The Din of Celestial Birds

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When he returned, stumbling down the mountain and out of the jungle, he did not remember anything beyond having entered the stone hovel and seen, in the far corner of the dirt floor, a cage, partly covered in a feathered cloak. Even from the door, it did not seem that the hovel had been entered or the cage touched in months. He approached and brushed the feathers with his hand, brought his palm away covered with dust, and was surprised to hear a dull rattling from within or perhaps behind the cage. He remembered tugging off the heavy cover, feathers coming loose in his hands, and then remembered nothing until he was stumbling down the mountain, his body cut and bruised, his clothing torn and rotting away, his hair littered with pieces of frond and feathers.

It had been four mouths. The villagers were surprised to see him. When he first disappeared they had assumed he had fled to join the rebels, which rumor had it were massing on the southern half of the island. Nonetheless, two days after his disappearance and at his wife’s request they had agreed to search in the area he had last been seen, and accordingly a team of men had climbed the mountain, traversing the narrow switchbacks until they came, as he himself had come, to the old stone hovel constructed into the side of the cliff. They had looked into the hovel with a torch, but found it empty, the dirt floor undisturbed and thick with dust.

“And the cage?” he asked, when they later told him the story.

“Cage?” asked the leader of the search party. “There was no cage.”

“In the corner?” he asked. “Covered in a cape of feathers?”

The man shook his head. “Nothing had been in there for years.”

Yet he was certain he had entered it.

There were, he learned from the Indians living in the shanty on the edge of the village, certain rumors about the hovel. Some said it had belonged to a cjlanuk driven out of the valley by the other Indians before the Europeans had come, that it had been built by legged serpents and from it he had practiced a dark intercourse which had rapidly consumed him. Others claimed it was the dwelling of an early German monk whose party had been slaughtered. He had built the house and slowly gone mad in it, stripping away the flesh from his legs with his own knife until he died. All among the Indians agreed, however, that the place should not be approached, that he had made a tremendous mistake in going there.

In the interest of science, he was taken to the Capitol to speak to a neurologist, who measured his head and examined it for evidence of concussion or injury, who shined a light into his eyes, who asked him a series of questions to which there seemed no correct answers and nodded as he answered. He was hypnotized but still recalled nothing, “as if,” the neurologist said, raising an eyebrow and considering the case study he would write, “a portion of your brain has been removed or rewired,” though the doctor also said not to worry, that his mind in time would find its way back to what it had lost.

At first, he had trouble sleeping and would remain awake for hours as his wife slept beside him. Often he would leave his bed to throw open the shutters, watching the bats throwing themselves about before the town’s only streetlight. The night calmed him somewhat and he liked to sit crouched on the sill and feel the slight air against his skin. When he did manage to sleep, his arms and legs often thrashed about and he made uncanny half-strangled noises until his wife shook him awake. The neurologist advised that instead of waking him she sit beside the bed during the spells and chart any shift in motion or sound and loaned them a clock to record the time. Thus, he often found when he awoke, tacked to thin wall behind the bed, notes made from the night before:

3:50. Movement restricted to a shivering of the legs and a twitch on the right side of the torso. A periodic, high-pitched rapid barking.

None of the notes led him anywhere. He remained as ignorant of what happened to him as he had been before.

The national police came and interrogated him about his whereabouts over the past four months, accusing him of having associated with the rebels, of trying to unsteady the already instable political situation. Even after being beaten severely and being prompted with leading questions that already assumed his guilt, he could recall nothing about what had happened after he lifted the cover from the cage. His refusal to cooperate angered the police, and they might have killed him had it not been for the intervention of the mayor and his presentation of a letter on gilt paper from the neurologist.

His body had a peculiar feeling to it all the time, as if it was not entirely his own. He was awkward on his feet and had difficulty sometimes recalling and then carrying out the simplest of dynamics, the movement of his spoon from bowl to mouth, for instance, or the arc of a scythe through the grain. He could not bear being around others and only just tolerated his wife and her attempts to comfort him and to prod him into remembrance. He grew reclusive, withdrawn. He became concerned about his physical condition. What he had at first thought to be cuts and scratches from his journey down the mountain quickly took on a different character for him, for there were some wounds that after crusting over remained red and puckered and tender and did not subside, and others that never scarred or crusted over at all but remained bloodless and open, minuscule inverse cones dotting his stomach and thigh. Indeed, these seemed to be increasing in number. They seemed to him important to understanding his illness, but for whatever reason he had the instinct to keep them hidden from the neurologist and from his wife as well.

***

A month later, late at night, rebels passed through the town, on retreat from an abortive attack on the capital. They dragged the mayor out of bed and beat his head in with their rifle butts, bullets being too valuable to waste. They left him dead in the square, head unfurled like a flattened balloon, and moved quickly on. By morning the town was occupied by national police, patrolling the town in search of rebels. He and most of the other men of the town were dragged to the central square, were interrogated and were as well beaten by a colonel missing an eye and a hand.

With the help of a neighbor, his wife carried him home. She cleaned his visible wounds then removed his clothing to bathe him, was horrified to find his thighs and belly pitted and covered with holes, some of them big enough to prod her little finger into.

“What are these?” she asked. “How did the soldiers do this to you?”

He shook his head. She left the house and returned with the local doctor, who examined the pits and could not make sense of them, and was incensed for having been taken away from those beaten more severely. She went back out and returned several hours later with the Indian shanty’s cjlanuk. He approached, looked gravely into the pits. He rubbed a handful of red powder over the man’s belly and thighs until the man cried out.

Xalagmua,” the cjlanuk said. “He is dead already. There is nothing to be done for him.” He said nothing more beyond advising the wife to bury her husband alive or at the very least to have him imprisoned.

“Is the disease infectious?” she asked.

He shook his head. “You are in great danger,” he insisted.

“What sort of danger?”

Xalagmua,” the cjlanuk said again, and left.

***

His wife was mostly of European blood and thus had no temptation to follow the cjlanuk‘s unexplained advice. After her husband had recovered from the beating she saw no reason to mistrust him, for he seemed as normal as he had seemed since his return from the mountain, even if the pits and holes on his lower body did not fade and in fact seemed to spread farther along the surface of his skin.

His struggles and movements during the night seemed to have decreased as well. In their place, however, as he admitted neither to his wife nor to the neurologist, came dim dreams that seemed to have some connection to the absent four months. Of these, he could recall only scattered images, the most frequently recurring of which was that of a cage made of bones, lacquered and held together with strips of tanned skin, the doors of the cage consisting of two interlocked skeletal hands. Behind or inside was what appeared to him a flash of light, in constant and frenetic motion. He often heard as well, in his different dreams and their different situations, a great chorus of cries, birdlike but oddly distorted and ethereal, creating what he thought of upon awakening as being the din of celestial birds.

He felt famished even after he had eaten, a constant nagging emptiness tugging at the base of his spine. He ate more but did so privately so as not to upset his wife. He did not seem to gain any weight. He felt trapped, paced back and forth through the house, spent hours wandering through the jungle outside, at home found it more and more difficult to keep up an appearance of novelty.

When the neurologist told him that the four missing months might never come back, he knew they were already on their way. He dreamt of clouds of transparent and sharp-beaked birds, their din immense as they swept over him. He woke up with the feeling that his thighs and chest were bloody, the sense of something feeding on him. He stood and brushed at his body, but the feeling did not vanish until he had fled the house through the window and stood below the town’s streetlight. Looking down, he saw he had not bled at all, but that the pits in his body had deepened and had spread to all parts of his skin except his hands and his face.

He returned to bed but woke later to the sound of birds, naked, in the middle of the jungle, at the base of the mountain, his hands and body smeared with blood. He washed himself in a stream, managed to stumble his way back to his house and into bed before his wife awoke. The next morning, he claimed illness, remaining in bed until late in the day, terrified of himself, wondering what would happen next.

He dreamt his body was a cage, that lining his chest and cradled in his hips were caches of eggs, slowly hatching into tightly folded birds, the strange pitting of his skin coming from their attempts to pull open a hole. He awoke shivering and was afraid to go back to sleep.

He kept awakening bloody, far from home. Reports began to drift in of national police and rebels found dead around the town, their eyes gone and their skulls cracked, gaping holes in their bodies. The Indians claimed it was the return of Xjalagmua–some sort of ancient creature or spirit, his wife said, though she herself believed the stories of the deaths to be fabricated by the national police as a means of trying to keep the rebels out of the jungles and to locales where they could be more easily captured.

He was willing to agree, to justify the blood on his body as having welled up mysteriously from the normally dry holes and pits, as a spontaneous upswelling of some kind. He continued to believe that until he woke one night at the base of a mountain dragging a carcass through the darkness. He left it and ran before he knew if it were human or animal.

The slaughters in the jungle increased. Oddly, the dead were always of European blood. Even before sleep came, he felt himself drawn to the window and out into the jungle. He tried to believe it was a dream, tried to claim he was not responsible for whatever his body did without him.

***

He awoke to find himself prowling the edge of the indian shanty, but oddly unable to force himself to walk past the outer circle of shacks. He recognized, at a little distance, standing before a fire, the cjlanuk, dashing his arms back and forth, pointing at him. He realized he was holding something in one hand, looked down to see a pale-skinned child, his fingertips pushed through the skull and holding the child’s head like a ball.

He shook the thing off his fingers, let it fall in a stiff heap. The cjlanuk beckoned him forward and he found himself able to come among the shacks and move toward the man. When he tried to turn to one side, however, he found he could not. He tried to go back, but his feet carried him forward until he found himself standing before the fire, regarding the cjlanuk on the opposite side.

Xalagmua, you have come,” he said.

“What is happening to me? What is wrong with my body?” the man asked.

“I do not speak to you,” said the other. “You are dead.”

“Please,” said the man. “I did not mean to kill the child. I am not responsible.”

The cjlanuk shook his head. “Come forward,” he said.

He tried to pass around the fire, found he could not, found himself inclined instead to walk into the flame. The cjlanuk lifted his hands, drew patterns in the smoke, making a narrow path that seemed to tug him forward. He tried to resist, but his feet shifted, stepped forward onto the coals.

He felt the pain and then bursting from his body thousands of insubstantial birds. They whirled about him, turning into flame and smoke. He smelt his flesh burn, felt himself fall.

***

The local doctor cleaned his burns and rubbed them with ointment. He bound his legs up in cloth, telling his wife to change the dressing twice daily. When the doctor was gone, she asked him how he had come to be in the indian shanty at night and he could not explain it, only that he had awakened and had been there. There had been, she said, a child found dead near there, the crown of its head pierced roundabout as if it had been taken into the mouth of a wolf or grasped by a giant claw. The child was fair-skinned, she said, drained of blood, and the police thought it must be the doing of Indians or rebels. He just nodded, tried to sleep.

He woke up halfway out the window, pus running down his legs, his wife shaking him, drawing him in. With her encouragement, he allowed himself to be led back into the room. He lay down on the bed, allowed her to change his dressing.

She left briefly, returned with a rope. She tied one end to the leg of the bed, tied the other end around his waist.

“To keep you safe,” she said. She brewed a rich tea for him, a narcotic of some kind that the doctor had given to her, and came to bed, looping the rope around her ankle. He drank and fell asleep.

***

The sun was rushing in upon him. His legs hurt, his head as well. He tried to roll his way out of bed, found himself restrained by the rope. He turned back around in bed to find his wife dead beside him, her eyes missing, great gouges out of her flesh.

He lay there regarding her for some time, trying to feel something, but feeling nothing. He was, he remembered the cjlanuk saying, already dead. He could bring himself to not feel himself responsible.

He sat up in bed long enough to untie the rope, roll her out of the bed, hide her underneath. He lay in bed most of the day, feeling the pain in his legs. Near evening he got out of bed and made his painful way into the kitchen, remaining long enough to light a fire, heat the pot of tea that she had made earlier. He was there, preparing to drink the tea, when the local doctor arrived and scolded him for being out of bed then inquired why his wife had let him do such a thing.

“She isn’t here,” he said. “She’s gone out.”

“Out?” the doctor asked. “Someone should be with you.”

The man shrugged, allowed the doctor to help him back to bed, begging him once there to give him something for the pain.

The doctor looked astonished, “But I gave her something for you,” he said.

“I want something that will not put me asleep,” he said. “I need to be awake when she comes home.”

Grumbling, the doctor opened his bag, removed a vial of fluid and a hypodermic syringe, the needle of which he heated in the fire to sterilize it. He gave the man an injection, the man feeling a numbness rapidly spread through his body.

“You would like me to remain until your wife returns?” the doctor asked. “I’ll have to charge for my time, of course.”

The man waved him away.

***

When the doctor was gone, the man worked his way out of bed. He stood, tested his legs. The pain was still present, but the injection made him no longer care that it was there, made it feel as if he were observing it rather than feeling it for himself. He made his way into the kitchen and took the last of the matches, then went to the door and out into the darkness.

He limped past the street lamp. He passed through the east side of the town, moving into the jungle and toward the mountain. The walk was difficult, and he often felt faint and had to rest, and once fell and had a struggle getting up. He reached the base of the mountain and realized he had gone too far south, had to walk a kilometer north until, by moonlight, he discovered the trail leading up.

He set about climbing, negotiating the narrow trail in the dark by touch. The dressing on his legs had become sodden with blood and other fluids and was making a damp sound as he walked. His breath, too, came only narrowly, and by the time he had climbed three hundred meters, he had difficulty breathing at all. He turned and looked down, back at the town, the single light and then a few lights still in houses, then turned and kept climbing.

By the time he reached the stone hovel, the medicine was wearing off. He felt he was going to lose consciousness. He tried to avoid looking at his legs or thinking about them. He knew he could not make it back down again.

He put his head to the opening of the hovel. He struck a match, held it in.

In the far corner was a cage, partly covered by a feathered cloak. He made his way toward it slowly, stopping before it. Reaching out his hand, he took the cloak by the corner, pulled it quickly away.

The cage was empty. He stumbled forward, collapsed onto the dirt floor. He lay there as his body dissolved into uncanny birds and fluttered away, the birds crying out, the wings knocking against what was left of him until nothing at all was left of him and he found himself turning and wheeling and dissolving into all portions of the night.

Brian Evenson (1966 – ) is an influential American writer of dark fiction which tends to defy classification but often seems surreal or Kafkaesque. He is also a translator of French literature and a senior editor of the Conjunctions literary journal published by Bard College. Evenson’s critically acclaimed story collections include Windeye and the novel Immobility. He’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Edgar Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and the recipient of the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel. He lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he is Royce Professor of Teaching Excellence in Brown University’s Literary Arts Department.

One reply to “The Din of Celestial Birds

  1. Amazing! Love it. Thank’s for this one. I found my inspiration is Evenson’s works, and this one was the answer for my own work.