Half-asleep & listening to the dark, the woman couldn’t shake the image of the ceiling fan rattling itself loose & chewing her to bits. The heater was grumbling. The refrigerator droned. Underneath all that white noise, she could hear what was keeping her awake: a sound like a caged thing battering itself against its bars. She looked over her shoulder & saw her husband’s shirt fluttering over his chest. Out of the dark, then, he yelped. She jumped & jerked her head back around.
“The light bulb.” It came out as a moan. “The key!”
“Sweetie?” She peeked over at him.
His eyes were stretched into a wide glare. “The key!”
He groaned. “The light bulb! In the garden!”
Just as she realized what was happening, consciousness drained from his eyes, & his head clunked back onto the pillow.
She rolled over & stared at the wall, wide awake, counting the clicks of the fan.
The next morning, she tried to joke about it as they cooked breakfast. “You were talking in your sleep last night.”
“Mmm? What did I say?”
“I don’t know. Something about a garden.”
“I asked what you were talking about. You yelled at me.”
“Oh.” He cracked an egg. “Sorry.”
She tapped her foot unconsciously, debating whether to bring it up. “Your heart was making an awful lot of noise.” There was a long pause. She decided to try. “Can I take a look?”
He began to over-scramble the eggs.
From behind, she eased her arms around his waist & tucked her hand under his shirt. “I love you, you know. You have the most beautiful heart.”
He turned to reach for the bread, wrenching his torso out from her arms. “I love you, too,” he grunted, slamming down the toaster lever.
As he brushed his teeth, he scowled at himself in the bathroom mirror, dumpy in his boxer briefs, his shirt still on. The shower curtain snapped open, & in the reflection, he saw his wife step out of the shower. He averted his eyes, then peeked quickly back. Feathers were drifting through the bars in her chest, falling to the bathmat beneath her feet.
“He’s molting,” the man pointed out.
She grimaced at him, the sparrow in her chest slumped on its bar. “I guess breeding season is over,” she quipped, wrapping the towel pointedly around her chest.
He frowned over his toothbrush & looked away, brushing his teeth harder.
“You’re going to brush your enamel off,” she snipped as she left the room.
After he had closed & locked the door behind her, he stripped off his underwear & then, after a moment’s hesitation, pulled his shirt over his head. He didn’t look in the mirror but stepped quickly under the scalding water, into a blur of steam.
That sun-bright day in the basement, he ran manic, his heart squawking, a child. What had he been playing? Trapped in the Bermuda triangle? Chased by mutants? Olympic ice-skating? He dashed & twirled & leapt gracelessly, his sweat spattering the air. Peeling his damp shirt off, he sat at his mother’s old electric organ. At first, he played as a mad scientist, rampaging along the keys, but he ended quietly, his fingers pirouetting out a soft melody.
From behind him, a curt clearing of the throat.
He whirled around. He hadn’t heard his mother come down the stairs. She was staring at his chest with the strangest look, as if being shown an x-ray of a useless bone broken beyond repair.
He looked down & saw the bustle of color: ruby, turquoise, gold. His cheeks went hot, his mother’s odd stare flooding him with a familiar pang of awareness. Every other boy’s heart he had seen had been female, their feathers subtle shades of brown & gray, but the doctors had confirmed it: his heart was male.
His heart stilled. Its ludicrous tail-feathers drooped out from the cage. His mother stared it down, & it let out a low mew.
“Put your shirt on, young man,” she snapped, stomping back up the stairs.
Sexual dimorphism. It was dark outside, past midnight—too late for the boy to be up—but he couldn’t sleep. He rubbed his finger over the word in the dictionary, then down through the definition: the phenotypic difference between males & females of the same species. There. His heart’s brilliant plumage, spelled out in black-&-white. He closed the book softly, like a sacred text, & slid it back into its empty spot.
“I do,” he was saying. He pulled out the Kleenex his friend had stuffed into his pocket (“You’re going to need this”) & dabbed at his eyes.
Across from him, his bride was crying too. His father, officiating the wedding, indicated that it was time to exchange the keys. The man took his key & clunked it into the keyhole in his ribcage. With a turn, the lock clanked into place, & he handed the key to his bride. Her eager heart opened its mouth & slurped the key right down its throat.
Sniffling through a broad smile, the woman locked her own chest & offered him the key. His stubborn heart clamped its beak shut. Gritting his teeth, the man worked his finger into the sharp yellow stub, wrenching it open & forcing the key in. The audience applauded.
That night, still panting from their clumsy love, he collapsed onto the pillow as his wife went into the bathroom. His heart’s beak fell open, & out toppled the key. The toilet flushed. He yanked his bedside drawer open & fumbled the key in.
His wife came back to bed, slipping under the covers beside him. He clenched her tightly, his belly pressed against her back.
“You’re hurting me,” she giggled.
He went slack. “I just love you,” he whispered. “I do.”
Stress twisted every muscle in his shoulders & neck into one unsolvable knot. He pulled into the garage, slammed the car door shut—a little too hard—& tramped inside. His wife was standing in the kitchen, beaming, her smile a kitschy halo radiating out from her head.
She looked hurt for a moment, then said, “I found it.”
“Look!” On the table lay an old reference book opened to the Qs. He saw queasy, queer, quarrel, quarry, quirk, quiver, question. Then he saw the picture. His heart. He read the caption:
Resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus moccino), a bird in the trogon family.
Found from Guatemala to western Panama. Well-known for its colorful
He stared at her.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” She was almost hopping, her heels twitching against the floor. “Let me see!” She grabbed for his shirt & began to tug it up. He leapt back, & she slipped, crashing to the ground.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He scrambled to help her up. “I’m sorry.”
She held her lips so tight they quivered. “Why won’t you let me? I’m your wife.”
He tried to look anywhere but her eyes, but she stared him down without a blink. Giving in, he reached down & grabbed his shirt at the hem, pulling it over his head.
He had been dreading the dumb look of pity she gave him then. “What happened?” she asked.
He didn’t say anything, but she knew. She remembered the nights she had heard it hammering itself (even now, she couldn’t bring herself to say himself) against the bars. The one & only night she had heard its cry, crackling into something like static. The bloodied feathers she had found in their bed sheets. She looked at it now: its feathers sparse, skin mottled & scabby. She remembered something she had read earlier in the evening: …indeed it was noted for usually killing itself soon after being captured or caged.
He tugged his shirt back on, & they stood staring at each other from across the room. She handed him an envelope. “I bought these for you.” She left the room.
Working the envelope open, he paper-cut his finger & cursed. Inside were two tickets for a cruise to Central America.
“When the conquistadors came,” the Mayan tour guide was saying, “they asked the Mayans what this land was called. The Mayans answered in their native tongue, ‘Ma’anaatik ka t’ann.’ ‘Ah,’ the Spaniards said. ‘Yucatán.’ But what the Mayans had really said is, ‘I do not understand you.’”
The man did not understand how the conquistadors could have heard Yucatán. He wondered if the tour guide’s story was true. The bus was bumbling along the road inland from Merida, bumping over rocks & potholes. The man’s head banged against the window. His wife’s head banged against his shoulder. “Ouch,” they said.
“You’ll see in the ruins of Chichen Itza a very old carving,” the guide continued, “in the form of a bearded man.” He paused for effect. Someone yawned; a baby screamed. Disappointed, he added, “The Mayans have no facial hair!” He let a woman in the front row rub his face: smooth, it couldn’t have been him. The woman nodded with wide eyes. “Our stories tell us that the Mayans heralded this bearded man’s arrival as the coming of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent King, Giver of Time, the Morning Star…” He paused. No one bit. “…the virgin-birthed symbol of death & resurrection!”
“Ahhh!” The North Americans nodded in appreciation. Now they saw where he was going.
Leaning conspiratorially over to his wife, the man whispered his suspicion that the Mayans had gotten their myths mixed up when Cortez showed up with his Bibles & his beard. She smirked. The tour guide continued emphatically, as if sensing dissent, “Carvings of the bearded man are scattered all over the earth—everywhere there are hairless people!”
His wife whispered, “Sounds like ol’ Quetzalcoatl was showing off.”
The man snickered. His heart rose & pecked at his shirt.
The tour guide was finishing in a hushed, over-dramatic tone. “…but no one remembers what the Morning Star said.”
Remembering dark, starless Sunday nights, the man wanted to say, “It’s the same where I come from,” but he kept quiet, staring out at the foreign landscape. From the fields, stones cried out in every language, but were still misunderstood.
The man stood at the bottom of the pyramidal temple, his neck craned back to see the features as the tour guide pointed them out.
“The Mayans were brilliant architects,” the guide raved. “They built temples upon temples upon temples like a Russian nesting doll. They designed this one so intricately that, on the equinox, the shadow of a serpent will slither down its staircase—” He wriggled his hand through the air for effect. “—& listen to this!” He clapped his hands, & the man’s heart cried out.
“Ooo,” the tourists purred. They all began to clap their hands, & the sky burst into birdcalls. The man’s heart perked up to join in, & he realized it hadn’t been his own heart calling in the first place.
“The Mayans designed the acoustics of this temple to transform their handclaps…” He clapped again, twice, briskly. “…into the song of their sacred bird. The quetzal was thought to be the god of the air, symbolizing goodness & light.” The man’s wife shot him a self-satisfied half-smile. He stared back blankly, unable to make sense of the words. “Mayan kings wore extravagant headdresses sewn from their colorful feathers.”
Everyone had stopped clapping by then, but from somewhere among them, a sacred bird sang.
“Be back at the bus by 1:30, or we will leave you,” the tour guide said. He pointed to the sky, to a cell tower blinking red. “Follow that tower back to the lot.”
The man wandered off into the ruins of an ancient ball court, remembering how the guide had told them that the winners of the ballgame had, as their prize, their heads cut off. In the middle of the court was a carving: a headless man, a tree blooming from his wound.
His wife came up beside him, wrinkling her nose. “Come on.” She pulled him into a web of trails lined with Mayan vendors peddling souvenirs. The vendors bantered as they walked past, “Almost free! Almost free!” The man’s stride turned into a slight skip, & a stupid smile creased his face. Everywhere he looked, there were quetzals: sculptures & headdresses & bright stray feathers.
“One dollar, one dollar, one dollar,” a vendor babbled, a feathered headdress in his hand. The man made eyes at his wife & walked over, grinning, holding out his dollar bill. The vendor took it &, with a flourish, pulled a piddly charm out from behind the headdress, presenting it to the man with a sneer.
As they walked on, the man began to see how everything duplicated: the same masks, same carvings, same calendars. The men sitting alongside their booths chiseling were a slight-of-hand, he realized. Everything was mass-produced here.
He checked his watch—1:20—& grabbed his wife’s hand, leading her back towards the bus. “I think it’s this way,” he nodded, but he could hear the uncertainty in his own voice. He scanned the horizon for the blinking tower, but trees blotted out the edges of the sky.
“There!” his wife pointed. A sign: Salida. They followed the path deeper until they came to an unfamiliar resort with tourists sprawled all around. Behind the resort was a parking lot full of tour buses. None of them were theirs. The realization slapped them in the face, too late: they were lost.
The man looked at his watch. 1:30. He saw dread wriggle into his wife’s eyes & started to walk faster, resolved to stay calm for her, to fix his mistake. A dignified-looking old man stopped them, whipping a cane into their path. He leaned forward on the cane & asked in slow, molasses-thick English, “What are you looking for?”
“The buses!” they wheezed.
He gestured with one hand—calm down—& pointed behind them with a patronizing smile. “The buses are right there.”
Exasperated, the man & his wife ran, gripping hands. From the corner of his eye, he could see her heart fluttering in panic behind her tank top. He remembered two things at once: the tour guides words—We will leave you—& that he had left his ID on the ship. He imagined being nameless, stripped of identity, stranded & stared down by the masked Mayan gods.
His watch read 1:40.
He ran, holding back the tears stinging at his eyes, ran past dozens of vendors looking concerned, pointing this way or that. Panic scrambled the elementary Spanish from his brain. (¿Dónde está el autobús?) The words ran in front of him, squirming just beyond his grasp.
—& then there he was, hairless face stained blood-red with fury: the tour guide. He was muttering, “They’re going to kill me. They’re really going to kill me. I’ll lose my job for this.”
Hunched over, hand on his heaving stomach, the man grabbed a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket & slipped it into the tour guide’s hand.
The guide’s fury slid into a sly smile, & he led them proudly back to the bus, a merciful priest, sheathing his knife.
Back at the bus, the man & his wife were met with bored faces. They slumped into their seats & listened to the tour guide lecture all the way back to Merida about human sacrifices, describing in gleeful detail the way the priests sliced open their victim’s hearts & kicked their bodies down the temple steps. The whole bus quaked & shivered. Nauseated, the man closed his eyes, feeling his heart peck mindlessly at itself.
At the port, men with military guns slung over their shoulders demanded to see the man’s ID. He tried to explain that he had forgotten it on the ship, but they just shook their heads & adjusted their guns, irritated by the dumb tourist who left his identity behind. They patted him down & shook him up, but eventually let him through.
Once he had boarded the ship, he made his way to the slot machines for no particular reason. He had given the last of his money to the guide, so he just sat & watched a disheveled man pull the lever over & over. He fixated on the slots spinning like an ancient Mayan calendar towards the end of time, closing his eyes. He imagined himself headless, a tiny sprout slithering from the gore, imagined himself a Mayan ruler with a pompous feathered headdress, ordering new temples to be built over the ruins of the old.
He grinned, stroking his stubbled face. Below his feet, he felt the ship rumble to a start, disembarking from the Yucatán, the land of misunderstanding.
She had been watching. His beard grew out into a burning bush, a bright orange flame contrasting with the bruised purple deepening around his eyes. One night she woke up to find him sitting by the bed, his knees pulled tight against his chest. He was rubbing something metal between his fingers. She didn’t want to see what it was. She watched him drop it back into his bedside drawer, curl up on the floor, & fall asleep. His body looked fetal, she thought. She imagined it spiraling, a dying galaxy.
Sleep did not come for her. She drifted in & out of the dim visions that bled through from her dreams, taunting her insomnia. In them, she was trudging through the night, wandering through the garden from a book she had read as a child. The plants were withered, crumbling beneath her feet. A labyrinth of stone walls stretched out around her. There were no stars above her, no moon. Through the thick ink, she could feel a black hole tugging on her from behind the stone, crushing the light in its gravity fist. It dragged her into the maze, her fingers scraping against brick & stone, searching for a handhold to grasp onto, for some loose brick’s forgotten secret. Then everything toppled, & she fell into a blank black sky. Her ribcage hinged open, & a sparrow flew out, holding an orb in its beak. At its core, the bulb began to spark & glow. Gravity changed its mind, & she plunged back into the stone maze. By the light of an electric moon, she saw a misplaced brick & wriggled it from the wall.
She blinked awake & found herself standing over her husband, his bedside drawer open, her chest’s key in her hand.
He woke up on the floor, his whole body sore. Had he heard someone yell? What time was it? His bedside clock was blinking—12:00, 12:00, 12:00. Outside the window, the sun punctured the horizon like an open wound. Was it rising or setting? He remembered his mother’s aphorism: Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. She had shown him in her Bible: Jesus had said it. The words themselves bled red.
He wandered out of the bedroom & called his wife’s name, but there was no answer. Opening the back door, he saw her in the distance, at the tree line across the yard. The mountains’ shadows loomed over her. The rising red light seeped closer. As he started to walk out to her, he had the surreal thought—but couldn’t place why—that she looked like an ancient priestess, half-shadowed, half-lit in red. Then, seeing what she held in her hand, he broke into a run. When he reached her, he was gasping for air. “What are you doing?” The cold dew numbed his feet. A knife was dripping in one of her hands; in her other, she held something still. She dropped the knife unceremoniously & held that hand out to him.
He shook his head and muttered—nope, nope, nope—but reached out anyway to take it: his key, tacky with blood. He saw her sparrow wrapped loosely in her other hand, how its chest bloomed red, & dug his nails into his palm.
She dropped the dead bird & took his hand. For a moment, he thought she was going to hold it, but she just peeled back his fingers one-by-one, prying the key out from his fist. She lifted his shirt, eased the key into his chest, & opened the cage.
Nothing happened for a while then. They stood there, eyes locked, the cold prickling their skin into goose-bumps.
Then his heart left his chest. It wobbled off on weak wings towards the mountains. They watched as it made a drab bow across the sky & disappeared behind the trees.
The man opened his mouth to say something, but the woman turned & walked away from him, warming her shivering arms in her hands.
Above her head, he saw an alphabet of black birds, flying to the south, blurring in & out of words from a language not meant for him.
Brandon Thurman is the author of the chapbook Strange Flesh (Quarterly West, 2018). His poetry can be found or is forthcoming in Nashville Review, Ninth Letter, The Journal, RHINO, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and others. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas with his husband and son. You can find him online at brandonthurman.com or on Twitter @bthurman87.