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Devaki Devay


Sparrows scattered beneath the tables like crumbs: a noontime summoning. It was probably the people talking, the laptops, the absent-minded handling of the food, the greenery the restaurant was sandwiched between, and the sunlight dropping down in enormous spotlight ovals that brought attention to this community event– a gathering of worlds. Next to Sonia, there was a big sign which read:



To emphasize the contents of the sign, a damning sparrow silhouette placed in the bounds of a circle was decapitated by a thick, red slash.


Sonia looked back and forth between the sign and the birds. They were eye-shaped and eye-sized, with speckled throats which inflated like sails when they sang and hopped. They were looking up at her sandwich. Sonia's elongated face was glinting upwards in the cutlery. Sonia looked at Sonia disparagingly, though this reflected Sonia couldn't see her feet, where there were three adorable, hungry things.


From across the outdoor seating area, Sonia noticed a bird pecking the edge of a man's laptop. He was looking helplessly at it, too enthralled to type, with one hand poised over a blueberry muffin. The muffin was obstructed by the steam from his coffee, which was doubly opaque in the afternoon sun. Behind it, his fingers were shaped to pluck. There was one berry shining in the center, like a star.


Sonia understood that "do not feed the birds" was a euphemism for "do not cause the birds to poop." She also understood that "do not cause the birds to poop" was a euphemism for "do not make us blast the dining patio with pressurized water to remove bird poop stains at our already minimum wage job," which was a euphemism for a boss saying "do not make me pay a cent more than I have to."


But the sparrows were tiny and relentless. Where one shoe picked up the wind and brushed them away, they erupted like flags and settled below another. If some crumbs were bestowed to them there, they flicked their wings like eyelashes and adorned the tops of the tables like royalty.


A barista brought an iced latte to Sonia's table even though she could've picked it up the same way she picked up the sandwich. His eyes grazed the wheels beneath her. Sonia looked at him in a way she hoped communicated that she'd been a server before and that it was okay to look at her wheelchair, but that if he was embarrassed, she was willing to believe he'd been observing the birds. Ice cubes from the latte split the light into crystal shards. The barista asked her if everything was okay with an awkward half-smile. Half of Sonia was touched. The other half wanted to tell him to relax.


Regardless of the rules, the sparrows were bobbing in the low air with heavier bellies. They were meant to be where they were, Sonia thought, under the piercing blue sky and the hot, chlorophyll-heavy summer air trapped underneath a thin restaurant tarp, this makeshift greenhouse.


One bird hopped onto her still shoe. She shook it, and slits of pain snapped open in her calves. The bird stayed on her shoe.


The tables were clearing out. The sun had dipped to an angle that produced lengthier shadows. The same barista who'd served her the latte was sweeping crumbs from the tables promptly after each customer left. The sparrows had begun to store themselves in the nearby bushes. Sonia's bird stayed put on Sonia's shoe.


The man with the blueberry muffin had taken to feeding his bird blueberries. His bird was swelling up like a summery cloud.


The man who had swept his feet to brush the sparrows away was now clearing his table. He glanced at Sonia's bottom half with a similar expression, a fleeting view that he also erased through the act of quick visual movement. She had been there, but if he looked away, then she was not there.


Her wheelchair was often regarded as a disruption of natural aesthetics; a gleaming aluminum machine complete with motorized spin, rubber tires, and uniformly angled spokes. The sparrow on her shoe was undoing her shoelaces. The birds here were beautifully decorative but, nevertheless, a nuisance. They were tolerated for a short time.


The sparrow hopped up to Sonia's table and inched closer to her sandwich. Sonia wondered if she looked vaguely like a car to them– a stream of bright metal slicing light down the road. An unnatural amount of gleam, manufactured eyes. Still, Sonia had a theory that in the bird-ecosystem, cars were just another animal: unusually tall beetles with searing hot exoskeletons. In that case, Sonia was simply an evolution, a merging of species.


In the sparrow version of the restaurant, which began at the feet and raised to the knees, where the tables were a wide, cement plateau, Sonia was not an aberration of ambiance.


The slits of pain had begun to restitch. Sonia asked for a box for her sandwich. The barista reluctantly quit his sweeping project, to which Sonia wished she could say she'd fix the world if she could, make it so that he and the sparrows weren't somehow class enemies.


A girl Sonia's age was standing at the edge of the dining area. She'd just purchased a to-go bag of granola. There were four birds at her feet. She was shaking her head, but her heart wasn't in it. No one's heart was in it.


No one's heart was in any of this. Sonia had begun to realize this around the same time her pain had begun to present itself; a useless, ever-stretching thing that prompted a sense of tiredness in everyone around her, as if her pain were theirs, which might have evoked empathy in a sparrow-fed world. Instead, her body was a rock on their shoulders, another hunk of dread to store in an ever-piling drawer of natural destruction.


There were many ways to hide something. To send it off to sea was one way, to tie it to a balloon and aim it at the sun was a second, to starve it was the third. The third was the most popular option.


Sonia often became things she wasn't: an earthquake, a lurching wave, a wildfire, trees hurtling down in a rainforest, birds without branches searching their hemisphere for homes.


The barista brought back her box. He offered to place the sandwich in the box. He placed the sandwich in the box before Sonia could tell him it was alright. The barista was hurriedly planning for all the contingencies -- that Sonia couldn't talk, that Sonia couldn't think, that Sonia wasn't real, that Sonia was about to disappear, that everything was about to split apart and evaporate. Behind him, a bushel of new sparrows had congregated, ever-present as springtime flowers.

Devaki Devay is an Indian writer of poetry and prose. Find them at Okay Donkey, Barren Magazine, and Best Small Fictions 2023, and follow them on Twitter @DevakiDevay!

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