She wiped her slightly soiled hands on her canvas apron. Bree had been working since she was woken up by the early morning clamoring calls and thrills of the white herons and dark anhingas. She found the noises they made to be eerie, more cacophony than actual song. Bree stood still, looking to the backyard and the land that stretched beyond the property line of the nineteenth century bungalow she had lived in for the last five years. She called it a backyard, but it was much more than that. Eight acres of lush palmetto, cypress, pine and the occasional live oak, until it met up with the serpentine blackwater river.
The landscape reminded her of stories and movies that took place before humans, when the earth was dominated by dinosaurs. Even though they were loud, Bree loved that each winter the birds built dozens of nests in the cypress trees on her property. The birds’ music made the land feel even more primitive and added a frenzied energy to the otherwise drowsy atmosphere. Most of them were still sitting on their eggs, but a few nests of the anhingas were now home to some hatchlings. They were tiny, awkward, and rather unattractive, wobbling and oftentimes falling headfirst in the nest. Their weightless feathers sometimes catching in either the sticks of the nests or a passing breeze, eventually floating down to Bree’s feet. Fuzzy grey with long necks and webbed feet, she liked to watch them hop about the nests, already believing that they could fly into the sky.
Bree absentmindedly licked her chapped lips and began to twirl the leaf from a lavender plant that she had potted earlier. Her dry fingers had already rubbed nearly all of the aromatic oil from the leaf, but she thought she could still smell it releasing its scent into the air. She focused her attention to the nine potted plants she had placed before her on the windowsill of the westward facing French windows. They were plain ceramic pots, most of them left behind in the detached garage by the previous owners of the bungalow. The pots had been filled to the brim with cobwebs. Bree remembered the first time she had walked into the garage. It was relatively bright for an old storage building, with high pinewood shelving. The corner furthest from the doors was where she had found the pots. They were perfectly ordinary, almost boring in color and appearance. But the texture is why she loved them. The pots were as smooth and shiny as if every day and night someone wiped them clean with an oil.
Besides the expected cobwebs, Bree had found a few dead moths and roaches coating the bottoms of some of the pots. The roaches were big palmetto bugs, as long as a human’s thumb and the rich color of a dark cherry wood. They were pure and clean looking in death, no longer creatures to be afraid of or disgusted by. Turned upside down, resting on their smooth wings, their legs curled inwards towards their motionless bodies. It seemed as if each leg pointed meaningfully at their owner’s deaths. Bree thought she could almost hear the legs whispering to her.: “Look,” they said. “Look at this empty body of decay.”
She had taken the pots out, emptied and cleaned them. Instead of painting beautiful images on them, Bree decided to plant beautiful things in them. Orchids, African violets, and French lavender lended their hues of vibrant and delicate purple and green to the white bathroom. Bree loved the dichotomy of the violets and orchids. They looked permanent, as if the dark leaves and velvety flowers were forever fixed in existence and would never flail into decay. But in the back of her mind there lurked the thought that she could pluck a flower and crush the petals until the flesh became discolored and break beyond recognition.
But she never listened or seriously entertained the thought. It rested in her mind, like a dark shadow sitting in a closet or hovering underneath a bed. Instead, Bree devoted hours of every week to caring for the flowers: watering, fertilizing, and checking their general health for parasites or fungus. Her intimacy with each of her orchids and violets meant that not a single bud was a surprise. Bree’s gaze lifted from her flowers to the transparent panes of the French windows. Her eyes followed those of the nearest nesting anhingas, bobbing their heads to their own song. Snakebirds. That was the name that she first knew them by and what most everybody referred to them as. It was because of their long, narrow, necks. They would dip head and neck in and out of the water like a snake, as they swam underneath the surface. But when Bree learned that the word “anhinga” came from the Tupi language meaning ‘snake bird’ or ‘devil bird,’ she decided to only refer to them as anhingas. As she watched them moving and swaying their heads slowly and rhythmically, Bree realized that the trees, that her entire backyard were full of anhingas. She was staring out into a land of devils who sang and danced to their hellish music. The branches they were raising their young on moved to the music too, but she wasn’t sure if the movement was from the birds, the wind, or if the trees were under the spell set by some strange magic.
As she watched, her soft breath became more shallow and ragged. A slow stream of sweat led its way down her spine, to settle on the curve of her hips beneath the cotton of her dress. The room she was in with egg-shell white walls, floor to ceiling mirror and clawed bathtub suddenly seemed hostile, stifling. With a rushed lunging movement she leaned over her orchids, nearly toppling them to the ground, grasping towards the French windows. She began to release them, struggling to open the last window as the humidity within the old house sometimes caused the wood to expand, nearly jamming the doors and windows shut. When it finally opened, the volume of the birds intensified, filling Bree’s ears, her mind, her body with their songs. The harshness of their voices filled the room, bouncing off the walls. The smell of heat and sweet moss crept in. Bree closed her eyes, her breath slowing back down. She hugged herself and began to rub her arms, leaving long red streaks on the inside of her triceps.
She looked at her dirty hands and at the flowers that still needed repotting. All that were left were the last two lavender plants. Running her fingers through them, Bree decided they could wait until tomorrow. Unlike the African violets and orchids, the lavender looked fragile as if they could easily break. But lavender was a hardy plant if kept in the right soil with just the right amount of moisture. Whereas crushing a violet would seriously harm and possibly kill it, the lavender anticipated to be handled, to be treated with something like callousness. It was only then that the fragrant oil was fully released into the air, fulfilling its greatest potential.
Bree leaned over, turning the silver knobbled faucets of the deep bathtub. Steamy water gushed out of one, while the other faucet issued forth an icy stream, the two of them eventually melding together. She turned the cooler faucet counter clockwise, until it was just a tiny trickle. The mist from the hot water rose up in greater gushes, and she felt rather than saw the potted flowers beginning to perk up, as if they were being sprinkled with a holy water.
The bathtub continued to slowly fill, all the while to the unceasing ethereal calls of the birds. Bree reached for the tie at the nape of her neck, pulling at it and undoing her apron, letting it fall to the wooden floor. She untied the bow that kept her dress together before stepping out of it and allowing it to remain like a bedraggled dead thing beneath her feet. Bree slowly turned the knobs of the bathtub, shutting off the water. She watched as the last water droplet fell from the spouts, causing echoing circles to ripple on the surface until water finally became still. Bree stood there continuing to stare at the water and it looked blankly back at her, turning into a placid window of nothing. She lifted her right leg and foot over the edge, at once both slicing and merging into the water.
The calls of the birds began to rise and fall, seemingly with a melody. Bree lifted her other leg in, feeling the hot water reach mid thigh on both legs. She watched the submerged ivory flesh of her feet and legs turn a delicate shade of seashell-pink. She inhaled deeply, noticing the scent of decaying organic matter intermingling with the smells of the flora, and of the river. The music of the birds continued to approach the edge of otherworldliness. Bree slowly lowered her entire bodily self into the water, until it reached all the way to her upper lip. The wind rustled the tall orchids and lavender, creating a dance of purple and delivering their scents to the room, and to Bree.
The songs of the birds suddenly became frenzied, almost terrifying to listen to. She had never heard them sound quite so impassioned. Bree sat up, so that she was on level with the nests of the closest anhingas. She could see the dancing motion, and then the breakage of the twigs and moss that held the sturdy nest together. She watched as the nest began to break apart on the outer edge as three small figures crept near the edge. One, two, three small anhinga hatchlings, their fuzzy grey bodies and their wispy, snake necks fell from the nest, falling almost dreamily. Each of the hatchlings flailed their insubstantial wings, powerless against the gravity that hurtled them downwards. Bree followed the progress of their falls, while the screams of the parents became a meaningless blur of sound in the background.
She straightened up taller, her arms perched on the windowsill, refocusing on the three baby birds. With a thud that could be heard even over the other birds, the hatchlings shattered to the ground. Bree kept her eyes fixed on their broken bodies as a lavender plant swayed in the breeze, brushing across her face.