Your brother’s irises hold a band of fool’s gold. Fire circles the mouth of a rusted barrel. The man blows smoke from the hole in his throat. He shows you that cavern & the star in the middle of the apple. But that shape does not stick—he does not give you a bite. When your mother follows him home you follow her. Ring around the moon & one of the planets, too, but you don’t know which. You carry your brother to the top floor, into the man’s apartment. The mattress is for the man & your mother. You make a pallet from your coat. The pigeons nesting outside the window cluck all night & the man smashes the sill with his fist to silence them. He cannot yell unless he puts his finger to the hole. He wakes in the afternoon & runs water into the sink, splashes his face. When your mother toasts the man’s bread over the hotplate he takes it from her. Never looks at your brother. Never offers. The man does not seem to understand the three of you are human & thus hungry. The lock clicks behind him when he walks out the door. You take your brother to the sink & lift him up for water. You open the small cabinet where the man keeps his food & look for what won’t be missed. You lick your finger & place it in the salt & then on your brother’s tongue. You whisper him the myth of the desert, tell him salt & water can keep a person alive for years. Your mother does not seem to be awake though she’s sitting up & her eyes are open. Once an old lady on a chicken-scratch farm in the middle of Nowheresville taught you to catch a bird, wring its neck with your hands. Took pity on you. So you unlace your shoe. How many days with a hollow in your belly does it take? How many days while your brother whimpers so you can’t tell him from the pigeon you’re trying to catch? Until the miracle: one steps inside the noose & you pull & it closes around the leg & for a brief instant the pigeon is a kite you fly. You’ve never flown one, but the idea of kite-flying is not lost on you. It’s just not yours. Everything is for someone else. So you have to find what lives outside that ring people-who-fly-kites call everything. Pigeons are nasty & fight more than chickens. Their necks are not as long. The bird pecks & screeches & you let it tire & you twist with both fists & watch the rainbows on its wings go dull. You didn’t know light could leave a body like that. But your mother seems to come to life again with its death. She plucks & carves the tiny offering, boils it. You climb onto the fire escape & shimmy a pipe to the roof. You sit & flex the wing that’s no good for cooking. Open, closed, open. Your brother’s inside refusing to bring the spoonful of broth & gristle to his lips. What if a person jumped? Day after day you lay out the bones on the roof in patterns that remake the birds. The sun bleaches the bones until they are white enough to hurt your eyes. When the bones are dry you help your brother add to the necklace he’s making with the other shoelace. It does not seem right to hate him. Or your mother. You try to imagine a new world cut in the shape of a wing. When the eye bone loosens itself from the skull and rests thin on your fingertip it is made of steel & it shoots at the man like a soldier’s gun & you are in the ring with everything or everyone else is outside, too. But the metal of your imagination disintegrates like bone when you crush it. In this world you’re exiled. You’re the one who shows your brother how to get on the roof. That way he will not have to listen when the man laps at your mother, the sound in his throat echoing like a drop of water on porcelain. The man’s sighs, which cannot make it to his mouth before escaping, fill the whole room like the winds in the desert you can hear for miles. Your brother is small enough to need stories. You say there must be another shape somewhere even if all the stars are blotted out in this city. Maybe a wing. Maybe a tree as tall as God both of you could climb down into the garden that old lady on the chicken-scratch told you about. You know it’s a lie. Even if the universe builds itself again a billion times, it will never come out another way. It will just make the same thing happen a billion times: one day your brother does not want to be the always-crying one but the brave one & forgets about gravity or remembers perfectly & flies right off the edge. For a second you expect him to swoop into the sky like the pigeons you’ve studied these many weeks. You expect the rings to hold him up or in. But they don’t. The people who stand in a circle on the street below say they did not even know a boy lived up top there. The women’s mouths wail because they’ve lost every son. You do not heed their call. You crawl in the window & walk out the door & down the stairs & into the grid of streets that swallows you. You join the world of squares.
Josie Sigler Sibara has received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. The draft of her first novel won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Her most recent fiction appears in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, and The Master’s Review.
“World of Rings” is the winner of the 2019-20 Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction, judged by Lindsey Drager. Please see our contest page for more information.