The six houses rested on a hill, overlooking two ponds, the newest home made entirely, inside and out, of glass. The woman inside lived a transparent life: gathering the delivered ingredients each night for overgrown salads scattered with pistachios and cashews, scurrying from room to room, rearranging, scampering, squeegeeing the windows, out damn spot, out. The only curtains covered the shower and bathroom. Her closet – a pile of flats, boots, bags, blouses, and jeans – bespoke a disordered mind, or so the talk went.
But it was the glass itself that brought the neighbors to her door. The glass – tempered like steel – reflected the grove of birch trees, the copse of bamboo, the meadow gone wild, tricking the yellow finches, creating collision after fatal collision. Thump, thump, thump, at times like the keys of a typewriter, one long death note.
The pile grew, rotted, sent its stench upward, outward, until enough was enough.
Thump, thump, thump. They knocked on her door. Thump, thump, thump. We see you in there, sitting at the piano, playing without sheet music, from memory or composing as you play?
They saw everything. How tiredly she rose, how she sighed at the threshold, how she steeled herself before opening the door to the five other women in the neighborhood.
“Go away,” she told them. “The house isn’t for show.”
“We’ve seen it. Everyone’s seen it.” They filed in past her, straight ahead, past the piano room to the family room. The house smelled woodsy. Inside, looking out, they felt exposed, mice under the eyes of the barn owl. “If not for show, what is the house for?” they asked, standing with their backs against the windows.
She sat on her haunches on the ottoman across from the circle of faces. “Shelter, of course.”
They ignored her. “Don’t you hear them?” Everyone listened, but no sound penetrated the glass. They answered their own question. “Birds.” They explained the situation.
“And what do you suggest?” she asked.
“Zen curtains. Have you heard of them?” Closely spaced ropes could hang down over windows. “They can be aesthetically pleasing. Better than tape. Better than decals.”
“I don’t think so,” she answered. “No, no. That will not do.”
They looked out at their own houses, closed to prying eyes. And then a thump! The whole house reverberated with the impact. The impact thrummed along the panes, along their nerves.
The woman of the house! Her fingers played the air, a tuneless madness, each digit pounding against nothingness. They left her like that, let themselves out, outside stopping to gather the dead birds into their arms, dumping them into the brown leaf bags before making their way home.
Later, they realized they’d been stunned by her response, and that explained why nothing had been accomplished. The numbers they found on the web staggered them – over a billion birds each year in this country alone. “Glass,” a scientist wrote, “is an indiscriminate killer that takes the fit as well as the unfit of a species’ population.” And the only solution centered on the windows themselves, strips to reduce reflection or nets on the panes to soften collisions.
They took videos instead, those fragile forms in unfettered flight (for how many thousands of miles had they been airborne?) then that fatal thump, the lump falling like a teardrop. Bird after bird. They showed the pile. They showed the street sign, the address on the mailbox.
Stones. The villagers wore bird masks, odd ones: barn owls, ostriches, kiwis, bird skulls, a leather plague beak with large glass eyes. The river stones they pocketed from the landscaping. They fit perfectly in the palm, as if made for such a purpose.
Dusk had begun to settle around them. They waited for a bird, a thump, the signal to rush down the driveway.
She appeared in the upstairs, as if floating in the ether. An odd bird, someone thought. An odd, odd bird in her glass cage. Maybe the birds were flying to get to her. Maybe she was their queen. Maybe, through the jagged hole the mob would bust in her house, she’d fly, up, up, up.
She held up a sign, the letters barbed and red: Y O U A R E R U I N I N G I T.
We’re ruining it? We? The pile of birds would care to discuss your point of view.
Did they consider the strength of the steel-tempered glass, that bird after bird left nary a scratch, nary a crack, nary an imprint? Yes, of course they did. In their throwing hands, they carried broken spark plugs, a law enforcement hack for busting through car windows. The stones weren’t for the glass.
Afterward, no one called the police. No one lingered. No one returned. She’d been flitting from memory to memory in the half-consciousness of the evening.
Even-ing. Getting even.
Once upon a time, she carried sticks for a forest fort. Was she singing? They came running. What was her crime? Why did they hate her so? Creature, they called her. Of all things. They chased her up a tree, circled the tree trunk, sharpened sticks pointing upward. There, in the crook, beyond their reach, a nest. The mother descended with her toothed talons. Slash. Cut. Pierce. Tear.
Pieces of her had fallen upon the villagers. She had slid down the trunk. What was left? What had she been before? What had she become?
Inside the house, the dawn burned; bird calls echoed; wings fluttered in the openings. Fowl. Game. Hens and Cocks. Magnified. She finally made it to her feet, surrounded by the fragments of her home. She imagined shards of glass angled toward sunlight, the sunlight toward house after house, burning, burning, an eye for an eye, a house for a house, tit for tat, the croaking raven, the dull revenge.
Randall Brown is a semi-retired college and high school teacher. He received his MFA from Vermont College in 2006 and spent 10 years as part of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Rosemont College.
Interview with Randall Brown
What was your inspiration for “Shelter?”
I imagined a glass house, then came the woman inside, and lastly the birds. Of course, if there’s a person living in a glass house, there’s going to be stones thrown. That just goes with the territory.
What was your writing and revision process like for this story?
Did you ever ask yourself what happens to a woman who builds a glass house as revenge for a childhood attack? It took me about three years to answer that question, to get to that ending, the broken glass, the magnified revenge.
Why choose to write flash? Why does that form speak to you?
I don’t have a lot to say. Flash gets me.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing over the years?
If a piece fails – and most of mine do – it’s often because I’ve forgotten what I’ve come to call “The Almond Rule.” Steve Almond’s advice is NOT to confuse readers ever, ever, ever. So hard to remember.
What’s your best advice for fellow flash writers?
Become a submissions reader for a flash journal – and immerse yourself in all that work before the gatekeepers have had their says. It’s really, really the best education.