by Max Bartlett There’s this bird. It’s nighttime, and there’s this bird. And he’s flying, and who knows how long he’s been flying, because that’s not what’s important. The thing is there’s this house. Everything outside the house is dark, and the house is warm and bright. And there’s a window openSo he flies in. You would too, don’t pretend you wouldn’t. But he can’t stop, he has to keep on flying. Across the room there’s another window open, and it’s dark outside. That’s it. Dark before, dark after. A few seconds of light and sound and heat and after that it’s back to nothing.
He keeps flying. No choice. He passes through the other window.
29. She’s in a downtown café with her mother. Not that you can tell, from the outside. She looks like the older woman. Back hunched with scoliosis, left leg folded up on the chair, the useless one hanging limp. Birthmark on her face, café-au-lait, a burned-on map of nerve endings. They pass a notepad to each other across the table. Her mother never figured out sign language.
So that’s it? she asks. He just flies off into the darkness?
Because he doesn’t know, her mother says. Maybe there will be another house, he doesn’t know.
She stirs her coffee, a half-finished plate of eggs in front of her. Religion always makes her lose her appetite. As if they haven’t had this conversation a thousand times. Her mother toys with the cross around her neck, a nervous habit, displacement activity.
And I’m the bird? she asks. You think I’ve stopped flying?
I just wish you had something to believe in. You should come with me on Sunday.
Worried about my soul again? Telling yourself I’ll shed my ever-flawed mortal form?
Don’t be a martyr.
34. Body. She knows about body. Here she is, in the mirror, watching it. It curves wrong, the spine bent where it shouldn’t. Her left leg is smaller than her right, atrophied from disuse. Here’s the scar at the base of her spine, when they removed the tumor from her sciatic nerve. Here’s the scar on her right knee, her left foot, just under her right breast, just over her left shoulder. That one stands out, cutting across one of the milky brown spots spread across her body.
Here are her ears, useless, deaf from age thirteen. Here are her eyes, filmed over with cataracts. But not blind, not quite yet.
Here are her hands. They’re fine. They catch her on the counter and she hits the floor gently as the world spins, a black tunnel closing in.
5. She can already spell better than any other kid in the class, and she knows the biggest word: neurofibromatosis.
14. There is a dead bird lying in the snow. It is a dark-eyed junco, migrated south to Idaho for the winter. It is about six inches long but looks smaller, eyes closed, wings and legs folded into its body. Black head, brown body, white breast, dark and vivid against the snow. There is less blood than she would have expected. Thousands of miles of flight, ended by a closed window.
Her mother has told her not to touch it. She kneels in the snow with a pencil and a pad of paper, carefully sketching it. She traces the curve of its head, the short delicate tail. When she believes her mother isn’t looking, she spreads its wings for a better sense of anatomy. She traces the right wing, counting each delicate feather. Over the course of her life, she will draw thousands of wings. The secret she never tells anyone: they are all this wing.
On the ground, the junco looks like it is flying. When she wraps it in paper and lifts it away, it leaves a silhouette of wings in the snow.
34. She is lying in a magnetic resonance imaging machine. It is a smooth white tube, turning and shifting above her, taking stock of every inch of her body. She cannot hear it anyway, but she can only imagine that this machine moves without sound. This is the twenty-fourth MRI she has received in her life, the sixth since the fainting began.
The machine knows every inch of her, every nerve, every part of her brain. It is the gentlest lover she has ever had, and she wonders if she can keep any secrets from it.
11. Nerves bring two things: feeling and death. There are 214 named nerves in the human body. Neurofibromatosis type II causes tumors, properly called neurofibromas, to grow along the nerves, particularly where they meet bones. They are especially common in the ears, eyes, spine, and brain.
She has had this explained to her so many times. As long as she can remember, she has known that, one day, her own body will kill her.
On this day, for the first time, she believes she understands what her body is for.
There are 1,300 nerve endings per square inch in the human hand. There are 8,000 nerve endings in the clitoris.
Her mother’s church, her church, has taught her for years that touch is sinful. She believed it, because until this moment her body had only ever caused her pain, and so she has known the body must be evil. Now she understands that every word of it was a lie.
26. When she draws herself, she always has wings. Oh, the women in the drawings have better bodies than her. Straighter spines, better skin, amazing hair. But that’s just vanity. They’re all her. And they all have wings. Feathered, yes, but not angels’ wings. In her comics they call them superheroes, but in her mind she thinks of them as goddesses. Egyptian. She likes the Egyptians, who worshipped birds and understood, as she does, that there is no difference between body and soul. That is why they preserved themselves for the afterlife. And armed themselves, too, because they believed that yes, you can take it with you.
In her will, she has asked to be buried with a gun. She tells herself she doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but she also thinks she’s owed some answers.
25. She is in love. Not for the first time, but this is the one that will last the longest. He is a naturalist, a veterinarian who works in bird conservation. He would like children one day. She doesn’t want to talk about it.
Neurofibromatosis is genetic. She said she doesn’t want to talk about it.
29. Whose house is it?
The house the bird flies through. Whose house is it?
I don’t know. Does it matter?
Yes. What do they think about the bird?
I don’t know. I guess they’re surprised. You would be too, a bird flying through your living room.
Do they care?
About the bird. Do they care?
Of course they care. It could hurt itself, and it’s beautiful, and they’ve never seen anything like it.
So they care. And they’ll remember, after.
Then it’s not God’s house.
0. Something is already wrong, but she doesn’t know it. Her new consciousness is still unformed, and she is nothing but nerves and body, each sensation lighting up her mind like a power grid overloading.
The doctors say she is probably going to die. Very few infants born with neurofibromas have ever survived. Fewer than five. She was born with two neurofibromas. One is in her leg, the other in her upper back. They can operate, but it’s risky. She’s lucky, though. One of the surgeons here is an expert, he’s seen this before. He holds her, shows her parents the places they’ll cut into her.
He is explaining the procedure, carefully, step by step.
34. Getting an MRI means she can’t move for two hours and thirty-five minutes. Not a muscle. She can blink, that’s all. There is nothing to look at or feel. It is a smooth white tunnel, and she can’t hear a sound. Just white, and cold metal. She is a bird lying in the snow. She is in limbo, devoid of feeling or motion as she awaits judgment.
When the machine is finished, it will tell her whether she will live or die. In her mind, it is a pair of scales. Were she Egyptian, Osiris, the heron, god of the dead, would weigh her heart against a feather. She wonders how a tumor would compare.
34. The body feels pain through nociceptors, specialized nerve endings that detect heat, pressure, and chemical changes. There are none in the brain. So she doesn’t feel the tumor growing where the vestibulocochlear nerve meets the temporal lobe, until it begins to cause vertigo, her sense of space distorted. She falls to the ground and continues to feel like she’s falling. She crawls across Escher architecture, trying to reach the phone with the TTY hookup for the deaf. The message from the other end prints off on ticker tape.
What is your name?
28. Name? She, her, that girl, the poor thing. She lives in a world of pronouns. She lives in other worlds too. Here are the women she has been, in her short but storied career: Canary Woman (artist, 8 issues), Dark-Eyed Junco (writer and artist, 15 issues), Peregrine (writer and artist, 36 issues), The Silver Falcon (artist, 4 issues), Songbird (writer, 6 issues) Eagle Eye (writer and artist, 10 issues), Redwing (artist, 18 issues), Red-Tail (writer and artist, 4 issues), Starling (artist, 13 issues), and Canada Goose (a short-lived Alpha Flight spinoff, artist, 2 issues).
They all have secret identities. That’s important. Like her, all her heroes are someone else. And that begs the question: which one is the real one? The hero or the alter-ego? Batman or Bruce Wayne? Superman or Clark Kent?
Her success comes from an understanding: there is no such thing as a real name.
16. She is looking at a picture of her spine in grayscale, a cutaway showing bone and flesh and nerves. It is pinned to the wall of the radiologist’s office, and it is the fourth magnetic resonance image she has seen of her own body. The technician is showing her the neurofibromas growing on her S1 nerve, which passes through her sacrum, at the base of her spine. It is growing around the nerve, and the pressure is narrowing it and blocking the chemical signals. This is why her left foot is numb, and it is the cause of her sciatica, the shooting pain through her upper thigh and lower back.
It has grown larger since they last examined it. It will continue to grow. If she does not have it removed, she may lose the use of her leg.
So remove it.
If they remove it, they may damage the nerve. She may lose the use of her leg.
29. When she draws herself, she has wings. When she draws herself, she is a hero. She has developed a detailed world of these winged women, Valkyries and superheroes and bird-headed goddesses. They fight crime, and threats from outer space, and fate, and death.
But there are enemies, and they also have wings. They are messengers. They bring bad news, births, deaths, disease, pain, and tumors. They live in the clouds and come to Earth in lightning storms and power lines. They love magnets. They seek out neurons and hide inside the electricity of synapses.
She doesn’t talk about whose messengers they are. There are enough galactic threats for one superwoman to face.
34. She is looking at a picture of her brain in grayscale, a cutaway showing bone and mind and no pain, because the brain is the only place without pain. It is the thirty-seventh such image she has seen of herself. For decades now she has navigated her own body by electromagnet.
When birds migrate, they find their way by the Earth’s magnetic field, in much the same way that humans navigate by orienting themselves to the north pole. They know exactly where they are, where they have been, and where they will be through this magnetic map. She does the same thing.
The image shows the tumor growing in her brain. The radiologist is not sure if it is operable.
Pigeons and doves, which are closely related despite their opposing reputations, also navigate by magnetic field. It is how homing pigeons find their way.
Here is a story from her childhood: When God flooded the Earth, Noah took two of every animal onto his ark and sailed the endless oceans. But the birds, who were smarter, took to the skies and skipped the ark entirely. So it was a dove flying by that showed Noah the way to land.
She always liked that story, because it was God who tried to destroy man, and a bird that saved them.
27. There is so much history in her body. She is an amalgam of every woman before her: her mother’s eyes, her grandmother’s blood, her great-grandmother’s hands. But she is a flaw, a dead end, a failure of history. A mutation in the neurofibromin 2 gene, or “merlin” gene, and that is it for the family line. A merlin, of course, is a kind of small hawk. She can’t help but feel betrayed by one of her own.
19. She likes comics, because they let her control time. She traces panels with pencil and ruler, each line another point in history. She is so many other women, and they are timeless, and they all have wings. When she is reborn, she says, she will have wings.
27. No children, she says. Not can’t, won’t.
So he leaves, and it ends there.
34. The doctor sits on a stool in front of her, takes her hand, looks her in the eye. As the tumor grows, it’s going to start putting pressure on other parts of your brain. You may experience some other symptoms. Sleeplessness, confusion. Your perception of time may change. It may affect your memory.
She laughs. It reminds her of another story from her youth.
There’s this bird. He’s flying through this house, and it’s nighttime outside. It’s so cold out there, and so warm in here. But he doesn’t stop. He keeps flying toward the other open window.
He has to keep going, because he’s following the magnetic field. That’s how they navigate, you know. They follow the magnetic field, just like it’s a map. It’s all drawn out. They can fly for a long time until they reach their destination.
Birds turn, they circle, they find new paths. There are other houses. That’s the secret. There’s always another chance.
And when he passes through your house, you remember him. This brief flash of wing and speed as it flies through for only a moment. The bird is not forgotten.
Max Bartlett is a journalist, part-time writer, and public radio producer. He has a degree in Journalism from the University of Idaho, and enjoys books about robot wizards fighting space dragons. His literary inspirations include Margaret Atwood, Anthony Doerr, and Daniel Orozco. When he is not creating classic works of art that will probably be taught in schools in fifty years, he lives indoors and mostly sleeps.
Image credit: angela ☾.on Flickr