SongbirdI wear armor under my skin

It grew there, over my squishy snail self

Rose-bloom bruises, a whole bouquet

A callus on a callus on a callus

Fractals spreading like chain mail, hard and yellow

Indelible, impossible as

Your indifference that glances right off

Shailaja sings, you know. They claim she is a bird trapped in a human’s body, that she has never forgotten what it means to have wings, to soar aloft with clouds for companions. But no one remembers her voice.

Yesterday I saw her petting the trunk of a tree as though it were a friend. It was our lunch break, and, bored, I followed her outside. There is only so much compiling of reports one can do before one’s head shrivels like a walnut, after all.

The springtime sun smeared us with yellow like pigment. I found a bench and unwrapped my cheese-tomato-and-chutney sandwich. “Hello,” I said.

While I chewed, she stroked the bark and began to cry.

* * *

You’ll find me folded into that cloth

The curtain you let dry without hanging

Bits of me secreted in every wrinkle

In each tiny trench, I whisper tiny truths

But you pull down the curtain and—

Steam making all things clean—

Iron it

Shailaja had come to us some years before, when I was not yet an adult. Her aunt and uncle adopted her out of a thatched hut, where she sang as naturally as her heart pulsed, without thought, without effort, and settled her in their luxurious house with its manicured gardens. They clothed her in modest fashions, fed her delicacies, gave her pocket money, and encouraged her to invite friends for tea.

We were all so envious.

In return, they asked only that she curtail her singing. It was, said her uncle, a pastime ill-suited to young ladies. Surely, said her aunt, she wished to secure a good position in society? Everyone had to make sacrifices.

Why, her aunt added, she’d had to stop dancing and focus on business, and she had no regrets!

Like many in our town, Shailaja’s aunt and uncle had lived abroad, where they’d learned the finer things in life, and they’d imported those finer things when they’d returned home.

“But I am a bird,” protested Shailaja. “I must sing.”

“Nonsense,” said her uncle. “You are a girl with an overdeveloped fancy. Girls are not birds, nor are birds girls. It’s time to turn your attention to the things that matter.”

He found her tutors for languages, for needlepoint, and for penning elegant letters in perfect calligraphy. Her aunt taught her banking and behavior and how to bake a cake that would bring one’s guests to tears.

Such a lucky girl she was.

“All fine things to be certain,” Shailaja said, “but not skills for a bird.” Her voice was already softer, less certain. A lady’s voice.

“You must be cultivated, like a plant,” said her aunt, and clapped her hands for a maidservant to comb and plait Shailaja’s tangled hair.

And so Shailaja grew cultivated. She grew still. With time, she seemed to forget she might ever have been anything else.

* * *

When you dream and you dream and you dream

Yet your mouth is a desert

Abandoned oasis

Your tongue a deep well run dry

Only dirt now



Shailaja became like us—polished, serene. She was surprisingly good at it, stepping with ease into the well-heeled life we all strove for.

She hosted garden parties, her long hair bound up and her curvy body bound back. After rigorous study, she was inducted into her aunt’s friend’s shipping company, where she performed her duties of public speaking and due diligence with great poise. She even allowed her uncle to betroth her to a man of his choosing. Her smile, when it came, was gracious, sweet.

And she never, ever sang.

Shailaja was perfect, one of us. A true lady.

Yet something was awry, and yesterday by the tree, I saw it. Her mask cracked, and something pounded within her rib cage, desperate to come loose.

I heard it in her tears. I heard it in her words: “Bird,” she whispered. “I was a bird.”

And I trembled, my own heart beating like a hummingbird’s.

* * *

I wear armor under my skin

It grew there, over my squishy snail self

Rose-bloom bruises, a whole bouquet

A callus on a callus on a callus

Fractals spreading like chain mail, hard and yellow

And it came to smother all I was

Heart, stomach, soul

Leaving only

A single stark cry like a quill

Today Shailaja stands before her family home, keening. Our town has gathered over the past hour, eager for drama. Her aunt and uncle, her betrothed, all cajole, threaten, and shout, even try to drag her inside, but it is as if Shailaja is beyond their reach.

At last, she falls silent, and her aunt sighs with relief.

Then Shailaja’s mouth opens once more, crimsoned lips bright. We wait for her to speak, to sing.

We wait for the rumored bird to surge free, to create a spectacle. She has failed. Of course she has failed. She was too wild, too rustic. Not cultured like us. We know when to speak and when to be still.

We watch, entranced, grasping shirtsleeves, necklaces, one another. We wait.

But it has been too long, or perhaps we just never understood, we who had been cultivated like houseplants.

No bird bursts forth. Only a song, so high, plaintive, piercing that it cleaves us in two. Our mouths gape as one.

From our throats emerge songbirds of all types: thrushes, cliff swallows, verdins. They are purple, green, brown. They sing, we sing. Our bodies, our jeering, all slip away.

Shailaja sings chains of glittering words, and they might have thawed icicles in the bitterest of hearts. She sings and sings.

When our birds fly away, they carry us with them. We are our birds, shedding sharp feathers in our wake.

We are song.