The Nest Eternal / Nick Manzolillo

A young white woman in an oversized brown sweater stands in a forest, her hands covering her face.
 

Children, running by the window. A dream of a lullaby that keeps spinning and spinning. Laughter merges with birdsong. Emily raises a hand to the pale light spilling into the room. Her bed sheets, molded to her body, pull her back, a sated tongue about to complete the swallow.

When her stomach rumbles to the point that it hurts, she finds the strength she needs to leave her bed. The house rocks on a choppy sea, until Emily drinks something and pops the pills that are supposed to make the world brighter. When she steps onto her porch, she convinces herself they’re working.

In a clump of weeds by the porch steps a child’s bike, never ridden, continues to rust. Those particular weeds are older than most. The sound of a baby crying trickles from the only trifecta of trees in her yard, where there perch only birds that stare at her and cock their heads. The yellow grass in the field beyond is tall enough to eat up the dirt road that leads to other people. To life uninterrupted.

Emily lights herself a cigarette plucked from the packet that’s always resting against her thigh through the silk of her bathrobe. She stares back at the birds, her arms crossed. A pair of crows settle on the power lines in the distance, and she repositions herself to add them to her focus. She stares up for so long that she doesn’t notice the naked little boy crouched by the trunk of the tree until he moves.

With skin of golden dust, the boy runs along the edge of the tall grass, blending in to the point that he flickers in and out of imperceptibility. Call it shock, or her refusal to break what’s become a daily ritual, but Emily takes one more pull from her cigarette before calling out.

“Hey! What are you doing?” She surprises herself when her voice creaks, fading in and out of pitch. The birds speak better English than her. She takes a step forward, her bare feet smudging in the undisturbed dust near the steps that lead to actual earth. The boy glances her way without letting up his momentum. He disappears into the tall grass and Emily watches the reeds wiggle before going still. He’s stopped and is watching her like some jungle ape curious about intrusive explorers. Surely.

“I see you!” Emily shouts, even though she doesn’t. She remembers what you’re supposed to do when you see a child barely old enough to walk out on their lonesome. “Are you okay? Where’s your mother?” There’s a phone in her kitchen with plastic buttons that have gone hard from lack of touch. She should call someone. Anyone.

Emily stubs the cigarette out in the same, circular black smudge along the side of her house that acts as an ashen mockery of her bronze doorbell. When she looks back to the tall grass, a fox is sitting at the spot where the boy vanished. It dashes, slanted, past the tree along the side of her house before vanishing in the grass once more. The hair along Emily’s arm stands up, and then she hears the giggle.

A child’s giggle from the opposite side of her house and this time she acts, sweeping to the far flung and rarely visited corner of her porch. Rabbits, three of them, brown, black, and white interchangeably, stand on their haunches and peer at her. For some reason, they remind her of show-bears at the circus.

“What do you want?” Emily asks the rabbits, and somewhere through the dim of place, time, and self-awareness, she realizes what it means. When you live alone and start talking to things that can’t talk back.

Dual crows croak from the trees of mockery as Emily jerks her head so fast she gets whiplash. The black birds have moved in. They stare at her in harmony with the little birds, taking greedy eyefuls of confused woman. Of a hungry and confused woman who had her first smoke of the day ruined.

“Are you out there, hun?” Emily calls to the tall grass beyond the trees. Children trump foxes and hares, crows and tweedy birds. Or at least that’s how it used to go. But what does she owe the bipedal hardly hairy things that share the same evolutionary design as her? What’s a child to a critter when you do everything right and suffer endlessly? Emily remembers the pet cemetery at her parents’ home, hundreds of miles and too many decades in the past. No, there’s not much different at all between them. Their cries are the same.

The doorframe becomes a mouth and suddenly Emily’s gripping the doorknob from the opposite threshold, overlooking the porch. She shakes her head, both simultaneously pushing the door closed and holding it open with all the strength she has left. The boulder that she’s been pushing up a curved slope gets heavier and heavier. When she sees the children sitting in the trees, swinging their legs and looking at the sun through the shade of the leaves, the tide of her battle shifts in her enemy’s favor. On opposite sides of the children sit the crows, completely still as if taxidermied. Emily begins counting to herself as she holds the door open, wondering how long she’ll last.

There’s a squeaking from the side of the porch, where the bike rusts. Emily goes from both closing and holding the door open to holding herself up by the same arms with dual intent. The squeaking continues until a boy with golden eyes pedals the bike into the driveway reclaimed by dirt and grass.

The boy’s olive skin is so fresh, so new. Recently applied and stretched over muscle and bone. The boy turns his head, both bare feet on the pedals, the training wheels propping both him and the red rusted frame up forevermore. A fox’s late-night cry emits from the boy’s mouth, the sound of a young woman screaming her lungs out into bloody, glistening chunks upon learning what happened to the two most important people in her life. Emily’s scream matches the boy’s and tears through the fabric of time. The door flings open. The porch greets her knees with the compassion of a tired dog having its treat pulled away from salivating jowls. Blood forms from splinters prickled up like an agitated porcupine.  

She looks up as the bike falls over, sees a fox running toward the trees where the children who sing better than birds let this backend of the world know their song. Emily’s on her feet, pushing past one porch step at a time, knowing she’s too late as the bike falls on its side, defeated at last. As she crosses the distance and reaches out to scoop up a child’s greatest toy, she knows the only place it belongs now is in the dump, repurposed to have a purpose. Just like the truck with the cracked windshield, front end dented in beyond reason, with its bed still full of river sand that still rests in the rotting barn out back.

Emily’s outstretched arms rise up, pulling an invisible beam in the sky and lifting her airborne. Her throat slits open into feathers, her feet web into paws. Her hind legs propel her up into the air and all together with one voice, she screams with her animals, her children, owning the day at last.

Three black crows fly over the fields and head toward town.

Emily’s house weeps softly to itself, as children who go from hares to foxes to badgers and back again peer in through the windows, whispering in voices that only their mother can understand.

***

Nick Manzolillo’s short fiction has appeared in over sixty publications, including Switchblade, TQR, Red Room Magazine, Grievous Angel, and The Tales To Terrify podcast. He's recently earned an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University. More about Nick, including links to his publications, can be found at nickmanzolillo.com.