Kristie’s ex texted her a link to a video about kleptotrichy among birds. No message. No emoji. Just the link. Kristie clicked. Birds know what they want. A tufted titmouse sees a snoozing raccoon up a tree and snatches a beakful of hair to take home. A mountain chickadee steals scruff from a lazing golden retriever.
While watching Real Housewives of Potomac, a halo of Kristie’s own hair stuck to the microfiber arm of her couch. She compulsively raked her fingers through her damp hair and each time a few strands came loose. She could finger-comb for hours. Unlike the birds, it served no evolutionary purpose. When she was with her ex, someone was there to shame her into trapping her hands beneath the weight of her thighs. In the morning, she would run a lint roller over her couch.
Kristie was in Mrs. Wozniak’s first grade class in 1992, a good year for hair. Mrs. Wozniak, one of the younger teachers, had leaned into heavy feathered bangs, a trademark of Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell. The black hair was thick and glossy with too much product holding it in place. Kristie saw the swirls of that magical hair in the letters of her practiced penmanship.
She was always first in lineup for lunch and recess behind her teacher so she could get a whiff of the chemical-sweet hair. On Friday mornings at Kristie’s Catholic school, all the students attended Mass before classes. Kristie was kneeling and praying one Friday morning but Mrs. Wozniak was not kneeling. She was seated back in the pew in front of Kristie, her hair centimeters from Kristie’s bowed face. After looking side to side, Kristie stuck her tongue out until it touched Mrs. Wozniak’s hair. It was immediately disappointing. The hair was hard and crunchy, as if coated in nail polish. It was an unpleasant sizzle on her tongue.
In bed, Kristie opened up her dating app. Instead of pictures, the app used text-based personal ads.
Nervous Bird Seeks Same
Nuthatch identifying human into soft
nesting and some upside down fun.
Do you like roaming forests with
binoculars? Roasting pumpkin seeds?
Let’s be sensitive together.
Please, no Geminis.
Kristie needed that kind of soft distraction. She had been lurking a bit but hadn’t yet responded to any ads since her ex ended things. Kristie typed before she could change her mind.
I think I’m definitely more of a Whippoorwill.
Not much of an early bird and you can
definitely hear me coming.
Kristie practiced warning her hairstylist about the new bald patch behind her left ear. Alopecia areata. Stress, her doctor insisted. How many embarrassingly hair-related conditions would Kristie have to explain to her hairstylist? She stared at the number for the salon in her phone but put off booking an appointment for another day.
Hair-harvesting birds tend to live in colder climates. Their compulsion has a function, insulating their homes and putting off predators. Rather than constructing anything useful, Kristie is dismantling herself. The hair is not even a new issue. She has been a lifelong nailbiter down to the quick and, on-and-off, a skin picker. There was satisfaction in feeling like she in some way improved herself: removed a knot, moved a pimple from inflammation to scabbing, gotten rid of a hangnail. Despite the blood and irritation and scars, part of her was still convinced that when it healed she would somehow be better than before.
Kristie scrolled up through old texts between her and her ex, moving backwards through time from the messages meant to sting to when they were still joking with each other.
She remembers typing to her ex:
Sure sex is fun, but have you ever listened to an Art Garfunkel solo album?
She remembered the feeling of her hand frantically combing through her hair, starting to cramp, when another hand reached out to stop her. Her ex entwined their fingers, forcing Kristie’s hand down between them. It made her so inexplicably angry, the interruption. There was no winning. If she continued, she risked pulling out too much hair, but if she stopped she felt like an overgrown garden.
So many fat juncos at my feeder right now.
Want a pic?
Kristie smiled when she saw the message from the nuthatch. She didn’t know what juncos were, but she definitely wanted pictures of them. The three shots the nuthatch quickly sent did not disappoint, but it created an expectation to send pictures in return. What could she send? Kristie did not even have a bird feeder. Would that be a turnoff? She went outside to the trees and shrubs planted around the parking lot of her apartment complex, desperately looking for a bird, any bird. There wasn’t anything in the trees, but she spotted a dumb looking gray and brown dove just walking on the ground. Why was it just walking around on the ground? She didn’t have time for anything better. She didn’t want to risk losing their momentum, so she sent a pic of the dove to the nuthatch, waiting anxiously for the response.
A mourning dove!
When I was a kid, we had a couple nesting in our shed
and my Dad was convinced we had owls. And I was
like DAYTIME OWLS?!
But honestly, they can sound owlish.
Kristie exhaled. She had kept the nuthatch’s interest. She could do it. She could date someone and be an adult and live a normal life.
Kristie researched Biotin and Minoxidil, but they were not effective for someone actively pulling her own hair out on a daily basis. After two days, Kristie responded to the kleptotrichy text from her ex.
I’ve been looking up therapists who specialize in this sort of thing.
It was a lie. Kristie watched the typing… appear at the bottom of the conversation. Then it disappeared with no response.
The mirror above Kristie’s bathroom sink was the only one in her apartment after a tip she read online about too many mirrors being a trigger. But while she was brushing her teeth and again practicing her dreaded conversation with her hairstylist (who always looked very cool and not like someone who constantly picked at her hands, face and scalp), Kristie noticed a bump on her neck just below her jawline. A bug bite? She leaned closer to the mirror and touched it. It was warm and tender. It did not feel like a pimple. Ingrown hair? She didn’t have any tweezers in her apartment. Another tip.
Instead of calling her doctor or an urgent care, Kristie found a black marker and traced the oblong border of the bump. Then she removed two bulbs from the row of six lights above her bathroom mirror to dim the room and simmer her desire to excavate her face.
Despite the dimmer lighting in the bathroom, it was easy for Kristie to see in the morning that the inflammation in her neck expanded beyond the black marker border she had traced. She unscrewed two more bulbs, and pulled down the shade over the bathroom window. She remembered the dermatologist she hadn’t visited in over three years insisting that if she just left her body alone, it would usually just sort itself out. She just had to ignore the bump a bit longer. She drew a second larger circle around the new border.
Kristie logged onto her work computer to sift through emails. She tensed her jaw. She could feel the pain and heat radiating from the bump without touching it. She could feel the inflamed skin beneath her jawbone pulsing, asking for help. She alternated between working and messaging the nuthatch to distract herself. She told herself it would go away. She heard another chime on her phone.
Want to forage for some coffee tomorrow?
Kristie did want to meet the nuthatch, but it was too soon. Her bump was still growing and throbbing. She needed her body to sort itself before she could think about taking her clothes off for someone else. She went back to her bathroom. Was it less red or was the limited lighting deceiving her? It was definitely less red. She took the last two bulbs out of the light strip above the mirror. Another chime.
Can you do Saturday? Daily Grind on Fourth Street?
Kristie was chewing off a third nail by the time she realized she should take her left hand out of her mouth. She hoped Saturday was enough time.
She continued working and though she kept pulling her hair out a couple strands at a time, she was determined not to touch the warm landmine on her neck.
The next morning, Kristie looked at the pulsing egg nestled beneath her skin in the nearly dark bathroom mirror. Again the border had changed, moved beyond the second marker outline.
Kristie took a picture of the bulge with her phone. She sent the photo to her mother with a question mark. The phone rang.
“Are you dying?” her mother asked. “What hospital are you in?”
“I feel fine,” Kristie said. “I was just wondering…what you thought was going on? Ingrown hair?”
“Honey, you need to have that biopsied for cancer immediately.” Kristie had not talked to her mother since Christmas and already felt overwhelmed.
“I think it looks like it’s getting flatter,” Kristie insisted.
“Kristie, you need to go to a hospital.” Kristie hung up the phone. It immediately started ringing again.
On Saturday morning, the angry egg still taunted Kristie in the dark bathroom mirror. In two hours she was supposed to sit across from the nuthatch and hope for more sparks. There were dark circles under her eyes. An itch had started overnight and she kept alternating scratching the edges of the hot egg and then stopping when it hurt too much. She had barely slept.
Kristie applied eyebrow thickener and lip balm, and pulled an unseasonable turtleneck out of her closet. It covered 98% of the troublesome egg and all of the black marker. She pulled a beanie over her thinning hair and though the weather was warm for September, it was still technically fall and she crossed her fingers that the coffee shop still had its air conditioning on. As long as the nuthatch didn’t turn a pair of binoculars on Kristie, she was sure she could pull off the illusion of a person who had her shit together.
The nuthatch was very cute and seasonably dressed for the weather in a T-shirt and overalls. They clocked Kristie as she walked through the door and stood up for an overly formal greeting.
“Whippoorwill?” they asked.
“Nuthatch?” Kristie asked with a forced smile. It was hot in the coffee shop. No air conditioning. No humming fan.
“Can I get you a drink?” A mug on the table already had half of a hot drink in it. How early had her date arrived? Were they nervous too?
“Chai. Iced please,” Kristie said.
They sipped their drinks. The nuthatch explained a board game called Wingspan to Kristie, where you collected a variety of birds for your own aviary, and offered to bring it on their next date if Kristie wanted. The nuthatch had also finally perfected a homemade sourdough. It felt like it was going well, but Kristie kept flushing when she failed to stop herself from scratching at the egg just below the turtleneck. It was the itchiest it had ever been.
“Are you ok? Are you hot?” the nuthatch asked.
“I’m totally good,” Kristie insisted. She took the lid off her iced chai and took a large enough gulp to get a whole ice cube in her mouth.
“Have you ever been to the Cape May Bird Observatory?”
“I have.” Kristie had almost forgotten about that trip. “I went to a Hawkwatch back when I was in college. I don’t know why I never went back. We saw Peregrine Falcons and Merlins.”
“A hawk girl huh. I’m primarily a songbird enthusiast. But I can definitely be versatile.” The nuthatch sipped from their mug and blushed. Kristie wished she could just stop herself from scratching the egg. “Are you ok? Bug bite or something?” asked the nuthatch. Of course someone whose passion was patiently watching birds would eventually notice Kristie’s issue.
“Oh maybe. Sorry.” Kristie tucked both her hands beneath her thighs.
“Want me to take a look? Ticks are still out and you want to make sure you don’t leave one on you.”
“No no, it’s not a tick.”
“I really don’t mind,” the nuthatch said. Kristie was shaking her head but the nuthatch was leaning over the table with a hand out. “Can I just take a peek for you?” they asked, their fingers centimeters from the neck of Kristie’s shirt.
“It’s actually pretty bad,” Kristie admitted.
“I spent most of my summers as a camp counselor. I’ve seen pretty bad before,” the nuthatch said. As a gentle hand pulled the high neck down over the itching egg, Kristie closed her eyes and waited to hear a disgusted reaction. “Oh.” There was a moment of silence. Then a soft “huh.”
“I’m so embarrassed,” Kristie said, reaching to pull the collar back up.
“Actually though, if you don’t mind. Can we go into the bathroom?”
“The bathroom?” The nuthatch nodded and Kristie got up and followed her date into the single stall bathroom. The nuthatch flicked the light on and it was the brightest room Kristie had been in since the bump first appeared.
“I just wanted you to see this,” the nuthatch said. They both leaned over the sink and Kristie saw there was a small hole in the egg, but not like a pimple head. It looked like a tiny piece of straw was sticking out of it.
“Oh god,” said Kristie. “I’m so sorry.”
“Can I just?” the nuthatch reached out toward the straw.
“I can’t watch,” said Kristie. She closed her eyes and felt fingers on the egg, reaching for the straw.
“Huh.” Then silence. “It’s out.”
“What’s out?” Kristie opened her eyes. In the nuthatch’s open palm was a two-inch down pillow feather.
“That’s pretty crazy.You really are a bird!” The nuthatch laughed at the joke and Kristie covered her face with her hands. “Hey, hey. Let’s go over to urgent care and get you some antibiotics ok? Now that this is out, I bet with some antibiotics and ice packs you’ll be good as new in a few days. As long as this isn’t the beginning of a molting phase or anything.”
“I don’t even know how that happened,” said Kristie, starting to cry.
“Coolest thing I ever pulled out of someone’s face,” the nuthatch said. Kristie let out a wet laugh at that. “Come on. Antibiotics and then ice cream.”
Kristie pulled the turtleneck back over the still inflamed egg. There were things she wanted to say. It wasn’t just the feather. There was still the hair pulling, the bald patch, the skin picking. But she didn’t confess any of that. With the feather tucked in the pocket of the nuthatch’s overalls, it was one less thing.
Donna Huneke lives with her wife and son in New Jersey. Her work has recently appeared in Lammergeier and Heimat Review. Find her online @dmhuneke.