The problem of witnessing something odd is the lack of words to describe it. And when you make ends meet explaining things to people, that admission could be somewhat awkward.
Leslie was sober when she saw it happening right in front of her, at the corner of a quiet square: first there was a man, then a cloud of white smoke smelling of sea salt, and then that: the slate grey wings, the yolk-yellow feet and beak, the sharp talons and those eyes, those terrible eyes, staring at her with a mocking expression from the top of a tree. Believe me, now?
No. It was believe him, now?
Him: the blonde man in the faded picture in her pocket, the lost dream of Leslie’s past. That man had seen that transformation too, once upon a time, and it drove him mad. Was that her fate, too?
Leslie met the shapeshifter in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. He had requested a meeting, because apparently they were after the same document: the picture of a tall, blonde officer, too handsome by half, sitting next to a short, skinny, dark-haired man hiding his hands in the folds of his coat. They are smiling, the White Cliffs of Dover a smudge of lost white just behind them. In two years’ time, somewhere in 1916, both of them will be dead.
“My great-grandfather, Frederick Jowett,” Leslie pointed to the blonde man in the faded picture, perhaps with too much pride in her voice. “I’m assuming his companion is your great-grandfather? Grandfather, perhaps?” A silly question: the researcher (his name was Joseph) had inherited his relative’s looks: tall, scrawny, dark-haired, and with slightly curved fingers dotted with black-blue nails.
In twenty-four hours, she would see those nails turn into sharp talons, those dark looks transformed into the features of a peregrine falcon. Now, as she sipped her coffee in the museum’s cantina, she tried not to tremble as her professional distance shattered like glass when Joseph came up with the facsimile of a diary from his leather satchel. FREDERICK JOWETT, in bold letters on the cover.
“Yes, my great-grandfather. For some reason, this has been in my family’s possession since they died. I’m trying to find out what happened to the last letter my great-grandad wrote. He dictated it to Mr. Jowett, apparently, but it never reached home.”
Panic flared up like a dose of gin inside her. Dear God, he didn’t mean that letter in her own satchel, did he? That letter had been her grandmother’s talisman, her mother’s greatest pride, and the object of her study, the reason she visited the War Museum in the first place. One hundred and two years later, and that piece of paper still smelled of camphor, soil and sweat: Should I die before meeting you: know that I loved you, and I’ll always love you. Honour your inheritance. Think of me, but fly towards your own destiny. I loved you before everything else, and always will.
“I don’t think I understand. What letter?”
Joseph pushed the diary across the table. “I think you’ll understand it better if you read this first. It’s been a hundred years, Ms. McGuire, and I want to put this ghost to sleep.”
She opened the book. Very neat handwriting greeted her: Frederick in 1914 was an educated man, a cartographer off to a very odd war. Did he know he was going to be a father when he started that diary? (Leslie did the Maths many times: her grandmother, born March 8th 1915, never met Frederick, but he should have known about the birth.)
The shard of the shattered comfort was palpable from the moment she saw the first phrase, a talon slitting her wrists as she turned the page. Something shifted, time stopped. She’d remember that moment for as long as she lived.
[The diary began as thus:]
CROSSING THE CHANNEL June 1914:… Many of the lads have never been abroad, and it shows: they looked terrified as the cliffs behind us got smaller and smaller and then gone altogether from sight. People say this will be over soon, but then again they’re home and we’re not. Do remind me, dear conscience, why am I doing this? To whom am I doing this? To Emma? Or the ghost of my parents, forever dreaming of the Empire? To whom?
I stuck with the one man who didn’t look intimidated with the situation ahead of us: the only one who wasn’t throwing up or acting rowdy to cover up the nervousness. Officer Morris from the Red Cross, all crooked fingers and blue-black nails—“a bit of a nasty accident,” he said. I reckon the hands are the reason he’s not a regular soldier; can’t hold a gun with those, I bet. But those eyes, those eyes… Those hawk-like eyes, seeing everything, watching everyone; they have seen more than he’d like to admit. Well, he’s been driving ambulances for a living for the last couple of years. He has seen violent death before.
That makes two of us. I don’t know if it’s a relief.
Oh, those hawk-like eyes! They’ll haunt me, I know. What lovely eyes, what devilled eyes! Devilled eyes in the face of an angel, what an accursed mixture!
In a dim corner of my room for longer than my fancy thinks,
A beautiful and silent Sphinx has watched me through the shifting gloom…
Are there male sphinxes? I declare Morris is one. Where does he hide his eagle wings in that slender body, I wonder? I think I’ll [smudged, illegible. Leslie frowned as she noticed the stains are from the original document: who edited these?]
July 1914, somewhere in France, or what was once France (it’s all mud and convoys and barbed wire now—where’s the beautiful countryside the books have promised me?). Had my arse saved by the usually canny Officer Morris—imagine my surprise. The bloke punched the living daylights of not one, but two blokes in the officer’s mess.
Good God, the scolding I got once we were outside! “You’d think a career officer would know best not to flirt with his fellow brother-in-arms,” he said to me when we were alone. He actually scolded me, the little bugger! As if I wasn’t his superior in the hierarchy… Or if I wasn’t ten years his senior!
But alack! He’s right, isn’t he? Only I wasn’t flirting. Imagine that. They are as lonely and as needy as I am, and by God, it shows, but alack! Flirting? Me?
Fuck, what did I tell them?! I don’t remember!
I asked whether Morris was this way inclined, and he laughed. “Look around you, you silly nabob. I’ve bigger problems in my mind than worrying about the sleeping arrangements of the crew.”
I’d rather wish he had punched me, to be honest. I am a nabob, indeed, sitting among the comforts of the nabobs while he’s dealing with the dead and the dying in sawdust-covered ground—he’s a man and what am I? Now there’s a question.
I reread my notes. Must curtail my drinking. Must keep Morris in my good books—I didn’t dream it, he did knock out those blokes, and they are terrified of him now—both of them sporting black eyes and cuts all over their faces and neck. What did he do? What? Whatever it was, I cannot let it happen again.
Emma wrote to me, and I’ll answer the letter. This will be over soon. You’ll be home by Christmas and you’ll be married at Easter. It’ll make everyone happy.
August 1914. Many losses today: I’d reckon half the passengers of the ferry that took me here have gone to meet their Maker, whoever He is. I found Morris at the back of the medical tent, and I never saw a more distraught person in this world. It was his birthday yesterday. He’s twenty years old and up to his waist in blood and mud. It’s always heart-breaking to see a man crying, especially because soldiers don’t weep; but that poor bloke… [Illegible—smudged ink. A pencilled note at the corner, added years later by someone else: “Battle of Le Cateau—700 casualties and about 2,600 captured soldiers. Big blunder.”]
I held him as he cried. My poor wingless Sphinx, so small and so tired of it all.
I heard the fluttering of wings during the night. And then I heard steps, human steps, hurrying towards the lodge. And then again the beating of wings—it wasn’t a pigeon. Too big to be a pigeon. Too loud to be a pigeon. They eat pigeons here, and whatever this was, it wasn’t willing to end up on anyone’s plates.
Dear God, my head aches. I close my eyes, and I hear the blasted cannons right into my skull. I drink to blot them, and then my head aches. I look at maps all day and the more I look, the less sense this whole damn thing makes.
October 1914. I heard the odd bird again last night. That’s now eight nights in a row. The same sequence: the wings, the steps, the wings, the steps. I wonder if this is madness or someone chasing an owl. There are too many owls in this forsaken place, too many owls and too many crows. But then again, where there’s bloodshed… What was that poem again? Par milliers, sur les champs de France, où dorment des morts d’avant-hier… And then what? I forgot. I keep forgetting.
Morris left the camp. The blokes at the Red Cross tent are distraught. Me? I’m past distraught, I’m dead worried. Well, we’re going to be dead anyway, won’t we? These Huns will decimate us, and the cold will kill whoever remains. So why do I still wonder about how they will remember me in a hundred years?
Another letter from Emma. I don’t know what to say to her. So much for pro patria and all that. So much for the Empire and pride and Emma and her dad, and…
Dear God, as pale as death, dirty with what seemed to be ashes, trembling from head to toe. He asked for a drink. How could I refuse? Dear God, he drank the cognac out of the bottle as if it was water from a flask. Any ordinary man would have dropped dead with that; he didn’t even blink.
I know this is madness—this is the liquor speaking, surely, in me and in him—but those eyes were not human at all. He looked as if he was a minor god, with the pitch-black night in his eyes and dried blood under his long fingernails. A Sphinx—my wingless Sphinx! When he finished drinking, he left my room and didn’t look back. I know he wanted to say something, but held his tongue. The effort was so obvious; it bled all over his face, all over his shoulders, and all over his throat. And now I want to hug him and tell him he can confide in me. I wanted to run after him, I wanted to scream. I wanted him, I want him, dear God, why can’t I
I have a ton of new aerial information to put in the maps; there’s new intelligence regarding the enemy territory. Someone in a plane did some very precise recognition from the enemy lines as seen from the top of the skies. Brave bloke! Brave bloke indeed!
As for Morris, picture this. The living quarters are same sex only, but the bloke somehow managed to get a petite blonde Belgian nurse in his room as his common-law wife, and no one is batting an eyelid. Whose secrets is that bloke holding hostage?
My head is too heavy, and now that I re-read this diary, I’m slightly scared of myself. I’m hearing things that are not there. I’m seeing things that are not there. This place is killing me from the inside out. I feel like we’re two drowning people holding on to each other. I wonder if he will ever know how much I [illegible—the next pages were torn away from the notebook: only the ghosts of the remnants were there in the edges of the facsimile. Leslie touchesdthe page like a nun would touch the stigmata of a plaster saint; it was not real, but it looked so much like the real thing, it broke one’s heart.].
New Year’s Day 1915. I finally glimpsed the blasted bird; it’s not an owl, not a raven. It’s a bloody peregrine falcon! And the bastard disappeared as if made of smoke the moment I reached out for him.
I must pay attention to the work. There’s a pile of new map information to put together, and it’ll be hellish to redraw the maps in such a short time. Morris looks like death again; his fingernails are black as coal. Another nasty accident? I couldn’t ask, so I didn’t. I asked about the nurse. He asked about Emma. I told him about the baby she said she’s gestating—Morris asked, “Should I say congratulations or commiserations?”
A convenient question for a sphinx, I thought. I lied: congratulations, of course. Isn’t it what a man wants?
[Leslie wantsedto scream, “that’s my grandmother!” but her voice wouldn’t come out. Joseph was reading the newspaper. He was patient like his forefather, and Leslie wondered if that was what Frederick loved in Officer Morris. Of course it was: the hawk eyes ran in the family. She’d find that out soon. ]
January 1915. There’s been a talk about the apparition of an angel in the camp. An angel! What nonsense. And yet the soldiers swear they’ve seen it: a man with huge wings, landing by the medical tent and then disappearing in the middle of the evening. They said the creature came to bless the sick.
I asked Morris if he had seen the angel. He said he had been busy elsewhere (the little nurse, I bet!). I asked whether he believed in angels, and he shrugged. “There’s too much that we don’t know out there. Do you believe in things like shapeshifters?”
Shapeshifters! Poor Morris, he was so tired, he might as well be drunk—spouting nonsense, so unlike him. I don’t remember what I answered him. And now he’s gone again, and people look at me as if I have done something wrong. And perhaps I did.
[The following pages were as good as lost. The cartography officer ended up in the trenches at some point, and his diary suffered for it: mud and wine blotting the pages. Despite that, one could still see words underlined: The Angel, Peregrine Falcon, The Apparition etc. Leslie trembled, wondering if her grandmother had read that diary. Supposedly Frederick’s effects were handed to his family, weren’t they? Why did Joseph’s relatives have the document?]
April 10th 1915: Something happened to Morris’ hands. He had them bandaged in a most peculiar way, like a boxer before putting on the gloves. There was blood on the knuckles, seeping through the bandages. He looked feverish again; I don’t know if it was because of his lack of sleep or what. He’s burning the candle at both ends; the Red Cross has too many wounded soldiers and not enough people to deal with them. The reeking smell from the medical tent—camphor, blood, mud, iodine—sticks to the nostrils for ages. I wonder if Morris can actually smell anything apart from those elements.
I tried to talk to him, you see. I miss the bloke, and the conversations we used to have. He’s still the only intelligent soul in this mire and I still wonder what’s the secret of those eyes. I asked whether he had to punch a local bloke to keep his little nurse. He said he wished that had been the case. Then the top brass called him, or rather the top brass sent someone to call on him. What was that, I asked? Special treatment for The Man? Bunions? Piles? Or is it the DTs, like me?
Morris shrugged, and off he went again.
He wanted to tell me something. What was it? Why do I always scare him away, like a frightened dove?
[Lots of pages after this last note were blotted with ink or stained with liquor. Those that were readable mention edthe many battles of 1915—most notably the series of unsuccessful attacks against the Germans. Frederick mentioned the Angel once or twice, but it was almost impossible to read what he wrote about the subject. Leslie looked and looked again, but there were no mentions of her grandmother’s birth. The talon was now pressed against her heart; it was cold and it forced her to keep reading. Her grandmother idolised this man, and he didn’t acknowledge her. He didn’t think of her as someone with a name.]
9th April 1916: in the middle of the bloodbath, we had a shotgun wedding at the camp. Morris’s little nurse’s got one in the oven. I congratulated him—because, well, what is a chap to do in a situation like this? He still looks downright pyretic, his hands as useless as before and trembling like he had the DTs, but accepted my wishes with a smile. He’s actually in love with the fille, and in love with the idea of being a father. Some blokes have all the luck.
The lads gave them a present: a pair of vases made of discarded brass bombshells. They are actually pretty, with embossed birds. Madame Morris loved the present, but it horrified Morris.
Those devilled eyes of his, still haunting me. He looked at me and I knew what he was thinking: dear God, we are animals finding beauty in death.
July 1916: gas attacks. Just when you thought the atrocities wouldn’t get any worse, gas attacks. Morris has seen the dead—the Red Cross sent a group to the scene of the slaughter to rescue the lads. When he came back to our camp, he looked a hundred years old, and his hands looked as if they had sprouted talons. I saw him; he saw me, and in that second I swear (and I am sober) I saw God—and God was displeased with His creations.
I held him close. The tears were real, and they still burn. But his body was revolting, trembling, changing states from liquid to solid—it felt like I was holding air and then the air turned into ice all of a sudden.
He allowed me to hold him.
Dear God, why did you give me this useless heart?
Morris is ill. Nobody knows whether it’s trench fever or consumption or exhaustion or all of the above. He’s isolated from the rest of the dead and dying of the camp, hidden by frames and curtains. I tried to see him, but to no avail. They’ll ship him back to England, no doubt…
[More blacked-out pages. One phrase survived. “I must be mad: how else can I explain what I saw?”]
I saw it, I saw it, I am sober, and I saw it. The peregrine falcon descending from the ink-dark sky and, upon touching the ground, turning into a man. Turning into Morris, with bleeding hands, with wheezing breath, slouched shoulders, whimpering in pain and scared to make a noise. I saw how he gasped as he marched towards the tents. And then I followed him—and I saw how again he took instructions from my superior at the cartography group, and hidden by the night, turned from man to falcon, and departed.
My boss came to me this morning with more information from our “aerial spy.” I have to update the maps, but I cannot move myself from my seat. I saw it. I saw him. How could I have missed the clues? His eyes, his eyes, his eyes.
Oh God, he told me, and I didn’t believe him. The eagle wings, the claws, the eyes—all hidden from the world, and I saw it all.
August 1916. He’s again at the sick bay, isolated from the others. An acute case of trench fever, I was told. I bribed the matron, and she allowed me in.
Something crooked his hands: claw-like indents sprouting between the fingers, grimy soot over the bandages. A hundred papercuts marred his face, all in the same direction—as if he had been flying against shards of glass. His eyes—those lovely eyes, inhumane as they were, always have been—pitch black down to the sclerotic.
It’s my fault.
My boss saw him fighting with the blokes, back in the day—he had seen the claws, and then the hasty flight away from the canteen. He had my love by the neck all these months. The Army has paid Morris to fly over the enemy front and spy on them. He took the money for his father, and then for the little nurse, and now for the baby.
But the Army is desperate. They are losing; they need more information; they need more. And so he flies, hundreds of miles in both directions, in all directions, witnessing the carnage and not being able to stop to help. The Army is desperate and running out of options.
And so he flies, and death always misses him by a heartbeat. If he stops, they will kill him. They are desperate, they cannot afford to lose him, but if he deserts, they’ll shoot him wings and claws and all.
He has a life to live out of this hell. And I, who have nothing, forged his chains.
He told me to write a letter to his son – and I should hand it in person if something happens to him.
The matron ushered me away when he was finished dictating the letter. And now, what? Madame Morris is in London, now, a married woman in a foreign land, away from the battle. I am stuck here with a secret as deep as the ocean—who’d ever believe me? And yet I saw him. I saw him. I saw him. The angel, the man, the desperate soul locked between the animal and the human. There is so much more in him, and he’s burning, burning, and I must tell him, but how? How? How? Those words in the letter: I cling to them. It stings, it stings.
[Thus ended the diary.]
Somewhere over London in January 2018, Leslie’s heart was in pieces as she handed the diary back to Joseph. “When did he die? Malcolm Morris?”
“November 1916. The last days of the Battle of the Somme.” Joseph didn’t look much moved. “His son, my granddad, was born a month later. Why on Earth the family received this diary and not the letter, he never knew. I think someone mistook the last wishes.”
“And instead of a letter, your family received the memories of a delirious, closeted dipsomaniac.” Leslie laughed in self-derision. “Thank God my grandmother never read this. She worshipped Frederick Jowett… If she believed he was mad… I mean… He said he saw an angel! A shapeshifter!”
“Or someone like me, perhaps.”
Leslie stopped and looked again at Joseph’s hands, framed by the light coming from the west side of the cantina. For a moment, she saw claws instead of fingers and nails: a wingless Sphinx wearing corduroy trousers, hiding in plain sight.
And then came that revelation by the square.
Believe him, now? crowed the peregrine falcon on the tree. Leslie at last pulled the imaginary shard from her flesh and nodded. She could feel the nervous energy running under her skin; it was real and it trespassed her in the same way it had trespassed Frederick’s mind years before.
The reverse action of the transformation was not as seamless as she expected: Joseph gasped for air, looked for the solace of the nearby wall, covered in soot that he wiped away with an irritated movement. He was used to this, but didn’t like it.
When they looked at each other, however, when he smiled for the briefest of moments, Leslie only saw the future. The letter washis, the diary was hers—the burden of the memory and the secrecy were like talons, grabbing them and forcing them to face the endless skies above them. Words would come to her, eventually—but not yet.