Vicky thought about shopping the whole day at work. It was candles and feathers that she wanted — fat candles, thin candles, enough to fill a whole room. Concentrating on spreadsheets and costings was difficult, the data entry tedious and unexciting; Vicky’s mind kept slipping from the precision, emptiness and drudgery of numbers to the excitement of candles and flame, the firm suppleness of feathers.
Anticipation wasn’t Vicky’s alone. Each of the drudge-workers kept track of the time, could feel the day’s end approaching. Work slowed down, spreadsheets filled with increasing sluggishness; at five o’clock a ripple flowed through the workers — then they stood up from their cubicles, one after the other, in a muted, tired, mistimed wave; put on their coats, took up their bags, departed.
Vicky held her own bag and coat tight against the chill.
Candles were easy to find, being everywhere, in each shop. The feathers were the problem. At this last minute she only managed to find a feather duster which, she was assured, was made of genuine ostrich feathers. She ripped out a single feather and threw the rest into her bedroom cupboard.
The candles she arrayed around her bedroom, beacons of flame resting on the bookshelves and dresser. A short, fat, unlit candle remained on the nightstand. Beside it, the feather. But alone the feather seemed bland, a forgotten frippery. Vicky arranged the feather over her handcuffs, mixing dull colours and hard steel.
Vicky waited for the doorbell in her kitchen with a glass of merlot in hand.
You left the feather for me, in the agreed place, behind the milner’s chimney, tucked in under a stone. It’s from a finch, tiny and grey, modestly dappled. Quite elegant. I can’t say no to a lady, so I clamber up the church tower in the light of the waning moon. I gather dew drops from a spider’s web: the false widow, who does not notice my attentions as she devours a mayfly. A good omen, so I throw in one of my mother’s hairs, from when she was a baby. You will be impressed.
The night is young, and my offerings are easily arranged under the weeping willow’s hollow root. What a romantic I have turned out to be! It is poor luck to wait, so I crawl into the warmth of a passing cat. We prowl the roofs in search of fat pigeons, and have many adventures. When I return, bloodied but proud (but that is a tale for another time), the droplets I left for you bear the mark of your tiny tongue. I follow the instructions closely, and seek out the newly hatched starlings under the witches’ fence. They have no language yet, but they remember your song, and whisper its secret back to me in their hoarse voices.
And so I find you, safely hidden in the finch’s nest, asleep amongst the soft feathers. I slip a dandelion under your cheek and pull a cobweb over us. Tomorrow, I will tell you my name.
They exchanged curt nods and the usual Bureau badge waving.
“So, what have we got?”
“Well, Agent Smith, I don’t have a lot to tell you at the moment,” Jones said, shuffling his feet. “I just got here myself. What I can tell you is that…” he reached into his jacket and fished out his dog-eared notebook. He flicked through case information and grocery lists, looking for today’s Biro-scribbled notes.
“Anytime today, Agent.”
“Sorry, Agent Smith. H-here, ” he stammered, finding the page. “Air Traffic Control reports that they lost contact with Flight 792 at 1152 hours. Nothing unusual before that. They just… went down,” he said, waving his hand at the wreckage in front of them.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. You go talk to the dousers,” he nodded over at the group of charcoal-faced firefighters, “while I have a look around.”
Jones scampered off. Smith checked the display on his palm. Fifty metres, North-northeast. He only had a few minutes, he thought, clambering through the wreckage. There: the Flight Data Recorder. He cracked it open, swapped the drive out, and resealed the FDR in less than ten seconds. He allowed himself a smirk; he was the best in the business at this. His employer’s secret was still safe.
As he walked back to Jones he passed one of the engines. It was covered in feathers and blood. Birds, he thought. It’s always fucking birds.
The house is a cave of echoes, the kitchen table masked in dust. I’m restless, displaced: my skin itches. In the still and empty rooms a single black feather drifts in a shaft of sunlight.
The cupboards are bare save for a heel of bread. I close the front door gently behind me and wander down the path, breaking the crust onto the ground as I go. The starlings, elegant in glossy suits, chatter sociably as they peck at the crumbs. Their haematite eyes watch me sideways, knowingly. They don’t even startle as the gate clicks behind me.
The path is treacherous with stones, but it’s not far to the chasm. It’s deep, a cruel gash across the countryside; the sides are sheer and sharp with rocks, and dusty thorn bushes line the edge. Even here the starlings hop and peer. I crane over the edge, my skirts flapping in the wind, but I can’t see the bottom.
I tilt vertiginously for a moment, arms outstretched, then step carefully out into the empty air. Wind rushes past me.
The sky is filled with a sudden fluttering as the black birds surround me, tiny beaks and claws harsh but careful in my clothes and hair. They hold me up and I hang in space, astonished, while their cries beat on my ears.
The wind tugs my shawl from my shoulders. My arms are bare to the cold wind, and I feel the tingling pain of the feathers pushing through my skin in a sudden, urgent rush. My wings unfurl; I breast the air in startled flight, lofting into the opened skies amid a rejoicing of birds.
I first noticed the feathers three days before my mother’s death. They were dark grey, fluffy and very soft. About ten of them were strewn around her head when I opened the curtains. She seemed unsurprised to see them; she just ran one gently across her lips. ‘Larus dominicanus: seagull’, she said and smiled. I smiled too, even in her last days, exhausted by endless pain, my mother was still an ornithologist.
The next morning the feathers were all over the room: not just down but also contour feathers and the long straight flight remiges. After I had cleaned up I tried to ask what had happened but between the morphine and the pain she didn’t seem to understand me. Instead she loosely mumbled about avian dreams: endless flights in lonely clear skies; diving through the sea mists above crashing rocks; surfing the wind of a tropical storm. I knew then her death was near, such sentimental flights of fancy were most unlike her.
On the third morning I found the last feather: A single, pure white basal rectrix: a flight feather from the tail. She looked quietly happy lying in bed with the feather clasped in her right hand above the coverlet – it was some time before I realized she was dead.
Sunlight glinted off the feathers, which sparkled brilliantly, iridescent in the morning air. In this light, their colours were shot through with dancing threads of silver. The light also glinted off the metallic shaft of an arrow as it sped through the sky towards its target.
The arrow pierced the bird just below the heart, close and violently enough to be fatal. The bird faltered in the air. Its flight which had, moments before, seemed effortless and elegant became awkward; wing-beats increasingly agonised and out of sync. Then the bird plummeted.
The force of its fall pulled its wings and body into grotesque shapes, brutally moulded by the air currents which the bird had previously mastered. Its limbs twisted as it tumbled chaotically, corkscrewing around the foreign shaft on which it had been broken. Its feathers, ironically, seemed more animated as the life convulsed out of the bird. They bounced, extended, swirled, and pitched about as if individually motivated.
When its body first brushed the treetops, the bird was already dead, its neck broken from the violence of its catastrophic fall. It came to a final halt on a rocky mound, wings half open as if in embrace. There was an odd elegance in its final position despite the broken bones and scattered feathers.
Sunlight glinted off the feathers, which sparkled brilliantly, iridescent in the morning air. In this light, their colours were brought to life by the silver threads which bound them to the cloth, and they seemed to dance.
He stood very still as the feathers fell. Collecting at his feet, forgotten memories. Maybe they were his memories. Memories as unreliable as feathers in the breezy air. This way, that way – which way is true? Which memory is true?
He reached out and grabbed one of the floating feathers and brought it to his chest, making the memory his. But he knew as soon as he opened his hand the memory would fly away and be lost in the swirling memories around him. So they weren’t his memories. He was lost without his memories and felt so alone. Quickly, in desperation, he reached out again and again gathering as many memories as he could. He would keep them all. They would all be his, pressed to his heart because it knew the truth. He would hide the truth with the forgotten memories that weren’t his own. He would not be lonely and the illusion of his sanity would not be ruined.
But his heart would not be hidden. It mocked him for his vain attempts, his deluded ideas. He wept as the feather fell from wilted hands, his heart laughing. Slowly, tentatively, he reached into his heart and began to pull free his own memories. It hurt but they were his. He began to remember… There was so much sadness at first but he pushed his way through the sorrow and the heartache and found laughter. It was his – he was laughing.