After a bird fatally collides with her car, a troubled young woman’s life changes irrevocably.
On a grim Tuesday in November, when the world seemed empty of mystery and magic, indeed, empty of all beauty, Winona Li drove down the two-lane country road that counted for a highway in this area, heading home from a second interview. The copper sting of failure sat on her tongue. At the midpoint of a wood whose laced branches cast gloom upon the road, a small, quick thing fluttered across the windshield of her Impala, thumped the glass, and fell.
Winona slammed the brakes and the Impala twisted and screeched to a halt.
The ditch that ran along the road bristled with knee-high chicory and wild mustard. Leaves drooped from their stalks, rusting. Seeds puffed from cleft husks and horns. Winona dug through the weeds, her own heart thrumming, until she found the broken bird. Its eyes were dull with shock, and one wing hung askew, but it was breathing.
“Thank God,” she said. “Hang on, please hang on.”
Even as she spoke, her heels sinking into the mud, the suede toes filling with ditchwater, its trembling stopped.
“You can’t,” she said. “Not today. It’s too much.”
The woods were silent.
Leaving the bird among the yellowing weeds for the ants to devour would be the easiest thing. Easier than laughing. Easier than sleeping.
Clutching the dead bird to her breast, Winona staggered to her car, dabbed at her toes with a fistful of tissues, then drove.
She had passed the Kingston Ornithology Museum many times without stopping. Now she shouldered open the doors under the glassy yellow glare of taxidermied eagles. The display cases along the entrance held rows of eggs ordered by size, from ostrich and emu to hummingbird: pitted, speckled, nubbled, hollow.
The woman in a pink blouse and cat’s-eye glasses behind the desk didn’t look up as the doors swung shut. Winona thrust the bird at her. “I hit it. Can you do anything?”
The receptionist pinched her lips together and fumbled for the phone.
“Penny? Can you come to the entrance? Someone brought in a bird strike. Yeah, I remember that macaw. It was a hoot.” She paused and squinted at what Winona held. “White-throated sparrow. Nothing special. Okay.”
While Winona waited, her shoes oozing, the receptionist rearranged the plastic racks of bird-watching brochures into a wall between them.
Each of the eggs in the vitrines was accompanied by a stiff card, labeled with species and date. Most resembled rocks, pretending to be boring, willing her to look away. Those evolutionary tricks wouldn’t work on her, she told them silently; she was a geologist. Or she had been.
The dribbled surface of the great bowerbird’s egg suggested a painting in a stark modernist gallery. The great tinamou’s resembled an enormous candied almond. She was puzzling over the teardrop egg of the common murre when sharp footsteps tapped and boomed across the wooden floor.
The stocky woman in a comfortable brown sweater, the sleeves rolled back at the wrists to leave her hands free, was probably Penny. A jet dove perched at her collarbone, and her hard boots could have crushed chicken bones, or climbed mountains, or dug wells.
Winona had owned boots like those, once.
“Thanks for bringing this in,” Penny said.
“It was horrible of me, I’m sorry—”
“It happens. We get a lot of window and vehicle collisions. We prepare them as museum specimens.”
“You mean formaldehyde?”
“Skinning and drying. Easy storage and access when we want to ask questions. Do insecticides change claw shape? And so on.”
Penny held out her hand, and Winona, suddenly reluctant, opened her fingers one by one. The silken softness peeled from her damp palm and fell.
The receptionist coughed and rattled a stack of brochures. For a moment, Winona was back in the clinic, hearing the light cough, the shuffle of papers, the doctor’s dry voice. You’re fine. It’s over. Would you like someone to escort you to your car?
Her feet, wetter and colder by the minute, pulled her back to the present.
“You said you’ll skin it. Can I watch?”
The receptionist clicked her tongue. “You’ve got good intentions—”
“Professional curiosity. Specimen prep isn’t complicated in geology.”
Penny raised an eyebrow.
“Also guilt. I killed it. I want to see it through.”
“It’s quite enough for you to bring it in. Don’t go bothering our researchers—”
“I don’t mind, Edith. I was going to prepare a few today anyway.”
“You’re responsible for her.”
“And I’m not cleaning up the mud she’s tracking in. What a mess.”
“Understood. The cleaners come at seven, anyway.”
Penny led Winona down a long hall glassed and pinned with severed wings and diagrams of beaks. Doors beeped and opened to her badge, and they entered a black-benched lab that smelled faintly of bleach, lemons, and decay.
“Is that a dodo?”
“Yes. The one on the right’s a Carolina parakeet. Last one died in captivity in 1918, or in the wild a decade or two later, depending on who you believe. The main museum has nicer specimens—less scruffy—if you want to see them later.”
Penny took a tray and gathered scalpel, scissors, forceps, probes, a cup of water, and a scoop of cornmeal in a plastic box.
“You really don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”
Winona pressed her hands to her stomach. “I’ve seen worse.”
Penny parted the sparrow’s breast feathers and ran the scalpel in a single smooth motion along its keel. As the skin split and shrank, it showed the cherry-red muscles beneath. With fingers and blunt tools, pushing and probing, Penny flayed the breast and back and rolled down the skin of the thighs like stockings.
Then she snagged the knee joints in her shears and crunched through. The sound was splintering bones and cracked teeth.
“Tidiness. Anything that can rot, will.”
After stripping the wings, Penny pushed the head backwards through the neck, bit by bit, until the creamy skull and its sockets were exposed. Taking up the forceps, she tore out each eye. They pattered like overripe blueberries onto the tray.
The forceps were exchanged for pointed scissors. The two sharp tips groped inside the skull, then pinched shut with a pulpy, gritty noise.
Two points of a starry headache began to pulse above Winona’s eyebrows, as if in sympathy.
“The soft palate. Hard to clean out the brain, otherwise.”
Penny dipped her fingers in cornmeal and wiped them on a wad of white cotton, streaking it pink. Two more wisps of cotton, rolled between thumb and forefinger, formed balls with trailing stalks.
“And these are the eyes.”
The restored head, once Penny eased it back through the crackling skin of the neck, stared blindly at Winona.
Penny slit the crop and spread the seeds that spilled out, probed in the dark cavity of the sparrow’s chest, and jotted quick notes in a binder.
“Dead from trauma and blood loss. As expected, from a car strike.”
“How can you tell?”
“This black jelly here.”
Winona followed the direction of Penny’s finger and felt her own abdomen cramp.
“I was distracted. I was coming back from an interview. I’m unemployed.”
“You said you were a geologist.”
“I was. Out on the Bakken Formation in North Dakota. Before prices crashed.”
Penny selected a dowel, sharpened it to a point, and wrapped it in cotton batting, around and around. “Oil and gas, you mean?”
“Not what I’d expect, looking at you. You’re so—small.”
“I wasn’t working on the rigs. Just computer models in a field office. The men who operated the rigs were tough. I saw them drinking and swinging at each other in the bars.”
“You go to a lot of bars?”
“Nothing else in those towns. I played a lot of pool.”
“I can recommend the Reynard, if you’re local. Are you local?”
“I’m trying.” Winona laughed, a brittle sound. “I tried in North Dakota, too.”
“My nephew plays guitar there on Thursdays.”
Penny angled the dowel through the sparrow until its point entered the skull, eased the loose skin over the lump of cotton, and started sewing the edges of the incision together.
“Why don’t you write the label, since you brought this one in? There’s a pile of them—yes, right there.”
“What should I write?”
“Species—that’s Zonotrichia albicollis, two l’s—the date—it’s the 20th—my name—Thomason, one s. Go ahead and tie it to the legs. Here’s thread. Now one thread through the nares, to keep the beak closed. Good. The foam drying boards are over there. Smooth out the feathers, make it look nice—that’s right. Now pin it in place.”
The pins crossed over the sparrow like swords. Apart from its cotton eyes, the sparrow looked undamaged, its overlapping breast feathers concealing incision and seam.
“Now it dries. In three days, it goes in a specimen drawer until a researcher wants to see it. Should last three hundred to four hundred years, if we keep the beetles away.”
Winona stroked the mottled breast. It felt silken and warm. Behind her, taps gushed; Penny was washing her tools.
“How many specimens do you prep a day?”
“Two or three, time permitting. There’s a dozen owls and corvids in that freezer, and it’s one of two.”
“Do you have an assistant?”
“Usually. She’s on maternity leave for the next three months.”
“I’d be happy to help. If you taught me.”
Penny shook the container of cornmeal into the trash. “I didn’t think you enjoyed that.”
Winona swallowed, twisting one thumb in her other hand. “You’re taking death and waste—my death and waste—and making a library of birds.”
“You have no experience.”
“I can learn. I did fieldwork. I know my way around my tools. I know how to be gentle.”
“Ever seen a museum budget?” Penny snorted. “We can’t afford snacks, much less another person.”
“I don’t need money. I have four months of expenses saved. Just teach me and let me help.”
Penny picked up the wet scalpel and set it down, picked it up, set it down. The lines around her mouth deepened.
“Fine,” she said. “One trial week, and if it works out, you leave when Maxine comes back. I’ll tell Edith to let you in tomorrow.”
The next morning, as sleep shredded itself to threads, Winona awoke in the tiny apartment she rented month to month with the slight pressure of a foreign object against the outside of her thigh. She lay still for a moment longer, considering the possibilities. She did not eat in bed, since she hated the itch of crumbs in her sheets. Neither did she bring to bed the pointed corners of books, nor the harsh flicker and chilly surface of her cell phone. Her network barely had any coverage where she lived, for that matter. And her Internet might as well have been a candle in the wind.
Displeased, she dug beneath the covers and closed her fingers on something small and round.
It looked like a polished ball of smoky quartz, but it was lighter than quartz, lighter than wood, even, and warm. Winona peered into its cloudy depths, perplexed. She had never bought tchotchkes of that sort, with no purpose whatsoever. Her apartment had been sparsely furnished and empty of all ornament when she moved in, and nothing—no loose sequin or feather or forgotten bus ticket trapped between the floorboards—had suggested magpie tastes in the previous occupant.
Then again, her memory seemed to fail her more and more often these days, whether out of kindness or exhaustion.
The smooth crystal surface offered her no answers.
Sighing, Winona dressed, pocketed the bauble, and made toast.
For three hours a day, after that, Winona skinned and prepared specimens under Penny’s guidance. The freezer revealed icy wonders in plastic bags: snowy owls peppered with shot, crows battered by trucks, Anna’s hummingbirds with translucent tongues drooping out of open beaks, looking for all the world like cartoon characters playing dead. She discovered the long, wiry hyoid horns wrapped around woodpecker skulls, the plump orange ooze of ducks’ preening glands, the reek of thawed fat, the black spots where blood supplied new feathers, the varied contents of bulging crops, and one day, in astonishment, three pearly, unfinished eggs in the wet depths of a robin.
Fall deepened to winter. Ice whitened the lake. The pines along the shore creaked and groaned, and every so often one crashed through the rest, weighed down with snow. Winona slept under three comforters, tucking her cold feet tight against her shivering self.
Each morning she found another of the crystalline enigmas in her bed. None were perfectly spherical; they tapered and swelled. She lined them up on her dresser with dabs of blue putty. Despite the frost on the windows, they were never cold to the touch.
Questioned, the iron-jawed landlady denied all knowledge of ghosts, then fell silent and eyed her tenant with a speculative air.
The mystery vexed Winona, but as the days passed, she grew used to it. She could, she had learned, grow used to anything.
“You said North Dakota.” Penny was elbow-deep in a swan, and Winona had a tufted titmouse open in front of her.
“The company sent me different places for six to eight months each time. Brazil. Texas. Alaska.”
“Exciting. Why did you come all the way out here?”
“From the middle of nowhere to another nowhere?”
“Most people here think it’s the best town in the world.”
“Just keep that in mind.”
“My parents lived here for a few years before I was born.”
“International students? We have a lot of those.”
“Where are they now? Back in China?”
“They passed away six years ago. Car crash. It was fast.”
“And you could still work for oil and gas, after that?”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“What drew you that way in the first place?”
“You mean, what’s attractive about a solid, safe job?”
“You’re out here where no one knows you, skinning dead birds for fun—you like solid and safe?”
“We were always a dollar or two away from not eating, when I was a kid. A fight every time the bills came. So yes, I liked safe. I could travel. I could eat at restaurants. I could buy nice shoes, the ones that are pretty and comfortable. And those savings let me hide out here and do this.”
Penny, measuring the swan’s stringy, wobbling oviduct, said, “I see.”
“It’s Thursday—is your nephew at the Reynold?”
“The Reynard. Probably.”
After her titmouse was stitched shut and shelved, Winona drove home, ate alone at her scratched pressboard table, then wrapped herself in layers and walked to the Reynard.
She had hoped Penny would be there, but she saw no one she knew. The bar had no pool table, only three kinds of beer and a spindly teenager grappling with a large guitar. He sang in a clear, sweet voice and ignored her completely.
Every other head had turned to her when she walked in, and some continued to stare, brows wrinkled. One or two glared. All the faces in the bar were white. Even those deep in conversation, half smiling, kept glancing at her.
Winona gulped her bitter pint, her head down, her shoulders crawling.
The man beside her tapped her shoulder. “Nee haw,” he said.
“Please don’t,” Winona said.
“Nee haw nee haw,” he said, and his blonde companion tinkled with laughter. “Go back to your own country.”
Everyone was watching, now.
Winona abandoned her pint on the counter and fled.
It was for the best, she told herself later, gazing at the seventy-six mysteries on her dresser. She had made mistakes out of loneliness before, in oil-field cots, in dark corners. One of them had been particularly bad. If she closed her eyes, she could recall in fine detail the shape of his knuckles and the thin brown hair on the backs of his hands. Those hands could be kind—holding her up, stroking her face—then abruptly cruel. When, after two days of vomiting, she held up the stick, warm and redolent with urine, she had wanted to drop dead.
Instead, as the rigs and her friends fell silent, she bought a ticket to upstate New York, found a clinic, then paid with a little blood for her freedom.
Of course it would be hard. Life was not easy, her parents had said, again and again, until the words were inscribed on her bones. This was what she deserved. This and no more. She could imagine staying forever among the pines beside the lake, searching for answers in dead birds, growing old in insignificance. She would waste little, consume little, take up barely any space. She would never sink another well to bring the rich darkness bubbling up.
“Then I ran out of there,” she told Penny, as she printed Mimus polyglottos in careful letters on a paper tag. “I don’t think I’m going back.”
“You probably misunderstood. They’re nice people, there.”
“They didn’t seem friendly.”
“You must have seemed unfriendly, then. Or your behavior was off.”
Winona tied the tag to the scaly black legs and smoothed the long gray feathers.
“I think I could do this for years.”
“As a job, I mean. You don’t think so?”
“With your background?”
“Gas and oil.”
“Do you have something against—”
“The greater sage grouse. The lesser prairie chicken. A million birds a year die in oil pits and spills. Have you seen what they look like, when you pull them out? Have you cleared their eyes with toothbrushes? Have you seen their lungs?”
“You drive a car,” Winona protested. “A Honda Civic. Imported. Not electric, not even a hybrid—what do you think it runs on?”
“Sure, I drive. I even fly. We’re all poisoning ourselves and each other, every minute of every day. I can read it in beak lengths, in the thickness of eggshells. We’re monsters, all of us. You’re monstrous, I’m monstrous. Everything in our freezer is evidence of that.”
“So why teach me?”
“As I said, our budget is tight, and you’re working for free. And I’m keeping a geologist off the oil fields, at least for a while.”
“Well,” Winona said, “I hope you can keep me here longer.”
Penny said nothing.
When Winona had pinned her mockingbird—she could prepare one bird a day to Penny’s three—Penny stood.
“I have a research trip to Costa Rica at the end of February, to look at Talamanca speciation. Flying, before you ask. Very hypocritical.”
“For how long?”
“Is it all right if I still come in?”
“Actually.” Penny tapped her fingers on the table. “I think it’s time you moved on.”
Winona’s chest tightened. She could not speak.
“Maxine will be back in two weeks. We can’t afford to pay you. This is the next best thing I can do. Go home. Or go somewhere else. Don’t come back tomorrow.”
It was snowing when Winona left the museum. She drove slowly, her headlights picking out the quick slanting streaks of snowflakes, her windshield wipers sweeping feathery handfuls to either side.
At the door to her apartment, she stomped the slush from her boots, then set the kettle on and opened the last teabag in the box. Outside her frozen windows, the blue and purple of evening deepened to black. Here and there the orange slash of a sodium light illuminated the swirling snow.
She had stuffed so many small, soft, pointless deaths into the semblance of life. Her hands remembered the shearing of joints. Her eyes remembered the pink stains and jellied blood. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, hearing their silent singing. The shadows of hundreds of birds swept over her, flying wing tip to wing tip, and were gone.
Her tea grew cold, untouched. When her shoulders ached from stillness, and her skin felt uncomfortably loose on her, she set the mug down and went to her bedroom.
The eighty-nine enigmas on her dresser had cracked open at their crowns, the smoke and gleam emptied out of them. The shells sat hollow and transparent in a scatter of shards. She was not altogether surprised. Something strange and beautiful had been waiting, just as she was, for the hour of departure to arrive.
She scratched her itching collarbone, feeling the skin flake and peel, then her elbows and forearms. Where had these little dark bruises come from? They bloomed down her arms like blood feathers, though it had been months since she had last seen Fletcher, since she had come to him trembling with her news and he had gripped her wrists, tighter and tighter, to keep her from leaving his room. But she had freed herself. She was light with relief, clotted with guilt, sad and joyful, all at once.
With trembling, changing hands, Winona raised the window sash to the blowing cold, and the wind rushed in and blessed her cheeks with snow.
A moment later—who knows how long?—a white-throated sparrow darted out into the flurrying flakes, its dark eyes shining, the compass of its heart pointing south, toward the spring.
“The White-Throated Transmigrant” copyright © 2017 by E. Lily Yu
Art copyright © 2017 by Linda Yan