On the Mortality of Birds
When people used to ask her, she would tell them about the egg. It was Philadelphia, 1993. A heat wave scorching through the city like blood rushing to the head. The egg had been left out in an alley on the south side, right under the sun. She tells folks how she peeled her way out of the shell with only her hands, and just in time, too, before she got hard-boiled in the heat. She tells people how the first thing she ever saw of the world was the sun, how she nearly went blind and how to this day she cannot stand the sight of bright things.
This is all easier to say than admitting that she doesn’t know where she came from. Everything is simpler than the truth. Like calling a woman who is not your true mother “Mother.” Like calling a man who is not your true father “Father.” Like in second grade when a teacher asked for her name, how she mumbled “Bernadette” but the teacher heard “Bird” and she was too shy to correct him or the other children who squawked at her when they heard. But she didn’t mind the name. After all, it is easier to be a bird than it is to be a girl, and much easier to invent an origin story for yourself than to always carry the absence of one with you.
The first boy she ever loves is a hatchling, also parentless. They are fourteen when they meet in the nurse’s office freshman year. He smiles with a mouth full of hot, fevered blood, glad to be out of class. She is dizzy, still shaking from a panic attack and thinking about all the notes she is missing while she sits on the tiny sofa beside him. His name is Eric. Her name is Bird. His smile widens when she tells him this. He tells her how he is a scholar of birds of prey, the clawed ones that can spear a fish through the water’s surface in one try.
They are sixteen when she kisses him for the first time and seventeen when she begins to think of him as impermanent. Only slowly does she come to notice that the boy is delicate, big-eyed and paper-skinned, blue and green veins running just beneath his surface like maps under glass. He is sick — something about his lungs, or his blood — but he talks like he will live forever. Ain’t scared of nothing or no one. Ain’t gonna spend his life running this way and that, from this guy or this guy’s brother. He is terrified of doctors but not, he says, of the murderous kids who lurk the streets at night, smelling for fear.
“I’m always scared something will happen to you if I go away,” she says.
“Can’t nothing or no one hurt me but me,” he says. And it’s true. His body is its own worst enemy.
He tells her he plans to join the military. She is wary. He asks her what she knows about death. The hard answer is that she lives in a city flooded with it. The easy answer is that she doesn’t know.
“I don’t know,” she says.
He tells her he is leaving for training in June. He will probably spend the summer tailing gang boys around the city, doing them favors in the hopes of getting in good with them. This is how he will spare himself from the pointed ends of their anger when they decide to kill again. Even though she knows he is lying about his acceptance to the training camp over in Fort Lee, she envies this — his invented future.
Bird has always wanted to peel herself out of this city, but steel is not the same as shell, and leaving is more complicated than simply breaking out. That summer, he calls her once and then not at all. This is a kind of breaking up or down or apart, but it isn’t confirmed until the summer ends and he doesn’t come looking for her the way he always has.
That fall, his body washes up on the other side of the Delaware River with two bullet holes in the chest, muddied and dressed in leaves. Like this, Philadelphia buries its dead.
She goes away to college the following year. Her not-mother sends her off teary-eyed. Her not-father watches her disappear into the security line with a pained look in his eyes, as though he has lost something he can’t name.
The plane ride into Providence is the first time she has flown. “First flight’s always the hardest,” the aged woman in the seat beside her says.
“How do you know it’s my first time?”
She taps her head knowingly. “It’s all in the eyes.”
Providence turns out to be a small city that feels wide-open as the sky. The air is cleaner and the crime is a bit lower than home, but she still avoids leaving campus, prefers to stay nestled in quiet places. To the other students, she is an anonymous face looking down on them from a high library window some days. Most days, she is not even that.
One night the smoke from someone’s cigarette floats up and grazes the smoke detectors and the fire alarm goes off in her residence hall. She gathers outside in the cold with the other students, restless and still half-asleep. The alarm sirens scream over her head. She is wearing her feathery slippers, the fur coat she snatched up quickly on her way out draped over her shoulders like a cape. “You look like a bird,” says one of the girls from her hall, laughing. And she considers, for a brief moment, telling the girl about the egg, and the heat, and the second grade teacher. I wasn’t always Bernadette, she might begin. It was Philadelphia, 1993…
In the end, Bird only smiles. Once the fire trucks pull in and the alarms stop, she follows the crowd back into the building. She will only ever see that other girl again in passing. The girl probably won’t even recognize her.
That night, Bird lies awake thinking of the hatchling boy and his see-through skin. How he would rather fight a made-up war than stay in a city they cannot truly call a hometown. And as haunted as Philadelphia is, Bird misses it sometimes. All its gunfire and ghosts. She wonders if it is possible for a place to be both steel and safety.
University turns out to be no place for girls who come from eggs, though it is here that Bird learns about a species of bird with a 72 percent mortality rate, how most blue tit hatchlings die before they can open their wet eyes to the sun. Every day, Bird wonders how she survived the city, if she is one of the lucky ones. She goes home in the summers afraid to find more neighborhood boys dead or missing, another headline in the newspapers with no names, only their pictures, lined up execution style. She is afraid to cross paths with the ghost of the boy she loved once.
Her not-parents welcome her back during breaks with dinner — her favorite foods spread out feast-like on their table — and they all pretend she is not a wild animal they left their scent on and couldn’t return. “How is college?” her not-father asks each time, and Bird can never tell him a thing about it, except that it is not like the city. The people there are rich and clean. They have stories. They are so important to themselves. They know all the details of their own existence — their fathers’ names, their mothers’ eye colors. They have gold hair, their skin and teeth so white it hurts Bird’s eyes to look at them. She cannot tell her not-parents that she envies them. Wants to live like them someday. She hates how close she flies now to all these people who so closely resemble the sun.