Lori Brack — “A Birdsong Romance”

She sang at dusk as leaves went gray. The birdhole in her throat piped a lullaby at the open window. Her cat knew to come home when she heard the notes, knew to unfold herself from a cooling black nap under the bush and stretch, ramble home in the scent of night-coming-on. The girl called her cat Sparrow and Sparrow called the girl Feather but her given name was Desiree. That was the name on the postcards dropped through the slot, cards that came from town with pictures of hot air balloons and automata on one side, sometimes only a thumbprint where the message should have been.

Feather knew who mailed them by the scent of meadow on the cards. She knew by the color of the sender’s shirt and the seeds spilling from its pocket. But she pretended, when they passed in the lane, not to recognize him (or was it her?) even when she (or he?) had that moment come from the post office with the flavor of a single stamp tingling on the tongue. What can a girl with a birdhole hope for? How much more will she want beside her song at sunset, Sparrow, and the anticipation of mail? One day when Feather was slicing yellow and red root vegetables so thin she could hold them up like lenses and color the sun, the clatter of the tinker’s cart turned into her yard. The tinker waved through the window – Feather’s special window where she loosed her throatsong – and held up a dress for Feather to consider. In the afternoon sun, Feather saw it was a dress made of tin. The sleeves were funnels and the bodice a coalscuttle. The skirt was a rattle of spoons and buttonhooks like tiers of lace. Feather put down her knife and leaned out the window to get a closer look.

The dress seemed quite lovely with its flare and jangle, but then she remembered Sparrow and how a cat won’t settle on such a sharp lap, so she shook her head at the tinker, who shrugged and rattled the dress deep away. The tinker left her lane and Feather went back to slicing, enjoying the dull sheen of her old knife. The next day’s postcard had a picture of a forge on it and a single line: What can be made that you will buy?

You and I both know that this might be a love story, the insinuation of pursuit and greenness, a fulfilled expectation that a girl will capitulate to courtship as if she doesn’t know the cost of love.

She walked to town listing all her answers to the postcard question: breadandbutter, necklace and ribbon, whetstone and leather strop. Feather was not so self sufficient though she lived by herself at the brink of her life. Young enough to read stories to her cat, to sing into the gloaming, but old enough to make a fire, to sharpen the knife, to look at her smooth skin in the mirror and concoct a future.

On her way to town, she passed the roadside stand of the tinker’s sister, the one who offered finer things than cooking pots and rags suitable only for stuffing. Feather waved as she always had and the woman gestured come nearer. Feather was an agreeable girl because her mother had taught her to say pleaseandthankyou, to respect her elders, to wear clean underthings and replace every lost button as if a dangling thread was a judgment on her soul. As Feather approached the market stand, the tinker’s sister winked and from the mystic unseen land beneath her counter, produced a dress shimmering blue and purple, diaphanous and glittering. Feather leaned closer and saw the dress was made of damselflies magicked into fluttering in formation – neckline, waist, hem – each set of cellophane wings shivering and glancing in light. 

Feather gasped.

Sparrow her cat, safe at home, raised her head. Something tickled in her pink throat as if she had just swallowed something live, a full flutter. And Feather knew at that very moment that a dress of damselflies would soon have holes in it. She shook her head and the tinker’s sister rustled the dress away from sight. Feather wondered what other curiosities lay in the dark under the market stall. She pretended to drop the tortoiseshell pin from her hair, bent to fetch it and raised the canvas with her hand, but all she spied were a pair of well-turned ankles disappearing into boots the color of her moontime.

You know those blowsy peonies, the magenta ones like your aunt’s lipstick and how they look in a green glass vase next to pale ones and paler, white peonies with a stroke of rust at the petal edge? This is the dress Feather chose to wear, the one no one offered her to buy. This one she pinned herself, easily, natural as lighting candles and the curl of smoke after the match. The peony dress hypnotized her with its fragrance, even when it pinched with ants nipping at her soft places. She breathed in May and then breathed again because she remembered the thin white whirlwinds of snow that winter wrought with its blizzard, and she recalled the long green dusk of cicadasong in summer. Sparrow her cat buried her nose deep into a bloom, snuffled up the yellow pollen, came away with radiant smears on her nose.

DesiredOne, for that is the meaning of her names, even the one about wings, wore the peony dress out into day and all her clocks stopped ticking. She wore it through the stile at the edge of her yard, into the yellow field. She wore it down the furrows until she reached the hedgerow where someone counted leaves and practiced calling birds, her (or his) fingers inky and seeds’ tiny black grenades stuffed in all the pockets. Do you know the Benjamin Britten song that begins and ends with the call of a cuckoo? In April I open my bill. In May I sing night and day. In June I change my tune. In July far far I fly. In August away I must. Away holds the most notes – nine of them up and down the scale and then, that single low note, repeated at the end: I must. This is one of the songs she wore in her throat for the figure in the hedgerow. For the writer of postcards, for the tinker and her sister, a song for each of them and the song she made for herself out of ruffled petal and kitchen blade, out of a cat’s snowwhite whisker and strands of her hair. She rounded her songs for a long time, longer even than this tale, and lived together and apart in her house, never forgetting what she felt in her bones and the flesh of her fingers, and grew up on her own terms, like Sparrow and all her cats to come. Her loves, however, they had to figure it out themselves with or without singing, and wearing entirely their own clothes. The cat and her human would wait and watch, knowing that it takes at least three tries to get most things right.

Lori Brack‘s book of poems, Museum Made of Breath, was published by Spartan Press, Kansas City, in 2018. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals including Another Chicago Magazine, North American Review, Mid-American Review, and the anthology Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, Outpost Press 2017. She manages a project in Kansas dedicated to the professional development of artists in all genres and assists with a project bringing Asian art to elementary and secondary school students.

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