Clara stepped back from the floor-to-ceiling window, her breath tightening in her chest. On the mulch below the sill lay the crooked figure of a bluebird, its claws curled tight against its breast. Two downy feathers stuck to the glass, nearly transparent in the sunshine.
The backs of Clara’s knees bumped into the edge of her parlor chair, and she sank onto it. The latest issue of American Birder lay where she had dropped it on the floral carpet. As she gazed at it, the cover became a watery blur. The taste of her morning tea turned bitter in her mouth.
The twelfth bird that week.
With effort, she slowed her breathing. Her lungs already ached from sobbing, and John would not want her upset. If he were still alive, he would gather the feathered bodies in a towel so she wouldn’t have to see them. Even now, four months after his passing, she could picture his white brows pinching together and hear him saying something like, “Poor things. Probably some mad bird flu.”
Clara went to the front door and forced herself to undo the deadbolt. I don’t have to leave the house to get help, she told herself, pulling it open. The thought of setting foot outside set her heart thumping. Sunlight poured through the screen door, stinging her eyes. When she recovered, she saw the neighborhood was quiet, apart from plump Mrs. Rufus stabbing at a patch of dandelions next door.
Clara didn’t need to see the other retirees on her street to imagine their whispers. Shut-in. A recluse, ever since the accident that killed her husband. Wasn’t she the one driving? Clara’s face burned. They didn’t understand. She’d been distracted by the birds. And now, no matter how much she isolated herself, they threw themselves at her like they didn’t want her to forget it. Clara thought of the dead bluebird and wrung her hands. Mrs. Rufus could take care of it. After all, she’d been doing her shopping and yardwork.
Clara rapped hard on the door frame, rattling the screen, and Mrs. Rufus ambled over.
“Would you mind putting more decals on the window for me?” Clara asked.
Mrs. Rufus puffed out her red cheeks, surveying the black hawk silhouettes stuck to each pane of glass on the house. “Honey. You think more will make a difference?”
“What if you moved the plastic owl from the back of the house to the front?” Clara said. Hysteria fluttered in her throat.
Mrs. Rufus took the decals Clara poked through the mail slot and frowned. “Maybe someone in your bird club can explain why it’s only your house getting bombed. I know the group’s missed you all these weeks.”
“I don’t think so,” Clara said.
“You used to hike circles around all of them.” She held out a suntanned arm. “You were browner than me! Don’t you want to get out?”
Clara felt Mrs. Rufus searching her face, and concentrated on the reassuring pressure of the screen door’s mesh against her fingertips.
“No,” she whispered. “But thank you.” She shut the door and withdrew to close the window blinds around the house.
How could she explain that the birds tracked her specifically, dashing themselves against the windows of the room she occupied? The first collision had occurred a month after John’s funeral. A yellow-shafted flicker, with a brilliant red patch behind its head and large, brown-and-black herringbone wings. Clara had been finishing a paint-by-number of a robin when the thud against the glass sent her brush flying. Pausing in the bedroom with her hand twisted in the window blind cord, she envisioned once again the dead flicker’s sturdy, perfect beak.
The incident signaled the start of a mass backyard suicide. One, two, sometimes three birds a day. And today, a bluebird? Her stomach sickened, as though she had snapped the bird’s neck in her hands. She used to spend every afternoon roaming the nature trails outside town, documenting what she had liked to call her “feathered free spirits” in her notebook.
“You love birds so much,” John had said. “Let’s get you a canary.”
“Oh, I could never keep one in a cage. They’re wonderful, wild creatures,” Clara responded. “Let me take you to see the snow geese instead.”
Every March a flock made its migration stopover in a field near the local creek. She and John spent the day arm-in-arm, marveling at the sea of white birds. John laughed with her at the flock’s raucous honking, and squeezed her hand.
She was driving them home, her cheeks sore from smiling, when a shifting in the sky above the road drew her eye. Thousands of starlings converged and separated in a throbbing, living cloud. “A murmuration!” she cried. Just as she started to explain the phenomenon to John, the jeep skidded on the wet pavement. The steering wheel jerked in her hands. She tugged hard to compensate, and slammed the side of the vehicle—John’s side—into a tree.
The window blind in the bedroom smacked against the sill, and Clara jumped. Her gaze fell on her laundry basket, sitting under the house’s last uncovered window. So far she’d filled it with the paint-by-number set, her ceramic songbird figurines, and her favorite mug with the goldfinches on it. It was best to get rid of it all. Give the knickknacks to someone who deserved the hobby. Not a murderer like her. She retrieved her hiking boots from the closet where John’s clothes still hung. I can’t be that person anymore, she thought. I’m only a death magnet.
In her mind, she saw them all, lined up like blood offerings. The broken wing of a mockingbird, flopping in the breeze. A wren with a blood-stained cap. A plump, black-and-white jumble she recognized as a chickadee.
Feathers flapped at the window, startling her. A single starling, just like those that had looped above her in the sky that day, perched on the outside sill. It cocked a jet-black eye at her, tap-tap-tapped on the glass, and flew off.
Clara’s ribs tightened with anxiety. “What do you want from me?” she whispered.
They had to be able to see the glass. Why were they still trying to force their way in? To remind her of what she’d done? Well. She’d get rid of that part of her life forever. Trembling, she hurried downstairs to the parlor with the laundry basket, sweeping birding notebooks and calendars into it as she went.
She was reaching for the binoculars on the mantle when a reverberating smack stopped her hand. It sounded like a marble hitting the glass. She remembered the insistent expression of the starling’s jet-black eye and pulled the curtain back.
A dark form flopped in the mulch. She swallowed a wave of nausea. It’s still alive. In an instant she was out in the yard, gathering the soft body from beside the bluebird.
The starling’s wings worked weakly against her fingers. “Why did you want to break into my house?” Clara said.
A light breeze moved over her skin. The sensation, foreign yet familiar, sent goosebumps up her legs. She glanced up. A murmuration twined above the trees like an immense Moebius strip. She squinted at pinpoints of color in the cloud. Finches, jays, orioles, cardinals, thousands of birds that never flew together, joining and separating. The joyful cacophony of their cries resounded over the neighborhood. Awe replaced her fear.
Movement stirred in her palm. Tiny toes gripped her finger as the starling righted itself.
“You weren’t breaking in“, Clara said, staring at it. “You were trying to get me out.”
The starling flapped its wings and launched upward. She heard the voice of that other self, her old self, calling after it as it climbed. “Out of that cage. Fly away, now. Quick! Before you’re caught again.”
Clara looked behind her at the house. The blinded windows gaped back like empty eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen them from outside. Her stomach rose against the thought of those four walls, so like a box. She turned back to the open sky, and though she stood perfectly still, she felt a sensation like her feet leaving the ground.
© 2016 by Jennifer Noelle Welch
First published in Penumbra Magazine, June 2014.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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