Michelle Dong lived with her father and fourteen cousins in a butter-soft house at the end of the block, the only family in the neighborhood not directly related to us. In another country, Uncle Dong used to be some kind of teacher, but now he sold parts of his car. For years we watched him strip his car part by part, the tires rolled away and the headlamps gouged out, until there was only a hood the color of a cockroach, and even that was gnawed gone by fog. His own yard, the only one in the neighborhood, was a chorus of beheaded poppies, which my brother said was used to make opium. He said that’s why Uncle Dong spent most of the week asleep, all his windows pasted with newspaper, his house balled up and hungover. Inside their garage, the Dongs raised finches, multiplying to six hundred. Every weekend the Dongs would open their garage door in an attempt to thin out their colony, releasing them by the hundreds, a stream of birds as thick as milk.
White birds are bad luck, and that’s why Michelle painted their badness away: she brought the white finches to the driveway in shoeboxes and pinned them to the pavement with her left hand, painting their feathers with her right. She painted them with an assortment of nail polishes, shades I couldn’t name except by making sounds that matched them: clap-yellow, whistle-silver, gut-punch gold.
Michelle invited me over one time to play a killing game. We went to different high schools – hers was the Catholic school where girls wore skirts like sails, and mine was the public school where police dogs sniffed our asses – but I saw her every day, carrying buckets of water in and out of the garage through the side door. I believed the water was for the birds to drink, but later when I looked into one of the buckets in her side-yard, I saw that she was drowning them, all the bird-bodies clotting the water. They floated on the surface, their bones borrowing more air. My mother always told me that when she was little and raised chicks and pigeons and ducks, she had to fill their water bowls with stones because the baby birds would drown themselves by falling asleep mid-drink. I thought they were stupid to do so, but my mother said I used to fall asleep with her nipple in my mouth all the time when I was a baby. Be glad I dried up eventually, she said, or my milk would have drowned you, my beautiful little bird idiot.
When I went to Michelle’s garage, she told me to leave my net behind. Instead, she handed me her Chemistry Honors textbook, its cover stained with something dark-sweet and viscous. She held another textbook – Calculus – that was symmetrically stained. This is how I kill them, she said. We entered through the side-door and she turned on the lights, fluorescent glow that slid to the floor as slow as mucus. Birds sewed the air into a sky. Some of them were small as wasps, and their shadows speckled the concrete floor where bird-bodies decomposed, some that had already been pared to bone. Birdshit collaged the walls and floor, streaks like an oil painting, and I breathed only through my mouth. Like this, Michelle said, and arced her textbook through the air with both hands, swinging it like a baseball bat, slamming it against the wall. When she lifted the book, there were stains branding the cover and the wall, the finches broken like fruit. Now you go, she said, and I watched the necklace of sweat around her neck, the way it swung in the dark.
I swung the textbook, felt the finches flinch against it, slammed the book against the wall. Lifted it: a dead finch flattened into a comma-shaped shadow. Not bad, Michelle said and spat on the ground of the garage. It was the way men in our neighborhood spat on the sidewalk: the tongue flicking easy as a whip, the spit thick as bird-shit. Later, we sat outside on her driveway on two upside-down buckets and I tried to spit too, to exile the taste of blood in my mouth, but nothing came out of me but a sound, thinned-out.
Michelle wore her cousins’ wifebeaters and kicked gravel back onto the street with her toe. Her hair was ironed to the back of her neck with sweat. Later, I would practice spitting into the bathroom sink, mimicking her mouth so that its shape would become familiar to me; so that when I looked into the mirror, my mouth was hers. There was beauty to her brutality, the way she angled her chin like the sun was perched on it, but I saw that her hands were fluttering like birds. I cupped her hands in my own, the way I imagined you would rescue a bird that had tipped out of its nest, but Michelle jerked her hands back.
Here’s a story, she said, and sat on her hands so that I couldn’t see them. About my father. He had a pet pigeon he leashed to his wrist. Everyone tried to cut it off his wrist and eat it, but he wouldn’t let anyone come near it. One night it happened, the bird was snipped loose and stewed, and my father was so upset he almost slit his own throat, except he couldn’t find a blade because everyone in the village was holding theirs. I asked Michelle if that was why he bred so many birds, if he was trying to pay off some kind of debt, and she looked at me. Her shadow on the asphalt was fading like a bruise. She laughed and I leaned closer to her mouth, wanting to smell her breath, its bait.
Later that summer, my mother woke me early one Sunday morning and told me to come look, come look. It was hailing birds. I looked out at the street and saw: finches freckling the street, their feathers like snow, non-native to this weather. There were so many dead I lost count. Some kind of disease, my mother said, it must be. I watched Michelle from my window, raking up the birds while her cousins got into their cars and drove over the bird-corpses, splaying them open, grinding their bones to light.
K-Ming Chang / 张欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel Bestiary is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020.
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