Chickadees by Steve Young

Her walls were bare except for a picture postcard of a bearded Jesus in a white robe and winged sandals. He floated among puffs of silver and white clouds, in a pale blue, watercolor sky. Otherwise the wallpaper was ugly and mottled, serial rows of beige goose bumps and stapled seams. Her room was as small as a prison cell and chilly, and the single bed was too low and too soft, a cheap mattress covered by a pink electric blanket that no longer provided warmth.

“They sterilize you anyway,” she said as we slipped under the blanket.

Her mother worked behind a cash register in a store downtown. Her father stopped in at the house once a month with a check, sat at the kitchen table and drank a single cup of black coffee, and then left. She told me this without any sadness in her voice, as we lay on our backs side by side, smoking a joint, staring at the cracks in the ceiling.

She got up from the bed, naked, and went to the window. The cold winter light haloed her body, produced an “aura,” as my older sister, the hippie, would call it. Her legs were thin and pale and mostly hairless. I didn’t want her anymore and so I studied her indifferently. With her back turned, I couldn’t remember what her face looked like and that bothered me a little.

Outside her window was a birdfeeder, a small square of plywood on top of a broomstick, a plastic milk jug cut in half as shelter against the wind and snow, and she’d filled the jug with yellow birdseed specked withblack sunflower seeds. She was proud of the black and yellow chickadees that landed there every morning, she said, even in winter. She told me one of the birds had even eaten seeds out of her hand.

“I was lying in bed one day, bored out of my mind, watching the chickadees flit around outside the window,” she said. “They’re the only ones who stay around, you know. All the others fly away for the winter. I flashed on this idea to try it. They always sound so friendly when they come by, like they’re saying hello just to me. But you have to stand very quietly for a very long time before they’ll trust you,” she said. “It took over two hours altogether. I put my arm out the window and put my hand on top of the platform with some sunflower seeds in my hand, because chickadees like them the best. They split them open with their beaks and eat the soft seeds inside.

“They were chirping away on the branches above my head. They were upset at me for invading their space and they wouldn’t come down for the longest time. It was very cold and soon my arm and hand got numb and I worried that I would get frostbite. It was hard to keep my hand from trembling and I couldn’t help it, not at first, and maybe that’s why it took so long.

“Then this one cute little chickadee jumped from the branch to the top of the milk jug. I got so excited, I shook the whole feeder, my hand was trembling so much. She flew back to her branch. But I stayed patient and concentrated on being as still as I could, like a statue, and prayed to her brave little soul to trust me. Then, after a long, long time, like a miracle, she flew down onto my hand and began to eat the seeds.”

“That must have been cool,” I said. I was only half listening. I was still wondering if the girl I’d just had sex with was pretty or not. I didn’t really think it was so cool what she did, either. I could never sit with my hand in the cold like that for two hours. I’d feel too stupid. I wasn’t good at feeling stupid, not for a minute, not even for a second.

“Yeah, it was really cool. Actually, it was the coolest thing that’s ever happened in my life. It was like I had a little piece of the world cupped in my palm. It was like being stoned. Only better because the feeling didn’t go away so fast. I thought: I can do this anytime I want to. All I have to do is be still enough and patient enough and pray hard enough. Anytime I want to, I can do it.”

“That sounds really cool,” I said again.       

Then she turned from the window and it was a relief because at that moment she appeared very beautiful. Her pale white flesh melted into the bright wintery light and my lust for her returned. It rose and rose in my chest until it throbbed in the back of my throat. I crawled across the mattress and pulled her toward me and pressed my mouth against one of her small breasts. The beating of her heart was like the beating of a bird’s wings against glass; whether she wanted in or out, in or out, I couldn’t tell and I didn’t care.

But she pulled away from me, hard, and her voice came to me from a long distance, flat and mocking, “You’re a boy and so of course you could never be still enough or patient enough. And if you ever did get one to land in your hand you’d probably crush it. I know because I remember thinking how easy it would be to do it when I had her in my hand, to crush that tiny puff of life to death. All I had to do was close my fingers into a fist and squeeze until I heard the bones crack and felt the blood ooze through my fingers and down my arm. But then I thought: that’s exactly what a boy would do. So I told her: I won’t hurt you, little bird, I’ll let you live and then maybe you’ll come back and thank me someday. And you know what? She came back every day after that to say hello to me. Maybe not her, always, but somebody just like her, one of her friends. And I know it was because I prayed for her to be brave and showed her a little kindness in return.”

Her eyes had left me and it suddenly seemed very important not to be naked when she looked my way again. But my pants were on the floor, out of reach, and I was afraid to make a move, lest she get the wrong idea. I slowly wrapped the pink blanket around me so she wouldn’t see.


© Steve Young, 2015

Steve Young has an MFA in Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has published eight short stories including one in the latest issue of Ray’s Road Review. Two of his stories were nominated for Pushcart Prize, BASS and O Henry Awards. Young has been a public radio reporter and editor for most of his career. In 2007 he won a du Pont-Columbia award for his radio journalism. Young grew up in Vermont and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Chickadees was read by Seth James on 7th October 2015 for Crimes & Misdemeanors