Fiction · 10/10/2012

the birdcage

I was born with a chirp in my heart. My parents barely paid it any attention, but when the the sharp outline of its beak threatened to break through, they summoned the doctor. He reached into his cavernous satchel  and withdrew a small jar of bird food. “Open wide,” he said, and pushed a pincer-grip of seed into my mouth. I coughed, teared up, and wailed. The chirping got louder, and the beak stacattoed against my rib, the drumbeat of hunger.

He took my parents aside and whispered something. I was too far away to hear, but it must have been bad because my mother slumped to the floor and cried. After arguing for a few minutes, my father said, “All right. Do what you must.”

Hands entered the satchel again and withdrew a small tool. My father held me down as the doctor sawed through the side of my chest and exposed the ribcage. The bird struggled to escape between two ribs, but was already too big for the opening. The doctor used cotton wool and Mercurochrome to dry the blood, and when he finished, drugged me with something that smelled like old socks soaked in petroleum.

When my parents saw the makeshift cage and the bird with its feathers stuck together with dried blood, the word “unsustainable” was used. The worm my mother held out was snatched from her fingers and swallowed in a flash. “Is there a book we could read?” she asked. The doctor shook his head and said, “No book. This is a completely new field.” He packed the satchel, crammed the saw into a side-pocket, and tipped his hat to my parents. 

The bird was frantic, beating its wings, croaking. “Spend some time with it,” the doctor said to us.

“Let me see you out,” my mother said, pulling the door shut, leaving me alone with my father, the small creature loose in my chest.

The sun filtered in the window, my father’s shadow on the wallpaper, the artistic swirls and flourishes traveling floor to ceiling. He clucked at the bird, clicked his fingers, flapped his arms, but the bird sat silent on top of my heart, still. “It’s a dead loss,” my father said. “You’ve a real botch job to contend with now.” He rested his chin on his hands and watched several gray seagulls pass across the rooftops. “I never thought I’d have a son with a birdcage for a chest,” he said. The beak scraped on the white of my rib and my heart did something strange in response.

Mother came in with a bowl of Minestrone soup and buttered bread cut into fingers. On the tray there was also an egg-cup with crushed walnuts for the bird. As I spooned the hot broth down, she held out small bits of nut to the bird and it delicately plucked them from her fingers. She oohed and aahed at the creature and the way it hopped about my chest cavity. After a bit she left with the dirty dishes and I lay back and closed my eyes. The beating of my heart lulled the bird to sleep and its feathers ruffled against the bare-boned cage as Orion filled the window frame.


James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. His work appears in many places, including The New Orleans Review, Elimae, A-Minor, Revival Literary Journal, and Word Riot. His website is at