The Austringer – Emma Devlin

On Monday, I watched the van drive off with the furniture. Yesterday, I sent the bags of her clothes to the charity shops. I’ve already spotted a scarf and a pair of shoes in the shop window and had to look away. I’m waiting to see what I’ll make of someone walking around in a hat or a jacket that was hers. I had to get it out. All of it. Everyone kept asking me, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” and I told them I was.

I came back to the empty house afterwards and found myself dancing. Not for joy. I just thought to myself, here I am alone, finally done, and I can extend this arm this way, and this leg this way, and twirl, spin; unravel in the last flushes of the light like a spool of thread all through the house until the shadows under my eyes and under my arms, behind my elbows, in the arches of my feet get sharp, and I’ll leap, twist, stamp, tick, trip, hop, rond, turn – quickly and then slowly, until my body feels heavy, until my hips are ground out of me, until my lungs burn, and my heart bursts my ears, and only then will I stop. That’s what I thought, and it’s what I did, too. I haven’t danced like that since I was a young woman, leaning on Frances. That’s a keepsake better than anything else.

It was while I was swinging and flailing around so that I heard it thump against the back of the house: a clatter of wings followed by a thick, bodily slap. I stopped a minute to catch my breath, the better to hear past the roar of my own pulse, and tip-toed to the back door. It was about six o’clock at this point, nearly full dark; just a chilly, ringing, torpid kind of blue outside. I had to squint. The cars that stream past the side of our – my – house cast a sickly, yellowish light up the yard and it’s by this that I finally saw it, on its back, feebly beating its wings on the ground. I let the lights go past it a few more times. One: springing grey feathers. Two: a pair of twitching yellow feet and a heaving torso. Three: a manic, rolling head, a pair of glinting eyes, and a smudge of red. And then it shrieked. The sound rose and fell in these great swings of panic, and underneath it all a low, resounding, clutching burr from deep in the centre of its chest.

My breathing was still a bit wobbly, and I huffed for a bit there on the back step before I got closer. The gravel crunched when I walked and the bird froze, but I swear I could feel this pull and push, and pull again, of movement in it. I could see the heart, like a gigantic knot, beating – humming – in its chest.

A hawk. A massive, lunatic hawk.

Frances was good at this, I thought, Frances would have known what to do. I mean, I’ve seen hawks before, flitting over the woods where me and Frances walked. The birds flinging themselves downwards to the fields at some slight movement, some glint, in the grass. Sometimes they were just blue shapes against the band of the reservoir, or a blur of tail-feathers. Then: stately, razoring, sidewinding, making light work of the mornings. Once, Frances found a ring that must have come off a hawk, the metal so scratched and corroded that it had simply one day fallen off, the bird itself probably passed through the woods and gone forever. She stuck it in my pocket, and then I stuck it in the drawer beside the bed. Occasionally I’d run my thumb over the numbers and wonder how light the bird must feel now, with no weight to pull it down, and would it miss a weight like that?

Frances was the one for the birds, is what I’m saying.

But there was just me.

So I said, right, my girl, get stuck in. I went and got my jacket from the hallstand and crept back out to the bird, which was now thrashing on the ground. It kicked out at the sky, driving itself slowly backwards along the grass and I was worried it’d busted a wing or something. So I threw my jacket over it and scooped it up. I think I shocked it because it barely moved. For a second I actually thought, sure, bring him into the house, there’s plenty of room, and I toppled a couple of steps towards the back door under the weight of it.

Don’t you dare, I thought I heard in my head, so I didn’t: I bucked him into the shed, jacket and all.

I wonder what it thought as it lay there? I turned on the old light. It’s the kind that gets everywhere and shows up all the cracks in a room. I watched the bird push itself slowly out of the jacket, upright, alert. What kind of thoughts tripped through its head as it took in my scratched-up shed with its ragged and warped floor, and, then, the dull, dank interior, with its layers of dust? I felt bad watching it, until it alighted its big orange eyes on me. Its head turned this way and that to look at me, and there was a movement coming from the very pit of it that made me wary. One wrong move, I thought, and I’ll get a talon – the point of one, black and shiny, was caught in the jacket and eking out – in the eye or, worse, all of them gripping my scalp as it might grip a rabbit, or a finch, or a mouse.

It was just stunned, I thought, you should have left it alone.

I backed out the door.

“Well,” I said. “Goodnight.” And I flicked off the light.

I didn’t sleep very well. The bed, you see, had been carted off with everything else.

I dreamed that I brought the bird a packet of mince and fed it piece by piece from a spoon, blood and grease dripping all over my poor jacket, until I just stood up and, quite primly, dumped the whole lot over its head.

When I woke up I thought about Frances. I just lay, in the little bed made of my coats and blankets, and thought: mince, teabags, apples, cakes. Her shopping lists. Her handwriting. I always liked her writing: ponderous, immoveable, matter-of-fact letters that were impressed so deeply into the paper it was like they were carved into stone. When I first knew Frances I found myself trying to copy her, even holding my pen the same. I couldn’t do it, of course; my hand was always too keen to jump ahead and even my most careful writing looked like chicken scratch.

It would have been nice, I suppose, to have kept something of hers for when I needed it. I’d thrown it all out because I couldn’t stand it around me. Imagine, the jumpers she’d knitted us, eaten year upon year by moths. Or her cups, her plates, still with a fingerprint here or there, gathering dust. The chairs, the tables, the paintings, the books, the TV, the radio, the sofa, the carpets: all of it was still there and she wasn’t. It made me ridiculous. The one thing I hesitated over were the boxes of things she’d picked up during our walks, but even those went. Frances would take my arm during those walks, pick out something from the ground, the hedges, the trees, and we would walk while Frances talked. We’d go out after the rain. We watched the blackbirds sunbathing, the butterflies in the weeds, the trees rustling crisply in the breeze, until we went home again for tea, apples, cake. Even then, lying in the eerie quiet of the house, I could recall those walks in the woods, with a fresh sun coming out from behind the clouds to warm our damp hair, our hands, our raincoats.

But I hadn’t kept anything.

So I got up.

I drove into town, and then past the town, and out towards the woods. I told myself that I’d park at the foot of the hill, walk for thirty minutes, sit, and come back. I repeated this to myself: drive, walk, sit, back, drive walk, sit, back, drive walk sit back, over and over again – with this weird anticipation, an anxiety, like it’d be terrible not to – until the words didn’t even mean anything anymore. Then I drove past the woods, after all, and into the next town, which I didn’t know so well.

I went around the shops, feeling sort of maladjusted, you know, until I thought about the bird. And I cheered up. I walked sprightly around this little town, this squashed, boxy little town, while I thought about that hawk back at home, brooding in the damp among the plant pots. I’ll admit that it was a lovely thing, now I could see it clearly in my mind’s eye, with its curious quartzy colours and bright, burning eyes. I kept that picture of it in my head while I walked, thinking about it so hard that in the end it felt like we were talking. I told it about Frances, about the house, about the walks, and I even sang it a song, humming to myself down the street – and every time I passed someone I smiled, because they’d never guess what I was thinking, that there was a hawk, and that I’d put it in the shed. Sometimes they’d smile back, mostly not, but I didn’t mind because here I was strolling down Main Street (narrow, spiralling, to-let signs, loading) with the voice of a bird in my head.

Poor thing, sweet thing, I heard.

We spoke while I walked up and down the streets in and out of shops, actually buying things, buying anything, picking up coats and jackets, then scarves, newspapers, jam, make-up (not that I’d be wearing it much, just to have), throwing them at the tills, swiping the card, swiping it again in the next shop as I ordered a sofa, a hat-stand, a new bed, frame and mattress and headboard and all, and a microwave (of which Frances wouldn’t have countenanced, before), and then again as I spotted tubs of ice-cream for me, packets of beef and burgers and fish for it (I’d see what it’d take, as far as the fish went), and more and more things from charity shops (ornaments, teacups, books), until finally the card got declined and I scrounged the money out of my pockets for a bottle of water and a ham sandwich, and we talked and talked through it all, as it got darker and, finally, the cold came down and caught me. I hadn’t a coat (the coat, remember, being the bed).

I was shivering, mouthing words soundlessly into my throat, picturing myself tumbling through skies and shedding feathers over the ground as I passed, pirouetting into the twilight, holding a globe in one armoured claw. Only, of course, there’d be no more actual pirouetting for a while now since I was still crackling here and there in pain from all the dancing. I was heavy with all the aches and pains in my legs, hips, back, neck, but I could still feel myself twirling in my head. So I kind of plodded-twirled my way to my car, still light even under bags, lighter still with the thought of what would be delivered in the next couple of days, and drove back home, determined to get in there and turn on all the lights, whip up all the dust, get stuck in, as I say.

I tossed the bags into the porch and fairly ran round the side of the house, expecting, I don’t know, some warm welcome, something, only the chattering in my head had stopped, the cold was in my bones now, and there was nothing from the shed. It was dark in there, between the pale, white gusts of my own breath, and still. I pressed my hand against the door. The wood was cool, slightly damp with cold, and through it I thought I felt something move, only slightly, only very slightly.

“Hello,” I said, and I felt something inside leap. It didn’t speak to me, there was just a movement, that humming I had felt before, only it was inside my head and out. It was in my hand, as true as my hand was on the door. My hand slid to the handle and I opened it a crack, peered inside. There were no lights and for a second I didn’t see anything at all, until my eyes adjusted a bit, and there it was.

It was horrible.

It was up at the roof, clutching the shelf, the hackles raised, the beak opening and closing, and yet still no call, as though its heart was in its mouth and thumping so wildly that it could not scream. It hated me, it hated my guts. Absurdly, I thought of starlings. The bunch of starlings that scythed through the sky at the reservoir. Frances told me that murmuration was the word and I repeated it to myself under my breath as we watched the birds wheel and rise and dive together in unison, like the breaking of waves, overhead, and I had never heard of anything that could be called so softly, and yet look like that. They did that when there was a hawk nearby. Could they smell it, like I could, that smell of old iron and wood, and something unmistakably, bloodily, birdlike?

How big he was, how pitiless.

“Bird?” I said.

Sweet, poor.

I managed to throw the door open behind me as he lurched downwards. If I’d been caught in his stoop then I’d have nothing to tell you – luckily he swept upwards and out, sweeping just past my head in a bolt of stony colours, and I remember reaching out for some reason at the yellow flash of his feet. He wanted out, that’s all, he wanted up. I stared at him as he soared over the top of my house and away, far away, into the woods. I stared so hard, for so long, like I thought the feathers he had shed in his flight, still caught in an updraft of air, would knit together again and he would be back where he was, feet reached out towards me.

But of course not.

I clicked on the shed light. There was an almighty mess on one whole wall of the shed, spatters on the windows, even right up to the roof. I stood there, daft, wishing to God I hadn’t thrown out the scrubbers. Then something caught my eye on the shelf where Bird had been perched and I reached into the mess for it, fumbled it in my cold hands and dropped it. I saw the smooth form of the egg fall, a flare of light, and crash on the floor. Quite empty, not a hint of yolk, as if it had been sitting there for years and rotted from the inside. Anyway, it fell and was crushed to dust on the floor, and the fragments of it were blown away by the wind through the open door, and were lost among the shadows.

Well.

I went to the porch. The plastic bags with all that stuff in them were practically luminous in the dark, the receipts for even more stuff flapping about miserably in the wind. I carried it all indoors, in a couple of trips. I was so tired. But you know, I turned on the lights and looked around me, figuring out where I’d put the stuff once it got here – you’d think I’d regret it, send it back, but, really, let’s be practical here – and as I did it I found myself getting into a rhythm, stretching this arm to point, this leg, at the places I’d put the table, the chairs, the microwave, and, then, the things I’d buy later like the bookcase, the carpet, the curtains, the colours, the textures. I’ll admit something to you. I still had a couple of photos of Frances stashed in the attic, because of course I did, and that’s what I did once I stopped dancing and got my breath back. I put them on the mantelpiece – bare but for her – and she’s watching me from it still. I’m still moving things around, just so, keeping an eye on her pale hair, her dark eyes, a hint of colour around her throat, and the littlest spotting of bird down on her shoulder.

 

Emma Devlin is an Irish writer of flash and short fiction based in Bangor, Northern Ireland. She has an MA from Queen’s University Belfast in Creative Writing, with publications in Blackbird: New Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, The Bangor Literary Journal, and Honest Ulsterman.

Cabinet Of Heed Contents Link 21

Image by Gentle07 from Pixabay

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