Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

The Birds


She came upon it as she snuck in and out of empty horse stalls, dollbaby clutched in her left hand. It flopped violently, the infant Barn Swallow. She knew there was something wrong with it, something that made her afraid.

She looked above, and sure enough, the spit-and-hay nest, hard as rock, clung to the side of the rafter like barnacle on a whale’s stomach. She knew instantly that the bird had fallen, rolled out by mistake. Right onto the concrete walkway built for the resounding clomp of horse shoes.

She crouched next to the bird, which was noiseless and seizing. Not yet feathered, it had only pink, raw-looking flesh, like it had been scrubbed too hard in a bath. She looked at its bulging, bruise-colored eyelids, not even open. She saw the heart beating through its paper-like skin, which made her stomach clench.

She stood and ran to the door of the barn, looking down at the farm house. Her dollbaby was left forgotten in the dirt of a vacant horse stall. She knew she should get her father.

Once, when her father was taking her to the store, they had come upon a half-driven-over squirrel. Its back end was flattened into the pavement, but its front end desperately scrambled, trying to escape the oncoming traffic. Her father jerked the car ever so slightly, and ran the squirrel down. The little girl was horrified.

“Chickie,” he had said softly, using her favorite nickname. “It’s better this way. He was suffering, and I ended that. Would you rather leave him to die slowly, terrified?”

She knew he was right. And she had stumbled across this bird. It was her duty to end its suffering. She felt proud of herself for her resolution.

She padded back to the animal, who had never ceased its jerking. It was so small that it barely disturbed the dirt covering the walkway. She crouched beside it once more, trying to quell her panic. She could do this. She would be its guardian angel—it was her duty to send the tiny creature to heaven, where all dead things go.

She stood and rooted around in the horse stall like the farm hogs, producing a good size rock. She came back to the bird, looming over it. She would have seemed a giant, if it had been able to open its eyes. She hesitated.

She did not give herself more time to think—she drew her hand back and tossed the stone. It struck the tiny body, and the bird let out a tremendous screech.

The girl was suddenly terrified. She fled to the safety of the horse stall. Crouched in the dark, hands gripping her tiny ankles, heart pounding. Outside, she knew the bird continued to thrash. She thought of her father in the house. He would certainly kill the baby, his face as neutral as if he were chopping firewood.

She went to the door. The bird was silent once more. She had not even drawn blood from the tiny animal. She stared up at the nest—where was the mother? What mother would leave her baby, naked and exposed, to plunge from the safety of the nest?

But she already knew the answer. If you touched a bird’s egg before it hatched, it would never return to warm it. If you touched a baby bunny before its eyes were open, the mother would most likely eat it. Her father had taught her these things. In this world, mothers were not kind.

She found that she could not walk past the baby bird. She had cast the rock, and she felt somewhere inside that she had to be the one to end its life, its suffering. She found the rock again. Forcing herself to go silent inside, like she imagined her father did, she threw it once more.

The bird screamed. She retrieved the rock. It screamed again. And again. She was growing angry in her violence. Soon her tiny, white molars were grinding into each other, and sobs racked her small ribcage. Each impact was a stab in her own skin.

She finally stopped when the rock missed and shot away. The bird was peeping, not nearly as loud as it had been. She refused to look at it. Instead, she focused up, on the nest. Her tears coated her cheeks.

Just last month there had been a snake in the barn yard. Her father had wandered over to see what the dog was pouncing on and yelled, dragging the Border Collie away by her collar. He demanded that his daughter hold the dog back. He grabbed a giant stone, freshly plucked from the young hay field, and smashed it down again and again on the snake. She had realized then that this was her father’s fear—while they did have cottonmouths, she could see it was an ordinary garden snake. He had killed it on the first strike, but he kept going. Each time the stone came down, the snake’s pink guts flew into the air.

It wouldn’t be until years later that the girl would understand that the emotions she had experienced while killing the bird was not fear, but rage. At what, she would never quite pin down, something she’d come to obsess about in the moments before sleep, the emotion so intense she would be able to recall it instantly.

But now, swiping tears off her face, the girl shook like an animal driven to near madness. Instead of dwelling on her rage, she wondered if there was a field stone lying around—she should have thought of that first. She glanced down. The bird was finally still. She could no longer see the tiny jump of its heartbeat through its skin.

After a moment, she ran back to the horse stall and threw up in a corner, quietly, her face wet again. She had done it—she had killed the bird. She realized remotely that its death did not bring her relief.

When her father came into the barn, she was crouched in the stall door, staring at the little corpse. She did not flinch as he placed his big hand on the top of her head. He rubbed it as he would a dog, creating tangles in her dirty-blond strand.

“It fell,” she said. “There was…something wrong with it.”

“Let’s bury it,” he said.

She dug a shallow hole behind the barn, averting her eyes as he tipped the bird out of a gloved hand into the dirt. She felt him watch her expression as she covered the body. She knew he was worried. But she was okay. Unchanged.

But the dollbaby went into the attic, and she never let her father call her Chickie again.

Moriah Howell is currently an M.F.A. student at Temple University studying fiction, though she obtained her undergraduate degrees at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.