Her jaw aches, like claws are pulling at her teeth, as if searching for parts, removing them one by one until there’s nothing left but a gaping maw, and there are stones in her throat so that she can’t breathe, then something tickles her cheek like a feather or a fine paint brush, and everything is dark, immobilised, like she’s no longer in control of her own body, time to wake up, time to wake up, but it’s not working and she wants to scream but all that comes out is a retch that echoes into the never ending darkness.
The nest appeared on the first morning of my retreat. I didn’t notice it initially, nestled in a nook in the corner as if hiding a tiny mouse hole. It was made, as nests usually are, with broken twigs, brittle and dry, woven into a labyrinthine basin. No eggs were inside, nor feathers or hint of usual habitation. Instead, there were tiny pebbles, white and smooth and shiny. I picked them up one by one and counted them. Thirty-two in total.
I checked the window to make sure there were no gaps. Like many old buildings, the panes were at an angle, so that the wood creaked, and the hinges rattled. But the only spaces between were tiny air pockets that were just big enough to let a spider through.
The sun was still low in the sky and the clouds were painted a rusty orange. The view from the window was even more idyllic than it had been the night before – a craggy cliff overlooking an endless ocean, exactly the kind of escape I’d wanted to finish the last piece of my collection.
I looked down at the nest again. It’s an old house, I thought. It must have been there the night before, and I hadn’t noticed because it was dark when I’d arrived. I scooped it up carefully, cradled it in my hands and felt the surface of the pebbles again. A stabbing pain shot to my jaw and I clenched it. I really needed to go to the dentist about that wisdom tooth when I got home.
I took the nest outside and left it on the picnic bench, then set myself up in the living room. Placing a sheet on the floor, I angled my easel in the middle, facing the window so that I could see the trees behind the cottage move back and forth in their secret whisper outside. No one would disturb me here. I propped the blank canvas up and tried to summon a creative image in my mind. Shapes began to form, so I picked up the palette – selecting black, white, blue, and emerald-green – and started painting wherever the brush took me.
By the end of the day, I’d barely finished the background, but the outline of something was starting to take form – splashes of colours danced amidst blurry edges.
Later, as I made dinner, I glanced out to the garden and saw the nest sitting there in the soft light of the moon. Something about it was making me curious, like an itch I needed to scratch. So, I took it back inside and washed the pebbles in the sink until they were shiny and polished. Back at my easel, I stared at the dashes of colour in front of me. I knew there had been something missing – the pebbles were the perfect addition, so I stuck them on carefully with glue and paint. A beak had formed.
She’s surrounded by bright light and she can’t make a sound for it’s as if her mouth has been sewn shut, and it’s still and quiet here, lying on her back facing the light, then in the brightness a flash of black and white plumage breaks through and she can just make out a bird – a magpie – soaring towards her, and it lands, starts to dance on her abdomen, searching, as if trying to find a worm, though it’s alone, solitary, so she tries to salute it, but her arms are stuck, the sorrow will come, and now it’s jumping on her stomach, the talons digging into flesh, she screams, it hurts so much, digging and digging, and then from its beak she sees what looks like a worm, covered in red and white, and the magpie looks at her with a tilted head, a blink of its green-grey eyes, and it jumps away, flying into brightness.
It appeared again the next morning. This time it lay on the windowsill as I looked out into the bright breaking haar across the sea. I couldn’t be sure if it was the same nest, but it was in the same intricate shape. I peered inside expecting pebbles again, but instead a piece of rope, curved and twisted, was curled up in the centre. It was covered in red dirt and stringy fibres as if had only recently been dug up from the earth. What sort of creature collects pieces of rope? I opened the window and lifted it inside.
The rope was rough in my hands, fibres bristling against my skin. It felt oddly familiar, as if it were a missing piece to some puzzle I didn’t understand. My stomach twisted like a flutter of wings and grumbled angrily at me. I took the rope with me as I went downstairs, soaking it in the sink so that the water turned red. After I’d finished my breakfast, the rope had bulged out in size, so I left it to dry on the aga while I worked.
As the day wore on, the painting wove with colour. My hand seemed to move of its own free will, colour cresting and twisting like crashing waves. Slowly a body started to appear, then a beady eye, and an ivory stomach. But I just couldn’t get the feet right.
I sat back and stared at the painting until it grew dark outside. I looked at the pebbles that formed the beak and had an idea. The rope was dry, so I started to pluck at the threads, pulling bits off and positioning them beneath the stomach, until talons appeared, sharp and deadly. In the dim light of the room, they looked almost like they were moving, as if they could reach from the canvas at any moment. Satisfied, I covered the paint palette in film. I’d leave the wings for the next morning.
She’s lying on her front while a creature pecks at her back, but she can’t see what it’s doing, it just pulls and digs, a euphoric pain ebbs into her body, and the skin and muscle peels away until bone is reached, and she feels the tug then, like she’s being ripped apart and suddenly the pain is too much, but she can’t move her arms to bat the bird away, it simply digs relentlessly until it extracts the piece it needs, and she feels a deep ache in her lungs as if the cage protecting them has been broken, and the darkness comes swift and unyielding.
On the third morning, I found the window open, even though I was sure I had shut it the night before. I shivered, feeling my way around the room, searching for any hint of intrusion. But there was, of course, none. Maybe the next retreat should be somewhere less remote, though I did enjoy the freedom this place gave me – it allowed me to be absorbed by my painting, to really give myself to the art. The end result was always better that way.
It was a bright day for the start of autumn, and light spilled in through the sash windows of the kitchen when I ventured downstairs. But something caught my eye as I was filling the kettle. Sitting on the armchair, resting on the soft cushion was a nest. It was a little bigger than before, to accommodate the item within. A piece of driftwood, white and hollow and curved, lay safely within its walls.
As I leant down to inspect it closer, a pain shot into my ribs and I had to steady myself on the armrest. The moment passed quickly – I blamed the mattress for being too soft. I picked up the driftwood carefully. It was light and felt smooth like porcelain. I set it down on the table and realised its shape was odd, thin at one end and thick at the bottom with little ridges jutting out – almost like a broken wing without its feathers.
My mind wandered to my incomplete painting, knowing this was the perfect part. Ignoring the now-whistling kettle, I took the driftwood and presented it to my canvas. It slotted in perfectly beneath the curved black plumage, the flash of emerald-green tail, the rope feet and the pebbled beak. After I had glued it on, I drew the final line, connecting the beak to the tail.
And I felt a deep ache in my muscles. My head spun as the room moved. I tried to steady my breathing, but it was no use – I was already falling.
The world is blurry again as she feels like her body is being pulled apart, piece by piece, limb by limb and reconstructed into a strange whole, and she can’t breathe as the morphing continues, all she wants is for it to stop, she can’t open her eyes and there’s just a constant stabbing pain of stretching and pulling and compressing and she’s shrinking, her body itches with strange barbs bristling out of her, until all she can do is curl into a ball and let the night take her.
I’m awake, though something feels off. Moonlight drifts through the panes and there’s a whistle of air in the room. But the space is too big for me and everything looks out of perspective. I blink and look up at the bed. A figure is lying there, sleeping. My mind is foggy, like I’m still in a dream.
I glance at my feet and clawed talons stretch out. Underneath them is a nest that looks oddly familiar, broken twigs knotted together into a labyrinthine structure. But it’s empty, and a nest shouldn’t be empty.
I’m drawn towards the sleeping figure, a woman with gleaming hair. There’s a paint set by her bed, clean, shiny, and untouched. A clock ticks slowly, second by second. Then it stills and all I can hear is the sound of her breathing. Her mouth is open, a gaping maw with walls of glittering moonlit silver – thirty-two pebbles in a row. Just the parts I need. I lean in and pluck the pebbles out, one by one, placing them carefully in the nest. After, I gaze upon the creation, feeling a warmth in my beak.
I push the nest into the corner by the window and hop up to the sill. A chill wind ruffles my feathers. But it will be sunrise soon. I’ll come back tomorrow, and the next day, to work on my creations, nesting, until my collection is done.
previously published in Dark Moon Digest #44 (July 2021)
Lyndsey is an Edinburgh-based writer of speculative and strange fiction. She is a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee, and her work has been published in several anthologies and magazines, including Mslexia’s Best Women’s Short Fiction 2021. Her debut audio drama was produced by Alternative Stories & Fake Realities, and was recently shortlisted for a 2022 British Fantasy Award. She was also the Editor for “Ghostlore: An Audio Fiction Anthology”, with the same podcast. Find her on Twitter as @writerlynds or via www.lyndseycroal.co.uk.
photo by MabelAmber (via pixabay)