by Peter Wild
There is a sound and - before she even considers it, before she even brings herself to wonder what it could be or represent - she hears Carl, Carl who is not here, Carl who has gone. Before she so much as wakes to the situation, there is a question, in her mind, voiced by her (What's that?) and Carl's response (It's Superman, reading a book). It isn't until the riffling sound, as of pages being turned at speed, recurs that she shakes herself out of it or at least shakes her head and sits forward in her seat.
Elaine is sitting, with her legs folded beneath her, in the corner of the living room, hunched, clinging, into one side of the sofa as if pushed there by a crowd, as if forced to accommodate many others, despite the fact that the room is empty of anyone, save her. A quarter-filled glass of red wine (to be drank on the recommendation of her doctor to offset a painful trigeminal neuralgia), balanced on the chair arm, supported by the fingers of her left hand laced around the base and the stem, lurches violently to the left as she gets to her feet. And there is the sound again - a purring shudder, a feathery hiss in the baby monitor. She stands there, looking at the baby monitor on the mantlepiece, specifically the parabola of lights, the Nike swoosh that travels through green to red, with her glass of wine in one hand (now held around the belly of the glass) and her book in the other, glass high, book low, waiting and wondering. Is it a sound, she wonders, or a fault? Elaine knows that these machines, the baby monitoring paraphernalia, are given to faults, random sounds, aural scree that could be anything but are more often than not nothing. Four months of starting at the slightest sound have fostered a resistance in her to charge upstairs at the least prompting.
She stands there, tensing, her shoulders and her neck tight in anticipation of the sound and its repetition. But it doesn't come. There is nothing, not even breathing, to disturb the supposed calm. Elaine sighs or huffs or makes a sound that suggests to anyone listening that, although, yes, she is going to go upstairs to check on the baby, she doesn't really want to and feels mildly put out at the obligations of motherhood. It isn't a true sound - Elaine could happily stand and watch her baby sleep for a lifetime or longer - but its utterance reassures her in some way, makes her feel like a modern, independent woman who can raise a child whilst at the same time cossetting her alone-time, the life of her mind. And so, resting her wine glass on the mantle over the hearth besides the baby monitor and casually flinging her now-closed book on to the sofa in the bottomy warmth of the space she had left, Elaine crosses the room to the stairs and starts up, thinking, briefly, as she passes the photograph of their wedding, nailed, alongside half a dozen others, along the wall that leads from hallway to bathroom, of Carl.
It wasn't surprising that Carl's reaction was the first thing she thought of. She knew Carl - or rather felt she knew Carl - better than she knew herself. A year or so earlier, when their marriage was losing its footing, she had learned the meaning of a word - a word she had managed to travel twenty eight years without having heard before: propinquity. She told Carl. Propinquity. The marriage of minds. She told Carl she'd learned a word, thought it was beautiful, liked the way it felt upon her tongue. In the midst of overseeing a leveraged management buy-out, Carl could not have been said to have paid her his full attention. That was what the baby was about. Leastways from Carl's point of view. She needed distraction, he felt. Was becoming slightly dotty. This dottiness was only compounded in his view when Elaine took to saying the word propinquity at all hours of the day and night as if to illustrate the joy she took in their own marriage of minds. Whenever they talked or appeared to enjoy each other's company, Elaine would - Carl felt - spoil the moment by saying, Propinquity, as if it proved everything that needed proving. But all it served to do was push him away. Even Elaine, prone as she was to deceiving herself in matters of the heart, could see that she had, at least in part, made her bed. They had been so happy - she paused on the stairs to level the frame despite the fact that it was not at all skewed - that day at the South College Street Registry Office. So happy.
Elaine allowed herself a smile and felt strengthened somewhat inside to learn that already she could look back on times when they had been happy. She turned inwardly, intent on climbing the stairs, mapping out the familiar path taken twenty three dozen times a night, and stopped upon hearing the sound again. It wasn't like the pages of a book turned at speed, it was more like - the tabs young boys attached to the back wheels of their bikes in summertime in order to - what? She didn't know. The sound that those boys made as they cycled up and down the street, though. That was what it sounded like from the stairs. But there was more to it. A warmth, an urgency, a life. The sound had life, as if it was generated by something alive. She swallowed and moved more quickly, albeit still quietly, up the stairs to the mezzanine where she turned sharply to the left and followed the upper hallway to the end of the landing where she paused and ever so softly eased the door open. A crack. A crack was all. She eased the door open and cautiously edged her head into the gap to be greeted at once by everything that was dark and familiar: the fitted wardrobes (a gift from her brother-in-law, as was, Steven, the joiner, the spare-time joiner, with a flair for interior design), the rug Carl rescued from a Turkish bazaar on their honeymoon, the super kingsize bed Carl had insisted on (he couldn't sleep, he'd told her, if he couldn't spread out like a starfish baking in the sun) and there, the cot, on the left hand side, her side. She liked to sleep with her hand awkwardly caught between the bars, near without quite touching her son, Edmund. All was as it should be, she thought. She could hear the baby's gentle breath, the in, the gulf of silence, the out, the in, the gulf of silence, the out. The time she had spent in this doorway listening out, sometimes anxiously listening out, for the rise and fall, the hook and catch of his breath. What could -?
And then she saw it and, even as she fussily rebuked herself for missing that which was in plain sight, her stomach shrank and her eyes grew wide and the taste of already-drunk wine rose in her throat. She thought she was going to be sick. There was a bird in the cot alongside her sleeping son. She thought it was a bird. It had two feet. Or not feet. A bird didn't have feet. What did a bird have? She couldn't think. There was a bird. She could hardly get further than that. There was a bird and the bird was moving, calmly, royally, at its own speed, from one end of the cot, from her son's sleeping head, to the other, to his feet, to passed his feet, where there was only the space he would grow into - at which point the bird turned, heading back, repeating the process or gesture or whatever it was, like a guard, like a trooping guard. She was terrified. Nauseous. Her first instinct - to get her son away from the bird - was followed by a more rational restraint (because the bird could do a lot of harm in the time it took her to travel across the bedroom, from the door to the cot). She had to be careful. She was terrified and she wanted to vomit right where she was, on the carpet - but she didn't because she couldn't because she knew that she had to get closer and see if she was mistaken (could it be a toy of some kind thrown into deranged relief by the play of light and dark from the streetlight outside?). She had to be mistaken. Even as she watched the bird plod from one end of the cot to the other, even as she knew, indefatigably, that there was a bird, a strangely elongated bird, right there in the cot beside her son - even as she knew this for the fact that it was - she denied it. It couldn't be a bird. Not really. It couldn't be a bird. Even though she knew it was.
She took a step into the room and in doing so allowed a degree more light inside as the door drew wide. The bird jerked its head in her direction and then rose up, somehow, hopping rather than flapping its wings (if it had wings) - and Elaine stopped in her tracks. The bird faced her (and she knew, as she looked, that it couldn't see her, that as she looked at the bird, the bird was looking at either wall) - but somehow it knew enough to face her, in a way that she would understand. The two of them stood, obliquely facing one another (Elaine had time to wonder what kind of a bird it was, it had the manner of a quail but it was much, much bigger, an armspan, she imagined, from beak to tail feather) each taking a measure of the other. The bird lowered its head and Elaine started - she started to wonder whether the bird was harmless, irrespective of however it had made its way into her bedroom and into the cot - as the bird transformed, so it appeared, before her very eyes.
A cone of feathers rose up, cobra-like, about the bird's head, forming a tube that reached a foot or more into the space that separated them. Elaine's breath caught. She raised a hand as if to protect herself. The bird seemed to lean toward her, ever more closely, and the cone of feathers rippled or shuddered alarmingly, at her. She took a step backwards and then another step backwards and then she closed the door to the bedroom shut, its feeble click serving to soundtrack her dash along the length of the landing and into the bathroom, that other sound - the awful shivering made by the bird and its cone of feathers - trailing her like a phantasm, raising the skin on her arms and her neck and once more turning her stomach, over and about, like a hapless dinghy caught out in a storm at sea.
The bathroom offered scant comfort. Her mind and her heart were racing. She knew (she did) that she couldn't leave her son alone in there with a bird. It was insane. How did a bird -? But there wasn't time. She was frightened. She was frightened but she had to act. This was about more than herself. This was a test of her motherhood. Even here, though, in the astringent calm of her bathroom, the bird could be heard. Rippling. The awfulness of her situation gripped her, the fear. That awful rippling. It was like the imagined movement of insects crawling beneath her skin, hard and oily cockroaches competing for space in her stomach cavity. She placed her hands upon the sink and looked at the woman whose face stared out from the mirrored cabinets. What were her options? She could call Carl? He'd instructed her not to call. Not for a little while. Surely this was an emergency? It wasn't like a spider in the bath. This was an emergency. But what if he arrived, sweating and uncomfortable from (wherever it was he was and whatever it was he was doing) only to find that the bird was a product of her imagination? What if he arrived and saw the red wine and her pale, stretched features and imagined her - what? drunk? irresponsible? What if he threatened to take Edmund away from her? Edmund was all she had. She couldn't risk calling Carl. Not yet, at any rate. Not until she was sure. (Again, though, her mind swung, how sure did she have to be? She had seen the bird with her own eyes. She had seen it and so belief, whether the bird was real or not, didn't come into it. She'd either seen a bird or she was insane and was seeing birds, threatening birds, where birds were not...)
She couldn't call Carl. She was alone. She had no-one to turn to and nobody could help her. It was up to her. Whatever it was she was going to do (and, even as she made her way out of the bathroom and along the hall to the bedroom with fear, lodged, coiled, in her belly and her heart, stuttering, tap dancing in her chest, she didn't know what it was she would do, had no clue, was blank, terrified thoughtless), she knew only that it was down to her and her alone.
By the next morning, such fears seemed quaint, antique. Upon waking, the image of her, treading, daunted, along the hallway to the bedroom door, like a Victorian aunt holding the trembling wick of a candle in a saucer more formally reserved for tea, seemed utterly ridiculous. Last night was a world away. Waking, she was a different woman. If only Carl - Carl, who had left her in the midst of post-natal depression as a result of the fact that he had needs, needs she was not able, in her current state to address - if only Carl could see her now. With a bird nestled like a lover beneath her naked arm and many others shuffling about the bedroom and, indeed, the rest of the house (if the information she'd been given was correct), suddenly, anything and everything seemed possible.
The loss of her son, all that the birds demanded, seemed a small price to pay.