Sweet Red | Marilee Dahlman

Pick at your ugly skin, curl your toes around the wire. Balance as a pulse of memory beats into your brain. The melody had crept upon the breeze and under steel mesh, a song just for you, music that wormed into your little red heart, and you had followed the song and found her, your fawn-feathered mate. What had happened? 

Cock your head. Work at the recollection. 

You remember dancing beak-to-beak on a rough branch, cracking seeds and tipping them down her throat late into cicada-buzzing dusk. But what—

Pain. In dim early morning, your veins strung taut from the smell of morning dew and song of mourning doves—a sudden, blinding sting. She had plucked a single feather from your skin.

And not just any feather: she ripped away the finest crimson plume arching from your crest. You covered a shriek with a nervous chirp. Her black eyes blinked slow. The red feather floated to the ground, forgotten.

It had happened again, the pluck. You both worked hard to find the right twigs and leaves, stuff of a good, stable nest. It wasn’t quite complete, but sniffing rain in the air, she plucked another of your feathers, again bright red, and wedged it in the nest. She closed her eyes and settled down to lay her eggs. 

Over the seasons, she never hesitated to pluck, righteous and unapologetic in this act to protect the chicks, and you watched, curious, as your feathers lining the nest faded, disintegrated . . . the nest, the nest . . . it festers, your skin, these raw patches. 

You balance and reflect. Warm, fleshy fingers jab through mesh to scatter seeds . . .  

Seeds. They had been scattered straight to you, always, the striking scarlet. Your mate, she of feathers all hues of olive and brown, faded into the walls of the nest, or branch, or the ground, more of earth than you would ever be, always sensing the next wind or rain, and her moods!—angry or content, nestled close in winter, bored in the summer sun . . . it was sunflower seeds you wanted, that bright day of bursting flowers, when a scream stopped the pat-pat of your heart, and you flew and found a bird of prey had seized her, broken and thrown her to the ground, her black eyes now unblinking, her belly bloated with last eggs.

You pick at your ugly skin. You twitch your head and stare side-eyed at the hole in the steel mesh. Then you hear it—a melody, skipping along the breeze, a song just for you, creeping into your little red heart. 

The End

Marilee is originally from the Midwest and currently lives in Washington, DC. Her other stories have appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Cleaver, decomp, Metaphorosis, Molotov Cocktail, Orca and elsewhere.

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