Loved to Death
The summer I was five years old, I came home to find a cage on the dining room table. A Snow White sheet from my bed hung over its framework like it was playing Halloween ghost. My father, jagged and sprawling as a mountain range, paced the carpet in his cracked, steel-toed boots.
“What is that, Daddy?” My fingers were sticky from fruit snacks in the car as I reached for the mystery on the table. Mama was all permed hair and hooked nose as she glared; Daddy had a bad habit of dragging stray things home.
Daddy pulled the sheet back with a theatrical magician’s flair. The first thing I saw was the cage, intricate and beautiful, conjuring captivity. The bars were arranged just so that the sherbet-colored arms came together to form something resembling a Victorian house. Two birds, a flurry of margarita green, stoplight red, and lemon meringue yellow, cowered together on the floor of the cage. Two birds-of-paradise so very far away from home.
“They’re love birds,” Daddy explained. “And they’re all yours.”
I poked a stubby finger through the bars, trying to talk sweet nonsense to the birds to make them less afraid of me. I wanted to see them fly.
“John, do you have any idea how long those things live?!” my mother protested, apprehensive about yet more mouths to feed.
My father shrugged, raising his candy apple red suspenders up and down. I thought maybe the birds were meant to outlive me. In my childhood, I believed my father was trying to buy a lifetime of love for me.
I named the birds Annica and Phillip. I had this eerie habit of bestowing person names on all my pets, overly formal and ill-fitting, as if they had once been something or someone else. I watched the pair as they went about their lives within the see-through walls of their Victorian cage. Love birds, Daddy had called them. My five-year-old mind wondered if they really could teach me anything about love and all that it was.
Annica was the escape artist of the pair, always tugging with her stop sign beak at the guillotine style doors that allowed me to refill their bird seed and water. Mama wrapped bits of pink pipe cleaner around the bars of the doors, securing them fast and barring Annica’s exit.
“You don’t want her to get out,” Mama would explain. “She could end up outside in the snow, and then where would we be?”
I pressed my peanut butter and jelly smeared face against the glass of the kitchen window, watching snowflakes descend like tiny parachutes across the hillside of our yard, impossibly small soldiers evacuating the clouds. I wondered how Annica had come to land hat could be so hostile to her. I wondered how freedom could sometimes equal death. When I pulled my mouth back from the glass it left a jelly-smeared print like the kiss of some small ghost.
Sometimes Annica and Phillip would make an egg, a bone-white pebble, as smooth and promising as Easter candy strewn on the floor of their cage. There was nothing in the cage that Annica could use to make a nest, no small scrap of nature with which she could make a cradle for her baby. The lives of my love birds were clinical, metallic, no environment in which to raise a child. Annica would roll the egg into the corner and try her best to forget it. She would perch her little dinosaur feet up on the bar before her mirror and stare at her reflection for hours, as if this small shred of glass were a window, as if it offered her a view of a world far from here.
Phillip would eventually find the egg, chip at it until I’d look up to find his stop sign beak dotted with the white of it, shards of enamel clinging to his mouth with the desperation of a broken tooth. Phillip had no interest in Annica loving anything but him.
“Bad, bad birdie,” I’d jeer at him with a child’s sense of justice, shaking the cage a little as I did so to let him know I meant business.
“Don’t yell at your bird,” Mama would say, more for the sake of her morning sickness headache than for the sake of Phillip. “He’s just surviving the only way he knows how.”
One year I tumbled down the stairs into the gray mouth of Christmas Day. My child feet, secure in the toes of their footie pajamas, muffled their way through the living room to the kitchen. The base of the Christmas tree was awash with presents, a side-effect my father had from growing up with nothing. He felt he had to give us everything, even if we didn’t want it. I checked the kitchen counter, saw that Santa Claus had consumed all the pickled eggs and beer that we had left out for him the night before. I reassured myself that I had gone yet another year without being forgotten.
I swung open the coffee mug cupboard and retrieved our tiny statue of baby Jesus from his hiding place. I cradled the porcelain baby in the palm of my hand and kissed him on his little forehead.
“Happy Birthday,” I whispered before placing him on the floor of our family’s manger scene, where his porcelain mother and stepfather had been patiently waiting for his arrival, standing silent vigil for the entire month of December.
Phillip chirped from across the kitchen; my mother had banished the bird cage to the top of the jelly cabinet. I stumbled sleepily over to the cage, a Merry Christmas swishing between my baby teeth to the both of them, my happy couple in their home within my home.
The bird cage was a crime scene. Annica’s feathers dusted the floor, as silent and thick as Christmas snow. Her body, still and plucked pink and bare, her wings spread wide like a crucifix. I was young, but I was old enough to recognize death. Phillip was swinging on his perch singing happily to himself. He paused, cocking his head. He eyed me coldly, as if to take responsibility, but not to beg forgiveness. Something inside me snapped. I wanted justice, retribution, a reason and accounting for all blood shed. I did not yet understand that the universe did not owe me these things, that so much life lives and dies without satisfying explanation.
My fists hooked on to the bars of that old Victorian cage and shook it; I was a small god tantrum-ing an earthquake into being. I shook the cage until Phillip squawked back in protest, until birdseed spilled across the floor of the cage, burying Annica, showering her like rice being thrown across the shoulders of a bride. I shook the cage until Phillip, like Annica once had, wished only for escape.
“Bad, bad birdie,” I shrieked until I could hear my mother’s feet hitting the floor in the other room. “Bad, bad birdie.”
My mother, now heavily pregnant, ran to me. She grabbed my arms and hugged them to my side. The baby that would be my brother wedged his way into my side in that embrace, reminding me of all the distance between people, even as they hold each other close.
“He killed her Mama,” I cried, my face hot and tear-spattered. “He killed her.”
My mother stroked my hair, made shushing noises between her teeth. “He loved her to death,” Mama justified. “That’s all.”
I peeked back at the cage, a haunted house-looking thing now looming down at me from atop the jelly cabinet. No, Mama must have had it wrong. Love was not supposed to be this ugly. Love was not meant to be violent. Love was not meant to look anything like a gamble.
Phillip had come to land at the bottom of the cage. He nudged Annica’s body with his beak as if he expected her to resurrect for him, to rise up and sing sweet songs with him as she once had.
We shuffled Annica’s hollow and crumpled bones into a candy tin, buried her beneath the tree in the backyard that held my swing. Despite the cold, I sat my pajamaed bottom on the swing’s wooden board. Clasping my frost-pricked fingers around the ropes in the gray morning, I pumped my legs until my lungs hurt, like there was barbed wire in my chest, until I thought I tasted penny-copper blood on my breath. I closed my eyes and wondered what it was to fly without having to worry about being thrown back to the Earth. I wondered if Annica had ever felt that free. I wondered if I ever would either.
My father was trying to buy me love. Instead, he bought me a cage, taught me that they come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes they even look like houses. My father had wanted me to know love as a pretty thing with feathers. He wanted me to have it forever.
Unfortunately, that never worked out quite right.
Aliza Dube is a recent graduate of University of Maine at Farmington. She has a dual degree in Elementary Education and Creative Writing. Her writing has been described as raw, brutally honest and eerily relatable. She currently is living in Manhattan, Kansas and teaching at an elementary school on an army base. She is seeking publication for her first full-length manuscript.