I was born with a sparrow in my chest, nestled just beneath my diaphragm. No one realized at first. It was small, invisible to the naked eye. They discovered it only when I tasted my mother’s milk for the first time and it began to sing.
The doctors were confused, of course. I was sent for a barrage of tests, my tiny body punctured and scanned and irradiated. The results came in slowly, but all said the same thing. I was perfectly healthy. So was the sparrow.
The doctors shrugged and sent me home.
My parents were bemused, of course, but they were not particularly high-strung people and I was their first child. They leafed through all their baby books but then, finding nothing, decided that either it was so common that the books didn’t bother to mention it or so rare as to be unthinkable and incurable and either way, worrying about it wouldn’t do much good. They made accommodations where they could. They never swaddled me, worrying that if they constricted my chest, they might crush its inhabitant. They repainted the nursery to look like a sky. They even, they told me years later, considered adding crushed up worms to my food so the bird wouldn’t starve but couldn’t quite bring themselves to do it. It didn’t seem to matter. The sparrow was fine. It fed off me, perhaps, although it didn’t harm me. I was a round, healthy child with a set of lungs that would have been impressive even if they weren’t augmented with bird screeches.
I grew rapidly, as the young always do. I hit all my milestones, walking when expected, talking even perhaps a little early. That was a comfort to my parents and to my mother’s sister, the only family member they had told about my condition.
They had, in fact, almost forgotten the sparrow until three months into my third year, when my father discovered that my bowl was in the wash and dared try to serve me on another dish. I had a meltdown, naturally. My screaming was not the problem. They were both used to tantrums. But as my father leaned against the counter, waiting for me to finish, he realized that I sounded wrong. There were two distinct bird sounds coming from my chest.
They dragged me to the doctor—I would say immediately but they had to book in with a specialist and so it was several weeks until I was examined. The sparrow, bigger now, was still in my chest. But I now had a robin crouching above my pancreas.
Another barrage of tests and at the end, the conclusion was the same: I was healthy. The birds were healthy. There didn’t seem to be a problem. Home we all went. My parents questioned me: did I know where the bird came from? (No). Had I swallowed it? (No). Did I know when it had appeared? (Hadn’t it always been there)? Having gained nothing useful from me, they sighed and agreed that two birds were really no more silly or troublesome than one.
I was six when I discovered the next bird, although perhaps it had been there for some time. They didn’t bother me and so I didn’t know when they came. I was in kindergarten, had been for some time. My parents had not told my teacher about my…situation but they had felt the need to tell him something. I had a throat condition, they said, and sometimes made odd noises. Nothing to worry about. Yes, of course I had been to a specialist. My teacher was young and wrangling a class of more than thirty children. He was willing to accept almost anything that wouldn’t create more work for him. And so I frittered along, the way children do. I was not popular, but neither was I utterly rejected. I learned new things—cutting, drawing, reading and writing—at about the speed one would expect, neither prodigy nor problem. I was, but for the birds, a very average child.
My classmates didn’t know about the birds. I didn’t tell them. It wasn’t that I treated it as a secret. But the birds were as much a part of me as my fingers and toes and I certainly didn’t go around pointing those out to people.
There was a boy in my class, I don’t remember his name now. I don’t think I knew it well at the time. He was an unpleasant specimen, rude, aggressive. I don’t think he picked on me specifically. He squabbled with everyone. But there were days he chose me as a particular victim. One such day, things escalated more than they ever had before. I had the box of crayons he wanted and, though I was otherwise a largely agreeable child, I was bound and determined not to give them up to him. We fought. We shouted. Before the teacher could intervene, he punched me in the gut as hard as he could.
It hurt. I remember screeching, screeching in many voices, all of them furious. But what I most remember is the way he screamed afterwards, and the bright spots of blood on his fist. I had hidden something sharp under my shirt, he accused me. I had not, of course, but I was pulled from school for the day and my parents, on a hunch, dragged me back to the specialist. It took a birdwatchers’ manual to identify the one now perched above my stomach. It was a kestrel. A kestrel is a pretty bird, its colouring striking. But the first thing I learned about it was that its beak was sharp, its talons sharper.
I was only a child and there were things I didn’t understand about the world. But I knew that it made me feel powerful, to have this wild, sharp thing inside of me. That there was safety in the knowledge that something would defend me if I was touched in a way I didn’t choose.
The kestrel had frightened my parents in a way the songbirds didn’t. After that day, they made a regular standing appointment. Every six months, I was dragged to the specialist, poked and prodded and scanned. In third grade, they discovered the oriole above my hip. In sixth, the cardinal just where esophagus splits into lungs. Seventh grade brought the tern, nestled right at the centre of my pelvis. Eighth grade brought the wrens, one beneath each breast. Ninth, tenth and eleventh grades brought nothing new and my parents dared to hope that I was done, that puberty and maturity had finally overcome the thing inside me which created the birds.
Perhaps it was merely the rhythms of my body or perhaps it had needed strength for the next round. Twelfth grade was a banner year. My first appointment found a lark just under the hollow of my throat. We assumed that would be it. I had never had more than one bird a year. But I woke up one night sore and feverish and when I went to the hospital, they found an entire flock of starlings right in the centre of my torso.
It was, as far as I know, the first time removing my birds was discussed.
Nothing came of it. We had never found a doctor who could explain the birds and, failing an explanation, no doctor was brave enough to risk a surgery. I’m not sure I would have agreed anyway. I didn’t much approve of removing parts of me, especially parts that seemed to be functioning correctly. There were an awful lot of birds now, but they were very good birds.
My first year of university added a red-tailed hawk and a mourning dove. How exactly they managed to fit in a normal human body had never been clear but now in particular, I felt them, felt my organs pushed aside at their presence.
I began to resent the birds a little, the way I might resent a stuffed nose or a trick shoulder. There were too many. They had always fitted before but now I felt full. Felt weighed down. And the sheer number was troublesome. They shifted sometimes and they made noise and sometimes I had strange dreams that left me disoriented for days afterwards.
Still, I had the birds. I couldn’t change that. I made do.
I noticed her first because I thought she was beautiful and second because she made my birds sing (this, of course, was not a metaphor. When you are filled with birds, you have trouble with metaphor, because you believe every wild thing has a chance to be true). We sat next to one another on the first day of class in my second year of university and then, every day thereafter. It gave me time to inspect her. She had very black hair, the kind of glossy, iridescent black you don’t see often outside of raven feathers and dye commercials. Her skin was coldly pale, like porcelain. Her eyes were grey. The colour had always sounded romantic in the books I read: the colour of steel, the colour of storms. Hers were rather dull, a colour that made me think of rainy days in the heart of February.
She didn’t speak much, not to me, not to the teacher, not to the other students. She doodled sometimes, swathes of extraordinarily regular geometric shapes. Sometimes she took notes, in a precise, looping hand.
There was a third reason I noticed her, a reason I only learned to articulate with time. She was striking because she seemed so terribly sad.
It took a month of sharing desk space before I dared to talk to her. I had wanted to since that very first day but if I had ever had the knack of easy conversation, I had lost it long since. There was, sometimes, the echo of bird call in my throat and so I was sparing of my words. I don’t remember what I said; some inanity about the weather or about the level of homework we’d been given, I think. She looked at me. She smiled. The inside of her mouth was very, very black.
“You’ve got a wonderful voice,” she said and from that moment on, I was always a little bit hers.
We grew up. We passed that first class and then all the ones after. I remained an average student; she loaded herself with classes in every department. When she wasn’t attending lectures or in the library, she crammed her hours with clubs and fundraising and volunteering, until the grey under her eyes matched the grey in them. And as she bounced from adventure to adventure, I followed her and she let me. We spent late nights studying, later nights drinking and baking and binging television shows that neither of us would have watched without the other. I learned the contours of her face, the softness of her voice. Once I think I even heard her laugh, a thin, reedy little sound like wind rattling through hollow bones.
I added a tanager and a plover and spent several evenings staring worriedly into the mirror, wondering if they were visible, wondering if I was swelling with them. When I convinced myself I was not, I learned to live with them.
We moved in together. We gave a myriad of reasons, all of them sensible, none of them real. I don’t know why we bothered. My parents continued to be calm and unflappable; moving out must have been a refreshing difference from the usual sudden changes I inflicted on them. Her parents—I never knew them really. They didn’t seem interested in her or perhaps, she had never been interested in them and they knew it. At any rate, there was no protest. We found a two-bedroom apartment, decorated it as we went, visiting garage sales and discount furniture warehouses. She quickly filled her own room with a clutter that felt almost desperate, plants and books and yarnworking projects and sports equipment and knickknacks all jumbled together in heaps of colour and texture that almost tricked the mind into thinking there was a pattern. My own I kept sparse. I was beginning to feel that I never had enough space to truly breathe.
She continued to seek out new experiences. She won prestigious internships and then prestigious job offers. She travelled, when she could find a moment to get away. I followed at my own pace. Sometimes I hurried. Sometimes she waited. We never lost one another.
I had never told anyone about the birds. I had grown and I had learned, about danger, about discretion. But more than anything, I had never come to a place in which the birds were not a part of me. I had blood, I had bone, I had birds. Though they increasingly vexed me, I didn’t consider it worth making a fuss over.
I told her. It was spring, that time when the air is heavy with both the scent of new growth and the scent of rot. We were walking on an old hiking trail, theoretically looking for crocuses, in practice merely wandering. She had taken a rare break in her whirlwind life to simply experience the world with me. I could win that from her sometimes. I was the only one who could.
I hadn’t planned, exactly, to tell her about the birds. But the admission felt inevitable. From the moment we had first spoken, I knew that I would tell her someday. It was only the timing that came as a surprise.
She let me speak, of course. She always let me speak. For a woman always in motion, she was the best listener I had ever met. Maybe it was only me she listened to; maybe she had never stopped loving my voice.
“What’s it like?” she asked when I was finished, her eyes solemn. “To be born with a bird inside of you?”
I shrugged. I had always assumed that it was mostly like being born without a bird inside you, except for the bird’s presence. She accepted it with grace. She was used to my attitude by now, my acceptance of something that to her must have seemed so strange. She contemplated me, her face calm, the only sign she was thinking the slight dilation of her pupils.
“Can you feel them?” she asked. “Inside?”
I nodded. “Most of the time. It’s not much trouble, except when they get excited.”
“I didn’t cry when I was born,” she said. It felt like a continuation. “I didn’t do anything. I was a very easy baby. Just a doll, really.”
She leaned in, just a little.
“You were born full of birds,” she said. “I think I was born empty. And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to fill myself up.”
She didn’t cry then—I had never seen her cry—but she looked like she wanted to.
I felt a hard flutter in my chest, the shifting of wings, the spreading of feathers. I remembered what I had read about migration. About the way the world aligns to tell you that it’s time. The way home can change but it must always be sought and sometimes struggled for.
I leaned over and kissed her, feeling the scratch of bird claws on the inside of my throat. She stiffened. She started. And then her mouth opened against mine.
It felt like flight. Feather and song poured from my mouth and into hers, down her throat, down into the depths of her. When the exodus stilled, I pulled away.
My skin, for the first time in many years, fit perfectly over my bones.
The birds still inside me began to sing.
She looked at me. Her eyes were the gentle brown of a sparrow’s head.
And the birds inside her began to sing back.