First, they muted their colours. Each dawn they tore off sheets of the sky in the hours before dawn and used their beaks to rub the darkness into their feathers. Over the first week of November they turned themselves the tint of wet stone. As they flew the colour leached out into the sky, brushed against the sodden air, deepening the early nights and thickening the winter mist. The greyness spread from therm like watercolours on dampened paper.
Camouflaged, they dipped and rose through the sky, gripping every sound and tearing it free from the now dull days. They did not care about the source of the sounds. The now grey parakeets stole engine sounds of a spluttering black cab and the drunken singing from a Christmas party gone on too long. They swooped down on carol singers, taking every last note like greedy fledlings grasping food from their parent’s beaks. Perched on the open windows of nightclubs they stole the beats and the breaks, dragging them upwards, the torn tails of tunes buffeting against the frosted walls.
The days darkened and the sound of the city muted, until the parakeets clung to the glass of the highest buildings. Below them the city lost its voice, while they Knotted together the sounds they hadstockpiled. High above the city all 60,000 disguised parakeets hid, warmed against the winter in their nests shaped from noise.
Outside the gates of the city Belinda leant back against the chalk walls. Running off around the foot of the defences were small timber huts, with roofs of branches and doors of blankets. She reached into the bag on her belt, undoing the seal and shifting her hand inside.
The thieving ants crawled over her fingers and palms. Some bit her, but she ignored the pain and scooped out a handful, watching the insects stream across her skin.
Bringing her hands together she crushed them to paste and smeared the mixture across her brow, then down her cheeks, and finally over her lips. The broken pincers felt like grit. She carried on until every showing piece of skin was coated.
From behind her the smell of cooking rose into the air. Pomegranate and pumpkin soup. Rich stews of lamb and parsnips. Syrup treats with the texture of snow, and the lingering taste of one thousand different sugars.
Across the motorway the City of the Dead rose in mud clumped towers, shedding dust into the air. Belinda stepped carefully across the tarmac and tried not to cough as the powder caught her throat. The dead never coughed. Taking the first step into their streets a jolt went through her. What if the scents on her skin did not fool them? A group walked toward her, their limbs tattered and transparent. They passed by, ignoring her flesh and her breath.
She went from house to house, finding the hearts beside the hearths, and rested each in a lead lined box, the shape of a lover’s sigil. Using a copper nail she scrawled the name of each in the soft metal. By sunset she had collected twenty in the second bag upon her belt, and the dead had not stripped her skin from her muscle.
Walking back across the six lanes, the barrier in between, she placed the lead lined containers of rescued hearts beside the doors and stepped away from the entrance to the city. In her absence her fellow citizens had come out and built a new wooden hut, with a roof of branches and door of blankets. This was her home now. She would never see inside the chalk walls again.
Callum stood outside the house at the end of the cul de sac. The neighbour shuffled three children into an estate car and tried not to catch his eye.
The yellowed uPVC door opened and a woman left, cradling something to her waist. Callum could not see what it was. He did not want to.
“Go into the living room,” the old man said. “Lay down on the sofa.”
Callum did as he was told. The small coffee table beside him was covered in dirty coffee mugs and overflowing ashtrays. The old man re-appeared, the heat of a fresh cup steaming his glasses.
Taking a sip he put the drink down and picked up a piece of cheesecloth from the carpet. To Callum it looked like an old shirt with the arms cut away, scars of an unpicked pocket just visible.
The old man placed the fabric over Callum’s face.
“Close your eyes,” he said, and Callum did.
The cheesecloth smelt of bucket sand and candy-floss and seaside rock and then nothing.
When he woke his death was on the table. A small white figure, skin cracked like porcelain. It twitched its arms and flexed its fingers, painted lips shuddering. Callum’s hands went to his stomach.
“There’s no scar,” the old man said. “This isn’t surgery.”
He held the little death. the tiny figure flinching from the nicotined touch. Next he picked up the fabric. He wrapped the little death until only the face was showing. From under the coffee table he brought out a small wooden coffin and slid the parcel inside.
Callum sat up and the old man passed him the bundle.
“You only have so long until it recovers its voice, so bury the coffin soon. Somewhere old. Somewhere between stone and soil, and until dirt covers its face don’t try and lipread the mumblings.”
Callum nodded, and left the house. Shutting the door he felt the still clinging air of the house slew from his skin. Clinched in his palms the death struggled against its bindings. Callum tried to concentrate on the tarmac of the path, but the cold skin was against his hands. The lips stilled for the moment. The eyes watched him, wanting Callum to keep looking. Then it started again.
Instinct kicked in and Callum’s thoughts followed the twitch of the mouth. He mouthed the words. Like found like. His words became the death’s words.
With cold porcelain hands the death reached up and started to pull Callum’s breath from his lungs, and did not stop until it’s white cracked skin was clothed in the thing that used to be Callum.
Glitter in the Tarmac
The whiskey in Sampson Brown’s breath fogged the wndscreen and fogged his eyesight. Not that it made much difference. Outside, the fog littered with strands of orange light. Something in the motorway didn’t move quick enough. An animal glanced off his bumper and became vapour behind him and then nothing. Sampson Brown did not notice, all effort going into fighting the pull of malt and peat in his neck.
In the road they sensed the peat and marsh mixed with spit, so out of place in the three lanes they called home. They blinked and stretched, some green and others red. The car passed by and they turned to follow the red lights that juddered between their kin.
They bristled the tarmac around them into fur, each strand thick as treacle and hard as stone. Tongues red with the blood spilt upon the lanes. Then they ran. They chased the mist of single malt, their whisper thin whiskers brushing against the rear lights of the car. Their legs never tired. This was their home, and nothing could outrun them.
Climbing the boot the cats crowded out the rear window. Turning liquid they seeped over the now blistering metalwork, pulling loose flakes of atomic silver paint that glittered like their eyes when they moved. Covering the passenger windows they pressed against the window seals until the rubber perished at their touch and the tang of whiskey was replaced with the throat hook of tar. The temperature of the car rose and inside the alcohol found its ignition point and burnt light blue. The cats of the road danced to the heat, their eyes glittering in the flames.
Bark skinned and knot eyed the branch children turned up on Mary’s doorstep one solstice morning.
“Would you like to come in?” she said, as she would any visitor.
They just stood in the rain, paper thin fingers brushing the painted timber of the door.
“Would you like to come in?” she asked a second time, but the branch children did not move.
“Can you speak?” she asked.
When they answered their words were all stitched from stolen sounds. A branch falling from a tree to crush its own seedlings, the panic of a badger as it hears the edge of steel collapse soil into its sett. The snick, snick, snick of a trap around the almost severed limb of an animal it was never meant to snag.
Making no progress Mary knelt and stared the two children straight in the eye, rings rippling out like echoes of a drowning. They held her gaze.
She felt the pressure of the soil as a seed forced out the first shoot, the first questing root. The crush of teeth pulping leaves to paste. The swipe of the coppicer’s knife as he winnows and shapes. The burn of lightning scorching to charcoal.
When Mary had finished she tried to stand, but she was bark skinned and knot eyed, and with the two branch children who were now her kin she walked up the path of the next house in the street.