by Srikripa Krishna Prasad
They sway in front of the bay window, sunlight tinting their translucent bodies gold. Rosie watches from under her eyelashes, her book lying uselessly on her lap despite her attempt to focus. Don’t look, she thinks, shame burning her throat, but they are magnetic as they dance together, the short woman’s head fitting perfectly into the crook of her partner’s neck. Their laughter rings in the air; Rosie knows it intimately. She hears it often when they reminisce about their time in this house, when they touch each other, when they waltz impromptu around the room. The creature in her chest cries out for this joy, this bright love that has transcended even death, despite how much she tries to suppress it.
The short woman leans up, and the tall woman leans down, and their lips meet, their arms bracketing each other tenderly, like they hold something precious.
(Don’t look, Ma says from behind a hand, her mouth pinched, tugging Rosie past. Don’t look, Ma whispers, eyes flashing as she peers at the neighbours who sit outside holding hands. Don’t look, Ma warns, piercing, when Rosie watches the parades on the news for a second too long.
Don’t look, Rosie knows, unless you look the right way, with cutting eyes and a face made of stone.)
She tries yet again to crush the creature inside her, to make it lie down and die, though a small, locked-away part of her knows this will make her more of a ghost than the actual ghosts in this house. The creature falls to pieces and curls up in a ball, shivering. Don’t look, she thinks fiercely.
But Rosie doesn’t look away.
She has never looked away.
She realizes, abruptly, that she is never, ever going to look away.
The creature keens, a note of broken hope in its voice. It reaches out with cupped hands, begging.
“Excuse me?” Rosie whispers, her voice a candle in a hurricane. The ghosts pause, then turn to face her, gently expectant. They’ve always known she can see them, she thinks, and she finds she isn’t surprised. Maybe they’re aware of her in the same way she’s aware of them, the way she thinks people like them always recognize each other.
“Will you please tell me about—” Her voice dies, and she gestures between them, hands trembling.
Their smiles are achingly soft. “What do you want to know?” the tall one asks.
There’s only one answer to that. The creature in her chest feebly lifts its head and nudges her tongue. Rosie takes a deep breath and shatters the glass wall in her throat.
“Everything,” she breathes.
They surround her like pillars and begin to speak, their words filling the room with light. The creature slowly reaches its hands out through the spaces between her ribs, fingers shuddering and grasping and desperate, to the living, breathing love that hangs between the ghosts. It pulls that love close, and Rosie is still so, so afraid, but warm like she never has been.
She closes her eyes, and listens, and allows herself to want.
The Boy Who Feeds the Birds
by Aviel McDermott
I think the birds started leaving messages because they heard me crying.
I would throw myself on the bed and sob, pushing my face into the pillow to try to drown out the noise but only succeeding in half-suffocating myself. And, making my pillow nasty with snot. I’d wipe at my face and in my head words would echo–boys don’t cry like girls–and then another wave of contemptuous self-loathing and despair would run through me.
My mom used to come knock at the door sometimes, but I would ignore her. I had nothing to say that she would want to hear, and there was nothing she could say that would’ve made me feel better, even if she knew to say it.
Yet somehow, the birds knew what to say.
I was sitting on my bed, hunched against the wall with one hand on my forehead. I’d cried myself out until I had a headache. My eyes hurt, but I didn’t close them because I didn’t care. The despair had faded but the self-loathing remained. How could it not?
I can’t believe you’re like this, I thought to myself, unable to stop. What, do you think you deserve sympathy? Come on. You should-
My disparaging litany was interrupted by a loud bird call at the window. There’d been some lovely twittering earlier, soft melodic noises coming from the small woods outside my house, but this was a massive, croaking caw.
I turned my sore eyes towards the window. My room was small, though I was lucky to have my own and not to have to share with my sister. It barely held room for my messy bed, a shelf of dusty childhood trophies and books I’d grown out of, and a desk I never used. In between my bed and desk was my favorite part of my room: my window, with its soft blue curtains and view out to the woods. It poured in light in the afternoon and birdsong from the trees all day.
That cry was a new noise, though. I was intrigued enough to drag myself out of bed to look through the window. There weren’t any birds in immediate view, but there was something even more curious.
There was a note, set out in twigs on the windowsill.
Why do you cry, boy? it read. Under it, more writing: Why do you never leave out bread anymore?
I stared at the words made of sticks. Then I looked out at the small woods. It might have been too small to count even as woods. When I was young, it had seemed like a magical, fairy-tale forest right there for me. I’d stand at my window sill and pretend it was a balcony, and I surveying my kingdom. The thought made me cringe. It was only a spot of trees on the suburban landscape, not even a full acre. Dull as anything. There was no one out there.
My room was on the second floor; there was no way to climb up and the house was all sheer, off-white paint on the outside. “Is someone there?” I called out.
It had to be a prank. Birds couldn’t write.
I shook the thought out of my head, chiding myself for having it. I should have grown out of nonsense like that by now. This must have somehow been a prank from someone who heard me. I imagined it and winced, clenching my fist, digging my fingernails into my palm.
And what would you do if someone did hear you? The thoughts came to me unwanted. Cry about it? That’s what you do, isn’t it?
I turned away, then hesitated, and looked back despite myself.
I stared down at the words. How had they known? And who could have written them?
I brushed the twigs off the sill and drew my curtains. But that night, I smuggled my leftover bread up from dinner and left it out on the windowsill, just as I used to.
The next day when I got home from school, I accomplished my usual sob-fest like the pathetic child I was, but I also saw that the bread was gone. I cried less and more quietly that day.
I also found another note when I came up after dinner that night.
We sing for you every day. Why do you still cry?
Remember when you’d sing for us?
I’d forgotten I’d used to sing for the birds. When I went to the park with my mother when I was small, she would sing. So, when I fed the birds in the evening, crumbling my bread onto the sill, I would sing, too. Except, where she would sing actual songs I would sing nonsense words about purple dragons and princess knights. Silly snippets of nonsense that I’d been too young to know were worthless. I was old enough now.
I shook my head.
“Are you someone from school?” I called out into the trees. “Stop messing with me!”
I felt sheepish as soon as I’d said it and hoped my family hadn’t heard. No one from school bothered with me. I was simply invisible, the way everyone preferred. No one would come out to my house and stage elaborate messages using childhood facts.
The whole thing was probably some kind of hallucination.
“Another pathetic delusion,” I muttered. “Just like me.” I looked back out into the sky, split at the horizon by creeping branches. I saw birds only through their movement, flitting from tree to tree.
“You want a song?” I called out. “Well, la dee da! The kid grows up and figures out that life’s messed up, that’s what it’s about!” I didn’t really sing it, but I managed a sing-song, rhythmic voice. My words were swallowed by the trees, and all the birds fell silent.
It almost felt like someone out there really was listening.
That feeling stayed with me as I looked out into the trees. Like I was raw and the world could hear me. For a moment I felt as big as the forest, as full of bursting, scratching branches. Words poured out of me, fast and soft.
“I realized it’s all stupid, everything I am is stupid,” I said. “Why do I care so much? Why does it even matter? I get by, but it’s not like it matters. No one else really cares. Why should I?” I stopped for a moment, breathing hard. My eyes were tearing up again and I hated it, I hated it.
“You know I’m not really a boy,” I said, closing my eyes and clenching my fists against the world. Saying it to myself as much as the birds. I’m not a boy, I’m not a boy, why can’t I get it through my thick skull that I’m not a boy? Why did I have to care so much?
I stayed there, just trying to manage my breath. Wind brushed against me and for a moment I could have sworn I felt talons as tiny as twigs touch my fingers.
When I opened my eyes the message had changed.
You told us you were a boy. It was a secret, but it’s real.
You’re the boy who feeds the birds.
The boy who feeds the birds. I played the words over again in my mind. I liked them. They gave my chest a funny, light feeling and made me want to smile for once. I glanced up to the trees to see a flash of red race through the branches. Crows with dark feathers shining in the fading sun settled on the upper branches. For a moment a smile pulled at my lips… but hateful doubt still pushed against my mind.
“Maybe,” I said.
I brought extra bread that night and managed to sneak in a bit of carrot.
I started talking to the birds again, every day. They left me notes of the forest occasionally; about trees, rocks, migrations. They brought me a beautiful stone once. I spent less time crying and more time at the windowsill, singing rhymes to the birds. I knew it was stupid, but I found myself caring less and less about that.
The notes the birds left me were not always hopeful.
The weather is getting stranger every year.
The winters are colder, the summers are hotter.
The forest whittles away in size and there is already so little of it.
I stopped by the library and got books about birds, animals, forests, climates. They often ended on sad notes, about all the species we’re losing. The prospect for birds was growing even grimmer. Once, after speaking with the birds, I cried for the first time in a long time for someone other than myself.
“There’s an ecology club at school,” I mentioned to the birds once.
Maybe you could do something, the branches wrote out to me. Why don’t you join?
I bit my lip as I read the words. Joining a club meant becoming visible. It meant letting people look at me. And people who looked at me never saw me.
I put a hand on my hair. I hadn’t cut it in a long time. My mom liked it long and I hated myself for caring.
“I can’t let people see me like this,” I sang out to the trees that night. “Then it’s me they’ll miss, because I don’t really exist.”
You exist. You are the boy who feeds the birds. I found the words spelled out in crumbs that morning. Do what you need to exist.
I spoke to my mother first. She was baffled, shocked, and I hated it. I hated the way she blinked at me like I wasn’t speaking English.
The birds know I’m a boy, I reminded myself. They can see me.
And, though it was painful to explain and watch her fumble through understanding, my mother loved me and was kind.
I got a haircut the next week; I know the birds saw because they left black feathers at my window. The new clothes took longer. I replaced my wardrobe slowly. Three different trips to the mall. I’d always hated clothes shopping, but now it was a relief looking at myself for the first time in a changing room mirror. It was almost worth the pinched face of my mother looking at the receipt after the checkout line.
When I finally had fitting clothes and a haircut, I went to the ecology club and introduced myself with my own name. I even went to a therapist. The crying went to weekly, to monthly, to rarely. Things weren’t perfect–many people didn’t see me for me, and it still hurt, having to clarify myself–but I was no longer caged by the walls of fear that had held me so tight. Speaking pushed the pain outwards, where it couldn’t calcify into self-loathing around my heart.
But I never told anyone about the birds. They were my secret. I kept leaving bread.
The messages kept coming, until I left for college.
Are you ready to go? they asked.
“Do you hate me for leaving?” I sang. “Hate me like I hate myself for deceiving?”
They replied in the morning.
Everything you have given has been gifts. We love you always.
You never deceived anyone but yourself. Forgive.
With the birds’ stories in me, I flew away.
About the Authors
Srikripa Krishna Prasad is a writer hailing from near Toronto, Canada, who is metaphorically wandering the world, searching for purpose. She is deeply fond of reading and writing speculative fiction, especially fantasy, and is working on several stories to hopefully publish one day. She is an associate editor at PodCastle. Outside of writing, she is learning how to play the guitar, violin, and piano, daydreaming, and trying to motivate herself to finish any of the numerous projects she has going. You can find her on Twitter at @sriative, where she tweets rarely but lurks in the shadows, casting her judgmental yet benevolent eye over the world.
About the Narrators
Autumn Ivy is a voice actor, model, cosplayer, twitch streamer, and jack of all trades. PseudoPod fans may be interested in listening to the stories she’s narrated for The Bone Collector. Go follow the links in the show notes for more of her work.
AJ Fitzwater is stardust in your sneakers, masquerading as a human from Christchurch, New Zealand. They are the author of the WW2 shapeshift novella “No Man’s Land” and lesbian capybara pirate escapades “The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper”. Their short fiction has been published in venues such as Fireside Fiction and Clarkesworld. They attended Clarion in 2014.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.