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vol vi, issue 4 < ToC
If That Cowbird Don't Sing
Jennifer Lee Rossman
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Darkness, Decay,Behind the
and the ...Door
If That Cowbird Don't Sing
Jennifer Lee Rossman

Darkness, Decay,
and the ...


Behind the
If That Cowbird Don't Sing
Jennifer Lee Rossman
previous next

Darkness, Decay, Behind the
and the ... Door

Darkness, Decay,
and the ...


Behind the
If That Cowbird Don't Sing
 by Jennifer Lee Rossman
If That Cowbird Don't Sing
 by Jennifer Lee Rossman
The cowbird must know it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, on account of how guilty she looks every time she glances over her shoulder. But she keeps pecking at the egg, because baby cowbirds need more time and attention than she can spare.

Let somebody else raise it. Somebody with the expertise to take care of an ungrateful chick that doesn't talk, doesn't play right. Maybe they won't love the chick, not like a mother should–

"–but does it really matter? I can't even hug my own daughter without her freaking out and causing a scene!"

I run my finger over the big plastic diamond in the costume jewelry ring she let me play with. It's impossibly smooth and somehow the repetitive motion gives order and meaning to the chaos stacking up in my brain.

I don't know who she is screaming at this time. Her cousin, her sister, doesn't matter. No one will convince her of anything she doesn't want to be convinced of. I learned that back when she was still trying to fix me.

Peck, peck, peck. Bye bye baby mockingbird. It never really existed as anything more than an idea in an egg, the hope of something that might fly and sing one day, but the mother will still mourn it, even with a perfectly good baby cowbird to raise in its place.

I can't hear the whole conversation downstairs, but I hear one word often enough.


My body feels hot and cold at the same time. She wants to send me away to some place, a cage, just for being a cowbird in a mockingbird nest.

The plastic cracks under the pressure of my thumb; my skin catches on the jagged edge and the pain throws me into stimulus overload.

This world is too bright, too loud, too filled with terrible textures and smells. I miss my old world, and I don't know what that means but it just popped into my head and I know it's true, same way I know four is the best number and the letter S is yellow.

The ring's band, some kind of cheap metal that turns my skin green, starts to corrode in my hand. Like it realized I'm something bad, something broken that it doesn't want to be associated with anymore. The feeling is mutual; my skin burns where the metal touches me, and not like when I slipped up and touched the hot glue gun. Real deep burning, down to my bones.

Footsteps in the hall. I need to hide the ring. She already thinks my being autistic and nonverbal is reason enough to send me away; who knows what will happen if she knows I'm ... whatever it is I am.

At a loss for where to hide it, I open my window and toss the ring. It lands in the nest, safely tucked between mismatched eggs.

The door opens, and she looks at me like the mockingbird mother will look at the cowbird when it hatches, with the undisguised disappointment of knowing she could have had a daughter just like her but instead she has this ... off-brand replacement.

"Get your coat," she says, even though it's hardly cold and she knows I hate coats.

I cross my arms, glaring at the abomination of long sleeves and fuzzy trim lying on my floor. I'm not good at reading faces, but I hope I'm writing my own well enough. It says make me.

She makes me. Somewhere in the house, I hear a mirror shatter.

*     *     *
I do everything right. Try to, anyway. She wants me to be like other kids, and other kids rebel. They say they don't want to wear a coat, and maybe they have to wear one anyway because adults make the rules, but they aren't physically forced. They aren't told they make everything harder on purpose, screamed at to communicate.

I communicate. It's not my fault she doesn't listen.

I wonder if baby cowbirds have this problem. Trying over and over again to learn to fly, only to have their mothers tell them it's their own fault for having the wrong color feathers.

Why can't they just look like mockingbirds?

My frustration–no, my rage–breaks the windshield of the car while we're driving. She blames the truck in front of us for kicking up a rock.

How did I do this? I look at my hands. Quiet hands.

The phrase comes back like trauma always does, like the feeling of the so-called behavioral specialists' hands on mine, pressing them down until they were still, even as I cried. Quiet hands, because if we can't be normal, we can at least pretend so we don't make people uncomfortable.

Maybe my hands were too loud and the window cracked. But the stress, the fear, is thrumming through my body. I need to let it out.

Hairline cracks appear in the passenger side window; I roll it down so she doesn't see.


I flinch, make myself look as small as possible.

"The air conditioning is on," she says, and I know I'm not good with recognizing tone of voice so maybe I am wrong, but she sounds too angry for the situation.

Did she want me to turn the air-conditioning off first? I look at the knob, look at her. It's a trap. I know it is, because it always is. There's never a right answer.

Power pulses in my hands, but I fold them in my lap and just watch the trees blurring outside. She yells when I don't listen. I squeeze my eyes shut. Quiet hands, quiet hands.

It's when her arm brushes mine as she reaches over me to close the window. That's when it happens.

She screams. Not in anger but in terror. I'm crying, afraid to open my eyes and see what I'm doing. I don't want this, I don't want to be like this, please someone take it away, make me a mockingbird.

My balance feels wrong, like I'm falling forward out of my seat. I open one eye, then the next. I'm still sitting in my seat.

But the trees are sideways, and shorter than they were before.

Because I've lifted the car off the road and it is slowly tilting forward.

*     *     *
"Stop it! You stop this right this minute!"

Like I'm controlling it. Like this isn't just as terrifying for me as it is for her.

Like my body and mind aren't betraying me, revealing myself as a cowbird for the world to see.

I'll be lucky if I'm institutionalized at this point. There are other cars on the road; even if everything changes, even if my mother decides to love me and stop comparing me to that perfect mockingbird who never hatched, the other drivers will not let her take me home. The applied behavioral analysis, the torture for my own good, will be something I look back on fondly compared to what happens to me next.

Laboratories. Restraints. Absolutely no agency.

People will just be able to do whatever they want to me, touch me and make my hands quiet and make me wear a coat no matter how much I scream.

The faster my heart beats, the more panic surges through my body, the higher the car rises. The back window shatters, tempered glass shards raining down on us.

What if I can't stop it? Worse, what if I try and we fall? We're high enough that we could die, and I don't want to be institutionalized and I don't want to go to the laboratory to be dissected, but most of all I really don't want to die.

She's yelling again, demanding I do something. And if this were a different kind of story, I think this would be the part where I miraculously start talking, where I finally explain that yelling at me doesn't help and if she would stop expecting me to be her perfect mockingbird, I might be able to be a pretty decent cowbird in my own way.

But this is not that kind of story, and that's a good thing because all they do is teach people like my mother that they're right. That when it counts, we will fix ourselves because we really were broken all along.

No, this is the kind of story where the autistic girl finds her voice without learning how to sing like a mockingbird.

*     *     *
I want to be cruel. I want to show her, to show the world, that they have underestimated me and people like me. I want to move their hands without their permission, see how they like it.

But then they would win, because they would have made me just like them. I can't be like them, I have to be better.

Still, there's the urge to tip the car sideways, watch her fall. It must be an instinct passed down from my real mother, the cowbird flitting from world to world, never stopping long enough to raise her children, only long enough to leave them.

The car door rips from its hinges; the sound of it grates on my soul, makes it harder to focus.

Kill the mockingbird.

The words come unbidden, just like quiet hands, except these feel right even though I know they aren't.

The trees shrink in the passenger window. I dig my nails into the upholstery as my weight shifts sideways.

She's begging now. Afraid of me. I guess she's always been afraid of me, but not for anything I did on purpose.

The highway, the other cars zip by underneath us. Too much movement, too much noise. I'm screaming right along with her, just as afraid of what I am becoming.

Of what I always was.

I hear the sound of her seatbelt jiggling in the lock. No. She has her problems and I don't think she should take them out on me, but that doesn't mean I want her dead.

I start tapping my fingers together. Fast, but rhythmically. Counting by fours. I tap as hard as I can. My hands are loud.

A little bit of the chaos chips away. Not a lot, but something. Peck, peck, peck.

Squeezing my eyes shut blocks out a little more of the world, and this realization sends a small thrill into my hands and I flap them with wild abandon. I flap them so hard, I think I might start flying.

The car rights itself. I hear a sigh of relief from the driver's seat, but that won't last long. Soon as we are safely on the ground, she'll turn on me. Make this my fault.

And it is, and it isn't. I did it, but it wasn't my choice to lose control any more than I chose to be a cowbird in a mockingbird nest. And maybe if I had been encouraged to be myself instead of learning to repeat after other people, maybe I would have learned how to prevent a giant meltdown like this.

There's a small jolt as the car touches the road, and there's sirens and the wind is whipping through the open space where the door used to be and my mother is still screaming.

The tires screech. I open my eyes, look at the terrified mother bird who finally realized her chick is growing exponentially larger than she is.

I'm kind of glad I can't get the words out, because I have no idea what I would say right now. Thank you? I'm sorry?

With a flap of my hand, I open my door and I run.

*     *     *
I don't know if I'm running away from something or running toward something. I just run. Across the highway, into the forest, back to the world I came from.

I'll go back, eventually. I have to, because maybe there are other kids out there like me. Autistic, magic, cowbirds with loud hands and quiet mouths. And the more of us there are, the more normal we will seem.

But I can't go back right now. The forest is quiet here, not a single mockingbird call to be heard.