artwork for Ra'Niqua Lee's short story What Comes Out in the Wash

What Comes Out in the Wash
Ra’Niqua Lee

The night after the funeral, Gill leaves her wife in bed, crawls beside the couch, and pulls a laundry basket over her head. Becomes 8 years old that way. Under the basket, Gill whispers her caws, her chirps, her squawks. Hummingbirds are too small. Woodpeckers keep up the wrong kind of fuss. The blackbirds are always flying away and coming back, as if caught in a loop. Gill wants to be exotic—a parakeet, a cockatoo, a parrot.

Gill is a bird in a cage. Her cat stares through slits from the windowsill, paws the air. Muted, the nightly news pantomimes sin and uselessness. Heatwave all tomorrow. Spaghetti for dinner. Old-pops isn’t dead.

Eight and chirping, Gill searches for the right sound. Not too pretty, but not scary like the buzzards that circle when Old-pops butchers a deer in the driveway. The buzzards smell the death, follow the stench trail to their cul-de-sac. They hover and wait for an opening that never comes.

“Buzzards are a garbage bird,” Old-pops says to 8-year-old Gill. Sun in his face, gleaming in the sweat along his bald head. “Don’t have one bit of discernment. They’ll eat roadkill or a diaper out a dumpster.”

Old-pops is bald like the buzzards, bald like the bailiffs on court TV, bald like her baby brother. So bald Gill giggles sometimes just for the sake of it.

Gill takes one of her brother’s diapers into the bend in the backyard, where her parents might not see. She opens it to the sun and waits for the buzzards to prove Old-pops right. They never come. Only maggots and flies.

“We don’t waste a thing,” Old-pops says after the deer is good and butchered. He gathers the bones, freezes some, takes others to the smoker, packs some away for G-ma to use in soup. He tosses the wiliest pieces to Cupcake, their German shepherd.

That night, they have spaghetti made with deer shoulder, and Old-pops brags.

“Months of good eating right here,” he says, still wearing a blood-stained shirt.

Years later, he cleans his hunting rifle in the garage beside the lock box and promises to teach Gill to hunt. He already has the passes and promises a gun of her own. She refuses. She has no interest in pulling triggers, thinks the world won’t bear another Black person with a gun, better to be Black and woman with a book or a Mercedes K5. Old-pops laughs her off, never mentions it again.

Gill is 8 years old in a laundry basket. Work begins in four hours. She already set aside her clothes, slacks, and a blouse. The coffee maker will click on at 6 a.m. Gill will fill her tumbler and a cup for her wife. She will stop for gas, and then spend a little under an hour, inching north on Georgia 400.

She is 8 years old pretending to be a bird, a barred owl, or emu, or a pterodactyl. She holds herself where wings might be, where one might sling the right-sized weapon. Her shoulder blades shake from the chirps, wrench outward. A flapping settles in her throat. Her wiliest bones all but collapse into the skeleton that is herself.

Ra’Niqua Lee’s Comments

I had this idea to write a story about a woman who becomes a bird. After that, I had to figure out if I meant literally or metaphorically. I chose the latter. If my character decides she would rather be a cockatoo, even metaphorically, it’s my job as the writer to figure out why. Find the catalyst.

Table of Contents

Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 60 | Fall/Winter 2022