Fragments of language and story extracted from the body
–by Temim Fruchter
I was proud of my muscular shoulders, molded by swimming and tennis, and I used to stand facing the bathtub, holding up a hand mirror so I could stare at the reflection of my back in the bathroom mirror. At school, though, I felt like a football player, hulking, musclebound … In my mind’s eye I was a leering giant, gesticulating and capering around the little people, making them laugh, just one jot off a Frankenstein monster.
– Shelley Jackson, My Body, A Wunderkammer
Many small birds, particularly finches, have bouncy, roller-coaster trajectories caused by fluttering their wings and then actually folding them shut for a split second.
He has meaty shoulders. Quarterback shoulders. Big tough words for arches, first impressions, upended roots. His shoulders dwarf his neck. His shoulders are like hills in both the softest and least soft senses of the word. His shoulders make me want to trust him because, any time I’ve tried to visualize trust, it always looked most like a shoulder. More malleable than any kind of rock, to be sure, but not by very much. His shoulders rounded out when he loved you. They squared like pillars when he walked away. His shoulders were always just close enough to the sky, but not too close.
One of my shoulders always favored the sky more than the other. The other usually sloped distinctly groundward. At moments when the chasm between the two was biggest, each shoulder began to develop a life of its own. The higher shoulder started to hear and notice things the lower shoulder didn’t. It got sharper, grew opinions, bothered my ear with trivia. The lower shoulder started to recede, dejected, out of time. It relaxed, yes, first, but soon it started to disappear. I started becoming a slope. At any moment, something was either falling down or climbing up. My head lolled. My neck couldn’t make up its mind. I was usually between upstairs and down.
Let me explain that we all knew I wasn’t winged. When I complained of ‘wing pain,’ it was only because something up there was tense and I’d forgotten the word for scapula. And anyway, especially when they were sore, those bones did feel exactly like the place wings might have developed, had they wanted to. We all knew I was left to make plain magic from skin and bone – sore, uneven, untattooed, unwinged – but somehow, the thin phantom overlay of a monster or the casual evocation of a bird made the strain holier and more useful.
Why were birds such popular party conversation? There was a brief time when a cocktail party didn’t end before at least two kinds of birds were discussed. One night, I distinctly remember a friend following our first sip with did you know that crows have face recognition? The more we drank, the more we talked about crows. I didn’t quite know the difference between crows and ravens, so I brought up Edgar Allen Poe. It wasn’t relevant, but at least it was clever. When I got home, I went online and read some bird websites so I’d be better prepared for next time. I have never wished I could fly – I like two feet on the ground, even crookedly – but had I wanted to, I think I would have wanted to fly like a hummingbird, my wings expert in hyperefficient figure eights. More likely, though, I would have flown like a finch – frenetic bounce, flutter, fold.
I could tell you that in sleepy sad moments I used to put my head on one of his broad shoulders, a perfect reminder that I could sink in but would unlikely ever fall. I could say that I drew great comfort from his shoulders’ sure swell, their monumental distinction and uncommon breadth. But the truth is, I think he used to put his head on mine. Mine thin and spotty. Mine ships in the night. Mine unwings. Mine bony as rash decisions. He said he liked my shoulders because they reminded him exactly where I started and ended. My shoulders were articulate, sharper than the rest of me, which was usually round and undecided. With a temple to my shoulder, he always knew where I stood.
We tuck our phantom wings and our shoulders into the same pocket of each other. We fold cleanly into our middles. Puff. We hurt too much these nights to consider flying but we can come up with new names for the parts of us that may, centuries ago, have been birds or monsters or both. We reach and we slope. My shoulder, his shoulder. Mountain, punctuation. Crooked, wide. Raven, crow. Flutter and fold. Rest here. Slow now. Stay a minute. Flutter and fold.
Temim Fruchter lives and loves in Washington, D.C., where she just landed very recently from Brooklyn. She writes mostly fiction and lyric prose, and has an overactive imagination.