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February 2, 2022


Beth Hahn

When my friend’s husband died, it was March—that last cold streak of winter rain—and we opened all the windows in her apartment so the wind could rush through the rooms. I left her sitting at the kitchen table eating ice cream out of the carton while I went to work on boxing up her husband’s sweaters and shoes. She was wearing a red knit hat and making two lists. Death. Not Death. When she fell asleep on the couch, I circled Not Death in blue ink, closed the windows, and finished her ice cream.

I began my own list. Loons. A barn owl. The sun setting over the river in the summer. The middle of June.

Contrary to what the doctor says, a single, damp-feathered ebony bird has built her nest in the branches of my rib cage. I can feel the rustle of her wings, her sleek throat in my own as she tilts her head back, searching for an exit.

My friend and I rented a vacation house. The house had a view of a lake, and beyond that, endless pines. We took the canoe out into that stillness and listened to the loons. Between their calls, my friend said she’d lucked into her husband, the way you luck into a job or a bargain.

At night, B-Side texted emojis of animals and hearts. I could feel the warm underside of the bird as she worked her nest, turning this way and that. B-Side is a DJ. He’s the sort of DJ who still does beat matching and slip curling with two turn tables. He pulls a child’s wagon of vinyl from gig to gig.

If I were a DJ, I’d play soothing sounds—a heavy coin dropping into a slot, a boot in snow. When I can’t sleep, which is often, I make a playlist of all the sounds I’d use. My doctor gave me a white pill to settle the bird. She said it was for me, not the bird, but I stopped taking it. I could feel the bird’s unmoving weight on my heart.

Whenever I think of my friend’s husband, I think of him saying, “Amazing!” He said that at their wedding, standing up in front of everyone in a stiff suit holding a drink. He loved high rises and scotch and winning, but mostly, he loved my friend.     

The first night I took B-Side home with me, I told him about the bird. He put his ear to my chest and listened. “I think it’s true,” he said, and took a black marker from his cross-body bag. He drew the bird on my skin, stippling her feathers and outlining her shining eyes.

My friend taped Not Death to her refrigerator. She drank power shakes and went running.

The day they took me to the hospital, I fell on the sidewalk at mid-day, my mouth wide open, the sky above me. In the emergency room, they asked me my name, but I could not speak. Wings spanned my lungs.

When my friend’s apartment was empty of everything, she threw a going away party. I was late because there was a train crash and it was snowing.

“I wasn’t sure if you were going to make it,” my friend said, coming towards me with her arms outstretched. She was radiant in a silver dress. The room was crowded with people I’d never seen.

B-Side was set-up in a corner. I went over and sat on his wagon. He took my hands for a moment, and then slipped his headphones off and set them on my head.

I could hear the BPM move from one song to the next, the slow increase or decrease of energy. I like to see people dancing. I like their hands in the air, the flyaway hairs stuck to the forehead and neck. B-Side put on an extended play and we went on to the floor.

At the end of the night, B-Side and I went up to the roof to have a look at the stars. We could see the train burning in the distance. The snow had stopped. The night was clear.

He took me in his arms. The bird threw herself at my sternum.

I whispered to him about the lake house—how I’d slipped out early in my suit and boat shoes. I described the way the trees made a pattern on the surface of the water, and said how I stood knee-deep, looking down until the silt settled and everything stilled.

Whenever I close my eyes, I think of the water in that lake—the way the fronds sway—and how if you’re in the lake, you don’t see it, because as soon as you move, everything changes.