gold in my eyes
red on my mouth
am I glamour
or did I eat you for treasure
Claudia Marr, head swinging up in pride from the cover of a black veil, sandstorm skin sculpted by moon-glow, grows on stage from ghost to mannequin on the velvet seat of her trapeze. Her long gauzy robe cascades down from the seat, swaying matter-of-factly in the prismatically orchestrated scene. All is black save for her lips, a sorcerer’s shade of amethyst, filling her cupid-bow mouth like a period in a stage-book of unspoken curses.
Suspended in the liquid darkness, her face is brushed by a bronze and obsidian plumage—long, unearthly feathers from a great beast of bird-dom. The audience gasps in awe, as beast and beauty dance in-flight—a symphony of silent gestures and explosions of colour. This is a celebration of beauty—of natural life. Painted woman and wilderness born-perfect. Claudia runs her ungloved hand along the underside of the bird’s endless neck. It coos in growing waves—sound like spells across the aisles, through the rafters, illuminating the auspicious night in organic wonder.
The bird outstretches its enormous wings, and here the act has ended. Claudia slides from neck to tail, to the granite floor of the stage. She huffs, cold cheek pressed against the floor, remnants of golden glitter spilling out from above like God-rain. She peers out to the front row, to her sweetheart, Girard Augher.
Thank you, she whispers as the lights go dark, and the bird folds up into a black, feathered crescent.
Claudia never said much about Roman Sier, other than her last view of him was in the marble room of the old Chesterton house in Fairbrook. Having overstayed his welcome in her memory, long surpassing the dents and sighs of her precocious childhood, she had swept him out as perilously as the remnants of her past revilements. But there have been many men since then. Many pains of the heart.
“Do you house the birds in such conditions?” she asks Emiel Forsa, noting the mould on the sill and the change in temperature from one corner to the next. The warehouse is a wreck from top to bottom.
“I don’t keep mine in my home, no,” he answers coolly. “Does Girard?”
Claudia drops her coat on the nearest seat and stands erect, her nose barely meeting the height of Forsa’s chest. Her lips are red now, her hair in a Louise Brooks bob. The Spaniard leans down to meet her eyes.
“The birds of paradise, yes. He doesn’t trust them to anyone.”
Forsa lets out a derisive laugh. “And the bird last night, where does he find such exotic creatures?”
Forsa’s expression grows dark.
“I tell you, I don’t! I know nothing of it. I only took his offer.”
“To use the bird?”
“He doesn’t harm them.”
Forsa huffs again and turns to pour himself a drink. Claudia rushes behind him, grasping his arms lovingly, leaning her head against his back.
“Oh, please, let it be. Girard is so remorseful. He wants all to be well.”
He inhales deeply, placing his glass down, turning to her. “Oh does he…?” he asks dryly. “Tell me, do you not know what he has done?”
“He has never said.”
Forsa’s face, painted in red, turns from her and towards his ledger. “Hasn’t he?”
Eight cages have arrived on the doorstep of Emiel Forsa. Eight immaculate, iron-wrought contraptions in wedding-white. The contents are invisible, hidden behind a translucent sheath of fabric woven between the bars, glittering with microscopic breathing holes pierced by sewing needle.
“What of this offering? Who is it from?” Forsa demands of the couriers, three small Indian men in green suits, moving identically, as though their gestures were born of an experiment in military discipline and theatre.
“I’d cut out my own tongue before I’d speak it, sir! But, perchance your curiosity lingers, a note!”
The smallest courier points to a golden envelope tied to one of the cages by scarlet thread. They depart, and Forsa is left to rip and read and revile the newly acquired oppression in his midst. Gold powder paints his fingertips.
“Girard,” he whispers, eyes dancing menacingly over the insipid prose of this apology. He speaks of ‘longing for old days’ and ‘true friendship,’ of ‘mistakes’ and ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’!
“Huh!” shouts Forsa, tearing the letter and setting it out the window and into the wind. It is this action that stirs the hidden beasts. A quiet, rolling caw, as guttural as the stirring of a locomotive engine, rings out from the farthest white cage. Then, each gathers with their avian brother and sister to a choir of guttural moaning and croaking—the longing to see their new home.
Reluctantly, Forsa takes his pen-knife to the translucent fabric, tearing gently, as to not harm or aggravate the beast. He pulls the fabric out with caution, the last talent of a worn ornithologist, revealing the species within.
But what species is this? Forsa stares in shock, a touch of horror glowing from his eyes, at the opulent bird within. It has the look and size of an adult vulture, though scarlet red in plumage. Its eyes, a deep shade of turquoise. Its beak, a sumptuous grey-gold. Its feathers are dusted with a strange golden powder which puffs out into the atmosphere with every movement of the bird. It looks up at him with a trickster’s curiosity.
“Intelligent one,” he says quietly, moving to cut the sheath from the remainder of the strange birds.
One meets his eye with a heathen might—the largest, most vibrant. It pushes its head back to let out a harrowing cry. Forsa is frozen to the spot, ears ringing, gold-dust powdering the button-sleeve of his white overcoat.
Girard Augher conducts himself with the patchwork gestures of businessmen, though Claudia remembers him before this charade. She has lingered, knowing he would make something of himself, long beyond his travails in pseudo-alchemy.
“So the key works?” he teases.
“Indeed. How is my precious bird?” she asks, embracing him slyly with a hint of mist in her eye. The man is tall, stout, balding—an embodiment of wonder in wears that wear him.
“Well rested, lovely! Fine condition, very fine. The performance did him well, I think.”
Claudia smiles. He helps her remove her coat, revealing numerous long scratches on her arms. Girard notices, though he does not speak of them.
“Tell me, how is Forsa?”
She rolls her eyes. “He is a mess of bitterness, as always.”
“Ah. I am glad you have been able to maintain your friendship with him.”
They sit down together in the dining room. Rustling feathers may be heard from every room in shades of light and loud. The scratching of talons and militant crowing of uncounted avian beasts illustrates the evening conversation, in piercing lamplight.
“They are cramped in here, are they not?”
Girard laughs. “Only for a time. I am in the process of moving many of them to larger quarters. Then this home may begin to look like a home, yes?”
Claudia leers as he stares out the dining room door into the living area, where a great ivory cage sits. She knows something is bothering him. He speaks before she has the chance to ask.
“Tell me something, Claudia.”
She stiffens her shoulders, listening.
“Do you consider me a generous friend?”
Girard crosses his arms over his chest, steeped in thought. His glasses tip as he fumbles with a stray golden fork, decorated with a phoenix on the handle.
September 19th, 1934
I have been gifted six birds that seem to have come from some unexplored region of Northern India. These birds, which have no scientific designation, have enormous scarlet plumage, variable beaks (white, black, grey-gold), and glossy black eyes. Equipped with profound intelligence that, in the smartest specimen, could rival that of a dolphin, the birds become my pride, fright, obsession.
Gold dust was gathered at the tips of their wing feathers upon delivery. The dust has spread to the entirety of the wings, and now the body, of the birds. Each day, in the morning, I brush out the dust with a ceramic tool, as to not harm the delicate creatures, though have yet to do so with proper ventilation.
Claudia makes her way down the street, heels catching between cobblestones—stumbling, wincing, panting. She reaches the old warehouse where Forsa has been staying. Stumbling up the steps, the air becomes hot, unbearable. She knocks on the door loudly, her bracelets decorating the wood with a metallic, bell-like sound.
Forsa opens the door slightly, revealing only a sliver of himself through the crevice. She forces her way in, pushing the door open. The apartment is in complete disarray, covered in feces, dust, and feathers. Claudia, covering her mouth, speaks through her hand.
She examines him, noting the long tears in the grey fabric of his suit. Rolling coos sing out from above. She lifts her gaze to see the scarlet birds lingering above on the pipes, examining her with gentle longing and curiosity. She looks at Forsa again.
“I…I cannot account for them,” Forsa whispers.
The sadness in his eyes overwhelms her senses. She drops her hand, moves forward, removes his tattered overcoat, and runs to his armoire in the back room. Searching through the drawers, she cannot find a single item of clothing that has not been destroyed by the birds. She walks back to him.
“You will be rid of them.”
He turns to her, shrugging. “No.”
“Why the hell not?”
He turns his arms over to show that his veins have become white. Forsa lifts a finger to his lower eyelids, adjusting them so that she may see the deep, yellow hue of sclera.
She grabs his wrist. “Emiel.”
Claudia is overcome with a look of guilt. She breathes in deeply. “Tell me what Girard did, all those years ago.”
“Huh!” Forsa grabs her by the arm and leads her to the door.
He closes the door in her face.
October 3rd, 1934
Weeks have passed. I grow lethargic. The ethereal beauty of the birds has mutated into an aberrant, demonic ferocity. They began to exhibit features more akin to vultures, though more menacing. Their gentle, curious personalities become dark. I notice that, in the hours of their recreation time outside of the cages, they play tricks on me by shutting off lights and hiding my tools, including the ceramic brushes. The last great change I noticed in the birds was the hue of their eyes. The pure glossy black became a sclera of yellow, with a red pupil. And the size of them! The size…
There are many poor souls who dabble in magic with dark intention, only to find that it will fail them. Emiel Forsa, hiding from the light of day behind shit-stained, moth-eaten curtains, cannot account for the labyrinth of confusion and disease that has come to him with the arrival of his treasured guests.
On the morning of the eighth of October, Forsa finds a concerning object in one of the golden nests the birds have woven into the apartment pipework. An egg as large as a melon, as light as a feather, held up to the light, revealing an interior city in glass, in pearl, in odd, cosmic illumination. Forsa thinks himself trapped in a dream-disease. The necrotic-REM of self-annihilation. He cannot think, he cannot breathe…
An ebb of pale light haunts the room, growing more red, more violent. The largest bird, Thesil, has grown to the heights of an elephant. It turns its enormous head around the corner, into the room, its long neck stretching through the lengths until its beak is inches from Forsa’s face. There is an elegance to this defeat, perhaps. Forsa is unafraid. Their presence is an effortless haunt, and there is nothing that can be done to be rid of them. They vanish and appear at will, throw his voice through his own ears, torment him with rolling laughter, like a preternatural hyena. The face of the great one is lit by the last light of dusk creeping through the taped-up window. Forsa cannot stand this light anymore.
The night air will be dry. He breathes in and chokes, particles of gold dust trapped in his lungs. He is painted from within by this torment. Thesil leans in closer, the chill of his beak touching Forsa’s forehead. He breathes heathen air, like black smoke, into his face. It has the smell of a thousand-year thing, alive despite the inklings of nature. Forsa has a fantasy, of his corpse encased in glass, untouchable due to the infection that lives within. He will not turn into one of them, not be eaten by them. He threads his fingers together and lifts them to separate his face from the beast. He does not want to look at it any longer.
October 13th, 1934
TEM micrograph from several weeks ago reveals atypical virions similar to the manifestation of rabies, but the symptoms do not align. They do, however, seep into me, in dreams and waking life. I awoke to two words scribbled in my bedside notebook. “Nabryd-keind” and “Ulldythaer.” I can make no sense of them.
Claudia turns in the remnants of passion, Girard’s quiet snores weaving through her cigarette smoke. She does not love him. Cannot love anymore. She remembers Roman. Thoughts rush in of the long stairwell, the space between steps, the fissure in the atmosphere between rain and great thunder. He had received the cloak she sent him. A wondrous thing. The door opened by itself, revealing Roman’s silhouette on a far chair, lit by candlelight. His billowing form, expanded by the cloak, cast a cruel shadow on the wall.
“I was delayed a bit. The storm, you see,” she said, trying to coax him out.
Roman, face obscured by shadow, turned in his seat, rising slowly. Walking in measured steps towards her, he did not speak. Claudia motioned for the nearby lamp, holding it up to him. Illuminated by this lamplight was the form of man eaten alive by fabric, folds of cloth clamping into flesh like a carnivorous plant. She ran down the stairway in the dark, each step lit by reflecting orange flame on floorboard gloss, a thousand screams sewn together behind her…
Forsa, in his rickety chair, sits with his legs positioned like a discarded marionette. He is still, without urgency. That which creeps, creeps slowly in the mind, in the body. The birds, having exited their cages, lurk on the overhead pipes, in the shadows. They are laughing at him. Forsa hears his own voice, his own pleading, bouncing from the walls. He thinks himself a companion of Alice, as tools and furniture change in size from one moment to the next. The horrid heat of the room blinds him to reason. The birds begin to circle overhead, their maddening caws ripping through his delirium like the last trumpet sounding over a forgotten earth. Forsa looks to his feet, unable to meet the eyes of the menacing creatures. On the floor is a mangled newspaper, Girard Augher marring the front page with his stolen glory.
Forsa tears himself from his predicament, stumbling out of the chair and to the door. The birds have vanished above him, as they often do in times of his surfacing resolve. He wanders down the hall, out into the street, to the village square, where the paper noted the scheduled appearance of Girard with his orange kettle birds.
Forsa spots Girard some distance away, embellished yellow sleeves glistening in the last light of dusk. His thoughts are without form, like an animal. There is instinct and intention, but no reason.
“Your birds!” Forsa cries out, frothing at the mouth.
Girard turns in awe of his former friend, who seems every bit the walking corpse. “Which do you speak of?”
Forsa stumbles toward Girard, taking the scarlet grip upon his neck, thrusting his nails into his throat. He whispers, “the Nabryd-keind…”
His jaw opens no wider than men without curses. He rips the flesh from Girard’s face, as inhuman a gesture as the world will allow, collapsing the man against the cobblestones in a flash of blood and cartilage.
Forsa falls upon him, the consumption of blood, a poison to his condition. Muddled cries escape Girard’s mouth, frowned by the curdling emissions. He cannot breathe under Forsa’s weight, increasing with each second as the man dies under his old friend. His last words are barely audible past the gurgling of saliva and blood.
He takes an hour to die beneath Forsa, his cadaver spilling out in raven shades. No one on the street will approach them.
Claudia washes her face in a cracked mirror, the last layer of white powder falling away in rain from her sunken, elderly cheeks. She has never said much about Forsa or Girard, other than her last view of them was from the main room of the old warehouse in Manasseh, the gentle coos of precious scarlet birds singing out behind her.
Story copyright © 2018 by Farah Rose Smith
Artwork copyright © 2018 by Kat Weaver
Farah Rose Smith is a writer, musician, and photographer whose work often focuses on the Gothic, Decadent, and Surreal. She authored The Almanac of Dust and Eviscerator, and is the founder and editor of MANTID, an anthology series promoting women and diverse writers in Weird Fiction. She lives in Queens, NY with her partner.
Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writes and a writer who sometimes makes art. She has previously published written work in Apex Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, and Lackington’s. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, Persistent Visions, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Minneapolis with her girlfriend and two birds.