Like Birds by Elise Johansen

This is a story about a bird and a girl and sex. The bird doesn’t have anything to do with the sex but the girl does. The girl is sex. She smells of, tastes of and sounds like sex. She moves like sex. She wakes each morning and pulls her tangled, nest-like hair into a loose bun at the base of her sticky neck. She pads into her kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Today, she doesn’t want the girl in her bed to awaken yet.

The girl quietly makes a piece of toast and allows the crumbs to drop onto her lap as she eats. She slowly stands and shakes the crumbs into the palm of her hand. She then dumps them out of the window onto the sidewalk. She watches the birds gobble up the crumbs. The girl lets out a small laugh, imagining herself a bird. Pecking and cooing, snatching up left over crumbs, flapping her wings and shuffling under cafĂ© tables, lightly brushing her feathers against a patron’s foot. Sticking out her bird tongue and touching their toes.

The girl feels herself become wet and thinks that she has started to bleed but sticks her fingers there only to pull them out and see a clear glistening. She grins. She walks back to the bedroom and wakes the girl in her bed by pressing her wet fingers to her mouth. The girl moans and smiles around her fingers. The bird girl bites her own bottom lip hard and tastes blood as she presses down on the girl in her bed. She rolls the girl onto her stomach and squashes her breasts against her back. The bird girl hears faint murmurings and she thinks she hears the girl crying. The bird girl stops for a moment and licks the girl’s tears away. The tears don’t stop and her bed is becoming wet. She folds in her thin bones and puts her fingers, one at a time, into the girl, hoping that her murmuring will get louder. The girl wants to hear her wail. She wants to hear her coo like a dove. The bird girl strokes the girl’s back with the other hand and tickles with her feather fingertips. She stops again and thinks the girl feels too fragile maybe, too frail; that maybe her bones are too thin. The bird girl doesn’t want to break her so she takes some of her weight off. The girl reaches back for the bird girl, asking for her to come closer to her. “Come in further,” she says. Farther, the bird girl thinks, farther is maybe not far enough.

She remembers when she was away from this place, this bed, this room, this girl and this wetness. Before she was touched with heavy hands and broken bottles. She remembers how groaning was more like grunting. Before she knew where babies came from, before she was the fragile one, too, she remembers a porcelain floor, the floor cold and hard against her cheek, the smell of ammonia; imagining that someone had just mopped, fixating on the cleanliness and tidiness—“It is next to Godliness,” she recalled, was told. Over and over, these words in repetition. Repeat this and repeat that. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Fingers in and fingers out. Smile pretty for the camera, honey. Drip your monthly blood into the mango tree roots, and it will help ‘em grow. She did this and the mangoes grew bitter.

Now this bird girl sees herself as weightless and brittle and always desiring. She takes her birdbaths daily, sloshing and splashing round in her bath water, shaking her tail feather, blinking her eyelids. She washes away the pieces of shattered glass, excess moisture and hair, the sex is brought down the drain with a swirl and a suck. The chirping and clucking against the roof of her mouth as she sings her sweet shower songs.


This bird girl immerses herself in things that make her ache. She listens to old music to which she can chirp and sing along without thinking about what words come after what word just bounced off her beak.

The early bird gets the chilly worms. She watches people shake, cower and balance on things. Lots of things. And she only watches: sometimes awed, other times not, and imagines her feather tips tracing out their truth. She aches in odd places, in parts that aren't always connected and aren't always real or visible or touchable. She tries to touch those places, she really wants to. She tries all of the time, she sticks her hand in and twists and turns and switches and picks and flicks and taps and watches. She watches again. She gazes and blinks her thick eyelids, chews and swallows, flaps her arms.

She sleeps on those old sheets that are covered in feathers and down and wears sweaters that smell like old, wet leaves. She looks in mirrors and sees lines in the places where smiles come from. She thinks they resemble where babies come from. She remembers first learning where they came from before the cages and the crumbs: she had watched a film about cats rubbing against each other, she was intrigued. She figured: "I can do that just fine." She closed her eyes and fell asleep. She dreamed of fullness, warmth and cliff diving. She dreamed herself a cat. She awoke in this life, but then. She thinks that this life is still sometimes warmer and faster and scarier than a full belly and a glass overflowing. She always squawks, "Thank god for surface tension." You'll hear her. She watches the liquid get to the top of the glass. Often. She pours and pours and waits. She waits. And it doesn't spill over. And she begins to feel so grateful for this, she thinks it is refreshing. Watching this doesn't make her ache.


The bird girl is on her back with the girl nestled under her wing. She pulls her close to her, further inside. The girl thinks that this would be what sitting on a nest would feel like. Sitting and safety in a tangled mass of fabric and wetness, hands and fingers.

Elise M. Johansen graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her thesis was a collection of short stories, although she also writes creative nonfiction. She lives in the great state of Maine with her wife on an old farmstead with their five dogs and cat. Elise has a terrible memory, a vast imagination and a deep love for all things in their most human moments. You can read more of Elise's writing in issue "X" of the Mandala Journal from the University of Georgia and at’s Writers on the Job series about the lives of writers, edited by Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins. She is currently working on her first novel.