This weeks Short Story Saturday contribution is a rather sad tale about one couple’s ten-year-old son who very suddenly changes personalities on them. The Ben Marcus story is aptly titled “Cold Little Bird” because it perfectly describes the persona their little boy dons when relating to the adults he encounters in his world, particularly his parents. The story first appeared in a 2016 issue of The New Yorker and was later chosen for inclusion in the short story collection titled The Best American Short Stories (2016).
Marcus foreshadows what is to come in the story’s first two sentences: “It started with bedtime. A coldness.” Martin and Rachel notice the change one night when they are putting their two sons to bed. Rather than accepting and responding to their hugs and kisses as he has for his entire life up to now, on this night Jonah pushes both parents away before announcing that he is done with that kind of affection – now and forever. And even though his parents joke with him and try to laugh off his behavior as just a symptom of another long day of life in the city, the little boy refuses to back down
Surely, the young couple thinks, their little boy will wake up in the morning barely able to remember his strange behavior of the night before. But he does remember – and when after a few weeks Jonah is still barely speaking to them (and even then, only in his new polite and formal manner), without acknowledging it to each other, Rachel and Martin begin to wonder about their son’s sanity. Next the boy will have them they wondering about their own
“Cold Little Bird” is a story about parental love and the unique relationship that parents have with their children. It is a cautionary tale about how easily all that love and bonding can be destroyed when one of the people in the relationship decides they no longer want any part of what the others are offering. Admittedly, young Jonah’s reaction to being physically touched by his parents is an extreme one, but the way his parents begin to pull apart from each other slowly as each tries in their own way to cope with this new challenge rings very true. It is as if water has found its way into a crack in the foundation of their marriage and is slowly but steadily eating away at everything that makes that relationship work.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this one could have very easily turned into an unbelievable mess along the lines of a Stephen King-like horror story. But Ben Marcus, to his credit, makes it all seem so credible that “Cold Little Bird” is in its own way even more horrifying than the typical King horror story.