Like Birds (fiction)

by Calvin Rey Moen

(art by Peter Railand, justseeds artists’ cooperative. )


“The hell?” I asked.

Ari followed my gaze upward to the wide mesh enclosing the dome of the “courtyard,” the outdoor exercise area surrounded by 15-foot iron bars. “Oh, yeah. That’s to prevent ‘e-LOPE-ment,’” she said, dragging out the syllables of the hospital term for “escape.”

I snorted. “As if someone could scale these bars, drop over the other side, and run away before security could stop them.”

Sneakers squeaked from the basketball hoop behind the bench where we sat. Some other patients were getting in some quick one-on-one in the tiny yard.

“It’s not for someone who’s running.” Ari was being dramatic as usual, so I just gave her a bit of my customary side-eye.

In that fraction of a second, I went through all my usual swirl of thoughts and emotions associated with my oldest friend. She’s beyond brilliant. She sees and hears things no one else does, which means she’s often the only one who understands what’s going on. What she doesn’t understand is how she sounds to normies, the people who don’t hear voices or see visions, who don’t receive secret transmissions from the FBI and angels, for whom colors are merely coincidental and not saturated with meaning, causing intense elation or searing pain.

So then those bastards call her crazy and lock her up in places like this, with others of her kind, all of them being slowly drugged into oblivion. I love her, so I come here to visit with her, but it feels terrible. My whole night will be shot.

Some patients walked the newly installed therapeutic labyrinth, a winding, coiled path outlined in cement bricks at the center of the courtyard. In the middle was a gazebo where smoking used to be allowed. They must follow these spirals out of habit, I thought. I squinted up again at the clear May sky, cut into pieces between the wires.

Ari continued. “There was a kid here, a teenager, maybe early 20s—a patient—small and frail, with small, dark eyes, set wide on their face. They didn’t say much, and they seemed kind of twitchy. Their name was Cris or something.

“I’m not saying ‘they’ because I don’t know their pronouns, by the way. Those were Cris’s pronouns. This place has a very progressive preferred-name and gender pronoun policy, you know.”

Oh, I know.

“This kid had so many diagnoses, they were like the whole DSM—bipolar, schizophrenia, PTSD, ADHD, borderline personality, everything. But they had something else wrong, too, and no one would talk about it, except in whispers. Only the head nurses were allowed to change Cris’s bandages, unwrap whatever was underneath their bulky layers of shirts and hoodies.

“No one knew how long this kid had been here, either. Some said 8 months, some said two and a half years. Not even the staff could remember.

“Meanwhile, whatever it was got worse and worse. Cris’s top half got so bulky they had trouble balancing well enough to walk, and the RNs wheeled Cris out to the courtyard every afternoon for some fresh air. Most of the staff and other patients decided it was a hump, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some said it had to be a giant tumor.

“Everybody could hear Cris crying at night, it was so loud. Like they were in pain. In the morning, their eyes would be lined in red, with dark circles all around. Staff said they had nightmares, but some patients swore Cris’s hump or whatever it was would be bigger in the morning after an especially loud night.

“One day, a nurse pushed Cris’s chair out into the courtyard as usual. There was a whole group of patients outside that day, and one of them was this older lady whose name was Joyce or something, but everyone just called her Digger. She spoke mostly in swear words and had a glorious mullet. And she was always trying to dig her way out of the hospital. After she left, they found a marble-sized hole in the wall of her room behind a poster of a panda bear. She must have used a paper spoon, because god knows there are no other tools in this place.

“Digger must have decided this was her day because as soon as she got out there, she made a run for the fence and dove behind a shrub. She started swiping at the dirt near the fence and kicking at anyone who came near. The other patients crowded around to see what she would do.  Even the nurse who had been pushing Cris’s wheelchair had gone after Digger, attempting to break up the crowd that had formed around her.”

She rose to her feet and started pacing the distance between our bench and the fence, waving her arms in classic theatrical Ari fashion. I took the opportunity to drink in her fierce look, somehow pulled off in this place where a toothbrush is considered contraband. She had managed floral leggings and ankle-high boots—no laces, of course: contraband—and a loose-knit sweater with wide sleeves that gathered at the wrists. Her dark red pile of curls was enormous and perfect, like her. All she was missing was her signature row of dangly earrings and hoops bridging the gap between earlobe and shoulder.

I reassured myself that they had not touched her spirit, that she would always be untameable. Please God, don’t let them destroy her.

“Wait a minute. Ari, how did you get away with leggings? I thought you said they cracked down on spandex because it was too noose-able.”

“Oh,” she said off-handedly, “I complained to the administration that it was gender-based discrimination, that they were targeting me for being trans and policing my gender presentation. They’re really very progressive here.”

“Oh, I know.”

“That’s how I got them to allow me a razor and makeup, too. But you’re not paying attention to my very important story.”

“My apologies. Please continue.” But I was distracted by a swell of anger in my ribcage. These monsters were concerned enough with their image that they would allow my friend this tiny bit of bodily autonomy—but later would drag her down the hallway screaming to be shoved into a bare room with no windows for hours.

Ari continued. “There was Cris, in their chair, in the middle of the courtyard, swaddled in a hoodie, several t-shirts, and layers of bandage, wide-set, beady eyes on the clouds above, like always. It seemed there was just one person, besides Cris, who was not watching Digger being piled on by security but instead seemed to be waiting for a moment like this to approach Cris.

“Some say it was Maggie, the occupational therapist who sometimes went outside with the patients to toss a beach ball or hand out pedometers. Others say it was another patient, overcome with curiosity or camaraderie, who helped Cris out of their bulky wraps under the afternoon sun that late spring day.”

“Away from the gate, please!” There was a broad-shouldered and officious-looking security guard in a dark blue uniform, right hand on a walkie talkie clipped to a wide belt, taking a step toward Ari.

I hate to say it, but he looked like the kind of short guy who is always trying to make up for being short by being abusive. I mean, I’m a short guy, too, but I don’t feel the need to put on a uniform about it. Those kinds of guys scare me because, underneath the swagger, they’re scared, too, like a wounded animal. They’re unpredictable. But Ari is scared of no one.

“Don’t even think about laying a hand on me, you fucking Minotaur!” Ari sneered over her shoulder. Whether she was referring to the guard’s resemblance to a bull or some internal reality of her own, I couldn’t say. But I experienced a flash of my usual fear for her safety whenever she lashed out at these people. And then shame for wishing she would just be quiet and not instigate them.

To me she muttered, “I suppose he’s worried I’ll pull a Digger.” As if. Everyone knows the bars are dug ten feet into the ground. The Minotaur gazed indifferently over our heads, arms folded. Ari shuddered briefly, like she was shaking off the interruption, and resumed her tale.

“Cris rose to their feet, graceful once unburdened by bandages and layers of clothing. They stretched out two long, feathered, jointed appendages attached to each shoulder, waved them in the breeze confidently, and, cocking their head once or twice, took to the fucking sky. The wide, blue, open, goddamn sky.

“Over the heads of the other patients, of Maggie with her pedometers, Digger, and the attendant calling for backup on the walkie-talkie, over the fence, over the horizon, Cris up and flew away. On two great big, beautiful wings that they grew themselves. Despite Haldol and Depakote, Klonopin and Abilify. Maybe because of them. Who knows? Drug companies don’t hardly test that shit.”

She sat down again, leaning forward from the edge of her seat. I was beaming at Ari in all her glory, taking some kind of pride or satisfaction in claiming her as mine. As my friend. As my entire family, really.

“The hospital was a shitstorm for months after that. There were investigations. The state was brought in. The family sued. The CEO resigned. And they caged in the courtyard.

“All the patients were examined head to toe for the minutest hint of wings, feathers, crows’ feet. In case it was contagious, you know? Something in the water?

“Never found anything. And Cris was never seen or heard from again.”

Ari sat back, looking satisfied, almost smug.

“No shit,” I said.

“No fucking shit,” said Ari. “Actually,” she added matter-of-factly, “I don’t believe a word of it. Probably invented by the administration to justify caging us in like birds.”

She winked for effect, and I threw my head back and cackled. Because that wink meant she knew every bit of it was true, at least in some version of reality that was as tangible to her as this one was to me.

“Hey, man,” she continued, deadpan. “They’ve made up weirder shit than that before. This is no place to be if you’re already struggling to define reality.”

“No shit,” I said again, looking up at the sky, the mood between us quickly sobering. We sat in silence for a few moments.

“Hey,” Ari said, “I know it’s hard for you to come back here, and I appreciate you visiting me today. It means a lot.” She put a hand on my arm, and the security guard leaned toward us with a warning glance. She held her hands up in mock defense, wiggling her fingers to indicate I hadn’t been trying to slip her anything.

No one but me saw that she had in fact retrieved a ball of string I had tucked inside the sleeve of my hoodie and transferred it to the gathered sleeve of her own sweater. I didn’t know what it was for and didn’t ask. I was certain Ari had plans for this contraband that didn’t involve strangulation. Not of anyone who didn’t deserve it, anyway.

“Time to head back in!” A smiling mental health worker was rounding everyone up. Ari had told me outside time was in mere half-hour increments now.

“It’s not so bad being back here,” I assured Ari. “I gotta remember where I came from, you know?”

She nodded, flashing me that wicked grin and eye twinkle, and then I was being escorted back through locked doors to the visitors’ entrance.

My face burned as I walked toward the far parking lot. Just allowing myself to remember how it had felt years ago to be inside those bars with no visitor pass around my neck, no way out, made my eyes sting. Thinking of Ari, left behind in this upside-down world where clothing is a weapon, and weapons are referred to as “treatment,” caused an involuntary stirring behind my shoulder blades I thought I had learned to control.

As soon as I was safely hidden in the thick rows of trees bordering the hospital campus, I pulled my sweatshirt up over my head, unfastening the straps on the custom binder I wear whenever I have to be in public. A slight breeze picked up, cooling the heat on my skin and drying my eyes.

I glanced back toward the locked building where my friend was probably sitting in the sun room on the fourth floor staring out over the green hospital grounds with the pond, wrought iron arches, and Adirondack chairs, none of which the patients are allowed to go near. I leaned into the gathering winds and arched my bare back, stretching out as if in a familiar dance.

I soared slowly up toward the mountain that sits sentry over the facility, peering down for one last look at that courtyard with its labyrinth and its bullish guard, all encircled by black bars casting long, thin shadows in the afternoon light.

In the next moment, I was gone, high over the trees, the pond, the chairs. High enough that the entire complex of hospital buildings looked like a model, something some architect 200 years ago had thought to build but changed their mind.


This piece is from the Imaginations issue of Perspectives (n.31). The whole issue is available from Powell’s Books here! and AK Press here!


Calvin Rey Moen is a queer, white, trans person with a psychiatric label who grew up poor among fundamentalist Christians. He attended graduate school at a private, Midwestern, Catholic football university, escaping with his life and an MFA in poetry. He now works doing advocacy with psychiatric survivors against force and coercion. One of his short stories appeared in Jonathan (since renamed CALLISTO), and he has a personal essay forthcoming in the anthology Headcase.