When you died, the doctor pushed his spectacles up the narrow bridge of his nose and split me in two. My reflection burned into each mirror-like lens, one a faceless shadow crowned with forks of unkempt curls, the other a bright ghost illuminated by a halo of fluorescent light. I was only seven years old, but still remember the sticky sweetness behind my eyes, and the memory of our pet lovebird, Toro, inflating like a balloon inside my head.
I flick my cigarette over the bedside. A lazy breeze sighs through the curtains, sweeping the ash amongst a tangle of clothes strewn carelessly across the floor. The curtains remind me of your nightdress: white, silk, translucent. The fabric was part of you, a second skin.
Do you remember our ritual game of hide-and-seek? Every night, I would crawl under the bed and wait for your tiptoed feet to appear in the lamplight. I would cover my eyes, hold my breath, and hear the mattress springs squeak above me. Through the triangular gap between my fingers, your upside-down face would appear over the edge of the frame. Boo! you would say, pulling me into your arms.
The lenses reminded me of Toro because they were round like the mirror that hung from an old shoelace inside her cage. She would stare into the mirror, unblinking, unflinching, as though afraid the reflection would collapse disintegrate dissolve vanish. The cage spindly and silver like the doctor’s spectacles, but whenever anybody entered the kitchen she would flap her bright green wings and butt her pink head against the bars of the cage and the mirror would swing back and forth, twisting clockwise then anticlockwise, black-white-black-white-black-white. She would only calm down if we ducked behind the breakfast bar, or threw a dishcloth over the cage.
Every weekend you would loop an apron around your neck, twist your hair into a bun, and make a batch of your special breakfast pancakes (the way they crisped at the edges, soft in the middle, autumn fading to summer, strawberry eyes, the sweet smile of maple syrup). You would pretend to be Marilyn Monroe, singing Two little girls from little rock.
I remember lifting a corner of the towel as you flipped the pancakes, singing behind me (Then someone broke my heart in Little Rock / So I up and left the pieces there). And the longer I stared at Toro the more I felt the bird’s anguish mourning melancholy sadness mixed with the smell of fresh, warm pancakes.
As I peeked into the cage, Toro twitched her head and looked straight at me. Caught in each other’s reflection, the moment seemed to stretch out and slow down until nothing else existed apart from the cage and the bird inside the cage and the girl outside the cage. Until your voice emerged as if from the bottom of an ocean and said Get them while they’re hot! like you were a waitress in one of the old movies we used to watch every Saturday afternoon, both of us burrowed beneath a blanket, surrounded by empty chocolate wrappers and buttered popcorn crumbs.
Delicate silver frames almost invisible as if the lenses floated in front of the doctor’s eyes, preparing to fly away at any moment. The funny thing is, they slid down his nose as he spoke to me, so that what I was thinking at that moment (as his mechanical words drifted from his mouth and dissolved like the smoke cloud around me) wasn’t about you, or how you couldn’t feel my hand, or your confusion when you looked at me. Instead, I was thinking about the spectacles falling off his face and flapping away down the corridor. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.
We named the bird Toro because you didn’t want to move to Italy anymore, you wanted to live in Spain. You would teach me Spanish words and phrases until we could discuss everyday things, like the weather, or buying train tickets, or ordering dinner from a restaurant. We would cover the house with bright square sticky notes: ventana, puerta, escalera, espejo, madre, hija. Toro. Half-bull, half-bird, slamming her head into the cage again and again until we ran out of the kitchen and left her alone.
And what made me laugh even more until I was bent double holding my stomach in front of the doctor was imagining throwing a dishcloth over his head while he was standing there talking to me with his hands behind his back, stethoscope limp around his neck, voice muffled, head invisible. My eyes streamed and I could hardly breathe.
The nurse lifted me from the floor and carried me to a hard plastic seat in the waiting area. I wrapped my arms around my legs and pressed my eyes into my knees and all I could think about was Toro turning to look at me and the mirror spinning spinning flashing spinning like a flicked coin. The doctor pulled the nurse aside and whispered into her ear, both of them looking at me with sorrow confusion irritation mirror spectacles periquito madre madre madre.
A prescription bottle lies open on the bedside cabinet. I take a couple of tablets and chase them down with the stale residue of last night’s pinot noir. Leaning over the body beside me, I help myself to another cigarette. He turns away and covers his head with a pillow. When I click the lighter, he grunts but doesn’t wake.
Smoke stings my eyes and I laugh and cry like when I sat in the plastic seat as the nurse rubbed circles into my back. I wasn’t crying for you, but for Toro, because that was the moment I understood why she wanted to be alone. Why she forgot to eat. Why she didn’t even sleep.
She wasn’t looking at her reflection, but inside herself for her missing half. Her soulmate. The part of her that was left behind, too dirty, too diseased, too ugly to display or care for or even acknowledge.
Sliding into my underwear and t-shirt, I grab an orange from the kitchen counter and tear away the skin. Wedging open the window, I sit astride the sill and dangle one leg outside. The orange peel uncoils like a snakeskin and sticky juice trickles across my wrists. As I squeeze a segment into my mouth, a single bird swoops toward me, flicks its wings, and vanishes.
Somewhere a bell chimes, like the pet shop door when I
broke it open.
I dashed through the rain, Toro’s wings pinned between my hands. I rattled the pet shop door, but it was locked. A sign hung lopsided from a chain in the window: Closed Sundays. I picked up a half-brick and smashed the glass. The alarm sounded and I unlatched the door. The cage was still there, but it was empty. I hadn’t realised my fist was clenched so tightly. Unclipping the hatch, I laid Toro inside, covered her with a mound of straw, and ran away.
pushed it open.The clerk unclasped a small square hatch in the aviary, reached
a gloved hand inside, and plucked poor Toro from her perch. Her mate was asleep, but jumped as the door snapped shut. I was overjoyed; I squealed, hugged you, danced with you, and all the while the other bird looked on, shuffling claws up and down its perch as we carried Toro in a sparkling cage out of the store, past the painted window, and away.
I look out across the city. In every window of every tower block a figure sits on the windowsill, a pulp of something squeezed in their palm, like I’m looking into a cracked doctor madre spectacles Toro black-white-black-white-black-white.
Swinging my other leg into the cool air, I lean forward and watch every other image do the same. One by one they push themselves over the edge. I expect to hear screams, but instead, the sky fills with music. The figures soar in spirals above me, arms outstretched, merging and dividing, beckoning me to join them.
Do you remember what you said to me in the hospital, before you never saw me again?
You said you used to think that flying and falling were polar opposites, that the two were singular, distinct, disconnected.
You put a hand on either side my face and said that now, you realise there is hardly any difference at all. That the space between them is so narrow that it barely even exists.
Christopher M Drew is a writer from the UK. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Point Press, Longleaf Review, MoonPark Review, Spelk, Bath Flash Fiction, and others. He reads for FlashBack Fiction. You can connect with Chris on Twitter @cmdrew81, or check out his website cmdrew81.wordpress.com
–Foreground art credit: Christopher M Drew
–Background Art by Piotr Kaczmarek