“Then Sara got up, her ponytail shining on one side of her neck and then the other. She skipped to the cage, like a little girl. Her back to us, rising up on tiptoes, she opened the cage and took out the bird. I couldn’t see what she did. The bird screeched and she struggled a moment. Silvia covered her mouth with her hand. When Sara turned toward us, the bird was no longer there. Her mouth, nose, chin, and hands were stained with blood. ”
Samantha Schweblin’s short story ‘Birds in the Mouth’ is told from the perspective of a father who discovers that his thirteen-year-old daughter Sara has started eating live birds. His ex-wife arrives at his house in an agitated state one evening and tells him, “It’s about Sara.” When he witnesses this new behaviour for the first time, he runs to the bathroom to vomit, before his wife forces him to take Sara home with him, insisting, “If she stays here, I’ll kill myself. I’ll kill myself, and first I’ll kill her.”
Sara spends her days sitting motionless in the living room, yet she is far from unwell. Her skin is “radiant with energy, and every day she looked more beautiful.” When the supply of birds runs out, her father scours the pet food and gardening sections of the supermarket, hoping in vain to find a form of nourishment his daughter will accept. Eventually, desperate, he buys a small bird from a pet store and takes it home. Like the first time, he hears the small screech before the bird is devoured, but unlike that time, he does not vomit. “When the water began to run I felt a little better and knew that, somehow, I would figure out a way to get down the stairs.” So the story ends.
Schweblin was born in Buenos Aires in 1978 and has won several awards for her stories since 2001. Some of her stories have been translated into English, as well as French, Serbian, Swedish, and Dutch. An English translation of her story ‘Killing a Dog’ was published in the London-based quarterly magazine The Drawbridge in 2009. ‘Birds in the Mouth’ is the title story of her second collection and was published in English in PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers.
Her writing is lucid, even stark. Descriptive details are almost absent and events are compressed, insignificant moments omitted. M. Mark, editor of the PEN America, has only praise for the translation by Joel Streiker, who “understands the wit, the poetry, and the menace in her work.”
For despite the compressed style, there is indeed great richness in this short story, told with penetrating wit and unrelenting intensity. The reader is repeatedly forced to confront the situation from new angles. How grotesque, we think, confronted with Sara’s behaviour, how abnormal, how repulsive. Yet the narrator’s description of his daughter’s school uniform, which “fit her like the ones on schoolgirls in porn magazines,” is discomfiting too.
Questions arise and multiply in the reader’s mind. What is acceptable behaviour and who decides? Is it perhaps less absurd to eat a live bird than to spend countless hours of our lives staring at rows of canned goods and traipsing up and down the aisles of our local supermarket, serenaded (as the narrator is) by “melodious songs about a guy who had a lot of women but missed his first love”? As Sara herself implies, why is it acceptable to eat a dead bird, but not a live one?
We are forced, too, to question the parents’ response to Sara’s behaviour, which leaves her not unhappy or unwell but apparently healthier and happier than ever. Her mother shows little shame in voicing her compulsion to kill her daughter – and she seems to mean it – while her father later muses on the possibility of putting Sara into a mental hospital or even leaving her locked inside the house, “hermetically sealed, like those insects one hunts as a kid and keeps in glass jars until the air gives out.”
Is it really Sara’s behaviour that should concern us, or rather her parents’ (and our own) unquestioning adherence to social norms and fearful rejection of any behaviour that lies outside them? We are eventually repulsed by her discontented, maladjusted parents and instead drawn to the innocent, radiant, serene Sara. We are left with more questions than answers, but this is, as so often in literature, where the power of Schweblin’s writing lies.
The story can be accessed via the Electric Literature website here. Archives are available to members for $5 a month. Alternatively, you can buy the individual story in the Kindle store for $1.99 here.
By Judith Vonberg
‘Birds in the mouth’
(Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Book 3)