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Photo by UnKknown Traveller
‘The Bird Thou Never Were’
My husband’s hounds cringe in the courtyard, whimpering like pups. I part the curtain with shaking fingers and peer into the gloaming. Nothing’s there, nothing I can see, but the skin on my neck crawls and something makes me reach for Henry’s shotgun. From the bedroom, Victoria moans in her sleep and I’m desperate to run to her, but I must tend to the dogs.
Torn by conflicting needs to both open the door and call in the dogs and to bar the door against whatever might be coming, I stand still, hands wrapped around Henry’s gun, the one he used to bring us food for the coming winters.
It could be the bird. The bird that comes at night, only in the deepest dark of the cold winter nights. Long after Victoria is deeply asleep, peaceful under the pills Doctor Ravel prescribed when we went to town last month, the talons scrape over roof tiles. I never see it, this bird—just a shadow of a wing, the moving darkness of a long, narrow beak, the sudden blocking of moonlight.
One of the hounds, maybe Butter, yelps, breaking my paralysis. I rush the door and yank it open, holding the shotgun level. “Butter. Franklin. Get in here now.” The dogs rush the door, and barrel past me, hair standing up on their ruffs. I slam the door the moment they’re in and fumble for the locks, clasping all of them, even the extra wide metal bar Henry installed last year after the O’Malley place across the valley got ransacked and Mrs. O’Malley got killed while the Mr. was out on a hunting trip. I put down the shotgun to wrestle the bar into place; it weighs almost as much as I do.
The door is secure, but something in the front windows catches my eye. The silhouette of a spread of wings blocks my view of the winter moon. The dogs shiver and whine at my legs as I run from room to room, closing curtains. I see it no matter where I run in the house, glimpses through the thin curtains in the front room, or between the cracks in the pantry where bitter winds rush between the uneven boards of my cabin, dark shapes creeping along the floorboards, skulking along the kitchen walls.
I can’t tell anyone about him, not even Victoria. He started coming not long after Henry’s death, when relief still warred with guilt, after Victoria began spending nights in my bed, first occasionally, then regularly, and then she moved in.
It’s here and neither my dogs, nor my dead husband’s shotgun can protect me. It follows me wherever I am, bigger than I can ascertain in my glimpses of the dark reflection of curved spurs and flashes of a giant beak. Do birds have teeth? Sometimes, my own shadow is longer than my body, stretched to clownish proportions. I remind myself of this when the shadow of the bird reflects on my walls and the teeth stretch and sharpen and keen for my skin.
The walls shake and moan against the bird’s weight. I sneak from the kitchen, down the hall to the bedroom, avoiding the window at the top of the stairs. My fingers brush across the pills on Victoria’s nightstand and I’m tempted, but the bird wants in, and I cannot stop watching. If I let my guard down, will it come crashing through the walls?
The house rattles again and Victoria shifts and sighs in her sleep. My hand reaches for her hip, steadying her dreams as I sit in my nightmare. I want to wake her, ask her to share in my terror, but feathers brush across the windows and sharp claws dig up the roof tiles, a warning. Still, I need her, need her comfort, her solid presence. “Victoria,” I whisper.
She turns, still sleeping and her eyes fly open revealing the black gimlet eyes of a bird. I see you, she says in a voice not her own. I know what you did. The dogs scream, a more unearthly noise, I’ve never heard. I want to scream, too, but my voice is frozen in my throat.
I whimper, backing away from her, from the unblinking stare. A crack, a shattering of glass, and cold air rushes through the bedroom. A warmth of feathers wraps around my shivering arms as Victoria slowly closes her eyes.
Finnian Burnett is a Canadian author whose writing explores the human body, intersections of physicality, mental health, gender identity, queer joy, and life in a fat body. They are passionate about plotting and will corner people at parties to discuss story structure. When not writing or teaching, Finnian watches too much Star Trek and futilely tries to grow a garden.