“Birdland”- Fiction by Julia Dixon Evans

Child and Bird – Kaoru Kawano, 1950

After their parents’ deaths, three sisters reunite & resurrect some unsettling secrets in “Birdland,” Julia Dixon Evans‘ unforgettable short story from our Summer 2017 issue.

{ X }

MY SISTERS ARE DUE ANY MINUTE. A rush of birdwing-flap overhead, the shadow of their cloud. Migrating sandpipers maybe, or golden plovers; I am a bit rusty these days. It’s cold out, the sun still up but June always seems like the wintriest month we have here: moody and overcast, unpredictable, twenty degrees cooler at night than at noon. Bits of crabgrass fall from between my fingertips and thumb. I rub them together like a chef dusting rubbed salt over a pan and that metaphor probably means I’m the salt, ground up and rubbed to within an inch of my life so that whatever’s in the pan has a better time of it.

I wait for more birds. I wait for my sisters. This is all I have.

When we first took over the mortgage on this house it seemed like the best idea. Our parents, dead younger than anyone expected, left us an unfinished mortgage, anemic life insurance policies, and a disastrous filing cabinet full of 5% useful documents about their finances and 95% shit that should have been shredded ten years ago. The worst part about their death was being annoyed by them because of this. I just wished they’d give me some time to miss them. It sometimes feels like they died forever ago, not four months ago. It sometimes even feels like it’s still happening.

Sarah is the oldest, the wildest. She’s thin and tall, disarmingly brilliant, and she’s mean. Louise is the youngest, the kindest, the timid one. She’s built like me, which is to say: not thin, not tall, not disarmingly brilliant, not mean. I usually can’t stand Louise.

Next to my sandals in the grass there’s a can of strawberry soda. I stopped drinking soda ten years ago (for Lent, for superiority, for the squishiness around my stomach) but it’s all my parents left in this house. Soda and five or six bottles of expensive whiskey with only an inch left each. I lift the can up, a straw in the metal hole, and drink until the straw rattles with empty. I turn my back to the late sun in the hope that it’ll warm me more. Last night when it was also cold, I sucked Rafael’s dick in my car and he loved me and grabbed at my stomach and said what does it feel like to have someone this into you? and today he said I think I hate myself when I’m with you.

Louise’s Subaru-plus-trailer pulls into the long driveway, all-terrain tires squeak-crunching on gravel, and Sarah is in the passenger seat. A tarp-covered travel box sits atop the station wagon, and the wayback is stuffed full with boxes and bedding and pillows. The three of us haven’t lived together since Sarah moved to college fifteen years ago. I stand up as they park, picking up the empty soda can.

“Motherfucker,” Sarah says, climbing out of the car. “Here we are again. Megan, you look hellish.”

She hugs me and it’s then I realize I haven’t seen her since the funerals over four months ago.

“Dibs on mom and dad’s room,” she says, and then she laughs and says, “Just kidding.”

“I think I want to make it a studio,” I say, and I know this isn’t what she meant. She wanted to have a jokey few minutes before we crossed the threshold on our dead parents’ home and made it ours. “For projects, art, work, anything. I don’t think anyone should live in there.”

“How long have you been here?” Louise asks.

“An hour,” I say. I only went inside to get a drink but then couldn’t handle being inside, but I don’t want to tell them that. I have no options because I moved out of my old place and locked the key inside, good riddance, and I don’t want to show my face at Rafael’s house again until he decides that he misses and needs me on his own. Until he remembers being “into me” instead of “hate.” Tonight, I start sleeping here. From now on, it’s the Joyce girls.

I roll up the back door on my U-Haul and step back. It’s nearly empty anyway. A mattress, not even a box spring, the dresser I’ve had since I was sixteen, a department store bag stuffed with mismatched clothes hangers, a partial set of dishes. No living room furniture. No dining room furniture. I lived and acquired for impermanence. I mooched off other people. My parents left the living room and the dining room intact anyway.

In my room, my old room, because that seemed simpler than us arguing about where we’d live, we arrange my things, a little differently than the last time I lived here twelve years ago. Just a little. And then we set up Sarah’s room in a similar fashion, and then we set up Louise’s, which requires the least work because she only moved out five years ago, to some tiny apartment in the city, so most of her shit is still here. The door to my parents’ room stays shut, tight, locked.

We sit around the dining table that night, expensive whiskey-spiked strawberry sodas, Sarah saying “this could use some bitters,” and Louise saying “what’s bitters?” and me saying “just hand me that other bottle of whiskey,” and my phone buzzes with a text from Rafael: I’m sorry

I flip the phone over so the screen doesn’t show.

“Ooh,” Sarah says. “Megan’s got a loverrrrr.”

“It’s Rafael. It’s not a lover. Gross. Never say that word again.”

“Lover, lover, lover,” Sarah says, pointing her soda can towards me. I’ve never seen this brand before. I’ve never even seen a can like this.

“Did you hear that?” Louise says. “I heard something. Outside.”

“—Loverloverloverrrrrr,” Sarah finishes.

“I’m serious. I’m creeped out right now.”

“Just go to bed, Louise. It’s late. This is the urban wildlife interface,” Sarah says in a documentary voice. “We’re on a river. Like a mile from a giant estuary. There’s gonna be noises outside.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I say. “Don’t worry.”

And then I hear it too. A hiss, but low. It lasts for two full breaths but maybe I wasn’t breathing. I slap my hands on my thighs and stand up, the wooden legs of the chair screeching against the tile kitchen floor. I suddenly want to be in my room, the door shut, the second floor, away from the outside. “It’s just bugs,” I say.

On my way past my parents’ room, the door is cracked open. Mostly closed, but ajar. I reach for the door handle to close it all the way and see the room is dark save for the moonlight streaming in through the window, my mom’s hand-sewn 90s gingham curtains pushed all the way open. I hesitate just for a second. This door was closed. This door was locked. There’s nobody in here. I quickly pull the door clicked shut.

 

I sleep for twelve hours. I’ve never slept this long.

I figure Rafael is at work so I text him back. It’s ok, don’t be sorry.

What I mean is: it’s not okay, please be sorry enough for fifty years’ worth of your shit, please never stop being sorry.

I miss you, I write. I know he won’t check his phone all day.

When I walk to the bathroom, the door to my parents’ room is all the way open, the midday sun high and bright, dust swirling in beams of light, and Louise sitting on the bed, whispering something to herself.

“Lou?”

“It’s a clapper rail, or whatever they changed the name to, is it a Ridgeway’s rail? I forget. It’s not important. It was a clapper rail back when you murdered them and collected their skulls, so I may as well still call it a clapper rail,” she says, barely registering.

“What are you talking about?” I ask, and I follow her gaze to the window, and lined up along the wooden windowsill outside is a probably-whole skeleton, a bird, spread out in order. Yellowed beak (and she’s right, it’s definitely a bird and the bird is definitely a rail) to tiny wingbones to tiny leg bones to peanut butter-brown claws.

“This is one of yours,” she says. “From back then,” and the then is so accusing it drips with it.

“I’ve been asleep! Unless it’s been up there for years and mom and dad left it, then it had nothing to do with me,” I say, trying not to be frantic. Failing. “Don’t even.”

I storm to the bathroom because it’s easier to be angry. I pee so hard it hurts a little. And it’s easier to take action, even easier than being angry, so I storm downstairs without washing my hands, storm to the garden, to the shed, and kick open the rusted-shut latch, get the tall ladder, storm back to the back of the house and slam it against the windowsill to my parents’ room. A few bones rain down upon impact. I see Louise’s face emerge, shiny, see-through, a reflection in the window, and then retreat. I clamber up each rung of the ladder, the whole thing trembling with every footfall. I probably should have a spotter. I never had a spotter when I was a kid. And suddenly it’s steady, so I look down, and there’s Louise, grasping one side of the ladder with one hand, the other shielding her face from the sun, staring up at me, and there’s Sarah, in her bathrobe and slippers, one hand also shielding her face and the other on her bony hip.

I look back up, and keep climbing. At the top, I gather all the bones and, realizing I didn’t bring anything with which to carry them down, I pull up my shirt and make a little sack out of it, like how I would always carry toys as a kid. Toys and dolls and grass and rocks, the portable detritus of childhood. Toys and dolls and grass and rocks and dead animals and bones and bones and bones.

With one hand I climb down the ladder, cradling the tiny long ago-bird in my shirt-pouch, and I walk past my sisters to the bottom of the garden, through the fence, towards the watershed where the plants turn lush and riparian but still somehow as inhospitable as the rest of the plants on this desert coast. I know exactly where I’m going, I know exactly what I’m doing. What am I doing. Sarah and Louise follow.

It’s mostly all still here, beneath a smattering of whiplash willow trees growing so close together that their branches have tangled into a weak canopy. Some are still buried deep, some newly buried by natural soil movement, some still out here stacked on top in little piles and pyramids, the way I used to like to arrange them. There’s a weight in my gut, like a stone, and it’s not settling, it’s rising and shaking around. I’m dizzy and I close my eyes and maybe none of this is real and I’m floating above someone else’s story, and then I have to force my eyes open again just so I can prove to myself that my feet are flat on the ground. I sprinkle the bones over the others and the way it feels when I notice this bird is mixing up with different birds is like how it feels when someone I love dies or when someone I love tells me I think I hate myself when I’m with you. I think this is how relapsing feels.

“Come on, Megan. Just, come on.” It’s Sarah, and she sounds so old but she’s always sounded old, even when they found me here when we were little.

But: “Just leave it alone,” says Louise, and this is what snaps me out of it because Louise never saw any of this back then. Louise was always a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, a kindergartener, anything but the adult she is now. She’s grown up and she’s just like me. She looks like me and she talks like me and we’ve both just lost our parents.

 

We unpack our things and pack up our parents’ things, a two-step of emptying boxes and filling them again, well into the night, finishing the last of the mostly-empty bottles of whiskey, but the strawberry soda stash is seemingly endless. Louise doesn’t hear the low hissing tonight and I don’t point it out to her when I hear it. Still in my day-clothes, whiskey and strawberry soda still coating my teeth, I fall into bed more tired than ever, than yesterday even. It feels like this place is feeding me, the kind of feast that makes you full and sleepy, or maybe it’s sucking the life right out of me, from inside of my throat, like a cartoon stream of swirling dust, out of my mouth and into the house. Into the floorboards, out of the cracks in the foundation, down through the yard, to the river, to the birds and their bones.

“I didn’t kill them, I promise,” I’d told my mother in my bed that first night after they found the bones. She’d slept in my bed all night, and the next night too, her white nightgown almost shiny in the moonlight. “I found them like that.”

“I know, baby girl. I know,” she’d said, kissing my hair until I fell asleep, and I’d believed her.

 

The next morning, there’s another bird skeleton there on the windowsill outside of my parents’ room. Louise is angry, shouting at me, and Sarah is drunk even though it’s maybe 9 AM, saying things to Louise, holding her back, and I am pulling at my hair. I am at the ladder again. I am climbing it. I am a kid, bird bones in my shirt-pouch. Down the ladder. To the willows. They’re whiplash willows, shining willows, pacific willows, salix lucida, thirsty for water and marshland but could survive any drought. I know this now because I am not a kid.

 

I was with Rafael when I got the call from the hospital. On his living room floor, making out with no clothes on, because he “felt bad” about doing it and about the bedroom because “that’s, like, relationship stuff,” so we were on his wool Pottery Barn rug, fuzzy bits sticking to my sweaty legs, when my phone rang incessantly. I guess the hospital didn’t want to leave a voicemail to a daughter saying hey just calling to tell you that both your parents perished in a car crash in the rain and the resultant submersion in the storm-swollen river, call us back when you get a chance. I crawled, hands and knees towards the phone, and Rafael laughed and spanked me lightly on the ass right as I answered the phone. My first reaction to whatever nurse or doctor was on the phone was to also laugh and say “Are you fucking kidding me?”

 

It was always going to be the river.

The third morning, the fourth morning, the fifth morning, and the sixth morning are all the same. The same but each bird is new. Sometimes they’re Ridgeway’s Rails, sometimes they’re chicks, impossibly tiny and fragile. Sometimes they are woodpeckers. Once a hummingbird, tinier than even the rail chick, and I can hold it all in one hand on the climb down the ladder. My sisters don’t talk to me in the mornings. Louise spends each entire day seemingly working through her resentment until she can look at me and at night we drink, fresh bottles of booze now. Sarah drinks most of the day but she never gets sloppy drunk. Sometimes she’s exciting, fun, the wild Sarah we love. Sometimes she’s withdrawn and sad. I love her still.

 

The seventh morning onwards we just sort of don’t mention it. Normal takes hold. Rafael only texts me when it has been days since I last texted him. Each night I sleep like a baby for hours and hours, and each morning, I close the open door to my parents’ room, I climb the ladder and move the bones back to the willows and I make breakfast for my sisters in my parents’ kitchen, Louise with her arms braced against the countertop, staring out of the window towards the river, lips moving without sound, Sarah with her back arched and her cheek pressed against the kitchen table, arms outstretched in a V away from her face, me cracking eggs into a salt-rubbed pan, soft river dirt still stuck beneath my fingernails.

 

The eighth morning isn’t a morning because I wake up curled up on my side, soft, damp dirt against my cheek and my bare shoulders, shivering, beneath the shining willows, the nearby sssss of the river. Bones of a new bird, new but yellowed with age, yellowed with: these bones’ve been out here since I was a kid, clutched in my hands. The noise, the low, groaning hiss, coming from up near the house, is loud enough to startle me awake. I try to copy it. I start to make the noise from deep in my belly, and I sound just like the noise. I can’t tell where the noise ends and where I begin. And that’s when I notice Louise and Sarah, close enough to see and hear everything, standing at the top of the river bank, above the shining willows.

{ X }

JULIA DIXON EVANS is the author of the novel Mother Father Daughter Burn, forthcoming from Dzanc Books. Her work can be found in Pithead ChapelBlack CandiesPaper Darts, and elsewhere. She works for the literary non-profit and small press So Say We All in San Diego. More at www.juliadixonevans.com

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