I wish that we were born with feathers. I admire birds but not people who are considered "birdlike," especially people who "peck" at their food and don't have good appetites. Or people who peck at their foods and also have warbly voices and/or people who are thin like the legs of birds (flamingos.) I like dogs to have skinny birdlike legs with twine like tendons under black and white speckled fur, but not humans in the same condition.
My twin sister has what is called chicken legs and chicken wings for arms. This is because she never straightens her tensed, bent knees. When she gets upset she flaps her arms about and squawks. The cords in her neck stand out and she preens forward, her head jutting in and out searching for kernels of corn amidst the gravel on our front lawn.
Courtship would be easier if we only had feathers. The problem with birds is that you can never get close enough to stroke their silky feathers of cranberry and maroon, or maple leaf in autumn. (It's not in their natures to hold still long enough to be touched.) Maybe you could imagine smoothing down the feathers or a mother pigeon with those rainbow colored feathers around her neck -- colors looking like gasoline spilled on puddles in city streets -- because she has to sit quietly on a nest for several weeks when she has eggs to tend. But the reality is that as soon as you might reach your hand to her, she would fly away.
I would like to give birth to a dog. But I would want to be the only human mother of a puppy. In a few years with technology advancing at its present rapid rate, this should be possible. Dogs can be petted, though I wouldn't like people to have fur.
Birds are messengers and can carry olive branches in their beaks when they fly over flood waters.
My twin sister wears no collar. The reason I feel sorry for dogs is that they have to wear collars. On the other hand, I would not know what true freedom is unless I could walk my dog at night. The moment comes when I release her and she is truly happy as she leaps into the air and barks at the pigeons who come to nest in the apple trees. When she leaps her nails scratch on the bark of the trees. Sometimes she picks up branches larger than herself and in those branches there is a bird's nest.
When I go to bed everything must be just so. I go to sleep on my side, usually my left side with my heart beating under the bulk of my body. My right cheek must not be touching any part of the pillow which must not be firm, but loose of form and feathers. Even a cotton pillow is not a pillow I mind if it has enough lumps so I can arrange them in such a way that the majority fall under my cheekbone but not the corner of my eye.
I remember climbing into trees and looking into our neighbor's windows. I could see children in their beds. Even behind screen windows I could see when the tinkerbell lamps were turned off. I could hear when the music box was wound up and left to play, silvery notes spilling out into the air.
My mother sometimes mentioned that my twin did not like to be swaddled as a baby. She was only two days old but she kicked and pushed when my mother tried to roll her up tightly in the blankets, her arms bound at her sides.
Still even on those seemingly normal nights hiding in the trees, I could hear my mother's screams across the neighborhood. Even if I were hiding two blocks away in our neighbor's bushes, I could hear my mother cursing my father. No one said anything about tit. We pretended that it didn't happen. When she screamed, nesting birds lifted their heads, their wings shuddered and they shifted positions in the nest in the pine tree where I hid. And then I grew very quiet until I also disappeared into the bark of the tree and became a branch, part of my sister's office.
My twin sister believed when she turned ten, she would be allowed to decide if she wanted our parents as parents or if she wanted a new set. When she first told me this I laughed, but she didn't. Where she got this idea from I do not know, but she believed fervently. She kept saying, "when I turn ten...when I turn ten."
My twin sister had to be enclosed in total darkness or she couldn't sleep. She said the nightlight I read by bothered her. So my father built a wood frame around her bed and nailed a pair of his blue linen pants around it. I always wanted her to stay awake and sing with me, for as long as I could remember I'd had difficulty sleeping, but she always refused my requests.
One night I went to her canopy and cut out shapes of stars and crescent moons, zig zags of lightning and birds flying wildly from a storm.
My father and mother became cross with me and my father had to build a new canopy. This time with black velvet from an evening dress of my mother. My sister claimed that the cloth of the blue pants had been of a loose weave anyway and that when the moon was full she could see between the strands of linen. I was made to apologize to my sister.
At breakfast my twin sister would say, "I didn't sleep well last night because the moon was full" and my mother would cluck her tongue and say, "Offa, the poor moon." And my sister would stick out her tongue at me, or wanly spoon her oatmeal up and then let it slide off her spoon to plop down into the bowl and state, "I hate the moon." and I would sing back to her, "and the moon hates me" and my mother would shout, "You're so hard on the moon. What has the moon ever done to you?"
"She shines in my eyes at night," she would say petulantly.
My father always said he could fix my watch. He had a swiss watch which he kept in a vault and said he would someday sell it if we ever got evicted and were in danger of getting put in the poor house. My mother bought us christmas presents at the salvation army and the goodwill, but she made me promise to keep this a secret because my twin still believed in santa claus, even when she was nine.
My twin sister liked to eat the heads of burnt matches from little books that advertised high-school equivalency correspondence courses, but she didn't like to eat the heads of blue diamond wooden stick matches. She only liked the cardboard kind. She liked to ride the lilac bushes too.
My father said his watch was a padek phillips watch from switzerland given him for christmas when he was a child. Santa claus had given it to him. How santa claus could be all over the world at the same time was a concept I didn't understand. He was even in parts of the world where our day was other peoples' night and places where people didn't have chimneys, people like us who lived in apartment buildings.
First she would gallop across the plains (the backyard) on the lilac bushes and then she might spend the afternoon grazing on the front lawn. Then she usually threw up because she had eaten too much grass and my mother got mad because she'd ruined her appetite for dinner. One of our favorite games was orphans. We pretended we were orphaned during the war and lived in an abandoned box car on a railroad line that ran nowhere into the woods. We played this game in the closet.
My sister refused to wear pajamas with built in feet. My mother had to cut off the feet of the yellow terrycloth pajamas, the feet with little rubber bumps on the bottom. And the blanket had to be arranged in the proper way to insure that her left toes would be left uncovered. Otherwise she could not begin to fall asleep.
At the age of nine she insisted that her hair be cut short like a boy's. She wanted a cereal bowl to be capped over her hair. My mother was instructed to trace the contours of that bowl. When she walked down the street she began to make a habit of throwing her head back, running her hands through her short hair, shaking her head like a palomino and then spitting onto the sidewalk with a loud hawking sound. She began to insist that she was a cheetah.
No one knows that I keep a feather duster under the covers, never used for dusting. I like to stroke its feathers and draw it across my cheeks, my chin, over my neck, down over my breasts and my thighs. The feathers are russet brown and reddish, like my hair.
It was just before my father left one day to get his watch appraised and never came back that it was decided, my sister would have to go to Charm School. There she would learn manners, how to do ballroom dancing, how to apply lipstick, how to swivel out of a bucket seat in a boy's fancy sports car without losing balance or pride while at the same time wearing a short, tight skirt. When my parents told her of their plans, she ran to her office in the trees and would not come down. My father had to go get a ladder and carry her down tucked under his arm like a rolled up rug.
Thunder on the western plains. She works as a secretary now. She doesn't remember childhood as well as I do. I have time to think because I still don't sleep well.
My words often want to fly away. They gallop and leap. They begin as low growls at the back of my throat. They are not basically human sounds. They flutter up into the air and the wind carries them to her countries. The birds catch scraps in their beaks to build nests with. No one understands what I say, what I think of when I have insomnia. I never expected anyone to understand so I am not disappointed when no one does. I don't think I even bother anymore to try to make people hear.
"And you can hear me every night, or rather every morning on this station at different times, different places. Because I want to reassure you that if you can't sleep chances are I'm not sleeping. You can know, rest assured, if you're awake, I'm awake. Even now watching this public service announcement, I'm awake. I'm stationed to come on after the station identification buzz, so there won't be any buzz but the buzz of my incoherent thoughts floating across the dawn sky."
I see pigeons now. Their wings are beating. No,no, they are sea gulls. My father, the captain of this ship brought me here to the prow. The water of the ocean is golden and my ship is made of gold. The sound of their beating wings kept me from sleeping.
When I close my eyes I can imagine that the hair of my dog are the feathers of a bird. I lay my cheek on her stomach and she is warm.
A girl was awakened by the beating of wings. The birds were flying through her window. When she ran through the darkness to her mother's room, her mother sat up, and said, "You are too old to sleep here with me anymore. Who ever heard of birds flying in and out of apartment windows in a city?"
The girl, thinking perhaps she had been dreaming, went back to bed. But in the morning, upon awakening, she found feathers on the floor and on her sheets. In one of her drawers she discovered a nest.
It was only a matter of time before eggs, of the palest blue color, appeared among her blouses. Soon babies hatched from the eggs. As they grew older, the pigeons flew quite freely in and out of her open windows. Sometimes they got caught in the curtains and she had to free them. She could hear their wings beating frantically against the lace. Though she was afraid to touch them, she liked to watch them all the same.
Her mother wondered why the daughter never closed her shutters at night anymore, especially in the winter months. The girl never said anything. She kept her door locked. She never told her mother about the birds again.
The letters are typed on clean, white stationery, perfectly centered with no misspelled words. From her messages a slight, greenish light is emitted so that if you happened to open one of them at night, it would glow like a firefly. That's the way her words are: sharp, quick, brilliant, serious, soft, and directionless notes of light.
"See me in this place no one wants to come to. I like the cave I dug here. I like these solitary meals and dirt floors. I think the sea is above me because I hear a rumbling, churning sound."
She sends small beads of stone she's chipped off her walls to make into necklaces. Yet many people don't like to think of someone living like that and don't even open her letters. Once a year she comes for a week. People ask, "Well, how is it?" as if they were asking someone about a trip they'd taken overseas. "Do you have any slides?" She shows us pictures of a round room illuminated by a faint greenish light. It's a simple place, actually, with only a narrow bed, a table and a desk with paper where she writes us her letters. When she talks about her room she glows more than usual. We ask, "Where is this place?" She says, "It is at the Center of the Earth."
Mary Egan Sternbach is the author of two volumes of poetry, Eight Pieces Written in Italy and Countries With No Names. She received a Masters in Fine Art degree from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She currently lives in Manhattan.
All poems Copyright © 1998 by Mary Egan Sternbach
Published: October 21, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by the Cosmic Baseball Association