Swallow by Jenni Prange Boran

It wasn’t long before she noticed them. The darting sharp-winged swallows that circled and dove and danced their heady swirl around her as she ran. They were so fast and she was so focused that they could be, and initially were, easily dismissed as some sort of visual white noise, some kind of simple effect of the environment. She was outside. Birds were outside. Like everything else while she was running, she managed to un-see them. Block them out with earbuds filled with sound that served only for distraction and a throbbing beat to keep her legs moving and her mind from straying too far into undesirable territory.

But the swallows demanded to be acknowledged and it wasn’t long before she’d softened just a bit, found herself not just noticing them, but seeking them out, day after day, searching for their origin. They would arrive as if from a sudden strange other dimension to move cylindrically like trash bags caught in a dust devil. She wasn’t one to let her mind go to these sorts of places, typically, but she thought it might mean something.

Still catching her breath that morning, she’d suggested this as she entered the kitchen.

“It’s that pink jacket,” he’d dismissed the idea without looking up from his work. “No mystery. Birds are attracted to bright shiny things.”

She’d been given the bright shiny pink jacket for her birthday. It was awkward, now, that her birthday fell on Mother’s Day. She happened to know that the bright shiny pink running jacket had come packaged in a set with a tiny matching jacket for an infant. The little matching jacket had been put with other tiny things in a bag and taken away. There was a fancy stroller, too. He only bought the best of everything. The best laptop. The best espresso maker. His pride and joy was the lawn mower, though he hadn’t yet used it.

It wasn’t difficult to return the fancy stroller. He’d taped the receipt to the package when he’d bought it and she had never taken it out of the box. Sometimes she wondered why she hadn’t. Is that what had made it happen? Did that tiny, subconscious act of lack of faith bring it all about? What if, instead of hiding it in the back of the closet with the receipt taped to it, she had torn open the cardboard the moment he’d brought it home? What if she’d unfolded the, probably, impossible to follow instructions, pored over them with a furrowed brow, searched for the Phillip’s head in the junk drawer, counted to make sure the manufacturer had included enough screws in the tiny Ziploc baggie stapled to the tag. Would that have proven her enthusiasm? Then again, what if she’d done all that and it had just happened, all the same. Because things like this happen. And then there would have just been a fancy stroller in the corner instead of a cardboard box with a receipt taped to it that she was able to return without issue. She’d avoided the clerk’s eyes. She felt him wondering why. She felt him looking at her body. Sizing her up as a woman who was unable to quite make it.

She pounded these sorts of thoughts out with every footfall, grinding them ruthlessly into the gravel with Ladies size 8 gel-soled trainers. Again, that morning, the birds spun around her, followed her this time, even, from the trail to the edge of her yard. It was late fall, and the grass was getting too long. Some things, it seemed, kept growing around her. Mocking her. As she opened the door to the house she made a mental note to ask him, again, to cut it.

As usual she was met with his familiar silhouette at the table. Deep in his work, she shut the door carefully, silently, only to have her efforts thwarted by a dull slam against the window behind her.

“Damn birds!” His hunched posture interrupted as he looked up sharply, embarrassed at being startled, resentful of being interrupted. “Get rid of that thing.” He gestured vaguely at her body. She guessed he meant the jacket.

She stepped back out onto the patio to find the still, feathered body of a swallow. Its black beady eyes open in stunned surprise. She looked at it with the same apparent lack of emotion with which she had, not one month earlier, regarded that first drop of blood in the toilet.

What she would remember most about that day was not the still little swallow on the patio, but the look of outrage on his face as he burst out the front door just moments after he heard the lawn mower growl into action. Was it her bellowing, her cursing God, her final anger finding its way out of her bones and into the atmosphere that had pulled him from his usual safe haven? Was it the groan of the lawnmower’s blades protesting the atypical material they were being asked to cut? Or had he randomly glanced upward in time to see the ribbons of shiny pink fabric the mower was begrudgingly chewing up and spitting out, the wind picking them up, spreading them far and wide in a tornado of bright and sudden release.

After that day, it seemed the swallows had stopped recognizing her. Without her pink jacket, with her newly bare arms and, not long afterwards, her newly bare ring finger. She’d run with a new peace through the barren winter, finding the stinging cold to be a suitable supplement to the already anesthetic effect of shortness of breath and burning muscles. There had been something communal about the naked branches of the trees. Life had left them too. But now that the days were becoming longer she was expected to interact with that daylight, with other humans, accordingly. Green shoots were appearing on bushes and purple crocus were peeking from the ground. Light had started to shine at a different angle through the kitchen windows, falling across the linoleum in a yellow triangle as if to highlight the empty spot at the table. She could feel fear returning.

As she sat to lace up her shoes, a high-pitched whistle, then a chirping, interrupted her dull meditation on his absence. Quietly at first, to the point that she wondered if she was manufacturing it. She waited, focused, breathed; it didn’t stop. Its hopefulness annoyed her so she pushed her earbuds into her ears, secured them with her headband, and stepped outside into the cutting morning air, bent to stretch, losing herself in the merciful monotony of her running mix. Palms flat on the ground, she opened her eyes only to be confronted by a shiny pink ribbon, sprawled in a nameless curl on the patio. With a certain amount of shock she stood up abruptly, straightening too fast in a dizzy head rush.

Her gaze moved to the left, another one. Shredded at the edges, chewed by blades. She followed several such shreds, dropped in a random pattern, they led her around the corner where she lifted her eyes to the eaves above the kitchen window.

There. A nest made of mud, sticks, grasses, and pink strands spit out months earlier by the reluctant teeth of a lawn mower he’d spent too much money on and taken with him when he left.

She rose onto tiptoes, lifting herself just enough to see three tiny yellow beaks protruding from the top of the structure, opening and closing, calling to be fed, the sound obscured by pounding dubstep that urged her like a rhythmic siren to look away, not watch as a velvety black and turquoise-feathered parent whipped just past her face to hover above the nestlings. Urged her to push away the freshly triggered ache.

She looked over her shoulder at the trail.

Then pulled her earbuds from her ears.

*Jenni Prange Boran is an award-winning screenwriter living in Tacoma, WA. Her drama feature THE FALLS, winner of Best in Drama, Just Effing Entertain Me competition, 2012, is currently in pre-production, as are her shorts BLUE BUNNY and THE CLOAKROOM, both First Place Winners in Destiny City Film Festival and 72 Film Fest, respectively. Her sci-fi feature, LIGHT YEARS, took Second Place in the Fresh Voices Screenwriting Competition, Her stage plays have been performed by the Boulder Children’s Theatre Group and she was chosen as artist-in-residence for A Theatre Group’s 2012 theater program in Silverton, CO. Jenni is also a competition reader for Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition and BlueCat Screenplay Competition. She is more than thrilled to be part of her first audio CD, in excellent and nefarious company, with Valentine’s Day Massacre.