Diatribe from the Birdhouse
It’s the night you spend skipping between the rooms of your house after learning your aunt is pregnant, that no longer will you be the only child of the family. It’s the months you imagine it will be a girl, someone who will look like you and let you play with her hair. It’s all the names you dream up for her: Hailey Rae, Jessa Lynn, Magnolia. You want them to name her after you, but you can’t bring yourself to ask. It’s pulling at your aunt’s arm and telling her the names you’ve come up with, her uncomfortable laughter, your mother pulling you away and saying not to ask about it anymore. “It’s a private decision,” she says, but you can’t shake the feeling that you should be involved, that you somehow share responsibility in a child who isn’t really yours to worry about.
It’s the night before the day you turn seven, when the baby is finally born. It’s your uncle confirming in the teary new-father voice exactly what you don’t want to hear: the baby’s a boy. It’s loving him anyway. It’s washing your hands for five minutes straight before holding him the first time. It’s wanting to be safe, to keep him safe, to know that no hand you ever lay on him will be one of harm. They name him after his father and great-grandmother: Charles Walton. Walt for short. It’s thinking you could have come up with better. It’s watching him grow into a curly-haired boy with river blue eyes and candy pink lips. It’s the adults falling all over him at holidays, laughing as he runs around in his diaper and sticks his small plastic toys in his mouth. It’s half of dinner spent talking about his curls: Which parent did they come from? How will they look if he grows them out? Will they stay as he gets older?
It’s the way your hair won’t curl, no matter how much you try. You’ve tried. Hot irons, hot curlers, sleeping in braids. It always falls straight a few hours in, and even then, you hate how it looks when it’s not in a ponytail. It’s asking Walt to play salon, having him sit in front of you while you pretend to snip away his locks with your fake-scissor fingers. It’s brushing his hair too hard, pulling at the curls, hoping they’ll fall a little. It’s how they never do, they always stay full, and he always comes back to play.
It’s the constant joke that you’re talking to yourself. All the adults don’t listen to you anymore, no matter how much you have to say—about your teachers, about your dogs, about the novel you’re sure you’ll write someday. They don’t notice you until you’re halfway through your diatribe, and by that point they’re sure you’re doing it just to hear your own voice. It’s realizing you’ve turned into a tired joke, told too many times. It’s running outside to the birdhouse, hitting it over and over again, hoping something will come out that will actually look at you. But the birdhouse has been abandoned for years, too old for any living creature to want to go near it. It’s getting tired of the disappointment and pulling the birdhouse off its tree. It’s sitting in the grass, tearing the house apart board by board, scratching your fingers while you do it, a splinter digging in the weak part of your palm. It’s leaving the pieces in a pile at the foot of the tree, the rotten wood turned unrecognizable by your own, desperate hands.
It’s when your aunt and uncle finally have a girl, and she has the straightest hair you’ve ever seen. Straight like a sheet held by its corners, a calm waterfall of blonde. Straighter than yours even, which, before her, you thought impossible. It’s wanting her to love you. But you’re fourteen when she’s five, and you feel like it’s hard for anyone to love you then. The rest of the adults are finally trying to talk to you, and you’re finally trying to be distant. It’s Reid, the girl cousin, wanting to talk about her gymnastics class and all the hair bows she owns. It’s realizing they don’t listen to Reid, either, that they’re simply content to laugh about how they wish they could be that young again. It’s being the only one to follow Reid to the yard to watch her do cartwheels one after the other. The grass stains her hands green, and when she’s done she wipes it onto her legs. It’s promising her that you’ll tell the adults what they missed.
It’s when a different aunt has a son, Robert, a cousin not only for you but for Walt and Reid. Now, there are enough of them for the cousins to form a group of their own. It’s their hair, all varying degrees of blond, of thickness, of curliness, all completely different from yours. It’s how they always want to run. Run to the playground, run to the neighborhood pool, run to the construction site that was half-finished when the builders gave up on it completely. It’s the way you’re always thrown in charge of them. It’s: “They’re too young to be left alone.” It’s: “We’re too old to worry about it anymore.” It’s not minding the responsibility. It’s enjoying the loyalty they give you, the closest you’ve come to getting attention from family since you were their age. It’s all their fighting over who gets to hold your hand, who gets to be on your team in backyard soccer, who gets to pull his chair beside yours at dinner.
It’s the way you’re the only one Robert will let bathe him. He cries when his mom suggests that someone else do it, and she always apologizes to you, thinking it an inconvenience. It’s rolling up your sleeves, kneeling by the tub, wringing out the wash cloth over the yellow halo of his hair. His laugh is the same as the sound your change makes when you stir it in your pocket. It’s wondering how they bathe him when you’re not around.
It’s not seeing the kids for a whole year. Time spreads your families across different states, and high school priorities keep you from making any time to see them, no matter how often they call you from their parents’ phones. Sometimes your mom will show you videos of them that your uncle has sent to her: Walt playing an Old Crow Medicine Show song on his guitar, scenes from Robert’s baseball games, Reid’s gymnastic meets. It’s finally seeing them again in a beach house over the summer. It’s convincing yourself that nothing has changed. Walt’s hair is still curly. Robert still follows him from room to room like a lost puppy. Reid still does her front tucks in the living room.
It’s the fear that the cousins are starting to see you as one of the adults. It’s their shouts turning to whispers when you walk in the room. No one’s making them play with you now. It’s escaping to the beach with the book you’re reading and not coming back until the kids are asleep. Because you can. Because they aren’t missing you, anyway. It’s sitting on the partially-lit porch with Robert’s mother while she slips you Winstons and white wine, wiping away sweat because no one could get the fan to work, listening to her talk about her husband, Ryan. It’s how she swears she never intended to marry him, but once she got pregnant with Robert, she felt like she had to. “Kids do that,” she says. “They make you responsible.” One night a few months from now, Ryan will suffer a mental breakdown and beat his elderly mother almost to death, right in front of Robert, who sits on the kitchen counter. It’s falling asleep thinking about it sometimes, that night, Ryan’s heavy fist turning his mother’s face different shades of green and violet. It’s imagining Robert crying, his face turning the same shade of cherry red that it does every time he gets upset. It’s wishing you’d been there to help him, to pick him up by his arms from the counter and take him somewhere safe.
It’s taking Robert apple picking at the local orchard in the middle of autumn. Your aunt’s been worried about Robert ever since Ryan’s breakdown, and you said you’d get him out of the house. It’s inviting your boyfriend to come with you, partly because Robert hates riding in the backseat alone, partly because you hate the idea of Robert picking up Ryan’s habits, because you wish he’d learn something from your boyfriend instead. It’s watching them in the rearview mirror as you weave through the backroads that take you to the orchard, your boyfriend looking at Robert attentively as Robert buzzes on about his baseball team. It’s the same look you always wanted from your adult relatives, focused eyes and a half-smile, the look you never knew how to ask for, the look you always felt you were missing.
It’s watching Robert climb on your boyfriend’s shoulders in the middle of the apple orchard, how Robert’s legs dangle over the expanse of your boyfriend’s chest. It’s trying to pull Robert down by his waist. “It’s my turn,” you say, and Robert starts kicking around, his tennis-shoed feet slamming into your boyfriend’s collarbone. It’s your boyfriend crouching so Robert can get down. It’s Robert running ahead to a row of Honeycrisp apples, refusing to let you touch him.
It’s the decaying apple corpses littering the ground. They fell off the trees weeks ago, and as soon as their skin hit the grass, they turned into nothing more than a rotten waste, something to be stepped over. It’s Robert, refusing to step over them. He picks them up and tries adding them to your basket. “We don’t want that,” you say. “It’s too dirty.” It’s watching him get mad and throw the apple to the ground. He spends the rest of the afternoon kicking the old apples at your ankles, his arms crossed and his chin tucked against his chest. It’s wishing Walt and Reid were there. He’s better behaved around them, more manageable, as if he’s scared of being the least-liked out of the group. It’s wondering if he always acted like this, if his attitude is a new development or if it’s been there for so long that you’ve simply stopped noticing it, like recognizing an old house in your neighborhood that you’ve never stopped to look at before.
It’s the row of trees Robert found an hour after you got there, adorned with strange-looking apples, perfectly round with gold-orange skin. It’s him begging you to let him eat one right then and there, and you telling him no, he has to rinse it off first or else he could get sick. It’s how he guards it for the rest of the afternoon, holding it cautiously behind his back, passing it to your boyfriend for safe-keeping while he climbs a tree, the betrayal of how Robert seems to have chosen your boyfriend over you, though you know you can’t blame either of them. It’s finally finding a water bottle he can use to rinse it off, drying the apple on your shirt before he bites into it with his baby teeth.
It’s the disgust spreading across his face before he spits out the bite and starts scraping at his tongue with his fingernails, trying to get rid of the taste. It’s yanking it out of his hands, scared you’ve let him eat something he shouldn’t have, something too rotten or too ripe. Your boyfriend grabs it from you and takes a bite himself. “That’s a pear,” he says. “Not an apple.” It’s shaking your head, shoving Robert’s shoulder and calling him a drama queen. It’s hiding your relief.
It’s the playhouse at the edge of the orchard that Robert disappears into, built in the shape of an old barn, with red-painted walls and a roof that looks one windstorm away from caving. It’s sinking into the shade of an oak tree while Robert dissolves among a swarm of other children, dark-haired boys who you trust because at least you know Robert’s lemon-bright hair is distinguishable from theirs, like sun glancing from behind storm clouds. It’s the window on the side of the barn, where every few seconds you catch a flash of him, his pale arms, his red t-shirt, his clumsy walk, where you put all of your focus, waiting for him to look at you, too, the way you always looked at him, the way the adults never even tried to, the way you always will. It’s knowing that’s it. That’s all of it.
ANNA SHEPPARD is a senior at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. She has won numerous awards in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and her work is published or forthcoming in The Adroit Journal and Teenage Wasteland Review. She was a runner up in the Skylark Poetry Contest and in the Muriel Avellaneda Prize for Young Poets. She loves crime TV shows unironically and spends most of her time wishing she was with her twin sister.