“In The Shape Of A Small Bird” by Julia Strayer

I dream my brother sold me a shack by a river that ran too quick to the sea, but he’s been dead all my life. They say I carry what’s left of him. A ball of DNA in my abdomen where he fused into me long before we were born. 

My brother is angry he doesn’t have legs or life so he sometimes uses mine to go where he wants. I am angry I have to carry him.

The doctor told my mother twins, but I was the only one. They searched.

My mother asked her God why he didn’t deliver her a boy instead; she offered me in trade and prayed for a boy who never came.

I asked my God why he delivered me a mother like that, but he never answered. So I asked, Why do I have to carry another soul? All he said was, He’s your brother.

I tried to starve him out, but I was the only one hungry.

I sleep now in an abandoned church. Trees growing up where a roof should have been. Birds nesting. I press my eyelids shut and hope to sleep on a bed of damp moss covering gnarled roots, but the sun rises, settles calm in mid-sky. Birds preen, talk amongst themselves in a language I don’t understand.

I buried my mother last week. Dug her a hole by a river that refused to move with fish who refused to swim and rocks that moved themselves in the night. God doesn’t have anything to say about that.

Afternoon, and birds nap in the church that’s no longer a church. I am awake on moss that is now dry on roots that have stretched out straight.

Since our mother died, my brother runs us through the woods where honeysuckle grows sweet and wild, and wolves howl in packs. He climbs us to the tops of tall trees, dangles our legs over dead branches. He dances us too close to the quarry’s limestone ledge.

I fill a wooden bucket from a river that runs smooth and clear, and wash myself in a clearing in whatever sun leaks through trees by late afternoon. The water is cold but I scrub my skin until it’s angry.

I tell my brother who will not leave to settle in and be quiet or I will drown him in a river. But that may be what he wants most.

At dusk, birds again have much to say in trees that are now the roof of a church that’s not a church. I ask God if he’s angry, but he says no.

I lie on damp moss, settled within gnarled roots curled around me and my brother, and we look up at the stars, surely dead by the time their light reaches our sky.

Tomorrow will deliver the same birds and roots and river. I will carry my brother and the rage, and God will say, Never mind about that.

Until now, my brother and I have been unwilling to sacrifice ourselves to get rid of the other.

In the middle of the dark, while I am asleep, my brother walks my legs to the river to the hole where my mother now lies. He says he hears her voice praying for him.

At dawn, I awake wet and weak, dragged down in heavy water until I grab at weeds growing on the banks and pull myself out.

No more, I say, and walk my legs back to the hole I dug for my dead mother. I lay myself next to her and ask my brother, Is this what you want?

I reach deep inside and pluck him out in the shape of a small bird, set him on her grave. He stands on two thin legs, flaps two wet wings and pecks at the decaying mud.

I walk my legs out, muddy and away.


“In The Shape Of A Small Bird” first appeared in Fiction Southeast, 2016.

IMAGE: The Skeleton of Conjoined Twins Joined at the Thorax, nineteenth-century – (artist unknown).

Julia Strayer

Julia Strayer has stories in, or coming from, Cincinnati Review, Kenyon Review Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, Wigleaf, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review and others, including The Best Small Fictions. She’s a past winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Award for New Writers. She teaches at New York University.



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Kathryn Silver

Such a potent, beautiful piece, Julia. Congratulations!

Megan Anderson

Haunting imagery!

Teresa Wilson-Gunn

Loved so many things about it – especially how the only Father-figure mentioned is a God who actually talks back when spoken to. Amazing work.

Fran Turner

So much beautiful and powerful here: ‘I asked, Why do I have to carry another soul? All he said was, He’s your brother.I tried to starve him out, but I was the only one hungry.’

Epiphany Ferrell

I love the nightmarish, fairytale feel to this story. Well done!

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