The Bird’s Nest
By Nicholas Holland
I have always thought that in dreams we become real, become actualized; we enter disordered, vulnerable distillations of ourselves. We stalk the deep of our own minds in fevered anticipation, hungry and paranoid for some unnamed goal, some prey. In our dreams, we are the deep, and we are invisible in our purity, and we are broken and momentary and real.
In the attic of Glengarie House, buried amongst spiderwebs and greying newspapers, a bird’s nest is rotting in a shoebox.
Before I begin to relate my tale, I think it necessary to describe the current condition of my existence.
Looking back, I find that it is easier to view my father as a metaphor; as a vehicle… just a massive man-shaped Liberty bell that would let loose a banshee chime from time to time, and me like some Pavlovian dog mentally salivating all over myself. He has always stood at the center of my fragile universe, all the power and pathos and mindless hurricanes of my youth as a floundering girlyboy- the full measure of the man as an ideal is hard to take in. He towered over me, both in the real world and in my own, striding across the world with all the awful assurance of Rhodes cutting a path through the Dark Continent. A man of business, and of awful passions, and of glorious retribution; he was one of the old gods, a giant of Genesis, and his violence was the only salvation he offered.
It was during the first days of summer that we first moved into the house. I was only fifteen at the time, and my sister was even younger, and I remember that we were both very impressed with the place at first. It was called Glengarie House, after the man who had built it in the 40’s, and the outside was painted a pale spring green that appealed to me instantly. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a nice kitchen, and a small, drippy cellar, although the main attraction to me was the yard and its proximity to the small lake nearby. It was a far sight nicer than the apartment on Indigo Street we had lived in for the past three years, and I like to imagine that my father felt a great sense of pride as he watched us move our things inside.
At that time it was just the four of us, my father and mother and my sister and me. My mother had talked about the move in quiet tones of excitement for months before we had even started packing; she said it was all happening because my father’s business with George Mexico was finally starting to take off, and because we now suddenly had a good deal of money, and because it was time our luck started to change. I have never seen her happier than on the night before the moving van arrived, folding and packing clothes and sheets and pillowcases into boxes and humming to herself. My father said nothing to us about the new house and did not help with the packing, but spent long hours talking loudly on the phone to George Mexico and pacing back and forth, getting all of the details sorted out while my mother and sister and I eavesdropped wordlessly from the other room. It was 1995, so I guess my mother would have been in her late thirties. My father was forty-five.
I had my own room in the house in what used to be an attic, which I instantly recognized as being different from the other compartments in the house in some important way. It was geometrically different, for one thing, in that it lacked the four corners and rat-trap flat ceiling of the other rooms in the house. Instead, its walls shot inward at a certain point, each dusty half kissing the other in triangular apex directly above the foot of my bed, forming an inverted pyramid overhead that the afternoon dappled with sunbeams. The sunbeams, of course, were let in through a white-rimmed oval window on one wall that looked out onto the lake, and once they entered the room they formed linear yellow stripes in the air made visible by countless floating motes of dust. When the sun was especially bright, the sunbeams seemed plagued by these slow-shifting ghostly snowfalls, and looked like shimmering tubes of TV-static as they crawled across the floor.
My little aerie was a small, private place for me, which I liked, and the window looked out onto the lake, which I liked even more. There was a small desk, and a shelf for my books, and a little folding bed made of wire which reminded me of a cage. The floor creaked and groaned hungrily at any movement whatsoever, and the little bed protested loudly every time I shifted my weight or even sat down on its edge. The walls were hidden behind musty cream-white wallpaper, which was interrupted by stripes of blue that bled vertically down at regular intervals all along the room, broken only by the door on one wall and by the egg-shaped window to the lake across from it. There was a good-sized spiderweb in one corner of the ceiling, which I left alone. I did not see the spider.
I settled in well to my little box of an attic, and the others settled in well to their little boxes downstairs. The semi-suburban normalcy of Glengarie House was a long-needed breath of fresh air in our lives, and we absorbed it hungrily in those first few weeks. We had all been through a stretch of bad time, and nobody missed the crowded little apartment on Indigo Street. In the mornings, my mother would fix us bowls of cereal or sometimes eggs, and I spent the rest of my days exploring the woods by the lake or cloistered up in my room, reading. My father was home very little in those first few weeks, presumably spending his days working on the business with George Mexico and arriving home late at night in varying degrees of sobriety.
When he did come home drunk, which was not as often as it had been before, we truly became the people of Genesis. He would enter the house on the verge of rage– the door trembling in its flimsy hinges as he slammed it wide, and stood in its mouth for a moment, looming huge and silhouetted against the night. There was no stopping him when he went on one of these rampages, and immediately the door or the floor or some breakable kitchen announce his arrival with a crash. He would call first for my mother as a matter of course; she would either emerge cringing or not at all, but either way she would end up crying.
He was impossible to please when these rages took him, and would invariably find fault in anything that caught his attention- always ending, of course, with a furious red-raged shout of “This is that damned boy’s mess again- where is he? God help you all, where is the boy? Where’s my son?” My sister and I would flee wretchedly from his slaps and threats with little regard for each other, each of us too lost in our own cowardice to wonder after the other’s well-being. In the end, it would be my mother or my sister and I huddled (several feet apart from each other) in the living room, listening silently to the shouts and crashes from the other room where the fearful king was holding his court. I have no doubt that when it was me taking the beatings (which it often was) that my mother and sister sat in the same way, silent and unmoving, and for this I do not blame them.
We each had our role, and I was the Boy, and so it fell to me to take the greatest portion of the rage, as it was the law that to the Boy was given the power to disappoint. My mother and sister he struck less often, but the hardest for both of them were the nights he returned quiet and cruel and empty of threats, and went wordlessly into my sister’s bedroom. On these nights we never heard any sound at all but for my mother’s crying, but even this scarcely troubled me after a time. In Glengarie House, each of us had our role, and we knew it, and it should be remembered that things were not as bad as they had been on Indigo Street.
When I could, I would retreat into my Box for hours or days on end, and study the subtleties in the cream-colored, blue-striped wallpaper. On some days I thought I could almost detect a creeping geometric pattern underneath those stripes, all scattered and honeycombed and shifting with the light, and at night I dreamed of a patchwork house made of spiderwebs and shadows.
It was during our first week living at Glengarie House that I found the lake. It wasn’t that I had not seen it before, or that it was hidden away in any real sense; I just woke up, walked downstairs and out the flaky white door, and was instantly drawn to push my way through the bushes out back towards the little wooded lake behind the house.
Branches and thorns tickled and tugged and nipped at my arms and legs as I went, and I ignored them. Above, the grayish sky was dappled with the leaves and spindly tree branches over my head, and the sun filtered through the cloudy screen with surprising strength, leaving the brown-green woods frosted with a warm, bright shade of gray.
Ahead, the lake waited breathlessly for me to approach.
The lake itself was like nothing I had ever seen at that time, after living for so long amongst the urban bleakness and clogged spring gutters of Indigo Street. That paved lifestyle had smothered me with its metropolitan nihilism, ruled over by a race of men who aspired to live on a chessboard, in a city of cubes. The lake was the first sign of the wild purity in nature that I had seen in my young life. It was a living beast; a dusky shrine to the sweaty, buggy clockwork of the human landscape. It was surrounded with trees, patchworky in places where the bark had begun to rot, whose branches slumped and stretched and fingered bits of sky hungrily. All around me, scrubby bushes and thorns clung to the ground in magnificent desperation. Here was constant flux and change, and with that chaos came a feeling of wonder and security that had never been inspired by the creaking static halls of Glengarie in all their shadowy mundanity.
As I walked through the clearing, my ears prickled with sensation; the area sang with the chaotic voices of thousands of katydids and chirruping crickets. It seemed to swim with primordial life. Thousands of teeming insects swarmed wildly above its steaming surface, and sun-kissed groups of gnats flitted in fuzzy protean whorls about my head, as if recognizing me for a pilgrim. The water was ringed with greens and grays and browns, and it called to me. I found myself walking toward its edge and leaning forward, ignoring the tickle of a bloated deerfly on my scrawny shoulder, and staring into its glassy surface. It was slicked with oily splotches of color, and bug-ridden, but it held in it such perfect reflection. I saw water and trees and sky squirming and joined, and my own scared childish face in that lake. The scum on its surface grew in strangely geometric speckles of green, spreading out in odd arrangements across the edges, tickled by bugs.
I think I had been several hours exploring my sanctuary when a soft peeping from a nearby sycamore tickled my ears, and I was compelled to investigate. The tree’s bark was splotchy and discolored in the way that all sycamores’ are, and at about shoulder height there shot out a slender arm of a branch that curved upward in a Y-shaped swoop. Nestled in this hollow was a crunchy cup of twigs and pine-needles, which trembled and peeped in weak desperation as I approached it and peered at the sad occupants within. Three scrawny jays gaped helplessly at me from inside, so fresh and new to the world that the wet filmy scraps of their eggshells were still present, strewn about at their feet. I watched them breathlessly, tiny beaks open in a fragile plea for sustenance, all filled with desire and fury and sticky with residue from their emergence into the world. The mother was nowhere to be seen, and never once did those weak little mouths stop gaping at me as I watched them.
It is an easy thing to catch a slug; they are everywhere in the wet and dark, sliding unseen beneath rocks and dripping off the underbellies of wet leaves. I watched as my fingers, pale and trembling in my attempt at precision, set two pinched, half-squashed slugs into each mouth, and retreated quickly. In the nest, tiny ruffled heads bobbed in thankless enjoyment as they swallowed and processed the gift. I fed them until they quieted, and noticed I had left a little smudged half-fingerprint on the egg-sticky wet beak of the smallest one, which had squirmed hungrily against my finger as I deposited slugmeat inside. As the jays quieted their peeping and receded into sleepy contemplation at the bottom of the nest, I felt something alien and free stir inside my guts, and I was rapt. When I left the lake that evening, I returned back to the house filled with wonder, and fell asleep in my room to dream of birds flying over an Earthless sea of sky, blue and blue and blue.
Feeding the birds quickly became the latest of my daily rituals; time I had previously spent reading strange books and watching my imaginary spiders scuttle and spread in the dark under-geometry of the walls gave way to long hours sprawled in the grass by the lake. I caressed shining green beetles and tentatively tasted the dewy morning grasses; I could never get enough of the rotten, sweet smell of the warm loamy dirt. My times at the lake, like my attic-box, were utterly private, almost to the point that I was not always entirely certain whether they were occurring in my father’s world or just in my own imagined one. Once I left one sanctum for the other, I was filled with a panicky dread until I had completed the harrowing transition, had walked the length of the spiderweb strand.
Several weeks later, I was told that my father and George Mexico had had a falling out. The business was developing at a different pace than they had expected, my mother explained to us, and she used words like “volatile market” and “unforeseen fluctuation” that I knew she didn’t really understand. This sort of thing was very taxing on the minds of businessmen like my father, she said. Whether this second-hand explanation was true, or even based on truth, I do not know, but I know that my father began drinking more heavily again after that. The web tightened, and the wallpaper shuddered, and by the lake the birds became quiet and fearful after each slug, as if expecting that it would be their last.
One night I returned to the house late. It was almost dark when I walked into the drab, clean kitchen, and immediately became aware of tension in the next room. I heard the shouting, yes, but it was the sound at the back of my head, at the base of my spine, buzz buzz, that made me cringe and creep as I entered the living room, hoping to escape notice and trip quickly up the stairs before anything could happen.
In the living room, my father was holding court. My mother was crying.
“Look at this place! Look at this place I gave you, you shits, you sick slinking whores, just look around you. You don’t deserve this.”
The wild hair on his scalp blended almost seamlessly with his unkempt beard, both of which contrasted sharply with his rage-colored face. Brown and grey and red, and all fury. He spoke with power, with a wonderful wildness that controlled and commanded. His shoulders, great glaciers of animal strength, shook slightly as he spoke, and I froze in my corner behind him, listening in the way that a lame dog listens to the howl of wolves.
“What are you doing all day? You think I don’t know? You think I’ve got no idea what kind of guys are in this house while I’m away, riding my pale fat pig of a moaning wife and this snot-nosed whore? If there was ever a time when I- don’t look at her, don’t look at her, look at me, look at me.”
My mother let out a sick wail and made as if to lurch towards the kitchen, and he seized her by the hair, pulling her off her feet with a slapstick crash. I hid my ears with my hands and felt my jaw tighten and shake uncontrollably, and maybe I tasted blood. I was dimly aware of a great deal of shouting, and seeing my sister trying desperately to pull my father off of the squirming body on the floor before being cast down herself. My fingernails itched terribly, painfully as I clasped my bony cheeks tight, and I wondered if they might come off and crawl away if I scratched at my skin hard enough.
After a time my father turned to me in the corner. His face was utterly red now with drink and righteous fury, and on either side of him my mother and sister were whimpering quietly on the floor. There was no hope of redemption in that mighty face as his iron gaze penetrated my own.
“This boy,” he sneered. “This is my son. Don’t trouble yourself, buddy… let your sister do your fighting for you. Just look at you, you little shit, you dickless selfish little worm, just look at what you’ve let me do…”
Face clenched, shadows moved. I felt the familiar panic burning up my spine to the base of my skull, felt sick with frenzy as I watched his face redden and change. His mandibles tickled furiously at the air as his voice grew hoarse with fury. Legs twisted and glittered; abdomen clenched. I watched as he shriveled to the floor and bared his deadly fangs; the other two spiders were climbing little threads onto the coffee table. I felt a thin warmth of urine running across my buckled legs, and watched my spiders dance. They twittered and squealed at me, the three of them, and on some dim level I understood that they were full of fear. Someone must have hit me, then, because my world went red with pain, and I descended into blindness as the webs sealed shut my eyes.
I spent the next days in the Box, mostly in darkness. I think I remember trying the door once or twice, but found it to be locked, and returned to my bed. I spent long hours lying very still in a feverish stupor, hardly moving, more aware of my surroundings than whatever it was that was stirring itself and blinking blindly inside the recesses of my mind. The slippery striped walls danced darkly as the spiderweb in the corner spread, dripping from the corner where it had once hung and spreading across the floor. The spiders themselves were creatures of shadow, multiplying until they pooled at the edge of the bed and finally cascaded over its shores, and soon I began to twitch and giggle as I felt them spreading across my legs and chest. I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that it would only be a matter of time before I felt the bite, the dark tickle of poison in my spine, and I waited like a breathless lover for that sweet release. After what seemed like an eternity, I slept, or sank deeper into sleep.
In my dreams, my birds fell lifeless and wet from their nest into a sodden pile by the shores of the spinning lake. My dream-self ran towards the water amidst dying trees and I tried desperately to plunge my face into its mirrored surface– only to find that the rippling light and algae gave way to depths of crushing cold where no light could survive, and I fell. My birds sank with me, featherless and rotten, and together we drifted into the watery night sky.
I may have slept for a day or two during this time, but who is to say; time has not always been clear to me. I know that I heard my mother several times calling to me from outside the door, although I did not know what she was saying. I like to think that she was asking me to come out; I like to think that she spent ten or so minutes crouched outside my door with promises of cocoa and trips to the library. I like to think that she was worried sick, and that my sister touched her shirt gently over breakfast to tell her that I was just being silly. These are the things that I like to imagine, looking back.
Whatever the case, it was not the smell of cocoa and worry that eventually drove me to reluctantly leave my web. I had grown accustomed to the sinister tread of spider feet on my spine, to the neurotic glimpses of restrained sexuality that flickered in the shadows like strobe lightning. It was the absence of my birds that got to me– not that they really belonged to me in any real sense, no more than a fluorescent light can belong to an enamored moth. But I told myself that they depended on me, and I craved their dependence. The feel of a slug curling in the palm of my hand, the hungry anticipation of those weak shiny mouths made my heart swell and sweat even in memory, and I needed to return to them, to bask in my own contrived utility.
I approached my door cautiously as the last sticky threads of webstuff snapped silently away from my shoulders, perhaps overly conscious of the possibility that the shadows in my room might behave like any other liquid and stream into the hall and down the stairs. I tried knocking at first, but when several minutes passed with no response, I tried the handle. As the door no longer seemed to be locked, I cracked it open just wide enough to squeeze through, and shut it carefully behind me so as not to let the shadows breathe. I knew that suffocation would have no effect on them, but I took some small comfort in the act just the same.
Downstairs, my mother was watching a news report about some hopped-up society debutante who had won a great deal of money, and she said nothing to me as I hurried past the living room. The house looked much as it had always looked, although I remember that the old green lamp (or was it a vase?) was missing from the coffee table, and twinkling microshards of green-white porcelain smiled up at me from the carpet as I walked by. Opening the second door was easier, like passing through a cloud, but as I walked across the lawn and towards the looming forest in front of me, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and dread.
The toothy underbrush and prickly pine branches that had never hampered my progress before seemed now to reach out and scratch me as I went, like a cat that doesn’t want to be petted. My insides felt moist and yellow and knotted as I approached the lake, and the filmy scum on its surface trembled slightly with my approach, like a film of cellophane just barely containing the black water beneath it. My jaw ached from constant grinding. Above me, the sacred wooden arches of this cathedral seemed to wink sinisterly as I walked, harsh cloud-grey sunlight flickering between the twigs as I moved under them.
The lake itself appeared, on the surface, much as it always had, but it was clear to me that something was not the same. The sticky clouds of gnats that had so recently seemed wild celestial messengers now appeared to me as hostile guardians of the aether, buzzing at me and bothering my eyes as they moved in an accusing ring around my head and face. Without pausing to check my reflection in the water I walked on hurriedly towards the Y-shaped tree, my eyes already scanning the grasses for slugs and worms.
As I approached the tree, I could feel the tingling sweep of prescient terror in my shoulder blades; the nest sat unmoving and silent. My entire surroundings seemed to be orbiting this single point, as I peered over the scraggly lip of the nest and into its cupped interior. Inside, three small damp bodies lay prone, useless. The complex network of twigs and pine needles formed a grisly swirl around the broken things, the slipshod arrangement of their musky fibers fractaling out like smoke from the wreckage of their bodies.
The smallest of the birds was still breathing shallowly, organically, and its fevered eye stared with awful understanding into my own, brown and black and black. My mind became fractured and wiry and alive with searing electricity as I looked down at these creatures I had loved so strangely, and I knew that a covenant had been broken. Half-formed thoughts fired like sparks across the dizzy loose coil of my brain, blue grasshoppers leaping fretfully through a maze of barbed wire. Tiny droplets of shadow began to bead and trickle down the sides of the twisted cup, black rivulets gleaming with a metallic blue sheen as they swallowed up the thin grey cloudlight from above. That breathing eye never left my thoughts as I turned and began to run, reeling at the breathy rhythmic pounding of dew-wet feet on the grass as I fled the scene of my crime.
I ran back to the shivering halls of Glengarie as if chased, and said nothing in answer to my mother’s worried Hello Baby as I scrambled up the staircase, feeling the splintery give of the miserable old oak steps beneath me and pulling shut my door. I stood for several minutes braced tightly against the doorway, my pained phlegmy breath raw in my throat, and held my eyes shut tight.
“You could have prevented this.”
The voice came from behind me, and I turned to face it.
The creature on my bed was a monstrous thing, a hundred times the size of the largest arachnid I had ever seen or imagined. Its jointed black legs twisted unevenly out from under its flabby dark abdomen, and atop its back mounds of yellow-white eggs pulsed and blistered like some infernal mould. Its face was not that of my father, and yet it was not entirely unlike him, either– the thick-set jaw, the furrowed brow, the salt-flecked beard were all there, but oddly distorted by the numberless crowd of glinting red eyes that threatened to overflow from the thing’s emotionless visage. It looked at me curiously, without malice and without mercy.
“Please don’t.” I did not step away.
“Don’t… what? Don’t provoke you? Don’t startle you? Don’t make things difficult?” Its lips curled upward in a sneer, revealing a sinister set of mandibles overtop of cigarette-stained human teeth. From underneath its quivering body, I glimpsed a series of swollen pink orifices ringed with wispy white hairs, which seemed to hiss softly as a thick strand of websilk began to spin and stream forth from them, twisting together and moving across the mattress and down, across the floor. Its voice was soft and flat, and held a subtle undertone of hunger that made the wallpaper tremble and squirm.
“You could have prevented this, and now it’s too late.”
“Not now… please.” My voice sounded strangely calm in my own ears.
“This is your web, you know. You begged for this.” The web spun out in sticky gobs, grey and serpentine and thick as a garden hose. It was moving on its own accord now, a little, twisting expertly around bedposts and up the wall as it continued to emerge with a gassy hiss from the clenching abdomen. I took a step backwards, and tried to smile.
“Please… It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m just not ready yet… I just need a little more time. Just a few days…” My eyes flickered toward the corner, where the web had already begun to form a supportive geometric structure, criss-crossing from wall to wall and occasionally dripping little dots of dark viscous adhesive. The creature noticed my distraction, and seemed to smile.
“It really is a fascinating process, isn’t it? It may look like it’s all one strand, but it’s not. Each spinneret produces its own thread for a specific purpose; sticky thread for trapping prey, fine silk for wrapping, sturdy dry fibers for support… Did you know that some spiders can make eight completely different kinds of silk?” A pale tongue darted across its lips like a small, shy creature, and its eyes glittered as it began to move slowly closer. “Did you know that some spiders, when starved, will begin to devour their own legs?”
The web now formed a root network across the floor, and I could feel cold, chemical strands creeping softly around my legs and waist. Tendrils rose like ivy around my ankles and up towards my chest and shoulders, looping and turning expertly to intersect with glimmering supportive rays from the complex structures forming in the corners of the room and closing in. “Please,” I said, but it was a half-hearted plea, an empty entreaty with no substance, no real desire.
I felt my legs curl and twist beneath me as I gave myself to my veiny prison; I did not struggle as the warm sticky fibers took hold of my arms and legs. I think that I remember tilting my head back in wild laughter at one point, as I felt the first tickle of arachnoid limbs busying themselves impersonally at my feet. I began to feel a fine, silky-tight fabric spooling and condensing hard around the trunk of my body, and I knew that the wrapping-up had begun. A wild butterfly panic began to palpitate in my core like a hundred moths circling a flame brazier, papery wings singed and fluttering and useless as they orbit and are consumed by that fiery, nuclear thrill.
My shoulders felt painfully cramped and twisted as my feet stuck fast, and I realized with a sudden shock that my wings had been folded back by a few stray creeping spindle-threads. My wings were bent and locked and captured, but all I had to do was to fight and twist and claw my way free, and they would spread behind me and beat the shadowy air into a wild watery fog as I took flight into the sky, blue and blue and endless and ethereal. I began to jerk crazily from side to side until I fell to the floor, bending and thrashing as my twisted wings struggled furiously against their spreading binds.
I saw the creature smiling patiently at me in the corner of my vision as my arms turned in their sockets and my body began to change, and I let loose a hoarse, triumphant crow when I finally felt my wings’ wiry prison begin to slip and loosen. I thrashed desperately as my stomach changed proportions and began to cleft and divide, legs became tense and sore and bloodless from the tightly wrapped silk as they split and multiplied, but my attention was focused solely on freeing my wings, anticipating freedom in a storm of feathers as my birds flew laughing from the darkness and fled with me into the endless night. My vision began to blur and shatter into particles of light and sight and scenery as the bloodflow to my head grew choked and thin. I continued to thrash with what seemed like inhuman effort as I felt the sticky bindings on my back shift, snap… and then give entirely, the unused muscles in my shrunken back flickering to life as I began to beat my wings, slowly at first and then faster, faster as a dull buzzing sound rose to a maddening pitch…
The wallpaper began to uncurl and warp around me as I slowly became aware of the source of the noise. My six flimsy legs danced in terror as the web wrapped more tightly around me; my wings, far from the powerful feathered appendages I longed for, buzzed fretfully as I looked on in terror at the thousand splintered images of the creature before me. The birds were gone, the covenant broken, and the small membranous wings on my midsection shivered uselessly behind me. My senses were taken over by helplessness and a smell of pheromones and decay, and the fine silk wrappings began to cover my body in an unyielding rotten glaze. The turning shapes of the wallpaper seemed to be no longer constrained by the boundaries of the Box’s walls, and now moved freely through the jungle of web in microbial pools of growth and combination.
“You knew this was going to happen,” said one of us, either the creature or me. “You want this; you’ve always wanted this.” My body untensed and folded backwards in surrender as my eyes were finally swallowed up by my cocoon. I was in complete darkness then, bound and frozen and hanging and helpless, and all I could do was wait in the unmoving gloom for the inevitable bite, for that final release. I was both sickened and aroused as I hung there in limbo; a half-sexed, freakish girlthing whose religion was borne of its ability to surrender and to suffer and to be consumed.
I was not dead, but I was naked; I was groundless and dreaming and torn. I stood as a flickering molecule in a vast and ruthlessly lonely space and I looked out into that terrible blackness through soft infant eyes purpled with terror and helplessness. I saw my uttermost sanctuary, my tightly shuttered cathedral of constants and ideas and self-image collapse into seething dust as each pillar and stone of its foundation was bared and revealed to me as insubstantial and absurd, and all that lay outside of it was a dark and impenetrable fog huffing and churning with darkness and enormity and shuddering with the unthinkable threat of infinite void, of vacuum.
When the bite finally came, it was all-piercing and unstoppable, and there was a great deal of pain. The poison moved invisibly in rapidly spreading clouds through my blood, and as the first wispy trails of toxin kissed my brain I fell at last into the dreamless sleep of the invaded and the depraved.
I imagine that my father found me the next morning in a tangle of shadows and bedsheets and semen and waste. I do not remember being found, but only know that after this second sleep my family became deeply upset, and that they spent much of their time looking after me in the weeks to come. There were white rooms and white beds, and men who wore white hats brought me my meals and asked me questions that I did not understand. My mother cried a great deal during this time, although she was permitted to speak to me only a little, as our conversations were frustrating and mysterious to me and only served to make her cry even more, or even to become hysterical. For perhaps a week I would sometimes wake up to see my father watching me wordlessly from a doorway, but when he saw I was awake he would leave the room with his eyes downcast, or busy himself shouting at one of the men in white.
Soon after my second sleep my father’s partnership with George Mexico went sour, and he was replaced by a brooding, reptilian old man named Mr. Kovacs, who stopped by every now and then and had a habit of speaking only about and never directly to me. It was eventually Mr. Kovacs who suggested that I be sent away in the fall to a special sort of school that he knew of “back east”. He had known one of the administrators of the place for several years now, he said, and heartily endorsed the institution as one of the most modern of the day, and “the perfect place to break kids of laziness, delusion and bad habits.” My father seized upon the idea, and soon, without knowing why, I said my goodbyes to Glengarie, and went off in search of newer demons.
Diluted sunlight washed weakly over the shabby blue Chrysler as it sped quietly over hills and along country roads, giving the world outside a pale, slightly ghoulish quality that lent to me all the comfort of familiarity.
It had been eleven years since I had last seen these roads; more than a decade of manic trial and error amongst sneering harridans and pitying smiles and the alien strangeness of my peers. My fingers drummed a careful, irregular rhythm on the steering wheel in front of me as I watched the lines of the road spray like confetti-string under my tires and out the back, and tried hard to focus, to concentrate on the task of driving. I switched on some snap-crackly music on the radio and took a deep breath, in huhhhhh out haaahh, repeating the process one two three four times. I had recently finished working on a collaborative project (a creative anthology focusing on men and women with unusual terminal diseases), and my editor had urged me to take a break, get some air; to go home and unwind. My heart was beating hard in my chest as the country road swelled and headed off into the smaller dirt path that had once been my driveway, and I concentrated on executing the turn carefully and methodically, turning my blinker on a full minute before slowing to a near halt and allowing the car to rotate slowly to the right, pulling in.
The house I saw had not been well-kept; it was no longer green but rather a badly faded shade of purplish brown, and one of the kitchen windows was partially covered with a white plastic tarp, a slapstick architectural Band-Aid that no one had cared enough to fix. The yard was crabby and yellow and choked with weeds, and in place of the old mailbox was a weathered plastic sign that proclaimed “Prestige Homes” to the neglected landscape surrounding the place. The car stopped rattling as I put it into park and found silence, and I struggled to fight back a surge of bile in my throat as I slammed the door shut and walked over the dead grass to the front of the house.
I stood on the porch looking at the dirt-flecked door for what seemed like several minutes. Everything about this place seemed unfamiliar to me, and it chilled me to think what kind of shadows might be creeping inside, incubated and sheltered by years of darkness and disregard and neglect. I felt a familiar tickle of poison in my spine, and in that moment I would have given anything to see my father’s stern face again, to feel his powerful grounding presence in my life once more.
Instead of opening the door, something made me turn back to walk back across the yard, out to the overgrown woods in the back. The underbrush was largely dead from autumn’s chill, and my pants were snagged and torn by thorns and briars and rusted tin cans as I pushed through to the polluted sump of a pond in the center.
What I had once seen for a temple appeared to me now as a grisly mausoleum. Everywhere dead branches and skeleton-bare twigs clawed wretchedly at the sky over a forest floor carpeted with rotting brown leaves. I knew what I would find here; I had long dreamt of returning to the grave of my creatures to recoil in horror. I imagined them in a nest woven from shadow, dark and oozing rot; within, three rotten cadavers would lie curled feebly around one another, wings twisted and broken into the mocking semblance of prayer as teams of maggots grew inside. I realized that I was grinding my jaw again as I approached the Y-shaped tree by the water’s edge, its trunk now wrapped and veined in brown and leafless ivies. I felt an acidic presence of vomit in my throat as I drew closer.
In the crook in the branch sat an old, weathered bird’s nest, ordinary and small and slightly warped from years of wind and rain. It was empty.
I blinked, and swallowed, and reached out hesitantly to touch the woven lip of the cup. They were gone; stolen, eaten, flown, resurrected, rotted into nothing… but gone. I gaped stupidly at my discovery, struggling to process this change. I felt along the rim and side of the nest carefully, fearfully, like a guilty lover, until eventually my caressing hands cupped its base like some sacramental chalice and lifted it gently from its seat. The nest was soft and damp from rain, and fit in my hands perfectly as I cupped it there by that ruined glade I had once loved so fiercely.
When I returned to the abandoned Glengarie, my step was slow and measured, and I entered the flaking door without fear, and without ceremony. There were shadows here, and many of them; the place stank of mildew and rotten wood and lost things, and the darkness curled and spread like smoke around me as I walked up the creaking steps to the attic that had been my room. The door was open, and the bed was gone– in its place were stacked piles of boxes and magazines and forgotten photo albums, mounds of Gazettes and Newsweeks and TV Guides. The spiderweb in the corner had been utterly destroyed, although other small webs could be spotted here and there amongst the clutter. I found an old shoebox sitting empty on one of the piles, and placed the nest inside. After a moment of consideration, I set the shoebox off to the side in a corner, hidden and unnoticed amidst the dusty menagerie of forgotten things and unneeded belongings.
And now I turn, and leave.
As I walk out the door of Glengarie House, I feel a rush of emotion surge through me, and for a moment I long for my father’s touch with a deep, aching sense of loss.
I feel stronger than I can ever remember feeling before, and I am overflowing and anguished and alive; I have seen the darkness that burns at the far edges of my mind, and I have been baptized in fear and pain and self-loathing.
As I climb into the car, I fold my wings around my body for warmth, breathing deep the sweet musky scent of my own feathers as the engine turns over and roars to life.
In an attic in Glengarie House,
buried amongst spiderwebs and greying newspapers,
a bird’s nest is rotting in a shoebox.