Little Bird Hearts

Blue veined Anna’s un-pumped breasts that swelled against her fair skin. They ached from fullness that she would not feed into her infant’s bloated belly—mouth that opened and closed in search of her nipple, not unlike a nest of baby birds—in fear that her areolas would develop to the size of halved grapefruits. Sometimes to relieve the pressure Anna would place the round of her breast between her thumb and other fingers and squeeze her milk into the sink, the blueish liquid turning into pale yellow.

Her baby squirmed round on the floor, his arms and legs moving up and down, pumping with hunger. She stood above him. Head cocked to the side, Anna wondered, how can he tolerate his own noise? His baldhead lolled about on his neck and his gummy mouth contorted so far open she thought he might lock his jaw. Snot dribbled from his nose and layered on top of the snot that had already dribbled and dried on his upper lip. His cheeks flushed purple as he worked himself further into a state and she hoped he would tire soon.


When she was a young girl she found a shattered bird egg on the sidewalk outside her parent’s suburban home. The shell was speckled with black spots and no bigger than the dip in her palm. Amidst the fragile shards lay a bird fetus, its infantile feathers coated down with mucus. Its neck appeared to be broken, snapped from the fall, only as big around as a bundle of four or five toothpicks. Anna scooped it up and cradled its broken neck with the side of her pointer finger and carried it up the walkway home.

In the kitchen she grabbed the smallest knife she could find and brought it into the bathroom. She laid the baby bird on the countertop and cracked its wings open. Anna placed the point of the knife at the bird’s breast and pressed down, drawing it to the bottom of its small body. No blood came out. Opening a drawer, she took out her mother’s scissors and snipped the thin skin of the bird across the top and bottom of the incision so that the flaps could be opened. She peered inside the tiny bird carcass and tried to identify the organs on a far smaller scale than what she knew from school. The intestines were grey, the stomach was grey, the liver—she was unsure if birds even had livers—grey. Anna plucked the heart from its cavity and it stood out soft red against the greyed insides. It was no larger than her pinky nail and she balanced it on the point of her finger in awe.

She had heard somewhere that the human heart is the size of one’s clenched fist and she did this in comparison to the bird heart on her finger. She reckoned she could fit 500 bird hearts inside her own and laughed at the idea of little bird hearts being inside her and pumping through her veins and into her toes. How great it would be to have bird hearts in my toes, she had thought.


Anna did not love her baby like mothers were supposed to. There wasn’t that connection women talked about in the book club her mother was apart of, that undying love for your child. She tried to trick herself into loving him; she’d hug him to her breast and rock him through their one-bedroom home so far from suburbia, but he grew heavy fast and his skin often stuck to hers from sweat, so she gave this up almost immediately. She tried to play with him, raising the pitch of her voice and tickling the bottoms of his feet, but even he knew of the truth and did not laugh. She did not know how to take care of a baby and spent much of her time wishing she were back in school with her friends, who would be attending their junior prom soon. She longed to be studying arithmetic and not changing diapers, to be debating Nixon vs. Humphrey and not her own thoughts.

She was always embarrassed to know her neighbor could hear her infant’s cries. She’d look out the window bouncing the baby, to see the woman outside, book in hand, but face turned towards the sound of the baby’s wails. Anna wished their roles were reversed. She pictured herself outside each day reading with the faint cry of a baby in the background. She’d wonder why he fussed so much and why his mother wasn’t doing anything to idle him. How Anna wished to call out her window to the lady in red and ask for her time. She’d make her a cup of tea and they’d coo over the baby and maybe then she could find the love for her baby through this woman’s eyes. Why don’t I call out? Because you’d sound desperate. Why don’t I stop by? Because you haven’t brushed your teeth in days. Anna didn’t call out, but instead slid open the window in means of invitation.


Her mother never spoke. After the accident that left Anna’s father paralyzed from the neck down and bedridden her mother swore off speech entirely. She wondered if her mother still thought in words or if it was just pictures. Her father had a bag of urine attached to his hip and another full of feces. He lived full-time in a hospice center with round-the-clock nurses and food that all suspiciously came out brown. Her mother wouldn’t let her visit him, something about how no daughter should ever see her father in such a weakened state, this was before she quit talking. This happened at a crucial time in her adolescent life, right before puberty when everything you need to know as a young girl is living inside your mother. She experienced her first period alone, waking up in a sticky heat that left her bed sheets stained. She walked to the library that day with a whole roll of toilet paper stuffed between her legs and checked out all the books about menstruation. She never learned about sex or pregnancy; just learned not to do it. Anna never knew that the people who rape could be someone you know.

Four years later and her mother was still depressed and sought solace in the bible salesman that walked through suburbia once a week knocking on doors. They had a stack of bibles in their living room, which her mother kept buying only so she could keep getting laid. He came early one day when her mother wasn’t yet home from hospice, she invited him in and he excitedly showed her the new, “limited edition” bibles he was selling. The cover was no longer faux, black leather, but white leather with pages edged in gold. They were beautiful. In his excitement he pushed her face down into the couch and flipped her dress over her head. Anna could feel the down of the cushions poking through the fabric and into her cheek and noticed a small stain three inches from her eye that she decided would best be removed with baking soda. When her mother came home, the stain was gone and a bible was purchased.


She let the dog out once by accident. He slid between her legs and took off running down the street, his body bucking wildly under the dim of yellow lights lining the walk. She called for him to come as her father pushed past her, dress shoes on and nice slacks; her mother and him were going out for a date and Anna was just letting the babysitter inside. He ran after the dog who saw this as a game and loped around gracefully from side-to-side. He barked and stopped and ran again when her father would finally get close. The last bird of the day flitted overhead and she wondered where birds went at night if they were not out. A truck came around the corner and the dog caught site of the bird. In his newfound freedom the dog bounded after the bird, which flew towards the lights moving down the street. The dog followed. She worried the dog would catch the bird, that he’d put it in his mouth and his canine tooth would pierce its tiny bird heart. She pictured fresh, blue blood dripping down the dog’s jaw. The dog was hit. Her father too. The bird flew.

Her mother rode in the ambulance with her father, who had been strapped to a gurney from the middle of the road with a neck brace already in place. She stayed home with the sitter and mended the dog’s broken leg, taping Popsicle sticks around the bone and tying one of her socks on over top. Admiring the work she had done Anna pictured herself in scrubs. Maybe I’ll be a vet she thought. But by the next day her mother had the dog put down and she didn’t like that part of the job.


When Anna found out she was pregnant she visited her father for the first time since the accident. She stood over him and watched his chest rise and fall with the ventilator. She pictured him as an infant, not yet touched by the world, but realized there wasn’t much difference now. She couldn’t touch him and she didn’t sit. They watched each other, the beeps from the many machines filling the stillness. His eyes looked over her and came to rest on her center, which Anna self-consciously held. He closed his eyes by means of dismissal and she left without saying a word.


She shouted in her baby’s face today and later whispered prayers for forgiveness. He wouldn’t eat, sleep, laugh, silence; all he did was shit, shit, shit. He shit all over the place today; it exploded from his diaper and leaked through the cotton of his pants and spread to the small of his back. And when she went to change him, he shit some more, seeping beneath her fingernails, which would smell like shit the rest of the day. She rolled up the diaper and threw it at the window that left a shit streak down the glass. She cried. Anna cried over her naked baby and only then did he laugh. It started as a gurgle and spread to a wide gummed smile.

She leaned down and screamed her hatred. She wanted him gone. She didn’t want him at all. She never did. She told him to shut up and then pinched him when he didn’t. He cried.

Anna prayed for forgiveness she knew she would not receive. And so instead she prayed for this to end. What kind of a mother doesn’t love her own child? She thought, the kind that was never meant to be a mother. She prayed for a storm that would sweep them away. She prayed for a criminal to kill them both. She prayed for her baby to no longer exist. She prayed and prayed some more, the carpet reddening her knees.


Anna sometimes placed her baby’s closed fist in her own and thought about the time where she had two hearts inside her body and how at one time his heart was about the size of a bird’s. It wasn’t quite 500, but it was more than a man could ever claim. He was about that size when she told her mother she was pregnant. The bible salesman was there, shirtless and startled, standing just on the other side of the kitchen island. Her mother’s knuckles were white against the dark granite and she kept clucking her tongue in the silence. The bible salesman stepped forward and rubbed her mother’s shoulders, flicking glances towards the girl he knew was carrying his child. Anna stood watching him and knew she could not take another man away from her mother. She knew her mother could not survive it.

It was the bible salesman’s idea to send her away. Save the family from embarrassment and him from child support. Her mother would never know the truth and Anna no longer cared when her mother nodded her head in agreement. They lied about a scholarship to a private school in the southwest and she left the following week.

Each night Anna turned on the TV to drown out the noise. They fought for her attention, her baby raising his volume in competition to be heard. Tonight she had maxed out the sound and watched dully as things happened on the screen. She muted the TV and rested her head on the back of the couch. Closing her eyes she thought about the kind of dress she could have worn if she were able to go to prom. She would have liked a nice emerald color, off the shoulders, tight in the bodice, and poofed out to just below her knee. She would have liked to wear silk gloves and the gold clip on earrings that belonged to her grandma. She would have pulled her hair up of her neck and into a high pony with a slight twist at the bottom. The hum of noise was heavy around her eyes as she shut down the TV and it collapsed into black. It wasn’t until Anna was completely in the dark did she realize her baby was quiet. She sat there enjoying the silence. Maybe I can do this.

            Anna tiptoed to the room that they shared to peek in on him. In the light from the moon stood a woman cradling her baby. The woman nuzzled her forehead against her baby’s, cooing soothingly into his ear. The woman was rocking him around the small room, singing a song inaudible in the darkness. Her first reaction was to defend her baby, to snatch him away and hug him to her breast, but she stood in wait. This woman did not plan on hurting her child and the darker part of her wondered if her prayers had been answered. Anna began to shuffle backward out of the room and the woman’s head snapped up, wide eyed as a doe facing the barrel of a gun. The woman watched as she crept backward, hushing them both, Anna’s finger pressed to her lips, shh shh shh. The woman sidled towards the window still holding the baby. She climbed through the opening, her red robe mimicking a cardinal in flight.



Kennedy Dawn Stearns is a recent graduate from Arizona State University. She is co-founder of ELKE 'a little journal'.

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