How Much It Feels Like Falling
Above the dumpster's green lip, a ruffled sleeve rises elastic-tight around the doll's porcelain wrist. I’d lost the key to the front gate, so I just went up around the driveway into the parking lot. I thought privately that a gate that only opens one way is a suggestion, more than anything else. When I was little, I would ride my scooter around the lot, holding my breath as I whizzed past the dumpster, ripe and rotten in the heat, but I was too old for a scooter now and, besides, it had gone missing from the front step a few years ago. I keep losing things I think I need, only to learn living comes just as willingly without them. I use a milk crate to boost myself up to look inside, one of the ones left over from my dad moving out. It bends ominously in the middle as I stand on my toes to look over the edge and see the massacre below.
Amid the black plastic and wet styrofoam are eight dolls, some looking up at me and others facedown, inhaling garbage. The one with red curls has a banana string clinging to the lush blue velvet of her dress. The other, with golden pigtails and two perfect chiclet teeth, is missing all the china from her left eye down, her face concave against an empty box of wine so I can see the impermeable hollow below.
I knew he’d come by from the smell alone, but my mother tells me anyway.
“I saw Nick today,” she says cheerily. “We made some changes around the house.”
The room is heavy with thick, nauseous nag champa and cedar, the smoke detectors unscrewed and impotent on the coffee table in his wake.
Her back is to me but her tone is bright and thin as her fingers, busy with a stack of shining paper. She is folding them into birds, which perch on every flat surface of the place. At first, it was just cranes, an idea she got from a book that made her cry so hard she had to lie down for a month. I was reading it for school, but when I looked at the pages the letters jumped and congaed across the page into meaninglessness. My sister, when I had one, took up where Mom left off, ushering the letters back into words and reading me the rest of the book. She even helped me fill out my worksheet, although I got points taken off for answering the evils of American Imperialism when I wrote down the themes. My sister said it with such confidence that I was sure it must have been right. She even helped me spell i-m-p-e-r-i-a-l-i-s-m.
Now, my mom folds all kinds of birds. Owls, tufted titmice, a few crows, shiny and arrogant in their black suits. The cranes grew from small, crude things into long and lithe creatures. Their paper wings swish noisily when they settle in for the night. Mom hums as she folds them.
“What kind of changes?” I ask her, but she is lost already, slipping a sheet of red paper to create a robin’s breast. When I pick up one of her bluebirds, it shivers in my hands, puffing its chest and stretching its wings out wide as my palm.
“Nick told me we had to rid ourselves of the eyes that saw us before. Now we can be new.” She grins up at me, the robin tilting its head side to side in her palm. Nick tells my Mom all sorts of things, like how to banish her headaches with viscous, smelly oils she drips under her tongue, and what numbers she must avoid. We buy things in sets of threes or sevens now, but never sixes or twos. The robin flies on fragile wings to the sticky edge of our TV. I hold my hand out and he hops into it, wings fluttering imperiously against the smaller bluebird.
I place the birds on the now empty top shelf in my room, the doll’s stand bare and dusty in their absence. The bluebird flits on top of one, tucking its head under a paper wing, while the robin cocks its head to and fro, taking in the petal pink walls and the poster of the Eiffel tower whose weight tests the limits of the tape my sister placed crookedly along its edges. The dolls’ skirts left clean circles across the shelf, protecting the painted wood from dust and the corrosive saltwater Nick sprays around my room once a week. It had worn away the blue stars my mother and sister had painted along the edges of the room, and bloated the covers of my books. Small crystals of salt cling to the threads of my quilt, crusting over the cotton carpenter stars. Worst of all was Audrey, trapped in her poster above my bed, resting her chin in petite hands. Nick’s spray had eroded her glossy paper so she looks matte now, dull eyes big as saucers watching him.
Audrey knows it’s my fault Nick had come here in the first place—I’d been having trouble sleeping all summer, and when the school year came around, I kept dozing off in homeroom. My teacher put her greasy nose too close to my face and rapped her knuckles on the desk, startling me. I nearly tipped backward in my chair, my classmates' laughter coarse as crows. Calls were made and meetings held. My mother nodded, the silver threads weaving themselves through her hair hidden underneath a paisley scarf, and promised the guidance counselor we would prioritize rest. Later that day, Nick came over, waving a bundle of dried rosemary bound thickly in hemp. He wafted it into four corners of the room, murmuring just far enough under his breath that my ears shied away from hearing him. Then he placed a piece of tourmaline under my pillow. One side was hewed roughly, the other shiny and smooth as a mirror. Once satisfied, he sat on our couch and drank a cup of smoky pekoe tea as my mother wrote him a check and told him not to cash it until Friday. When he left, she followed me into my room, smoothing the bedspread he had rumpled with his whispers.
“Now you can get some rest,” she said, her tone hopeful as sugar.
That night, I had dreams about spiders larger than our car chasing me down the street and into an alley. Dreams about a train and soldiers in gray. Dreams about birds tangling themselves in my hair and plucking my face until it was more blood than skin and bone. When I woke, my heart hammered anxiously in my chest and tears sloughed down my cheeks. The dolls looked calmly down at me, the headlights of a passing car glinting off their glassy eyes.
Nick came back the next day, this time making me lie down on the bed and dangling a crystal pendulum above my forehead, telling me to watch it oscillate. When it was finally still, he sprayed salt water over my whole body and nodded smugly to himself. After, he sat on the couch and ate six butter cookies from the blue tin, while my mother wrote him a check and told him not to cash it until Tuesday. I did not wait for him to close the door behind him before I swept the crumbs off the cushions and stripped my bed bare.
That night, I had dreams about wearing an animal suit and being chased through a forest. I had dreams about running as fast as I could until the only place left to run was the sea. I had dreams about a train and soldiers in gray.
My eyes woke up before my body, frozen in amber sleep as my gaze swung frantically around the room. My dolls were climbing, one by one, back up the bookcase, their skirts bunched over stiff, jointless knees. In the corner, a dark mass shaped enough like a man that I was afraid of it. When my limbs sprang back to life, I slid off my bed and into my mother’s room, curling under the stale sheets with her until the sun crawled its way from behind the mountains. Beside me, her breath was sour and warm on my face, comforting as sauerkraut.
The next night I stayed up as late as I could, my mother sorting her papers by color, by weight, by type of bird. Flightless, waterfowl, songbird. I even let her feed me one of Nick's caustic teas, spiked with apple cider vinegar that made my hair stand straight up. I smoothed it down and tried not to miss my sister's cocoa, the microwaved milk, and how the chocolate powder clung to the edges of the cup like pond scum, the tiny marshmallows granular and sweet. I kept the memory to myself, ushering it safely into the room without startling my mother, who was liable to snuff it out in a panic, or else a rage. I had to introduce my sister's memory slowly, bringing in a shirt with her smell on it, or a song she used to like at very low volume, washing her in what remained of my sister until she thought it must have been her idea.
Eventually, that night, my mother remembered I was a child and sent me to bed. She must have tasted the cocoa too, viscous across my teeth.
My dolls stood at attention on the shelf, although when I let my eyes drift close, I could hear them shifting in their petticoats until I popped my lids open and they stood still again. Only one, I realized, had turned toward me, while the others shifted themselves to the corner where the shadow had glomed the night before. That night, I dreamed of nothing, only sweet static and hot chocolate.
Tonight, I think, I will not remind her I am a child. I wait for her to pass out, although it takes a long time. Her hands folded ceaselessly. Occasionally the paper bites her skin open and licks the blood that rises out. The record player is turning, Yma Sumac, the precursor to all our longest nights. She hums along to Yma’s urgent vibrato as her fingers frantically dance across the birds. When she finally passes out, I creep past her and out the door, grabbing a small stack of her folding paper and the hot glue gun from the cupboard. A thrush nudges the needle off the turntable, replacing Yma’s voice with its own sweet warble. I forge out the door and into the parking lot. On the fence, a folded hawk curls its clumsy talons around a shrieking mouse.
The dolls are mountaineering their way over the Hefty bags and apple cores to the edge of the dumpster. The blonde one is at the head, her face gaping and shattered as she helps the twin dolls in their strawberry dresses hoist each other over a pizza box. One of the twins nods curtly at me and she turns, hole first, towards me. I hold up paper—cream and so soft it seems cruel to do anything but fondle it, and the glue gun. One by one, I lift the dolls from the dumpster, sliding my hands under their small armpits and setting them gently on the ground. Only one, in a burgundy crinoline and pale brown hair remains, her feet somewhere under a sagging bag of used kitty litter. She stares mournfully up at the overhang, cheeks flushed permanent pink. I pick her up, careful to avoid the jagged edge of her ankles.
As I place her gently on the sloping pavement, the other dolls crowd around her, bowing their heads as far as their unarticulated necks will let them. They lift their small patent leather-clad feet and stomp the remains of her porcelain body in a sickening crash. It is a deep chasm of my tummy sound, each flying shard seeming to embed itself in the mucus of my throat until I can barely breathe. In the anemic streetlamp, porcelain skitters and jumps across the ground, scattering her farther than she has ever been before.
I turn away from the crunching, until the parking lot is nearly silent, only the distant ardor of two feral cats in the distance. All that remains is her dress, soft as morning. I shake it clean and fold it small, so the dolls can carry it with them. It's nice to have a piece of your sister, even if she’ll never be whole again. The patching goes quickly. Other than their leader's face, most of the dolls' fractures are cosmetic. A chunk of knee here, a small chip behind the ear there. The fingers and toes I leave unrepaired, too fragile and finicky for my clumsy hands, and so some of them have gaping sharp wounds with which anyone would be scared to be touched.
When it comes to the cheekless doll, I bend the paper and adhere it to what remains of her china, sparingly dotting the glue so it doesn’t clot and dry bumpily on her skin. I finish my surgeries as the sky begins to pucker itself around daylight, pink and orange dueling fiercely.
“Where will you go,” I ask them, envy closing its hot fist around my throat. What I mean is, will I go too? Will you take me with you?
Their leader points north, and I nod. My sister, when I had one, went that way too.
“Will the birds go?”
What I mean is, will they go, too? Will you, please, take them with you? But she shakes her head, a painted-on expression inscrutable.
They march neatly down the driveway, petticoats rustling in the morning breeze. On my way back to my house, my neighbor in Mickey Mouse scrubs opens her door, knitting her eyebrows together curiously. I wave but don’t stop, not until I get back to the apartment and close the door behind me. My mother is still asleep under a quilt of paper, and the shadow that is enough like a man, oozing against the corner of the wall like so much black mold.
For a few mornings after, it is quiet. My mother folds and I stay home to keep the phone busy. When she isn’t folding, she fingers the cord, twirling it around her knuckles until they turn purple, then white. When she asks how I slept, I say good, and turn back to the phonebook. I am dialing page by page, drawing lines with copper wire around our house to keep Nick away. By Wednesday I reach the F’s, and our house is more aviary than apartment, birds swooping close to our heads as we walk to the bathroom, or plucking long pieces of hair that stick to the shower walls and adorning nests with them. The covers of all my paperbacks are shredded and distributed across the house, gulped down the thin throats of birds, and shat out in a pulpy mess into the carpet. When my mother’s head droops onto the bony pillow of her chest, I put the phone down and try to scrub the mess out, using one of my father’s old t-shirts as a rag. He called looking for it once, and my mother let the lie slide out of her mouth, like a stone offering itself to a river.
“No, I haven’t seen it. Mmmm.. Yes, of course. I’ll keep an eye out. If I find it, I’ll send it with Esti on your next weekend.”
That night she wore it and made breakfast for dinner, standing close to the bacon pan as it spat hot grease all over the cotton, rendering it almost see-through. After we finished eating, she stripped it off, standing in only her jeans and a faded pink bra, its elastic worn thin from age. Balling it in her hands, she used it to scrub the sticky remains of syrup off the plates.
When she is awake, I try to needle her to eat —stale butter cookies from the tin she left the lid off of, two pieces of white bread folded around the last slice of cheddar cheese. I find a dusty can of tuna in the back of the cupboard and mix it into a pot of fluorescent orange macaroni, but she eats nothing. She crumbles the cookies and tosses them on the floor, letting the flock of pigeons she folded peck them manically. She rips the bread to bits and feeds the paper ducks who float now in our bathtub, soggy and buoyant. She picks the tuna out and feeds it to the condors, who took a whole package of paper to themselves. They sit on the highest point of the house, watching me cook, waiting. One morning, I wake to them shredding a small finch into confetti. When they’re sated, I pick up what remains and slip it into the recycling, hoping the bird will be resurrected as something sturdier next time. I don’t let myself think of how much time I have spent picking up the remains of what others insist on devouring, lest the thought roost in my heart and settle there for good, becoming as speckled black as the shadow has made our ceiling.
By Friday, I’ve reached the Y’s, the pages of the phone book dwindling thin. I press each button slowly, letting it ring through. On the other end, the people are angry, confused, or equally lost. One, a woman, calls back immediately after I hang up.
“Baby? Is that you?” she murmurs in my ear. The wires vibrate with desire but I stay quiet. Her voice is so much like my sister I have to check my throat to make sure her voice is still there, pressing my fingers where her laugh used to live. My mother and I sleep on the floor by the TV now, our beds thickly covered in birds nesting, their paper eggs splitting open to reveal balding printer paper hatchlings. The hens chew bread crumbs, dry noodles, the last spoonful of peanut butter, before regurgitating it back to their babies, whose paper throats are so thin you can see the whole mess slide wetly down.
Sometimes, the other voices get through—the school district calls twice, threatening truancy and the police, but I steal my mother’s voice and tell them that everything is fine. I keep it for a while, too, walking around the house singing songs to the birds, only returning it when my throat becomes raw from the weight of it. My mother just slips it into her back pocket, content to fold in silence. Our record player spins bare, even Yma unwilling to breach the trancelike state my mother occupies. The vinyl shrinks in its sleeves in hopes the birds will not notice it and begin feasting. My mother’s fingers become clumsy. Once long and alchemical, they curl and scale, tapering into something closer to claws. It would not be so bad, I think, if the webs between them were not so thin. When she holds up a piece of paper pierced by her talons, I can see almost through them.
Nick calls at strange hours, the ones in between morning and night and night and morning, so I am forced to sit vigil by the receiver, which sleeps soundly in its plastic cradle. His voice twists around the lines I drew and booms through the house. He says we need to cleanse. He says we need to burn. There is turmeric to drink and black pepper to grind down our throats to purge the spirits out. The whole house, he says, is a psychic graveyard. Sometimes he just says my name. In his mouth, it festers into something unrecognizable, a sucking wound I can’t find a poultice for. My mother claws at the line when he calls, gnawing the plastic cord to try and taste his words, her mouth less lip than beak, the same yellow as a warbler’s feathers. I hang up as quickly as I can, but sometimes, he crawls out of the receiver, persistent as flies on summer's ripest fruits. I pour white vinegar over the phone’s cradle and then unplug it, the birds squawking angrily at the sharp smell. On the carpet smolders some shadow that has fallen down from the ceiling. I threaten it with vinegar, but the vinegar shies away, clinging instead to its plastic walls.
The man in the corner, so like a shadow I know to be afraid of, comes even though I never fall asleep, tucked under one of my mother’s wings in lieu of a blanket. The birds around him grow quiet and small, hens settling themselves over their chicks to keep them hidden. My mother hardly notices, her own feathers heavy with oils Nick slipped through the mail slot, hidden between the past dues and urgent notices smudged from the shadow’s inky fingers. Rosehip and Cyprus and rosemary seep into her feathers until she can barely lift herself off the ground. I think about seagulls on the Gulf, how they clean them with dish soap, but all we have is a bottle of watered-down Dr. Bronner’s. I tip it out over her and scrub until the skin of my fingertips prune. The oil suds and rinses muddy and gray, streaking down the down feathers of her belly, like mascara wept away.
The shadow moves up the wall, crawling across the ceiling as the starlings swoop out of its path. One of our crows screams at it. Her pink tongue is an obstinate worm shrieking discontent, but the shadow persists, until it is dripping down from the wall’s humid darkness.
“Mama,” I whisper, wiping the oil with the hem of my t-shirt. Her hands tremble as the shadow looms, and I can hear Nick knocking on the door, a moldavite ring scratching the white paint to reveal peeling wood beneath. He calls my mother’s name and when she does not respond, he whistles a song closer to a bird. Her head swivels to the door, but I keep hold of her with wet hands.
“Mama, we have to go.”
I slide my arms around her and pull her to her feet, which point inwards like a pigeon. She hops behind me as I lead her out the back way, pointing up the stairs to the balcony. She fluffs her wings, still damp, and flaps clumsily to the railing. Below us, the shadow trickles out the bottom of the door frame as the birds begin to flock out the open window, paper mouths calling their paper flight to order. The shadow crawls up the wall like ivy, taking a few chickens and kiwis in its maw and the birds shriek in mourning of their flightless brothers.
I help my mother get her wings fully open. They span wider than any embrace I’ve felt, strong handiwork and delicate bones supporting her.
“Mama,” I whisper, “It’s time.”
She takes a deep breath, turning back to me. Her eyes are beads without an iris, her neck long and covered in white feathers, cut and folded delicate as petals.
My mother and I take a deep breath, and then, my mother flies, the wind catching her as she launches herself off the balcony. Below us, the shadow is the whole floor, flooding the parking lot and searching the dumpster for something crunchy and tasty to devour, something I know I could be if I gave it the opportunity. I let the desire to be consumed crack and weep its whites onto the floor, the yolk golden and screaming to live.
As the last birds prepare themselves to take flight, I step onto the balcony’s railing, praying for wings, and then I jump, not knowing how much it will feel like falling.