The first bird was made of glass. It stood waiting atop a scuffed dresser in the yard on Lancaster Street, and at once Kay hefted it in her hand. It felt good there, heavier than she’d expected. The owl’s wings were tucked away and its head gazed into some autumnal wisdom that she couldn’t see. It did have the color of fall, if nothing else, the glass a translucent burnt orange that felt like the seventies. She collected things that were beginning to be old. Like herself. Things she imagined her mother might have bought when they were new.
She had made her way to the far end of the yard sale, picking through a life, half-glancing, fingers brushing across clothes that would swallow her up, exercise equipment that still looked new, paperbacks with oily crumbs in the cracks between pages. A hand-lettered sign out on the main road had led her to the drowsy street. The only thing she knew she wanted, until the owl, was time, a few extra minutes before she went to watch her father die.
The smell of burning leaves caught in her nose, almost like cinnamon. Three great oaks huddled together in a green canopy overhead, cutting the sunlight into wedges scattered across the grass. Kay stood in one, spotlighted. In less than four minutes she would meet the child with the bloody nose, but for now she turned the owl in the sun, making its head glow, making its head go dark. She felt some inscrutable admiration for the way it held the light inside itself for a moment before spilling it into her hand like honey.
It was a fitting little sanctuary. Kay spent a lot of calm Saturday mornings trolling yard sales full of things she didn’t need. Her apartment tended to look as though a dozen grandmothers had spent their last years in her living room. Figurines and brass bells and pointlessly small clocks lined the mantelpiece, cluttered end tables and bookshelves. She couldn’t define the charm of the whole, but it was there, unremarkable and hers.
The glass owl had no price sticker. She would have paid ten dollars for it, more, but a teenaged boy in a denim jacket changed her twenty and gave nearly all of it back. A purse-sized dog sat in the boy’s lap, its eyes obscured behind a curtain of fur. It bared its lower teeth in an underbite.
She slipped the owl into a jacket pocket. On her way to the street, she paused by a milk crate full of worn record sleeves. A few Leonard Cohen albums leaned toward her. She took a deep breath and that faint cinnamon tickled her throat. Years later, at odd little moments, she would still catch that sharp scent of moldering leaves in her nose, see as if from some elastic distance the name of her father’s favorite musician (“a damned poet, what’s more,” she’d hear his slurred voice say) repeated on those frayed, skinny spines. The yellowed row of blunt teeth in the dog’s mouth and the amber dapples delivered onto her skin through the glass owl. She would wonder if she had ever before known her senses—the prismatic, almost eloquent convergence of them—as she did here on this unknown lawn, the oaks reaching for one another far above her.
Maybe, she would think then. But here, she could not buy any of these records. Their dust might break her heart.
She’d driven six hundred reluctant miles to be close to her father, but he was never far. His records always played in the corner of her mind that resembled his den. She remembered listening through the hollow door to the pop and hiss of the needle skimming the vinyl. Cohen’s smoke-cracked voice would escape through the wood-paneled speakers that stood on the carpet. But her father had possessed nothing of poetry. Just tired war in his clenched hands and disjointed stories. The distance that pulled him back into them after her mother died.
He had only said it once—three brooding years after the cargo van crushed her mother’s little Datsun—but the words never stopped echoing in his eyes, his hands, and the spaces between him and the daughter. Kay asked about her mother’s death, still struggling at eight years old to understand it. “She warned you not to eat too much Halloween candy,” he said, bloodshot eyes gazing somewhere over her shoulder, “and sure enough, she had to go pick you up from school because you made yourself sick. And just like that, she was gone.”
After, so were they. Those words had finished the breaking of the family. He’d already burned what would have been left, leaving a devoted silence and her Aunt Linda to fill in, coming from three counties away to take Kay to doctor’s appointments, back-to-school shopping, and just give her niece the chance to talk if she wanted.
On the phone with the hospital yesterday, as the doctor stressed the unlikelihood that her father would last the weekend, Kay had stepped over to the tall narrow mirror that hung on her closet door and watched to see what her face would do. Had that been the ghost of a smirk at the corners of her mouth? She wondered if it mattered.
But she was here, wasn’t she, in his Boston suburb, on the other side of the long ignorance. She hadn’t even sent him a Christmas card in all that time. His last breath could be rattling out of him this very second and she was browsing a yard sale. That about said it all. She hummed Leonard Cohen, wished she could have met the singer in some stranger’s milk crate rather than have her father sewn up into the bass of his words. She hummed one of those old songs, the owl a comforting lump tugging the left side of her jacket down.
The sunlight hit her when she stepped out from under the trees, and a swarm of noise met her at the curb. It made her realize again how quiet and still the Friday afternoon had been. Kids on bikes, a rough line of them strung out along Lancaster Street, whooped and stood up and pedaled against the slight hill. Seven, eight boys and a couple of girls, all in the last glow before adolescence. Kay smiled at the snapping of cards in spokes. She remembered asking for a deck of Bicycle cards for her own bike and never getting them.
They were all helmetless except for the rider struggling well behind the pack. The child wore a huge fluorescent pink dome atop her head, and each time she raised herself up to bear down on the pedals, the bike wobbled and shook until she sat back down on the seat. Kay’s heart went out to her as she realized the girl wasn’t smaller than the others. She was older if anything. A late bloomer, maybe, or just uncoordinated.
Kay watched the leader of the group—a boy with shaggy hair that reminded her of the lapdog—slow and circle back. The other kids followed like the body of a snake. “Hey, Egg!” the boy yelled. He skidded to a stop in front of the girl with the pink helmet. “How’s last place feel? Better go faster if you even want to get to the race!”
The girl in the helmet said something too low for Kay to hear. Now there was a knot of kids around her. The vivid pink shone like a lamp through the little crowd. A rill of laughter, one voice rising above the others in an almost donkey-like bray. Then the pink helmet bounced on the asphalt and the girl and her bike joined it a moment later.
Kay held her breath. What she was seeing took a moment to soak in, and even then her mind still wanted to reject the idea. The first boy drew his foot back, far enough for her to see the Nike swoosh along the bottom, and kicked the girl as she lay curled on the ground. Another ripple of laughter. Then the clearing of a few throats and the distinct, percussion sound of spitting.
“You!” Kay shouted, and for a moment nothing else would come. She ran into the street. “You kids get away from her!”
The knot broke apart. Bikes were picked up and mounted. “Get away from her!” the one she’d labeled the ringleader said, and the subordinates took up the word her in a manic echo. They all rode away in a cloud of giggles.
Kay understood the echo the second she knelt beside the pink helmet. Its owner was a boy. And he clearly had Down syndrome. His face was one she recognized from hundreds of commercials, that painful similarity of features. She felt a hot flush of shame at this thought and at the fact she was dwelling on it while the boy was crying with blood dribbling out of his nose.
“You all right?” She put caution aside and pulled the kid up to a sitting position next to the curb. He sneezed a red spray onto her hand, and a bit of the shame faded when she didn’t yank her arm away.
The boy scrubbed his jacket sleeve across his mouth. “Yeah,” he said, and laughed. His voice was thick, clogged up, but still it was a beautiful laugh. Kay wanted to smooth his matted blond hair. His face took her in with an earnest solicitude, as open as an old friend. The blue of his eyes was diluted in the sunshine. She guessed his age somewhere between a pudgy twelve and sixteen. Those other kids might have topped out at the lower end of that range. The idea of them bullying him made her eyes water.
“Let’s get you home, why don’t we?” Kay glanced over her shoulder. Tables and boxes sat in the gloom she’d just left, but she didn’t see anyone there, not even the boy in the denim jacket. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Kay,” the boy said. He took a shuddering breath. His tears were tapering off.
“Kay? That’s my name. How did you know that?” She gave him a wide smile.
“Kay’s the same as okay.”
“You’re right, it is. I was just making a funny joke.” This wasn’t true, exactly. Though she’d heard her name as an answer her whole life, it hadn’t seemed like that when he’d said it, somehow. “Where do you live?”
“There.” He pointed with a blood-smeared hand down the street, at a ranch house five doors down from the yard sale. “But I have to go race.”
“Oh, honey, I don’t think you’re fit to race.” She glanced at his bike, an old thing with nothing to make noise stuck in its spokes. “What’s your name?”
“That can’t be it, though. Is that what everybody calls you? Even your mom and dad?”
“Just the kids. The king of the kids thought it up because of Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. He says I fall down a lot. I like being named Egg.”
The king of the kids. She wanted to groan at the world. “But wouldn’t you like—”
“And Mom got buried to help the flowers grow. She pushes them up to the top of the world so we can see them be pretty. When it gets too cold she pulls them back under.”
Kay’s vision went wet and blurry. “I like that. My mom does the same thing, has been for a long, long time. What was your mom’s name?”
“Mary Ellen. Your hair is like Mom’s in the picture by my bed.” Egg trailed his bloody fingers through Kay’s hair, her auburn vanity. He lifted lazy curls and let them fall back across her shoulders. Again she didn’t pull away. She was still close to tears, to just losing it here kneeling in a street far from home.
“You’re lucky to have a picture of her. So lucky. Remember that and always keep it close, no matter what. Does your dad know you’re going to the race?”
“Nah. He doesn’t come out of his special room where I’m not allowed. It smells bad like medicine there.”
“Special room?” But she thought she knew. Two sentences and she saw it as if through a lens. Or assumed it, which she figured was a pretty safe bet. The special room would be a den of sorts, where a negligent animal laid itself up. For a moment she smelled the ghost of her own father’s breath. Its sour whiskey fumes. The bruises that would sometimes—rarely, but far from never—follow it. Something fell over in her mind, a sort of mirror image bleeding in the street here with her, and she decided to hell with her father. She would get in her car and drive back to Storrs, and he could slip away in his hospital bed, tied to beeping machines and tubes. She’d wrestle the paperwork when he was already gone. All these years of estrangement had grown cozy enough. Why break it here at the end?
“When I was your age,” she said, and stopped, not understanding why she was about to bring this up. It was not her place to protect this kid, but the chord of familiarity—more than that, really, a sort of kinship—struck her again.
“That was a hundred years ago, I bet,” Egg said, and laughed again.
“Yeah, yeah, real funny. My dad made a lot of mistakes when I was little, because he was angry that we’d lost my mom. It turned out I lost him at the same time. Does your dad ever hit you?”
“Nah. Why would my dad hit me?” he said. “He just stays in his special room. He gets to miss my mom too. And I’m not little.”
“Sorry, of course you’re not little at all. I have to get home now, Egg.” She didn’t like the gravity in her voice. The sigh in it. She looked around again. Empty yards and an empty street. Had the king of the kids exiled all the grownups? She should at least walk Egg home, tell his father to clean him up.
“You have a bird in your pocket!” he said. She hadn’t noticed his hand, which was now pulling the glass owl out into the light. He gazed at it with a stupendous grin.
“I do,” she said. “I just bought it at that yard sale over there.”
“It’s pretty.” He turned it over in his hand, catching the light exactly as she had done minutes before. “I have real birds.”
“Oh yeah? That’s cool. What kind of birds?”
“All of them ever. A bunch of old owls like this one. Even eagles!”
“You’re one lucky guy, Egg. I’m jealous.”
“Yeah, yours is just glass.”
Well. Less than an hour in Revere and a bird motif had already made itself known. She smiled and looked up at the bare power lines, wondering where they were. Already off on winter vacation, probably.
Egg’s eyes followed hers. “They’re waiting for me,” he said, and she didn’t know if he meant the other kids or the absent birds. What a strange, magnetic boy. He placed the glass owl on the asphalt, delicately, with a final stroke across its head. He climbed to his feet, strapped his helmet on with practiced ease, and righted his bike.
Kay stayed on her knees. She had to look up at Egg now, and the sun haloed the helmet so that she had to squint. “Hey, how about we go find your dad?” she said. The image of him riding off toward the others, blood drying under his nose, was too much.
“Nah,” Egg said. “How about we go find your dad?” He laughed again, bright, careless shards of sound, and began the awkward machinery of balancing and pedaling. There was a sort of grace to it, though. Kay stood, twin darns of pain in her knees, but only let herself watch, keeping her hands pinned to her sides so they wouldn’t reach out to steady him. She felt as though he were distinctly riding away from her, somehow. A loss tugged at her like a rope around her waist, and Egg was straining it to its breaking point.
She watched his pink helmet disappear around a corner. Halfway to her car she realized the owl was still sitting in the street, imprinting itself in a smeared teardrop of light around two drops of blood. She stared at the tableau, feeling a sense of doom and a glaze of wonder rub like oil and water behind her eyes, until a truck honked its horn at her.
Two voicemails and a chain of texts waited for her in the car. Derek, her latest ending, wanting to rehash the other night. She ignored him and searched WebMD for Down syndrome. Her finger swiped through pages of cramped type, but what she was looking for wasn’t there, no matter how long she might sit reading. She wanted to know what made up that extra chromosome.
She had asked Egg his mother’s name. Mary Ellen, he’d said, and tacked on the most beautiful little sentiment. Maybe she should have told him the name of hers, woven that tether a little closer.
But more tangible was the house down the street, its walls a random layering of sand- and rust-colored bricks. The special room inside holding its mundane beast. More than even the rest of it, Egg’s helmet—that girlish, headache pink stuck on the boy’s head like a target—made her tighten her fists. She imagined rapping on Egg’s front door. She heard her voice when his father answered, the bared teeth in it.
Her mother had died when Kay was five, too young to remember her voice, but now it admonished her to mind her own business.
Shadows of clouds fell onto Lancaster Street. The glass owl went dark on the seat beside her. Kay started the car and drove away from her own father, too, humming his favorite singer again.
She’d started the argument two nights before. Derek had broken the whiskey breath rule and she didn’t want to let him in. It was her one iron stipulation, and he’d agreed with her more than once that she’d had enough of that breath growing up.
But now he wanted more of an explanation than that. She needed to let go of her old man, he said, his fingers curled around the doorframe.
She blinked back tears, looked around the apartment for words but found none. So her flash of anger took over, that was where the words were, and she told him they’d been fracturing for a couple of months anyway. Neither of them had kids or irreplaceable bonds. Nothing tied them down. Did he really think either would mind the year-sized hole a breakup would leave? It was only later that she reminded herself that she’d only cracked twelve months with two men in her life.
A black sort of silence grew around them until she closed the door on his fingers. He stepped back and she slammed it harder. A framed Polaroid of Kay and her father—matching sunglasses, windswept hair, 1981 LAKE CHAMPLAIN Sharpied across the bottom—tumbled off the wall beside the door. She heard the glass break and let herself unhinge. Her head struck the wall and she lay there with the picture on the linoleum.
Twenty hours later her father had collapsed from a hemorrhagic stroke, and Kay blamed the cracked glass spidering across his face in the photograph. She blamed it for both the stroke and the sense of obligation it gave her.
The thought of him pulling through wouldn’t quite surface. She would have to go to Massachusetts, put his affairs in order, meager as they were likely to be. There would be nothing at her father’s house she wanted. Kay would have given most of the small life she had made for just one clear image of her mother’s face. This single Polaroid was the closest she could come, and so she kept it in a place of prominence. Her only memento in the wake of her father’s long, hateful grief, in which he had burned the evidence of a life in the fireplace of his den, piece by piece, and she stood outside the door listening to it all crackle like the needle on his records.
What made her pack an overnight bag, what made her call her boss at the hotel to take a couple of personal days, was the sudden memory of her father’s sobs drowning the noise of the fire. They had drowned everything and chased her up to her room and under her covers. But across the years the sound of the flames eating those pictures had always been louder.
Kay stopped at an intersection and pulled the Polaroid out of her purse. Though she couldn’t see her mother—not even when she squinted at the four smudges reflected in the sunglasses—she had been there. Her mother had watched the gulls, captured them in the distance like white grains in the film. Kay remembered a mohawked egret strolling the lakeshore toward them with bright yellow eyes. It had let Kay get close enough to hope before taking to the air with an awkward grace.
Her mother’s hands had held the camera that day, had brushed the ink across the white border. Kay searched for the egret she knew wasn’t in the frame. Only the gulls hung there in the sky, forever scanning the waters for food.
She was still two turns from Bristol Avenue, which would make up her mind and take her straight to the interstate and the hell out of Massachusetts. Far up the street the kids had strung a crepe ribbon between a stop sign and a telephone pole, and a surprising crowd of them was gathered on either side of it. Beside her car she saw a sign reading YARD SALE in black paint pointing the way from which she’d come.
Then the sun flooded the neighborhood again, and the bicycles came around a curve behind her, up the final hill, their riders leaning forward over handlebars and huffing away. She looked for the unmistakable pink of Egg in the rearview. Like a law of nature, the king of the kids whizzed by her door first, the stuttering of cards crisp in her ears as she powered down the window. The smell of burning leaves was closer here. She had a wild, senseless urge to nudge the accelerator and aim the Corolla right at the back of his bike. She could feel her mouth water, wanting to spit on him as he sprawled in the slanting fall sun. Her foot even twitched off the brake pedal for a second.
The rest of the children followed in parade, none close enough to the leader’s heels to offer any real threat.
She moved her eyes back to the mirror. Her heart beat against her ribs. Egg’s helmet came into view, but from a different angle. He hooked onto the train of kids from a side street. If it was a shortcut, it hadn’t quite worked out for him.
His bike slowed as he hit the incline, listing side to side. Kay opened her door after the last of the other kids had passed her car. She got out and waved to Egg, meaning to—she wasn’t sure what she meant to do, jog to the finish line with him, she supposed. She hardly outweighed some of these children, but no one would lay another finger on Egg, not here, at least, not today.
But Egg made a right turn onto another street. She pivoted in time to see the little snot with the Nikes break through the crepe paper at the top of the hill. A faint cheer rose and blurred into her background.
She climbed back into the car, whipped it around and drove down the hill. Egg had veered off onto Lairamore Street. She made the left and it was like passing into a different town far from the Boston suburbs. Maples and oaks and trees she didn’t have names for grasped across Lairamore in a great, wide tunnel. A riot of colors blotted out the sky, and below the red and gold and orange fire, Egg’s helmet blazed brightest. Incongruous against those earth tones.
He was maybe two hundred yards ahead of her, and she let the car coast toward him, stunned by the nature that was only interrupted by charming, unobtrusive houses set back from the street. Egg rode alone through this other world, and she noticed two things at once. The boy’s bicycle wasn’t wobbling a bit. He dipped his head, hurled himself forward like an Olympian, and she had to press the gas a bit just to keep pace.
And the trees had come to life around and above her. They shivered and bent and dumped hundreds of branches and leaves. Kay leaned forward and peered through the windshield. Not leaves—they dropped toward the ground like stones but then swept up and toward Egg in a shifting flock. Birds. She watched them swoop over her and down the street, cardinals and canaries and enormous owls, some snowy white and one the color of the sea in early evening. Untold wings opened and pushed at the air. She saw neon parrots and a toucan, a pair of pelicans side by side. Storks and cranes folding up their legs like pocketknives. Vultures, bulleting falcons, a battalion of robins and starlings. She gave up watching when she saw a bald eagle spread its wings, filling her windshield before launching itself toward the others.
She glanced down at the glass owl beside her and barked a laugh. She pictured her apartment full of other people’s dull knickknacks. Her cheeks were wet with tears. “Egg, you’re a hell of a kid,” she said, and watched the birds wheel around him, slowly, weaving themselves into the wild tapestry of color.
Egg lifted his hands away from the bike and raised them in a V of triumph. The bike arrowed forward straight and true, as an orchestra of birdsong tuned up to celebrate him.
Then the boy slowed and jumped off the bike, letting it crash onto the sidewalk. Kay stopped her car. She opened the door and nearly staggered out. The birds roosted on Egg, blanketed him, dozens and dozens, and as he turned to look at her, she saw his sneakers lift off the ground. He hovered there, his face grinning through the beating wings. “They’re talking to you,” he shouted toward her. “They’re telling you about your picture!” And he giggled, rising even higher above the street.
Kay wanted to know if they would take Egg away. Could they? She couldn’t guess where they might carry him, felt foolish for wondering, but it seemed to be a private thing. She was little more than a blemish in the scene.
“Please don’t let him fall,” she almost told them. Instead she turned the car around and drove out of the tunnel of trees.
Kay thought of her mother up in Vermont, perhaps busy pulling the last October flowers back into the earth. The ache for just one picture of her would never soften. Maybe she would visit the grave tomorrow. She liked the thought of helping her, pushing the flowers down from the other side. Here you go, Ellen, keep them warm and pretty. Give them back next year.
She’d made all the wrong turns, and now she parked beneath silvered letters that read LOVEJOY MEDICAL CENTER across muted brick. The words bled shadows of themselves down the wall in the late sun. She didn’t get out of the car. The hospital looked back at her from two long rows of windows, and she wondered which one was her father’s.
Her father’s. His hands. The occasional bruises they left. She only remembered them squeezed into fists, but they must have clasped her own before that, loosely, with some grace for a while. The Polaroid told her that. The smiling mouths and the smiling eyes hidden behind sunglasses. She remembered the scratch of his stubble on her cheeks, but only just. The rest was always that swollen quiet rage.
Later, at last, she had tried in her way to be free of it.
She sat in the held light of her car, studied the photograph again. Still only the distant gull shapes, still only indistinct smudges reflected in the sunglass lenses. For the first time in thirty years she asked herself why her father hadn’t burned it.
She hummed “Bird on the Wire,” because it was his favorite, and because it slipped, seamless, right into this day. A swath of white fell from the sky. Kay looked up as a snowy egret landed on the lip of the hospital roof, just above the fifth window from the right. She guessed who lay within that room. The bird’s ruffled head cocked to the left on the curved neck, regarding her with an unknowable majesty, and what came first, the chicken or the egg?
“Yeah, okay, you’re a hell of a kid,” she said.
Her phone buzzed on the passenger seat, a shrill chatter. It had slid under the glass owl. She picked it up without looking and slid her thumb along the screen, figuring it was Derek and she’d go ahead and talk to him. Tie the past year up with a bow, a loose one with a knot they could pluck open later, if their fingers were nimble and able enough. If they wanted to.
“Ms. Farland?” a woman said. The woman, the question sounded so young. “I’m calling from Lovejoy.”
Kay looked up at all those windows. The one the egret held for her like a bookmark. She had to reach deep to find her voice. “Please don’t let him,” she managed before her throat locked up.
“Ms. Farland?” She heard the clacking of a keyboard in the background. “It’s your father. He’s going.”
Above, the egret took flight, and its wings brought her a lost memory of fresh bleached sheets snapping in a wind. Kay darted between the sheets as her parents hurried to gather them in before the coming boil of storm. In glimpses she saw her mother, who stood out with a clarity Kay had never been able to regain. The pale red hair, the constellation of freckles beneath her large, brown eyes. And there was her father, a wide grin in a half-beard, and he stopped to scoop the little girl up and airplane her in a wide ellipse. “Robert,” her mother said, “hurry up now, before it’s too late.” Over the tree line the sky hung leaden and black. But he kept zooming their daughter through the heavy air. They weaved between the flapping clouds.