Fiction · 11/16/2016

Birds of the Air

She wanted to ball up her fist and punch it through the glass, so she did. Why not? Who was there to stop her from throwing herself into something terrible? The glass broke into big chunks that fell into the sink. No stardust, no glitter, just slabs of silver with gray backs shattering in the sink. Specks of red, then rivers of red, then an ocean of red. Her hand a meaty mess, a clenched and bony thing at the end of her arm. A hole in the galaxy in front of her, the outline of head still in place, but no face, just the flat surface of the mirror’s back.

The pain in her hand was jagged and irregular, at its edges not pain at all but a kind of slow throb. At its core, the pain was hot and alive like the middle of the earth, molten and churning around and around her nerves and the muscles and the fat. She stared at this thing that was her hand and was also not her hand, stared and stared at it. She wanted to see if she could will it back into shape, if she could put the flesh back together, but there was no order to the unmaking of her hand; the parts that were missing had been taken away without reason or logic. Pieces missing from the side. Ovular slices of flesh gone. Deeper cuts on some knuckles, skin hanging open, air pressing close, stinging the living parts of her. Glass glinted along her veins. And still more blood. Oozing out of her. She could not put this hand back together no matter how hard she stared.

She came away from the sink and away from the mirror which was also a window into something, into herself perhaps, into some other self, who could say? She wrapped a wet towel around her hand, and her blood stained it immediately. She wrapped another towel around that, and it too was stained with blood. She wrapped a third towel around that one, and then put the whole thing in a plastic bag. She sat on the couch and stared for a long time outside. There was a sliding door that she had left ajar. There were trees in the yard, and resting in those trees were many colored birds. They were the size of herons, but their feathers were bright yellow or garnet or indigo or cerulean, or bright red. In the head of each bird there were two enormous eyes, like those of certain tropical fish. They each rested on the branch of a tree in the back, so many of them that they appeared to be a single, slithering organism.

Her ears were hurting, but not in the same away as her hand, which she kept pressed to her stomach. Every time she blinked, she felt in her ears a strange rustling, a curious vibration like the wingbeats of bees or hornets. Being that she was terrified of such creatures, she’d turn her head to the other side to see if there was anything there, but it only produced more sound, and so she kept turning her head side to side, side to side, side to side until she felt sick. The sound of bees tap-tapping against the window inside of her, against that piece of glass inside of her, going around and around and around. She thought she’d die from it and not from slowly bleeding into the towels in the bag against her stomach.

The couch was old and so she sank down into it. A spring dug itself into her back, scraping up more skin, and that hurt was a different kind of hurt. Different from her hand and her ears—it was sharp, immediate, a hurt she hadn’t asked for. She tried to lean away from it, but the couch wouldn’t let her, became like a kind of tide pushing her back, returning her to the spring, which turned and turned, winding deeper and deeper. She wanted to cry out, to say something, but she said nothing because there was no room for any sound in her except for the sound of the bees against the glass. She gave one more try, squeezed her legs against the couch and pushed with all her might. She left some of herself on the spring, but she was free.

Outside, she walked to the tree and looked up through its canopy where there was a gray light. The bag hissed a little when she moved her hand, or rather her arm because she couldn’t move her hand. It was trapped in three towels and a plastic bag. She heard the soft cooing of the birds above her. Their rustling wings, the groaning branches of the trees. She wanted to climb up there until she was among the enormous birds.

When she was a small girl, much smaller than now, there had been no birds and no bees inside of her. There had been no viciousness inside of her. Back then, she was still called by a name, though she has forgotten it now. The name had belonged to someone who was dead. Now it had returned to the dead. The day the birds came, there had been a terrible storm.

She and her mother and her father and her brothers were all in the house together, sweating and breathing in the dark. Something moved through the house, a deep, humming thing moving all along the walls, all along the floor, coming for her. She’d felt it first at the edge of the bed, just testing the edges of her blankets. And then she’d felt it against her, taking some of her sweat away from her skin, tasting it, lapping at it like water from a stream. And then it pried her mouth open and crawled down inside of her. She felt its fur against her tongue, against the back of her throat. It had been wet and musky and coarse and awful. Down, down, down, until it rested in the pit of her belly. A flash of lightning split the sky, and thunder shook their house.

She’d wanted to cry out then too, had wanted to do something about the thing happening to her, climbing into her, wearing her like its skin. But she hadn’t been able to cry out. There is only ever in or out, but never both at the same time.

She had fallen out of bed and crawled her shaking self to the window. She thrust the window open and a cold air blew in on her. The trees in the back were writhing, groaning in pain. The horizon was covered in thick, black clouds. Rain flew in every direction. She hung against the window frame and tried to hold herself up. Her legs shook. The thing inside of her was grinding its teeth.

And then the birds came. At first, only one of them, a smaller black fragment moving amongst the clouds, discernible only because it was moving, coming on fast. Then she saw the others, so many of them, flocking in formation, a dark, glittering storm of birds. They roosted in the trees out back, stilling them. She ran to her mother and her father, and she tried to get them to see the birds in the trees. She ran to her brothers and urged them to the window. She tried and tried, but they could not see the birds, could not hear them. All they saw was the wind and the rain. They came away from the window. Go to bed, go to bed, go to bed.

She laid down in the house that was too hot with the windows closed and she tried to sleep, though the thing inside of her kept laughing. In the morning, the thing inside of her climbed out of her mouth, and in the pale light, she saw just the edge of its black fur. It turned to her and bared its enormous teeth. She knew that it would be back. Her throat was raw and sore. Her body ached. The birds in the trees were still there, though, looking up at her from their roosts. They had found a home. In the same way that she knew the thing would be back, she knew that the birds would stay. Life had always been this way, after all, that for everything suffered, there is often an opposite, exquisite joy to be found. When her brother knocked out one of her teeth, there was a brilliant flash of white pain inside of her mouth, but then she found great happiness in running her tongue along the bony, smooth place left behind. There was the time her mother made their oatmeal with soured milk, and at first, the violence of the vomiting had been terrifying, but then had come the pleasantness of being perfectly empty, hollow.

Outside, she lay down on her back and watched the birds among the leaves, hopping from branch to branch, using their long necks to pluck squirrels from their hiding places. She watched the birds peel the squirrels, the slow emergence of red flesh and glossy, white connective tissue. She watched them pick the bones clean and spit them into one another’s backs for fun, for laughs. Occasionally, one of the birds would give a low, clacking call, and another would answer with a bright, pulsing cry. Clack and cry, clack and cry, the song building until it broke open like a thunderhead and all the birds sang in unison.

The cool towels were no longer cool, had turned warm from her blood and from the sun, which fell across her legs and stomach. She tried to open her fist, but found that she couldn’t. Not only because the towels were wrapped too tightly to permit her to do so, but also because her hand no longer felt like a part of her, as if it belonged to some other body. She sat up from the grass and unwrapped her hand. First the bag, which she threw to the side, and then the towels, layer by layer. The last was the hardest because it was attached to her by her own blood and skin. She peeled it off like a thin-skinned orange. Not the ones with the thick skins, too orange for her, too soft for her, not even really an orange, but some strange, hybrid creature. The towel came away and took some of her with it. Her hand was pale, but the blood had stopped at least.

She felt sorry about the mirror upstairs, felt sorry for the mess she’d left in the sink for her mother find. But the whole house was this way, holes in places where there shouldn’t be. Something warm brushed the nape of her neck and turned her head around—more bees against the glass, more turning springs against her spine—but there was nothing there. Her own hair perhaps. Her hand looked like shit. She’d need stitches. If she moved it even a little bit, the dried blood would crack open like an eggshell, and she’d ooze out of herself again. A spot of blood dropped from her palm to her thigh, here it stood in a perfect drop, a still pool on her skin. A splotch of red among the yellow-pale.

Get up, get up, get up said a voice in her head. Get up, get up, get up.

Up she went, going shakily to her feet, and she turned back for home, away from the birds in the trees, the birds of the air, who had been provided for by the trees, called down from whatever route they’d been taking, diverted by the storm, by her, by the window being thrown open all those years ago. Back in the house, where it was cool, she went into the kitchen and took out a large knife. She sliced the bone out of pork chops using one hand and her teeth where necessary, an impossible task. Then she seasoned them and ate them raw over the sink. The meat was lukewarm and bruised. It was stringy and wet and bloody, and the taste of copper was in her mouth and on her teeth. She chewed and chewed until her jaw was sore from it. She spat out chunks of chewed gray flesh into the sink and ran the tap. Clear water down the black hole, taking away the meat that had left the edges of her teeth and gums feeling cloudy with blood.

The bones with their dark, ruddy marrow were in a white bowl nearby. She held her hand under the water and let it clean her bit by bit. She lifted a bone from the bowl and placed it on her tongue, and then she chewed it, grinding her teeth down, but enjoying the way the bone went to pieces in her mouth. She would lay a bed of bone fragments for the thing when it came back to climb down inside of her. She chewed the bones into a paste and swallowed it back. Down it went. She held her face under the tap and turned the water on high. The world was blasted away by the white foam hitting her face and eyes, some of it going up her nose. She drank and drank and drank until her stomach hurt, was bursting. She’d make the thing inside of her drown. A bed of water and bones.

She went upstairs and got into her bed, her childhood bed, and she pulled the covers up over her head. Her mother and her father would be home soon. They’d want to know what she did all day. They’d want to know about the mirror, the mess. She thought of how she’d tripped and stumbled on her way out of the nest. She thought of her brothers, the one in the east and the one in the west, how they were adults now, living out in the world the way that people often do. She thought of the pale, little chubby babies that the brother in the west had now with his wife. She thought of the brother in the east, and how he was now married to another man, how they had a second home in some obscure, northern state, surrounded on all sides by mountains and trees. But not her. She had tried, for a few months, to live alone in the city. Not too far from home. Community college. Small classrooms that were brightly lit and a man who stared at her so hard that she knew he could see the thing inside of her, curled up and sleeping like a baby. She thought he might try to wake it up, try to make it worse on her. So she had shrieked at him to stop, to stop looking her way, to stop waking it up in her. Then had come the screaming which she thought would never stop, so much volume spilling out of her, unspooling in the room as the other students looked at her, scraped her raw with their eyes. A stink of fear rose in that classroom, and so she ran from it because there was nothing that the thing inside of her loved more than the stink of fear.

Her mother and her father had brought her home after that, brought her back to this room, which she had thought herself free of. The bed was too small for her now, and the walls were decorated with drawings she had made of the birds. This was the only comfort to her, their enormous eyes watching her at every moment while she slept. They couldn’t stop the thing from climbing in and out of her, but she felt seen, felt protected by the eyes of the birds which never left her. In some way, it was better to be home again.

The house was quiet. No one was home to bother her. She fingered the cuts in her knuckles, digging into the tiny holes in her body. The pain was excruciating, but hidden inside of it like a small recess was a pleasure like finding forgotten money in your pocket. The bleeding began again, slow at first, and then faster. She lifted her hands from the blanket and gazed at them, but she knew that she was also showing the blood to the birds, offering it to them.

She felt the brush of something damp against her finger, the flick of tongue lapping the blood from her hand and then something more insistent, like drinking.

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Brandon Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also currently the assistant editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. He’s been both a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Wildness, Literary Hub, and Noble Gas Quarterly.