Mate for Life
By Sheree L. Greer
. . .
My bookstore had only been open for ten minutes when she glided inside. Her entrance barely moved the bamboo chimes above the door. She stopped in front of the poetry section, her hair an explosion of dark and light brown coils and curls. A stark white tank top glowed against her sable skin. I walked over and stood beside her. My stomach rumbled, but she didn’t seem to hear it.
“Can I help you?” I said.
“Nah, you probably don’t have…” Her eyes never left the shelf.
She turned to me and smiled. “Under a Soprano Sky.”
Her eyes lit up.
I shook my head. Her disappointment hung in the air like the smell of smoke.
“I can order it. Be here in about a week.”
“Sure. I’d like that.”
“Interesting. Most people just…”
“The internet.” she said, touching my arm. “This gives me a reason to make sure I come back.”
The touch set off a flutter in my stomach. Birds. Miniature ones. At least a dozen of them. Flying around my belly, perching on my organs. I cleared my throat.
“You don’t need a reason to come back,” I said, surprising myself. The birds shifted beneath my rib cage. The woman followed me to the front counter. I grabbed an order form from beside the register.
“What’s your name?”
She extended her hand over the counter and answered, “Jadene.” She looked down at the form, pulled back her hand and snorted softly. “Oh. J-A-D-E-N-E. Wow! You real old school.”
“It’s… I have a system.” I offered my hand. “I’m Deka.” Touching her hand riled up the birds. “It should be here in about five days,” I said, handing her a receipt.
Folding the thin carbon paper, she nodded. “Thanks. I’ll see you again soon.”
“Okay.” I looked down as she eased back from the counter to leave. Out of Jadene’s sight, my stomach protruded against my shirt, wings and heads pushing against my flesh.
Jadene came back the next day. She looked around the store. “Slow day?”
“Unfortunately,” I said. “And I’m closing soon.”
“You putting me out?”
The birds were back, their wings tickling my ribs and their beaks stabbing my intestines. I wanted her to stay so bad it hurt. I swallowed. “No.”
“But I am going to put you to work.”
Together, we straightened up the store. Through most of our tasks, she sang softly. The tender murmurs calmed the birds. But when she came over to help me with the fiction section, the birds went wild. Flaps, flutters and shivers, tickles and thumps from their wings, pricks and pokes from their beaks and feet. Pleasure and pain. A crush. Jadene handed me the books stacked on the floor and I slid them into place.
“You, uh, read a lot of poetry?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” Jadine said.
Talking settled the birds.
“You write any?”
“I write Haikus but never let anyone read them.”
“They’re all sad. Lonely.” Jadene sighed and stood up. “Now that I think of it, I only write haikus when I’m single.”
“Being single doesn’t have to be tragic.” I shelved the last book. “I could be single forever, as long as someone would kiss me every once in awhile.”
That’s when it happened.
She kissed me.
I kissed her back, shocking myself and stunning the birds. When we parted, I exhaled, and all the birds inside of me flew out of my mouth.
Jadene screamed. She stumbled away from me. “I’m… I’m… I’m sorry,” she said, waving the crimson birds away. They cooed and hovered overhead, then darted in a frenzy all around the store. “I, uh, I should go.” She hunched her head between her shoulders and ran toward the door, shooing away a few tiny blood red birds determined to make a nest of her afro.
I wanted to say something, but my mouth was filled with feathers.
Jadene didn’t return until her book arrived.
“Hey,” Jadene said, walking up to the counter. She glanced up at the ceiling and the tops of the shelves.
“They’re gone.” I dipped under the counter to get her book.
“Oh.” Jadene exhaled. “I, um, I didn’t mean to just… and I would’ve come back but…”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I slid the book toward her. “You want to check it out before I ring it up?”
Jadene started to speak, but just grabbed the book instead.
“The birds…” I ran my hands over my abdomen. “They were cardinals.”
Jadene looked up startled. She looked over her shoulder, checking the ceiling corners again. “You’re sure they’re gone?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” I looked at her. Fear in her eyes. Her mouth turned down. Her hair pulled back — straight, tight and impersonal. “It’s too bad, you know. They… they mate for life.”
“Really?” Jadene nodded. “That’s… um… interesting.” She hurriedly pulled a twenty from her wallet and laid it on the counter.
“Why did you come for the book? You could have just chalked it up and…”
“I wanted to see you again. I felt like we had a connection, but then the birds and… I just… I wasn’t expecting that.”
“It’s okay. I understand.” I rang up the book, took the twenty, then held her change out to her. She reached for it slowly. When our hands touched, she reeled back, her eyes wide and mouth open.
“My stomach…” She put a hand to her belly. “It feels like…”
“Feels like what?” I leaned forward and noticed sweat beading on her brow.
Jadene looked down as her shirt stretched in odd shapes. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes. Choking, she grabbed at her throat.
I ran around the counter to help her. Bent at the waist, she coughed and coughed, and amid hacking, a clump of wet, red feathers ejected from her mouth and landed on the floor.
Sheree L. Greer is Director
of Kitchen Table Literary Arts