The notice came in the mail on Tuesday, but it remained sitting beside the refrigerator, resting, ignored, like a piece of partly burned cake. Terri hoped Bea would make the move, open it, read the words that would summon a truth they already knew. But the letter was still sitting on Friday, by which time they were tired of the week and themselves. They had been arguing over packing, and it was a silly, worn out exchange, so on the way home from class Terri bought a bottle of whiskey for Bea. Woodford Reserve, the kind they couldn’t afford, and for herself a liter of wine, something red and mediocre.
They were several drinks in when the unspoken decision manifestoed between them to open the envelope. Terri rotated the letter in her hands, watching her name and their address appear and disappear, remembering the thaumatrope she had as a girl, the one that always placed the free bird back in the cage. Bea reached across the table, stopping Terri’s hands, and took the letter. She tore the paper a bit as she opened it.
As Bea read, she took in-between nips using the bottle as a flask because the glasses were boxed away. Terri watched the liquor level drop the way she’d watch a weed grow. They rarely drank like this. They rarely drank at all.
Bea read each word, including the date, the signature and address of the addressor. Then they laughed without understanding why. When the laughter whisped into chuckles and then froze into silence, Bea handed the letter to Terri, who folded the torn piece in on itself, pressing it into place as if to stop bleeding. The paper crackled under the pressure of her finger. She put the letter into the envelope and the envelope back on the counter. For the next few weeks, until the foreclosing was final, they would feel its presence, no longer like a ruined confection but a living thing with eyes that they purposefully, pointedly ignored.
It was their last week when Terri woke at night, the idea cradled like an egg in the nest of her mind. She held it there until morning when, desperation mottling the usual dread she felt at dialing the number, Terri called her mother. Bea knew of the idea by then and lurked in the background.
The mother answered on the fifth ring but spoke with a composed voice that suggested she had seen the caller ID and counted the rings.
“Oh, Terri! Oh, what a surprise,” said the mother, her voice indicating it was not a surprise at all, “What are you calling about? Are you seeing someone? Is he Catholic? Now, it’s too late to change our Thanksgiving plans, but Jim and I could pick a weekend for dinner.”
Terri’s mouth was dry and tasted like gasoline. It took her several seconds before she could recall the words she had rehearsed to her steering wheel, but when her tongue remembered them, they tasted sour.
“Actually, Mom, I called because I have a question. A favor, really.”
“Oh. Well, ask away, Terri.” The shift in the mother’s voice—from over-caffeinated cheerfulness to begrudging weariness—had Terri again wondering if her mother suffered from a diagnosable affliction. Was she like this before she divorced, before she married Jim with Millions? She couldn’t say. It seemed that each encounter with the mother overwrote the last, rendering the mother forever a working copy.
The mother agreed to come see the house that day, which Terri anticipated with a nauseating combination of dread and hope. There was nothing to do but wait and pack.
Terri was standing on the step ladder, her body braced hand, foot, foot for stability. She rummaged through the loft in the shed, grabbing anything, everything. Clippers, an empty gas container. Pairs upon pairs of unused work gloves. They had planned to use the gloves to take down a rose bush in the corner lot. Now, the rosebush would continue living, wild, its roots growing gleeful in the soil, running down past the reach of shovels.
Terri felt a thin tickle of sweat drip between her breasts and race down her skin, pooling in her bellybutton. She hadn’t worn a bra in three months. It happened accidentally at first. She was going from one college to the next for her art course while thinking about lesson plans for a third college and wondering if she would have enough gas to make it without stopping. Car sputtering but arrived, she realized she had forgotten both socks and a bra. She taught the class anyway. No one noticed. Not even the observing dean.
She was stretching one arm toward the loft, wondering if she stop shaving, too, imagining furred hair sprouting from the creases under her arms when something dropped onto her head with a squeak, sending a smattering of winged insects into the air as it disappeared into overgrown grass. Terri drew two fingers to the crown of her head but felt only the damp tangle of her own hair. The ladder tipped as she moved and she pressed her face to a rung. Her sweaty cheek slid on the metal and she imagined hitting the ground just like whatever had fallen from the eaves. She drew a breath and stepped down, nervous until her feet touched grass. The something chirped. Kneeling, she spread the grass and saw it: a small, bald bird, its bobbing head drawn back in shock. Its wings were dotted with budding feathers, its red and pink skin blotched, reminding her of a raw chicken breast with one lone feather.
The bird’s body quivered and its too-long legs jabbed out like odd triangles in a futile attempt to get away. Terri reached out; its leg bones felt delicate but strong and whole. Tufts of fuzz sprouted like mold along the bird’s body and it backed away from her, scooting blindly toward safety. Summer-dried grass crunched and crackled under heavy feet and a shadow bloomed over her. She looked up into Bea’s round face.
“Did you fall?” Bea asked, sliding a glove off a dark brown hand and wiping her neck.
“A bird fell on my head.”
“Are you sure it didn’t shit on you?”
“Bea. It’s a baby bird, look. But I touched him. I wasn’t thinking.”
“She’ll be fine. That whole smell thing is a myth—birds can’t smell. Put her back in the nest and her mother will feed her, you’ll see.”
Bea scooped the bird into a gloved hand and held it out. Terri accepted it and peered at the top of the shed. From a three-inch gap hung a few twigs, a piece of twine, and a lone plastic strand of fake grass from some child’s Easter basket. Some of the twigs were painted partly white. Terri had built and painted the shed just that spring, so she must have, without knowing, violated the nest before the birds had hatched. And yet the birds had remained, stubborn, in their home.
The bird’s body cavities were yawning, its bones and tendons protruding and grotesque. Terri knew the immense power she had over its body and yet felt weak.
“Come on, Terri, it’s a myth. Your Old Hag will be here any minute.”
The hole in the board was like an armpit. From it came the cheeps and warblings of other birds. She shoved her hand upward and released her baby. Perhaps Bea was right, birds couldn’t smell. But she could not shake the possibility of bird intuition, of that just-knowing, deep-deep-down, that everything had changed.
The mother arrived nearly twenty minutes late in a shining black Tesla. Terri hadn’t seen this vehicle before. The mother parked at the beginning of the driveway and opened the car door, extending first one red-soled stiletto pump and then another before emerging all the way and swaying down the hill. Terri watched her mother’s shoes with interest. The spiked heels were too-thin twigs. Terri imagined that by rocking her foot, perhaps by stepping on one of the small, wart-like stones that littered their poorly paved driveway, one of the heels might snap and send her mother careening down the hill like an olive.
“Hi, Mom,” said Terri.
Bea, who had come up behind, also said hello. Her arms were smudged with dust and dirt and her mood was sour, proof that she had been in the cellar with the spiders. She wiped one hand on her pants as the mother took in Bea’s frayed jeans and beater-covered torso with the self-righteous surprise of catching someone taking the last of the macaroni salad.
“Oh,” said the mother. “Bea. I thought Terri had decided she could live without a roommate.”
“Surprise,” said Bea, glancing at Terri. “Here I am.”
“Oh, Terri, oh, no wonder you’re having a hard time. Men like an independent woman, one who can live on her own with a man after the age of thirty, thirty-five. Now, I know you two have been best friends, but really, this juvenile. There’s no privacy in a roommate situation.”
“I’m going back in the basement,” said Bea. Terri heard the squeak of the cellar door and felt the open space behind her where Bea had stood. As soon as Bea was out of earshot, the mother grabbed Terri’s hand.
“Terri, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. I don’t mean to nag. We’ll find you a nice Catholic man, and then you can marry someone who isn’t going straight to hell like that atheist you dated once. Remember him?”
The mother stayed for hours. She had brought with her a small flashlight, a book of matches for unknown reasons, a screwdriver (just in case), and a pocket knife. The mother used her tools to peer into closets and the recesses of cupboards, craning her neck and standing on an overturned plant-pot to see in the very back, her flashlight blinding. In the bathroom she snooped under the sink before refolding the towels and organizing them by color. When she replaced the top of the toilet’s water tank, the mother slowed, making in her throat a noise like hmmm, and put her tools away.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” said Terri, massaging her left temple.
“What I would like,” said the mother as she stroked the clasp on her purse, “is to know that you have God’s Word in plain sight. People will get the wrong impression if you don’t have it out. Lack of a Bible means lack of morals. I don’t think you need that kind of attention, considering.”
Terri stared and pressed her fingers to her other temple. “I just need to know if you can help.”
“Well, first, I told you you should have bought a double-unit. Then, Bea could have rented from you, if you were so compelled, and you wouldn’t be in this little situation, would you?”
When Terri turned toward the counter for coffee, she realized they had packed the percolator. Her head hurt worse than ever. She placed her hands on the counter.
“You don’t have coffee?” said the mother.
“Sorry. I guess we packed it. I forgot.”
“Well, Google says there’s a Starbucks down the road. I’ve learned to always be prepared when I come out here because you never know.”
“This is ludicrous,” said Terri.
“What’s Luciferous is that you don’t have a Bible on your counter. You do own one, don’t you?”
“It’s packed, too,” said Terri, slumping against the linoleum.
“I was thinking,” said the mother as she pulled her keys out of her purse. “Maybe you should just let them foreclose on this old hole and find a new place. Properties are nicer in Dover. You’d be closer to your family, to me. Plus, there’s the rental idea. As long as you aren’t married by then. The mortgage is on me.” And as she left, she winked, as if solidifying their understanding of a joke.
By mid-afternoon, nearly all of their belongings were placed in labeled boxes, their lives sealed into cardboard with clear plastic tape, rendering them squatters in what used to be their home. Looking at the boxes lining the walls, tetrissed together, it seemed too final, too sudden. In two days, they would leave and the bank would come to winterize the house. An agent would place NO TRESPASSING signs where they once had flowers, and curtain-less windows would gape at a road that had already forgotten them. If the mother didn’t buy it, it would be a year or two before their house was back on the market, eventually sold to someone for a monthly payment less than they were supposed to be paying now.
Terri pushed a button and felt the garage walls shudder with the automatic door mechanics she had installed. The noise was a familiar sound that used to grate on her nerves, but now made her homesick. She ducked outside and stood, blinking in the light, before turning toward the shed once more. Yet before she was back to the loft, she stopped.
There on the ground, with an ant crawling on its head, was the baby bird. Terri flicked off the ant and the bird cheeped, its sides moving with breath or heartbeat. She picked it up as though it were a child with a cut knee. From the eaves the other birds chirped, talking to one another. Why was it this bird, and not another, that was forced out of the nest?
Her bare hands protected its soft warmth as she carried it into the garage. She called animal control on her cell phone, and they gave her the number to the nearest bird sanctuary, which she scrawled on a scrap of wood with a thick, blue pencil. She dialed and a dusty, airy voice answered the phone. Terri asked if it was the right number.
“I found a baby bird. It fell, or was pushed out of its nest. I found it earlier and I put it back with the others, but it’s here again.”
“What kind of bird is it?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
“Is it a baby or a fledgeling?”
“What’s a fledgeling?”
“Does it have feathers?”
Terri looked at the bird. She didn’t know if the things poking out of its sides were considered feathers. They looked more like multi-colored, pencil-lead splinters.
“Um…” she said, trying to think.
“Does it have skin?” The voice was impatient.
“Of course it has skin.”
“I mean, more skin than feathers.”
“Oh. Yes. It’s mostly skin.”
“Baby then. It will have to come in today.”
“Should I put it back in the nest again? Just to see if—”
“No, no.” The voice paused. “How far away is Newcastle from you?”
“An hour. Maybe forty minutes.”
“Are you in the Borough? Yes? Okay. Let me call you back,” said the voice. “There’s a guy a few towns over and he’s getting birds today. I’ll see if he can meet you. Phone number for you?”
Terri felt energy she didn’t know she had summoning up in her body, pooling in her legs and armpits. This sense of importance was a welcome change from the fear and uncertainty of the last few weeks. Terri gave the voice her number in exchange for some basic instructions. She was to find a safe place for the bird and keep it warm.
“Do you have cats?” asked the voice.
“Yes, but I can put the bird in a box in the bathroom and keep them out. We have boxes.”
“No,” said the voice. “I mean, what kind of food do you feed them?”
“The cats?” said Terri. “Cat food. Dry.”
“I mean, what flavor is it?”
“What flavor? I don’t know. Salmon, maybe? Duck and pea?”
“Well, there’s a big difference between salmon and duck,” said the voice. “I mean, do you have the bag? Can you check? It needs to be duck, or chicken, or something like that.”
“It’s duck and pea. I’m pretty sure.”
“Okay. If baby acts hungry, use some tweezers to feed it bits of cat food. One kernel at a time. Moisten them with water.”
And then the voice was gone. Terri looked down at the bird, but it had large, swollen eyes that couldn’t look back. Terri pawed around in the garage for a box, which she lined with Bea’s favorite yellow beach towel before placing the bird inside. It cheeped feebly and backed itself into a fold of the towel until it was guarded on either side by two lime green sea turtles.
They were taking a break, sitting on the large log that had been there since they moved in. They were staring at Bea’s phone.
“Even if your mother is able to pull this off, use that contact she has at the bank to do whatever it is she’s planning on doing, it’s going to take time, right? We’ll need somewhere. It’s not like they’ll let us stay here while they hash out the details of a short sale. Unless you want to live with your mother,” said Bea.
“This one,” said Terri, pointing at a 650-sq. ft., one bedroom apartment located not too far from where Bea worked.
“The rent is more than our mortgage. Plus deposit, security, whatever. We can’t afford that, Ter.” She leaned forward as she talked and Terri wrinkled her nose. Bea smelled rank, like onion, stale bread, and cellar dirt.
“But it’s something,” said Terri. It was the same argument whenever they looked. This time, two units fell into their price range, but with each the commute for Bea was well over two hours. It wasn’t feasible, and Terri put her hands over her eyes to shield herself from the truth.
“I think,” said Terri, the words like stones, “I might need to get a different job. A real one.”
“You love teaching.”
“But I can’t shake it… if I had had health insurance it wouldn’t be like this.”
Bea placed her sweaty hands around Terri’s and squeezed as they looked out at the yard.
Terri’s phone rang at three. She picked it up and the same light, androgynous voice from the sanctuary spoke.
“Got in touch with our guy. I’ll just give you his number, and you can call him to arrange a meeting spot and time for this evening. Does that work for you?”
“Yes,” she said, and took down the number. When she hung up she went upstairs, let herself into the bathroom.
“Are you checking on that bird again?” Bea yelled from the lower yard.
“No,” Terri yelled back. She closed the curtains in the bathroom, flushed the toilet to be convincing, then looked into the box. The bird appeared not to have moved, but as she began closing the lid, its body convulsed in a flurry of uncoordinated movement. It chirped fast-and-loud, opening its short, curved beak until its head was nothing but mouth.
Terri rushed to grab cat kibble, which, she noted with satisfaction, was chicken flavor. Her two cats heard the sound of the food bag and emerged from hiding, crying loudly and darting in front of her. Terri stepped over them and closed herself back in the bathroom.
“Again?” called Bea.
“Yes!” said Terri, and a laugh rose through the window.
Terri used chopsticks to hold a kibble but the bird closed its mouth and lowered its head to the towel, where it lay still. Terri clicked her tongue but it didn’t move. She tapped its beak with the morsel of food. It sprang to life, and Terri held the pellet steady. With surprising force the bird lurched its head forward so that the pellet and an inch of wood disappeared down its gullet. She was glad the chopsticks were dull.
Terri pulled back but the bird immediately opened its mouth again. The bird ate the second morsel with the same gusto as the first, and then all at once seemed to deflate, limp as a soaked sock. After a few seconds it revived and waddled its rear toward the edge of the towel, where it promptly ejected a massive, white turd. Terri laughed out loud, prompting another taunt from outside.
She left the bird, making sure to close the door against the ultra-curious cats, and dialed the man’s phone number.
A gruff voice answered, “Dave, here.”
“Dave? I’m calling about a bird.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah-yeah. The sparrows. You’re the one I need to meet. Will it work say, in about an hour? I’ll be driving a red truck.”
Terri made arrangements to meet Dave at the local grocery store, and then went outside to tell Bea, who was carrying boxes out of the shed.
“Driving all that way for a bird that’s probably already dead,” she said.
“It’s only five minutes down the road. And the bird just ate, so… probably not dying.”
“Jesus Christ,” she said, “the things I get myself into.”
It was seven minutes down the road. Bea announced this with the air of a customer who had ordered diet coke and received regular. At the store they sat in silence, waiting for Dave. Fifteen minutes passed into forty-five. The bird cheeped feebly from its box and ate another two morsels of cat food, which Terri was storing in the car’s cupholder. They watched vehicles pass them in the parking lot, perking up whenever they saw a truck.
“Are you sure you got the right place?”
“He said an hour. Maybe I should call.”
Terri sent him a text. Two minutes passed before his answer: BE RIGHT THERE.
“See?” she said, holding up the phone. They waited, time moving slow as insomnia, until Bea pointed. A red truck was circling the parking lot. Terri stuck her hand out the window and the truck puttered over to them. They got out of the car.
Dave emerged and Terri took a step back, felt Bea’s hand on her arm. Dave was an angular man with a luscious beard and a pristine red MAGA cap perched on his head. Dave seemed not to notice Terri’s hesitation.
“How ya doing? Sorry ‘bout all that. I went to the wrong grocery store. I found a couple parked in a car almost like yours and thought it was you. I shot the shit with them for almost twenty minutes you know, weather and so, and then I tried to give them a box of birds. They were like, what? Birds? And then I knew. Pheww, what a day.”
“Why did you try to give them birds?” said Bea. Dave looked down at her hand, which was now curved around Terri’s, and frowned.
“Well, I didn’t mean to give them the birds, they’re for you. I got it all mixed—were you listening to my story? Anyway, here you go.”
He handed them a small cardboard box with a shipping label that said “Lugnuts-2 ct.” on the side. It was oil stained and had holes punched in the top. Terri took it, feeling how it rested in her palm. The sound coming through the cardboard was higher and more urgent than the chirps of her bird.
“Well, thanks for coming along,” said Dave as he lifted his hat, revealing a sweaty band of hair and a bald spot. “Really ‘preciate it. There’s no way I’d be able to make it all the way up there by myself, and they really should go today. She told you not to use your GPS on the way, right? That it might cut out on you?”
“What?” said Bea. “Wait—”
“No, actually,” said Terri.
“Well you can use it, I suppose, for a while. But if you drive past the bridge, you’ve gone too far, got it? Right. Thanks again. Have a good one.” Dave climbed into the truck and waved as he drove off, then waved again at the light and disappeared out of sight.
“So. We’re delivering birds. Do you know the address?” said Bea.
“No. I’ll have to look it up,” whispered Terri.
“Maybe you should check the box and make sure it’s filled with actual birds, not drugs or something. Why does this feel illicit? Okay. So. You watch out the window for police while I gun it. But if they nab us, I’m surrendering the birds.”
Bea pushed the car into drive and Terri searched for the address with her phone, battling the slow reception. She plugged it into their GPS, only to learn that it was an hour away and that Bea had driven for several minutes in the wrong direction. The sound of chirping birds crescendoed as they pulled a U-turn. In between bouts of loud, persistent sparrow calling, Terri heard the short chirps of her bird. She clutched the boxes in her lap.
They passed bright green dumpsters with trash stains on them and sidewalks that slithered along, cracked and poorly repaired with sticky, black tar. Grass pushed up in all directions, evidence that nature might reclaim its land after all.
Terri’s phone rang and she answered it on speaker. The voice on the other end began talking at once, as if they were continuing a conversation that had not ended hours earlier.
“So we got a call from a lady,” said the voice, “I don’t know, twenty minutes or so from you and she has another bird and needs a runner. Maybe you could collect it?”
“Did she just say runner? Like, for a package?” whispered Bea. But Terri shook her head in disbelief.
“Wait a minute. How often do birds get abandoned? I didn’t know this was such a thing.”
“Oh, a lot. But this one’s different. It’s injured and a bit bigger. It’s a mallard.”
“It’s a full-sized duck?” said Terri. Bea braked, nearly missing their turn, and Terri gripped her birds as her arm thumped against the door.
“Yeah, wing damage. You’ll want a carrier. I could ask if they have one.” Terri glanced at Bea, who shook her head.
“But we’re already on our way,” said Terri.
“Ahh, well. It was worth a try.” The phone clicked, and Terri silenced it against the possibility of more birds. She caught Bea’s eye and they began cracking up, the laughter blanketing them.
After a brief but intense rain storm and several wrong turns when the GPS cut out, Terri began to fiddle with the frayed hem of her pocket. It had been two hours of driving. She wondered if the sanctuary would be open or if she would be stuck, forever, with two homeless birds. She imagined them living in her bathroom, nesting in her towels, before she remembered that she didn’t have a bathroom. She was losing hope when Bea spotted the weathered, hand-painted sign. Bea swerved down the gravel road and swore when their car bottomed out.
The road was long. It seemed they were careening through a leafy green forrest that rose to swallow them. Terri felt she was going back to a time before adjunct professors, before mortgages. Eventually the thick dark tree limbs ripped away from each other like Velcro to reveal a brick building with spotless white paint. Flowers in every shade grew from wild, voluptuous gardens. Terri could imagine the keeper of this place crouched on all fours, whispering love-words to the plants: grow, babies, grow.
Another hand-painted sign clung to a post centered between two smooth river rocks. Birds this way. Welcome. Its crooked arrow pointed down a cobblestoned path made of more river stones.
“I’ll stay here,” said Bea. “It won’t take long?”
Terri scooped the bird boxes and stood, noticing a hummingbird and then the low drone of bumble bees. Her chest felt bubble-light. She could have looked for hours.
“Come on,” said Bea, but her tone was gentle and Terri knew she was looking too.
Terri’s soles popped down the cobblestone walk. Vines and bushes ferreted her toward a sun room, which was filled with plants and birds flying to new branches, making noise she could hear through the walls. Her birds, tucked away in their individual boxes, were weirdly silent.
A penned note taped to the barn board door said, come in. Terri jiggled the handle and stepped into a humid, tiled room. An Ikea desk was centered like a pupil in an iris of potted plants. The bird songs in the sunroom were overwhelming in their happiness.
“Hello?” Terri called and her birds gave some feeble cheeps in response. A frosted glass door shadowed and then cracked open, revealing first a khaki-clad rear. Then an upper body and tousled mane of electric orange hair. The person turned and Terri found herself peering into the aged, very lined face of a woman.
“Oh!” said the woman as she walked forward, bouncing with each step as if she might have wings of her own. Terri recognized the voice from her phone. She was surprised, not that the voice belonged to a woman, but that it belonged to anyone.
“So these are the birdies,” said the woman, scooping the boxes into her hands and gliding behind the desk, where she settled onto a yoga ball and opened the MAGA man’s box. Wait, Terri wanted to say. It’s too fast.
“Ahhh, little sparrows. Look at you, crammed right in there. I’d have thought you should have a bigger box than that, but we can fix it, can’t we? We can fix almost anything. Listen to you! Hungry, hungry. Hold on sweeties, hold on.
“And here! Oh, a starling. I’d recognize your ugly little neck anywhere, that’s for sure. But you’ll come into it, won’t you?”
“Sparrows, plural?” said Terri, and the woman looked up and into Terri’s face with striking, clear brown eyes. She held out the box.
“You didn’t look?” she said, without any accusation.
Terri leaned forward. Inside were two barely-feathered birds, both smaller than her starling, almost on top of one another, legs and wings encroaching on each other’s space. They chirped constantly. The woman abruptly closed the top of the box.
“But are you going to put them in something bigger?” said Terri.
“Do you think I don’t know how to care for birds?” said the woman with a smile.
“Well, no, I just—”
“Never mind, never mind. It’s all in the immediate past and that’s still the past. They will have homes, and the right ones, mind you, not to worry.”
The woman picked up the boxes and carried them toward the frosted door, cradling one box in the crook of an arm and the other clutched in the palm of one long-fingered hand. Terri suddenly felt lost.
“So, I’m all set?” asked Terri.
The woman paused, looked back at Terri with that same smile.
“Well, I can’t answer that, darling, it seems like such a personal question. Are you?”
“I mean, do I just go now?” Terri was feeling smaller each second, the room closing in. She was suffocating.
“Unless you would like to bring me a duck, you may go. Thank you, darling, for the birds.”
“Starling?” said Terri.
But the woman was gone, leaving Terri standing in the warm, bright room, looking at the desk, the plants, the terra-cotta tiles. Listening to the din of birds. She felt she was searching for something, but what? Her eyes drank in everything. There was not even a name tag on the desk. She thought she might hear her birds, if only she listened with care.
The room became timeless, and she jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up into Bea’s face and saw a question in her eyes, but Terri didn’t know how to answer it. She leaned, and Bea’s arms wrapped around her to form a sweaty, tight cocoon.