The Absence of Feathers

De cornice

…prophets say that crows can tell the future, can detect where ambushes have been laid…  

The Morrigan was not really her grandmother, not by blood. Einin knew this, knew she had been fostered, knew she had been lucky to be kept with a woman who wanted her, who doted and cuddled and kept her out of a system Einin knew she would not have done well in.

“I’m sure your mother loved you, pet,” the Morrigan had told her. “How could she not? But she was just a young thing, see, not very much older than you are now. And when you’re young your blood burns like the fire before the anvils, burns for adventure and grand gestures and all the rest of it. Well, she had the adventure and that’s how she got you, I’m sure. And you were so little, and so helpless with your little bald head and your little bald body, and you needed more than grand gestures, more than fireworks and flashes and dancing in shoes that cost more than the rent for the week. And little babies aren’t grand gestures. They’re hard work and sacrifice and stability – and she couldn’t give you that, poppet. So she gave you up, not because she didn’t love you, but because when you’re young sometimes a grand gesture is all you can give.”

“Do you think she’ll come back for me, ever?” Einin had said, and her grandmother had pressed her old lips together and shaken her head.

“I’d often wished she could, for your sake,” she said, “but I don’t think she ever will.”

And that was the end of it. It wasn’t even as if Einin truly minded. She had asked out of curiosity, a curiosity she couldn’t satisfy as she usually did with the books stacked like skyscrapers in her bedroom. The books she had read on adoption or abandonment told her that it was all right to feel sad, all right to feel as if part of her was missing. Einin felt no such thing. What she did feel was the unstinting affection that came from her grandmother’s rough hands. Had her mother ever come back, Einin was not sure that she would want to go with her.


De yrundine

…the swallow builds a nest worth more than gold, and in that nest is knowledge, for it is constructed wisely…

She would have missed her bedroom, missed the wide white window ledges that her grandmother sprinkled old bread on every day, even on rainy days when the bread went soggy before the birds could get to it. She would have missed the bright kitchen and the high walls plastered with posters for Greenpeace and the happy nest of her bedroom, the mess of papers and soft colours and the smell of warm feathers rising like bread in sunlight.

She would have missed, even, the cradle that stood solidly in the corner of her room. It had been hers when she was a baby, and too big for it now she filled it with books that did nothing to hide the jagged edges of the metalwork, the dull black iron of the bars. “It’s like a little prison,” one of her friends had said, but her grandmother had made it herself, turned the iron and beaten it against her anvil, dressed in the same heavy leather apron that Einin had watched her wear for twenty years, hammering sparks out of metal and curling it into cages.

“They look like prisons too,” said the friend, but though she saw the bars, black and over-heavy, she did not see their smoothness, or the details of the curls or the little spears for roosting, or the fact that the little gated doors, wrought iron all, were always, always wedged open so that nothing was ever trapped inside. Instead, when the birds came home to roost of a night, came back to tuck their heads under feathers and curl their little feet around those heavy bars, they came back freely and left again in the morning the same way, with rustlings and ruffling and iron that absorbed the morning sun like black and braided ovens.

Her own cradle had been the same; freedom and safety in one spiked grotesquery of form, the razor edges kept well out of reach of her fat baby fingers, the clawed feet enormous on the floor and solid beneath her so that no matter how much she squirmed the entire sprawling, spiralling edifice could not tip up and spill her out. And between the bars, hanging beneath the bed-base and below the mattress, small baskets full of green things that urged their way upwards and around those thick black bars until the leaves tickled her face and grew in soft satin clouds of roses.  The Morrigan had stripped the thorns off them with calloused grace, with fingers hardened from the forge.

“It’s not just for you, pet,” she had told her once, when Einin had become old enough to ask. “We don’t want them pricking your little friends either now, do we?”


De fulica

…faithful birds, the coots will all flock together…

She hadn’t meant friends as they existed in the form of the small girls who sometimes came to visit and found themselves fascinated with the bed so different from their own, who squeezed themselves in and hid under the covers with Einin and pulled the roses down on top of them. Nor did she mean those same girls when they grew up enough to swap iron and stories for eyeliner and stockings, and who looked at the cradle with jaundiced eyes, as if its solid shape oppressed them.

Instead she meant the birds, who came to sleep not only in the cages that littered the apartment like the gothic remnants of a dismembered cathedral, but in the heavy scents and climbing stems that sheltered her bed. All types of birds – Einin could hardly remember to list them all. Wrens and warblers and treecreepers, greenfinches and goldfinches and yellowhammer buntings… there were more birds than she had fingers and toes to count them on, and Einin had closed her eyes to their sleepy chirps and awakened to the soft whirring of their wings. They softened the metal about her, and Einin would fall asleep to the sound of their wings and hammering from the Morrigan’s forge; fall asleep and dream of flames and flying.

Even during the day, birds had watched over her as she was put down for naps, for perched on each barley-twist corner was a wrought iron crow, squat and feathered and with those black blunt beaks cocked down towards her, the eyes polished and unblinking. “My best work,” the Morrigan always said, in satisfaction, running her old, worn fingers along the outline of feathers, along the curved spines and proud heads. When she was a baby, Einin had loved to touch them, had hauled herself to her little socked feet and, resting on the bars, reached to pat the heads as if they were pets instead of sculptures. Even now, she found it difficult to pass the cradle without wanting to stroke them, and the iron heads gleamed from years of such polishing.


De bubone

…the owls are birds of death, weighted down by feathers, and they spend their lives in cemeteries…

And then, one morning, those iron crows were the only birds in the world.

Einin barely noticed at first. The constant stream of chirrups and feather-scuffling was such a normal backdrop to her morning routine that it was hard to fit reality around expectation, hard to fit absences around a continuous acknowledgement of presence. What Einin did notice was that the Morrigan was looking poorly–pale and unhappy, her big blacksmith’s hands trembling in her lap as if she had come down with a fever, perhaps a headache. Einin made her hot tea with lemon and watched as she drank it all, forbore to comment when the Morrigan tipped in a little whiskey when she thought Einin was not watching. If it was a cold, a hot toddy wouldn’t do her any harm.

“Are you going to be all right today?” she said, tucking a bright quilt around the old woman’s shoulders. “I can stay with you if you like. There’s nothing urgent on at the moment.”

“Still working on those books?” the Morrigan asked her, of her job in the archives, cataloguing the bestiaries with their thick fragile paper, their stained glass colours. “I know how much you enjoy that. You don’t want to give it up and stay home with me. Besides, I’m perfectly capable. Be off with you.”

“If you’re sure,” said Einin, who had the Aberdeen bestiary on loan from their university library, brought over the sea and prepared for display. “Call if you need anything!” And she had left, resolving to stop by the chemist and the grocer on the way home, making mental lists of aspirin and oranges and lozenges and not even thinking of the silence on the windowsills, the emptiness of the cages.

She was not yet old enough or hurt enough to know that grief could present as sickness.

“They’re gone, dear,” said the Morrigan, when Einin did notice, at last.

“Gone?” said Einin. “Gone where? It’s not even winter,” she offered, dazed, knowing as she did that their apartment was never empty of birds even in winter, knowing that some always stayed, even one or two of those that should have flown south but preferred the warmth and the company of their own four-walled nest.

“Just gone,” said the Morrigan. “Dead. Pollution and deforestation and what have you. Kill enough and they don’t come back. Kill enough, and everything dies. Except me.” And that was all she would say, her teeth closing on her tongue as locks about an iron chest. Einin was left to navigate absence on her own – to sweep up the shed feathers and sort them carefully into colours and lengths, to puzzle out news reports and make scrapbooks of clippings, to store the seeds away and fill the silences herself.

“It feels so wrong,” she said, when one month gone and the only birds in the apartment were found in the bestiaries she brought home from the library and the shadows she made on the wall. Both were insubstantial, and those on her cradle were too hard and cold for sympathy.

“Grave birds,” said the Morrigan, stroking their iron heads with her old, strong fingers. “Come for the dead, they do. Poor dears must be glad of the rest.”

“Strange thing to hang over a baby,” said Einin. She was itchy and restless, and her fingernails left red scratch tracks in her flesh.

“You always liked them,” said the Morrigan.

“Of course I liked them,” said Einin. “They’re beautiful. I think they’re my earliest memory, even.” Lying in the bottom of the cradle, sucking on her own fist and staring up at the iron shapes as they leaned over her with their bright polished eyes and beaks like shields.

“Doesn’t mean it isn’t strange,” she said.


De gruibus

…the cranes have sentries to stand guard over the flock, to keep awake at night and watch for predators…

Stranger still was the walk to work, and the bird-shaped holes everywhere that she looked. Now that Einin was awake to their absence, absence was all she saw. It gave her a funny feeling in the base of her stomach – cramped and prickly, as if her period was coming on all unexpected. Cramped and prickly and nauseated.

Worst was the empty walls of the hospital, so often covered with pigeons it was frequently termed a menace, albeit in undertones and fake smiles that Einin had seen right through, even back when she was six years old and trapped in the children’s wing for her tonsils. The birds had come to perch outside her window, and she had been happy to see them at first, for their shapes and shuffling reminded her of home.

She hadn’t known, at the time, that the birds were such a problem that there was a monthly cull of stifled, silenced pops that ended in soft bodies and stiffened wings, all done before dawn when the patients were still asleep, still undisturbed. All but Einin. She had wakened early to scrapings at the window, to muffled cheeps and squawks, and she had stretched on the stiff hospital sheets and opened her eyes to see them crowding out her ledge, all of them, hung upon the children’s wing like mascots, pressed against the windows and thumping up against the glass with their beaks.

Later, when the Morrigan had explained to her what had happened, Einin had gone back for a visit to the hospital garden, breadcrumbs hidden under the front of her dress. “Stick to the building where us kids are,” she had advised them, with sneaked crusts of soda bread and potato bread and crumbs of stale barmbrack. “Look for one who’s awake, and go to their window. They won’t want a sick kid to see you blow up in a ball of feathers.”

But that was only after. Lying in her narrow, unfamiliar bed, with the bars on either side so she didn’t fall off or go wandering, Einin had seen the pigeons scrambling at her window before dawn, scrambling as if they were trying to get at her through the glass, their glassy eyes dark and desperate, and pulled the covers over her head.

Now, walking to walk, unencumbered by pigeons or tonsils and carrying too much bread in her sandwiches, Einin knew she could look away all she wanted, and nothing would be there when she turned back. There was nothing, she thought, to turn away from.


De vulturibus

…the vultures do not marry, but conceive on their own, without the body of another…

Einin moved to the sofa when the iron crows on her cradle turned to look at her. They never did it where the Morrigan could see, but in the night, when Einin was lying awake in her bed and thinking of feathers and absences, she could hear the creaks and cranks of their turning heads.

“They’re always staring at me,” she said to the Morrigan. “It’s creepy.”

“You used to like them,” said the Morrigan. “When you were little, I’d hear you chirruping away to them when you were meant to be sleeping.”

“I’d like to be sleeping now,” said Einin, grumpy. “But I can’t relax with them watching me!” She knew that she sounded hysterical. The birds were iron, solid iron, and there were no cogs or joints to make them move.

“I must be dreaming it,” she said. “That’s what it is. They’re all I think about during the day – the birds, and how they’re not here anymore. It only makes sense that it’s bleeding into my unconscious.”

She stayed on the couch, out of sight of the cradle, the leather cool against her skin, soothing the heated prickle of it. And when she saw brief flickers from the corners of her eye, the dark flat flirt of feathers, she closed her eyes, told herself she was seeing things. When she heard the soft sweep of wings, the little scattering of thumps on the sofa arms, on the spine of the back, Einin thought she must be dreaming.

She could feel their feet on her stomach, the too-heavy iron claws cold and pricking her skin through the thin fabric of her nightdress–the sudden staccato thump of beaks against her lower belly, pecking at her abdomen as if to open it up.

When she woke, the sofa cushions were bloody and there was an egg the size of a fist between her thighs, and thin little sounds from inside, and the crows sat on the cradle like statues with unstained feet, and never turned their heads.

When she woke, there were feathers on her chest and the itching was over.


De ciconia

…the stork cares for her children so greatly that she spends all her time at nest and loses her feathers thereby…

Einin pulled the feathers from her chest in handfuls, tearing them from gooseflesh, the calami wet with blood and sticking to her fingers, staining the vanes and clotting the barbules into clumps. Beneath, her skin was pockmarked with dried blood and lumpen, full of half-healed ruptures where she had pulled the feathers out by their roots. Smoothing cold cream over the wounds didn’t help–no matter how long she left it on, when Einin wiped it off she could see new feathers unfurling like snowdrops beneath her skin.

Einin’s egg, ballooned to the size of boulders, sat in a drift of feathers and they were not enough. She made a nest for it of wheat bags and hot water bottles, but the shell cooled by fractions regardless, cooled even when she held it between bare thighs and rubbed it up and down for warmth. As the shell cooled it hardened, and Einin could scrape her fingernails along it and no trail was left behind them, no matter how she clawed.

It should have made her feel better that the egg was less fragile, but there was silence growing beneath the shell as well as birds, and the smothered cheeps, the scuffling and scratching and high desperate whistles became dimmer and more distanced.

“They’ll die, poor things, if you don’t let them out,” said the Morrigan, and her tears left little dark speckles on the eggshell.

“They’re not dying,” said Einin, grimmer than she knew she could be, and went to fetch chisels and mallets and the great iron sledge-hammer the Morrigan used when the forge burned its brightest. But the chisel blade broke on the shell, and the mallet splintered, and even when she used her full strength the hammer rebounded with the sound of a great bell chiming. There was a moment of silence that Einin felt reverberate up her arms before a storm of muffled cheeps echoed up through the chamber of the egg.

“It’s too hard to break through,” said the Morrigan. “You need to soften it up.”

“I’ve been trying,” said Einin, but softening meant warmth and all the warmth was bleeding out. She filled the bathtub almost hotter than she could stand and lay in it, steaming to her neck, her arms wrapped around the egg to keep it floating with her. But even as the water near brought blisters to her skin, the torn gooseflesh pressed against the egg shuddered and chilled and blued with cold.


De corvo

…the raven is a bird that comes for corpses…

“I’m so cold,” she said, and there was no warmth in her either, and all her feathers were gone. The Morrigan draped old quilts around her, brought her hot soup and buttered toast cut in pieces. Einin ate slowly, with stiff fingers, her cheek pillowed on eggshell like stone. She could feel the rattling in her teeth, the sporadic vibration of the shell, and then the sudden softness of feathers against her skin. “Something’s happening!” she cried. “I think something’s coming out!”

But that coming out was expulsion and not escape. There was no crack in the eggshell, no breakage that she could wedge her fingers in and pry open. Instead, a fragile body floating to the surface, the claws and the beak and the small silent bones all curled in on themselves and cold to the touch. It expanded in her hands, and at first Einin thought it was still breathing, but the black feathers were limp and the body lay in her hands and did not react to her touch.

“A velvet scoter, poor little ducky,” said the Morrigan. “You won’t see its like again.” And then the egg was breathing out more bodies, breathing out nightjars and corn buntings and roseate terns until the floor was buried in feathers, none of them to come again and none of them Einin’s, not any more.

The cheeping inside the egg was thinner, dimmer. “We can put it in the forge,” said Einin, desperate. “Build up the coals, soften it that way.”

“It would need constant attention,” said the Morrigan. “You would have to watch it always, make sure the fire didn’t go out during the night. You might have to sleep there.”

“Then I will sleep there,” said Einin, and did so, night after night, dreaming of flames and burning wood and coal in waking moments, even emptying the cradle of books for kindling, until her skin turned red-rough and the heat leached the moisture from her eyes and her mouth. The shell warmed but still did not soften, and in the morning light Einin could see burnt bones and the ashes of feathers atop the coals from the small winged forms that had leached from the egg during the night.

“I don’t even know what they were,” she said, forlorn, and there was nothing the Morrigan could say to comfort her. “I wish I couldn’t hear them,” she said, and stopped her ears with wax and cotton wool to drown out the cries inside the egg, the croaks and squawks and whistles that echoed, plaintive, through the forge until her head was stuffed with heat and sorrow. She slept in the forge, stoking the fires, and even when the Morrigan, grim, took a hacksaw from the shelves and left, returning with the iron crows from her cradle corners Einin could not find the energy to protest. The crows heated in the fire and melted, pooled around the egg with a molten suggestion of feathers, and Einin watched them settle and slick down in despair–but even the crow-sacrifice was not enough to crack the egg, and the apartment above the forge remained empty, the cages and windowsills and bird baths barren and still.


De pellicano

…the pelicans kill their children, and bring them back to life with blood…

“I’m doing the best I can,” said Einin.

“It’s a hard thing to be a mother,” said the Morrigan, and the heat of the forge was on her face. “Your own couldn’t manage it. But she did the best she could as well, poor thing.”

“That is not much comfort,” said Einin. Her hands were singed and smeared with soot, blistered with hammer iron. She’d wept into them until the forge dried her sockets out and the salt stung more on her fingers than the burns did. “What if it isn’t enough?” she said.

“Then you have to figure out if what you’re doing is really your best,” said the Morrigan.

“I’m just so, so tired,” said Einin to her grandmother. “And I’m not sure I have the energy to care anymore.”

“You care,” said the Morrigan, and Einin nearly snapped at her, had to leave the apartment before she flung hot coals at more than eggshell. She washed her face in a bathroom sink at the local cinema, drank cool lemonade and tried to forget herself in other people’s lives, but theirs were not hers and therefore hollow. The library was better, as all the books on birds were out, but it was too quiet and what she could not hear was too loud to ignore. So she walked. Walked along the river, absent of swans and terns and herons. Walked along the beaches, where the clean sands left no imprint of gulls or grebes or shearwaters–circled in silence back to the apartment and the forge.

On her way she passed a shoe shop, and in the window were a pair of stilettos so pretty, and so delicate, that Einin was almost ashamed to picture them on her feet, grown red and scorched they were, from her time before the fire. She tried them on regardless, and they felt like freedom, like the first step away from the endless insistence of the egg.

“No wonder she left,” she said, wiggling her toes, admiring them, and thinking of her own mother. “No wonder she wanted to go dancing. Anything is better than this.”

“They cost more than the week’s rent!” said the Morrigan, disapproving, when she brought them home, tucked the tissue from the box around the egg. “And you staying home from work to take care of it. Whatever were you thinking of?”

“I was thinking,” said Einin, carefully, “of a grand gesture.”


De fenice

…when the time comes for the phoenix to die it makes a grave for itself in the hottest part of the fire, and is reborn in burning and ashes…  

She wore the shoes when she took the egg into the fire. “At least this way it will be over,” she said.

“That’s what you think,” said the Morrigan, and waited out the shrieks and tears and the slow burning of bone, waited out the cracking of shell in the flesh-filled furnace, waited out the long eruption of feathers – the happy explosion of egg, the steady stream of blackbird and blue tit and chaffinch, of robin and wren and all the other birds that were trapped inside and fledging, warm and alive and joyful in the new day.

She waited until they were all flown out, until the happy chatter abated and she could hear another noise from the forge, grown colder now and almost empty. There, amidst the charred bones and shell fragments, was a baby, naked and bald as bread.

“Poor little thing,” said the Morrigan, scooping up the child as it began to whimper, brushing off the remnants of feathers, the pieces of shell crusted onto elbows and knees. “All alone and without your mother. It wasn’t that she didn’t love you, pet. She did the best she could for you, and her best was leaving you to me. Don’t you worry about anything. I’ll take care of you.”

She set the baby down in the cradle, down amongst the iron bars and the green, thorn-stripped vines that were thick with the flutter of feathers being smoothed and settled into place. Small bright eyes peeked out between the flowers, and soft chirrups set the leaves to rustling.

The black birds on her shoulders rippled their feathers, wing muscles shuddering. They swung their way down her arms, two from each shoulder, and onto the cradle. The other birds made way for them, and the crows settled on each high corner, staring down at the baby, sharp-eyed and sharp-beaked.

They would stay there, watching, until the Morrigan could replace them–until she could forge new crows and weld them to the cradle, ready to be stroked and petted and made familiar.

“I’ll always take care of you, Einin,” she said.