I fingered the incision I cut into his chest, down the line of his sternum, searching for some kind of residue. No trace of coagulated blood on my gloves. I reached within the cut and pulled out a single black feather, a raven’s.
It had to be a prank of some kind, I thought, but I didn’t know who would have set it up. Surely I would have seen someone at work on this body at some point, draining it dry and stuffing it full of feathers. But what purpose would that serve, other than to demonstrate the cruelty of the person behind the prank? It didn’t fit together.
I decided to press on, to see how far this possible ruse had gone. I finished my incision and pulled the skin back, expecting the layer of feathers to be no more than skin deep.
Wrens crowded in his lungs, or rather crowded together to form shapes like lungs. His abdomen erupted with all sorts of species. A stomach of robins. A spleen of sandpipers. A blackened liver made of crows, their wet feathers stuck together. And, in the center of his ribcage, behind the illegitimate lungs, two cardinals lay dead, embracing within one another’s wingspan. I did not have to guess what they stood in for.
When I showed up at her doorstep, the first thing she told me was she had coffee prepared for me. “How do you take it?”
“With cream. No sugar,” I said. I don’t drink coffee, but considering the delicate – and peculiar – nature of my visit, I thought it best to humor her.
I shook the rain off my coat and stepped in. Immediately I noticed a painting on the wall across from the door, in the hallway leading to their living room. I approached it to get a better look.
An old witch with sandy brown hair sat in the middle of a cleared circle of dirt, surrounded by a wall of trees. Her legs tucked under her indian-style, and her hands opened palm-up to the sky at her sides. She looked up, her eyes closed, her mouth moving. I swear I saw her tongue flickering in the painting, like I witnessed her in the midst of a sacred chant. Smoke curled up into the air, but I could not find a fire.
The most arresting part of the painting was the ravens, or what I think were supposed to be ravens. They hovered in a loose vertical alignment in the painting, and the top-most one, flying just above the witch’s head, was all raven. The middle one, its wings jerking out like the bird was caught in mid-spasm, had human feet. The lowest one only had the head of a raven. The rest of its body was human. It had just reached the ground in the painting, teetering over to one side away from the witch, it’s feet folded up under it like it had lost feeling in its extremities.
“Do you make many social calls?” Mrs. Montgomery asked me, a steaming mug of coffee in hand.
“Um, no ma’am,” I said.
“You might start by taking your coat off,” she said.
I reflexively patted the front of my coat and splashed droplets of water on the carpet. When I stepped away from them, I realized I had left wet footprints.
I made a bit of a commotion, scurrying over to the front door rug and rubbing my feet dry while I removed my coat. Mrs. Montgomery watched me with a bemused look on her face. I offered to blot up my footprints, but she declined. “It’s no problem,” she said. “Gives me something to do.”
We took our seats in the living room by their coffee table, where I set my drink. Issues of National Geographic and Conservationist Magazine lay spread out on the table. Outside, the rain pattered against the house, the only noise besides our breathing.
“How did he come up with that painting, Mrs. Montgomery?”
“Please, call me Gwen,” she told me, sipping her coffee. “He dreamed it, like he did many of his other paintings. If anyone asked him, he always said he drew from real life, though.” She smirked through her coffee cup.
“His other paintings?”
“Oh yes. He was quite prolific. I counted – ” she paused, nodding her head sideways to a silent count “ – almost three hundred paintings over the past fifty years? Yes, that sounds right. Perhaps three-fifty.”
She smiled. “As long as I’ve known him. Well, shortly after we got married, anyway.”
“That painting you saw in the hallway,” she said, “was one of the only paintings he didn’t make on commission. He had many people offer to buy it over the years. They would’ve paid a lot for it, too. Five figures, even. But he said no, every time. ‘It’s too important,’ he’d say. ‘It’s an origin story.’”
I took a sip of my coffee, straining to come up with conversation material. Never has been a personal strength. “I thought about being an artist once.”
“You did?” She sounded genuinely surprised, not just playing it for polite conversation.
I told her about how I drew all the time in high school. I doodled on every piece of paper I could find. It gave me an excuse not to talk to anybody – not many people try to fool with you if you’ve got your nose hovering over a pencil – but I didn’t tell her that part of it. I did mention that my dream back then was to be a professional illustrator, someone who did drawings for children’s books or something like that. I even told her about this old edition of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales I got from my grandmother one year when I was a kid, with these detailed woodblock pictures of Rapunzel and Clever Hans.
Once I stopped talking, we fell quiet, just breathing in the steam from our drinks. The rain kept falling outside. It sounded like lazy woodpeckers working on the siding, bit by bit.
I decided it was time to reveal my discoveries to Gwen, about her husband. I told her what happened when I made my initial incisions and what I found.
I’d never had to talk to the family of the deceased before then. In decades of my work, I thankfully never had to tell anyone about the results of autopsies and the like. I didn’t have to be around many people. I could work in solitude, at my own pace, alone with my own thoughts. When I wrote up my reports, other people gave them to the intended recipients, and I got back to work. That suited me.
Her face remained stoic through my explanations. I kept trying to read it, hoping to alter the tone of my story if it distressed her. She showed no such distress – and I’m no good at reading faces – so I soldiered on in a manner I thought best: straightforward, matter-of-fact, no additional flourishes or melodrama.
When I finished, she sat for awhile, her hand on her mouth. I thought she was upset. I started to regret paying my visit and almost excused myself to leave.
“I knew,” she said, blurting it out from between her fingers. I almost choked on my coffee. “I did. Or I think I did. I mean, he was always a little weird. Nothing major. But. . . ” she trailed off.
“You don’t have to say anything – ” I said.
“But he was always so restless in wintertime,” she continued. “He would move around the house from room to room, antsy about something. He’d say ‘I just want to migrate with the rest of the flock.’ I’d laugh, then he’d laugh, and then we’d go play in the snow. But then a flock of birds would fly overhead sometimes and, wouldn’t you know it, he would look sad, like he regretted something.
“And he always ate seeds. They were his favorite snack. He loved sunflower seeds, without any flavoring. He chewed on those, and cracked corn, and thistle seeds too.
“I saw him a few times, when he’d go out to the bird feeders in the back,” she said, and nodded through the window behind the couch where we sat. The rain had let up, enough that a few sparrows had alighted on a bird feeder in the shape of a barn silo, with a little red cone on top like it was made of brick.
“You know what he’d do? He’d pick seeds out. He’d eat them right there, just like eating popcorn. Right there, with the birds, snacking along with them. Sometimes I saw him out there, talking to them.
“I didn’t mind,” she said, in a whisper. I don’t know why she chose to whisper. “I really didn’t. He was always a quirky man, ever since I met him in high school. I loved him anyway. Still do.”
“I. . . I’m sorry. . .” was all I could say. Even then, I said it in a muted tone. I didn’t want to disturb her. I felt like I was being clued into something secret, something special and hidden, the kind of secret that’s a privilege to know.
“Sometimes,” she continued, “I’d lay on this couch with him – right here – and rest my head against his chest, when it was really still at night. It would be total silence; I’d hear nothing but crickets chirping outside. When I tried real hard to listen to his heartbeat, you know what I’d hear?”
I shook my head slowly, not saying a thing.
“Fluttering. His heart didn’t beat. It fluttered. Like a box of moths, or – or a bird,” she said. “I actually brought it up to him once and he said, ‘You heard that, then? They know you’re nearby, and they’re happy.’”
When I entered the kitchen, I looked for the watercolor painting Gwen gave me before I left her house, one of her husband’s. It lay on the countertop next to my wallet. The painting is an unabashedly romantic one: a man and woman, maybe in their mid-twenties, lying in the grass on their sides, smiling. His eyes are closed; hers aren’t. On his side of the ground, behind his back, black feathers pepper the grass in the shape of massive wings, folded against him. One tiny feather rests in his hands, which are cupped together. She has taken his hands in one of hers while she traces the outline of the feather with the pinkie finger of her free hand.
When I left her house at the end of my visit, I told Mrs. Montgomery I would make a decision about what to do with her husband’s body and how to report it soon. I wanted it taken care of, for her sake.
Before I stepped out the front door, she brought me one of his paintings, then wrapped in beige paper. “Here,” she said, “take it. You’re a nice man, and I think Clay would’ve wanted you to have one of his works.”
“You don’t want it?” I asked her.
“Oh, no,” she said, tapping her temple. “I have them all up here. That’s enough.”
I unwrapped the painting when I came home and viewed it for the first time then. My focus centered on that black feather in the man’s hands, and the woman fingering the tip of it. The looks on their faces struck me as calm, content. And the feathers splayed out behind the man: were they remnants of wings, where they once sprouted from his shoulders? Perhaps they were left behind or abandoned somehow.
I used to play this game when I was a kid, after I’d read Grimms’ Fairy Tales a hundred times, where I would show the pictures in the book to people and try having them guess what the story was. More often than not, no one else was interested in playing, so I’d have to test myself. Even then, it didn’t work; by that point, I’d already memorized the book.
In the dark of that far-too-early morning, my head still stuck in half-sleep, I tried the game again with that painting. None of the stories I remembered matched it, though, so I made up my own, mixing this painting with the one I first saw at Mrs. Montgomery’s house: the boy called to Earth from the form of a raven, by an old woman, lonely, wanting company. Wanting sons to call her own. Something out of a fairy tale, where nature would allow its laws to be rewritten if a lesson could be taught.
A boy with two brothers, just like him. Maybe they were wild as children too. I could imagine the young Mr. Montgomery and his brothers terrorizing the local high school: slamming people into lockers; smoking under the bleachers at the football stadium; spray-painting crude jokes on the side of the groundskeeper’s hut. Wild, untamed boys.
But, maybe Mr. Montgomery was the most sensitive of the brothers, and maybe this young girl with eyes and voice of honey brushed against him in a science class and set his heart to fluttering. So he took her by the hand and showed her things from his perspective. They climbed trees overlooking the school, observing how much less oppressive it appeared from a bird’s eye view. He called birds to him at lunch, perhaps, and made them dance in little waltzes on the lawn, their bright feathers twirling in the sun while she clapped and smiled. And so she made him feel good to be human.
Until the time of enchantment was over. The clock struck midnight. The beautiful clothes faded to tatters. The carriage turned into a pumpkin. On a cold, wet spring night, the boys’ adoptive mother called them back to their enclave in the woods. Mr. Montgomery watched as his older brothers stripped themselves naked, craned their heads up at the moon, and shook their limbs until they sprouted feathers, beaks, scaly feet, and flew away, glad to be back in their true forms, grateful for flight and their native instincts.
And maybe then, his adoptive mother looked back on Mr. Montgomery and asked him, “Aren’t you going to join them now?”
And he said, “No. I’m not.”
She would have been concerned, I think. Perhaps wanting a different answer.
“I’m staying,” he said, with firmer emphasis. “There’s a girl. She makes me feel like I’m flying, even when I’m not.”
Maybe then she nodded, muttering some chant while sorting through straws of different lengths in her hands, casting the longest one on the ground. “Fine then,” she said. “It’s your choice. But you’ll never really be like them, and you’ll know it. You’ll feel that painful yearning in your heart for flight, to be among your brothers and sisters in the air, chasing warmer currents. You’ll be a flightless, foolish bird in the shell of a man. You’ll never see any of us again: me, your brothers, the sky. Never, not even in death. There will be no funeral for you, and no one will remember you.”
I snapped out of my trance with a start, like I had actually fallen asleep and just had a nightmare. I blinked a few times to make sure I was not in that secret forest enclave. It was still late at night in my kitchen. The moonlight still shone in from the window over the sink, casting a square of light on the countertop where the painting lay. The crickets sang outside, and fireflies blinked in and out of existence through my back porch door.
My eyes throbbed. I rubbed them, knowing fully well how tired I was. I blamed my imagination on a lack of sleep and the resulting state of mind. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking – of Mr. Montgomery’s paintings, and the feathers spilling out of him, and his widow.
On a whim, I turned the painting over. On the backside, in simple, clean printed pencil, it said love is a dream. This whole episode may as well have been a dream, I thought then. If that’s the case, I wondered if Mrs. Montgomery would tell herself that when she woke up after dreams of her husband to an empty half of a bed.
I felt myself chill. I should have known there would be questions. If anyone came upon Mr. Montgomery after me, they would have drawn such terrible assumptions. I drew the same assumptions myself only the day before.
When I stepped inside Mr. Forrester’s office, he pointed at a chair, stony faced. I sat down and folded my hands in my lap, awaiting my punishment.
He cleared his throat and said, “Where is Mr. Montgomery?”
I blinked. “What?”
He tilted his head to the side, continuing to stare at me. “Mr. Montgomery’s body is missing. An attendant was doing a locker check earlier today and found a dead bird inside his locker instead of his body.”
I gasped without thinking about it.
He tapped the desk and continued. “I’m just as shocked as you are. You were assigned to Mr. Montgomery, and you were the last person to examine him yesterday, according to the clock. I’ll ask you again: where is Mr. Montgomery?”
“I…” My mouth ran dry. I swallowed and tried to think of something to say, something remotely believable. “He should be there. His body should be there.”
Mr. Forrester leaned forward. “So he just spontaneously disappeared then?”
“Or someone snuck in and took him,” I said. “I don’t know. Maybe we have some corpse robbers. I’ve heard of people stealing dead bodies from morgues elsewhere and selling them to medical colleges.”
“Medical colleges don’t buy corpses off the black market,” he said flatly.
“Or maybe it was a group of kids on a dare. Something like that. Whatever it was, it wasn’t me. I haven’t touched the body since then.”
“None of our locks or windows are broken.”
“Then they picked the locks!” My hands shook. I hid them as best I could.
He massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and finger. “This would be so much easier with security cameras,” he muttered. “I’m going to call the police and make sure they investigate. If you didn’t do anything, fine. If you did, you’re going to be strung up. Understand?”
I nodded. “Um. So. What about the bird?”
The trash disposal crew hadn’t arrived yet, despite Mr. Forrester’s belief to the contrary. I pried open the dumpster behind the building in those early hours, while there still weren’t a lot of people around. Beneath a few bloated black garbage bags, tied at the tops so they looked like giant rotted cherries, I found the raven. It stood out against the side of a cardboard box, ripped free from its frame to fit in the dumpster. The raven’s beak opened slightly, like the bird struggled to breathe under those bags and suffocated. I picked it up and found its feathers dry, cracking in my hands. As gingerly as I could, I set it on the ground next to my feet and searched for something to carry it in.
When she opened the door for me, she smiled at first, but then she noticed the shoebox in my hand. Her smile vanished. She brought her hand up to her face, then to the lip of the box’s lid. “Do I want to look?”
I shrugged. “It’s nothing grisly. It’s just. . .” I didn’t finish.
Sucking in a breath, she raised the lid and peered in. She looked for a good five seconds before setting the lid back down, taking steady breaths the whole time. “That’s all?” She didn’t say it out of disappointment.
“When I came in to the morgue, I found this where I set his body last,” I said. “Nobody else saw him except for me. This is what he became, I guess, when he died.”
She wrapped her arms around her and walked into the living room. I followed her to the couch and sat down with her. “I suppose I can rule out a funeral,” she said.
I said nothing, aside from the drumming of my fingers on the box.
“It won’t be so bad,” she said, continuing on. “I won’t have to set up a wake, or deal with some insufferable preacher with a canned sermon, or buy a gravestone so I can put his name on it and remind people that he once wasn’t – ”
She choked, her words catching in her throat. Sharp breaths came in and out of her nose in quick succession, and she balled her hands up in her lap. I don’t think she noticed herself rocking back and forth where she sat.
“I want people to know, dammit.” Her voice wobbled with her body. “But no one’s going to bury a bird. What am I going to say? What could I possibly say?”
I laid a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. I didn’t know what else I could do or say at that point, but I had to do something.
She turned to face me. Her eyes were wet. “There’s just nothing I can do, is there?”
A shrill birdsong interrupted my thoughts then. I turned around and peered out the window at the source, a nightingale perched on the bird feeder. It looked right at me through the glass, awaiting my response to its call. “Not exactly,” I said.
When we came outside, Mrs. Montgomery chose to hold on to the shoebox. She gripped it tightly, then relaxed her fingers a bit when she noticed the crunch of the cardboard in her hands. I carried a shovel I found in her garage.
“Not every funeral has to take place in a graveyard,” I said. That logic appealed to her. I think she envisioned her husband’s burial site, wherever we chose to put it, becoming some special, sacred place.
She chose a spot in front of the bird feeder about three feet, and I set to digging. The dirt gave easily against the shovel. While I did this, Mrs. Montgomery wrapped a hand towel in the box, around Mr. Montgomery. “I want to preserve him as best I can,” she says. “It’s going to be cold and wet down there.”
Within two minutes, I had dug a hole big enough to fit the box inside comfortably. I stood back, my hands propped up on the end of the shovel, waiting for her orders. “Ready when you are,” I said.
She nodded, but didn’t move otherwise. The wind began to pick up. “I want to stand here awhile.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m not ready to let go,” she said.
“I know,” I told her. “There’s no rush.”
She mouthed a “thank you” and closed her eyes. Her lips moved, but made no sound.
While I stood there watching her, two ravens came down from out of nowhere and perched on the feeder next to me. I looked over at them, their slick black bodies shining in the sun, not an ounce of color on them otherwise. Their eyes were locked on their brother’s coffin the entire time, only flying away when Mrs. Montgomery did, eventually, let go.
Walter Rothschild, Ernst Hartert, K. Jordan (editors) Derivative work: Dysmorodrepanis (Novitates Zoologicae (Volume 18 Plate 2)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons