A gothic tale from Diary of a Bipolar Explorer (Signal, 2018)
During the day they made a placid sound (sometimes asleep) inside the box between the window and my bed – their soft “coos” subdued, their wings folded. I often thought, as I listened to the warm contentment in their day-time pulse, of incubation. At night the quiet cooing stopped. When it was my turn to sleep they began their fluttering, their agitated scratching and pecking below the padlocked lid, while I lay watching the box in the dark as it shook and trembled. I knew them for what they were by the fact that they never ate, or shat; and I resented them only a little. Over the years I began to fear that if I let them out they might by then have lost their silvery sheen. Better to shelter them than to see their plumage.
Inside the box it was warm and dark, light creeping through the cracks during the daytime. They had room enough to move about, each with a favourite corner. They took comfort in each other’s bodies. With no memory of trees, of sky, of grass, they knew only my shufflings outside the box, the gradations of light as I opened or closed the curtains. They felt attuned to my steady rhythms. When the long strange silence began each night, pitch-blackness closing in like prison, they took turns watching. They needed to get out. It was only a matter of time before they’d wear the walls down with the beating of their wings.
One spring when the warmer weather came the cooing inside the box by day became louder, more continuous, and interspersed with busy sounds of re-furbishing. I concluded they must be nesting. At night they were quieter and I sensed that they were watching. This break in their settled joint routine was mildly disconcerting so I dragged the box through from the bedroom to the box-room, where there was almost total darkness. As I moved I could sense them going still. I could feel the weight of their bodies. After that I slept more easily at night and although I missed the steady throb of their daytime cooing I checked the padlock and kept the door firmly locked, feeling in need of clearer boundaries. The days passed languorously, I re-discovered gardening.
They had known darkness before and they had known silence – but never this profound. In the box, inside the box room, all they could hear was themselves. They remained for a long time unaccountably still. But as the days passed they grew accustomed to cooing nervously in turns and to sleeping in shifts, listening for the soft footfall of spiders. Weeks passed. They eyed each other with wary over-familiarity. Never till now had they thought of mating. Never till now had they felt hunger. They watched, they waited.
I spent the long summer months mostly outside, tending the garden and drawing birds – a woodpecker, robins and sparrows, the occasional jay. I liked to hang these on my walls. They were intricate and consoling; they paid close attention to eyes and claws. During the day-time I easily forgot the box hidden in the box-room. But when I lay between sleep and waking I could sometimes hear a plaintive, low, coo-cooing sound, the rhythmic peck of beak on wood, the muffled beat of wings along the corridor. (A black cat now slept between my bed and the window, where the box had been. Its insolent indifference to me and to the sounds that worried me was a kind of insurance. If the birds were real, would he not be scratching hungrily, persistently, at the box-room door?)
As the days shortened, dust gathering inside the box-room, filmy cobwebs hung between the cornice and the door-frame. But inside the darkness, inside the silence, the long slow waiting finally stopped. Was it the gradual attrition of time, or the frustrated flapping of wings, or the combined power of three hungry beaks, that had worn away the joins? Their claws were enough, now, to prise open the box. One by one, blinking and astonished, they tiptoed out into their capacious prison. There was no wild beating of wings; no jubilation; but shyly, cautiously, two of them began a courtship dance...
I moved downstairs to be away from the noises. My sitting room became my bedroom. As time passed I often forgot the difference between night and day, sleeping through the boundaries. I’d lie in bed, whiling away the hours, watching the garden through the window. I wasn’t drawing anymore and I had no visitors. I’d carefully selected three or four songs I liked, which I played over and over. I was conserving energy, frugally making a shortlist of memories I felt were necessary, that would serve me the rest of my life-time. I collected leaves from the garden and pressed them. I had sheaves of these, ranged on my bookshelves. Their dried life pleased me. Finding everything I needed on the ground floor I had no occasion to make the journey upstairs. Gradually the noises faded.
In the box room there was an adequate supply of spiders. Occasionally a mouse, happening along by chance, provided food and entertainment. Mating came naturally: two birds paired for life, the other watched enviously. The first egg hatched well, providing food for all three; after that the cycle of reproduction and digestion was steady, with enough chicks to ensure survival. Half were instant food, the rest lived to breed. Sometimes fights broke out, especially among the original three over petty details, such as the pecking order. There were no disputes over territory. A system evolved for rotational nesting inside a broken guitar.
Was it months or years since I'd vacated the upstairs bedroom, to avoid the reminders? By now I'd lost all sense of time: each day passed so quietly that I’d found a kind of peace. What was it, then, that awoke me suddenly one morning? The smell came first and then the flapping. It was there continuously, close to my brain – as if a moth, trapped in my ear, were beating its helpless wings. The more it rustled, the stronger came the scent, sweet and sickly. I found a word for the sound, which haunted me all day: “sussuration”. Knowing that sooner or later I must go upstairs, I longed to have the cat with me for the journey.
On the landing I paused. There was no sound inside the box-room. And yet my mind, like a room, was full of low cooings, soft downy flutterings, so that even before opening the door I sensed with a sudden flash of foreknowledge what I would find. I stood on the threshold, braced and steadied for the transfiguration. Inside, on every surface, countless pigeons perched, preening their blue-grey plumage, which shone in the semi-darkness like dusky silver. The room rocked gently to the motion of their rustling wings, to the steady thrum of their incessant cooing. Beside the broken box lay a mound of bones, the chewed remains of pigeon carcasses; and strewn all round among the droppings, layer upon layer of grey feathers, heads with staring eyes, and gristly claws.
I tiptoed gently in, no longer trembling but strangely calm, and opened the skylight. A wintry sun flooded the cobwebbed room. The cat arrived just in time to see me turning for one last look as I closed and locked the door.