It was not abnormal for taxidermy to be around the apartment, but it had been a long time since Ruth had last seen it. Not since her mom died, she thought, and she brought a few to a consignment shop, the type of shop that loved to decorate itself like a hunting lodge. But there the bird sat on the askew toilet lid, statuesque. The kestrel’s body was firm, heavier than it could have been when it was alive. Ruth gently lifted the taxidermy creature off the toilet, its beak unaligned appeared to be mid-joke.
The kestrel made a tsk tsk noise, or maybe it was the muffled noise of the tank filling.
It didn’t make sense to go to an abortion wearing a suit. She looked into the bird’s yellow eye for a moment, as if to get its opinion. Ruth had fallen asleep curled up the night before, or only a few hours ago, she couldn’t tell. One pillow between her legs, and she was not sure how long she had been wearing the suit, or when she had put it on. Ignoring the sound coming from the bird, or the tank, she removed the suit to a heap in the corner, and instead put on an old field hockey sweatshirt. She eyed herself in the mirror, tugging the sweatshirt’s edges to cover her backside. She strained over her shoulder to look, scrunching up her thighs so they wrinkled with cellulite.
“Don’t leave me here,” the kestrel said, its voice all but human caught underwater.
Ruth paused so as not to let a single creak of the floor muffle the noise she thought she had heard.
“Did you talk, bird?”
The bird didn’t make a sound. Ruth hissed to hide her disappointment. She put on a pair of old sweatpants, then took the bird under her arm and out to her car. They drove in silence. They went to Ruth’s usual coffee place, ordered a black coffee and a pineapple jelly donut. She stirred the coffee at the milk station without putting any in. Above the counter people had tacked up some flyers for various events in the area. One announced a show with local bands, emphasis on the word “Punk” with a crudely drawn cartoon human yelling into a microphone. The show was the following night in the coffee shop’s basement. She’d probably end up there, as she often did with nothing else to do after work at the library. Ruth was careful not to slosh any coffee on the kestrel’s head getting back in the car.
The clinic receptionist smiled from behind the glass barrier as she walked into the doctor’s office. Ruth didn’t feel a smile was appropriate, but she instinctively grinned back, maybe too forcefully, her face returning to solemnity as she signed her name and birth-date to the clipboard. She found a seat and placed the kestrel on the floor between her legs. If she got funny looks from others while she waited, Ruth didn’t notice.
Ruth used to watch her mother skin animals in her office, leaving the corpses whole and exposed while she applied the chemicals to the epidermis.
“Ruthio, don’t come in without your mask,” her mother would say, sensing Ruth hovering in the doorway. When her mother wasn’t looking, Ruth would pick up and stroke the different knives and tools spread across the glass work table. Her mother would spend days working on one animal, but only once in a while; she may have only done one a year. She had a preference for mammals who had died of old age. Ruth recalled a lot of squirrels, mice, and rabbits, but couldn’t remember there ever being a bird. Her mother might have made it before Ruth was born. The feathers were ragged because it was an old specimen, but they remained stiff from the preservatives, probably from over-application as a precaution, an early project.
Her mother would take her to the bookstore where Ruth could read Cosmo and Glamour. She learned how to kiss with tongue, about fetishes, feel like your bedroom is lacking excitement? Put an ice cube or a LifeSaver in your mouth before oral, the way to leave them wanting more, how to flirt and not be a slut, how to embrace your inner slut, play hard to get, but not too hard, get him hard. Because she put in all those hours reading, her friends made her feel important and interesting, going to her with questions about sex at the age before their parents knew what they knew. She was way ahead at figuring out what information from the magazines was true and what was regurgitation from porn, as her mother put it, making her father squirm at pick up and drop offs, her stack of magazines a shield against talking to him in more than five minute bursts. But Ruth lived in a gulp, the breath before the truth came out, as though she wasn’t meant to know these things, not because she wasn’t allowed, but because they didn’t fit who she was.
When she got older Ruth found sex uncomfortable and most of the time found herself doing it because she cared about the others’ feelings for her, unconcerned about her own feelings for them, whether or not they were sexual. She knew she’d rather be doing something else, but she hadn’t figured out what it was. If not sex, then what?
“Ruth?” It had been near forty minutes waiting. She had flipped through every parenting and pregnancy magazine on the table beside her. As she went to put one back, she ripped out a section about sleep training and stuffed it in her pocket.
“You can’t rip the literature.”
“What?” Ruth narrowed her eyes at the medical assistant.
“You shouldn’t rip the literature. It’s for everyone.”
“Don’t give me shit about sharing. I’m not here for that.”
The medical assistant straightened his spine. He saw the kestrel in Ruth’s hands, but kept silent. Ruth smiled knowingly, her snippiness had earned her no more comments.
Ruth put on the johnny, swung her legs against the cool, metal exam table. The medical assistant took her vitals, asked her if someone was going to be with her at home. Ruth said she’d be with her father. She didn’t mention that he wasn’t aware of the pregnancy. It had felt too complicated to tell him, or not a big enough deal, similar to explaining her parents and her step parents to others. Ruth’s parents, both immigrants, casually Anglican, blurred between spicy meat stews and a snobbiness for classic literature, had gotten divorced when she was six, both remarried to midwest white, rural escapee partners, but got divorced when Ruth was a teenager. Ruth was both couples’ only child. Ruth’s stepfather died of a heart attack during her first year of college and her stepmother remarried, running once more across the country, but the two of them remained close. Last year Ruth’s mother had been in a car accident, killed by a drunk driver. It was senseless, her stepmother had said to comfort her, senseless. Ruth inherited the condo.
The bird looked on from atop the pile of clothes she had on the floor. A molded pregnant belly, limbless, open to show internal organs and how they shift during pregnancy, sat on the desk. The kestrel’s eye gazed at it, back at Ruth, back to the model, a wink.
The doctor explained the procedure, then handed Ruth a pill and cup of lukewarm water. She directed that the second pill should be taken tomorrow and that it could take a day or so, expect heavy bleeding and to call if anything felt abnormal. She asked if Ruth had any questions. Ruth had been over almost everything before in the umpteen appointments leading up to this one. But one question still lingered.
“Could you taxidermy a fetus?” Ruth wondered aloud, quickly adding, “never mind.” The doctor bit her lip, as if she was working out an answer anyway. Ruth made a follow up appointment, and left, her thoughts adrift to her father, Herman, who was waiting for her.
Herman was excited to show Ruth a cave near his house. Backpacked and dressed in knee-high socks, he stood at the end of his driveway like a child waiting for a deadbeat parent, but in this case the deadbeat was Ruth. A friend had sent Ruth an app calculator that determined based on average the number of times she saw her dad and his age, how many more times in her lifetime she would see him. It wasn’t a lot. Her friend was an asshole. Ruth’s dad had retired from a lifetime of odd jobs and women and moved out of his apartment to a rented house near a lake.
“Ruthio, who’s your friend?”
“I uh, think it’s one of mom’s.”
Herman gave her a hug, bird and all.
“Shall we go?”
“How’ve you been, dad?” She said wanting to fill the silence before he could.
“Oh, me? Enjoying my last days,” he pointed towards the right to go up a path farther into the woods.
“Dad, you’re not dying.”
“No, but everyone else is. How are you? You haven’t visited.”
Herman leaned into moroseness. Ruth would often find herself pitying him late at night, him alone in his cabin in the woods, his expectation that she be his companion now that they were the only two family around. Growing up, Ruth had enjoyed being the only kid listening to grownups talk to each other, minding her own. As an adult it felt awkward, as though she missed the lesson on how to hold a conversation.
A sharp line of sunlight cut across the tree line. Herman kept climbing, the slither of dry pine needles beneath them. They veered off the path, approaching an orange tree marker and a purple one, the purple one led to the line of caves.
“Got any new boyfriends?” Herman choked a bit on the word “boyfriends”, as though he stumbled into the question without realizing he needn’t ask.
Ruth shook her head.
“What happened to that gangly boy with all the hair?”
“He wasn’t anybody special, dad.”
Her dad harrumphed in semi-agreement, “No, he didn’t look it, neither.”
“It’s a kestrel. I think it was in the attic.” Ruth withheld the fact she heard the bird speak.
“I found it in the bathroom,” Ruth paused and added, “I must have slept walked up the drop ladder, kinda like when I was seven.”
“You never did that.”
“Yeah I did, only at mom’s when she got the new place. Dr. Diaz said it was an adjustment thing.”
“Your mother would have told me if you walked in your sleep.”
Ruth took a breath, eyeing her father.
“No, she wouldn’t have.”
Herman was quiet. It was true, she wouldn’t have told him. After they separated, Ruth’s mother and Herman did not speak at all for years, didn’t share any information, whether or not it concerned their daughter. One time they had both been summoned to her elementary school because she was getting in fights with other girls. It was the first time Herman had heard about it, but Ruth’s mom knew everything and didn’t think it was a big deal. They had screamed at each other in front of the principal and Ruth; him, trying to convince her of her stupidity, and she, telling him to mellow down, Ruth was at that age.
The cave system had a series of adjacent entrances like hallways of honeycomb, each one tucked a bit farther back inside the mountain. Ruth and Herman stood a ways from the first entrance. Dark limestone cascaded across the curves of each cave roof, rocks cloaked in moss at their feet, and shoved between each mouth, food stuck in between teeth.
“They tried building a railway line underneath this mountain, about 150 years ago,” Herman started, “but there were so many accidents, eventually they caved the tunnel in, half-way completed. Ginnie and Lex, the couple who told me about this cave, told me this story about the cursed tunnel. They dug an air shaft mostly by hand, used some dynamite through the floor of one of these cave mouths, releasing nitroglycerine, made some builders cuckoo, made them hear things, screams for help––“Don’t leave us here”. They’d assume they’d left someone behind in the airshaft after a shift, double check, but no one was there. Or maybe it wasn’t the gas,” Herman tried his best spooky voice. Ruth gestured for him to continue. There was something about her dad’s stories, always a little off from what he’d originally been told, but nonetheless enthralling.
“When they started on the ground digging through the tunnel, some tunnelers got trapped behind a series of cave-ins, left there, thought dead. Then the workers got through months later, they found skeletons, starved, the gas hadn’t affected them, and they’d survived on the limestone water dripping down the walls of the tunnel for weeks, waiting for someone to come. The screaming they’d heard from up in the cave mouth when they were digging the airshaft, the perished voices, echoes of what was yet to come.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Are you calling Ginnie and Lex liars?” Herman said, the corner of his lips twinkled. Ruth put the kestrel down on a rock, cupped her hands to her mouth and made the loudest stchuuuup noise she could muster. The cave echoed the teeth sucking tsk, a kiss.
“Don’t leave me here!” she shouted, the cave echoed back— Don’tLeaveMeHere Don’tlLeaveMeHere Don’tLeaveMeHere
Herman beckoned Ruth to leave with him, twilight descended upon them faster than in a city, as the woods tended to do. She waved her hand at him to wait, she yelled, “Good night!” —Goodnight goodnight goodnight
The other pill in her bag, the kestrel, the warm cup of water, heavy bleeding.
“You’re bleeding!” — You’reBleeding You’reBleeding You’reBleeding
Herman put his face in his palm and pretended to snore, to let Ruth know she was dawdling, a trick he’d done since her childhood.
“Wake up!” — WakeUp WakeUp WakeUp
Herman was becoming impatient with the dark sky. Ruth laughed and upon turning to leave, she howled like a dog to the moon.
“How long did they dig out the tunnel before giving up?”
Herman’s house smelled of cracked peppercorns and chilies, lemon wood polish and dense glue. He set up the couch with some sheets and a blanket before heading to bed early, left Ruth alone with the quiet forest and the swish of the lake.
The knife first stripped the skin starting from the back end of a leg, unzipping as it traveled. The animal hide fell away. The skeleton would be pre-made most times from string and plaster. Her mother would sculpt some muscles, eye sockets, spots where cartilage had been from clay, no, not quite clay, and glue the pieces together. She treated the skin with chemical preservatives, drying it out like a beef jerky. The house would smell of formaldehyde. Then she stretched the pelt out over the mold; glass eyes put in place, and re-sewn together. Ruth tried to ask her mother to make her one as a stuffed animal to play with. Her mother explained gently that the animals were not toys; they were art.
“Goodnight, bird,” she whispered before falling asleep.
“Goodnight,” it whispered back.
Ruth awoke to Herman puttering around in the kitchen. She uncapped the bottle with the single pill inside, tossed it back dry.
The bands were already a few deep into the line-up. Human arms seemingly independent of bodies reached up, disconnected in the crowd of shadows. She found a place near the back wall overlooking everyone, all in sweaty hair, black jeans, worn out sneakers, pale faces from booze, they moved in a swarm, dancing, shouting, furious. She focused on the overhanging speaker, a spine for the stage. A boy wearing a yellow shirt with a silhouette of a rabbit smoking a joint strolled by, stopped. He backed up next to her.
“They’re pretty good, right?” he shouted over the noise.
Ruth shrugged, trying to pay him as little attention as possible.
“Who are you here to see?” He pressed.
“No one,” she yelled back over the music.
“Oh. So, uh, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Oh, like Peter Pan or somethin’. You seen that movie when you were a kid? Peter Pan?”
Ruth looked past him to the spine speakers.
“I love that movie. It’s like, wicked racist though. With the Indians and shit.” He paused, as if waiting for Ruth to bite back, arguing was flirting after all, she knew. He rolled his eyes when she said nothing and spat, “You’re talkative. What’s your problem, bitch?”
His gaze turned to her lower half. She followed his eyes to her skirt. Blood dripped down her thigh, seeping through the meshy-ness of her stockings, leaving a spider web pattern.
“You have your period or somethin’?”
Ruth touched the inside of her thigh with her forefinger and held it up to the light.
“I don’t think so,” was all she said before heading to the restroom.
She leaned over the sink and turned the hot water on full, sinking her hands beneath the flow. The pressure from the sink’s edge felt good for a moment before fire shot through her abdomen, briefly. The thought passed through her mind, what if my appendix bursts exactly at the moment I’m having this abortion? She went into an empty stall and sat down on the toilet, head bent forwards between her knees, waiting for the dizziness to pass.
Blood stained the toilet bowl sides, trailed into the cracks between the linoleum tile and the crease around the toilet’s base, the darkness of a wet terracotta pot. She felt the spread of her body outside her body, her body everywhere between the floor and the walls. She got up, her skirt tacky, wiped between her legs with toilet paper that kept shredding at her touch. She heard echoes of the kestrel laughing as the toilet paper kept smearing and shredding and she kept pulling at it to rip a piece off. Finally she gave up and dumped the bunch into the toilet, still attached to the dispenser.
A group came in at the same time, talking rapidly about some asshole who didn’t watch his step. Ruth exited the stall feeling woozy.
“Whoa, are you alright, sweetie?”
“You have some…here, let me get it.”
A woman wearing skin-tight black pants wrapped around her ankles, with eyeliner smeared under her eyes, leaned down and gently tugged at a piece of toilet paper hanging from Ruth’s tights.
“Thanks,” Ruth whispered. She ran her hands briefly under cold water, patted under her eyes, wiped the excess through her hair. She had read it in a magazine once; how to de-puff your eyes and avoid the hand-dryer at a rest-stop.
“You sure you’re okay? Do you need help getting home?” The woman’s words slurred, but sounded genuine.
“No, I live close by.”
The group stared as Ruth pushed the door open. She heard them resume talking as the door closed behind her.
When she got home, she started to run a hot bath. Her hands shook as she tried to grasp the knob. The water sputtered a moment, then she turned it off having changed her mind, unwilling to be clean yet. The kestrel sat on her bedside table, waiting, its eyes followed her breaths in and out.
“You’re bleeding,” it cawed, the twinkle in its eye. It knew what had happened in the cafe basement.
She collapsed, tucking a pillow between her bloodied legs, one under her head, and fell asleep.
“Wake up!” screeched the kestrel.
Her watch read 11:10am. She stumbled out to the kitchen, gripped the kestrel, its crooked mouth poised to exhale. An empty bottle of wine waiting to be rinsed out sat in the sink, the corkscrew next to it. The bird started to laugh and continued to laugh as Ruth picked it up and balanced it against the dish rack. So loud it unfocused her, she yelled back at it. In one motion she grasped the corkscrew and rammed it into the bird, driving it deep, punching the corpse inside. Red clay and sawdust avalanched down her arm, soggy and thick, slathering the feathers and kestrel fibers, its body outside its body. Her hand went straight through the creature, reaching towards its skull. It was without form, bones, proper filling, woodwool, she remembered it was called. The inside was supposed to be dried into molds of muscle and tissue but its innards poured out like human shit and blood. Only after its undoing did it hold back its raucous howl.
Alison is a mixed and messy writer existing in Massachusetts. They have some other stories in Rejection Letters, Gone Lawn, Surely, and elsewhere.