Not so long ago the crops were terrible, and the farmer came home each night worried and wondering how to keep going. Usually there were chickens and rabbits for his wife to cook, but not anymore: now they are almost out of everything. The wife opens her window and lays out a few crumbs of bread on the sill as she has every day for the past several years. The sparrows come, heads cocked. In return for the crumbs they have cleaned her bushes of centipedes, crickets, and biting spiders. They hear her whisper, see the trail laid out for them. That night the farmer returns to a better meal than usual, crunches down the stringy, bone-ridden bits in the stew. Strange, but satisfying, he tells her, before going to bed. She stays up a bit longer by the dying cinders, fingers tapping the rhythms of birdsong. Her insides are fluttering with the beats of tiny organs, there’s something stuck in her throat and her eyes are wide and barely blinking.
All the Birds of Finland. Smoke trapped in the attic. The boy holds illustrations up to the window and traces bird bodies onto sheets of paper towel. Corvus corax. Feral cats caught in traps, blood on canvas, mice in laundry baskets, passerines, tail feathers, sky without color. Grasping a pencil with his small hands, imagining the miles of territory they must cover. Paper towel birds lined neatly in rows, eyes sketched in with water drops.
His father dreams of chivalrous men dancing with beautiful women, slowly spinning. Empty light sockets on the front porch became clogged with nests, punched out with broom ends, all crap and feathers. The car’s backseat holds only empty soda cans never redeemed.
They have been planning the switch for months. The girls grow their hair and dye it the same pale blonde, start buying and wearing identical shapeless dresses, apply their makeup in the same technique and palette. Some kids think it’s cool, but others avoid them because it’s so strange. At first they swap places in a few of their classes to see if the teachers might notice, but none do. Soon afterwards they go to each other’s houses after school, eat dinner with the other’s equally chaotic family, and stay the night in the other’s bed. Each room has the other girl’s scent and pattern of disorder. Each lies awake in a strange house, unsure of the night noises and constituent conversations. At school the next day they congratulate each other on their deception. And so it continues and the two families, being so inconsistent and self-centered, never catch on. One day one of the girls does not show up at school. In fact she is never seen again, since the entire family has fled in the night to avoid their many debts. A letter finally arrives for the abandoned girl, postmarked from another country, with pictures of a new house, an ocean. “I love them and have left myself,” she reads, “I left myself so long ago, please, don’t be angry.”
Sarah Goldstein was born in Toronto and lives in western Massachusetts. Her artwork has been exhibited in the US and Canada, and her first book, Fables, is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press in spring of 2011.