Image by Paul Gilmore

FEATHERS

a short story

On the seat of his chair lay a feather—glossy, black, and a quill like ivory. Another, he found in an empty mug as he prepared his morning coffee; this one smaller, grey, and downy. A third he found inside his boot as he prepared to leave his cabin; this one sharp, and he winced as it drew blood from his heel. 

   That evening, on his return from the beach, he found the feather’s owner: a raven perched on the back of his chair, head cocked, eyeing him. 

   ‘So, it’s you that’s been visiting,’ he said. ‘You’ll have no feathers left soon.’

   The raven called in a low gurgling croak that filled the small cabin, rebounding off the plywood walls. Grimy, threadbare rugs lay underfoot, spiderwebs hung like cotton from the ceiling, and in the corner, a stove to burn sea coal. A single chair, white stuffing escaping from torn fabric, and a table, uneven legs propped with folded newspaper, were the only furniture. Outside, windchimes of rope, bottles, and cans, clinked and tinkled as they swayed in the breeze. The man opened the window, cracked and repaired with clear plastic and tape, wide to the sea air, and attempted to shoo the bird outside. The raven danced upon the top of the chair and refused to leave.

   ‘Okay,’ said the man. ‘You can stay for now.’

   The man cut a thick slice of bread and a chunk of cheddar and the raven watched as he ate, bobbing its head, opening and closing its thick beak, matching every chew. The man tore a piece of bread and offered it to the raven, who snapped it from his fingers, and tossed it down its throat. 

   ‘That’s all your having,’ said the man. 

   The raven nudged his shoulder with its beak and stared with glassy black eyes until the man fed him a lump of cheese. The raven took the cheese to a high shelf, strewn with gathered seashells and pebbles, where it perched for the rest of the night as the man slept in his chair. 

   The next morning, the raven watched as the man brewed coffee, and prepared to leave for the day. 

   As the man walked across flat salt marsh, the raven glided overhead, piercing the cloudless sky with harsh cries— ‘kra, kra’. The calls of the egrets, spoonbills, skylarks, meadow pipits, marsh harriers, swans, and redshanks, usually a euphony on a bright day, seemed quiet and distant. The birds flew low to the long grass, hid in the reeds, dipped beaks in the mud, and ducked heads into shallow pools. 

   As he reached the shingle, sliding on the loose stones on the ridge up to the beach, he stopped to pick up a smooth piece of sea coal glinting in the sun. Suddenly, he heard the air cutting through the raven’s feathers, and looked up as it dove, talons outstretched, plucking the hat from his head, stealing it into the air.

   ‘You thief,’ he shouted, waving his arms. 

   The raven soared high and dropped the hat into a reed bed, its throaty call like cruel laughter. I’ve heard that laughter before, thought the man, as the raven flew away in the direction of the cabin.

   The man walked over a ridge to the sea. He sat on the stones and watched the water rake the shingle up and down the beach. The sea roared and hissed, deep and brown. Wind scrubbed his face and tossed around his white hair. He watched a giant container ship cruise lazily on the horizon. 

   His wife had laughed like the raven—mocking, belittling, scolding him. “A poor husband”, she’d sneer. “The worst husband”. Her cold eyes, her bitter smile, condemned every word he spoke, every movement. 

   The man rubbed a tear from his eye and walked to the water’s edge. Foam washed over his boots, and the waves thundered, until her laughter no longer rang in his ears. In the distance, he saw someone walking along the beach towards him, and he left.  

    As he neared his cabin, he saw the plastic sheeting of the roof flapping wildly. Tape had been pulled from the windows, his windchimes lay limp on the ground. The raven perched on the roof.

   The man cursed. He took the sea coal from his pocket and threw it at the raven. The bird laughed and flapped into the air, the coal not finding its target. 

   He set about repairing the roof as the raven soared in circles above, taunting him with cries. When the sun set, the man retired inside.

   His seashells and pebbles had been swept to the floor, his mug cracked, plates smashed to shards, coffee grounds scattered, pages of his book shredded, and pecked with holes. Stuffing, plucked from his chair, covered the floor like snow, and stuck upright in the seat cushion was a black feather.

   He remembered a similar scene—another destroyed room, in another home. He’d returned drunk from a night with friends. She’d sniffed his shirt and imagined another woman’s perfume infused on his collar. Her slap stung his cheek; he bit his tongue. She tore their home apart, throwing glasses, dishes, vases, as he batted them away, bruising and cutting his hands, until he had to hit her, he had to, and she barricaded herself in the bedroom. He pleaded apologies, weeping, as she ranted and swore to ruin him, sliding her wedding ring through the crack beneath the door.  

   He shook his head to remove the thought and lit the stove. He ate beans straight from a saucepan, pushed stuffing back into his chair, and fell asleep.

   In the morning, the raven’s call woke him—a shrill alarm. The raven paced on top of the stove, feet clacking on the metal. It nodded towards a pan on the stove. As the man rose from his chair the raven flew to the shelf. At the bottom of the pan were bunches of tiny white flowers. 

   ‘I know what this is,’ said the man, holding a bunch to his eye. ‘It’s hemlock.’

   The raven laughed. 

   ‘You want to poison me?’

   The man took the pan and threw the contents outside, the flowers caught in the wind and dispersed. 

   ‘You evil bird,’ he said, returning to the cabin. ‘You’ve come back to taunt me.’ 

   The bird screamed—piercing and shrill.  

   I know that scream, thought the man. He collapsed to his knees, his chest tight like the air had been squeezed from him. A cold sweat trickled from his temples down his cheeks. The raven screamed again, the scream of a woman calling for help with every last breath, a knife tip pressed against her chest, all her strength holding it from biting her skin. 

   The raven swooped and attacked, clawed his arms, drawing bright blood. Fingers slipped through greasy feathers. Beak pulled at hair, pecked at eyes. Feathers flew. Above the fight, tiny feet tapped on the roof like heavy rain, the air filled with the loud cry, pip, croak, and excited twitter of other birds. He held the raven around the throat, pressing it to the ground. The raven screamed again. 

   He remembers his wife trembling as she weakened, her terrified wide eyes, his tears dripping on her cheek as he looked down on her, the knife sinking lower, piercing her cotton blouse, her hands slipping, and the knife plunging deep into her breast. A mist of blood covered his eyes, sprayed his shirt, and a dark pool formed around her twitching body. 

   The raven thrashed under his hands and the man pressed harder. The raven shrieked louder.

   He’d sat with his wife, stroking her bloodied hair, until she stilled. He carried her to the reeds, scooped a shallow grave with his bare hands, and submerged her in the rich mud. He burned his clothes and washed in the sea. 

   Slowly, the raven grew quiet, and the birds sang louder above the man’s head. 

   Black feathers lay strewn across the floor. He picked one up, and held it in his shaking hand, studying it. A beautiful thing— so intricate, so fragile, so dead.