Hunger

by Elinam Agbo

Once, we were birds, but no longer.

We left the reception before hungry eyes could strip us of our disguise. It was strange, mingling with humans in our borrowed bodies, but our youngest sister had gone and fallen for a man without the aid of a spell, at least not any spell the first owners of our bodies knew, and they had heard of everything from rebirth to multiple deaths. In the minutes she could spare at home before moving out for good, our sister dubbed the unknown spell “love” and insisted it eclipsed the smell of decay, so that everywhere her man kissed her, her bird-witch parts disappeared until she was full woman. Alive woman.

We were happy for her, because she wanted us to be happy for her. But her union meant farewell to what we were and what we had become. We promised to keep in touch. Yes, we lied. There were no manuals for the kind of change she had undergone. Our new bodies were our manuals, but what was hers? A man is not a reliable guide, we heard our new voices say, but she no longer had ears for us. Experience had taught us how to trade bird bones for witch bones, how to pass for human, yet so little about becoming human. And since she didn’t share the secret of this “love” spell with us, we had to say goodbye and return to those we knew how to help.

Once, we were large and bald and strong, but we looked down and wanted more. So we devoured what we thought we wanted to become.

Grandmother couldn’t attend the wedding. Feathers and beaks were not appropriate attire, and an eighteen-pound vulture seemed a sure invitation for execution. So we left Grandmother home with the witch who had roasted on the pyre last night. The body wouldn’t fit in the fridge and we didn’t want to lose any pieces of flesh to a machete, so we piled ice packs on top of ice packs on top of the body and blasted the AC until the smell of starched air almost overwhelmed the memory of burning. (The witch, the last of her family, had left enough gold in the house to pay a lifetime of bills.)

The morning before our sister’s wedding, we locked Grandmother and the dead witch inside the latter’s master bedroom, soon to be Grandmother’s room if she found her appetite before the maggots got to work. Were we forcing her? Maybe. We were desperate for guidance. If she managed to eat flesh and bones and all, as we had, she would wake up like us. Birds inside witch bodies. If our sister returned home and her man followed, she would likely end up on a pyre, and we didn’t eat our own, no matter what the neighbors said around their dinner tables. So we did the least we could do and showered our sister with good fortune spells disguised as glitter and cash. Then we locked arms with one another and walked away before any of us had second thoughts.

We left her behind us, the way our old feathers left us after we dug into the burned bodies and didn’t come up for air. The reception canopy disappeared as we descended a hill of broken homes. We walked past the graveyard of abandoned tires, past the ancient Beetle, now home to young carrion birds. We couldn’t afford to stop and remember—the heat worried our new skin—but we caught a flash of our old bird selves, ruffling feathers inside the crumbling car. Long before we settled into the witch bodies, long before we relinquished that previous home to those who knew what they were.

Once, we were birds. Insatiable. We found dying witches who sought to live. We made a pact in a language we could not understand. Tell us, what are we now? Witches or birds? Birds or witches?

We picked up the pace.
We needed Grandmother.
We needed someone to remember us.

The walk was long, but we got home. Only it wasn’t the home we had left in the morning. A gracious breeze sprinkled large feathers outside the green-wood gate, the teeth of which were snapped open.

Robbers? we wondered aloud. But that was our wish talking. No human would touch us, let alone rob us. Our eyes traveled up as floating feathers mimicked snowflakes. They fell slowly, then all at once.

We had been found. The birds we used to be crowded the aluminum roof, wings outstretched as their talons searched for footholds. Perhaps a witch had burned in another town, and they had tasted wind-blown bits and hungered for more. You have to eat enough of her, one flesh-eater per witch, we wanted to say, but we had tried to speak with Grandmother too and failed.

Still passing for humans, we entered the house with feathers in our hair. The stench of decay, stronger than our borrowed bodies, greeted us. We ran to the master bedroom. No Grandmother. We followed a blood-stained path past the kitchen, the littered yard, the scattered entrails. We ran into farmlands and valleys and nesting trees, searching and searching for a woman with soot on her skin and blood on her hands.

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