Birdish by Elizabeth Cohen


Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence

I’ve been a bird since Tuesday. That’s the day Lucy usually comes over. She couldn’t make it this week and at first, I was glad. I didn’t want her to see me like this, even though it was all her idea.

Now it’s Friday and I’m enjoying myself. The tickling sensation is almost gone and I’m luxuriating in my own softness. This afternoon I thought, the equivalent of feathers would have to be angora. I feel like I’m wearing the softest sweater, only in this case, I am the sweater. 

Henry’s not enjoying bird-me one bit. Less of him is relief for me. Lately, he’s taken to swatting at me with his golf glove unsnapped, the snap hanging loose. When it connects, it feels like a bee sting. I swell up, just like I got stung. “I could send you back to Russia right now,” he booms, “ya little whore!”

If only. I instantly think of my little sister, Nadia. Her laugh the sound of water in an unbounded stream.

Henry’s fat and slow and has a bad knee. I’m watching him right now, trundling back and forth below me with a butterfly net. Did no one ever inform him you can’t catch a bird in a butterfly net? Education!

I’m a bit surprised when I feel a sudden pang of loneliness. I flutter from one branch to another, snap a grub, and suddenly, I miss Lucy. That velvet-eyed, Victorian portrait of a woman who lives two houses down. Everyone needs a Lucy. One person to observe things about them closely and occasionally sneak them an emotional-support cupcake. The first time we met was on a crisp morning right after Henry left for work. She was trimming her heirloom roses in a smart little blue jacket and I was taking out the trash, still in my crumpled pajamas, a spot of egg yolk on the sleeve. We greeted each other briefly, and after that, she’d stop by often. Can I borrow a cup of sugar? Do you happen to have an extra egg? Have you seen our cat, Willie?  

At first, I was shy when she came to the door, thinking of that fawn I once saw behind this house. I glimpsed it for a split second and then it just folded into the trees. I’m that little deer, I thought. I pivot and hide. But there she was, standing on the porch, asking for eggs. I got them for her and attempted a smile that would not draw attention to the bruise on my chin.

I am self-conscious, for sure. I’ve been hidden away here for years now, sticking to my routine around the house, yard, and back deck. Whenever most people see me, it’s just terrible. I can see them balk at the purple-black blooms wrapping my arms, and the older spots, a few weeks in, going yellow over my arms, or ringing my neck. I can see their faces shift into a low gear of dismay as they imagine the full blackened planet of me. I move like a shadow into the corners of the yard or behind the porch screen. 

But not Lucy. She never judges. After a while, I caught on to what she was doing asking to borrow eggs and sugar. She would have to be running a pastry shop to need that much. She was checking on me.

Sometimes, like that time one of my eyes was plumped shut and crusted at one corner with dried blood, she’d dash away quickly. Then come back with an ice pack, bandages, or Neosporin, and once with a plastic Tupperware of mac-and-cheese and a heating pad. When she came to retrieve the heating pad, a few days later, I saw something unusual dimpling her cheek. She visibly twitched when she saw it in my palm—the tiny white bud of my tooth.  

Nothing could be done about it, it was out. Out is out. No going back to in.  She returned later, handing me antiseptic mouthwash and a freshly assembled bouquet of her Dream Come Trues. I brought them inside, mesmerized by the crazy coloring, like someone dipped butter in wine. Right before Henry got home from work, I walked out to the big rubber garbage bin and tossed them inside. He gets furious when he finds out people have even spoken to me, let alone given me things.

 “Someday,” Lucy once said, “Henry’s going to look up and see you’ve flown away.” 
She didn’t say “run away.” She said “flown” and I knew why. Things that run away can be found and brought back. But how can you catch a thing that flies? I’ve noticed even the smallest mosquito can flit into an invisible place. Catch a sparrow? Forget about it. 

All through the summer, Henry threatened to come after me with his BB gun. The one he uses to shoot squirrels. On the weekends he sits on a barstool he puts out on the back deck, and when they pop up from their holes, he yells: “I’m gonna get ya, ya rats!” It is like living Whack-a-Mole. Only they’re real, and then, they’re dead. Sunday night late, he’ll stuff all their corpses in a garbage bag and stick them in the garbage bin to be taken away Monday when the trash collector comes.

 Well Henry, I don’t need buckshot in my ass and, for sure, that’s not going to happen now. What you don’t know is becoming bird-me was only my start. Tomorrow’s the day the swallows join the Pacific Flyaway. By dawn, I’ll have joined millions, spinning south. The beating of that many wings around me will whoosh like a hurricane. I’ll be right inside it. I think no sound could be more beautiful.  

I’ll wave as I pass over Lucy’s, maybe drop her a feather. By the time Henry wakes up and starts yelling for his coffee (three teaspoons sugar, one splash cream), I could be as far away as Louisiana. I might even be mid-sea. 

I wonder how far it is to the little stone house of my grandmother, outside Minsk. Too far, I’m sure for a tiny swallow to travel alone. Anyway, by evening, I’ll be long gone. A bird can be like a fawn in a yard, just fold into the trees. But I may have even left bird-me behind by then and become cloud-me, or rainbow-me. Rainbows and clouds have the distinct advantages of being able not just to be aloft, but to melt away and be invisible.

I have been a bird since Tuesday yet I have no idea what the future will bring. I could go solo or join this mass migration south. There are options. Having thought it over some, there are few things I have decided upon. I definitely, definitely won’t become lightning-me. Even though the idea is attractive. The sizzle, the strike. I’ve never even imagined a woman becoming lightning, although I can see how some might enjoy it. 

That kind of power. 

Elizabeth Cohen is the author of The Family on Beartown Road, a memoir; The Hypothetical Girl, a book of short stories; Bird Light and The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, poetry collections, and Wonder Electric and Martini Tattoo, poetry chapbooks. She lives in Albuquerque with her dog, Layla, where she works with homeless women and special needs children, and runs a small business coaching memoirists.