Birdie looks in through the open window at the body, and she just knows. There’s a stillness that can’t be faked, like when the wind dies to nothing and the sun’s pounding the asphalt in a deserted hour of the afternoon.
Maybe that new virus got her. Shame. Mrs. Farber is one of Birdie’s favorites, always happy to talk about life “way back when,” even if she prefers that Birdie listen and not add in the parts she still remembers. For a plate of delightful finger sandwiches and some of the best coffee Birdie’s ever tasted, she’s happy to keep her mouth shut. It’s not like anybody ever hears what she has to say.
She turns away to head down the fire escape—someone like her being found around a body is always bad news, everyone so quick to point the finger—but she stops and turns back around.
The Farbers will never let Birdie come to the funeral.
Birdie thinks about being fifteen, squiggling in that hard seat at the back of the classroom, back when Mrs. Farber was just Catherine and Birdie was still Beatrice—and here, everything goes fuzzy, because the room’s too still, just heat waves rising off that windless asphalt—
—but she blinks-blinks-blinks and she gets it back: the scent of chalk, the sharp line of a wooden chair cutting into her sweating thigh.
She presses the pad of her finger to her top lip, feeling the slope of the gum underneath, feeling for the teeth that once were—that would still be, if Birdie had her dentures, but she lost those the last time she was mugged.
Who could’ve known that Catherine would marry that piece of shit Frankie Farber? Something tells Birdie he never cornered Catherine in an empty classroom and pressed her up against a wall while asking her about Beatrice.
Catherine married money. Beatrice told the truth and got thrown out—
And here, Birdie bristles, because really, she isn’t even gay, isn’t anything, but she didn’t figure that out until later, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Still, somehow, this injustice is the worst because it’s the only one Birdie ever worries about. If the expression on her parents’ faces was somehow her fault—
She lets that go. She holds her breath and listens—still, never going to be not-still again—and then she climbs in the window. Five steps and listen, five steps and listen, and Birdie’s extra careful, because she’s been thinking lately that her hearing’s going, although some of the sounds that plague her these days seem more ghost than flesh—
Until she finds it. The key to the cottage. How many times has Mrs. Farber shaken this odd, shiny hunk of metal at Birdie over a plate of finger sandwiches while lamenting the hustle-bustle of the city?
Birdie likes the city, but she’s also never taken a vacation.
There’s a small wad of bills in the dresser, along with a black leather address book. Birdie tears out only one sheet: the one that reads cottage at the top.
Birdie’s not young and pretty anymore, which means that hitchhiking isn’t so much dangerous as it is fruitless. She buys a bus ticket—they almost chase her out when they see her face, until she waves the bills, and even then, she has to make up a story about where she got them.
They don’t believe her, but they take her money, because everybody’s got camera-phones these days.
Nobody sits next to Birdie, but that’s fine. She enjoys the air conditioning and the thrum of the wheels. For the first time in years, she doesn’t wake up in a cold sweat at every rustle.
There are four transfers in all, four huge vending-machine meals, and then she goes the last fifty miles on foot—places like Oakvine Corners make sure they don’t have bus stations.
She stays as far away from the road as the trees allow, doesn’t trust whoever sees her to keep their foot off the accelerator. She’s used to walking, but covering the distance takes her almost a week.
She enjoys it, though. The air smells fresh, and there are trees everywhere, behemoths that reach in with their long branches to block off the view. At night, the ground is soft, and the sky is filled with stars.
Beatrice might’ve seen a place like this, once. But Birdie never has.
The mailbox is marked with an address plaque that also says Amoenus House. Birdie’s bag is heavy with packaged food from a nearby gas station. She double-checks the address, and her heart pounds. Over a week has gone by, long enough that a relative or a lawyer has probably changed the locks.
She didn’t think of that. She holds her breath the entire walk down the long, curving driveway, waiting for a glimpse of the end. The trees have tightened, have woven together until they’re as impenetrable as a sewer grille. Her hearing’s cooperating all of a sudden, and the birds are so loud that she can’t hear herself think, can barely make out the crunch of her feet on the gravel, and she swears she can smell chalk—
Then she turns a corner. Everything falls away, and Birdie breaks out laughing.
This isn’t a cottage. This is a fucking mansion. It’s three stories tall, so big its builders tore a hole in the canopy. A glass castle, shiny and modern and pretentious, a line of black solar panels rimming the edge of the roof.
She stands up straight and walks to the door and thinks about not getting shot. She alternates knocking and waiting until her knuckles are swollen and sore. Only then does she push the key in and give it a good turn.
It’s dimmer inside, but not dark. Birdie can see just fine. She reaches for the switch on instinct before realizing how wrong it is, like adding insult to that hacked-away canopy.
She feels an odd affinity for those missing trees, all removed for the Farbers’ convenience. She leaves the lights alone and goes looking for a shower.
When Birdie turns the tap, blood hammers down and splashes the sides of the tub. It stinks like copper, but she closes her eyes until the water’s clear. Still, it’s unsettling, so she waits until the room is dense with steam before she pokes her hand in—but the water’s hot, and the pressure’s perfect, and Birdie dives in.
There’s no soap. She’ll find some later. For now, she concentrates on this feeling of being made new. When the skin of her fingers looks like wicker, she climbs out and drips all over the floor while she searches for a towel.
She finds some sheets in a small closet in the hallway. She uses three of them to dry off before wrapping the last around herself in an impromptu dress.
She found a living room and a kitchen while searching for the bathroom, and although she’s hungry, the tiredness is worse. She makes it to the black leather couch, turns on the massive television, and she’s out like a light.
Birdie wakes to the morning news. To good news, because it looks like the virus has gotten worse, and the governor has put the state on lockdown, which means no evictions or power or water cutoffs. The vast majority of businesses are closed.
In other words, this house is hers. Nobody’s coming, at least until everything opens up again. She made it just in time.
She whoops for joy, and in that moment, her stomach growls. She opens her bag and pulls out a honeybun, before realizing she needs to save her supplies. That gas station might be closed, and she doesn’t know if there’s anything else nearby.
How odd it would be, Birdie starving to death in a glass castle.
She’d better check the kitchen. She tucks her sheet-dress tighter and makes it as far as the hallway before she turns around.
Wet footprints streak across the floor. They have to be hers—even though she’s been asleep since yesterday afternoon.
The hair stands up on the back of her neck. She closes her eyes, hard, and opens them. This time, the floor is dry.
Although the fridge’s shelves are mostly bare, the door is full of condiments and one of the crisper drawers holds an odd variety of mango Birdie’s never seen before—dark red and about the size of a small potato, with stickers that say “Irwin. Product of Ecuador.”
The fruits are mushy to the touch, although still probably edible—which gives her pause. Were they forgotten? Or does someone come by regularly?
Will they still come, now, with everything shut down?
She takes two of the mangoes and rifles through the cabinets. They’re chock-full of boxes and tins, and most of the varieties are new to her. She wishes she had a grocery cart, so she could stick out her arm and let it all fall in.
She finds a package of cigarettes in one of the drawers, still in the cellophane, although Birdie doesn’t smoke anymore.
She breaks open a can of kippers—which apparently are fish—and pairs it with a box of crackers. She doesn’t love fish, but she’s starving. She makes miniature sandwiches in her mouth, crushes the crackers against the roof with her tongue.
After they’re gone, she cuts the mango into tiny pieces and swallows them individually. She washes her plate—dish soap, good to know for her next shower—and decides to investigate the rest of the house.
Birdie makes several important discoveries. The top floor has a bed and bath, as does the second floor—although these are smaller, to make room for a second living room and a small library, complete with a fireplace. The bottom floor has the kitchen, living room, and bath that Birdie used, as well as the entry foyer and an exit to a back patio, the sliding door hidden behind long, heavy drapes.
There’s also a narrow door in the kitchen, but when Birdie tries the knob, it doesn’t turn. Her key does nothing.
Despite the house’s position right under the opening in the canopy, it doesn’t get too hot. Birdie passes several hours watching television with a found bottle of wine. It’s half-empty when she decides to enjoy it on the patio.
It’s silent, the trees around her swaying with a faraway wind Birdie can’t hear. It makes her feel like dancing. She slips off her shoes and rubs her feet on the rough wood. On one of the boards, someone has scratched OUTSIDE.
She goes back to looking at the forest. She spins a slow circle on the patio, but the trees beckon. Come closer.
She descends to the earth, presses her bare toes into its warmth. Crosses to the forest and finds that the trees here are less tightly interwoven than the ones lining the driveway, that the earth turns cool as soon as she leaves the sun.
She turns slow pirouettes, occasionally catching herself on a trunk for balance. Before long, the world’s spinning harder than she is, and she sits down.
She leans her back against a large trunk and stares at the house, rendered orange-red by the setting sun. Already, the lowest parts of it are in shadow, and—
Birdie gasps. There’s a face in one of the windows, up on the second floor.
She blinks and closes her eyes, opens them again—why did she have to drink so much? She can’t get the world to stop spinning—
But the face is gone.
The air fills with mosquitoes, desperate to feast on her flesh, but Birdie waits through the sunset. She knows what she saw wasn’t real, and yet, she can’t force herself to go in.
The warmth leaches out of her bones, taking the last of her buzz with it. New sounds emerge in the trees, sounds Birdie’s never heard before, hoots and squawks and chirps and brap braps that she prays are frogs. Rural spaces are supposed to be quiet, but compared to this place, the city’s sounds were always muffled, like diving underwater.
When she turns and looks behind her, she sees a thousand shadow-faces in the dark.
No choice but to go in. Her joints have stiffened, and her body complains as she scrapes her way to her feet. She sets off for the house—slow at first. Watching. Wary.
She makes it halfway to the patio when something big and dark looms in the glass. She thinks it’s from inside, but then she finds her own face, and she knows it’s a reflection of something behind her.
She turns, almost stumbling. There, at the edge of the trees, is a massive, eight-limbed creature.
She screams. Its heads pop upright. It breaks in half and bounds away—because it’s two creatures, not one, two white-tailed deer that she scared the bejeesus out of.
She laughs, but not until she gets inside.
In the morning, she has a jar of olives and some more Irwin mangoes. The first one she fishes out of the crisper is shaped like a human heart, so soft to the touch that its own weight threatens to drive her fingers through its flesh.
She shudders and puts it back, before finding another, safer (rounder) one. She catches up on the news. When she goes to shut the television off—with the remote, which she has finally found—she notices a button with an icon of a globe and presses it.
Well, holy gee. The television’s connected to the internet.
She surfs for a bit. It’s clunky, but she enjoys the luxury, marvels at the leaps of technology it takes to get high-speed internet into a place like this.
An odd word pops into her head, amoenus, and it takes her a second. It’s the name she saw on the mailbox. Amoenus House. When she closes her eyes, she can see the metal of the plaque, each scratch and fleck of rust.
(Was it rusty, though?)
She swallows uncomfortably, focuses instead on getting the name typed in through the impossible interface, and leans forward to scroll through the results.
There’s nothing relevant, which makes her nervous enough that her stomach riots, although that could be the aftereffects of the night’s bacchanal pleasures.
She heads upstairs for the library, where she finds framed photos of Mrs. Farber (keep) and a young Frankie Farber (which she throws rather indecorously out the window, taking pleasure in the crack it makes as it hits the ground.)
The books vary widely, from atlases to classical history to silk-punk romances, and looking at all the mismatching titles, Birdie feels an odd pressure in her head, begging her to make things right. She flips open a volume and finds it is about something called “Keynesian economics” and drops it on the floor. A book of art she re-shelves; a book on Roman history she sends sailing out the window to join Mr. Farber’s photograph.
She makes it halfway through the books before she finds a small, handwritten journal. The first several pages are a mish-mash—dates and times of day, bird sightings and descriptions of their calls (she searches for brap-brap, but doesn’t find it,) sketches of leaves and seeds. The penmanship is neat, almost cramped.
She flips to the back. The pages are blank. She backs up ten pages, twenty, looking for the last entry. When she finds it, she can’t make heads or tails of the heavy scrawl. Several words are scratched out—vigorously, almost angrily—and there are brown flecks and odd stains marring the pages. She picks out two words—natural law—before she gives up and backs up further.
And here, Birdie hits paydirt. She was right—Amoenus House isn’t a cottage. It’s a statement: built by Frankie’s architect father in the eighties, meant to represent “the key to environmental conservation: technological progress.”
Birdie looks around the house, and she’s got to laugh. After all, the whole thing’s made from glass. It’s a residence big enough for ten people that’s only occupied a fraction of the year—and as soon as she thinks that, she pictures the trees, that devastating hole in the canopy, and she hears a voice, one so loud she knows it was produced somewhere in her brain, that it didn’t stream through the hearing she can only sometimes rely on.
This place shouldn’t exist at all.
Auditory hallucinations don’t bother Birdie like the visual ones. She nods in agreement and goes back to sorting the books.
That evening, before nightfall, Birdie dances again with the trees. She doesn’t bring any wine with her, but still, she feels transported, like everything is spinning and touched with light.
On the morning of the (third? fifth?) day, Birdie opens the fridge and finds the mangoes have been replaced by a wet, pulpy mass an inch thick, as if the remaining fruits have all exploded.
She thinks about sticking a finger in it but doesn’t. She breakfasts instead on a tin of caviar. When she’s finished, she wipes her lips with her new napkin—the ripped corner of one of the sheets—and touches something hard and painful in the front of her mouth.
Birdie runs to the mirror and opens wide. She’s surprised to find what looks like the start of a new set of teeth.
She shivers—but she’s delighted, too, delighted that for the first time in a long time she’ll know what it feels like to tear into something with flesh. She half-opens the fridge, before remembering the mangoes are mush, now.
But they’re back, all made anew, each one shaped like a small, red heart.
By mid-afternoon, Birdie’s head aches. It’s these new teeth growing in—there’s a pounding in her sinuses that just refuses to quit. Her face feels sticky when she moves her mouth, as if it’s still covered in juice—but when she touches it with her fingers, it feels normal. Well, except for the teeth.
Her belly is still too full of mangoes to do anything, so she settles on the leather couch and reaches for the remote. All she sees is snow. The cable’s out.
She sucks on her sticky lips and picks up the journal again. As soon as she opens it, the pressure in her head lifts, enough that it can’t be coincidence. She reads, and when she comes up for air, it’s almost sunset. Time for her dance with the trees.
She tries to remember what she read, but it’s static, like the television.
There’s a dead bird on the patio. It must have flown into the glass.
Poor thing, she thinks, before she notes its position—right above the OUTSIDE.
She chuckles darkly, shows her teeth, and goes to dance.
This night is the first one that Birdie dreams—of sparrows, flying into the patio glass, over and over, until Birdie can’t take it anymore. She picks up a rock and flings it as hard as she can, and it shatters the door.
The sparrows stop coming, scared. Dream-Birdie sighs, open-mouthed. One-by-one, all her teeth fall into her waiting hand.
In the morning, Birdie checks her teeth—first by feel, and then in the mirror, and the reflection confirms what her fingers know. Her teeth are still there, but they’re different, pointy and sharp. Like fangs.
She takes out her daily ration of mangoes, before putting them back and opening another tin of the kippers instead. She decides to eat on the patio, but when she gets to the door, the drapes are moving as if hiding a cat, and the room smells like wet earth and pine.
She pulls the drapes back and stares at the shards of glass coating the patio.
The bird’s missing. In its place is a scratched word.
She crosses over the glass—crunch, crunch, crunch.
SAFER, it reads.
She nods to herself and sits on the edge of the patio. She eats her kippers while reading through the journal, grease dripping from her fork onto the pages.
Something tells Birdie to go upstairs. She stops, first, at the library, sure that whatever itch needs scratching will be satisfied there—but it’s premature. The ache in her sinuses guides her to the top floor, where she checks the bathroom, then the massive bedroom—
(Birdie knows she hasn’t slept here, although right now, she can’t remember which room she’s been sleeping in)
—and looks out the window. Somehow, she can see past the canopy, past the rows and rows of curving trees and all the way down the driveway, to the mailbox with its little, rusted plate.
There’s someone coming. A drifter like Birdie. She can even see his faded army-surplus backpack, the holes in the fingers of his work gloves.
He’s coming, she thinks. Coming for Birdie.
Birdie backs up swiftly, before flying down the stairs. She dashes to the kitchen, throws open the fridge, and takes out all her precious mangoes, grabbing the hem of her dress and filling the skirt like a sack—
(Was she wearing a dress before? Birdie doesn’t remember)
—and for each one she manages, another one escapes, goes rolling across the floor, poor Birdie and her mango babies, can’t save them all.
She grabs a can of kippers, too, and a long, sharp kitchen knife—
She hears a click. She turns, and the door—the skinny door, the locked door, the one she couldn’t open her first day here—is open.
Birdie runs for it. Makes it through and shuts it. Her chest heaves, but it’s okay—he can’t come down here, because the house doesn’t want him to. This room is only for Birdie.
She descends the stairs into the cavern of the dirt basement, mangoes flying, thudding and splatting as they hit the ground below. It’s dark, but it’s okay, because surprise, Birdie has new eyes to match her new teeth. Birdie, Birdie, all new ever since she got in the shower, no matter what’s written on the patio.
At the bottom, there’s a new scent. Something deep and primal, like sweat and blood and too-sweet mangoes—so big and loud, it brings her to her knees. She crawls forward, the last of her mangoes held awkwardly at her breast, until she’s close enough to touch this thing, this two-headed beast.
She reaches for it. It tells her to be still.
Overhead, she hears the man enter. Hears him groan and cuss and clomp, the crunch crunch of his boots over glass. Surely, he will stay, the same way Birdie stayed, will realize this house is a drug with a fridge full of mangoes, ready and waiting for new teeth to scrape their flesh.
Birdie closes her eyes and imagines the day they cut down the trees. Imagines their shrieks and their blood, the way they died and left the forest canopy a still-festering wound. She’d ask herself how she didn’t see it before, except that she did. Birdie sees everything with her new eyes, even sees when people are just too still.
But Birdie doesn’t know everything—which is why she can still be surprised, like she is now, by the sounds of the man leaving.
When Birdie exits the basement, she realizes her mistake. The man left, but he’s coming back. She can tell from the pattern of his boots on the floor, the wet puddles each step has left behind. He circled through the downstairs three times, and she knows he imagined himself in this place, eating the food, watching the television.
Birdie feels so jealous and hot, she wants to vomit. The glass castle is a bad place, a place that shouldn’t exist—but it’s also hers. She’s eaten the mangoes, and she’s been in the basement, and it’s not for people like him.
Birdie has new teeth and new eyes and new muscles. She fills the front of her dress with cans of kippers and cooking oil and runs up the stairs to the second floor. She opens the cans and flings their contents wildly on the furnishings, before drawing a line on the floor with the oil. It doesn’t go far, though, and before she can even catch her breath, she’s back in the kitchen, looking for anything that might burn and recovering dropped mangoes.
Birdie makes a dozen trips. She doesn’t waste any oil on the library; it’s a room filled with paper.
When she’s done getting the house ready, she makes a final trip to the basement to say goodbye. She pushes her mangoes toward the scent.
There’s a sound in the dark, wet and scraping, and then everything goes quiet.
Birdie waits on the second floor—waits, because some things are not real unless they are witnessed. The man doesn’t come back until the sun has almost set, which makes Birdie even angrier, because he’s cost her what might be her very last dance with the trees.
He’s not alone. There are three people, which explains why he left. A woman and a child.
The latter’s enough that she almost changes her mind—but she doesn’t, because in that moment, she hears the trees beckon, hears the hollow wetness of sparrow after sparrow, flying into the glass.
She lights the bed, and it flares up, as if it’s been waiting as eagerly as she has. She looks out the window—it’s too bright in here, too dark outside, and she can’t make out their expressions—but she can see their bodies, frozen at the edge of the clearing, unsure of what to do next.
She runs from room to room, lights them in turn, blessing their voyage. When she’s finished, she retreats into the basement and closes the door behind her. There is a click, the sound of a lock turning, too loud to be real.
She hears a crash, and then another. The bangs of exploding windows, glass tinkling as it rains on the floors above.
Birdie shuts her new eyes, curls up, and waits for the tree canopy to mend.
Maria Dong‘s short SFFH has been published in or is forthcoming from Augur, Fusion Fragment, If There’s Anyone Left, and Decoded. She was featured in the 2018 Pitch Wars showcase and is represented by Amy Bishop at Dystel, Goderich, & Bourret. When Maria’s not walking her potato-dog or enjoying southwest Michigan’s exquisite craft beer, she can be found on Twitter at @mariadongwrites or on her website, mariadong.com.
Author of “A Bird Always Wants more Mangoes”
What inspired you to write this story?
I wish I had a really cool answer for this that would make everyone think I’m a genius, but the truth is I’m a really instinctive writer, particularly when I’m doing short fiction, so I usually find myself starting with a central image, theme, or feeling that just kind of grabs me–and more often than not, I don’t know why.
In this case, I think I was thinking about deforestation and the environmental cost of cheap furniture, and the opening image just kind of popped into my head. I was excited, because it’s a great opening, but then I had to figure out, you know, a plot, which for me is usually pantsed outcroppings of what I’m assuming is my subconscious–for example, I’ve noticed a trend recently where I’ve done a bunch of dark stories involving fruit. (Fruit horror: it’s my jam! *buddum-bush!*)
What do you hope readers take from this story?
When I was first sending this story out, one of the rejections said that it was very good, but too postmodern. I have zero background in literary analysis, but I think they were getting at the fact that you never know, really, what’s going on–if Birdie is seeing things or if these things are actually happening. Truth–and particularly the idea of if there’s a singular, objective, observable truth–is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. A knowable truth often makes us feel safe, like everything will be okay if we can just figure out the rules–but I’m not always sure if that’s the case, or if it’s even a thing that’s possible. Part of being a writer that occupies the intersection of several marginalities (mixed-race, asian, queer, disabled) is coming to your own understanding of what is “true” or “correct” or even, “good writing.”
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
I don’t know how many edits! It definitely got several, and they were also spaced out over time–I find that if I give something a few weeks and come back to it, I always see things I didn’t see before. I also have a great CP that I send all of my short fiction to (if you’re reading this, Steve, you are my writing rock, my Irwin mango), and I also always go through a story at least once every time it gets a rejection to see if there’s anything I’m missing.
As for submissions, this story was sent out to nine markets in all. If you’re ever feeling despondent, please remember that short fiction is a numbers game–I announced a string of sales this month and had several people reach out to ask what my secret was; my secret is that I’ve submitted short fiction 91 times this year so far.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
My friend Samantha Rajaram has a novel dropping on October 30th called THE COMPANY DAUGHTERS that is hauntingly good. I usually stick to SFF for pleasure reading, but this historical grabbed me from first lines and dragged me all the way to the end (at which point I sobbed copiously but also kind of happily?) I totally recommend it for anyone that likes beautifully written, tragic books that are also queer and have an incisive reflection of marginality.
And if a bit of self-promotion is okay, I’d like to say that if you liked my writing, I just had a piece come out in Fusion Fragment about a lonely sex robot trying to make friends, and I have a piece coming out in Augur next month about climate diaspora and the things we’ll do for family.