A Triptych Tale …

Baby Bird

A Triptych Tale

 

When I meet Calla, she’s wearing a chain of bird skulls around her neck.

“Baby birds,” she says, as if full-grown specimens would wreck her credibility.

It’s the first day of seventh grade, and I should run from the girl arrayed in bones, but I’m new at this school, and nobody’s very cordial except Calla. She adopts me as her new best friend, and I guess I’m okay with that, because why not? Better to be somebody’s friend than nobody’s.

I never ask where the bones came from, but she tells me anyway. The babies toppled from her grandma’s dead oak during a storm, and since they were already splayed out and lifeless on the lawn when she found them, Calla collected their feathered corpses in an old Tupperware container and dried the bodies on the sill of her bedroom window.

Her grandma didn’t mind.

“She hates birds, claims they’re filthy things,” Calla says and leans in as if to divulge a secret. “But I love birds. That’s why I wear them so close to my heart.”

She grins at me, and without meaning to, I grin back. It’s the first time I’ve smiled in months. Since before the tumors nested in my father’s lungs and the world went gray and I ended up in this place with nobody except my own shadow.

I have more than my shadow now. I have Calla.

“I made a friend at school,” I tell my mother that night.

“She hates birds, claims they’re filthy things.”

“That’s nice,” she says, but she doesn’t hear me. My mother doesn’t hear anything these days. She just rests in bed and stares at the wall, fiddling with her wedding ring, that golden symbol of eternity cut short.

“Could you make us dinner, Rhee?” she asks me.

I nod and trudge to the refrigerator, which is empty except for a gallon of curdled milk and a shrink-wrapped mound of chicken.

Chicken, I think as I fry up the pieces in a pan. Fowl. Bird.

The meat sizzles and browns, and I smile a little to myself, because it feels good to smile again and because now all birds, dead or alive, remind me of Calla.

#

She never takes off the necklace. Every day at lunch, she lets me touch the tiny skulls. They’re smooth as marble, and the sensation prickles the skin up and down my arms.

“Scooping out the brain’s the grossest part,” Calla says, and her voice pitches eagerly, as though she doesn’t think it’s gross at all and is only saying that for my benefit. “When I tossed the spongy pieces into the toilet bowl, I kept wondering if I was throwing away their memories too.”

“Memories?” I draw up my nose. “What kind of memories would a bird have?”

“Eating worms, probably,” Calla says. “Or in the case of babies, having a mama who regurgitates worms for you.”

I ask if the mother ever came back looking for the babies. Calla says naw, bird mamas don’t care a lick about their children.

“Watch ’em sometime,” she says. “They’ll be sitting in the nest, content as can be, and then a bigger bird comes around, and whoosh! Off they go to safety, leaving the babies to be gobbled up.”

I almost tell her how mama birds do that in hope of distracting the predator, not because they want to abandon their young, but she seems so adamant I let it go.

In the playground cage at recess, Calla takes my hand and shows me the spot where she hides her favorite leaves and sticks and how she glues them together with mud and old pink bubblegum. Her creation’s so big she can nearly fit inside.

I fidget and drift backward, so I won’t get too close and ruin her work. “Looks like you’re making a nest.”

Calla sighs. “It’s just for fun,” she says. “But everybody glares at it. They must think it’s an alien spaceship or something.”

If it is an alien ship, Calla’s the resident extraterrestrial. The other kids watch her like she’s one, and they start to watch me the same way. They whisper and inch away from us as we pass them in the neat rows of homeroom and the hallways lined with rusted lockers.

I bite my lip and clasp my textbooks into my chest and walk a little taller to show them I don’t care, I don’t need them. I have Calla. In every class, she reserves a desk for me. English, pre-algebra, even social studies where the stern teacher grips a ruler and wears a dark turtleneck so tight it’s a wonder she can breathe.

“You shouldn’t have those bones around your neck,” the teacher says to Calla. “It’s against the rules.”

“What rules?” Calla laughs. “Show me the rule against birds.”

“It isn’t written down anywhere.” The teacher scowls and inscribes the day’s assignment on the board, a piece of pale chalk trembling in her hand. “But you still shouldn’t wear skulls.”

If it is an alien ship, Calla’s the resident extraterrestrial.

Seems odd to me no one forces Calla to remove the necklace, if it is indeed against the rules, but our teachers are the same as our classmates — they’re quick to avoid us. That’s okay. I’m glad Calla keeps the necklace. The copper chain matches her eyes. She’s pretty, in that weird-girl way. Not the sunny blond, all-American splendor we’re told to admire, but a dark sort of beauty where shadows swirl on her cheeks, even when she smiles.

Whenever we’re together, the rest of the world falls away, and it’s her and me and our secrets. We talk about our parents and how my mother moved here for a fresh start after my dad died but it didn’t help because she only crawls out of bed to waitress at the diner, and Calla says other than her grandmother, she’s never had a family.

“My dad’s dead too,” she says. “I don’t know about my mother.”

Outside, Calla’s nest grows every day, and soon it’s big enough to fit both of us. Though I hate the sound of sticks breaking like baby’s bones beneath my feet, I nestle beside Calla and listen to the soft rhythm of her breathing and inhale her strawberry bubble-bath scent. Everything about her feels like home.

We wedge ourselves in the corner, so the kids playing basketball and hopscotch won’t see. Not that they would notice us. Not that anyone out here notices us. Even the teachers always have their heads tipped back to the sky as if at any moment, an avenging angel will swoop down and carry them off.

I squint at the sun. “What do they think is up there?”

“Who knows?” Calla says. “People are weird.”

#

Over Christmas break, my mother picks up extra shifts at the diner since she’s new and nobody else wants to work the holidays. I spend the entire week at Calla’s.

Her grandma, an owl-faced woman who never smiles, makes us gingersnaps and hot cocoa with white marshmallows floating on top like tiny clouds in a night sky.

“Enjoy, my darling,” she says and runs her fingers along Calla’s shoulders as though she’s feeling for something beneath the skin.

Even the teachers always have their heads tipped back to the sky as if at any moment, an avenging angel will swoop down and carry them off.

“Why does your grandma do that?” I ask once we’re in Calla’s bedroom.

Calla shrugs. “Ever since I was little, she’s always checked my back. Says weird growths run in the family.”

She giggles, but I don’t think it’s funny. The thought of something blooming like a cancer inside Calla makes my stomach queasy. We sip our hot cocoa, and the liquid steams down my throat, tasteless and heavy.

I stand at her bedroom window, trying not to shake. The dead oak where Calla found the babies casts fearsome shadows on the walls of her bedroom.

“Look,” I say and smudge my fingers into the glass. “Something’s in the tree.”

A single cardinal, the color of dry dirt, sweeps from the highest branch, fluttering its wings helplessly.

“That’s the mama,” Calla says. “She came back after all.”

Came back too late.

The bird sits there all night and all day, never resting, never eating.

“Why did it take her so long to return?” I ask.

“Maybe she got lost,” Calla says. “Or maybe she was waiting for the babies to learn to fly. Then they could have soared off together.”

I hold Calla and do my best not to sob.

On New Year’s Day, the cardinal mama dies, and we dig a hole in the garden next to the rosebush. The ground is usually frozen this time of year in Pennsylvania, but not today. Today the world is soft and gossamer just for us.

Before we start the funeral services, Calla retrieves the Tupperware container that holds the remains of the babies. It’s filled with a few parts she didn’t turn into jewelry — the stray feathers and yellow beaks the shape of waning moons.

Bundled in my puffy pink jacket, I shiver as Calla empties the hollow bones atop the mother. She drops her necklace into the ground too.

“So they can be together,” Calla says. “Families should always be together.”

She loves that necklace, but she doesn’t think twice about sharing the things she loves.

We scoop handfuls of dirt and cover the bodies. It’s so unceremonial. I wish I could play that stupid recorder the music department passed out or sing a pretty elegy, but all Calla and I can do is huddle together, breath snaking from our lips and pooling in one vivid, white cloud above the grave.

Her grandma finds us out in the cold and ushers us back inside where more cocoa and cookies are waiting.

“She’s bribing you,” I say.

Calla nods. “She says she wants me to live here with her forever, where she can keep me safe.”

I peek over the steaming edge of my mug. “Is that what you want? To be with her?”

“No,” she says. “I want to be with you.”

“That’s what I want too.” I imagine the cardinals, resting solemnly in the earth where the world can never again hurt them. “I wish there was a way we could always be together.”

Calla brightens. “There is one way. But it’s kind of gross.”

I sniffle, the cold of the grave settling in my bones. “Gross is okay.”

She loves that necklace, but she doesn’t think twice about sharing the things she loves.

After her grandma retires to bed to watch reruns of Wheel of Fortune and Baretta, Calla and I sneak into the kitchen and find two paring knives. On the count of three, we slice our palms.

“Blood sisters,” Calla says and presses our hands together until her red runs through the rivers of my body, and mine does the same in hers.

Calla. Always sharing. Even the things maybe we should keep to ourselves.

When I return home, my mother asks about the cut. I almost confess the truth, that Calla and I are real kin now, but I lie and say we were playing outside and I fell.

“Everybody at work talks about that family,” my mother says. “They’re not a decent bunch. The mother must have been a drug addict or something terrible, something no one will discuss. Vanished into the night and they haven’t seen her since.”

The metallic edge in her voice frightens me. I’m convinced she might forbid me from seeing Calla.

But soon, my mother’s more worried about her own social life than mine. She removes the gold band my father gave her and starts dating a line cook from the diner. After a week, he moves in with us. A week. Who moves in with somebody after dating a week?

“I love him,” she says to me, and the ghost of cocoa and gingersnaps rises up the back of my throat.

My mother’s happy now. She gets out of bed and makes smiley faces from eggs and bacon and brushes her hair and does all the things she used to do. I want her to be happy, but not with this guy. Something’s wrong with him. At night, when he thinks I’m sleeping, he lingers in the doorway to my bedroom. He stands there and watches me, like he’s planning something. I’ve got one guess about what that plan involves.

“You’re jealous,” my mother says when I tell her. “My life shouldn’t stop because your father died.”

She won’t listen to anything else I say about him, so I wait until Christmas break is over, desperate to ask Calla for her advice. But she doesn’t come back to school. I call her house six times a day. Her grandma says she’s too sick to talk.

He stands there and watches me, like he’s planning something.

“What’s wrong with her?” I ask.

“A fever” is the only answer she’ll give, but it’s the kind of lazy lie adults invent when they don’t want to tell kids the truth. They think we’ll believe anything, so why bother creating a more plausible cover story if a generic one will do?

A month passes with me calling and Calla not answering, and I gnaw my fingernails red and worry my stomach raw. Still nothing. No Calla at her desk in pre-algebra. No Calla on the playground in the chain-link box that pens us up like animals. No Calla anywhere except in the prison where her grandmother keeps her. If she and I are meant to see each other again, I need to go to her.

On a Friday night when my mother and her boyfriend leave for a “romantic” dinner, I sneak around the block and toss pebbles at Calla’s window. The curtain flutters, and she peers down at me from the second floor.

“You don’t want me,” she says through the glass. “I’m sick.”

I grip the white trellis that honeycombs up the side of the house. “I’m coming anyhow,” I say.

In her bedroom, Calla’s curled on the mattress, her cheeks wet, dried blood crusted over her collarbone and neck.

“What happened?” I perch on the lip of the mattress. “Why are you bleeding?”

She hesitates, a darkness churning in her eyes.

“I keep cutting them off,” she says, choking on her tears. “But they keep growing back.”

She tugs down the sleeves of her carnation-colored nightgown. Two skeletal stalks, one on each shoulder blade, sprout from her flesh.

I run my fingers along the severed stems. “Does your grandma know?”

Calla nods sheepishly as if it’s too shameful to bear. “She totally freaked. Can’t blame her. Who wouldn’t? She’s been taking me to the doctor. Tomorrow, I’m having the rest removed.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Every moment,” she says.

Calla intertwines her fingers with mine and leads me beneath the comforter with her. We fall asleep, my arms wrapped around her, one hand over her heart where her necklace used to be and the other on the bone jutting from her back. The pressure from my touch, she says, makes it hurt less.

It’s past midnight when her grandma catches us together.

“This is your fault!” She yanks me from the bed. “Calla was doing fine, making good progress, until you came around.”

“I was trying to keep her well, and you ruined it.”

“Progress?” I gape at her. “What progress?”

“She’s sick,” the old woman says. “She didn’t know it, but she’s always been sick. I was trying to keep her well, and you ruined it. Now out.”

Her grandma wrenches me to the window and demands I leave the way I came. I kick, I scream, I scratch. It does no good. Only Calla can help me. She sits upright in bed, lips quivering, face all scrunched up. Then her jaw drops open, and she cries out. A single wail like the screech of a hungry owl.

The room — maybe the whole world — goes still beneath the weight of her sorrow.

Through the glass, her grandma searches the sky and exhales when she sees nothing.

“Please don’t leave me,” Calla says, reaching for me.

“I won’t,” I say and nestle back in bed with her.

With one last look to the night clouds, her grandma grumbles and retires to the kitchen to bake more cookies. Like that’s the solution to everything. All night, the strong scents of cinnamon and cardamom and nutmeg mingle in the air and turn noxious, permeating the walls of the house until I’d rather eat rat poison than another of her strings-attached cookies.

#

The stubs on Calla’s back grow overnight like a fairytale beanstalk. I rub the sleep from my eyes and inspect the delicate feathers budding on the bone.

“They’re wings,” I say as if I’ve made some magical discovery.

Calla’s cheeks flower in dark shades of red, and she turns away.

“My grandma claims my father never had wings,” she says. “So it doesn’t come from her side of the family. Must be from my mother.”

At the clinic, the doctors and nurses won’t touch Calla except with gloved hands. They look more irritated than surprised about the wings. They keep Calla in her own room away from the other patients, and they don’t extend the usual niceties, like calling her sweetie or darling or saying everything’s going to be OK the way the nurses did when I had my tonsils out when I was six.

One nurse eschews the exam room altogether and keeps watch at the window, gaze set on the sky. Twice during the procedure, she hollers, “It’s here!” and the doctors and other nurses stop, the sinews in their necks pulsing, but the nurse replies, “False alarm!” and everyone relaxes. Everyone except me and Calla.

I sit with her and smile and remind her how much I love her, but Calla doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t wince when they stick her with the anesthetic, and she doesn’t cry out when doctors use hydrochloric acid to burn away the wing stems. Half the flesh on Calla’s shoulders melts off too, but nobody worries about that.

“Sacrifices are sometimes necessary,” one doctor says, and I wonder if he’d be so eager to sacrifice his skin if he were the patient.

Afterwards, Calla’s under heavy sedation and too weak to argue when her grandma deposits me on the curb in front of my house and drives away, leaving me alone. Leaving me without Calla.

I stare at the front door. This is my house. This isn’t my house. The red shutters and pale siding are the same as I remember, same as I left behind last night, but nothing feels right. I’m tired, so tired, and the world is stretched and strange like somebody pulled my life apart at the seams and sewed it back together, askew and inside out, as though I wouldn’t notice.

I creep through the back, certain my mother will be there to greet me with a scowl and a lecture. She calls my name, her crystal voice lilting from the living room, and I find her reclined on the couch with a glass of red wine.

“You were with that awful girl, weren’t you?” she says languidly. “What a bad influence, keeping you out all night.”

I lean against the door frame to steady myself. “I don’t think Calla’s bad.”

“That’s fine, dear.”

For a moment, I wonder why my mother isn’t more upset. Then she smiles, a dreamlike smile, and holds her left hand to the light.

A diamond glints on her ring finger.

#

Six weeks later, Calla returns to school. She wears bulky sweaters to hide the gauze bandages, and her once bright eyes are glassy and gray, but here she is, and things can’t be too bad if she’s close to me.

“So what about the wings?” I whisper in homeroom.

“They’re gone. For good,” she says, and the quiver in her voice betrays a loss that medical charts and scalpels can’t define.

All the kids know about Calla’s wings, and now they won’t look at her, or me.

I try not to care. I drag our desks together in pre-algebra because Calla’s too frail to move anything. “Did your grandma or the doctors say what happened to your mother? Where she went?”

The red shutters and pale siding are the same as I remember, same as I left behind last night, but nothing feels right.

“She flew away, like birds do,” Calla says. “She left after my dad died. Some people came to burn off her wings like the doctors did mine, and my father …”

Her jaw clenched, Calla runs her fingers along the graffiti on her school desk.

I rest my hand over hers. “What about your father?”

“He tried to protect her. He died protecting her.”

“And you don’t remember any of it?”

“I was a baby then,” she says. “All I remember is my grandmother. After they chased off my mother, she took me in.”

“More like stole you,” I say, and think how these people, whoever they are, stole everything from Calla — her family, her wings, even the memories that should have filled her childhood.

Gaze vacant, Calla slumps in her seat. “Let’s talk about anything else. How have you been?”

So much has happened since Calla got sick. She doesn’t know about my soon-to-be stepfather and how he lingers longer in the doorway at night and squeezes my arm whenever my mother’s not looking and flashes me this secret smile like a coyote grinning over a baby bunny whose back he’s broken.

I try to confess it all to her, but the words are syrup sticking to my cheeks and gluing my lips together. Calla’s sleepy from the pain medication they’re giving her, and by the time I babble the truth, she’s faded out.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “Can you say that again?”

I shake my head and pull her close and tell her not to worry about it, it’s not important anyhow, all that’s important is for her to get better.

“But I won’t get better,” she says. “There is no better.”

Calla might be right. There might not be better. But there is worse.

The first day of spring, I come home to find my mother with a stack of brown boxes. She informs me about the cabin my almost-stepfather bought us upstate.

“He’s shown me pictures,” she says. “It’s lovely.”

Remote, more like it, where he can have me and my mother all to himself.

I beg her not to take us away.

“Stop being melodramatic,” she says. “And start packing.”

My consolation prize is I’m allowed to finish out the seventh grade with Calla. The teachers give us a reprieve on the last day of school, and we have an all-day recess. The other kids scream and chortle, their voices filled with the anticipation of roasted marshmallows and pink lemonade and other summertime treats, but there is no sweetness left in Calla and me.

We wander to our corner. Her grandma called the school and ordered the maintenance men to break up the nest, but it only takes us a few minutes to repair it.

Silence settles between us, and the weight of it threatens to crush me from the inside out.

“I don’t want to leave you,” I say at last.

“You don’t have to leave,” Calla says. “We’ll be together.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “We’ll find a way. We have to. Families should always be together.”

But there’s no way out. We’re thirteen and we have nothing except each other. Our lives — our bodies — belong to other people. They’ll do to us what they will. We can’t stop them.

“I love you. I wish —” Tears blurring my vision, I peer at Calla, and the world goes dim around me.

A rosebud stain blossoms across her shoulders.

“Rhee,” she says, her voice faltering.

“What’s happening?” I say as the blood pours from her body.

She reaches blindly for me before crumpling in the center of the nest, limp as a discarded rag doll.

I stumble for the nearest teacher and beg for help. Everyone sees Calla there, but they don’t budge, the shame heavy in their faces. They’ve always known about her. That’s why they watched the sky. The teachers were probably the ones who chased off Calla’s mother. They hated the woman with wings for no reason except because they could, and the children heard the story from their parents, a cautionary tale that taught them to hate, too. And together, they blamed Calla and exiled her and tried to keep her from being the same as her mother.

But she is the same. No scalpel or acid can change that.

“Help her!” I scream but it makes no difference to them.

Calla can’t save us this time. But I can.

If her grandmother’s right and I ruined her once — if my love inspired wings to bud from Calla’s flesh — that means I can do it again.

I stand a little taller, a grotesque grin blooming on my lips. “I hope her mother swoops down and carries her away.”

Because I’m desperate and breathless, the words tumble from my tongue, a clumsy sort of spell, but it works. Far above the clouds, something cries out. Something that’s come back.

I wonder if it’s too late.

Or right on time.

From her nest, Calla gazes at me, and I see a change stirring within her. A brightness returns to her eyes, and in one fluid movement, wings break through her scarred flesh.

A new form, like a goddess of old, rises over the hopscotch girls and the basketball boys and the teachers with limp whistles strung around their necks like nooses. This is Calla. This is who she’s meant to be. Her wings are broad and tall and strong, and she eclipses everything in her shadow.

Even me.

I stare up at her, and while she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever beheld, my heart shatters into a thousand pieces, because it’s time to say goodbye.

“Please,” I whisper. “Please don’t leave me.”

“I won’t,” she says and smiles.

It only hurts for a moment. And it sounds worse than it feels, the bone cracking as hard and sharp as a thunderclap of Zeus himself.

Calla. Always sharing.

She clutches my hand, and we leave behind the cage and the cruel children and the sticks and stones and old bubblegum that formed the nest we’ve now outgrown. The teachers who spent years looking up now gape one last time at the sky and call out our names, but it doesn’t matter.

We don’t look down, and we don’t look back.

Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Nightmare, Flash Fiction Online, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at www.gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).