Certain Robins

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“Untitled” By Thalia Cuello

When I drove into the field and parked at its edge, my mother looked wild standing in the rusted bed of her pickup truck and pouring squirming mealworms on the roof. She threw the twitchy contents of Styrofoam cups in great arcs, her oversized plaid coat flailing open. Her graying blond hair lay loose down her back. Mealworms were finding graying curls to hide in while tossing in mid-air.

I turned off the engine and watched the congregation of robins—seventy or so—fly in circles around my mother to land in her piles of sacrifices. They’d bring a worm into their beaks and then fly away a few feet to chomp, then return. As I watched their great, confused number, I thought about how they had missed their own migration. I had no real room to judge; I wasn’t supposed to be moving home either.

*   *   *

My mother started to feed the birds when the fall had turned a surprising cold. The robins chose to stay probably because they were certain there was more food in the field than where they were going, and, of course, because of the displacement of seasonal patterns. Robins were no longer a sign of the changing skies—a sign of warmth on its way. Now they all fluttered confused in my mother’s field in January.

As I approached her truck, walking the left-curving tire track to the middle of open, grey field, she called out to me, “Hey, Gorgeous! My gorgeous girl! Hello!”

I smiled and hugged my coat tighter to my body. The wind picked up and a thin film of snow was puffing up in the air and covering my legs, my pockets. When my mother jumped down from the truck bed, half of her robins flew up onto an overhanging electric wire. They looked down and cocked their heads.

“Hey, Ma. Didn’t know you’d be having company over for dinner.”

She smiled to the birds, then hugged me. Her shoulder smelled like ash and smoke from her fireplace, the powder of leftover shampoo. It was a reminder of her, of how she never wore fragrances, of how it was far too expensive in the grand scheme of expenses.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“The storm that’s coming is going to be big. I don’t think you should be up here by yourself. One of the Arctic blasts. Negative ten or fifteen with snow. When was the last time we had that combo?”

“Well, I ain’t leaving,” she said, taking a step back. Robins flying back to their mealworms framed her.

“Well, then I ain’t leaving either,” I said, and she smiled again, the loose skin on her neck still surprising to me. “Seriously—I got some jugs of water and brought over my space heaters from the apartment. It’s probably not good for either of us to be without the other this weekend. Right?”

I could see her swell with the thought. She was thrilled to have me there, with a kind of turn in her lip that had always made me step back when I was a teenager.

“You’re welcome to stay. You’re all welcome to stay,” she said, turning back to the birds, “but I’m pretty sure I can handle this old house without you. You’ll just hold me back, my girl.”

Her robins twittered and I just shrugged.

As we walked back to the house, we left her truck marooned in the middle of the field. My mother smacked my back in the same manner my grandfather used to, and I could suddenly see myself in her walk. Our genetics reflected in how we dragged our boots through the five inches of snow rather than lift our knees high. The wind picked up and swept my mother’s hair sideways across her eyelashes. She was skinny. She’d always been skinny. People always used to call her country skinny, as though eating out of her own garden had made her that way.

“The wind is going to pick up really soon. It feels like someone with an ice cube in their mouth is breathing on your face,” she said.

“I’ve never had the pleasure,” I said.

“You’re missing out, Cindy.”

I stopped. She paused too, her hair pulling behind her as though pointing back to her robins.

“My name is not Cindy, Ma.”

Her eyes focused on me. She frowned.

“Cindy is your sister. She’s in Connecticut,” I said, pushing my hands into my pockets.

“I know you’re not Cindy. You’re Taylor—my Taylor-ita. I named you that. Don’t pretend I’m an idiot now.”

She had started to slip three months before when I had first found an apartment nearby and was starting to move slowly back home. I had stayed a few days with Mom while my water was turned on and cable set up. She spent a whole Wednesday asking me to go get my luggage out of the car, but I had brought it in with me when I had first pulled into the yard the day before. Whenever this kind of mistake happened, she just passed it off, pressing forward, trying to focus on what she had been doing before her brain had tricked her. That time, she waved a hand at my explanation of how long I had been there, and how many bags I owned, then she went back to her task of butchering a chicken over the sink—the last of her own chickens that she had raised.

It seemed as though her memory was like a passing vision. What had been solid in the world before was starting to slip. Her life prior was merging with the now, age becoming foggy. I had noticed that this wasn’t just in her brief mentions of others, or my name and birthday and boyfriend (I had been single for six months, but she couldn’t remember this), but also in her feelings, her reactions. Sometimes she seemed sixteen. At times, thirty. Sometimes, she acted her age—all of sixty eight. She had always been youthful, and age wasn’t really something that bothered her much anyway, so I barely noticed most of the time. But then, she’d smile and dip her shoulder low with a joke. Once, she laughed maniacally when she spilled her Coke and rum. She had laughed until she slipped down to the floor. The only thing I could do was act sixteen too.

Now, during the storm, she was sixty-eight. When the wind picked up, she looked out the wide picture window in the living room, sipping rose hip tea and braiding her long thinning hair over one shoulder. I set candles out in holders and bowls on the tables and countertops, found the matches and brought in wood. Obviously worn out, she drank her tea and enjoyed, for once, someone else doing the little chores. It started to snow, first with the heavy snowflakes of a storm gaining speed, and then the faster pelting snow of a storm trying to be efficient. Then the wind came harder, and the window became a screen of television static.

She was reading a book by then, having given up on her staring contest with the yard. I joined her once I had filled the iron-stained bathtub with emergency water and set aside six buckets of water to fill the two toilets for when the power, inevitably, turned off. Neither of us took off our layers—long johns and leggings. The heater would never hold up against this storm, and the wood heat would never warm the whole house.

Then, as though arriving at last, the wind began to cry. The shadowy bodies of robins flew past our window. They tried to roost in the white oak while the wind bent its trunk, but they seemed to be stripped out every time they got a chance to relax. She watched for them—the birds passing like flags torn from their posts—and when they whistled past, she let out little cries for each one.

“They should know what to do in a storm, Ma.”

“You have a lot of faith in lost birds, Miriam.”

I winced. I didn’t know a Miriam, though if I remembered right, that had been one of the possible names for the baby my mother miscarried a few years after I was born. I poured myself some of Mom’s loose leaf tea into a plastic mug with the logo of the local farmer’s market on the side. Precious Produce Sellers and Lovers. The sky was darkening, the snow turning grey as it passed. When the black of it finally touched everything, a tree fell outside. The roots creaked and then the trunk hit the snowy bank of the hill. It was too dark to see the loss, but the sound had an ominous quality, an overwhelming voice, the sense that something great and old and memorable had suddenly had its heart broken in two. My mother held her breath and closed her book.

There was a loud bang and we both looked up to the top corner of the window. A dark body slid downward, leaving soft belly feathers behind.

“Oh no,” she said.

The wind called back to her and birds whipped past in greater numbers, their backs bent as they flapped against the force. Another robin hit the window. I screamed, the deep bang of its breast bone vibrating in my own ribcage. The window cracked at the little bird’s force—just a little fracture in the corner of the frame.

“No, no, no,” my mother whispered.

Another hit hard, its feathers drenched in icy droplets.

“No,” she said, “Taylor, we have to help them.”

“Ma,” I leaned close to the window, and thought of the many birds in the wind, fighting the oncoming night, the drop in temperature. “I don’t know what we could do.”

The lights flickered for a few seconds. The heat was the first thing to fall quiet in the house and then the lights. Darkness lay out in front of us. For a moment, I thought my eyes were closed, and then the corners of the room came to me more clearly. Mom picked up a battery lantern and used a rounded white beam of light to show her the way to the basement door and the creaking steps. She paced herself down the stairs, her eyes lit as though facing a flame.

“C’mon,” she called, and I was relieved that she remembered that I was there. So much so, I didn’t even wonder why we’d go downstairs.

My mother’s basement was infamous—a wall of boxes from her days of teaching and producing art. She was never one to throw out anything, and her great circulating collection of materials gathered like city blocks. We walked through her pathway of collections: a box labeled diapers, others blank and covered in duct tape, three half open with “crap” written in four foot letters, more and more gathered with faces of handwritten titles and many without. As my mother walked, she moved the smaller boxes out of our way. These were mostly shoe boxes full of old roofing screws and empty toilet paper rolls meant for a forgotten craft project. At the end of the snaking aisle, there was the green door that would lead us outside. Deer antlers hung over the entrance with St. Patrick’s Day beads dangling down.

“We have to see why they are flying, Amanda. They should be cuddled up out of the wind.”

“I’m Taylor. Tay-lor.”

She looked at me, eyes glassy.

“We have to see.”

“Ok, I guess,” I said, looking down at her feet as she pulled on knee-high boots that she kept by the door in a muddy puddle. I swallowed.

I pulled on the running shoes next to the boots—she hadn’t used them in five years or so, and they collapsed against the surprise of toes. Mom opened the door at first slowly, and then the wind threw it back. She yelled and pressed her body against it to keep the hinges. As she did, a single robin bulleted in through the opening. The wind gave up and Mom closed the door with a crack.

The robin flew around the room, knocking into boxes and passing between the deer antlers. The bird was a blurring whir, and my mother was suddenly younger, chasing the bird through the boxes, clapping her hands in the air.

“I’m sorry sweetheart. Slow down, sweetheart,” she said.

The robin twittered shrilly, knocked over a box labeled “leather scraps,” and left a feathery print against the fogged basement window. She landed on the sill. There was a calm that followed, then the weeping wind outside. My mother’s pointer finger rose over the window sill. She pet its back feathers and the bird moved gently beneath her finger’s warmth.

“It’s going to start getting a lot colder in the house soon. We should make sure the fire upstairs doesn’t go out,” I said, feeling the chill slip into my clothes and over the arches of my feet. Mom nodded as she pet the bird.

“We need to keep her warm,” she said, and then turned to the boxes. There was a box labeled “Kid Stuff” in curly handwriting that I recognized from when I was twelve and packing up the toys I wanted to outgrow. Mom ripped open the box and pulled out the blonde and brown-haired plastic bodies, their eyelids bobbing up and down. Beneath, she found the sweaters and onesies—the ones no human could ever fit into. She chose a purple onesie that I used to dress the Spanish looking doll in—I named her Francesca. Mom wrapped the robin gently in it and the bird moved its head to look in my mother’s eyes.

“She’ll stay the night with us,” Mom said. “What should we name her?”

“Francesca,” I said.

“Francesca it is.”

My mother laughed the way she used to before her voice crackled in her throat. It rolled around her mouth instead and came out as fogged breath. I realized that when I was there in the house, I made her feel thirty. I could feel the wind outside as she moved our insulation aside. There was an old stove in the back corner that I hadn’t lit in years. I helped her move the boxes out of the way and shivered at the sound of cardboard scraping the concrete floor. She stored the wood in the basement in the space by the stairs, so it was dry and easy to reach. She kept lighters by the stove with newspaper, tissues and fire-starters just in case. Her dry hands cracked open a flame from a long lighter and the wood responded after only a few tries. The new heat source burned bright with the flame, the glass door of the stove letting us see deep into a small belly of old ash and blackened iron. When the wind blew, the fire ducked as though avoiding its attacks down the chimney.

The heat moved across the basement slowly, and in a fleeting moment of hesitation, I thought of what a loose fire would look like catching all of those boxes. It wasn’t worth it to worry. We needed the heat without power, and this was the most practical thing Mom had chosen to do so far.

“Francesca’s waking up,” she said.

I looked to the box, and the bird was there, curled as though nesting in her doll outfit, but looking around slowly, her eyes moving gently over the room.

“Lucky bird.”

“We should go outside and see if we can see the rest,” Mom said.

It was pitch black through the window, but it did seem as though we were in a break in the wind.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s getting colder.”

But Mom had already pulled the door open. She slipped outside and disappeared. The door shut behind her and Francesca made a strangled chirp from her bed on the box top.

“Mom,” I called. “Mom!”

There was no reply. I pulled open the door and the wind curled into the room again. My hip pressed against its will to open wide.

She did come back, though I felt that she wouldn’t, like I would be waiting with that little robin forever, looking into darkness. Really, Mom couldn’t get far anyway. It was a few minutes, and she pushed her way back into the warming basement. Snow came in after her feet.

She still wore the winter coat that she’d had on all evening, though now it was fringed with snow that powdered to the floor as she entered, and the down padding was bulkier. When she unzipped, she revealed eight robins gathered against her stomach. They were half dead, their mouths all open, their eyes moving side to side. My mother’s heat was waking them.

“The oak tree fell, and these little guys were huddled against the brick wall,” she said, laying the birds in a line across the box, their knobby, sharp feet scraping. My mother cried. She was thirteen, unable to hold it back, the birds each a little symbol of loss and cruelty and cold. “I can’t believe the robins let this happen.”

I nodded and began to wrap each bird gently in the clothes of my childhood toys—an apron around one, a fake mink coat around another, the corduroy jacket of a teddy bear. Half of these clothes were hand sewn—gifts from my mother. There were periods when we couldn’t afford much, so my birthday gifts came right from her hands. Soon, each bird was lined up along with Francesca, waiting to wake, warm and stretch.

As I dressed the birds, my mother continued to shiver and cry, leaning against her boxes. I wondered where she would be when she came out of the tears. I could see her being her own age, quirky, but aware of the world. I could see her emerging as thirty again, ready to take care of me and everyone else, ready to be the youthful, motherly demander. My fingers tucked fabric around the robins’ rough, curled feet. I thought about the fact that at some point my mother’s coin would have to land.

The two birds received scraps of leather for their jackets when the tiny clothes ran out. There was white fake leather and thick saddle leather, all of which formed turtle shells of heat around them. The stove pumped away. My mother added more wood and cried some more, but quieter now.

“Can we name one Adeline?” she said, finally.

“Of course. Which one?”

“The one in the corduroy,” she said, pointing. The bird looked at her finger, beak open and ready to nip at the skin.

“Sure. We need a boy then. Let’s call him Isaac. How do we know which is which?”

“Ladies have the softer, whiter bellies.”

I hesitated. These robins looked dulled by the season, and their ruffled and torn feathers told little about their age or sex or anything, really. So, we created their identities for them, gave them jobs. Morgan was a frustrated sales representative; that’s why she preferred white leather to her old three piece suit. Paul had been a professional surfer, but he had gotten older and had babies and moved East for his wife’s job. Now he wore plaid most of the time. My mother giggled at that one, the complexity of Paul’s life. He looked tired still, and she touched his feathered head with a gently press of a finger pad.

Slowly, as Mom gathered herself back together, her body and mind seemed to be coming to an agreement again. Dolly, the bird with the largely puffed chest, wore a thick brown leather blanket, and my mother cooed at the animal, even pressed her cheek to its wing. All the while the snow outside thickened, and the wind calmed to nothing. Everything felt damper and heavier from the weight of snow gathering against the window pane and door.

“We’ll name the last three Teresa, Travis and,” she paused for a long second, “Taylor. Don’t you think?”

I waited to see her smile, but this was not a joke.

She nodded and broke the tape on a box labeled “Art Supplies/Fabric.” Teresa was given a blanket of red felt that had Christmas shapes cut out randomly along the edges.

“Mom, why do you want to name them that?”

“Who knows! It doesn’t matter. Just faceless names—and they can fill them in with their own identities. Teresa is a bank clerk. Taylor is probably a young kid—a skateboarder girl. A badass in the bird world.

I pressed a half-made quilt around the bird that shared my name and looked into its black eyes as it watched my mother’s quick movements. Taylor-the-bird was grungier than the others, her right wing torn on the end. When I touched her back, she reached around and took a bite out of my finger, almost breaking skin. Then she opened her beak ready for more. I saw the bird shiver. She was terrified. This warm basement, for Mom’s birds, felt like the end.

I felt a dizziness, knowing that my mother might have no idea who I was. Eventually, after this storm and after this night, there would be some evening when she looked at my face and no name would fill in her memory at all. Her eyes would be blank like my own bird’s eyes. The little thing trembled again and fell over on its side. I re-situated its body so that the quilt held it up straight.

“Mom,” I said, “what’s my name?”

Taylor twittered at me as though in response.

“I’m tired,” Mom said as she wrapped our last bird in an old denim seat cover. “Think we should make a bed by the stove? Warmest place in the house probably.”

I tasted metal in my mouth and felt a wave roll inside me.

“What’s my name?”

“Let’s roll out that old carpet and get the camping gear from the back shelf. There’s the two sleeping bags in there.”

She went quiet, even as I helped her roll out the old orange carpet that used to sit in the mudroom. Even as I helped her zip up her old sleeping bag around herself. I went to sleep looking at a crack in the ceiling, feeling a strange hatred for the robin wrapped up along with its family on the boxes. My mother fell asleep almost immediately, her pale skin shiny in the light of the fire, her hair spread wide and thin like wings behind her head. We had no pillows. I gave my warmth to Mom’s sleeping form as much as I could, leaning against her back, but she had no warmth to give back to me and I found myself shivering. The birds began to twitter slowly. I ignored them, the spite in my stomach feeling more real.

I wished we hadn’t thought to save them with doll clothes. I thought of my name over and over and pictured my mother when she used to pick me up from soccer practice and scream my name in a manly tone out of the car window. I thought of that time when I came home drunk in high school early on a Saturday and she knew it. I stood in the kitchen against the oily stove when she leaned in close and whispered, “Taylor, I know you,” like my name was made of an acid. Her lips had been cracked, her eyes sharp.

Now she just slept, and I came in and out of my own dreams, the birds ignoring us both as they began to waken.

At two in the morning, there was a huge boom upstairs. Pieces slid over the living room floor. I woke screaming from a dream in which all of my mother’s pictures fell off of the walls of her house at once. It was confusing to open my eyes to birds—all of them awake and flying around the room in a panic. A few held onto the deer antlers above the back door and cringed against the wind’s continued voice outside. Taylor was one of them, her quilt left behind on the cardboard. I ignored their terror, threw off my sleeping bag and ran upstairs with the lantern. My mother stirred as I left, and I imagine when I slammed the door at the top, this is probably what fully woke her.

Upstairs, in the main part of the house, the temperature was significantly lower—I guessed around zero, but worse where the wind blew through the hallway. I followed the cold into the living room where snow dressed the couch. The oak table where my mother sat and read the evening before was covered in an inch of soft, powdery snow that flew with the wind and left white traces over the floor like spilled sugar. The room seemed to be almost blue, burning with its own cold.

And then I heard them twitter. My mother’s living room was dressed in snow along her bookshelves, the television had a frosted grey over its screen, and the birds were there too, hunched against books and perched on the wrought iron chandelier, their heads gently turning to watch me. There were more robins, many more of them, a few with broken wings bent outward at funny angles. Forty or so all together had taken shelter. I looked to the window and saw that one of these robins had hit the window in force. Shards lay over the oak floor. Bird feathers and thin threads of blood dressed their sharp edges.

More birds came in, rushing with the wind and finding random points in the room to perch. The sky was clear of snow, and the forest line was edged with dawn. I could see the robins clearer with every minute, and they could see me, though I guessed I looked like a great confused beast myself in my dark winter coat in my mother’s house, the lines of a sleeping bag zipper still pressed into the skin of my cheek.

I heard her then, and her voice was full of gasps.

She screamed first like a wounded animal. Following the collapses of boxes she yelled, “Arthur. Where the hell are you?” There was panic, the sound of cardboard breaking open on the floor. Her brother Arthur had been dead for five years. Stomach cancer took him.

The birds began flying at the sound of her voice and circled the chandelier each three or four times. There was a burst of them picking up speed along the ceiling beams. I felt my heartbeat rise, and I held my breath, waiting for another call from my mother. I knew in a deep corner of my mind that I would only respond to my name. That I wanted only to hear her know me, to remember that I was there to help take care of her. I was not the robin looking down on her from the windowsill.

The birds touched my ears with their wings. Even then I didn’t move. There was the sound of pattering on the carpet. Then I could hear my mother’s whimpers, but I could not go downstairs just yet. I could not see the other Taylor looking down on me with small eyes. Instead, I went to the mudroom closet where Mom kept the duct tape under old tennis rackets and moldy bags.

My mother cried again, still lost, her sounds vacant of her true voice. She had taken on someone else’s sounds. I ignored her again, the ache growing again against the pit of my stomach. The duct tape roll lay heavy in my hand as I stood in my coat on the snowy living room floor and wondered to myself if a cardboard window pane would work to keep the wind out for the rest of this damn storm. And then where would I get the cardboard to cover that huge picture window?

I thought of the boxes, their ugly, broken bodies waiting for me downstairs.

By Jessi Lewis