WE DIDN’T HEAR the babies fall down the fireplace. Sometimes, on rare nights when the Florida air felt drunk up and the lizards froze blue on paver bricks, we’d open the glass doors to place our Winn Dixie logs to light and find their bones. Skeletons, as brittle as the houses of spit and stick they fell through, lay still and white beneath black. Most broke their necks on the fall, but occasionally one would land on a bed of ashes made up of charred wood and siblings.
My sisters and I would hear their faint charcoaled chirps. If we were downstairs playing in the family room, we’d scream for our mother to grab the bird, even if my dad was sitting right there on the couch. We always tried to save any hurt animal that came our way. A hare, whose leg had been chewed off from the neighbor’s Dalmatian, died in a shoebox we’d set it in as we dialed the vet’s number. A pile of abandoned duck eggs was taken home and placed on my mother’s heating pad, but the dial was set too high. The eggs boiled and exploded in my sister’s room over ballerina statues and frayed carpet. The birds, too, never lasted longer than an hour or so. Their loose skinned bodies were placed in a little dirt hole beneath the orange tree we would cut down years later from all the fruit rats it housed. Mother save it. Mother do something. Mother, where’s its mother?
Before I had my son, I thought I was too careless to be a mother. I had a bird for eight years that I’d gotten as a gift from a flea market. His cage would be cleaned when my parents told me to clean it, his water bowl goopy and pink. I didn’t even realize he was technically, reproductively a “she” until I saw blood leaking and matted beneath her. An egg was stuck inside her and she died shortly after the discovery. The animal graveyard that grew out back was as fertile as my mother’s bougainvilleas.
I heard a baby warble while I lay on the family room’s palm tree carpet when I was ten. Sometimes I felt this insatiable amount of loneliness that knotted my stomach up to the point of immobilization. My father would work from six a.m. to six p.m., then eat and go to bed shortly after coming home. My mother was a flight attendant who’d fly for days at a time. For some reason I blamed my mother for the absence of both. When I heard the bird sing out I thought about it dying alone.
How much sunlight had it seen?
Does it feel like it’s back in its egg, like it was back home?
As a child I wouldn’t touch turned over cockroaches behind couches, brown anoles, the inside of faucets, or dip my hands in stoppered dish water stagnant in a sink, but I did open the fireplace to pick up the naked bird. I made my hand into the shape of a nest and cupped it. My arms, engulfed in the dark of the fireplace, felt like I’d put my fingers down the garbage disposal.
Had the midday Florida rain washed it down or had a gust of wind loosened the twigs? I had visions of saving this bird to complete recovery and it being my best friend, perched on my shoulder. I’d whistle and it’d come to me like a hawk to a glove. See, I would say to my family, to its mother, I can keep it safe.
When my son was born it felt as if he’d fallen out from me and into that glass box. He’d been in my arms at home for only a few days before this. On the car ride to the hospital my mother screamed, They’re going to take him away from you, they’re going to smell the alcohol. I sat in the backseat with his hand curled around my index finger. My face wet. His yellow eyes opening and shutting.
Would I ever be able to hear him say Mother? My body leaked everywhere but my breasts. It takes a little while for the milk to drop, the nurses reassured me after his birth. But it was a knock on the door that never came. The night of his hospitalization my mother had come into my room to tell me her friend used to drink a beer as a way to relax the body, so the milk would release. It’s the yeast, my mother told me. One beer, and my mother thought they’d take him away from me.
Every time I moved on the leather chair in his NICU room I felt as if the stitches that’d just closed me up were being ripped out. I smelled like death, like a turtle tank. I slept in that leather chair for three days, leaving only to eat in the hospital cafeteria and to wash myself in the bathroom that the other NICU parents and I shared. I cleaned the clumps of blood from myself that matted my pubic hairs. When I left to eat I felt like I was abandoning him. There were so many babies in glass boxes that lead to the elevator. Some rooms were barren, while others had little crocheted blankets, pictures, balloons, dead flowers.
I watched his still body lie beneath bright LED lights for hours, tiny and pink. During my pregnancy I dreamt I miscarried, that he slipped out of me black or blue. At night in the NICU chair, sleep deprivation would creep up and I’d hallucinate that my arms stretched to the ceiling. I waved them around in amazement. Reaching, reaching, reaching.
When he was first born the doctors placed him on my chest, placenta and all. His foamy body, his matted hair, his blue eyes, it was like he was born from the sea. He rooted around for my nipple and when he found it nothing had ever felt so right. It was all so instinctual, so animalistic, and good. He raised his neck and looked at me and I looked right back.
The bird shivered and cried out in a weak vibration from its vocal chords. Its eyes tucked between two flaps that opened and closed as I set it down on top of a coiled pink feathered boa—a treasured piece from my collection of dress up clothes. I’m so giving, I thought, look at this sacrifice.
Where was its mother?
My teacher once told the class that a student she once had had gotten in a fight with her parents, told them she hated them, and that night, after her parents left, they got in a car crash and died. That’s why you always tell your parents you love them, she told the class. It was a grim story that chilled me. I thought about my parents dying constantly. After that, before my parents left the house I made them say, Promise. It was an unspoken agreement, a spell that kept them alive, safe. Promise became a compulsive ritual that had to happen no matter what I was doing.
I left the bird to make a bowl of soggy cat food to feed it through a dropper, something I’d seen my mother do. Outside, I scanned the sky to see if it’s mother called for it. The top of the chimney was still, quiet. Maybe the mother didn’t know yet or was out looking for worms, or maybe she didn’t care—animals were strange like that.
Even if I did find it’s mother, I reasoned, my smell is all over it.
Pheromones, my mother had called it. It was like when I slept over my other people’s houses. Their house smells weren’t my house smells. When I got picked up and my mother would hug me tight she’d smell my scalp and smile, you smell just like you did when you were a baby.
I thought about how animals know when their dying. That’s why they go off and die under a house or a shaded bush. Sometimes I think people can smell death too, we just fear it more, so we ignore it. A look in someone’s eye, maybe someone close to you, and you can see it—the flicker. I think about how the mother bird hunts for worms who’ve possibly nourished themselves on her dead babies. They don’t even know it, how they’re reunited.
Maybe don’t touch him when the doctors are giving him shots, my mother told me, He’ll smell you when he feels that pain. She reflected on her advice, Maybe that’s why you girls were always so hard on me.
I wanted the bird to live so badly I didn’t notice how its belly became distended. It kept its beak open for more food and I obliged. I kept squeezing the soft top of the dropper— it’s the only thing I could give it. I didn’t notice how bloated and quiet it got until it no longer chirped from its beak. How when I stopped, food leaked out from its nostrils and mouth. Its pink naked body lay still amongst the pink feathers of the boa that stroked it when the breeze blew.
I’d killed it. Its body reeked of cat food and so did my fingers. I didn’t want to touch it, not anymore. Do I bury it and keep it a secret? Throw it in the trash cans that stood next to the chimney and hide the evidence?
Mother, where is my mother?
I buried it beneath the orange tree next to its brothers and sisters, alone. My fingers dug into the sandy Florida soil until the ground turned cold and moist. The roots in the tree would drink the water that seeped through the bird. My mother would pick its oranges and make us juice from the tree for breakfast. My son, Harry, would later play in the dirt where the stump used to be rooted. He’d dig up snail shells and pill bugs that’d roll around his small, dirty hands.
When he gets older, he’ll stop gathering and handing me the wildflowers that grow in between grass blades. He’ll no longer pick an ordinary rock and find it extraordinary. His fingers and toes, remaining above soil, will catch bigger things and place them in glass boxes.
MCKENZIE ZALOPANY lives in the Tampa Bay Area, graduated from the University of South Florida, and is a rad single mom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Tulane Review, Superstition Review, Cut Bank, and elsewhere. Her book of poetry, The Hand that FEEDz, will be published later year by Dark Horse Florida.