Orphan Bird

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Orphan Bird

By Leah Newsom

Frankie’s job is to count. She keeps a small top-bound notebook in her pocket and draws a tally for every bird she sees. She has a column for alive and a column for dead.

She is in charge of surveillance for the Salton Sea Hazard Unit, the section of the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge that allows for hunting three days a week. It is her job to collect data about the birds that move through the Hazard Unit, species seen, how many are killed by hunters, how many are nesting, how many die naturally. 

As her belly grows bigger, her counting gets slower. She holds her lower back with her right arm and paces the land cautiously, listening for familiar bird calls and the sounds of hunters, applying sunblock when necessary, hoping that whatever has destroyed the water does not destroy her baby, keeping a watchful eye on the lake, the dead tilapia lined up on the beach.

Frankie can count the times she’s spoken to Jeremiah. The number of messages between the two of them. She can open her text log and review them all, categorize them. Texts he responded to immediately. Texts he read but never responded to. Texts he responded to in less than two hours. Texts he responded to in more than five hours. The average of photos responded to versus simple word texts. The number of phone calls while he was at the Salton Sea filming his documentary. The number of phone calls after he returned to LA. The silence after she told him she was pregnant. 

She keeps a tally in the back of her notebook, behind the birds. She plans her next communications methodically, based on what has worked, what has failed. She approaches life like she approaches death: systematically.

Frankie visits Madame Jacqueline in Slab City. Her trailer sits in the middle of a dirt lot. It’s an old Airstream, the silver covered with royal purple paint, the brush strokes visible in the texture. Layered over it: white mandalas, Confucius quotations, kanji. 

Frankie knocks and waits. Madame Jacqueline opens the trailer door with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, blue sunglasses shaped like stars covering her eyes.

“Come on in, dearie,” she says.

She is a small woman, her shoulders crouched into her body, her boney edges jutting out of her skin. She has long gray deadlocks that retain the black coloring of her youth at the ends. She keeps them wrapped up on the top of her head with a dirty scarf. 

Madame Jacqueline pulls open the curtains, letting light into the trailer. Frankie sees little dust particles like fireflies in the rays of sun and wonders how many she’s breathing in, how many are in her now, how many she’s drowned in her mucus and spit and bile. She is a graveyard of particles. She wonders if her baby feels them in her, sharing space. If her baby eats them too. 

Frankie’s belly doesn’t fit in the kitchen table booth, so she stands until Madame Jacqueline brings her a stool. 

“So, what brings you to the Slab today?” she asks.

“I need to ask you about my baby’s father.”

“What about him?”

Madame Jacqueline sits in the booth, her knees facing out towards Frankie. She lights another cigarette and leans her elbow on the table.

“I need to get ahold of him. I need to know where he is. He stopped responding to my messages and I need him to help me.”

Madame Jacqueline ashes her cigarette in a coffee mug and looks at Frankie’s belly. She lifts her other hand.

“May I?” she asks.

Frankie nods.

Madame Jacqueline lifts Frankie’s shirt up over her belly, exposing her pale skin, the great moon hiding beneath. She puts her hands, with the cigarette tucked between her fingers, around Frankie’s stomach. She closes her eyes.

Frankie tries not to breathe in the smoke.

“Oh, my dear.”

Madame Jacqueline releases her hands and takes a drag on her cigarette, the smoke moving between her teeth, out her nostrils. She leans back and looks into Frankie’s eyes. 

“What? What did you feel?”

“You don’t have to worry about your baby’s daddy,” she says.

“Why? Do you know where he is? How can I find him?”

Frankie stands up.

“No, dearie. There ain’t gonna be a baby for him to be the daddy of.”

She pushes her way through the beaded entryway and down the steps of the trailer. 

“I should have known you were a hack,” she yells over her shoulder.

Madame Jacqueline follows her to the doorway, watches her get in her truck, and flicks the cigarette filter into the dirt. Frankie pulls out of the lot and onto the road. 

Ashley says she’ll be the baby’s daddy. She will be Frankie’s help. They have a house, an income. They can do it together. They are already a family.

They had moved seaside when they were kids. Frankie was four, Ashley was seven. Their parents brought them here with promises of boogie boarding, sun-kissed shoulders, rainbow umbrellas and mildewy beach towels. They said children should grow up by the water, that water determines who someone will become. Their parents, however, couldn’t afford a real beach house on the real beach in California, so they moved to the Salton Sea, An Oasis in the Desert!

The whole area is an ancient sea, the land now risen, dried, cracked. As a result of a mechanical error with damming the Colorado River, a lake was born. In the midcentury, realtors saw it as an opportunity: a second Palm Springs. They built houses, resorts, restaurants, ice cream shops, hot dog vendor carts, everything a beach town needs.

What they didn’t expect: agricultural runoff increasing the amount of salt in the water. Pollution. Algae. A dying lake. Nearly everyone packed up and moved away when the stench of rot inhabited the water. Now, an abandoned lake, forgotten amongst the sand dunes and empty motels and piles of garbage.

Frankie and Ashley stayed because their parents left them the house when they died and they had nowhere else to go. 

Ashley likes to hold Frankie’s belly in her hands. She speculates that the baby is a girl—only a girl would know not to kick when someone wants her to. 

Frankie’s belly is round. Some people say like a basketball, or a beach ball, but she knows it’s a globe. Her belly is the world. Some mornings, Frankie gets a sharpie from the junk drawer and draws the continents onto her blank Earth. She always forgets how Europe connects to Russia connects to China. It’s okay because it’s her world and she’s drawn heaven at the top, right under her breasts, which are sore and heavy with the weight of it. 

She draws two dots in Southern California. One is herself. One is Jeremiah. Compared to the rest of the world, they are right next to each other. Their edges touch.

“I think I felt something in Germany,” Ashley says, her palms splayed out across Frankie’s world. “Might have just been your stomach growling, though.”

It is a Saturday afternoon, a few hours before Ashley has to go to the bar. They are sitting on the couch in their living room, the old TV playing a local news channel. The clarity fades in and out as the signal adjusts. 

“I think I should have said something to him earlier,” Frankie says. “Maybe it’s not that he’s scared, it’s that he’s mad. I didn’t give him time to prepare.”

“Or he’s just an asshole.”

“But this is a big deal. He’s probably just processing.”

Ashley lets go of Frankie and changes the channel to a cartoon.

“You don’t need him, though.”

Ashley wants to take care of the baby. Firstly, because, as her sister, she loves Frankie. Second, because if Jeremiah answers his phone, if Frankie goes to LA to be with him and her new family, Ashley will be here alone. Frankie knows this.

“The psychic said the same thing.”

“What psychic?” Ashley asks.

“Madame Jacqueline. The one in Slab City. I drove down there the other day to see if maybe she could help me get in touch with him.”

“I thought you hated that stuff.”

“I do. And I was right to. She said the baby wasn’t going to need a daddy because the baby wasn’t going to make it.”

Ashley stands up. “People can’t just say shit like that. That’s a terrible thing to say to someone. There’s nothing wrong with your baby.”

“I know,” Frankie says.

She thinks she will text him again today. After Ashley leaves for work, she consults the tally in her notebook and considers sending him a picture of the sunset over the lake. She has a 33% chance of him responding, based on her data. 

On her days off, Frankie sits at the bar Ashley works at and reads from the screen. 

Frankie learns about the Orphan Bird while scrolling through digitized pages of medieval bestiaries on her phone. She pinches and pulls to zoom in on the illustrations, the perfectly imperfect handwriting of the scribe, the ornate gold gilding, the imaginations of people long dead from far away.

The Orphan Bird’s neck and chest are those of a peacock. It has the beak of an eagle, the feet of a swan, and the body of a crane. 

“Come on, Frankie. Put your phone down,” Ashley says. “Join humanity.”

Ashley is always telling Frankie her eyes are going to fall right out of her head if she doesn’t stop looking at that tiny screen. She tells her she’s going to go cross-eyed. She tells her she’s going to get cancer. She tells her that her brains are going to rot. 

Frankie can afford a phone because of her job at Game and Fish. Most people in this town don’t bother with one. They know everyone they need to know, where they live, where they work. They walk over and knock if they need something.

Frankie holds her phone as if it is something sacred. She learns that the Orphan Bird lays its eggs in the sea. The good eggs float on top and hatch under their mother’s wing. The bad eggs sink to the bottom of the sea and hatch there, eternally condemned to darkness and grief. 

Ashley keeps her hair long so she can flip it. When she takes someone’s order, man or woman, she flips her hair to the side and leans in. 

This is where Frankie met Jeremiah. He ordered a Jack and coke. Frankie was sitting on the last bar stool, her face lit from beneath by her phone.

Jeremiah was dressed like someone from a city who is trying to fit into a small town. He was wearing brown boots, somewhere between worker and cowboy, but so new they hadn’t developed a crease above the toe. He had blue jeans and a button-up shirt patterned like a bandana, pearlescent buttons gleaming in a row down his chest. 

Ashley, who had been flipping her hair at him, introduced Frankie. 

“What brings you to the Salton Sea?” Frankie asked him.

Ashley brought Frankie another vodka water. Frankie only drinks things she can see through. One part vodka, two parts water, four ice cubes. It’s the same every time, but Frankie always watches Ashley make it. She will force precision with observation.

“I’m making a documentary,” he said. “People want to know about this place.”

“About the lake?” Ashley asked.

“Yeah, and its communities. People want to know about people. People like you.”

Ashley leaned over the bar top.

“I got a secret for you,” she said. “If anybody wanted to know about this place, they already would.”

Pointing at Frankie, she continued, “All they have to do is look it up. This shit ain’t new. It’s not a secret. There’s a reason people don’t talk about the Salton Sea, and it’s not for a lack of knowing.”

Ashley performed her tirade, the one Frankie has heard so many times, about the government covering the place up. A free sewer, she calls it. Don’t even have to hire someone to scrape out all the shit. 

“You want to know why no one has ever heard of the largest lake in California? Because it ain’t a lake. It’s a dump.”

“But that’s the thing,” Jeremiah said. “It’s like postapocalyptic or something. Everyone loves an apocalypse story. It’s like Flint, Michigan but better. Weirder.”

He sucked down the last of his drink and slid the glass toward Ashley.

“In a good way,” he added. “It’s authentic.”

Later that night, Jeremiah told Frankie about UCLA, where he went to film school. He told her about the warehouse he lives in with ten other artists, artisans, and craftsmen. He told her about how he wants to change the world through film. He told her about the grant he won to make this documentary, about how he rented an RV and drove here the day the check cleared.

She told him about the Orphan Bird. About how, even though the myth came from somewhere else, she’s pretty sure all the bad eggs hatched at the bottom of the Salton Sea.

“That’s why the lake’s gone bad,” she said. “The good eggs hatch and the baby birds fly away to somewhere better. The bad ones are stuck in the water.”

He said it would be a good metaphor for his film.

Frankie had never met someone like him before. They spent most of the night in the bar together, and after her fourth drink, she kissed him. She noticed how clean his shave was, the absence of stubble. His hand moved to her knee and squeezed. 

They left Ashley to finish her shift, and she walked him back through North Shore, down Mecca Avenue toward her house.

He grazed his fingers over the chain-link fence, the BEWARE DOG sign. He marveled over the tire swing and the containers of plants next to the porch. She doesn’t remember what they talked about, but can still hear his laughter echoing down the empty street. That evening, hazy with his voice, the way his hand was always touching her while they walked, brushing up against her arm, sliding across the small of her back, tickling her palm.

Frankie and Ashley have a garden built out of containers they found in the desert. They have a rosemary shrub, a basil plant, some tomato stalks, some okra.

Jeremiah put his nose into the rosemary and inhaled deeply. He seemed elated by the container garden, and by the squeaky screen door of the house, the mismatched 70s furniture, the ceiling fan, heavy with dust, wobbling above them, its beaded drawstring clinking against its metal body.

She was nervous in a way she had always been with men. The fear of their bodies heaving over her. The way she felt the need to meet their expectations. She sucked in her tummy as far as she could, watched her ribs and hip bones strike against his chest. She thought this was how it was supposed to happen. How she would inevitably meet someone that would get her out of here. 

He spent the night with her in her twin-sized bed. When he left in the morning, he kissed her fingertips and put his number in her cell phone.

He didn’t latch the door completely, and the wind drew it open. She got up and closed it only when the stench of the water reached her bedroom.

She is suspicious of the water ever since her meeting with Madame Jacqueline. Not only the water in the lake, but in her home. She thinks certain things can’t be totally filtered out. She drives her truck to the convenience store and clears the shelves of water jugs, lining them along the walls of her kitchen, and under the sink in the bathroom.

Twice a week, she sits in her bathtub, balancing two gallons of water on the rim. She pulls off the tie around one of the caps, tosses it onto the peeling linoleum to retrieve later, and pours the room temperature water over her head. Slowly, at first, her wrists shaking. As it empties, she can lift the jug higher and pour faster. She sets the water down and slides a bar of soap across her partially dampened skin, it sticking in places the water did not touch.

She rinses the soap off using another gallon of water. She brushes her teeth in the tub and spits the excess as close to the drain as possible. Pouring water around the saliva and toothpaste mixture, she forces it through the metal grating, which eventually leads, she thinks, to the lake. So much of herself has polluted its water; so much of the water has polluted her.

It is mid-July and the high is 111 degrees. On these days, she goes out in the early morning, around four a.m., carrying a spray bottle she fills with the water she keeps in her house. She sprays her neck and her face, occasionally lifting her shirt and spraying her stomach. The baby likes it. The baby would like to live somewhere by water—real water. Maybe she could give the baby the seaside life she was always promised.

The early sun is still hiding beneath the edge of the earth. There is the occasional rustling of a shrub, a lizard or a rabbit. Otherwise, her and her baby watch the desert alone. They are the caretakers.

The lake is silent: no wading tides, no boats, no fish jumping. It sits. It waits. It’s heavy with salt and pollutants. Along the shore, the sand is made from a mixture of desert minerals and broken-down fish bones. It is a mass grave. 

Down the shore, she hears a crying sound, like a baby in distress. She walks toward the sound. In the distance, something is flailing in the sand. She steps closer and identifies it: a wood stork. Its cry is a sort of wah-wah sound, like a person, but more guttural.

As she approaches, it flaps its wings, its body squirming in the sand. She sees now why it’s crying: both of its legs are broken. It could have been a predator, but she thinks it’s more likely due to nighttime pranks. 

The bird, as big as her torso, stiffens when she steps toward it.

She’s seen wood storks before, swooping over the water, catching fish. She’s seen them gathered on the shore picking fights with ducks, their long, intimidating wings spread, looming above their bodies. And though she has seen them, counted them in her notebook, she thinks this bird—this single bird—is the most beautiful. Lying on its side, its broken legs limp beneath it. Its long beak slightly ajar, and tufts of baby feathers on the top of its head swaying in the wind. So fragile. So helpless. She imagines wrapping it up in a blanket and taking it home, nestling it into the empty crib in the living room. She imagines practicing swaddling it. Chewing up food for it. She thinks it will be her baby until the real one comes.

Its eyes are glassy with pain. The coos are quiet. It doesn’t move.

She reaches her arm down to touch it and it squirms away, flinging sand. She wraps her arms around its back, pinning its wings down.

It cries out again when she lifts it from the sand. Holding it in her arms, she feels like someone who has never held a baby, unsure of what parts need support.

She considers putting it in her truck and taking it to the vet, but she knows there’s nothing they can do. Not without a lot of money. She also thinks about calling Jeremiah, that maybe he would help, but decides against it.

She knows what she’s known since she first heard the bird crying down the shore. It’s not going to make it. She can either leave it here to starve or get picked off by something bigger, or she can speed things up.

Sliding her hand up the bird’s long neck, she feels the small cord the feathers are attached to. All birds are the same: made up of feathers, but underneath, they are fragile, pink runts.

She wraps her fingers around its neck, holding the bird’s wings down with her other arm. It cries out and she restrains it. She can feel it trying to push itself from her grasp. Things always want to be prolonged. She’s doing it a favor. She’s doing it a favor. A favor. This is compassion. It would thank me if it could. It would praise me.

She tightens her grip around its neck and releases her other arm from around its body. In one smooth motion, she swings the bird like a croquet mallet, her hand a noose. 

A snap. She drops it onto the sand. It squirms for a moment. And then, it doesn’t. 

The sun rises over the lake, the smell of decay reclaims its place. Morning birds chirp. Cars on nearby streets grumble toward the shore. The desert chorus.

She lifts the bird from the sand and carries it to the water. She wonders if a good egg could ever sink on accident. If a bad egg could ever swim up and get out of the water. If switching places is possible. Wading in past her knees, she takes one last look at the creature before dropping it in. She knows it was this place that killed it, not her. The sea claims its victim.

He had told her he planned to come back. Needed more b-roll. He asked if he could stay at her place, but he doesn’t know when, yet. That text was April 22nd. She has it marked in the notebook.

January 28th: he says she should visit him in LA. He’ll take her to Griffith Observatory and she can see all the buildings at once. He says they’ll figure out a weekend when the film slows down. When he can make time to enjoy her company. 

April 18th: her belly is already too big to send photos of herself naked like she used to. She sends the same photos to him that she sent in January. She hopes he doesn’t notice.

May 3rd: after over a week of silence, he messages her around 2 a.m. A simple “miss you.” She texts him back the next morning saying she misses him too, that maybe she can drive there this weekend. He doesn’t respond.

June 20th: she sends him a text saying, “I’m pregnant.”

June 29th: she knows she is owed something. It may not be love, or affection, but she is owed. 

Frankie flips through her notebook at the bar. Ashley serves her a club soda with a lime wedge and four cubes of ice. Frankie transfers the information from her notebook to the calendar in her phone. Different colors for different kinds of text messages, the notes explaining the response. She thinks of the things she’s read about: the Rosetta Stone, the Fibonacci Sequence, the Zimmerman Telegram, the Babington Plot. This is a code to be cracked. Everything boils down to numbers. Probabilities. Things that can be written down.

“What if you just hung out and enjoyed the evening?” Ashley suggests. 

The bar is quiet. The jukebox is playing The Beatles, one guy clocking the queue with “Octopus’s Garden” and other Ringo songs. 

“In this dump?” Frankie asks.

She adjusts the color of a set from May 16th to yellow: responded to the next day.

“Come on, Frankie. Lay off it.” Ashley points at the phone, the torn-out pages of the notebook. “He’s not going to call even if you send him the perfect message.”

Frankie finishes her drink and crumples the loose papers into a single ball.

“I don’t need him to suddenly be in love with me. But he’s responsible for this, and he has to do something.”

She grabs her things and slides off the stool.

“This is how it’s supposed to work.” 

She pulls up to her home and packs a duffel bag with dirty clothes, stained socks. She thinks the lake is a kind of god. It has its own mythology. It’s angry because it’s not supposed to be here. Now, it is drying up one particle at a time—disappearing before its very own eyes.

She will drive to the city to find Jeremiah. He will save their baby. He won’t allow anything bad to happen to them. He will kiss the baby’s fingertips like he did hers. He will take them to the real beach—one named after a saint, like her—and she will sit under an umbrella while he teaches the baby how to swim under crashing waves. 

Before she leaves, she waters the plants with one of the jugs from the kitchen. She pulls a sprig of rosemary and smells it deep in her lungs. Good smells happen so infrequently, they must be savored. She tucks the rosemary into her pocket.

When she turns off Mecca Avenue, she takes one last look at the murky water. If it weren’t for her sister, she could never see this place again and not think anything of it. She imagines what Ashley will do with her room. If there would ever be a baby in that crib.

Despite all the conservation efforts and her job at Game and Fish, she hopes the sea dies. The whole place should implode. There is no oasis in the desert; there is only desert. She’d wring its neck if only it would fit in her hand.

On the way to LA, she passes a jungle of windmills, tall and towering over the freeway. She wonders why some move and some don’t. What would happen if one blade fell? She imagines herself under it, her legs broken like the stork’s, and she wonders who would save her. 

It’s in San Bernardino that the pain starts. It’s a grinding pain inside her belly. A pain like scraping your skin against asphalt, a pain like tripping and falling into the desert floor, a pain like rocks, like cacti, like fish bones. She pulls to the side of the road, which is growing increasingly busy as she gets closer to the city.

A billboard above her is advertising itself as a possible place for advertisement. 

A pain like the baby is trying to get out. A pain like the baby is scared of Los Angeles. A pain like the baby is eager to meet its father. A pain like the baby is scared to meet its father.

She leans the seat back and puts her hands around her stomach, her world. She can feel the pain in North America, she can feel the pain in Croatia, she can feel the pain in Australia, in little islands she can’t name, in places that eat spicy foods, in places that eat noodles, in places she’s only seen on webpages shrunk to the screen of her phone, in places that have gods like the Salton Sea, vengeful gods, in places where forgiveness is conditional, in places where heat comes with humidity, with moisture that fills the air, in places where people are just as afraid for their babies as she is here, on the shoulder of the freeway, her car swaying with each truck that passes.

When she closes her eyes, the baby might hear her thoughts. She tells the baby to hold on. That they’re almost in the city. That it will be okay if it just holds on. 

When they pull her out of the car, she is unconscious. When they pull the baby out of her stomach, it isn’t breathing.

When she wakes up, she is in a hospital outside of Los Angeles. Ashley is sitting in a chair next to the bed.

Her stomach is still big, but deflating.

They tell her there was nothing they could do. They tell her sometimes these things just happen. They tell her that, otherwise, she is fine. She is healthy.

When she signs her release paperwork, Ashley drives her back to Mecca Avenue. Frankie imagines Ashley carrying her to the shore, wrapped up in her arms, swaddling like a child. Birds coo overhead, swooping down and skimming the water with the tips of their wings. She will count them. Ashley will wade into the water, just past her knees, and submerge her. She will push her body out to sea like a ship on fire. 

Next Story: The Office of Climate Facts, by Mitch Sullivan

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