Narrated by Bob Eccles
Fiona opened her eyes and knew the day was off to a bad start. Green-tinted light reflected on the wall above the bed, the sun high enough to clear the oak tree outside, shining through the stained-glass window.
Already late, she felt around for her mobile. Her fingers touched the edge of the phone, knocking it onto the carpet, out of reach and out of sight.
“For God’s sake,” she said, slamming her head back against the pillow. Why couldn’t this day just start again? Joe rolled over, burrowing his shoulder into the mattress and turning away toward the wall. Somewhere on the floor the mobile started to ring, paused, then rang again, each time getting louder.
Deep inside Fiona, something started to shift. The sensation was behind her clavicle, a small clicking like pin tumblers falling into place. The feeling intensified, sending a rush of anger through her. Wings unfurled in her chest.
She grabbed for her glasses. They fell to the floor, her book landing on top.
The crackling intensified in her chest, sped up, vibrated through her marrow. It was too late to calm down. She lifted the lamp up, balancing it in the hollow of the pillow, and opened the top of the bedside cabinet.
She clasped the walnut in her palm. It felt hard and brittle, dry against her skin. She tried to twist the two halves apart but they stayed fastened, united as the day they hung from the tree.
Fiona caught a glimpse of herself in the wardrobe mirror, the folds of the pillow marked across her cheek like initiation scars. She tried opening the walnut again, but still the two halves of the shell stayed conjoined. A brush of wingtips now spread through her torso, irritating her skin with a thousand kisses.
Beside her, Joe stirred and turned at the sound of Fiona swearing. The feather sensation reached Fiona’s palms. Hands too irritated to hold the walnut, it fell from her grip. The two halves parted, the folded pair of gloves unfurling from inside.
Fiona could already feel feathers in her wrists, wrapping around the tendons. Tiny like hummingbirds.
Joe reached out and pressed his face against her hand. A gesture of affection given birth in the midst of sleep’s death. Fiona pulled away too late. She felt revulsion start to rise.
Joe’s face changed first, seven birds pressing out from his eyes and mouth. Skin and cornea transformed to feathers and beaks. The first few jackdaws circled the room, some perching on the lightshade. Others clung to the wardrobe, talons scratching the veneer. There was little left of Joe now. Strands of flesh stretched out from the remnants of his torso as new birds took flight. Fiona turned away, reached down for the chicken skin gloves and pulled them on. Sliding to the floor, she cradled her head against the clattering of the jackdaws. Twenty-seven birds with hearth-bathed faces sung panic and confusion. She pushed knuckles into her eyes to unsee veins hanging from beaks slowly turning into tongues. To not hear the fractured voice of Joe transform into a dozen ‘chack’ calls.
It could have been any bird. In the past, books had changed to starlings, television remotes to curlews and fireguards to owls. The first time was when Fiona was five, a jigsaw spread in front of her, a single piece held in her hand. Each position, each combination failed as much as the last. Moving the rejected shape from void to void, none of them accepted the piece. Tears of frustration stained her cheeks and inside something unfurled. In her hand she felt a brushing sensation and opened her palm. Where moments earlier she held a jigsaw piece, a wren now sat in her hand. The bird took to the air and flew to the mantle-piece. She giggled and shrilled watching it skip round the room.
Fiona slammed the window shut while the jackdaws fluttered in eddies and cataracts. One of the birds could escape to the parkland beyond. Maybe Joe’s liver or his sight, his sense of humour or ability to see the colour green. At the sound of the latch the birds became unsettled, panic spreading through them like a virus. Leaving the room, Fiona closed the bedroom door, making sure none of them tried to follow. On the landing, Fiona slid down the wall and finally let herself cry.
Max was Fiona’s first pet. Following months of pestering, her mother had finally given Fiona the brindle puppy for her seventh birthday. The park was empty, just her and her new companion. Fiona felt grown up walking Max along the path, leather lead wrapped around her hand. Part of a special club entrusted with the life of another creature. She was in charge and her new pet would love her and do exactly what she wanted.
“Heel,” Fiona said, pulling the lead. Max dragged in the opposite direction, the collar straining against his neck.
“Heel.” Max ran through her legs, the lead twisting her ankles together. She fell into the dirt, scratching her knees. Anger unfurled inside, scudding into her face and hands.
“Get here, you stupid dog,” she said, grabbing hold of the scruff of Max’s neck.
His fur went first, turning him inside out. Hair became remiges and rectrices. Max’s jaws became swifts, darting around Fiona’s face. His skull folded in on itself, now a crouching sparrow-hawk. The smaller birds scattered across the park as the raptor followed in close pursuit.
As Fiona sat with arms wrapped around her knees, listening to the jackdaws tearing bedding apart for nests, all the feelings came flooding back. Fiona stroked the back of one hand with the other, the material of her gloves soft and supple.
The gloves had been her mother’s idea. The first ones, made of kid skin, erupted into cormorants when she lost her temper, her hands buried deep into the splintered bones of the ribcage. After much searching they found the chicken skin gloves for sale online, ancient and coated in dust like widow weaves.
Joe understood. They’d been together long enough. He’d watched burnt dry pans turn into cuckoos and newspapers splinter to crows. While she sobbed in the corner he would cradle the birds out of the house, then sit at the kitchen table supping tea until she shed the anger. Once she was calm with no feathers inside, he would hold her, skin smelling of almonds, and hug away the guilt. Why did he have to touch her then? Touch her that morning? Touch her at that moment? Why couldn’t he have just stayed asleep for a few minutes more? Stupid, stupid man.
Using the door handle for support, Fiona pulled herself up, walked downstairs and out into the backyard. The aviary was empty apart from piled sawdust on the floor. She listened to the calls of wild birds in the trees. For most people, birdsong was a sign of freedom. Blackbird has spoken like the first bird. Not for Fiona.
Going back upstairs, she stepped lightly into the bedroom and pulled the door tight. The birds had forced open the cupboard and torn her clothes to shreds. Blouse buttons scattered across the carpet. The clattering of jackdaws sat watching her with strands of cotton hanging from their beaks. She grabbed the first bird, and gripped its pulsing wings close to its body.
Inside her, the sensation of feathers had died away to be replaced by a deep water sadness. The gloves could be removed and pocketed until the next time. Fiona kept them on. Her mark. Her smear of ash.
Holding the aviary door open with her foot, she released the first bird. It twisted around in its skin, got loose and retreated to the top of an old metal cabinet. Fiona stood on tiptoes, talking softly, hoping that somewhere inside the dusky grey feathers a tone or shade of Joe could hear her voice.
The bird hopped forward onto her finger, pecking at the glove stitching as she carried it back to the aviary. Pausing for a moment, the creature stared with all-too-human pale blue eyes, then flew out of sight into one of the roost boxes. Over the next hour, Fiona carried the birds down one by one, opening her hands to let them free, until all the birds sat waiting and watching.
She ran her hand over the handle, remembering Joe building the aviary last autumn. He worked to her poorly sketched drawings while she supplied beer and food, sitting on the path, watching him hammer the chipboard and mesh together.
The pouch was where she left it, in a small drawer behind old hair bobbles and chess pieces. She untied the drawstring and took out the burner. Opening the small metal pot, a stench of old herbs unfurled through the room. In the garden, Fiona bent down and picked sprigs of hellebore, the dirt from the roots dropping in cleromancic patterns. She crushed the plants into the wooden frame, the flowers smeared into the grain.
Fiona opened the pot of salve, scooping out the gritty mix of wormwood, myrrh, violet and crushed bone. She touched the mixture to her lips. The tea-light guttered then caught underneath the small ceramic bowl, now smeared with the yellow paste. Outside the aviary, Fiona pressed her face against the wire and watched.
Smoke spiraled up from the burner, hitting the felt ceiling and spreading like ghost silk. Fumes draped in the jackdaw’s beaks, agitating them. They flew against each other, pulling out feathers and dropping them to the ground. As the smoke got thicker, bald, wingless birds started to fall off their perches to land on the growing pile of feathers. Fiona gagged on burning keratin.
The process was long and painful, each bird stumbling blind and flightless into the pile. They burrowed against each other, trying to keep warm. Hearing bone stretch through skin, Fiona covered her eyes. She did not need to see her husband’s rebirth from 2twenty-seven tiny deaths. The sound of her sobs drowned out the sound of skin dragging itself together from a thousand hollow quills.
“Fiomm,” the voice said, sounding wrong. Her name sounding wrong. Wiping her eyes, she turned and pushed her fingers through the gaps in the wire.
Joe lay in the middle of the aviary, naked and scarred, spread on a bed of down. Opaque calamus spiked his back. Joe tried to speak again.
“Hiona.” He shook his head.
White and black feathers lay around Joe like cast bones. The magpie must have flown in when the first jackdaw tried to escape. One for sorrow. A real bird mixed in with the fractures of Joe.
Fiona unlocked the cage, ran to the centre and held him close. He looked at her, left eye blank, flesh scarred. An emptiness under the skin. She crushed her face against his neck and let tears fall onto his almond-scented shoulder.
Fiona picked up a handful of scattered feathers. Much lighter than a human heart. The feathers floated from her hand. Joe mumbled something she couldn’t hear, the syllables a nonsense rhyme.
Tears stinging, she pictured the time she found Joe sharing a cordite and vodka-flavoured kiss with Kim. The thoughts circled across the back of her eyelids. Sleeping alone and going downstairs to find the pile of cans on the floor, his head half on, half off the sofa.
Other memories tried to force their way in; of him calming her down, or laughing until they felt their eyeballs would burst, but she forced them out of her head. Instead she remembered him watching her across a Parisian bar as she talked to friends, the chrome sheen of jealousy in his stare.
In her chest, behind her clavicle, pin tumblers clicked into place.
She held on, ignoring him trying to form her name.
The transformation took moments, the birds pressing out from Joe’s reformed skin.
They crowded around her, pecking skin out of curiosity and picking her hair to strand gold through their nests. One by one, twenty seven jackdaws and one solitary magpie took flight through the open door.
AUTHOR BIO: Steve lives in North Yorkshire, England and occasionally Munich, Germany. His stories tend towards the unsettling and unreal, dealing with revenge, loss, faery, chess playing bears and ancient gods. His work has appeared in Innsmouth Free Press, Jabberwocky Magazine, Sein und Werden, Cafe Irreal, streetcake magazine, Weaponizer and nthPosition. www.stevetoase.co.uk www.facebook.com/stevetoase1
ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com