[ToC]

 

AVIARY

Ariel Lewis

 

 

On the windowsill in the upstairs bathroom is a jar of teeth. These are the teeth of my children: Miranda's six and ten year molars; two of Jeremy's milk teeth, knocked out in a fall down entryway steps. The other teeth blend together, samesized and pearly. If I took them out and laid them in a row I might be able to tell you which are Jonathan's and which are Aaron's by the particular tread at the top of each. My four children all bit me at the breast with those baby teeth; I know their bite. Light passes through the window's semi-translucent pattern and again through the glass walls of the jar, bouncing off the teeth like they are mirrors, staging a strange morning show on the wall of the shower. I pee in the shower standing up. The steam rises, smelling a little strange.
     The teeth are my children's teeth; they are my teeth: four wisdom teeth, such blocky and strange endowments. They are my mother's teeth: just one, not a tooth at all but a pure gold cast, which she gave me in an odd exchange, on her deathbed. All I wanted was a show of love but I got this tooth and it shines brightest in the jar of all the others. It takes up so much space. I wonder if I could sell it somewhere, melt it down to turn her last offering into something with currency in this world.
     This is about things that have fallen out.
     My mother would say it started a long time ago, in her infancy. Things were always exiting the body and it did not seem unusual to her that in later years this process should hasten. There was hair, yes, and there were teeth, yes (those fallen out and those yanked), there were the daily sheddings her ritual offerings. There was blood, clotted on a cloth. Children dropped out (she would say it this way, like it was so easy). She lost her tonsils at nine and her appendix at forty-two and her uterus and ovaries at fifty-three. Her stomach swelled up and her face thickened with a pale moss of hair. She should have gotten smaller, until she was a sack of skin, but instead she filled herself with an unknown, clearish substance. She had a certain reek, like a prepared body, like a dead dirty thing scrubbed clean.

 

Throughout my childhood and to the end of her life my mother raised birds in tall, hand-built aviaries. This was the most interesting thing about her; more interesting than her faith or her judgments or her shortcomings. When I was a girl, she drove me into the countryside, where she harassed farmers for their castoff materials: chicken wire, twisted pine boards, PVC. What she could not find for free she grudgingly bought: hinges and latches, nails and screws, dark wood stain, a set of tools. In the backyard of our suburban house she assembled her cages, which were large enough for a person to walk into and designed with two doors for this reason. She only lost three birds to flight in all her years raising them and this was something she was proud of. She worked bent-over, slim-bodied in one of my father's old t-shirts and a loose flannel. I sat on a green plastic chair on the porch, sipping lemonade through a straw. Above me, the new hummingbird feeder leaked as a breeze tipped it sideways. I had my legs stretched out straight in front of me, crossed at the ankles. There is a photograph of this scene that my father took. I remember him coming around the side yard, standing with the camera hanging from one hand, the other pushing the hair back from his forehead. He was not the kind of man to make suggestions. He just lifted the camera up and click—we were caught. Then he went back around the side yard and I have wondered if this is why my parents have stayed in these roles in my memory: my mother hunched, my father walking in and out of rooms.
     The outdoor aviaries took several weekends to complete. In them she had at least one hundred orange-cheeked Zebra finches, twenty Spice finches with their long nails curling, a set of Goldenrods, two fawn Zebras, a cluster of Society finches and Mannikins, an Owl finch, and many others I didn't know the names of. Inside she kept more fickle birds, also in large, hand-built cages: budgies and canaries, two greenback conures named Alfred and Allie, a trio of silver doves. The birds ate by throwing their seed around with their beaks, and the whole carpet was full of it. I hated walking through that room to refill their water or to check the nests attached to the sides of each cage. The seeds stuck to the moist bottoms of my feet, between my toes, even worked their way into the small crevice between toe and nail. The birds pooped green into their own water. Their chatter was like a serenity soundtrack, with occasional interludes of unbearable screeching. For a long time after I left that house I had trouble sleeping, and it took me an even longer time to realize why.
     We wove strips of dried sawgrass into nests, and then clipped the nests to the sides of the cages and stuffed them with straw. I learned to catch a small bird in my hand. I used a net to capture the larger birds, trimming their wings with a pair of scissors. I never got used to this, my breath catching painfully each time I pressed the scissors down into feathers even though I knew it didn't hurt them. I inspected the long hollows of the remaining shaft; the roughly severed edges like semi-translucent plastic. The birds all had muscly bodies that moved in the hand the way I imagined a heart might, if you held it. Their feathers were softer than anything, and smelled like mustard seeds. It was a very faint musk, the memory of a grandparent. Multiplied by several hundred, it could be overwhelming.
     I liked the birds best when they were ugliest and still in need of me. It was in that crucial window, when their downy feathers were falling out and the thick spears of adult feathers were pushing through, that I loved them. They pecked birdseed out of my palm. The grown quail scattered away when I stepped inside the aviary and the grown finches snatched at my hair, thinking it the right material for their nests. One of my mother's conures bit me on the lip and I never forgave it. My mother sent me shopping for my first bra alone and I never forgave her. I had sex too young and my mother found out and she never forgave me, or her God never forgave me; I was never clear which. I hand-fed several clutches of parakeets, which all turned on me viciously in adolescence. This was a phrase my mother used, but she used it to describe to her pastor what had happened to me.
     This is about things that have been lost: birds, yes, my virginity, yes. It is about my mother, the lord of lost things.

 

Wild birds were attracted to our yard because of the presence of food and company. Many were escaped pets, tropical parrots or parakeets, which my mother caught in a long net and then caged. They were happy in this arrangement. Once a baby crow fell out of a neighbor's palm tree. The neighbor brought it over and my mother fed it mashed dog food off a spoon. It grew loudly, graduating to solid kibble, which it swallowed by throwing its thick neck back and gargling. It had a throat like a chute. A man at the feed store told my mother that a handfed crow would linger around our house if set free, a nuisance. So she kept it in a large wire cage in the kitchen. It had an unsanitary stink like no other animal I have ever encountered, like meat gone rotten in the trash. I could taste its feathers in my food. I was a little glad when it choked to death, the greedy thing. Now a mother, I slap my children's hands when they reach after stray feathers in the park. I warn them of diseases. When they are dirty, no matter the reason, I tell them they smell like big black crows.

 

We had an incubator and in it we hatched baby button quail. They stayed in the humid warm for twenty-one days. We marked one side of each spotted shell with an “X” in blue permanent marker, turning them every other day. I was pleased when the first small birds emerged, wobbly and with egg teeth. I transferred them, wet, to a plastic bucket full of pine shavings that had a heat lamp attached to the top. They warmed and dried. They pooped long grey trails in my hand.
     I remember one small quail, born with a foot fused together and on sideways, which continued to limp toward the water dish where it could not stay upright because of the bad foot. However many times I moved this quail away into a warm nest of shavings it limped back, head tipping into the water like a bucket in a well. It drowned, or it died because it never dried out. I loved it so much, because it hadn't grown into the mean-eyed bird it should have been. It could not help itself from death. I buried it inside an Altoids tin.

 

In the end it was my mother's liver. This was one thing that could not be taken out of her. She lived to see the birth of my final son and then she gave me her gold tooth and then she died. I went into her house, which my father had long moved out of.  This must have been a great disappointment to her, must have set her inevitable death in motion. I had not been there in many months. I found the carpet caked in bird droppings. Seven or eight birds flew around the living room; there were no cages. I opened the windows but the birds did not fly outside. They kept clinging to the drapes, and flapping away when I came near. At the funeral parlor, the director explained to me the process of preparing my mother's body. First, she would be undressed; her glasses removed, jewelry unlatched and labeled. Her body would be lightly misted and then massaged. The body would be injected with formaldehyde after all her fluids had been drained to create new space for the chemical. Her intestines and bowels: lifted out. I could only imagine her body sagging down. The director assured me she would look as full in death as she had in life. They would replace her insides with stuffing; he asked gently, had I ever been to a funeral? I pictured a taxidermied animal hanging on someone's wall. I had been with my mother to the Natural History Museum and we had looked at the glass cases of birds pinned in place. It reminded me of the pages of a book I had loved as a child; this book had realistic illustrations of every kind of swallow on one page, and every kind of owl on the next. The pages of that book were yellow, like the cloth draped behind the stuffed birds in the museum. I had examined a hummingbird with a long curving beak like a kind of sewing needle. The books had fascinated me as a child but I was not a child anymore and the Natural History Museum was not a book. The funeral director said he would shave her entire face and trim the hairs in her ears and nose. They would re-dress her in whatever outfit I liked. For an extra charge, they could seal her in plastic so that nothing strange would escape her body during the final viewing. I imagined a slug, wet and tongue-like, sliding out of her ear. I was thinking how in spring the garden was full of snails and the birds grew fat. The red hummingbird feeder swung from the porch overhang until it turned pink. I told him this death was really not something I could afford, right now. The funeral director wiped his brow in one long motion, from right to left, with a tissue. It was all about making the choices my mother would have wanted. I told the funeral director I would talk to my people.
     Outside my mother's house, the chicken wire had been cut away from the frames of the aviaries and all the birds were gone. The frames stood upright, as sturdy as the day they had been built, but the stain was leeching out of the wood because my mother had not properly sealed it. This was unlike my mother, who for so long throughout her life had been so careful, who had always done the right things. In my pocket, the gold tooth felt as heavy as a hollow bird's bone. I did not know then, as I do not know now, how everything had been lost so suddenly. I stood there, looking at the empty cages. I then felt myself in the presence of an empty body. I then felt myself in the presence of my mother's God.

 


 

 

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“Aviary” stemmed from the very visceral memories I have of my mother raising literally hundreds of birds in our suburban house when I was between the ages of 10-14. My real mother is far lovelier than the mother in this story, and is still alive, although all the birds are gone.