Auspicium, by Diana Dima


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There has always been a sparrow inside me. At first it was just an egg, something I felt in my belly before I even had the words for it. I remember asking my mother about it, the way she hugged me and said, it’s nothing, trust me, try to ignore it and it’ll go away, and that was the first time I knew the world was not simple, not to be trusted, and it would never be simple again after that.

I can’t explain how I knew it was a sparrow; but at seven, squatting in the dirt with our neighbor’s boy, watching the sparrows fight over bits of cheese pie, I felt a stab and a stir inside me, a hatching, and I knew. I turned to the boy and whispered, I’ve got a baby sparrow in my belly, and he laughed and picked up an earthworm from under the hedge and threw it at me. Then he said, mine’s a robin, and ran away as though afraid of his own words.

The time came that we learned of the birds in school, though only in passing, and my mother couldn’t lie anymore. It’s too soon, she grumbled; but in the end she described her egret, the sharp bill and ticklish plumes, the cravings it gave her, now and then, for raw fish, the longing for marshes. One day, she told me, our birds will burst out and carry us away, and nobody knows where. She sounded wistful, and I held her arm as though to keep her from flying.

Did Dad have a bird? I asked, and my mother nodded. He never knew what it was; always felt bad about it, like there was something wrong with him. But now he knows, she whispered; now he knows.

In my class, three people had peacocks, and one a hummingbird. The new girl said she had a bird of paradise, and no one knew whether to believe her or not. This one’s a sparrow, the boys said about me and laughed. Where are you gonna fly off to? The nearest bird feeder?

Boys, boys, said the teacher, who’d just walked in. It doesn’t matter what kind of bird. We all fly away someday, and nobody knows where.

Teenagers spend a lot of time thinking about their birds. I filled notebook after notebook with doodles of sparrows, small and round at first, then large and so sharp that my pen tore through the paper. At night I lay awake, hand on my belly, listening for any sign of movement. Imagining the little wings unfold, the beady eyes open like holes.

I felt it turn, I’d tell my mother, and she’d wince. She didn’t like me talking about it. You’re not flying away for a long, long time, she’d say, and the words trickled fear into my bones.

Neither are you, I’d tell her, but it sounded like a question.

It became impossible to bring up the birds, not just to my mother but to anyone. Sure, it had been fun to compare species, to look up pictures, to poke fun at those who still didn’t know what theirs was; but nobody wanted to talk about the flying.

The week before graduation, I ran into the new girl, who wasn’t new anymore. Her grandfather had just flown away. I’m trying to starve my bird, she told me while we lined up for lunch. I’m not having any fruit. No seeds, either. Do you think it’ll work?

I walked away, pretending I hadn’t heard. I pretended there weren’t any birds.

Secretly, I thought myself lucky. Sparrows are small; I could barely feel mine against my ribs. Right out of school, I threw myself into work. I held down two jobs and struggled to make rent on the basement I shared with two others. On weekends I painted landscapes with birdless skies, and sometimes they sold.

From the vantage point of what I thought of as my real life, the sparrow grew ever smaller. It belonged with childhood toys and childhood crushes in my purple room at my mother’s house. It belonged with my mother, who was growing smaller too.

I met someone, and we moved into an apartment together, and we never talked about birds.

One Sunday, while my partner slept, I got a call. The kind of call that feels like it happened to someone else even when it happens to you. It was about my mother. Are you sure? I asked. She likes to take spontaneous trips. But they were sure. They had found all the usual signs: blood from where the bird had burst through her ribcage, white feathers scattered around it. It was an egret, I said, and the person on the phone agreed placatingly. Would you like to have a ceremony? Pick up the feathers? Hello?

I made coffee. I sat at the dining table, morning light slanting across it, so ordinary, and the coffee tasted ordinary and the clock ticked in an ordinary way, so that my body started shaking with anger and I had to leave the apartment. I tried to imagine the egret, snow-bright, sharp-billed, carrying my mother as my mother had carried it, but all I saw in my mind was blood, feathers. The sparrow inside me moved, and I winced.

Later I asked my partner, what kind of bird do you have?

I know you’re hurting, they said, but come on. I don’t want to talk about that.

They say birds stop growing when we do, but I could feel the sparrow getting bigger. In the night it flew in circles, as though my body were hollow, nothing but sky inside. I dreamed of claws cutting through my chest and woke up sweating. Not yet, my mother had said; not for a long, long time.

You eat like a bird, my partner said. I craved oats every morning, munched corn throughout the day. Restlessness coursed through me, and I felt slow, too slow. Don’t you feel like time is running out? I asked. My partner didn’t, but they worried about me. They waited for me to figure things out.

I wanted to work more, so I changed jobs. I wanted to love more, so I found someone new, and she moved in with us. For a while I felt like I was flying, like I was fast enough. But the sparrow kept growing, stone-heavy, pulling me down. Every nook in my body filled with bird weight, bird thoughts, bird wants. What kind of bird do you have? I asked people hungrily, desperately. I found myself alone.

Birdlike, I moved cities, countries. I hoarded memories like stamps that said my days hadn’t been wasted. In a rainy, cold country, in a dingy hotel, I stopped. I lay in bed with the flu for a while, shivering and aching all over. I was running out of money, and I knew nobody and nobody knew me, until I met the woman with the dove.

I sat across from her at breakfast one morning, poking at my scrambled eggs and thinking of where to go next. She said, yours is a small one, I can tell. Your bird. She spoke as though it was the most natural thing to talk about.

You’d think so, I said after a while, but I swear it’s been growing. It doesn’t seem possible, does it?

It changes, the woman said, sipping her too-pale tea. They grow over the years, then get small again. My dove’s the smallest it’s ever been. Still, I reckon it’s not long now till it flies. I can feel it in my bones.

My eyes itched as though I were about to start crying, and at the same time a laugh rose in my throat. Doves are beautiful birds, I said. My sparrow’s a round, twitchy, angry little bastard.

Doves migrate farther than sparrows, so it wasn’t strange that the woman with the dove carried on traveling and I went back home. I no longer had an apartment, so I stayed at my mother’s house for the first time since she’d flown. The counters were sticky, coated in dust. There were spiders in the bathtub and mold on the ceiling and the grout had turned black.

It took two months to clean the house, and for the entire time the sparrow was completely still, as though it, too, was happy we’d come home.

The river ran just behind mother’s house, and so many birds congregated there in the morning, it’s no wonder I got into bird-watching. I sketched the robins, the odd red cardinal flitting through the willows. It relaxed me, even though in certain light, from certain angles, every bird had something of the sparrow.

I took to drawing my friends’ birds for them. On summer afternoons my neighbor would come over, and I’d sketch while she described her finch, the way it had grown and shrunk over the years. We became like children again, thinking and talking about our birds freely, though our laughter had grown a little wryer. Sometimes her daughter came too, and we talked about something else.

I was there when my neighbor flew away. Her daughter had gone to the pharmacy, and I went over with soup my neighbor couldn’t eat. In her bedroom, the air clung to me like sheets. When her eyes closed and opened again, black and round and finch-like, I knew to leave the room. But I couldn’t help hearing the small wet sound, and when I turned I glimpsed a red shape streaking through the window.

Later, I went home and tore up the drawing I’d almost finished for her. In it the finch had been still, each feather painstakingly outlined in pencil, eyes calm and bright like my neighbor’s. Nothing like the real thing.

My neighbor used to say that finches and sparrows are a lot alike, and I hoped it wasn’t true. It had been long since I’d worried about flying; but now I thought about the moment itself, over and over, about the red, the wet of it. I dreamed of an egret far away in the night, and no matter how fast I flew, it never got any closer.

Some people think you can divine the manner of flying from the bird. But nobody knows for sure, and what good would it do? Still, I flinched whenever I felt a flutter in my ribcage. Sooner, rather than later, I thought. I could feel it in my bones.

Every Sunday, my neighbor’s daughter came to tea. I didn’t know if she was doing it for me or for herself; but we walked together to the river and watched the birds, and afterwards she leafed through my drawings, quiet, so that I imagined her own bird to be an owl or a nightjar, gliding smoothly through darkness. She never talked about it. But one day, after I brewed the tea, I found her in my childhood bedroom, where I’d laid canvases on the floor bright red with unfinished finches. Is this what it looked like? she asked, and turned to me with dark wet eyes.

I told her, I don’t know. I can’t get it right, and even if I did, I wouldn’t know it.

There came a time when my body loosened, so that the sparrow seemed the only thing holding it together, and bones and muscle and skin became a crumbling cage against which it struggled. I craved the sky and the taste of seeds I couldn’t chew anymore. My neighbor’s daughter fretted, and how do you explain all this to someone young? Instead I listened to her, took my medicine three times a day. I tried to eat. When I felt well enough, I worked on her portrait. In her long black hair I drew birds, sparrows and finches and egrets and doves.

I’m glad I thought to give her the portrait before it was too late.

These last days I spent half-dozing, pale light sifting through curtains, the sound of feathers rattling in my ears. Visitors paraded by my bed, but they were shadows to me, and instead I saw clearly long-gone people in long-gone places, and always the birds in their eyes, pushing them higher, faster. Pushing them toward me. The years of my life bunched up in my chest, taking the sparrow’s shape, and I could no longer tell them apart.

It’s simple, after all, the world; I know now. It belongs to the birds.

Now I close my eyes, and the fullness of life pressing on my chest dissolves into blue. I shed the weight easily. I will not be so much, after all, for even a small bird to carry.

Now I close my eyes, and all I can see is sky.


Diana Dima is a writer and neuroscientist living in Canada. Her speculative fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizonskhōréō magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her online at or as @dimafic on Bluesky.

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