‘The Woodpecker’, by Aimee Harrison


Tape art mural by Tony Morse.

This piece was first published online by TLB in 2012. A lot has happened since 2012! Specifically, we changed the way our website works and a lot of content from the earlier Brow site disappeared into the ether. But we kept an archive of all of this good stuff, and in the coming weeks and months we’ll be rolling out pieces from this excellent archive on an occasional basis.

There is a woodpecker in my wall. As I fall asleep, I listen to him peck at me, faint at times, insistent at others. I try to imagine how he got there. The best story I can come up with is that his egg dropped behind the boards while the building was being constructed. I wonder if he grew up without a mother and how he has managed to feed for all this time with only stiff plywood and dusty dry wall around him. Maybe there are insects in there too. Maybe there is a whole collection of life from the outside world which careless construction workers left trapped inside these walls.

I have a new friend whose eyes are perpetually decorated with faint red lines. He gives me pills for free. He tells me it is because I am more interesting than the people he already knows. Tonight I don’t ask what we are taking, but it makes my dirty kitchen tiles come alive with black dots swirling and marching. Tiny headless ants.

When the kitchen stones become too cold on the heels of my feet, my friend tugs my hand and leads me to the pink duvet in my bedroom. We lay for hours in feathered softness, staring at the colorless ceiling, the green and pink hues of my otherwise naked walls. They grow tendrils and forests in light of my new brain. My friend’s dark skin buds ands spores and then becomes sand. Staring at his black hairs and the torrents of sweat seeping from his skin, my body tremors. I raise myself from the pile of blankets and lift open a window above my bed. The outside air tastes like smog. And dried autumn leaves.

My insides shake as I stabilize myself standing on the bed. My friend tugs my hand once more and I fall beside him, giving into the sways. I spiral into a cocoon. He arches his body around mine.

My friend whispers, how do you feel? I feel like pulling my stomach through my lips. He stands, more stable than I, and exits my room, closing the white door behind him. The room shrinks to a closet. I want to tell him we should leave. There is new air outside, things we should go find. I want to tell him, but he takes too long.

When he returns, he opens the door and the room expands. I sit up, swaying, and accept his ginger tea. Sweat-curled hair tickles my bare shoulders. The velvet of my tight purple dress scratches my stomach. I want to pull it from my body, but as tea trickles through my dilated veins and my friend pulls off his own neon garments, we crawl back beneath the bed’s fabric cavern. My stomach and skin calm.

My friend asks again, how do you feel? I whisper, Good, and then, How do you feel? He tells me about the images growing on the walls and new variations in his perceptions of himself and the outside world. He asks me again,how do you feel? I smile and roll onto my back to stare at the ceiling’s rivers of water stains.

The woodpecker starts pecking at me. Before my friend can speak, I tell him the noises are just the shaking of my upstairs neighbor’s bed. Afternoon sex.

Today I am concerned that the woodpecker may have depleted his food supply. Is that why he has pecking so ferociously?

Because of my friend’s temporary absence, the hours when he works, and because I don’t go to classes on Wednesdays, I have spent the day making clay impressions of what the woodpecker must look like. Each model is one inch tall with rainbow wings. On every face, I attached a smooth orange cone with a pointed tip. These beaks are perfect for prying open the walls of insect homes and tapping me messages through the wall to fill hours of confined boredom.

My arms tingle when I look at the prettiest of the small birds. I line them on a wooden ridge at the edge of my bed and stare at them while I listen to my real woodpecker tapping from his hidden home. I have difficulty deciding which of the beaks fits best with his notes.

I try to image how I could free my bird and finally look at him, feed him, but I am too afraid to build a hole in a wall I don’t own.

I try to image how I could free my bird and finally look at him, feed him, but I am too afraid to build a hole in a wall I don’t own. Besides, what if when cutting that hole I inadvertently crush his precious beak?

I hear my friend’s voice outside the window now, calling my name from twelve feet below. I look out to see him standing with a fur-lined jacket made of red and blue silk. I pull a white t-shirt off my freckled chest and trade it for a yellow polyester jump suit and a pink felt hat to cover the tangles of unwashed hair. I put the little birds in hiding beneath the bed and tell the woodpecker to hush while I’m away. He listens for a moment, so I slip through two white doors into a dim stairwell.


My friend takes me to his favorite park, a pavement circle with a large silver half sphere in the center. The granite stone is cool on exposed skin, but if we can stand the temperature the stars come alive.

Blowing smoke over our eyes makes the light cloudy, but it is beautiful in its own way. During the day, he says, he is often asked to leave the park for loitering, but at night no one cares. We could stay here forever.

The V-neck and short sleeves of my outfit let in tiny bursts of wind. They attack my skin. When I begin twitching, my friend takes off his robe and lays it over my shoulders, revealing a silver shimmering shirt clinging tightly to his broad chest. We lie on narrow ridges. I alternate looking at the stars to looking at small bushes and patches of grass to looking at the thick lashes lining his deep brown eyes and the patch of black freckles above his left cheek.

I once had a friend with blue eyes and pale, spotless skin. I think of him for a moment but he dissolves quickly in the depth of my new friend’s face, and the gleam of plastic plants and distant lights.

Sometimes I want to stand up and run in circles around the park, moving my legs until they separate from the pavement and I twirl up to the sky. Sometimes I want to tell my new friend a secret, but I don’t have any. Sometimes I want to ask him why he sits with me for so many hours, but every time I open my mouth only inches of frosty breath come out, painting the air before my face with a stream of foggy clouds. Besides, the fake clumping fur of his robe feels so warm on my cold arms. I stay still, moving only my eyes.

After hours of silence, my friend speaks. His low voice rings like a melody through the empty air of the park, which all the cars seem to have agreed not to drive past. He tries to determine what he finds interesting in me, but I evade his questions with smiles, short sequences of laughter. I prefer to let him talk, to hear about his mother and the time he lined his middle school classroom with a minor explosive so when the door shut, the room lit up with an entrancing red blaze.

I am afraid to say my childhood was mundane.

Someone once told me my problem is that I move too slowly, deliberately. Sometimes I don’t move at all. When I woke up this morning and rolled on my side, curling my pudgy legs into my flat stomach, the woodpecker began a constant drone of peck, peck, peck. My head developed an ache that pulsed to the rhythm of his taps. He must be starving inside those walls.

I think of him withering away between cardboard frames and my stomach churns in sympathetic tides of hunger. My fingers have a pulse now too. All my limbs shake. I need to help him, and so I move quickly, undeliberately. I walk through the white door and return holding a small blue paring knife. I press my ear to the wall to locate the woodpecker. I stab the blade, repeating and twisting, until a bottle cap sized hole has formed across from my window.

The woodpecker begins tapping once more, and I say a quick prayer for not having crushed his beak. Leaving the wall, I pull a wool red plaid jacket over my nightgown, slide brown slippers over my sockless feet, and leave the house to wander three blocks to my friend’s park. I think I saw a smattering of insects in the bushes there, not yet dead from the season’s gradual descent.

I like walking alone down the same streets I walked with the old friend. The trees have colored leaves and the wind talks in turns like the old friend did. Only the trees are more subtle.

I think about how the old friend liked wearing black pants and white shirts. I prefer my new friend’s clothes. As I kneel beside the grass of the park, I am not at all concerned if dirt seeps its way into my clothes or skin. Damage is beautiful and I am too whole. I smear mud across my button nose.

In the garden, I find four worms and three hard-shelled insects I don’t know the names of. I put them flat on one palm. They tickle my soft skin. I cup my second palm over the first and hide the bugs in a treasure chest of my hands, then walk back across the leaf stained sidewalk. I uncap the lid only to press open the front door of my building.

Back in my room, I climb across the pink comforter, spreading shards of grass and small brown pebbles from my knees onto the blankets. I release my hands to slip the insects through the woodpecker’s small hole.

For two days, the intensity of his pecking subsides.

Today, I walk to my friend’s house to help him decorate for his birthday party. We take old boom boxes and dusty tables into a grassless square behind his house. The black paint we spray over every surface seeps into my nose with an addictive sting. We have to let the objects dry before we paint them with fluorescent jellyfish and metallic stars, so we go inside and sit side by side on a torn corduroy couch to wait.

The fabric was once orange. Now it has faded to gray and even yellow at some spots where the springs peak though. Lucky for the couch, damage is beautiful. I fall into the rickety back and my friend retrieves a small tin box from his velour shorts’ pocket. I take a pill and swallow without any water. The coating lines my mouth with a chalky residue. The small oval lodges in my throat. For a moment, I want to cough, to bring the pill back up, but then I swallow saliva five times and the pill continues its path to my stomach. The pain spreads from my neck to my chest to my torso. Then the pangs become less immediate. I lay across my friends curved arm.

New sensations take hold in the silence of the black-lit room. I can taste my friend’s sweat, dripping from his flat biceps into my parted mouth. I close my lips and roll away. Soon there is music, and my friend asks me a question. I stare directly into his freckles but cannot create any words. I want to tell him something. I want to ask him something too. But there is an ocean in my mouth, in my throat, in my stomach. My lips will not part.

He tells me about other friends who I will meet tonight, details of their life histories, tumultuous childhoods.

My friend has his hand wrapped around my limp arm. He tells me about other friends who I will meet tonight, details of their life histories, tumultuous childhoods. He explains all the reasons they are interesting now. One was almost an actress. One writes beautiful poetry and painted the small flowers and abstract details that line these walls. One has the best clothes she makes herself. She went to an asylum, but she will be back tonight. Tonight I will meet them all.

I smile and nod and laugh and bite my lip. My stomach twists into knots only Boy Scouts know how to make. My friend keeps talking, describing his other friends. I want to ask for his list of reasons I am me. I want to tell him there is nothing here.

Instead I close my eyes and lean onto the arm of the couch. Cigarette burns scratch my cheek. I count the hours until I can leave and return to make sure the woodpecker has enough food. The hours pass like days.

The old friend would have hated this room. He would have hated what I am pouring inside of me. He didn’t even like alcohol. He emptied me of it. We always sat side by side with sitcoms and silence. He emptied me of everything damaging.

But my new friend feeds me quickly every perceived poison, dresses me in every beauty, and he has his hands on my stomach now. Wool fabric slides across my shoulders, over my face. The turtleneck sticks to my chin. His sweaty chest is on my shivering torso. His salty lips are on my bare breasts. If he were inside me, I am certain he would see oceans breaking over shores of empty sands. He would see my absence of history, the complete lack of beauty when I shrug away skin.

I push him away, sit up and pull the pink sweater back over my frizzed hair. I tell my friend I am cold and feel sick. He stands up, walks to the kitchen to make me ginger tea.


Back in my room, I move my clay woodpeckers from the floor onto my window’s ledge. I take a stick of brown clay and shape the clumps to build a tree for each bird. I put the trees behind the birds, pressed against smudged window glass, and make six tiny bugs. Dinner for everyone.

I crawl towards the wall and lay my head flat against it. It warms the cold of my cheek. I wait, listening for the woodpecker, but he is silent. There are bugs crawling across the insides of my body now, salt dripping from my skin. My head pounds. Did he run out of food? I tap the wall asking to hear him breathe.

The old friend told me I couldn’t take care of others. I am too negligent, self-absorbed. Can I not take care of a woodpecker either? I thought he would be fine. I thought I gave him enough bugs. Why do animals all eat so much?

After three minutes of silence, the woodpecker begins tapping once more and I exhale, tug my knees close against my flat chest. I start talking to the woodpecker in my wall and those on the window asking, Who is the happiest? Is there enough variety in the bugs I gave you? Are the trees and planks and dry wall sufficiently beautiful?

I think something is missing.

At my friend’s party, I do nothing but drink and smoke. Simple tonight.

I am dressed in a yellow chiffon dress, puffy and elaborate with silver glistening buttons to accentuate my chest. My hair begins carefully placed, but as the speed of the music builds, it becomes a frizzy upright work of art.

I sit beside my friend on his familiar slumping couch while he tries to introduce me to all the others. Their faces are indecipherable, but I answer questions well. I know where I grew up. I know what I am studying. I don’t remember how my friend and I met.

They tell me my dress is beautiful, interesting, but I don’t remember where I got it. I know I didn’t make it. They won’t stop talking and I want so badly to return to easy pleasantries, because I don’t remember what I want to do with my life. I don’t know what I think about the plausibility of Star Trek or the usefulness of hexagons in architecture or the capacity of a circuit to derive emotion.

There are six people standing beside me now and I don’t remember more than facts. My friend has left my side, and I reach for the ghost of his hand. In its absence, my fingers shake. I shove them under sweaty armpits. I smile at his friends so they keep talking. I nod along with their stories so they think I am responding. When they see someone they know, the girl from the asylum returned, I exhale. They run to kiss her cheek, to tell her how beautiful her long purple hair and rattlesnake leggings are. I walk to the kitchen and pour myself a drink.

Not seeing my friend anywhere, I slide into place against the wall to watch all the interesting people talk. Then my friend appears. I run to his side and clench his hand, follow him onto the dance floor. We bounce before the art of our black boxes. They don’t ask a thing. In the dark, I take the hands of bodies I do not recognize. All their arms carry salty scents. My feet move. My hands rise. My hair dissociates from my skin.

When the heat overwhelms the strength of my stomach, I walk to the bathroom. While I sit on a broken seat, I read words from egg-white walls covered in Magic Marker graffiti. I finish and wash my hands without soap, because there isn’t any, then I pick up an orange marker lying on the floor. In tiny perfectly curved cursive I write ‘the mouth is a dead end’ beside a sequence of ‘more words, less words, more, more, more’, scribbled in alternating pink and black ink. Then I press with all my weight against the tilted, slightly stuck door and walk into the kitchen. People pass bottles and talk and laugh. My mouth is wired in the shape of a smile.

The old friend said I was a mannequin. He liked me that way. He didn’t like it when I began walking, moving. I want to walk and move and learn to talk. For now, though, I am content to just fill my mouth with sweet rebellion. Fuck the old friend.

While watching chattering bodies, I suddenly realize I have drank one too many whiskies. I step outside into the grassless square alone to smoke, thinking cigarettes will cure the nausea. When the spinning begins, I return inside for a glass of water, but I have waited too long to rehydrate. Now I am sick and weak on cool tiled floors.

My friend leaves the party to walk me home. He says he will hold my hand until I fall asleep, but I can see the beak of the woodpecker tapping through the hole I made. I don’t want my friend to lie with me. I pretend to rest, shut my eyes, turn my breaths into snores, and he leaves.

I tap the wall, pretending the woodpecker and I both understand Morse code, so I can tell him some careful secret these friends all think I have, so he can tell me what is inside of me that makes them care at all.

I watch his beak respond, cutting through the hole. It is ruddy, orange and chipped along its edges. I want to reach inside, to feel and see all of him. But although my brain is awake, my body is heavy. Slowly the physical takes over. A warm heat rushes down my arms, and I am paralyzed and asleep.


In the morning, I look towards the hole in my wall. It has grown to the size of a cleaning bucket. Perched on the closet door, on top of a lining of hung leather belts and satin patterned ties sits a brown and blue bird. His feathers stick out in every direction with individual fibers clumped together so none of them look soft anymore. There are patches of irritated beige skin exposed where feathers have fallen off. I look from him to the clay birds on my windowsill and smash each of them with my hand.

I hear a knocking on my door and a voice calling to me from outside. I peak out the window to see who it is. My friend stands on the front porch in red velvet pants and no shirt.

I crouch below the sill so he will not see me here, then look back up to the closet door. But the woodpecker has disappeared. I glance again at the window to reassure myself it is shut. It is, so I slither towards my closet to find where he has gone, pulling apart piles of cotton t-shirts, tearing the seams of silk and velvet dresses as I rip them from the hangers.

And then I hear him tapping again, subtle at first.

I walk towards my bed, crawl across a puffy comforter to the wall and stick my head inside the hole. The smell of rot is overwhelming. The shedded skin of dead worms line the planks. Piles of caterpillars swim on the floor, slipping over-top of one another. The woodpecker is not there.

But he is tapping again, somewhere, insistent now.

I crouch on my bed and rest against the window, listening carefully and sitting perfectly still. My arms twitch and my head throbs as I wait for him to appear. And now I hear my name again. It is the high pitched voice of the old friend. I refuse to answer. I wanted to run and I did. I won’t return.

My heart throbs. A pulse hammers through my chest. The voice sounds out once more. It is not the old friend anymore. Is this the voice of the woodpecker? I place my hands under the crinkles of my dress and beg my bird to reappear.

And now I hear him tapping again. He sounds so close. I breathe in and heave out. And again. And once more. My throat expands. My stomach clenches and then something sticks in my chest.

One final loud tap and a pinching pain in my neck. With a cough and the tickling of feathers the woodpecker falls from my mouth into my hands cupped, glistening in spit. Every blue and brown feather on his fully covered skin lies fanned out, perfectly in place. His beak has no markings. His body no defects.

For a second I think I want to pluck a feather from his chest. For a second I want to ask him what my defining secret is. But staring at this woodpecker lying in my palms, I realize I don’t need to ask. His wide yellow eyes focus on mine, and I whisper to him now.

Aimee C. Harrison holds an MFA in from the University of Washington, Bothell. She is a cofounder of Small Po[r]tions Journal and Managing Editor at Essay Press.