Flash Fiction: Feeder by Marissa Higgins

(Trigger warning: Non-explicit references to child sexual abuse)

Lynn knew the birds wouldn’t say shit. Unlike her sister, Annie, all unblinking eyes and a mouth that moves quick in low tones, the birds knew what was what. Stay in your lane, eat the food that’s offered to you, and let secrets live inside your beak. But no. Thirteen years before Lynn packed up her two-door and drove herself down south, crossing state lines for the first time in her life, Lynn spooned steamed corn into her mouth while Annie and her parents watched. Finally, Lynn, then all of twelve, said, What? When her mother said they’d heard what she’d been saying happened with Lynn’s uncle, that funny business, as she put it, Lynn’s father and sister kept their mouths open without food on their forks.

For all the talk, Lynn’s parents didn’t do squat. Sure, as Annie reminded her, they stopped letting their uncle sleep over the house. He wasn’t allowed to babysit them alone anymore, even though they were too old for that by then anyway. But he was their mother’s baby brother, as she reminded Lynn often during the rides to his house, so yes, she still expected the girls to come over for pool parties and Easter. People move on from misunderstandings, her mother told the sisters. People don’t just destroy a family over a confusion.

So when Lynn’s customer service company told her they were going remote to cut office costs, Lynn thought, Hey. She thought, What the hell. Didn’t mention saving up. Didn’t ask where distant family lived or if her parents knew someone who knew someone with a rental. The internet told her a college town in North Carolina had low enough rent. Twenty minutes from the place: ocean. Lynn got approved for the apartment and thought, I have two weeks. Into cardboard boxes went cardigans, a strap-on harness, photos of her extended family with one face X-ed out.

Imagine if they just told him to fuck off, Lynn told Annie when she was unpacking those same boxes in her new place. The light was better than she could have hoped for, sun holding hope in trees, though her sister didn’t seem to see what she did. Maybe it’s because it’s a video call, Annie offered. If only you’d let me come down with you.

Lynn told Annie to shut it. I’ll miss you, she told her older sister, feeling, as ever, like a mother. But you know why.

I guess, Annie said, and when Lynn gave her a look, Annie added, I do. I mean, you know I do.

When the call went silent, Lynn started talking. To herself, sure. To the inflatable mattress on the floor and open boxes. Mostly, to the birds.

Lynn put up the feeder right quick. The feeder and the feed were at her doorstep when she arrived at the apartment complex, a sign she took as an omen of good for her new life. Lynn had never messed much with nature, and certainly not with birds; she found their self-confidence unsettling. But a life change was a life change, and Lynn didn’t want to get lonely, as loathe as she was to admit her fear to Annie. So, the birds.

As part of her rental, Lynn got her own porch. From a hook, the feeder. Common southern birds visited, though Lynn couldn’t tell the difference between a house finch and a cardinal for the first couple months. At first she stayed still, spine a weapon, and took dozens of photos. Who are you, she wondered, not wanting to answer the question, either. When Lynn introduced herself, the birds didn’t seem to care one way or another, and that helped Lynn to talk talk talk.

You’d think they would have reported him to the cops, Lynn told a pair of American goldfinches. Even forced him into some religious counseling. Lynn cracked her toes and tucked her legs under herself. The finches listened or didn’t.

But no, Lynn continued. It was all, ‘Yeah, Lynn was always up in the computer room while Annie was at lacrosse. Lynn was always hunched over up there, complaining her back hurt, probably because of her shit posture. So he offers her a backrub, being a nice guy, right? And when his hands get a little reckless, she takes it as something it wasn’t.’ The finches fluttered.

‘And then,’ Lynn gestured her hands out, as her parents did when exasperated or terrified or both, palms like offerings for God, ‘Lynn makes a whole vendetta out of it.’ Lynn grabbed a few sunflower seeds from the feed bag and popped ‘em in her mouth. What the hell, she thought. Form a bond.

The birds didn’t chirp but they did stay. For years, she told them, my family talked about it. I’d pick up the landline and hear my aunt hypothesizing about why it was me and not any of the other cousins; was it because I didn’t always wear a bra around the house? Because I didn’t have friends except the ones on my computer? Because he resisted Annie and just couldn’t handle it with another girl in the house? And when I’d dare to say, It’s because he’s a fucking freak, I’d get yelled at for violating their privacy by listening in. Their privacy! Lynn thought the birds nodded but couldn’t be sure.

Lynn chewed her seeds and spit them out beside her bare feet. Lynn told the goldfinches the truth: she wasn’t scared, sad, sniveling. She knew she didn’t do a damn thing wrong. She understood he was a criminal, a shivering beast. People love survivors when they hate themselves, Lynn told the birds, who definitely, Lynn thought, nodded, but folks don’t know what to do when we’re mad as shit. When we want to protect ourselves, shatter the fist that cracked our mirrors. When Lynn spit her wad of seeds onto the dusty wood, the birds spit too, honoring a mother when they saw one.

Marissa Higgins is a lesbian writer and D.C. Arts & Humanities Fellowship recipient. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Best American Food Writing 2018 (originally in Catapult), Rumpus, Washington Post, Atlantic, and elsewhere. Her fiction appears, or is forthcoming, in the Florida Review, Lost Balloon, X-Ray Literature, LEON, Tiny Molecules, and elsewhere. She is working on a novel.

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