Curtis Smith

The Nest

The girl sat by her bed­room win­dow. Morning light sift­ed through the sycamore. The goldfinch hopped along a limb and chat­tered its ner­vous song. The girl whis­tled back. For the past two weeks, the goldfinch had been weav­ing its nest in the aza­lea bush beneath the girl’s win­dow. The bird scur­ried back and forth, acro­bat­ic flash­es of yel­low and black, grass­es and twigs snared in its stub­by beak. The girl checked the nest’s progress every day. What had begun as a strag­gly mass was now a tight­ly woven bowl tucked deep beneath the azalea’s fad­ing blooms.

The goldfinch aban­doned its song. The bird cocked its head, a rare moment of pause, then took to the air. Before the girl could stand, the tremors hit. The tro­phies and pic­tures atop her dress­er jig­gled. A pen­cil rolled across her desk. The girl closed her eyes. The upheaval res­onat­ed in her bones and flesh, her hands locked upon the chair’s sides, a white-knuck­le grip. Ten sec­onds, then still­ness. The girl breathed again. The goldfinch returned to its song.

The girl stepped into the nar­row upstairs hall­way. She was eleven, old enough to look after her­self on a Saturday morn­ing. She no longer cried when the Earth shook. The hinges of her par­ents’ bed­room door sighed. Her moth­er, still wear­ing last night’s dress, lay sprawled across the bed. The shoes the girl had slipped off sat neat­ly on the floor. The girl stepped for­ward, her body stir­ring the stale haze of cig­a­rettes and whiskey. She held a hand above her mother’s mouth. Her breath’s moist cur­rent curled against the girl’s palm.

Downstairs, the girl fixed her­self toast. Wisps of saw­dust lit­tered the linoleum by the back­door. Her father had been by last night to put in new locks. The girl had sat with him, hand­ing him the tools he asked for. The locks were heavy, thick dead­bolts, the girl’s reflec­tion warped in the pol­ished brass. There had been a man on the moon. There had been mur­der in the canyon. There had been mur­der in the city, a house lit­tle dif­fer­ent than hers. Fear on the grit­ty breeze. Her father had installed the locks but didn’t stay the night. An argu­ment before he left, exchanges that shook the walls, their ven­om and van­i­ties chas­ing the girl from the room. The Earth split beneath her feet. Her head white with sta­t­ic. A pan­ic in her chest, a dry-air drown­ing miles from the ocean.

A sleep­over last week. A flash­light game, voic­es in the dark. Her girl­friend whis­per­ing in her ear: “They cut the baby out of her. Alive.”

The girl placed her dish in the sink and went out­side. The sun low. Chill in the shad­ows. The goldfinch’s ser­e­nade. The girl shield­ed her eyes and whis­tled back. The bird masked by the sycamore’s leaves. Above, a blue sky, anoth­er beau­ti­ful day.

She went to the aza­lea bush. The dew cooled her bare feet. She nudged aside the branch­es. In the nest, three small eggs, oblong and pale and faint­ly speck­led. The girl had been won­der­ing when or if. The goldfinch cried. The girl pulled back, leaves rustling, when she noticed the oth­er egg.

She froze. The egg lay perched upon a nexus of leaf­less shoots. Perhaps the tremor had shak­en it loose. Perhaps the goldfinch, sens­ing rot or death, had nudged it from the nest. The girl reached into the bush. Dying blooms drift­ed to the ground. She knew once she touched the egg, she couldn’t return it, her human scent a stain that wouldn’t fade. The egg shift­ed, a hic­cup­ping tum­ble between the shoots. The girl lurched for­ward, the branch­es scratch­ing her hand, and snared the egg.

She pulled the egg from the bush. The shell lay cool and smooth against her skin. A cut on the back of her hand, a trick­le of blood. She thought of the life that wait­ed beneath the shell. She lift­ed her gaze to the sycamore. The goldfinch twit­tered. The girl’s moth­er appeared in the bed­room win­dow. The sun’s glare a cool fire in the glass, her moth­er a blood­less mirage, a ghost eclipsed by a low­ered shade.

The girl con­sid­ered the egg. She thought of the pic­tures sent from space, the Earth a swirl of pale clouds. There had been a time she’d cried when the Earth shook, but she was old­er than that now. She cupped the egg, a slow ratch­et­ing of pres­sure. A soft crack, then a spi­der­web of thin fis­sures. The goldfinch cir­cled above, wings flapping.


Curtis Smith’s sto­ries and essays have appeared in over eighty lit­er­ary jour­nals and have been cit­ed by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing.  His most recent books areBad Monkey (sto­ries, Press 53), Truth or Something Like It (nov­el, Casperian Books), and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside Press). In spring 2013, Press 53 will release his sto­ry col­lec­tion, Beasts and Men.