Based on a True Story

by Christi Leman

 

Marta’s baby daughter loved The Magic Flute, especially Papageno’s duet.

“Pa. Pa, pa,” Marta sang along to the recording every day, and her baby bounced in her jumper with each syllable. The baby’s wet mouth imitated Marta’s, making soft popping noises.

“My little fish!” Marta cooed, and read the baby Kafka while Mozart played in the background. (The baby would never be a fish, of course.) Marta was never bored at home with her child. Or, if she was bored, it was worth it.

Mozart made the baby jump higher. The more distance between her feet and the floor, the more she smiled.

*     *     *

Marta was scraping old curls of milk from between the baby’s chins one day when she noticed a pimple, more like a lump, on her daughter’s neck. She poked at it as the child burbled and drooled. While her husband snored next to her that night, Marta stayed up late reading about life-threatening rashes and lumps, all the ways human skin can kill human babies. Marta called the pediatrician at dawn.

In the clinic, the doctor squinted at the lump. She took a tiny pair of needle-nose pliers from a drawer. “Hold her,” she said, and Marta hesitated before she obeyed, thinking threateningly about lawsuits and bad online reviews.

The doctor pinched and pulled at the lump until something small gave way. She held it up to the light. It was a feather, wet, the barbs bent all the wrong directions. “Take a look at that!”

Pale Marta bounced the baby, who was crying. “What does it mean?”

“It means your child is turning into a bird.” The doctor typed on her laptop, then glanced up. Remembering Marta, she pulled a paper from a sheaf in a drawer. “Here. This pamphlet will explain everything.”

Marta bought seeds in bulk and ground them in the food processor until the baby’s gizzard developed. She installed a perch in the nursery. She no longer subscribed to a diaper service; newspaper on the floor was easier and more eco-friendly. Marta found that coconut oil and gentle tugging, especially at night, helped the rest of the feathers come in smoothly. By the time Marta’s baby could crawl, she was covered in feathers of turquoise.

Marta didn’t miss her husband, or, if she did, her baby was worth it. She took her daughter to support group meetings where she shared the coconut oil trick with other parents while their children fluttered around together on the rug. She made pro-bird statements on Twitter (one was retweeted by a famous actor whose third child flew north to visit every spring). She donated some of her dwindling savings to her city’s co-species Headstart.

She had a little over a year left with her baby, the specialist said, taking much of Marta’s child support check. Marta wouldn’t go back to work, but stay home with her daughter, of course. Time was shorter than money. For now.

She tried to teach her baby sign language. Mom. Milk, she signed.

Nothing. Worm, she tried. “Talk,” she said. “Say something, before you can’t say anything.”

The baby only tapped her thumb and finger at the murmurations of starlings shape-shifting in the yard. Bird, Marta’s daughter said. Bird.Marta worried; of course she did. When news came to the support group about a child who had died in the sky one state over, she organized letter-writing campaigns, tried to change hunting laws, tried to change aviation routes, tried to change construction laws.Health insurance was a nightmare. She spent hours online every day. Her baby pecked and twisted at the laptop charger cord and might have zapped herself to death, but her baby didn’t care.

“Stop it! I know you understand me. You’re not a chicken!” Martasaid. She had stopped eating chicken months ago. Eggs, too. It was worth it, or if it wasn’t—but it just was.

But if her baby wasn’t a chicken, well, she wasn’t a baby either. The bird-child cocked her head, said “Ka. Ka, ka,” and gave the laptop cord a short.

At eighteen months, Marta’s baby pulled herself up the bookshelfby her beak and jumped off, flapping.

“Already?” Marta said when she’d caught her.

They practiced from the house to the leafless oak and back, Marta running breathless underneath. She had scratches down her arm from the baby’s new claws. She’d been told to clip them regularly, putting a towel over the baby’s head to calm her, but Marta couldn’t bring herself to do it. She felt like a terrorist.

The neighbor kids watched through the fence. Marta ignored them, mostly.

The specialist scheduled a home visit and peered into the baby’s irises, looking for color change. He observed the baby’s form in flight, riffled her plumage. He nodded approvingly. Together, he and Marta set a date.

On the big day, Marta organized a brunch on her roof and her best friends came. Baby in arms, Marta lined up her toes at the edge of the rooftop, thinking of cars and broken glass in parking lots and will the oak tree and the plate of millet seeds be enough to lure her back. Then she let go, and there was a flash of blue and green inthe sun. Wings caught the wind, and a call reached her through the breeze from far away, a block over toward the sea. Marta teetered, and if her friend hadn’t grabbed the back of her shirt, she’d have gone right over.

“Well, she’s flown the coop!” said a different friend, who was an accountant. Marta wasn’t annoyed, or if she was, she didn’t show it. Marta returned to work. Her bank account was low, and she had no reason to stay home anymore. She couldn’t expect to go back to her former salary, of course, she was told. It had been two whole years. The industry had moved on; she’d have to start over with the new recruits and learn a whole new system.

“That shouldn’t be hard,” Marta said. And it wasn’t, but nobody believed her.

She took the bus home every night, knowing the house would be dark and quiet and feather-free. All winter, skies over the schools and shopping centers remained clear and empty.

One day, Marta came home and her daughter sat among the blooming branches of the oak tree.

“Where were you?” Marta said. “You couldn’t stop by before now?”

Marta’s child bowed her head, in apology or to be scratched, Marta could not tell. She watched her daughter peck at the oak tree’s branches. Every time the bird-child rose in flight that long spring evening, she returned to the tree and to Marta, having been gone no more than minutes.

As soon as the sun set that evening and her daughter buried her head under a wing, Marta rode her bicycle to the pet store and bought a large bag of birdseed. Did her daughter still love shreddedzucchini, too? Maybe mealworms, if she was molting? Was she molting? Marta bought everything, just in case.

Marta used vacation time, though she knew she’d pay for it later. She wasn’t sure how to spend the time she and her child had together, however. Going on walks was impractical, television unlikely. Her daughter didn’t care to come indoors anymore.

On a whim, Marta played The Magic Flute on the stereo and opened the windows. Hearing it, her daughter chirped, her crest rising over her head in interest. Marta smiled. She played the operaover and over for a week and a half, lying on a blanket next to the oak tree, until her child flew away and didn’t come back until the following spring.

When Marta’s daughter brought home a boy bird a couple of years later, Marta cried, “You’re too young. You’re still a baby!” Friends who had birthed babies at the same time as Marta had started posting pictures of their children at kindergarten, their children at Disneyland. “Where’s my kindergarten picture? Where’s my MickeyMouse?” Marta said.

In the oak tree, the two birds just clicked and ground their beaks at one another. Embarrassed, Marta didn’t look at them.

“Is he even. . . your kind?” she said, before catching herself. She didn’t care if he was. Or, if she did, it shouldn’t matter. “Never mind.”

Marta didn’t know whether to give them privacy or to pretend as if nothing was happening, even as, day by day, the little nest of oak twigs and shredded-up Opera Weekly grew larger in a crook of a branch.

“Already?” Marta said to her daughter, who sat on an egg.

In her dreams, Marta saw the egg hatch into a little girl with brown hair and eyes, who had a pet mouse named Herman and sang in the school choir and liked to tell knock-knock jokes from books she readin the library. A scraggly-haired girl, liked by her teachers and her classmates for her loud laugh and her sense of justice.

The egg hatched into a tiny mound of wet feathers. It was June and the sunlight dappled. “What can I do?” said Marta, the grandmother of a bird. “Shall I buy mealworms? Are you warm enough at night? I don’t know how this works.”

Neither Marta’s daughter nor the boy bird answered her. Marta felt useless.

The chick grew, and Marta marveled at her (his?) parents. The chick squawked day and night and they flew around him (her?) in circles of energetic purpose. Marta, in contrast, remembered her baby’s newborn days in a haze of fatigue and anxiety.

Despite the bird-parents’ confidence, Marta worried. Of course she did. What if her daughter outlived her? What if she kept coming back to nest and the new owners chopped down the oak tree? What would happen to the chick if something happened to Marta’s daughter, and to the boy bird? Could Marta do it all again?

She visited the support group, but it was full of new parents and coconut oil cures and feathery babies. Not whatever she was now. She asked a moderator in a green hat what had happened to the old crowd and was told former members had new, species-typical babies who kept them busy, or maybe they’d transferred to their child’s southern habitats. In the worst cases, they’d had to mourn their child’s death and move on. Marta went home.

“What can I do?” she asked her birds again. “Please, tell me.”

Her daughter and the boy bird chirruped on the branch next to the squawking chick.

“What?” Marta said hopelessly.

“Ka. Ka, ka,” her daughter said.

“That doesn’t help me.” Marta wasn’t frustrated. She was frustrated.

“Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka,” her daughter rattled away. For a moment, Marta thought her daughter was swearing at her. Then she remembered her little fish who was never a fish, would never be a fish, and the soft baby lips mouthing, “Pa. Pa, pa.” She ran inside to play Papageno, which was, of course, exactly what her daughter wanted.

In the yard that summer, the chick hunted and pecked. Cocked his or her head at a trail of ants, each one on its own inscrutable mission.

The chick turned to Marta and chirped.

Without even knowing what she said, Marta chirped back.

 

Christi Leman lives and mothers in Provo.