The Fig Tree

The bird is dead. Has been for months.

When it first took up its final residence amongst the branches of the fig tree, the feathers were brown. No longer. It has changed with the seasons, like the leaves. The brown faded to tan, which became discolored sepia, which drained to an ashy grey tone. Now it is a dirty white. Its once-puffed chest has started to cave in on itself, the insides turned to dirt, to dust, to nothing.

It haunts the corner of Thea’s eye as she sits outside, snagged in the spidery black net that encases the fig tree, a fortress of fine filaments guarding the aubergine and green globes. The bird hangs with the fruit. Mrs. Jones, Thea’s landlord, debuted the net at the beginning of the summer, explaining, “So those feathery buggers won’t be getting into my figs.” Mrs. Jones doesn’t even like figs. Thea doesn’t like them either. They make her nauseous, no matter how they’re sliced, cooked or spiced.

Thea first found the bird on a summer’s morning when she was shuffling around slowly in the backyard, hoping the air would buoy her. Her ankles had been swollen and her lower back ached. Sweat beaded on her upper lip and underneath her flow-y clothes like morning dew. It must have gotten caught and died the day before, but she had been ill, hadn’t thought to go outside. She threw up the moment she laid eyes on it, the smell of figs overwhelming her like a finger down her throat, gagging her.

Thea dares to lift her gaze, ripping her eyes from the comfortable swaddling of the pages of Inherit the Wind, just to be sure the bird is still there—then shakes her head. Of course it is still there. It is dead. She has decided to call the hanging bird Tristan. He looks like a Tristan. She hasn’t told anyone. It’s their little inside joke.

The feathery fool hadn’t heeded the net, so entranced by the sweet fruit—his corpse testament. The wind whistles on his behalf since he does not make a sound. The little body is all curled up, wings folded in neatly, framing his round belly. He would almost look contented were he not hanging upside down as though in a poultry shop window. Thea wishes there were more visible signs of struggle, the spreading of wings, desperate, pushing, reaching, doing anything to prevent his own demise, to fight the synthetic tentacles trapping him. But she only finds it in his twig feet—they reveal a will to live. Twisting tendrils of the net bind them, tiny claws tensed like open mouths, screaming.

Rotten figs litter the muddy ground below, the stinking sweet stench ambling towards her nostrils with each intake of breath. She doesn’t think the figs are worth guarding. But Mrs. Jones has dominion over the garden. The backyard isn’t large, but it isn’t small either. There is a square lawn, grass brown and wilted from drought. There are a few small garden beds showcasing the skeletal remains of tomato stalks peeking out of the wooden frames. Two chaise chairs—one of which is currently occupied by Thea—made of cheap white plastic overlook the place, shaded by an awning. As Mrs. Jones had put it, “It isn’t much, but it is a great place for a young couple starting out.” They had thought so too and put down the deposit. Thea remembers pointing out the large window facing the fig tree. “That one can be the nursery,” she had said. And then she and Simon had excitedly spiraled into fantasies of spring green walls and zebra stuffed animals and yellow pacifiers.

The net that had hugged the tree so tightly—a credit to Mrs. Jones’ expert installment—now sags around the bird’s small form like a child’s blanket fort that’s been left out for days. Tristan has become the fruit he once coveted, a sort of poetic justice. He reminds Thea of a medieval criminal strung up in Town Square, innocent but nonetheless condemned. A thief. But also a scarecrow and a warning for others. She wishes Mrs. Jones would remove Tristan from the tree. Thea has asked her to do so or have someone else do so many times. But all Mrs. Jones said was, “Why don’t you do it yourself, love? I’m a busy lady. No time for dead birds.”

The breeze blows. Bird sways. Feathers flutter. Death’s waltz. Thea turns back to Inherit the Wind, but the words rest on the surface of her reading glasses, refuse to enter her brain, to be comprehended. She has read it before. Thea feels Tristan pressing in on her periphery. She has always been afraid of birds. She hasn’t even seen the Hitchcock movie—she doesn’t need to. It is the dead ones that especially terrify her. She remembers seeing one on the ground by the bookstore when she was a little girl, red feathers strewn nearby like a trail of breadcrumbs that she had foolishly followed. Its pink guts squirted out onto the stone pavement like toothpaste, mangled beak broken and splintered—a result of its collision with the clear window. Her stomach rose to her mouth and briny tears mingled in the corners of her eyes but she could not tear them from the little heap of feathers and entrails. Her mother whisked her away, saying, “Don’t touch that, c’mon.” Of course she hadn’t wanted to actually touch it, just to scoop it up with her eyes, bury it with her gaze. She still shivers thinking about it.

Then there were the blue jays by the nursery window, constantly fighting over territory like neighborhood gangs. She’d always been told blue jays were nasty but didn’t believe it until one had tapped at the window, begging for mercy, for asylum. Thea had been looking out the window at them over the crib as she arranged blankets and toys. The next day she saw the same one, dead, lying among the shrubbery, pecked and bruised by its rivals. Thea doesn’t understand how Disney princesses could befriend such creatures, sing to them, be dressed by them. It is the delicacy of the avian creatures that really puts her off, all skinny legs and hollow bones. She’s afraid that she’ll break them. It’s the same reasons porcelain teacups and babies and greyhounds scare her.

She hears a click of the glass door and looks up to see Simon coming outside. His hair is soft and blonde like a baby duck, tousled and disarrayed. His clothes are black and wrinkled from sitting at a desk all day. She shuts her book but keeps her index finger on the page she’s been reading.

“Hey.”

“Hi.”

A gust of wind.

“How are you?”

“Fine.”

“What have you been up to today?” His hand grazes her shoulder—the cold metal of the wedding band causing her to internally bristle. She has twisted her wedding ring so the diamond adornments face the inside of her palm. From the outside it is just an ordinary band of metal, tarnished.

“Reading.” A pause. “How was work?”

“Fine.” He starts to walk back towards the glass door but then turns around again. “Oh, I saw a message on the home phone as I came in. Mr. Stevens calling. Asking when you’re thinking of coming back to work.”

“I’ll ring him back later.”

He opens his mouth to ask a follow up but the wind whooshes by again and takes his inquiry with it, eroding it into dust particles to be inhaled by unsuspecting passersby. The glass door closes with a bang and the transparent surface shivers slightly, echoes of the unsaid causing quivers. She opens her book and resumes reading, then dozes off until later in the evening. She rouses suddenly and puts her hand to her stomach. She is conscious but her dream intrudes on the waking world—instead of her stomach she sees an egg about to hatch, feels that something had been kicking inside her, pecking, trying desperately to get out but when it cracks nothing is inside, only empty white walls. The sun has started to sink and the sky is pink, clouds aflame, glowing like waxen candles.

Something pricks her ears—desperate trumpets twitter and wings beat the air. Tristan has silently beckoned to another with his sinkhole eyes—a siren’s trick—while she’s slumbered. She turns to the fig tree—another bird, this one golden, is caught, just inches from him. Except this one is alive. The net has snagged his foot and now his sinews strain with life bursting forth, trying to break free. The dead and the desperate hang together.

Thea feigns deafness until she cannot. She gets up from the chaise, hardly aware of her own motions. The glass door opens and shuts and a pair of silver and black kitchen sheers are in her hand. The last time she used them was to cut the stems from carrots to make a mushed puree. Baby food.

Thea approaches the tree. Her bare heel lands on a rotted fig and she feels it squelch, the seeds and the white juice and the pulp sticking to her. She is almost face to face with Tristan. His eyes have not decayed. Thea sometimes imagines maggots will come out of them. But none do. They are shining black pools of tar. But she focuses on his golden friend. His flaps are the syncopated pumping of her pulse. She pleads with her eyes, as if to say, “please, little one, be still.” His eyes are black like Tristan’s.

She takes a step closer and he tries to squirm away. It is a useless gesture. Snip. Gasp. Recoil. Repeat. A strange dance. At the first strike of the blade, the gold one panics. So does she, overwhelmed with the thought that one slip of the scissors could yield a deluge of blood, a final trill, a death. She has only cut one of the threads and tries to go for another. He flaps his wings, arches his body—and suddenly she is transported, looking at the bird in the tree but not, another scene transposed. She cannot breathe and the smell of disinfectant is in her nose and she hears the strangled screams, sees the wrinkled purple face with bits of yellow hair stuck to the moist head, suffocating.

“Quick, it’s around his neck.”

“Scalpel.”

“It’s going to be okay honey, I’ve got you.”

“Where is he? Where is he?”

“Get him to the NICU.”

“Need to resuscitate him.”

“Why isn’t he crying anymore?”

Silence. The little bundle in a plastic box, a yellow blanket wrapped around, wires coming out in all directions, and the toneless beeping, regular as a metronome. Days.

The baby is home now, in the room with the spring green walls and the zebra stuffed animals and yellow pacifiers—Thea’s mother is helping take care of him. The doctors even said there is unlikely to be any brain damage. But tears are streaming down Thea’s cheeks anyway as the final snip ensues—freedom—the gold one flies with bits of net like an anklet, a hospital bracelet, a ball and chain, still around its tiny foot. He doesn’t look back at her, but flies off in the direction of the ebbing light. There is a hole where she has hacked at the net, ends sticking out like a barbed wire fence, like the stitches of cesarean scars. She leaves Tristan. He remains, the unsaved, the dead, faded as sun-bleached fabric, still hanging. He seems to taunt Thea now, hissing “why so afraid?” She leaves him there to hang, in the sepulcher of the fig tree.