Nest of Grief
by Rue Karney
It waits at my front door, tapping at the wood with its beak. I will not let it in.
Across the fence the woman from next door waters the plants on her veranda. When she catches sight of me she frowns, and goes inside. I don’t understand why.
The thing is not at her door.
It is not after her.
In her yard, the flapping of tiny clothes on the line hums a happy ending.
I pick an apple from the fruit bowl. A grub raises its head through the shiny green skin. I want to pinch it, crush its dark head between my fingers but the day exhausts me, and I have no plan of attack or defence unless, perhaps, the house is willing to help.
‘Will you?’ I ask.
The grub in the apple pulls in its head while the house breaths out something that is not quite a promise, but close enough. I take a notepad and pencil into the living room. It’s in the centre of the house and is the one room that never shifts when the house rearranges itself. The walls and ceiling are sky-blue and the timber floorboards run from side to side, never front to back, which is a blessing. They hold me steady. When I’m in the living room I am sure of my place even if I can’t be sure where I will end up when I leave it. I open up the notepad at a blank page and draw a square. In the middle of the square I write
SKY BLUE LIVING ROOM
and cover it with lines for the floorboards. I draw a circle to show where the cuckoo clock sits on the wall. I take a deep breath, face west and walk straight ahead.
I count thirty-five steps before I find myself in a room with purple carpet and matching velvet drapes, which are not to my taste although the furniture is lovely, an elegant French style, and I sit in a broad-seated armchair of shiny black leather with brass studs. Next to me, on a side table, is a thick book. When I open it, it smells of bedtime stories, but as I turn the pages, pictures and letters fade at the touch of my fingers. I put the book down with a sigh and draw back the purple curtains, wishing for a garden.
Instead, a blank wall.
A shiver passes through my body. I check over my shoulder. My notepad on the black leather chair is fading along with the chair and the room and I run and snatch the pad, fleeing while I still have my flesh and bones about me.
At once I’m in a huge kitchen. It’s spacious and sunny, and in the centre of the room is a yellow table with two long wooden benches, enough to seat ten people each side. Outside, Pink Lady apples, peaches, pears and plums weigh down the branches of a dozen or more trees. Ripe fruit drops onto green grass. It’s so pretty my insides ache. I sit on the bench and study the marks of time impressed upon the table. The scraped knives and forks, the scuff marks and stains, the knocked edges and pits in the surface where someone, sometime, had not taken enough care. I press my cheek against its worn surface and breath in the scents of meals past. A winged shadow passes across the table. With stretched fingers I reach for my notepad, and as the shadow lengthens I bring the pad towards me and slide off the bench. Taking safe, backward steps out of the kitchen, keeping my eyes downcast so I can’t see what joined me in that room, I shut the kitchen door behind me. On my notepad I mark the kitchen and its location relative to the purple room.
I breathe in, and write
breathing out, I write
KITCHEN WITH YELLOW TABLE
and draw a box around each.
Ahead of me is a wide corridor that smells of hospital, and has a floor covered in sturdy grey linoleum. Along the corridor are too many white doors to count, most of them closed, so I scurry down until I reach an open one and stand at the edge of a room filled with junk. Piles of magazines, a bundle of broken lamps, cords entangled like a nest of snakes, skyscrapers of empty take-away containers that sway towards the ceiling as if blown by a breeze, baskets of wool, bolts of fabric, a large glass jar filled with buttons of every colour, shape and size and, against one wall, a tower of drawers. Against another wall is a stack of clear plastic boxes, the kind used for storage when things are outgrown but too precious to throw away. Some filled with bright baby toys, others with tiny garments, small shoes and the bits and stuff necessary with the arrival of new life. Blue things. Yellow things. Purple and pink and red and green things, all bright and cheerful.
I creep across the room, the notepad against my chest a shield, and peel the lid off a box. A drift of small brown moths flutters out, and when I put my hand inside a tiny larvae curls around my fingertip. I snatch out my hand. A rumble echoes around the room. Drawers rattle, the floor shakes beneath my feet and the towers of stuff sway and threaten to topple, so I turn and run, escaping the room, hurtling down a corridor that narrows and narrows until the walls touch my sides. My chest squeezes tight. I grab the handle of the nearest door, fling it open and stumble into a space that is all translucent light. No ceiling, no walls, no floor, and although I don’t understand how it holds me upright. I’m floating, peaceful.
I flip open my notebook and mark on it
BROWN MOTH ROOM
with an X beside it
with a big TICK
I relax and drift, and let my guard down. The light behind my closed eyes turns sombre and when I open them the
has become a
because the winged shadow has followed me here.
My stomach drops. My feet drag against a solid surface with metal on metal squeals. An unseen force pulls me into the grey and though I wriggle and kick and scribble on my notepad
the greyness grows thicker and darker, it stuffs up my nose and dries my mouth. The scream inside my body cannot escape and my wide eyes cannot un-see the thing in front of me. The thing that has found its way into my home and tricked me into a room it can enter. It engulfs me in its stench. My panicked heart booms. The thing that had sat outside my door crushes me within its thick, grey bulk and I battle against it with straining muscles, punching, screaming, tumbling, falling and when my nerves are fit to split, everything stops.
For a moment, there is nothing at all.
Grazes cover my bare arms. My skin stings. I push myself upright and wipe spittle from my mouth, blinking into the dull afternoon light. Around me, a mess of baby clothes is strewn across the floor.
A rainbow of jumpsuits.
A kaleidoscope of rompers.
A prism of booties and bonnets and bibs, washed up like debris after a storm.
The clock sounds the hour to mock me.
The acrid scent of grief fills the room.
A cuckoo bird, that is the thing, the no-thing that sat outside my front door, the no-thing that crushed me in the room that had been LIGHT until IT had smothered me with GREY. I reach for a tiny yellow jacket and rub its softness against my cheek. I breathe in its fading newborn scent and when the cuckoo bird enters the room, a fat grub dangling from its beak, this time I do not fight it, this imposter in my room, in my house, who has taken my child and replaced it with a nest of grief.
Mist seeps through the floorboards. It rises up the sky-blue walls and drifts across the ceiling. The yellow jacket fades and crumbles to dust between my fingers. The cuckoo bird drops the grub at my mouth then stalks around my body, clawed feet scratching at the timber floor.
The grub arches and creeps, arches and creeps, closer to my lips, until it pokes its small black head into the corner of my mouth and its tiny hairs prick my skin. I open my mouth and bite it in two. It sits bitter on my tongue. Closing my eyes, I swallow it down, thinking maybe this will break the spell, maybe this will bring back the light, and wish hard for the LIGHTROOMLIGHTROOMLIGHTROOM.
I open my eyes.
Grey paint rains from the ceiling.
The floorboards run from front to back.
The clock has fallen from the wall, and the bird pecks at the soles of my feet, black eyes bright among the faded scraps of fabric that line the nest it has built around me, my flesh and blood woven into its warp and weft, its sticks and stones and feathers of grief.
I curl into the nest, and wait for light.
Rue Karney lives in Meanjin/Brisbane, Australia and loves to read and write stories that are strange, unsettling, bizarre and weird. Karney’s work has appeared in the anthologies Hauntings, In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep, Monsters Amongst Us, Pacific Monsters and Nothing as well as the magazines SQ Mag, Midnight Echo and Hinnom Magazine and online at Dread Imaginings. When not exhuming the strange places and people from her head to create stories, Karney enjoys learning French and reading about psychopaths.