By A. Farrier
There’s a girl named Myra who has a bird cage instead of ribs. The cage runs from her naval to her collar bones and is made of calcium, bowing in to form her waist. The miniature aviary contains a pair of sparrows, three finches, a mocking bird, and a canary. The birds swirl around inside where her stomach would be, flying and chirping.
Sometimes they sing her to sleep at night. She’ll run her fingers along the bars of the bone-cage and let the birds pick at her fingers with their beaks.
Whenever she goes to school, she bundles up in a sweater that buttons down the front. The birds always chirp and beat their wings against the cable knit in protest.
She whispers, doing up the buttons before swallowing some bird seed and listening to it tumble into the cage in an attempt to sate them. Most mornings it works.
When she comes down the stairs, her mother looks at the sweater before folding her arms across her pin-cushion stomach.
“Take off your sweater; I want to measure your waist hin.”
She sighs and undoes the buttons; the birds start their chirps all over again. Her mother produces a tape measure, and wraps it around the skinniest part of her cage.
“22 inches.” Her mother clicks her tongue.
“Mother, please.” Myra pulls away and starts wrapping her sweater around her middle again. “It’s fine.”
“You’re always bundled up in that sweater; it’s too big for you.” She pats the top of Myra’s head. “Why don’t you let me dress you in some nice clothes that’ll flatter your figure?”
Myra wants to scream ‘What figure?’ but fighting has never gotten her anywhere in the past. She only rolls her eyes and pulls away. “I have to go to school.”
Since the morning walks are cold and it’s only February, the birds sleep, nestled at the very center of the cage, protected by the wool of her sweater. It feels like an oven, and keeps her warm. Sometimes, a crow calls from a telephone wire, and her little birds startle, fluttering a tornado in her chest.
Her boyfriend, Lucas, has the golden eyes of a wolf and teeth to match. He’s never seen her birdcage, but he hears the birds when they sit close—feels them rustling around beneath her sweater. He traces the bars of it with his fingers beneath her sweater when they are alone in her bedroom, but the birds always peck his fingers hard.
He kisses her forehead when she meets him at the top of the steps. She presses her face into his chest and closes her eyes. He smells like musk and the leather seats of his car.
He walks her down the hall, arm tight around her waist.
“Did you find a dress for the dance yet?”
“Mom keeps trying to talk me into letting her make one for me. I don’t really think I want to go. Why don’t you just come over that night? We can watch a movie or something.”
“Or something?” he raises his eyebrows at her.
She pushes him away, scoffing. “You’re impossible.”
“Come on, Babe, what did I say?”
“If going to the dance will get your head out of the gutter, I’d rather do that.”
“So you want to go?”
“Too late, my little sparrow,” he chuckled, nipping playfully at her jaw. “I’ll pick you up Friday at seven.”
She blushes and rolls her eyes before proceeding towards the art block. Her birds all move to sit at the bottom at the cage, like they usually do once Lucas disappears. They are silent.
Myra comes to terms with going to the dance. She even lets her mother make her a dress for the occasion.
“It’s too tight!” she hisses as her mother zips the crushed black velvet around her. The birds chirp and scream, beating their wings against her bones. “They can’t breathe!”
“Oh, you’ll be fine!” Her mother smooths out the skirt and steps back to admire her handiwork.
“It fits you beautifully.”
She turns to look at herself in the mirror. It does fit her beautifully. The flare of the skirt coupled with the ringlets her mother twisted her hair up into makes her feel like a doll—the kind she’d seen on the shelves of antique stores. The fabric envelops her but doesn’t drown her like her sweater usually does. She looks dainty, not small.
“Do you like it?”
A knock on the door cuts between the two of them.
“That must be Lucas.” Myra pulls away from the mirror.
“Have fun, Sweetheart, okay?” her mother calls after her. “Be back by one.”
Myra nods and answers the door. Lucas smiles at her, taking her in with ravenous eyes, and pulls her close by the hips. The birds shriek when he kisses her.
Her mother clears her throat and the teenagers turn to look at her.
Lucas smiles, sharp teeth glinting in the low light. “Of course, Ms. Harvel.”
He leads her out to his car, his hand hot on her lower back. He opens the passenger side door for her like a gentleman. Then he starts the car and drives them away.
It’s dark and cloudy that night. She can’t see the stars as Lucas’s car hugs the curves of the road. She keeps running the tip of her finger along the hem of her dress.
She looks up when the car creaks to a halt. The canary stops chirping, and the sparrows tuck in their wings.
“Where are we?”
His headlights flicker out, so they are sitting in the dark. He leans over and brushes his lips against her neck. She shudders and closes her eyes.
“Lucas, we’re going to be late for the dance.”
“Don’t worry.” His lips trail her ear, his teeth biting down and pinching occasionally. “It’ll be fine.”
Then he kisses her. His lips should feel safe, but they feel urgent instead. They are rough. She can feel his teeth clicking against hers. She presses her hands against his chest, ready to push him away if he starts to suffocate her.
His hand grazes her knee, brushing the hem of her dress. He starts to trail his fingers up beneath the velvet. She makes a noise of discomfort and catches his wrist.
“It’s fine,” he whispers against her mouth. “We won’t be too late.”
He kisses the underside of her jaw and pushes up the hem of her dress until his fingers brush the bottom of her cage. The canary flies forward and pecks him hard on the hand.
She lets out another noise of discomfort, and he shifts his weight so he’s still above her, but their bodies aren’t pressed together as tightly.
She hears his pants unzip. He pushes her underwear to the side.
She wants to tell him to stop. She wants to say she isn’t ready or that the time isn’t right. But she doesn’t say anything. Lucas has told her he loves her, and she thinks she loves him, too. And this is what people who love each other do.
His hips are sharp and it hurts. She digs her nails into his arm. She bites his lower lip. He breaks the kiss and pulls up to whisper against her temple:
“Shh…It’ll stop hurting in just a minute. You just have to get used to it.”
The finches try to fly up her throat. The sparrows beat their wings against the fabric of her dress. The mockingbird screams. But the canary hasn’t stopped pecking at Lucas’s hand with its tiny, pale beak.
Her side crunches as Lucas tears into it with his hand. Myra gasps, trying to push his arm away.
She hears the whimper-like chirps of the canary as Lucas curls his hand around it. All of the other birds go silent. He drops it back in the cage, and it falls into the inside of her back with a faint thud.
He licks a stripe up her throat when he’s done, grazing his teeth along the trail of saliva he leaves behind. He brushes her cheeks with his thumbs when he kisses her, gentler now. They don’t speak as he helps straighten her dress and smooth her hair.
They arrive at the dance an hour late. His hand burns on the small of her back, guiding her through the room. She wants to chase the cracks lining the cafeteria floor, but he always pulls her in other directions by her elbow.
With each tug, the canary rolls over in her stomach.
When a slow song comes on, he draws her in by her skirt, sliding his hands to rest against her waist.
She studies the buttons near his throat, still undone from before.
“Why won’t you dance with me?” He takes her hands and sets them up on his shoulders. She leaves her hands there, but looks back at the loosened buttons on his throat. His fingers dig back against her waist. An ache throbs between her legs as they waltz.
Halfway through the song, he leans down to kiss her. He tastes like salt—smells like leather and musk. It scalds her tongue and burns her nose.
He keeps her close, as if they are glued, for the rest of the dance. They switch between dancing and walking around while he talks to their friends. Her thighs shake. He makes a joke about her heels. Everyone laughs.
Lucas drops her back off at her house a few minutes after one o’clock.
Myra closes the front door, her shoes hanging from her hand. Her mother is already asleep in her chair with pins sticking from her stomach and her latest sewing project in her lap. She walks up the stairs, thighs still shaking and the weight of her canary like a cannonball in her gut.
She shuts and locks her bedroom door. She throws her shoes to the corner and slides her underwear down her legs. There are stains on the silk. She peels off the dress and wraps herself up in the comforter from her bed. Her hands shake to match her thighs as she sinks into the mattress.
The birds start to investigate the hole Lucas broke into her stomach. She keeps the blanket tucked around her so they don’t try to fly out. She can feel one of the finches settling next to the canary, nudging it like it does every night.
Eventually she falls asleep curled in the nest of her bed with makeup streaking down her face.
When a crow smacks into her window the next morning, it startles her from stillness. It is staring at her, flapping its wings and cawing. She gets up, still holding the blanket tight around her before she opens the window.
The crow doesn’t fly in, but perches on the ledge and looks at her. She runs her fingers along its feathers, and the crow closes its eyes. It leans into her touch like a cat might.
When she pulls away, the crow caws again before it flies back out the window. She watches until she can’t see it anymore.
Myra lets her hands slip beneath her comforter, and the birds come forward to pick at her fingertips with gentle beaks. They are slow and weak.
She drops the comforter.
All of the birds fly out into the open air, all except the canary. She watches them chase after the crow and disappear into the clouds.
A. Farrier writes speculative fiction, introspective poetry, and weird stories about heartbreak. She is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction at Eastern Washington University. She’s a graduate from Arkansas Tech University with a BA in English and Communications and a BFA in Creative Writing. Her Work has previously been published in Haunted MTL’s Queer as Hell anthology, Zimbellhouse Publishing’s 1929 Anthology, Litro: A Literary Journal, and Watershed Review.