I land on the limb, my talons scattering small pieces of bark on the feeding table. A gust of wind buffets the tree and the branch I am on shudders. I lift my wings in response, lustrous black feathers reflecting shades of iridescent blue. Grasping the limb tighter, I steady myself, paying no mind to the other birds. An old man slides open the glass door and steps out. Patchy tufts of gray hair catch the breeze, revealing a pink scalp dappled with age spots. It makes me think of worms. My mouth waters and I’m tempted to fly down, to run my beak through the gossamer wisps, but I stay put.
She wouldn’t like that.
Beneath the old man’s feet, wooden planks creak, their surface pitted with age. The old man leans over, and takes the lid off a plastic drum, setting it aside. A thin sheet of fog coats his glasses and he removes them, wiping the lenses on his flannel jacket. He places them back on his face as a young girl bolts out on the porch, long braid flopping between her shoulder blades. The other birds shriek and flutter off. Not me.
“I help, Papa?” the small girl asks, forming the words with difficulty.
“Of course.” The old man smiles at her and hands her a measuring cup filled with seeds. The girl smiles back, her eyes of radiant blue widening as she feels the weight of the cup. For a moment, something inside me stirs.
I push it away. This is the only way, this is the deal.
The girl lifts the cup, small hands trembling with effort, lips pursed in concentration. Behind her, another man steps out, his features similar to the old man, but less saggy, hair the same auburn shade as the child’s. He cocks his head to the side and looks over the girl’s shoulder. She’s standing on her tip toes, trying to hold the cup over the table. He leans back against the door and crosses his arms over his chest. The two men share a grin.
Her tiny hands drop the cup twice. On the third try, the young girl doesn’t bother to pick it up. She grabs the handle and flips it over, spilling the birdseed on the table.
“I dids it, Papa,” she exclaims, waving the empty cup at the older man.
Her eyes land on the young man leaning against the wall and she bounces up and down, pointing to the table. “I dids it, Daddy!”
“That you dids,” he says, beaming at her.
The seeds look enticing. A pang of hunger grips my stomach. I take off before I do something I regret.
Surely, by now, the dark woman has seen enough.
It’s early afternoon when I return.
From an old birch tree, I watch the girl play in the dirt as the young man mows the yard. She’s concentrating hard on something, her eyes narrowed, head bowed. I fly in closer to look. Loosely clasped in her dirty palm is a lady bug. It lifts it shell and unfurls its wings. The child tries to grab it but the bug escapes and crawls up her wrist. She giggles, her chubby cheeks etched with dimples.
A billow of cold air wind weaves its way through the woods, shaking the tall pines. The girl looks up and the lady bug takes off. She doesn’t notice. The young man stops the mower and a curtain of silence descends upon the yard. The wind picks up, tugging harshly at the trees, but the silence remains. Dark clouds fill the sky.
The young man walks over to the girl who is still staring at the sky, eyebrows furrowed. He takes her hand and pulls her up. Together they step inside the house.
It’s late afternoon when the dark woman arrives, but it looks more like twilight. Murky clouds cover the sky, obscuring the land in shadow. I sense her presence, that and the creature who roams with her, but I cannot see them. I wait dutifully. The sun lowers, its veiled splendor slipping closer to the horizon. An hour passes, maybe two, and although I hear not a sound, I know it’s behind me; her abomination, her familiar. I flutter my wings. My nails click on the limb as I turn, terrified to look, but knowing I must.
It sits on the branch across from me, thin arms with a grayish hue wrapped around the trunk. Dangling from one hand is a teddy bear, its fur matted, one button eye missing, one hanging from a thread. Those last two are recent alterations the dark woman has made for him.
The missing button dangles from a string around my neck. A penance.
The familiar cocks its child-sized head toward the house. Its mouth, a lipless slit covering half his face, opens slightly, and I catch the glint of razor sharp teeth. I get the point.
I fly off the branch, and open my wings, enjoying freedom while I can. After a minute, I slow and alight on the back porch. Through the sliding glass door, I see the girl sitting at a small pink table, staring at the television. She deftly picks up a nugget off the plate and pops it into her mouth. Neither the old man or young man are to be seen. I trudge forward, my talons clinking against wood. The wind stirs and dead leaves scatter across the porch, a death march of the fallen. When I reach the window, I lean in and tap my beak against it three times. The young girl pauses, nugget half way to her mouth, but doesn’t look my direction. After a second, she continues to eat. I try again, tapping harder. This time the girl turns and sees me. With wide eyes, she slides off the chair and crawls across the floor to the door. I see her mouth the word bird as she touches the glass. Lifting my wings, I fly up to the feeding table. Her eyes follow me.
Another brief flash of remorse courses through me as I look at the trusting face of the child, her head tilted, lips raised in a smile. It’s too late now, though. The dark woman is here.
Boards creak. Out of the corner of my eye, I see darkness ascending the stairs. The woman slowly makes her way up to the porch. The little girl turns her head and seeing the creature I have brought upon her doorstep, she pales, ruddy cheeks fading to white. A part of me, a sick and twisted part, wants to look at the dark woman, but I keep my eyes on the girl. Right now, the dark woman is blind without me. The girl opens her mouth and screams, a piercing shriek that shakes the glass.
The darkness beside me disappears. Upon hearing the girls scream, the two men race into the living room. I fly to a higher branch and observe. The young man grabs the child and pulls her to him while the old man walks around the room, checking in the closets and corners. It takes time before the girl calms down enough to point out the window. Both men glance out. After a moment, the young man shakes his head. With a quick shrug, the old man grabs his jacket and pulls a gun from a locked cabinet. He opens the glass door, but the little girl grabs his leg, crying. The old man leans down and kisses her on her head before stepping out.
One down, one to go.
Hours later, the familiar climbs up the tree I am perched on. Hanging from his mouth is a pink sheet of skin covered in wisps of gray hair. I think of worms again, but this time lose my appetite. It senses my discomfort and smiles, a wide grin stretching across its gruesome face, its one good eye hanging from the socket. My memory flickers back to the day I awoke, staring at those razor-sharp teeth. I remember the sounds of its screams as I tore out its eyes, an unhallowed keening. Perhaps if I had attacked faster, I would have gotten away with it.
I blinded the dark woman when I took its eyes. I destroyed her sight. Now, I must find a replacement.
I direct my attention back to the house. Inside, the young man is pacing, peeking out the window every few seconds. The child is sitting on the floor, playing with a puzzle. The young man runs his hands through his hair, then rubs the back of his neck. It won’t be long now.
After a few more darted glances between the door and the girl, he picks up his own jacket and slips it on. He goes to the girl and speaks for quite some time. The girl shakes her head, mouth forming the word no. This continues for several minutes before the child looks to the floor and nods. The young man leans over and kisses her on the forehead. Standing, he makes his way to the door, only stopping long enough to mouth ‘stay here’ before stepping out.
The noise seems to go on for hours, crunching and smacking sounds I decide will stay with me forever. Finally, it goes quiet. I do not dare look at the carnage. Instead, I stare at the little girl, her tear streaked face pressed against the glass as she waits for the young man to return.
In the silence, the dark woman comes.
I fly down and land on the feeder table as she approaches, a cloak of black flowing about her in serpentine tendrils. The girl backs away from the glass, her body trembling in fear as her eyes lock on the woman. The dark woman draws near the child and uncurls her long, pale fingers, running them down the glass, leaving behind trails of frost. The child becomes still, her eyes following the woman’s hand. Dark smoke hisses through the glass, coiling itself around the girl. After a second, the smoke retreats and the child smiles.
Standing on her tippy toes, the girl unlocks the door. The woman slides it open and the child clasps her small fingers around the woman’s slender ones. Together, they step out.
The dark woman removes her hood and leans down until her face, a canvas of mottled red and black veins, comes close enough to touch mine. Her empty eye sockets swirl with smoke, curling and uncurling like feelers. I emit a noise, a low tune screech. The smoke dissipates, and the woman stands, nodding to the little girl.
“You found my eyes,” she says, her voice the raspy sound of a thousand dying breaths. “She will do nicely.”
I bow my head. My job was done, my penance repaid. I was free.
I lift my wings, preparing to fly as far away as I can go, but the small smile tugging at the corner of the dark woman’s cracked lips stops me.
“I said I would set you free, not how,” she says, grinning.
A teddy bear lands beside me, its teddy bear. Cold hands grasp my neck, and I can’t breathe, can only stare into the face of her familiar as it opens his mouth, rows upon rows of sharp teeth glistening in the moonlight.
Heather Harrison was born and raised in North East Texas. Growing up with a family of misfits left her with a wild imagination, a sharp sense of humor, and prone to the occasional bout of insanity. By day, she is a marketing manager, and by night she is a coffee-fueled zombie, author, and mother of two children. She has several published works including I, Avatar, Franny’s Fable, and To Reap and Sow.