Papi didn’t have life insurance. He worked part time for four different companies. But he didn’t have anything to leave us when he passed. Mama was distraught. She was too used to being able to be pretty, nails done, hair cut every week, too used to being pampered to accept the death of the only man who ever truly loved her. My brother left town, on some bender through the next several towns on his way to Santa Monica. I was left with the baby, and the birds.
We had four chickens, Allah, Monica, Veronica and Dolce, one goose, Ricardo, and an old rooster named Bernardo. They lived in a coop in our back yard, and the noise they made sometimes kept the baby awake during her naptime. Little Isadora never did sleep very well. She kept us all awake at night with her crying, unless Papi came home, and held her. He sang to her, little songs from his homeland. I loved those songs.
Life was dull, colorless, without Papi’s songs, without his strength. I took to selling the eggs in the morning so that we could buy milk for Isadora, and bread and cheese. I barely felt it one morning when Ricardo nipped my fingers so hard they bled. We were all different, now that Papi was gone. Armando hadn’t been back home in weeks. Mama wouldn’t come out of her room, and spent all her time talking on the phone to grandmama in Oregan. I think she might have been planning to move us out there.
One day, though, there was a new bird in the coop. Isadora babbled on my hip, old enough to walk, but still easily tired out by the distance between the back door and the coop, reaching for the new bird. It was… beautiful. It shone in the sunlight like gold, it’s eyes dark and fathomless. Long plumes like a peacock I’d seen once at the zoo spread out behind it. Dolce was cozied up to it’s side, cuddling up like she did with any bird that sat still long enough, and she looked drab in comparison. This new addition lifted it’s head, and then, I swear to God above, spoke.
“Mi Flora, take a feather. Sell it, and use the money to buy food. Sell the eggs no longer.” It was Papi’s voice. It was Papi’s voice, coming from the bird, and I was going loco. Isadora squealed, and I must have put her down without realising it, because she toddled over, and just like Dolce, cuddled up to the bird’s side. The bird nuzzled her with it’s beak, and she burbled at him in baby language. Him. Oh god, now I was thinking of it as Papi.
I stepped closer, and again, I must have taken a feather without realizing it. The bird was singing, one of Papi’s old songs, and the golden feather was warm in my fingers. I must have dozed off, to the sound of Papi singing. Isadora and I woke up with the chickens clucking around us, and the strange bird gone. I sold the feather for a fifty in the city, and paid it forward to the landlord. He was happy. Mama asked me where I got the money, but I shrugged and didn’t answer, scraping the last of the mac and cheese out onto Isadora’s little baby plate.
It happened again the next day. And the day after that. Months passed, and we were caught up, had food on the table, Isadora had new clothes and a new blanket. Papi came and sang for us every morning while I fed the birds, and Ricardo got fatter, and the girls’ feathers were shining and their eggs had tripled. Life was good.
Then one day, Mama came out of her room. She took money from the pretty yellow jar I’d found for the extra money. It looked like an egg, and Isadora loved playing with it. She disappeared for hours, and came back dolled up. This became the new routine. Weeks passed. We grew wealthier. I put a new roof on the house. The garden started growing better with the fertilizer we bought. Mama got prettier each day.
I came out every morning and spoke to Papi, and he sang, and then one day, Mama must have heard… because she found us there, and gasped. “Orlando?” She breathed, and Papi turned his golden head to her.
“Mi corazon, te amo, you are more beautiful than ever.”
Mama wept. She cried all day. All day and all night. And then, the next morning, when I went out to feed the birds and listen to Papi sing…
He was dead. Again. Mama sat next to his headless body, and held handfuls of swan-feathers, none of them gold. None of them glittering. Isadora screamed, and then cried. And the world turned grey once again. Papi was dead.