If You Leave Me Behind Now I Will Not Be the Same
A gray bird with white-tipped wings swoops down through bare oak branches and lands on a bench in a park. A woman on the bench is checking her lipstick in a compact. Her lips are smeared red. The bird looks at her, maneuvers near her shoulder. He looks into the mirror, recognizes his small black eyes, and in a cold bathroom downtown an old man, his face like an onion, papery and wrinkled, looks at his reflection in a mirror hung above a sink. A streak of orange rust trails down from the faucet opening to the drain. The color developed through waste and edging towards the darkened hole. In the mirror the old man thinks that he looks like some sort of prehistoric bird, maybe part dinosaur or something. He should have a sharp beak, feathers, scales on his legs. His body is weak and his face frightens him. This is me, years and years later. After you knew me and forgot me. After you left me shaped in a certain twisted way and forever connected to you by the tiniest and most fragile of threads, even though you don’t know. The old man once tried to get back inside, but wasn’t let in. The young girl didn’t allow him, so I grew old and decided to turn into a bird, where I could rise up into the sky and then swoop down quickly next to young girls, to look into mirrors and see their eyes and makeup.
When the old man is a bird he flaps his wings so that they sound like the whir of metal fan blades in his ears. In the summer in small hot rooms cool currents flow through shocks of womens dark hair. Black tangles are twisted and spun behind necks, little ears, past cheeks. When I was young, I say to myself in bird-talk, I was not a bird and was not old. I called you my little bird and you perched your head against my shoulder. You must have forgotten.
I am an old man and I wear white tank tops that are not white anymore. They are yellowed, browned, colored. I am not bald yet; my hair is still thick and full but unwashed. Absently I twist it into spirals, thinking of inanimate things coming alive and bursting through soil, of wax worms and earthworms burrowing through dirt. My apartment has two rooms, a bedroom and a bathroom. I have a small television. I don’t have a hotplate because I don’t like those. Same with microwaves. I swallow seeds mostly, pumpkin and sunflower, eat nuts, peanuts and walnuts. It is necessary for a bird’s stomach to be tiny for flight. I cannot eat much because if I do and decide to turn into a bird, my stomach will rip open and I will bleed internally, dying from the inside as I am filled with blood. I think of insides again and how I wished so badly as a young man to reside in yours, to see them and know them.
When young your name was Candace and mine was Daniel. Now old, I do not have a name; I make sounds as I go through the air and this is how I’m identified. When I change, my vocal chords shrink, die back in my throat and resemble things found under microscopes, things thin and fragile and slimy that spasm and jerk. Years ago I wanted to become something microscopic. To inject myself into your bloodstream and be swept towards your heart by veins. I would jump off at your heart, clog myself there, and even though knowing that I was killing you I wouldn’t be able to leave.
The television is on in my apartment and I sit on the end of the bed watching a program about neurotic criminals. There is a segment about one man, old now, but once young and not good-looking. The host of the program tells a story of the old man, when young, falling in love with a co-worker, a young beautiful woman who never paid him any attention nor gave his love any recognition. The young man had no idea how to get close to her, be near her, a part of her. So during the day before lunch he would sneak into the bathroom and cut tiny slices of skin from his body. He would walk bleeding into the cafeteria with his skin hidden and find ways to distract her and then drop pieces of himself into foods that would conceal—soups, stews, chili. This went on for weeks until another coworker caught him. The young man, now old and in a psychiatric hospital, tells the host in an interview that he only wanted to be closer.
In bird-talk I sing to other birds, but they will not have me. Something is the matter with the sound, and they are frightened and fly away. On the ledge of an apartment in downtown I alight and an old man appears. He is naked and remembers when a young girl named Candace first removed her clothes for him. She was not nervous or afraid and smiled entirely. In a red car on a country rode during the daylight she removed each piece, locked eyes with the young version of the old bird-man, rolled down the window and let the wind take them away. I remember the angle and rise of bone, pelvic and collar, beneath her smooth brown skin. As a bird I ride that same wind over the same road, years later after downpours and frosts and plows. The clothes dissolved, disintegrated, decomposed into the earth, a part of it now.
A gray bird with white-tipped wings falls down out of a tree onto its side. On the ground it doesn’t thrash its wings. It opens its mouth and tries to lick at the ground with its thick gray tongue. In the oak tree above it are hundreds of nests made out of Candace’s things. The old man took them from her house and then I changed into a bird, ripped them with my beak and then twisted and formed them into tiny bowls.
The road is desolate and only farmhouses, spread out every two or three miles, decorate it. Noises of screaming and shrieking, desperate calls, come from an oak tree with a thousand nests. In each of these nests three or four or five baby birds. They cannot open their eyes and they scream and scream.
When you were young you found a baby bird that had fallen from its nest. You put it in a shoebox lined with paper towels and tried to feed it milk from a dropper. The baby bird drank some of the milk, and you were happy. But you found it dead later on that night. You cried and wailed that you were a baby bird killer. Your parents told you that that wasn’t true.
Migration allows for me to travel across the world. I’ve been to places remote, tropical, sprawling, barren, freezing. Candace has, too. The bird has plucked out her hair with its beak as she sleeps and has taken the strands with him. In the soil the bird buries the black hair; also eyelashes, fingernails, flakes of skin, scabs, band-aids—anything that he can find, in hopes that with water and sunlight and care, blossoms will form and she will bloom into human form. Then, in places faraway and exotic, Candace will fall in love with the old man. She will be young and fresh and new, and he old and withered, but she will remember him.
But this never happens. The old man waters the ground with a plastic pot and only scarecrows emerge. They are dressed in dusty flannel outfits with tan leather patches at the elbows and knees. I try to swing at them, but they angle back on their stakes and I fall to the ground, hearing laughter above me. On the ground I gather clumps of hard dry dirt in my fists and spin quickly around, chucking them towards the faces of the scarecrows. But they are not there anymore, have disappeared, and I watch as the dirt breaks into smaller clumps that scatter into the earth.
Farmers take their massive machines and plow through the soil, eradicating the bits of Candace that the bird has buried. The bird is angry and flies above these land-monsters, spraying shit on them and screaming an anthem, a call to other birds, black ones who hear from miles away and take flight in a thick moving cloud. The cluster of birds move in a fury, screaming high in the air and then coming down at the machines in a hush, like a disease. A black plague. From the edge of the field the old man watches as the farmer runs from the plow and vanishes in a dense shifting of black.
Back in a downtown apartment I sit on the edge of my bed, the television on and muted, leafing through the newspaper. In the obituaries I read that Candace died two days ago, Tuesday, and the funeral is arranged for Friday morning. Instantly the old man changes to a gray bird with white-tipped wings, flies out of his open apartment window and out into the city night, screaming in half-human half-bird talk. I fly for hours, screaming, requesting and collecting, and by dawn our numbers are terrifying. We are thick and intense. Our mass blocks out the sunlight and the temperature drops. The cemetery is in our sights, and as six white-gloved pallbearers lift your casket from the hearse we are upon them. Your casket is weightless under a million wings, and we sweep you up high, rushing towards a muddy field. We drop in a hurry, gaining frightful speed and then abandon your casket; it impacts and plows deep under the surface, tunneling through wet dirt and finally coming to a rest.
The old man dies soon after. In his will he wrote out his orders, how he wanted
his body to be disposed of. So on a Sunday thousands of old men across the world
gaze into their mirrors at their wrinkles and watery eyes. In a flash they change
into black birds, screaming and flapping. They hone in on the old man’s
casket, notice the four pallbearers, all strangers, all employees of the funeral
home. His casket is taken easily and they zoom towards the ocean, shooting through
misty clusters of clouds high above. The birds quickly divide and the casket
hovers for the slightest moment and then begins its plunge. Right before it nosedives
into the wall of water I press pause on my remote and address a note to you. Dear
__________, I need you so much closer.
I’m interested in loss, how it shapes and defines people. I think that we are made up of not just what we have, but maybe more importantly, what we’ve lost. That’s where this story came from—what happens to people when they lose someone? It doesn’t matter whether the loss was of someone known only briefly or someone known for long—the same realization hits that that person is now absent. I wanted to explore these themes of loss and flight, and their aftermath. In this story there are a lot of characters: the old man and all of his identities, the girls, the birds, the psychiatric patient, the letter writer of the last sentence, the addressee of that letter. Who are they, and how do they fit together? That should be left open to the interpretation of the reader. All I’ll say about them is that they’ve all known someone that they didn’t want to lose but did, and because of this, they are the same.