A Shy and Hidden Bird
The thrush led me astray. He with his puffed-out speckled chest and spindly legs, his impudent beak gated open and closed in song. He that stole my love, and left me desolate, cold, and lonely in the night; that secret, eremitic bird, with his liquid, taunting morning song. From high in the cedars, he sang my love away, and me awake.
In the week after the interment, he sang to me his joy of the spring, his pride in courtship, his love of life. It came to me as mockery, as cruel jest, delight in death. And so I rose and took my borrowed shotgun out in search of peace.
Peace was a thing the world had in plenty. Peace and harmony. Peace in our time. Peace in the Middle East, for gods’ sake. A peace that brought stagnation; the death of ideas, of innovation, of discovery. A civilization of calm, incurious communities slowly, contentedly sliding back into the ooze, progress a distant, forgotten goal, science a discarded fad.
We’d argued, in those awful, final days, when Isaac lay crumpled in his bed, bold voice withered by illness, his health spent on dawn treks through wet groves and fields after birdsong. In the hoarse whisper gifted him by that devil thrush, he claimed that peace was cause, not effect, that when we stopped our struggles, we lost our drive. Soldier, not warmonger, once young captain, now old lover, he held the change worthwhile—the slow and distant death of futures a small price for love—my love.
Love! What poets—cruel japesters—call this pain, this crushing, rending, mangling devastation of the soul. And that day, I went, gun in hand, to share my love with Isaac’s favourite bird.
The thrush led me on faint trails amidst dew-tipped spears of grass, through choked throats of bramble and thorn, flew his jagged way through foreboding mazes of spruce and pine—all Isaac’s favoured paths, which had left him wet and happy and too tired to fight for health. I noted the cold no more than my lover had. I followed the thrush as he sang, whistled as I walked, false cheer a blind for cold, determined hate. For hours, I tracked him, always too far for my unpractised aim, too quick for my grief-dulled wit. We twisted, turned, and twined until I lost my way, heedless of all but a small brown splash against green or blue or grey.
At last, he paused to rest, lighting softly near the top of a hill, a black silhouette against the sky beyond, with a silver cirrus cloud winding past his neck for scarf or noose. I knelt in the dark forest loam, fitting the gunstock smooth against my shoulder, my eyes never leaving that caustic fool in his feathered cloak of dun. He perched, bandy-legged, on a gentle curve of stone, fat little body framed by thin stalks and trunks, with delicate, pointed leaves wagging slyly from above.
As I cocked the hammer back, he fluttered his wings, and began to sing his hateful, haunting song. On the breeze, the graceful, fragile scent of lilac, replacing the bitter tang of gunpowder with memories of sun, of shining hair, of picnics and of poetry, of death and of love. “Oh, Isaac,” I breathed, and laid my gun aside.
I cursed the thrush as I dragged my heart up to Isaac’s seat in the cemetery, that meagre shelter ceiled with stiff, sparse lilacs, floored with soft, dark soil and a dust of bright green grass. I sat on the new bench, faced the new stone, its straight, true sides, its domed top. I read again the words Isaac had chosen, and I cried. Two words, one above the other, with a bar between. Like an equation, I’d joked. Exactly, he’d said, the equation for peace. Love over war.
“Love over war,” I mumbled. “Love over war, you bastard bird.” I faced the lilacs, planted one week back with my own hand. “Fuck you, thrush. Fuck you and your song.” But he was gone, and I was alone.
Powerful, Western, Fallen Star
It was late, and I felt, now, the cold and the wet on my hard stone bench. I was hungry and thirsty, and my hands cramped from a day holding steel and death. The light was dimming, and up in the west, a shooting star streaked past my view. “Meteorite,” I told Isaac, as always, and in memory he smiled, as if he’d never heard the word before, hadn’t known already. I could almost feel his arm around me, still strong, still a bulwark against depression and despair. “Star,” he’d insist. “We may not have progress anymore. But we still have dreams, and they’re even better.” Dreams worth their weight in birdsong.
No more stars appeared, and I closed my eyes. I was tired, and, thrush-peace or not, I still had to collect that damned gun. At least now I had my bearings, knew well the path from grave-garden to sombre home.
I opened my eyes to a vertical whirl of colour, like a violet mirage blossoming through desert air. I gripped the bench, seeking out its stalwart solidity as reassurance. I’d lost the habit of eating—occasional tremors a small price for the right not to think or plan. Tremors, not hallucinations, not visions. Weak body, not mind.
Despite my anchor-bench, my lifeline to sanity, the violet vortex stayed, steadied, gradually cleared. Its lavender tones faded into the indigo of evening, thence to black of night, a cool dark circle of loss on the grave. And from its shadowed throat, the bright, meticulous tones of song.
A beautiful, subtle mystery of space or magic, and the universe used it to mock me.
“Fuck you, too,” I whispered, but I was drained, too empty and bare to put much heart into the words, my heart too worn to care. I closed my eyes, and the music stopped. No more cosmic mockery. Just a beautiful tear in space-time. I peeked from under one lid. Still a dark hole in the universe, with a pale violet filigree of nothingness at its edge. The music returned, a simple three-note sequence, the first forceful, the second and third differing just a shade. They repeated, now elaborated, harmonized, embellished into a melody.
The space around the grave was immaculate, clear of stones; I’d cleaned it myself. I dug one cold hand into the ground at my feet, flung a clump of sod and soil at the black disk. It sailed through. A hole, after all. What else could have happened? My sod had likely surprised the hell out of some poor farmer in Uzbekistan. Or the moon, or Venus. Though maybe fewer farmers there.
My brain woke up at last, and with it what shreds of spirit I could gather. This was a miracle. A true marvel, a wonder of nature—or science. It occurred to me at last that music was not a natural phenomenon, but something made—crafted by living creatures. There was something or someone on the other side of that hole.
“Sorry,” I said, for an opener. “Bad day. Do you come in peace?”
The response was a melody built of arpeggios, cadenzas, trills, drones—anything and everything, and all of it fit together. It held meaning layered on meaning, and I understood not one note.
I sat in silence, wanting more, not wanting to spoil the moment. Sunset painted the leaves with gold and scarlet, and a breeze warmed my sweat to salt. From the hole came a rich, loamy smell, fertile, lush, and verdant, like jasmine on dark spring earth. I wanted to go to it, to bury myself in its source and grow a new me, hale and hearty, healed of wounds, cleansed of faults, calm of mind. But I was afraid.
It’s a hole, my sane mind said. Bloodthirsty aliens waiting to harvest your body, exchange it for pods. It smelled good. And it’s on Isaac’s grave. A hole full of decaying matter and memory and hurt.
At last, I did what weak humans have always done with the unknown. I surrendered. I fell to my knees, held out my arms and said “Take me.” Eat me, pod me, harvest me. Make me better.
Heart-Shaped Leaves of Rich Green
The portal opened, or was uncovered. The black dissipated, like fog wafted away by a chance zephyr. Behind it, a broad lawn of golden-yellow moss, with flowers of lime and rose, and trees dangling fruit in every shape and size. Banks of soil, blue as lapis lazuli, crumbled in mounds, with a clear stream ramifying from pools and springs at every turn.
The song came again, in cellos, drums, and whispers. It called me, and I came. At the edge of Isaac’s grave, I paused, unwilling to mark that still-loose soil, to mar its shroud of young grass. This was all I had of Isaac—soil and grass, stone and memory. Mostly memory. And paradise before me. But even as I hesitated, the door closed. Not black this time, but a growing network of branch and vine, delicate yet dense, and covered with heart-shaped leaves in the purest emerald.
Too late! I stepped forward, heedless now of grave and grass alike. I flung myself into the portal, clung to the network, shook it. The vines were soft, and the perfume of those leaves was manna that calmed and soothed my hungry spirit. I pressed myself against them, but even as I did, I saw them wither, felt them crackle and snap beneath me. I drew back slightly, watched as they all fell away, broad feathers of jade fluttering to shatter and discolour on the ground.
The wood and vine of the network itself began to harden and flake, its growth slowing. As it continued to fill the portal, it forced my fingers out, wakening me to their pain. As finger by finger slipped out of the net, I saw the skin seared and red. The pain was nothing next to the hurt in my chest at paradise regained and re-lost.
A single, heart-sized hole remained at eye level, and through it, a glimpse of heaven. I pressed close again, but cautiously. Through the hole, I saw more vines, twining, lifting, forming into a shell of leaves. In it, a hard ebony oblong, like a river-worn stone. The leaves pushed it up and through the hole, and I reached for it anxiously. My fingers, stiff and swollen, failed to hold it, and it fell to the soil below. I scrabbled for it, mindless of the pain, and at last held it in one burning hand, felt the dark seed’s cold solidity.
Through the portal, vines swayed and danced, forming patterns that shifted from moment to moment in supple, elegant messages that said We know you. We love you. Goodbye. The music slowed, saddened, and the violet edges of the portal thinned.
“Wait!” I cried. “Don’t go.” But the circle of the portal narrowed, violet reddening to pink and scarlet. I searched for something, anything to give in return. At last, I grabbed a spray of lilac with my free hand, snapped it, threw it through the portal. “It’s love,” I said awkwardly as the portal contracted to nothing. “My love.” Mine to give again, and lose again.
The Cedars Dusk and Dim
I go often now, to the little cemetery, with its single grave. The lilacs bloom and fade, share their sweet perfume with the world, with its message of delicate devotion. The grass on Isaac’s grave is thick and full, with patches of bright bulbs in the corners—tulip, iris, daffodil, and one tall stalk of garlic with its sharp, irreverent spice.
I gathered what I could of alien plants and ash after the portal closed. I found two leaves largely intact, and carried them with slow, painstaking care to the house. I brought what scientists I could to examine them. Skeptical, but curious, they came in ones and twos and fives. They say the leaves are strange, unearthly. I keep the remains at home, and now there are sometimes a dozen strangers in the house. They bring their gels and microscopes, they write their learned papers, and they even speak of a small resurgence in science.
I’ve not yet shown my scientists the dark ovoid talisman that was my gift from the singers in the vortex. Is it a seed, a machine, a tool? I cannot say. I handle it at night, when my scarred hands give me pain. It soothes them and me, and sometimes I can sleep, to dream of birds and trees and wonder.
Who were these aliens? What were they? Was their realm itself toxic to me, and mine to them, or was it the portal that damaged us so badly? What did they intend, with their sweet perfumes and landscapes? Was it attack, seduction, communication, discovery, trade? Did my lilac gift survive, or my clod of earth? What did they make of it? I have no answers. What I have is the knowledge that our world has changed. In some small way, at least, that day among the lilacs reawakened our spirits, rekindled our yearning for knowledge. The flame is small, uncertain, but it burns. Progress, but if peace brought stasis, does progress bring war? I don’t believe it.
In time, perhaps, I’ll give over my black treasure, let the scientists examine and explore it, unearth its secrets. Perhaps not. There’s a dark patch of soil at the centre of Isaac’s grave. I till it weekly with a little fork held awkwardly between my palms. Perhaps I’ll plant my seed there, one day. Perhaps it will grow. An alien, should it survive. Or, less and more, a new doorway, a chance to try again.
I sit on my stone bench, in this cold, transparent night, reading Isaac’s formula for peace. I trust, with my foolish, naïve spirit, that the aliens knew it too. Holding my dark secret, I gaze into space, or at lilac blossoms, or at a dark patch of fine, rich earth. With the song of a hidden thrush in the air, I send this message with all my soul.
“Oh you with your green and leafy hearts, with your lilting tones and fair demesne, your promise of a new-returning spring. Come back.”
Story copyright © 2017 by B. Morris Allen
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Carrion House
B. Morris Allen grew up in a house full of books that travelled the world. Nowadays, they’re e-books, and lighter to carry, but they’re still multiplying. He’s been a biochemist, an activist, and a lawyer, and now works as a foreign aid consultant. When he’s not roaming foreign countries fighting corruption, he’s on the Oregon coast, chatting with seals. In the occasional free moment, he works on his own speculative stories of love and disaster.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.