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Fiction: The Birds in Your House

Illustration: Aaron Kober

By Tom Kealey

Your new house is a rental house, but you are now surrounded by neighbors who own their homes, and that seems like a step up.

You arrive with your mother, two hours before three birds fly out of the fireplace and into your new living room.

This city is 512 miles from your previous city. You are fourteen years old and have been up since early and have been driven a long, long way, but you don't think about this because you are fourteen and tough and sometimes oblivious and have that indefinable thing called grit, something that you will always have (see: pluck and mettle).

Upstairs is a second floor, though it's really just an attic, and it has two windows, and is your room, your very first, very own room. "This will be hot in the summer and cold in the winter," says your mom, apologetically, about your room. "Maybe we can put some insulation in?" she adds, as if either of you is currently qualified to take on such a project.

The floor upstairs tilts slightly upward to the southwest, though you are at heart an optimist, and you note that any future lost round objects will be easily found in the northeast corner.

Because the stairs to your room creak, and because the only bathroom is downstairs, and because you are polite and thoughtful, you will, in future, learn to pee in a jar late at night (when necessary, not as a hobby) so as not to wake your mother.

None of your furniture or belongings have yet arrived from the city that you used to live in that is 512 miles away. You don't know this yet, but they won't arrive for three more days.

"We are going to make this an adventure," says your mom, and then a few seconds later, after you don't say anything, she adds, "Does that make sense?" as she so often says "Does that make sense?" as if she lives in a world that is consistently bewildering to her. The best thing to say when she asks this question is "Yes," even if sometimes you don't know what she is referring to.

So, let's take inventory for this night's adventure. You do have a change of clothes and a toothbrush, etc., and a book about futuristic sensitive vampires. Your mom has the same, except hers is a book about a woman who hiked the coast of Italy with a blind dog. The dog's name was Paco. "C'mon Paco!" says the woman, a lot, in the book that your mom has brought. Your new house has a yard out back, so there is the possibility of a dog in your future, though you'd prefer a llama.

Your mom did pack a blanket in the trunk of the car. And there is also a toolbox with a tape measure. You can always spend the evening measuring things in the house. You also have a flashlight. You brought your own pillow because you often think ahead (see: anticipate, plan, prophesize), and you're already predicting, correctly, that your head will share this pillow with your mom's head tonight.

Delaney was the name of your great grandmother on your father's side, and she was a person of note, power, and purpose, and Delaney is your name as well. Your great grandmother once stared down a bull that had been threatening her children. She was armed with a skirt and a pair of stockings that she'd pulled down from the laundry line. This was long ago in a country across the ocean. You often picture the bull in your mind—he has a brass ring in his nose, and one of his horns is actually snapped off from a previous rampage, though the end is still knife-sharp. He has scars on his muzzle, and both eyes are the color of dark onyx, like the eyes of a war god.

You wonder what great grandmother Delaney might've done with the skirt and stockings. How many children huddled or played obliviously behind her? The skirt might've been put to use like the cape of a matador, but you think it more likely that she would've strangled the bull with the stockings, tying them up in a crisp bow against his windpipe. But probably not. Probably just as likely the bull knew what most of us know: Do not mess with a mother and her pups. It is the story that your father told you once that you hold dearest.

You and your mom walk to the store. The birds have not flown out of the fireplace yet. You like the neighborhood. Your mom asks if you would like to hold hands and you laugh because you think that she is joking, but then you realize she is not. But you are definitely not holding her hand. "No thanks," you say, as you pass the school, not your future school, but an elementary school, and then pass a church and a bus stop and all kinds of houses and a man watering his garden. It is the middle of October, and Halloween decorations bloom like autumn roses.

Will you make a friend in the house with the tombstones in the yard? Will your mother meet someone to replace your father, perhaps someone from the house with the Frankenstein sitting lazily on the porch swing? You wonder who that person might be. Every house with spiderwebs and jack-o-lanterns has possibilities, though you take a moment, because you are a solemn and reflective teenager (see: earnest and moody), to recognize that your trick-or-treating days are tragically over. Trick or treating is a good way to meet people.

But stores and shops are also good places to meet people. Just five blocks from your house is a laundromat and seamstress shop, a bakery, and a little grocery store. The bakery is closed for the night, but at the grocers you and your mom buy bananas and tea and milk and two boxes of cereal—one that mothers eat and one that fourteen-year-olds eat. (Your cereal is also the type that six-year-olds eat [see: immature and nostalgic]). "Did you pack the kettle?" you ask your mom, and because tea is such a ritual and necessity on both sides of your family, dating back to great grandmother Delaney and probably way before that as well, you know before she even nods that your mother has packed the kettle, in the car at your new house, and this lifts life a little bit, quite a bit actually: cereal for dinner, and a new house, and all the tea two people can drink. You are only on your way home for a minute when you ask "Did you pack cups or mugs?" and then you both turn around and walk back to the store.

The paper coffee mugs make you think of dish soap, and then paper towels, and then duh, toilet paper, and then you are running out of room in your grocery bag, and besides, you have to get back to see the birds fly out of the fireplace, though you don't know that this is the reason you are heading back. Before you go back to the house, though, you have to go back to the store for spoons for the cereal.

You often have a feeling that disaster is about to strike. This sense has been with you for as long as you can remember (see: antsy and human). But when you return to the house, no one has robbed you and your mom of your books of vampires and Paco dogs and your blanket and pillow. It's all there, and you set the groceries on the kitchen counter, and actually turn on the kitchen lights, and they are yellow lights and they buzz a little bit, as if they were powered by enthusiastic mosquitoes. When you open a drawer to put the spoons away (see: organized, methodical, uptight) you see something in the back of the drawer, and it's not just something, but a few things, and one of the things is a rusty screwdriver, and another is a half-empty box of toothpicks, and the last is a photograph, and it's such a lovely photograph, both you and your mother agree. You suggest that you have it framed and put up on the wall, and your mother says, "Well, perhaps for starters," and you imagine that it will eventually end up in your room, and that's fine. You have a room to put weird photographs in.

And it is a weird photograph. It's three kids smoking cigarettes. Actual cigarettes. Except the cigarettes are not lit, and the kids—two girls and a boy—seem to have expressions on their faces that say Check out how much we love our awesome cigarettes, and we are all grown up now and we can do what we want. They are, what? Eleven years old? Probably two of them are. And the third is about eight years old. The photograph was taken in this very kitchen—the molding and the windows are the same, though the wallpaper has changed. The girl with glasses actually looks a little like you. She's got this expression on her face that seems to say I'm the second coolest kid in this photograph. You doubt that any of them ever smoked a cigarette. But they lived here, or at least one of them did, though you are of course guessing.

For some reason, it puts you in mind of another photograph, one that you have tucked into the back cover of your journal. The journal is packed neatly at the top of the box marked "First Night Stuff" that is with all of your other boxes, somewhere between here and your other city, 512 miles away.

That photograph shows you and your mother. And your father. You are five years old, and standing with them on the subway platform in the nation's capital. You are holding the hands of both your mother and father, and you are skipping between them, shoes a few inches off the ground. The subway has arrived. In this photograph you are in a very celebratory mood. Where are you all going? You never asked your Aunt Elisa, who took that photograph, and who gave it to you years later, and who said, "See, he was there some of the time."

Fiction - illustration
Illustration: Aaron Kober

It gives you a warm feeling, thinking about that photograph. You forgive your father, and your mother, and yourself. You'd had a speaker at school, just a few weeks ago, who'd talked with your class about forgiveness. She'd said that forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. So, you give this gift to yourself. And as you're giving this gift to yourself, the birds come swooping out of the fireplace.

Wait. One bird swoops out of the fireplace. You hear the flap of wings, but you don't hear it as wings of course, you hear it as someone shaking a fan or a rug or a folder in the living room, and when you and your mother go in there, there is a bird flying around the room. This is both exciting and frightening, and something new for sure, and what a delight on your first night in the house.

It's a little gray bird, though for a moment you think it's a bat, but no, it's a bird, and just as you are relieved at its birdness as opposed to batness, another bird comes swooping out of the fireplace. The flutter of their wings is like the patter of tiny elfish feet, and one of them lands on the floor and looks up at you and your mother. He or she has a faint blue stripe on its neck, and just as you are admiring this, another bird comes swooping out of the fireplace.

Is this chimney a clown car? How many more birds? None as it turns out, but you don't know that yet. There could be a thousand in there. You calculate that up to seven birds will be delightful, and that if an eighth arrives, your experience will definitely move into Hitchcockian territory. But it's only three, and of course because you are a fourteen-year-old you say, "These are the spirits of those three kids in the photograph. They totally are."

Your mom says, "What are you talking about?" And you say, "Those three kids! It's them." And she says, "A bird in the house, sweetheart, means someone's going to die." And you say, "That's ridiculous."

No one is going to die. Not here in this house. Not for a very long time, you are quite sure. But what to do with these birds? Do they live in the chimney? Are they simply visiting? If you open a window in the house, or all of the windows, and the doors, will this be a help or a harm to these birds? What would be your reaction if you woke up with a bird, or multiple birds, tangled in your hair?

This, you could not deal with. Birds can do what they like, when they like, just please stay out of your hair. You and your mom begin to open windows. You open the front door. The sun is setting outside, and the sky is a wonderful canvas of pinks and blues and burnt amber. A broom would come in handy, shooing these birds out of the house. But if they are indeed the spirits of the "smoking kids," then perhaps they should not leave the house. This entire incident will always have a tinge of a gray moral quandary for you.

And you tell this story, many times in the future. To friends, and relatives, at parties. You so look forward to telling your kids, and you end up having two of them, and neither of them ever really understands the birds in the chimney story, and as they get older they roll their eyes more and more and have that look as if to say Is it possible to get the shortest version of this story? but then your daughter, many years later, has a son, two sons actually, and later a daughter. And all three of these grandchildren are delighted by the bird story. They will ask you to tell it over and over again.

As you make tea and unpack your bags and pour cereal, you almost get used to the birds—both you and your mother—as they refuse to take either doors or windows. They sit quietly on the floor or mantel, sometimes on the rickety wooden chair that you have brought up from the basement. You close the door but leave the windows open. Let them have their play tonight. You spend the first night in your new house upstairs in your room, with your mom in your room (the mom that in future will be allowed varying forms of access and non-access to this room, depending on your mood and opinion, but tonight she is welcome). You both discover that if you open the window there is room to crawl out on the rooftop, the rooftop above the porch, and this rooftop gives a good view of the new street that you live on, and the stars above, and even of the water tower that holds the name of your new city and a little red blinking light that seems to glow on and off saying I'm here, I'm here, I'm here.

And you are here. On the roof. With delicious cereal and hot tea, and a blanket, actually sitting under a blanket with your mom. It is a wonderful night. You are not yet annoyed, as when you'll be annoyed during your mother's old age. The old age that will leave her rekindled, and no longer saying things like "Does that make sense?" and instead saying things like "I don't need to be told, because I know already," and this gives you a mixture of joy and irritation. You are annoyed especially when she insists that there were only two birds in the house, not three. And worse still, that there were only two kids in the photograph as well. She is old at this time—way off in the future—and unfortunately that makes you pretty old too, so old that while you know that you still have that photograph of the three or two smoking kids, you have no idea where you put it.

"Two birds in the fireplace," she says, "and two kids in the photograph, just like there were two of us back then." This makes you pause, way off in the future. There's something psychologically heavy going on here, for both of you. You let it go, but you wonder: Did you invent yourself as a third kid in that photograph? Were you that lonely back then? Is your spirit in a little gray bird somewhere, somewhere way back when? You are calm as still water, even though you do not like having your childhood questioned. There's only one eyewitness—your own mother—and even she won't get on board with your story. You let it go (temporarily). Later, you'll insist that it's the child's job to question her own childhood, it's not the mother's job.

Back on the rooftop on your first night in/on your new house. Your cereal is crunchy and chewy and has possibly two pounds of sugar in it, and it's delicious. A glorious night to sit outside, on the rooftop that will one day actually belong to, as in owned by, your mother, who buys it from the landlord. And after that, many decades later, it will become your house, your rooftop. In all of those years, you'll only sit out on this roof maybe a dozen times. It's much more comfortable on the porch, and you two will eventually dig a fire pit next to the garden in the backyard, and it too will be a wonderful place to sit and watch the stars and listen to the neighborhood and pet your two dogs.

There are dozens of stars in the sky. If you can count them all, without another one yet appearing, then you will be granted a wish for every bird that you have in your house. Everyone knows this to be true. But you just can't quite pull it off. You lose track, or another star appears. Or you just sit and talk with your mom. And you hold her hand for a few minutes because you understand that you give her courage sometimes. You are fourteen, and can stare a bull down if the situation arises, but you also need courage yourself, and a sense of having landed. Tea and your mom always help with these things. But so does being home and arranging a small world for yourself, and that's what you begin tonight.


Tom Kealey, a Stegner Fellow from '01-'03, teaches creative writing at Stanford and is author of Thieves I've Known.

Comments (1)


  • Mr. Jon Richards

    I loved this story. I especially appreciated the unusual use of the pronoun "you". I am sending a link to a writer friend who recently published a story using the pronoun "we".

    Posted by Mr. Jon Richards on Aug 20, 2015 9:35 PM

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