Birds are tricksters. Being small necessitates all kinds of wiles to survive but Corvidae, in all their glory as the raven, rook, jay, magpie, jackdaw, and crow have greater ambitions than that.
They have a plan.
I used to go into the garden with Dad and Pippa every morning, rain or shine, even on school days.
We lived in a house called The Beeches. Its three-acre garden had been parcelled off and flogged to developers before I was born, so it became one of a cluster of houses on an unadopted cul de sac.
Mature rhododendrons that flowered purple and red in spring lined the drive. The house was sheltered from prying eyes by tall hedges and the eponymous beech trees. Dad refused to cut them back despite neighbours’ pleas for more light and less leaf fall in the autumn. Dense foliage is perfect for nesting, he’d say.
Our garden was an avian haven. Elsa, who lived opposite, would bring over hanging feeders full of fat balls and teach us about the blue tits and cheeky sparrows who hung from them as they gorged. Stone nymphs held up bowls that Dad kept filled. Starlings splashed about in them. When they took flight they shed drops of water that shone like discarded diamonds. The green and gold on their wings caught the sun.
Pippa and I played while Dad dug over his vegetable patch at the weekends. The bloody chested robin followed him, seeking the soft bodied and spineless in the freshly turned earth.
Dad had built a bird table, of all things, to celebrate our birth. It was a complex construction with different tiers. Our job was to lay out daily offerings of nuts and meal worms. At eight I could reach its lower levels but Pippa, my twin, needed a footstool and for Dad to hold her steady so that she didn’t fall.
Elsa taught me to recognise our visitors and all their peculiarities and folklore. Sometimes there were jackdaws, rooks, and ravens but it was monopolised by crows, which is why I dubbed it the crow palace. Though not the largest of the Corvidae, they were strong and stout. I watched them see off interlopers, such as squirrels, who hoped to dine.
After leaving our offerings we’d withdraw to the sun room to watch them gather.
“Birdies,” Pippa would say and clap.
The patio doors bore the brunt of her excitement; fogged breath and palm prints. Snot, if she had a cold. She touched my arm when she wanted to get my attention, which came out as a clumsy thump.
“I can see.”
Hearing my tone, Pippa inched away, looking chastised.
Dad closed in on the other side with a forced, jovial, “You’re quiet, what’s up?”
It was always the same. How are you feeling? What can I get you? Are you hungry? Did you have a bad dream last night?
“I’m fine.” Not a child’s answer. I sounded uptight. I didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to say, Go away. Your anxiety’s stifling me.
I put my forehead against the glass. In the far corner of the garden was the pond, which Dad had covered with safety mesh, unfortunately too late to stop Mum drowning herself in it. That’s where I found her, a jay perched on her back. It looked like it had pushed her in. That day the crow palace had been covered with carrion crows; bruisers whose shiny eyes were full of plots.
I sit in a traffic queue, radio on, but all I hear is Elsa’s voice.
“Julie, it’s Elsa. From Fenby.”
As if I could forget the woman who brought us birthday presents, collected us from school, and who told me about bras, periods, and contraception (albeit in the sketchiest terms) when Dad was too squeamish for the task.
“Julie, you need to come home. I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just come out with it. Your dad’s dead.” She paused. “He collapsed in the garden this morning. I’ll stay with Pippa until you get here.”
“You will come, won’t you?”
Ten years and they jerk me back with one phone call.
The journey takes an hour longer than I expected. Oh, England, my sceptred and congested isle. I’m not sure if I’m glad of the delay or it’s making my dread worse.
The lane is in dire need of resurfacing so I have to slow down to navigate the potholes. I turn into the drive. It’s lined by overgrown bushes. I stop out of view of the house and walk the rest of the way. I’m not ready for Pip and Elsa yet.
The Beeches should be handsome. It’s crying out for love. Someone should chip off the salmon-pink stucco and take it back to its original red brick. The garden wraps around it on three sides, widest at the rear. I head there first.
The crow palace is the altar of the childhood rituals that bound us. It looks like Dad’s lavished more love on it than the house. New levels have been added and parts of it replaced.
I stoop to pick something up from the ground. I frown as I turn it over and read the label. It’s an empty syringe wrapper. Evidence of the paramedics’ labours. The grass, which needs mowing, is trampled down. I think I can see where Dad lay.
A crow lands on the palace at my eye level. It struts back and forth with a long, confident stride as it inspects me. Its back is all the colours of the night. It raises its head and opens its beak wide.
Caw caw caw.
It’s only then that the patio doors open and Elsa runs out, arms outstretched. Job done, the crow takes flight.
Elsa fusses and clucks over me, fetching sweet tea. “For shock.”
“What happened to him?”
“They think it was a heart attack. The coroner’s officer wants to speak to you. I’ve left the number by the phone.”
“How can they be sure? Don’t they need to do a post-mortem?”
“They think it’s likely. He’s had two in the last three years.”
“I didn’t know.”
“He wouldn’t let me phone you.” I don’t know if I’m annoyed that she didn’t call or relieved that she doesn’t say Perhaps, if you’d bothered to call him he might have told you himself. “Your dad was a terrible patient. They told him he should have an operation to clear his arteries but he refused.”
Elsa opens one of the kitchen cupboards. “Look.”
I take out some of the boxes, shake them, read the leaflets. There’s twelve months of medication here. Dad never took any of it. Aspirin, statins, nitrates, ace-inhibitors. Wonder drugs to unblock his stodgy arteries and keep his blood flowing through them.
I slam the door shut, making Elsa jump. It’s the gesture of a petulant teenager. I can’t help it. Dad’s self neglect is a good excuse to be angry at him for dying.
“We used to have terrible rows over it. I think it was his way of punishing himself.” Elsa doesn’t need to say guilt over your mother. She looks washed out. Her pale eyes, once arresting, look aged. “I don’t think Pippa understands. Don’t be hurt. She’ll come out when she’s ready.”
Pippa had looked at me as I put my bag down in the hall and said, “Julieee,” prolonging the last syllable as she always did when she was excited. Then she slid from the room, leaving me alone with Elsa.
Elsa’s the one who doesn’t understand, despite how long she’s known Pippa.
Pip’s cerebral palsy has damaged the parts of her brain that controls her speech. It’s impaired her balance and muscle tone. It’s robbed her of parts of her intellect but she’s attuned to the world in other ways.
She understands what I feel. She’s waiting for me to be ready, not the other way around.
Perhaps it’s a twin thing.
Pippa stopped speaking for several years when she was a child. It was when she realised that she didn’t sound like other children. That she couldn’t find and shape the words as I did. Her development wasn’t as arrested as everyone supposed. Dad, Elsa and her teachers all underestimated her.
I could’ve tried to help her. I could have acted as an interpreter as I’ve always understood her but I didn’t. Instead, I watched her struggle.
And here she is, as if I’ve called out to her.
Pippa’s small and twisted, muscle spasticity contorting her left side. That she’s grey at the temples shocks me, despite the fact mine’s the same but covered with dye. She’s wearing leggings and a colourful sweatshirt; the sort of clothes Dad always bought for her. That she’s unchanged yet older causes a pang in my chest, which I resent.
Pip looks at the world obliquely, as if scared to face it straight on. She stands in the doorway, weighing me up and then smiles, her pleasure at seeing me plain on her narrow face.
That’s what makes me cry. For her. For myself. I’ve abandoned her again and again. As soon as I could walk, I walked away from her. As we grew older, my greatest unkindness towards her was my coldness. As a teenager, I never wanted to be seen with her. After our twenty-third birthday, I never came back.
I put my arms around her. I’ve not asked Elsa if Pip was with Dad when he collapsed, if she sat beside him, if she saw the paramedics at work.
The onslaught of my tears and sudden embrace frighten her and I’m the one who feels abandoned when Pip pulls away.
Ten years since my last visit to The Beeches. Ten years since Dad and I argued. I drove home after spending the weekend here for our birthday. Elsa had made a cake, a sugary creation piled up with candles that was more suitable for children.
Dad rang me when I got back to my flat in London.
“I’m disappointed, Julie.”
“What?” I wasn’t used to him speaking to me like that.
“You come down once in a blue moon and spend the whole time on the phone.”
“I have to work.” I was setting up my own recruitment agency. I was angry at Dad for not understanding that. I was angry that he thought I owed him an explanation. “I’m still getting thing off the ground.”
“Yes, I know your work’s more important than we are.”
“It’s how I make a living. You sound like you want me to fail.”
“Don’t be preposterous. All I’m saying that it would be nice for you to be here when you’re actually here.”
“I drove all the way to be there. It’s my birthday too.”
“You act like coming home is a chore. Pippa’s your sister. You have a responsibility towards her.”
“Yes, I’m her sister, not her mother. Aren’t I allowed a life of my own? I thought you’d be happier that you’ve only got one dependent now.”
“Don’t talk about Pip like that.”
“Like you’re angry at her. It’s not her fault that your mother killed herself.”
“No? Whose was it then? Yours?”
Those were my final words to him. I don’t know why I said them now.
The following morning’s a quiet relief. I wake long before Pippa. The house is familiar. The cups are where they’ve always lived. The spoons in the same drawer, the coffee kept in a red enamel canister as it always had been when I lived here. It’s like returning to another country after years away. Even though I recognise its geography, customs, and language, I’ll never again be intrinsic to its rhythms.
My mobile rings.
“Ju, it’s me.” Christopher.
I’m never sure what to call him. Boyfriend sounds childish, partner business-like and lover illicit.
“The new Moroccan place has opened. I wondered if you fancied coming with me tonight.”
Not: Shall we go? There’s him and me with all the freedom between us that I need.
“I can’t. Take Cassie.” There’s no jealousy in that remark. Over the two years I’ve been seeing Chris, seeing other people too has worked well for us. It’s precisely why I picked a man with form. A player won’t want to cage me but Chris keeps coming back to me, just when I expect him to drift off with someone new.
“I stopped seeing her months ago. I told you.”
I don’t care. It makes no difference to me.
“My dad’s dead,” I say, just to try and change the subject.
“Oh God, Julie I’m so sorry. I’d just presumed he was already dead from the way you talked about him. What happened?”
“Where are you? I’ll come and help.”
“I want to.”
“And I don’t want you to,”
“I’m not trying to crowd you, but may I call you? Just to see if you’re okay.”
“Sure. Of course.” He can call. I may not answer.
I hang up
Pippa sidles up to me. We’re both still in our pyjamas. It’s an effort but I manage a smile for her.
“Do you want breakfast, Pippa? Cereal?”
I’m not sure what she eats now. It used to be raspberry jam spread thickly on toast. She tugs on my sleeve and pulls me up.
A trio of swallows hang from her bedroom ceiling. It was sent one Christmas, like all my presents to her for the last ten years, chosen for being flat packed and easy to post. Pippa reaches up and sets the birds in motion as she passes.
It’s the bedroom of a child. No, it’s the bedroom of an innocent. It needs repainting. The realisation makes me wonder what I feel. Our future’s a knife.
“Look,” Pippa beams.
Her childhood collection has grown to dominate the room. It’s housed in plastic craft drawers that are stacked on shelves to a height that Pippa can reach. Her models are lined up above the drawers, on higher shelves.
She used to make them in plasticine. They were crude lumps at first. Now she’s graduated to clay. They must fire them at the day centre. Her years of practice are in the suggestive details. A square tail. The shape of the head with a pinched beak.
They’re crows, over and over again.
Pippa opens one of the drawers and picks out buttons, one at a time, and drops them into my open hand. Each one’s unique, only their colour in common. They’re white plastic, mother of pearl, enamel, stained fabric, and horn. She laughs as they spill through my fingers. The rest of that block of drawers contains buttons, each separated by compartment for the rainbow.
“Pippa, are all these from the crow palace?”
“Yes, birdies.” She mangles some of the syllables but she’s definite.
She shows me more. Her collection is sorted by type of object, or by shape where Pippa was unsure. Coins and bottle tops. Odd earrings. Screws. Watch parts. The tiny bones of rodents, picked clean and bleached by time.
I used to have a collection of my own, the crows left us treasures on the crow palace in return for food. They came with presents every day. I threw mine out when I started high school.
I regret it now, as I sit here with Pippa.
“Here.” She thrusts one of the drawers into my hands.
Something lonely rattles around inside. I tip it out. I hold it up between my forefinger and thumb. A ring designed as a feather that wraps around the finger. Despite the tarnish, it’s lovely—the hard line of the shaft, the movement of the hundreds of vanes and downy barbs.
It’s impossible that it’s here because I’m sure Mum was buried with it. I watched Dad lay out the things for the undertaker: a silk blue dress, tights, a pair of leather heels, a lipstick, and this ring. He put her wedding band and diamond engagement ring in a box and placed it in his bedside drawer. For you, when you get married, as if this was given.
The feather ring was kept to go with her into the grave. We were on holiday when she realised she was expecting. She chose this from an antique shop in France the same day that she told me. I was thrilled. I think she’d want to wear this.
I close my eyes. Had I imagined that? As I do, the ring finds its way onto the ring finger of my left hand, which goes cold. I can feel the blood in my wrist freezing. I yank it off before ice reaches my heart.
“Where did you get this?” My voice is shrill. “Pippa?”
“Crows,” she says.
I force myself to go into Dad’s room. It’s stifling. Being north facing and a dull day, the poor quality light brings out the green undertones in the patterned gold wallpaper. The dark, heavy furniture makes the room crowded and drab.
Everything’s an effort. There’s something about being back here that’s put me in a stupor. I’m procrastinating about everything.
Looking through Dad’s things should hurt but it doesn’t. It’s like rifling through a stranger’s personal effects for clues. He was an unknown entity to me because I didn’t care enough to want to find out who he was. Shouldn’t blood call out to blood? Mine didn’t. I felt more for Pip, my dead mother, and for Elsa. Dad’s love was smothering and distant all at once as if I was something to be feared and guarded closely.
I pile his clothes in bin bags to take to the charity shop. I pause when I find box files full of football programmes. I never knew he was a fan. It looks like he went regularly before we were born. It crosses my mind that they might be worth something, but then I chuck them on the pile to get rid of.
It’s only when I’m clearing out the second wardrobe that I find something that piques my interest. There’s a steel box at the back with his initials on it, under a pile of moth eaten scarves. It’s locked. I spend the next hour gathering together every key I can find, searching drawers and cupboards for them. Nothing fits.
I carry the box downstairs and put it on the kitchen table. It’s too late in the day to take it to a locksmith. I’ll go tomorrow.
Who knew that death is so bureaucratic? I’m relieved there won’t be a post-mortem but there’s still the registering of Dad’s death and meetings with the undertaker, bank and solicitors. Elsa’s a brick, taking Pip to the day centre or over to her place if I have things to arrange.
The future leaves me in a stupor of indecision. I stare out of the kitchen window at where the pond used to be. Now it’s a rockery in the same kidney shape.
What sort of people would have a pond with young children in the house?
The pond was where I found Mum’s body, looking boneless as it slumped over the stones at the water’s edge. I was four. I thought she’d just fallen over. I ran out to help her get up. A jay sat on her back. The bird is the shyest of all Corvids, flamboyant by comparison to its family, in pink, brown, and striped blue. It normally confines itself to the shelter of the woods.
I paused as the wind blew up her skirt, revealing the back of her thighs. Her head was turned to one side. The jay hopped down to look at her face, then pecked at one of her open, staring eyes.
The jay turned as I approached and let out a screech, blood on its beak. Or maybe I was the one screaming. I’d put my hands over my ears.
A shriek comes from the sun-room, next door. I drop my coffee cup, imagining Pippa has conjured the same image. She’d followed me out that day and seen Mum too. By the time my cup smashes on the floor and sends hot coffee up my legs and the cabinets I realise something’s actually wrong.
Pippa’s pressed against the window, shouting and banging with her fists.
“What is it?”
I grab her shoulders but she twists around to look outside again. From here we have an interrupted view of the back garden.
A magpie deposits something on the crow palace, then starts to make a racket. Its blue -black -white colouring reveals its affinities for the living and the dead.
Only then does the sudden whirring motion draw my gaze down to the lawn. The cat’s bright pink collar contrasts with its grey fur. A second magpie is pinned by the cat’s paw on its spread wing. Its other wing is a blur as it struggles. The magpie’s mate flies down and the cat breaks its gaze with its prey and hisses.
I know it’s the natural order of things but I’m sickened and trembling. I open the patio door and clap my hands as if such a banal gesture can end this life-and-death struggle. Pippa’s more decisive, stumbling out and I hold her back for fear she’ll be scratched.
Flat black shapes with ragged wings darken the sky. Ravens. One swoops, catching the cat’s ear with its bill as fierce as pruning shears as it passes over. The cat contorts, blood on its fur, releasing the magpie which makes an attempt at broken flight.
The cat crouches, a growl in its throat. Its ears are flat to its head, its fur on end, doubling its size. The birds are coming down in black jets, from all directions. The cat raises a paw, claws unsheathed, to swipe at its assailants. The ravens take it by surprise with a group attack. One lands, talons clutching the nape of the cat’s neck. It writhes and screams. The sound cuts through me. The birds are like streaks of rain. I can’t see the cat anymore. It’s been mobbed by darkness.
Pippa and I clutch one another. The cat’s silent now. The ravens lift together into the sky and all that remains on the grass are steaks of blood and tufts of fur.
I remember later that the magpies left us a gift, a task which made them careless of their long collective memory of their past persecutions by gamekeepers and farmers.
The key they left on the crow palace shines as if calling to me. The metal’s so cold that it hurts to hold it, as if it’s just come out of a freezer.
I have the queasy feeling that I know what it’s for. It slides into the padlock on the steel box with ease and I feel its teeth catch as I turn it.
Everything I know about Mum is distilled from scant memories. I’m shaking at the prospect of something concrete. I open the lid. Here’s where Dad buried her significant remains.
It contains a random assortment. A lady’s dress watch. A pair of pearl earrings. A silk patterned scarf. An empty perfume bottle. I open it and the stale fragrance brings Mum back to me on a drift of bluebells. I wipe my eyes. I’d forgotten she always wore that. There’s a birthday card signed With more than love, Karen.
What is there that’s more than love?
We weren’t a photographed family. There aren’t any happy snaps that feature Pip and me. This pile of photographs are of Mum and Dad when they were young, before we were born. I shuffle through them. Mum and Dad at the beach, on bicycles, another in formal dress. Their happiness grates. Why couldn’t they saved some of it for us?
The last thing out of the box is a handkerchief. Whatever’s knotted within clinks as I lift it out. It’s a pair of eggs. They’re unnaturally heavy, as if made of stone. And they’re warm.
I can’t resist the impulse to crack one of them open. Fluid runs over my fingers. I sniff it. Fresh egg white.
A baby’s curled up within, foetal like, her tender soles and toes, her genitals displayed. She’s perfect. I don’t know what she’s made of. Something between rubber and wax that’s the colour of putty.
I break open the second one. Another girl. This one’s different. She has massive, dark eyes that are too wide set to be normal. There are sparse, matted feathers on her back. Faint scale cover her feet.
I carefully rewrap the pair, trying not to touch them, and put them back in the box.
My phone rings. Then stops. Starts again. There’s nothing for it. I answer it.
“Chris.” I try not to sound irritated.
“How are you?”
“Busy. You know.”
“No, I don’t. Tell me.”
“Stuff to sort out. Dad and for my sister.”
“You have a sister? What’s her name?”
“Phillipa. We call her Pippa.”
“What’s she like?”
Pippa? She likes birds, me, the colour turquoise, chocolate, having a routine, crow gifts, sunshine. She gets frustrated when she can’t make herself understood. Her eyes are hazel brown and she has eczema.
“She has cerebral palsy. My dad took care of her.”
“Will I meet her at the funeral?”
I’m about to say Of course she’ll be at the funeral but then I realise that Chris is assuming he’s invited.
“Why do you want to come? You never met him.”
“Not for him, for you. Tell me your address.”
“I don’t need you here.”
I don’t understand. It feels like an argument, full of unspoken baggage that I didn’t even know we were carrying.
“Julie, what are we doing?”
His tone sets off an alarm bell in my head.
“You must know that I—” Don’t say it. Don’t say I love you. He falters, “You must know how much I care about you.”
I feel sick. I thought we were alike. Just my luck to find a man who falls in love with the one woman who’s not chasing him.
“I’m not talking about marriage or children.”
Children. For all the carelessness of my affections there’s never been a child.
“I told you at the start that I’m not like other people. You promised me that you understood completely.”
“There’s more to us than just sex.”
I can’t believe he’s doing this.
“Don’t you get it?” I should be angry but a column of coldness is solidifying inside me. “There is no more. I’m not broken, so you can’t fix me. I don’t love you because I can’t love anyone.”
“Julie, please . . . ”
I hang up and bar his number.
There’s never been so many people in the house. I don’t like it. I wanted it to be just us, but Elsa went on so much that I relented. I wish I hadn’t now.
I forgot to pack a black dress so I had to buy one in a hurry. I took Pippa with me, there being nothing suitable in her wardrobe either. The shop assistant stared at her while she touched the expensive silks. The woman’s tune changed when it was clear that I didn’t have to look at the price tags.
I picked out a neat black dress myself and a black tunic, leggings and ankle boots for Pippa. On impulse, I took her to a salon to get her hair dyed and styled. She was more patient than I expected. She liked being somewhere new. My favourite part was Pippa’s smile when the shampoo was massaged into her scalp.
It was a nice day.
Today isn’t. When we went out to the funeral car, Elsa said, “Look at the two of you. Pippa, you look so grown up. And Julie, wonderful. Black suits you more than any other colour. You should wear it more.”
Grief fucks people up.
The mourners come in, folding up their umbrellas like wings, dripping rain on the parquet floor.
“Elsa, are any of the neighbour’s coming?”
“God, no. All the one’s you’d know are dead or moved away.”
I don’t know the people here. Some used to work with Dad, apparently, others knew him from Pippa’s day centre or through Elsa. They all greet her like she’s long lost family.
It’s unnerving that they line up to speak to me, something more suited to a wedding than a funeral.
The first is a tall, broad man, dressed in a shiny tight suit and winkle pickers. Spiv’s clothes but he’s gentle, paternal even. He takes my hand and looks right into my eyes, searching for something.
“My name’s Charlie.”
“Thank you for coming.”
“I’m so very pleased to meet you, my dear. You’re as lovely as I thought you’d be. I understand you’re a smart lady too.” Then as if he’s just recalled why we’re here, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
A pair of elderly ladies are next. They’re twins. Both have the same bob, cut into a bowl shape at the front, hooked noses and dowager’s humps that marks their identically crumbling spines.
“Do you have children?” says the first one, which isn’t the opener I expected.
The second one tuts and pushes her sister along. They’re followed by a couple who call themselves Arthur and Megan. A first I think they’re brother and sister as they’re so alike, but the way he hovers around her suggests their relationship is more than familial. Her arm’s in plaster.
“How did you know Dad?”
“Through my father.” The man waves his hand in a vague gesture that he seems to think explains everything.
Young men, a few years younger than I am, come next. They’re all in designer suits. Each is striking in his own way. They stand close to me as they introduce themselves. One even kisses my hand. The last one interests me the most. He’s not the tallest or best looking but I like his quiet confidence and lively face. There’s a yearning in his voice when he says my name that tugs at me. To smile at him seems weak, so I nod.
“My name is Ash.”
“Ash.” The word coats my tongue with want.
A woman edges him along.
She has the manner of entitlement that only certain hard, beautiful women have. Her fingernails are painted black. The lacquer’s like glass. She looks me up and down as she passes.
I sip my drink as more people introduce themselves, then go off to decimate the buffet and the wine boxes. I try not to look at Ash’s every movement. It’s a lovely agony. I close my eyes, the tannin in the red wine shrinking the inside of my mouth.
“How is Julie settling back in here?” It’s Charlie.
“Well, she’s here for now.” I don’t like Elsa’s tone. She must be drunk too.
I open my eyes. Charlie’s suit can’t settle on a single shade of black.
“I’m sorry Elsa. You must be missing Michael.”
I turn away a fraction, not wanting them to know I’m listening. From the periphery of my vision I see him embrace Elsa.
The young men congregate by the hearth. Rosalie’s berating them for something. I catch her final words: “I don’t see what’s so special about her anyway.”
I know she’s talking about me because Ash looks over and keeps on looking even though he’s caught me eavesdropping. “Don’t you?” he replies with a smirk.
“I’m Stephanie.” A woman gets in the way, just when I think he’s going to walk over and join me. “You’re Julie, yes?”
There’s a long pause. I sigh inwardly. I’m going to have to try and make conversation with her. She’s in her fifties. She’s only wearing one earring and most of her hair’s escaped from her bun.
“Where are you from?”
“From?” she says.
“Your accent . . . ” Her pronunciation’s off kilter, her phrasing odd.
“I’ve lived in lots of different places.” She glances around the room. “I think Elsa would rather I hadn’t come.”
She reaches out and swipes a sandwich from a plate, gobbling it down in two mouthfuls. “These are delicious.”
The volume of the chattering around us bothers me. I’ve drunk too much on an empty stomach.
“This place hasn’t changed since your mother’s funeral.”
“You met her?”
Tennis. How little I knew about her.
“Such a gracious, joyous woman.” Stephanie twitters on. “Want and need. How they undo us.”
“There are so many crows in Fenby now. They’ve quite pushed out the cuckoos.” She speaks in a comedy whisper, getting louder with each word. “Your mother guessed that they’d double-crossed her.”
The chatter’s dying. Everyone’s watching us now.
“You know how it works, don’t you? They laid one of their own in your mother’s nest . . . ”
Charlie comes over and puts an arm around her.
“Stephanie, what are you taking about? Julie doesn’t want to hear this rubbish.” He pulls a face at me. “It’s time for you to go home.”
“You can’t push me around. I have a right to be here. We had a deal.” She breaks away from him and seizes me in a hug.
“I’m sorry. For all of it,” she whispers in my ear. “It’s true. Look under the crow palace.”
I want to ask her how she knows that’s what we call the bird table but Ash comes and takes her arm.
“Aunt Steph, I’ll see you home.”
“I’m not your aunt.”
“No, Ash, you should stay.” Elsa joins us.
“It’s fine.” Ash kisses my cheek. My flesh ignites. “May I come and see you again? Tomorrow?”
“Yes.” It’s as easy at that.
“Until then.” He steers Stephanie towards the door.
The noise starts up again in increments. Ash’s departure has soured my mood.
Pippa can’t settle. As the mourners gathered around Dad’s grave she cringed and started to wail as if finally understanding that he’s gone. Now she’s wandering about, refusing to go to her room but flinching when any of our guests come near her. She stands, shifting her weight from foot to foot, in front of the twins who are perched in her favourite armchair.
“Oh for God’s sake, just sit somewhere will you?” I snap.
Pippa’s chin trembles. The room’s silent again.
Elsa rushes over to her but Pippa shoves her away. Elsa grabs her wrist.
“Look at me, Pippa. It’s just me. Just Elsa.” She persists until Pippa stops shaking. “Better? See? Let’s go outside for a little walk.”
Pippa’s face is screwed up but she lets Elsa take her out onto the patio.
I lock myself in the bathroom and cry, staying there until everyone leaves. I’ve no idea what I’m crying for.
I wish this humidity would break. It’ sticky, despite yesterday’s rain. I feel hungover. Lack of sleep doesn’t help.
I wave goodbye to Elsa and Pippa as they go out. Elsa’s keen to be helpful. I’ll drop Pippa off, I’ll be going that way to the shops. Why don’t you go and get some fresh air on the lawn? You’ll feel better.
I can’t face sorting out the last of Dad’s clothes. The thought of the hideous green-gold wallpaper in there makes me want to heave. Instead, I take boxes of papers out to a blanket I’ve laid out on the lawn. It’s prevarication. I’m pretending that I’m doing something useful when I should be sorting out our future.
All the ridiculous talk of swapped babies and symbolic eggs seems stupid now that I’m out in the fresh air.
I imagined it would be cut and dried when Dad died. Sell the house. Find somewhere residential for Pippa or pay Elsa to take care of her. Now I hate myself. I have all along, and have taken it out on Pip. She’s the purest soul I know. There’s such sweetness in her. How can I leave her to the mercy of others?
How can I love her so much yet can’t bear to be near her sometimes? I fought everyone who tried to bully her at school. I became a terror, sniffing out weakness and reducing other children to tears. I started doing it just because I could. They hated me and in return and I felt nothing for them, not anger, not contempt. That’s how damaged I am.
I’m afraid that everything people think of me is true, but I’m not afraid enough to change. I am selfish. I like my own silence and space. I hated Dad for saying, “You will look after Pippa won’t you? The world’s a terrible place.”
Need. Nothing scares me more.
Then I look at Pippa, who is far more complete a human being than I am. She’s no trouble, not really. I could work from here and go to London for meetings. All I need to run my business is a phone. It would only need a bit of will to make it work.
I pull papers from the box. It’s an accumulation of crap. Receipts from electrical appliances, their warranties long outdated, bills, invitations and old business diaries.
It’s so quiet. I lie back. There’s not even the slightest breath of a breeze. I shield my eyes as I look up. The trees are full of Corvidae.
Birds don’t roost at eleven in the morning, yet the rookeries are full. Sunlight reveals them as oil on water creatures with amethyst green on their foreheads and purple garnets on their cheeks.
Rooks, weather diviners with voices full of grit who sat on Odin’s shoulders whispering of mind and memory in his ears.
How Elsa’s lessons come back to me.
She taught me long ago to distinguish rooks from crows by their diamond shaped tails and the bushy feathers on their legs. I find these the strangest of all Corvidae, with their clumsy waddles and the warty, great patch around the base of their beaks. It’s reptilian, Jurassic, even. A reminder that birds are flying dinosaurs, miniaturised and left to feed on insects and carrion.
I turn my head. Crows have gathered too, on the patio furniture, the bird baths, the roof and, of course, the crow palace. The washing line sags under their weight.
I daren’t move for fear of scaring them. Perhaps I’m scared.
Ash walks through their silence. They’re not unsettled by his presence. He’s still wearing the same suit. His stride is long and unhurried.
He doesn’t pay attention to social niceties. He falls to his knees. I lean up, but I’m not sure if it’s in protest or welcome. It’s as if he’s summed me with a single glance when I’m not sure what I want myself. He presses his mouth against mine.
He pushes my hair out of the way so he can kiss the spot beneath my ear and then my throat. The directness of his desire is exhilarating, unlike Chris’ tentative, questioning gestures.
He pulls open my dress. I unbutton his shirt. He pulls down my knickers with an intensity that borders on reverence.
His body on mine feels lighter than I expect, as if he’s hollow boned.
When he’s about to enter me he says, “Yes?”
“Say it. I need to hear you say it. You have to agree.”
“Yes, please, yes.”
I’ll die if he stops now. The friction of our flesh is delicious. It’s as necessary as breathing.
When Ash shudders to a climax, he opens his mouth and Caw,caw,caw comes out.
I wake, fully dressed, lying on a heaped-up blanket beneath the crow palace. There’s a dampness between my legs. I feel unsteady when I get up. The shadows have crept around to this side of the house. It must be late afternoon.
When I go in, Elsa’s in the kitchen. She’s cleaned up after yesterday.
“I’m sorry. I was going to do that . . . ”
“It’s okay.” She doesn’t turn to greet me.
“Having a nap. We’re all quite done in, aren’t we?”
She turns to wipe down the worktops. She looks so at ease, here in Dad’s kitchen.
“What happened to my mother?”
I have to take the damp cloth from her hand to make her stop and look at me.
“It’s all on record.”
“I want to hear what’s not on record.”
“Then why didn’t you ask Michael while he was still alive?”
I’ve been expecting this but the anger and resentment in Elsa’s voice still surprises me. I take a deep breath. Retaliation won’t help my cause.
“Because he hated taking about her.”
“Then it’s not my place to tell you, is it?”
“Of course it’s your place. You’re the closest thing to a mother that either of us have ever had.” I should’ve said it long ago, without strings. The tendons at Elsa’s neck are taut. She’s trying not to cry. I didn’t just leave Dad and Pip. I left her too.
“You were born in this house. The midwife didn’t come in time. Your father smoked cigarettes in the garden. Men didn’t get involved in those days. I helped bring you both into the world. I love you both so much. Children fly away, it’s expected. I just didn’t realise it would take you so long to come back.”
“I know you loved Dad too. Did he love you back?”
“He never loved me like he loved your mother.” Poor Elsa. Always at hand when he needed her.
“You sacrificed a lot to be with him.” Marriage. A family of her own.
“You’ve no idea.” Her voice is thick with anger. “It’s utterly changed me.”
Then she bows her head. The right thing to do would be to comfort her. To hold her and let her weep on my shoulder. I don’t though. It’s a crucial moment when Elsa’s emotions are wide open.
“The papers said Mum had postnatal depression and psychosis.”
An illness that follows childbirth. A depression so deep that it produces bizarre beliefs.
“They were desperate for children. They would’ve done anything.”
“Fertility treatments weren’t up to much back then.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, you happened. A surprise, they told everyone. I remember holding you in my arms. It was such a precious moment.”
“When did she get ill?”
“When it became clear that Pip wasn’t doing so well. You were a thriving, healthy baby but Pippa was in and out of hospital because she was struggling to feed. She slept all the time. She never cried. You were smiling, then rolling over, then walking and she was falling further and further behind.”
“And Mum couldn’t cope?”
“The doctors became worried as she had all these strange ideas. And you were a real handful.”
“I’m sorry, maybe I shouldn’t say this.”
“You were just a little girl, trying to get their attention. You’d bite Pippa, steal her food. When you we big enough, you’d try and tip her from her high chair.”
“And what exactly was it that Mum believed?”
“She insisted she’d been tricked by the birds. They’d helped her to conceive and then they went and swapped one of you for one of their own.”
I wake in the hours when the night turns from black to grey to something pale and cold. My mind’s full. It’s been working while I sleep.
Mum’s insistence that she’d been tricked by birds. That they’d helped her to conceive.
They laid one of their own in your mother’s nest . . .
Cuckoo tactics. Mimic the host’s eggs and push out one of their own. Equip your chick for warfare. Once hatched, the hooks on its legs will help it to heave its rivals from the nest.
Look under the crow palace.
I pull on jeans and a sweatshirt. Dad kept his tools in his shed. I pull the shovel from the rack, fork and a trowel for more delicate work.
It’s chilly. I leave footprints on the damp lawn. It takes a while because I go slowly. First I take up turf around the crow palace. Then I dig around the base. The post goes deep into the rich, dark soil. My arms ache.
I lean on the post, then pull it back and forth, trying to loosen it. It topples with a crash. I expect the neighbours to come running out but nobody does.
I have to be more careful with the next part of my excavation. I use the trowel, working slowly until I feel it scrape something. Then I use my hands.
I uncover a hard, white dome. Soil’s stuck in the zigzag sutures and packed into the fontanelle. The skull eyes me with black orbits full of dirt that crawl with worms.
I clean off the skeleton, bit by bit. Its arms are folded over the delicate ribcage. Such tiny hands and feet. It’s small. She’s smaller than a newborn, pushed out into the cold far too early.
Mum and Stephanie were right. Here is my real sister, not the creature called Pippa.
Oh my God, you poor baby girl. What did they do to you?
“Are you okay?” Elsa ushers me into the kitchen. It’s eight in the morning. She has her own key.
I can’t bring myself to ask whether Pippa, my crow sister, is awake. How was the exchange made? Was it monstrous Pippa that heaved my real sister from my mother’s womb? Was she strangled with her own umbilical cord? And who buried my blood sister? Was it Mum and Dad? No wonder they were undone.
“What happened to you?”
Elsa opens a cupboard and pulls out a bag of seed mix, rips it open and tips out a handful. When she eats, some of it spills down her front. She doesn’t bother to brush it off. When she offers me some I’m hit by a wave of nausea that sends me across the room on rubbery legs to vomit in the bin.
“You’ve got yourself in a right old state.” Elsa holds back my hair.
I take a deep breath and wipe my nose.
“Elsa, there’s a baby buried in the garden.”
She goes very still.
“You knew about it, didn’t you?” I sit down.
She pulls a chair alongside mine, its legs scraping on the tiles. She grasps my hands.
“I didn’t want you to know about it yet. I wish that cuckoo-brained Stephanie hadn’t come to the funeral. And Arthur and Megan hadn’t interfered with that damn key. You found the eggs, didn’t you?”
I think I’m going to faint so I put my head on the table until it passes. Elsa rubs my back and carries on talking. When I sit up, Elsa’s smiling, her head tilted at an odd angle. A gesture I don’t recognise. “I’m actually relieved. It’s easier that you know now you’re staying.”
“Elsa, I can’t stay here.”
“It’s best for everyone. You’ve others to consider now.”
I press my fists to my closed eyes. I can’t consider anything. My mind’s full of tiny bones.
“Mum knew that Pippa wasn’t hers, didn’t she?” I’m thinking of the human-bird-baby in its shell.
“Pippa?” Elsa’s eyes are yellow in this light. “No, she knew that it was you that wasn’t hers. She had to watch you like a hawk around Pip.”
I vomit again. Clumps of semi digested food gets caught in my hair. Elsa dabs at my mouth with a tea towel. Her colours are the jay’s—brown, pink and blue. Was it her, stood at Mum’s back and pecking at her eye?
Pippa stands in the doorway looking from my face to Elsa’s and back again. I’ve never seen Pip’s gaze so direct.
Now I know why my heart’s loveless. Pip’s not the aberration, I am. I’m the daughter of crows, smuggled into the nest. Pippa is how she is because of my failed murder attempt. I affected her development when I tried to foist her from the womb.
It’s all my fault.
Pippa edges around the room, giving the woman who raised her a wide berth. She tucks herself under my arm and puts a hand low down on my abdomen. She peers into my face, concerned, and says, “Birdies.”
Originally published in Black Feathers, edited by Ellen Datlow.