I was there the summer Birdie disappeared.
It was 1979 and incredibly hot. I remember how the pavement sizzled from baking in the sun and how the grass became crusty and brown. Betsy, the owner of the local diner, used to give us free ice cream that would melt as we ventured into the outdoor heat. We would lounge on the rusty swings at the old park, enjoying the silence that was only interrupted by the occasional squeak of metal grating on metal while licking the sticky ice cream that inevitably covered our hands in a thick, sugary glaze.
Time was suspended. We wasted hours weaving in and out of alleys, collecting the shards of broken glass that lay forgotten beside dumpsters and wedged in asphalt cracks. Emerald greens, cerulean blues, ruby reds. We stored them in a small bucket, like a pirate’s treasure, and in some ways, it was a treasure; a treasure of mismatched glass that was worth nothing, but sparkled in the sun.
When the daylight began to wane and a cool breeze swept through the town, we would meet in her backyard with our pillows. She lived at the top of a hill in the centre of town. From each direction you could see sleepy houses with their blinds drawn, almost sagging from the heat, and a few cars puttering home at the end of the day, equally exhausted. We would create a makeshift tent from old patchwork blankets and splintered branches that we had collected from the forest on the east side of town. The shards of wood that drew blood were too numerous to count, but the final result was always worth it. With bandaged hands we would stare out of our little home at the sunset, taking turns guessing how long it would take to disappear.
The adults didn’t care where we went; the town was safe. They had grown up there and depended on it as much as the previous generation once had. They had been raised in a time where parenting was pushed aside and all attention was focused on the war. They had confidence in its ability to watch us, guard us, and raise us. We had confidence in it too.
Perhaps that was our mistake.
Birdie was always the fearless one, the one to plan our days, the one to comfort me after my mother left. She would take my hand, her red hair whipping wildly behind her as she ran. I
was always the hesitant one, the one to voice concern, afraid to give in to her recklessness. She would whisper, “Trust me, silly. Trust me.” And I did.
She loved to stare into the windows of the only jewellery store in town, watching the way the diamonds split the sun’s light into a thousand tiny rainbows. She would slowly pull her sleeves down over her bruised arms, her face never leaving the smudged window. I never understood her fascination, how she could stand outside the window for hours at a time, mesmerized by the jewels she knew she’d never own. “I’m gonna have a big rock like that one day.” she told me each time we passed the shop. “I promise you that.”
Our dumpster jaunts were her idea. I would store each piece of glass in the small plastic bucket we had found abandoned in the park, but she would never keep more than one at a time. She constantly searched for improvement, a shard to outdo the one she had previously acquired. Her favourite was sharp and the colour of burning coals. She would lie on her back in the park, lifting it up to the sky and twisting it to reflect the light; the colour would change from deep red to orange before dissipating into blackness. She went everywhere with it, cushioning the fragile form in the centre of her palm, not flinching when the jagged edges lacerated her flesh. I stopped warning her of the leaking blood when I realized she didn’t care. She didn’t care about much, only her glass and me.
We had only met two years prior at a church function, but she had quickly become the constant in my life; a magnanimous benefactor.
For all the lack of propriety in town, everyone still gathered on Sunday to hear Pastor Marshall deliver his sermon, a pretentious speech condemning the town and its sinful inhabitants. Although the attendance maintained a high turnout, the messages relayed each week were met with resistance and forgotten by the upcoming Tuesday.
Birdie was Pastor Marshall’s granddaughter. Each Sunday her unruly red hair was tamed into tight braids and she wore a long-sleeved yellow dress with white shoes. The dainty gold cross that she never removed was displayed on top of the starched lace of her dress. She sat in the front pew, staring up at her grandfather, a neutral expression occupying her face as he read from the large bible on the pulpit.
Both Birdie and the Pastor were obscure and their odd behaviour didn’t ease the whispers that would circulate around the cramped church each Sunday. The town wasn’t discreet about its opinions, but neither Birdie nor her grandfather seemed to notice.
I always admired her quiet indifference to the events around her. While everyone shuffled in their seats Birdie sat quietly, her face expressionless. The only time she faltered in posture was when she looked back at me. She would slip, a sliver of fear crossing her features before snapping her head back to the front of the church.
We became close friends during the Sunday school lessons. She was the pariah, the pastor’s granddaughter that no child wanted to associate with and I was the outcast whose mother had left. At first I was intimidated by the girl I had watched every Sunday, so perfect and so reserved. In the creaky pew at the back of the church, my father would whisper, “Maybe if you were like that Marshall girl your Momma wouldn’t have left us.”
All pretences were lost once I got to know her. I quickly learned that the girl I wished to be wasn’t the same person outside of the crooked church. The little yellow dress and braids were the pastor’s word and held no significant value to her. I marvelled at the self control she possessed. When I had asked her how she tolerated the zealous and orthodox ways of her grandfather, her response had been cryptic, piquing my curiosity and raising more questions: “I don’t.”
She didn’t like to talk much about her parents, so I didn’t pry. We had developed an unspoken agreement to never talk or judge, just listen. Occasionally she would mention her father and certain memories she had of him, her favourite was the time he had bought her the little gold necklace she always wore. Although she spoke little of her father, even less was mentioned of her mother. The only time I had heard her reference the woman was an early evening when we had passed the jewelry shop on our way to the diner. She had paused at the
window and stared in at the expensive items, a dark ruby ring catching her eye. “My momma had a ring like that once.”
Birdie wasn’t a secretive person, she was just careful in her selection details. I had always known there was something different about her. She didn’t act like the rest of the people in the town; she was controlled and spontaneous, confident and humble, methodic and zany. She wanted to leave.
I couldn’t fathom deserting the place I had grown up in – it was home. Each time she described her plans, I would sit in fascination, thoroughly confused and enticed. She made everything sound glamorous, beautiful, exotic. Completely different from the town we had grown up in. I remember how her eyes would widen as she described the places she planned on visiting: the salty waters of the Dead Sea, the ice peaks of the Swiss Alps, the paved streets of New York City. Along with her prized piece of glass, she carried around a small encyclopedia, each page covered in multicoloured notes. “This is my bible,” she would tell me while flipping through the dog-eared pages. “One day, I’m gonna take you to every place in here. I promise.”
We had developed a habit of leaving our pieces of glass in various places throughout town. We liked to imagine that we were leaving clues –a trail – for someone. We started with the smaller shards, the ones that weren’t as special as the others and worked up to the large pieces we had been saving. I was hesitant to part with the glass, but Birdie insisted. She told me that I couldn’t hold onto something forever, or else it would lose its magic. Although she repeated this to me many times, she never left her special piece of glass. When I asked her why it was so important, she didn’t answer.
She was a whimsical person, always daydreaming about the future. I often wondered why she stayed; perhaps she wanted to save me. We both knew the life the town ensured and it was one neither of us wanted. To just . . . exist. It was what my parents had both done, until my mother left, but people had always talked about her. Snide comments, concealed whispers, and judgemental eyes. Birdie told me that she had probably needed to get away. “In towns like this, it gets hard to breathe. You shouldn’t hate your Momma for leaving – I would’ve done the same thing.” I had laughed at this, thought she was trying to be funny. What mother would leave her child? What mother wouldn’t take her child? Birdie had looked at me while gently stroking her red glass, her face taking on the stoic expression she usually reserved for church. It was the first time I realized that she wouldn’t always be there for me. She didn’t plan on staying in the town forever; she expected to leave and expected me to go with her.
We didn’t speak much of what would happen after the summer ended; we were aware that the illusion we had created would not last. She was two years older than me and as July faded into August, I could see her struggling to maintain the optimism she had possessed since we’d met. She became more reserved and aware, making up excuses to not have our nightly sunset meetings. I would wander around town alone, thinking she was helping the pastor clean the church before spotting her across the street, furiously writing in her little encyclopedia, never bothering to hide her purple arms. I never told her that I knew she was lying. Admitting it to her would be admitting it to myself and I wasn’t ready for that. Sometimes I would follow her around, keeping a careful distance between us. The places she would go only served to further my confusion: it was our route, our typical grounds.
Most of the time she sat at the park on one of the old swings, kicking the dirt and gravel underneath her feet. She would stare at the main road that passed by the other side of the park and the forest that extended beyond it. The town was so isolated that it was rare for vehicles to pass through and if they did they never stopped. No one had moved to the town in the past twenty years.
I recognized Birdie’s longing to escape, but I couldn’t fathom it. Our town felt safe and protected, as if there was bubble around it. With the exception of my mother, no one left and no one stayed. Although it was relatively boring, it was peaceful. The town’s bubble was immune to the rest of the world. The nearest city would rarely remember to deliver its newspapers to the gas station, and when it did, it only brought a few copies. Birdie had always secured the first print. We would check at the gas station daily to see if any new papers had been brought in, and if they hadn’t, Birdie’s disappointment would only last for a couple of seconds. Pastor Marshall chastised her about the newspapers. He claimed they were the Devil’s way of luring people out of safety by filling their heads with lies and blasphemy. She would nod, as if agreeing with him – the newspaper folded on her back underneath her shirt.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that bubbles didn’t last forever. They were fragile and always popped.
Birdie’s strange behaviour continued for weeks. She didn’t forget about me, but at times she was so distant that I was sure she thought she was alone. When I asked her what was wrong, she had laughed and said not to worry. Everything was fine. She repeated this to me every time we were together, until it wasn’t for my benefit anymore, but hers. I noticed how her encyclopedia looked more tattered and worn, and how the cuts on her hands had started to scar. When I suggested that she carry the piece of glass in her pocket instead of her hand, she shook her head vehemently, completely dismissing my idea. I wanted to help her, but she wouldn’t listen. She continued to insist that everything was fine.
Each Sunday she would appear with her grandfather, dressed in the yellow dress and ceremoniously take her position in the centre of the front pew. No one else had noticed that something was wrong, so I tried to forget.
It was hard to ignore her new behaviour and pretend as if nothing had changed. It wasn’t just her personality that changed, but her actions too. She preferred to sit on the swings at the park and never looked in the window of the jewelry store like she had before. She would stare at the road, her eyes narrowed as if trying to see something that was impossibly far away. I remember watching her expression as we sat at the park; it was the look my mother had always given my father.
Over the next few weeks, I rarely saw her. She had begun to rapidly fade from not only my life, but her own as well. She was hollowing.
The summer heat had started to fade, the cool air enticing more movement throughout the town. Those who had barricaded themselves within their homes had slowly begun to emerge, attempting to salvage their lawns and gardens from the unmerciful rays of the sun. More children appeared at the park and the narrow sidewalks became inhabited by women pushing their babies in cheap strollers while sipping on cold bottles of cherry cola. It was as if the air in the bubble surrounding town had been replenished. The town was no longer ours. It was everyone else’s as well.
At odd times I would see Birdie walking down the street, her face more sallow and gaunt each time. A small hole had begun to form in my stomach, as if I was storing all the glass inside of it. Each time I thought of her, I could feel the glass cut me. I wanted to approach her, but it no longer felt right. She had become a stranger.
Early one evening, I found her encyclopedia lying on the ground near the swings – the pages so dirty and tattered that it was difficult to read the words. The multicoloured messages she had left on the margins had lost their colour and when I rubbed them, completely disappearing from the paper. I was hesitant to look inside the book, afraid that she would be angry. I looked around the park for her before flipping through the encyclopedia to the place where the spine naturally parted the book in two. The two pages were covered in the same scripture verse: Isaiah 64:6. It was printed over and over again, deeply pressed into the paper and completely covering whatever words had existed before. I wasn’t familiar with the verse and had never heard her mention it before. It was so foreign from Birdie that I partially believed that her grandfather had written it. It was stiff and formal – something that he might say, but as much as I wanted to believe that it had been the pastor, I knew that it wasn’t true. The words were scrawled in loopy penmanship – undeniably feminine and undeniably hers.
I had closed the book, disturbed. I didn’t know what had bothered me so much, but it was there.
Each day I looked for Birdie, hoping to return the encyclopedia, but didn’t get the chance for another week. She was preoccupied, drifting through the streets of town so completely focused but unaware at the same time. No one noticed her except for me. Even Betsy stopped asking where she was when I would wander into the diner for ice cream.
When I managed to return her book, I was unprepared for the sight up close. Her long red hair was tangled and greasy while her eyes looked glazed and afraid, staring at me as if she wasn’t sure who I was. I handed her the book and lied that I hadn’t looked inside. Her response was vague and unsatisfying – pleasantries that I knew she reserved for strangers. She gnawed at her lip, irritating the cracked and dry surface which caused it to bleed. “Thanks. I didn’t notice that it was missing.”
She turned away, the book hanging loosely in her hand, and began to walk down the street before stopping. Looking back at me, she started to speak, articulating her words carefully, as if she was afraid of divulging any unnecessary information. “Promise me . . .” she began before quickly turning away and running down the street. I wanted to go after her; I had so many questions, questions that only she could answer, but I knew I couldn’t. She was gone.
The town wasn’t the same without her by my side. She was the leader, the one I would trust and follow. I was no adventurer and without Birdie, I could feel myself regressing back into the shadow I had been in before. The only sense of normalcy that remained was church – it was the same every Sunday; the same people who sat in the same seats, the same starting time, the same lectures in varying forms, and the same Birdie. Each Sunday was a repeat of the one before.
I preferred monotony and repetition – each time something in the town changed, it had negatively affected me. I had lost my mother and I was losing Birdie.
While I accepted the loss, I still expected to see her around the town. Birdie was a fixture – a permanent feature that would never leave. For all her wild and fantastical plans, I had always assumed they would never happen. I knew, just like the rest of the town, that it was rare for someone to escape. The town had a way of sucking people into the bubble and then erasing their memories of the outside world. It was numbing.
On the final Sunday of August as I was preparing for church, there was a knock at the door. I listened from my room as father talked to one of our neighbours. It was brief and after the door shut, I heard his footsteps walking down the hall to my bedroom. I could tell something was wrong. The neighbours hadn’t come to our house since my mother had left. My father and I were taboo.
He had opened my door and without stepping inside, told me that church was cancelled. Birdie was missing.
I remember how I disregarded my father’s words as lies. It was a cruel joke.
He looked at me for a moment, as if waiting for my reaction, before shutting the door. After he left, I sat in my room, completely still. I had already put on my Sunday clothes and shoes.
Without removing anything, I left the house. My black shoes started to scuff as I dragged my feet down the sidewalk, slowly moving towards an unknown destination. The hot sun pounded down on my back and my black clothes felt constricting. I tried to roll up my sleeves, but the material was too tight and ripped. As I entered Main Street, I passed John, the owner of the gas station. He looked down at me, pity clearly etched across his face, before asking if my father was joining in on the search for Birdie. They were leaving for the forest in fifteen minutes. I shook my head. John’s mouth twisted and he gave me a nod. He had known the answer before asking.
I continued on, eventually ending up at the park. As I sat down on one of the swings, I tried to recall a time that church had been cancelled.
I kicked off of the ground and tried to get the swing up as high as I could. The rusty hinges squealed in protest as I went higher and higher. The ground disappeared from beneath me as I leaned back and looked up at the vast stretch of blue; the bright light from the sun forced me to close my eyes and I felt weightless. I wanted to let go of the chains. I wanted to let go of all the memories I had. I wanted to forget everything – my mom, the town, and Birdie. As I felt my hands slipping I opened my eyes and jumped off the swing. For an instant I was flying, flying far away from the town and everyone in it. The moment ended as my feet collided with the pebble strewn dirt, sending instant waves of pain up my legs. I fell to the ground, the rocks slicing my knees and hands.
Looking down, I noticed a red glint wedged in the ground. Wiping the blood and dirt from my hands, I picked up the tiny speck before realizing the various others that littered the ground. They were Birdie’s. Her glass was shattered.
Collecting as many pieces as I could, I presented them to my father who quickly dismissed it as a child’s delusional ravings. He grabbed the pieces and threw them in the garbage – forbidding me from retrieving them. “When people leave, that’s their choice. It’s none of our business. You stay away from whatever is happening with that Marshall girl.”
His words ripped something from me that I was not able to identify. Before I had found the glass, I had hoped that Birdie would reappear and laugh at everyone’s concerns. I had hoped that she would be her old self – a happy carefree dreamer. But now that I had found her glass crushed near the swings, I knew that wasn’t possible.
The week after her disappearance went by slowly – no one spoke of it. Groups of volunteers routinely combed the area surrounding the town, but recovered nothing. She was gone.
The next Sunday, everyone gathered in the church. It felt smaller and more confining, as if leaving was impossible. Pastor Marshall stood at the pulpit, his large hands clutching the wooden stand on either side. His expression was neutral as he gazed out at the sea of faces who watched him expectantly. I felt nauseous looking at him and at Birdie’s vacant seat. I wanted him to say something about her. I wanted him to acknowledge her disappearance. I wanted him to do something. Instead, he looked out over the congregation and smiled.
The opening words of his sermon stirred my memory to the day I had found Birdie’s encyclopedia. I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt so unsettled until he mentioned the bible verse that she had written over and over again.
“We must look to Isaiah 64: 6. It offers us insight towards the sinful and how they surround us: ‘But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities like the wind, have taken us away.’”
Kortnee Paiha is currently an English student attending the University of Calgary. She has always had a passion for reading and writing and has published several short stories and poems in various literary journals both in Canada and the United States. She has written three novels and is in the process of publishing her most recent work. Aside from the literary world, Kortnee lives in Calgary, Alberta and enjoys spending time with her two dogs, Max and Fred. Connect with her on Twitter: @KortneePaiha