Church of Birds

Micah Dean Hicks

The swan boy lives in an abandoned church in a sleepy, green town by the river. He is small and young-looking still, though he is sixteen now and has been the swan boy for years. His hair is dirty and grown out long enough to cover his shy face. His clothes are striped with greasy white stains, radiating down from the shoulders of his rough shirt. No one would give him a second look if not for the huge, white shield of a swan’s wing that he has in place of a left arm. The people in town do not talk to him. Though they call him the swan boy, he has a name, and that name is Ben.

He has no job, but Ben gets up early and stays busy about town all day. He is clumsy with his big wing, but patient. He has learned to climb trees using his feet and good arm, while he holds out the wing for balance. Ben steals birds’ nests, little braided crowns, and fills his church with them. If he finds the alien blue of their eggs, he takes these too, holding them carefully in the fold of his wing. He has tried so many times to hatch the eggs with the careful heat of his own wing, but he has never been able to do so. Once, he held a clutch of eggs so close that he cracked them in his sleep and woke up cold and covered in yolk and shell.

In the town’s small square, Ben throws bread from his pockets and waits with a fisherman’s tattered cast net. When pigeons come, he makes his clumsy throw. Sometimes, he only tangles himself in the net. Sometimes, the birds are wary of him. Today, two sooty pigeons stand at his feet, heads hammering the paving stones for his stale bread. Ben throws open the net, his wing arcing over his head like he’s preparing to fly away, and the net falls over them. They thrash and cry, but Ben gathers them against his chest and rushes back to the church.

Shadows lick across the stained windows within. Ben bangs on the door for a count of ten, listening to the scatter of wings inside, then darts in with his catch. He lets the net fall, and the bruised pigeons hop out and flee over the wood floor, covered in their own watery shit. His hundreds of birds, scared by the noise at the door, crowd the back of the church or dart through the high, open space of the sanctuary.

Though the church is filthy with bird droppings and musty-gray with dust, there is color here. Red cardinals, bluebirds, orange-breasted robins sing and skip through the air. Many are the pigeons, marbled white and black, taking on colors from the stained glass as they fly through squares of bloody red, Byzantine gold, or glacial blue. There are ducks nesting in the corners, a crane with a crooked neck. There are no ravens because they are too clever to let him approach, no owls because he is afraid they would eat the others, and no swans because he cannot bear to look at them.

Troughs of water for drinking and bathing sit in the middle of the floor. Sacks of birdseed, ripped open, spill across the old carpet in a shower of white and black and amber seeds several inches deep. A ring of bright mold limns everything like a cold, slow-burning fire.

The new pigeons join a clutch of others on the exposed rafters. The sound of the birds is like the river below, or coins spilling, or weeping. Ben lies back on a damp pew and watches them fly for hours, admiring how whole their bodies are, how beautifully suited to doing one perfect thing.

When he rolls over to sleep, his human hand brushes something small and stony. He brings it to his face and smells rot, feels out the tiny beak with his thumb. He will sleep with the dead bird in his hand. He will bury it in the morning. He will cry, and he will rage, and he will wonder why it died when he gave it everything it needed. He will check that there is enough food and water, study the birds to see if any are sick, take every precaution he can. He will wait, and in a few days it will happen again.

• •

When he dreams, Ben remembers flight. He and his five brothers in their stout swan bodies. The wind rushing over their black-masked faces and the white tips of their wings. How they landed on a brick street after a rain to feast on meaty worms surfacing from their burrows. The green brack of river fronds hanging from of his beak. And his brother’s five voices, each a mirror of his own.

They weren’t meant to be swans. It was a curse, though it didn’t feel like a curse. Their sister Julia saved them. She was required to close her mouth and not laugh, or speak, or even write for six years. One year for each of her cursed brothers. She had to sew them each a shirt of weeds. It was not easy for her, the silence. She sewed her mouth shut to keep her promise to her siblings, but as soon as she did, a man appeared. And since she didn’t say no, he took her home and made her his wife, and she had his children. All the while, she sewed her shirts of grass and cried her silent, angry tears.

When the day came, only Ben’s shirt was unfinished, missing its sleeve. But it was time. Julia shoved the shirts down over their honking heads, and they became themselves again. All except for Ben, who kept a single wing. The others were older and went back to being the men they had been before. But Ben had been a swan as long as he had been a boy. He didn’t remember how to speak. Julia, full of words after her long quiet, taught him language.

• •

When Ben wakes up, he goes to see his sister. She lives alone above a tiny printer’s shop, having divorced the man who loved her silence. When Ben arrives, her stoop is covered in a heap of new mail. He gathers it onto his wing like it’s a serving tray and carries it inside. His sister’s printing press hums and stamps its feet, spitting out book pages. She prefers to stitch their spines up by hand, the only sewing she does any more. Ben breathes in the inky purple smell of the place.

“What do you need help with today, little brother?”

Ben gives her a knot he found. She does not untie it for him. Instead, she studies it.

“You’ve tried your feet?”

He nods.

“What about holding it with your teeth? Did you try that?”

He puts the knot in his mouth, tasting soap in the fabric. He works at the knot with his fingernails and finally pulls it undone.

“Good. But I see you haven’t been bathing.”

He sits with her all afternoon. She orders lunch for them. The whole time, she reads letters, talks to herself, calls publishers on her telephone. At the end of the day, Ben tells her about his dream, what he remembers from being a swan.

She winces and he apologizes, knowing she doesn’t like to think of her quiet years, but he needs to tell someone.

He clears his throat. “Do you think one day you might try again? Take the silent vow and sew another shirt? It would only be for a year this time.”

Julia hugs him with her ink-stained hands. “Sorry, Ben. I have too much to say.”

• •

Years ago, after Julia taught him to speak again, she sent him to school. He was twice the size of the other children, but he knew half as much. The teacher asked him to solve problems, writing letters and numbers out on the blackboard in bone-white, skeletal lines of chalk. It made no sense, this obsession with counting and numbering. He had one sister, five brothers, no parents. He had three shirts and one pair of pants. He had one arm and one wing. The sums he dealt in were small.

He didn’t like the lines where they stood one behind another, marching across the schoolyard, or the times when they were forbidden to speak, or the times when they were required to do so. Not the milk served twice a day that soured in his stomach. The rooms of the schoolhouse were cold, and he wrapped his wing around himself. The others stared and whispered.

After lunch, he found a swing set on the playground. A girl, Susan, swung higher and higher. He gaped at her almost-flight. Ben was too nervous to ask how to do it, but Susan dragged her feet in the gravel to slow herself and gave up the rubber seat. She pushed him down and hooked his arm and wing around the chain. She told him to pump his legs.

There was a moment, when he soared high with only the blue of the horizon in front of him, when he forgot that he was not still a swan. He unhooked his arm and wing and leaned forward. He beat his arms, strained his neck, and let out an ugly honk from his too-large throat.

He hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of himself and rolled in the dirt, wide-mouthed and losing feathers. From all across the playground, children came to see.

They pulled wadded rolls of bread from their pockets, saved from lunch, and broke off pieces to throw at him. They honked and laughed. He tried to get to his feet, but he couldn’t get a breath, couldn’t run away. So he covered himself with his wing.

When Julia came, she found him cowering in a circle of breadcrumbs. He never went back to school after that. Everything he learned, Julia taught him.

• •

The morning after visiting his sister, he goes to feed the pigeons again. Some time in the night, a carnival arrived in town. Their rides and trailers clutter the avenues of the park, closed up and dim and silent until night. Men and women he has never seen smoke outside a diner. The town is full of strangers.

A group of old people from the nursing home sit on benches and squint at him, silent in the weak sun. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren run through the park together, impatient for the carnival to begin. Ben keeps the net at his feet, embarrassed to throw it with people watching.

There is a bang, an engine’s black cough, and a truck sputters up the road and parks alongside the park. The back of the truck supports a tall shed, and it pulls a camping trailer. The paint is brown and red and gold, but is flaking off and eaten through with rust. Faded lettering on the side of the trailer reads, Elise’s Oddities.

When a woman steps out of the truck and walks over to him, she does not seem dangerous. She eats a cinnamon bun. She wears a wide-brimmed hat and leather boots, a coat against the damp. She has one luminous blue eye, one deep brown one.

“I like your pigeons,” she tells him.

Ben holds his wing against his chest. He thinks to say, These are not my pigeons, or, I haven’t caught them yet, or even, Would you like them? But he says nothing.

“Look what I found.” She holds out a glass globe. Inside, everything is covered in white. At first, Ben thinks it is only a snow globe like he has seen so many times before. But when she shakes it and shows him again, inside the globe is a burning house. Through the empty windows, a body lies on the floor. Painted flames swallow it up, and the falling white is ash, not snow. A tiny dog watches from the yard. “Do you like it?”

He nods and risks another glance at her face. She is smiling still, but she is looking at his wing.

“Can I help you with something?” he asks.

She tucks the globe back into her coat. “My name is Elise. I deal in curiosities, and you, beautiful boy, are very curious. Are you from here?”

“Yes. No.” He holds the tip of his wing and stares at the ground. “Not originally. But I’ve lived here for a long time.”

She kneels so that he is looking at her. “Do your parents come feed the birds with you? I’d love to meet them.”

“I don’t have parents.”

“You must have someone to take care of you. A friend or brother?”

“No. Just my sister, Julia, who helps me sometimes. But she is very busy with her work.”

The woman reaches for his wing. “Can she fly like you can?”

He slowly extends his wing and lets her touch it. She feels along the pinions, pressing the down and flesh beneath, mapping the bone structure with a careful, firm hand.

“I can’t fly. Once I could, but not now. And Julia doesn’t have a wing. Just me.”

More people filter into the park. The town’s cop ambles down the path, looking at the strange woman speaking to the swan boy.

“I have to go for now. Won’t you visit me tonight? My trailer will be parked at the campsite near the river, away from all this noise. You have to come. Tell me what it felt like to fly.”

• •

Elise’s truck and trailer are the only vehicles at the campground, and it is dark when Ben arrives. She has taken furniture out of her trailer and arranged it in the dirt lot like a sitting room. Christmas lights wind around the furniture, making little aisles. Music plays, slow strings reeling him in.

Ben is freshly bathed and his hair is swept back out of his eyes. His clothes are new, a gift from his sister. He has not tied his wing to his chest or covered it with a coat. He carries a mockingbird in a brass cage.

Elise is waiting for him on the steps of her trailer. She sweeps him up in a hug, pressing his wing between them. “Is the bird for me? How kind! Put him inside, will you?”

Ben steps into the trailer, feeling her close behind him. The trailer is empty inside. He bends over to place the bird on the floor. “Before I can tell you about flying, I should tell you about my brothers,” he says.

Before he can stand, Elise slips a rope over his neck and tightens it hard around his throat. She forces him to the floor. Ben freezes, afraid and hurt, until he feels her trying to tie his feet.

She is bigger than he is, but his wing is broad and marvelously strong. He rolls and sweeps it against her, knocking her off his back. The mockingbird’s cage falls over, and it cries and beats its wings.

“Ben, no! I want to help you.” Elise finds her end of the rope and pulls again, choking him. He beats at her with his one wing, the bony limb and heavy flail of feathers knocking her back against the steel wall. With his free hand, he takes the rope from her and falls backwards out of the trailer.

She chases him across the campground, shouting. “It’s hard to be alone, Ben. Trust me. Why not be admired as a curiosity instead of forgotten as a freak?”

After he gets away from her, Ben hides in a dumpster most of the night, afraid that she will spot him and follow him home. He pounds his head with his human fist. Stupid, stupid. He should have known. He would go to Julia, but he doesn’t want her to be disappointed. He wonders what will happen to the mockingbird, and realizing that it might live longer with the curiosity dealer than it would have with him, he is overcome with a wave of grief.

To make the time pass, he checks his wing to make sure it wasn’t hurt. No broken feathers, no bruises, no cuts. Intact as iron. Ben isn’t surprised. It has always been the strongest part of him.

• •

The last time Ben saw his five brothers, Julia had to leave town on business. The next day, they came for him and took him to the forest outside of town.

“Have you found our father?” he asked them.

They shook their heads. For years, they chased after news of their home and family. The palace where they were born was empty, the roof collapsed, their father and all his riches gone away. They were born with everything, but after being cursed for six years, they found themselves reborn as beggars. It never bothered Ben the way it did his brothers. He can’t remember what it was to be a prince.

When they got him deep into the woods, his brothers asked him to lie down on a pile of straw. They were older and stronger, and when they asked, it was always a command.

“It’s going to rain soon,” Ben said.

“You have an arm somewhere under that wing. We’re going to help you find it.”

While three of his brothers held him down, the other two worked to remove his feathers. First, they used knives to cut through the thick shafts.

“Please don’t,” Ben said, “it hurts.”

“Trust us,” said his brothers, keeping their voices low and putting a hand over his mouth. “We love you.”

Impatient with the knife, they grabbed handfuls of his feathers and pulled them out. Ben felt the roots tear from his skin. His shirt soaked with blood. When they finally let go, he lay stretched on the ground haloed in his own white feathers. There was no human hand under there, no fingers, no bicep. Only a wing, naked and bumpy-fleshed, bloody and burning with pain.

His brothers shook their heads in disgust. “Leave him,” one of them said. “Better dead than a bird for a brother.”

They walked away, and the rain fell, and he did not see them again. Somehow, he stood. Somehow, he held his wounded limb and found his sister’s home, fell into her bed, and waited for her to come save his life.

“Who did this to you?” Julia asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It might have been anyone.”

• •

It is colder now, so Ben binds his wing to his chest and puts on a baggy coat to cover it. The wind slices over the top of the park’s little pond. He does not have bread to feed the birds today, so he only comes to watch.

There is another person in the park, a woman throwing out handfuls of bread and mobbed by ducks. He sits on a bench on the opposite side of the pond.

A flock of swans alights on the pond’s glassy surface and drifts toward him. Their faces are so strange, banded in black like they are wearing masks. He wonders if there are lost children hiding in the graceful S of their bodies, waiting for a silent sister to break their curse.

The woman comes and sits by him. She puts a clump of bread on the bench near his hand. “The swans have always been my favorites,” she says.

Ben realizes then that he knows her: Susan, the girl who taught him to swing on his first and only day of school. She is older, but she has the same kind face, wide-eyed and broad-smiling.

Ben wants to ask if she remembers him, but of course she does. He picks off a bit of her bread and throws it onto the water.

The swans come closer, leaving the water and walking up the bank in a line, like soldiers. Their halberd necks swing through the air for the flying bread. Susan leans forward and reaches out with one gloved hand. The swans take a step away from her.

Her fingers stay outstretched, and the innocence of her gesture makes the wing flutter against Ben’s breast. Three buttons snap open on the front of his coat. A spray of feathers falls out.

“You were a swan once, weren’t you? That’s what people say. Are these your brothers?”

“No.” He opens his coat and undoes the strap binding his wing. He lets it hang free off the side of the bench. “No, those are only swans.”

“They’re beautiful. I’ve been feeding them for years, but they never let me get close.” She swallows and looks away from him. “I guess they have good reason to be afraid of people.”

Her hand is still out, and he wants to fill it. She is good, and she is safe. Of all the people in the world, she might understand. He wants her to know that her kindness matters. So he reaches toward her with his wing. He is ready to lay it across her lap and let her smooth the stiff feathers. Let her pinch off bread and place it on his tongue. Let her wrap an arm around him and tell him that the world isn’t as bad as it seems.

She touches his wing, and instinct fractures him, like a crack spreading through ice. Before he realizes what he is doing, he is off the bench and running from her. There is the burn of the rope on his neck still. The hot prickle at the base of his feathers, down on his flesh where his brothers hurt him. The shock of beer bottles flung at him from trucks, or kids chasing him on bicycles to stripe his back with sticks. The ugly, coughing honk people make when he walks by.

“I’m sorry,” Susan calls after him. “Please, come back. I’ll never forgive myself.”

His eyes are wet and sting, and he can’t see. He holds his wing to cover his face from branches and sprints through the park, up the hill, and back to his church. He steps inside and locks the heavy door against the world.

An hour later, Susan knocks. “That was wrong of me,” she says. “How can I make it up to you?”

Birds startle and circle the high ceiling. He wants to say something, to tell her that she did nothing wrong, that he is grateful for how she has always treated him. But he can’t stop trembling, and he can’t speak. He crawls under the church pews and covers himself with his wing. He tells himself that he is only a bird, nesting down on a winter morning, and soon her words through the door are only noise.

• •

The radio says a storm is coming. Everyone in town boards up their windows. Ben sits alone in his dark and solid church, eating seeds. When the first spears of lightning fall, followed by the first drumbeats of thunder, all the birds in his church pile themselves along the windowsills to watch the rain. They sing, excited. They toss their heads and shake out their wings, imagining the rain. He has not visited his sister in weeks, has hardly left home, and he hopes she won’t be worried for him.

Something strikes one of the windows, bouncing off the thick glass. Lightning flashes, and for a moment Ben sees a flurry of shapes swirl like leaves outside in the storm. He ties his wing tight across his body and goes to see.

The wind and rain push him against the wall, but the water feels good on his feathers. He goes to the corner where a flock of ravens, or maybe crows, are sheltering from the wind. One of them lies on the ground, stunned from hitting the glass.

Ben reaches for it with his human hand, but each time one of the others hops forward and pecks him hard on the wrist. Water runs into his eyes, and it’s hard to see.

“Let me take you inside,” he says. “I can help.”

He makes a few more clumsy grabs, but they peck his bleeding hand. The stunned bird shakes itself awake and lifts off into the storm, followed by the others. They leave behind a scattering of shining black feathers pressed by the wind against the wall of the church. Ben gathers up the feathers and takes them inside, feeling alone even surrounded by his birds.

The storm continues all night and into the morning. The birds sing, growing louder and louder as the storm passes over. As if their calls were a summoning, someone opens the church door and comes inside.

He is a man, soaked from the storm. He is dressed in rain-darkened denim. He has long, black hair. Covering his arms and hands in neat rows are dozens upon dozens of feather tattoos, as if his arms are wings.

There is something else about him. Ben can see it, but he can’t describe it. Once, a witch came and cursed him and his brothers. He doesn’t remember the color of her hair or if she was tall, but he remembers how she walked, as if the universe would reorder itself to get out of her way. Whatever that woman had, this man has it too.

“Did you come with the carnival?” Ben asks.

The man does not answer his question and he does not stare at Ben’s wing. Instead, he goes to the windowsills and reaches in among the birds, picking them up and putting them back, like he is searching for something. They are silent in his presence.

“I’m looking for my sons.”

“Were your sons turned into swans?” Could this be his father, finally come to claim him? Ben can’t remember what the man looked like.

“They were turned into crows,” the man says. “It was my fault.”

Ben nods, not caring that the stranger isn’t his father or that his words make no sense. The man is powerful. Ben can see it. The man can help him, if he will.

He lets the stranger search the church, checking rafters and pews. Finally, the man bends down and picks up a single black feather lying on the floor. He sighs. “They’re gone, then?”

Ben nods.

“Ah. Well.” He wrings out his shirt on the floor, squeezes water from his hair. “I’m sorry to bother you.”

“You can wait out the storm here,” Ben says.

“I don’t mind rain.”

“Look.” Ben lifts his wing and holds it out, feeling helpless and desperate, like when he was a speechless child clinging to his sister’s legs. “I’ve met someone like you before. She changed me.”

The stranger glances at his wing but does not touch it. “I’m in a hurry.”

“Please. Before you go, make me whole. Make me myself again.”

The man sighs and glances at the windows, as if he is late and Ben is keeping him. “OK,” he says. “If that’s what you want.”

The man turns away from Ben and raises his hands, feather tattoos crinkling and flexing, stretching like his arms are wings. He begins to sing, “Take me to fruit trees and green grass.”

The storm howls against the church house, peeling back shingles until water begins to spill in thick ropes from the ceiling. The man sings, and his words lose meaning, hitting the air like they are solid. His chant is an etching on a gravestone, lightning scarring the sky, a key threading a lock. He speaks, and the world opens around Ben, just as it did years ago.

The birds filling the church raise their wings and take flight. They swirl around Ben and land on his shoulders, his arms, his back, until their weight bears him to the ground. He is covered by their musty feathers. He falls down a well of sleep.

• •

When Ben wakes, the church is silent. Light comes through the windows, and he doesn’t know how long he has slept. He pushes against the birds covering his body, but they are heavy and dead. They don’t stink of rot, the stranger’s magic having eaten all the life out of them. They fall like chips of wood.

For a moment, their delicate bodies pain him. He meant to keep them safe, but they have been dying in his care for a long time. Now they are all dead. His grief doesn’t know where to begin.

Ben stands, afraid, and looks at his new body. He can see his two feet. He has a soft stomach, uncovered by feathers. Matching his right arm, he has a new left arm extending from his shoulder. He clasps his hands together, linking his fingers for the first time in years.

He clenches his teeth and sucks in a ragged breath. “No,” he says.

Ben reaches around, feeling his shoulders and back, searching for wings. He grasps his face, searching for a beak. He tries to honk, hoping to feel the sound slide up his long throat. But he is only a boy again, just as he started.

He runs out of the church, looking for the stranger, but the man is gone. The sky arches blue and vast over him, completely out of his reach. “No,” he says to the sky. “This isn’t what I meant. I wanted to be a swan again. I wanted to fly.”

He goes inside and collapses onto his pile of birds, gathering them against his chest. He covers himself in feathers, sings the man’s strange song. He prays there is some magic left, enough to carry him away, but the world with all its secrets remains shut.

Desperate, he stands on a pew and jumps as high as he can, flapping his arms. He remembers piercing the cold, high air. He remembers the warmth of his brother swans pressing against him at night. He remembers the beauty of his song. Ben tells himself that he is a swan still. The air slips past his fingers. He falls.

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