Birds in My Ears and the Devil on My Shoulder


A certain singular place, after an instant of dynamic synaptic transmission, can appear to an observer as a certain singular noun. Since in this situation the place is already a place, the noun in question is usually a person or a thing. Although, I suppose it is possible for a place to be reminiscent of another place, like an airport in the States might be reminiscent of Fiji because of a past holiday taken there, in Fiji. But I wouldn’t know, I’ve never traversed the South Pacific. Besides conceivable mental leaps in topography, the visual stimulus of a certain geographic location, whether naturally formed or man-made can trigger a memory or memories of a specific object. Subsequently, that object is oft projected, in the manner that all objects conjured by the imagination are “projected,” into space. Visual observations have an uncanny way of activating visual memories. This is why Mount Bartizan looks like a caramel apple. Not because of the form, or the size, or the color, I’m not talking about a giant caramel apple shaped rock hovering there thousands of feet up and off the freeway. It doesn’t look like that at all. Mount Bartizan, with its jagged pinnacle and surrounding false summits looks like an apple-sized caramel apple. That is, an apple-sized apple with the added weight and sheen and stick of a caramel apple after it has been dipped in caramel. That’s what I see, a caramel apple, every time I’m driving down the freeway and I round a bend and Mount Bartizan comes into view. I also see my sister.

I say caramel like care-a-mel. I say it like the spelling of the word. My sister, Elsa says carmel, like Carmel, the ancient settlement in Judea, or that flat-top looking mountain range. But I don’t bother to start that argument. For three months of the year, every year, my sister and I are the same age. When we were kids our mother used to dress us the same, in matching or coordinating outfits. People used to call us “the girls” as in, “you probably shouldn’t bring ‘the girls’ along.” Strangers used to ask us if we were twins. Today, we’re twenty-five. Once again we are midway through those three months where we share the same age numeral. Lately, instead of my twin, she’s been mistaken for my aunt or my older cousin. Once, she was mistaken by a man in the grocery store for my mother. He said, after I had accidently dropped a pear through an unseen hole in a produce bag and had stepped back and was scanning the ground for it, he said, handing the pear to me: “Here it is miss, it rolled over there next to your mother.” I offered my gratitude for his return of my fruit, but anymore I don’t give much thought to what assumptions are made by other people about my family.

Back when I thought it mattered, what other people thought about us, my heart would beat against the bars of my ribcage and my face would turn red. My heart would beat and pound at the bars and it would shake and pound almost as if it were objecting to the very fact of being kept inside my chest. It would shake the bars so hard that sometimes it would knock the wind out of me. I told Elsa this one time and she said that it sounded like the rush of methamphetamine. I wouldn’t know. I hate that feeling so I wouldn’t try to know. I’ve seen people who do drugs and they seem lazy, glued to some sort of numb entertainment, or they seem withered, or swollen, or jittery, or cracked, or scabby. But I guess that’s just my opinion. People who don’t do drugs can look that way too. Now, that I’ve learned not to care what other people think about my family, now that I’ve learned to just let whatever they say slide right off, my heart is content to maintain its standard steady rate. It beats, my heart does, without protesting my chest.

They’re not hard to find, methheads aren’t, walking along the streets downtown. They use the sidewalk, usually, like most pedestrians. Some of them have been shooting up or smoking for a day, or a decade, some for two decades, or for longer. Some get by alright, considering their substance intake. But who am I to arbitrate the quality of a life. These people, all of them, all of them in the city, they are connected to someone else. They are sisters, parents, daughters, acquaintances, or friends. It took Elsa one year, give or take, to have her synaptic transmissions perceptibly damaged by smoking methamphetamine. By perceptibly, I mean visibly manifested in her behavior and audible in her speech. It was there every time, this perceptible damage, before and after Elsa left the detox facility. Even after weeks without smoking, after too much time had passed for her to possibly be high anymore. Then she would eventually do it again, go get high.

The last time I saw Elsa, her face was red and grisly. She had used sandpaper to rid herself of the invisible insects crawling in her skin. The last time I saw Elsa the change in her brain, or the damage as I called it before, was visibly and audibly intermixed with the symptoms of withdrawal. The symptoms were symptoms like muscle contractions, the snapping of the head to either side, and the simultaneous slackening of other muscles and the tongue hanging out as if were trying to flop its way away from the mouth that chews it after smoking and sometimes burns it during. And then there were exhibitions of rage, mixed with irritation, mixed with apathy, and bizarre actions and little phrases like, “I’ve got birds in my ears and the devil on my shoulder.” She heard that phrase somewhere so those words kept coming out of her mouth. “I’ve got birds in my ears and the devil on my shoulder.” I don’t think she made it up. All of these symptoms, or behaviours, are mixed with mannerisms that simultaneously are and are not human. But these things never happened, according to Elsa. They happened last weekend, but 3 they never did according to her. Maybe she really has no memory of them. Or, maybe she’s in denial. No, no, that couldn’t possibly be it.

With all of this visible and audible dissension, sometimes I can’t tell whether Elsa is being flippant or the electrical impulses of the neuron wires are going through a tangle in her brain, but then again she’s kind of always had that way about her. I asked her over the phone the other day, before or after she got high, I asked her where she was going as she sat talking on the phone in the passenger seat of our mother’s car. I knew that Elsa had been court ordered and was being driven to a halfway house and for the moment she had consented to it. But, I wanted to see if she could really understand, for more than five minutes, actually understand what was happening outside the world in her head. I asked Elsa where she was going and she said, “to the top.” “To the top of Mount Bartizan, to the highest place in the state.” After that I asked her if today could be the day that she’d finally get a four letter h-word that wasn’t “high,” but I didn’t word it like that.

To me, Mount Bartizan looks like a caramel apple. The first day that Elsa and I were allowed to take our mother’s car for a drive by ourselves, a day when we were not the same age but she and I were sixteen and fifteen respectively, we drove to Mount Bartizan. There we bought caramel apples in a little store at the base of the mountain. Her caramel was speckled with M&Ms. Mine was plain. We talked about it more than once, but she and I never climbed Mount Bartizan together. Today, after my sister ran away from the halfway house, and after she broke into my apartment and stole some of my things and sold them for money, she went and got high on meth again. I haven’t asked her, but sometimes I wonder if she’s ever really been to the top.

Emilee Prado lives wherever her feet take her (currently, she’s standing somewhere in Tucson, Arizona). Emilee has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and is presently working towards her Master’s in Creative Writing.