Birds and Other Things We placed in Our Hearts
By Timmy Reed
After our chests hollowed out, we filled them with birds.
Humans all over the planet filled their ribcages with birds to simulate their hearts, which had shrunken over generations, finally disappearing altogether. We had evolved past having hearts but no one was ready to admit it.
I kept a macaw that was too big for me. He managed to learn my name. He squawked it like a hiccup out my throat.
“Liar,” he said. “Liar, Liar.”
The hole where your heart had been was subtler, gentle, filled with lovebirds that chirped and nipped at your muscle. You were always wincing but pretending to smile.
I had let you pick out both of our birds.
I was glad when the trend of keeping birds in place of our missing hearts died out. One morning we stood side-by-side in our backyard. We opened our chests and our birds flew into the sun, just as we had seen the president and first lady do on television.
Soon people began putting other things in their chests. They were experimenting. You were among those people. I was not.
I had grown satisfied with the emptiness inside me. I had decided it was natural. I wanted to love the emptiness inside you, but you wouldn’t let me.
Instead, you filled your heart hole with all kinds of things. First, like most people, you went to the butcher’s shop and bought a dead heart. You bought the heart of a lamb. Flies gathered on your lips after a week.
Once you filled it with glow sticks and danced in front of me at a party. Your insides shimmered. I imagined you were an exotic marine animal, a jellyfish maybe, and then I thought of my own empty chest, which was like a cave. I wished you were smaller so I could put you inside of me.
A tiny version of you was the only thing that would fit where my heart had been.
Otherwise I would have nothing.
Some people put rubber hearts in their chests, designed to look like the real thing. Some people just filled themselves with rocks.
You were always unsatisfied, which was inevitable. I see that now.
You left the house each morning and wandered the city, looking for new items to replace your heart. You came home with pinecones, jewelry, mini-bottles of booze. Lipstick, teddy bears, a locket in which you placed a sticker with tiny hearts on it. I could tell you had been crying. You came home with things you wanted me to put in my heart hole. I pretended to try them until I couldn’t pretend any longer.
No human ever won anything in a fight.
We tried some more anyway.
I could not make you happy.
I tried to put your sadness in my chest and carry it around with me like a beating muscle. It didn’t work. Sadness isn’t something that you carry; it is something you wade through.
Soon the air was full of birds, singing. The birds that once inhabited the world’s chests had multiplied. They filled the skies with color in great moving bodies like continents shifting above us.
This made me happy to see. I took you out back to show you. You told me you had already seen something about it on the news. You went back in the house and got busy looking through old photographs of your family to place inside yourself.
I imagined opening my chest up to let the entire sky fly inside me. I would turn around and walk inside and kneel before you and place my chest against your chest and all the birds in the world would flutter and dance between our bodies. I knew this was impossible, of course, but that didn’t matter because I also knew it would never make you happy.
It didn’t matter that my heart was empty, only that I could not fill yours in a way that would please you.
I began to spend more time alone, in the attic of our house. I could hear the birds on the roof over my head. “Liar,” I once thought I heard one say. “Liar, Liar.”
The attic was a nice space to store myself. It was empty in the middle and all around the walls were stacks of old shoeboxes containing all the discarded items that had once replaced your heart. There was a small round window I opened to breathe.
I breathed a lot. If I concentrated hard enough, I could taste it.
The air tasted like the birdsong that floated on it.
I told you to breathe with me and to just be happy you were breathing and we were together. You looked at me like I was crazy and I knew we would never be fulfilled.
Baltimore native Timmy Reed is the author of the story collection, “Tell God I Don’t Exist,” and the novel, “The Ghosts That Surrounded Them.” His novel “Miraculous Fauna” is forthcoming from Underground Voices in 2016.
—Edited by Jessica Bizik and Betsy Boyd
By Dewey N. Fox
He couldn’t believe how easily it had gone down. In the mornings, after chow was served, the work-release prisoners, who were only there Saturdays and Sundays, were allowed to walk out into the yard to play basketball or smoke or stand around. They weren’t going anywhere, so the guards didn’t pay any attention to them. The rest of the inmates had to head back to their cells or sit around the rec room playing cards and watching Wheel of Fortune, until lunch. One Sunday morning, he put on a fresh white T-shirt that he’d lifted from the laundry room and rolled up his blanket as tightly as he could and pushed it in the waistband of his dark green jumpsuit. Then he buttoned up and walked to the cafeteria with the rest of his cellblock.
When he was done eating breakfast he pulled the top half of his jumpsuit down and tied the arms around his waist and started for the door. He fell in step with two weekend prisoners who were headed to the yard and walked through the door alongside them. No one stopped him. Once outside he went directly to the lowest part of the fence, where a guard was normally standing, and unfurled the blanket and tossed it over a section of sagging barbed wire. Then he was on the other side, running toward the woods. He ran with his head down. The arms of his jumpsuit came undone and flapped behind him. They sounded like a flag waving in the wind, he thought. He remembered a time something like this had happened. He was running to catch the school bus and the sweatshirt he’d tied around his waist fell off. He turned back and grabbed the sweatshirt off the street and made it to the bus.
Poet and prose writer Dewey N. Fox is a graduate of the University of Baltimores’ Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA program. His short story collection, “What Did You Think Would Happen?” is available at Atomic Books.
—Edited by Jessica Bizik and Betsy Boyd
By K.E. Russell
Could it be that when he sang about the city, the whole room went silent because they wanted to hear what he had to say? Or was it just the chance to feel something other that the brightening buzz from the endless bottles of Stroh’s and shots of Pikesville rye whiskey? He sang about the factories and the single street lamp on Hammond Avenue, and didn’t everyone in the room know that street lamp and that street that led right to the factory? That was where the room worked, collectively, their shifts starting at scattered hours around the clock. On the hour someone came in as another left, drunk enough to start their shift.
He didn’t say much, just listed the details of Indiana. He listed the number of moths that buzzed in the porch lamps of the houses on the side streets that trailed off into the darkness of the plains that in daylight could be seen stretching out toward Route 80. He listed the shops on Hammond Avenue that periodically closed down and reopened and closed down again, their owners in the crowd ordering another beer and a shot, and nodding. He listed the trucks and the minivans that sat out on the lawns until they were taken to the highway to drive out to the Walmart in Taylor for gas and milk and eggs and cheese. He didn’t say anything, he just told the room what they knew. And there wasn’t much to that. So they listened to feel good. They listened because a song about your town puts your town in a new, less fluorescent light.
His set ends. Someone else steps onstage as he packs his guitar and the room gets back to their chatter. He sets the guitar against the back wall and walks to the bar to order a Stroh’s and a shot of Pikesville. No one buys him a drink; no one talks to him. He leans against the bar to watch a young girl nervously introduce her songs and start to sing. Pretty. But her songs are no more than OK and the room’s clamor builds. He takes another shot and then another, and soon he’s sick of listening to Beatles covers and sick of being in a bar filled with rayon overalls and stick ‘n’ poke tattoos. He pays, picks up the guitar and leaves.
He walks down Hammond Avenue to his road. While he walks, he sees a woman sitting in a parked truck, smoking. She is alone and she is looking toward the factory. He passes her truck but turns and looks in the same direction. The moon is beside it and almost full, gray-blue smoke blooms up, there are small white and red lights that glimmer in the heat from the factory and there are long windows, yellow. He watches, and he believes he sees bodies moving back and forth in the window frames but he can’t see anything from this distance. He thinks that the factory is breathing and moving and looks almost pretty. He pretends he has a mother who is working there right now, and she is thinking of him.
He remembers his wife in Louisiana and wonders why he thought moving here was the right decision. He turns around and continues home. A bottle, twin bed, the radio and guitar, two chairs, ceiling lamp and desk lamp, a tiny bathroom, a tiny kitchen, a mini fridge with condiments, a porch with a yellow-green light bulb, flickering.
K.E. Russell writes and studies flash fiction (and not-so-flash fiction) in Baltimore while pursuing an MFA at UB.
—Edited by Jessica Bizik and Betsy Boyd