ON BUILDING A NEST by Stella Lei

My mother’s house always looked halfway to collapse. She had paid copious amounts of money to build it this way—its perpetually slouching walls, its staircases that jerked into corners before snarling to the next floor. This was because she preferred things that existed between one state and another. Her philosophy was as follows: you cannot determine something’s worth before it is finished, and most everything finished is bad—corrupted by greed, or rust, or the general incompetence of its maker. And so the house lurched across a river like a lopsided Fallingwater, its unending rush lulling her to the edge of sleep. When she awoke, she stood in the middle of one of her precarious staircases, fingers to her lips, surveying the distance between her body and the floor.

As a child, I bumped into buckled walls and tripped over uneven floorboards. Cuts rusted down my legs in slashes of bronze, and my mother wiped them clean, warning me to be careful with the currency of my blood.

“You see this?” She held up the towel, stained through and sour with disinfectant, “You let all this go. Gone. Wasted.” She believed blood was metal metabolized. Gold lining our veins. “That’s why it tastes like pennies,” she said, and I swiped my finger across the wound, bringing it to my lips to check.

Our ancestors thought drinking gold—untarnishable light—could instill them with youth. Their organs would never rust into disuse, polished instead with health. What they didn’t know, my mother said, was that we were born with gold bottled in our veins. She smoothed a Band-Aid across my knee. “So the real secret to youth is to avoid bleeding. To seam your skin and keep the gold inside.”

For years, I was careful not to bleed. I tiptoed around corners and walls. Climbed the stairs while gripping the banister, unpainted wood strangled in my fist. I weaned my legs off running, teaching them to slide slowly across the floor’s hardwood swells.

My mother said the world was a pipe bomb, people just fuses ready to light. When she was young, her father exploded in her face—fists clenched to grenades—and left her blue as the sea. That was why I was forbidden from going out alone, my flash-paper bones too easily expended into smoke. And so I stayed home, insulated from flames and men, replacing school with the encyclopedias lining the office shelves.

I worked my way through the books in alphabetical order, repeating each word to myself, sculpting my breath against the sound. A for aviation. B for beak. C for critical period: the period of time in which young animals are most likely to acquire learned behavior; when imprinting occurs.

The period of time in which a baby bird’s song crystallizes like rust on steel, its voice molding to that of its parents. The period beyond which the bird can no longer learn to sing, its notes fracturing like a face in warped glass.

I was twelve when the bleeding started. It woke me in a pool of sour warmth, wet against my legs, sticky in my joints. I shouted for my mother, certain my tissues were dissolving, my organs churning to pulp. She scowled as she changed the sheets and soaked them in cold water, but told me I wasn’t dying. What had happened, she said, was I became too close to fully formed—transitioning into a woman who could eventually smoke, and drink, and leave her behind. The solution was to regress to my halfway point. To freeze my body in time so gold would lie snugly in my veins, youth unable to escape.

That evening, when I asked about dinner, she told me if I went long enough without food, I could shrink my stomach into a fist. Exorcise the years from my body, leave only purity. Bone. Calcium scaffolding my shins like pillars of salt. How I could reverse my flesh within myself, surviving off nothing but smooth planes of skin.

From then on, she fed me only feathers so my years could take flight and leave me clean. She boiled them soft and piled them on my plate in quivering puffs of down.

“The body follows a clock of its own,” she said, “You just have to wind it in reverse. Close the hourglass’s waist. Look at each bird through its mouth.”

When I told her I didn’t know what she meant, that all the birds I’d seen were mouthless, roasted in the oven or strewn across my plate in ragged plumes, she pointed out the window and said “Those birds, there. See how each note matures in their throat before they sing it? That’s where it all starts. The throat.”

I flipped through the T encyclopedia until I got to throat. Esophagus. Trachea. Larynx. I traced my finger down the diagrams and taught the page to swallow. Air digested into air.

In the bathroom, I opened my mouth in the mirror and peered inside. My throat was a cavern of darkness rippled with heat—something pulsing and alive. I clawed my fingers in to see if I could retrieve the half-formed notes in my vocal cords, cup their soft vibration in my palms. I retched into the sink, but my stomach had hardened to a pit, too empty to expel anything but breath. Feathers clotted against my teeth.

The bleeding eventually stopped, my uterus rewound into a state that didn’t know time, years resorbed into my body. When I looked in the mirror, my collarbones were arrowheads grafted to skin.

In place of blood, cold permeated through me like a haunting on loop. I wrapped myself in sweaters and coats—molted in reverse—and stood with my mother at the staircase’s head. We held hands and peered down the house’s narrow throat, too scared to fly.

My mother’s New Year’s gift to me was a music box, gilded gold, a lark perched on its crown. An heirloom passed down by her mother by her mother by hers, carried through generations like our coarse hair and heat-shriveled eyes. She wrapped my hands in her own and showed me how to wind it up. How to coax a bird to sing. We cranked the key as far as it would go, the lark shuddering in the anticipation of dance. I tightened my fingers around the knob as it pushed against my palm, fighting to unspool its song—to fly free. The notes stuttered out, slow, splintered into shards.


Stella Lei's work is published or forthcoming in Four Way Review, Okay Donkey Magazine, trampset, and elsewhere. She is an Editor in Chief for The Augment Review, she has two cats, and she tweets @stellalei04. You can find more of her work at stellaleiwrites.weebly.com.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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