On Thursday, a windsor-knotted businessman paid Anna three times her normal asking price for a quartet of thought-birds. She normally sold two at a time because their growth was so slow. But he insisted. A bird of each flavor: contentment, melancholy, joy, fury.
“A few of the guys at work have taken up competitive birdsong,” he told her as he wrote the check. He had sharp breath, with the whisper of a three-martini lunch. “But they’re just using finches or sparrows. This one guy’s got a bunch of pigeons. Seriously.”
“I see,” Anna said, and stroked the melancholy bird’s head with one finger. It let out a sad little trill.
“So what do these things eat, anyway?”
“Seeds,” she said. “They’re just birds.”
She gave him the same form she gave all new customers—with a list of proper bird seeds and signs of good health; the do’s and do-not’s of birdkeeping. She didn’t tell him that holding the melancholy bird would make him feel like his heart would break, or that listening to the joyous bird could induce midlife crises. If he’d come to her, he should already know.
“Can’t wait to see these things in action,” the businessman said, and Anna put the birds in little cardboard carrying cases and printed his receipt. He carried them away, juggling the cases from hand-to-hand as he struggled with the door. One of the birds chirred softly, but Anna didn’t know which one it was. The birds didn’t affect her the same way they did her customers.
She watched him through the glass door as he went to his car. A gust of wind blew his tie into his face. Anna said, “I hope he chokes on that thing,” with a vehemence that surprised her. She brought her hand to her mouth like she could tuck the words back in. That was uncalled for, wasn’t it? If you couldn’t say anything nice—
The businessman put the birds in his car and drove away. Anna hung her cheery Out to Lunch, Back Soon! sign on the door.
She went upstairs to her workroom—small, brightly-lit, full of the sounds and musty smells of potting soil and thought-birds. One bird was ripening on the vine, nearly ready to be cut—the first one she’d ever planted. It had been bare so long she’d given it up for dead.
Her desk stood in front of a west-facing window with a view of flat rooftops and pigeons perching on telephone wires. She sat there and scooped dirt into a new pot with her hands, leaving the soil loose enough for roots to take hold. She took that moment—I hope he chokes on that thing—and rolled it into a ball and spat it into her hand. A little brown seed, gooey and wet around the edges.
She looked down at it curiously, rolling it back and forth in her palm. The thought had just been there, of course, but she could no longer remember what the seed was made of. It had a warmth and a thinness to its shell that made her think it would grow into a furious bird.
That was good. It was good to purge those thoughts. Other people liked the way the birds made them feel—but Anna had no room for those things in her head.
In three more days, the first thought-bird was ready to harvest. She could tell by how it started to rattle on the vine, by how the plant’s leaves browned and died.
The stem was dry at harvest-time, easy to snick off with a sharp pair of shears. Anna carried the bird-fruit over to her desk in her cupped hands. It was shiny and dark, fleshy like an eggplant. The bird squirmed inside and made the fruit distort in an ugly way.
“Quiet down,” Anna told it. “I’ll have you out in a minute.”
The process was just like halving an avocado. She scored the fruit all the way around lengthwise, then twisted it apart. The flesh under the skin was dirty white and the baby bird stayed stuck in one half, squirming, wet and twisted. Anna gently picked the bird out with her fingernails and put it to sit on the desk.
It made such sad little cries. Maybe another melancholy bird. Most of the birds she made lately were melancholy—sometimes it made her think she should see a doctor, get everything checked out.
But what could she tell him? Only: I feel fine, I feel calm. My head is getting empty.
She’d made up a little box in the corner with a heating lamp and a nest made of rags and shreds of unanswered letters. The baby bird flopped on its side helplessly when she deposited it in the nest, but it didn’t concern her. Thought-birds developed quickly, and didn’t need much food until their feathers came in. At the start of their lives, they weren’t much more than the ideas of birds—a quick sketch, a dream image. “Nice to meet you,” she said, and turned away to feed the other birds. There weren’t many left unsold. A few quiet melancholy birds and a bright yellow joy bird that kept escaping whenever she tried to sell it. She had a fondness for that bird. It made her smile to think that there was a joyous memory so uniquely her own that no one else could keep it.
A voice behind her back said: “Hello.”
Anna froze, her hands full of seed. “Who’s there?”
“Hello,” it said again.
She looked to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse in the glass. But the light wasn’t right, and all she saw was a line of pigeons preening on the wires. She turned around slowly.
There was nothing. An empty cage, a line of pots, and growing bird-plants.
“Hello,” she said, and listened.
“Hello,” said a tiny voice from the corner. She went to it and peered inside, standing carefully a pace back. The baby bird lay in its nest, already a little bigger than when she had pulled it from the fruit. Soft grey down sprouted along its skin as she watched.
“Hello,” it said, its beak agape but its eyes still glued closed. “Hello. Hello.”
In less than seventy-two hours, the first bird grew in its adult feathers and started making drunken test-flights around her workroom. It pecked experimentally at seeds and spoke nonstop.
“A hawk ate one of the pigeons today,” it said. “Just picked it up in its talons and flew away! I was a little scared.”
“Hawks can’t get you in here,” Anna said. She tipped a glass of water into a plant that had started to grow sideways, toward the window. She’d have to stake it upright later.
“I know. Because of the window, right? That’s good,” the bird said.
The first bird had grown into a round little thing with a strong, seed-crushing beak. It had drab brown plumage and a streak of white over the top of its head. It looked like a lot of songbirds, but exactly matched none of them. “What kind of thought are you made of?” Anna asked.
“This one,” the bird said, and it ruffled its wings and burst into a loud shrill of song, something that sustained and rose and then twittered off into a series of short, sliding notes. Its voice wasn’t pleasant, but Anna wanted it to keep singing anyway.
“I don’t know that one.”
“You should,” the bird said. It hopped up to the edge of the box and quirked its head to the side. “Right? Because it was yours.”
“I gave it to you.” The yellow joy bird was still inside its cage, though she’d opened the door. Anna offered it a sunflower seed to coax it out. It didn’t take the seed, but winged out of the cage and flew up to perch on the top shelf of her bookcase.
“And these other ones, too?”
“Yes. But they don’t talk like you do.”
“They talk to me,” the first bird said. It fluttered its new wings and launched itself off the side of the box. For a few seconds, it kept itself in the air with frantic wingbeats—then dropped in an ungainly heap to the floor. Anna stooped to pick it up and cradled it in her hands.
“I don’t need to talk to them,” she said. “I already know what they have to say.”
It wasn’t true, of course. She had known them, but she didn’t anymore. That was the whole point.
“But not me,” the first bird said. “I’m special.”
Anna didn’t say anything. She looked carefully at the bird’s feathers, as if she would see something in the spaces between the quills. Some hint of what she’d grown—what seed it came from. But it was just a bird.
She put it down into the box and it burrowed down into the nest. It had pulled apart the rags and the paper—it seemed to be sleeping in the rags and reading the letters. The scrap on top said All my love—Mom on it. “I’m going downstairs,” Anna said.
“Think nice things,” the bird said.
The businessman came early one morning to return the melancholy bird and the furious bird.
“Didn’t they sing for you?” Anna let the birds out of their cardboard boxes. The furious bird fluttered up to perch near her ear. The melancholy bird sat by her hand and sang, low and mournful.
“Yeah, they sang,” the businessman said. His windsor knot was tied a little crooked. “But you should’ve warned me what it’s like to hear them. That one,” and he pointed to the furious bird, “made my kid’s dog kill a cat!”
“Dogs chase cats.”
“It’s a goddamn Pekingese,” the man said.
Anna returned his money. Someone would buy the birds—they always came, even for sadness and anger. There were all kinds of people in the world.
“You need to put a warning on those things,” the man said again, folding the money back into his wallet. It was ridged like crocodile skin and matched his shoes.
Anna snapped, “They’re live animals,” though she wasn’t really sure herself. “Every one is different.”
“It’s plain irresponsible.”
A little hard knot was forming in her stomach, pushing up at her ribs and her lungs. Suddenly she hated him—hated his stupid smug face, his walletful of cash, his fat-knotted tie. That stupid tie. Patterned with prettily-generic burgundy stripes, like a hundred other men who’d come to her seeking a high off someone else’s memories. It made her hands scrabble across the countertop, seeking for something to choke. “Get out of my store.”
“Get out of my store,” she said again, slowly. “If we’re not going to do business, then please leave.”
“Don’t fucking tell me what to do, lady—”
The furious bird clenched its claws on Anna’s shoulder and then launched into the air. It flew like a bullet, straight for the man’s face. It shrilled a little war cry.
The businessman turned away, brought his hands up—but the furious bird was faster, and it smashed into the side of his head with its claws outstretched. Like a hawk reaching down for a pigeon. It rent bloody scrapes into his temple and ripped out a patch of his hair.
The man shrieked and batted at the bird with his eyes closed. Anna said nothing; she watched with a hard satisfaction and something like pride. Because that bird was her, at the core. At one time, she’d had the capacity for that same brilliant violence.
Finally, the man’s flailing hand glanced across the furious bird and batted it away. The bird caught itself before it hit the ground and flew away to perch on the bell above the door. Its weight rang the bell, only once. It didn’t attack again.
“I could report you for this, you crazy bitch.” The businessman straightened, wiping blood from his hairline. “This is insane.”
“Please leave,” Anna said.
He did. He slammed the door behind him and rattled the bell hard enough to dislodge the furious bird and send it flitting across the room. He left smudges of blood on the doorknob.
All Anna’s rage drained away as she watched his car leave the parking lot. She’d really fucked things up, this time.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” she told the melancholy bird perched by her hand. “I’ve gotten rid of all those thoughts. There shouldn’t be anything left.”
The melancholy bird let out a little chirr and then quieted. It fluffed up its feathers and sank its head into its downy chest.
Anna bit her lip. What else was there to do? She had to get that scene out of her head. And it’d make such a magnificent bird.
She coaxed the furious bird down from the shelves and plucked up the melancholy bird and carried them both upstairs to her workshop. She put them in a cage together and poured them a dish of birdseed and left them alone to calm down.
“Someone called for you,” the first bird said. “They left a message. See? I can tell because of the blinky light.”
“There’s probably more than one. Not like I’ve had time to answer the phone.”
“You should listen.”
“I guess,” Anna said. She didn’t really want to deal with it right then. She wanted to get those ugly thoughts out of her head and planted in the ground. So she compromised and hit the playback button while she fiddled with the new pot and packed it full of potting soil.
The first message was an awkward, throat-clearing woman asking if she could get more information on joy birds. Anna jotted down her number and deleted the message.
The second was from her mother.
“Anna,” her mother said. “Hi. I just wanted you to know that we’re having a little family get-together this weekend and we’d love for you to come.” She paused for such a long time that Anna wondered if she’d just forgotten to hang up the phone. Then she continued: “Your father says that it’s all forgiven and forgotten. Okay? We just want you to come home.”
The machine reset itself and the light kept blinking.
Anna packed another handful of dirt into the pot. Her mind suddenly blank.
The first bird scrabbled at the leg of her desk, its wings batting the air. “What did it mean?”
“I don’t know,” Anna said. And she really didn’t. That was the worst part. She carded back through her memories, searching for her mother and father—and what was there but scattered strange moments, moments not emotionally loaded enough to turn into birds. Her mother gardening and her father emptying the dishwasher.
She deleted the message.
The first bird finally managed the short vertical flight up to the desk. It walked around while she worked, pecking at bits of fallen dirt and looking curiously out at the pigeons. “Are you okay?” it said.
“I’m fine.” Anna leveled off the dirt with the flat of her finger and started composing the scene in her mind: the businessman and his stupid tie, the bird flying at his face, get out of my store. “It’s just, sometimes I wonder what I’m missing.”
“You have us.”
“I know I do.”
She rolled all the angry thoughts up into a little ball and spat them into her hand. She pressed it down into the dirt with her thumb and when she brought her hand back, she was calm again. A few minutes ago, she’d felt something—she knew it because of the heat in her cheeks, the tension in her spine. But it wasn’t there anymore.
“Are other people’s heads full of birds?” the first bird asked.
“Maybe,” Anna said, and then thought about it. “I think so. But some people’s heads have enough perches, and mine is too small. It’s a bad place to live.”
“Oh,” the first bird said. It helped her tamp the dirt over the new seed. When Anna moved the pot to the windowsill, the first bird watched it for a long time.
Anna woke up in the late afternoon with her head pillowed on her desk in a puddle of dry drool and a sharp pain in her scalp. The pigeons outside the window cooed at each other while the sun set behind the rooftops. Anna blinked. The pain did not recede.
“Are you awake?” The first bird’s claws prickled across her skin and gripped at her hair.
Anna kept very still, the muscles in her neck seizing. “What are you doing?”
“I’m helping,” the first bird said. Its beak came down and thunked against her skull. Anna shrieked and her head came half-off the table—the bird slipped down her face and grabbed for purchase and said, “Please be still!”
“What are you doing?” She reached for the bird but didn’t grab it, her fingers clenching in the air. Something dripped down her face and she thought it was blood.
“I know what’s wrong,” the first bird said. “You just need more space for your thoughts to breathe. Then you’ll have enough room for us all.”
“You’re hurting me.”
“You’ll see,” the bird said. “Everything will be better.”
Anna’s teeth closed around her lip. The bird pecked down on her temple again and she felt the beak go down through flesh and a thin layer of fat and stick for a moment. It hurt, but in a slightly satisfying way. Like the bird was tapping down to something swollen and rotten under her skin, and it would be good to relieve the pressure.
“You’re going to kill me,” she said. But she laid her head back on the table. It really made no difference if it did or not. Not when she thought about it.
“I won’t. I know what I’m doing.”
The clack of birdbeak against her bone was loud, loud—echoing through her skull. She took her fear and rolled it into a ball and spat it out and the little black ball trailed inches across the table until it stuck and let off a sulphurous smell. Immediately she was afraid again. And she rolled her fear into a ball and spat it out.
The first bird’s beak on her skull made a rhythmic drumbeat, one that matched her heart. Once he was through the skin and had peeled it back with his feet, it didn’t hurt. Once it was down to the bone. She could lie there and imagine the hole growing in her head—how as soon as it cracked through, a hundred colorful birds would fly out. A flock of thoughts. And she would feel so at peace.
Finally, the bird crunched through. She heard her skull give with a thin crack; heard a liquid slurp of air mixing with the fluid around her brain. Blood ran into the corner of her eye but it didn’t matter, because it was true—immediate relief. A sense of space and room to breathe.
No birds flew from her skull.
“Do you feel better?” the first bird said. It hopped down from her head and looked her in the eye. Its beak was dipped in blood and little flecks of bone stuck in its feathers.
“Yes,” Anna said. She rolled up her pain and spat it out.
“Don’t do that.” The first bird made an angry hop. “Now you can take everything back. Because you have room for it.”
“I can’t,” Anna said. “It’s already gone.”
She thought about sitting up, about getting a bandage for her head. But she couldn’t summon the energy.
“It’s not gone.”
The first bird sang his ugly song and the room filled with the sound of claws on cages, with the rustle of bird wings. The yellow joy bird lit on the table. Birds landed in her hair and clung to her shirt. One climbed over the back of her head and perched just above the hole in her temple; she saw it as a blur in the corner of her eye. One of the melancholy birds. It lowered its head and pushed its beak into the wound. And it leaned down hard and its head disappeared—then a little squeeze for the round body and angled wings. A moment of pressure, and the bird was gone.
And Anna saw:
When she’d sat alone in her workshop with only the little joy bird at her side and dozens of freshly-planted pots. She was telling the joy bird: it’s not enough. It’s never going to be enough—because even without those thoughts, I’m still me.
She thought—stop, I don’t want this back—
But then the furious bird was at the trepanned spot and squeezing through it. His tailfeathers disappeared with a flick, and Anna saw:
She’d just hung up on her father because he wouldn’t listen—it wasn’t even worth talking to him.
It was quick after that. The birds climbed back inside her skull and there were so many flashes of memory—so many ugly thoughts.
“I’m sorry to leave you,” the first bird said. “But it’s better this way. You’ll see!”
The first bird clambered quickly up the side of her face, using her nose as purchase. It smelled of blood and dirty feathers. Anna closed her eyes so she didn’t have to see the thing squeeze down into her head.
It’s your fault I’m like this, she said. An empty wine glass in her fingers and a spreading dark stain across the tablecloth. Her father staring back at her with his mouth in a line. All of this came from you, she said.
I never taught you this, her father said. He made a little gesture that took in the wine, took in her redcheeked face. He said, I can control myself. You never could.
You make me so fucking angry.
But I’m not angry, her father said. I’m just disappointed.
And Anna thought: there has to be a better way than this.
Then it was done, and she cracked her eyes open and found the light still the same, the same pigeons on the wire. Nothing changed. She looked at the joy bird—the one that had never left her. She could sell it and then find it pecking at her window the next morning, asking to be let in. She’d made other joy birds, and people loved to own them. But this one was all hers. It couldn’t belong to anyone else.
“Show me something good,” she said to it. “Please.”
The joy bird peeped and fluttered up to sit on her skull. Its grip on her hair was very light. She hardly felt it climb inside—wouldn’t have even known it if not for the image that rose up, one that she’d forgotten and put away.
Her little upstairs room wasn’t a workshop yet. It was filled with normal-people things—couches and a television and a sleeping bag and a few empty beer bottles lining the windowsill, catching the sunset over flat rooftops.
She was trying it for the first time. Visualizing, trying to remember exactly. Taking her rage and how she so loved being out of control—taking those things and rolling them up, tucking them into a small, potent shape.
She felt it form on her tongue. Round and hard, like a stone. She spat it into her hands and turned it over, wondering at how small it was. What could she do with something like that but bury it.
She’d killed a cactus a friend gave her—probably given it too much water. Its pot still sat on the sidetable, bare dirt on top of a stack of magazines. Anna grabbed the pot and tipped the stone into it. She covered it up like a cat covering shit. It was an ugly thing, and now she was rid of it.
The pot went back on the sidetable, weighing down the magazines. She looked at it for a moment, trying to decide how she felt. There was something light and hot, building in her chest.
It could be done—she could change. She felt hope. She felt free.