At first you thought it was the birds. You tried slinging pebbles at them, but it did nothing. They came back, perched on the mud walls and clay tiles of your house. You stood outside, flapped your arms like wings to scare them. You could swear their chirps only turned to laughter.
Inside the noise was worse. You’d be eating seasoned rice with sea grass–and fish if you’d been ambitious that day and actually gone out on the river–when screeches would shatter the air, sprinkle down onto your food and ruin the taste. And screeches do have a flavor, you could assure visitors if you ever had them, a bitter bite with a metallic aftertaste. At night the birds made a sound like a crocodile being dragged over the tiles, the scales of its belly brushing aside clay shingles.
When you checked the roof in sunlight, it was clear that no damage had been done. Every tile remained perfect, baked red and perfectly fitted with the others. Your first time up there, you’d kicked a tile in frustration, sent it skidding off the roof to shatter on the dusty ground.
No fish that day, since you had to replace the tile quickly before whatever it was came back and found an easy entrance into your house. After that you merely checked the roof, noting the perfect tiles, nodding your bittersweet recognition and climbing back down.
One night the cries of hunting cats along the river overpowered even the shrieking, and you whispered prayers to Ketjelt the Tiger God, falling asleep to dreams of the beasts stalking their prey and proclaiming their bloody success.
You woke energized and hurried out to your nets to do some fishing. The success of the hunters in the night would surely mean success for you too. Unless it meant success for the river crocodiles, pulling you from your boat. You paused and looked at the morning. Was it an ominous day? Did the signs favor fishing, or gathering wild rice, or merely staying in the house, plotting to destroy the birds that haunted it?
The sky was pale with few clouds, not a great fishing sign, but not a dangerous one either. Dust rose from the plain to the south. It could be your former village fighting intruders or an invasion of wild animals. Or maybe a sudden wind that didn’t come this far north. Perhaps the footstep of a desert giant raising the loose sand. Or simply a misplaced breath from Tellel the Sky God.
No, nothing told you not to fish. You rubbed your medallion for protection and continued to the nets. A bird was caught in them, still alive. A bird just like those that haunted your house.
You narrowed your eyes. What did it mean? Not allowing yourself to wait too long, you reached out, grabbed the red bird by its neck.
It screamed. A grating noise that rose in volume and pitch the longer you touched it. But this time you laughed. Leaving the nets where they were, you turned and ran behind the house. A small altar lay there, surrounded by dead plants bleached by the sun. You’d never made use of it before, but now… You laid the bird down and twisted its neck and offered it to any god, to all the gods if only they’d take the haunting away.
After anointing the carcass in olive oil, you returned to your nets, humming. No crocodiles disturbed you, and the fish filled your nets. When you returned to the house, no birds perched on the roof.
A rich meal, like you might have enjoyed back home. The fish baked until tender, the rice moist on a bed of sea grass. You took a knife to cut the fish opened. As the tip pierced the flesh, you heard a screech, bitter and metallic. A scythe scraping rock. Your arm jerked back, pulling the knife with it. Into your own stomach.
Something that wasn’t a bird yet seemed to have wings and feathers formed above your prone body, drew its essence from the walls until its form was nearly solid. Then it descended onto you as your eyes lost their sight, your mouth lost all taste, your nose all smell, your skin all touch.
All that remained was the screeching, endless in your slowly failing ears.
© Daniel Ausema
Daniel Ausema has a background in experiential education and journalism and is now a stay-at-home dad. His fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including Nemonymous, Kaleidotrope, and Reflection’s Edge. He lives in Colorado and blogs at danielausema.blogspot.com.
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