Anton Chekhov Award for Very Short Fiction 2020 – 3rd Runner Up
The Birds of Joy
Down the hall of screams, men in plastic suits go by with another body in a wheelbarrow. The fifth one today—a woman in her mid-sixties. Dr. Tahim sits in a folding chair, eating a ham sandwich with one hand and signing a notepad the nurse is sticking in his face with the other. He can’t remember when he last ate, shaved, or showered. Earlier, when he looked in the dirty bathroom mirror, the gray in his cheeks surprised him.
“How about a bite,” says the nurse. Tahim holds up the sandwich and the nurse nips the corner. Part of the ham slides out of the bread and dangles from her lips. With her middle finger, she pushes the ham inside her mouth. “This is my joy,” the nurse says, and then leaves.
The lights in the hall of screams flicker. A voice yelling in a foreign language. The sound of rubber boots squeaking on tile.
Another nurse comes by, a young Latino. He sits on Tahim’s lap. There is nowhere else to sit.
“Feels good to sit,” says the nurse. “Sitting is my joy.”
“My pants have blood on them,” says Tahim. “Sit on the other side.”
The nurse moves to the opposite leg. Tahim curls his arm around the nurse’s neck and takes another bite of sandwich.
“Did you hear about the birds?” the nurse asks.
“Are they carriers now?”
The nurse shakes his head. “Samantha—you know how she gets—overrode the automatic doors. The heat was melting the equipment, she claimed. One of the med students found her in the break room. She had stripped off her shirt and was sitting on top of the table drinking two cups of coffee at once. Her tits were covered in espresso and milk.”
“I’ll write a prescription,” says Tahim. “Something to help her sleep.”
The nurse continues. “Everybody laughed when the first bird flew in. ‘Get a couple brooms and a sheet,’ someone yelled. But the birds kept coming. Two, then four. Then a continuous wave. Hundreds, could be thousands, streaming in through the automatic door. Finally, Edward manually pulled the entrance closed. Outside, on the sidewalk, became a pile of stunned birds. All following the tail-feathers in front of them. Ramming the glass at full speed.”
“My leg is asleep,” says Tahim.
The nurse sighs and stands. He holds out his pad and Tahim scribbles a signature. The nurse flips the page and Tahim signs. The nurse flips the page again, and Tahim signs again.
“Try not to worry,” he tells the nurse. “The birds will eventually find their way out. My joy is being free from worry.”
He stands, rubs his beard, and stretches. He and the nurse walk in opposite directions down the corridor—the doctor toward the hall of screams, the nurse away.
Before starting his afternoon rounds, Tahim decides to visit Mrs. Anderson, the woman in the corner room with two windows. Her doorway is wide, and he can hear the mounted television playing the monotonous babble of the news channel.
“How is your breathing this afternoon, Mrs. Anderson?” he says when he walks into her room. The old lady, in her 80’s, is sitting up and drinking a glass of ice water through a paper straw.
“I want to be put on a ventilator,” she says.
“You don’t need it.”
“I talked to my daughter this morning. She says it’s important to reserve my ventilator right away.”
“We have plenty of ventilators.”
“Let me borrow your pen, doctor. I’ll write my name on one.”
“Please lean forward, Mrs. Anderson. I will listen to your lungs now.”
The elderly woman does as told. Dr. Tahim presses his stethoscope on her bony back. Through the earbuds, her old heart clangs; her lungs fill and un-fill.
“Your breathing sounds beautiful, Mrs. Anderson. You’ve been blessed.”
The lights dim and flicker again. The sound of yelling farther down the hall of screams. A tall man in a plastic suit runs past the doorway, boots squeaking.
“You said you would talk to them about putting sheets in the wheelbarrows,” Mrs. Anderson says.
“Next time. I promise,” he says. He smiles and pats her arm. “Now, as soon as you tell me your joy, I will continue my rounds and you can resume your television program.”
Mrs. Anderson thinks for a moment and then says, “Joy came to me this morning.”
She pulls away the blanket next to her. Underneath is a metal bedpan, inside of which sits a tiny starling—shaking its head and blinking in the light. The bird scans the room, looking at the doctor, and then Mrs. Anderson, and then back to the doctor. It stands briefly on twig legs, but then ruffles its feathers and settles into the bedpan, uninterested in flight.
Luke Rolfes grew up outside of Des Moines, Iowa. His book Flyover Country won the Georgetown Review Press Short Story Collection Contest, and his fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals including North American Review, Bat City Review, Connecticut Review, Baltimore Review, and others. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University and currently teaches creative writing at Northwest Missouri State University, where he serves as co-editor for The Laurel Review. He mentors in the AWP Writer to Writer Program.