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“Birdsong” by Kerrie Farris

Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records



 by Kerrie Farris

“Reilly, what are you doing?” Her mother called through the thin wall between Reilly’s bedroom and the living room.

“Homework, Mom.”

“Ok. Don’t leave the house. I’m going to lay down for awhile.” Her voice was a tired warble.

“Alright. Is there anything to eat?”

“You can microwave yourself a TV dinner. That’s what I’m going to do, later.”

Reilly knew that her mother would not be microwaving herself a TV dinner later. If she was going to lay down now, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, she’d be out the rest of the day, all night, and most of tomorrow morning. It was Friday, so at least there was no school or work for the next couple days. Reilly could get by with Thursday’s clothes on Saturday and today’s clothes on Sunday. She’d think about Monday’s clothes later. Right now, she was filling out a scholarship application for the Young Conservators camp, which she had been nominated for and was to be held in the spring. When she was there, she’d be able to see all the birds she read about, and even help the wildlife biologists trap, tag, and release them. She would be helping save the birds, some of which were endangered. She skipped the questions that had to do with income – she didn’t know the exact numbers, but she knew that writing “very little” in the blanks wouldn’t work. She turned to the back page, where she was asked to write a short essay.

The essay question was “How do you think you will benefit from the program? What are some obstacles you have overcome to be chosen for this program?”

Reilly gripped her pencil a little more tightly, and began to write.

When she was finished the essay and read it over, she frowned. It really wasn’t what she meant to say, but she didn’t know how to fix it. She decided to follow her mother’s example, and take a nap.




Reilly slept the rest of the day away and woke the next morning. She tiptoed out to the living room, where her mother was still sleeping on the couch. On the coffee table was her mother’s book of Northwestern birds. She leafed through it, pausing at the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. “A tiny, perching bird, ten to eleven centimeters tall. Song is an excited, musical chattering.” In the dim light, Reilly squinted through her thick glasses at the small photo at the top of the page. A smudge of red at the top of the bird’s head explained its name. “Lays six to nine cream-colored eggs, lightly speckled with brown.” She skimmed through the rest of the description of the bird. At the bottom of the page, she saw “has a characteristic habit of nervously flicking its wings.” When her mother was awake, she often flicked her fingertips, as if there was something on her hands she was trying to get off.

Reilly flipped to the next page. “Swainson’s Thrush. Song is a series of reedy notes inflected upward. Prefers to remain hidden in dense vegetation.”

Through the window, the hazy autumn sun lifted higher. The soft morning shadows shortened, and Reilly set the book aside. She crept into her mother’s darkened bedroom, where the curtains were perpetually closed. She passed the stack of records beside the door. When she’d been younger, her mother had played those records all the time, and used to sing with them to. She’d had a beautiful voice, but it had been so long since Reilly had heard her sing she could barely recall the way it sounded. She knelt in front of the bottom drawer of her mother’s dresser, and returned with a bundle of papers and paycheck stubs. A trail of falling, fluttering paper followed her. “Mom,” she prodded her lightly on the shoulder. “Mom, I need some help with something.” Her mother’s eyes flickered slowly open. “Wha-ats?” Her voice was low and sleepy, like a mourning dove.

“I’m filling out the scholarship application. I have to write down your income. But I don’t understand these.” She hefted the papers to the edge of the cluttered coffee table. “Can you help me?” Her mother pushed herself to one elbow, took a pay stub from the top of the pile, and frowned at it. She tossed it down and slumped back on the couch. “What’s this for?” She murmured.

“For the scholarship application. For the Young Conservators camp.” Her mother didn’t respond. Reilly’s heart beat faster. She hated when her mother wouldn’t speak. “You know, for the bird-watching camp I told you about. Where I can see the birds in your book.” Her mother opened her eyes, but didn’t look at Reilly.

“Flying away. You’re all flying away. Your dad was first, then your sister, and now you.”

“It’s not for months and months, Mom, and it’s only for a week. Then I’ll be back here. With you.”

She didn’t speak for a long moment. “I have a headache, honey. Can you get me my pills?”

Reilly stood up quickly and went to the bathroom. She brought the amber pill bottle back and tipped two into her mother’s outstretched palm. She went to the kitchen for water and gave her mother the glass.

Reilly sat down again. Sometimes, before the pills sent her mother spiraling into sleep, she would talk to her and tell her about Council, in Idaho, where she grew up and met Reilly’s and Shae’s father, who drove truck. He’d pass through on his way down to Boise.

But today Reilly’s mother couldn’t remember any stories. “I feel like I’m…” Her next words, whatever they were, were swallowed by sleep.

When her mother’s breathing was deep and slow, Reilly looked at the papers and wondered who could explain them to her. She could go to her best friend Laney’s house. She knew Laney’s mother would be able to figure them out. But she also knew that she’d get a long, sad look from Laney’s mother, who worked in an office and wore shoes with skinny, clicky heels and always smelled like she’d just come out of a hair salon. Reilly was hungry, too, and though she knew Laney’s mother would fix her something to eat, the food would come with soft, searching questions. The thought of it made Reilly queasy. But there was someone else who could help her. If she could be found.

Shae hadn’t lived at home for the last year, since she was seventeen and had met her boyfriend, Moses. He had two nose rings, great big holes stretched in his ears, green hair and chunky leather boots that laced all the way up to his knees. Shae had always dressed like that too, though her hair wasn’t as bright and she didn’t have as many shiny rings in her face. Reilly thought they looked perfect together, like a pair of brilliant, tropical birds.

When Shae brought Moses through the front door, that one time, she had just come in to change her clothes. She’d said hi to their mother then, casually, and even trotted over to hug her quickly where she sat on the couch. Everything had been better before Shae left. Mom didn’t sleep so much, she talked more, her headaches hadn’t been as bad. But when Shae shut her bedroom door to change, Reilly’s mom had lunged into Moses’ lap after he sat down at the far end of the couch. Reilly hadn’t been able to look away as her mother covered his face with her own, and twisted her fingers into his viper-green hair. Moses lifted his arms to push her away, but her mother shifted one ponderous, denim-clad leg to pin his right arm down, and twisted his left wrist back behind his head with the hand not buried in his shaggy hair. She moaned obscenely, and his legs twitched feebly. Reilly was sure that Moses was suffocating, thin as he was, under those heavy breasts pressed into his throat.

“What the hell are you doing, you crazy bitch?” Shae screamed as her bedroom door banged open. She stood in the doorway, holding the t shirt she’d meant to put on in one clenched fist. Her chest heaved with ragged breathing.

Their mother let go of Moses, and gave her oldest daughter a wide-eyed look. “I’ve always wanted to try a green-haired man.” She shrugged. “About the same, I’d say.”

“You are a monster. A horrible, insane monster. You know what? You shouldn‘t have had me, because you’re fucking crazy!” Shae’s voice shook as she strode across the room and pushed her mother from Moses’ lap. She grabbed his wrist, gouging her nails in where her mother’s nails had sunk in first. “Let’s go.” She growled at him. “I’m never coming back here!” She barked as the front door slammed shut behind her.

From then on, it had just been Reilly and her mother. Every once in a great while, Shae would be waiting outside Reilly’s school when the bell rang at the end of the day. She would bring her a book or some candy, ruffle her hair, and ask her how she was. She never asked about their mother.

The last time Reilly had seen her, two weeks ago, she had asked Shae where she was staying. For once, she hadn’t been vague, and said she was getting ready to “occupy” the parks downtown.

“We’re going to put up tents and protest. Like the people did on Wall Street. Did you see that on the news? We’re going to do the same thing.”

Reilly had nodded. It sounded like her sister’s sort of thing.

She had only seen the camp her sister had told her about on the news at school, or briefly when her mother was flipping channels at home. Reilly had lived in the city long enough, though, to know how to get downtown by herself.

She fished for dollar bills in her mother’s bulging purse as she slept, then found a pen and a piece of reasonably clean paper on the floor and scribbled a lie on it.

“Dear Mom, I went to Laney’s house to do homework. I’ll call you from there if I’m going to be gone past dinnertime. Love, Reilly.”

Of course, there really was no “dinnertime” in Reilly’s house. She ate when she was hungry, or didn’t, and her mother hardly seemed to eat at all.

Reilly stuffed the sheaf of papers into her backpack, and shut the front door quietly behind her. At the bus stop, a group of young women stood waiting as well. They were all dressed in fluttering, silky, bright-colored dresses, with big, thick glasses walling off their eyes. Reilly wore glasses too, like theirs. One of the women turned her head to look at Reilly, and smiled. The wide amber-brown eyes behind the glasses made Reilly think of an owl. “I like your glasses.” The pretty woman said to her.

“They make me look ugly.” Reilly blurted.

“I think they make you look wise.” The woman replied.

Reilly smiled back at her.

As the bus wound its way through narrow streets lined with old-fashioned houses, Reilly remembered when she and Shae and their mother had moved from Council to Portland. Their mother had quit her job, and, within the space of a week, packed up everything in their small house. She told all her friends she was taking her daughters to the city, so they wouldn’t be stuck in the cage of a small town all their lives.

Their mother’s friends had stared at her with dropped jaws, as they sat on the couch in the nearly-bare living room. “That’s crazy.” One of them had spluttered. Reilly couldn’t remember which one, but the other two had agreed. “Why would you want to go to Portland?” They’d seemed disgusted at the very idea.

“To give my girls a chance to fly.” She’d shrugged at their shock.

“Elaine, you are crazy.”

She had bristled then, and said. “Jim told me I was crazy too, you sluts, when I told him I didn’t want to have the baby. I told him, ‘Jim, there is something wrong with me, I can’t have a baby, I won’t be able to take care of it.’ and he says ‘Shut up, woman, I am not paying for you to have an abortion. That’s wrong. You’re crazy to want that,’ he told me.”

Her voice softened a little. “And then he said he’d be here to help me, to take care of the baby and of me, if need be. And he was. And then I had Reilly. And I asked him to stop driving truck, and stay close to home, and then he started up all over again about how I was crazy and there wasn’t anything wrong with me and I was just a lazy bitch. And so I shut my mouth, but it was no good. He left and he never came back. So don’t you call me crazy.

Reilly had heard their conversation through the back door, which had been left cracked to let in the breeze. She hadn’t understood at the time, but had listened closely and repeated it all to Shae when she got home from her last day of school. When Reilly asked what their mother was talking about, Shae was silent for a long, long time. It felt forever to six-year-old Reilly. Finally, Shae stood up and pushed past Reilly to their bedroom door, then out the back door.

They hadn’t talked about it ever since.

The next day, their mother had loaded the last of their boxes and furniture into the bed of her pickup, and they’d set out for Portland. Reilly sat in the middle of the one seat that stretched across the cab of the pickup. Her mother had hummed and even sung along with the radio, but Shae had sat silent, pressed against the passenger side door, her shoulders hunched and twisted away from the two of them. Reilly glanced from one to the other, but spoke only to point out birds bursting from the cover of sagebrush as they sped past in their pickup. Her mother was pressing so hard on the gas that when they crested a hill, Reilly thought they were flying.

The bus rattled as the front tires found the middle of the Burnside Bridge, where the bridge opened to the sky when ships passed underneath. Reilly blinked as the unseasonable October sunlight winked on the small rippling waves of the Willamette River. When the bus stopped on the far side of the river, she climbed down from the bus and made her way to the occupied parks, where she hoped she could find her sister.

Entering the camp, Reilly was startled when a man wearing a gas mask stepped into her path and crossed his arms. She thought he might be some sort of guard, and would demand she tell him the password before being allowed to enter. She began to stammer that she didn’t know the password, and was only looking for her sister, but the man in the mask just waved his arm and called “Luke! Over here! Come hear Shae’s speech!”

Shae? Reilly thought. Giving a speech? She might dress loud, but she’s always been kinda quiet.

The man wearing the gas mask turned and trotted off, and his friend jogged by Reilly to catch up. She hurried to follow them, trying to keep them in sight through the thickets of people crowding the winding path through the tents to the center of the park. A bronze statue of an elk reared above the crowd in the center of the camp. Standing on the ledge beside the statue was a young woman with a black bandana tied over the lower half of her face. Reilly pressed as close to her as the swarm of people would let her. She raised a fist above her head for silence.

“Friends! We are the ninety-nine percent, and we will no longer stay silent!” Shae pulled the bandana from her face, and heaved a gun into the air. Reilly gasped. The crowd roared approval and pressed even further forward. She felt like she was being squeezed to death by the knot of people tightening around her. Then, chaos.

As Shae laid her finger on the trigger of the gun she held aloft, a police officer in riot gear snatched at her other elbow and brought her tumbling to the ground. She screamed and the crowd exploded, and Reilly was knocked flat on her face in the trampled grass. She tasted mud, and over the screaming throng heard the gunshot. Without moving an inch, Reilly was suddenly out of the mud and flying through the air. Someone had hoisted her from the ground and set her on their shoulder. The man in the gas mask. He stuffed a bandana into her hand and shouted “put it on!“ over the din while her eyes sought Shae. She was prone on the ground. Behind the bent backs of riot cops and protesters, Reilly saw one of Shae’s purple boots kicking the air, and saw the gun waving in her outstretched hand. A bedraggled, artificial red rose had erupted from the end of it.

She struggled down from the masked man’s shoulder, though he shouted after her. The police were bundling her sister into a police car that had cut through the crowd. They slammed the door behind her and the car started to ease through the mass of shouting people. Reilly thought she could catch it easily, as slow as it was going, but as soon as she had darted past one person, another moved into her path. The car was gaining speed and Reilly began pushing past anyone who didn’t move quickly out of her way. She broke through the edge of the crowd and saw the police car stopped at a red light. She ran to catch it, but before she was halfway down the block the light turned green and the car trundled on. She ran all out then, as fast as she ever had, her backpack bouncing wildly with every step. The car gained speed and Reilly ran even faster, begging her legs to catch up to the police car and her sister. She tore through intersections as cars slammed to a stop inches from her, horns ringing in her ears. A cluster of pigeons exploded into flight as she thundered past them, their whirligig eyes mirroring her panic. Her heart hammered in her chest as she ran out in front of a car racing to beat a yellow light. The car swerved into the spot she had been a moment before, and Reilly kept running, wishing hard that she had wings. She lost sight of the car as it turned a corner, and the tears clouding her eyes ran down her cheeks. But she didn’t slow down, even as her chest burned and her legs wobbled. The car pulled into a garage in the side of brown brick building, and Reilly saw the words “Portland Police Bureau” spelled out in blue and silver letters on the window beside the door at the front of the building. She stopped, finally, in front of the door to take a breath, and then pushed the door open.

Inside was a whirlwind of people coming and going, phones ringing, voices shouting. Reilly zigzagged through the oblivious adults to the counter, where a man with a hooked nose and hanging skin under his chin sat typing furiously, frowning at the screen of his computer. He reminded Reilly of a vulture, and she shudder.

Breathless, Reilly told him she was there to see her sister. “Her name is -” she gasped, “Shae Robertson. But -” She tried to whisper but her voice was ragged “her code name is Shae Birdsong. Oh no.” She gulped air. “I shouldn’t – have told you. It’s supposed to be – a secret.”

The man behind the counter regarded her for a moment, and then came around the counter through a short swinging door and led her to a row of chairs against the wall. He walked away and Reilly thought she was going to be ignored, but then he came back with a paper cup of water for her. She guzzled it, and he brought her more.

“I need you to sit right here and wait,” he said. “But you will get to see your sister.”

Reilly sat. Reilly waited. After a while, the people hurrying through the office thinned and the phone quieted. The man behind the counter picked up his phone and spoke in a low voice. Then he barked “I don’t care what officer Jenkins said to do, you will bring her out here now. A little bird tweeted in my ear last week about that prostitution bust on 82nd. That little bird mighta mentioned a certain name. A certain your name.”

A few minutes later, a glowering officer led Shae through the maze of desks to where Reilly sat. Her lip was cut, and there were bruises blooming on her face, but she smiled at Reilly.

Despite her desperate race to get here, Reilly was shy about asking her sister for help. The bundle of papers and the application for the summer camp in her backpack seemed stupid now.

Shae spoke softly though, and after they assured each other that they were alright, Reilly found enough of her voice to ask her sister for help.

She set the papers gently in Shae’s lap, and Shae began to sort through them. Her eyes glazed over after a while, but halfway down the pile she found what she was looking for. Their mother’s W2 from the previous year. She told Reilly what number to put where, and before long the financial portion of the application was done.

When they were finished, Shae hugged her sister gingerly. “I have to go back now. They’re keeping me in a holding cell for now. But,” she released Reilly and looked her in the eyes, “when I get out, I’m going to come check on you, and make sure you get to go to your bird-watching camp.”

Reilly smiled at her. Shae spoke again, suddenly, her voice thick. “How’s Mom?”

Reilly told her, “Mom’s taking more headache pills than she used to. And she sleeps all weekend, Shae. She doesn’t clean up or anything, and she hardly talks, even after she takes the pills and before she falls asleep.”

Shae nodded, eyes downcast.

“Tell her hi, and tell her I’m going to come back home, real soon.” Shae’s voice became stern. “Just to visit, though.”

“But you said you were never going back there!” Reilly was shocked.

Shae wrapped her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “I’ve got to be a voice for the ninety-nine percent. We’ve been silent too long. Mom’s part of that too, and she’s been silent for too long.”

“For always, it seems.” Reilly agreed.

“Besides, what I’m doing feels crazy, and we crazy chicks gotta stick together.”

When Shae was led into the back of the police station again, Reilly left to catch the bus back home. The sun had sunk behind the West Hills. Her mother might not have woken up yet, but Reilly’s heart thumped in her chest all the same. Her mother was terrible to behold when she got angry and went crazy.

To calm herself, she recited bird names in a whisper on the bus ride home. “Black-eyed Junco. Cliff Swallow. Horned Grebe. Eastern Phoebe. Black-capped Chickadee.”

When she stepped through the door, her mother was sleeping again. Or still sleeping, there was no way to know. Reilly was finished with her application, but her mother still had to sign it. Reilly didn’t know how to convince her to do so. And then she had an idea.

The records that had sat silent for so long yielded to the scissors with surprising ease. Using the bird-shape guide in the back of her mom’s bird book as a guide, Reilly made her way through half of the foot-high stack of records before she finished cutting. Using only the flickering light of the TV, she hung them with thumbtacks, all over the living room walls. As she climbed barefoot on the back of the couch, her mother murmured in her sleep and rolled over. When the last bird was hung, Reilly surveyed her work and switched on the lamps at either end of the couch.

Her mother coughed and opened her eyes. She stretched and sat up. She blinked at the light, and then furrowed her brow.

“What the hell is all over the walls?”

“Birds, Mom.” Reilly sat next to her.

“Where’d they come from?”

“Your records. Your old records. Don’t be mad, please Mom. I made them to keep you company, when I’m at the Young Conservators camp. See, you’ll have a whole flock, all different kinds of birds, and you know all the songs on all the records, I know because you used to sing them all the time, you can sing the songs that the birds are made out of, and it’ll be like you’re singing for all of them. Your voice is so pretty. Mom, please sign my application so I can go. I need to go. I need to fly like you said we would when we moved here. But I’ll come back, birds always migrate home.”

Her mother sat silent for a long time. Reilly didn’t know if she would ever talk again.

Then her mother put an arm across her shoulders. “You are crazy, child.”

And she started to sing.


The next morning, Reilly erased the long, boring essay she had written. Instead, she wrote, “I want to know what the birds are saying, not just when they’re singing, but when they’re silent, too.”

© 2012 Kerrie Farris


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