“Fairy tales don’t cure. But they are necessary,
and they delight, and they join us to each other.”
— AS Byatt
Imogen wore her red sweatshirt to lure the hummingbird. She stayed very still on the fire escape, arms held aloft like giant welcoming petals, the opposite of a matador’s flashing, angry cape.
“You look like such a fucking bozo,’ her brother Frank said. ‘You look like you’re trying to be all into art and shit.”
Imogen closed her eyes. There were pale blue starbursts there, in the place behind. She followed them, feeling the flutter of her very own lashes as the lights flitted and spun.
Frank snorted. “OMG. Don’t go totally into a séance or something.” He bounced up and down so that the whole metal apparatus that held them shuddered and groaned. “I’mma get high before class.”
Imogen felt him sit, heard his focused inhale a moment later. Her left shoulder was stiff from holding the shape of the blossom. Her mother had once recommended hitting her brother. “Just punch him in the nose, Mo, if he does it again.”
Then, later that night, when Imogen couldn’t sleep for thinking, always thinking – god, she can’t have been more than eight or nine – she had crept into the living room, where her mother and their neighbour Sheri were drinking wine and thinking they were funny.
“Jesus, Sheri, if you’d seen her face – it was like her head was going to explode. Such a little rule follower. She couldn’t hold those two things together in there: the frustration at his total shittiness – I think he must have drop kicked her Lego village about seventeen times, no remorse – and her absolute conviction that she must not hit. It’s good I guess, I mean, it means she won’t make waves. But wave-making – it’s what life should be about, no?”
Birds are about the furthest from human you can get. They used to be dinosaurs, if you turn back time. Their eyes do that reptilian flick. In stories they have meaning, of course. Don’t use a bird in a story unless you plan to do something with it. It’s like the gun in the first act. It has to go off, you know. Imogen knew. Birds had been with her for her whole life. She was fourteen now, and understood about hormones and brain development. Understood, but could not control. It was the worst, to understand something, to name it, and then to bear witness to its power, completely mute and helpless. A bird in the house means death; a bird shitting on you is good luck; tuppence a bag is how much you pay to feed the pigeons on the church steps if you buy from a poor old London lady. If you were fourteen on the fire escape, then that was a different story.
“Whatever you’re doing, Mo, it’s not working.” Frank’s tone was almost kind, his spirit enfeebled by the pot.
It should be a transformation, something glorious and exotic. It should involve the word plumage.
“Let’s go.” Frank stood up and reached out his hand to her like some gallant of yore.
If she took his hand? There was fate to consider, and practically speaking, Lee Ann McLeod, whose eyeliner made her look like a raptor.
Out on the street, ugly starlings pecked and pried, listening in. Brother and sister hopped a streetcar and sat separately, ear phones embedded.
They rode along King Street, shards of grey-blue lake and sky falling between the buildings, through the trees. Imogen watched a seagull dive bomb a man’s box of steaming poutine. The man was bearded and wore tight jeans. Serves him right, she thought.
Then the hummingbird spoke to her through her headphones. The message was preceded by an insect-like whirring. “Lee Ann McLeod is an asshole.” A purr that blended with the sound of its wings. “Just use your noggin. Samuels will help. Also, your brother’s not as bad as you think.’ Then it was gone. Imogen had been listening to ancient African disco, and when the hummingbird stopped speaking the music came arm-waving and heel-kicking back into her head. She took a deep breath. Someone close to her had farted, but the smell was not unpleasant. The fact that the hummingbird used the word noggin meant Imogen liked the winged messenger a little less. And the only Samuels she knew was a scruffy mutt of indeterminate gender (all the neighbourhood kids had checked) who belonged to an old guy they called the Muffin Man for a reason none of them could remember.
She looked over at her brother. He was talking to the Roma kid who had moved in down the hall. A Roma girl in Imogen’s class had been suspended for setting off a stink bomb right in front of a teacher. It wasn’t like they broke the rules; it was like they didn’t even notice them. Stupid and admirable, in Imogen’s opinion.
The streetcar screeched to a stop at King and Bathurst, and Frank got off at the front doors with the Roma boy. Imogen used the back doors, red hood pulled up over her head, eyes pointing away from the sky, where all the gods lived.
In fairy tales, there were the woods, right? Which could also be the subconscious or the Underworld, or just the great unknown, if you believed in Carl Jung or video games. You had to go there to face your fears and overcome obstacles and complete your mission. Pyew! Pyew! Laser guns or magic. Or animal helpers.
Lee Ann was waiting at the northwest corner of the schoolyard, near the Fortress, which was Imogen’s name for an old wooden lean-to type bin that might be for rock salt or sports equipment or body parts.
“Hey twat waffle,” said Lee Ann, pure carnivore. “Where’s your brother?”
“With the travelling people,” Imogen replied.
“The fuck?” Lee Ann flicked her cigarette into the air where it hovered like a satellite, then fell to earth.
“Use your noggin.” Imogen tapped quickly at her own head, smiling.
Lee Ann lunged for Imogen, but Imogen was quick; she buzzed away and into the building.
The bell had already rung, but the anthem had not yet started. In the basement, she stood in front of her open locker and gazed into its dark guts. “Now what?” she said.
“Get to class,” said the hall monitor, Yuri.
Yuri was so nice. He shrugged at all the right times because he knew exactly what was important and what was just whatever. He always had a tan and might once have been a spy. If he was not so totally ye olde she might have fallen in love with him.
“I’m going, I just need to do something.” She reached for a binder.
“Yuri, do you believe in fate?” Imogen spoke quietly — it was all so sitcom.
“It is fate that brought me here to tell you to go to class.” He shrugged. They were in the same sitcom.
Imogen reached into the locker, then moved her hand downwards, feeling for a clue. There was something cushy at the bottom; it was her puffer vest. Her mother got it on sale because of the colour, which was a tropical green. Not bullet-proof but maybe proof of something. She would wear it to class, as offense and defense.
Yuri watched her put the vest on. “You should go to class,” he said again.
“Yep,” she said.
He walked beside her up the stairs and through the double doors to the main floor hallway. So many closed doors. In stories you got to choose which one you would walk through. But for Imogen, it would be Room 108, Grade 9 geography, with Mr. Gdyczynski. They just called him Sir, mostly, and OMG-skee behind his back. She slipped in at the back; they were in the middle of a Powerpoint on the Boreal Shield. Luckily her friend Tenzin was sitting in front of her. Tenzin texted her a cross-eyed emoji, and then one of their mascot: the little Russian guy with the black hat who was really supposed to be a Buckingham Palace guy. Imogen texted back: Walk home 2gether? And Tenzin replied with a string of hearts in red, green, and blue. The hearts worked. Imogen felt a flock of worries wing away.
Beach? Imogen texted when the bell rang. It was not the most direct way home, but it promised the most in terms of large vistas and weird things washed up by wind and water.
The sky on top of Lake Ontario had that wintry April look. Like: You can pretend it’s spring but I got me some snow up my sleeve. The sun was there, but barely. The girls walked close to the water, where the sand was dark and giving. Tenzin linked her arm through Imogen’s and they tried to synchronize their steps, sharing a middle leg.
“What do you think of Harman?” Tenzin bumped her hip against Imogen’s and they wobbled a little. There were mussel shells scattered around them, and pebbles, and a used condom, a chip bag, and crayfish carcasses. Imogen bent to pick up a pretty mussel shell, intact and pearly. She pinched it in her eye socket like a pirate patch.
“Aargh,” she said. “He’s okay. Do you like him?” Harman was friends with Boiko, who had been hanging out with Frank, plotting stuff.
Tenzin shrugged. “He’s cute.”
“Would you let him touch your tit?” Imogen had only started using the word tit since she found out it was a bird’s name too. It still felt like a curse.
“No. No, most definitely not. Probably.” Tenzin laughed and made a face that Imogen found super-Tibetan, all mischievous patience.
“Check out those birds.” Tenzin pointed to the breakwater, where a line of scraggly black creatures were spreading their wings awkwardly, lifting bird-elbows.
“Those are cormorants,” Imogen said. “Sea nymphs in disguise.”
“Weird disguise,” Tenzin said. “Whoa, check out that guy.”
A man was standing over by the Sunnyside pavilion, sort of in shadows. He looked like maybe he was peeing. Or lighting a cigarette?
“I think that’s his penis.”
“I think he’s looking at us.”
“Imogen? I think we should run.”
They unlinked arms and began to run, cutting up to the boardwalk where the going was easier.
The man ran behind them, gaining ground; Imogen could hear the roar and rasp of his breath as it got louder, drowning out her own.
Then, from the direction of the highway came the sound of loyalty and urgency only a canine could make. Imogen pried her gaze quickly from the path ahead to look across the wide expanse of frosty grey grass that separated them from the rest of the city. A shape was moving – quick and crazy – over the ground. Was that Samuels? She looked back – the man lunged and grabbed on to the back of her friend’s coat. Imogen stopped, patting herself down. Pockets: crumbs from chocolate, lidless lip balm, something with heft. A marker? No, a pen knife. She snapped it open and went for the man, a scream swelling up and out of her throat. The man let go of Tenzin and grabbed Imogen’s wrist, turning the knife towards her heart. He slashed across her chest, cutting through the green vest, into the insulation. And then the dog was underfoot, a blur of snapping, scrappy fur.
Imogen heard Tenzin shouting, and thought she saw people in the periphery. But, oh fuck, her wrist was hurting from resisting. Then she heard Frank’s voice, or rather, his fury given voice. It surrounded her like a force field. Fate or fairy tale? Who knew? The man let go of her hand, backing away, then running up towards High Park, Frank and his friend Boiko in pursuit.
Tenzin scooped Samuels up in her arms and covered her/him in tears and kisses. There was something stuck on Imogen’s lip. She tried to blow it away but it stuck. It was a feather. And now she saw them everywhere, tiny white bits blowing away from her wound, swirling up into the sky.
Heather Birrell’s most recent story collection, Mad Hope, was one of The Globe and Mail’s top 23 Canadian fiction titles of 2012. The Toronto Review of Books called the collection “completely enthralling, and profoundly grounded in an empathy for the traumas and moments of relief of simply being human.” Winner of the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, her work has appeared in many North American journals and anthologies. She currently lives on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland with her family.
India Brookover is a Los Angeles-based collage artist who moonlights as an urban planner.