The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 17, No. 3

Birdsong from the Radio

by Elizabeth McCracken

“Long ago,” Leonora told her children, and the telling was long ago, too, “I was just ordinary.” Of course they didn’t believe her. She was taller than other mothers, with a mouthful of nibbling, nuzzling teeth and an affectionate chin she used as a lever. Her hair was roan, her eyes taurine. Later the children would look at the few photographs of their mother from the time, all blurred and ill-lit, as though even the camera were uncertain who she was, and they would try to remember the gobbling slide of her bite along their necks, her mouth loose and toothy. She was voracious. They could not stop laughing. No! No! Again!
     Children long to be eaten. Everyone knows that.
     Those were the days before the buses came in. The children could hear from their bedroom windows the screech of the trolleys up the hill. Their father ran his family’s radio manufacturers, and there were radios in every room of the house, pocket and tabletop, historic cathedrals. His name was Alan. “Poor Alan,” Leonora called him, and they both understood why: he was in thrall to his wife. He was a very bus of a man, practical and mobile, and he left the children to Leonora, who had a talent for love, as he had a talent for business.
     Winters she took the children tobogganing. Summers they piloted paddleboats across the city pond. She never dressed for the weather. No gloves, no sunhats, no shorts, no scarves—she was always blowing on her fingers or fanning her shirt. Sunburn, windburn, soaking wet with rain. The children, too. Other mothers sent them home with hand-me-down mittens and umbrellas.
     Not surprising, said those mothers later, she never took care of her little ones.

Rosa, Marco, Dolly: Leonora brought them to see the trolleys the last day they ran. She wore a green suede coat, the same color as the cars, in solidarity. It closed with black loops that Leonora assured her children were called frogs.
     “It’s raining,” said Leonora. “The frogs will be happy.”
     “Those aren’t frogs,” said Marco. He was five, the age of taxonomy.
     “They are,” said Leonora. “I promise. And my shoes are alligator.”
     “Why are we watching the trolleys?” he asked.
     “There’s no beauty in buses,” Leonora said. “A bus can go anywhere it likes. Trolleys are beautiful.”
     “Oh yes,” said Rosa, who was seven, “I can see.”
     Leonora was as melancholy as if the streetcars had been hunted into extinction. They were lovely captives who could not get away, and they left only their tracks behind.
     Her coat fastened with frogs, her shoes were alligator. Perhaps she was already turning into an animal.

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