by Tabitha Payne
For students, to be read aloud.
The month was October, and everything was orange and black. The air froze crisp and impatient. It was fall. The world held its breath. The leaves, quivering in the trees, waited anxiously for a sigh – for everything to drop.
Her name was Facie, and she didn’t want to be like other girls. She really, really didn’t want to be like other girls. And so she liked her name, Facie, because she had never met anyone else named Facie, and so she wasn’t like other girls, and that was good.
The happiest moment of her life was when a boy said that to her. He looked at her, deep, right in her black-lidded eyes, and said, without blinking, that she was not like other girls. And she looked deep in his eyes too, his black eyes which he always said were brown but were definitely totally black, and she wasn’t sure, but she thought that maybe, just for a moment, she saw the faintest glimmer of orange, somewhere, deep in his eyes. But then she realized she actually didn’t, and that she was really just seeing the reflection of her orange Smiths T-Shirt in his eyes, and that she was just being silly. And even though she knew all that, she marveled at the memory anyways. Because for that tiny little second, it was like she was in covenant with all the universe; her breath skipped and she was caught in a hiccup of the infinite, stretching its orange arms out endlessly into time and space, tickling her heart strings with the promise of magic.
But that was all a big lie.
She didn’t like that the happiest moment of her life was also a disappointing one. She also didn’t like that the happiest moment of her life had to do with a boy.
Facie liked to write slam poetry and wear lots of dark makeup and not wear bras or shave her armpits because it made her feel powerful. And doing that made all the right women want to be friends with her and all the wrong men want to avoid her.
She loved to wear these big chunky black boots, too, because it made her feel like she was stomping on men’s hearts, and she felt like hot shit when she wore them, and so she wore them most of the time.
Facie was a cool girl. Or at least, she really, really wanted to be.
His name was Seb, and he wanted to kill himself.
He thought about it. He thought about it a lot. He thought about in the shower, when he washed his hair. He thought about in in the kitchen, when he had his coffee. He thought about it in the car, when he drove to work, where he thought about it even more.
He wanted to kill himself. He really wanted to kill himself, but he wouldn’t, because he didn’t want to be like other dentists, and dentists, he learned once, have the highest rate of suicide amongst all medical professionals.
He even knew a couple friends in dentist school who had.
And so he wouldn’t kill himself – he wouldn’t – because then, he’d be like other dentists and he just couldn’t have that.
It was a matter of principle.
That didn’t mean he didn’t feel sad, of course. Sometimes he felt like the only thing that was real in the world was how sad he felt. It was like he had been given a pair of glasses tinted blue, so everywhere he looked was blue. Even the color white turned blue, which he thought was odd, but there it was: blue as sea, a big, bluish lie.
He felt the sadness everywhere. He felt in it the trees, and in the wind, and in the crowd. He felt the sadness in all parts of his body, a heavy bone-tired that dragged his limbs slow, like he was living in molasses. But mostly, mostly he felt the sadness anchored right in his chest, an infinite, hopeless, deadweight kind of sadness that sat on his soul and beached him on his bed every morning. And every morning he tried to think of every reason he shouldn’t get out of bed that day, and yet every morning, somehow, and he couldn’t explain it for the life of him, he managed to get out of bed. And he didn’t know how he did it, because he swore it got harder every time – every day when he got out of bed, it was the hardest thing he had ever done – but because he could, because every day from somewhere he could find the strength, he thought that maybe he could keep going on.
So this was his life: Seb would drive to work, and everything was blue. And he’d clean people’s teeth, which he liked, but somehow those teeth looked blue too. And then he’d drive home, and, just for a moment, the sky would turn a bright, fiery orange. But then, very quickly, it’d change back to blue, and then the world would be blue, too. And all that time he’d look forward at the road and think about maybe killing himself, but then he remembered that he wasn’t like other dentists, that he was his own person, his own dentist, and that he didn’t want to become a statistic – he wouldn’t let himself become a statistic – and hey, if it had worked for him thus far –
It was a matter of principle.
They fell in the love in the Winter. It was a strange time to fall in love, and they were strange people to fall in love, and they knew that, but they fell in love in the Winter.
They met as the last few leaves clung to the trees.
Facie was walking home from yoga. She was looking down as she walked. She thought it was funny that, if she focused really, really hard on her boots, she could just make out her own reflection in the shiny black pleather. How silly, she thought.
She made it a task. She was a woman on a mission. She furrowed her brows so good that her forehead wrinkled into arrows, which were pointing at the heavens; bowing her head low, she looked like an ostrich determined: and alas! There she was! Herself in her shoe!
So preoccupied, Facie was thrown very nearly off balance when she saw it:
A dead bird.
It caught her completely by surprise. She almost stepped on it. The front of her boot peddled right over its tiny blue body. Her foot swung, pivoted by her heel, and when she lifted her boot and reeled herself back, she saw its full gross carcass in all its ugly accident-beauty.
It had little ants crawling out where its eyes used to be. Its blue feathers were ruffled and grayed by the shame and dirt of the sidewalk. It lay grimly on its side. Its wings, extended forward, expectant in front of its broken body, met as if the bird were begging a question – as if it were in prayer. But what really caught her eye, what drew her there into a humble squat, queen of the sidewalk, was its bright orange beak. It was like a little jewel. It poked quizzically out from the animal’s sorry head: a triangle, a crown, a question mark.
She didn’t know what to think. She felt as if she was looking very shallowly at something that meant very, very much. Like she was peering into a muddy ocean, congealing somewhere beneath its depths a reef, or perhaps, a curious creature, and yet, for all she knew there could very well be nothing at all. It was foggy. She was frustrated by all this meaning she just couldn’t see – it overwhelmed her – but the more she blinked the blurrier it all got. It was like she was standing with her eyes open in a pitch-black room, and whether her eyes were open or closed, it made no difference at all because it really was too dark to see. There was almost a peace in it.
How fantastic it all was! She didn’t know it yet, but she had just tripped over a metaphor.
A gross, stinking metaphor, with bugs crawling out its head. God, what to do? She couldn’t just leave it here, to be stepped on by someone who had no idea just how important – for whatever reason, she wasn’t sure why it was important – this bird was! She felt she had to take it away, care for it, as if it was a poor fledgling that had fallen from the nest, except that it was not a fledgling, it was the dead, rotting carcass of a clearly adult bird, perhaps even an elderly bird, which she probably was wisest not to touch because certainly there were some kinds of disease on it... but no! It was important. This was important. Somehow. She knew it to be true.
Facie sprinted, black boots and yoga pants streaking a brush stroke of night against sunny cement blue, to the nearest establishment with tissue paper: Dunkin Donuts. She felt compelled to buy a cup of coffee, but then she remembered the urgency of the situation (the bird was waiting!) and also that she had sworn a vow not to purchase from gross, evil multinationals. But then she felt guilty because she was using their tissue paper without paying for things so she bought the cup of coffee anyways (this was a good enough reason!) and back to the bird she raced.
She didn’t know why she felt such a sense of urgency, but she felt like the bird very much needed her, like it was calling to her from the beyond; and so, quickly, carefully, she cradled the bird (wow, this was really gross) in tissue and began to walk – no, run – back to her room. She was going to give it a burial, now, or perhaps, hm, she needed to inspect it – regardless of what she was to do, it needed to happen right away – and so she darted down the street as fast as she could with hot coffee and hasty corpse in hand. Still admiring its unloveliness in her sprint, and certainly not looking where she was going, Facie did not notice the man, not paying much attention either, rushing very quickly in her own direction.
Wow! What a beautiful bird. What an honor that she had been able to find this bird before anyone had stepped on it. Quickly, quickly she must take it back to her home and –
Facie and Seb ran slap bang right into each other with a big loud thud. And then, in equal parts tragedy and equal parts comic inevitability, Facie’s body contorting itself over her big chunky black boots, tumbling to the soundtrack of Seb’s apology-grunt of surprise, Facie began to fall slow-motion towards the sidewalk, and out of her hands, with the momentum of chance, the dead bird body catapulted itself straight into heaven.
And for a moment it soared! Oh, how the bird flew! If it were alive, it might have thought – well, very little of it, birds probably don’t think very much of flying – but good lord, did it look magnificent! There, a stripe of blue, riding through the air on a cloud of gray Dunkin Donuts tissue paper, with, (aha!) just a little flash here and there of its beak in magnificent, regal orange, anomalous and ethereal against cloudy blue, spinning sonorously in a slow hiccup of time, a silent, commanding beat between sounds of street, the bird carcass a magic carpet ascending to nirvana, (what beauty!) but then: a swing, bird is falling, and time is catching up, and the parabola becomes a frowny-face, and the metaphor tumbles down toward hellish street, quick and graceless like a burning fireball of sad, and – it’s faster now – oh god, it’s all happening! What a sight: the bird’s once-body is now a Jackson Pollock of guts splattered across the asphalt. A gory crime scene, the head is divorced from its body, the skull smooshed-in so yellow gray innards are oozing. And to top it off, the hot coffee splatters are everywhere, the remains of bird ruminating in a balmy brown fluid like islands of garbage in sooty river.
A moment of silence.
Facie stood with her mouth open for a minute or so.
Then, like the parabola up-then-down of the bird’s postmortem glory, Facie began to laugh. It was a hysterical “this is so ridiculous” sort of laugh. But then that laugh disintegrated, morphing into a body wrenching, slobbering sort of blubber.
This was a very difficult situation for Seb. Just in a rush to get a sandwich from Dunkin Donuts for his fifteen-minute lunch break, he ran straight into this girl who appeared, from what he could judge from the remains, to have been holding in her hands the carcass of a bluebird. Or at least, he hoped the bird had originally been dead, but now that he thought about it, why would anyone be holding a dead bird? Slowly, the thought dawned on him: that the bird could very well have not been dead at all, that he could’ve just killed a living bird and, oh dear god, did he just kill a live bird, oh god, oh god, oh god – Seb looked at the girl he just ran into, and he looked at the guts of this once living, once flying, once heart-beating bird, and, from the depths of his soul, he let loose a loud, frightened wail (this is when Facie started crying), and for a good few minutes the two stood, and together, expelled grotesque sounds of horror and shame out onto the street.
And this was how they met.
Facie knew what she was getting herself into.
And she knew it would go nowhere good.
But the way his hands felt on her chest, and his lips on her neck, and his fingertips on her body... with each touch, he lit up her skin with little sparks of color. His sex was too convincing.
She could see everything he was doing but still every touch felt like a surprise. She liked being a woman with autonomy. It empowered her. He empowered her.
And yet, every time they lay together, she felt just a little emptier than before.
She was an hourglass, and with each visit, more and more grains would, tentative, fall. Something was being drained from her. Was it hope? Was it childhood? Was it her faith in love?
She did not know.
She didn’t like how many things she did not know.
She was as young as she was wise, and she wanted so much to be the woman she powdered on her face every morning.
She was foolish. She knew she was foolish, and she was wise for knowing that, but she hated living in anticipation of whatever bad decision she was going to make next.
Nobody told her stories.
She realized this once - we tell stories for the grown-ups, and for the adolescents, and for the children, but not very many stories for the almosts. At least, not a lot of honest ones.
She felt she lived her life teetering the balance between knowing and not knowing, and because she had never heard enough stories about that, about herself, she did not know what to do with all this stuff she almost knew.
She had three fingers on the answer, and the other two pressed on Seb’s lips.
He thought that falling in love someday would fill the vacancy in his chest. That it – that she – would save him. It didn’t. She couldn’t.
He did feel alive again though, but in a very separate part of his soul. Half-alive, maybe.
It struck him strange: somehow, he felt totally impassioned and entirely dispassionate at once. That the human spirit could be so dualistic: awake and asleep, full and empty, two shades at once.
Seb’s poor, precarious Schrodinger’s heart thumped half its beats in his chest. A thump. A pause. An echo?
None ever came.
Seb was a walking contradiction. And he liked that.
No – he hated that.
He wasn’t sure.
He had kissed another girl.
She had worked so hard to not be like other girls, and now he had gone and kissed one. Once he spoke, she closed her eyes and kept them shut so he wouldn’t see her crying.
She felt her heart breaking in her chest. She could feel it crumble, like her heart was a saltine and he had just stepped on it with his big black boot. He walked away and some fragments of it clung to the ridges in his boot’s sole and left atop the asphalt a trail of crumbs for her to follow, to pick up later and collect in the creases of her palm, to try to assemble once again into cracker.
Never before had she truly felt the fullness of the word. She climbed into the holes of the letters and pushed her arms against the cage-walls of the “o” – she pushed and pushed and it would not yield. Stuck. The word was like a smell on her skin – she could not wash it off – it clung to her like no other label she’d ever tried stick to herself could – more than “woman”, more than “poet”, more than anything – she was heartbroken.
She was a heart, only a heart, and now a broken one. Clogged-pipes-and-arteries bro-ken, maybe, but also many-pieces broken. Fall-apart broken. She was many pieces of heart, which he was now chewing into pulp with saliva, chew-chew stuck between crevices of molar, he swallowed her chunky heart thick and pulpy down his pipe-throat full of tar.
Now it was all black and she was in his stomach. Trapped in a stomach bubbled by acid and churned into goo and viscous fluid. She had fallen, Daddy, quickly-slowly- stuck into black hole, molasses, down and spinning round and round the walls of a pitch-dark funnel of doughy flesh, unable to see with her eyes which were wide open but could not distinguish difference between shades of black, she could've shut her eyes and she would’ve seen all the same: no glimpse of light, no flash of orange, only black: black, black and more black, so nothing meant anything and she was caught swirling and swirling down and down and further still.
She was a heart and one no longer.
He had only kissed another girl.
It did not mean so much to him. It was just a mouth and a mouth, met for a moment in hot breath, by accident of too much drink.
It did not mean so much. He didn’t understand why she didn’t understand that. It was just a thing. It was just a thing and it did not mean anything. He still loved her, or liked her (he wasn’t sure where that line was), and him kissing the girl was an entirely separate thing and had nothing to do with her. It had nothing to do with you, Facie. There is her and there is you. Two, two.
Why couldn’t she see that?
But she was heartbroken. He could see that he had broken her heart, even though when he told her, her face didn’t move a flinch. Because he saw it in her eyes. He saw it. They changed suddenly from these shiny still marbles to deep, black, endless pupil; in an instant, her eyes which were once protruding, shining blue, curious and reaching, suddenly caved inward and became a big, deep, lonely well, into which he could peer and see no end.
He had broken her. He knew it. He saw it.
And in that moment of release, he felt something, something stronger than anything he had ever felt. The edges of his vision blackened as his entire body was swallowed by this big, black animal of a feeling. It was not love, certainly. Not guilt, no. But envy. Oh, how envious he felt of her. That she could love so strongly and he could not. That she could hurt so deeply and he could not. In his mind’s eye, he saw their lives overlap like two sine curves, his a tiny squiggle of worm and hers deep with peaks and troughs and he envied her so. And here, now, he was feeling the strongest feeling he had ever felt in his life, and it was envy.
A fat, hot, green tear tore from his eye and pummeled down his cheek. What a fool he was.
Facie was still reeling. He held her in his arms but his arms were cold now, steely, they felt wrong and full of elbow wrapped around her shoulders as the two lovers coupled their appendaged bodies together on Seb’s bed. Her eyes were shut. She swayed a little from side to side as the dread rocked her body, like a lone buoy bobbing in the sea.
She didn’t know how long. It couldn’t have been more than a few hours, but it felt like a lifetime. She could have lived and died and known only the darkness.
She felt it on her cheek. Seb lay facing her, and her him, their bodies curling inward so they both ended where the other ended and began where the other began. Though they no longer touched, Facie could feel, ferrying the small distance between their fingertips, the heat that was rising from Seb’s body now, like a scent - like a warning. She was wary of it, of the strange repellant magnets in their chests that made her compelled to rise out of bed, but some force, entirely unbeknownst to her, kept her beached by his side.
Again, now on her other cheek. But she was not troubled: there was peace in the relative silence now, the veil of darkness that was all she could see, the dull pain that hummed in her body. The sheets, like white flags, rested lighter on her now than they did the night before. She could feel it. Lighter now, just light enough so that those sheets, which had once buried them, could rise up, up into the sky and she would feel no difference.
A breath. This time on her eyes.
And then, slowly, like flight, she began to see. In the backs of her eyelids, out of the darkness: swells, of purple, blue, maybe even the faintest glimmer of tangerine. The sun was rising now. Light spilled into the east-facing window of Seb’s room. Rays bled into her closed sleepy eyes.
There! A flicker. There! There! Sparks. Small flashes (!) of orange out of the shadows, watercolored by clouds of purple and blue.
She could just remember the word for them: phosphenes. They were so small. Was she just imagining them?
Suddenly, slowly, they began to fill her entire void of vision with light, phosphenes flashing bright like fireworks until she felt so compelled to blink but couldn’t because her eyes were alas shut. Flashing, flashing, flashing until her entire vision was flooded with the vibrant, pregnant color of orange – it was all she could see, all she could see – and it overwhelmed her, joy and sadness and realization all at once. Desperately, desperately she tried to pull, yank her closed eyes open until finally, with great force, her eyelids swung open like doors and Facie was left blinking dubiously, sat up with a start on Seb’s bed in some wee hour of the breaking morn.
She blinked, blinked and her eyes were flooded too, flooded with tears and blobs of sunlight morphing and distorting into waves of the color orange. Oh, and now she was crying. Loudly! Laughing-smiling-crying-sobbing, everything and nothing was clear now – but she didn’t have the words, words which she had always found comfort in were not what was helping her now –
A fire was consuming the world, more saturated with color than ever before.
Rising from Seb’s bed like heat from a flame, Facie looked back at his sleeping body, on its side and curled forward inquisitive like a question mark, hands extended expectant in front of his body as if in prayer –
She looked at his sleeping, peaceful, guilty body and felt angry.
He had made her out to be the answer. He had made her an answer.
But she was not the answer. She was a woman.
She looked at herself in Seb’s mirror, at her tired, waking body trapped in a cage of lingerie, she had bought to please another’s eyes.
She was not the answer.
Woman, woman, woman, woman. The words beat like drums echoing in her chest. She felt the blood pulse under her skin, stretching its tenacious arms out into the deepest tendrils of her body –
The woman looked out the man’s window, and suspended her gaze, like a finger skim- ming over a page, over the first, lone, tentative green leaf on the skeleton-branch of a birch tree, stretching its spine out like an allegation.
She put on her clothes. She took off her bra. She left. And that was the last she ever saw of him.
Seb looked in his mirror to brush his teeth.
It was summer now. Seb did not like the summer because it was too hot, and that meant he couldn’t enjoy his coffee hot anymore. He had to drink ice coffee. Piss coffee.
The heat didn’t suit New England. It felt wrong, see. The world was bonky and painted in the wrong color palette. He wanted so bitterly to haul up the screen that muffled his vision – like he was lifting one of those tinted visors which were supposed to protect your eyes on those old desktop computers – so that it could go back to how it should be.
Cold. He missed the cold. What he would give to shiver again. Now he knew only sweat, tracing its icky salt fingers in cold straight lines down the valley of his back. Oily, everything was oily. How could a body be so salty and oily at the same time? He could lie in the sun and bake a fry on his chest.
How he loathed the summer.
When Seb was done brushing his teeth, he spat. He splashed a bit of water on his face. The cool water felt nice on his skin. He looked at himself in the mirror again and bared his pearly teeth. He had good teeth. He was a dentist, after all.
Looking at himself in the mirror, he fingered tentatively at the top button of his blue dress shirt. To button or to unbutton? A button was all the difference, but he was never sure which version of himself to be today. He sighed and unbuttoned. He always unbuttoned.
Rubbing his eyes deeply with his thumbs, pressing just strongly enough so he could see those little colors you sometimes see when your eyes are closed (did those have a name?), and just strongly enough so it hurt a little, Seb dragged his feet to the kitchen where he choked down some fucking ice coffee.
His mother would always ask him why he wouldn’t just drink hot coffee in the summer, if ice coffee made him so unhappy. He would say to her, feet dangling from his chair (he started drinking coffee every day when he was about ten), that it was a matter of principle. The temperature of your drink should always be the opposite of the temperature outside. You drink to neutralize your body temperature. Otherwise, you should just drink a glass of water.
But what about for flavor, his mother would reply.
Seb did not care for flavor. He could always eat food for flavor. But a drink, a drink serves a purpose. Like coffee, giving you energy. Or tea, calming you down. Or alcohol, making you forget.
Seb always drank his coffee black.
He went to his cupboard to get a box of frosted flakes. Every day he ate frosted flakes and every day he had no complaints. He knew what he liked. First, he’d pour the flakes into a bowl. Oh, how he loved to watch the yellow flakes tumble, and the clinging-clanging sound they would make as they cascaded into the white ceramic. He would then pour in the milk and listen intently for that lovely gentle crackle the flakes would make as they touched the cold soft liquid.
Seb ate in silence.
He took out his phone and scrolled through the empty posts about nothing. Someone had gone a trip. Someone graduated. Great, great. All good things.
But then – suddenly: a picture of Facie.
A swell of emotion overtook him; a whirlwind of color filled his lungs with dusty rainbow smoke.
God, how he had loved her. He saw it now. He had known it for a while, but he realized too late. Of course. He always realized everything too late. He would kiss someone, and hold them, run his fingers through their hair, and then, just when they had left him, and their smell was still stuck to his skin, he’d move his arm and catch a whiff of them on his collar and realize that he had loved them all along.
It was clear now. Clear as water. How he wished he hadn’t he kept his eyes shut and pretended not to hear her weep. Why didn’t he say something that morning? Why didn’t he rise? Why didn’t he reach out his hand and touch her arm?
No – he was a coward. He did not deserve to be in this world.
Oh, Facie hated it when he talked like that. Seb felt a pang of guilt.
These were routine now.
He would wake up, and everything was blue, and he’d remember Facie, and he’d feel a pang of guilt. And he would go to work, and everything was blue, and he’d remember Facie, and he’d feel a pang of guilt. And so forth. Always guilty, always blue.
It was like he was wearing a pair of spectacles, tinted blue, but also like Facie had just rubbed her stinky fucking hair on everything so everything fucking smelled like her all the fucking time – it was detestable! How could the world smell so much like a person? Certainly the world did not smell this way before. So fruity and soft. So orange. Distasteful.
God, how he loved her smell.
His familiar guilt subsided. It would do that: ebb and flow with the insistence of her memory.
He resumed eating his cereal.
The frosted flakes and cold milk fell smoothly down the passage of his esophagus and into his stomach. Gurgle, gurgle.
A small piece of frosted flake was stuck his throat.
Seb coughed tentatively, and then, a little harshly, to reposition it in his throat so it could glide down smoothly.
He heard a rap at the door. Still coughing, gently beating a fist to his chest, Seb rose from his chair. Now, in his ripe age of thirty, Seb could firmly plant his feet on the ground.
He walked to his front door and reached a hand out to the blue doorknob, which was cold on his palm, and slowly turned his wrist.
It was probably the foreman, he thought. But alas – there was no one there. Curious. He had heard it, clear as day. Choke.
Three months later Seb died in a great fire. Someone had left the gas on in his apartment, someone else lit a cigarette. He died in his sleep. At peace.
Facie cried for a month, and then two. She wore the badge of their lost love like a button on her backpack – her black backpack – there to touch, to thumb at with her finger and to breathe a sigh to, a deep, bottom-of-her-soul sort of sigh, and then she’d feel a great sadness cloud her soul like a great fog she’d later whip away at with a wadded up newspaper and try to shoo from the patio of her home. It was a sadness she could touch, but also a sadness she could massage away like a knot in her back.
She wondered sometimes if he was happy now, because he got what he wanted. A death. Other times, she’d dream of him, walking out towards her from a great, big, orange fire, reaching hands out towards her as if to draw her into the flames with him.
Facie cried another month. And that was that.
Another month later, Facie smiled the biggest smile she’d ever smiled in her life.
His name was Bird, and he didn’t want to be like other birds. He really, really didn’t want to be like other birds, so he spent his whole life, his whole, short, bird life, crafting his song so it was unlike anybody else’s.
And what a song it was!
He was the envy of the birds. When he was young and bold, and his feathers were not yet disheveled by the rust and cruelty of this world, young birds would crowd at his branch to hear him sing.
The crests and falls of his tune! The sweetness of it! How skillfully he could make his song swell and his spectators swoon! His bright orange beak was the turntable of New England, spewing nature’s jazzy tune into the delighted ears of passersby.
And other birds would say, how do you do it, Bird? They would rub their little bird eyes with their little bird wings, wiping away their little bird tears, and marvel at this magnificent creature and the triumph of his song. There was something precious about it, so precious that whenever Bird would come up in conversation, birds would just say things like, well, you just can’t describe it, or, there are no words! Somehow, trying to bog down something so pure with something as corrupted as words – it was an anchor, an insult, a great wrong.
And so his tune lifted, unadulterated, virtuous, into the sky with the lightness of an idea. Like a white balloon, it rose up, up into the clouds, until one day, Bird could no longer catch its string.
It came abruptly, like how these things always do. Discordant, one day, a crack crept into his tune and what would have been a glorious G struck strange an F sharp.
Bird kept singing, unfazed, hoping none of his admirers had heard him falter.
But it got to him. It started as a small black asterisk in the back of his brain. He tucked the feeling away into a distant corner of his mind, because it scared him. Never addressing it, he thought, might make it go away. But eventually, over the years, the asterisk grew anxious and impatient; it began to yawn and stir and stretch its little black arms out, planting its pesky fingers into the darkest corners of Bird’s mind, consuming him like a cancer.
He thought that maybe, just maybe, he could keep running and running and running forward, but then he realized he just was like one of those characters in those cartoons he’d watch through the windows of people’s homes – they’d run and run and they’d run off the cliff and then they’d look down and realize they weren’t on solid ground at all, that they were in the middle of the air and all of a sudden they’d plummet towards the earth.
Except he had wings, right? Bird had wings so he could keep on flying, right?
But all too soon, how far he could soar on one flap now needed two, and then three, and then eventually his body was like the sputtering last cart on a locomotive and his heavy cancerous chest was too clogged up for him to fly at all, too filled with tar for him to even wrest out a chirp.
He became one of those old birds who would tell stories that were tired. Eventually they started calling him Mr. Bird, and his old days of singing became a memory that lived on in the words – or rather, not in the words – of those who could remember them.
He grew old and he grew bitter. A shadow, an echo, of the Great he used to be.
One day Mr. Bird flew – or rather, plopped – down to a small puddle on the street and looked at his own weary face reflected back at him in the muddy water. He saw grayed in his feathers the regrets he had amassed in his life – those he had hurt, those he had left behind, those he had never had the courage to say I love you to.
He looked at his reflection, at his own, sad, sad, blue eyes and saw the wrinkles around their perimeter and wondered what had happened, just what had happened to him. It was one of those moments where you realize how much time has passed, and just how much you’ve changed. He no longer recognized the bird in his reflection.
Behind the bird’s head, reflected in the puddle, was a flock of jays flying away for winter. They drew an arrow with their young bodies across the sky, the gray-blue sky, pointing south.
Into the puddle drops a small bird’s tear, rippling the reflection, and after a moment, in falls a small bird’s body with it.
The month was October, and everything was orange and black. The air froze crisp and impatient. It was fall. The world held its breath. The leaves, quivering in the trees, waited anxiously for a sigh – for everything to drop.
Tabitha Payne is an artist, writer, comedian and feminist who was born and raised in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Filipino and American parents. She loves writing plays, Southeast Asian history, learning new languages, Lindy Hop swing dancing, and reading the New York Times everyday.