Dead Birds

I discovered the first of the fallen flock atop the trunk of my car. It laid there so still, bereft of its lively spark in the still morning air. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how it had come to be in my closed garage. I could see no place where it could have gotten in, and I surely would have noticed had it been stuck there long enough to starve.

I lifted the bird’s tiny frame in my hands. It was so light it felt like cupping air, yet this little one would know the air no more. The bird’s head fell limply to one side as I raised it up, and that sole motion brought the murky perception of its death into sudden, perfect clarity. The world grayed around me and grew distant, bringing me to tears.

Before I discarded the shell, I gently stroked the bird’s head in a final act of compassion. For the briefest moment as my finger slid along the soft feathers, I thought I sensed something. An eerie impression that something unseen was watching me, a stalking shadow. However, the odd, unsettling feeling left me as quickly as it had come, and so I thought of it no more.

Almost a year had passed before I discovered another dead bird. This one was much like the first: still, sealed in the garage, and saddening. I suppose I like to imagine such gentle creatures as immortal, as one rarely sees their remains, but the truth is the serenity of a bird’s song can only beguile Time for so long. Again I laid a bird to rest, and thought of it no more.

No, I didn’t begin to think back on those memories until I came across the third husk, and only then because it rested beneath my dining room table. A strong suspicion grew in me; somewhere, hidden away, there must be an open aperture to the outside world. I collected the bird from the floor; as I did, the momentary feeling of a passing shadow returned. This time I paused in my rite to peer around the room, unsure of what I hoped to find, but beheld nothing unusual. The experience left me with a lingering sense that something was amiss, but I could not have said what.

Over the next few days I scoured the house from basement to attic, hoping that, with the help of a flashlight and some windy weather, the hidden passage would reveal itself. My efforts were for naught, as my search failed to uncover the faintest flicker from the candle’s flame. Having no fruits to show for my labors, I resolved to put the issue out of my mind.

Several weeks passed uneventfully, and I had almost forgotten the birds entirely when, while leaving to fetch the mail, I felt something give beneath my shoe as a succession of faint, dry cracks echoed across the wooden floor. Pulling my shoe away revealed yet another dead bird. I stared down at the bird’s ruined frame for some time, growing quite frustrated with each passing moment. How were they getting into the house? Why had I never found one alive? How were they dying? So many questions without answers.

Before returning with the mail I paid each of my neighbors a visit, making brief inquiries of each. To my disappointment, none had been beset themselves, nor were the able to shed any light on these confounding incidents. I thanked each of them, and each in turned promised – a bit confused and concerned –  to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, and notify me immediately if they did.

I returned home, exasperated, trying in vain to think of explanations as I closed the front door behind me. Looking down, I noticed that, in my haste, I had neglected to actually remove the deceased bird. Leaning down I reached out to gather it up. When I had but brushed its feathers with the tips of my fingers I felt something slide along my leg. I reeled back, searching frantically for the source, but could find nothing to account for it – again. Flustered and more than a little unnerved, I tore open the door and kicked the bird into the bushes. Slamming the door, I made my way though every room, closet, and cupboard in the house, going so far as to scan under every piece of furniture with a light, yet still found nothing. It had been the shadow, I could feel it. No, it was more than that. I knew it. However, that certainty only served to vex me further, as what kind of sane conclusion could such thoughts lead to?

I spent the rest of the evening out with some close friends. When the night came to a close, though it was clear they found it peculiar, they offered no objections to my request to stay in their spare bedroom. I tossed and turned much of the night, unable to silence the questions that assailed me, but eventually found sleep through sheer exhaustion. Upon waking the next morning I felt my behavior had been quite foolish. I scolded myself harshly for being so rash and paranoid. Work had been stressful for sometime, and I was letting these coincidences play tricks on my mind. I took the day off and relaxed with long walks and several glasses of wine. By the end of the day I was back in my own home, and was able to exchange all the questions and concerned for peace once again.

A week later I returned home late and spent from a particularly stressful ordeal at work. Juggling several items in my hands, my fumbling key finally found the keyhole, and I opened the door. As always, the lights in the house were off, but even without them I immediately sensed that something was very wrong. I peered into the darkness as I set down all that I had been carrying, then righted myself and reached for the light. I gasped and starred in bewilderment at what the illumination revealed. Leading from the back door, along the hallway, and down into the basement was a trail of blood and tattered, black feathers.

For the longest time all I could do was stand there and stare. When I finally got enough of my wits about me to notice that the sliding back door was open, I stepped slowly down the hallway, careful to avoid the blood and feathers, making my way to the door. There were even more feathers at this end of the house – unbelievable. Closing the door, I walked in a stupor to the open basement door and stared down the dark steps at the crimson trail. I began to make my way down into the basement, too incredulous to formulate any but the most rudimentary guesses as to what had happened here, but driven on nevertheless.

Stopping at the bottom of the steps, dusty silence reached out around me in every direction. A few paces into the dark in front of me the grisly trail terminated, and at its end lay a black, motionless lump. I took a deep breath and noticed I was shaking as I reached for the light and flipped it. The largest crow I have ever seen lay mangled and prostrate in a pool of its own drained life. As I circled around the scene, trying desperately to glean answers from it, the crow’s black eyes seem to stare back at me, unblinking, and I couldn’t help but shudder and shy away from its gaze.

It was then a simple notion slipped through my vexation and began to take shape.  It seemed tenuous at first, but with only the barest amount of fostering it flared from a spark into an explosion of inspiration.  A cat! It must be a cat! No doubt a stray roaming the neighborhood. How could I have been so blind? I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as the weight of uncertainty melted away. I didn’t recall leaving the door open, but I did on occasion leave it so for the fresh air. True, this explanation had its holes, and I suspect I saw them even at the time, but I was so relieved by the revelation that there was no room left for doubt to creep in and take root.

I alerted animal control, leaving the bloody trial untouched for them to examine. They were out within the hour, and upon inspection they were inclined to agree with my feline theory. However, despite scouring both the house and surrounding neighborhood for signs of this elusive hunter, we uncovered no trace of its existence. More dead-ends and disappointment. I thanked the woman for her assistance, taking her card in case the cat reveled itself, and then set to work cleaning up the grisly remnants it left behind.

Having scrubbed the floors and gathered up more feathers than I would have thought ten birds could possibly have had, I reclined in my chair, eyes closed, content to pass the evening with a bottle of wine and some reading. Halfway through my first glass, I was interrupted by the phone. My irritation evaporated when it turned out to be a good friend of mine who had been out of town for some time. I took the opportunity to divulge to her much of what had been going on, not having mentioned it before for fear of needlessly worrying her. However, even with my recent relief notwithstanding, I should have known such worries were unfounded. She found the whole situation quite intriguing, and asked if she could join me to hear the details at length. I eagerly accepted.

She arrived as I neared the bottom of my second glass. I embraced her warmly and offered her some the wine, but she politely declined. I turned and made my way back into the living room, elaborating on the events of the past two years as I went. It wasn’t until I had sat down that I noticed she hadn’t followed. I called out to her, and when I received no response I made my way back down the hallway. I found her standing in front of the basement door, seemingly lost in worry. I asked if anything was amiss. She hesitated, visibly unsettled, and darted her gaze between myself and the door. I urged her to take me into her confidence, eager to understand her sudden change in demeanor. When she did, her words shook me. She had sensed an unsettled presence in the house, coming from the basement.

I found myself scoffing at the notion, my indignation bolstered by the alcohol. However, when she crossed her arms and gave me a level, disapproving stare, I knew that this was no jest or fanciful notion. Though I had never been one to indulge in the frivolity of supernatural beliefs, I trusted my friend without question. I apologized for my jeering words and invited her to sit with me to explain her intuition further.

She told me what she felt more palpable than anything she had experienced before. I asked if she thought this was an evil spirit, but she didn’t believe so. She said that the emotions she had felt were complicated and foreign in many ways. Laughingly, I suggested to her that perhaps this poltergeist was the stray cat that had been pestering me with its multitude of dead birds. She raised an eyebrow at that, and asked me what I was referring to. It wasn’t long before I had her caught up on the events of the past two years. I could see her becoming more tense as I related my story,  and as soon as I finished said that we needed to depart immediately to gather supplies. It was my turn to be confused, but she begged me to trust her, adamant that it was essential we hurry. Intrigued, I acquiesced.

We spent the next couple of hours far from the comforting warmth of my wine bottle to collect what Amy described as ritual components from stores as varied as self-named witch’s apothecary to the local grocery store. I thought our newly charged quest rather fanciful, but nevertheless found it an equally entertaining distraction. Returning, my friend slowly paced the width and breadth of the basement in search of what she described as the nexus between the ethereal emotions she had sensed and the room itself. Finally, she settled on a particular spot, and we gathered the various items we had purchased, along with another bottle of wine, and began.

The flare of a struck match tore at the blackness around us before settling into a low glow, allowing my friend to light a white candle that sat on the concrete between us. When the wick took the flame, its light tossed our flickering shadows against the walls. Around the base of the candle my friend drew a circle with blue chalk. Out from that circle she drew connecting lines to symbols she told me represented the feline, spirit, and earth, respectively, then connected each of them to the next. From each of the three symbols she drew out another line and then a small circle. In the earth circle went dirt from the front garden; in the feline circle went a small, wooden cat figurine; and in the spirit circle went a tiny cone of burning incense. To one side she set the small bag of remaining items and closed her eyes.

Sipping at my wine I looked on, finding the whole ritual quite absorbing. My friend thought that it would be best to contact and confront the poltergeist, and I had no objections. I set down my wine glass with a soft clink, emptied yet again, as my friend spoke almost imperceptibly, trying to draw out our avian executioner. I sat quietly and listened to her airy words as I watched the flickering candle flame twist and waive. As I watched, the candle flame went rigid and slowly changed in color to a deep blue, and when my friend spoke, her words startled me greatly. She told me that we had a visitor. Before I could ask her meaning, I noticed a strange illumination on the edge of my vision where my friend was now staring. Turning, my gaze was met by two glowing red irises around slitted pupils staring out from the shadows.

I jumped back despite sitting, then those terrible eyes wandered into the candle light. Only seemingly random sections of the cat existed. One side of a skull, three skeletal paws, and a beating heart were bound together by static and weaving darkness in the outline of a feline. I lurched to my feet, knocking over glass and bottle as I haphazardly retreated. My heart pounded, adrenaline surging through my veins, as I watched the thing move, shifting suddenly from place to place without actually moving. Its eyes followed me, then the beast shifted again, manifesting just a few paces away. It hissed at me, more skeletal teeth phasing in and out of existence. My heart nearly stopped at that moment, but I was pulled from the brink and down to the cold concrete floor beneath as my friend shouted for me to focus.

She pulled a lush sprig of catnip from her bag and let it burn and smoke in the flame of the candle. The phantasmal feline became transfixed by the herbal flame, seeming to be immobilized by it. My friend instructed me to pour the bottle of milk in her bag into the small food bowl we had acquired, saying that only I could do so. Shaking and wracked with fear, I weakly pulled the items from the bag and filled the bowl with milk. The catnip had burned itself out, and My friend tossed aside the smoldering remnants. When she did, the phantasm was released from its fetters and took notice of the milk. Slowly, cautiously, it approached, its umbral form flickering and crackling with each step. Sitting in front of the bowl, the outline of its tail and ear flicked violently then settled, and it began to lap at the bowl. The milk began to simply disappear. My friend prompted me to pull the last item out of the bag: strips of salmon. I laid the strips across the back of the bowl, my hands still shaking rather violently, and once the phantasm had finished with the milk it devoured the fish.

The purr that came next reverberated around the room, seeming to emanate from every direction at once, even from inside myself. It was then that the phantasm ceased it shifting and took complete shape in existence. It bounded into my lap, purring and clawing lightly at my pants. A strange compulsion pierced though my fears, and I reached out and began stroking the cat’s soft fur. It was entirely real under my hand. With a final stroke, the cat disintegrated into a fine, black ash and just blew away.