“If a Bird Can Be a Ghost,” by Allison Mills

Apex #99
Apex #99, August 2017
Cover by Dana Tiger

“If a Bird Can Be a Ghost,” by Allison Mills.
Short story. Published in Apex #99, August 2017.


Tangent reviewer Stephanie Wexler writes:

Allison’s graceful story shines on a difficult and heart wrenching topic; childhood grief. It is a treat watching Allison weave Shelly’s world where she is never quite alone, liberating herself by accepting her future through loss.

A.C. Wise tags Mills, and this story in particular, in her September “Women to Read” post:

It’s a beautiful story exploring family, loss, grief, and love. It packs an emotional punch, while offering moments of lightness and humor as well, and overall, it is an excellent starting place for Mills’ work.

Charles Payseur observes:

…it reveals a kind of haunting, a kind of ghost, that is much different than those normally portrayed in media. These ghosts are lost, not really all that dangerous though there is a feeling they could be, if pressed. (…) [Shelly] starts wanting to find one particular ghost, to heal one particular grief in herself. And yet the story explores how that’s not what ghosts are about. The ghosts don’t really exist for the living. Most of the time they don’t even remember the living that much. The ghosts are their own people with their own ways, and Shelly learns (slowly, with a few hiccups) that though she can interact with the dead, can help the dead, their presence or lack isn’t about her desires and demands.

Rocket Stack Rank is middle-of-the-road on this one:

Pro: The basic mechanics of dealing with ghosts are fascinating. The way grandma apologizes to Joseph for sending him on to the next world is amusing and poignant at the same time. And the way the police are so matter-of-fact about it all is pretty funny.

Con: There isn’t much of a plot here. Shelly does learn some lessons, but there’s little real cost to it.

And Maria Haskins is definitely delighted:

I love this story so much it makes me hurt. I have a weakness for stories that manage to break my heart, and then stitch it back together, and this is such a story. Weaving together magic and spirituality, life and afterlife, childhood and adolescence, grief and family – with all its guts and glory – this story is both haunting (in more ways than one), and deeply moving. A must-read.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

2 thoughts on ““If a Bird Can Be a Ghost,” by Allison Mills”

  1. I really like Payseur’s comments on this one — I think he’s articulated a big part of this story’s essence. The feeling of ghosts, not as something meant for humans to interact with; instead they just kind of… bump up into each other, in different ways. And you see that really well when Shelly tries to view the ghost world as something functional, useful, something she can make her own use of… and it’s an exercise in futility.

    But if you’re lucky, the ghost world might give you a Cure tape 😛

    1. The title supports this too. The complete line is, “If a bird can be a ghost, then why not her?” Which is a rhetorical question — Shelly wants things to work out for her, for the world to work the way she wants it to.

      The fact is that “why” is an irrelevant question here. Ghosts aren’t explained or justified, and Shelly’s question has no answer, besides “that’s the way things are.” The ghosts aren’t here to conform to our assumptions, even if they seem to make sense to us.

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