‘Birds in the Mouth’ by Samantha Schweblin (NB. the eponymous story is called ‘Mouthful of Birds’ in my copy of the book)
Read it here in about 25 minutes.
Thinking about why it’s unsettling…
The concept of this story is disturbing. The narrator’s daughter has begun to eat live birds. She’s thirteen; a school girl; sweet and innocent. The narrator’s ex-wife, unable to continue carrying the burden alone, brings the narrator to her house and forces him to watch as the girl takes a bird from its cage, puts it in her mouth, and eats it whole.
The mere mention of food/eating in literature conjures up strong imagery. So, I read about a girl eating a live bird, and I’m automatically imagining the warm little body, hearing it squawk, feeling it move about in the mouth, the textual details of its feathery wings, hard beak, stick-like feet, and bony body; it’s revolting, and the narrator needs to throw up after witnessing it. The girl’s mother is so repulsed by the behaviour, she tells her ex-husband ‘If she stays here, I’ll kill myself. I’ll kill myself, and first I’ll kill her.’
The narrator, in the first few days of his new knowledge, makes frequent visits to the supermarket, just to stay out of the house; he searches the internet for ‘cure, adoption‘; he considers putting her in a psychiatric unit, and keeping visits to a minimum – he wants the problem to go away, or his daughter to go away, or to run away and hide himself.
Narrative gaps mean the reader isn’t told how the bird eating began, how long it’s been going on, if it’s escalating, and so on, but the girl’s mother has a system – she buys the birds, keeps them in shoeboxes in the garage, and places one per day in the birdcage – so it must have been going on for a while. Both parents blame each other. Neither parent asks the girl why she does it; what lead to this point, how she feels about it, if she wants to stop (she does, after all, seem embarrassed by it).
It’s not just the bird eating that’s odd; the daughter wears her school uniform, even though it’s the summer holidays; she sits on the sofa, or her bed, passive, staring out of the window or at the TV, hardly speaking. She won’t leave the house. She won’t do anything. It’s as though she spends her days and nights waiting until she can eat her next bird. So, the eating of the birds seems to have consumed her life.
Yet, despite the repulsive behaviour, the narrator notes his daughter seems healthier than she used to be, ‘every day she looked more beautiful, as if she spent the day exercising in the sun.’ So, when his ex-wife claims to be ill, and stops returning his phone calls, the narrator is put in the position of having to source the birds himself. He struggles with this, at first refusing, and leaving his daughter to starve for three days, until she asks him ‘Do you love me?’. Because of this, he is compelled to help her, and it’s clear, by the end of the story, he will continue to do so, as the eating of birds consumes his life as well. What an awful way for both of them to live.