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Bird Watching

Story by Sara Kaplan-Cunningham (Read author interview) June 17, 2024

Art by Austin Santaniello

We paused our walk on the lip of the lake, pulling breath slowly into our lungs. A Great Blue Heron stood stilted in the switchgrass. We watched, standing close enough to see its wispy white mullet, and one yellow eye driven through with pure black. Nadine held my forearm with three fingers and did not let go. Bullfrogs bent the air with their rasping, throaty calls. Dusk fizzed along the tree line as our chests filled and emptied again and again. We didn’t move. Nadine loosened her grip, but did not release.

“Do you remember,” I whispered, “when we watched that egret in college? In the little manmade pond?”

“You mean Stuart?” Nadine said. Yes. We had named him; he was ours.

“We waited so long.”

Nadine nodded. “He caught that fish.”

At the corners of my memory, I saw the flash of silver slither down the egret’s tipped beak, into his throat. “You were such a slut for a keg stand,” I said.

“Weird segue,” she said. The corner of her mouth twitched.

We were quiet again. In the years between us and then, Nadine had shed excessive pounds, recovered them, then lost them again. She’d left her long-term girlfriend for a man, then he’d left when her sex drive plummeted with her weight. This, her first visit to my new city. She’d requested we walk; I’d been careful to find a scenic loop requiring limited exertion.

People on the trail were beginning to stop, to see what we saw. Some took pictures, others paused briefly then moved on. One couple—a man and a woman—remained longer. The man jerked a baby stroller back and forth.

We, all of us, waited. Silence culled the air, cut by the occasional throaty croak.

“Have you heard from Cassandra recently?” Nadine asked.

I picked at my thumbnail. “No,” I said. “Not since she asked for skin graft money.”

“Gross,” Nadine said without feeling.

When the heron lunged, water rose up around its face in a crown, then plinked back down. A sound like a coin thrown into a fountain. In its mouth was a huge frog, limbs extended, rigid. We were too far away to see if the heron’s beak had pierced the back of the frog’s neck, or simply crushed it. The frog shrieked, high pitched and stitched with terror. The quaking aspens, the cattails, the trail of ants on the sidewalk, everything that would one day die, they all pulled taut.

Nadine clutched my arm like a talon. Then the heron lifted its wings, rose up on a palanquin of wind, and was gone.

The frog’s death rattled in my ears. Like that, the switchgrass was empty, lilting lightly in the breeze. The man with the baby turned to his wife, the carriage now unmoving.

“That was–” His wife paused. “–sad.”

The man nodded; they wheeled the baby away.

“Why did we stay for that?” Nadine asked. Her hand had glided down my arm, was now gripping my palm. I threaded my fingers through hers.

“We didn’t know,” I said. My voice sounded raspy, stale. “We didn’t know it would be like that.”

“But we knew it would be something like that.”

“The fish, Stuart, that wasn’t as sad as the frog.” I realized how ridiculous that sounded, but it was true. The fish had been quicker, quieter.

“Why?” Nadine pushed and I knew she did so out of guilt. “Because the frog has legs and the fish doesn’t?”

I nodded. “Yes, I think.” We lifted our feet, placed them in slightly different places on the path, not quite ready to leave. “The frog is more human.”

“This is why people invented numbers,” Nadine said. “To measure brutality without watching.”

Blue dark rose from the treetops like ink leaking from the tips of a thousand pens. I knew Cassandra was getting married. I’d seen a photo of her covering her mouth with both hands as a man knelt at her feet. When I heard, I considered writing her a letter, apologizing for everything, but I never did. Really, I dreaded an unforgiving reply. Better to live with the knowledge that I, too, had done gruesome things, then fled.

Back at the car, Nadine put on a song about an angsty boy watching his girlfriend shrink as she rides a Ferris wheel into the sky. Three little red crescents grinned up at me from my arm.

Trying to break this new, unknowable wall between us, I did my best imitation of the frog’s high-pitched death, pushing air from my constricted throat. Nadine whipped her head around to look at me, gasp-laughed.

“Bad things happen,” I said. “And it’s still ok to be happy.” I turned the music up so loud, I don’t know if she replied.

About the Author

Sara Kaplan-Cunningham received her MFA in poetry from the University of Houston. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in DIALOGIST, The Cincinnati Review, Fugue, Washington Square Review, Redivider, and elsewhere. Her story “The Conversion” won F(r)iction’s Fall 2023 Flash Fiction Contest. She loves warm brownie sundaes.

About the Artist

Austin Santaniello is a photographer from Milwaukee.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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