated. We do not look for her, though, our eyes are on the stage. Waiting with the vague hope that this girl, this thing, will make a mistake. We do not want to hear what this creature has to say, only how she says it.
Birdy has a beak. She cannot form “m’s”, or “w’s”. She cannot make “b’s”, “v’s”, or “f’s”. Every other word is a landmine to be avoided. Some people, the more invested, are going to keep count of the fragmented words.
But now we lean back because Birdy is beginning.
“Here,” Birdy says. A strong opening, but not strong enough. We are already losing interest, batting at the tassels in front of us, squirming in the plastic chairs, nodding off to sleep. “Here is a lie,” Birdy continues. “Here is a collecti’e illusion designed to distract us ‘rom the surety o’ death.”
We are not amused. Our expectation for cliché and self-congratulation are sure to be dashed, and here we are confronted with a diatribe. In the sky a few birds are circling. If we were smarter we might be able to identify them by their markings, their bands and crests, lengths and wingspans. We cannot.
“So here ‘e are is also a lie,” Birdy says. Her voice is getting louder, “and ‘e are lea’ing is an e’en greater lie. There can ‘e no lea’ing. This state is constant. This state is eternal. ‘e do not graduate today.”
The deans are shifting restlessly in their seats, wondering when is the right time to intervene. Wondering if we’re even noticing what’s happening. And we are, or some of us are now. We are leaning forward in our seats, willing a train wreck. We want to hear the lie. We are waiting with baited breath to tear her apart.
“And this is hell,” Birdy says. Not a single flubbed syllable in there. “’e are caught in hell eternally.”
If we weren’t captivated by the bright blue figure on stage we might have noticed the greater number of winged creatures, slowly beginning to form a flock above our heads.
“Actually,” Birdy continues, “I ‘ean, you are caught eternally in hell.”
Someone claps in the crowd. A low wolf whistle. Any moment now we will swarm the stage, rip her from the podium. But somehow the words are pinioning us to the seats, holding us still.
“You are destined to eke out dull ‘eaningless existences.” Birdy is calm. Birdy is incandescent. Birdy is powerful.
The birds are circling now. The speech, if it could be called a speech is punctuated now by croaks and chirps. Something is saying “potato chip” over and over again.
“You all are staying, grounded, here the rest o’ your li’es. Li’ing ‘ith yourel’es.”
One of the deans is half standing, but he is caught, charmed by the words coming from that beak, that bright black beak. We have never seen anything so terrifying or so beautiful. We are caught between great hate and great fear and great admiration.
The birds are a flock, a cloud above our heads, they block the fluffy clouds, and the bright sun. We cannot move, though, cannot look up. She is standing there. She is raising her wings and they redefine blue. We have never seen another color nor will we ever again.
“I do not ‘orgi’e you,” Birdy says. “You are not ‘orgi’en.”
She bent her knees then, and somewhere in the silent crowd, in the stands with the parents and family, we can hear the bird girl’s mother crying.
“I,” Birdy says. It is her way of saying goodbye.
She springs from the stage leaping over the podium just as the whirlwind of birds dives down towards us. For one instant Birdy is framed against the sky, light coming from within her feathers, a bright crest raising on her head, the black robe flowing down around her body. Then she is swallowed in the flock and we can see only wings and beating and hear only the cacophony birds.
From within the swarm the graduation gown falls and then with a last shower of feathers they are gone.
We do not move for a long time. Every one of us is still.
We still graduate. We receive our diplomas when our name is read. We walk home in the evening laughing at the oddity. Reveling in the novelty. We go to college and some of us go to jobs and some of us commit suicide when we are in our thirties. We get married and have children of our own. We pretend not to know ourselves and we pay taxes. These are the things we do with our time but our minds are stilled. We are in the stands on that day in June. We are there when the bird girl jumps. It is transfixed into a point in our minds’ eyes, that single dot when for a moment we are all flying. Hearts in our mouths and eyes squinted against the brilliance, almost weightless. Before we see ourselves. Grounded, she said. And we are grounded. Meaningless. And we are meaningless.
And we live and we die and we are none the worse for it. But sometimes on clear days when we look into the sky we see the faintest hint of a human shape. And when we sleep we hear in the deepest recesses of ourselves the heart beating on and on.
Laura Freymiller is a writer who grew up in Indiana and then decided to run around for a long time after that. She is temporarily settled in the Bay Area of California, but we’ll see for how long.