At first, the boy's mouth was uninhabited. Unnested. Vacant as any mouth should be. His smile had once been all teeth with his mouth agape, no puckered lips and strained smile that the mother would come to know.
The mother kept half an eye on her son while he played outside. She could see him through the stained-glass window in the bedroom she shared with his father. Unmarried, they had a bastard on their hands. The colorful glass shone orange and blue across her tanned and freckled face, and on the opposite side, a rosy-red boy gleamed high in a tree, scavenging for August apples in the heat.
She was at her desk, writing a list of her old lovers. The list was fragmented and out of order and she almost remembered another name; it was on the tip of her tongue. Her pen swirled across the thin notebook paper.
When the mother glanced up again, she saw the boy tangling his fingers in a bird's nest. He worried the fragile eggs in his palm, warming them as though he expected them to hatch in his small hand. He was an ugly child, a curse for the unmarriage. His small snout-nose was just a little off-center and his eyes were too close together. She loved him.
A bird flew toward the tree, clutching a doomed worm in her beak. She faltered midair, swerving to avoid her nest when she saw the boy had been fiddling with it.
Then the bird was a vengeful blur of wings and feathers as she swooped down upon the boy and dove straight into his open mouth. The eggs thudded to the ground, splitting on impact. The boy lost his balance and he fell too, slipping out of the tree and landing sprawled on his back like a fallen angel. Like Lucifer from heaven. Her little renegade.
It took the mother a moment to process this. Then she was up, running through the bedroom door, down the hallway, a run that seemed to take an eternity, her footsteps echoing NO NO NO like a prayer.
She opened the front door and there he was, still on the ground. He was winded and his lips were puckered as though tightly sewn together. He panted through his nose and his nostrils flared open and shut. She knelt beside him and said his name. When he looked at her, everything else seemed to melt away. There was a new heart in his body and it thudded arrhythmically, pumping blood from then until forever. The mother had a passing thought that forever could stretch in both directions, not only into the future but also into the past.
She struggled to lift him. When had he gotten so heavy? He tucked his ugly nose into her armpit and made a faint noise, the tiniest noise she had ever heard him make. This, out of a lively boy who would sooner yell than whisper. He made a small noise and she felt like she could cry. It was one little chirp. A birdcall. A warning.
The father sat at the dinner table with the mother and the boy. Their kitchen was cluttered but not dirty. Several teapots sat on a shelf above the stove, all but the most useful gathering dust. The red one was favored by the father, the blue one by the mother. The boy did not drink tea.
They ate quietly, the only distinct sound was the small clink of beak against silverware every time the boy raised his spoon to his lips. He swallowed carefully so as not to choke on the bird.
The father looked at the mother and noticed the uneven lipstick smeared over her thin lips. She was older than she had once been, older than ever, but he was too. So was the boy. So was the bird.
The boy caught his father's eyes. "Are you working tonight?" he signed.
"Yes," the father said out loud, looking at the boy's pig-nose.
The father built coffins with his bare hands, at night, always at night when there were no birds in the sky. He stood, removing himself from their small table. He usually left for work before dinner and regretted not doing so that night. He could not stand to see the boy, he imagined the bird sitting on his tongue with its head under one wing. He wished the boy would go away.
"I'll see you tomorrow," the father muttered to neither of them. He took up his hat and turned his back to them.
When he got in his truck, he thumped the steering wheel hard with both hands, leaving them stinging. He opened the glove compartment and searched through the contents.
When he found his chewing tobacco, he inserted some into the bottom of his right cheek, in front of his teeth. The reward of the tobacco washed over him like relief. He threw the truck into reverse and stomped on the gas pedal. He and the boy's mother had been in a committed relationship before having a baby. The boy had not been an accident. The mother had wanted a baby. He had too. He spat into an empty paper cup as he drove.
The teacher clacked her tidily painted fingernails on her desk, where she sat at the front of the classroom. Her legs were tightly crossed at the thigh and she twitched the foot that was hanging in the air. A thick tartan skirt encircled her waist and fell just past her knees. She always tried to look her best for parent meetings, especially when she had to deliver bad news; it was only polite.
She glanced around the classroom where her high school students were busy filling out the worksheets she had handed out. During her visual sweep of the room, she locked eyes with the boy. He was staring at her, face screwed up in its usual pucker. The fine hairs on the back of the teacher's neck stiffened, but she couldn't bring herself to break his blank stare. He seemed to look past her eyes. She was the first to look away. His gaze felt intrusive. She wanted to shut him out, keep him from knowing her thoughts.
He sat alone even though the other students were in groups. His classmates did not talk to him and the school's sign language interpreter had recently quit, citing a toxic work environment. Because of these unfortunate circumstances, the teacher had been tasked with learning sign language to accommodate the boy, but she could never quite read his hands—they flew so fast, like birds through the air. She did not care to talk to him anyway. She fixed her eyes on the assignments she was grading and tried not to think about the boy.
She ended class soon after, not caring that it was five minutes early.
The boy continued to dominate her thoughts as she walked down the hallway. When she reached her office, she closed the door and sat in her armchair. Almost as soon as she sat down, she heard a birdcall in the distance. Adrenaline pumped through her before she realized it was the school bell dismissing the students, faint with the door closed tight. The pulse of adrenaline that had flooded her body subsided and left her feeling weak. The teacher closed her eyes and held her head in her hands, gently massaging her scalp with her fingers.
She imagined a vast desert, with no one around her for miles, only sand and cacti and the blistering sun. She imagined lying on her back in the dust, staring up at the blue blue sky until her eyes couldn't take it anymore. She took handfuls of sand in her fists and began slowly burying herself, the heat burning her skin, not stopping until all but her face was covered. She sank into the heat.
She began to lose control of the meditation.
The teacher saw the boy standing over her holding a shovel. The sand was too heavy, too hot, and she couldn't move.
The boy opened his mouth but said nothing, opening it wider and wider until it was much too wide, as though his jaw was broken. His mouth was a void. Looking inside, she couldn't see his tongue. It was all darkness.
Then hundreds of birds came swarming out, flying around them and blotting out the sun, creating an enormous shadow over the both of them. The flood of birds squawked and chattered, hundreds and hundreds of them until the sky was black as ink.
The boy shut his mouth, then scooped up a mound of sand with the shovel and began covering the teacher's face. Birds still churned overhead as sand clogged her nose and throat. The more she gasped, the more it filled her lungs. She was drowning in sand, yet she could still make out the boy's eyes, burning darkly in the deep rivets of his skull.
The teacher snapped her head up when she heard a knock at the office door. They were here for the meeting.
She welcomed the boy's parents politely, although there was something off about them too. The whole family carried a curse that could not be explained.
"Hello," she said to them, her voice breaking. She cleared her throat. "The reason I have asked to meet with you is to talk about your son."
The parents both nodded, unspeaking. This was not the first time they had met to discuss the boy.
The teacher decided to make her point and then usher them out, make the meeting as brief as possible. "I've recommended he be put in remedial classes."
"Why?" the father asked, "He does all his work, doesn't he?"
The mother only nodded again.
"Yes," the teacher answered, "but he doesn't participate in class and I think he would benefit from a slower learning environment and personal attention from a teacher trained to deal with his situation."
"His situation?" the mother said, "Who could possibly be trained to work with his situation?"
"It's more than just his situation," the father said. The teacher wondered if he was on her side.
"I'm sorry, but I have already received permission from the principal to remove him from my classes. I organized this meeting to alert you of the change."
The mother and father exchanged a meaningful glance that the teacher could not decipher.
"I just want him to be okay," the mother said, as though the teacher was not there.
"He won't be," the father said. His tone had an air of reassurance that did not match his words.
"Please take care of him," the mother said, turning back to the teacher.
"I will," the teacher lied.
When they left her office, the teacher shut the door, locked it, and flopped back into her chair. She was in the desert . . . .
The remedial classroom was located off-campus, several blocks away. There was a shortcut that led through dense forest, and past that, Agnes's house. Agnes rarely went to the main campus and she no longer allowed herself to hope that she would be put into regular classes. She was in the remedial portable for good and she knew it. Just because words and letters seemed to flip-flop all over the page.
When she walked into the portable her lungs contracted painfully. There was a new boy standing near one of the empty desks. When she saw him, she felt heartbreak that she could not explain, even to herself. His lips formed a kissing face and he had a strong nose and close, kind eyes.
He never spoke in class. Once, she saw him remove a small feather from between his teeth. Then his mouth closed again as though protecting a secret. When she was called on in class, she felt timid under the boy's steady gaze.
Agnes peeked at his open notebook when she walked past on her way out and saw that he hadn't written any notes that day, only:
She wanted to inspect the boy, understand his secrets. She didn't learn until later that his mouth was a doorway with the door locked tight. She imagined his tongue, black and withered and covered in tiny footprints.
The remedial students didn't have separate classes with different teachers, just one portable with one teacher. This arrangement allowed Agnes plenty of time to study the boy. They sat near each other; he was on her left a few desks over. She would often prop her head on her hand and surreptitiously watch him out of the corner of her eye.
One day, several weeks after he had joined the remedial class, the boy sat down at the desk directly next to her. A small thrill passed through her when he dropped a folded piece of notebook paper on her desk.
"Why do you stare at me?" it read.
Agnes's heart flipped over in her chest. Had she been that obvious? "I don't," she wrote.
"Yes, you do."
She wrote "Because I like you," then erased it. She wrote "Why is there a bird in your mouth?" then erased it. She finally decided on "Because you're more interesting than the teacher." She watched him read it and saw the shadow of a smile pass over his twisted lips.
She floated as she left the portable that afternoon. They began sitting next to each other every day, usually exchanging notes.
She liked knowing him, she thought as she walked home one day. She took the wooded shortcut. It was a familiar path and beams of sunlight filtered through the trees, leaving sunspots on the mossy ground.
Agnes began constructing a story in her head. She planned to write in her journal when she got home. She refused to let her dyslexia stop her from writing. She was imagining a story about a man named Henry who sailed alone across the Atlantic and discovered a hole in the ocean that led to . . . led to what? She didn't know yet.
The next day in class she explained the idea in a note to the boy.
"That's a good story," the boy wrote, "but what if instead of a hole there was a window and Henry saw himself on the other side? He could dive into the water to get to it and drown and the end would be vague about what really happened."
"Maybe you should write it." She didn't mean this sarcastically, but when he read the note he frowned. She added on a different piece of paper, "Do you like to write?"
"I write a little."
"Birds. And you." Then he didn't answer any of her notes for the rest of the day.
He was used to the pressure by now. Used to the eggs, the claws, the shit. Used to his mother's honeyed faith and his father's bitterness. Used to the teachers' mistrust. He was not used to Agnes. He found himself telling her all his secrets. Not important secrets, just things he never told anyone because no one ever asked.
One night he sat alone on a lawn chair in his backyard. He could have sworn he saw Agnes's face in the craters of the full moon. He could feel her energy in the night air. It was cool outside, but he wore only jeans and a thin t-shirt. It was past 2AM. His mother was asleep and his father was building coffins. He wasn't lonely.
He sat back and carefully lay a piece of rose quartz on his chest to let it absorb the moonlight. He lived for the nighttime, when the bird tucked her head under her wing and slept. He liked staying up late, thinking of Agnes. He planned on giving her the stone.
The boy remembered being uninhabited, but only vaguely. He remembered once releasing a shout of joy. It was a thought so nebulous that he couldn't tell if it was his imagination or his memory.
He lay on the chair until he found himself dozing and went to his room, the quartz held tightly in his fist. It vibrated slightly, so full of coursing moonlight.
"Come on a walk with me after school," he wrote to Agnes the next day. He wanted to give her the quartz in private.
She smiled and nodded and slipped the note into her pocket. He wasn't sure if he was happier that she said yes or that she wanted to keep the note. When they were excused he jumped up without thinking and banged the tops of his knees on the underside of the desk.
She took him down the path that led to the main campus and past that, her house.
Agnes talked a lot, making up for his silence, but the conversation didn't feel one-sided or uncomfortable. He nodded at her questions. Then Agnes slowed and stopped, touched his hand with her hand, looked at his face.
She had eyes that were green and misty like a bog. She had thoughts that no one had ever had before. She was iconic. Her curly brown hair framed her face, a frame for the loveliest portrait ever painted.
"I love you," she said.
The animal inside him, not the bird but a brand-new beast that lived in his chest, awoke. Deep in the dark cavity of his mouth, the bird bumped against his cheek, a reminder of her presence. He felt the quartz in his pocket pulse, as though echoing her words back to her.
He opened his mouth at Agnes's words, wider than he had opened it in years. Too wide. The bird poked her head past his teeth, farther than she had ever come out. She took a peek at the world beyond her small home.
Without thinking, simply acting on his age-old instinct, the boy snapped his teeth shut like a guillotine. The bird's head dropped to the ground.
Delaney Saul is an emerging writer. She graduated from Western Washington University in the spring of 2018. She is currently an MFA candidate at University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA Program. When she is not writing, she enjoys making collages, which can be seen on Instagram under the username @coven.art
, and on Twitter under @RoseHipsCryBaby