Just before Ranulph begins shooting the crows, I tell Sarah that the birds know about the absence of light.
She stares out the window, transfixed by the wheeling cloud, her hands wrapped around her teacup. Her knuckles are the colour of boiled meat. With her head turned this way, in profile, she appears in silhouette, and doesn’t seem so insane.
“They wheel around like that to bring the darkness in,” I go on helpfully, “they drag the winter here. You never see this many crows in the wintertime.”
She nods. She understands. She is clever, despite the hereditary curse, with her slick brown hair and quick green eyes. She has a jewelled stare. Men in the street seek out her face, and watch the horizon there.
The clamour penetrates the double glazing, a raucous shrieking that overlaps in and around itself, amplified by the short distance between the earth and the sky in this particular part of the country. Sarah and I are cocooned by hoarse screaming. It fills up the air between us and makes me feel slightly dizzy in a gentle way; the waves of vertigo that creep up from your knees at the top of the stairs.
Do you know the etymology of vertigo? It comes from vertere, to turn. The room, the birds, their voices – the world turns around us.
She shivers slightly and looks away, retreating to the sideboard with her cup, her bare feet making floppy fish sounds on the parquet. She doesn’t say it but I know what’s causing her so much distress: she worries about how the birds don’t collide. In itself it seems unnatural. I don’t explain theories of flocking to her, the laws of separation, alignment and cohesion – she wouldn’t understand. I don’t tell her either that a group of crows is called a murder, though this term usually appears in poetry rather than scientific contexts.
I continue to stare at the vertiginous sky, hands thrust into the pockets of my slacks. We are in the dining room, the room furthest south with a large bay of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the expanse of the estate. From where I stand to the main road is a distance of more than a mile.
“I think you’re lying,” she says, almost smothering her voice with the clunk of the cup on mahogany. I may have no depth perception but I’m not deaf. Her voice shakes. I know that she will have a fit this afternoon, and will possibly require restraining.
I wait until I hear her leave before I turn to check that she’s gone. Moments later the plumbing begins to creak from upstairs. This is a house that whines.
This is when Ranulph appeared on the widows walk with his blackmarket G3 and started firing at the birds. It was a ridiculous gun, and he should never have had it. Have you ever seen one? For some reason that day my brother had it on semi auto, and the rounds came out with an almost refined regularity. After a second or two of that, Ranulph realised what was wrong and switched the settings, releasing a streak of cacophony. It was a noisy massacre.
I have only one eye. An accident at birth, involving my father. One eye, a weeping blue, and the other, a maw of flesh and darkness, a pucker of wrinkles. I watched the falling bodies with my single eye until the lawn seemed crowded with them – and yet the volume of the flock above never lessened. They seemed to renew themselves automatically, like a aberrant bacteria, and I, like Sarah, shivered. Ranulph, spying me, gave a cheery wave and grinned a cheery grin on that beef-red face of his. I reluctantly went out to help him bag his kills. Dead birds feel like drowned kittens in your hands.
Until I surfaced from my sleep and could see properly, I thought Sarah was drowning me, that her mewling in my ears was the mournful sound of an underwater death. Her hands, red and white and useless, tried to shake me this way and that. I sat up, knuckling my hair
Her eyes were pools of black in blackness.
I made a sound at her such as is made in the dead of night upon awakening. Her voice made a variety of bubbles that drifted whitely about the room, illuminating the scene. Must come, and quickly.
Grasping my wrist, she pulled me from the eiderdown and to the door, her feet still bare, all the halls and corridors of this ancient old house still and silent.
She led me through the tangle of passageways to the dining room. I traced our path with the flat of my hand on the wall, enjoying, in an infinitesimal way, the sound of my skin and bones on the various surfaces, wood, tile, brass, leather, cloth.
Ranulph sat at the head of the dining table, illuminated from behind by an ornate standing lamp. He fixed me with a bloodshot gaze, but never once stopped what he was doing.
He was eating a bird.
There was a small pagoda of them on the floor, a discolouration of red.
He opened its small body with his hands, ripping into the flesh with his pointed teeth – the same as my own, as Sarah’s – undeterred by feathers. His face was slick with various fluids, and feathers adhered to it in all places.
He was a mass of feathers, soft and black as a miscarriage.
The room was loud with ripping.
Sarah extended a shaking finger at him, as though to emphasise her point.
Interludes similar to this one are not uncommon in my private life.
I sighed, moving to step forward, not perturbed by the behaviour of my brother in the slightest. This, of course, was when the bay window was shattered into a thousand pieces from the outside, and a thousand night-black birds tumbled in. I say tumbled; they poured, or streamed, like ink, or the waters of the Styx.
The room was filled with the grotesque.
Appalled, I flung myself back, smashing a teaset, bombarded by hundreds of tiny careening bodies that looked soft but were endowed with a sharpness that tore my nightshirt, my chest and arms and face.
The night was red and black.
The last images I saw seared themselves onto my memory for all time. Before they lacerated and extracted my eye, I saw my sister’s face, white with fear and revulsion, the birds all around her and within her nightclothes, her hair, cramming into her mouth. I saw them plunge into the stomach of my brother.
Something about the days getting shorter seeps itself into my marrow at the turn of the year, and recalls to me my last night of vision.
* * * * *
Jessica Maybury is a Dublin-based fiction writer, poet, and amateur pianist. She reviews comics at http://GirlsLikeComics.Wordpress.com and co-edits
@azinecalledESC. This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.