The man shook the bottle. Holes punched through its cap. Nuts, cashews, and millets dropping on the ground. Creating a trail of bird feeds. He coughed into a handkerchief tied around his wrist. K followed. Careful not to step on the seeds. The man stopped. His legs as thin as his arms. His face with sunken cheeks. His bone lines so sharp that his skin could split open. The man pointed at a space above. Perhaps at a nest. At perhaps a bird. K took one step. The man took three steps. Pointing for every three step. She tightened the urn’s lid.
“Are we getting any closer?”
In front of a tree, a tree. Behind a tree, a tree. A single path paved through. On the left of a tree, a tree. On the right of a tree, a tree. Trees were but roots, trunks and branches. Leaves on the ground, rotting or rotted. Tips of the branches hooked to the sky. Gnarled roots clawed at the earth. Anchoring and trying to stay. Here, in the forest. Between a tree, a tree and another tree. Young, mature, and withering. Tens and hundreds of bare trees. The trees stood tall.
“It’s almost dark,” she said.
“She liked dancing,” he said.
“How close are we?”
“Baking. She liked baking honey apple pies.”
“The sun’s about to set,” she said.
“Her husband was a quiet man.”
“Is there another trail?” she asked.
“I used to visit their house often, but that was a long time ago.”
The man was a few feet in front of K. She walked not too close but not too far from him.
The man stumbled but quickly balanced himself. The urn weighed heavy in her arms. The man cleared his throat. She took a quick glimpse. He was the same. His black or brown eyes hidden behind his thick oily hair strands. His nose slim. His lips blue and his face pale. His face, as if the entire body of his blood had drained. As if he had holes in his body like the bottle cap. As if the trail of bird feeds was actually his blood. K shivered.
“People come here.”
K locked her fingers around the urn.
“Going in and out,” he said.
Trees loomed over. Roots knotted. Trunks stretching. Branches lying and crossing over each other. Trees swept wide across. Dark from the tip of their roots to the end of their branches. The hardened ground cracked as the man and K continued walking. Crushing the crisp leaves and the hibernating beetles underneath. The man shook the bottle. Seeds mixing and rattling. His narrow shoulders crept up and down. The plastic bottles tied around his belt banged.
K recognized his pace. Slow as it had been many years ago. The man’s hair blew in the wind. Back then, she had to run. Her pace much slower then. Trying to catch up to her mother’s wide stride. Trying to hold onto her hands. Trying to listen to the man talk about when a few years ago he had lost his friend.
The man stopped.
K looked up to where he pointed.
“Empty,” he sighed. “Empty.”
The man meant nests. Nests weaved with twigs, mud and leaves. Nests knotted with gum wrappers, movie tickets and hair. Nests made with scraps of cardboard and strips of plastic. Nests held together by birds’ own feathers and saliva. Nests, empty. That’s what he meant. Tangled, tied, and twisted. Hundreds. Nests on the trees. K looked around. There and here, nests. On each and every tree, nests. Empty nests. Many empty nests. Were they the same nests that she had seen when she walked here with her mother? K looked back. After the funeral, they had walked down this same trail. K pulled her mother’s sleeve and said, look, look. Dark round bulges on the trees. Bulges like dust balls grown too comfortable in the corner of some room. Some room in someone’s mind. Each bulge, each nest, as big as her fist, or even bigger. Like spiny chestnut shells cracked open and spread, but empty. Mother had said nothing then. Her swollen eyes glancing back at her from time to time. Her wet face nodding. Her lips trembling. K hugged the urn. It was cold.
The man moved further down the trail.
“Where are the birds?” she asked.
K’s and the man’s footsteps echoed. Chirping, tweeting, or cawing. She could not hear.
Birds were nowhere. If they had ever been here before, they were gone now. They had collected, spat and plucked their feathers. In their nests. They mated, rested, and watched. Hatched, grew, and flew. They left. All of them. In the forest, there was no fluttering, no singing, and nothing of alighting.
“Where are they?”
“Hopefully, they will return,” the man said.
“When will they come back?”
The man emptied the bottle. Scattering the seeds for beaks to peck at. K had never seen a bird in the forest. Never seen their track. Never heard a chirp. Nests, the man had wept as he said, nests. One, two, three. The birds would fly back and perch in those nests. Five, six, seven nests, the man counted. Hopefully, and perhaps. The birds would come back, and start living up on the trees and in the forest again. K wiped the white porcelain with her sleeve. The man pulled around his belt. Grabbing a bottle filled to the brim with yellow, brown and black seeds. Replacing its cap with the emptied bottle cap. Tying the bottle to the belt upside down. Seeds fell through the holes.
“The nests won’t be empty for long though,” he said, “Soon, if not now.”
Her arms dropped lower.
“Don’t you think so?”
K nodded slightly. She wanted to be home. She wanted to sink into the living room couch. Stare up at the ceiling. Listen to the small vibration that the walls make. Watch the sun’s shadow creep down from the kitchen wall to the floor. Listen to Father’s slippers tap and tap. Smell the fresh fragrance of her mother’s apron drying on a hanging rack. Hear the refrigerator open. Watch the bedroom doorknob turn. Listen to Father dial a number. Mother asking her if she was hungry. Father laughing over an overdue call. All of them back at home.
“My sister loved sunflower seeds.”
The man poured seeds onto his palms, and scattered.
“She liked dancing too. But her husband couldn’t dance. He lost his leg during the war.”
K moved her feet. Seeds tossing and tossed. Sweeping and swept. A blowing wind picked up the seeds and threw them into the air. They scattered. Spreading and twirling. She stared at the nests. Nests that waited for the birds’ return. Birds flapping their wings and hovering around their nests. Birds holding twigs in their mouths. Birds with brood patch on their bellies. Birds, about to land. About and soon to settle down again.
“They always put the sunflower seeds in a bowl and placed it on their house porch. That was some twenty years ago. The bowl, the house, the sunflower seeds, and the ramp that she made for her husband, I can’t–”
The man’s words had used to rush past her. He spoke as fast as he walked. K gave up on running. She walked behind him and her mother. Watching Mother’s head move up and down. The man said, like her father, he had been in the war. He made it home but his brother did not. When he returned home, the red carpet, the flickering light bulb and its dim color, and the chipped plates in the cupboard were all still there in the living room, but footsteps. His brother’s heavy footsteps echoing in the hallway and the smell of his brother’s dusty skin were gone. All gone out of the house. The man said that all he had after the war were photos. Creased photos that his friends and those whom he shared the trench with carried in their pockets. He kept them. He remembered the young boys. The youngest he had seen was sixteen-years old. A nice boy, he had said. Too nice that he didn’t shoot until someone started shooting.
“Do you still have the photos?” The man stopped.
“Nothing,” she said, “It’s nothing.”
The man stared at her and her slim fingers.
“I still have their photos.”
His voice sunk.
“After the war, I went to their addresses. I knocked on their doors. A year after a year, I went to their house. No one answered. Their families had moved.”
The urn was getting too cold for her fingers.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
K squinted her eyes. Some trees’ branches were so tangled and so twisted that they looked like a nest. The black mass could be anything. A tumor. Growing and changing. Waiting to hear if it’s benign or waiting to turn malignant. A heart. Pumping and thumping. Sending blood to its veins. Sending to keep itself alive. Itself, the body. But the trees. Their whole body, shriveled. Perhaps the heart was beating slow. Slow and slower. Tightening. Perhaps a knotted heart. She shook off her shoes. The soggy leaves attached onto her boots.
A gust of wind grabbed the smell of wet dirt under the thick layer of leaves and spread it out. She lowered her head. A tree’s tumor. It won’t kill. A tree’s heart. It will be fine. A tree’s nest. They might return. Here, up above her head were hundreds of them. Hundreds of tumors. Hundreds of hearts. Hundreds of nests. Two years ago, Mother passed away.
“After the war,” the man said, “Some mothers, wives and daughters, they moved away. Boxes stuffed with posters, vinyl records, magazines, and sweaters were put away. Shelved somewhere in their house. My mother stuffed a box with my brother’s bed sheets, letters and clothes and put it in the closet.”
K listened. The nests swayed, snapped and resonated their emptiness. In this forest of hundreds of trees were the thoughts of empty nests. Cackling. Brushing against each other. Holding on. Clinging onto the trees and begging for one more day, one more day to stay until the birds flew back. Birds would be back. Like the man had said. Hopefully, and soon. Soon, if not now.
“I will never leave here.”
“Never?” she asked.
“I am not leaving.”
Cremate, Mother said. Cremate me, put me in an urn, and bury me beside your father’s grave. The man coughed. K did not bury her. The man pointed. Her ashes. Mother was with her. For two years, they were together.
“Birds,” she said. “Why did they leave?”
The man coughed again.
“Where would they be?”
K brought her mother closer to her chest. Mother had always been so frail. An hour outside and she would get a cold. She loved being outside though. In a neighborhood, playground, park, or even in the city’s downtown. K and her mother played hide and seek. K hid and Mother always found her. Mother never hid too far from her. She would hide where K could see. A glimpse of her mother’s curly hair, her moving arms, or the tip of her shoes. Somewhere where K could always hear her cough or fast breathing. K never hid though. She hated the thought of pulling a blanket over her whole body or disappearing into the bush and staying still, holding her breath and never moving. She would just stand, close her eyes, count to sixty and open her eyes. Mother never disappeared. She left but always came back to her.
“How long,” K asked.
The man glanced at her.
“How long have you been here?”
“More than twenty years,” the man said.
“Were the birds here then?”
The man shook his head.
Gut-cleaning, Mother said. Once in every week, she ran a vacuum. For more than an hour. K followed her through the house as she moved the chairs, table, and carpet. Mother shoved the vacuum hose into every little gap. Under the oven, refrigerator, couch and bed. She said that a person should gut-clean. Throw and toss out. Nothing should stay in one place for too long. Everything had its time. The bent paperclip under the desk. The chewed straw in the cabinet. The rusted brooch under the mattress. Unlike her, K wasn’t good at cleaning. The cutting board stinking of rotted meat. Molded onions and ground ginger in a bowl. The blankets unwashed for more than a year. A glass of water with lip print and grocery list on the kitchen table. A pencil, and its broken led on the floor.
The man mumbled.
“Father, mother, sister,” the man said, “The word empties.”
Bottles clattered. The urn getting heavier in her hands.
“Do you have a sibling?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“No,” she said.
“I had two sisters,” he said, “I was the youngest child. Now, I am the oldest and the last.”
Her fingers squeezed tightly.
“Father, father, father. Nothing,” his voice broke, “It’s only a word now.”
She pushed up the urn.
“But when they return, I could call them again.”
She nodded. Here, she and he were here. They were not going to leave. They were going to wait for them to return. She breathed out the word, mother. Mother, a hollowed bowl, holding only specks of her memory. Mother, she wanted to say, mother. From behind, something pushed. She stumbled.
“See the nest there?”
The man walked down a hill.
“Wait,” she said.
Her fingers slipped.
“Wait,” she said “It’s too heavy.”
K heaved, and quickly put the urn down on the ground. She looked back. A thick and dense fog. From behind, creeping and rolling down like a grey curtain. Suddenly growing into a swell. Its blurry veil spilling over the ground. The fog rushed forward.
“Wait,” K tried to lift the urn.
“Wait,” she called out, “Don’t go. Don’t go yet.”
The ground cracked. The seeds. K stepped on the seeds. The fog crashed down. Swallowing her body. The fog became air. She trembled. Years ago, Mother came to her beside. Mother leaned close to her and said, he isn’t here. He isn’t here, I won’t be here, but you too won’t be here. K hastened her steps. The man was out of sight. She ran. Wait, her voice shook, wait. The fog thickened. Carpeting the ground and wrapping around the trees. The protruded roots, the sticking branches, the scattered trail of seeds, all wearing fog. K put her hand on the clattering lid. Her legs kicking. Her body pushing through the clouds of grey. The rattling urn in her trembling arms. Leaves ripped. Under her feet, leaves scattered. Crunching and fluttering. Like the sound of birds’ wings. Birds, fluttering. Soaring, and flying back. Birds, returning. They would live. K clawed at the urn. They would chirp. They would huddle together. They’d start hunting for the worms and the beetles sleeping under the leaves. They’d mate. They’d lay eggs. They’d feed their babies. A bird staying awake just in case a snake slithered. Just in case a hawk hovered near their nest. A bird spreading her wings to cover her babies. They would sleep together in the nest for a night, another night and more nights to come. The knotted hearts would start beating again. She gasped for air. Days of collecting. Days after days of collecting. Days after days of building. Days after days of nestling, chirping, brooding, and perching. The birds had stacked those days. Printing their footprints. Spreading their warmth in the nests. Smearing the nests with their breaths. Mother’s tossed apron. A rusted key in Father’s jacket. Smearing her past years. Her childhood. Her then and now. Her feet caught. Before K could scream, her body fell forward. The urn slipped from her fingers. K’s face hit the ground. Her body and the urn crashed. Shattering and with a loud thump. K cried. Her palms burned. She breathed in the dirt. Spitting and tasting the bitter grains. Trembling and groaning, she pushed her body up. Her knees stung. K blinked. On the ground, shards of urn glimmered. The fog climbed her legs.
The fog scooping up her mother’s ashes and mixing. Blurriness and greyness swishing and swirling. Like a thick smoke. As if evaporating. The fog or the ashes flew up. Into the air, and higher. Higher and higher, up above her body.
K sat up. Something else glimmered. Something, bottles. The bottles. The man’s bottles. The man’ emptied bottles lay on the ground. K dusted her hands. Grains of dirt fell, with a drop. A drop of blood. She looked around. She looked down at her palms. Blood spilling out of a cut. Cut deeply, and bleeding. Her blood.
She stared. The hearts no longer beat. The hearts were no longer beating. Trees, completely drained. Trees, without a single blood left. K stood up. Crushing and trampling. Stumbling on the seeds and the bottles. She looked up. Up above, thick and thin papers were tearing. The gum wrappers and movie tickets ripped. Hair strands slipping through the twigs. Feathers darkening and breaking off. The spit and the lick crumbling. Untwisting. Unfastening. Untying. The nests were undoing. The nests crumbling. Her body swayed. Her legs limping. K stopped. Gone, they were gone. She opened her mouth. Gone, the birds. The nests, gone. Air entered and exited her mouth. Mother, gone. She smeared her blood across her palm. She, all of them, gone or going.
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