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Whirl of Birds
By Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen
Turn the wheel, flow with the road. Pass houses, businesses, cars. In the weightless Texas air, everything flows by as a fragmentary landscape, luminous as the air breathing out of her body. Sinuous, the road, like the touch of his fingers blindly tracing her lines.
The sensation still in her pores, still feeling his face on her face, Bianca turns the wheel and turns the wheel. The car is taking her home instinctively, like a horse. Her body is still somewhere else, bending with his body of seething muscle, inebriation of Edwin, only Edwin. She can still feel the sheets on his bed where she has just been, where her phantom still burns endlessly, inhaling burning air through her own strands of yellow hair in motion.
The car slows down quickly, as if by some metallic instinct of its own. Bianca barely notices. She is aware that the car is no longer moving, yet feels nothing in her numb toes but that mad rhythm of perishing endlessly, skin to skin, without bones and without thought.
Her eyes fly above the street light, pulled up by the force of vaguely blue vastness, and she sees birds.
Black birds fly in circles, slow to the human eye, swirling in a dance they know as precisely as they know the winds and the prey. Long winged—vultures, maybe, or buzzards. Her mind sobers in slow fractions of a second. She wonders what they are doing right there, above the roads of a busy town—twenty of them, perhaps. Waves of Edwin seep out of her body and she resents that, looking up at the birds that dance above the moments she cannot keep. In just another microsecond she knows the light will turn green, but the microsecond lasts longer than that. More birds gather vertically: a sparse, lazy tornado of wings.
Green light. Her mind moves her foot from the break to the gas pedal, as her eyes linger on the sky. For what unfathomable ritual have these birds gathered, and why does her soul feel suddenly depleted? The slow turn of the whirl of birds dizzies, hypnotizes. There’s a meaning up there, something that the sky wants her to know, something about the immortality of heights. She will tell Edwin about it. One by one, the birds move from the whirl pattern to lines, like soldiers acquiring a new purpose.
She has to watch the traffic, but the mystery of the sky makes her eyes drift. She looks ahead, hoping for another red light so she can see more. It is as if her soul is hungry for a secret, something to make her feel part of the world, part of the flow of time. She stops at another light, opens the window and looks up. The birds are scattering in small files. She wonders what the earth looks like from that height. She wonders if the birds can laugh—or something ticking inside them can laugh. She sees herself, spectrally, at the beginning of the row of birds and at the end of it too. A thought from earlier that morning comes to her mind. Any life is made up of a single moment—Borges said that. She talked about it with Edwin on their way to his house. She will soon be twenty, though she’s always believed that to be a hundred years away.
Borges thought immortality belongs to creatures that are ignorant of death. These birds seem to know it, and they are flying to different corners of the world to disseminate that knowledge from above. You just don’t have as long as you think, she concludes. Only Edwin is a place with no death.
The loud crash wakes her from her reverie.
She was no longer paying attention to turns and lights because of the birds. After drifting onto the curb, her car has now ended into a fire hydrant. She jerks forward, the seatbelt cutting into her chest. The car beeps. People stare. Can it be that her whole life is caught in this one moment? Her life has been spared, but can it end in just another second? Can she be following the last bird to eternity?
As Edwin’s name dissipated like fog, for a few seconds Bianca had no idea where she was. She waved that she was ok and put her car in reverse, hoping nobody had called the police. She could see the crumpled nose of the car as she drove away from the scene of her crash.
Everything flooded her brain like exploding grenades. She tried to regain some semblance of lucidity: she was in a car, yes, but she was not sure why. She was driving on the street, but the street was foreign. Objects, businesses—she could recognize those somehow, yet it was as if she had suddenly appeared in that place after a hundred years. Nothing knew her anymore. People in other cars seemed to be as wrecked as the front of her car. Her hands clutched the wheel and she focused on getting home. Home was close. She made herself drive to the gates of her house.
The driveway stretched along the black handrails of the narrow terrace. She pressed the remote and drove in. Resting the car in the center of the spacious garage without even looking at the damage, she locked the door and came out thinking vaguely that her mother had told her to buy who knew what.
Amidst leafy trees and gated houses taller than hers, there was something sadly comforting about her house. The square walls of the two-story building stood benignly before her, yet her hand trembled when she unlocked the front door. There was a weight on her chest, and she searched for thoughts to reassure her.
She felt dusty, before she even opened the door. She stepped through the tall vault and into the wide living room. Specks of dust whirled briefly in the rays she had brought with her, then the door closed and the air stood still. She felt as if she had done that before, she had seen that before, as if she had stepped into the house a hundred times before, to find that same disaster. Or maybe she had dreamed it a hundred times, in the dreams with a sinking feeling. On the wall opposite the door, the fish tank was the wrong color: instead of clear-blue, the water was murky-green. An overwhelming guilt came before the thought, and she knew why there was no movement in the tank. Her fish were dead. She drew closer and saw the small bulging bodies on the surface of the still water, and wondered how many days without food it had taken before they had given up and died. Red neon corpses, orange clown corpses, and her favorite, the black orchid. Bubbles stuck to the bodies and to the algae, and a smell of swamp assaulted her nose and tongue. There was a mistake, somewhere. There had to be. Even the water smelled like dust.
Her mouth dried up, as she pleaded for yet another disaster of neglect not to be true: her parakeets. Edwin’s gift to her. She rushed to the sun room, already seeing the dreaded image on the screen of her mind.
The two small birds lay at the bottom of the cage, withered in their feathers. The waterer was empty. Dry seed shells and dirt concealed the smell of shriveled bird flesh, and some reflex told her to cover her mouth and her nose. She covered her eyes as well, and her head shook a mechanical no, no, no. She had to sit. How much time had she not been home? How many things had she forgotten?
She stumbled to the kitchen and pulled out a chair, resting her elbows on the dark wood of the table. She wanted to reach inside her head with her fingers, to find all the things she could not remember. It seemed as if the house had sunk in darkness, and the kitchen was the only place where she was herself, and there was still daylight coming through the window. There was something she was waiting for, something filled with secret smiles—if only she could retrieve it without having to think.
The phone rang.
She jumped. That was precisely the smiling thing she had been waiting for. This call, of all calls, would tell her what she could let herself imagine for the future. It seemed as if the whole house was flooded with light at the sound of ringing. The call came from above miles of clouds, from above spaces of deep waters. She could picture her voice going through the wire like an airplane flying a million miles an hour, to greet the voice of the man who used to miss her even when he went to get beer from the store, let alone now, oceans away. From the other end of the world came the choked hello.
“No, everything’s fine,” her voice chimed.
“Oh, you should have seen her face when I showed up at her door with your mom—I don’t think she ever got over you—” She laughed and laughed, holding her breath for the broken laughter on the other side. When she heard it, it sounded longing, impotent, scared of the street noise that drowned it.
“Can you cancel everything and come home, Andy!” she purred.
“No, Andy, I miss you more.” She knew that could not possibly be a lie, and she said it again, to make it last.
Yet through all this, she could not, for the life of her, picture his face. His postcard in her hand, she tried to place him in front of a building, under a tree, inside a streetcar. Nothing was ever fair. How long had it taken to forget Edwin’s face, years ago?
She dragged her feet to the roomy bathroom. She changed into her bathrobe; she washed her face. Glancing in the mirror, she averted her eyes instantly and looked back at the soap bottle. She would not try to spot wrinkles and gray hairs today. After all, her children would soon be home from school. Silvia would call any minute to tell her she was on her way to picking them up.
Her body creaked and ached under the bathrobe, as if she wore someone else’s weight. She never used to have panic attacks. Breathe, breathe, that was always the idea. Chest pain, temple pain, loin pain, heart pain, they always told you to breathe. It was the same with joy. Breathing, somehow, was in the way of everything, making all moments pass through the lungs and explode into the air, where the day concealed them forever. She breathed, sinking her nostrils into the plush sleeve, to make her breaths last. She felt her body with her mind, and hated it for feeling heavy. Every muscle, heavier. Every bone, heavier. Even her face was heavy in the darkness of cloth. Her breath no longer came from tree blossoms.
She tried to remember what had happened before, what had made her uneasy. But uneasiness was hard to remember, because the feeling was always stronger than what had caused it. It was the feeling she used to get when she broke a glass by mistake, or a fancy plate. Lost. Could not take care of it, could not keep it. She settled on the living room couch with a grunt. It hurt to sit, just as much as it did to stand up. She pushed some buttons on the remote. Good or bad, the news gave her a numbing comfort. Now the news showed an old married couple in mug shots. Slightly disheveled, their eyes questioning. His mouth gaping, puzzled. Her mouth tight, accusatory. They had been caught after repeatedly stealing pudding—they’d replace the pudding they had just eaten with aquarium sand, which they would place back in the box and return for the full dollar fifty, and they’d buy another box of pudding. Chocolate pudding.
She would tell this to Steve, her husband. He would soon be home. He certainly had not heard of such a robbery before, and they liked to laugh about the news together.
The feeling of uneasiness persisted. It was lodged in her chest, and she swallowed. She could try to sleep for a while. A short nap may not make her sleepless tonight, but if it did, she had a few things to think about, to keep away the shadows and the memories. The stairs creaked as she walked up. She could use a drink of water. She felt around her mouth with her tongue, to make sure.
On top of the stairs, the bathroom door opened before her, and she had not even touched the handle. A woman came out, a woman she did not know. She was short, and she was naked, old as if time itself had forgotten her. A bulging stomach filled with dark spots and lumps of flesh with no purpose hung over gray legs that could not keep her straight. Frail breasts. Fat tissue and bones under translucent skin. The face, shriveled and rubbery, looked nowhere with hateful eyes.
The woman’s arm lifted. She had a gun, and she pointed it straight between Bianca’s eyes.
A rage as old as the woman’s soul swelled into Bianca’s throat, and she gave a cry too loud for the small hallway. With nameless anger, she grabbed the old woman’s hand and shook it with no regard for the gun that still pointed at her face. The hand holding it grew limp.
“This is my house!” she shouted. “This is my house, and you are not allowed! You should be dead already!”
The gun dropped to the floor, yet the old woman stared at her as if the fight was far from over. The old hand, left with nothing to hold, slid down Bianca’s arm and grabbed her elbow with the strength of something hungry and mean.
The old woman grunted, pushing. A gust of wind opened the balcony door, and the white curtain flew toward them. The two women twirled in a waltz past the curtain and into the balcony, reaching toward each other’s throat, a spectacle for the street.
Minutes and hours passed in the space of mere seconds. Lives began and ended in the space of moments.
“Die, witch!” Her words came out with venom.
She pushed the woman farther on the balcony, and they entangled their arms almost lovingly over the rails. The old fingers pulled Bianca’s robe, uncovering her breasts, and Bianca pushed harder, prying open the old fingers, feeling no shame. She pushed again, and the ancient body bent over the black rails, shaking them furiously as she tried to hold on. The old legs flew over the metal bar and the body swayed. One frail hand still held on. The woman did not look like someone who could survive a fall.
The body fell like a sack, crumpling on the ground. Bianca stared, breathless. The woman below, in her bathrobe, was shuddering her last moments. When the dying face moved and the eyes looked up, Bianca saw her own face down there, shuddering on the pavement. Her own body. Bianca lifted a hand and brought it before her eyes, as if something was very wrong and her hand could give her an answer. Seeing the shriveled skin on her own rheumatic bones, she knew who had won.
The face of the young, dying woman fluttered one more beautiful smile from below, remote and promising. Her eyes gripped Bianca’s in a deathly stare, and her breath spread into the air one more time. Then, she was still.
Her hands shaking on the rail, Bianca finally became aware that she was naked on the balcony, above the silent neighborhood. If only Steve could hurry his old bones. If only she remembered what she meant to tell him.
Just as she had left the balcony, a familiar whisper of tires on pavement made her stop. He was home, and just in time. Above, a bird was making slow circles, tracing an unseen tornado in its descent. The bird brought back a memory she could not trace, but she did not try to remember what it was. She watched the bird, a big one, thinking it had come to pull apart the body on the pavement. She hoped Steve would not trip over the heap of empty flesh.
Yet the bird had not come for that. As it drew closer, its long wings beat the air a few more times. It stayed suspended in place for a second, then landed on the rail.
As she retreated through the curtain, Bianca smiled.
Liana Andreasen is originally from Romania, and she currently lives in McAllen, Texas, where she is an Assistant Professor at South Texas College. She has published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, Interstice, Children, Churches and Daddies, Down in the Dirt, and The Cloud collection.