Reading time: Approximately 4 minutes
This flash fiction is rich with imagery and emotion as the narrator considers her own world in parallel with bird-kin. With lyric language, the author folds in striking visual details with scientific ones that culminate as a burst of longing.
Never ever touch a baby bird, you said that one time when we found the tiny fledgling with the broken foot. When I climbed the tree to make sure it was safe: bright, red-chested, small, and helpless—
The mother will smell you and then she won’t love it anymore.
So what put their hands on me?
Maybe it was Mr. Lee--my kindergarten teacher. At a parent-teacher conference, he told my mother that I had a bright academic future.
“Oh I already know she’ll go to a great university,” said my mother. “University of Washington is sort of my alma mater, you know.”
When I was little, my mother would tell me she was an ornithologist, and when I went to school someday, I could be one too. The closest she’d ever come to going to college was working as a janitor at the university. But I believed her because she knew birds, and she robed herself in jewel-toned blues and indigo like a Stella’s Jay, decorated the house with purple peacock feathers and wire birdcages.
On bad days, her head hurt. So we’d turn off the lights and listen to the same CD on repeat: classical piano with songbird sounds. She’d have me massage her feet. I told her that I hated touching her toes: calloused and crusty talons dressed up with her red nail polish.
“I could have been so much more if I hadn’t had you,” she snapped back. “The least you can do is rub my feet.”
I squished the massage oil into my hands, and it felt like sap, sap, sap.
Maybe it was the saleslady—the one that buzzed around the store as we shopped for my first homecoming dress and asked me, “Is this your mom or your sister?”
“This is my daughter,” said my mother, smiling.
“Wow,” said the saleswoman. “What a good-looking family.”
But as we searched through the racks of cheap mini dresses, my mother glanced over the top of the hangers.
“It’s not a compliment, you know. That they think I’m your sister,” she said. “They think you look old. Don’t frown at me like that. You’ll get wrinkles faster.”
Without missing a beat, she picked up a graphic, strapless dress. “Try this one.”
“You look gorgeous,” said the saleswoman as I stared at my bare shoulders, my developing breasts, wondering how old I must have looked.
“Thanks,” I muttered.
“Is she okay?” the saleslady asked.
“She’s fine, just a moody teenager,” said mother, and they shared a knowing chuckle. She handed me a black sweater and told me to cover my shoulders.
“There,” then with a giggle, she added, “You know, this dress is so cute on you. It reminds me a little bit of a sapsucker.”
The red-breasted sapsucker. Sphyrapicus ruber. The woodpeckers that sometimes left holes in the siding of the house. Noisy and destructive nuisances, she called them.
She went to pay for the dress, and the register went tap, tap, tap.
Maybe it was the boys like Jesse--the ones with wide, owl eyes who no longer wanted to be friends.
Jesse might've asked me to marry him after I graduated. In the meantime, he drove to escape home, sleeping each night in rogue parking lots. It seemed right when she invited Jesse to live with us. The birds had all left, winter was cold, and his old beater’s heater was broken. But as soon as he moved in, the temperature changed inside the house too.
Then came the whispers down the halls after I’d gone to bed. The mornings when they’d already have eaten without me. Whatever it was they did during the day when I was gone. Soon, he was speaking to me on her behalf: don’t forget your homework, don’t forget your chores, let us know when you’ll be back.
“You’re replacing me with him,” I said.
“You’re being so dramatic,” she said.
The next morning, Jesse wasn’t downstairs. After my outburst last night, she said that he had decided to go back to living in his car…
But when I walk out of class, there he is on the curb.
“Look, I just stopped by because I wanted to say, I’m sorry,” he says. “I won’t bother you again.”
“If this is about what I said last night—” I begin.
“—It’s not that. It’s not you at all,” he says. “Look. Your mom. Well. We kissed.” His eyes are round and big like a barn owl, the ones who mate for life.
I will never look at him ever again.
She’s perched at the table when I walk in.
“Did he ever hold your hand? Tell you that he loved you?” she asks me once she can’t scream anymore. “He only kissed me because he couldn’t kiss you. Because you have my face.”
I'm silent, staring at the empty, golden birdcage behind her head. Against the table, her fingernails go rap, rap, rap.
Maybe it was the sperm. The sperm of a man who was never there.
“You remind me of him sometimes,” she said. “The way you smile. The things you laugh at. The little sounds you make when you are happy.”
Rap, rap rap. Tap, tap, tap. Sap, sap, sap.
The red-breasted sapsucker's tiny chisel-beak drums into the mightiest trees. One hole. Ten holes. A thousand holes, repeating over and over in neat, unbroken parallel lines. If I could open my chest for examination, it would look the same. The marks she left looking for worms inside me, like morse code across my heart.
I want to break open my shoulders and sprout wings. I want to molt through the pores on my face and grow scarlet feathers. I want to leave holes in the house then fly into the forest. I want a knife-sharp beak to drill into her hardness and see if anything soft is inside.
Bailey lives in between the land and the sea, writing weird, emotive tales about animals, forests, the feminine, the sublime, and, the strangest of all creatures, mankind. She had this to say about her story:
“Sapsucker” was originally inspired by childhood memories of watching the beautiful birds of the Pacific Northwest and the time I really did climb a tree to save a fledgling. It is an exploration of the internal and external fragility of parent-child relationships, culminating in that inevitable moment, for better or worse, when we all must emotionally “leave the nest.”