The Birds: A Ghost Story

Contributors
Publication Date
September 24, 2020

It sat, as if crouched on haunches, on a ledge in the rock face hedging the city. It appeared as a gray beast or sentinel, vacant since the death of its last steward… Though some—behind a screen of hands and conspirator’s tones—said its lights would still flicker from time to time.

The house had been there since well before anyone’s living memory began, and its strange, not-quite-minimalism belied the marks of any era’s tastes. It was the gray of weathered wood, or slate, or lead, but at close view the striations along its façade were nothing short of fiendishly organized chaos. At once intricate and hierarchical, the pattern mesmerized and befuddled even the most attentive craftsmen. All attempts to inspect or decipher it were soon resigned with abrupt disinterest.

A straight, wide path of ashlar paving came up to the foot of the house, and it was evident that this had once been a central artery in the community. But industry had long since woven and knitted new routes and practices, and the path had been truncated. The house, however, still remained a fixture—albeit a forgotten one.

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There was an unspoken, cautious respect for the house, and tradition had designated a steward responsible for its upkeep. That soul was also the city’s unofficial recordkeeper and historian. The last was a modestly educated, peculiar woman—the daughter of the previous steward. A well-spoken, but fiercely private individual, she died without a successor or instructions to train another. Her passing was notable, if only for the low resonance that echoed through the streets for days in a rhythmic drone, like wind passing through the deepest pipes of an organ. A sigh, a mourning, for the loss of an attentive “companion.” The house was then shuttered; all records and chronicles contained within were left there untouched.

Antagonistic local children would later threaten new initiates to their street games with dares to enter the house, though they would later be punished by their parents for even suggesting such a thing. Not for reasons of potential danger—for it was not malevolence that lingered there, but something else… And the incident of the birds still sat fresh in the community’s collective mind.

It happened like this. A small flock of waxwings had blown in with a storm, and several of the hapless, startled creatures had flown into the house through one of its flues. In their panic, they were left trapped. It was only after two weeks, at his spouse’s urgent pleading, that the Mayor went to either free the poor birds or, more likely, to retrieve their corpses.

He went in the early hours, with a low-level anxiety bleeding into mild irritation at being asked to do such a futile task. These emotions, however, subsided to a general fondness for his partner’s good-natured empathy.

The door swung easily, quietly, for a place that had been without occupants now for many years. The interior was covered in a veil of dust, but was otherwise intact. There, the grand stair lay slung with careless grace, filling the foyer comfortably, and beckoning non-existent visitors to simultaneously linger and move upward into the many chambered space beyond.

“Like a heart,” he’d once remarked during a visit years ago. That had been during a stage of life more attuned with awe and adventure—since replaced with caution that had been cause for his rise in status, and for his not having thought much about the house except to quickly fill its vacancy.

Sighing deeply, he went to seek out the remains of the birds, armed with a broom and a little cardboard box for a casket. But he abruptly turned at a sudden burst of sound—of door hinges and creaking floor boards, of wind caught in the hollows of a chimney.

It coalesced into a tuneless, changing melody, accompanied by the soft click of feathered wings. The flock emerged from some unseen room, looping and twisting around the foyer in graceful arcs, with the sounds issuing from their tiny bills in accompaniment. A dozen waxwings—by nature songless birds—shot through the open front doors.

And then he saw it: boldly drawn on the walls in soft yellow, part arabesque and part petroglyph—a pattern tracing the mysteries of their flight. Colossal, beautiful, and utterly horrifying. The House had miraculously harbored the birds for two weeks, and given them the gift of a building’s song. And they, in return, had shared their own small story.

… He dropped the box, and fled.

Publication Date
September 24, 2020
Volume
6
Number
02
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