i know the caged bird
Autumn (Halloween) 2019
the first day of kindergarten, isla's brown paper bag skin rustles as if God is hyperventilating into her—sucking her in and out; she inflates and deflates as if there are no contents inside of her. she is creases and folds of brown skin.
isla doesn’t know if she misses her mom. she is in an unfamiliar place and usually children ache for the familiarity of a mother in places like these, but she isn't certain if she'd be any better with her there. sometimes she had brown skin like isla inherited, lined with adipose in the places where isla used to be in her, hanging like wings from her arms.
sometimes, she was like last night.
isla had woken up to her parents fighting from somewhere in the house. she followed the noise to the kitchen—the back door cracked—where her dad had slipped out and a bird was ramming its head back and forth into the window, with tufts of its feathers falling into the sink. some instinct told isla to reach for it instead of closing the window. in her hands, its maw mauled and talons were crooked with bald patches some places on its belly. it scratched her cheek and flew up—somehow shapeshifting. isla blinked and her mother was lying face down on the floor, naked. "isla, honey," mrs. levine knocks on the restroom door. "is everything ok in there?"
isla nods to herself. yes, everything was fine.
she washes her hands, despite never actually doing anything and walks out. she slides back into her seat beside another black boy with girls' length curls.
"hi, do you—"
"don't talk to me," isla warns.
the boy, whose name tag read “eli,” obeyed as a bewildered dog would, "i don't want to . . . anymore."
no one talks to isla now, and it was best this way, she concluded. what if she became a bird, too? what if she became game?
isla's mom stops smoking when she’s in the second grade; says it isn’t good for her lungs, as small as they are now. isla had determined she wanted to be an ornithologist at this point, an illogical attempt to cope with not understanding her mother.
her dad was on his way. he said he'd pick her up from school when he’d seen the fog this morning. isla asked if it was because birds didn't fly alone in the fog. he’d grabbed his hunting gun like a gas pump, by the trigger, and walked out.
eli sits beside her in the front where students wait for their parents to pick them up. he stared at the feathers on her coat, wanting to assume they came out of the places in it that had holes, despite the cotton that peeked out.
"my mom can take you home," he offers, trying hard not to look at her. "once she gets here."
isla stares at him: curls like the exposed spring in her mattress, lips soft in the place where he just lost his two front teeth. looking at him, she realizes an hour has passed.
yellow headlights flash in the white-gray. a vietnamese woman slips out of an SUV and runs up to him. "i'm so sorry, eli. i tried to get out of work, i tried—"
her dad had forgotten. he wasn't going to remember until he was sleeping in bed tonight with his gun, remembering her question to him, and then taking it into his dreams.
his mom's gaze tears away from the boy. "is this your friend?" eli shrugs. "can we bring her home, mom?"
maybe this is why her mom became a bird. to get the attention only a small animal could get. maybe her mom knew how much her dad liked hunting and was just trying, just trying to get his attention—the way he followed targets.
in fourth grade, isla's dad brings back quail for dinner. he expects her mom to cook it. she huffs.
"isla, your friend, eli," she clung to the name. "he invited you over for dinner, you can go—"
"no," her dad commands. "we're going to eat together. don't you see the quail i got?"
don't you see the quail i got? he taunts. it deserves to be followed with a chuckle.
dinner smells so good, but isla's mouth snares shut. her mom stares at what she has done; her dad sucks the cartilage. it was like her mom would only breathe to remind herself that he was eating another thing instead of her.
the bird was cooked, but it was still dying. her mother is still dying.
"eli," isla whispers his name in the library.
he answers with his eyes, the way a deer does before you hit it in the middle of the street.
"when we were in kindergarten, do you remember what you were going to say to me?"
"before i told you not to talk to me."
he’s silent. they were laying on the floor, heads propped up against their backpacks, and his shirt was lifted so that she could see his skin stretching over his ribs.
"i'm sorry," she apologizes.
"vô lý," he says gently. "you were five, isla. that was eight years ago. i don’t know why you remember that."
a moment passes and suddenly she feels his hand ghost over hers, hovering over it as if he is unsure if it’s a booby trap. she does set ablaze when he finally touches her.
"i think i was going to ask if you wanted to be friends."
freshman year, girls put chickens in isla's locker and laugh at her after her mother comes to school and literally caws at the principal in front of everyone for the first bullying incident.
eli tries to help her, calling her name, calling her baby in vietnamese, as the chickens peck her to death and hot tears fill her eyes: neck tight like having it held taut by a butcher on a cutting board: chest swelling with organs instead of air.
she runs. she runs. she runs. she hates that she can’t just chew out the marrow from her bones like her dad and begin flying.
when eli and isla are sixteen years old she goes to his house for the first time to eat congee for dinner. his mom pours steaming spoonfuls into their bowls.
"when are you all going to get married, already?" she jokes. she jokes. eli smiles.
"chẳng bao lâu, mẹ," he whispers.
she lets them take the SUV out and he brings her to a field somewhere. they open the trunk and sit in the back. a blasian boy and black girl in the back country. chẳng bao lâu, mẹ. he kisses her and her heart hummingbirds, woodpeckers. there is no species for how wild it is, but it flies. it flies so fast, so high.
he lays her down and presses into her ribs with his thumbs and her insides spill out like yolk. she is sure she came first, the egg before the chicken. soon, mom. soon, mom. soon, mom.
isla wants to be an ornithologist to understand how the heart works.
for black history month, isla's english class reads i know why the caged bird sings and is tested over it.
which line(s) from the poem show that the caged bird has never been free?
a. when her husband forced it to become prey (lines 9-10)
she places a question mark next to it.
b. when she set herself on fire to put out his hunger, which will never be satisfied (line 48)
c. when she learns the cage itself is not what traps her (line 12)
d. when isla realized her mom was not bird, but fowl (line 114-115)
"i got a perfect score on the maya angelou exam."
"were you questioning if you would?"
"i don't want you to see what's inside," she admits painfully as they sit in her driveway, shame streaming down her face. "i'm embarrassed of what's inside."
he looks at her hands. "what if you told me before i went inside?" eli's mom had stitched her coat in the places where there had been holes, but there were still feathers on her. she caught him staring at them. she wasn't scared of becoming a bird. she wasn't scared of him finding out that her mom was a bird. she was scared of becoming her mother. not her mother as a bird, but her mother as a human—who became what her dad called her one night, who became less than because she was.
"are you really going to marry me, eli?" she asks, turning her head away from him. her throat felt like barbed wire. birds would be able to sit on it. there wasn’t enough time.
"one day, i will, isla. i'm going to be the one to ask."
she gets out and stalks up to the screen door of the kitchen, eli running behind her. when they get inside, isla's dad is tilting his gun up at the ceiling where from it a shriek sounds. isla tears through the ripped screen door and rushes to where the feathers float to the ground, where the bird lay with two exit wounds through its sides.
"no! you’ll shapeshift again!" isla blubbers as it twitches in her hands. "you’ll become my mom again!"
the worms inside of her belly do not turn into intestines, her feathers do not stretch into skin, her beak does not collapse into mouth. she dies a bird. a species gone extinct.
eli kneels behind her and helps her pick up the feathers on the floor, sticking some inside her mother's wounds.
"i'm sorry," she says, pressing her cheek to her small chest. "that i let you back in that night. i'm so sorry. i'm sorry.”
it was never about her father. it was never about her father.
the night isla and eli marry, they release doves and consummate their relationship.
all the while of the consummation, isla thinks of her body as a site of entry and exit wounds which he may put there later. any place he touches has an aftertaste of insult to injury. when eli reaches out two fingers, they sink into her side instead of flying south—a migration of mourning.
Nia Sampson is a sixteen-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She has previously been awarded the Silver Key for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for her work. She enjoys dreaming of things that may never be.