[by Donna Migliaccio]
The faint bleating finally pierced the fog of Birdy’s drugged slumber. She cracked her left eyelid open and after some moments, identified the source of the noise: a monitor, screen glowing green, at the left side of her bed. Of course, she thought. Operation. Guess it’s over. Guess I made it.
Through the haze of her stubby grey lashes, she took slow, deliberate stock of her condition: IV in the crook of her elbow, oxygen tube taped to her nose. Mouth dry, throat sore, belly painful. More tubes down there. Gasp and sigh of machines pumping stuff in and out. Another glow, this one bluish, off to her right. She peeled open her other eye to look.
Laurie was sitting in the light, head tilted down, eyelids lowered, like an angel, Birdy thought, her heart swelling so suddenly that her chest ached, like an angel lost in prayer. Laurie shifted position then, rolling her shoulders wearily, and Birdy saw that the unearthly blue light was, in fact, a cell phone, and Laurie was not praying but absorbed in some game. “Laurie,” Birdy tried to say, but her tongue was as dry and limp as an old sock, and although her lips moved, no voice came out.
A nurse came into the room then, shoes squeaking on the linoleum, brisk and efficient in pastel scrubs. “Evening,” she said. For just a breath Laurie looked up, and on her face was the expression Birdy had come to loathe: mouth pursed and pulled down at the corners, brow furrowed, eyes hard and squinting. A disappointed face, a disillusioned face, a face too old for such a young woman. It made Birdy want to weep.
The nurse fiddled with a monitor, made notes on a clipboard, then leaned over Birdy. “Well, hello,” she said. “You awake now, Mommy?”
Mommy. Laurie had called her that, long ago, when her blue eyes had been wide with innocence and her face baby-soft with trust. Mommy.
Although she was not Laurie’s mother. Aunt Birdy, that was who she was, spinster Birdy, practical Birdy, the dependable, sturdy, and unimaginative older daughter with a steady, boring job. Birdy, who lived at home with their aging parents while Laurie’s mother, ten years younger, the lovely, lively daughter, lived a harum-scarum life, replete with laughter and wild parties and man after man after man. Their parents had disapproved, and Birdy had joined in their disapproval, and as a reward had been willed everything, money and house and all. After the parents were gone Laurie’s mother moved with her latest man to another city, but within the year she was back, down and out, with baby Laurie in her arms. She swore to change her ways, and for a few months she did, but first the drink took hold and after that the drugs. More and more Laurie’s care fell into Birdy’s stolid, capable hands. Laurie’s mother would sing to the baby, yes, slurring tunes of love and regret, and toss her in the air and tell her that she loved her, but it was Birdy who fed the child, Birdy who diapered her, Birdy who walked the floor with her at night when she was colicky. And it was Birdy who, holding the helpless little mite in her arms, felt for the first time in her stolid, solitary life the flickering flame of love.
The night nurse laid one hand on Birdy’s brow and frowned. “Open, please,” she said, producing a thermometer.
And when Laurie’s mother died after one wild party too many, it was Birdy who held out her arms when Laurie took her first steps, Birdy who taught Laurie her ABCs and walked her to the school bus and sat with her while she did her lessons and all the while, her love for Laurie spread like a bonfire in her virgin breast.
The nurse whisked the thermometer from Birdy’s mouth and peered at it. “Bit of a low-grade fever,” she announced. “The doctor may want to prescribe stronger meds for your mother.”
Laurie’s eyes flicked up from the cell phone. “She’s not my mother. She’s my aunt.”
Not your mother, some meddling neighbor had told the child one day. Teary-eyed, Laurie had come home for reassurance, but pragmatic Birdy could not bring herself to lie to the child. She could not lie, no matter how her love for Laurie consumed her. She told Laurie the truth and watched the light of innocence fade from the baby-soft face. Over the next few days the hurt in Laurie’s face hardened into distrust and Birdy would have given anything, anything at all to get it back.
She had never indulged the child in make-believe, but she did now, filling Laurie’s evenings with storybooks and songs about princesses and unicorns and gentle magical dragons. Laurie turned the pages and read the words and hummed the tunes, but when Birdy encouraged her to extend these flights of fantasy into her own play, Laurie stuck out her lower lip and frowned. Why, Aunt Birdy? Laurie would say. I know it’s just pretend.
“Ah,” said the nurse. “My mistake.”
“It’s okay,” Laurie said. “She pretty much raised me.”
How I tried, Birdy thought, her insides trembling and hot with sudden misery. Again and again she had tried to ignite Laurie’s sense of wonder. Took her to the movies, to concerts, to thetheater, to the ballet, anything to stir Laurie’s imagination, to curve and soften the walls of her world. Dancing swans and nutcrackers, boys and girls who could fly on broomsticks and work magic, talking lions and hippos and little robots—any and all of it. In the darkness Laurie’s eyes gleamed with yearning for such wondrous things, but in the banality of daylight her practical side stubbornly asserted itself. It was fun, but I don’t believe in all that stuff, she would say. I know it’s not for real.
“Day shift told me you’ve been here since this afternoon. Must have been dull.”
Dull rote schoolwork set by dull rote teachers; Laurie excelled at that. Just like Birdy. Numbers and science problems were her forte, composition and literature her demons. As she got older she excelled at algebra and chemistry and grammar; struggled with English lit and poetry and mythology. Why did people believe this stuff? she would grumble. Half-human things like griffins and centaurs. Impossible things like phoenixes. Why would a bird burn itself up to live again? What’s the purpose of that?
“The hospital cafeteria closes in half an hour. The hot food’ll be mostly gone but they’ve got some nice sweets down there today. Coconut cake and apple pie.”
Laurie had a weakness for sugar, but all through high school she watched her weight and counted her calories. Her body was trim and taut when she left for college, but when she came home for Christmas break she was softer. It’s my Freshman Five, she told Birdy, laughing. Every freshman gains five pounds. But in addition to the softened body Laurie wore a softened expression and Birdy soon found out there was a Boy, a Boyfriend, Jason by name, a junior who had spotted Laurie in biology class and had scented her freshness like a fox scents a mouse. For the next few months Laurie’s calls home were all Jason this and Jason that, setting off alarm bells in Birdy’s head and fears of a future that mirrored Laurie’s mother’s, but she made herself say nothing, forced herself into silence. Let her believe, Birdy told herself. She dreams and wonders and trusts at last. Let her believe, and hope, and maybe it will come true.
“Thanks, but I don’t eat that stuff.”
“Well, how about soup? Nothing fancy today, just chicken soup with rice, but it’s good.”
By the end of the school year Jason had broken Laurie’s trusting heart and when Laurie came home for the summer it was all gone: the soft yearning flesh and mouth and eyes, and when in her senior year Laurie started dating again this time it was a practical boy named Doug who was in ROTC and had his career in the military mapped out. He was a square young man, with a square boxy body and a square jaw, an unimaginative but steady suitor, well-mannered and stalwart but a little dull. His level-headedness meshed with Laurie’s stubborn pragmatism. They had a practical courtship and a practical wedding and they seemed happy enough because they had a Plan, a plan for their lives together.
The nurse was peering at Laurie now. “You all right, miss? You need a drink of water or something? You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine. I feel a little off today, that’s all.”
A little off. Ah, no, not again.
Laurie had felt a little off in the first year of her marriage, and the doctor confirmed her suspicions that she was pregnant. Doug and Laurie’s Plan skewed off track because babies were not supposed to be in the picture, not yet. It didn’t matter, though, because practical Laurie and practical Doug became almost silly at the idea of Their Baby. They had a sonogram and proudly showed it to Birdy, who was bemused by the shadowy creature in the photo. Do you dream already, little thing? she asked it silently. Do you wonder? And Doug and Laurie giggled and called their little unborn pet names like Peanut and Button and Nugget…
Doug was on maneuvers and Laurie woke up feeling sick and went to the doctor and bled and telephoned Birdy and cried in Birdy’s lap until Doug arrived still in muddy boots and sweat-stained fatigues and Birdy sat quietly as they grieved and then bucked each other up and listened to the doctor and agreed to Try Again.
And with each failure Laurie’s face grew harder and colder and Doug’s jaw more square and his spine more stiff beneath his uniform tunic.
And Birdy grieved for them both, because she remembered how Laurie’s sweetness had blown out the walls of her own safe, square little box of a life, and she could not bear to see Laurie’s eyes grow hard forever.
With an effort, she turned her head toward Laurie. Look at me, Laurie. Look at me.
“I think someone’s awake for real now,” the nurse said.
Laurie put down her cell phone and hitched her chair a little closer. “How are you feeling, Aunt Birdy?”
“Probably won’t be able to talk just yet,” the nurse said. “The intubation and all.”
Love of my life, Birdy tried to say. Child of my heart. But all that came out was a gurgling hiss. She twitched her hand toward Laurie. You opened my soul. You opened the world to me. You gave me wonder. You showed me how to dream. I would give anything to see that wonder in your eyes again. Anything in the world.
Laurie patted Birdy’s hand with long, cool fingers. “What’s the matter, Aunt Birdy?”
One of the machines let out a little ping. “What’s the matter?” the nurse echoed, peering at its screen.
…I would give it all back to you: Santa Claus and dragon riders and griffins and the Easter Bunny and fairies and Peter Pan and centaurs and dancing swans and phoenixes…
Birdy gripped Laurie’s wrist with all her strength. Her heart beat hot and fast. She closed her eyes.
Blood throbbed in Birdy’s temples. It hissed through her veins, rattled up from fingers and toes, coursed to the furnace of her heart and hesitated there, churning and heaving like a sea of lava. Go, Birdy commanded. Go now. Go fast.
With a single great heave of her body, she sent her own life surging and pounding toward Laurie.
“Her temperature’s spiking…” the nurse cried, and stabbed at a button with a frantic finger.
“Aunt Birdy?” Laurie’s voice scaled up like a child’s. Beneath Birdy’s smoldering fingers Laurie’s pulse suddenly ratcheted, and Birdy sensed the blood, freshly heated, rushing through veins and arteries and capillaries, through flesh and muscle and organs, toward the little life nestled deep in Laurie’s body but already fading, growing cool…
The nurse was at the door, shouting for assistance. Laurie was on her feet. “She’s burning up!” she cried. “Aunt Birdy! Aunt Birdy!”
Gasping, Birdy thrust the heat of her life and her love toward that small weak one, sent the heat of her heart tumbling through Laurie’s body until it collided with the little new life and enveloped it, swaddled it, embraced it. Wake up, Birdy told the little life. Imagine. Hope. Look at the world with your fresh new eyes, and Laurie will see it with you and learn to dream again, just as I dreamed through her.
She opened her eyes. All around her the nurses and doctors were shouting instructions and the machinery was beeping and pinging but still she held onto Laurie’s hand, warm now, warm even as Birdy’s own body grew cold.
Phoenix, she thought. Phoenix, rise up.
And smiling, Birdy breathed her last.
Donna Migliaccio is a professional stage actress with credits that include Broadway, National Tours, and prominent regional theatres. Fiery Seas Publishing began releasing her fantasy series The Gemeta Stone in August 2017, which includes Kinglet, Fiskur, and StoneKing. When not on stage or in front of her computer, she can usually be found curled in a chair with a good book, or tramping around muddy fields and leafy woods with her binoculars, looking for birds.