art by Tim Stewart
The Birdcage Heart
by Peter M Ball
Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His publications include the novellas "Horn" and "Bleed" from Twelfth Planet Press, and his short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interfictions II and Apex Magazine. He can be found online at www.petermball.com.
She likes watching him dress. He likes to be watched, so he goes through the motions: yesterday's underwear; Levis, left leg following the right; the belt threaded through the loops, tugged tight and fastened; yesterday's black socks; the crimson sneakers, the laces, the left foot before the right. The shirts always last, always the struggle. "No undershirt," she says. "Leave it off today."
He hesitates, the black shirt stretched between his forearms. "It's cold out."
"No shirt." She stands up, stretching. His sparrows chirp in response, adjusting their footing on the ledge in the cage. She takes a step towards him, predatory, like a cat. "Leave your buttons open. For me. Until you leave, at least."
She closes on him, reaches for him. One hand on his arm, holding it free of the buttons. Another on his chest, moving from flesh to golden bars, tracing the outline of the cage door. The sparrows flutter their wings against her fingertips, panicked and trapped, unable to flee. She likes that, the control. She likes the way the birds move within him when she presses herself against his chest. "Please, Nathaniel, for me."
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He leaves the shirt unbuttoned. The sparrows chirp, and she's content.
And it is cold out, without the undershirt. Not freezing, but damp and chilly and uncomfortable as he walks to work, drawing stares from his fellow pedestrians when they hear the sparrows fidget beneath the straight line of his shirt-buttons. Cold enough that he wants to run home and tell her, as if his being right would matter. As if anything he says ever really fits into her world view. There are three of them in the relationship, her and him and the birds in his chest, but there is never a moment where the majority rules.
He goes to work, he puts in the hours. He eats lunch in the park, feeding crumbs to the shivering birds. He tells himself that it isn't always bad, that there are times when he loves her more than he can say.
And the sparrows sing as he makes his way home, urging him to fly south before winter curls its grip around them.
It hasn't always been sparrows. There are days when he feels like every bird has left its mark on him, a reminder of the time they spent in the hollows of his chest. The crows left him bleak. The peacocks left him a dandy, resplendent in suits of silk and velvet. The doves left him unafraid of romance, opening him to a sweetness he thought himself incapable of. So many birds have passed through him, have sung soft trills from the cage inside his ribs, and their memories remain long after their departure.
He likes the sparrows because they were his first bird, a birthday present from his father who never seemed entirely sure what to make of his son's condition. The sparrows come loaded with memory: waking up to find his father kneeling beside the bed, two small birds ready to be delivered into the cage that was finally large enough to contain its own life. The birds chirped an agreeable song in the centre of his shallow chest. "They're Sparrows," his father said, "dependable birds. Treat them well and they'll keep you safe."
And he lay in bed, shivering, unsure of what had happened. The short hops and twitching wings in his chest unfamiliar, so strange, but somehow right. Complete. Real. "Thank you," he said, and his father nodded. There were tears forming in the corner of his father's eyes.
That was the morning of his sixth birthday. The two of them never spoke of it afterwards.
The sparrows remind him of this, the silence and the gift; of the first time he was permitted to fill the cage of his heart.
The cage isn't normal. He knows that. People ask all the time, demanding stories and explanations. He's never sure how to handle that, has never had an explanation that makes sense to him, but he muddles through as best he can. "Airports are a pain," he says, "I always have to plan ahead for the security check, and the birds get freaked out once we're flying."
It's a good line, it gets a laugh. Humor satisfies their curiosity in a way the truth does not. Not like that time when he was sixteen, lying in bed with his first girlfriend. She put her fingertips on the cage and studied the birds, and she asked "what happens if I open it? What happens if I let them go?"
"Nothing," he said, "they fly away. It's just a cage, you know?"
It hurt her, when she heard it. It seemed she didn't know at all.
There are times when she's almost sweet, and that helps him endure the rest. "If I were a bird I'd live in there," she says, stroking the bars with the soft edge of her finger. "I'd crawl into your heart and live there, safe and comfortable, and I'd let you keep watch over me for all the days of my life."
The sparrows in his chest flutter at the suggestion, wings brushing against his ribs. It occurs to him, suddenly, that he's never wanted anything more than this, to hold her in his chest and keep her safe.
"Marry me," he says.
"Sure." Her voice low, her fingertips soft, the birds in his chest lulled into slumber.
"I'm not kidding," he says. "I want you to marry me."
She opens the cage door and reaches in, fingertip stroking a sparrow's head. Nobody has done this, not in all the years he's caged birds in his chest. It's an unfamiliar sensation, intense and vaguely unpleasant. He gasps and the birds flutter against the invading fingers, the tickle of feather on skin causing giggles to fill the small bedroom of her flat.
"Yes," she says, "of course, yes."
She says it so naturally, like there could ever be another answer that would satisfy either of them.
Sometimes she wears a gold scarf with tassels, bright and profoundly ugly. It is the only splash of color in her somber wardrobe, her clothes normally styled from cloth possessing the black sheen of raven feather and the powdery grey of owl down.
He watches her in the park, walking towards the coffee vender, scarf fluttering in the breeze. It entrances him, the gold and the tassels, the stark contrast with her dark wardrobe and pale skin. Gold like the bars of his birdcage heart, a little connection between her and him.
"It's so pretty," she said once. Then, "I wonder what its worth. If we got into trouble, could we sell it? Just clip a bar free and drop down to the local jeweler, sell it on the sly with no one the wiser?"
"That'd probably hurt," he said, although he doesn't know for sure. He's careful with the birdcage, unsure of what happens if the bars are damaged. The first lesson his father taught him was be careful of your heart.
"If we were starving," she said, "if we were on the run and needed money…."
"I think its tin," he said. "The gold's just a veneer. It's all pretty ordinary and cheap underneath"
"Oh," she said, and smiled. "So much for that plan. Best we stay out of trouble, then."
The tassels dance, caught on the breeze. He feels he could watch them forever.
They're walking to the video store when she asks the inevitable question. "Does it have to be sparrows?"
"No," he says, "It could be anything. I just like the sparrows. They're familiar. I understand them."
"Good," she says, and smiles at him. He's seen such smiles before. "You don't mind if we experiment then? Give you a spot of color?"
He likes pleasing her. She likes to be pleased. He raises a smile to mask his true response to her questions. "Sure."
"Good," she says. "Good. Leave it with me. I'll try and think of something."
He dreads the possibility of a lovebird. To delve into such cliché seems abhorrent and unnecessary. Also on the list of unfortunate choices: nightingales; budgerigars; parrots in all shades of the rainbow. All have been inflicted upon him in the past, and none have been satisfactory.
They rent three movies--Evita, Tango and Cash, Once Upon a Time in China--and walk home in comfortable silence. Later, while she sleeps, he sits in the dark lounge room and studies the photocopied covers in the DVD cases. The birds in his chest stir, a momentary fidget before returning to sleep.
This is who we are, he thinks. This is what we've become.
He sets the sparrows free in preparation for her gift, standing at the window with the cage door slid open. The wind whistles against his chest, pushing through the bars and filling the hollow spaces within, cool and uncomfortable against the exposed bones of his ribs. The sparrows fly off, bobbing against the breeze, angling up and up and away, their wings fluttering against the air as they rise. The morning air is cold, the bright sunlight doing nothing to warm the bare skin.
He makes a list of birds he's willing to cage, should the opportunity arise: the emu; the myna; the dodo; the swan. The larger birds are uncomfortable, hard to fit within the cage's confines, but there are times when discomfort takes a backseat to novelty and there are very few species remaining which haven't resided in his chest at one point.
He wonders if he should mention this, decides he should not. It would hurt her, to hear this, now that he's given her permission to make a change. She wants to deliver something new, to give him some bird that exists between the two of them.
He buttons his shirt, covering the empty cage, and practices the face he will make when she delivers something expected and ordinary.
She says, "I've brought you a surprise, Nathaniel," and smiles like the words were unexpected. His breath catches, a facsimile of surprise. She's the only one who calls him Nathaniel, refusing to abbreviate his name. This doesn't comfort him the way it once did. The words seem to echo inside his empty chest.
She hands him a pair of robins, red-breasted and bold of song.
He has tried robins before. They're brave birds, unafraid, aggressive defenders of their territory. "Thank you," he says, "they're beautiful."
She smiles. He smiles.
In less than a month she tells him to replace the robins, driven to distraction by his untoward acts of jealousy.
For a moment he hopes they're done, that the experiment with the robins is enough to dissuade her, but it appears he's not that lucky. In the spring she gives him geese and his temper grows foul. She laughs about it, often, after the geese are removed. He suspects they were only given to him so she could make puns about his behavior.
In the summer she gives him ravens, unsure of what will happen. He leaves the cage door open and lets them escape, tells her it's an accident when she asks what happened.
In autumn he's given vultures. It ends far better than either of them expects,
By winter it's become an addiction. She keeps bringing him birds, an endless aviary of ornithological specimens, and he keeps accepting them, bird after bird, just to keep her smiling. Their house becomes home to a mismatched flock of birds. The neighbors complain about the smell.
"We're going to build an aviary," she says, "a place for them to feel at home, after you've set them free." And the next day there are workmen, a construction crew and an ornithologist consulting and long lengths of curved rib bone that arrive on the back of trucks. He doesn't particularly want an aviary, but it proceeds without him. He refuses to speculate on the nature of the ribs, the where and why of their arrival.
"It has to be bone," she tells him. "We want them to feel at home, and it wouldn't be authentic without them, yeah?"
He misses his sparrows. He doesn't say this aloud. He misses his sparrows so much his heart aches.
He killed his first sparrows, though he doesn't like to think about it. He went to sleep without covering the front of the cage, and woke screaming from the pain as the birds inside him died. They were his to look after, and he failed them. He was only seven, but he feels the shame acutely. Still feels it when he loses things, when the world changes around him and he should have noticed.
Since then, he's refused to name any of the birds he keeps. Since then, he's cared without getting too close.
It takes three years to complete the aviary, the vast structure dominating the top floor of their house. He learns the name of the workmen who arrive every morning, hammering and sawing in the early hours. He learns to fill his heart with the bird of her choice, coordinating their features with his suits and ties and t-shirts. He learns to pretend, to be happy, to forget who he used to be. He learns to hold his tongue when she names the birds and treats them like pets, disappearing into the aviary for hours at a time.
He's not the man she married anymore. They're both aware of that.
She leaves him with the house, the aviary, with three hundred and fifty-eight birds that have all spent time in the hollow cage of his chest. She leaves him the scarf, black with gold tassels, and he loops it over the curtain rail so the loose threads dance in the breeze and the faint remaining smell of her seeps through the house on the morning air. He goes through the motions: coffee, two sugars; a bowl of fruit-loops, humming a short jingle half-remembered from his childhood; showering; shaving; dressing for the day.
There are one hundred and seventy-seven types of bird in the aviary, the result of her mania for collecting mated pairs of every breed she tried. None of them fill the hollows left by her absence.
He rings his father and breaks the news. They move on to the weather, then back again, the conversation following an erratic flight path.
"The birds," his father says, the notion coming to him suddenly. "My god, Nate, all those birds. How are you handling things?"
He hasn't been to the aviary in three days. He doesn't wish to see the birds. The birds are so small, so delicate and weak. He doesn't wish to see them, to take them in, to be like them. "They're fine," he says, "the birds are taken care of."
That's what he does, him and his birdcage. They take care of things, they cope and they secure.
He's owed some leave, and he takes it. Doesn't go anywhere, just stays home and broods.
She liked to watch him dress. He thinks of this as be pulls on underwear and considers the last pair of pressed, pristine jeans sitting in his wardrobe. He pulls on an undershirt, keeps the cage of his heart secure and warm.
It's time, he thinks, to go upstairs.
The aviary curves around him, the bars of white bone curving against the walls, and it occurs to him for the first time that something great and terrible died to cage these birds for him. He lies on the grimy floorboards, down amid the bird shit, and he watches the former occupants of his heart flitting between the covered branches: jackdaws and parrots and lovebirds, the macaw with its brilliant feathers, the wide wings of the own as it stretched and yawned from a lowest perch. A hundred birds, a thousand, all of them cawing and cackling and trilling in the morning air. Angry geese hiss at him from the space behind the ottoman.
We built this, he thinks. The two of us built this place for them.
The birds sing, an avian cacophony. There is comfort in that, he thinks. Silence, now, would break him, would remind him of his failure.
He closes his eyes and breathes, savoring the sulfurous tang of bird dung in the air. The floor is hard and uncomfortable. His jeans are getting dirty and he no longer needs to care.
Tomorrow he will go out and purchase two sparrows. That gives him twenty-four hours to think of potential names.
This story was first published on Friday, February 11th, 2011
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