An essay by Mary Magdalene Farconi, as provided by K. Kitts
Art by Leigh Legler
Strapped in his bouncy seat, my son Tyler went off at the exact same moment as the kitchen timer and the doorbell. I verified that nothing was actually gnawing on him and rushed to the brownies. Paul would have to get the door.
From the living room, Cissie yelled, “It’s the bird people.” Being a good girl, she knew not to open the door to strangers, especially those from another planet.
I yelled, “Paul, get the door,” while I yanked the brownies from the oven.
The Home Owners Association bake sale started at 10 AM, and it was already 10:10. In my head, Mrs. Topher, the HOA president, admonished, “In my day, people respected each other and were on time.”
As I dashed toward Tyler, I mumbled, “Yeah, back when Moses parted the Red Sea, most mothers of young children didn’t have to analyze a 270-page watershed impact statement by Monday.”
Before I unbuckled Tyler from his seat, I smelled his problem. The doorbell rang again. “Paul! Get the door!”
From the living room, Cissie yelled, “The bird people are still here.”
I hustled down the hall with Tyler at arm’s length. His room also served as Paul’s home office. Sure enough. Paul had his earbuds in and was playing some computer game. I hip-butted the back of his chair.
Startled, he yelled, “What the–” but stopped in time. We try not to cuss like muleskinners in front of the kids. I handed Tyler over.
“I’m working, Maggie. You do it.” He tried to pass Tyler back.
The doorbell rang a third time. Cissie called, “The bird people are still still here.”
I said, “One, since when is slaying boss monsters a part of your job? And two, it’s Saturday. We agreed on Saturdays you have to help. No questions asked.” As I stomped to the front door, I muttered, “That is if you ever want to have sex again.”
Hand on the knob, I breathed in deeply and exhaled. Bird people are sensitive. I didn’t want to frighten them because they’d take off in a flurry of feathers and shrieks and dump whatever they had in their cloacas. I didn’t have time to hose off the front porch.
I’d worked with several bird people when I’d served as an analyst for the newly established Alien Affairs Bureau. That was until the AAB’s work rules changed and became intolerable for nursing moms. Two months after Tyler was born, I moved to a clean water non-profit with a short commute. The work wasn’t as important, but my hair had stopped falling out. However, when I opened the door, I wondered whether I’d been out of the loop a little too long.
Instead of a group of sleek greenish-blue peacock-cranes, there stood two bedraggled and dull office drones dressed in modified white button-downs and khakis. Their tails were clipped and their wings pressed tightly against their backs. Even the frills on the tops of their heads drooped. They were both so dull in color, I couldn’t tell whether they were male or female, but given the office casual, I guessed males.
Clutched in one of the T-Rex arms that protruded from beneath his breast, the left bird person held a black book. His colleague grasped a plastic sheet upon which text flickered.
I asked, “May I help you?”
Book bird bobbed his head and pressed the first icon on the squawk box on a chain around his neck. In a mellifluous voice, the box intoned, “Good morning! We are in your neighborhood seeking to expand our flock.”
I frowned. If they were looking for females, they were out of luck. Our HOA categorically refused all building permits for aviaries. And with such poor color, I doubted any female would give them the time of day.
He cocked his head and pressed the second icon. The box asked, “Have you been saved by Jesus?”
I face-palmed. Flocking was extremely important to them. It made sense they’d become a target of some strip mall prophet, but where was their female, and why would she allow this to happen? “To which home nest do you belong?”
“Reverend Vernon P. Hogg,” said the plastic paper bird. He passed the flickering sheet over.
The title read: The Watch Perch. The address running along the top was the old non-denominational church that had sold its parking lot to the highway extension.
Articles flitted past on how Jesus could save the faithful from obesity, drunkenness, and bird lice. “No, I mean your mother bird. Who is she?” I tried to return the plastic paper, but the bird refused to take it.
“Our Most Supreme Singing Heart,” he said.
The book bird squawked and his box translated, “She who laid us has asked us to go into the world and find a new flock.”
That was odd. I’d worked with Singing Heart when they set up the reservation. Alpha females never let go of their sons until they could find another female to take them in. Things had to be bad on the Rez for her to cut them loose.
“Where do you sleep?”
The book bird’s box said, “At the church.”
“Except on bingo night, knitter’s club night, and days with AA meetings.”
“Then we sleep in the park.”
“But that’s more difficult now. They cut down the bushes to keep the homeless out.”
These two were definitely nest-mates.
The phone rang and Paul yelled, “It’s Mrs. Topher. She wants to know where you are.”
“Listen, I’ve got to go. Good luck in finding new flock members.” I shut the door before the bird people could object.
I dumped The Watch Perch into the electronics recycle bin and changed from my mommy clothes–puke-stained shirt and yoga pants–to my work clothes of white shirt and blue pants. My resemblance to the male drones was not lost on me. I grabbed a not too stinky towel from the clothes hamper and nestled the hot pan of brownies on the front floorboards of the van. After fetching Cissie and buckling her into the child seat, Paul strolled out with my purse and Tyler.
He asked, “Aren’t you going to take him with you?”
I tucked my purse behind my seat. “Did you clean out and refill the diaper bag like you promised?”
He made a Homer Simpson d’oh face.
I smiled sweetly. “Then, there’s your answer.”
As I backed out of the driveway, Paul came running from the front door, waving the plastic paper. I powered down the window.
“Take this with you. It keeps crawling out of the recycle bin. It beeps and says you owe at least a five-dollar donation.”
Making a face, I took the paper. “I’ll drop it off at the church on the way back.” I shoved it under the brownies. They were no longer hot enough to melt it. Too bad.
Mrs. Topher was a sturdy woman with a toad-like mouth: thin-lipped and broad. This week her hair was an auburn color on the orange side. She lived on the biggest property with a pool deck the size of our entire house. I would’ve thought a competent stylist was within her budget.
Cissie joined the other kids playing tag outside the HOA’s clubhouse, and I settled in the folding chair next to Mrs. Topher. As I cut and bagged the brownies, she added the label and the price.
“Are these boxed or homemade?”
“I baked them myself.”
She marked them two for a dollar and tossed them in the boxed section. “Because you were forty-five minutes late, I assume you’ll work the table until 12:45?”
It wasn’t a question, but I didn’t mind. There were activities for Cissie, and Mrs. Topher pounced on any poor victim who wandered within ten feet of the table, giving me time to wade through the impact statement. An hour in, Mrs. Topher became agitated after receiving a series of texts and calls.
I tried to ignore her harrumphing and heavy sighs, but it was a losing battle. “You seem upset, Mrs. Topher. Is there anything–”
“The cretin bailed on us.”
I could see Mr. Topher in a cluster of men near the parking lot. So it wasn’t a marital issue.
“This is the third investor. Third! They say they’re interested, but once they see the engineer’s report, they lose my phone number.”
Now I understood. The HOA had been trying to get an investor to take over and finish up the subdivision. The bake sale was to help with attorney’s fees. The original builder had gone belly up when he discovered it was harder to drain a swamp than he’d imagined.
“This idiot is suggesting we donate the land to the state as a designated wetlands.”
“That would take care of–”
Her penciled-in eyebrows arched. “If you’d attended the last meeting, you’d know that the tax write-off will not offset the loss in fees. We’ll have to raise the rates again. If there were only some way we could squash that stupid report.”
“Cuz that wouldn’t be illegal or anything,” I said.
Mrs. Topher stared daggers at me.
By 1:15, Cissie and I were at the church. Vernon P. Hogg himself was setting up chairs for the 2 PM book club. Vern looked forty, despite being much younger. From his teeth, I suspected his drug of choice had been meth.
I handed him the plastic paper. “If this thing finds its way back to my house, I’ll report you for littering.”
He sighed and punched in a code. He dropped it in a pile on an old piano with chipped keys. It calmly sat there no longer flashing or inching toward me like a possessed credit card bill.
“Let’s talk about the two bird people,” I said.
“No, let’s not. I was just trying to help them out, and all they’ve brought me is trouble.” He opened a side door and yelled, “Hey, Larry and Curly! Get your feathered asses in here.”
Cissie hid behind me, staring at the scary man. I folded my arms. “If they’re Larry and Curly, who are you? Moe or Shemp?”
“Very funny. I didn’t pick the names, they did.”
The two bedraggled bird people hustled in, bowing and bobbing their long necks. In unison, they clicked an icon on their boxes. “How may we serve you, Father Hogg?”
I raised an eyebrow. Vernon said quickly, “I tol’ you boys. You’re supposed to say, ‘How may we serve Jesus, Father Hogg?'”
The two bird people looked confused and corrected the text associated with that icon.
“It doesn’t matter.” He waved his fingers as if to shoo chickens. “You two are fired. Get out of my church and go darken someone else’s doorstep.” He turned to me. “Are you happy now?”
The two bird people screeched and flapped their clipped wings. “What have we done wrong? How can we make amends?”
They kept tapping the icons repeating those two sentences until Vernon grabbed a mop handle and threatened to beat them. Cissie burst into tears and threw herself in front of the bird people. Her little arms out wide, she yelled, “I won’t let you hurt them!”
Cissie’s action shocked Vernon. He sighed. “I told you all they do is get me in trouble.”
I rested my hand on Cissie’s head. She melted into my leg, wiping snot and tears on the back of her hand. The bird people clustered behind me and froze, as if that made them invisible.
“Jesus!” Vernon shouted. One of them had dumped his cloaca. “Look what I have to clean up!” He spun around twice on the broken-down heel of his faux alligator boots. “I got people comin’! Payin’ people!”
Good thing he didn’t have a cloaca.
“I don’t want them fired,” I said. “I just don’t want anyone to take advantage of them.”
“Taking advantage, hell. I’m helping them out!”
I pointed to the pile of The Watch Perch. I would’ve waved one in his face, but I feared touching them.
He whined, “I paid their vagrancy tickets for sleeping in the park.”
Hands on hips, I asked, “Did you clip their wings?”
He shook his head. “They have to be clipped to get off the Rez. Some new regulation ‘cuz people claimed they were peeking in windows and messing with security.”
I’d heard about no-fly zones, but I hadn’t thought through all the implications. “Can you keep them for a couple more days while I figure something out?”
“Not those two. They’re dumber than pigeons. I’ll keep the other three.”
“Five? You’re housing five bird people?”
“There’re a dozen under the bridges near the river. They’re pouring off the Rez, and they’re all looking as sad as these two. I think they’re starving.”
I looked at my phone. If I ignored the speed limit, I could get to Singing Heart’s compound in two hours. I called to Cissie, “Sweetheart, help the bird people into the van.”
Cissie’s entire being lit up. “I knew you would save them, mommy. I knew you would!” She herded them like ducks outside. I felt a flicker of pride before reality hit. I hadn’t saved anyone.
Larry and Curly strutted through the backyard, eating insects, while I told Paul what happened. He squatted to Cissie’s level. “Did you really do that? Protect those bird people?” She nodded fiercely. He gave her a bear hug. “I’m so proud of you.”
My heart swelled. I kissed Paul on his neck. “You’re a good man.”
Cissie ran off to tell her dollies about her adventures. I fetched the car keys.
Paul shook his head. “It’s late.”
“I’ve got to see for myself. Something’s up.”
He looped his arm around my neck. “Sweetie, you can’t save the world.”
“No, but I simply walked away, and that’s not working for me either.” The emotion made my voice crack.
“You were burned out. With the commute and Tyler–”
“Yeah, but if I don’t do anything at all, then I’m part of the problem. I don’t want that to be the lesson I teach Cissie.”
He met my eye. “After what Cissie did today, are you seriously worried?”
I smiled but hung my head. Paul got out his wallet and handed me cash.
“What’s this for?”
“Gas. But I’m keeping the rest ‘cuz I’m not making dinner. I’m ordering pizza.”
I entered Reservation land at 4:40. It bordered the river in a swampy valley that produced mostly mosquitoes. Singing Heart’s high status had afforded her first choice in picking her home nest site. It was the closest to the blacktop. The climate was hot and humid, but the birds liked it that way. I kept my windows up and the AC on. Singing Heart’s people on average looked better than the two drones, but there were no children in the crèche and even the females were out in the river working.
The two male guards at the entrance of Singing Heart’s aviary were still resplendent with long tails, elegant wings, and piercing black eyes. They sported the sharpened beak spikes and leg spurs of their class. One recognized me and asked me to wait. He sent a small messenger male inside. After a few minutes, I was ushered into the geodesic dome that functioned as Singing Heart’s main dormitory.
Inside resembled a rain forest arboretum. Industrial fans created a slight breeze and made it easier for me to breathe. I walked slowly to keep from sweating too much. Designed for visitors and fledglings, the path wound upward. The adults glided from perches set along the struts two-thirds of the way up the sides. The top of the curved path opened onto a platform for meetings. Above that sat Singing Heart’s nest. One of her daughters roosted in it. The other nests lay empty.
Singing Heart’s frill was up and her feathers fluffed. On the platform, her brown and green plumage shone brightly in the late afternoon sun, but in the dappled places among the plants, she’d have blended in perfectly. Her neck extended, she stood tall. My eye met her beak. For the first time in her presence, I felt the flutter of discomfort and fear, as if the trouble–whatever it may be–was somehow my fault. I asked, “Did you release two males?”
Singing Heart’s wings came away from her body, and all the other birds in the dome came to attention. “Yes. Why?”
Out of nowhere one of the male guards landed with a thump next to me.
I put my hand out in a placating motion. “They’re at my house.”
Singing Heart lifted her knees one at a time and shook out her feathers. The other birds relaxed, and the guard bird moved to the edge of the platform but did not fly off.
“They are good men, but we have no room for them.”
“May I ask why?”
“Come. Walk with me.”
Singing Heart could’ve glided to the exit in a heartbeat, but she walked slowly, one long stride after another, so I could keep up. Once outside of the dome, Singing Heart flicked her tail feathers. The guard remained behind.
“Children can be impetuous and impatient,” she said.
“Are you talking about these two males?” I asked.
“No. My eldest daughter. She couldn’t control herself and fertilized two eggs. I’m sure you saw her nesting.”
“Are resources so tight that you don’t have room for two more?”
“It’s a matter of leadership. If my home nest doesn’t control its population, I can’t ask that of others.”
“The valley looks lush, is there a shortage of food?”
“Your government insists that unless we put in a water treatment plant, we can have no population growth. They say we’re putting too much nitrogen into the water, but they won’t allow us to sell our technology, or use it to back a security you call municipal bonds.”
I pretended to examine the foliage to hide my chagrin. Singing Heart could read facial expressions, and her sight was superior to humans. Like most avians, she had an extra protein in the back of her eye and could see into the ultraviolet range. Her home star was very active and produced a lot of UV. In fact, it had become so active, it was eroding their planet’s atmosphere. That’s why they’d come to Earth, refugees from a natural disaster.
It was my fault. The clean water non-profit I worked for had been responsible for some of those clean water laws. Talk about unintended consequences. Now I understood why the state hadn’t fought the legislation. It was never about clean water. It was about population control. The non-profit and I had been suckered.
“How about making a home nest in town where there are sewers?” I asked.
“None of my daughters can get building permits.”
My own damn HOA had contributed to that problem.
We continued to the river. The water was clean but the banks boggy. Singing Heart waded out into the dark mud. She stretched her neck. It ballooned and she made a whooping roar that ended in a bellowing meow. All the females stopped what they were doing and responded. She called and they repeated for several rounds. The tone and pattern changed but not the volume. From downstream came a second set of calls and responses. When it did, Singing Heart shook her feathers and rejoined me on hard ground. The call would wind its way down the river to the end of the valley.
I didn’t need the translator. It was a gratitude psalm. A tear dripped down my cheek.
“Magdalene? What distresses you?”
My chin quivered. “How can you sing of gratitude considering how we treat you?”
“You’ve taken in my two sons. You cannot imagine my relief.”
It had been a sheer accident. And for how long could I keep them? An aspirin for a brain tumor.
Singing Heart asked, “You left the AAB because you were having difficulties with a fledgling? Is he well?”
“I left because it was too much stress to deal with a toddler, a nursing infant, a sexist boss, and an hour commute each way.” I blushed, ashamed of my pitiful problems. “I can’t imagine how you handle the stress of this place.”
Singing Heart bobbed her head. “I don’t do it alone. I have my flock. Your culture of complete independence is foolish.” She clucked and the box intoned, “You will do better now that you have my two sons. We have more to teach you than technology.”
“Technology!” I pointed to the birds in the river. “Your daughters all have equivalents of Ph.D.s, and they are reduced to stringing nets in a river.”
“Do you feel reduced when you take care of your fledglings?”
I remained silent. There were seasons in life, but my boss and my culture didn’t understand that, so I did feel less than no matter how wrong it was. I lifted my chin. “I make no promises, but now that I understand the issues, I can work on solutions.”
Singing Heart brushed me with a wing a sign of gratitude. But in this case, I took it as a gesture of forgiveness.
On Monday, instead of summarizing that 270-page impact statement, I presented the plight of the bird people. The staff members were divided as to what to do, but they agreed to an emergency board meeting to discuss the possible realignment of the mission of the non-profit. We were small and disorganized, but it was a start.
Moving on to the second prong of my master plan, I cornered Kendra–our one and only lawyer–before she could slip away to pick up her kids from school.
I handed her a flash drive with the HOA covenant rules. “My question is simple. Can I force the HOA to accept an application to build an aviary?”
“You are taking this personally,” said Kendra.
“I want to change the narrative from NIMBY to YIMBY.”
“Yes, In My Back Yard.”
Kendra smiled. “I’ll go over this tonight and get back to you.”
A week later, I was sitting in Mrs. Topher’s living room with the finished proposal. Mrs. Topher’s décor was 1970s day-glo. It explained the clown hair. I wanted to get down to business, but Mrs. Topher wanted to play hostess. She provided fat-free, taste-free cookies and iced tea so sweetened the sugar had precipitated into the bottom of the glass. My fillings ached.
“I hear there are two avians living in your home,” said Mrs. Topher.
I’d read the rules so many times I knew that unrelated folk were frowned upon, but not live-in help. I smiled. “They provide childcare and cleaning services.”
I expected Mrs. Topher to warn me of the dangers of salmonella or something, but instead she nodded slyly. “Yes, I’ve heard the labor laws don’t apply. You don’t have to pay unemployment or match social security.” She patted me on the knee. “How smart of you. It must be nice to finally be able to afford help.”
Ripping off Mrs. Topher’s arm and beating her to death with it would not advance my agenda. Instead, I asked, “So you have no issues with bird people?”
“Not if they have a job, know their place. Of course not. I’m not a racist.”
“Excellent. I have a buyer for the rest of the subdivision.”
Mrs. Topher lit up, and not just from her spray tan.
I explained the details of how Singing Heart’s daughter would buy into the subdivision and build an aviary. “And here’s the best part, because they’ll be part of the community, they’ll pay yearly fees. It’s a win-win.”
Mrs. Topher’s face darkened like a summer thunderstorm. “It won’t pass.”
“I’ll vote against it. This is a human community.”
My time at the non-profit taught me not to argue. I’d just have to go grassroots.
Mrs. Topher opened a leather slipcase and produced a typed list. “I’ll save you time. These people will vote with me no matter what. I engender loyalty that way.”
Was she bluffing? I reminded myself not to engage. I thanked her for the list and tried to let myself out, but Hercules and Atlas were loose. I had to wait until Mr. Topher corralled the two guard dogs. They were well muscled, but a little too lean. I wondered if they were actually vicious or just hungry.
After dinner, I made some phone calls. Mrs. Topher hadn’t bluffed. She had a solid thirty-five percent. The vote would fail. I wailed in frustration and flopped facedown into all the maps and papers I’d spread out on the table. Larry tapped the floor with one foot. I rested my chin in my hand. “Need help getting Cissie to bed?”
He typed on his controller, and the box said, “You are distressed. It is our role as men of the house to relieve that distress. How may we help?”
Just being asked made me smile. I hadn’t explained about the proposal to shield them from disappointment, but the worst had come to pass so there was no point in hiding it. I explained the situation. While doing so, Curly joined us with Cissie padding right behind, her Disney toothbrush in hand.
I pointed on the map. “The woman who lives here will vote against the proposal, and all the people on this list,” I held up the paper, “will vote with her.”
Larry touched my shoulder with a beak, a very personal gesture. “Then all is not lost. All you have to do is change one person’s mind instead of thirty. We have faith in you.”
“Of course we do, mommy.” Cissie hugged me.
Yeah. Only one.
After the kids were in bed and the bird people asleep, I gathered the covenant rules and binder clipped them. I found a loose page under the map of the subdivision. It outlined the rules governing utility easements. Something caught my eye. I compared the Google satellite view with the subdivision map. The original map didn’t have Mrs. Topher’s giant pool and deck. I checked the property lines, the easements, and compared it to the satellite view.
“Son of a–” I fished out two steaks from the deep freezer and shoved them into the microwave to defrost.
Twenty minutes later, dressed all in black with a measuring tape in one hand and a bag ‘o steaks in the other, I stood at the Tophers’ fence. Hercules and Atlas barreled up barking and snarling.
“Hey, boys.” I waved the steaks. “Let’s find out. Are you vicious or hungry?”
The next day I again sat in Mrs. Topher’s living room, suffering another glass of sludge tea.
She smiled unctuously. “You said you needed a change to the agenda?”
I’d used that as the excuse. There was no way this woman would forfeit an opportunity to gloat. “Yes.”
“Do you want to cancel the vote?”
“No. I have discovered a violation.” I leaned in. “A serious violation. The board needs to know so they can act.”
Mrs. Topher licked her lips. “Do tell.”
I handed her a manila folder. Eagerly, she flipped it open. She scowled. “This is my address.”
I grinned. “Yes, and your pool crosses into the easement by nine inches. You’ll have to rip it out.”
“I’ll get a variance.”
“That’ll take 2/3rds too. Do you think you’ll have that many friends after they find out you could’ve solved both the swamp problem and reduced their fees by allowing the aviary?”
She tossed the folder onto the coffee table. “That’s blackmail.”
“May I count on your vote and those of your friends?”
As I rounded the van to the driver’s side, Mrs. Topher released Hercules and Atlas. They bolted straight for me, but instead of mauling me, they tried to lick me to death. Disgusted, Mrs. Topher slammed her front door. Such bad doggies.
Two months later, the subdivision threw a party for the groundbreaking. Larry and Curly’s flight feathers had filled in and their tails were elongating. Their crests stood high and their eyes shone. By Christmas, they might be ready for their own set of leg spurs.
They followed Tyler, as he stumbled across the lawn. He’d grown into a mobile terror, squealing and clapping his hands. Seeing the three of them walk across the lawn, my heart warmed. Flocks were nice.
The ceremony had called all the displaced birds from miles around. They would all apply to become a part of the newest home nest. All but Larry and Curly, of course. First, she was their sister, and second, they’d become fully integrated into our household. I had become their mother bird.
Paul strolled over with Cissie on his shoulders. Behind them stood Mrs. Topher, her hair now a yellow-orange. She preened for a local news team. “Yes. We are a progressive neighborhood. I was instrumental in getting the permits.”
Paul nodded towards Larry and Curly. “Boy howdy, are those two working out, especially now that you’re back at the AAB.”
“Don’t get too used to it,” I said. “Soon, we might not be able to afford them.”
Paul frowned. “Why?”
“My next project is to get the bird people labor protections.”
Cissie said in her father’s ear, “Yes, daddy. Do you know what labor protections are?”
As he bee-lined to the food table, he said, “Yes, I do, Cissie. But please explain them to me anyway.”
My attention turned to three clipped birds in white button-downs and khakis who rushed toward Larry, Curly, and Tyler. The leader of the three clutched a black book. The other two clutched plastic papers, which flickered with text.
The leader squawked and the box translated, “Good day, gentle birds. We are seeking to increase our flock. Have you been saved by Jesus?”
Larry and Curly stood tall, their necks extended. In unison, they said, “Thank you, but we have already been saved, saved by Mary Magdalene.”
Ms. Mary Magdalene Farconi, a working mother, is a G-11 in the Labor Protections Department of the Alien Affairs Bureau. She supervises a governmental hotline for reporting labor abuse of Avian Nationals and is currently working with cities all over the US to design and develop aviaries within human communities.
Dr. Kathy Kitts, a former geology professor, served as a science team member on the NASA Genesis Discovery Mission. Before that, she directed a planetarium for nine years. Her latest speculative short fiction has appeared in Amazing, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, and Mad Scientist Journal. Her latest short story collection, Getting What You Need, is now available on Amazon. Born and raised in the southwest, she is currently living in the high desert of New Mexico.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Jehovah’s Feathers” is © 2019 K. Kitts
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler