A short story by Eric Raglin.
“There’s a place where the stars form a perfect ring, Lessi,” mom said. “And inside, there is no darkness.”
Her lips barely moved as she spoke, and her bone-thin limbs lay perfectly still. It was as if some parts of her had died before others. Her eyes still glimmered with life, locked on to some point far beyond the white popcorn ceiling of her bedroom. Beyond what even the most powerful telescope could find. Tears trickled through the thin brown canyons of her wrinkles, and she smiled, exposing gums receded to thin pink crescents. But a smile was a smile. I squeezed her hand as if doing so might keep her soul from escaping. It didn’t work.
In the months that followed mom’s death, I only left the house to check the mail. My work, which involved online technical writing, didn’t require me to go to an office — just someplace with a stable internet connection (i.e., my bed). As for running errands, there were apps for that. Someone brought me my groceries, my toiletries, even my antidepressants. Of course, I always requested they leave them at the door and not bother knocking. I didn’t want anyone — not even a stranger who’d forget my face five minutes later — to see me in this state: sour, greasy hair; pajama pants worn for two weeks straight without a wash; nose a perpetually sniffling mess. Some delivery drivers still knocked despite my instructions, and I froze up whenever this happened as if making the slightest sound might have them kicking down the door.
Naturally, friends and family members reached out. Sometimes with a call, sometimes a text. The calls I ducked on principle, but the texts — “how are things, Lessi? Been worried about you” — I responded to with a simple “fine, thx.” These concerned messages eventually slowed to a trickle, which gave me some relief. I knew I should want people to check in with me, but there was something pleasant about spending every non-working, non-sleeping moment in front of the TV riding mom’s squeaky exercise bike. Well, okay, maybe “pleasant” is the wrong word. “Easy” is more like it. When I binged a season of The Walking Dead in a day, it required no thought, no reflection on the realities of my world. Neither did pedaling away on the exercise bike. It was a meditation on two simple words: “right, left, right, left…”
Four months into my grief, during my weekly trip to the mailbox, I found a letter from my aunt Mila. She still lived in Toluca and, paranoid that international mail wouldn’t reach me, plastered each of her letters with a dozen stamps more than was needed. This habit had gotten worse with time, or perhaps she’d become all the more desperate to reach me in my newly motherless state. Inside the envelope was a lengthy message about my mom, how things were in Mexico, how everyone missed me and would love to host me again if I could get away from work.
Throughout my childhood, I spent every summer there. My mom couldn’t always afford to buy two plane tickets, so often it was just me and Mila. When Mila and I sat together on her porch, I would vent about how my friends in the States had probably forgotten me. Mila always knew just what to say — that she was also my friend, and it was her duty to help make my stateside friends as jealous as possible. So together, we wrote letters to them, detailing our shopping trips in Mexico City and our hikes around the active volcano Popocatépetl. Of course, some of the details were exaggerated — a little extra extravagance, a little extra danger — but the letters achieved their aim. When I returned to the States, my friends always scrambled over to my house to ask about my adventures, their eyes bright and eager. It made me feel like a queen surrounded by her subjects.
Now, as I read the letter Mila wrote to me, I couldn’t help but smile. Unlike the folks who texted me once, received my almost wordless response, and never reached out again, Mila went the extra mile with her message. It was long and detailed and, most importantly, didn’t exude pity. And when I arrived at the end, there was a piece of advice I couldn’t ignore: “Take your auntie’s word — join a club. Find a community. Something that isn’t a grief group — something that makes you feel normal again. It’s all part of the process, Lessi.”
I hadn’t been part of a club since I joined and immediately ditched Future Business Leaders of America in high school. But as I folded up Mila’s letter to put on my desk, I pondered her advice. Nothing had changed in the past four months. I still thought about mom constantly, drank too much, and felt numb when I watched TV shows I used to love. Something more was needed to get me out of my slump, and as much as I bristled at the thought of human interaction — with the mailman, the grocery delivery driver, even the friends I’d made in college — Mila’s wisdom had gotten me through plenty of hard times. It was best to give it a try.
I checked Facebook for a community to join. Something local, preferably online — in-person hangouts might happen eventually, but for now, baby steps. Most groups didn’t catch my interest: Omaha Adult Intramural Basketball, National Rifle Association – Omaha, Hobbytown Board Game Club. Sure, I could dribble a ball, shoot a gun, and kick my cousins’ asses at Monopoly, but that didn’t mean I wanted to dedicate myself to clubs in which those things were the sole focus. Over and over, I found people infinitely more passionate than I was doing things that would give me, at best, mild enjoyment. It just wasn’t worth it.
Feeling as though I’d combed over most of the local clubs, I sighed and closed my laptop. Mila’s letter still rested on my desk, and I eyed it again. I couldn’t give up on her advice so quickly. She’d be disappointed in me. (No, she wouldn’t — she loved me too much for that). But I needed a break from the search, so I went to the kitchen to microwave some ramen. While the bowl filled up with water, I gazed out the window at my small backyard. Mom’s gardening shed sat cobwebbed and rusting. The grass needed mowing, but as long as the city didn’t issue me a warning, I didn’t see a reason to do it if I wasn’t going out anyway. Shading the grass was a crabapple tree with most of its pink blooms lost and browning in the prairie below.
A bird landed on the tree. A strange one I’d never seen before. Long black body with white wings, a red triangle on its head, and beady yellow eyes. He — or she, I had no way of knowing — drilled the trunk with a white beak. A clack-clack-clack like a toy soldier’s gun.
And just then, it occurred to me that I could join a bird watchers group. It wasn’t that I had a passion for birds — especially when they sung me awake before sunrise — but I knew that bird watchers liked silence, something we had in common.
I snapped a picture of the bird with my phone, searched around until I found a Birds of Nebraska Facebook page, and posted my photo with the caption, “Can someone help ID? Seen in Omaha.” I closed the app and finished making my ramen, figuring no one would reply.
I awoke to threats in my Facebook messages. Strangers calling me a liar, “sick,” and — in one especially memorable case — “a plague on the birding community.” I didn’t understand what I’d done, and even after I realized it was about the photo, the outrage still didn’t make any sense.
Thankfully, one kind soul gave me the benefit of the doubt, commenting, “Sorry dear, but when was this picture taken? Ivory-billed woodpeckers have been extinct since the ‘80s. I’m sure you didn’t mean to confuse folks!”
“Extinct.” I stared at that word for a long time, letting my raisin bran go soggy. But it wasn’t long before I snapped into action. It’d been a long time since I’d “snapped” into anything. Was this what excitement felt like? Motivation? I wasn’t sure, but I opened up my phone camera and hustled over to the kitchen window. Before I even got there, I heard the clack-clack-clack, and I knew the bird hadn’t left — the living fossil I now had a name for. But when I looked out, there wasn’t just one — there were two. A male and a female perhaps, drilling away at my crabapple tree to give their future babies a nest.
This time, I filmed it on Facebook live, narrating the whole time and getting multiple angles from different windows. I didn’t dare step outside though — no way I’d scare off my backyard miracle. Plus I was only wearing underwear and a bra.
The online comments flooded in immediately. Some apologizing. Others explaining how live videos could be faked (“she spray painted some pileated woodpeckers, I bet”, “no, it’s gotta be advanced CG”). And countless more begging for my location in all caps. Somewhere around the hundredth demand for where I lived, the acid feeling blossoming in my chest became too uncomfortable to ignore. I stopped the livestream. Sure, documenting a supposedly extinct species was exciting, but my house becoming a bird tourist trap, thousands of binoculars peeking in on me from all directions? I couldn’t stand the thought. I’d claim it was an elaborate hoax and get on with my quiet life. And while it would take some time for me to work up the courage again, I would still honor Mila’s advice. A community would be good for me, but only one in which I could assert my personal boundaries.
Not a minute later, my “hoax” apology was posted, and I closed the app.
Around 3 PM that same day, I was in the middle of writing technical instructions for a Target-brand bookshelf when there was a knock at the door. Curious — I hadn’t ordered any groceries, nor had I placed any Amazon orders in the past couple months. My best guess was that it might be a Jehovah’s Witness or maybe a neighbor finally telling me to mow my lawn. But the man at the door wasn’t wearing a white button-up with a tie, nor did he look like anyone I’d seen out walking their dog or drinking on their porch. The first clue that this had gone too far was the man’s binoculars hanging around his neck — binoculars that looked fancy enough to match the price of a mid-sized sedan. The man was also sweating horribly, and his knocks grew more persistent the longer I watched through the sheer curtains.
“Please,” he said. “I have to see them. It’s — I never thought it would happen. I didn’t even think it was possible. I — I’ll give you money if you just let me in the backyard.”
I didn’t open the door, but I brushed the curtains aside. My voice trembled.
“I don’t want your money, and I don’t want you in my yard,” I said. “Please just leave.”
I caught the look in his eyes — dark, sunken, defeated. It was hard not to feel bad.
“But if you really have to,” I continued. “Just — just park in the alley and stand on top of your car. You should be able to see them over the fence.”
Before I could even finish, he sprinted back to his car, cranked the ignition, and peeled into the alleyway. Immediately, I regretted ceding my ground, and if the thousands of comments on my post were any indication, he wouldn’t be the last to arrive.
Still, I tried to ignore him and get the last of my work done for the day, going as far as to put on some noise-cancelling headphones and concentration-inducing alpha wave music. My mind was jumbled, so it took me twice as long as normal to finish writing the bookshelf instructions. By five, I wasn’t yet done, but five o’clock was five o’clock, so I called it quits, a headache blooming between my eyes. The next episode of The Walking Dead was a must, and maybe even some Chinese delivery — it had been a day.
But as soon as I took off the headphones, the outside world flooded in. Someone knocking at the door. Another person tapping at the window. Voices — some excited, others angry. Shushing — lots of shushing. And the constant click-click-click of cameras. The birdwatchers had arrived en masse. So many that apparently the “overflow” crowd wanted viewing space inside my house.
Breath caught in my throat, and I gnawed at my thumbnail — a habit I thought I’d broken. This wasn’t what I wanted. Not in the least. And what could I do? Yell at those nerds? Call the cops? Shoot the damn birds? No, no. Each option was stressful in its own way. I wasn’t an asshole, a fan of the police, or a psychopath. So what choice did that leave me with? Well, waiting for them to leave. Perhaps the birdwatchers would lose interest, or the woodpeckers would migrate elsewhere once they realized the innards of a crabapple tree were a bit cramped for their kin.
I prayed for it. Locked my bedroom door, closed the blinds, and clamped the noise-cancelling headphones back over my ears. It was almost like a sensory deprivation tank, except without the relaxation. My thoughts wouldn’t stop, unspooling and tangling like a roll of toilet paper in a cat’s paws. And not all the thoughts were rational: what if the bird freaks never leave? What if they break in while I’m sleeping and claim squatters’ rights? What if —?
I couldn’t live in this “whirlpool of worries” as mom used to call it. And the second mom sprung to mind, the tears flowed. I choked and sobbed, and when I worried that the birdwatchers might hear me, buried my face in a pillow. If mom were there, she’d have rubbed my back, walked me to the kitchen, and brewed us each a cup of chamomile. When the cup was in my hand and at least halfway empty, then and only then would she ask me what was wrong. This ritual was better at calming me than any YouTube guided meditation video had ever been, and it broke my heart when mom could no longer engage in it, too nerve-damaged to massage me or even flick the switch on her electric kettle. At least she still had her words, up until the very end. But now, even those were gone.
Falling asleep that night was tough. Despite the curtains, light still bled in from the outside — camera flashes, mostly. The woodpeckers were apparently still on full display, though I didn’t bother to check. I knew what they looked like already. It took four sleeping pills and an eye mask to finally lull me to sleep sometime after 2 AM.
I forgot to set my alarm for work, but as it turned out, I didn’t need it. I awoke to the sound of wings flapping and people gasping. The gasps didn’t surprise me — these were “extinct” birds after all. What did surprise me was the loudness of the flapping. It sounded less like two birds and more like a whole flock. I wrapped myself in a bathrobe and shuffled to the window, parting the curtain just an inch. I jerked back when a fast white-tipped wing rustled the window screen from outside. And, before I could close the curtain, another and another. Dozens of the “extinct” woodpeckers zipping around my yard, catching insects. Cameras with long lenses clicked and bird watchers whispered, but their noises were buried behind the birds’.
I looked at the wall clock, turned my face away, then looked again. If this were one of my lucid dreams, the clock might have read 2:15 one second and 10:38 the next, but the time was consistent. I was most certainly awake, undercaffeinated but heart beating as if the opposite were true.
It was time to take a window tour, not daring to actually step outside, but rather, acting as a voyeur who didn’t wish to be seen, much less photographed. Moving from one window to the next, I could scarcely believe what I saw. Cars and news vans lining the block, bumper to bumper, as if my house were the venue for a big pop concert. More photographers than a red carpet event. And, of course, woodpeckers in hordes. None of the birds seemed to move beyond my property line. None of them took up residence in my northern neighbor’s more spacious oak tree, nor did they seem interested in my southern neighbor’s bird feeder brimming with seeds. It was as if an invisible line marked their territory and to cross it was to violate a law of nature.
As I stood staring, my phone rang. It was my Instacart delivery driver — I recognized his number even if I never answered his calls when he arrived with groceries. This time, however, I picked up, knowing there’d probably been a complication with the delivery.
“Hey, I, uh — it’s impossible to get to your door,” he said, the flapping wings and clicking cameras audible through the phone speaker. “I don’t know if you know this, but there’s —”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, not meaning to come across short but doing so nonetheless. “Can you put the bags on the sidewalk? I’ll — I can probably get to them from there.”
“I don’t know if you can, but, uh, sure.”
A terrible taste spread across my tongue. Not normal morning breath, but something like old coffee grounds soaked in lemon juice. I took a deep breath, thanked the driver, and hung up. It was time to see if I could get outside.
As soon as I approached my front door, I was met with a cacophony of clacking. Not just one woodpecker, but countless, drilling away at the door. So many that the wood shuddered in its frame. I backed up, wondering how soon it would be before they bore their way into my home and made a nest in my living room. I held my breath, unsure what to do, before deciding I couldn’t let it happen. I had to shoo them off, assert my boundaries. I pounded against the door as if doing so might banish the birds back to extinction. But my pounding wasn’t met with a flutter of fearful wings. No retreat at all in fact. The birds hammered harder, faster. The door was not long for this world, and soon, maybe I wouldn’t be either.
I dialed Animal Control. If there was anyone who could handle this situation without violence, it would be them. The phone rang six times before someone picked up, and I explained the situation.
“Yes,” the woman on the line said. “We’re well aware and have a team in front of your house already. They’ve been there since last night — maybe you didn’t see them. It’s an incredible sight, isn’t it?”
I hung up without saying goodbye. What use was it? The woman sounded delighted. Nothing I could say would convince her of the danger I was in, the terror that rocked me. Hell, she’d probably been dreaming about something like this happening for ages — a birdwatcher’s Christmas.
I was back at square one, waiting the problem out even as the swarm grew bigger by the second. The sound grew louder too. I could no longer distinguish between individual wingbeats and clack-clack-clacks. It was a thousand different rhythms played simultaneously, blending into a seamless deafening drone. And even when I put on the noise-cancelling headphones, the sound persisted like a bad case of tinnitus.
Again, I prayed, this time out loud, shouting myself hoarse. A prayer repeated over and over, sometimes addressed to God but more often to mom. If she were here, her room across the hall from mine, she would know what to do. Even if she couldn’t fix the problem, she would have made bearing it so much easier, her words a sedative, quieter than the swarms but so much more powerful. I needed her now more than ever.
Around lunch time, I stopped praying, my throat feeling like fire and tasting like copper. I needed a drink. Some milk to soothe the burn. The fridge was nearly empty, however. A jar of pickles, some salsa that had probably fermented, and two eggs a month past their expiration date. My groceries were still outside, or at least I hoped they were. Maybe the birds had crossed the property line and gotten to them. Or, if not them, the bird watchers. My stomach rumbled, vacant and bubbling and sick all at once. I laid down on the kitchen floor, eyes closed, and waited for the feeling to subside.
Somehow, I fell asleep. Perhaps out of exhaustion, or maybe out of shock. I don’t know. But when I awoke, there were ivory beaks poking out of the walls. Hundreds of them cheeping and thrashing their tongues, licking up wallpaper paste and pulverized plaster. I could no longer hear the sounds of the human world. No cameras clicking or cars pulling over or news reporters speaking into microphones with giddy disbelief. I couldn’t see any people either — the windows were a mess of feathers and yellow eyes.
“What do you want?” I screamed, and their beaks opened and closed and unfurled tucked-away tongues.
Food. Maybe if I gave them food they’d leave. But no way would I hand feed them. Sure, I’d never heard of a man-eating bird, but I’d also never heard of ivory-billed woodpeckers until two days ago. I didn’t know what they were capable of. I ran to mom’s room, hunting for the grabber she used to get clothes off their hangers. Her room was almost untouched, bed made, still smelling faintly of perfume and urine. The only difference was the holes in the wall with beaks jutting out. I snatched the grabber from her closet and ran back to the kitchen, opening up the pantry. Inside was an ancient box of saltine crackers, probably stale, but if birds could wolf down moldy bread, they probably wouldn’t mind a stale cracker either.
I snapped each cracker in half and placed the pieces between the grabber’s pincers. Then, I held an offering out to each bird, one at a time. Sightless as they were, their eyes cloaked inside the walls, they sensed the food and snapped at it, crumbs falling to the floor but most of the cracker sliding down their gullets in a single gulp. Still, the ones I fed didn’t retreat. If anything, they grew more restless, beaks slapping against the sides of their holes.
What was I to do? I wept. I begged for mom — her spirit, her rotted body, her clothes animated to imitate her form. I didn’t care — all I knew was that I couldn’t do this alone. I’d end up dying without her strength. Screaming pleas shredded my vocal cords.
The birds stopped cheeping, stopped thrashing around inside the walls. My tears ceased. What was happening? Then, thousands of wings beat all at once, not as a wall of chaotic noise but as a unified rhythm. A rumble shook the floor. Concrete cracked. A whoosh of wind blew up through the floorboards, and I lost my balance, the grabber flying out of my hand. Vertigo hit me hard, a wave of dizziness so intense I retched. There was nothing in my stomach, just a thick slither of bile.
When I found my footing, I walked over to the kitchen window as if on a tightrope, bending at the knees to keep from falling. The window was still blocked by a cluster of feathers and eyes, but through a crack, I could see only the sky. Not a single building or tree or human. The color darkened the higher we got, from pale blue to navy to almost black. My breath got thinner, and even as the floor steadied itself, my vertigo intensified. I sat down, counted my inhales and exhales.
Somewhere around my ten thousandth breath, I realized I was no longer on the ground. I was floating, just an inch or two, but still — floating. So too were the fridge, my stack of bills, and mom’s jar of old pesos. Again, I retched, but this time, the bile floated with me, spittle parting from my chin and levitating away.
The wing beats grew quieter until they were silent. No sound in space. But still, I sensed we were moving, moving far faster than I thought birds capable of, this migration a cosmic one. And I wondered for a moment if I was already dead. I grabbed a steak knife suspended in air and poked my finger, digging in until I drew blood. A crimson drop floated away like a planet falling out of orbit. So I was alive. But how? And for how much longer?
I used the drifting fridge to propel myself to the window, gripping a curtain rod to stay in place. Once more, I found the crack between the feathers and unblinking eyes, and I peered into the blackness.
Except the blackness wasn’t pure. There was something far off. Lights. No, stars. A ring of stars. Golden and growing nearer each moment. A tingling warmth spread through my chest and flowed into my extremities. A weight lifted from both body and soul, as absent as gravity out here in the void. I laughed a soundless laugh, terrified, ecstatic.
We’re getting closer now. I don’t know how long it’s been, but I’m coming, mom. I’ll be there soon.
Eric Raglin is a horror writer and educator from Nebraska. He frequently writes about queer issues, the terrors of capitalism, and body horror. He is also the host of the Cursed Morsels podcast.