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Image by Kyle Mackie
Birds
By JB Polk
Flora wonders how birds dispose off their deceased...

Regardless of the weather, Flora walks her aging Cocker Spaniels, Pepper, and Salt twice a day, seven days a week, since she retired nearly three years ago. She does it before breakfast and again before lunch—each time, for precisely fifteen minutes. There's a reason for this: she needs to get back home quickly to whip up Mama Louise's morning hot porridge and lunchtime pumpkin soup with croutons.

 

Mama's appetite has undoubtedly changed over the years. Gone are the days when she could devour an XL Burger King meal and wash it down with a sizeable vanilla milkshake. When Flora worked full-time, she would prepare a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches, a thermos of iced tea, and some nutritious snacks for Mama to enjoy throughout the day. Now that she is retired, Mama Louise expects her daughter to cook the meals from scratch.

 

"Soup and porridge, boring as hell but easy to swallow with my dentures," she comments with a hint of annoyance in her voice as she slurps down her meal.

 

Flora, a lover of intellectual pursuits, finds solace in the routine of walking the dogs. This activity allows her to combine physical activity with mental stimulation, a perfect balance for her. Her mind becomes a kaleidoscope of thoughts whenever she encounters new concepts; even when she examines everyday objects like trees, houses, or pavement blocks, she ponders their hidden significance. The cumulus in the sky looks like the fluffy cotton candy she loved as a child. And the white picket fences remind her of how, in early spring, she used to run barefoot through neighborhood gardens brimming with daffodils and snowdrops, in stark contrast to the concrete jungle the area is now turning into.

 

They are not particularly fond memories because Mama Louise strongly disapproved of Flora's sweet indulgences, while the flowers always triggered her sneezing fits.

 

“Sugar gives you an awful rush and rots your teeth. And with your asthma, the doctor's bills are really straining our finances," Mama Louise would scold, her lips tightly pressed together in disapproval.

 

Flora lets the dogs roam but never off the leash because of her neighbor's dangerous-looking Cane Corso, who pees and poops all over the front yards whenever he is allowed out. As Salt and Pepper sniff around, her thoughts get caught up by the remarkable balance of nature, where plants and animals coexist in a seamless ecosystem—the birds chirp, the insects buzz, the squirrels scurry up and down tree branches, and the flowers contribute to the tapestry of life she finds so intriguing.

 

Flora Daisy Meadows' mother has always been an outdoor enthusiast, instilling in her daughter a profound love for the natural world and for what she referred to as "communication with the environment." However, the name she selected for her only child was quite a challenge, as the other children in the neighborhood teased her incessantly.

 

"Here comes Margarine Oopsy Daisy," they would exclaim when she emerged to join in the fun on infrequent occasions.

Margarine, thanks to Flora, the popular plant-based spread...

For a while, she thought she could drop the surname when she nearly married Hank Lafferty. But her mother hated Hank almost as much as, if not more than, cotton candy.

"He is such a wastrel, Flora—a penniless bank clerk who will never achieve anything," Mama warned.

"You have a bright future ahead of you. At such a young age, marriage might not be the best decision. You ought to concentrate on your studies and job rather than getting married so early."

 

So Flora did, and after a short wait, Hank decided to tie the knot with a woman whose name had no connection to the natural world and who most certainly didn't have a mother who despised him. And Flora remained single, with a name that invited ridicule even from adults.

 

Flora thinks about things as she strolls around. Things that make her heart swell with joy and things that weigh heavy on her mind. She thinks about more than just the clouds above her or the absence of flowers in the gardens. Like missed opportunities and lost love... Right now, her thoughts focus on birds because she’s always been mesmerized by the world of avian species—their graceful flight patterns, their beautiful plumage, and the songs they sing. She finds solace in observing their freedom, and she wonders what it would be like to soar through the sky with them, leaving all worries behind.

 

She often fantasizes about the far-off places they migrate to and the scenery they pass through while traveling. She daydreams about standing atop old ruins, savoring exotic dishes, and immersing herself in foreign cultures—wishes that remain firmly anchored in her imagination. In real life, she is limited by responsibilities and obligations that prevent her from going too far. To be honest, she stays because Mama Louise despises travel and prefers the comfort and familiarity of their own house.

 

"There's no place like home," Mama once said, her voice reminiscent of Dorothy's from The Wizard of Oz. She delicately sipped her unsweetened Oolong tea as she nibbled on a shortbread or a vanilla wafer. Instead of ruby slippers, she opted for her worn-out carpet skidders, which had clearly seen better times. Flora noticed that her fingernails were long and a bit dirty, and she knew it was time to clip them, a task she hated because Mama always complained that Flora was not gentle enough.

 

During her teenage years, Mama Louise objected to her daughter spending too much time away from home. She always cautioned her about the risks of mixing with the wrong crowd. So, instead of contradicting her, Flora immersed herself in books and eagerly absorbed new knowledge, ultimately ascending to the title of Queen of Trivia despite always playing the game alone since she had no friends. She was well-versed in countless irrelevant details, like the identity of Fred Astaire's on-screen companion and the frequency at which Americans accessed their refrigerators. The answer to the latter was twenty-two.

 

As she grew older, her focus shifted to facts about birds. She knows there are 10,906 bird species in the world, of which 2,400 live in the continental United States. She is aware that while many birds gather in flocks, ravens do so in groups known as "unkindness" or "conspiracy"! She also knows that, although turbulence-related aircraft accidents are uncommon, over the past three decades, more than 200 lives have been lost in aerial collisions between planes and birds.

 

But it is the sheer number of birds that soar above us that gets to her! For example, the gray sparrow, the most common species, numbers almost 1.6 billion individuals! Yet, one rarely finds dead birds on the streets or even in the countryside. So the question is, where on earth do all the dead birds go?

 

Is there a natural process that quickly disposes of the deceased creatures, preventing them from being seen? Maybe they have a secluded spot where they can meet their demise, hidden from prying eyes. Or perhaps there exists a clandestine ritual within the avian community where the young and healthy ones purposefully eliminate their elderly and discreetly conceal their remains to evade the attention of predators. It’s been known among humans, so why not among birds?

 

“I wouldn’t be surprised by the predatory eagles and frightening-looking owls, but what about the lovely, colorful robins and hummingbirds?” Flora thinks.

 

Yet she has never seen a dead robin either, so perhaps... Appearances can be deceptive, and in real life, robins might, in fact, be feathery psychopaths who hide their true nature beneath their attractive exterior.

 

Take Mama Louise, for example. She has always looked as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but she's actually a skilled manipulator who knows how to get what she wants. And her "spare the rod and spoil the child" philosophy has left a lasting impact on Flora, who, until today, has been a little afraid of her mother's seemingly sweet demeanor.

 

While browsing for trivia, Flora came across an intriguing ancient Sardinian custom known as senicide, or altruistic suicide, in which elderly or sick individuals would choose to leave their community and relocate to a designated area to pass away peacefully. In the past, thalaikoothal, a practice in certain regions of India, involved giving the elderly a calming oil bath before they succumbed to dehydration, starvation, or poisoning.

 

It is amusing to explore the potential of deliberate murder among birds as a technique to guarantee the survival of the fittest. Flora recently learned that when birds feel threatened, they leave their nests, sacrificing the current brood to boost the chances of future successful reproduction. So, why not sacrifice the old and, let's face it, useless?

 

Flora wonders if her mother had ever pondered the idea of an altruistic suicide for a greater cause, in other words, Flora's, given that she has always been a staunch supporter of animal welfare and the preservation of natural harmony. But she doubts it.

 

When Flora was five years old, a tornado ravaged their hometown, forcing them to relocate to Omaha. She had a pet at the time, a golden-furred Pekingese named Ginger because she usually names her dogs after condiments. After him came Cinnamon, Mustard, Pesto, and, before Salt and Pepper, Wasabi. Similar to Toto in The Wizard of Oz (Flora’s favorite book), the little puppy lost his way during the storm. When they finally found him, his spine was broken. Despite the vet's efforts, Ginger’s hind legs were paralyzed.

 

"Honey," Mama Louise said, "you understand we can't take the poor animal with us to Omaha. He has endured enough and putting him in a cage and transporting him 200 kilometers would be cruel. It kills me to watch him in pain. It’ll be more compassionate to put him out of his misery."

 

So, they did, or rather, Mama Louise did—her Glock G43 spat out two bullets into Ginger's head right in front of Flora, forever changing her perspective on euthanasia and the ethical implications of intentional death. That is also the reason Flora understands why people sometimes refer to the brain as "gray matter."

 

The Spaniels are sniffing at something nasty-looking on the ground, and Flora tugs on the leashes.

"Come on! Leave it alone," she calls out, but the dogs ignore her.

 

She knows that if she does not hurry up and divert the dogs from whatever they are investigating, she is going to have a run-in with Mama. The watch reminds her that it's almost two o'clock. She seems to be taking more time than usual. Her mother, who is 85 and nearly deaf and blind but as demanding as ever, is waiting for her pumpkin soup, which is ready but missing the croutons.

 

Her heart skips a beat as she bends down to shorten the leashes. She notices some feathers in Salt's mouth and realizes that the dogs have found a lifeless bird—but not just any bird! It's a red robin! Talk about coincidences! Mind over matter...

 

She takes the mangled body from the Spaniel's mouth and looks for a suitable place to lay it to rest, hoping Mama won't be too upset by the unexpected detour. By now, she is likely pacing around the kitchen in her slow, hesitant gait, poking at the curtain with her walking stick, and calling out for her.

 

Flora is aware of the urgency of releasing the robin and making a swift departure, as Mama's fury has the potential to intensify rapidly. She delicately holds it in her palm, a wave of sorrow washing over her as she tries to find the perfect spot for the bird's eternal slumber.

 

Her eyes well up when she realizes the poor robin will never fly again. It will never return to Alaska in the summer or sing its beautiful tunes in the morning. 

She feels a peculiar connection to the lifeless animal.

"I am the robin! I am dead!” she suddenly exclaims, feeling an overwhelming sense of sorrow for herself. 

"But while the bird traveled and saw things and places, I’ve been stuck in the same routine for years. Not for years! Forever!” She reflects on her stagnant existence, feeling a deep longing for change and adventure.

 

“And why? Because Mama has always told me I should be content with what I have. She’s never let me soar! She clipped my wings! She killed Ginger!" The last one is a primal scream in her head.

 

"Staying grounded was never my choice! It was Mama's, and I just did what she wanted me to! If it weren't for her, I could have been Mrs. Hank Lafferty rather than stupid Flora Daisy Meadows! And candy floss doesn't make one’s teeth rot!”

 

She gently places the bird on the grass and releases the two leashes, hoping that the Cane Corso doesn't need to poop urgently at this moment. She starts to dig in the dirt using only her bare hands. It's remarkably easy. After she has finished scraping, she places the tiny corpse in the hole and covers it with the loose soil. Salt and Pepper are trying to dig it out once more, but she urges them to leave it alone.

 

She gets up, pain throbbing in her knees, covered in a layer of dust. She gathers the leashes and brings the dogs under control. They refuse, but she remains firm. They're going back to their place. Not because Mama Louise will be angry, but because Flora suddenly realizes she isn't dead! She's still alive! Barely, but still alive. She is simply trapped in a cage, and the key is in Mama Louise's hands. Those gnarled, ugly veined hands that used to strike Flora with a stick when she didn't play the piano exercises in time with the metronome's annoying tick-tock.

 

Smack! Tick-tock… Smack! Tick-Tock…

“Listen—smack—to the rhythm, Flora... Will you just - smack-listen to the smack-damn rhythm?"

 

And it isn’t even a gilded cage, but a cheap wire one with rusty bars that dig into Flora's ribs whenever she tries to squeeze through. But not today. Today, she is going to open the door and fly out because she will get the key—even if she has to pry it from Mama’s ugly, veined hands! And she will go to Alaska! She will skinny-dip in icy waters, howl at the northern lights, and dance with wild wolves under the midnight sun!

She knows that her mother will not yield easily. She is not an elderly Sardinian who would voluntarily disappear for the greater good. Because Mama Louise is selfish. She has always put her needs above anyone else's, including Flora’s. She'll need a little nudge to release the key and let Flora, the red-breasted robin, out. Finally, out…

 

So, to speed things up, rather than Sardinian selflessness, Flora will try the Indian thalaikoothal. Some lavender-scented bath oils will help Mama Louise relax. When Mama relaxes, she always falls asleep. And while sleeping, she is completely unaware of her surroundings.

 

“You realize, Mama, that I can't take you to Alaska with me. You are old, and you have endured enough. It kills me to watch you in pain every day. I believe it would be more compassionate to put you out of your misery."

 

Flora rehearses what she'll say to Mama.

And then she will get the Glock.

Image by Thomas Griggs

JB Polk is Polish by birth, a citizen of the world by choice. The first story short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland, in 1996. She regularly contributed to Women's Quality Fiction, Books Ireland, and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of Virginia House Writers, Dublin, and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards. Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America and started contributing to magazines and newspapers and then wrote textbooks for  Latin American Ministries of Education. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, 53 of her stories have been accepted for publication.

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