Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

What the Dead Birds Taught Me

The first time I saw him, I was crouched in a ditch by the highway, lancet poised, holding a crumbly-paged book open to the words to reanimate a dead owl. Anne leaned against our dad’s old car on the shoulder, just a few feet past the impromptu memorial some of Mom and Dad’s students had put up.

The flowers were wilting and the photos were fading, just like our parents’ ghosts in the ditch where they’d died. I walked all up and down it, grasses itching at my legs despite my jeans, but there was no spark of Mom or Dad, just like there’d been none in the closed caskets. They’d moved on easily, or maybe been gone too long. It had been over a month.

I had just found the owl, crawling with ants but its eyes barely milky. Anne examined the poor thing and said it probably died from eating poisoned rats. I was getting ready to lance some blood from my finger when the man pulled his shiny black car over, trapping our car between his and the memorial—not on purpose, I thought at the time.

He was fair-skinned, with neatly trimmed hair and a nice button-down. His leather-soled dress shoes crunched the gravel on the shoulder until he was close enough to ask Anne in a pleasant, regular voice, not a shout, “Do you need help, miss?”

“No thanks,” Anne said curtly. “We’re just here for a project.” She nodded in my direction, and he turned to take in the sight of me, seventeen and looking younger, face round as a child’s and chest flat as a boy’s. Anne’s eight years older than me, and she looks young, too—short and freckled—but even then, she had soft curves and sad eyes.

“Hello,” he said to me, friendly and helpful. “So you girls are all right, then?” I appreciated the manners, but I was old enough to know that look a boy gives you when he realizes he’s not going to get anywhere with your prettier friend unless he’s nice to you, too. I just hadn’t seen it from someone his age before. He looked older than Anne, but not nearly as old as our parents had been. Thirties, maybe.

“We’re almost done,” I assured him. Anne thanked him and told him to drive safe, a neat dismissal polite in words and rude in tone. My cheeks heated with embarrassment, and I went back to the owl. I didn’t want anything from it, and I wasn’t sure I could do whatever it asked—I’d told a dead squirrel I’d look after its babies once, although I had no idea where to find them—but it was good practice for bigger reanimations.

With the dim spark inside it, the owl asked to get out of the hot sun. I drew the patterns in my blood on the back of my hand, whispered an incantation from the book—it’s amazing what you can find used in a university town—and told the owl to fly away and finish decaying on the welcome mat of the only house in sight. It was spiteful of me, but I couldn’t think of anything else to ask, and it has to be a favor for a favor.

“Mary, you got to stay away from men like that,” Anne told me when I came back to the car. She was a stricter parent than our parents had been. “He has death on his hands.” She had no interest in necromancy, but she had the knack all the same.

“He could be a veteran,” I said, trying to be charitable or maybe just show Anne she didn’t know everything. “Or he might work in a slaughterhouse.”

Anne pressed her lips together. “I don’t think so.”

The next time I saw him was about four years later. Lots of people invited Anne and me to their various churches after our parents died, and once they stopped asking, I started going. It seemed a likely place to meet people interested in life after death.

I met him officially at one of those churches, the one that had a stained-glass window of a dove pieced out in white against blue. Although I’d filled out and looked a lot like Anne had the first time we’d met, he didn’t seem to recognize me, and I didn’t remind him. I saw the deaths on his hands—and were there more than before, or had I remembered wrong?—but he was always well-dressed and polite. Good manners. Always with a smile that didn’t play on his face so much as sit there, a fixture, like the carefully knotted necktie below it.

Sometimes he ushered, showing grateful old ladies to their seats. They beamed up at him, eyes lit from within by his attention, invited him to meet their daughters or nieces or granddaughters. Anne didn’t come to church with me, so she didn’t have anything new to say.

I learned his name, but I dislike saying it now.

Anne had control of the family trust, and she knew the smart thing to do was sell the house we grew up in and buy a smaller condo to share. The two of us were right on top of each other, driving each other nuts. When Anne and I did talk, we argued more and more. The trust paid for my college and her grad school, and it would pay for my grad school if I went. My senior year of college, she nagged me constantly. She wanted me to spend more time building my portfolio and applying to MFA programs, less time reanimating dead animals.

Anne didn’t understand. She was a biologist (like Mom and Dad) who specialized in birds (not like Mom or Dad), so she was both more practical and more head-in-the-clouds than me. Neither Anne nor I could help being haunted, but we handled it differently. The sadness in her eyes had distilled into a brisk determination.

“How can anyone take you seriously as an artist if you don’t get an MFA?” she asked me one day, her mouth firm and sure. Anne didn’t really ask questions. “It will open doors for you.”

“What if I don’t even know what doors I want open?” I asked, a real question. I loved art, woodcuts especially, but nothing made me feel whole the way necromancy did, and there’s no degree program for that. “You know, the trust says I can take money out to start a business. I could set myself up as a psychic or a pet finder or something.”

Anne gave me a withering look. “I don’t think Mom and Dad would approve.”

That was low. I stomped out of the house without my phone or wallet and set off on foot. It was late autumn, colder and darker than it had felt inside the stifling condo. I walked farther out than usual and into a neighborhood of littered sidewalks and cracked storefront windows. When the sun got low, I sidled into a bus shelter and tried not to be too obvious checking out the map and schedule for this line I’d never taken before. Did I have enough change in my jacket pocket for the fare? The heat from anger and exercise was fading, and my fingers stiffened as I tried to count the coins in my pocket by feel.

I steeled myself to ignore the freshly washed car that stopped next to me, especially when I heard the window roll down, but then he said my name. “Mary?” The face peering out was familiar and currently lined with concern. “Do you need a ride?”

I recognized him from church, where I’d seen him every Sunday for a year.

Anne had told me to stay away from him. She was right about one thing: He did have death on his hands. Not the many small deaths of a rodent exterminator, but several from something bigger.

Anne’s judgement wasn’t looking great to me right now, though, and he was offering me a way out of a run-down neighborhood with more liquor stores and pawn shops than I’d ever seen so close together. I’d gotten used to his face over a year’s worth of Sundays. The men eyeing me from doorways were strangers with shifty smiles. “I do,” I answered. “Thanks.”

And then there I was in his car, the smell of leather soothing my cold, runny nose, not sure where I wanted to get dropped off. I didn’t want to go back to the condo, where Anne would be waiting with the same lectures and condescending advice. I didn’t want to go the campus print studio, where I was liable to ruin half a dozen woodblocks gouging them too hard.

So he said he’d drive me until I felt like going home. The leather-scented air was warm, and the ride was smooth, and I found myself talking about fighting with Anne and not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. He was a good listener, interested in my senior project of making woodcuts of fairytales.

Printmaking was my favorite process, xylography in particular. It was satisfying to gouge strips of wood out of a blank block, to ink it and make art that was its own reverse. (It also gave me plausible deniability for the light scarring on my hands, as long as nobody else could read the necromantic symbols. So far, so good.) I especially liked this project because fairy tales have so many ways of saying the same things, or of making one tweak and changing everything.

Also, lots of fairytale characters are orphans, like Anne and me, and I’ve always been aware of how lucky I was that she was old enough to become my guardian. Both aware and resentful, because who wants their sister looking after them, even if she is eight years older?

I didn’t tell him all that, of course. The past five years brought more pity than I’d ever wanted, and it was a force-fed dish that tasted like ashes. Instead, I told him how I was making triptychs of the same scenes from variants: Perrault, Grimm, Jacobs. How I carved the likeness of the bleeding key, the woman dripping with honey and feathers, the diamond ring on the severed hand. I complained about Anne’s insistence that an MFA program was the right path for me. Just because she went for graduate degrees didn’t mean I had to.

“What does your man say?” he asked.

When I told college guys about my senior project, they made jokes about Disney princesses. They had no idea how bloody and violent fairy tales were, nor how closely they mirrored my ever-grieving heart. “Don’t have one.”

“Girlfriend?” he asked, watching me out of the corner of his eye. After I shook my head, he shook his, too, and sighed. “A pretty girl should have someone for a fairytale ending.”

I’d talked quite a while, and the car was purring through the outskirts of town. The hills and the trees cast long shadows across the road. I shivered despite the car’s enveloping warmth.

“If you don’t mind, we’re near my house, and I need to get something.” He wasn’t really asking. He didn’t say anything before turning up a long and twisting driveway, tall pines looming on both sides. He didn’t explain before pulling the car to a stop, opening my door, holding out a hand to help me out with a smile. My anger at Anne settled in my stomach, making me feel the uneasiness there.

When I touched his hand, I felt death. Several deaths from strong sparks, extinctions that left nothingness in their wakes. Maybe it was like I’d told Anne all that time ago, that he was a veteran or worked in a slaughterhouse.

Maybe he’d just brought me to the slaughterhouse.

“I’ll wait here,” I said, my voice brittle and fake to my own ears, but he pulled me out of my seat and walked me toward the door, his hand flat between my shoulder blades as if guiding a child who might slip and fall.

“There are bears in the woods,” he said, and although I didn’t believe him, the determination in his voice scared me. I didn’t have my phone, didn’t dare try to run. He was bigger than me—most people are—and he knew his own land.

A line from a fairy tale ran through my head: Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest that your heart’s blood run cold.

The house was like some fancy cabin that rich people keep as a second home. It looked kind of 70s, with a high ceiling and one wall that was nothing but a giant window overlooking a stone patio, the wooded hillside, and the other hills beyond. No neighbors close by. Playing along and waiting for an opening looked like my best bet.

He offered me a drink and chuckled when I declined. “I wouldn’t want you to break the law.”

I was on my second month of being twenty-one, but he didn’t need to know that. He looked pleased that I was obeying the law, that I was behaving nicely. I wondered if he’d have been just as pleased if I’d let him get me drunk.

“You’ll feel better with some food in you, and then you can make up with your sister.” He didn’t even take off his coat. “Nobody delivers here, but there’s a good Italian place not too far. You like pasta? They make their own.”

I nodded. “Lasagna’s my favorite. Thank you.” It’s the most time-consuming pasta dish on any menu.

His smile was wide. “They make a great lasagna. You’ll love—”

A thump at the wall-sized window cut him off. A bird had crashed into the window; it fell to the flagstones below, just outside the sliding glass door.

He laughed at my startled jump. “Happens all the time.”

“You can use masking tape on the window to keep them from doing that.” Not even a suggestion, just a fact. Not too bold.

He shrugged. “I’ll be back soon. Make yourself at home. There’s only one room unfit for company, and it’s locked.”

If he’d come back for something, he didn’t pick it up before he left.

Once the door closed behind him, I searched for a landline phone. Unless there was one behind the locked door under the stairs, there wasn’t one on the first floor. The second floor was nothing but a bedroom and bathroom, both phoneless. Although the bathroom had two sinks, it had just the hygiene basics, nothing to suggest anything but a man living alone, maybe not even full-time. No tampons in the cabinet.

I opened the patio door and picked up the bird, a jay with brilliant blue feathers and a broken neck, its spark just starting to fade. When I asked what it wanted, it said, “To be warm,” so I tore the staple from a receipt from my pocket and scratched a necromantic symbol over my sternum. Then I tucked the bird’s cooling corpse inside my shirt and held it.

While I spoke the incantations, I brought pictures to my mind of Anne, our condo, and our street. Then I said, “I know jays are clever birds, and I warmed you up. Please help me.”

I let it go, its spark dim but steady, and watched it fly away. I’d asked a big favor, but if the jay could tell Anne, she would come.

In the meantime, I needed to arm myself. I searched the house again, this time for a big knife in the kitchen or a gun in a sock drawer, but no. He didn’t seem to cook, and his razor was electric. Even the fireplace didn’t have the usual tools.

I’d looked everywhere but the locked room, and there was a key hanging from a hook beside it. It was an old-fashioned one with a round handle, polished to a shine and honed to a sharp point. I doubted it would make a good weapon—the grip was awkward, and the point wasn’t long enough to make more than a scratch—but it was all I had.

Nothing happened when I took the key from its hook nor when I unlocked the door, but when I cautiously pushed inward, a flash of red lit my hand and the key blood-red. A silent alarm, and I was pretty sure it didn’t alert the police.

When the door swung open, I was completely sure.

Cold air rushed out, shiver-inducing, scented with lilies and chlorine bleach. Cool fluorescent light gleamed on the white-tiled walls. The floor was lightly mottled concrete, a large drain set in the center. A meat hook hung from the ceiling above it. Six stand-up freezers with clear doors—the kind Anne and I used to linger in front of arguing fudge pops vs. ice cream sandwiches—dotted the walls at even intervals.

It was hard to look at the women inside.

Each freezer held a corpse in a lacy white dress and a frilly veil. Despite their varying states of mummification and decay, there was something to distinguish each of them: white teeth set in a narrow jaw; a braid of night-black hair; tiny, delicate feet. Stands held them upright, and someone had wired bouquets of withering lilies into their hands.

Like dolls. Like Snow White. Like no human being should ever be.

I rolled up my sleeves and got to work using the key to slice the most powerful symbols I knew into my arms. I pressed too hard and brought out too much blood. I used the excess to finger-paint the floor, muttering every incantation that had a chance of working. Over the years, I’d memorized a lot.

But I had never raised a human. I hadn’t been able to raise my parents, even though we were close. I’d been to dozens of wakes since then, carved-up hands in bloodied gloves, and never so much as made an eyelid twitch.

When the scent of bleach and lilies waned beneath the iron of my blood, the girls and women stirred. Fingers flexed against petals, scrabbled to unwind wire.

Looking into their glass eyes, voice shaking, I begged each one for help. “I need to escape. I need to live.”

Their chins jerked up and down.

They had felt the same.

Honest with the dead for the first time, I told them, “I don’t know what I can promise in return. But I’ll try.”

Their longings tumbled over one another, practiced and eager. Their desiccating minds sent images of their friends, their families, the people they’d never gotten as close to as they’d hoped. Their art, their work, their gardens. They’d been waiting for someone to ask what they wanted so they could say, “Tell my parents I love them,” “Tell everyone it wasn’t my fault,” and “Hurt him. Make him pay.”

My mouth filled with acid, fear and rancor made physical. I rolled up my jeans and cut symbols into my calves, and soon I ran out of floor to paint with blood. Head spinning, I painted curses on the walls with stinging fingers. My heartbeats kept the only time that mattered, and I still lost count.

The front door opened, and fast, heavy steps brought him to the bloodied room.

“I asked just one thing,” he said in an aggrieved tone. “All I asked of you was to stay out of that room.”

I had to buy every second I could, and that meant keeping him talking, but I was done playing nice. “You really think you can kidnap somebody to your remote house that doesn’t have a phone and not have her look for any way out she can find?”

“I was going to take you back to your sister. I’m a gentleman.” His disappointment weighed heavy in the air, smothering me as silently and surely as carbon monoxide. “All you had to do was be good.”

“And these women here? Actually, I think some of them may even be minors. Girls.” I was so cold with rage that my fingers trembled white under their coat of blood. His victims were still, but I could still feel their sparks, faint and furious. “What did they do wrong?”

“Oh, Mary.” He sighed like he really believed he’d been hard done by. “I had such a good feeling about you, about our connection. I thought you were different.”

“We’re all different,” I snapped. “But none of us deserve this.” When I gestured to the freezer cases, he lunged. He was bigger than me, and his hands were strong. When they closed around my throat, I felt six deaths all at once.

The women and girls let out a rattling howl. They hammered against their glass coffins, leaned against the doors until they lurched out. Maybe their gowns rustled, maybe their white satin slippers made no sound on the bloody floor. I wish I had witnessed what they did in those terrifying moments, but I was aware of nothing but my own desperation to survive.

I clawed at his hands, but he didn’t let go. I couldn’t breathe. Bright spots bloomed in my vision, my own spark going supernova.

“Get away from my sister,” said Anne from the door.

I think he was going to laugh until a pair of purple-streaked hands reached up to cover his eyes from behind, blackened and broken fingernails scrabbling around the sockets. “Guess who,” a voice crooned in my mind—and in his, I hope. Another withered figure, her hair oiled and combed to a coppery shine, caressed the blue-black stubble shading his jaw before poking bony fingers at his voice box, like Eve plucking Adam’s apple out. Others grabbed at his ankles, his hands, his belt. While the six dead women and girls tore at him, I wrenched free and ran past him to Anne. Their rasps and rustles softened the edges of his frantic yells, “Get off me! Get off!” fading into inarticulate fear and fury. Together, Anne and I ran to her car.

She drove me straight to the hospital. On the way, she told me about the jays that pecked her bedroom window—“extremely uncharacteristic behavior, even if they’d all been alive”—and how she followed that uncharacteristic flock to me. When the police got to his house, the man had gone hoarse and hollow-eyed. Shallow, bleeding grooves in his flesh matched the blood and skin under the fingernails of the dead. The corpses were inanimate, but their presence was enough to launch six murder investigations. Related charges followed. The first victim was his wife, and her family filed a wrongful death suit that’s still pending.

Anne and I both testified at the murder trial, leaving out all mention of necromancy without quite committing perjury. I think Mom and Dad would have been proud of us. I said that I cut myself to make him want to leave me alone. The prosecution painted me as a naïve, sensitive orphan taken in by a show of seeming fatherliness. The defense did something similar, but leaned hard into the idea that I must be damaged and crazy. Sometimes it felt like it was the dead women and girls and me on trial instead of the man who murdered them.

I hope he gets killed in prison. Anne says that would be bad; the sooner he dies, the sooner there will be a movie about him. I know she’s right, but he doesn’t have enough time to pay off six life sentences anyway. I just want him off the planet as soon as possible.

Perhaps my heart’s blood has always run cold.

My senior art show was the best attended in the history of the department. I’ve made some woodcuts for concert posters and book illustrations, and I’m building my portfolio—no more fairy tales, just birds and doors and what other truths I can share—with an eye toward applying to MFA programs out of state. Anne and I could use a new start. Despite her attention to bird behavior, testifying in a murder trial has not been great for her academic career.

The podcasts and even some of the news outlets called me “Lucky Number Seven” and “Final Girl.” Always “girl,” though I voted in every election and bought my own liquor. America loves a girl, guileless and guiltless, and loves her best with the body of a woman and the eyes of a child. Some women call themselves “girls,” and it’s not hard to see why, although I don’t see what good it does them.

Society would rather have a dead girl than a living woman.

But all I want is to live, and I want that for all of us. I want girls to live to be adults. I want women to live as who we are: full-grown humans with as much to offer and as much to demand as anyone else.

I talk to the dead, hear their regrets and dissatisfactions. I no longer make them promises I’m not sure I can keep. Whether animal or human, no being is practice for another. It’s better to be alive, our sparks bright with all our passions. Beating our wings, fighting into the sky.

It’s bravery itself to live as a woman at all, and there’s no such thing as a woman too bold.

Laura Blackwell

Laura Blackwell’s fiction publications include stories in PseudoPod, Strange California, Hardened Hearts, Syntax & Salt, Tales from the Lake, Vol. 5, and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology She Walks in Shadows. Once a technology journalist, she was also Shimmer’s final copy editor.

Laura was raised in the Midwest by Southern parents. She now lives in Northern California with her family and a changing array of adorable pet rodents. In her spare time, she tries unsuccessfully to read fast enough to reduce the teetering book-pile on her nightstand.

You can follow her on Twitter at @pronouncedlahra and visit her website at www.pronouncedlahra.com.