The Fake Birdhouses of Springville

I met Ms. Adrienne E. Jackstar on a warm summer day of 2020. I was about a third of the way through my route delivering supplies to the elderly and other pandemic-homebound for our local mutual aid society when I came to a dark-blue shingle house made small by large ones all around. Behind a chain-link fence lay a small yard, no more than eight feet or so deep. On one side, concrete bunnies circled a tiny tree; on the other, tomatoes sprawled cheerfully from a raised bed. To the porch railing was fastened a large, handmade BLACK LIVES MATTER sign.

With a jumbo pack of toilet paper tucked under one arm, I swung open the gate and walked through the yard and up to the porch just large enough for two chairs and a table, the latter so rickety that I set only the paper bag of prescriptions atop it, settling the toilet paper in the hollow of a chair instead.

I knocked and withdrew to the other side of the chain-link fence, my mind already halfway to my next delivery.

A hand pushed lace curtains from the front window and a face peered at me, features difficult to see with the sun on the glass. The curtains swung back in place and then the door opened and she stepped out, a small woman made compact by age, wearing glasses with large, glittery purple frames.

“Thanks, hon.”

“If you need anything,” I said.

I guess we were both hungry for company, what with the physical distancing and all, because she lingered and I lingered too.

We agreed that the weather was beautiful, that the police were out of control, that Congress cared only about its own interests, although maybe our own set weren’t so bad, but the system was flawed so maybe they were. She remarked upon my mask, covered with big bold flowers, petals of pink and yellow on sky blue, newly arrived in the mail from a friend’s mother with a sewing-machine superpower.

I nodded to the birdhouse that hung in the city maple tree between sidewalk and street. The birdhouse was two stories, a miniature Victorian, painted grey with trim in fuchsia and violet and white; three tiny pink plastic flamingos peered from its porch. “I love that. I still remember when I moved here and first saw the birdhouses. And the bathtub Madonnas, but the birdhouses are better, maybe because they’re in the trees, so you only catch sight of them every now and then, like a revelation.”

She laughed. “They’re not real birdhouses.”

I looked carefully at it. “Looks real enough to me.”

She shifted the bundle of toilet paper to the floor, lowered herself into the chair’s embrace. “Make yourself comfortable. If you have time. I don’t mean to keep you.”

I leaned against the chain-link fence, tried to convey my interest with my eyes. You don’t realize all the work your mouth does for you until it’s covered and unavailable.

She considered me. “Were you here nine years ago, when the café owners over in Brill Square got in a fistfight on the sidewalk?”

I shook my head, the gesture feeling over-large.

“Well, this happened the year before that.”


There was a woman who lived on this street. She was in her prime, just past her change in life and free in the ways that only the change can make you free in this country, in this world. A decade or so younger than I am right now.

Now, this woman had always had an affinity for small creatures—she set out crumbs for squirrels, kept a feeder for birds, planted flowers for the local pollinators, never met a bunny she didn’t greet. But she didn’t stop there. She fished earthworms out of puddles and moved snails off sidewalks and rescued fruit flies that had fallen into drinks. And when she passed a limp form by the side of the road, whether crow or mouse or raccoon, she stopped to see if maybe she could help. She never could. If a creature wasn’t dead, it was dying, and though she called wildlife rescue, creatures almost never recovered. But she didn’t stop stopping, didn’t quit trying. And when a creature died, or when she came to one that was already dead, she said a small prayer, to ease their suffering and wish them great joy in whatever came next. She wasn’t religious, mind, she was just doing what was right.

People in her life were unkind about this. Some peppered her with statistics about animals dying to justify their own inaction; others interrupted her silent prayer whenever they discovered her at it, as if such were an obscenity that could not be borne. A boyfriend named her desire to help a compulsion and refused to stop when he drove. She had to root it out, he said, learn to look away, these animals were dead already, her efforts only pained her and inconvenienced him, they had no point.

She rooted him out of her life and everyone like him whenever they revealed themselves, but she didn’t stop checking those limp bodies for life. Instead, she taught herself to hold the latticework of roads in her head and charge them with her energy, to remind creatures that danger lay in the moving cars and trucks.


Ms. Adrienne brushed her thumb meditatively against the underside of her chin. “I bet you think that’s strange. Must have been a crazy old lady, huh?”

“She sounds like she had a lot of love in her.”

“Hmm. I don’t know about that. Well, be that as it may—”


Let’s call her Worm. That’s what the kids called her when she was young, first when they, too, were saddened by the worms that drowned in sidewalk puddles, and then as a jeer when they grew tall and unfeeling. She reclaimed the name in her thirties.

It came to pass that Worm was all alone. Her relatives lived elsewhere and her closest friends had moved when housing prices had gone up and she was bored of lovers who demanded all her care be directed toward them. So she was all alone the day she was changing the lightbulb at the top of the stairs and the ankle she had broken as a child, that had been weak ever since, gave out.

She had time as she fell, the stairs cold and hard beneath her, for a sudden moment of understanding, to think, oh, this is how people die on stairs, she’d never understood before, but now she saw that if your head landed at one wrong angle and your neck twisted, there was nothing you could do—

—and then her head hit a bad angle and she lay in a heap, unconscious, at the bottom.

Now, it’s dangerous to be unconscious after violence or accident, with your spirit unsure if it’s staying or going, for it leaves you vulnerable to the demons that delight in shredding spirits into nothing, preventing them from reentering the cycle of life. But when Worm’s spirit started to wander, the spirits of the small creatures she had tended over her life drew close and herded her spirit back to her body. And when she awoke, stiff and in much pain but still right there, she was able to see the spirits who had saved her.

Maybe these spirits had always clung to Worm, even before the accident on the stairs, or maybe the experience brought them closer. I don’t know, but close they were. These were unusual spirits, you see, much longer lasting, because of their association with Worm. Spirits only live—as spirits, I mean now—as long as the last being who knew them also lives, for they persist on memories. People say things like “she’ll live on through our memories” thinking they’re being metaphorical. They’re not, that’s actual description of real fact.

And maybe Worm hadn’t known all these creatures in the full force of life, but because she had encountered them at that critical juncture just after their deaths, she knew them nonetheless. So, though normally short-lived creatures, though their families and companions and rivals and enemies had all passed on, Worm still gave them life.

Now that Worm could see the spirits, she set herself to meeting and knowing and caring for them. And she soon noticed that, though they all clustered around her, some also liked to spend some time apart. But spirits are fragile things and must fear not only demons, but harm from fierce winds, for wind, like moonlight and beauty, weaves through the different planes of life. And so Worm built a small house out of wood, so that spirits might have protection and security.


“Oh, that’s charming,” I said. “She built all of these for her spirits?”

Ms. Adrienne looked at me reprovingly. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” She gestured to the birdhouse, her hand sweeping out to indicate not only it but the others neither of us could see. “These were built by an artist. Some of them.” She shifted to get comfortable in her chair. “Are you sure you want to hear the rest? It has its funny bits, but it’s sad, too, and I don’t want to burden you. There’s so much to bear already.”

Her words called me back to the present and its unrelenting pain, already too much to process, too much to do anything except contain and endure. “Maybe we should stop there.”

“When you’re ready to hear the rest, you let me know.” She chuckled. “I’ll be here.”


It was weeks before I asked to hear the rest of the story. But on a late August day when the sun was shining and the acorns were beginning to fall, green and hard from the summer’s drought, and the neighborhood’s students left boxes of miscellany on curbs as leases ended and they prepared to depart but not return, that day, I rested my arms against the spiky top of the chain-link fence and nodded toward the birdhouse-that-wasn’t. “So, tell me about the artist?”

Ms. Adrienne’s eyes lit up. “Leah! Leah’s a love, she is.”


The first thing you need to know about Leah is that even then she was a talented painter, enormously talented, but unrecognized and caught up in becoming a Someone. Maybe you know her work? Leah Shirazi? No? Well. You should. Look her up, it will make your life better. She used to live nearby but a couple years back moved to Charlottesville for a residency.

The day that Worm and Leah met, Leah had been rejected three times: by a gallery that had been considering representing her, by a grant she’d sought to support her next series, and by a high school at which she’d applied to teach. So Leah was knee-deep in doubt when she passed Worm’s place.

Worm was out on her porch, enlarging the home she had built for the spirits, and she saw the unhappiness sitting atop Leah’s shoulders loud and clear and so as the artist passed, she wished her good day. Leah paused, tongue-tied, as if no one had ever wished her good day before and she didn’t know how to respond, and she leaned against Worm’s fence, much as you’re doing right now, and watched Worm work on the spirit home.

After a little bit she began to talk, commenting on the design of the house and referring to Worm as a fellow artist, thinking to herself that she was flattering the woman.

Worm had lived much longer than Leah, more than long enough to recognize the artist’s condescension as a coping mechanism that Leah herself would probably recognize as well in another decade or two. When you’re older, emotions that used to fill your awareness all the way to the very edges become smaller, you can see their shapes crisp and clear. Makes people a lot less annoying.

Worm replied mildly. In this she was too kind to the artist. She should have spoken her truths right from the beginning, for Leah, still smarting from her rejections, got it into her head that she should gift this lowly craftswoman with some of her art.

And so one day, without asking, Leah “borrowed” the spirit home.

When Worm discovered the home was gone, she was in a state: several spirits were missing and others told of someone coming and stealing them away. Worm feared demons.

So when Leah knocked on her door several mornings later, looking pleased as punch and holding the house, made magnificently, improbably beautiful with paint, Worm was furious. But the missing spirits spilled from the house and swarmed to her, every single one safe and sound, so she was also lightheaded and hearted with relief.


Ms. Adrienne squinted at me. “You ever felt like that? So angry that your rage billows up inside you, rolls through you like thunder—but at the same time, so grateful that the terrible thing that could have happened, that you feared so much you couldn’t breathe, didn’t happen after all.”

I looked toward the brightness of the sun. Yes, I had felt like that. I felt like that every time one of my family or friends announced negative test results in one breath and in the next having folks over for dinner; that, really, their babysitter should be considered an essential worker; that they were just back from a trip, but only a short one and besides, the cases there weren’t nearly as bad as here.


Anyways, Worm gathered the missing spirts to her and loved them hard and fierce. To Leah she said, “What are you thinking, taking things without asking? You scared me.”

Leah was crestfallen. She couldn’t sense the spirits, of course, so she put everything together in her head wrong and decided that it must be terrifying to be an older woman living alone, and she was very apologetic indeed.

“I wanted to give you something. For your kindness. I thought you would like it.” Hurt threaded through her voice, for Worm had said she liked Leah’s art when Leah showed her photos.

Worm allowed that yes, the house was quite fine to look at now, a real treat for the eyes, and Leah perked right up.

“I can hang it wherever you want, just tell me where. What sorts of birds do you think will come?” And she rambled on about chickadees and phoebes and goldfinches, for she thought it must be a birdhouse, what else could it be?

In Leah’s words, Worm could hear a future in which the two of them became friends through birdwatching, sharing the details of each feather and seed. She didn’t like it. The house wasn’t a birdhouse and she didn’t want to be friends with someone who took things without asking. She let Leah hang the house, though, because the need to be useful was itching at Leah and the spirits didn’t care if their home was on the ground or nestled in a tree.

But once the house was up and Worm and Leah stepped close and then stepped back and then stepped around to admire it from every angle, it worried Worm. Painted, the house had become a very beautiful thing, the kind of beauty that draws all manner of attention—not, mind you, the fault of beauty, it’s just that beauty has its own gravitational force, everyone wants to be near beauty. The home was now as close to a perfectly beautiful thing as Worm had ever seen.


A soft gong chimed from the porch and Ms. Adrienne patted herself down to find the device it had come from. She drew a phone from a pants pocket, pushed her glasses onto the top of her head and held the phone out arm’s length to read. “That’s my girl, I have to Zoom. You take care of yourself, hon.”


A hard week followed that one and when I stopped by next, after the primary had come and gone, a squall that stripped away the losers’ lawn signs but left the winners’, Ms. Adrienne gave me a good long lookover, then raised one finger and ducked back into the house.

K-pop started to pour through the open windows. And then Ms. Adrienne was backing out through the doorway, a gentle sway in her hips. As the song hit its beat, she spun to face me, snapped her fingers and began to step and shimmy. “Wanna dance?”

I stood there and watched. Ms. Adrienne had some serious moves. With a gesture of her hand and a so-smooth shoulder roll, she invited me again to join her. My foot started to tap, and my head started to nod, and then I let go, let myself feel it, let it move me, because the music was strong and Ms. Adrienne was grinning a huge grin and joy is infectious.

A jogger, gaiter loose around her neck, turned the corner and shied when she found me already there, on the same sidewalk, dancing; she ran into the street and around a parked car and across to the sidewalk opposite.

A window nearby shut with a decisive thunk.

Ms. Adrienne and I dipped in unison, a porch and a yard and a chain-link fence apart. She popped her hip, tossed her head, and turned it into a full body roll and I straight out hollered. I did an extended bootie pop, came out stepping into some serious footwork and she shrieked encouragement.

I had forgotten how good dancing feels, forgotten that I am an amazing dancer.

A delivery van slowed and then stopped in the middle of the street, and the man inside in his paper mask rolled down the window and danced with us, one arm and hand snaking out the window to trace intricate patterns in the air. Ms. Adrienne and I shifted to include him. Across the street, a dogwalker waved and did a self-conscious little boogie, the dog straining against its leash, confused why it couldn’t come dance with us.        


Several weeks later, when the trees were still green but now also yellow and orange and red, and glorious yellow leaves clustered in the windshield wipers of parked cars like bouquets, I asked Ms. Adrienne if there was more to the story of the birdhouses.

“This bit’s hard,” she said. “You sure?”

“What kind of hard?”

“Some of it’s short-term hard. Those bits get better pretty fast. Some, though, some’s the kind of hard that doesn’t get better, ever. But there’s more after that, that’s not the end.”

I nodded for her to go ahead.

She lifted her glasses to peer at her phone. “I have bread in the oven. But I’ve got a stretch.” She took a deep breath.


The perfect beauty of the house had pierced the planes and a demon paused to admire it. And while the demon’s attention was fixed right there, three spirits streamed out all unknowing. The demon, all tooth and claw, tore two apart and watched with pleasure as the shreds of the spirits vanished. The third, gashed, torn, struggling to hold itself together, to just be, escaped. This spirit, a pigeon spirit, made it all the way back to Worm. It couldn’t communicate, for its wounds made something as coherent as communication impossible, but its body told Worm what had happened.

Worm left its side only once, to go to the spirit home still hanging in the tree and gather the spirits who remained there, quivering with terror, witnesses to the violent destruction of their friends. These she hugged tight, and though previously among the most independent of spirits, now they wouldn’t leave her side. And so she tended the wounded pigeon spirit, day and night, and the traumatized spirits too, and tried to push away all of her emotions until she had gotten them through this and out the other end, for there was no one to relieve her.

Leah came by, for she had seen the house on the ground, where Worm had hurled it, and she was angry, but Worm wouldn’t leave the pigeon spirit’s side, and the other spirits wouldn’t leave Worm’s side, and so Leah left, her knock unanswered.

Worm didn’t know how to help and that made her furious. Why couldn’t she do something? She should be able to fix this, this should be in her control, she was the reason they still persisted as spirits in the first place. She held tight to her memories of the pigeon spirit, forced herself to look at each tear as it frayed into smaller tears and those smaller tears frayed into still smaller tears, to see not only what was there now but what had been. This closed a few of the wounds and stopped others from fraying further, but as hard as she remembered, she could not mend the biggest wounds, she could only wait and hope that with enough time, the spirit would heal itself. And all the while, she grieved for the two who hadn’t returned—because even if you try, you can’t push away your feelings, you can maybe exile them from your mind, but your body, it still knows.

After four days, the pigeon spirit’s lifeforce stilled and the pigeon spirit drifted apart in Worm’s hands, never again to reenter the cycle of life.

Worm tried to snatch the pieces back, to push them together again, but of course that’s impossible.

She sat weeping, her chest tight, her body broken. Her throat hurt and her head hurt and her face and stomach muscles were sore from the shaking that racked her body. She cut herself again and again on the thought that if only she hadn’t remembered them in the first place, they wouldn’t be forever gone now.

She didn’t tell anyone she had lost a spirit, much less three, she’d learned that lesson the hard way, but she told friends and family that she’d lost a friend and they expressed condolences and sympathy and told her to call them for anything—and expected her to move right on. She hated them for that, hated them for telling her, not by word, but by action, to love less. She didn’t want to love less, she wanted people and rituals to help her deal with the pain of her grief, the rage of her powerlessness.


Leah returned a week later, eager to be angry together. “Who could have done this to our beautiful birdhouse? Assholes. Don’t worry, I’m sure I can fix it.”


Leah looked at Worm, confused by this tone she had not heard before.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” Worm’s voice broke. “Because of you and your painting a demon came and tore apart three beautiful spirits who lived there.” She shook with rage, tears coursing down her cheeks. “Take your birdhouse and keep it for yourself.”

Leah stood frozen. “You…you broke it.”

“I wish I had never made it. I wish I had never spoken to you. I knew better, I shouldn’t have. And now they’re gone.” Hatred, for herself and for Leah, filled her.

“I don’t understand.”

But when Worm explained about the spirits and the demon and beauty calling across planes, rambling and incoherent with the force of her emotion, Leah grew angry. “You’re crazy, you should be in a home.”

Worm hissed, “Get out of my sight and don’t you ever even think about coming back.”

“Fuck you.”


“I’m sorry,” Leah said several days later, her voice contrite, the muscles of her neck and shoulders stiff. “What I said was inexcusable.”

Worm stared at her stonily.

“It’s just,” Leah took a deep breath, “I was really angry, it hurts when something I’ve made is destroyed, it’s like a piece of me is gone too.”

With a gesture, Worm allowed the truth of this.

“I know it’s hard for people who aren’t artists to understand.”

“Hasn’t anyone taught you that apologies aren’t about excusing yourself?” Worm asked tartly. “They’re to heal the problem you caused. Or contributed to,” she said, because she was trying to be fair.

Leah flared her nostrils. “Ma’am, I can’t see the spirits you mentioned.”

There was nothing to say to that, so Worm said nothing.

“I have a cousin who’s a doctor. Maybe she could help?”

“There’s no doctor who can repair a spirit that’s been torn to shreds. Not unless she’s a goddess too.”

“I thought…maybe she could help you deal with it?”

Now it was Worm who flared her nostrils. “I’m going to assume you mean the grief that pains me, because otherwise that’s insulting.”

Leah waved her hands in front of her. “No, no, that’s what I meant. I mean, it’s just, well, if I understand correctly, those spirits have already, um, lived much longer than they would have anyway, because of you. Now they’ve just moved on to the next step.”

“They were torn apart, that’s not the next step. They can’t return. Ever. One fell apart in my hands.” Worm held those hands up, fingers rigid with emotion. “And now the other spirits, even the most independent ones, they’re afraid to leave my side. I can’t even build them a new home now a demon has seen one, knows what to look for. You taught them that. Fix it.”

“But what can I do? I don’t know anything about demons or spirits.”

“That didn’t stop you before.” Worm sighed, let her hands fall to her sides. “I don’t know what you can do, only you do. But it’s not my work to give you some three-step plan for absolution. You keep your empty words until you can fill them.”


Leah went away then, sullen and confused. She hadn’t apologized and meant it many times before in her life, and she resented that Worm didn’t just accept her contrition. She hadn’t, after all, intended any of this to happen and it seemed hard to her that she was responsible for harm to spirits that she couldn’t see, spirits she was pretty sure weren’t even real.

But Worm’s grief was clear and real and so Leah sat with her words and when her resentment had thinned and her condescension loosened its shackles, she turned her mind to demons and how she might vanquish them for Worm.

She took up a stick of charcoal—like many artists she thought with her hands—and sketched out glorious battles and ingenious demon-traps. But hands and mind both got stuck on the demons, willing to draw them but insisting they didn’t exist, and each time she tried to connect battle or trap to something she herself could do, the vision fell apart.

Charcoal dust coated the tips of her fingers, the edge of her hand.

Slowly, she began to think not of the demons, not of the dead spirits, but of Worm and the spirits that remained.


Ms. Adrienne’s alarm went off and I jumped. “That’ll be my bread. I got to go, I can’t overbake this batch, I think I finally got the proving right.”

I gave her two thumbs up; it felt strange to make the gesture without a screen in front of me. “Enjoy.”

She paused at her door. “Would you like a loaf?”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“Hon, I’m working through a fifty-pound bag of flour, you could. That is, if you’re comfortable with food from someone else’s kitchen right now.”

“Half a loaf, then.”

She grunted and disappeared inside. A short while later, she returned holding a full loaf wrapped loosely in aluminum foil. “I’ll set it on the table here, then go back inside so you can come pick it up.”

“Thank you.”

“Next time, you tell me what you think.”

The bread was warm and heavy in my hands, almost like flesh. Steam curled from it, blossoming with yeastiness.

Ms. Adrienne waved through the window; I waved from the steps of her porch and then again from the other side of the chain-link fence.


Another member of the delivery working group lost her childcare; to support her I shifted to a different schedule. And so for nearly two months I didn’t see Ms. Adrienne. And then I was back on the old route and there we were: her on her porch, me standing outside the fence, both of us glad to see each other.

Though Thanksgiving had just come and gone, her Halloween decorations were still up; a skeleton relaxed with a mug and a floppy hat in the porch chair next to hers while a pack of black vampire flamingos with red eyes and wicked teeth strutted through the yard, investigating the vegetables and the concrete bunnies. She’d found a large clear plastic bag to wrap her BLM sign with, too, to protect it from the elements. I admired it all.

She grinned. “Time sure as hell isn’t cooperating with me, why should I cooperate with it?”

“2020,” I said. “2020.”

We were both silent.

“So what happened with Worm and Leah?”

“Where’d we get to?”

“Worm yelled and then Leah was drawing demons and sorting herself out.”

“Mm-hmm, that’s right.”


For several weeks Worm stayed mostly inside, soothing the spirits and grappling with shame and guilt and grief and sadness. And then one day came a knock on her door. She peered through the peephole and there stood Leah, a birdhouse cradled in her arms, her lips twitching as if they were trying on words.

Anger but mostly just exhaustion rose in Worm. She opened the door to tell Leah that doing the exact same thing all over again wasn’t going to fix anything, to tell her to just go away.

“Please,” Leah said. “It’s not what you think.”

Worm crossed her arms.

“Every day for the last fourteen days,” said Leah, “I’ve made a birdhouse. None so beautiful as the first one, I’ve added a flaw to each, so that the perfection of their beauty shouldn’t call across planes. And every morning, I’ve hung the birdhouse from the day before, one after another, all through Springville. Any demon who learned that a birdhouse I painted meant the presence of spirits now has thirteen examples to unlearn that. Today I made another birdhouse. The paint is still tacky and has smeared where I’ve carried it in my arms: that is its flaw.” She swallowed and forced herself to keep meeting Worm’s gaze. “I wondered if maybe you could ask the spirits if they wanted it? If not for now, maybe for later? I could put it up wherever they want if you don’t mind directing me. I can also take it home, if they think it’s a bad idea. The others, too.”


Ms. Adrienne paused to lift her glasses and wipe her eyes, and I felt something move inside me, a yearning for the promise in this attempt at repair, and I blinked, but my eyes stayed dry.


Worm could see that Leah was sincere, that she was proud of her work, but ready to remove it if it caused harm, and so she called the spirits together to confer. The spirits were cautious but interested, and asked for more information before making a decision.

And so Leah took Worm for a tour through the birdhouses she had built and painted and hung—for she still referred to them as birdhouses and that’s what they looked like, though of course they weren’t, or not exactly. A rat spirit, brave as rat spirits are, joined them, traveling in Worm’s pocket.

They walked for a long time; Leah hadn’t been kidding when she said she’d hung the houses all over Springville. They walked from the old phone booths turned into mini–art galleries to the bakery that sold half-price sourdough on Wednesday and donuts on Saturdays, from the veterans hall where the turkey trot ended every year to the house with the carp pond out front.

From most recent to oldest, they traced their way back through Leah’s birdhouses.

There were birdhouses with peaked roofs and birdhouses with flat roofs, birdhouses with triangular front steps and birdhouses with perches made from dowels. A tiny turquoise birdhouse swung from the low branch of a magnolia; as they approached a man pushing a stroller smiled at it. High on an electric pole was a round white birdhouse with two entrances; below, a red plastic heart as big as your head had been stapled to the pole. And when Worm and Leah paused to admire one that wasn’t just a birdhouse but a palatial complex that wound between the boughs of an oak, a dog-walking duo drifted toward them, their movements making it clear, as New Englanders do, that they had no intention of forcing socializing upon anyone, but they wanted to see what interested Worm and Leah so; they exclaimed in delight upon beholding the birdhouse.

At first, the rat spirit scented no trace of demon, but as they came to the houses Leah had made first, the rat spirit smelled a demon come and gone. And when at last they neared the very first birdhouse that Leah had put up, the rat spirit cowered in Worm’s pocket, for here the demon scent was strong, and the rat spirit could smell the demon’s hunger to destroy. But the demon scent was also stale and already beginning to thin at the edges, and with the reassurance of the pocket’s pressure and a murmur of love from Worm, the rat spirit soon stuck its nose out of the pocket once more.

When they reached this last-first birdhouse, they discovered that it wasn’t alone: people from the neighborhood, children perhaps, had added birdhouses of their own, some meticulous and some slapdash, some made in a woodshop class and colored with marker, some built from sawn-up skis or a kettle or a coconut shell or kit; and they all hung beautifully together.

The rat spirit squeaked with excitement and dashed through them, and though Leah couldn’t see the spirit herself, she could see the way Worm’s eyes moved and she could see how the coconut swung in the still air as if someone scrambled upon it. Her own houses were too sturdy to reveal such changes, but not these improvisations.

And Worm, who could see, smiled.

For three days the spirits held a convocation to debate the news the rat spirit brought back. At the end of those three days, they decided to have Leah hang her final birdhouse nearby, though in a different tree than before.

Not long after this birdhouse went up, neighbors added three more elsewhere on the street. This happened throughout Springville: immediately or slowly, wherever anyone saw one of Leah’s birdhouses, others put up more. A rumor began to circulate that an artist had installed the houses to comment on the mayor’s violations of the city’s commitment to affordable housing. And people argued about housing and about the mayor and put up more birdhouses and no one thought much about the fact that the birdhouses were, by and large, in spots with plenty of perfectly good boughs for birds to build homes of their own.


The last of Ms. Adrienne’s words crossed the distance of porch and yard and fence to come to me like the warm breath of a lover on my neck; a tingling spread across my scalp, bloomed between my shoulders. I shivered. It was a story I would retell, I felt that already, but for now I just wanted to hold it close, let it root and grow, revisiting parts as they called to me.

“You’re a powerful storyteller, Ms. Adrienne.”

She nodded regally.

And from there our conversation shifted to the new vaccine and when it might become available for people like us and the most recent Cabinet picks of the new administration, who were, we agreed, much better than the last bunch but far too conservative for a world with so many open wounds.


The next time I was to visit Ms. Adrienne I had a job interview and one of the other members of the delivery working group stepped up for me. The time after that I swapped to help a member who needed to reorganize childcare as infections intensified yet again with the cold and the holidays and the dysfunction. So it was three weeks before I was back on that route, and I didn’t realize at first that Ms. Adrienne wasn’t on my list. When I passed a pale pink birdhouse hugging close to the trunk of a linden tree, though, my heart stuttered and I turned my feet toward her home with dread, fearing that she was gone.

The sun had already begun to set, for the shortest day of the year was almost upon us, but the snow lent the evening unexpected clarity. A fleece blanket lay stretched over the vegetable garden, tomato plants long gone now, the blanket incongruously patterned with starfish and seahorses, bright against the white snow. A strand of multicolored lights traced the edges of the porch where the skeleton now wore a jaunty Santa cap. A car I had never seen before, with a Virginia plate and a bumper magnet that called for PLANET OVER PROFIT, sat in the narrow driveway. From the front room glowed warm yellow light and through the lace curtains I could see the silhouettes of two people, partial and incomplete. One of them held her small, compact body in a way I recognized.

Relief overcame me then, that this death, at least, was no death at all; that Ms. Adrienne’s life had not been taken; that, on the contrary, she was busy living. And inside me, something too long inert quickened.

As I turned, unsteady now, to depart, the birdhouse in the maple took my breath away.

With its grey paint and white cap of snow, it belonged to winter’s stark bare branches; but its bright fuchsia and violet trim and its tiny flamingos peering from its porch reached across seasons, called spring and summer and autumn here too. A thin coat of snow clung to one side of the house, and there, traced in white, were ridges where the paint had smeared, where arms cradling the house had rubbed against paint still tacky. It was flawed and it was beautiful. And as I stared, a stirring, some breeze perhaps, swirled the snow atop the house, set it dancing.

For long breaths I stood and watched, unmoving. At last I picked my way carefully through the glittering snow, placed one gloved hand on the tree’s rough bark. I touched my lips to the fingertips of my other hand, the gesture feeling illicit and dangerous despite gloves and mask and the cold winter air, and I stretched onto my tiptoes and pressed my kiss to the base of the birdhouse, hardly aware of the tears, so long contained, now slipping down my cheeks.


Copyright 2024 Amy Johnson

About the Author

Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in Lightspeed, Diabolical PlotsEscape PodFantasy, and Small Wonders. A 2022 Fellow in Literature for the City of Somerville, she’s currently working on a speculative suspense novel. Find her at and as on Mastodon and @shrapnelofme on Twitter.

Find more by Amy Johnson

2 thoughts on “The Fake Birdhouses of Springville

  1. Briana Tremone says:

    Oh my God, this was beautiful!
    Your writing is phenomenal. I loved this story instantly, and Leah’s explanation of how and why she had listened and corrected her previous mistakes- that was a masterclass in how to be a good human.
    I am now a fan of your work, and I will hunt down everything you’ve published, then wait eagerly for you to create more.
    Thank you for thinking, creating, writing and submitting. Please continue.
    Briana Tremone

  2. This was absolutely lovely. I’m going to tell everyone I know to read this story.

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