The Horror Zine
Dead Bird
Chris Castle

The July First Selected Writer is Chris Castle

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Chris Castle


by Chris Castle

Kai held back the branches so that Jimmy could make his way through the forest. It was the type of thing Kai always did for him; always thoughtful, always unnoticed. The two of them had been walking for over an hour and the sweat was beginning to spread on Kai’s back; it felt like an older person’s hand exploring his skin. He shivered and upped his pace. Behind him, Jimmy said nothing, except for the occasional curse. All the things we’ve said, Kai thought with a sudden, powerful sadness and all these things we won’t say now.

Kai knew about Jimmy and Kara; that he couldn’t lie was one of the things that made him Kai’s best friend. Who could trust a serpent? Kai thought, almost absent-mindedly. In a small town everyone knows, Kai understood and realised almost immediately he didn’t care about any of them, Kara least of all. The only time he had smiled for real was when somebody called out for them, ‘Kai-Kara!’ It sounded goofy and had made him laugh out loud. Otherwise it was simply a period of time where they were around each other for a long time. It wasn’t so much a relationship as an…experiment. Kai had known this from the beginning and his coolness had found it's way to her by the end.

Then there was Jimmy.

As he pulled back the last set of branches, Kai could sense the shift in the air, the warmth that suddenly dragged over the two of them. He winced, while Jimmy immediately reached for his mouth and began to gag. Kai patted him on the back with his free hand and then slipped away, out into the field. Jimmy bundled out after him, pulling his hand away and looking out to the scene before them.

Hundreds of dead birds all gathered up on the grasses. Kai tied a bandana over his mouth as he walked over to the dark stack and crouched down onto his knees. He saw cowbirds, starlings and a few redwing blackbirds amongst the pile. Earlier in the week he had seen them strewn in the roads, black spikes of oil against the concrete. A woman and her daughter held hands and cried on one side of the street; an old man hurried over to the phone box, looking grey and weak, on the other. None of them moved, or twitched even; they were just perfectly still. 

The men of the town cleared them away on that first day; the snow plough had scooped them up in its jaws, the feathers fluttering up into the sky like dirty snowdrops. They had been left in the town dump. The next day, when it had been jackdaws and plain blackbirds, the men had gathered them up in bags and dropped them here, after being told the dump was full. Kai had followed them that day, getting high up in the hills and tracking them with his binoculars. The men marched in a long, winding line, the bags at their sides bulging, beaks and skeletal wings jabbing through the plastic and sticking straight out; one of them men flinched and cursed-he must have been jabbed by one or the other-and the others laughed. They dumped them in the fields, emptying them like grain sacks. One of the men kicked out and sent a pair of dead jackdaws back into the sky for a few seconds and the others cheered.

Jimmy came up at his side and looked down; Kai smiled up at him and then reached down to hold out one of the blackbirds; its red wing perfect and slick with the same sheen as one of Jimmy’s vinyl records. Jimmy edged back and stepped back into the clearing. Kai frowned and turned back to the pile, setting the bird back in its place and pulling himself up. Did he flinch from the bird Kai thought, or my smile?

The old man who had called from the phone box had said on the second day that it was the sign of the apocalypse. He stood amongst the fresh collection of birds and claimed that the end was nigh. After a few minutes, people tried to shush him down and told him to be quiet; the woman with the daughter confronted him and asked him not to upset everyone. Kai watched them, fascinated; the woman’s face was trembling, even though her daughter did not seem concerned. As they argued, she had turned round and waved to Kai, who waved back. When she was done, she looked out to the birds and smiled. The old man did not seem angry, even though his voice was raised; instead he seemed genuinely put out the woman was upset with him. He was only trying to tell the truth. Kai shook his head and turned back to the birds.  The adults are scared; the child finds it sacred, Kai muttered under his breath.     

“So what is it?” He heard Jimmy say. He walked over to him, so they were in the centre of the field, a little way from it. “Government stuff, UFO’s, what?” His voice was hurried, the way it always got when he was frightened about something. Kai shrugged his shoulders, not wanting re-assure him.

“Boys in town say illness, some sort of disorientation, or something. But then folks down the garage say it could be something to do with the fireworks from the parade. Kara says…” His voice trailed away and Kai looked hard at him. He watched as Jimmy started to speak and then stop, two, then three times. He’s been rehearsing a speech, Kai thought and almost grinned. He walked away, veering left at the black pile and taking the path to the next clearing on the hill.

People even started calling them ‘die-offs’ after the third day; like it was something they were going have to accept and get used to. Someone in the town claimed the same ting was happening in the lake and true, on the third day, over a hundred fish were dead, bobbing and floating at the top of the water. For a half day it was panic, until an old-timer dragged his boy out to admit he’d set poison in the water for a dare. People screamed blue-murder but a few others laughed too; like they were already accepting death as an everyday thing.

Maybe they were tired, Kai thought, but never told. Maybe, they were just heart-sick and just wanted no more of it. Folks were saying they plunged from the sky, stricken, but no-one had seen it, not one of them. Kai closed his eyes after the first night and tried to see it another way, tried to frame the birds, not dropping like they’d been buck-shot, but simply…falling. Falling from the sky because they were done with living. Kai saw that and smiled, not knowing if he was awake or dreaming, but with a smile on his lips all the same. It was beautiful the same way the bird-stacks were; because he understood why. He knew about being heart-sick and wanting to fall.

Kai reached the clearing and walked to the centre. From here, in the empty plot, he could see down to the birds below. The land here had been barren for years, way back to when Kai was a kid. No-one used it, no-one interfered with it, it was simply let be. He looked at the birds and then turned to see Jimmy staggering up to the lip of the clearing. Kai raised his hand but Jimmy didn’t wave back. Another detail of our friendship, he thought with a sting. Jimmy lumbered closer, out of breath and unsmiling; he was close to being angry now, Kai knew.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” He said, not giving Jimmy a chance to speak, to be outraged.

“It’s the most beautiful thing in the world,” he went on waving to the bird pile, the clearing. He felt his heart soar for a moment, having finally told someone what he really thought. Kai didn’t care about how confused his best friend suddenly looked, didn’t care that to him, he made no sense. Kai looked at his friend…shudder and then settle, as if waiting for the punch-line. Kai watched him and for a few moments he felt …free. He looked back to the birds.

“You think it’s ugly, don’t you? Like my father’s butchers shop. People used to come in and look terrified, seeing all that meat, all those knives. I never did. I used to watch him working and thought he was so…graceful. And that map on the wall, the ‘meat map,’ that’s what everyone called it, wasn’t it? The thing everyone used to pull faces over…I used to have that on my bedroom wall, hung up like a painting. I thought it was the prettiest thing in the world.”   

Kai turned around and saw Jimmy looking at him. His face had paled and he no longer looked angry but timid. Good, Kai thought, with a sudden rage. Good.

“Look, Kai, Kara…” Kai laughed at the sound of it: Kai-Kara, and then crouched down suddenly. He watched Jimmy flinch and then patted the ground.

“The farmers used to gather it up, you know, the blood from the butcher’s shops. Collect it all up in great pails and buckets and bring it out here. They’d pour it over the fields and then plough it all back in. Over and over, pouring and ploughing, until the blood was thick and deep and buried, right in with the seeds.” Kai rose up and walked over to him. He stopped inches from his face, close enough to kiss.

“My old man, he’d bring me out in the winter and show me; he’d break the tips of grass and the ice would be red with blood, like rubies. Grass like jewels.” Kai looked into his eyes; eyes he loved. He drew up one hand and put it to the side of his best friend’s face. The other hand was low and ready, down by his side.

“All of this is so…beautiful,” he whispered. Kai kept looking into Jimmy’s eyes as he said it, stroking his cheek with his palm, over and over. For a few seconds, his friend did not flinch, did not…recoil. And then, he did.

“Let--” he said and Kai felt his body tighten. The low hand rose up and pushed into Jimmy’s side. Kai jammed it deeper, all the way to the hilt and then let it go. He drew the hand up and brought it up onto Jimmy’s spine. It stayed there, steadying him, his other hand still on his cheek, unmoving; where it belonged.

For a long moment there was nothing but silence. Kai held his best friend, even as he shifted from being Jimmy to being dead weight. Kai stood holding him there, looking from the bird pile to his best friend’s eyes and waited. Everything is beautiful, he realised in that moment; everything is perfect.

When it was time, he adjusted himself. He gently lowered Jimmy down onto the ground, not tumbling or dropping, but…falling, just the way the birds had chosen to fall from the sky. He lay him down and then stood over him. Kai looked from him to the birds, back and forth, until the two images became a single, perfect picture. The blood spread and Kai pushed it back into the soil. He tore great fistfuls of dirt and patted it back into place, sodden with blood. He toiled on, over and over; from time to time, he looked up from the soil to the birds and felt his body surge and grow until, at last, he began to smile.    

Chris is English but works in Greece. He has been published over 250 times. His influences include Ray Carver and Stephen King.