The bees were in her hand again, vibrating against her skin, prickling her palm. Their wings bumbled against her muscles, which spasmed with each lurch, each failed attempt at flight. Honeycomb stiffened her fingers, her hands unable to grip. She flexed her fingers and waited for the bees to settle once more.
“Patient complains of paresthesia in the upper extremities. Physical therapy recommended.”
In the winter, a spider crawled into her eye socket and wrapped its gauzy web across her sclera. When its babies hatched, spilling hungrily over her iris, they searched for their mother and devoured her, spindle legs crunching. Sated, they slipped down her sinuses, their many legs tingling her cheeks. They wrapped their many lines around her tongue, stiffening it silent, camped below her gums, and waited to sting any who invaded their motherland.
“Patient complains of blurred vision, occasional trigeminal nerve pain in cheek and jaw. Ocular reflexes normal. No evident injury to the cornea. Recommended action: follow up with an ophthalmologist.”
Her feet sank into the mud in the spring, as though the earth were swallowing her, opening its many mouths with each squelching step she took. At night, her legs turned to clay. Bits of muscle sloughed off her in bed, staining her sheets a coppery red. As summer days stretched long, she sowed seeds in her thighs and belly, cosmos and calendula, and sunned herself in the yard to watch them sprout, her legs unable to move. She picked at the stringy roots that latticed her flesh, keeping her body together, and could not feel when her legs crumbled into the earth.
“Patient exhibiting asthenia and ataxia. MRI ordered.”
A swallow had built a nest in the back of her skull. “A cup nest,” she had explained to the others sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, who nodded and turned back to their magazines. She had looked up the term online, watched videos of swallows flitting across rivers or nesting in barns, heads cocked inquisitively. The thatched hammock swung low down her neck and she tried to imagine the little bird zipping in and out, its jeweled feathers refracting the harsh fluorescent light of the office. As she waited for the doctor, the swallow skimmed her vertebrae, feeding on her desiccated discs. She shivered and pulled her hoodie up over her head.
“MRI results indicate a 4 cm mass in the occipital lobe. Additional lesions are seen at C1 and C2. Advanced stenosis and myelopathy present. Biopsy of mass is recommended.”
She had read that when storms thundered, swallows were unable to find enough food, leaving their babies famished in their nests. She wanted to starve the swallow growing in her skull and spent hours in the local pool, swimming the backstroke, her head submerged in the chlorinated water. The sparrow flitted up and down her spine, perching on each vertebrae, searching for protection. After swimming, she’d fester in the sauna, hoping the little bird would fly free from her to escape the heat or shrivel like an overripe grape on the vine. But the swallow settled in its cup at the base of her skull and seemed to bask in the thick air of the sauna. She’d trudge home from the community pool through drifts of snow, her screams drowned by snowplows scraping the roads, salt crunching in her boot treads. The bird ruffled its downy plumage and preened happily, unphased by the harsh conditions.
“Patient is maintaining regular exercise. Recommend seeking additional therapies as needed.”
In the new year, she strung a series of feeders and birdhouses in her yard, hoping to coax the swallow out. Wandering by the river’s edge and along the old canal trail, she tried luring the swallow to dive into the rushing water, to arch and sway, to lunge for the insects skimming the surface. But the swallow would not leave its nest, and spat more mud into her skull, pecking at bits of gray matter to fill in the gaps, preparing for Spring.
“Tumor is benign, holding size, and minimally symptomatic. Recommended course of action: watchful waiting. Repeat MRI in a year.”
The swallow sang to her at night. Its chittering reverberated in her skull as she lay in bed, watching the stars wax and wane in the early morning light. Feathers rustled and molted, clogging her sinuses and ears, and she coughed bitterly, plumes lining the back of her throat. The walls plunged and careened upon her as birdsong wound around her head. The swallow flittered within its skull cage, battering her brain with its feeble wings. She pinched her eyes shut and sank further into the covers as the little bird whined its morning alarm.
“Patient experiences headaches, vertigo, and dysphagia. Is unable to take medicine orally. Start IV interferon.”
When gray clouds peeled away to reveal a hazy blue sky, she laced her sneakers and walked to the park, her cane testing the path in front of her. The sun warmed her face and the swallow basked in its nest. Snowmelt had given way to greening grass and clots of mud. Folks dotted the lawn with blankets, jackets shed. Then suddenly she could hear it, beyond the chatter and squeals of children on the playground. She could hear the other birds singing, living in those around her: wings fanning blood through their veins, beaks pecking holes in their muscles, organs. Their bodies were lived in like a favorite flannel or hoodie, comfortably frayed. Or, she thought, like a bird’s nest, sinews sticking out like straw, a discarded ribbon threaded through. She walked and listened to the melodies spilling from a couple playing pickleball, a different tune from a woman walking her dog, another from a girl giggling on a swing. The birds crescendoed in her ears until she had to stop and catch her breath at a bench beneath the pines.
The swallow chittered excitedly, flitting up and down her spine, and finally, she opened her mouth wide so it could sing.