Mercy for Night-Birds


The crowd comes on at a relentless diagonal and she is sluiced from the pavement like rain. Her face is mushy, crumpled handwriting. She is mute; though whether by choice or misfortune is unknown even to her. The tail-feathers of her cloak droop into the ripples and darken from the gutter up like the spread of some infection.

She waits patiently for the stream of people to slacken and darts between drips into the bakery. It is empty but for the beautiful smell of newborn bread which conceals her own damp fumes. Here she is a regular visitor. The baker in his ghosted frock smacks flour from his gloves like visible sound and without a word offers her fresh rolls from a warm tray. She waits for him: he holds one out over the counter. Frowning then feeling she returns it to the man. It is too nice. The baker has run through this routine too often to be anything but nonplussed as he brings her another; grey-crusted, stale. She sniffs and nods and bears it out into the street and towards the park, gripped hard in brittle fingers.

In the park is a bench beneath a crone-bent willow. Restless pigeons gather eagerly at her feet. Slowly and deliberately as though reverent of some arcane ritual she sits and begins to crush life from the stone. Impatient flutters here and there disrupt the mass and heads cock as the first crumbs fall to her lap. The anticipation is thick as skin. Then she scatters the powder; and the squawking deafens. She watches as they feast: scaling each other with sharp red claws and clamouring for their share. Some affect disinterest then circle back to the fray, flinging broad their wings and jabbing, frenzied, mad with savage greed.

Just as swiftly they disperse, in fits and flaps. Crumbs remain but the orgy is over, and she can stand again. With brushes of her cloak she loosely gathers the feathers they have left behind and pokes the white tips through the cloak’s fabric, breaking their bones to secure them.

O Lord, what a beautiful cloak! How many delicate hues crest and shimmer with the wind’s merest caress! Storm-shades undulate across its surface and shaken flare like light from creased foil, seething and broiling then vanished once more into shadow. The skin beneath is hollow and taut with bone: she has not eaten in almost two weeks, and under the prickling cloak her skin is pecked raw. Yet she is glad. The pigeons though many are weak, and only when she is feather-light will they be able to lift her in a rough cloud and carry her off to those high, unseen places where pigeons congregate at night. So subtly is the cloak woven that while night’s wing soars between concrete horizons she remains hidden in the seamless dark until sunrise.

She emerges at dawn. The sun’s pale gape is torn with clouds that frustrate the eye like unerased chalk. The light is like liquid: a warm, currentless sea which buoys her above herself while a drab shape beneath stumbles through a deep daze.

Here again is the bakery. Above, the sun looms and makes vivid the face of the shop like a falling mourner’s veil. Dough is unloaded on pallets from a van of blinding white and stack up by the door. The baker himself bears them inside five at a time, his ungloved hands full of grip. He whistles harmonies to the rich hum of his ovens. Today is a good day, and the dough sings.

Swaying like dreaming reeds she follows him inside, feeding the heavy cloak in which she hangs like a bell’s clapper through the open door. Her own shape is now utterly numb to her. The baker smiles kindly and at once presents her with a roll from his oven. She returns it, but today the baker insists – smiling, thrusting – take it, this is yours. The boulder drops into her frail hand. Her gaze is unsure but how tightly she grips it and already the baker has engaged fresh customers. He ignores her until she is gone.

All down the street the roll drags at her – she lists to one side like a bird with a broken wing. The kingdom of the park waits with iron gates thrown inwards in welcome, and seeing her the birds convene from every tree like an explosion in reverse.

The sun has cleared the roofs and the last clouds scatter. As she sits the cooing crescendos but she will not listen. The hot smell of the bread compels…

Her dry teeth crumble the dough fruit to dust. It is tough and sweet. The pigeons bounce and flare, outraged. Their right to bread is Law, sanctified by ceremony. Beaks begin to pierce her cloak, stab at her ankles. Some thrash to the seat beside her, talons raking her lap. The idol is proved false: a liar.

As one they swarm up the slope of their own abandoned feathers in a frenzy no longer diffused among them. They dive at her hair, become caught and scrabble viciously. Beady, jutting eyes rise to her throat, finding purchase in the skin of her empty breasts. The rising surge lifts her skyward, but their hooks and mass tether her and the first to ascend thrusts its head inside her mouth and pecks at the white soot on her tongue. Claws tear at her lips and cheeks to widen her smile so that more may force their way in and soon they pour down her throat and fill her empty skin. The loose cloak swells with her body like a writhing sack of rats and abruptly she bursts, erupting grey and white and red feathers reeling in a shrill rainbow of gore. They soar outwards, dive and disappear leaving nothing but a grey shroud whose ragged wounds lie empty. The sun’s white hole burns up every feather before they touch the ground.

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