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Endangered Species

My five-year-old walks the sidewalks with me into town. There is no other place for him. He holds my finger with one hand. His other hand clutches a headless black bird. He nibbles on it from time to time. I cannot wrench it away from him. It wouldn’t matter. There are always more, dropping from the sky in scores. There is no protecting him. His eyes are wide open, nostrils flared, teeth gnashing and tongue lapping at the wind without boundary. 

The grocery doors slide open for us, my son runs through the cool air and straight to the produce. It is hard to stop him. An older woman coughs, coughs, coughs, and even through her coughing she glares at me. The little black birds spin out of her mouth. Keep control of your kid. The bananas are all black, the nectarines have rotted in their bags, the apples bruised beyond recognition. My son grabs a putrid, weeping mango and takes a huge bite. It’s a man staring this time, a stocker, looking over his stack, his eyes tightening over his mask, and behind the mask, little beaks, poking, poking, poking, trying to break through. You’ll have to pay for that. We will. We do. We pay for everything and seven cans of chili and three boxes of snack cakes and almonds and jerky and so many pouches of apple sauce while the birds circle and my son reaches up for the arms of every stranger, reaches up for the wing of every bird. What can I do? We have to eat.

My five-year-old walks through the parking lot with me, towards the school. He holds my finger with one hand. The drop-off line is a crush of cars. The birds are thick. Each car door that opens lets out a clot of them, that ride the air to join the birds hovering over the building or the birds pecking through the grass, waiting. I throw my arms over him. But there is no protecting him. Not once he gets inside. If he does not go inside, they tell me, if he does not see the other children play, he will not learn to play. If he does not go inside, they tell me, if he does not see the other children talk, he will never learn how. I cannot keep him inside, I cannot keep him safe, this is what they tell me. My five-year old son is so hungry for the clamor, he breaks away from me and runs, runs, runs inside chewing on his dead bird in one hand, slurping up his rotten mango from another, and the classrooms are full of the corvids and there is nothing, nothing, nothing I can do.

Caroljean Gavin’s work is forthcoming from Best Small Fictions 2021 and has appeared in places such as Milk Candy ReviewBarrelhouse, and Pithead Chapel. Her flash chapbook, Shards of a Stained-Glass Moving Picture Fairy Tale is forthcoming from Selcouth Station Press. She’s the editor of What I Thought of Ain’t Funny, an anthology of short fiction based on the jokes of Mitch Hedberg published by Malarkey Books. She’s on Twitter @caroljeangavin

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