Get NiftyLit news & updates delivered directly to your inbox. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.

Skip to main content
Bird Cage Broken Open
Illustration by Lewis Millholland

hey there little birdie

Ayotola Tehingbola
Fiction • Flash

When the man found out that it was a woodpecker in his chest, he feared the bird would crack one of his ribs, and the diseased marrow in his bones would leak into his bloodstream, spreading the cancer everywhere. The physician added his concerns: the bird’s beak could hit tissue instead of bone, and the man’s lungs would fill up with blood instead of air; or if the bird died, the carrion floating in a sea of his succus would carry an infection downstream, and the man would die of death.

We have to get your white blood cell count up, the physician said, and then, we will operate. If you are lucky, maybe we can save you and the little birdie.

Hey there little birdie, the man said. 

He started to eat onyx-pomegranates, kalenach, and sunflower seeds to boost his immune system and feed the creature hiding inside. At night, the woodpecker danced and knocked knocked knocked.

I know you are afraid, the man said. Don’t worry, I am too.


HE named it Jupiter, hoping his chest would continue to fit the bird, hoping that he would be struck by luck. Maybe the bird will go away. Maybe the cancer too.

How can you name the thing that is killing you? The man’s friends asked.

But we do it all the time, the man replied. Death by lethal injection. Death by tree. Choking on an orchid seed. Death by enjambed poetry. Death by spontaneous combustion. Did you hear how the Emperor’s mother died? She saw the forbidden color green and her eyes exploded. Then, her guards were executed for letting the Emperor’s mother see green. Death by color.

Oh well, the man’s friends said.


AT his next appointment, the physician told the man that his white blood cell count was up, but Jupiter had laid an egg. 

How is this possible, the man asked. 

I don’t know. I have never seen anything like it, the physician said. And I would like to examine your leg. This vein is bulging out. Does this hurt?

The physician pressed on the line that ran along the tibialis anterior of the man’s left leg, and the line wiggled.

Oh no, the physician sighed. Hopefully, it is a worm. 

The line continued to grow longer and wider. The man’s skin stretched like elastic, and the physician ordered tests. It was a rattlesnake, and its tail looked like a honeycomb making sweet honey underneath the man’s skin.

So that the snake would not feed on the man’s muscle, a spacious intravenous line passed along insects and worms and minced meat the man had chewed. The man refused to look at the distention in his leg as it made shapes. Sometimes the snake curled around itself or wrapped around the man’s biceps. Other times, it lazily laid in a squiggle, and the man’s leg looked like a child was learning to write on it. At night, Jupiter flapped furiously when the snake tried to make its way up the man’s thigh. It wanted her little egg.

It is okay little birdie, the man said to Jupiter while swallowing thistle seeds. I won’t let it get you. 

She continued to peck him hard, wanting to be let out. Minuscule puncture holes appeared in the middle of the man’s chest in the mornings, leaving bloody trails on his divan.


WHEN the man stopped hearing Jupiter knock knock knock on him, the physician found larvae hanging upside down in both his ears. The tomography masked out the green stripes, leaving fat blobs of white. 

This is ugly now, but these babies will metamorphose into beautiful monarchs, the physician wrote. 

Oh well, the man wrote back, sipping saccharum water. 


THE man’s bones started to fracture. First his wrist, then both hips. Sometimes he could not see, and he could no longer sit up without the earth giving way under him. Then, he began to cough up blood.

The cancer has advanced. Wait, is that a fish? The physician asked, peering closer. Well, fishes. A small battery of barracudas. They have eaten into your stomach lining. You are not going home. 

The pair of chrysalises hardened in the man’s ears and he bled into his brain. The blood pooled and agitated his retinal and oculomotor nerves. His eyelids collapsed, one at a time, and his cone photoreceptors died. He no longer saw color. 

Imaging showed snails hiding in the fringes of the man’s bowels, a nest of mice gnawing through his liver, and in one kidney, a goliath beetle slept. His team of physicians managed the lifecycles in his body, providing nutrition and expelling waste, minimizing the reverberations the horde was causing. They also found new ways of keeping the rattlesnake from traveling upward to find a buffet.

The man’s suffering kept him awake, and he could not feel Jupiter’s wings. Her knocks on his ribs had gotten feathery.

It is either we put you in a coma till you die, or maybe we can try to take something out. Your body is shutting down, the physician wrote. You are not going to survive multiple surgeries. But we can try. We can do just the snake. Or the barracudas and the snails together. Or the mice in your liver so that the drugs for your cancer have a chance of metabolizing if you miraculously survive. 


THE man’s friends came to say goodbye. They asked him what fate he chose.

Birdie, he wrote.


The bird, Jupiter. Just Birdie and her egg. Take her somewhere nice. 

Like the Emperor’s southside vineyard? The man’s friends asked.

Where we used to sneak into when we were boys, he wrote back.

Where the August Celestial beams on the lagoon, his friends agreed. 

The man closed his eyes and held his breath, trying to feel her one last time.

So, death by bird? The man’s friends asked.

Oh well, death by bird.