The letter arrives on a Friday. Slit and resealed with a sticker, of course, as all their letters are: Inspected for your safety—PACT. It had caused confusion at the post office, the clerk unfolding the paper inside, studying it, passing it up to his supervisor, then the boss. But eventually it had been deemed harmless and sent on its way. No return address, only a New York, NY postmark, six days old. On the outside, his name—Bird—and because of this he knows it is from his mother.
* * *
He has not been Bird for a long time.
We named you Noah after your father's father, his mother told him once. Bird was all your own doing.
The word that, when he said it, felt like him. Something that did not belong on earth, a small quick thing. An inquisitive chirp, a self that curled up at the edges.
The school hadn't liked it. Bird is not a name, they'd said, his name is Noah. His kindergarten teacher, fuming: He won't answer when I call him. He only answers to Bird.
Because his name is Bird, his mother said. He answers to Bird, so I suggest you call him that, birth certificate be damned. She'd taken a Sharpie to every handout that came home, crossing off Noah, writing Bird on the dotted line instead.
That was his mother: formidable and ferocious when her child was in need.
In the end the school conceded, though after that the teacher had written Bird in quotation marks, like a gangster's nickname. Dear "Bird," please remember to have your mother sign your permission slip. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Gardner, "Bird" is respectful and studious but needs to participate more fully in class. It wasn't until he was nine, after his mother left, that he became Noah.
His father says it's for the best, and won't let anyone call him Bird anymore.
If anyone calls you that, he says, you correct them. You say: Sorry, no, that's not my name.
It was one of the many changes that took place after his mother left. A new apartment, a new school, a new job for his father. An entirely new life. As if his father had wanted to transform them completely, so that if his mother ever came back, she wouldn't even know how to find them.
He'd passed his old kindergarten teacher on the street last year, on his way home. Well, hello, Noah, she said, how are you this morning? and he could not tell whether it was smugness or pity in her voice.
He is twelve now; he has been Noah for three years, but Noah still feels like one of those Halloween masks, something rubbery and awkward he doesn't quite know how to wear.
* * *
So now, out of the blue: a letter from his mother. It looks like her handwriting—and no one else would call him that. Bird. After all these years he forgets her voice sometimes; when he tries to summon it, it slips away like a shadow dissolving in the dark.
He opens the envelope with trembling hands. Three years without a single word, but finally he'll understand. Why she left. Where she's been.
But inside: nothing but a drawing. A whole sheet of paper, covered edge to edge in drawings no bigger than a dime: cats. Big cats, little cats, striped and calico and tuxedo, sitting pert, licking their paws, lolling in puddles of sunlight. Doodles really, like the ones his mother drew on his lunch bags many years ago, like the ones he sometimes draws in his class notebooks today. Barely more than a few curved lines, but recognizable. Alive. That's all—no message, no words even, just cat after cat in ballpoint squiggle. Something about it tugs at the back of his mind, but he can't quite hook it.
He turns the paper over, looking for clues, but the back of the page is blank.