My Best Friend Cassie is Turning into a Bird
BY courtney flerlage
We hadn't talked for weeks. The day it started you came to me first, arms outstretched and palms facing up so that I could see the striated, white shafts of blood feathers pimpling your skin. You had rubbed your arm raw trying to shake them, but it hadn't helped, instead leaving your pores smarting red. I stayed up until 2:00 am extracting each shaft with a pair of tweezers. You closed your eyes, squeezed my free hand against the pain. Each feather I pulled free was stunted and undeveloped, whisped at the tip with the beginnings of feathers. They left pink, raw pockets in your skin when I pulled them free. I could only smooth antibiotics over the sores and give you aspirin for the pain. The air was fuzzy with feather slivers that had detached and floated away, catching me in the back of my throat. "You're the only person I've told," you said, eyes bloodshot, shining.
I sip blonde roast in the café as you swallow stones. Your digestive system is shifting, your throat quietly pocketing into a gullet. You vomit when you try to eat anything but organic. Like a dove eats gravel you need the rocks to grind your food. "Do you think love is a real thing?" You tilt your head back as you swallow a pebble. "Of course," I say.
A couple seated to the right of us turns to stare. Finding their gaze, you watch them with eyes like black holes. They look away. You pick another rock from the pile on your plate and roll it between your thumb and index finger.
We used to talk about visiting the ocean, as if it was landlock that kept us apart and not the lover-crush heat you craved. Our friendship was too sterile and stagnant a love for you. "I wish it weren't," you say. "It would be so easy then--we could explain it all away as something animal. It wouldn't eat us alive when we lost it." You pop the rock in your mouth like a pill and roll it between your teeth before you swallow. I imagine the feel of it as it pulls down, heavy, tugging against the body's soft tissues. "It's just so hard to go back to normal once you've been loved like that." You've said the word love so many times now it's just a sound, the buzz of a wasp in the air.
Last night you dreamt we let your feathers grow and you took flight. The earth fell away to a white lawn of clouds and you forgot the green flush of forest and distant iolite sea. "I was weightless," you say. "I barely had to work. I just sailed up. My bones are hollowing out, you know. I can hear the creaking leak in the middle of the night. Pretty soon I could fly if I wanted."
"What kind of bird were you?"
"I want to be a hawk. Or maybe a seagull."
We see them in parking lots, fighting sparrows for garbage scraps--great white birds with clean, sharp wings. I imagine you sipping seawater, mountain stretches carving the air between us. "You don't get to choose what bird you are," I say, as if I know the rules. As if any of this was ever something I could control.
You are losing the ability to speak. You tell me your throat hurts, and I know it's because your voice box is peeling into two chambers to form a syrinx, the vocal organ of birds. Sometimes when you talk you replace words with tones, and it becomes hard to understand you. "I don't mind it," you say. "I never had many good things to say anyways." Eventually, you cant talk at all, only sing. You write to me on paper, "I feel home buzzing inside my head." I think of the blood cells of migratory birds, thick with iron to pull them to their nests each year. "At night I can only think of where I've been," you say. "I need to go back."
Centuries from now when they find our bones in separate states, they won't have me to ground you in the right time, mistaking you for some Mesozoic half-creature. They'll finger the shells at your crown, the soft soil that will turn your bones to stone. They'll shrug, as if to say, This one's been a long time underwater.
Courtney Flerlage received her B.A. in English from Hollins University, where she served as an editor for the undergraduate literary magazine Cargoes. Her work has appeared in the Alabama Literary Review, Paper Nautilus, and Written River. She currently lives in Southern Maryland.