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Black Wings

Sheila was upset by the sudden arrival of a new bush in her backyard one late afternoon, an unidentifiable perennial apparently so deeply green it appeared black in the waning light. She had purchased no such bush. It did not fit into her landscaping design. Had some practical joker planted it in the middle of the night? She rarely understood other people’s notions of humor. She had spent a great deal of her late husband’s insurance benefit on landscaping and had no intention of seeing it spoiled.

But the bush shook off its bushiness and opened its wings. Now she gazed at a large black bird, perhaps the largest she had ever seen. Harry would have known the species, and no doubt could have recited a page full of boring facts concerning its anatomy, and passably charming anecdotes regarding its talents and peculiarities. She assumed it was too large to be a blackbird. She had no idea what the difference was between a crow and a raven, except ravens were a bit more important weren’t they? Ravens were famously in residence at the Tower of London and figured prominently in that spooky poem by Poe, so she imagined them larger and more regal than crows.

Sheila wanted to say it was a raven, but this bird—she couldn’t quite put her finger on it—had a stupid and clumsy look. This awkward-looking birdie did not project any sort of regality. So probably not a raven, but she’d always heard crows were clever. This bird didn’t look clever at all. Perhaps she had discovered a new species? Wouldn’t Harry have been so jealous? Discovering a new species would have been his dream.

Despite her late husband’s obsession, Sheila knew almost nothing about the habits of birds. Class Aves, she did know that much, because it was a term Harry used all the time. She tried to pay no attention while he prattled on about his bird friends, but that tiny factoid had wormed its way in. Birds ate worms, disgusting creatures.

She watched the fowl as it hopped about the yard. She supposed it was approximately the size of a big chicken. Were there black chickens? Every time it paused it did its business and moved on, finding new spots to contaminate. This was only one of the ways birds spread contagion. She’d always been afraid Harry’s specimens would someday give her some terrible disease. A few days after his death she hired a company to remove the filthy wings and heads and stuffed corpses from cabinets and drawers throughout the house and disinfect everything. They’d worn hazmat suits, which for her was absolute confirmation she’d been in danger living among Harry’s collections all these years.

Unwilling to watch, she’d moved briefly into a hotel. As far as she could tell they’d done a thorough job, although tufts of feather still appeared among the balls of dust in corners and under furniture.

Now, after all the expense, she had an active source of more such contamination wandering her property. She’d witnessed birds pecking at dead animals (including their own kind) and scraping about among the spoiled and rotten. She wondered if she would ever feel safe in her own backyard again. She closed the curtains over the patio doors, wondering if the same company she hired before could also rid her of living creatures. If not, she wondered if a surprise blow from a fireplace poker might kill it.

With Harry’s collections gone the house was slowly morphing into some semblance of what Sheila always imagined it could be. Where large wall displays of amputated birds’ wings once hung were framed mountain landscapes and floral wall hangings. In the dining room, where she’d struggled to digest her food beneath a forbidding arrangement of beaked onlookers, she now dined in serenity within freshly painted walls.

She still imagined she smelled those feathered vermin, even though the professionals swore they’d removed every bit. Despite Harry’s protestations there had always been a stench of death and decay and negligence. But she couldn’t expect to have survived marriage to such a man without some lingering birdish stench.

She went to the calendar hanging on the new refrigerator. The previous model hadn’t been more than a few years old, but despite her threats some of Harry’s specimens always seemed to find their way inside. It was always safer to replace rather than clean. She had a hectic week planned, lunch with some of the girls tomorrow, a movie with Janice the day after, and the bridge club at her house on Friday. Company had been rare during her married years. She’d been too ashamed, not only because of the condition of her home, but also Harry’s insistence on sharing endless avian lectures with their hapless guests. Now she welcomed visitors at every opportunity.

Sheila forgot about the bird for a time. Out of sight and all. She was far too busy. Life was to be enjoyed. She’d always told Harry that, but he was too distracted by his collections. They’d never gone anywhere together. They’d never done anything as a couple after the courtship was completed. Harry knew far more about the mating habits of birds than he did the romantic requirements of his own wife.

Friday she was setting up the house for her bridge club, vacuuming the rugs, dusting the surfaces, preparing plates of gorgeously composed mini sandwiches. Still self-conscious about the scent of things, she’d perhaps sprayed a bit too much room deodorizer. The air smelled of perfume. She opened the curtains thinking she’d crack the patio doors and let some of the perfumed air drift outside.

The black bird stared up at her from the other side of the glass. In such proximity it was even larger than she’d thought, more the size of a dog than a large chicken. It was difficult to say with all the plumage. Its feathers rose and fell as if it were a giant, beating black heart. She embarrassed herself by making a little squawk of panic. The bird itself said nothing and made a little hop.

It turned its head sideways as if to examine her from a different angle. The bird still projected an aura of ignorance, its small dark eyes too close together, its beak appearing broken and poorly repaired. Sheila was relieved she’d noticed it before sliding the door open. What a nightmare if it found its way inside.

She needed to rush to get the house ready in time. The bird hopped away in a disorganized fashion, and she couldn’t stop herself from watching as it fell over and then righted itself, falling over again and then spreading its wings as if to take off from its recumbent position, but remaining flightless it appeared it could only lie there and flap its wings vigorously, spreading bits of feather and birdy dander all over her curated patio and yard. Sheila wondered if its body had grown too large for its brain to maneuver properly.

She shut the curtains and hoped none of the ladies asked to see the backyard. Her bridge friends arrived shortly thereafter. They all had nice things to say about what she’d done to the house, but Sheila understood from experience such compliments meant little. She watched their faces. Paula Hershfield kept wrinkling her nose. Either she was fighting off a sneeze or she smelled something unappealing. Sheila might have asked Janice if she smelled anything—in fact she probably would—but Janice was her best friend (or at least pretended to be) and couldn’t be relied on for an honest answer.

“Sheila, I just wanted to, once again, extend my condolences. Has it been too hard? How long were you and Harry married? He was an engineer, wasn’t he, good with his hands?”

Marie Willis knitted her eyebrows and smiled so aggressively it must have caused her considerable facial pain, clear evidence her sympathy was feigned. Sheila didn’t want to answer the other questions, so she replied, “he taught science at the local high school.” Embarrassing, but she had no desire to embellish Harry’s few accomplishments.

“Oh. Well, I’m sure his students must miss him. I feel for you. I don’t know what I’d do without my James.” Rumor had it the Willis’s marriage had been in trouble for years. Perhaps Sheila would mail Marie a sympathy card tomorrow.

None of the women were good at bridge. Half of them were borderline dreadful, but the purpose of these gatherings was primarily to share gossip, devour unhealthy snacks, and provide the host with an opportunity to impress. Due to Harry’s failings this was Sheila’s first time hosting. She cared about the day more than she wanted to.

There was a knocking sound on the sliding glass door. Janice looked at her but said nothing. Several minutes passed and then there was a rapid knock-knock-knock. The glass was thick and double-paned, but Sheila still feared it might break beneath the persistent blows.

“Sheila, I think someone’s knocking on your back door.” Marie looked at her with a forced smile. Sheila didn’t know why—maybe it was the only way the woman knew how to express herself.

“Pay no attention, ladies. There’s construction two houses behind us. Sometimes the vibrations feel as if they’re right outside, hammering, or whatever it is they do.”

The women looked doubtful. A few seemed too focused on their cards. Several minutes passed and then a succession of heavy impacts shook the glass door. “It sounds like—I don’t know, Sheila. Is someone throwing things at your house?” Janice stood up and ran to the curtain. Marie tittered. Sheila stood up to stop Janice, but she was too late. The curtains slid open with an obnoxious scraping noise.

No bird was in evidence. But a small oval on the outside of the glass appeared caked in tomato purée, the multiple red blotches beneath imprinted with feather-like patterns.

Sheila refused any help cleaning up after the gathering, although Janice was the only one who offered. Sheila insisted nothing was wrong but ushered the women out as quickly as possible. Janice gave her a fierce goodbye hug. This made Sheila intensely uncomfortable, but she appreciated the gesture.

She had not slept well the night before, and the afternoon’s excitement took its toll. Further cleanup could wait until the next day. She went to bed almost, but not quite, feeling sorry for herself. She had made great improvements to her home, and yet something felt vaguely incorrect. She might have to hire a consultant to tell her what it was.

Sheila was outside spraying water on the glass doors when she heard the commotion behind her. She turned around, the hose still in her hand. Momentarily distracted from the frenetic activity just beyond her gaze, she watched the water slip over the patio stones, ridding them of any trace of debris. The activity was both wasteful and gratifying.

She dropped the hose. Her backyard was full of birds. More black ones, much smaller than the one she’d come to think of, proprietarily, as her own, but what they lacked in size they made up for in numbers. Also, gray ones, pigeons, she supposed. Also, blue ones and red ones. She didn’t know the names. She was no Harry. She supposed there were cardinals, blue jays, grackles—those were names she recognized as being common to this area, not that she could be sure they were among the specific ones pecking and eating and making dirty everywhere.

She spied her bird in the middle, the dumb one. Some of the others appeared to avoid it, but there was some bullying, with birds pecking at its feet or squawking at it, stealing food right out of its mouth. It didn’t make a sound. Today it wore a small dark red, almost brownish cap. She couldn’t tell how the cap was attached, then realized it was the caked-on blood from the day before.

Harry once told her crows could make tools like hooks and poky things for grabbing food. So, her bird could not possibly be a crow. Her bird did not defend itself, but at least it didn’t cower. Being a pitiful creature was bad enough, but to see it cowering would have been unbearable.

“Go on, Mister Bird, fight back,” she said, raising her voice almost to a shout. “Stand up for yourself. Don’t let these small minds defeat you! They’re beneath you!”

There was no response, not from her bird or from any of the others. She picked up the hose and without thinking began spraying all those other birds, avoiding her own. They disappeared as if washed away. If only all life’s problems were so quickly solved. Her bird sat there, unmoving. She turned off the hose and went back inside.

Sheila spent the rest of the day getting the house back to its pre-bridge club condition. Her friends had left a mess. Crumbs on the floor were already attracting ants. They appeared as fast as she could vacuum them up. Clearly having guests over wasn’t going to work for her.

She was coming around the kitchen island, broom in hand, when she encountered the bird. Her bird.

She glanced at the patio door off the living room. It was still closed. She was sure no other windows or doors were open. Dark muddy drips spread from the bird across the surrounding pale pink linoleum. It made her furious, although she was the one who had created the mud with her hose. The mud was her doing.

“Shoo!” She approached the bird with the broom in a shoveling motion. “Shoo!” She came up right to it. It was looking at her. She could see its dark shiny eyes. But it did not budge.

Where did she want to shoo it to anyway? It was oozing mud. Her bird and her mud. She couldn’t bear the thought of either getting onto her nice things.

“So, what do you want from me?” she asked. “What is it you want me to do?”

The bird stared at the floor, no longer looking at her. She backed away and left the kitchen, closing the door firmly behind her. She would go to her bedroom and lie down, and then call Animal Control, or that cleaning company. Or maybe she’d call them before lying down. She could leave the front door unlocked, and they could just come in while she was sleeping. She would leave a note. By the time she woke up the bird would be gone.

She trotted up the stairs and hurried down the long open gallery toward her bedroom. Harry had kept many of his display cabinets full of his butchered birds up here in the gallery. Not content to use up all the wall space, he’d arranged them on the other side as well, blocking the balustrade and the view below. That thing he called himself, a “cabinet naturalist,” he said it was on old term. He loved his old terms, his old jokes, his old dead birds. He could have loved his old wife more.

She wanted to put up some nice pictures on the walls but had not yet decided which ones. Creating the right ambiance was essential. She opened the bedroom door. Her dirty bird was perched on her best bedspread, waiting.

Harry would have known what to do in such a situation. Harry was a fool who had no idea how to be a husband, but he understood his birds.

She turned around and headed back toward the stairs. She felt ill, so she stopped and held onto the railing. Below her she could see the top of the chandelier. It was filthy—how was she supposed to clean such a thing? Keeping this house presentable seemed impossible. Below the chandelier was the bright and shiny entrance way, and the front door. Perhaps it was time to check into a hotel again and let someone else solve her problems while she was away. That’s what civilized people did. Civilized people with money, which she probably wasn’t anymore.

She made her way to the top of the stairs. Harry had been too old to manage the repairs to this big house, or even to maintain the vast collection he loved so much. Too old and too weak. That day he decided to bring a cabinet up from downstairs and into their bedroom. “It’ll be lovely,” he’d said. “These are all birds in flight, my best specimens. Can you imagine waking up every morning to birds in flight? How beautiful that would be!”

The cabinet had been a gorgeous cherry. At least that much had been true. But it had been so large and unwieldly. He should have hired someone. He never allowed anyone to help.

He’d struggled up the stairs, the weight of it pushing him back. He’d reached the second tread from the top when the cabinet began to tip. “Help,” he said, with no force at all, as if he’d realized his mistake and already given up.

She’d been so disgusted by the whole affair. He hadn’t even asked her opinion or what she wanted. She’d laid her magazine aside and gotten up from her chair where she’d been watching from outside the bedroom—she never did finish that article—and walked to the stairs facing him. “What do you want me to do?” she’d asked, but instead of waiting for an answer she’d placed her hand on the lovely cabinet. She’d had no intention of making things more difficult for either of them, but gravity took over, and gravity cannot be bargained with.

The way he’d tumbled, she did not know a human being could move like that, and the image of him on the floor below, crash landed with broken glass, shattered wood, and disintegrated birds—she’d laughed at the sight of him. It embarrassed her terribly. There was surprise in it, and grief, yes, grief. And she hadn’t laughed in years.

Sheila took a step down, and her bird—all hers, it was too late to get rid of it now, and too late to stop—was right beneath her shoe. When gravity came for her, she was thinking how stubborn the dirty thing was—it still refused to make a sound, even as its black wings beat about her face and neck.

As she lay there on the floor thinking about the mess she’d made something unexpected came over her, and she heard herself making this awful sound with notes of both despair and defiance while she flapped her broken arms.

About the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem, a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards, has published more than four hundred and seventy short stories. Recent collections include The Night Doctor & Other Tales (Centipede) and Thanatrauma: Stories (Valancourt). His novel Ubo is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper and Stalin. Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, written with his late wife Melanie, is available from Apex Books. You can visit his home on the web at www.stevetem.com.