We met by chance, along the dry riverbed, one long-shadowed, mosquito-muggy afternoon. The dusty bed coated my shoes as I kicked over logs and shale looking for fossils. I came to the river for everything I knew it had been, and to bury my own remnants there.
I came upon her poking a dead bird with a short stick. Not moving her gaze, she said, “Her death is supposed to help other animals, but I don’t think the flies need any help. She would’ve helped the fish if she had died in the spring.”
“What is it?” I asked, trying to shove my hands into my pockets, but forgetting they were full of rocks, and pulling them back out. I held my heavy, skin-stump arms together in front of me, picking at my cuticles.
She looked up, seeing me fidget. “A flicker. A yellow-shafted flicker. They’re a kind of woodpecker. If crows eat her, I wonder if that’s cannibalism. What are you doing?”
I unclenched my hands and held out a few of rocks. “Just trying to find some fossils.”
She kept moving the bird’s head back and forth, pushing its beak around with her stick. It seemed to nod at her, its eyes open and staring.
“I think it’s just going to be a maggot-house. Do you want a feather? The spotted ones are small, but really soft.”
“My mom always says road kill is full of diseases.”
“She’s not road kill, she probably just had a broken wing. Besides, it’s no grosser than your fossils. They’re both just leftovers of a life. Here,” she pointed. “There’s no blood or bugs on the tail.” She pet it with her left hand, pushing the feathers lightly back into place. As I bent down, a couple of rocks slipped out my pockets, bouncing onto her sandaled feet.
“Sorry.” I blushed, having accidentally invaded her personal space. I placed my index finger softly at the very tip of the birds tail, moving it back and forth along the edge of the feathers, splitting the fibers apart. They weren’t soft like I expected but stiff, almost brittle.
“She’ll be a husk by the time the snow comes, and probably all picked apart by other birds for her feathers for their nests. We may as well take a couple. We could put them in your hair?” She started to gently pull at it. Then, pulled a little harder, which made the bird twitch like it was having a seizure.
She rested her head on her hand and just stared at it for a few minutes. The bird’s feathers were out of place now, its wing bent at a funny angle between the body and the ground. After a few minutes, she wrapped her hands around the bird, letting its claws slip between her fingers, and had me pull on the tail feathers. We got three free, but one was so mangled from the force that, we decided we’d use it as a grave marker for the bird. I felt bad that part of her own body was being used this way, as though we had torn part of her away, just to make her forever shadowed by it.
She did a quick braid from a front piece of her hair and stuck the feather in it. I was no good at braiding, and she could tell. I fumbled a lot, so she ordered me to sit down. Squatting, she tried to untangle my windblown hair. Her fingers lightly grazed my skin, like a fruit-drunk bee trying to land. Each almost-touch made my skin prickle and my stomach churn. She twisted in a large, lumpy braid and placed the feather about half way down, where my hair had a matted knot.
“Okay, you can stand up now,” she said when she had finished. I turned in a slow circle, like a ballerina in a music box that needs to be rewound. This was the first time I really noticed her. Unremarkable blue eyes, full of the contained fury of a wave about to crash against a sudden, rocky shore. The way her hair blew around her face like a dry, wheatgrass field—and how she kept shoving it out of her face. How she wasn’t afraid of bugs or birds, or the newly dead; she was an encyclopedia of all the things I didn’t know I could be.
She grabbed my hand to pull me in close, and I was sure this was love.
She leaned into my ear and whispered, “I think it’s your time of the month.”
I drew my hand back to my body, simultaneously stinging with embarrassment from her words and exhilaration from her touch. I couldn’t say anything, couldn’t bear to see those eyes filled with something other than the beautiful fury of female hormones. I walked backwards until I was up out of the riverbed, scuffing and tripping on the uneven ground. I’d rather she see me fall than have her look at my tattletale backside again.
I raced home through the canola fields, staining my front yellow to match my dark behind. I peeled off my shorts and underwear, first wrapping them in toilet paper, and then throwing them in the garbage. I could see the blood seeping through the paper as a thick burgundy slug stained the bath mat. Crying, I stepped into the shower, and turned the water as hot as I could handle. I watched it scald my pale, traitorous belly until it turned as red as the water running down my legs.
Bending forward, I washed my thighs, cheeks and hair. As I looked down, I noticed the feather swirling away in the stained water—both signaling the end of an expanse.
“Meetings and Endings” appeared first in Skirt Quarterly Vol. 1, Issue 1.
Melinda Roy is a writer, birdwatcher and fisherwoman from British Columbia and retweets almost everything @defnotapoet.