feathers

Right when I decided I really needed a break from the novel – a little writing of a different kind to open my world back up – Chuck Wendig came along with a little flash fiction contest. Here’s my contribution. I’m not sure I like it, but what the hey.

My brother’s birth was preceded by three distinct and inexplicable phenomena.

It started when a huge hawk crash landed in our backyard. I’d never seen anything like him in all my five years, fierce and wild, like a king with feathers. I ran outside to see him; my mother was close on my heels, grabbing the back of my shirt.

“Stay back!” she whispered. “He’s wild. Don’t startle him.” We watched as he flapped to right himself, shaking out his feathers from tip to tail, spreading his wings experimentally. He hopped a few times and then swiveled to face us where we crouched frozen on the grass. He cocked his head at me, considering me for only a moment before turning his gaze on my mother. He held her with his eyes, as if there was something behind those dark, liquid beads; she stared right back at him. I was the only one moving, looking back and forth between them in their strange communion.

“Are you all right?” my mother asked, her voice low. He held still a moment longer, then dipped his head once before gathering the air with his wings, pushing off the ground and into the sky.

He stuck around for a few weeks, watching the house. I caught my mother at the windows, watching him, but she turned away when she saw me coming. Sometimes, at night, I’d hear the faint slap of her bare feet on the stairs, the creak of the back door opening and closing. I got out of bed to watch, the first time it happened, but all she did was stand under the trees.

I remember wondering what she was doing, but something in the way she held herself, or the oddness of the situation, kept me from asking. The next time I heard her footsteps at night, and every time after, I turned over in bed, curled around my questions, until I fell asleep again. Eventually, it stopped waking me.

Thing went back to normal until the sun switched off.

It was only for a few seconds, like a faulty connection in the universe, and then it flicked back on. I ran out back to where mom stood in the backyard, staring into the trees, the front line of the forest that butted up against our backyard.

“Mom?” I asked, tugging at the hem of her sweater. “What was that? What happened?” She smiled, gently, and knelt to gather me in her arms, stroking the soft hairs at the nape of my neck, winnowing them between her fingers.

“Soft as feathers,” she murmured. She pulled away, holding me at arms’ length before laying a great big smacking kiss on my forehead and tickling me until I rolled around in the grass, breathless.

“You’re going to have a little brother or sister,” she said, later that night as she put me to bed.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” I said. Then I asked, “who is his daddy?”

“His?” she asked. “How do you know it’s a he?”

“I just do,” I told her, snuggling into the circle of her arms. She chuckled.

“If you say so.” She kissed me on the forehead, laying me gently on the pillow and blowing a kiss from the door before she turned out the light.

As the months went by and mom’s belly grew, I began to notice the masses of birds flocking in our backyard, watching, a lurking twilight of dark wings. That was the third phenomenon.

Mom said it was nothing while it was sparrows and jays, crows and cardinals and finches, but when the hawks started landing, she fell silent, turning inward. She went into labor shortly after that, and called our neighbor and her daughter to come over. Sally stayed with me while Mrs. Carrington drove mom to the hospital.

She came back a few days later with my brother, barely visible underneath his swaddling. As she climbed out of Mrs. Carrington’s car with the baby in her arms the backyard erupted in sound, the laughter of crows in raucous counterpoint to the calls of songbirds. The hawks were silent.

My brother’s eyes, such a dark brown they were nearly black, were open and bright over a beaky nose. He watched the birds with an attention span I didn’t expect of a newborn.

He’s been home for a week now, gurgling and squawking in his crib under the window. He spends most of his time looking up at the sky, though sometimes he sleeps. He eats almost nothing.

“He eats like a bird,” my mother says, laying him back down.

“Is he ok?” I ask, reaching my fingers through the bars to touch his tiny feet, resisting the urge to scratch at the little bit of scaliness on his soles.

“He’s beautiful,” she says, gently stroking his nose from bridge to tip over and over again. She picks him up and holds him close, running her fingers over the downy hair on his arms, and pushes the back door open, stepping out into the sunshine with him, to the line of trees.

I press my face to the screen. Most of the birds have gone, and the backyard is quiet.

The hawk is still there.

Mom walks slowly to the tree where he perches, never taking her gaze from my brother’s face; the hawk watches them both. She stops at the tree line and finally looks up.  “All right?” I hear her ask. The hawk dips his head, spreads his wings.

She brings the baby inside, laying him down for a nap.

I reach through the bars of his crib to touch the fine, tiny hairs on his head.

Like feathers, I think.

Through the open window, the laughter of crows.

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