The Book of Dead Birds
by Gayle Brandeis
I remember the first time I flew.
I was four years old. My mother decided to take me to Balboa Park for the afternoon. I watched the back of her short-sleeved blouse as we crossed the parking lot to the playground; the sky-blue fabric tightened, then loosened, tightened, then loosened, across her shoulder blades, pointy as chicken wings. I tried to catch up, but my mother was too fast. Even then, I knew she didn't like to be seen with me in public. I knew it was because of my skin -- so much darker than my mother's, dark like the treats she made out of dates that morning, the ones that stuck between my teeth, filling my mouth with a prickly sweetness.
We didn't go to the park very often, but this day was special -- New Year's Eve, 1975. Not December 31, when midnight bullets flew through our San Diego neighborhood and we crouched together in the closet; this was a few weeks later -- the lunar New Year, the Korean New Year, the day when girls stand up on seesaws and swings.
At four, I was already as tall as my mother's ribs. I broke into a run and tugged at my mother's shirt, pulling it out of the elastic waistband of her lime-green pants. She shook herself loose and kept walking. I could see the scar on her lower back as her shirt flapped up -- a crescent moon, beaded with pale tooth marks. I reached to swipe a finger over it, but she walked even faster.
She let me catch up to her when we reached the grass. Without looking at me, she looped two fingers around my wrist and guided me over to the swings. She lifted me by the armpits with a grunt and deposited me, standing, on a swing strap. I clutched the chain while she moved the swing lightly back and forth, but I couldn't keep my balance. I wobbled, then tumbled into her arms.
She glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then shifted me onto her hip and lurched over to the seesaw. With her foot, she tilted one end of the peeling yellow plank to the ground; I grabbed on to her sleeves.
"No, Omma!" I yelled, as she set me, standing, on the edge.
"You stay here." She twisted herself away from my grip.
"Omma!" I jumped off the seesaw. The plank rose into the air. She pushed it down again and set me back on. "You stay now." Her voice was firm.
I couldn't breathe as I watched my mother walk to the other side of the playground. I wanted to step off the seesaw but my feet felt bolted to the plank. When she finally stopped and turned around, my throat filled with air.
"Omma!" I spread out my arms. She began to run toward me.
I had never seen my mother run before. She was fast. I watched her cheeks jiggle and her mouth sway loose and her small breasts swing around as she came closer. Then she jumped. She jumped as if there were a trampoline in the grass. She shot up so high, I worried she might get tangled in the jacaranda branches above. There was a determination in her eyes that scared me. It scared her, too. I could see her hesitate as she began to fall. She pedaled her feet backward like a cartoon character who realized he had just walked off a cliff, but she landed on the seesaw anyway, a crumpling blur of limbs.
That's when I flew.
I flew straight over my mother's head, flew like a bullet across the playground. I felt as if I wouldn't ever stop, as if I would keep on flying, past the park, past the zoo and the stores and the ocean. I felt as if I would be a flying girl forever. Then a eucalyptus tree zoomed toward my face. My mother tackled me to the ground just as I was about to hit the molting trunk.
Neither of us spoke on the car ride home. We barely even breathed -- it felt as if one loud exhale would make some invisible seesaw between us lose its precarious balance. As soon as we got into the apartment, I stumbled off to bed. I felt my end of the ghost board clatter to the ground, felt my mother float untethered behind me as I drifted into a deep, dark nap.
When I woke, my whole head throbbed. My forehead had banged into the dirt pretty hard when we fell. In the gray light of dusk, I could see my mother sitting by the window, rocking a bit, as if she had to go to the bathroom.
"Omma." My voice was a puff of air.
My mother turned toward me, then crept up to the bed. Something about her looked different, scary. Her eyebrows, I realized, were completely white. She had put some kind of powder on them; flecks of it dusted her eyelashes, her cheeks, her collar. After I walked to the bathroom, I was startled to find my own eyebrows white, as well. They looked strange on my much darker face, like a powdered sugar decoration, frosting on a gingerbread cookie. A scrape ran across my forehead, an oblong abrasion, speckled pink and red. I touched a finger to it; pain shot behind my eyes. I began to feel dizzy. My mother grabbed me by the arms and led me back to bed.
"If you take nap at New Year," she told me as she tucked me under the covers, "the story says your eyebrow turn white. Is joking to put on flour if you fall asleep."
My mother didn't look happy to me, not like someone telling a joke. "Did you fall asleep, Omma?" I asked.
She shook her head. A tear carved a streak through the light dusting of flour on her face ...
Excerpted from The Book of Dead Birds © Copyright 2013 by Gayle Brandeis. Reprinted with permission by Perennial. All rights reserved.
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