The neighborhood has gone mad. During the night, a rolling cavalry of invasive ivy–on the move all summer, growing a foot each day—surged onto the back porch and made for the door. At first light Millicent is up, out of bed, dressed and at the ready. Rake in both hands, she whacks at the voracious vines. Her house, the town’s last bastion of civility and history (and this is not only her opinion on the matter) is sacred territory and at least for now still hers to defend. She delivers a deathblow to a deceptively tender tendril snaking over the door jamb.
Out of the corner of her cloudy eyes (where are her glasses?), Millicent spies more tumult in the cedar at the back of the yard. A desperate upheaval of branches midway up the giant tree, a frenzied waving. Millicent throws down the metal rake (what she needs is a chain saw) and rifles through the chaos of mildewed bills on the kitchen counter until she locates her bifocals (required at her age, which is not old but not young).
And oh hell. Through the open door she sees clearly a girl bouncing on a branch. A wiry towheaded urchin, barelegged and tenacious, plays dangerously high in Luciano Pavarotti, Millicent’s childhood name for the cedar, one of the largest of its kind in the state of Oregon. A behemoth, Luciano towers over all the other trees on the block. He’s become a cacophonous refuge to robins, grackles, three snowy owls, goldfinches, thrush, hummingbirds, jays, and one emaciated falcon with a precarious nest on its tippy top point. There’s no logic anymore to which birds check into Luciano nor from what migrator pattern nor how long they’ll stay.
In hot pursuit of the child is a blue jay, big and ornery as a raccoon. When he dive-bombs the child, her feet slip out from under her. She swings by her hands at an impressive but dangerous height, face to the sky, skinny legs bicycling through the air.
“You there,” Millicent calls out.
Of course the girl can’t hear her.
A week ago Millicent lost her voice. More like it was stolen from her, all because she was trying to finally ask something for herself! The jay dogging the youngster, a blue menace, swears at such volume the girl wouldn’t notice Millicent even if she were still in possession of her once rich baritone vocal cords. Yes, truly, that’s the F-word coming out of the bird’s open beak. The expletive hangs over the once finely manicured grounds. Birds have taken up human speech instead of singing in order to survive, and the results have not been pretty (Thank you, global warming). Their complaints assault all day long the town Millicent’s father (mayor for 30 years, drunk for 40), ruled through guile and money.
Millicent recognizes the child from the tight knot of her fists, the unnaturally long limbs. Lorely, from two houses down, the property once in Millicent’s family but long since sold off. A prepubescent fairy let to run wild by her mother and father (not from here), much the way Millicent ran wild, although she’d never made her way that high up Luciano. There’s been no time for that. Millicent had duties from birth. Father drunk, mother dead, older sister crying somewhere in the many rooms of the house, Millicent had to keep up appearances. Her nightly chore, for instance: Put the old man to bed reeking of his $200 a bottle cognac, then stand at attendance by his massive throne of a bed, eyes demurely to the floor, and endure his eloquently detailed grievances over his wife for dying young, the town for going to shit with foreigners, and his hip for giving out when he tried to play golf. If he could, he’d sue Millicent’s mother for abandoning him AND God for facilitating her escape.
That girl in the tree, Lorely, dangles. She’s laughing. Laughing! But it’s no laughing matter. Should the girl lose her grip, Luciano will let her fall to her death. The child needs a ladder. She needs a father to carry her down on his shoulders. Or a firefighter will do. Millicent picks up the phone, dials 911, then hangs up. She keeps forgetting. She has no voice.
At that sad second, the emerald green hummingbird that still rules the garden, or what’s left of it, zips into the kitchen door and whirs about Millicent’s head. With worrisome focus, he begins driving himself at a closed window. This problem, at least, Millicent can quickly address. Before he can break his neck or wing, she traps the tiny fury with an open hand against the glass. When her fingers come tightly around him, he looks her straight in the eyes. He doesn’t squirm or try to get away, as if the effort is beneath his dignity.
Birds these days. Angry at the world.
Millicent knows she should carry him to the back door and let him go so he could return to his nest in Luciano, but her fingers stay clamped over his minute fury. He glares at her, the way hummingbirds do, daring her to make up her mind. She glares back.
And here Millicent considers her hand, veins rising into definition on the back like urgent, blood-ink words she can almost but not quite make out: Die? Fly? Sell? Dare she? And now she’s slumping into “the decision” she made on that fateful day last week. (The bird waits. Lorely seems to have worked herself back up onto a branch and closer to Luciano’s trunk, the jay swooping in after her.) The house, a once glorious golden Victorian, has gone rancid with neglect and the weight of rain. While the rest of the West Coast has burned to dust in the last ten years, the Pacific Northwest drowns in itself. Already the daily gang of rain clouds collects over the yard.
Still, the climate refugees from California keep coming. They buy fancy rain gear and sump pumps and then moan about missing the sun. A week ago a developer, an old high school classmate (handsome now he’s gone grey and certain with age) knocked at Millicent’s front door then wafted into the dark hallway on his cologne. After taking her hand, he offered her two million dollars (or exactly two million, one hundred and six dollars and thirty cents) for her manse (his word “manse”) and the 8 acres of weedy estate (again, his word). He lay the contract on the front table along with a pen with his name on it. John Willis Developing. He gave her until today to make up her mind. After that, he promised her, hand sliding up her wrist, She’d never see an offer like that again. He smelled like a pancake doused in syrup, and she wanted to lick him. With that kind of money, she could fly him to a hot beach near a blue sea and rub him down with suntan oil. Then eat him. If she was a bon vivant of the world with a cool million or two in her bank account, she could nibble and spit her way through men like plump shrimps at a buffet.
So what had she said at that moment, John Willis’s hand traveling down, down, down toward her ass? Panting in the disintegrating glory of her expansive foyer, she had sung out, “Make way for 20 new houses!” Goodbye Luciano and the bird colony. (She felt sick already about that.) At least her family home would live on. Just not with her in it. “Picture” (John Willis had whispered in her ear) “a central office for the subdivision in the old manse with an Airbnb upstairs.” She could come back and visit any time.
“Yes, yes, yes!” she had moaned.
Then as soon as she shut the door behind him, her voice went out like a light. Gone. Not a peep.
Justice. Because how many times in the last year had she stood in City Hall in front of the council and mayor (that little shit) and denounced in carefully enunciated sentences (as she had been taught) the rampant spread of half-empty parking lots and newly tarred roads that dead-ended at the edge of fertile fields destined to be subdivisions sprouting disastrously tiny yards choked with houses as big (well not quite) and difficult to maintain as her own? (She could rip off sentences like that and sing the Mozart Requiem chorus too!) Could the civic leaders not see they were paving over the best of everything? Millicent (iron fist in the air, iron hair flying) uses her privilege to denounce her privilege.
And there on the counter for the last week the offending contract with all those zeros, her signature on it bluer than her veins. This afternoon John Willis will stop by to take it from her.
The hummingbird trapped in her hand tips his head ever so slightly in frustration. He parts the long, sleek needle of his beak and says, “Your palm is sweating. It’s making me damp. Release me.” His demeanor indicates it’s an honor for Millicent to be able hold an elegant avian like himself, even if she’s saved his life. Now that she’s served her purpose, she’s become an inconvenience to him.
She opens the cupboard with her free hand and feels around in the dust for the blender. It still works. She could put the bird in there. What is green and white and red all over? With a flourish, she sets the appliance on the kitchen table.
“The thing is,” the bird says, “I have babies.”
He tells Millicent his chicks are perfect little copies of himself, with none of the deformities now all too common with some birds, like the owls and hawks (hatching blind more often than not), but his wife bird could not possibly feed them all by herself. Does Millicent have any idea what it took to feed babies that can digest only ambrosia, sap, and the occasional bug? Especially now, considering the rampant changes in the environment? Does she have any idea what it’s like to raise children?
Other people mildly insult Millicent all the time about her lack of partner and progeny, but you’d think a bird with a brain like his would know better. She tests the blender. Its blades whirr with a self-satisfied hum.
He gives her a dirty look. “All right. So I’m a magic bird. Do the three things I ask, and I’ll break the curse that’s turned you dumb.”
Dumb, as in silent, she wants to clarify.
Millicent brings the bird closer to her face. He does have an outrageously healthy appearance. There’s a glow about him. As her eyes narrow, his already speedy heart speeds faster. His fear gives her pleasure. She no longer has any affection for tiny, delicate things. (Like that older sister of hers. A pretty, sobbing dolly who took off the year before their father died and never came back.)
The truth is Millicent’s mouth is a great, silent door locked tight, her throat damaged from all she holds in. For she loves her old house, loves Luciano Pavarotti, oldest cedar in the county, loves the feel of the fertile ground beneath her feet when she traverses the yard. She loves the trail she wore to Luciano when she was girl; she imagines the sandy path still hides there under the invasives. She loves the particular way the morning sun, breaking in between deluges, sweeps its heat over the green, unruly spread and turns it all into sparking jewels and secrets. But the world is going to hell, and in times like these a single woman of a certain age and ridiculously limited income needs to TAKE CARE OF HERSELF FIRST, just like the internet says. She stomps on another audacious vine making a run for the kitchen. What’s the point of saving anything or anyone but herself? It’s going to be pretty hard doing just that if she has no voice to even call room service.
The hummingbird waits on her decision. He seems a surprising amount of mass in her hand considering his minute size.
She gives him her most vicious glare, eyes narrowed. Then mouths, “O.K.”
He flutters his wings, a meticulous display, then begins: “First and number one condition: open your fingers and let me go.”
He thinks she’s stupid. Does everyone think she’s stupid? (Yes, she fears, everyone does think she’s stupid because she IS stupid.) Millicent pops open the blender, drops the bird in, and whips the top back on.
He perches delicately on the blades. “Hey,” he says
She holds up two fingers to indicate he should move on to condition #2.
He rearranges his already perfectly arranged emerald wings and makes a comment muffled by the glass.
She puts her hand behind her ear as if to say, “I can’t hear you.”
Maybe, Millicent thinks, it would be better if she stopped thinking it mattered if she’s heard or not. She should just take the money for the manse and use it to buy bombs. It would be more efficient to just start blowing shit up. Everyone was afraid of women when, as far as Millicent could see, most women had so far done precious little to actually warrant that kind of fear. If people were going to be afraid of Millicent, then she was going to damn well earn that terror, and it wasn’t going to come from standing on a street corner shouting, “The end is nigh, motherfuckers.”
However, there’s a hummingbird peering up at her through the thick glass of the blender, impatiently stating his desires, and despite how terrible the world has become, it’s obvious there’s emerged some powerful magic, and everyone knows magic is more seductive than a revolution.
Still, magic or no, Millicent misses the planet as it once was. She misses the tidy little money she earned from giving voice lessons to children in those tender years before they became attached to their cell phones and over-processed pop music and morphed into devious mutes. (Like that Lorely girl in the tree. Why she won’t she call out to Millicent?) What Millicent misses most of all is singing. She misses standing in her garden crooning Puccini to Luciano. When she sang, the flowers (and the weeds) grew faster, her hair longer. The moist earth opened in its great slow time and showed her another, better world. When she sang, she didn’t worry so much.
So, yes, she wants her voice back. And she’ll do whatever it takes.
She leans down to the blender and mouths, “Continue.”
The hummingbird tells her in a voice that clicks and clacks like gears: “In the Forbidden City in China there rests, in one of the hidden rooms in the palace museum, a nest of gold made during the Ming dynasty. The nest is so fine and rare it is never displayed for fear someone will steal it. Go to the other side of the earth and bring it back to me.”
Well shit. Really? He cannot not be serious. The logistics alone—the flights, the access to the museum, and then stealing the nest and getting it out of the country. This was exactly the reason why no one believed in fairy tales anymore and the planet was getting dangerously devoid of hope: The terms to break a curse were impossible to meet, especially if you didn’t have a good supply of frequent flyer miles and the ability to become invisible and slip around guards with machine guns.
Millicent opens her hands and shrugs her shoulders to indicate “What the hell?”
The bird says, “Is there a problem?”
She hovers her finger over the blender key that reads, “Macerate.”
“Hold on. Hold on. Plan B. Go out in the garden and capture the grey cat that stalks my babies. Kill it. Cut out its lungs and intestines and bring them to me.”
That was better. Not great, but better. Millicent extracts a butcher knife from the drawer and goes in search of the chatty neighborhood stray the children called “Bone” because his tail is broken and the bone stuck out of it. Rain boots on, skirt hiked up to her crotch, she struggles across the yard, stumbles over the heaps of ivy and wild blackberry, the prickers gouging at her legs. What an ungodly mess. Luciano, straight ahead, twists and turns under the weight of the clouds, as if he’s holding up what’s left of the planet, and it’s not going well. The girl has looped her legs over a branch and hangs upside down. She’s trying to look brave, but it’s obvious she’s scared. As Millicent gets closer, she can see that. She gestures to Lorely to get down. Somber, mouth pinched, the girl shakes her head emphatically and points at Millicent’s heart.
Or more directly at the knife in Millicent’s hand. Good point, Millicent realizes. Why should she be trusted?
Bone the Cat lounges at the base of Luciano’s great, ruddy trunk. He opens one eye as she approaches. “Sorry, buddy,” she mouths.
“What are you sorry for?” says the cat, who is much cleverer than Millicent, having no choice but to live by his wits. He’s not been pampered in a house with canned tuna fish and forced heat and air conditioning. Bone’s eyes widen at the knife. “I’ve been worried about you, Millicent.”
Millicent slides the weapon behind her back.
“You’ve not been taking good care of yourself, obviously, and anyone spying on you with that butcher knife in your hand would assume you’d gone around the bend. Look at you! Your wild hair and those thirty extra pounds you’ve put on. Are you taking your medicine? Sleeping at night?”
Well, no, she wasn’t. No one has asked Millicent how she’s doing in such a very long while. The cat’s voice, purring with kindness, makes her drop beside him in the grass and start to weep. It’s most inconvenient that the cat she has to kill is concerned about her.
Bone curls on her lap and rolls up to offer his throat for a pet.
She sobs harder.
“Are you sure you know what you are doing?” says the cat.
And there it is, a hint of criticism in his kitty voice, a sting of condescension. When has it gotten so easy for everyone to curse and dismiss her?
Millicent plunges the blade into the cat and slits him open. Two baby humming birds fly out! She carries the innards to the papa hummingbird, and his steely eyes glint at the sight. Then she throws the knife and what was left of the cat into the sink and washes her hands. It’s dirty work breaking a curse.
“I didn’t think you had it in you,” the bird says.
No one ever does. She waves her fingers at the hummingbird as if to say, “What’s next? Hurry up. I don’t have all day.” John Willis would arrive soon enough, and for that she’d at least need time for a shower.
“Go next door and kill the dog that barks day and night.”
The dog is not actually barking at that moment. And this is Fluffy, an annoying beast for sure, but still she has a soft spot for him, a Great Dane she occasionally walked, at least before he grew to the size of a pony and tried to hump her whenever she got too close. It’s true the barking, a terrible din, is most unpleasant. Fluffy belongs to the mayor, whose estate is even bigger than Millicent’s place. Millicent’s father, a local boy, had grown into a tycoon selling porcelain sinks and toilets. Her mother had been on all the municipal boards. The mayor, another upstart from Los Angeles, bought the house next door with cash. He’s all in on the new housing development. Look at his legacy! Look at the tax base he’ll bring in! And, as he points out not so diplomatically, Millicent has let her whole place go to hell. That is true, she really has, and she’s let herself go feral too. No more shaving her legs or any of those niceties, and from her mouth burst all manner of obscenities, well at least before the curse anyway.
“Go finish off the dog,” the bird says.
Millicent finds her father’s old pistol in the basement where she’d hid it after he waved it at her years before. She loads two bullets and goes out to the fence that divides her yard from the mayor’s.
Fluffy lopes around and around, a yellow horse of a dog with his tongue hanging out and strings of snot crisscrossing his muzzle. When he sees her, he starts barking, a big heaving sound that assaults the neighborhood. It’s really all he knows how to do, and everyone just lives with it because he’s the mayor’s dog. Millicent levels the gun at him—her father taught her how to shoot—and waits for the beast to hold still in the center of the mayor’s great, manicured lawn. It looks the way her yard used to in the old days, when her father was still alive and he paid people almost nothing to tend it, and her mother wore complicated cotton dresses she paid a woman almost nothing to iron, and everybody living on the street hated the poor people for complaining. That had been Millicent’s childhood, and at the time she thought she loved it.
“Let me out. Let me out. Let me out,” Fluffy barks. Then: “Love me. Love me. Love me.”
Millicent feels sorry for him, the big, lonely galoot, even though he keeps her up at night and would be free to run about this yard complaining and driving all the new housing development residents crazy long after she was gone.
When she tries to say, “Love me back,” and no sound comes out, she knows what has to be done. She shoots Fluffy between the eyes. Millicent is a very good shot. The dog drops instantly.
From Luciano comes a girlish scream. It’s so loud a sound that for second Millicent thinks it’s Luciano wailing. What has Millicent done? The scream comes again, and this time it feels as if it’s inside her. Millicent puts her hand to her throat. What has she become? But, no, it’s Lorely screaming. “I know what you did. I know what you are going to do. Everybody knows. You are killing all the live things. Stop it!”
Millicent can say nothing to defend herself. She can only stand there, gun in hand, imagining the chainsaws cutting into the deep gold, intricate patterns on Luciano Pavarotti’s trunk. She imagines the thunderous thunk of his parts as he falls to pieces, the birds of all kinds tumbling from their nests. Before she can stop herself and get a grip, she sees the verdant (albeit prickly) wildness of the yard carved into lots and above it the big maw of the sky, choked with clouds. The sky will be all that’s left to ponder. When she sells, the neighbors will sell off their yards too, one by one. Everyone will roll over into a future impossible to fight.
She turns her back on that Lorely, lying prone like a lynx along one Luciano’s fat branches, the way Millicent used to, when the world seemed gorgeous and all hers to love and she knew nothing about anything.
“Prove it to me,” the bird demands when she goes inside to tell him about Fluffy, the gun in the crook of her arm.
She carries the bird out in the blender and holds it aloft so he can inspect the dog bleeding out in the mayor’s fertilized grass. Everyone will soon know what Millicent has done. Maybe she’ll go to jail. But she’ll at least have her voice back and can argue her own case. And more than enough money to pay a cutthroat lawyer.
She holds up three fingers and points at her own throat. There, she’s done it, met his terms. But when she opens her mouth to say thank you nothing comes out but a squeak.
“I’m adding one more condition to your breaking the curse,” the bird says. “This one is for your own good, so you can actually sing again, and not in that whiny, pathetic way you’ve been doing. Whenever you are outside moaning, or whatever that is you think you are doing, it’s enough to make me bang my head against the tree.”
The blender isn’t plugged in, or Millicent would end the lying wad of feathers right there. She points the gun at him. There’s one bullet left.
“Listen,” he says. “You need to burn down your house.”
Millicent lowers the gun.
“And then you need to turn your yard into a park. You need to give it back to us.”
She shakes her head back and forth NO NO NO NO NO.
“This place never belonged to you, and you know it. That’s the curse that took your voice. End it or you will never sing again.”
She mouths each word slowly: “Why didn’t you tell me this first?”
“Would you have believed me? And how else was I to get rid of the cat and dog?”
Millicent considers the hulking, beautiful wreck she’s barely kept alive since her father died, its fetid reeking boards and great, dusty chandeliers, the fifty-six glazed windows and their cracks, the four drafty fireplaces, and the many front and back staircases with their growing squeaks and complaints. She’s hid inside the vast, neglected corpus most of her life, like a heart too small and sad for its sprawling body. Maybe the mansion, her father’s fever dream, has grown tired of pretending it’s something it’s not. The old place most certainly does not want to be reduced in glory to an office for a subdivision that will spread like a virus or turned into an Airbnb where for $150 a night couples fantasize what they’d do with the house if only they could get their hands on it.
Skirt hoisted up again, Millicent heads to the garage, loses a boot in the greedy ivy on the way, finds the boot and then, after much swearing, locates a can of gasoline behind the broken mower. She trundles back with the sloshing can over the weeds. Inch by inch, she makes her way around the foundation of the house, splashing gas, muttering I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry for what’s to come.
When she strikes a match, a tiny conflagration leaps to life despite the rain-saturated wood. Flames nibble at the outer walls. They take mincing bites of the ornate trim at the base of the expansive wraparound porch as if sneaking cookies before the main course. Within minutes, the fire gets ravenous and begins a loud devouring of the first and second floor. Windows pop like champagne. Fire engines gather and the crowd collects. (Such a shame to see the old place burn down the neighbors say, delighted at the show.) For two hours, Millicent’s memories burn hard. Her childhood dances and dies, the smoke biting at her eyes. Even the rain, let loose in swathes that soak every surface (as it always falls now) does little to stop the destruction. John Willis, the handsome developer, stands as close as he dares, palms open to the churning heat. When his wet eyes meet hers, Millicent shakes her head. No deal on the land either. He weeps with rage.
Millicent, blender to her chest, marches over to her old friend Luciano and wraps an arm around his ropey, abrasive trunk. She leans her head against him and sobs. What had she almost done by selling? Ash from the house (and of course bird shit) showers down from his branches onto her hair like a blessing. The girl Lorely applauds from above. Lit by the embers and pelleted by rain, she shines.
The hummingbird says to Millicent, “All right. No more tears. Sing now.”
While her home burns down into a velvet blue, Millicent opens her mouth in grief and understanding. Out pours a song she’s never heard before about moving into a future that’s been waiting like a lover to be found. A love song if there ever was one. Lorely, all knees and eyes, seems stunned. Who would have expected Millicent to be a woman capable of such destruction? Or such joy? When Millicent takes the lid off the blender, the hummingbird flies to the top of her head and joins in.
Millicent serenades the house into its smoldering death that night. Two weeks later, she chants with local high school teenagers as they saw and hoe the invasive vines back to the perimeter of the acreage. On their next visit, they will set up little school gardens in the muck. She makes up lullabies each night in a borrowed tent she’s pitched under Luciano. Each morning, running water over her hands from a spigot that still works, she holds forth, one long note after the other, about her privilege to end privileges. Birds going about their daily business in Luciano join in with her, a great opera that has no single story and no ending.
One morning Millicent looks up to see Lorely waving to her from what’s left of the fence line and its tease of the life beyond. When the girl slips away into the green buff of leaves, Millicent drags a stepladder out of the garage and braces it against a fat, curved branch where she spent hours as a girl. Swearing and laughing, she manages to put a leg over and pull herself into place.
Kathlene Postma has published fiction, poetry, nonfiction and visual art in print and online magazines, including Los Angeles Review, Hawaii Review, Zyzzyva, Natural Bridge, Blood Orange, Green Mountains Review, Iron Horse Review, and other journals. Her creative nonfiction piece “Becoming Foreign” was cited in Best American Travel Writing. She’s currently at work on a collection of fairy tales for adults entitled The Keys to Her Own Kingdom as well as an autobiographical novel about an unremarkable woman who gets cancer and discovers she’s remarkable, whether she survives or not. Kathlene teaches creative writing and literature at Pacific University. She lives with three remarkable daughters, one splendid husband, and one spoiled little dog.