The Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis

Excerpted from the novel
 
I remember the first time I flew.
 
I was four years old. My mother decided to take me to Balboa Park for the afternoon. I watched the back of her short-sleeved blouse as we crossed the parking lot to the playground; the sky blue fabric tightened, then loosened, tightened, then loosened, across her shoulder blades, pointy as chicken wings. I tried to catch up, but my mother was too fast. Even then, I knew she didn't like to be seen with me in public. I knew it was because of my skin--so much darker than my mother's, dark like the treats she made out of dates that morning, the ones that stuck between my teeth, filling my mouth with a prickly sweetness.
 
We didn't go to the park very often, but this day was special--New Year's Eve, 1975. Not December 31, when midnight bullets flew through our San Diego neighborhood and we crouched together in the closet; this was a few weeks later--the lunar New Year, the Korean New Year, the day when girls stand up on see saws and swings.
 
At four, I was already as tall as my mother's ribs. I broke into a run and tugged at my mother's shirt, pulling it out of the elastic waistband of her lime green pants. She shook herself loose and kept walking. I could see the scar on her lower back as her shirt flapped up-a crescent moon, beaded with pale tooth marks. I reached to swipe a finger over it, but she walked even faster.
 
She finally let me catch up to her when we reached the grass. Without looking at me, she looped two fingers around my wrist and guided me over to the swings. She lifted me by the armpits with a grunt and deposited me, standing, on a swing strap. I clutched the chain while she moved the swing lightly back and forth, but I couldn't keep my balance. I wobbled, then tumbled into her arms.
 
She glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then shifted me onto her hip and lurched over to the seesaw. With her foot, she tilted one end of the peeling yellow plank to the ground; I grabbed onto her sleeves.
 
"No, Omma!" I yelled as she set me, standing, on the edge.
 
"You stay here." She twisted herself away from my grip.
 
"Omma!" I jumped off the seesaw. The plank rose into the air. She pushed it down again and set me back on.
 
"You stay now." Her voice was firm.
 
I couldn't breathe as I watched my mother walk to the other side of the playground. I wanted to step off the seesaw but my feet felt bolted to the plank. When she finally stopped and turned around, my throat filled with air.
 
"Omma!" I spread out my arms. She began to run toward me.
 
I had never seen my mother run before. She was fast. I watched her cheeks jiggle and her mouth sway loose and her small breasts swing around as she came closer. Then she jumped. She jumped as if there was a trampoline in the grass. She shot up so high, I worried she might get tangled in the jacaranda branches above. There was a determination in her eyes that scared me. It scared her, too. I could see her hesitate as she began to fall. She pedaled her feet backwards like a cartoon character who realized he had just walked off a cliff, but she landed on the see saw anyway, a crumpling blur of limbs.
 
That's when I flew.
 
I flew straight over my mother's head, flew like a bullet across the playground. I felt as if I wouldn't ever stop, as if I would keep on flying, past the park, past the zoo and the stores and the ocean. I felt as if I would be a flying girl forever. Then a eucalyptus tree zoomed toward my face. My mother tackled me to the ground just as I was about to hit the molting trunk.
 
Neither of us spoke on the car ride home. We barely even breathed--it felt as if one loud exhale would make some invisible see saw between us lose its precarious balance. As soon as we got into the apartment, I stumbled off to bed. I felt my end of the ghost board clatter to the ground, felt my mother float untethered behind me as I drifted into a deep, dark nap.
 
When I woke, my whole head throbbed. My forehead had banged into the dirt pretty hard when we fell. In the grey light of dusk, I could see my mother sitting by the window, rocking a bit, as if she had to go to the bathroom.
 
"Omma," my voice was a puff of air.
 
My mother turned toward me, then crept up to the bed. Something about her looked different, scary. Her eyebrows, I realized, were completely white. She had put some kind of powder on them; flecks of it dusted her eyelashes, her cheeks, her collar. After I walked to the bathroom, I was startled to find my own eyebrows white, as well. They looked strange on my much darker face, like a powdered sugar decoration, frosting on a gingerbread cookie.
 
A scrape ran across my forehead, an oblong abrasion, speckled pink and red. I touched a finger to it; pain shot behind my eyes. I began to feel dizzy. My mother rabbed me by the arms and led me back to bed.
 
"If you take nap at New Year," she told me as she tucked me under the covers, "the story says your eyebrow turn white. Is joking to put on flour if you fall asleep." My mother didn't look happy to me, not like someone telling a joke.
 
"Did you fall asleep, Omma?" I asked. She shook her head. A tear carved a streak through the light dusting of flour on her face.
 
I pressed a finger against the damp trail, then stuck my finger in my mouth. It tasted like paste, like salt.
 
She was silent for a moment before she whispered "I want to show you."
 
"Show me what?"
 
"I want you can see..." Specks of flour drifted past my eyelashes. My mother smoothed the pilly bed spread over my thighs.
 
"Long time ago," she said, "girls and women live in walls."
 
"We live in walls," I rubbed at my eyes. "If we didn't live in walls, we'd live in the sky."
 
"Stone walls," she said. "A big fence, all around the yard. Girls, women, not able to go to the world."
 
"That's silly." I wanted to go back to sleep. My whole skull throbbed.
 
"New Year's different."
 
"They could go outside?" I could still see my mother running toward me as if in slow motion, her whole body rippling like gelatin. I could still see my mother jump. My stomach pitched with the sudden rush of flight.
 
"They had the noldwigi. Long wood on a bag of rice straw. A seesaw."
 
"So?"
 
"So they see."
 
"Omma," I winced. My forehead felt like it would crack open if I tried to think too hard.
 
"The girls, they jump on the noldwigi, they jump the other one up, let her see over the wall. Just a little look. Once a year, over the stone. They show each other." She sank to her knees. I turned my pounding head to the window. A pigeon landed on the ledge outside. Its throat shimmered with the sunset.
 
My name is Ava Sing Lo.
 
I am a bird killer. The killer of my mother's birds. An accidental killer, but a killer, nonetheless.
 
Some day I'll probably end up like Prometheus, chained to a rock, birds pecking away at my liver. Appropriate karma. Birds should peck at all my vital organs. I should be tarred with bird droppings and copiously feathered. I should be forced to swallow a whole sack of birdseed dry.
 
My mother named me Ava because she liked how the English letters looked -- the big A a beak pointed upward, the v a sharp slash of wings, the small a round and flat as a parrot's eye. She chose the name even before she knew it had anything to do with birds--the letters spoke to her with their own hollow bones. Her family name was Song, but she chose Sing for us because-and this may be more my interpretation than hers--it sounded more active, like something that is happening, something alive in the throat, not something that has already been written down, sung a million times. I'm afraid I haven't lived up to that part of my name yet.
 
The "Lo," which I know I've lived up to (or, I should say, lived down to) comes from my mother's mishearing of the song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." She had seen an American movie where a man in prison sang that song, and she thought he was saying "Sing Low," his voice was so low, so gravelly and dark. That's how she felt 25 years ago, she's told me--low and gravelly and dark right after I was born. That's how I still make her feel, it seems, again and again and again, awkward as the "L" sound in her mouth.
 
Kane is my most recent victim. Psiticin Kane, who I named after I discovered the scientific name for parrots. Kane of the red tail feathers. Kane of the stunning bilingual vocabulary. Kane of the lemon pulp eyes. Kane, the African Grey my mother thought would be her companion the rest of her life.
 
My intentions, as usual, were good. My mother was on a Las Vegas bus tour, and I arranged to have the carpet cleaned. She grew up on smooth stone floors and the seed-studded carpet grated on her nerves; I thought she would be thrilled when she came home and found soft clean shag beneath her feet. How was I to know parrots are so sensitive to cleaning products? I thought I had taken precautions-I had covered Kane's cage with a towel before the carpet cleaners came. He was nervous around new people, and skittish about strange sounds. I always covered his cage before I pulled out my chang'go. I thought I had done enough.
 
When I got back home and took off my shoes to walk across the slightly damp carpet, I could tell something was wrong. Kane's normal greeting of "Annyong hashimnikka?"-Are you at peace?-was conspicuously absent.
 
"Animal crackers in my soup," I sang off-key. Unlike my mother, I am not much of a singer.
 
I had bought a package of animal crackers for Kane, his favorite treat. He liked to walk around the cage with the string of the circus-train box dangling from his beak, like a handbag. "Monkeys and rabbits loop de loop," I continued.
 
Usually at this point, Kane joined in with "Gosh oh gee but I have fun..." but there was no Shirley Temple response from under the terry cloth. I hoped it was because he wasn't used to singing with me-my mother was the one who usually shared this duet-but I had a sinking suspicion this wasn't the case.
 
I softly added the next part, despite Kane's silence: "Swallowing animals one by one."
 
I took a deep breath, then pulled the towel from the cage. Kane lay on the spattered newspaper. His pale yellow eyes were glazed. He trembled like he had just taken a dip in freezing water. The box of animal crackers fell out of my hand and burst open on the ground. I opened the cage, pulled Kane out, wrapped him in the towel, and ran downstairs without putting my shoes back on. "Has your bird recently been exposed to any chemical or causticfumes?" Dr. Miller asked me as he listened to Kane's chest. "I just had the carpet cleaned." I watched his freckled hands. "Bird's lungs are very sensitive." The vet moved his stethoscope. A strand of his curly orange hair fell on Kane's belly. I brushed it away. "You should never expose them to industrial cleaning products."
 
I should have known Kane had weak lungs. He had come down with psittacosis a couple of years before. My mother came down with it, too, and I had to take a week off from SDSU, walking between sick mother and sick bird, administering droppersful of antibiotics and ginseng and seaweed soup.
 
"We're going to have to do an aspiration," Dr. Miller told me. "It would be best if you wait outside." I bounced my heels up and down as I sat in the small waiting room. A pug drooled on my shins, but I couldn't find the energy to shoo him away. Dr. Miller walked through the swinging doors, and a small surge of hope rose inside my chest.
 
"I'm afraid we weren't able to save your bird," he said. "We did everything we possibly could. The damage was just too extensive." All I could do was nod. My heart clattered against the bottom of my rib cage like a fallen plate.
 
"There was a last word." The vet's voice brightened a bit. "I don't know if it was a word--it was actually more of a sound. Something like Hee hee hammy something..."
 
My whole body suddenly turned cold. "I don't understand." "I'm afraid I don't either," he said. "I thought it might be gibberish, but..."
 
"Ihae mot hamnida is probably what he said. It means I don't understand in Korean," my voice cracked like it does when I sing.
 
Dr. Miller looked at me strangely--trying, I'm sure, to figure out why a dark skinned, barefoot, woman like myself would know Korean.
 
"Kane used to say it a lot." A tear slid into my mouth. "It was like his little joke."
 
Do I have it on tape? I wondered. I sometimes recorded my mother's birds' voices to use as MIDI samples. I hoped I had something left of Kane for my mother to press to her ear.
 
The vet cleared his throat. "I'm sorry for your loss." He briefly touched my shoulder. "I'll have the receptionist bring the body out shortly."
 
I watched him walk back into the clinic with a flap of white coat tails, flounce of orange hair. I thought of the strand of his hair that fell on Kane's belly, brassy against the pale grey, as shocking a contrast as Kane's red tail feathers had been. My mother loved those feathers. She had saved the brown baby ones in a Ziploc bag, and was so excited when the red ones came in, even though she usually associates red with the Korean Book of Death, and never wears it, herself, or writes with a red pen.
 
The receptionist brought Kane out in a white paper bag, my name scrawled across it in thick black marker. One red feather poked past the crinkly paper lip. The immensity of what I had done suddenly bowled me over. Oh Omma. I closed my eyes. Oh, Omma, I am so, so sorry. When I got home, my mother was picking pieces of animal cracker off the floor. "The carpet wet," she said.
 
"I had it cleaned," I held Kane's bag behind my back. "Smells," my mother pinched her nose, fanned her other hand in front of her. We stood together in silence. The empty cage in the middle of the room spoke louder than either one of us could. My mother cocked an eyebrow up at me and I handed her the bag. She looked inside, nodded, and walked to her room.
 
"Omma," I stood at the door, but my mother didn't answer. I knew what my mother would do. She would add Kane to her Book of Dead Birds. She would tape a feather onto a yellowed scrapbook page, write her reminiscences, paste in a photograph. She would press the cracked maroon leather cover to her chest and wail. She would yell that I was as bad as the army, storming in, killing every living thing in sight. I knew what I would do, too. I would listen outside my mother's door. I would feel wave upon guilty wave of nausea. I would apologize until my jaws ached. I would search through my MIDI files for the bird's voice. I would--despite my most diligent efforts--most likely kill again.
 
Gayle Brandeis is also the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write.