2013 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Winner
In the town where the children turned into birds, we were not as surprised as you might imagine. Children have always been changing into things—becoming things you wouldn’t expect. There was the time the boys grew their hair long so they looked like girls, and the time the girls wore the heavy pants of boys. When the children grew feathers and took to the trees, we believed it was more of the same.
Of course, when the children did not fly home in time for dinner, and then, when the children did not fly home at all, the mothers cried, but mothers have always cried at the things children do.
The children did not change all at once. First were the troublemakers, those smoking behind dumpsters and breaking bottles on empty lots. When large, black birds appeared at these children’s houses, waiting at windows and biting at doors, we began to suspect what had happened.
The people in town shook their heads. Kids like that will find any way to shock.
Then more children changed—the good children, the promising. An entire seventh-grade class disappeared. My mother brushed my brother’s hair back from his forehead and studied his eyes. He was not much younger than those who had turned.
The birds were not beautiful. They were large, dark and dusky, with long, snaking necks. A breed of cormorant, we learned, was their species.
I was a child, but younger than those who were changing. The older kids had frightened me—their roughness and shouts—and I didn’t like them as birds either. When my mother and I walked down by the lake, where the birds had begun to congregate, I eyed the creatures with wide, cool eyes. The birds hunkered dark in the trees and squabbled.
When a child changed into a bird, he retreated from the world. He went to the bathroom or stepped around a corner, and that was the last you saw of him. There never were signs—the change came sudden, or appeared that way. Perhaps for weeks a shift had been occurring deep within the child’s body, or perhaps the seed had always been there, spreading outward since birth.
A call came from school—my brother had missed his afternoon classes—and that’s how we learned he had changed. That evening, we heard a scraping at the kitchen window, and my mother turned from the stove, her face pink with steam. She opened the window. My brother clambered in, falling to the linoleum, wings pointing out like gangly elbows. He flapped to his usual seat at the table, but when my mother spooned food on his plate, he prodded it with his bill and wouldn’t eat. He hopped onto the table and stood in the salad, then lifted up and careened around the house, until we opened the door and he flapped out into the night. He had spoiled our food and broken a candlestick. His guano had stained a seat cushion.
He didn’t enter the house again. My mother scavenged food for him—fish, crustaceans, certain insects—and brought these to the windowsill, where my brother swallowed them whole, still living. My mother reached her fingers toward his wings, but my brother skittered away. Soon, he wouldn’t come to the window but waited for his supper on the front lawn, jutting his head forward and back. My mother stood in the yard and threw fish, still alive and flipping. All over town, mothers threw fish to beckon the children.
My brother stopped coming to the house at all. He was lost to the trees and lake.
We walked down to the water, where the birds grunted and dove, and tried to pick out my brother from the others. That one, my mother said, pointing to a bird on a rock, wings stretched out to dry the feathers. She straightened her jaw. It has to be that one. I think.
As the months passed, the birds’ feathers changed—from the dull, dusky tone of youths, to a mature and inky black. In the summer, they gathered sticks and lake grass and flotsam, and built nests high in the trees. We watched the nests through binoculars. Soon, above the twigs, small feeble things poked their heads—the grandchildren of the town.
The children kept changing. As the young in our town reached a certain age, they flapped off to the lake. As the years passed, it became a matter of course, and when a boy’s chin grew a few strands of hair, or a girl came to laugh in a certain way, the old people said, It can’t be long now.
A few children remained human, and we’d see them, these teenagers, walking to their empty classes, silent and pale. We younger children, we didn’t wish to become ones like these. We prepared for an avian life.
We ran wild. Why teach them manners? our mothers said. They’ll be birds soon enough. We ran through the streets and down to the lake, watching the birds dive and emerge with fish. We sat at the lakeshore and threw rocks into the water, perhaps in the birds’ direction, but we would not throw rocks at the birds themselves. We were too afraid.
Soon I’d reached the proper age, and my companions started changing. Once, we caught a boy sneaking from class and pursued him onto the playing field. He stopped, his back to us, and wrapped his arms around himself. He seemed to be wearing a dark cape, but as we approached, the cape became feathers, and he spread them out into wings. He lifted from the ground and flew to the trees that bordered the school, and there we could not catch him.
One by one, they disappeared. I skipped school, went hiding, climbed trees, waiting for something to overcome me. When children younger than I started changing, I knew I’d been left behind.
A town so blighted cannot last long. Our children had not grown into adults, and no one was left to run the businesses. Main street windows boarded up. Families gathered their things and moved away. The others like me, who had not changed—they left as soon as they could.
But my mother and I stay on—we seem unable to leave. She watches the cormorants fly low over the yard, their necks outstretched, wings swimming through air. She speaks of my brother. Always the best of sons, she says. He wanted to be a doctor.
Often I walk down to the lake and sit at the shore, where our silent town is still cacophonous. The birds’ numbers grow. The trees around the lake stink with their feces, and the guano has killed off the underbrush.
I watch the birds on the rocks, in the trees, in the water. I strip off my clothes and stand before them. Their eyes are like jewels. I dive into the lake and imagine the water pulls back my skin, revealing something new and black underneath. I want the birds to take me away.
So many places come to their end. Our town is no different from any of them.