It was the morning of the funeral. She had laid out her best black dress, sensible heels, and dark tights. All dug from the recesses of her closet, because she never wore black. Not for no reason, anyway.
Bronwyn saw the bird, and it was the same bird she had seen the day before, she was sure of it. It had taken to the warped and weathered windowsill, hovering in a way that reminded Bronwyn of the new moms she watched at the park. Terrified that the slightest breeze may cause some tragic disaster to occur, armed and ready if it did.
But the bird also seemed…wise, in a way. Like it was there for a purpose, and it was just biding time until that purpose revealed itself to the less-enlightened human on the opposite side of the glass.
“A wise bird?” Bronwyn said to no one. She must have been losing it, or already lost it, without expecting or hoping it would be found.
“Speculating about a bird. You always said I was going crazy,” she said, this time directed at a definite audience. There was no response, but there was a reaction from the bird. It tilted its head like it was acknowledging her statement, and patiently waiting to hear more. It couldn’t respond, but then again, neither could Bronwyn’s intended listener.
It had only been two weeks, but she had already exhausted the limits of his voicemail after three days, so she took to speaking out loud, into empty rooms and yards. Whispering secrets to branches of trees or proposing theories to blades of grass just to feel something. She didn’t subscribe to organized religion–the idea of heaven or hell was beyond her capacity to believe, and the thought of a higher power at this point was laughable in its impracticality. But they had talked about it, hours and hours of conversation that looped around and weaved in and out of the paranormal or the impossible. They both believed it, that souls remained behind in one way or another, and she held on to that conviction with every ragged breath. If she couldn’t believe that, she couldn’t communicate with him anymore, and he would really be gone. This was a fact Bronwyn couldn’t face.
The bird was still waiting. She turned away from the dark fabric scattered across her sheets, the contrast of black on red almost inappropriately garish in the harsh light of her bedroom. She took one step, then another, expecting the spooked bird to take flight at her movements. But it stayed almost resolutely still, as if it were the one waiting for her, being careful not to move too fast or loud. Somehow sensing the pain inside of her, and instead of digging in to excavate it, the bird was letting it come out bit by bit.
“Did you send this bird?” She asked, infinitely rhetorical. “Is this your messenger?”
He had been the one to suggest a messenger, in those early days, when their cynical diatribes smirked at the death of their optimistic pandering. It had been an offhand comment that turned into a four-hour conversation, alone in a dim bar with dusty shells on the floor, a collection of empty glasses on the table.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said. “I don’t believe in reincarnation. I think that was invented as a belief to make people feel better about fucking up in this life. They get another chance the next time around, so who cares? Drink a little bit, break some tiny laws, break a lot of hearts. Do-over.”
She was watching his mouth, hypnotized by the shape of his lips around the glass. She was sort of listening.
“No, I don’t believe we get a do-over. We get one chance in this life, and that’s hard enough without expecting to come back for round two. But if you touch a lot of people, and I mean deep down touch someone’s soul, that connection doesn’t just break when you die.”
He always got so excited when he got started on theology, or philosophy. Or history, or movies, or food, or anything. The pale beer in front of him was ignored; his ghostly hands moved from tapping out a rhythm on the steel tabletop to fidgeting with the long leather roped around his wrist. Bronwyn knew him so well already; she knew he didn’t want to be interrupted until he untangled the messy yarn of his ideas into a coherent blanket of thoughts and images. She would let him completely unleash this waterfall of in-the-moment consciousness, and only then would he hear her.
“The connections between children, parents, siblings, friends, lovers. They kill us and break us and heal us and fix us in a way that isn’t tangible or visible–there are no stitches or scars. And that matter, that energy has to inhabit something, because it’s too powerful to be destroyed.”
He thought that the strongest links could manifest themselves in people, places or things once one of the connected objects ceased to exist. Remembering that day, Bronwyn turned new, raw eyes to the bird outside her window.
“Today is the worst day,” she told the bird.
“I’m supposed to put on this dress–you know how I hate to wear dresses–and go stare at some box while people stand up and lie.
“I don’t mean feather lies,” she clarified. She was pulling from their secret lexicon now, weaving meaning into her words without a second thought at the absurdity of the moment. Feather lies were the ones that dealt a softer blow. Low-impact. Less casualties.
“The deep-sea lies. The ones you tell as easily as truths, because you believe them down in your marrow, so much so that there is no distinguishing feeling of guilt or shame that comes from telling them.” The bird waited patiently. “Those lies I can’t face. Everyone talking about a better place. Some holy plan. What about my plans?”
They had been preparing a trip when it happened. Not some sun-drenched vacation, but a real off-the-path adventure.
“You never could do anything normal,” she remarked to the bird. Almost laughing.
“I know you want me to go, that you think I need a chance to say goodbye,” Bronwyn whispered. He had hated the conventional ideals of the afterlife, but he was a staunch believer in closure.
“But I can’t say goodbye. There’s so much more to say. I have more to say.” There was. They hadn’t stopped talking since they met.
“How can I go up from here?” It was another shadowy reference to them, to his favorite mantra. Higher, he always said. Aim higher, Bronwyn. Fly higher.
The bird, to Bronwyn, looked sad. Could birds mirror human emotion? Could her pain be on a level that transcended biology and evolution?
“I wanted to tell you how angry I am,” she said finally. She couldn’t look at the bird; she stared at the scuffed heels of her black shoes instead. “Leaving me here like this when we had so much left to do. When you knew me, to my toes. At least I thought you did. If you knew me, you would have known I can’t do tomorrow or next week or next year without you.”
What she felt now, what she had felt for the last two weeks, was gravity. She had lived twenty-five years on this planet without noticing gravity, and now that she did it was impossible to ignore. The sheer weight of the atmosphere pressed on her chest and crushed her internal organs. She didn’t know how to get off the ground.
Bronwyn, eyes still fixed on her shoes, understood something just then, about that weight. She thought it was strapped to her feet, glued to her body, unmovable and irreversible. But she was holding it, cradling it in her arms, gripping it close to her chest.
“Thank you for listening,” she whispered, as the bird took flight.