Black Petals Issue #94 Winter, 2021

The Beating of Their Wings
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Mars-News, Views and Commentary-Chris Friend
Basement Dweller-Fiction by Justin Swartz
The Beating of Their Wings-Fiction by Brian Maycock
Does the Bogeyman Live Downstairs?-Fiction by Clive Owen Barry
Dark Little Boxes-Fiction by C. M. Barnes
Death by Midnight-Fiction by Charlie Cancel
Forearmed-Fiction by Jan Cronos
Inconceivable-Fiction by Rich Rose
The Wolf's Den-Fiction by J. B. Polk
Treachery-Fiction by Ramon F. Irizarri
Tumour Wakes Up-Fiction by Alexis Gkantiragas
The Opal Ring-Fiction by Michael Dority
Flora and Fauna-Flash Fiction by Roy Dorman
Gnaw-Flash Fiction by Tony Kidd
Mad Money-Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Madonna of the Damned-Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Special Teeth-Flash Fiction by KJ Hannah Greenberg
The Death Set-4 Poems by Hillary Lyon
Five Haiku-Poems by C. D. Marcum
Misanthrope-Poem by Donna Dallas
The Wish Tree-3 poems by Christopher Hivner
Nebulous-3 poems by Juan Manuel Perez
The Sphinx at Night-5 Poems by Meg Smith
Nameless-Poem by David Barber

94_bp_beatwings1_header_richardson.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2021

The Beating of Their Wings

 

by

 

Brian Maycock

 

 

          The day we moved into the cottage was magical.

          For a few hours I forgot about the maxed out credit cards, the still bubbling disappointment from my parents, the career break that would grow into a chasm with each week that passed.

          I had thought about little else since we had decided to leave our jobs and flat in the city to follow our dream and move out here. And for a while on this clear, cold autumn day the feeling we had done the right thing outshone all my concerns.

          We let ourselves in with one of the dozen keys we had picked up from the estate agent that morning, walked in a kind of daze from room to room, seeing possibilities: Jane's studio, my office, the nursery.

          The aspirations we had spoken about long into the night for years now were within reach. We would spin them into being, from the dust and spiders' webs, cracked wood and stone that greeted us at every turn in our progress through the cottage.

          That night we built a fire outside from wood scavenged from our new back garden. It sputtered and spat, then caught. I went inside to get the bottle of champagne we had been saving for this moment.

          When I returned Jane was staring at the fire. I stood next to her, my fingers stinging with the coldness of the bottle and two flutes I cradled.

          “Can you see them?” she asked.

          I did not at first, but then saw the small, pale wings fluttering among the sparks rising from the fire, dancing in so close they were in danger of being burnt.

          I turned to Jane, about to make a throw-away comment, when I saw that she was utterly entranced by the spectacle. I said nothing.

          The next days were physically hard. Cleaning and clearing, carrying and building furniture. I am thirty-four, Jane a couple of years younger and, though we both had gym memberships back in the city, we were investment bankers. Heavy lifting had been measured in transactions completed, not lifting bloody heavy things.

          We slept deeply and woke aching in new and multiplying places. Internet access was patchy at best and we agreed that being offline was one of the joys of our new lifestyle. Our nearest neighbours were over two miles away according to the plans of the cottage we had pored over back when so much of our time have been lived online. So, it was just the two of us. Man and wife. I almost grew a beard but it was scratchy as hell. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of swearing. A month passed. I would wake up every morning and look at Jane asleep next to me and think: I have found happiness and I never want it to end.

          I thought Jane felt the same way.

          It was late October. We were sitting around the wooden table that dominated the kitchen after a no-grease-spared fry-up. Jane had been subdued for a couple of days, and wanting to help I blurted out, “How about we throw a party for Halloween?”

          She did not look up from her coffee. I ploughed on regardless about my spur of the moment idea. “We could make decorations and costumes, go wild with the designs, make cocktails and snacks and invite—”

          Here I dried up.  We had met no-one since we moved here. Our neighbours were still faceless marks on a digital map. Phone and video conversations were so broken up with interference they were frustrating and pointless, and after an initial flurry of messages, everyone we knew was busy getting on with their lives. My parents continued to drift angrily away.

          Jane held onto her mug, clearly not wishing to look at me. But I wanted to talk. “Look,” I began.

          “Just don't Tony. Okay?” She rose sharply, put her coat on and left.

          Lethargically, I washed up and began to work my way through the never- ending list of things the cottage needed doing. I had accidentally hit the nail on the head, I realised. She had cabin fever. Needed other people, not just to be with me twenty-four-seven.

          We would chat about it when she got back. We would work it out.

          I felt a little better then and cracked on with clearing out the guttering.

          Only, as red streaks began to appear in the late afternoon sky, and there was still no sign of Jane, I began to worry. A thing as simple as tumbling and straining your ankle was magnified out here, with no one around, no way to get help.

          It was dark when she finally returned. There are no street lights or security lights so I did not see her until the door opened. She took off her coat, dug a bottle of wine out of the fridge and was on the hunt for clean glass as if nothing was wrong when I snapped, “Where the hell have you been!”

          I regretted the words the moment they were out of my mouth. It was too late to add that I had been worried sick.

          Jane was breathing deeply. When she spoke, I could hear the anger she was swallowing down. “I have been meeting our neighbours. A very nice gentleman who lives with his wife. They are both elderly. He is a full-time carer for his wife. I was made to feel very welcome and we chatted and drank tea and I lost track of time. Is that good enough for you?”

          She did not wait for an answer and headed upstairs. I heard the bedroom door being closed. That was that then. It was a night on the sofa for me.

          The next morning, I decided it was best to tread gently. I would not even make a coffee as a peace offering, just get on with things and hope we could talk things through as soon as possible. Upstairs the bath was being run. Pipes clanging announced this. I was in the shell that was planned as my office trying to get the courage up to look at some bills that had no sympathy for 'living the dream', when I heard Jane coming downstairs. I tensed. The door was unlocked, closed. I listened as she walked away.

          No talking this morning then.

          A pattern began. Jane would leave early and return late, and there was a silence between us which I tried to break without success. Halloween had come and gone, unmarked in our household, and I was three-quarters of the way through a bottle of wine.

          “Your drinking is getting out of control.” Jane just threw this out there. Sat, sipping her own glass of white.

          “It helps,” I said. “Gets me through another bloody endless night in this place. With you.” I felt a flush of regret then was glad in a way that only happens when you are drunk.

          “Jesus Christ, Tony.” Jane stood up.

          “Going to visit lover-boy, are you?” It was all spilling out now.

          I was primed for a no-holds barred row. Jane began to laugh. Threw me completely.

          “Lover. Oh, Jesus.” She held her sides. “Tony.”

          “What!”

          “Alan, which is his name by the way, not that you have ever asked, is seventy-five. He hobbles around his little cottage with a stick in slow motion, which is how he does everything, actually. Slow and wobbly. We talk. I help him make the fire up. I help him look after his wife, Hilary, and then we talk some more.”

          She topped up her glass, then finished off the bottle by giving me the rest. My face was burning and my hand was none too steady as I took a drink. “Talk about what?” I asked, sounding to my own ears like a sullen teenager now.

          “About anything and everything. He tells me about his life here, how it was fifty years ago, how little it has changed. He has told me about the sadness at the heart of his and his wife's life, that they were never able to have children. He tells me how his wife used to be before the illness began to steal her away. She is bedridden now. And we talk about me. My hopes, my fears, my interests.”

          “We talk,” I began to say but Jane stopped me.

          “We don't, Tony. We stopped talking when we came here.”

          I went to get another bottle of wine from the fridge. I wanted a moment to think. I was confused, angry. A part of me still wanted a blazing row. I also wanted to tell Jane how much I loved her and how much this was hurting me.

          I settled myself back down at the kitchen table. “Can we try then?” I asked. “Talking. Like we used to.”

          Jane looked at me, deciding something, I think. Maybe. I ploughed on.

          “Perhaps about your interests. My interests including hammering, dry rot and muscle spasms.”

          Which brought a small smile at least. Encouraged, I tried. “I would like to hear about your interests. Out here.” I swept a circle in the air. “Beyond this room. This building. Out there among the old trees and the leaves turning to dust. Out there, what have you discovered that has taken you away from me. Is it really just an old man with a lifetime of good stories and a kindly listening ear?”

          Another glass was empty. I was suddenly exhausted. “Speech over,” I said.

          “You should go to bed,” Jane told me.

          “Only if you tuck me in.” I tried to say this like a flirtatious adult.

          Some chance.

          “You are a hopeless case,” Jane said. After a moment's pause, she added, “But since you asked, I will tell you what interests me. Faeries.”

          Luckily, I did not have a mouth-full of wine otherwise I would have snorted with laughter. I tried to get a bit of composure before saying, “I am trying to be serious here Jane.”

          “I am serious. There is a wealth of history about faeries in this part of the country. Where they live, their behaviour, how we should act when see them. It is a world lost to people who live in the city. Out here, our eyes can be open.”

          I had to say it. “You do know faeries are not real.”

          Jane hugged herself. “I need to dream.”

          “And that is one of the things I love about you.” I leaned over clumsily to try and kiss her, but she shook her head.

          “No. I will sleep on the couch in the front room.”

          “You don't have to,” I tried.

          “Go to bed.”

          We crossed a line that night. I listened as Jane left a few hours after we spoke, and she did not return until two days later.

          When she ignored me I followed her upstairs. She would not turn round and face me. “I have made a decision,” I said anyway. Still, nothing from her. I went on, “We will put the cottage on the market, go back to London. I have spoken to my old line manager. They are happy for me to come back.

          Jane finally looked at me. Anger burnt in her eyes. Made her voice shake. “How dare you. What makes you think you are in charge of my life.”

          “I'm not.”

          “What makes you think I will let you tear me away from here.”

          “For the sake of our marriage—”

          I ground to a halt as she stepped closer. I noticed for the first time that she smelt as if she had not washed in days. “Our marriage is over,” she said and with a look of utter contempt stormed out of the cottage.

          I felt, sick, dizzy. Poured a drink, then hurled the full glass at the wall. Drank from the bottle. Paced around the cottage. I needed to think. Needed to find a way to change her mind.

          I am, was, always will be obsessed with Jane. She is my addiction. I could not breathe properly without her. The night passed in a blur. God knows how much I drank. Dawn brought a decision. I would do what I should have done weeks ago. Go to our neighbour's cottage. Find out what the hell was going on.

          Something, someone had poisoned my wife against me.

          I was convinced of this as I wiped snot and tears from my face. Wrapped a scarf around my neck and buried my hands in the pockets of my thickest coat. The new day was bright and bitterly cold. Frost cracked underfoot as I wiped away a spider's web that had tangled itself across my face.

          From what I remembered seeing online, the cottage should have been no more than an hour walk away. I began, convinced I was making a beeline straight for it. Around noon, from the position of the winter sun, I sank down on to my haunches in the middle of yet another bloody field. My head ached, my mouth was parched. A stitch flared in my chest.

          I decided that when I was safely back in the city I would never so much as watch a programme about the damned countryside.

          I lifted myself slowly to my feet. Where the hell was the other cottage?

          Around an hour later I saw a trail of smoke rising lazily into the sky. Keeping my eyes fixed on it I trudged on and soon found myself clambering over a hedge – I was too tired to even look for a gate – and falling into a garden. I picked myself up and brushed dirt off my trousers. This cottage was smaller than our own. Ivy grew up its facade, framing a wooden door. Its small windows were shuttered. The smoke which had led me here drifted from a squat chimney.

          Picture postcard, I thought and laughed bitterly. I walked up to the door. Hesitated. I was going to knock, and say what when it was answered? I have come to claim back my wife?

          I pushed the door. It was not locked. A countryside tradition I had yet to – would never, I reminded myself – succumb to.

          I stepped inside, stood listening. But I could hear nothing. I turned into a kitchen, which was sparse and clean, a front room with a scattering of ornaments and books. The house appeared to be empty. A door to my left was ajar. I could see the corner of a bed. “Hello,” I said quietly and entered.

          At first, I thought I was looking at a grotesque mannequin. It was laid out on a filthy, unmade bed. It was dressed in a stained grey smock. Its skin where it was exposed was bleached of colour and its flesh was sunken, clinging to the sharp outline of bone beneath. Its stomach, in sickening contrast to the rest of its body, was massively distended. Then I saw the shallow rise and fall of its emaciated chest, realised this was a living person.

          His wife.

          I vomited.

          Wiped my mouth and tried to catch my breath.

          She opened her eyes, her mouth, and I saw something emerging. Pale wings beating, a dark head on slender neck. With sudden speed it flew at me, and into my mouth.

          I could feel its wings striking my tongue, then it was still. I tried to spit it out, reached in to find it.

          Nothing.

          I began to gag as I realised I must have swallowed it.

          The woman's face twisted in pain.  

          “I am sorry,” I said pathetically and fled. I ran blindly through the house until I found a door and pulled.

          It opened out onto a swathe of land at the back of the cottage. An old man stood with his arms raised, as if in praise. He was watching Jane. Hundreds of winged bodies swarmed around her. Some settled on her arms, her face, her hair, then rose back into the air. Her eyes were closed, her head titled back, and even through the mass of creatures I could clearly see the look of ecstasy on her face.

          It was more than I could bear.

          I have vague recollections of running back through the fields, snagging my clothes and skin on branches; of rain, biting cold; of falling and dragging myself back to my feet even though all I wanted was to close my eyes and be still.

          Somehow, I found my way back to our cottage. I wrapped a blanket from the laundry basket around myself. I remember clearly how it smelt of Jane and that made me cry. Then I lay down on the sofa and there is nothing else.

          Until my eyes opened. The light stung my eyes and my head pounded.

          How long had I been passed out? I wondered, and had no idea.

          Then I saw that Jane was there. She was walking towards me and looking down on me, and I was so relived and happy that I began to sob.

          “What is wrong?” she asked.

          I could not speak. Could not ask her. What had I seen? What had she done? Only cry.

          I felt Jane's hand on my forehead.

          “No fever,” she told me. Her hand drifted to my stomach, rested there. A smile flickered in her eyes.

          “You are a little bloated. That is all,” she said. “Now try and get some sleep.”

 

ENDS

 


94_bp_beatwings2_footer_richardson.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2021

Brian Maycock's short fiction has most recently been published in The Drabble and 365 Tomorrows. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

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