Mercy for Night-Birds
(Or, A Dove’s Nightmare)
M T Ingoldby
The crowd comes on at a relentless diagonal and she is sluiced into the gutter like rain. Her face is like sodden and 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 and she does not notice, for in time they always dry out.
She waits an age 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. The baker in his ghosted frock smacks flour from his gloves like visible sound and without a word of acknowledgement offers her fresh rolls from a warm tray. She waits: 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 non-plussed 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. The pigeons already gathered around grow louder and swell at her approach. In this spot she sits and begins to crush life from the stone: Crumbs fall to her lap. Heads cock, impatient flutters disrupt the mass. Then she scatters the powder in a jagged swing, and the squawking deafens. She watches them feast; scaling each other with sharp red claws all clamouring for their share. Some affect disinterest then circle back to the fray, flinging broad their wings and jabbing, frenzied, mad with savage greed.
Then just as swiftly they disperse, in fits and flaps. Crumbs remain but the orgy is over, and she can walk 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 and breaks their bones to secure them.
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. It hides her shape: 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 numerous 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 place where pigeons congregate at night. Until then, so subtly is the cloak woven that while night’s wing soars between concrete horizons she may crouch in a corner of the pavement seamless as shadows and remain furled and unnoticed til daybreak.
At dawn she moves. The sun gapes through torn traces of cloud that frustrate the eye like unerased chalk. The light is like liquid: A warm, currentless sea which buoys her above the drab shape stumbling beneath in 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 stacked 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 in, feeding the heavy cloak in which she hangs like a bell’s clapper through the open door. Her own form is numb to her. The baker smiles kindly and presents her at once with a roll from his oven. She returns it; but today the baker refuses, insistent – smiling, thrusting; this is yours: Take it. 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 will ignore 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 to welcome her, 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 intoxicates…
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 holy idol is false: A liar.
As one they swarm up the slope of their own forgotten feathers in a unified frenzy not diffuse amongst them but directed to some external purposed. 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 skin. The loose cloak swells with her body like a writhing sack of rats until she abruptly bursts, erupting grey and white and red feathers reeling in shrill rainbows of gore. They soar outwards, dive and disappear leaving nothing but a grey shroud whose ragged wounds lie empty. The white hole of the sun burns away every feather before they touch the ground.