“How to Become a Dyke, Step Three, Birds,” by Nickole Brown

A book of birds. A story in birds. Each breath
a bird, each dream slipped from your ear

to your pillow out the window a song:
cardinals laughing at you—birdie birdie birdie—

on a lonely Valentines, then robins swarming
the last bits of red another February day,

so many of them on the holly tree the branches
tick with their picking and you stop

the car. But you are so cold, you have to get to the store,
and in the florescent buzz of the freezer aisle, you swear

you hear a flock of larks is called an exaltation,
but think no, that’s too pretty, that can’t be

right. Buy your frozen pizza and peas and try to
remember warmer days:

the surf shop with the parrot, big and green with a beak
full of fingers, your hair a dread of salt and seaweed

so you would run home to your grandmother’s
to wash the sand from your scalp. In the shower,

on the sill of the window made to crank tightly closed
to hurricanes, that porcelain bluebird—

all those years, she swore she’d die and come back
red-breasted, blue-winged, and singing,
but when the time came, it was only morphine
talking: white beasts stalking the hospital room,

with wings long as a Cadillac and tail feathers flowing like new
curtains, she said, and faces, they’ve got faces bright and sharp as a fox.

There is nothing you can do. The reincarnation you used to believe in
is a drag queen named Phoenix on Saturday nights at the bar

where a girl leans in to you with both thumbs cowboy hooked
to the pockets of her jeans, nothing more.

When she asks for your number, you make for the door.

There is nothing you can do and so you travel
to Brooklyn where birds sing louder, competing

against sirens and cabs and ice cream trucks.
Try to find a woman there who makes you forget

the woman before who took you to a red barn
to see a pony, the barn swallows

knifing the air between rafters. You will leave her,
you always leave, your heart a young hummingbird

who has learned that hummingbirds do not land
when they suckle the flower—only fledglings

claw the red plastic feeder. Say, I just can’t,
say it, then leave, say it,

then make your way to the headstone
of your grandmother. Her ashes are not

there, but her name is, and because you still believe
in some words, it is enough. You are there to seek

permission. Cool your face against the granite and ask
is what I have become okay?

After, feed the cemetery swans dandelion greens
and think their beauty is not unlike the hissing

swan of Lake Bled, the tidal swan of Galway,
all water the same drowning, no matter how far you go.

When you have the courage, take another woman
to your bed but wake on the porch

to a cathedral of sunrise singing, the boards splintered
hard to your back. Walk with her
to the park where a yellow bird follows alongside
in a sine cosine rollercoaster of flight.

Argue with her—it’s not possible, a canary
in Kentucky, but think why not?

What’s lovely in this world is no more impossible than what’s not—

when you were married to a man, three sparrows trapped themselves
in that porch light and cooked against the glass; later that first summer

as a wife, a mother jay—again, say it—trapped
in the garden pond, your face reflected in that fishshit water

dashed bright with blue feathers and golden coy.
You never did grow old enough with him

for the pink plastic flamingos to decorate the front yard,
never did see that hokey sign—Lordie, Lordie,

look who’s forty!—and it makes you cry like a peacock and shred
your flesh in strips to the black tower beaks—Take it, dear raven. Take it,

clacking black crow. When there is no meat left, throw
strands of hair and bits of cheap bread to a fast-food sparrow,

eat for years on the bland sorrow of grease and plastic and frustrated men

until you travel to a lilac-eyed cockatoo
that beats her head against your collarbone

to rush up a serving of hot fruit and seed, a vomit offering
meant for another with a beak to guzzle it

back down. You say, I’m sorry, but I think your bird
is sick, but the woman who owns her

simply cleans off your shirt, puts her pet softly back
in the cage. Nah, honey, that’s her way of saying

she loves you, she says. Can’t you tell love from sickness?

Go further north—there you’ll find a five-note song from one side
of the mountain, calling lonely for days before another finally answers.

You’ll never see that bird and never learn its name,
but it does not matter. When you hear it, a woman

will be waiting. Pack your things and come back home


Printed with permission by Nickole Brown, copyrighted by Nickole Brown @ 2010. Originally Published in Issue No. 9 of the Los Angeles Review.

Author: A Room of Her Own

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