This was another story written for my Seoul writers’ group (this one in February 2019). We used to use a random word app to generate a three-word prompt. The prompt for this one was “countryside, coast, autopsy.” It’s extremely weird and never got much attention, but I’ve always been fond of it.
Following the direction ping on her phone, Teresa turned off the highway onto a rutted lane that ran toward the cliffs. The van bumped and stumbled over gullies drawn by floodwater in last week’s heavy rain. The fields were deeply green, the sky rain-soaked. Most deaths requiring a medical examiner’s opinion happened on the highways or in the confines of lonely homes–nowhere this scenic.
After a mile, Teresa pulled up beside a pair of empty police cars and parked. Wind curled around her ears as she stepped out of the van, balmy air full of pine and clinging sea salt. Waves soughed below the cliff. There was no other sound but the soft tromping of Teresa’s bootie-clad feet on the muddy turf.
She murmured a greeting to the cops, and nodded to the coroner’s assistant. Hilbert was leaning against his own van, doing something on his phone. Teresa opened her mouth to greet him–then stopped, gaping, as she saw the body.
One of the cops grinned. “Fucked up, huh?”
The body was nude, male, and a bit round around the middle. It was also completely hairless, lacking even eyebrows. The face was calm, eyes closed. Every inch of skin was a deep, bright violet.
Teresa tried to process what she was seeing. “Is it… human?” she said. “It looks like a mannequin. Or something.”
“Nope, it’s human.” Hilbert crouched, pinching up a fold of skin on the corpse’s arm, showing its elasticity. “Just… something happened to it. Don’t know what. Out of my expertise.”
Teresa looked up from the rock-studded meadow and out over the sea. The horizon was dim, smudged in the distance with storm clouds. The crashing of surf below the cliff was louder here. “Are there any clothes? Any… artifacts, or anything?”
“Nothing. Looks like a body dump. A hiker found him this morning. Not many people come out this way, so who knows how long he’s actually been here. He doesn’t smell, but…” Hilbert nudged the body with the tip of his bootie-covered shoe. “He’s… solid.”
Teresa frowned. “Don’t do that.”
Hilbert withdrew his foot, looking amused. “Think it’s going to bother him?”
Teresa leaned down–then coughed, covering her nose with one gloved hand. A haze of perfume hung over the body, so strong it made her eyes water. “He does smell.” She moved back into clearer air. “Like someone dumped perfume all over him.”
Hilbert blinked. “Huh. I didn’t notice. Guess that’s why they pay you the big bucks. Ready to take him away?” He beckoned to his assistant, who came forward with a collapsed gurney. The three of them lifted the body onto the lowered frame. It was tremendously heavy, and oddly rigid.
“Where’s Albert?” Hilbert said, grunting with exertion as they ratcheted the cart back up. “Could really use his help.”
Teresa sighed. ”He retired last month. They haven’t okayed a replacement yet.”
Hilbert frowned. ”So you’re working without a diener?”
“For the moment, yeah.” Teresa stepped back, wiping her brow. “So please try to discourage anyone else from dying in mysterious circumstances till we get one.”
Hilbert hesitated. “Do you need help? I’m not really trained for it, but…”
“It’s all right,” she said. “I should be able to manage. I’ll let you know what turns up.”
As she wheeled the overloaded gurney back to the autopsy room in her tiny office, Teresa felt the roof closing over her. The tang of disinfectant pervaded the chilly air, and the echo of her footsteps and the gurney’s squeaky wheels quickly overshadowed the memory of her brief escape. Maybe it was time for a vacation. She thought wistfully of the windy green hills she’d left behind.
As Teresa unzipped the bag, a cloud of perfume rose up, making her choke. It was a woody odor, more reminiscent of incense than cologne. Quickly, she put on a mask, remembering the Gloria Ramirez case in the 1990s, where toxic fumes from a body had put several people in the hospital. Teresa had never heard of toxic fumes that smelled like perfume, but whatever this was, it probably wasn’t healthy.
She stepped back and surveyed the body. She couldn’t get over the color. It was pure, vibrant purple all over–an even tone, not the dull settling of livor mortis or the pale blue splodge of cyanosis. She thought briefly of argyria, remembering the effect of colloidal silver. But this wasn’t that blueberry shade, or the light tinge called “blue” or “purple” in other conditions. This was the color of boiled red cabbage.
She couldn’t lift the body by herself, and had to soap the examining table, heaving and sliding the rigid cadaver out of the bag and off the gurney. Each part of it crashed onto the steel table like a box of bricks. Teresa thought grimly that she ought to send Albert a fruit basket. She’d never appreciated the value of an autopsy tech as much as she did now that she had to do everything herself. This was going to take her all evening.
She measured the corpse, then heaved the wheeled cart over to the floor scale. She was stunned to see that the man, who wasn’t much taller than she was, weighed in at 400 pounds. At five-foot-eight, even as round as he was, he should have weighed closer to 200. Teresa checked the scale, wondering if she’d forgotten to zero it, but it seemed to be working fine. Where had the extra weight come from?
She dragged the cart back off the scale and over to the light. Routinely, she took fingerprints, and clipped a skin sample for DNA testing. She tried to open the eyes to check their color, but the eyelids were stuck shut–she’d have to cut them open later, or leave that part of the report blank.
She looked the corpse over more thoroughly. There was no sign of external injuries–no scratches or bruises that she could see, though bruises might not be noticeable under the purple. Beyond the color, and the lack of eyebrows, the face seemed undistorted. If someone came to identify this guy, they should be able to recognize him easily.
She set up her workspace and started the autopsy. She tried to get a block under the cadaver, but had to give up. Anyway, the body was so stiff that it probably wouldn’t have helped. Leaving him flat, Teresa took up her scalpel.
As she began the Y-incision, the cadaver’s odor got much stronger: woody, sweet, with a slight overtone of licorice. In that smell was not a trace of decay; were she not cutting through what was surely skin, Teresa would doubt that this was a human body at all. Only a trickle of thin, winelike blood ran from the incision, tinged purple like the skin. She swabbed up a sample and kept going.
The scalpel met resistance just beneath the epidermis–blade’s tip dragging across a surface hard as bone, causing the skin to slither disconcertingly. Teresa pulled back a flap from the incision. The lab lights gleamed on livid fuchsia tissues, barely touched with that dark blood. Tentatively, she knocked with gloved knuckles on the hardened dermis. It sounded hollow.
She put the scalpel down, not wanting to snap the blade. She tried again with the long knife, but the serrated blade snagged on the resin. Frowning, Teresa put on safety goggles and turned on the bone saw. Its whine was loud in the closed room. To Teresa’s relief, it cut smoothly through the petrified tissues.
When the incision was made, she used the hook of her hammer to pry open the edges. They parted with a dull crack like a split coconut. A spiky, lemony odor, like furniture polish, rose from the gap. Wrinkling her nose, Teresa set down her hammer and looked at what lay beneath the skin.
Everything in the thoracic cage was yellow: intercostals bright as turmeric stretched across golden ribs, with amber abdominals underneath. What must have been subcutaneous fat trailed over the muscles in smooth white clouds, hard and resinous as the rest. Running her fingertip across the intercostals, Teresa thought of the resin-soaked bandages of ancient mummies. Maybe this, too, was some form of mummification–an embalming experiment? She took time to photograph the strange landscape of the thoracic wall. Then, regretfully, she picked up her loppers and began to cut open the chestplate.
The ribs gave more resistance than they should have. The loppers creaked alarmingly with each cut. Teresa wondered if she should stop–bring someone to help, in case she hurt herself–but curiosity, and a sense of strange urgency, drove her on. In the end, the loppers survived, and she lifted out the chest plate, exposing heart and lungs.
The lungs were pale pink, with a tinge of lavender. The heart was brilliant red–veins, arteries and pericardium all one crimson mass. The pericardial sac seemed to have fused with the muscle; it didn’t shift at all when she touched it. Teresa cut open the pulmonary artery to check for obstructions, but found it dry, completely empty of blood. The opening stank of leather and roses.
She took a few more pictures, and then picked up her saw again. The abdominals were as rigid as the dermis, but she had the knack of cutting through this stuff now, and the incision was much faster. She pulled apart the severed muscles, and found a rainbow underneath.
There was no blood, no other fluids–just smooth forms nestled together among pearly clouds of petrified fat, like a life-size children’s anatomy model. The liver was emerald, the gallbladder lime-green, the spleen and pancreas different shades of orange. The large and small intestine were two shades of blue, and the stomach was a cheerful carnation pink. The perfumes that rose from the cavity were so strong that Teresa had to turn up the ventilation. She thought again of embalming–but what process could make this?
There was no point in tying off the empty arteries, so Teresa began removing the organ block. She freed the larynx and trachea first–delicate structures wrought in violet, not too different from their original forms. A soft whistle rose from the larynx as it passed through the air. Teresa shivered, thinking of flutes. She detached the diaphragm–its pale yellow ripples reminding her oddly of a cartoon jellyfish–and cut the organ block free.
She tried to lift it–then dropped it, gasping as it crashed back into place. The organs were heavy–the block weighed two or three times what it should have. Albert, who’d thrown around 200-pound cadavers like they were teddy bears, had always teased Teresa about her needing to exercise more. She wished she’d taken his advice. She’d have to remove the organs one by one.
The lungs actually weren’t that heavy–they felt brittle and porous, like the dried coral her mother kept on her dresser. When Teresa tried to take a sample, the tissue crumbled like dry earth under her saw, releasing a choking wave of cedar-balsam. Coughing, she turned up the ventilation again, hoping the fumes weren’t toxic. She packed the lungs away quickly, breathing through her mouth as she picked up the crumbling fragments.
The heart was as heavy as a cinnabar sculpture. It thunked loudly on the dissection table. When Teresa tried to open it, she found no chambers, just a mass of deep red resin. The aorta and the other great blood vessels were hollow, though, and crumbled like the lungs had under Teresa’s saw. Not wanting to damage them further, she packed the heart away.
She decided to leave the larynx and trachea for later, not wanting to damage them. She packed them up gently, and moved on to the liver. The deep-green form came loose easily. It had a pleasant, almost piney scent, and weighed over four kilograms. Teresa shaved off a sample and dropped it in the save jar, watched the green lump bob in the formalin. She added a fragment of the crumbled lung, and a small wedge she’d taken from the heart. A sliver of gallbladder was next. It had a strong medicinal smell, and she put it away quickly. Then she moved on to the gut.
Here was a problem. The intestines were petrified, inflexible in their coils. Hosing them out would be almost impossible. Resolving to do her best, Teresa carefully cut the intestines free. They were immensely heavy, and she thought she’d have to get a cart to move them to the sink. Then she looked into the large intestine, and saw there was no need: the gut was as clean as the arteries.
She shined a penlight into the deep blue opening, but there was nothing to be seen. She had held her breath reflexively–the odors of “running the gut” would be stamped on her brain until she died–but the intestines had only a slight earthy scent, not even unpleasant. Disbelieving, she lugged them over to the scale. They weighed more than twelve kilograms together–over three times what they should have. She sealed them in her largest specimen tub and moved on to the stomach.
Unlike the other organs, the stomach was not unnaturally heavy. It weighed almost exactly two kilograms, which suggested it was mostly empty. Methodically, Teresa tipped it over a bin, but nothing came out–it, too, must be dry inside. But she thought she heard a faint rustle.
She set the stomach back on the table and ran her saw delicately around the outer edge. It felt strangely like cracking open a geode. At last, very carefully, she opened it.
Out of the stomach rose a puff of honey-scented air, which glowed rosy-gold for a second before dissipating. In the stomach, atop a nest of golden down, sat a bird.
Teresa put down her saw and stared. The bird was blue, and sparrow-sized–a fledgling, it looked like. Its black eyes glittered under the lamp. Cocking its head, it watched her.
Enchanted, she leaned closer. The bird’s throat swelled. After a second, it began to sing.
It began with a soft chirp, sweet as a flute. Then it rose, and rang like crystal in the empty room, rang in Teresa’s bones. It shifted to a run of smaller notes, tripping across a scale both alien and familiar.
Teresa suddenly remembered herself, an undergrad, sitting in a dim auditorium, watching a girl she loved rehearse a Vivaldi flute concerto. The melody still ran through her dreams. Closing her eyes, she let it wash over her. The song went on for a very long time.
At last the music stopped, leaving only Teresa’s breathing to fill the silence. For a long time she stood with her eyes closed. Her heartbeat slowed, grew stable. The tension she’d carried for many years–maybe her entire life–evaporated. The world had reoriented itself. Suddenly everything made sense.
When she opened her eyes, the bird was watching her again. “Do you want to come home with me?” Teresa said.
The bird tilted its head, but made no protest as Teresa carefully slid her fingers under its body. Its warm, downy weight settled trustingly into the curve of her hands as she lifted it from its nest. She cradled it to her heart, and looked for a way to take it home.
She needed something soft. Shifting the bird to one hand, she eyed the golden fluff that it had nested in. She took up a bit of the stuff and found it soft and formless, taking and losing shape like fiberglass or cotton candy. She collected it all into a little cardboard box that had once held test tubes, and then lowered the bird into the makeshift nest. On impulse, she took the two halves of the stomach to the sink and rinsed them out, wiping them dry to leave them as clean as the gut and arteries. Then she put all the organs in the fridge, and wrestled the half-dissected body into a drawer. Finally, she tucked the precious cardboard box into her tote bag, very conscious that she was now committing a federal crime.
In the lobby, she waved goodbye to the receptionist, murmuring excuses about a migraine. When she turned towards the door, Jeremy Hilbert stood in front of her.
“Dr. Bowen, there you are! Taking off for the day?” said Hilbert.
Teresa nodded, trying not to think too much about the box in her bag. “Yeah, I’m not feeling well. Think it might be the fumes. I’ll finish the autopsy tomorrow–it should be all right until then.”
Hilbert frowned. “Should we call an ambulance?”
“No,” said Teresa, “just need some fresh air. The body’s in drawer three if you need to see it.”
“How far did you get?” Hilbert said. “Anything concrete?”
Something about his tone made Teresa uncomfortable. “Um… got him mostly dissected,” she said. “Haven’t opened the cranium yet. Whatever has him looking like that should keep him pretty well preserved till I get back to him. We haven’t run the DNA, obviously, but the samples and prints are ready for pickup.”
Hilbert watched her for a long moment. She tried to look back steadily. Finally the coroner nodded. “I hope you feel better.”
She forced a smile. “Thanks. See you soon.” She hurried from the building, and felt his gaze on her back.
She tried to walk evenly across the parking lot. She didn’t know what the relevant laws were–she’d never before been tempted to break them–but leaving with autopsy specimens would at least get her fined, maybe fired. Maybe she would end up in jail.
But who would know? Why would anyone expect that a corpse’s stomach contained anything worth stealing? There were no security cameras in the autopsy room. As long as Teresa stayed calm, she should be fine.
A little thrill of triumph buoyed her to her car and out of the parking lot. After that, she was free.
She woke to dawn light and the soughing of a breeze–and the prick of tiny clawed feet on her shoulder.
Teresa opened her eyes. Somehow the bird had left the box on her nightstand and made it over to her bed. When it saw her watching, it chirped, and cocked its head expectantly.
Of course–it needed food. Though she hadn’t been able to identify it last night, her research had shown that at this age it should be eating about once an hour while the sun was up. Last night she’d stopped at a pet store and, after some rapid Googling, gotten a tub of mealworms and a bag of soft puppy chow. The bird had eaten both cheerfully, but had fallen asleep right afterwards. It must be starving by now. Teresa wondered how it had eaten in its nest of golden light, buried in its bizarre womb–but was quickly distracted when she looked around the room.
The air was cool, because a window was open. This should have been alarming–it had definitely been closed last night–but the screen was still in place. The sheer curtain undulated in the wind, the only motion in the quiet room.
Shivering, Teresa sat up, waiting for the bird to adjust its stance on her shoulder. The covers slid over her lap a little too smoothly. The blanket felt different–the dove-gray color was unchanged, but the fabric was richer and softer. Frowning, she flipped it back. The sheets crinkled, cool and crisp, a higher thread count than she could ever justify paying for. She ran her hands over and over them. “What the hell?”
At last she pushed back the covers and stood up, looking around in growing bewilderment. The carpet under her feet was deeper and softer than before. There were new slippers by the door, velvet mules with thick fleece lining. Teresa put them on and slipped on her robe–still her own, thankfully, the old purple terrycloth one she’d had since college. She resettled the bird on her shoulder and went out.
The mute shuffle of her feet on the thick hallway carpet was overlaid by soft music, though its source was unclear. The air was chilly out here. There must be other windows open, other cool breezes fluttering through other curtains. For some reason the thought didn’t bother Teresa much. She felt quite safe.
The living room smelled good–incense and potpourri, and a hint of the honey perfume from the bird’s strange nest. In a corner, a cut-glass vase that had always stood empty was full of long-stemmed roses. Teresa touched one, and found it damp with dew.
Other beautiful things lay scattered through the room: a woven silk throw on the back of the sofa, a crystal music box on the sideboard. A tiny bronze unicorn stood on top of the piano. Teresa picked it up and traced its contours with her finger: the age-brown metal, the whorled nostrils and neat-cut eyes, the perfect spiral of its dainty horn. She’d never seen it before.
She set the unicorn down with a soft clink. Half-dreaming, she walked to the kitchen–barely looking around, though more treasures filled the corners of her vision. She held her breath, not wanting to wake up.
She kicked her slippers off at the kitchen doorway, and walked barefoot across the red tile floor. She hadn’t swept in a while, but the tiles were clean. Here, too, were gifts from nowhere. The red cloth on the table looked hand-woven. On the windowsill stood a row of bright glass bottles–vinegars, she thought, infused with herbs and fruit. On the counter stood a plain brown bag of coffee. Opening it, Teresa found much better beans than she’d ever bought, with deep notes of fruit and chocolate.
In the refrigerator, Teresa’s aging vegetables had been replaced with new ones that looked fresh from the farmers’ market. The door held a row of interesting-looking microbrews. The dairy drawer was filled with fancy cheeses. Next to the milk stood a glass jug of what looked like fresh-squeezed orange juice.
She closed the door slowly. Deep in her head was a running list of everything that was wrong with this picture. Teresa ignored it. Whatever benevolent magic was at work here, she would enjoy it for as long as she could.
A chirp on her shoulder reminded her that the bird was hungry. “All right,” she said, “just let me find you something.” She looked around for the kibble, but the bird was already hopping down her arm towards the counter, beelining towards a bowl newly filled with fruit. Teresa supposed it knew what it was doing. She let it hop to the counter and began opening cupboards, setting out other things for it to try.
In one cupboard was a loaf of good bread. She scraped a few seeds from its crust onto a saucer (cobalt blue, exquisite). The bird pounced, devouring the seeds. Teresa added a few sesame seeds from the spice rack. Then she took a round green pear from the fruit bowl, cutting a sliver for the bird before slicing the rest for herself.
The fruit was as sweet and cold as the wind that blew in through the windows. The bird cooed as it ate, beak slicing neatly through crisp white flesh. Periodically it glanced at Teresa, and warbled, puffing its throat, as if pleased they were eating together.
When they finished eating, Teresa found her phone and called in sick to work. Then she found more groceries she hadn’t bought and made a real breakfast: toast, tomatoes, scrambled eggs. The coffee smelled even better brewing, wafting warm vapor through the house. Teresa started to pour a glass of orange juice–then, feeling extravagant, she took down a bottle of sparkling wine she’d been saving and made a mimosa instead.
It turned out the fledgling would eat almost anything. Throughout the day, it cheerfully accepted whatever Teresa gave it: bits of egg, fruit, wild bird seed from a bag she’d remembered in the garage. It even ate meat from her lunch and dinner. When it wasn’t eating, it followed Teresa, hopping and fluttering around the house. It looked almost ready to fly.
Late that afternoon, someone knocked on the door.
Teresa felt a stab of fear. She tiptoed to the window, keeping carefully out of sight, and peered through a gap in the curtains. Hilbert, the coroner, stood on the front stoop.
Teresa stayed frozen. She couldn’t imagine what Hilbert must have gathered from her notes, from the half-dissected body and the petrified organs. She didn’t want to talk to him. She had an irrational suspicion that he’d come to take the bird away.
She waited there a long time. Finally, Hilbert left.
She called out sick again the next day. Then, hesitating only briefly, she emailed a formal request for a full week of leave, citing a personal emergency. The resin man’s autopsy could wait. In this beautiful house, with company for once, Teresa found she had no interest in returning to the autopsy room–taking its permanent stink up her nose, immersing herself again in the problems of the dead. She hadn’t taken a vacation in years–she had plenty of time saved up. And the strange corpse seemed unlikely to decompose. If Hilbert wanted results faster, he’d just have to send the body to another lab.
The house grew more beautiful every day. Breezes blew through sunlit windows over vases of fresh flowers and dried herbs. The music remained, always just at the threshold of Teresa’s hearing. Most of the time she didn’t notice it, but it was always there when she listened. At every turn, she found more treasures: paintings and tapestries of unknown flowers and fairytale landscapes; shawls, figurines, china, new sheet music for the piano. There was a new rug on the living room floor, with a subtle pattern and aged patina suggesting it was handmade. All in all, it was the kind of house Teresa might have made for herself if she’d had many years to collect the artifacts. She felt sometimes as if she were invading another person’s house, or standing in the waiting room of Heaven.
She rarely went outside, irrationally fearing to leave the house unguarded. She hadn’t needed to buy groceries yet; she never seemed to run out of anything, and every day there were new delicacies in the kitchen. She slipped out occasionally, though, to catch crickets for the bird. On the internet’s advice, she fed them in a bin for a few days, then froze them and fed them to her charge. The bird ate them rapturously, downing each in a few greedy gulps.
It grew until it was the size of a robin. After that, it got heavier, more solid, taking on strength and density. Its song became more resonant. More real. Teresa kept trying to identify it, but no pictures matched. It definitely wasn’t a bluebird. It might resemble an indigo bunting, but with a black corvid beak like a jay’s. Teresa thought of taking it somewhere–a university? a wildlife center?–but didn’t like to take it from the house. In the end, she stayed home.
The bird often rode on her shoulder, a solid presence in the corner of her eye. She was used to the mutter of its chirping now, the soft scent of its feathers. When she wasn’t carrying it, it hopped along the counter, investigated the curtains, fluttered in a crystal dish of water. The thump and rustle of its movements became part of the background music of her life.
Even so, the house was too quiet. To keep herself company, she began talking to the bird–about herself, her work, the mysterious resin man. After a few days, she had moved to other subjects: her loneliness; the years it would take to pay off all her loans; how she still wasn’t sure she’d devoted her life to the right career.
The bird seemed to listen, black eyes glinting. At length, it began to talk back.
It started as a whisper, soft as the ambient music. At first she didn’t realize what she was hearing. Then the whisper grew louder, and Teresa began to hear the words.
Bread, she heard, in the kitchen one morning. Just a suggestion, something she might have thought of herself.
She uncovered the loaf, broke off a little corner, and gave it to the bird. “No more,” she said, as if the fledgling had really spoken. “I looked it up. Bread’s bad for birds. You can have a cricket, or some fruit, or I think there are some peppers in the fridge.”
The bird huffed, devouring the bread. When the morsel was gone, it cocked its head. Cricket.
The voice was clear this time. Shaken, Teresa took a tub of frozen crickets out of the freezer and laid one on a saucer to thaw. The bird watched it for a minute, then gulped it down.
Teresa held out her finger for the bird to jump up. “Are you talking?” she said slowly.
It cocked its head again. To you. Talking.
“You are.” She exhaled shakily. “All right. How?”
The bird ruffled its feathers. Talking. Apparently that was all the answer she was going to get.
She didn’t ask anything else for a while, not sure how she’d process the answer. Finally, sitting that night with a book in the light of a soft new lamp, she said, “How did you get here? Where did you come from?”
Summoned, said the bird on her shoulder. I was summoned.
Teresa remembered the field beside the cliffs, the resin man’s organs like carven ritual vessels. She shivered, and didn’t ask more.
Hilbert came by three more times. Each time he stayed longer, shuffling on the stoop, trying more and more obviously to look through the windows. Teresa knew hiding from him was childish, but something in her rebelled against letting him in. She didn’t want to hear his questions about the unfinished autopsy, the hastily stowed specimens, the empty stomach. She wondered if he’d sent the body on yet.
She kept thinking of how the body had been found–how lonely the site had been. A body dump, Hilbert had said–but who had dumped it? How had the man died? Without finishing the autopsy, there was no way to know. Perhaps Teresa should feel ashamed for abandoning her job, but for now she just wanted to hide in this nest, thinking of nothing.
Whatever happened, she could never reveal what she’d found in the resin man’s stomach. If anyone learned about the bird, Teresa would have to hand it over. That was impossible–the thought of losing her bird made her desperate. She couldn’t imagine living without the fledgling now. And she knew instinctively that, if she lost the bird, the spell would break. She didn’t know if she could take living in the real world again.
On the fifth day, Hilbert’s tone changed. “Teresa,” he yelled through the door. “I need to talk to you. Let me in.”
They have him now, whispered the bird from her shoulder
Teresa jumped. “What?” she hissed, easing back from the window.
They who summoned me. He is theirs. Wants to know what you know. What you took.
“You,” said Teresa. “I took you.”
The bird nuzzled her cheek. Good.
Hilbert pounded on the door. Wincing, Teresa hoped none of the neighbors were watching. “Let me in, Dr. Bowen!” Hilbert shouted. “This isn’t funny.”
Teresa thought of the phone she had ignored all week. Maybe she should get it, in case she needed to call the police. She started to move.
Be still, said the bird. Teresa froze.
Outside, Hilbert shuffled. Teresa sank to the floor and leaned her head against the wall, listening to the coroner pace around her porch. He stayed for almost an hour. Finally, after a long silence, he left.
Teresa was left with a feeling of deep foreboding. She remembered how Hilbert had stood above the resin man, playing with his phone. She wondered who the coroner might have been talking to. “Who was he?” she said, watching Hilbert drive off. “The… man. Where I found you.”
A murderer, said the bird. Don’t worry. Not for him. Deserved it.
“Deserved what?” Teresa said, queasy.
Transformation. The fledgling nuzzled her cheek. To create happiness. He became an egg.
Teresa shivered. There was something about this she shouldn’t condone–a darker and more frightening aspect to her new joy than she’d thought possible. But she still slept with the bird’s nest by her pillow each night, and each morning she woke to find the fledgling cuddled against her cheek.
On the seventh day, she woke to a whisper: They are outside.
“What?” She sat up, veins chilling. “Who?”
They who want me. We must go.
Teresa rolled out of bed and went to kneel beside the window. Through the gauze curtain she saw them, a long line of sleek black-clad figures, all heavily armed, standing in bushes or leaning against house walls. She craned her neck to see further out the window, picking them out one by one. They were ranged down both sides of the street, as far as she could see in both directions. They didn’t look like police or soldiers–they were too relaxed, too patient, as if they did this every day.
They were waiting for her to come outside, she realized suddenly. This was a siege.
She slumped to the floor, shaking. “Shit,” she whispered. “What am I going to do?
Go, said the bird. Or they will kill you, and take me. Go, and save us both.
But she couldn’t leave. They were surrounded. Heart pounding, she looked outside again, trying to count the dark figures. More appeared the longer she looked, a legion of shadows, armed and ready. She imagined the sound they must make–boots shuffling, shoulders shifting–ranks and ranks of half-seen soldiers, one more waiting for every one she could see. It would be impossible to get past them. There was no way out.
She was breathing too fast. She forced herself to calm down, stroking the bird’s feathers with shaking fingers.
Across the street, Hilbert stood in a neighbor’s driveway, glancing at the black-clad figures as if asking for instructions. All of them ignored him. At last, he strode across the street and stood in Teresa’s yard. When he spoke, his voice carried clearly through the window. “Dr. Bowen,” he said, rather pompously, “we know what you took. Bring it outside, or these people are going to have to come in and shoot you. You have twenty minutes.”
Teresa’s heart skipped. Not a siege, then. She hadn’t imagined, somehow, that they would come into her house. The walls of her sanctuary, last night so impenetrable, seemed to melt away. Would she be found dead tomorrow in a pool of blood–the bird gone, her home destroyed? She imagined someone else performing her autopsy tomorrow.
“How can I get out?” she whispered to the fledgling, barely managing to keep from hyperventilating. “They’ll catch me if I go out. I’m stuck.”
Go up, it said.
“On the roof?” Teresa said, confused. “I can’t. There’s no way up from the attic–no windows.”
Go up, the bird said again.
Not knowing what else to do, Teresa obeyed.
The attic smelled of old wood and the remnants of many summers’ rain. She never came up here–hadn’t collected enough possessions to make it more than a refuge for spiders. She turned on the light and scanned the empty plywood corners, trying not to despair.
Then she noticed the ventilation fan.
Her shoulders straightened. It would be hard, but maybe just possible. Running back downstairs, she found what tools she could in the kitchen drawers, and brought them and a stepstool back up to the attic. With a lot of cursing, and a bit of blood, she unscrewed the fan and dragged it from its moorings. It tumbled free with a loud shriek, and bruised her face and shoulders as it fell. She dropped it with a crash that must have been audible outside.
At that, she froze. “Won’t they know we’re up here?” she whispered to the bird, lifting it off of the beam where it was perching. “They’ll see us on the roof. How can we get down?”
Trust, said the bird. You have cared for me. Now trust.
Standing on the chair again, Teresa lifted the fledgling out through the gaping hole she’d made in the roof. Then she began to pull herself up.
It was the hardest thing she’d ever done, and it took a very long time. Her shoulders trembled–her arms spasmed–her core muscles tensed, shuddered, and failed, again and again. Time after time she let herself fall, thinking each time that this was it–she wouldn’t make it. But the bird was outside by itself, and it had never flown yet–if she didn’t protect it, it could easily be caught–and so each time she lifted herself up again and kept trying. Finally, remembering a movie she’d seen, Teresa began to swing her legs, building momentum with every swing. Eventually she managed to hook one elbow out through the hole, and then the other, dragging herself up and out until at last she collapsed across the roof.
For a long time she clung to the warm shingles, breathing raggedly, absorbing the sun’s heat from above and below. She didn’t know when she’d be able to move again. If they came after her now, she’d be helpless.
When she opened her eyes, the bird was staring at her.
Stand up, it said.
Teresa couldn’t. But she did. Heaving herself to her knees, she lifted the bird onto her shoulder. Then she struggled to her feet, careful of her footing on the steep plane of the roof.
The sky was a deep, flawless blue. The sunshine dazzled her. Blinking, Teresa looked around at the nearby rooftops, the neat patchwork gardens tended by neighbors she’d never met. She regretted that, but it faded. There was no point being sad now.
Below her, the shadows waited, still in the silence of her neighborhood. She felt their gazes in her bones. At first she wondered why they didn’t shoot. Then she realized they wouldn’t risk hitting the bird. Whatever they needed it for was important enough to let Teresa stand free a little longer.
She closed her eyes and stood quietly for a long time, breathing in the summer wind and the soft fragrance of her charge’s feathers. A deep quiet came over her. She found that she was entirely calm. Finally, opening her eyes, she turned to look at the fledgling, and stroked its belly gently with her fingertip. “Shall we go?”
Go, said the bird. It began to flap its wings.
A great wind rose. It came from everywhere at once, rippling through the trees and bushes, catching her clothes, whipping her hair. It smelled heavily of balsam. The smell didn’t sicken her now. She breathed it in, giddy, until it seemed to fill all of her, as if she were a balloon about to rise.
She seemed to be much higher than before. A pleasant vertigo made her sway as she looked at the people far below her. Sunlight glinted on the guns’ black barrels–irrelevant, like details in the backdrop of a play. They were nothing to do with her, nothing to worry about.
The wind grew, billowing, enveloping her body and buoying her upward. Her bare feet lifted from the roof. She grew lighter and lighter, until the wind caught her like a scrap of paper and whipped her into the sky. Alarmed shouts rang out below. She heard gunshots, but didn’t look. She was done with all that now.
She rose into a cloudless sky, so clear and blue she had to close her eyes against its perfection. The bird on her shoulder was singing, a deeper, brighter song than before. They rose up through cold, through ice, through something that sizzled like lightning. And then the air grew warm, and they entered a veil of perfume. Rose-tinged sunlight beat against Teresa’s eyelids. She heard bells chiming, and opened her eyes to a vision of gold.
Photo by Christine Sponchia.