Fall of a Bird by Louise McKenna
Louise McKenna was born in the United Kingdom and studied at the University of Leeds where she completed a joint honours degree in English Literature and French. She now lives in South Australia. In 2010 a short poetry collection, A Lesson in Being Mortal, was published by Wakefield Press. In 2013 she co-edited Flying Kites, a Friendly Street Poets anthology, also published by Wakefield Press. Her poetry has appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Red River Review, Eureka Street and Poetrix. Her work has also appeared in Light and Glorie, an anthology of South Australian poetry published by Pantaenus Press. This year she was longlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize and she was shortlisted for the same prize in 2013. This is her first published piece of fiction.
Fall of a Bird
The bang makes her spin round as the bird hits the paving stones outside her lounge room window. It’s a honeyeater, tiny and beautiful in its gold and black plumage. Jen goes out into the yard and cups the insensate bird in her hands. It’s warm as blood and she can feel the rapid vibration of its heart. There is no time to nurse it. She feels a pang of guilt at the thought of leaving it, but she is running late already. She lays it in the shade.
Its wings have made a ghostly impression on the glass door. Strange, how this draws a tear from her. She does not normally weep over such things; having worked as a nurse for ten years has shored up some emotional ballast, yet this small tragedy moves her. Her mug of coffee sits on the kitchen top, but she feels a sudden repulsion for it and slings it in the sink. Another wave of nausea breaks over her. She feels depleted, a little down. This is a virus taking hold, she thinks, although she’s been like this now for over a month. She hopes her GP will shed some light from her blood results on Monday.
She glances down at her fob watch. Ten to six: that sparrow-farting, heart-sinking hour on Saturday before the early shift. Passing the open door of her daughter’s bedroom, she glimpses Polly, one arm splayed across the doona, the other thrown back on the pillow, the way she used to sleep as a baby. In a week’s time she will be four. Despite the celebration, Jen will silently grieve once more for the anniversary of the day she was told that no more children were possible. When they opened her up and lifted Polly out, there were ripples visible on the uterine muscle. She was told her uterus had been about to split apart, that it was perilously frail and inelastic. Then it failed to contract after Polly’s birth, resulting in massive blood loss.
During those first ten, sacrosanct minutes in which they worked to stem the haemorrhage, Jen prepared to face death, and she clung desperately to the edge of consciousness, determined not to fall into a pelagic darkness where she would not find her baby or partner. Afterwards they told her and Mark how Bandl Rings were the cause, the phenomenon indicating impending uterine rupture, first discovered by Ludwig Bandl. During those weeks of slow recovery, Jen had googled the nineteenth century obstetrician, and learned how he had spent his last years in an asylum. Her specialist had been straight with her. She remembers his eyes, bloodshot from too much work, or alcohol, when he recommended sterilisation. A rare problem. Very rare, her womb was dangerously thin, he said. Another pregnancy might kill her.
There is a violin case propped up by the door, and she thinks of Mark, how he will be up in a few hours preparing Polly’s breakfast in time for Dora the Explorer. His career as a music teacher allows her to work weekends for the penal rates that come in so handy. He’d played some Beethoven for her last night, the notes spiralling off into the room with a mellifluous sadness.
‘God, you look as white as one of those sheets,’ Sue tells her at the nurses’ station. They’ve just finished handover and are waiting for an eighty-four year old with a fractured hip to come in. Sue sets some tea before her on the desk before Jen feels her world tilt again, black snow dotting her vision. She sinks on to the chair and waits for it to thaw.
‘Have you got an appointment yet?’ Sue asks, searching her colleague’s face.
‘Yes, on Monday.’
‘Good.’ That is all Sue has to say, and the word trails in the air as she goes off to her duties. Jen has to delete an unbidden image of a tumour slowly rotting her away.
After her appointment late on Monday, how does she open the car door in the health centre car park, turn the ignition key and manoeuvre out? How does she drive home through the city’s craziest hour? She pulls up behind a ute, a demonic looking dog menacingly dripping strings of saliva over the tailgate, and vomits into a supermarket bag.
She arrives home almost disorientated. Her limbs move mechanically, as if her brain no longer communicates with her body, and she is swimming through air. She takes a shower. Afterwards, naked and dripping, she stands still and drinks in the emptiness of the house.
Mark’s text still shows on her phone: At Woolies, hope everything OK xxx. She throws on some clothes then walks through to the lounge room. Polly’s pink blanket is spilled across the sofa. There are two of her books on top of it. An arrow of grief enters her.
The bird is still there, motionless, under the garden fence. She walks out into the yard. The impossibly small engine of its heart ceased, perhaps hours ago. Its eyes are glazed and soulless. She kneels down, takes it once more in her hands. This time it is cold. She sees honeyeaters almost every day, darting back and forth among hedges and power lines, where they briefly arrange themselves like notes on a stave. She takes a trowel from the shed, scoops a hole in the humus beneath her roses and gives it a burial she hopes is deep enough to deter the neighbour’s cat.
Come and see me next week, her GP advised her. He spoke with some emotion, being fully versed in Jen’s medical history. How could she have known, that as an afterthought, perhaps acting on professional instinct, he had called the lab and requested a pregnancy check in addition to the other tests? So now it is on paper, the report confirming the incontrovertible evidence from a few millilitres of blood. Nausea, overwhelming tiredness, spells of dizziness. Not the symptoms of a tumour, but an eight-week old foetus struggling to make its presence felt.
A very small chance of pregnancy. She remembers signing the consent form for the sterilisation, the smaller print insuring the hospital against all those highly improbable risks and complications. A very small chance. All life needs. She has a week to think things through; another week while the baby grows, swimming in the warm dark.
As she steps back inside the house, she sees herself in the glass door and above her, a perfect cloning of clouds in a blue sky, the same forgery of heaven that tricked the bird. The print of its wings is like the spread, phantom fingers of a minute hand. She reaches for a cloth.