Cityscape

by Judd Hampton Read author interview December 15, 2005
story art

When he speaks, birds fly out of his mouth. Sandpipers and swifts, warblers and goldfinches. Songbirds, mostly, with shaggy crests and flamboyant throats and tails as forked as his mother’s tongue. He keeps his mouth closed so the birds cannot escape because freedom is a treacherous gift. He leans against the windowpane at the top of the stairs, staring out at the serrated cityscape. Behind him, carpet pathways lead to his daughters’ empty bedrooms. Downstairs, the sounds of clinking dishes and his mother’s humming scour the silence.

He does not speak the language of adolescent girls. He plays widower, son and father in a house filled with girls and developmental stages. The house blushes with the babble of modern fashion and all the latest music, every voice too dazzling and mature to be believed. And everything keeps changing, pages turning, disengaging, and he falters, tragically, amid the culture of earrings and beaded necklaces and cosmetic experiments gone awry. But his mother helps. She cooks and cleans and hums the house into shape.

“Are your little songbirds going to explain menstruation?” she once asked.

“Well, no, not exactly.” And with his admission, a goldfinch appeared from the nest of his open mouth and took flight. His mother swatted the bird with a broom.

“Everyone else is growing up,” she said. “Maybe it’s time you stopped that silly parlor trick. Besides, they make such a mess.”

Before his girls cared about accessories and brand-name jeans, when the house claimed a functioning wife/mother, he spoke all the time, and when he spoke, birds flew from his mouth. His girls giggled and sang and chased the darting sandpipers, the swifts and warblers, capturing and cupping them in their hands.

“Such fun,” they said.

“Don’t ever stop talking,” they said.

But now when he speaks, he harvests a different response.

“We’ve all seen it, Dad.”

“We’re not five anymore, you know.”

“Why do you have to be so embarrassing?”

And so he learned not to speak.

He stands at the windowpane at the top of the stairs, staring. He waits and watches, shifting his weight from leg to leg, wanting, willing his daughters to come home. The cityscape looms on the horizon, promising a roller-coaster ride of pain. The birds push at his cheek and nip his tongue, but he keeps his mouth closed. The birds are growing and they cannot stay inside him forever. He feels pressure, a quickening within his gut. The thickness of his blood is changing. Like the gush of birth, maturity and independence are inevitable. He throws open the window and curses the advance of time.

“Fly, then,” he says.

Birds burst from his mouth—sandpipers and swifts, warblers and goldfinches—one after another in a gush of wet feathers, beak and wing. And they escape out the window, flying tentatively toward distant roofs and steeples, which look jagged as teeth.

About the Author:

Judd Hampton lives in rural Alberta, Canada among the pump jacks and canola fields of the north. His writing has appeared in Night Train, Vestal Review, Flashquake, Paumanok Review, Danforth Review and NFG magazine, among others.