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February 24, 2014 Fiction


Jill Summers

Settling photo

They all felt it when the house moved, but only Mae made a sound, something small and guttural, something involuntary and low. Out of the corners of their eyes they watched as cracks shot up in diagonal branches across the wall behind her, and when the tremor finally subsided, they lowered their shoulders and redeposited spoons in cereal bowls filled with milk and flakes. A chalky bit of plaster fell from a lath and landed in her father's bowl. He formed a fist with his free hand and continued the slow catch of a drop of milk from his lip with his tongue.

Outside, they could hear the pigeons rally at the shift. At night, their perforated coos kept Mae awake for fear they would throw themselves at the glass and find her temples vulnerable to the dumb pecking of their beaks. But during the day, for the most part, they stayed still.

"They may as well be shitting into my goddamn bowl," her father said, still chewing, "considering the amount of fecal contamination right outside that goddamn window."

He had read about fecal contamination in a pamphlet detailing the dangers of bird infestation and had been using the term liberally since. He was the sort of exceedingly short-tempered father one might find in a cartoon strip or peering out impatiently from the back of the line at an overcrowded Arby's, in a constant state of frustration, high strung and cued for the straw.

Under the dining room table Mae traced a gap left where the parallel planks of the wood floor had pulled away from the wall just that morning, shrinking suddenly back into the house several inches as if stung. The birds gave a final summons, and a flurry of wings swept over the glass.

There had been the expected signs of aging all along. They unpacked boxes under a ceiling of crows-feet, swept years of dust from well-tread floors, and accepted the drafts that blew in through closed windows.

"Of course a certain amount of settling is natural," the agent had told them, picking bits of crown molding from her hair, adding, "...they sure don't make them like this any more."  

The door swung off the jam behind her when she left them with the keys, the hard soles of their  boots sinking into the floor, Mae in her mother's arms, the uneasy sway of a milk glass lamp above their heads.

"And it's not just the fecal contamination," her father continued, holding his spoon tightly and like a torch, "What about the danger of a slip and fall?"

"You have plans to go for a stroll on window the ledge?" her mother answered.

His face turned red. They didn't yell or bring down fists, but measured their words as if making a small and bitter pie.

Her mother stretched her mouth into an oval and checked her lipstick in the back of her spoon. "Forget the birds," she told him. "They have a chick in their nest."

He held a small juice glass up over his head and intercepted a stream of water pouring in through a hole in the ceiling.

"That baby bird looks like a goddamn testicle," he said.

Nests ago, these birds might have found themselves dying of thirst on their way to be shot for sport or anxiously awaited with small secrets strapped to their legs. Before this, they might have sat three thick on pine branches, falling like apples when weakened limbs lost to their weight. Before this, they were full oceans away.

Cliffs and coops gone, they now built into brick crevices, hold up in corners of concrete sills. Their first nests, fashioned of loose twigs and trash, fell away in pieces and delivered small eggs to the ground. With each successive nest, a mortar of shit and piss, of lost baby birds, heartened the structure, and each new birth was more secure.

When Mae was born, her father sat in the waiting room yelling, "Is it over yet?" to nurses that ducked in and out of the room on their way to other places. When her mother held her up, he put his hands on his hips and said, "Will you look at that."

At night, sometimes it was low, like singing. There was no need for ghosts. Mae lay in bed, listening to their dove's slang, their stomping and puffing up, preparing to make the babies that saved them.

She could not remember a house before this.


image: Andromeda Veach