Fantasticoe -- Fall 2011
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birdcage

 by Chloe Reichelt

            I keep birds. Sometimes, when I can’t remember her voice very well, I walk into the living room and listen to them sing.  I named each of them Amy.

Amy.

Amy.

Amy.

Saying it now, the movements of my mouth feel ugly and heavy. I can’t say it right anymore, and I try to remember the way I used to say it, the way my tongue felt, like a bird taking flight. Amy. At night, when I can’t sleep, I feed the birds.

I have placed her jar on the piano so she can watch me while I feed them. “Amy,” I say to the birds. They cock their heads at me, keep one glass eye focused on my hands. On the piano, Amy pirouettes so beautifully, arching in the jar, and I can’t stop myself from remembering how her hair spread out on the pillow while she slept, like red thread that had unspooled itself during the night. She pumps along softly now, her veins fluttering against the glass of the jar like moth wings.

            The birdcage is beautiful but it is still a cage. The birds will grow tired of me, of the cage. And when they leave, Amy and I will fill up this empty room together.

I wander to the window. Miles away, the distant gleam of a city swallows up the horizon. But around here, there are only empty hills. The dark jut of a tree now and then. I press my left hand to the glass, to a window already thick with fingerprints.

Outside, now, the leaves are changing. Soon they’ll fall to the ground. Time is passing—my eyeglasses thicken as my hair thins. The birds grow old with me in this room. But Amy will stay the same.

            Amy’s rib cage was beautiful, freckled and pale and rising and falling as slowly as the tides. But it was still a cage.

            She rises and falls in her jar now, too, slowly, beating softly. With each beat, her arteries lift her slightly in the jar, pulling her upwards through the water. It’s a slow dance and she is still graceful, pulsing in the jar, small branching veins brushing against the glass like frayed threads. She twirls faster when I say her name and I know she can hear me. Amy. My heart falls with hers as I say it. Amy.

            “Amy?” We were younger, then, and lying in the grass with the last songs of the cicadas dying overhead. The sky was blue that day, bluer than I’d ever seen it before or have seen it since.

            “What?”

            “What do you think is the most beautiful thing?”

            “I think—flight. The way birds have to trust.”

            “Trust? What do you mean?”

            “I don’t know. The air. The sky. Themselves. But they have to trust something, to fall through the wind like that.”

            We were quiet for a while, and then she said, “The most beautiful thing. What do you think it is?”

            And I wanted to say, you, you, always you, your small wrists and how they look like they are made from ceramic, your skin, this pale canvas stretched over a hollow frame, how your shoulder blades grow from the hem of your cotton dress into wings.

But instead I said, “…Flight. I think flight is beautiful, too.”

I am lying in my bed and outside, the moon is rising, dotted with craters that from here look like milky beads of sweat. I brush my hand across her empty half of the bed and sigh.

Sometimes things are so perfect that I wish I could keep them, pin them into a collection. The moon is this perfect tonight.

            Beneath me, the birds are loud. They won’t let me sleep. I wander downstairs, bare feet padding against the carpet, and tell them to be quiet. But they won’t stop chattering. I tell them, “Shhh. Hush.”

            In her jar, Amy is sleeping, and I don’t want her to wake up. Silhouetted in the moonlight, she looks peaceful. She beats far more slowly than usual, one pulse every few seconds, and the water in her jar looks like clean summer air, shimmering in heat.

            I don’t want the birds to wake her up. She always looks so peaceful when she sleeps.

            Sometimes Amy would sleep for days. I would stay in bed just to watch her-- how the lines on her forehead would smooth by the morning.

When she woke, I would tell her, “Amy, I want to keep you forever.” She would smile, sometimes sadly. Maybe she would tell me she loved me or maybe she would stay silent. Her sheets smelled always like cut grass. Like the morning. We’d lie in the squares of sunlight on her bed until the sun began to slant them in a different direction. And when we kissed, it was so impermanent—a flutter of wings.

            The birds flutter their wings in their cage, the shadows of the bars moving across their bodies, and I can’t tell if the bars are merely shadows or if they are becoming part of the birds, if they are growing into their feathers, a kind of wrought-iron lace. “Shhhh,” I tell the birds, urgently. They aren’t listening. “I don’t want Amy to wake up. Shhhh.”

 They chatter loudly to one another. It sounds overly loud in the still room.

I look at Amy’s jar. She is quiet for now. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. The birds blink hard glass eyes at me. They stare. I don’t like it, don’t like how only one eye blinks at a time. They let out a few shrill cries. “Don’t wake up Amy,” I say to them. “It’s late,” I tell them. They only grow louder.

The water in Amy’s jar is moving. “Please be quiet,” I moan. I don’t want Amy to wake up. The cries swell into discord, into—the birds are laughing at me. Are they? I shake my head to dislodge the thought. Something is ringing in my head and—

I shake the cage. The birds are squawking now, loud shrill squawks that will disturb her. “You have to be quiet,” and I don’t mean to yell but my voice is rising without my permission. “Be quiet! Be quiet!”

            It is too late. Amy is awake.

            She turns to face me, knifing furiously back and forth, and it is the first time I notice that the human heart looks like a clenched fist. She darkens to a purple shade. The water in her jar is like the ocean now, waves pounding against the sides, over the lip of the jar. She won’t listen. Her temper is how it used to be, a wildfire. “Amy, “ I say again, this time pleading,

            “Amy,” I said again. “Amy, I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”

            On the walls of the study were insects I had carefully caught and pinned and labeled, the iridescent wings of insects shining in the afternoon light. Amy was systematically destroying them, one glass box after another. I could hear it through the wall.

“Amy,” I said from the hallway. “Amy, let me in.”

            Amy said, grimly, “No.” There was a tinkling sound as glass hit the wall and then a thud as the wooden box pounded against the wall and then floor. “Amy,” I said.

            “Don’t say my name, “ she hissed. Another thud.

            “I don’t understand what I did,” I repeated.

            “You make this place a prison,” A crashing sound on her last syllable as though the world was ending, as though she had thrown a box with all her strength.

            “Amy—“

Don’t say my name,” she said.

 I said, “Let me in.”

There was a heavy silence on the other side of the door, darker than thunderclouds.

I turned the handle of the door, and to my surprise it was already unlocked. Amy stood in her bare feet, red hair flying away from her skull in flocks. In her small face, her eyes were swollen, red, angry. They shone like bruises. Glass cut into her heels. The wings of moths scattered about the room, beetles reduced to parts of the whole, butterflies separated easily into pins and segments. But she was quiet. It was as though, for a moment, something had been tamed.

“Amy,” She flinched. Inside of me something wilted. “Amy, why?”

“I can’t stand how trapped things are in this house,” she said softly, almost in a whisper. She padded past me to the bedroom. Bits of glass trailed after her.

Later, I held her feet, picked out the bits of glass from her high arches.  Her ankles were white and perfect enough to be eggshells. She was rigid in my hands and when I said her name, she wouldn’t look at me.

            “This is your fault, all your fault,” I say to the birds, and I shake the cage violently this time, the birds helpless inside of it. But I shake too hard and the doors swing open. The birds escape in angry lines through the living room.

            “Amy,” I whisper.

            I opened the attic door a crack and whispered.  “Amy?”  For a whole month I had walked around the house as though I were balancing on the edge of a broken bottle. The ground beneath me was fracturing all the time. “Amy, are you in here?” I pushed open the door a little more. It opened with a sound like splintering.

            She stood in the window frame, one hand clinging to the pane of the window, her hair floating around her shoulders like the curtains did around her ankles. The heels of her feet were red from the metal edge of the open window. Even in that moment, she was more beautiful than I’d ever seen her before, her spine curved like a swan’s neck, her fingers testing the air like small wings.

“Amy,” I said when I realized. “Amy. Don’t.” I ran. There were so many things strewn about the room—boxes of old love letters, photographs, blankets—and I caught on them and tripped.

            Now, the birds are growing more frantic as they circle the room.  The sound of beating wings fills the air and I have to put my hands over my ears to push the noise out. It sounds like the thud of a loud heartbeat. “Amy, stop, don’t,” I say, to the time of the heartbeat, the wings. Amy ceases to move in her jar, preparing for something, the way she stood in the attic window. She is a bird, still in the moment before flight.

From the floor, trapped and helpless, I said, “Amy. Amy, please, don’t. Don’t leave me, Amy.” My voice cracked. “You can’t leave me. I love you too much, Amy, Amy, please.” She didn’t turn to look at me. Her fingers inched themselves away from the wood of the wall. She went up on her toes, and on her small heels were the red criss-crossing lines of the window frame.  And then, with all the grace of a ship sinking, she tilted.

            The wings of escaped birds connect with Amy in passing, pushing her this way and that. And then the jar with Amy in it is falling. The birds scream overhead as she tips. The glass shatters and the water shatters after. And Amy, broken, torn Amy, lies on her side in two, still feebly pumping, gasping for air.

Inside the hospital everything was the color of antiseptic. Of gauze. Amy was pale too, paler than the walls. Beneath her dress, nothing moved, and the stillness of it scared me. Her neck was too long and extended to be real. I reached out and felt the hem of her dress, the thinness of it, and I worried that maybe the hospital air was too cold for her. The fluorescent lights above turned her legs the white-blue of skim milk. They told me she wasn’t breathing, had stopped a while ago. “Keep her breathing,” I said. She looked so cold. Her legs were bruised. I wanted to give her my jacket, to hold her ankles in my hands and pick out the glass from her arches.

Every day, I drove to the hospital just to hold her hand. I would tell her what the sky looked like through the window. In the corner, the flowers I’d bought her turned towards the distant sun.

 “Look, Amy,” I’d say. “The last of the birds have flown south, now. Someday you and I will go south, will visit the ocean, too. You love the sound of waves, remember?”

She didn’t answer. I held her wrist to my lips as though she were something expensive. A ceramic figurine in a hospital bed.

Except for the steady beeping of the machines, it was silent. There was a slow churning while something pushed air into her lungs. It sounded like the ocean to me. “Amy,” I would say. She didn’t move but I knew she could hear me. “Amy.”

When they told me that she was dead except for her heart, beating steadily away because of the machines, I told them to keep it beating, and when they, pitying expressions on their faces, finally offered me the jar that held her heart inside, I took it home and kept her there, on the piano, because I loved her too much to let her go.

            All around me, the fluttering of wings. I’m kneeling on glass, whispering “Amy, Amyamy amy,” and I’m crying, picking with shaky hands the broken bits of jar out of the pieces of her on the floor. She falls apart the more I try to put her back together, this broken heart that is something shredded and fleshy and too delicate for words. Above the birds are laughing. Their beaks point cruelly down at me. “Please be quiet,” I beg them. “Please.” There is a buzzing of insects pulsing through my brain. The glass of Amy’s jar shreds my hands to open wounds. I am bleeding fast, now. It doesn’t matter, because perhaps what is left can be saved. I will run to the kitchen and find a new jar. Perhaps what is left can be saved.