I used to draw V-shapes on the blank page and call them birds. I liked how easy it was to start with empty sky and fill it endlessly with hundreds upon hundreds of wings. We had learned to draw this way in class. Mrs. Fry had given us this new trick and I had quickly become obsessed. I thought about my bird families, letting my pen glide down-up! flicking a new felt-tipped bird into existence, a check mark against the clouds. I wondered which one might be the mama bird, and the dad, and the babies. But I could never decide because when you see grown birds in flight—all those tiny Vs in a giant V-shaped formation—they are all the same. Each a piece of the whole.
Mrs. Fry taught us other things, too, but not enough to always keep my attention. Our classroom absorbed heat through its wall of windows, working like a greenhouse year-round to keep us insulated. In winter, we could appreciate it; in those summer months, we drifted through class, fighting to keep our eyes open. The titles on our class bookshelf faded and their covers crinkled under the sun’s glare. Our sweaters clung to our backs. Mid-May, we raised our hands to ask Mrs. Fry if we could remove our extra layers. She let us slide them over the backs of our chairs, making our seats look like tiny humans, headless replicas of ourselves. My mind wandered, always fluttering back to thoughts of home. It seemed silly—even to my six-year old mind—but I missed my parents during the seven hours I spent away from them each day.
When my dad came home from work, my brother Danny and I jumped into his arms in the driveway. He would scoop my brother up first, but only because he was the youngest, and pull me close to him at his side. I reached my skinny arms around his legs and made my fingers meet on his other side. He would laugh as we refused to let go and the three of us shuffled our way into the house. After dinner, we would tug on our shoes and accompany him on his nightly stroll with the dog through the neighborhood. We made one quick loop and then dropped my brother back at home with mom. Then, the two of us would leave again, quietly closing the front door and setting off into the dusk. I treasured these moments all alone with my parents. I had gotten used to being an only child in the three years before my brother was born. Even though I adored him, I loved every second I had to myself.
Each year was the same. As we got older, Danny joined us more often. At seven and four years old, we liked to clamber up onto the brick wall that enclosed the parking lot behind a string of office buildings a few streets down from our house and stomp our rain-booted feet along its edge. Our father would walk below, waiting to catch us. We would call out to him to get ready, our knees bent, arms stretched forward, fingers spread. My brother was reckless and always jumped first. My heart trembled, but I always jumped too. But only ever one time.
After Danny jumped and scrambled back up, jumped and scrambled again a few more times, we continued on our way through town. Some nights we left for hours. On weekends, on Saturday mornings, we took my favorite route. We walked along the road by the train station, climbed over the bridge that crossed the tracks, made a right turn, took a dirt track into the fields.
I remember spending what felt like hours walking and walking and walking and not thinking about how I might get tired until we had wound up too far into the wild, too deep into the countryside, and turning back became as much effort as pushing forward. I had blind faith that my dad would get us home. I didn’t need to believe in anything else. But where I was a daydreamer and a believer, and most importantly a worrier, Danny was a daredevil. He leaped and bounded and swung from tree branches. He ran at full speed through fields of grass that had grown taller than his head, no regard for what might be out there among the grass waiting for him. I called his name into the empty air and heard his high-pitched whooping echo back to me in the distance. He wasn’t returning my call; he couldn’t hear me. He was simply exalted and enjoying the glorious freedom of being outdoors. Mrs. Fry expected a clone of me when she saw my brother’s name on her roster. But her assumption was wrong.
The map of our town grew larger in our minds with each walk we took and each year we were physically capable of pushing ourselves further. At fourteen, Danny became obsessed with running cross-country. We stayed later and later after school and sometimes our parents would go to see him run laps on the school field and cheer him on. During the week, walking the dog fell to me and I welcomed the responsibility with enthusiasm. To be trusted to wander the town alone each afternoon was a privilege that I did not take lightly. While Danny stayed at school after hours to train, I waited all day at school to be free.
I learned new routes. Sometimes, when it felt like I would never find our street again and my palms tightened around the dog’s leash, my pace stiff and quickening, the woods would clear and I would make out a house I recognized—one on the very border of the town that I hadn’t realized I’d looped my way around to. Home was always relatively close.
Dad would come with me on weekends. Danny would tag along occasionally when he wasn’t busy playing with his friends out in our street. Sometimes, those rare days, when it was just the two of us, Danny would walk beside me and then suddenly sprint into the distance, eyeing me over his shoulder to see if I was watching him, chasing him, or worried that he might get away. He would run and run and I would scamper after him, the dog flying ahead, almost on Danny’s heels; the leash threatened to slip from my grip. By the time I managed to catch up to him, he would be waiting, panting against a fencepost or a tree, and laughing as I tugged on the dog’s leash and stumbled toward him. Soon, it became clear that we would never catch him. It became clearer by his gasping grin that he did not want us to; he delighted in his growing speed and strength.
Behind the station, through the fields and a small woody patch, there were great hills. At the foot of the hills sat a string of houses spaced a little apart from each other. I always noticed this as we passed because there was no visible fencing between each of their property lines and the open expanse of green sloping up into the hills themselves. Anyone could walk down the hill and directly into their gardens, onto the properties of the people who lived there. I became fascinated with this view; this interconnectedness, this trust between neighbors and strangers that rarely existed back on our side of town. At seventeen, even though I was curious, I always kept walking.
In one house, a woman almost a full two heads taller than her portly husband. Their two young girls sporting his doughy face and her slender legs. The next house: an elderly lady plus a small white terrier who growled at our sixty-pound Lab from the bay window of her living room that faced on to the street. In another, a family home from the outside, but a glimpse through the front door in passing told another story: an engine and motor repairs shop run by two twin brothers who looked older than me (but not by much). These other lives were fleeting. I was just as eager to stroll on by. To feel the cool October air on my bare face, to step in perfect rhythm with another being. I timed my steps. I thought about Danny as he ran ahead—about how similar we were; how different he was to me; how even though we had come from the same place, we grew to become such opposites.
What I looked forward to most was the house on the corner with the largest garden. The property had ample land; trees upon trees rose tall and slender in clusters around a single-story home. High up in the trees, nailed to the trunks, hung beautiful hand-crafted bird houses. We were enchanted, trying to glimpse new ones each week. Sometimes we spotted the owner of this home up on a ladder affixing yet another new box to an even higher point. We must have worn wonder on our faces, in our smiles, because when we passed by one weekend, he called out to us and invited us into his garden, to see his work shed. I hesitated, but Danny, always moving, stepped forward across the threshold.
Danny had grown taller than me, broader than me, and the muscles in his arms and legs had begun to swell. There was no moment of pause to consider it; Danny was curious, open to the world and the secrets it would share with him. Nothing I said or did could call him back. The lump in my throat told me I was responsible for my brother. I followed him in.
The man wore denim overalls and thick gardening gloves. Well-built with just a hint of a beer belly. His eyes twinkled behind the thin frames of his glasses, bald head bent over his work bench, shoulders hunched over his tools. In the shed, he showed us panels of wood he had cut, shaved, carved, and polished. He laid out the pieces and Danny asked him how they fit together. While they talked about nails versus glue, sanding and scraping, carving and cutting, I reached out and touched my finger to a panel of bright red bark. It was smoother than I had imagined. It was like silk. These bird-homes, resorts, bird-palaces—each one was made from different wood. They were different colors, but also different textures, sizes, patterns, intricately designed and crafted so that no single house was alike.
He presented us with one birdhouse to take home for ourselves. I don’t know if perhaps my dad had known the man, asked him to build us one, slipped him some cash in advance, made the deal while Danny and I had been at school. I forgot for a moment that I was in the home of a stranger. It felt as though we were no longer strangers. We should have questioned it, been more cautious entering a strange man’s home. But we knew this town, we had our dog, and we were together.
When we got home with the birdhouse, Danny leaned against the kitchen counter and caught his breath. He had run home to show the birdhouse to our mother. He still just had to be first. My throat swelled as I held back my fury at his snatching of her attention. He spread his hands on the granite, shoulder-width apart. Sweat rolled in streaks from his temples to his jaw. I watched, waiting for a droplet to fall onto the birdhouse and ruin it just so I could be justified in yelling at him for being so selfish and careless with our new, beautiful, shared treasure.
My mother fussed over his too-long hair and fetched us water after the walk. She looked at the birdhouse set down between us, and I watched Danny watching her. But, then—he looked up proudly at me. I had wanted to take the birdhouse from him and keep it for myself, but when he smiled, I understood: This was to be ours.
I remember him removing the hatch on its right-hand side. We swung open its latches to peer inside. I located a clean, sturdy, unobstructed piece of fence in our back yard and my dad took out a hammer and nail. He secured the birdhouse in place. Its sides were golden with deep red panels that gave the tiny palace a Tudor-like appearance. It reminded me of the squat white houses with big black wooden beams that I’d studied in my English class. I imagined what it would be like to live in one. Always cold, but always cozy.
The birdhouse had a small circular opening on its front where a small sparrow or bluebird might wiggle inside carrying twigs and debris to insulate its nest. Danny pushed some dry leaves into the house to set the tone for our future bird family. The sanded peg beneath the hole, I thought, might serve as an excellent lookout perch for the new residents. They could scope out the neighborhood, spy on the dog. We were both probably too old to play childish games of house, but still I found myself watching it from my upstairs bedroom window. Just in case. I sat at my desk reading Harper Lee and Toni Morrison and Seamus Heaney, doing homework and doodling wings and mermaid tails in the margins. After a few consecutive days of checking and the birds still had not flocked, Danny gave up and went back to playing soccer in the street with some of the neighborhood kids, leaving the birdhouse in his dust, and seeming to forget all about it.
* * *
Danny wanted to take the birdhouse for himself when our parents finally sold the house. We had grown up, grown apart, grown away and gone to college, to graduate school, and started to settle into our real, adult jobs. Our careers. Our parents didn’t need the extra space in our childhood home. The two of them rattled around in its big, empty rooms. They could go an entire day without seeing one another if they tried. But they didn’t want that. Danny reasoned that I wouldn’t need the birdhouse in my brand-new apartment in the city, but that he would put it up in his own garden for his future kids to enjoy. I had always felt more like a grown-up than a child, but it was weird to be suddenly reminded that Danny had actually grown up too. Danny as an adult. Danny as a future father. Carefree, careless, whooping Danny. I helped my mom pack up the last of the kitchenware and then offered to clean the bathroom. I locked the door behind me and leaned over the sink and cried.
In the end, the birdhouse was nailed too tightly to the fence to take down. It would have caused much more damage than good to pry it off the fence. Danny tried, and Dad, but neither of them wanted to be the one to destroy the little house. After that, I let it go. If neither of us could keep it, was it worth fighting about further? I didn’t think about it again until years later when, as Danny predicted, I had no backyard for a birdhouse.
Once, right before I moved out for college, Danny asked my mom where she envisioned us to be in ten years’ time.
“Do you think we’ll be rich?” he asked. “Do you think one of us will be famous one day? Do you think we’ll get married or have kids or have some fancy job or go travel the world?”
“Oh, honey,” she pulled my brother to her.
“I’m curious, Mom. Who do you think will be first?” He always had to chase.
“I know you’re going to miss your sister, but she’ll visit us, won’t you, love?”
She turned to me and smiled, ever sentimental. Danny rolled his eyes.
“I’m going to buy a mansion,” he told us, stretching his arms up and interlocking his fingers behind his head. He sounded ten years younger.
What do you see when you look at us now? I had wanted to say. In my mind, I thought I knew our mother’s true answers. I was the oldest, I was leaving to pursue my education. With Danny, there was not even a wisp of a plan in mind, not even a glimmer of it.
I graduated from college, but I still lived in a too-small apartment with a boyfriend I did not love. He sat in our living room and smoked cigarettes for hours on end. I closed the door to our bedroom where I sat with a sketchpad and doodled black holes, tornados, and giant angel wings. I read books like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps, for me, there wouldn’t be.
I had spent so long balancing the tension of opposites. I had wanted so desperately to have my own space, my own time, my own agenda, that I had forgotten what it felt like to be needed. For all those years, when we hadn’t been out walking together, Danny and I had played games, dressed up, fought, laughed, and tricked each other into getting into trouble with our parents. We had grown up together. We had raised each other. But everyone knows that baby birds can’t stay in the nest forever. Keeping in touch had become a burden neither of us could admit was exhausting. Every message was the same: How’s mom? Heard from Dad? Work okay? I stopped sending messages to see how long it would take for him to reach out. He stopped because his life kept going on without me. In pushing him away, I needed my brother more than I wanted to admit. I needed my home. Our parents nudged us out to the edge of the nest, to the real world, and pushed us into the rest of our lives. We were both baby birds, plummeting out of the nest and flapping our miniscule wings for dear life. We would have to fly if we wanted to live. If we fell, there would be no hope. Maybe the force of the fall would crush us.
Danny met Alex at a bar next to his first apartment after moving away from home. I imagined her tottering on incredibly high heels, draping a drunken arm around his shoulders and asking to be carried home. My brother called me when she read him a positive pregnancy test a month or two later. In three years, they had a kid, got engaged, planned a wedding, bought a home, and the career he had stumbled into by chance still managed to provide for them all. It was funny how everything I imagined we would become could had shattered in the space of a few short years.
* * *
I walked my dog every morning around the same loop, past the same towering apartment buildings, while each step grew heavier. I was so far from my childhood walks—the fields, hills, trees behind the station—and so deep into the city now. A young family lived in a unit three blocks down from mine. The husband was pale, freckled, younger than me, and he rarely spoke a word. He bundled their three tiny kids into their white SUV and the younger wife—bright red hair, pinkish face from a weekend sunburn—tagged along behind them and made for the driver’s seat. She smiled as I raised my free hand in greeting, holding my dog back with the other. They waited for us to cross the street before sliding their car into reverse and heading out on their way to school or work or wherever. I stopped just outside their front window one day only because my dog had stopped to explore some new scent close by. I waited patiently for my dog to tire, hoping she would move along. On any other day—on every other day that had passed already—I would have kept walking without it catching my eye. But above the window was a birdhouse constructed by the hands of those three small children. A milk carton painted blue with a green roof. Fingerprints on all its sides. Crumbling and sagging, but hung up with hope that another family might grow there right beside their own. A doorway cut out in crooked lines.
I knew there would be no birds inside. Bugs at most, but no birds. Even so, I wanted to step forward and peer inside. I wanted to see if maybe there could be a bird, or evidence of a nest, anything. But I kept walking. I thought about the three kids in the house, their tiny hands twisting the carton around, covering it reckless with color, peering inside it too, as I used to do with the birdhouse we used to play with. I crossed the street, away from their home, and we were sucked out of that neighborhood and right back into city life.
I never wanted to be the woman who failed at a relationship. I never wanted to be a person who failed at all. I bundled the dog into my car with two suitcases full of clothes and things I thought I couldn’t leave behind. I pinned next month’s rent check to the fridge under a faded photo magnet, right in the center where it would not fall or be missed. I started my car and drove away.
* * *
I told my mom about my breakup and she made us tea. Steam circled up in strands from the kettle as it boiled and whistled on the stove. She poured the water into two mugs, over two teabags, and I popped two slices of white bread into the toaster, watching the elements inside heat to a bright orange. When it was done, I spread the margarine. It melted, pooling in the top corners of the bread. As it melted, like a child who couldn’t get enough, I splattered more on to make up for its absence. I sat across from my mother at the dining room table. It was just like the old days, the endless summers she and I spent together when school was out and Dad was at work and Danny played in the yard or at a friend’s house. As the hours passed and I still hadn’t reached out to him, I finally asked about my brother.
“He’s moving,” she told me, looking down into her tea and breaking my reminiscing. Her fingertips tapped the sides of the china, her nails short and ragged.
“He called and said he’s leaving. Your dad doesn’t know yet. They’re out playing tennis together right now. He only called me this morning.”
Her eyes traveled up to meet mine. They were wet and rimmed with red. I hadn’t noticed until then. I reached for her, closing the distance between us, and held her hands.
“Where is he going? It’s not like either of us have lived at home for years now, Mom. What’s the difference?”
“He got a new job. We have to be happy for him. It’s a great achievement.” She spoke in staccato phrases I imagined her rehearsing before my arrival, in the hours it had taken between my call to tell her I was on the way home and this moment across the table. Her heart had ripped wide open.
* * *
Later, at night, I drove past Danny’s house. I had intended to go in. To knock on the door, to push into his living room, to question him on why he would leave his family so suddenly, why he hadn’t called me first. Perhaps I would pretend I didn’t know and tell him instead about my breakup, how I had left with no notice, and speculate on what might happen next. Perhaps he would comfort me. Perhaps we would rekindle those carefree childhood days. Perhaps we would go out for a long walk like before and he would start running, calling for me to follow and keep up, and he would laugh at me when I lost my balance and fell down, scraping a knee and cursing at him. You’re so unfair, I was going to say. But my hands kept their place on the steering wheel and my foot did not lift from the pedal. I’m your sister, I was going to say. But I had forgotten what it meant to be a sister. What does it mean to be family? All this togetherness and unity until someone grows up and breaks it? Until we had all grown up and broken it.
I never turned into the neighborhood, but I could see the house from the road. I never opened my mouth. My throat got drier and drier. I knew if I knocked on the door, he would open it with her standing beside him. Her hand would rest on his back, they would curl into each other, their child balanced on his hip and giggling.
On my return trip back to my parents’ house, I drove slowly, looping around and passing his place from the opposite direction. There was a light on in the room that soon would be someone else’s living room. I wondered if he had packed already. I wondered how much time we had left. I wondered who would live there in a month or two, in a year from now. I thought about my brother, his legs outstretched over the coffee table, lounging on the couch. I thought about his messy kitchen. I remembered the towels he would always leave on the shower floor when we both lived at home with our parents, how I would yell at him down the stairs to move his stuff before Mom came home. My gut filled with hot, angry heat, churning for me to keep driving, aching for me to stop the car. I thought about how suddenly I had left my own apartment—that quick note pinned to the fridge. I hadn’t wanted to ruin anyone else’s life, I had just tired of living one I was no longer happy with. I thought about the way Danny and I had left our first home together—the house with the garden by the fields—and if I ever went back, would that birdhouse be waiting? Doesn’t everyone hope that home will always be right where we left it?
I parked on the road outside my parents’ house, the one we did not grow up in, and thought about getting out of the car. Maybe I had been too hard on my brother. Wasn’t his life what we all should hope for our siblings? If we had just been friends, we would have been out celebrating already. I thought about his wife, rushed into a marriage that perhaps she hadn’t expected, motherhood before the dust had had a chance to settle. Wasn’t she someone’s sister too? My phone buzzed from the center console. I pulled it out in the dark and read the message: Guess what?! I thought about the woman with the three children and their milk-carton birdhouse. I thought about their tiny fingerprints on the box. I thought about my own nephew—spaghetti around his lips, his laughter so big and cackling he sometimes forgot how to breathe; the center point of life for my brother, much like my brother had once been for me. I thought about the future, stretching out in front of us wider and farther than our minds would ever be able to comprehend. Fields upon fields; train-tracks finally meeting in the endless horizon. I thought about how even when birds are separated from their families, they always know, inherently, how to return to the flock.
Rebecca L. Jensen received her MFA in creative nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University in 2017, and her BA in English from the University of South Florida in 2014. Her work appears in Pacifica Literary Review, (mac)ro(mic), West Texas Literary Review, Gravel Magazine, and others. Find her online at www.rebeccaljensen.com