originally published in Axolotl el sexto

Mrs. Garcia woke up yet again to the sounds of birds chirping in her teeth. She parted her lips and listened. She closed them and enjoyed the quiet until she could no longer stand her guilt. Closing her mouth made her feel like a deranged mother with a pillow over her baby’s face. She opened it and let them chirp for hours until they finished.

She shuffled downstairs in an old bathrobe and slippers and found Mr. Garcia in the same place he had been every morning for a decade—at the kitchen table reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. Mouth still open, she rotated her jaw on its joints.

“Birds again?” Mr. Garcia asked with his quotidian pity.

She made herself two slices of toast with peanut butter. She had found that peanut butter, unlike anything else she put in her mouth, silenced the birds like a mute button. Sometimes in the summers, when the sun rose early and the birds were at their wildest, she snuck down to the kitchen at first light and shoved her fingers into a jar of Jif and scrubbed it into her teeth like toothpaste. It shut the birds up so suddenly that she worried for their well-being and was always relieved when they stirred again the following morning.

The Garcias had one son. George came into the kitchen with a backpack over his shoulders and baseball mitt in hand. He had started getting himself ready for school long ago; he possessed a self-sufficiency borne out of that knack some boys have for understanding the limitations of their mothers. In short, he was a driven child. Years ago they talked him out of wearing a tiny suit to his first day of kindergarten. He cried and protested; he wanted to be taken seriously.

They all looked at each other like they had long ago run out of things to talk about.

“I’m going to school now,” said George, reminding his parents of their parenthood.

“Have a good day,” said Mrs. Garcia.

“Give ‘em hell,” said Mr. Garcia.

George rolled his eyes at the anachronism.

#

George returned home from baseball practice that evening with a dead sparrow in his mitt. Its tiny neck had buckled. It looked far too small to have ever achieved flight.

“I found him on the front porch. I think he flew into the window too hard and died,” George said, wet-eyed, holding his glove out to his mother. There were a few tiny feathers and some kind of vital smear on the outside of the living room window. “He looks like he’s sleeping but his eyes are open.”

“Oh, no,” said Mrs. Garcia. She tried to measure her reaction. She felt flush and shaky. George, of course, didn’t know about the birds in her teeth.

“What should we do?”

“We should bury it.”

“Should we have a funeral for him?”

“I think that’s a nice idea.”

Mrs. Garcia didn’t know if the dead bird was one of hers, if it had flown right out of her mouth to its death. She didn’t know what her birds looked like or if they had names or families of their own. She worried that the bird might have belonged to someone else but she didn’t know who to ask, or even if there was some administrator in charge of that kind of thing.

The Garcia family changed into black clothing, dug up a little patch of dirt in the backyard and stood over it with their hands clasped piously at their waists.

“What should we say?” asked George.

“I’m sure he was a very nice bird,” said Mrs. Garcia, leaving her mouth open, waiting for the little ones inside to chirp a remembrance of the dead. They said nothing.

“This is ridiculous.” George’s voice had a strange new edge to it. His eyes were dry.

As Mrs. Garcia fell asleep that night she felt flutters between her teeth, like she was flossing with feathers.

#

The next morning the birds didn’t chirp. Mrs. Garcia opened and closed her mouth. She shook her head and made circles with her jaw.

She went to into kitchen. No one was there. She called for her husband and George. No one answered. She was up before everyone else for the first time in years.

She went to the backyard, found the homemade grave and knelt down on the ground beside it. She pushed away the thin layer of dirt covering the body of the bird. She felt the ghosts of wings flapping in her mouth and knew with spiritual certitude that the dead bird was her own.

She had always thought hundreds of birds lived in her teeth, that she housed a flock so big that if let free they might migrate southward in one of those neat black formations. All that time it had just been one bird. He’d had as much to say as a thousand. He had been more fragile than glass.

“Mom,” a voice called from the front porch. Without looking up from the grave she thought it was the teenage boy who lived next door looking for his own mother.

“Mom,” she heard again, and recognized George’s voice sinking down into adulthood.