Ellen grew up in a Colorado town where her mother cleaned people’s vacation homes, where Ellen and her brother spent off-season afternoons breaking in and drinking the beer of strangers, while snow piled up on decks and driveways. She didn’t do much better as a college student at a weird little high plains school. She sang in a band, but was bad at it. She regretted all her tattoos. She almost never talked to her mother. She dropped out and moved in with a man in Boulder who built lutes (productive), but also did meth (not). Her brother took a job in Bangkok. When he called it was noisy and disjointed, and she hung up feeling worse and looking out at the mountain that pushed up to the sky. Was she depressed? Sure, usually. Did that make her special? No, not at all.
So in the summer of 2018, Ellen left her life completely. She was 23, unbeholden to anyone, tired of the people she knew, the servers, the skaters, the punks, the trust funders, the post-grad-schoolers, the drum circle assholes, all of them, and maybe herself most of all. Her hair was a faded Manic Panic turquoise, and she shaved it in a gas station bathroom halfway between home and somewhere else. In the rippled mirror, she looked altogether new.
Ending up in Newport, Rhode Island was a fluke. Her high school English teacher once told the class, “Newport is the most East Egg place in contemporary America,” while he fanned himself with a copy of The Great Gatsby. Not all of Newport, Ellen learned. Not the narrow streets where tourists wore lobster bibs and dripped butter. Not the harbor where junk boats were bogged down by seagulls. But, yes, the cliff walk that divided the mansions from the ocean, where on her second day she found a dead bird on the path, not just a bird but a duck, not just a duck but a hooded merganser. Her grandfather hunted. She’d gone with him on weekends wearing the gear and sitting hidden until he would startle her with a series of shots, and then there would be a dead animal on the yellow hillside.
The dead duck fit into her backpack. She’d drained and plucked birds before, so handling a dead animal wasn’t new to her. But there was a delicacy to taxidermy that differed from preparing an animal to be food. In the room she rented from a single mother and atop a shower curtain liner she’d stolen from the shared bathroom, she spent hours on the duck, partially mangling it and then filling it with cotton batting she pulled out of a novelty pillow she found in the closet (“You got this, girl,” needlepointed onto the pillow face).
The woman’s son, Theo, a strange nine-year-old with inexplicable bruises on his forearms who upon first meeting Ellen announced that he had two loves, Robert Caro’s LBJ books and astrophysics, showed up at Ellen’s door with random objects that he put right into her hand. On that night, it was silver sequins Ellen sewed into some of the duck’s feathers, so the bird, when held aloft, actually shone.
She found a dead pigeon by the trash at the back of the house a few days later, cleaned it, stuffed it, and implanted a series of tiny screws in its neck. They almost blended into the feathers, but not completely. Collar, ill-placed stigmata, she didn’t know.
Within a week, she accumulated ten birds. It was surprising how you could find dead birds when you were looking. When Ellen finished, each bird was messy, but had its own small shock: the sequins, one hawk talon affixed to the spindle leg of a chimney swift, the red plastic tips of push pins just surfacing from the eyes of a starling.
She mounted each to dumpster plywood onto which she transcribed full chapters from The Great Gatsby. On the wood below the starling’s dangling feet, she wrote the final line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” which was pretty melodramatic if you thought about it. But for once Ellen wasn’t beating against any stupid current. Her life to this point had been a series of nothings and ridiculous internal monologues. Should I masturbate while my roommate is out? No, I’m too tired. Maybe I shouldn’t eat any more Oreos? Never mind, I’m eating them. But in these Newport weeks, she didn’t overthink. She just did.
She borrowed Theo’s mother’s ancient Fiat and rolled around town with Theo and a drill and affixed the already rotting birds to light poles, or the sides of buildings. She liked imagining the shock of people coming upon them. She and her brother had once watched a documentary about outsider art, and her brother had scoffed when experts raved about its primitive qualities. “The fucking condescension,” her brother had said. But Ellen delighted in her clumsiness. She loved that there was no polish or practice to her work.
As they hung the last bird, the boy, Theo, lectured her about the multiverse: “I mean, obviously, there’s not just one universe. How presumptuous would it be to think that?” At night, they lay on the concrete patio and looked at the stars. For once, she was maybe content.
There were several ways this could end:
A) Rich people want the birds for their walls. Out of nowhere, Ellen’s an artist. They don’t want just one bird. They want a collection, a flock, a show, because apparently only amassed in a grouping is artistry significant. The street in front of the gallery is beautiful. A trombone player plays “We Will Rock You.” A homeless man sells newspapers for a dollar, and for once everyone buys them.
B) Ellen holds Theo at the edge of the cliff. She wears giant wings she’s made from mop handles, sticks, cardboard, and actual bird feathers. Maybe the mansions are in the background, and maybe they stand at the edge wearing the wings and step forward. It should be beautiful. Flying and future.
C) Ellen puts Theo in the front seat of the Fiat, and they drive west where she once saw a cadre of turkey vultures balanced on a water tower and waiting for the dead. Ellen and Theo drive until no one in Rhode Island can see them, until his bruises fade, until they are air, they are afterthoughts, they are gone.
Amy Stuber’s fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, Wigleaf, Joyland, New England Review, Triquarterly, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Flash Editor for Split Lip Magazine. She’s on Twitter @amy_stuber_ and online at www.amystuber.com.