Act Two: 11 years
She washed the red off her hands, annoyed and distracted. The little thing had not been any fun at all. It couldn’t even fly!
She’d found the baby bird on the ground stumbling about and squeaking—which was the bird’s way of crying for its mother, she supposed. At first she felt a flood of empathy for the poor creature, alone and lost, likely fallen out of its nest and, despite flapping its wings, was not yet able to fly back up.
She looked up into nearby trees but could not make out a nest in any of them. Likely on purpose. Building a nest visible from the ground did not seem like a good way to keep your eggs safe.
She remembered reading how some birds that hatched first would sometimes shove their egg sisters and brothers out, letting them crack open and die on the ground, to keep all the parental resources for themselves.
“Is that what happened to you?” she asked the struggling bird. “Did one of your sisters push you out of the nest?” She felt anger growing in her chest as she considered this possibility. Sisters could be monsters.
Like so many kids have done, she scooped the baby bird into her hand and cupped it while it struggled and thrashed. When it finally settled down, likely due to exhaustion and not, as she assumed, because it had learned she was not a threat, she walked out of the woods and to their small garage.
It was supposed to be for parking your car, but since mom’s car had been taken by “those evil fucks at the bank,” two years ago, mom had let her turn the space into a crafts workshop. She made sure to bring in something at least once a month to show her mother, so the space would not be repurposed.
Funny, that, making crafts she didn’t like making and didn’t want, just to preserve a space she didn’t use…
As she opened the door to the garage she tossed these troublesome thoughts to the side and focused on finding what she was looking for. And she found it in the form of a shoebox, sitting beside instructions and the required bits to turn it into an eclipse-viewer. Of course, she had no interest in eclipses, nor astronomy in general, and she couldn’t say when the next event might occur that would require such a thing. It was all about keeping the shed for herself, even if she had no idea why.
But now the shoebox had a legitimate purpose: a safe place for her homeless baby bird.
She put the bird into the laundry sink, after placing the rubber plug firmly into the drain to keep it from falling down. Then she went to work on the new birdhouse. The shoebox was actually a boot box, which was larger than the usual shoebox dimensions. First she cut a skylight into the lid and covered it with clear plastic. Then she created cardboard straps to hold two small containers in two corners of the box bottom. In one of these she placed fresh water, and in the other some seeds her mother had purchased to plant in a fantasy garden she never got around to making a reality. Was this the kind of seed this bird could eat? She had no idea, but for now this would have to do until she could look this bird up online and get to a pet store.
With both the bowls strapped in place, she went about making a nest out of paper towel, ripping the sheets into strips and pieces, then arranging them to look as nest-like as she could. Finally, she retrieved the baby bird from the sink, noticing with delight it did not struggle against her any longer, and placed it carefully in the repurposed shoebox. The bird looked up at her, then moved over to the seed container. It appeared to regard the seeds for a moment, then lost interest and began to wander again. It walked over the nest, so she noted to move it to the side where it would be less likely to be trampled. Finally, the baby bird regarded the water for some time, before dipping its beak into it.
“Yes!” she said, giving this small victory a fist pump. All this action was too much for the bird; it stumbled away from the water, extending its wings to keep its balance. She continued to watch it for a few more minutes, but there would be no eating and no more drinking. So, she put the lid on top of the box, peeking in to see the baby bird did not appear too concerned with this event, sighed, and, after tucking the box safely against the wall on her work table, she left the garage to go inside for lunch.
The evening was warm. The shed was like a mini oven, so she left the door open, then opened the main garage door as well. This set up a nice breeze and made the shed a pleasant temperature.
The baby bird was still in its shoebox, she could see, as she peeked through the clear skylight she had made. She didn’t have time to research the bird’s species between lunch and dinner, but tomorrow was Sunday and she could do that online, then catch the SkyTrain downtown to a pet store she knew. Baby bird would have to make do until then.
She was pleased to see the bird had settled itself into the paper nest she’d built. Tomorrow she could get proper food, learn how to take care of this species, and even buy a small bird cage to keep it in. At least until it could fly and take care of itself.
She removed the lid of the box and said, “I will set you free as soon as you can take care of yourself.” The baby bird turned its head to regard her with one eye, but otherwise did nothing. “It’s not right to keep something that can fly in a cage.”
For some reason this last part made her feel angry, though she couldn’t tell why. So, shrugging off the emotion, turning it off as she could, like clicking a light switch, she walked to the other side of the shed where her unfinished bracelets sat. One for mom and one for Marjorie. The hard work was done. She had bought some costume jewellery bracelet chains with stars and angels and kittens on the ends, removed the chains, and carefully hammered those shapes into leather strips she was making into bracelets. Getting the trinkets out after making their impression in the leather was the hardest part, but the effort had been worth it. Now she had two unique designs and all that remained to do was to pierce either end of the leather strips and feed through the leather shoestring she had, so the wearer could adjust the fit. She did not have an awl, but she did have a small screwdriver with a tip that looked like a drill when you faced it point on. With a hole underneath the leather, she should be able to use a rock and create the holes she needed.
A commotion made her stop and turn around. On the work bench was a dirty old cat she had seen around, obviously a stray, which was busily trying to bat the baby bird out of the air. Even though it could not fly, fear and whatever bird chemicals it used for adrenaline, was helping it make a good facsimile.
She was going to shout and shoo the cat away, but the bird had managed to get itself on a ledge just out of the cat’s reach. Instead of jumping to snatch its prey, the cat was now sitting, staring up, its tail whipping left and right. And even though she could not identify why, she could sense, almost taste, the taut muscles and sinews of the cat, its hunger and delight as it stared, completely focused on the bird.
Her feet moved her to the door of the shed before she knew what she was going to do, which was slowly, carefully, quietly shut the door. Then she walked to the other side of the shed, staying as far away from the drama as she could, to reach up and pull the chain to shut the main door. But it was not possible to do this quietly, and the cat turned to see what was going on. When it saw the garage door closing, it made a break for freedom. But she slammed the door down to the concrete floor too quickly for it to escape. The metal door made an enormous crash when it hit the ground, causing the cat to turn and run the other way, its paws slipping as it tried for purchase on the smooth concrete surface.
The sound startled the bird, which tried, and failed, to take fight. It flapped and tumbled as it dropped. But, before it hit the ground, the cat seemed to come out of nowhere, jumping and snatching the baby bird in its mouth in mid-jump, then ran off with its victim to hide between some boxes.
She became still and quiet, pushing herself into a corner of the shed, eyes wide. She could hear a commotion going on out of site, then, suddenly, the baby bird emerged from between the boxes, running on its legs, one wing hanging down at an odd angle and dragging on the floor.
The cat came quickly after, giving the bird a swat with one of its paws. The smack sent the baby bird skittering across the concrete, then it bounced against the metal garage door with a loud bang. It lay on its back, motionless.
This lack of movement did not deter the cat. In fact, it seemed delighted with this turn of events. It crouched down on its haunches, tail swishing from side to side, before pouncing with both paws on the bird. Then, quite casually, it chewed off one of the bird’s legs.
Apparently, the motionlessness of the baby bird had been a feigned death, but this act ended the moment the cat began to chew on one of its legs. She could hear, even at the other side of the shed, the sound of the chewing, like someone breaking a toothpick, then breaking those pieces, and again, and again. The baby bird’s response was immediate and frenetic. It flapped its still working wing and kicked its existing leg.
The cat seemed to find this more amusing than upsetting, for it removed the paw it was using to hold-the bird down and let it try to scramble away. It hobbled its way desperately, but slowly, leaving a smear of blood in its wake.
This final, desperate burst of activity drove the cat to yet another pounce and attack. But this attack was not the same. Apparently playtime was over, because the cat bit the body of the bird, hard enough she could hear its ribs snapping, like stepping on pile of twigs.
The bird made strange sounds at this point. A kind of gurgling screech, unlike anything she had ever heard, came from the dying animal. As the cat continued to eat its snack, she felt herself become aroused, like a flower opening itself to the sun. She had been asleep, lost in a dream world of other people’s making. But now someone had opened the cage. She could feel the real again.
Smiling, she used her foot to push the cat away from what was left of the bird. The cat hissed at her, but backed down. Of course it did. You must submit to one stronger than you.
She picked up the remains of the baby bird and placed them on the bottom of the vice attached to the work table, below where the vice arms sat. Then she grabbed a towel and waited. Sure enough, the hungry cat discovered its stolen food and put its head in the vice to recover its purloined meal. She charged in, silently, tossing the towel over the cat while using her body to keep it from backing out of the vice. At the same time, she kept the cat’s head down with one hand while quickly closing the vice with the other. The cat struggled heroically under the towel, but its attempts were futile. She closed the vice on the cat’s head until there was a soft cracking sound. The cat went wild, screaming its protest and flailing its limbs. She removed the towel and surveyed her captive. The cat’s head seemed slightly misshapen, but apparently not to adverse effect. When she brought her head down to look in its eyes, the cat glared at her with raw hatred.
“You must submit to those stronger than you,” she explained, as she retrieved the remains of the baby bird from just beneath the cat’s head. The cat managed to contort itself, despite its head being clamped in a vice, and scratched her hand with one paw.
She wrapped the baby bird bit in a paper towel and sealed it in a bag. Then she spent a moment examining the scratch on her hand. Little beads of blood were forming along the scratch lines and the wound began to sting.
“I should go inside and wash this, and my hands,” she said to the shed. Then, her face devoid of emotion, she picked up a pair of pliers and some pruning shears, used the pliers to catch the front leg the cat had used to scratch her hand, and the shears to cut off its paw. The cat went into a frenzy, flicking blood from its severed limb all over the shed. She put the towel back over the animal to stop the mess it was making, then gave the vice a half turn to insure the cat could not escape. There was some more crunching noises and the cat became even more animated. She turned off the shed lights and locked the door behind her as she left.
She pondered her time in the shed as she dried her hands and dabbed antibiotic cream on the cat scratch. Her walk into the house and this time spent in the bathroom had filled her mind with wonderful ideas to try out later. For a moment she regretted removing the cat’s paw. That had been done for revenge, and too quickly, which meant she had not been able to enjoy it. The work was so much more fun when emotions were not allowed to taint the experience.
A mistake, yes, but a lesson learned. She placed an appropriate bandage on the scratch and left the bathroom. She would need to clean up the shed at some point, but no sense doing it now, since things were likely to get messier in the near future.
First, no teeth and no claws. Then, experiments. If you replaced limbs by shoving metal wire, like from a coat hanger, into the meat of the amputation, could you fashion wire feet a cat could skitter around on? And what about needles? If you stuck several in an eye, would they move about when the eye moved? So many questions!
Her mom was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a book. She smiled and waved at her, being careful to keep her bandaged hand hidden. No sense getting into questions when there was interesting work to be done. Her mom smiled back, spewing an enormous cloud of candy-flavoured nicotine steam.
As she went out the back door and walked toward the shed, she thought to herself, I’m back! This little girl is back!
She woke that night to the sound of a door latch opening. Not her bedroom door, of course, because leaving it open was required now, to convince mother of how she’d changed. At first she had been in earnest, not herself, trapped inside this body as an imposter went its insipid way through her life. Still, this obnoxious period when she’d been held captive had provided new opportunities with Marjorie and mother. The kidnapping loser had been sincere, and they had both accepted it as a new (or returned) version of their daughter and sister. So, when she came back to herself, she decided to keep the facade in order to preserve those opportunities.
The sound had come from her closet door. She had repaired the latch so the door would stay shut, but here it was coming open again, on its own. She decided to get up and shut the door properly, but realized she could not move anything but her eyes. Memory fear flooded through her; once again her blood felt like it had turned to ice water.
The door creaked open, as it did before, and her mind reeled. How to get away? How… don’t look at its face!
As the door finished opening and she could once again see the living void that owned her closet, the thing began to creep towards her. Only, it was not the same as before. The insect limbs groaned and creaked as they moved, as if they were breaking rather than bending. And that fluid, almost machine-perfect motion it once had was gone, replaced now with an awkward, uncoordinated staccato.
When the insect seemed to become an animal, instead of a sleek puma or jaguar, it reminded her more of a newborn deer, struggling to stay standing, never mind move with grace. And, as it took its position behind her footboard, she could hear shuffling. One hand reached up to grasp the foot of her bed, and creaking limbs accompanied its slow, arthritic rise to its feet.
The thing did not seem as tall as before. Even so, the fear she felt was just as bad, and she averted her eyes as it climbed onto the bed, crawling awkwardly over her body. Once again she felt herself jostled from side to side as it mounted her.
When it stopped she struggled to breathe, feeling her eyes, in rebellion to her mind, slide slowly to look the thing in its face. Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes focused. It had no face. No, that was not right. It had her face, translucent but still her, and she was weeping, weeping hopelessly.
She woke cocooned in her covers and drenched in sweat. Outside it was daylight, and sunlight streamed through the space between her curtains to bisect the darkness on either side of the wall. It also split her closet, which sat wide open, though she had closed it last night before going to bed, as she did every night.
Then, suddenly, the previous day washed over her thoughts. The baby bird, the makeshift home, how she would visit the pet store today and…
Then more of yesterday arrived. The bending of coat hangers’ the pressing of needles; a lighter and smells and noises surely forged from darkness and pain, and delight; remains twitching; a garden mister spraying blood; the crunch of a crushed walnut.
She sobbed quietly, wetting her pillow. A moment later her mother spoke through the slightly-open door.
“It’s getting late. Would you like to come down and help me make breakfast.”
She sat up in bed, tears rolling down her cheeks, snot running from her nose, her face contorted in guilt.
“Oh, baby,” her mother said, concern overcoming her. “What’s wrong?” She pushed the door open and walked quickly over to the bed, pausing only to place the laundry basket of folded clothes at its foot.
“Closet,” she managed, pointing to the open door.
“Did you have a bad dream?”
She paused, her body hitching with sobs, while something dark seemed to writhe up from the depths of her mind. It began to use her voice.
“Baby bird,” she managed, snuggling her face into her mother’s chest and putting her arms around her. “F… found baby bird. G… gonna keep it in closet ‘til it could fly. But the cat… the cat snuck in and k… killed it. Blood… blood…” Then she lost her voice to the crying. The face sobbing on her mother had a wide, soulless smile that did not come near her eyes, before it reverted to a heart-broken eleven-year-old girl again, clinging desperately to mom.
She was forced to explain the story based on the fiction that… that whatever it was that had used her voice had created. Her mother listened quietly, and whenever she began to falter on the false narrative, something reached up from the dark to help her.
April cried as she listened to her daughter’s heartbreaking story: finding the baby bird; re-purposing the eclipse viewer meant for her—what a thoughtful kid!—into a temporary birdhouse; the plans to do research and visit a pet store; that hope to release the bird once it had learned to fly; the cat sneaking in; the violence and blood; and, finally, the cat slinking away with its murdered prize.
They spent the next hour cleaning the shed of every sign of blood. April was shocked by how much there was, and how it seemed to get everywhere. Still, she remembered her cat from when she was a child, how it would grab each kibble in its teeth and shake its head vigorously, before chewing and eating. It was probably a left-over from being wild, and that stray cat was more wild than not.
Did I cause this? she asked herself, as she wiped up blood. I did feed that cat, especially in the winter? Was it hanging around because of me?
“We shouldn’t be angry with the cat,” April explained, as they worked on pancake dough in the kitchen. “Horrible as it was, that cat was only looking for food. This is why people should not get pets they can’t take care of, because they end up alone and abandoned, and forced to kill to eat.”
Where do you think pet food comes from, you stupid cow, the meat fairy? For a moment she stopped stirring, her face masked in shock, wondering if this thought that had erupted from the dark had been shouted out, or only screamed inside her mind.
Fortunately, mother was flipping pancakes and did not seem to notice.
“I know. I don’t blame the cat for eating the bird. I hope nothing bad happened to it.”
“Let’s hope not.”