FEATURED STORY: “SHE WAS NEVER THE BIRDS” BY ATHENA NASSAR
She Was Never the Birds
Heavy bodies fall into me as the train brakes and then jerks forward. At each stop, it lets out a prolonged shriek like that of a fussy child. There is a map nailed to the wall that resembles the inside of the human body: green, red, and blue veins overlapping each other. Beside it, an advertisement that reads, rediscover yourself, your destination awaits. The letters are printed over an illustration of a cottage, light pouring out from its windows onto the snow.
Sitting across from me, there are men who can tell which girls know where they’re going and which girls don’t. One of them sits with his legs wide open as if he’s waiting for me to come suck his dick. I want to throw up and die, so I won’t have to take the train back.
This is good for me. I just have to spend a few hours out, then I can go home again. Aristotle argues that we need friends to lead a happy life, and furthermore, being happy is found in living and being active. This is why I eventually decided to accept Molly’s invitation to her apartment and whatever else the night may bring.
When I get there, Molly is crouched down on her front steps smoking a cigarette. She looks so pretty like this, with the smoke dancing around her face, milky white strands rising up into the cold air. Goosebumps spreading over her pale legs like a blanket. She once told me, I only have pretty friends, and in response, I had said, you think I’m pretty? At the time, rather than responding, she kissed me on the cheek and then rushed across the street to meet with her other friends.
Since then, I’ve felt a sense of pride whenever I’m with her. A feeling as if I’ve been let into this secret society that other girls spend their whole lives trying to get into, plumping their lips and sucking the fat out of their stomachs. It would be selfish of me to decline Molly’s invites. There are so many girls who are killing themselves to get in.
Her apartment smells of the tobacco leaves piled high on porcelain trays by her window sill. Next to the trays, a rubber duck floating in bong water. A bouquet of flowers from one of her clingy boyfriends, apology flowers she calls them. Molly only goes with older boys. She tells me as she rolls a blunt, her gold bracelets clinking together, they take you out to the nice restaurants, and they don’t whine about pubic hair like college boys. She even tells me that most of them prefer it.
When she tells me these things, whenever she gets really into it, she talks so fast it’s almost as if her lips are one of those toys that you wind up and then let go. My legs are wedged in the valley between the two couch cushions, and each time she turns to me, her thigh dips into the valley and brushes up against mine.
I unstick our legs to get up from the couch and grab a Dr. Pepper. I really don’t have much to contribute to the conversation about older boys and pubic hair, but I think she just likes having someone there to listen.
Truthfully, I don’t even like going out with boys or anyone for that matter, but I know it is something I must do so that people will like me. On my bad days, my cheeks break out in hot red welts. Sometimes, I feel the urge to throw up.
Like right now, how the bubbles from the Dr. Pepper are sitting at the top of my throat. I press the cool can against my face so that it can collect some of the cold droplets. I don’t know why my body always gets like this around Molly, overheating like a car left out in the sun.
Molly pauses, perhaps noticing my silence or the sweat dripping off my legs. She looks out the window and says, so what have you been up to? She thinks I have a lot of sex and just don’t tell her about it. This is because of the made-up sex story I had told her when we first met, hoping to impress her. I look down at the cars flashing by, the people on the sidewalk dissolving into the night, and respond, oh, nothing.
She suggests we go outside so she can have another smoke. I don’t like being out in the cold, but I follow her onto the balcony anyway. As she dips her face in front of the flame, she says, there’s a party across the street tonight. When I don’t respond, she says, we’re going. Down on the street, people flood in and out of the party, some of them turning towards the building and hunching over like sick dogs. All I’m thinking is I’ve made a horrible mistake. I should have never come.
I lean over the railing, the wind cutting my face like knives, and wonder if Molly has ever felt scared, living the way she does. I don’t tell her I’m scared for her, because I don’t want her to think I’m boring. Sometimes, it’s like she’s dangling from a cliff, and she doesn’t even know it.
I worry that one day I’m going to come to Molly’s apartment, and I’m gonna find her way down there, splattered on the sidewalk. People gathered around her, wondering which apartment she fell from. Death is one of the many things that concern me, because you can never know when it will come or how it will take you.
After some time, Molly gets up and says, I just have to use the bathroom and then we can go. I stay at the edge of the railing, looking out at the skyline. Glimmers of light like a cluster of giant fireflies. The buildings mock me. They beg me to reach out and touch them, yet they are too far. This is what the city is like. Everyone batting their wings in front of your face as if you are a part of some infinite swarm, yet you are all alone.
It’s hard to know who’s happy and who’s not when you don’t truly know anyone. Molly could be happy, but she could also be completely miserable. I know I am. I’ve lived this night over and over again. I spend it at whichever house Molly decides to take me to, pressed in between strange men. There’s loud music playing, the kind that makes everything else sound as if it’s being tossed around in a blender, and I have to scream whenever I want to speak.
The men tongue the girls who can barely stand. Their drinks and their spit get all over each other, and because I’m right next to them, it ends up on me too. The whole time, I’m just waiting for it to be over, and even when I get home, my heart still feels like a frantic bird, because I know Molly will eventually ask me to go out and do it all again. The letting go of myself. This is the thing that concerns me most.
I suppose I could still go home. I don’t have to go to the party. Molly will be fine without me. She’ll get out of the bathroom, and once she sees I’m not there, she’ll still go to meet up with her friends. It’ll be like I never left. I glance back inside the apartment and as if to reassure myself, I repeat, Molly will be fine.
As I turn to leave, the door to Molly’s apartment reconfigures into the double doors of a train. They slide open. At first, I assume the train in front of me is the beginning of a panic attack, but then I know it can’t be.
When I reach out to touch it, my hand does not slip through it as it would if nothing were there. Instead, my hand collides against its metallic body. The train stretches in both directions for so long that I am not sure where it ends and where it begins. I do not know how it got here, but I know that it is here, and it’s waiting for me to get in.
When I step onto the train, I turn around to get another look at the city, and I hear a far-off fluttering. The sound hangs in the sky, and I’m not sure whether it’s coming from one place or many, but then there is a light that emerges above the building furthest from me. I see their light first.
The fireflies gather into one bulb that grows bigger and bigger as it moves closer. The fluttering turns to a droning sound. They all charge toward me so suddenly, their bodies a single flame falling out of the dark. There are more of them, and the buzzing is near now.
One of them, ahead of the others, flies into my ear. I pick it out and pinch it, which releases a glowing green goo onto my fingers. This is when the doors of the train snap shut, and just as they close, the rest of them come smashing their bodies against the glass. I observe the window, now smothered in green innards, and I know I am not welcome here anymore. I never was.
I am far from Molly’s apartment and the rest of the city when a cleaning device appears on the outside of the train. It spits a bubbly fluid onto the window and scrubs the screen of the innards. The train is empty apart from me. There are no maps nailed to the wall, no veins to follow.
Outside, everything flits by before I can make out what it is. I am surrounded by red lights pulsing in streams. The throat of this world has been slashed open, and it is now bleeding out. There is a sound, like a bullet cutting through water. This train could be taking me anywhere. I look down the aisle of abandoned seats and wonder whether anyone else will be coming. Something tells me there has to be more.
An automated voice comes on over the intercom. Entering: Utqiagvik, Alaska. Also known as Ukpiaġvik in the Iñupiaq language, the place where snowy owls are hunted. We reach an archway made of whale bone, and the train comes to a screeching stop.
The tracks run along the shoreline where Beaufort and Chukchi Sea connect. The doors slide open, and flurries of snow, carried by a bitter gust of wind, burst inside. On the right side of the train, clumps of ice sit at the mouth of the ocean. On the left side, houses are buried in white powder.
There seems to be no one in the village apart from someone shoveling the snow off his roof in the distance. He does not seem to notice the train. When he decides he is done shoveling the snow that may never stop falling, he climbs down from his ladder and disappears into the house.
Someone else emerges from one of the houses. A girl. She is running toward us, her feet getting caught in the snow with every other step forward. She flails her arms above her head and yells, wait! At first, it is hard to make out what she is running from, but when she approaches us, I see a flock of owls following close behind her.
Their large white wings stretch out like sails from their bodies as they glide on the wind. They are so silent that I almost mistake them for the snow itself. Then I see their round yellow eyes cutting through the blizzard. They all begin to descend toward her, their claws reaching for her head.
Now on the iced over beach, the girl turns back to look at them and stumbles over a detached rib from a whale’s carcass. I stand at the entrance to the train and shout, hurry, the doors will close soon! I can see the owls clearly now.
Their eyes are angry suns. I am sure this girl will be carved by their claws, picked apart by their beaks. Just as the doors begin to close, I stick my arm out. The automated voice sounds again: please keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. This is when the girl grabs onto my hand and steps inside.
When the doors close, the owls don’t come smashing into the glass, but instead they stay perched on the whale carcass sticking out of the sand. They stare at us as the train leaves. After the girl finds her seat, she turns to face the window and waves. Her breath leaves her mouth in little clouds before it clings to the glass. As the train lurches forward, the beach rushes past us, along with the houses, and I get up from my seat to sit next to the girl.
Why aren’t you afraid of them?
I have bigger things to be afraid of than owls.
They were going to kill you.
The girl turns to face me, her cheeks flush from the cold, and I realize this girl is me. We stare at each other for a moment, neither of us knowing what to do next. Like mine, her eyes are black and slick like those of a fish. Her coat weighs down on her shoulders as if they are a clothes hanger that is about to snap. This is the first time I have stopped to look at myself from the outside. I see a girl running from owls that aren’t there. Girl who thinks the world will swallow her whole.
As if she could read my thoughts, the girl puts her cold lips to my ear and says, don’t let your owls consume you. She smells like the flesh on my hands. Before I can respond, the train jerks to the side, and her body falls into mine.
When this happens, it does not hurt, but rather, it feels as if the wind is kissing me all over. Just as quickly as she came, she is gone. I move to the back of the train, searching for her in each car, but all I find are more empty seats. She is gone, but even though I know this, I still feel the chill of her lips on my ear. I still respond, I won’t, I won’t.
There must have been over a hundred girls who boarded the train, all of them leaving the same way. I have gathered more of myself now, and I’ve fallen in love with each one I gathered. Somehow, in meeting these girls, I have gathered myself and lost sight of myself all at once. I loved how they carried themselves, the way they spoke to me about the things I had never told anyone.
The intercom tells me I have arrived in Tønder, Denmark. After the voice cuts off, there is a static hum that is left behind. I look for a girl where the blue of the sky has been stripped to a fleshy pink or where the people brush past one another on the cobblestone streets.
The people, similar to the man who was shoveling the snow, do not seem to notice the train. Some carry bags of groceries beneath their chins, cured meats and lingonberry jams, while others walk with their bicycles beside them. They all move to the static.
From the doors of the train, I yell, WHERE ARE YOUUU?! The people, if they heard, do not turn to look. Rather, they continue to lug their bags and push their bicycles, shuffling up and down the cobblestone path as if no one had yelled at all. I am but a nesting doll who has lost the girls who are supposed to be kept inside.
Just before the sun sets, when it becomes an open-faced mango on the horizon, there is a cloud of birds that comes to hover over the village. The static hum from the intercom is replaced by the murmurations of hundreds of thousands of starlings. The village, along with the people in it, sit in their shadow. As they separate and come back together, I can see their wings, stars that have been dipped in a black well.
Above us, they become like water, washing over the sky. The people pause their shuffling to tilt their heads up, some stepping outside of their homes to watch the birds as they arrange themselves into ripples.
The flock rises and falls as a single current, each bird responding to the pulse of the birds around them to prevent one another from being attacked. A hawk, who had been caught in the midst of the swarm, collapses in the center of the crowd. Its body, the size of a large infant, lies with its wings splayed out on the stone.
Upon seeing the hawk, a woman drops her bags, her lingonberry jam shattering by her feet. The jam reminds me of blood, and the blood reminds me of Molly. How we once snuck into the kitchen while our parents were away and cut our palms with a knife meant for deboning meat.
After we made slits in our hands, we clasped them together and promised to always be there for one another. We thought this would keep us from letting go of one another, like other girls do when they do not understand each other anymore.
I know now that if girls are not meant for one another, one will eventually leave the other, no matter how many tears she has made in her body to convince herself otherwise. Maybe I even knew this then too.
Birds are not like us. They choose to stay together not because they love each other, but because they love themselves. When their bodies are together, they are a much bigger animal than when their bodies are apart. I look at them now, so many of them flying so close to one another that I can no longer see pockets of blue.
From the woman’s other bag, an orange net snaps and apples tumble out. I kneel to gather them, and when I’ve collected each of them off the ground, I tap the woman on her shoulder.
Excuse me. I’m looking for a girl.
At first, the woman is startled, but then she takes the apples from my hands and looks me up and down. You think there is a girl here? A girl that looks like yourself?
Yes. I just came from that train over there. I turn around and point to the train, the only thing left in the street besides the dead hawk. The crowd has all left by now, as well as the black birds. They have seen enough of what they came to see.
The woman glares at the hawk, flies swarming around its deformed neck, then she squints at the train. Go home, girl. I boarded a train a while ago, a train with silver stripes like that one, and I never found my way back to myself.
But I—I need to find—Hello?
The street, somehow, is empty now, apart from myself and the apples that the woman left behind. The silk dress that she was wearing now lies like a crumpled sheet on the ground. A little black bird emerges from the dress, its feathers held tight to its body.
I walk back to the train alone, following the trail of smoke rising from its engine.
The automated voice sounds again. Entering: Mtowabaga, Tanzania. The train approaches a red lake. The water is coated with a salty crust that has split into cracks, almost as if someone has taken a hammer to the lake’s surface.
In the center of the lake, clusters of flamingos march in unison, their skinny pink legs plopping in and out of the water. They aren’t affected by the natrocarbonatite that pours into the lake from the volcano. They’re safe here from their predators, whose bodies become calcified when they enter the water as a result of its high salt content.
I admire the flamingos, bathing in their pool of calcified swallows. Bats with their wings outstretched like they were when they flew in. A washed up buffalo lying like a boulder at the water’s edge.
The flamingos keep their eggs in mounds of mud along the waterways. If I had the choice, I, too, would lay my eggs in a lake that kills and preserves anything that enters. It is best to preserve the things that have almost killed you. That way you can avoid them when they try to kill you again.
When the train slows, there is a girl standing at the foot of the lake. The girl is me, like all the others were, but her face is gaunt, almost as if someone took a syringe and sucked up all the extra flesh under her cheekbones. Her skinny wrists dangle at her side like two needles. In front of her lies an eagle that accidentally fell in, its flesh stripped away by the chemicals.
A red foam bubbles up near the girl’s feet. She slowly lifts her blouse over her head and drops it into the mud beside her. She pulls down her pants, along with her underwear, and places them on top of her blouse. With her skin tissue directly exposed to the sodium, her body will calcify much sooner.
It seems as if she is about to submerge herself, but then she hears the sound of the wheels grinding against the tracks, the doors sliding open. She notices me standing at the door of the train, and rather than reaching for her clothes, she crouches down and begins to cry. It sounds like a cry that she has held in for her whole life. A volcano erupting and erupting.
I interrupt her sobbing: come with me. This is the first girl I have had to beg. The first girl who didn’t immediately run onto the train as soon as she saw it. She lifts her head from her knees and looks up at me. She has stopped crying. I step outside the train and again, I say, come with me.
This time, she picks herself up and walks onto the train, tracking in the mud that clings to the bottoms of her bare feet. She brushes past me, but before she sits down, she says, I’m sorry you’re seeing me like this. She looks exactly how I thought she would, as if she was gouged out of my innermost part. Is this how they see me too? Pile of bones at the edge of some far off shore? Volcano collapsing on itself?
I embrace her, and in the nook between her shoulder and her neck, I say, I’m sorry too. We stay like this for a moment, with our heads braided together. I don’t ask what brought her there, and I don’t even ask why she was crying. I don’t need to, because in between her sniffles, she says, do you think punishing yourself will make her want you?
Who are you talking about?
She pulls away from me now. You know who I’m talking about.
My cheeks throb with warmth. I ask her another question to hide what we both know. Would you have gone through with it if I didn’t come?
No. Death scares you too much. The train begins to move, and we wisp past the volcano, the trees that resemble flattened sun hats, the birds whose souls have already left their beached bodies to get to wherever they must go. The girl continues. You hate the thought of being gone forever.
We stand with our sides to the wall of the train, facing one another. I am surprised she hasn’t already slipped into the walls. I grab onto her wrist to keep her from fading away, and once I’m sure I still have her, I let go of what’s been waiting at the top of my throat. I do not want to die without being liked.
So instead, you live half there, half not. Not quite there, but not quite dead.
I repeat the last part back to myself. Not quite dead. Yet.
She laughs at death, as well as our inability to escape it, and so do I, then she says, I have to go now. It’s time to let go. Her wrist, which I am still holding firmly in my hand, begins to fade.
I can now see the rest of the train, the aisle and the row of handrails, by looking through her. She waits for the train to slow, for my grip to loosen, then she steps into me. There is no one left but myself and whoever awaits at the next stop, yet I feel the fullest I’ve ever felt. I know she is gone for good, only this time, I don’t bother searching for her.
When the train stops, the automated voice sounds over the intercom. This train is being taken out of service. Please watch your step when exiting the vehicle. The voice doesn’t tell me where I am, but I hear an ambulance approaching, the wind whipping itself around the buildings. The arrhythmic breath of the city.
The doors open to Molly’s apartment, and as soon as I step out, the train disappears into the night. The apology flowers are still sitting where Molly left them, all of the petals intact. My Dr. Pepper remains on the window sill, where a puddle of cold water has collected around the base of the can.
From the bathroom, I hear the toilet flushing, her bracelets clinking together under the running water of the sink. I think about leaving before she gets out, but there is something that pulls me to the bathroom door. Hey, Molly?
What? She shuts the water off, but the door remains closed. Maybe she is checking her jeans for underwear lines in the mirror, pushing her face up to the glass as she applies a thick coat of mascara to her lashes, or maybe she is still.
Um—I have to tell you something. By now, my hand is curling around the knob of the door. I know if she cannot feel me pressed up against it, she can hear the strange thumps of my heart on the wood.
The door opens, and when she steps out, I am standing in front of her. Our mouths have never been this close before. If I don’t kiss her now, she’ll know I wanted to and didn’t. I think of all the things I’ve ever wanted, how they’ve all sprouted wings and flown away, then I look at her, her lips parted like pink clouds. She was never the birds, but the sky itself.
I kiss her, both of us stumbling back into the bathroom, and she tastes like the cloud of smoke that hangs in the air. Clings to our skin. Her mouth gives way to my own, allowing me to push my tongue in further, an oar rowing toward the heart of a vast river.
When I pull away, her wet baby hairs are stuck to her forehead and the sides of her cheeks. Her breaths are heavy, each one getting caught in her chest, and her lips are parted in the same way they were before. I don’t hear whatever she is about to say, because I grab my things and leave the apartment to make the last train home.
Author Interview: Four Questions for Athena Nassar
Interview conducted by Assistant Fiction Editor Olivia Ellisor
Olivia Ellisor: Writers often cite a particular moment in their lives that shaped who they are as a writer. What would you say that moment was for you? Is there evidence of that in this piece?
Athena Nassar: I would say that moment for me was when I chose to attend Interlochen Arts Academy, a pre professional arts boarding school, as a senior in high school. I remember attending their camp the summer before senior year, and I almost decided not to stay for the year, because I was so anxious. What the narrator is experiencing in this piece is quite similar, because she is struggling to pull herself out of her home and face internal conflicts that she has never wanted to confront before.
OE: Can you relate to one specific character in your story more than others? Why?
AN: I definitely see certain aspects of myself in the narrator of “She Was Never the Birds.” This story portrays a woman who is frightened of intimacy and attempts to run from it. I chose to place her on a crowded train in the opening paragraph, because like the narrator, the process of getting to a place completely overwhelms me. The stakes are immediately high for the narrator as a result of the “heavy bodies falling into her” and the “men who can tell which girls know where they’re going and which girls don’t.” Although this is what she hates the most, the narrator always finds herself in between places, moving from one place to the next. She is never still, even when the story comes to a close.
OE: What does your writing process look like in the beginning stages? How do you conceptualize ideas?
AN: I always begin with images that I want to spend more time with and then the story tends to come after. This story in particular began with the various places the train would stop. These settings originally developed out of my fascination with these birds that congregate in remote corners of the world—the snowy owls in Utqiagvik whose large wings and small bodies allow them to have silent flight, the hundreds of thousands of European starlings that gather in Denmark each year, and Lake Natron, where over 75% of the world’s flamingo population resides. I am very interested in the visceral, bodily nature of things, so this is what I am drawn to write about. When I am brainstorming a scene, I consider what may feel “off” or strange about this scene, as well as the characters in this scene, and then I accentuate that thing.
OE: What would you describe your particular genre as? Do you find yourself blending traditional genres into something new?
AN: I would classify this story as magical realism, although it also contains some folklore elements. During the writing process, I am always fascinated in discovering the surreal within the real. In shamanic initiations, the shamans see themselves die, as well as their bones after they die, and they call this experience the first death. This process is them transitioning to their true self, and that is really what the narrator is experiencing in “She Was Never the Birds.” She is being brought to these different places to see her past selves pass on, and this allows her to reach who she truly is.
Athena Nassar is an Egyptian-American poet, essayist, and short story writer from Atlanta, Georgia. Her debut poetry collection, Little Houses, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in January 2023. Her work has appeared in Academy of American Poets, The Missouri Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Salt Hill, Lake Effect, New Orleans Review, Zone 3, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, and elsewhere.