Friday, 14 August 2009

The Bird Woman - - Kyle Hemmings

The backroom smells of dust and feathers. It is crowded with wire bird cages, all sizes and shapes, bird feeders and knickknacks, ceramic or porcelain figures of little girls wearing pinafores, the boys, sailor suits, feeding starlings or carrying them on their shoulders. You squint. On the far wall, you can't tell if the portrait is of Jesus or St. Francis. But then, you figure, Jesus didn't wear a monk's robe.

We only use organic, she says.Something about the room makes you sad like the thought of men playing garmoshkas and people throwing them pellets instead of coins. Across from you, she scribbles fragments of what you give up. The fingers of her writing hand are dried petals. Occasionally, the old woman peers up and asks, if it's Katherine or Katy. You shrug and say either will do. You notice she never looks directly at you. You tell her you are good caring for sick birds, really, all animals, but you hope she doesn't ask for references.

She wanders away, opens the door to a small refrigerator, draws some clear liquid through a dropper. Come here, she says, and help her find the one-quarter milliliter mark. The birds must be given their medicine twice a day ,she says, once in the morning and in the evening. Everything, she says is labeled.

She leads you into the outer room, the one where customers bring their exotic birds, damaged, victims of mishaps, and points out the macaw with the one eye that won't open, the toucan with the broken foot, the cockatoo with a torn wing. She has names for all of them, like Millie or Gretchen or Spencer. She turns and asks how old are you. You are tempted to say it's on the application because you can't remember what you put down.

On the spot, you subtract nineteen from the present year because that will be the next request, a birth date for verification. You can't seem to focus. Nineteen, you tell her. And that's about as close to the truth as the woman who once gave you away. At least, this one doesn't ask for references.


In a strange city, you skirt its parameters, the streets becoming narrow and sparse, the voices, low, speaking in another tongue, and somewhere behind walls, windows, you conjure a thousand unblinking eyes that can no longer navigate beyond a safe distance. You wander and you drift.

In the coffee shop, you negotiate a price with a man wearing a pea coat, who smacks his lips each time he puts down the cup or the way he leans back into the seat, when he asks you if you'd like another slice of cheese cake, pineapple or cherry. Anything you want he says with a confident smile.

For some reason, he reminds you of the sea, a gray eternity of water, of men with rough-hewn faces, spending hours knitting their fingers through gigantic nets, dreaming of the bodies of silver and sleek fish that only danced for a few seconds. His skin is white, whiter than your stepfather's, and the winkles in his face are tiny streets leading to the center of some town you wish to escape from, but know you'll keep returning to. You imagine spending years returning to the same town, only with different names. Birds, you think, have a tendency to return to places where they were either fed or chased away from.

He plays this game with you. Everytime you mention a city, say Moscow, he tells you he's been there before all the big changes. He mentions a street or a building that you never heard of, or don't believe to exist.

In the room, he stands stiff in his silly pair of boxer shorts, asks you how old are you. What he's really demanding, you conclude, is to tell him a lie.

Nineteen, you say, do you want I.D. ?

Smart-ass, he says.

As he fondles you, you notice the wrists, thick, hairy, the big boned hands of men who spend lifetimes trying to wash the smell of cod oil from them. You hold back a sneeze. You stymie a funny thought. A joke a homeless man once told you about the wife who couldn't distinguish between hen and caviar eggs.

The sex is fast and breezy. So fast, you might have missed it. The scent of salt mixed with Old Spice is something you can easily wash off with the towels the motel supplies. But under the rustle of his breaths, the spaces behind his closed eyes, you grow claustrophobic. You want to return to the city's graffiti walls, its mark-downs in windows, its intersections where people wait, but for some reason, you never see them crossing.

What will you tell the Bird Woman if she asks you where have you been?


In the city park, you sit on a bench before a giant statue of Saint Francis. In his right hand, he holds a dove. You study this, the exact turn and crease of his garments, the tilt of his head, the gentle smile, the bird with outstretched wings perched in his palm.

You rise, excited, the way you became when called upon to play a part in a school play, when you were young enough to believe that pretending to be somebody was actually being that somebody. You stand before Saint Francis, now larger than anything brass or metal, the way statues can come to life in movies or commercials. With eyes closed, you ask him how is it you get these birds to fly back to you?

Recovering your practical self, the self that demands clean sidewalks and safe landings, you think: It's getting late. I must return to the Bird Woman.

It makes you sad to imagine that someday she will go totally blind. Who will take care of her or her birds?


She points to an old cot, fold-up, and asks if you brought your clothes. You tell her they're in the knapsack. It's not much, she concedes, but it's all she can give to a guest. Never once does she use the words, straggler or runaway. Never once does she admit that her pet shop is a sanctuary.

She says the bathroom is on the right and if you have to get up in the night, whatever you do, for God's sake, don't disturb the birds. You can tell she is losing her sight by the way she tilts her head at your silence, stares past your hands that are empty cups.

Then she heads to her own room, no larger than a cubicle, mumbling something about how people never care for their birds and the world is upon her shoulders.

No radios, she says, her voice growing distant, somewhat muted behind thin walls.

In the middle of the night, you awake. There is a strange growling in your stomach. You haven't had anything since that stranger bought you ham steak and cheese cake. If only there are some crackers somewhere, even a crust of bread will do. You begin to tip toe out the room, ever so careful not to wake up the Bird Woman or her birds. The outer room is pitch black. You imagine the birds, their bodies, the outline of dark spaces, their deformities, your most intimate secrets.

You stand before the macaw, the one with the one eye shut, only now, it is both eyes. The thought amuses you: at least one thing you and this bird have in common is that you are both breathing. And the world cannot hear either of you.

The grumbling in your stomach is growing louder, demanding to be heard. You turn, your feet barely off the ground, your thoughts morphing into strange untranslatable frequencies, in this dark space of a room, quiet as a feather floating behind your eyes.

Photo Credit: katinalynn on Flickr

About the author:
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey and has work published in Noo Journal, Willows Wept Review, and forthcoming work in Full of Crow.