For the Birds

Zilka Joseph

Sudden dash of light in the corner
of my eye, a soundless flash in hazy swathe
of trees leaps stealthily from the small maple
to the crabapple that has taken this year’s
drought hard. My eyes bore into foliage. Is it
a mynah? Dad, you taught me well how to look
and listen. This is Michigan, and it’s probably
a grackle, but I think of the crow pheasant
(the coucal) I often watched in India, a wily
master of camouflage. I remember the firsttime I ever saw one close up. I was seven
or maybe eight, sickly and bookish. While
sitting in the shade of a sprawling gulmohar
that dropped scarlet whorls of flowers
on me, it darted from under the hibiscus. So
graceful its arched tail, so fiery its beady eyes.
I was reading some Enid Blyton novel about
young girls in a boarding school in rainy
England who ate scones and crumpets, and hadfabulous adventures. It was a hot afternoon
as this avian beauty that normally threaded light
woodland and field slipped into my grandaunt
Lily’s garden. She was a famous doctor
at Tata Hospital when few women
stayed single and had careers. She drove
a grey Standard Herald, and her frantic beeping
of the horn sent her gardener’s sons rushing
to throw open the low iron gates when
she came home. Once, she gave me a nest
a weaver bird had abandoned. It adorned
my bedroom for years. She would tell meabout the trips she had taken when she was
young. All over Europe, and yes, to the Isle
of Capri—her favorite. All eyes, I would listen.
Then she would sing “‘Twas on the Isle of Capri …”
or play a Vera Lynn record. Did she have many
lovers? I wanted to wear expensive Dhaka
saris, high heels, smoke cigarettes (as I had seen
her do at dinner parties sometimes), travel—
be like her. Would I ever go anywhere? I who
failed in math and science, hated bullies, hated
school. My head sailed in the clouds. My brain,
they told me, was for the birds. My handwriting
a bird’s nest. My weak fingers would never grasp
a pen properly, my legs never walk normally again.
When would my flesh grow light, my bones
breathe only air so I could fly? When the birdappeared from nothing, shapes shifted, my book
levitated. The bird floated, not walked. Did it
even have feet? I felt my weight lift. Floating
was as good as flying. It seemed not to see
me, as if it were a peaceful spirit passing
through. Strange girl, they said. A dreamer.
Did I imagine it then? Hearing a creak of leaf
and branch near my deck, the blur I saw earlier
turns to flesh and blood—a gawky crow
who arrows to the roof from the forsythia
and caws shrilly. Curious juvenile, her
glance is full of questions. Friend or
foe? Food or death? I throw my head
back, look up at her. She peers at me
over the edge. I slip indoors for bread, then
leave ripped bits on the railings. Where
is she? She’s hiding somewhere, watching mewatch her. They emerge and melt, these wily beings—
show a wingtip, glitter of eye, flick of tail. Leave me
a feather to dream on, a map to follow. My mother
and I fed them scraps everyday.They jostled each
other on the ledge, fought for crumbs, always
hung around our windows. Then disappeared
into neem, peepul, or the banyan tree as big
as a city. Did they wonder where we’d gone?
Had they heard us weep? Had they pecked at the
shuttered windows and silence? Wild fig seedlings
now grow from cracked brick. A sudden wooshof wing beats. Listen! The air throbs. Three
trumpeters pass over me to land on the pond.
I wave. This is where I live. And there and
here and there. Crow, sparrow, finch, blue
jay, nuthatch, chickadee, cardinal, mallard,
cormorant, heron, geese, swan. They visit,
feed and fade. Return. They know their own.
I’m for the birds. I’m never alone.

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Zilka Joseph has been published in Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, Mantis, Rattle, Review Americana, and Quiddity, and in anthologies such as Cheers to Muses: Works by Asian American Women. Lands I Live In and What Dread, her chapbooks, were nominated for a PEN and a Pushcart award respectively. Her book Sharp Blue Search of Flame (Wayne State University Press) was a finalist for the Foreword Indie Book Award. She teaches creative writing workshops in Ann Arbor and is an editor and manuscript coach.

Michigan Quarterly Review

Winter 2018

Ann Arbor, Michigan

University of Michigan

Khaled Mattawa

Poetry Editor
Constanza Contreras

Managing Editor
H.R. Webster

Michigan Quarterly Review is an interdisciplinary and international literary journal, combining distinctive voices in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, as well as works in translation. Our work extends online as well, where we publish cultural commentary alongside reviews and interviews with writers, artists, and cultural figures around the world. The flagship literary journal of the University of Michigan, our magazine embraces creative urgency and cultural relevance, aiming to challenge conventions and address long-overdue conversations. As we continue to promote an expansive and inclusive vision, we seek work from established and emerging writers with diverse aesthetics and experiences.

Twice a year, we curate an array of perspectives on a single theme. Past special issues have included writing on the Flint Water Crisis, the Great Lakes, Greece, China, and Caregiving.

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