“They’ll be there in three minutes, Mrs. Gardner.”
You’re not Mrs. Gardner, not anymore, but there’s no reason to change your name because these days, you aren’t really anyone, and Mrs. Gardner is as good a moniker as any.
In the living room, you unlatch the front door, leaving it open a sliver so the men in white scrubs won’t need to break a window to reach you. The overhead lights are already dim. Everything’s gossamer here, paper lanterns on exposed bulbs to minimize the glare, all the harshness in the world scrubbed away. Shadow is best for the things that live in your belly. Keeps them calm. Not that calm matters for long. If this one is like the others before, it’ll flap its wings, sloughing off your blood like bolts of lace before taking flight into the world. Chances are you’ll never meet it. Chances are it doesn’t want to meet you.
Inside her gold-plated cage, Matilda spins a melody, the crystalline rhythm of her voice a fervent welcome for the new addition. A bluebird, Matilda was the fourth, and after she escaped your body, you captured her in the kitchen and clipped her wings. That’s the only way anything stays with you — if you shackle it to your side.
Sirens wail in the distance and you wonder what the candy-coated surprise in your viscera will be this round. A dove, a crow, a canary — you can’t decide as the crescent beak slices through you, and sinuous trails of red map your skin. It’s happening faster than usual, which means you might have to perform the delivery yourself. Something rises in your throat and catches there. You double over and gag a feather into cupped hands. Glistening in your palm, the plumage is pure sapphire, possibly from another bluebird. You hope so. Matilda’s birth was the easiest so far. One twinge and it was over.
But a new kind of pain, sharp with metallic edges, sears through you, and you know beyond reason this one’s not a bluebird. It’s something else. Your back arched like an anxious cat on a back alley fencepost, you writhe, and mincing your skin, the bird emerges, one puzzle piece after another. Two speckled eyes, a blue throat, one red wing, one black wing.
When it’s free, the creature stands on your frayed body, its mottled feathers ruffled with bits of flesh. The colors, the shape are like no bird you’ve seen. With eyes like tiger marbles, it turns and examines your face as if it recognizes you, as if it alone knows who you are.
Your heartbeat quickens like the flicker of first love. You want to run. Your body’s too weak to run. So you close your eyes, and the world fades away.
• • •
“Boy or girl?” the party guests asked that day, their flushed cheeks and plastered smiles bearing down on you.
“I want to keep it a surprise,” you said, but you wished someone would ask you why, so you could tell them of your superstitions—the ones your mother passed on to you, the only inheritance she left behind—and how those superstitions made you certain something was wrong. You never went to the doctor, not for an ultrasound or even a routine checkup, because you knew they’d confirm what you feared.
But your friends didn’t ask. You hid in front of them, hid in the open, and they never noticed. Maybe you were always invisible to them, a faded specter among the living, and this was just the first you realized it.
So you drank the pink punch so sweet your teeth ached and you opened the foil-wrapped gifts and you thanked everyone for coming. It was what you were supposed to do. Pretending was the only way you could keep yourself from screaming, crying, begging them to set you free from a life no longer your own.
Your husband tried to make it easier. As a third trimester surprise, he bought you a cottage in the country, a slice of once-verdant land in the middle of a brown forest. Or what was left of a forest. Most of the trees had withered and died, a disease having swept through years ago, but the place possessed a decayed sort of elegance, the frail branches stretched taut overhead like a corps of ballet dancers preparing before a performance.
The sky gleaming indigo, your husband smiled and carried you over the threshold as though you were newlyweds. For weeks, everything indeed felt brand-new and shiny like the intricate treasures a magpie collects to construct a nest for its young.
“It’s perfect,” you said, a bloated Baba Yaga who didn’t need to eat children for them to end up in your stomach.
But the world soon lost its luster. You didn’t realize it at first, only saw faint hints of it brimming around the edges of your life. It was in the way your husband’s gaze darted away from you and your roundness waddling down the hallway and into the kitchen. You weren’t shaping up like a soon-to-be mother should. The proportions were all wrong, and there were other things too. Like in lieu of pickles and ice cream, you craved seeds. Sunflower, flax, pepitas—it didn’t matter. Seeds were all you wanted.
“Are you okay?” your husband asked.
You confessed your fears to him. He laughed and pulled you into his chest.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll be a wonderful mother.”
Though it was summer and the heat hung in the air like thick billows of chiffon, your skin bristled, and you shivered against him, his luminous skin scented with sweet aftershave and the musk of expensive cologne.
“But everybody tells pregnant women they’ll make great mothers,” you said. “It can’t always be true.”
Another laugh. “You’ll make it true.”
But still he wouldn’t look at your belly. After awhile, you wouldn’t look either, not when something rippled beneath the surface or when your morning sickness yielded bits of down instead of stomach acid. You couldn’t confide in your husband again. He was the one who wanted the child, and because he was too good for you, his broad-shouldered body and bright-eyed face the envy of everyone who glimpsed him, you feared another confession would be enough to undo the tenuous matrimonial thread that bound you together. He was all things, and you with your hand-me-down dresses and hair like wilted straw were nothing. But he claimed he loved you anyway, and you wanted to believe it, wanted to give him a child to make sure his love never came unknotted.
The labor wasn’t like the Lamaze class said it would be. In the living room beneath lights not yet dimmed, you collapsed to your knees and, and through lips cracked and dried, you called out for your husband, but he was buried in an upstairs room far from you, and your voice was too slight to retrieve him.
A scream no more than a whisper, and your stomach tore in two. Where there should have been placenta there were tattered muscles and something else escaping. A child. Your child. Eyes bleary, all you saw was a flash of snow-white feathers and then darkness.
• • •
You murmur your husband’s name but earn no reply. Nothing can salvage him for you now.
From above you, Matilda caws in her cage, and you remember. This is the twelfth birth, and something went wrong. Or went right. Lately, you can’t tell one from the other.
The men in white are here, and they crowd closer to you as their medical needles stitch your ragdoll body back together. There’s glass on the floor. Even though you left the door open, they must have broken a window anyhow and climbed through to reach you. Thanks to their haphazard entrance, the cloth diaper cake is in ruins. The last remnant of who you were, crumbled into dust like a beheaded Greek statue.
You search the ceiling and walls for the creature that fled your body. “Where did it go?” you ask, struggling to stay conscious.
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” the men say. “We’ll take care of it.”
You try to tell them they have no business taking care of anything except your cleaved stomach, but they never listen to what you say. They take a broom from your closet and beat feathers from the plaster. Matilda screams as though she too can feel the pain.
“Please don’t,” you whisper, but the words dissolve on your lips like a pillar of salt in the sea.
Something thuds to the floor, and you cover your face with both hands. If only Matilda could break free from her cage and pluck out your eyes. Then you couldn’t see what they did to your baby.
• • •
“Hopefully, it’s someplace faraway now,” he said.
But every morning, as you swept the cottage porch, your gaze remained with the sky.
“Don’t worry,” your husband said. “It was just a fluke.”
But you knew better. The bird was a piece of you. It came from somewhere inside, and when your husband set it free, you lost part of yourself to the firmament.
Everyone pretended they didn’t blame you, but it was lies. His golden skin cold to you, your husband refused to lie in your bed, but even without his touch, your stomach swelled again. There was no revelry held in your honor this time. No friends or family dared to come near you.
The only ones brave enough to breach your body were the men in white coats. They X-rayed your belly and pointed to the hollow shape that resided not in your womb but in your guts.
“It would be an outpatient procedure,” your husband said on the way home from the doctors’ office. “A few snips and gone.”
You shrugged and said you’d think about it. He told you he loved you and wanted what was best for you. But you knew it wasn’t true. He couldn’t love you, not if he didn’t love all of you.
He could, however, love another, love her well enough to plant a child with no feathers inside her. Because he was good at make-believe chivalry, he stayed with you to witness the second form rip through your body. A cardinal, its claret feathers matched to the afterbirth that stained your skin. As the paramedics patched you up again, your husband chased the bird out a window, and from the floor of the cottage, you watched through the glass as the shape departed, a single drop against a vast navy sky.
“I hope it found the first one,” you said.
Outside, the exposed trees wilted in the wind.
After the paramedics left, your husband stood in the living room, suitcases quivering in his hands. “You keep the cottage,” he said and took everything else.
Later that spring, you read the birth announcement in the local paper. As if to torment you one last time, he named his daughter Ava.
• • •
“We need to take you to the hospital,” they say. “They’ll suture you better than we can.”
You shake your head. Your body heals faster than it should. Maybe it’s the scar tissue built up and toughened from a dozen births, or maybe the birds lick you clean before they leave, a parting thank you to the woman who gave them life. Either way, you have no need for a doctor.
Matilda sobs in her cage, but only you can hear her tears. The other creature lies lifeless at your feet.
The men motion to its corpse. “Do you want us to dispose of it?”
“No,” you say, “it’s my responsibility.”
After their hushed sirens depart the driveway, you look to Matilda, and she looks to you, and together you whistle a melody at once familiar and arcane, mournful notes that have lived inside you both and waited for the right moment to escape.
Upon hearing the song, the creature thrashes its black and red wings before lurching to its feet.
You smile and beckon it to your side. It listens to your commands.
It listens though you never speak.
• • •
“Ma’am, we’re here on behalf of the state.”
You told them to leave. They didn’t listen.
“Your condition is a potential public health hazard.”
“What? Like I’m contagious?” You scowled and fidgeted in the doorway.
They examined you through wire-framed glasses and eyes rimmed with red. “We have to look into that possibility,” they said. “It will just be a few tests.”
You didn’t argue. Arguing with men in suits never worked out well for girls like you. They’d pin you down with paperweights and wait for you to surrender. It was easier to acquiesce.
So they took you to a hospital and stuck you with needles until your stomach bubbled like caramel on a burner and the next child arrived. It was the only birth not at home and the only one you regretted. The men caught the creature with a dark net and without so much as a nod toward you, they exited the delivery room. As the door swung behind them, a wing flapped helplessly inside the nylon cage, and you caught a glimpse of a feather — a perfect gloss of black silk.
One month later, in a neat brown package, the men sent you the ashes along with a one-page printout of the results.
normal crow specimen. no abnormalities detected.
You cried unabated for weeks. All the births had stolen something from you — your friends, your husband, your peace— but every time before, you comforted yourself that the tiny speck had soared to the sky, toward places you’d never see. The sentimental keepsake was yours, but the government men stole that away too. Now even your grotesque parts belonged to someone else.
On your nightstand in the box they sent you, the gray dust shuddered beneath the glow of a paper lantern. It was all you had left, and though the men gave it to the incinerator after they’d poked and prodded and gutted it, they couldn’t annihilate it. Not completely. One dark fleck of feather remained in the corner, a holdout the flames could not touch.
As a kiss goodbye, you pressed the quill to your lips, but the nothing fragment vanished into the air as though it was never there at all.
But it was there. You remembered how that lonely black wing flailed against the net. And because it was part of you, you were there too, hidden away in ash. You were there, and never again would you let them take what was yours.
• • •
Matilda waits too. You open her cage, and she hops on your shoulder.
“It’s time,” you say to her, and she leans closer and hums you an elegy you’ve never heard before.
Smiling, you open the door, and the twelfth bird takes flight.
• • •
That necklace dangled over your heart the day you started a class on bird watching at the local community college. If you were destined to birth different species, you should at least be able to identify them. Beneath flickering fluorescent lights, the other students in the class stared and whispered to each other. They knew who you were — a walking freak show in a faded linen dress. But it didn’t bother you. At a desk with a popup top, you took notes and whistled a songbird tune. Sometimes, the bird in your belly joined in, and she had a beautiful voice, and the duets terrified the others more than anything you could croon on your own, as though the townspeople genuinely believed wings might sprout through your flesh and your mouth might transform to a razor beak that could tear them into bits. This made you smile. As she stirred in your stomach, you learned to love this bird, the fourth one, even though her feathers had a penchant for catching in the back of your throat.
She was born while you dozed one afternoon, the pang of her birth melted into your dreams of falling, always falling. When you woke, you found her in the kitchen, perched on an empty wooden canister labeled plain sugar. Thanks to what the class instructor taught you about clipping wings, you tethered her to you and named her Matilda for no reason except that it suited her. She looked like a Matilda. Her birth was so easy you cobbled yourself together again with a sewing needle and a spool of cotton thread.
But you weren’t so lucky after that. The next seven births fragmented your body, blood and muscle and intestines like pink tinsel painting the cottage floors. You loathed the paramedics and their glares and their disgust at the tricks you, a strange circus animal, performed, but you needed them if you wanted any chance of surviving.
It became a maddening routine. As you sprawled in a fountain of your own fluids, the paramedics found a broom or a flyswatter and beat your children from the walls. It always injured you anew to see the birds broken before you, even though once the men were gone, you and Matilda would coax the creatures back to you with little songs that revived their trodden bodies. Over and over, you opened the door and tried to follow them, but they always escaped you, delving deeper into the forest where the darkness and the unknown lingered.
But as with all patterns, it couldn’t last forever. Like a change in the weather, you and Matilda could feel it in your hollow bones. The bird you’d always wanted was coming. The one that could set you free.
• • •
The sun dips down to the tops of the tree trunks, and with your mended stomach in spasms, you suddenly fear you’ll lose sight of the twelfth bird in the gloom. But nestled on your shoulder, Matilda murmurs in your ear and tells you to keep going. Because you trust her, you listen to what she says.
Just before night sets in, you reach a clearing. There, they wait for you, their beaks pecking at the ground, exhuming grubs. Doves and crows, cardinals and bluebirds, dozens of them, far more than you’ve given to the world, more birds than you could have birthed in an entire lifetime. Still, they know you. They’re all parts of you, the splintered mosaic of your heart that nobody, not your friends or your husband, ever wanted to see.
“I’ve missed you,” you say, and they chirp and chatter in reply.
When the birds have their fill of worms and dirt, they float into the air. They’re ghosts like you, creatures of this world and not of this world at the same time. And they’re beautiful. Swaying against you, Matilda nuzzles your cheek as if to say goodbye. Her feathers no longer clipped, she takes flight and joins the others. They circle above you, strung together like pearls on French wire, and you wish you possessed wings so you might yoke yourself to them.
You purse your lips and whistle, a call only they can decipher. They hear your wish, and one after another, return to earth to claim you. But they don’t take to the soil. Instead, they open your mouth and force their way down your throat and into your belly, back to the place from which they came. Gagging, you swallow the feathers and the beaks and the talons that rake the insides of your cheeks into ribbons. You taste blood, your blood and theirs, and you taste something else too. Each bird has a different flavor, all of them sweet perfection that melts in your mouth like spun sugar. Rock candy for the doves. Cinnamon discs for the cardinals. Gumdrops for Matilda.
When the sky is empty and the sweetness ebbs away, there’s one thing left for you to do, and you know what it is. You open the locket that hangs from your neck and gulp down the dust. Not a trace of honey there. It smacks of antiseptics and chloroform, an acrid tang that blisters your tongue. The agony the third one felt under needles and microscopes becomes your agony now, and you’re grateful to share the burden.
United at last, your children stir in your belly. It’s their home, and in a way, it’s your home too. The desiccated branches shift and contort overhead, and all around you, the forest is convulsing to life.
Through scarred skin, you hear Matilda sing a melody as the birds flap their wings in unison. Any pain they once inflicted inside you is gone, replaced with pure bliss, something far beyond what your husband or the government men or the townspeople could ever understand. This sense of calm like childhood dreams come to fruition is yours and yours alone. You tip your head back to the sky, and the birds carry you there. Together, you soar above the cottage, above the town, above the people who look up and no longer whisper but scream until their throats are raw.
For the first time, you are whole, and the world whirs to life in celebration.
Below you, the trees are all in bloom.