The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation
NOTE FROM RICHARD: This story was originally published in the Shallow Creek anthology. I am sharing it here so that you might read it this Halloween season and get a shiver, or perhaps a flush of excitement, or maybe have some strange epiphany about the state of our existence. Whatever your reaction, I hope you enjoy the story!
How it is still standing, after all this time? That can be debated.
Perhaps it was built in the shadow of a huge oak tree that shades the structure, protecting it, the occasional acorns raining down on the wood and metal roof, creating a ripple of percussion in the otherwise quiet forest. Maybe it’s the animal fat that is slathered over the frame, the sinew wrapped around one board after another, dried now, creating a bond, that might be cemented even further tomorrow, or the next day. Or it might be something else entirely—an illusion, some sort of glimmer of technology rippling under the building, a line of gold running through the tiny house, as if a motherboard had been pressed into the rotting wood, a surge of electricity running over it all, then fading as the sun pushes through the dense foliage. Whatever is happening here, the old man standing in the doorway holds a flickering presence, both daunting in the shadow and void he creates, but vulnerable in his sickly thin appearance, an old flannel shirt barely covering his pale flesh and bony arms, dirty jeans leading down to black boots that are grotesquely oversized, the only bit of joy his shockingly bright hair in a rainbow of colors, as well as a red bulbous nose in the center of his face. He grabs the sphere and rips it off, leaving behind a gap where a fleshy proboscis must have once resided, flinging the spongy crimson ball to the forest floor, where it bounces into a pile of leaves and disappears. He turns and heads back into the residence, the nose back on his face, a bit of magic here, the illusion continuing.
When the acorns fall again, he begins weeping, muttering the name of a long lost love under his breath, his sobs turning into a rasping cough, then to something darker—something wet. Other random noises emanate from the hut—sometimes from him, and sometimes from the dozens of jars that line the walls, shelves full of clear glass, and a curiosity of items. As he rolls about on the cot, transferring white paste and powder to the dirty sheets and blankets, the tension in his stomach builds until he leans over and vomits up a long stream of tangled balloons, in a shocking mix of rubber iridescence. Mixed in with the puddle of primary colors is a smattering of glitter, a few chunks of some glistening meat, sawdust, and a handful of marbles, that go rolling across the floor.
In the jars, there is much more.
A tiny heart floats in a yellowing liquid, somehow still beating. Next to it, a bowl filled with Yoyos, the strings dirty, crusted with brown stains, a meaty smell lifting off of the faded toys. In a large glass mason jar there is nothing but hair—long blonde strands, several puffs of dark, curly tightness, and brown clippings in a number of lengths, all mixed together.
It doesn’t stop there.
A little glass music box is filled with glittering metal—rings, and necklaces, in silver and gold, some plastic, some onyx, all inlaid with memory, and trace amounts of DNA. Next to that is a large clear vase filled with toothbrushes in a variety of colors—some brand new, or nearly that, others worn down, the bristles frayed, handles bent and faded, the edges worn away from use. There is a jar filled with flickering fireflies, humming and buzzing in the night. A clay bowl is overflowing with little rubber balls that mix and mingle, vibrating with hate and sorrow. A gilded cage toward the back of the little room is filled to bursting with tiny birds, in a cacophony of pigmentation—chirping red, twittering blue, gasping black into the encroaching night. There is so much pain gathered here, and the sobbing form lying on the floor knows exactly what he’s done, the role he has played in all this sadness.
As the darkness settles in around the humble abode, the hut goes quiet, a crinkling of leaves buried under snapping sticks, the tall shadows outside standing in a semi-circle around the building, their long necks, and slender arms extending in ways that are hard to rationalize. Six of these elongated figures hold court in this desolate forest, chittering to each other, a dull glow seeping from their myriad eyes. Their skeletal frames rise nearly to the top of the encroaching trees, their oval heads brushing up against the green leaves, bent over in worship, or perhaps just to get a closer look.
Inside, he stirs, swallows with some effort, a coil of madness unfurling in his gut, the time for his departure at hand. He has played host for so many years now, and a series of black and white photos unfurl in front of his watering eyes—cracking jokes in grade school, sent to the corner of the room, a dunce cap on top of his head; sitting at a bar sipping beer and telling stories, as the women eased in closer, the laughter slipping from their blushed lips, their eyes crinkling with happiness; the television cameras bearing down on his face, as he cavorted for their amusement, the children at his feet filled with wonder, the ache in his gut swirling around and around.
He knows they are here now, returned. But the price he had to pay, it seems exorbitant, out of balance with what he has reaped, what has been sowed. In the beginning there was no length he wouldn’t go to in order to get back what he loved. But over time the cost grew, and expanded, one more task, one more item, until there was no turning back.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
And that pound of flesh has been taken. Over and over again.
To what end?
Eventually, it was inverted. Not the death of one for the good of many, but the opposite—the death of many for the good of one. Or the few.
Or so he thought.
As the ripples of his actions scattered across the globe, and beyond, the man with the funny shoes and the sparkling eyes wept into his trembling hands. And the worm in his belly squirmed with a heady anticipation.
They were going home.
Somewhere in the dark, millions of miles away, and yet, entirely on top of this event, so very distant, and yet, essentially, filling the same space, a massive pair of hands are busy creating. They are moving quickly, a blur, and yet, upon closer inspection, moving infinitely slow. There is a vast tableau in front of this being, spilling out in every direction, the great presence surrounded by satellites of life, motes of dark energy, electric fields riddled with animation—so many sights, sounds, and smells.
Taking a deep breath in, it exhales into its fists, a flurry of feathers circling like a fixed tornado in blue and white, spinning round and round, forming a murmuration of life and movement. Off to the left several hundred bluebirds scatter into the never-ending darkness.
The hands reach out into the ether and conjure up a handful of dirt, packing it in tightly, then reaching up as if to find a lost memory, pulling twigs, and berries out of nothingness, pushing the wood, and red juice together, tugging here and there, eventually opening its massive hands to spill out a herd of deer, some antlers budding, others fully formed, the creatures standing on tepid legs, then dashing off in excitement, and fear.
Holding one giant hand over the other, its fingertips sprinkle dust and droplets of water over the cupped hand below, and a squirming starts to spool and twist in the palm of the mighty being—dark green, the smell of algae and seaweed swimming up into the air, one tentacle after another pushing out of the mass, growing faster and faster until it overflows the hand that holds it. With a sigh and squinting eye, a handful of sharp teeth are shoved into the wriggling creature, an undulating mass of tiny bulbous eyes crammed into the middle of the rippling mass. When it surges again, it is released into the darkness, a singular monstrosity, destined for a distant planet, an ocean with unlimited depths.
This has been happening for a long time, it is happening now, it will happen for all of eternity.
It bends over and snaps its fingers, lighting a fire at its fingertips, the flames licking at what must be flesh, trying to cajole the flickering light, a difficult task, the smell of meat cooking, an earthy wood burning sweet and smoky, the sinuous form leaping out of the gesticulating hands before it is complete, before it becomes what was planned. But this is life, this is creation—intention, and then chaos.
With a long, steady blow a wind leaves its massive lips, a funnel of cool air whirling about in the space before it, swirling and taking on mass—long, leathery wings extending—the creator narrowing its gaze, shaking its head, trying to manipulate the shape, as a beak elongates and talons scratch at the air, first one winged beast, then two, doubling in number, released with frustration, scales and needles spilling behind them, this experiment another failure.
Only two, it thinks. It could have been worse.
And in its anger it makes a fist, pounding what would have been a table, a surface, if such things existed here, but it finds resistance nonetheless. And in that singular gesture, a spark of atoms spills out of the clenched fingers, a sickly yellow cancer spreading out and over the trembling knot of digits, the tiny flashes of light and oozing sickness taking on a microscopic form, expanding and then contracting, breeding in and of itself, and when its presence is noticed, fully formed, it disappears into the ether, death wandering out to claim its stake—seeking out weakness, and feeding on misery.
It pauses for a moment, this rippling form, taking in a deep breath, its many forms shifting as a wave of emotions washes over it. Calm, collected, legs folded, hand on knees. Then its head tilts back its eyes ablaze, as a deep laughter builds up from inside tinted flesh, feet to hooves, and then nubs bursting from a cracking skull. It inhales and its pale flesh expands, running a hand over its bald head, an expanding belly, a gleam in its eyes, a smile upon its fleshy face. And then its arms double, then triple, a third eye upon its forehead, a glitter of gold sprinkling down like rain from a cloud, a clash of symbols, and then silence.
It was all things, it is all things, it will be all things.
It goes back to work.
It focuses for a moment on mankind—and pulling a sack of what might be seen as marbles out of the darkness—it spills the assortment of spirits upon a false ground. In a flurry of activity, the shapes ping off of each other—a clacking sound, and then a great sigh, a moan of contentment, and then a cry of fear and loss—as it manipulates the dozens of entities with a deft touch and a sharp eye. They shiver into life. A push here, a pinch there, a whisper to this handful, cupped up close to its mouth, and then scattered back on the floor, a sparking of blue and green, and flash of red and orange, a singular white orb spinning and hovering all by itself, while a solitary black sphere sits in one place, vibrating with anger and vengeance.
It scatters the bulk of these new beings out into the universe, some seeking light, others wallowing in the endless darkness. It picks up the only one left, the obsidian globule, bringing it close to its trembling eyes, the hard shell cold in its grip, a shallow pulse of warm light buried within, that sparks white, sparks yellow, flashes a momentary glow that makes its creator smile.
It is given a name now, it is shown how to bring joy to the world, the children, it is told of how other life might exist far beyond its reach, and it warns of how such power and knowledge might corrupt, eventually.
And then it is set free.
It is born unto the Earth.
It will hear laughter in the form of innocent children.
And it will make decisions—both horrible, and inspired.
Such is life.
At a very young age Edward Carnby had the first in a series of visions that would transform and define his life. And because he believed what he saw, these moments had great power—to alter his future, and those around him as well.
Some say that the tall shadows were nothing more than a fever, a flu when he was lost in the woods, a sickness that caused the boy to lie in bed for weeks on end, a cancer in his bones that would cause a slight limp in his gait.
Others can confirm what was there in the forest—too many concrete details kept in their fluttering minds, in metal tins at the back of closets, in safe deposit boxes, the keys rusty and lost long ago. There is no real way to explain away the tiny knobs, levers, and bits of heavy black rock that was melted into odd shapes. Found downstream, in the back of caves, and buried deep in an assortment of fields—the materials they were made of cannot be found anywhere on Earth.
But there may be a third explanation here as well.
Three moments, three wishes.
At the age of 12 Eddie used to wander the woods in search of arrowheads, empty wasp nests, tree bark curled into sheets of paper, and bright blue robin’s eggs—some intact, others cracked open, and empty. He was fascinated by the offerings nature presented to him. He might find a field filled with budding flowers—in yellow and purple, with hints of red. He might see in the ponds, lakes, and creeks a variety of silver-backed fish swimming in schools, some with a wash of shimmer and a stipe of color—perch, trout, bass, and carp. And sometimes he found death—that egg cracked open with a bit of fluff and bone inside, a singular eye gazing up; a skeleton riddled with a sour stench inside a thorny bush, the red of its fur faded and damp; now and then just a splash of blood, and a bit of sinew, nothing left but a stain, with buzzing flies marking the expiration.
It all fascinated him—life, death, and everything in-between.
It was on one of these hikes that he found the shadow child, a thin trail of smoke leading up into the sky, a dent in the earth, and a smattering of flickering metal across a field of puffing dandelions. There was an echo in his head, his ears filled with the sound of cascading water, and at the same time, entirely quiet.
When a baby bird falls from a nest, the story is that it shouldn’t be touched, that any kind of interaction with human flesh will taint the creature, the mother bird pecking it to death, sensing only trouble, and danger. This is not true. But that doesn’t mean the action goes unnoticed, that the bird is not aware, that the gesture is not recorded—for future action, good or bad.
Of course Eddie bent over and touched the clear gel, the shadow pulsing within it, the strange form lying prostate in the dirt, a hum of some machine winding down, the smell of oil and plastic burning. It was unlike anything he had ever seen.
He thought that there were words slipping from the form, some sort of plea. As he knelt in the field, in the itching grass and moist soil next to the fading silhouette, it was in his nature to touch it, his hand slipping through the glistening form, a gasp from them both, a ringing of bells, a stinging across his flesh, a triggering of some alarm, his body suddenly covered in a sheen of sweat. It was electric, it was liquid, it was a marking in self-defense by the creature lying beneath him.
Pulling his hand back, the shadow dissipated, the remaining gelatinous shape seeping into the earth, Eddie’s hand held up high in front of his flickering gaze—glowing red, then absorbing into his flesh, around him the metal and plastic smoking, melting—reduced to ash, the wind scattering the detritus to the far corners of the field.
Standing up, it was all gone. No smoke, no fragments or evidence—just an empty field, the sound of wildlife slipping back into focus. They boy swallowed hard, and turned in a circle. He walked the field, pushing aside long grass, sending dandelion seeds flying, but nothing more. He was unable to see the remnants, his vision distorted forever, altered in some crucial ways. It would be much later when others would find the strange remains.
He looked to the sky, asking for an explanation, wishing for something more. He was eager to learn, to grow, to comprehend.
That would be a mistake.
Later that night he would take a very long time to fall asleep.
The next day the memory would fade, and he would forget it had every happened.
But not quite.
It would be twelve years down the road at the ripe old age of twenty-four that he would revisit this moment, in an entirely different way.
Standing in an alleyway outside a local bar, smoking a cigarette, and thinking about a girl that was inside playing pool, Eddie noticed a gathering of shadows down by the trashcans and dumpsters. For a moment he thought it was some local boys he’d had trouble with in the past—simple folk that had no aspirations, often offended by his lengthy conversations, the attention of blonde and brunettes alike stirring up something close to a primal, territorial rage. But it wasn’t those kids.
In an instant, Eddie was on his knees, one hand help up, inspected by the shifting shadows, a glow spilling into the night. His mouth open as if to scream, but nothing came out. His vision was watery, shimmering, a darkness descending upon him like a ratty blanket, the smell of smoke and burning plastic filling the air, and before he passed out, a sharp pain in his gut. They would hardly leave a mark. The only evidence of this moment was a tiny red dot—something a mosquito, or spider, might make.
When he wakes, there is only one thought in his head.
It is fading fast, the memory, but he has glimpsed something extraordinary, and he wants to see more.
And he will. In time.
In the coming weeks he will get sick—a fever of 103; a horrible rash that creeps across his skin in mottled hues; nausea that causes him to vomit into the toilet with a violent upheaval, the blood and mucus dotted with tiny flecks of metal, all triggering some deeper knowledge that he is afraid to truly recognize.
And then it is gone.
The hosting is complete.
His work only beginning.
The third time will cement their relationship, ten years later, as he sits in front of a mirror, putting on his makeup, the lights on the dressing table bright yellow, a smile splitting his face, as he glues on the red nose, pulls the wig on tight, a wriggle of anxiety in his gut.
There is a woman, Gina.
She is everything he has ever wanted in a woman—long blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, curves hidden behind modest dresses, and an easy smile that fills his gut with mating butterflies.
For Edward, this is the love of his life, a relationship that has bloomed over the last couple of years, through cups of coffee, dancing at local watering holes, seeing her out in the audience at his shows, smiling with glee.
For Gina, these are merely coincidences, a Venti Mocha on the way to work with a nod to the strange pudgy man in the corner booth, a night out with the girls at the only place to dance for miles, a visit to the television station to laugh at the clown, a bit of a local celebrity, kept as a safe distance, after all.
In the shadows of his closet, there is a murmuring, a beckoning, and Edward, soon to be Krinkles (and only Krinkles) answers. He stands in the back of the tiny space and nods his head. He listens to what is offered. And it is set in motion.
It will spill out into the future.
Look close, and see what it becomes.
See what you want to see, as Krinkles does.
The truth is a slippery fish.
When the tired old man leaves the hut once again, they are waiting. Patient for so long. With all of their technology, their abilities, and their desire, they cannot walk the earth in shadow, for the eyes of the planet are upon them. They have been seen, and they have been hurt.
But their work here is done now.
And in a blink, they vanish.
In a distant laboratory the worm is removed under bright lights and a sterile environment. It is placed into a container where later it will be downloaded, dissected, and documented for the benefit of them all.
In the living room of quaint little cottage, just on the edge of an entirely different set of woods—not far from a rippling stream filled with colorful fish, and a field overflowing with blooming flowers and dancing grass—Edward sits and smiles. He rocks in his chair, sipping a cup of chamomile tea, comfortable in his soft new flannel shirt, his faded jeans, the windows open, birdsong slipping in, the television quietly playing black and white shows from his childhood.
When the woman enters the room, he takes the plate with the ham and cheese sandwich on rye, a bit of Dijon mustard slathered on there, rippled potato chips, and a dill pickle on the side. She kisses his forehead, and he thanks her, saying her name. It’s a recognizable name. When she enters the kitchen her skin flickers, the tapestry that is tightly wrapped over her metal frame, plastic shell, and colored wiring dissipating for a moment.
On a wall to the left of Edward is a large mirror. There are days he stares at it, thinking he sees a shimmer. But most of the time he is content. He thinks of his childhood, his career, the woman he loves, and while parts of it feel thin at times, a headache forming if he looks at it too closely, he is grateful.
Behind that mirror there may only be a wall.
Behind that mirror there might be men watching Edward, taking notes, and nodding their heads, smiling in the darkness, their work a success.
Behind that mirror there could be elongated shadows, stretching to the ceiling, hunched over, chirping in the gloom, eyes glowing.
There may not be a mirror at all.
Edward may lay dying in that first forest, his dark deeds finally absorbing the last of his humanity, death a welcome respite.
The jars, the bowls, the DNA—perhaps they were stolen in secret, nobody harmed (especially not the children), saving an alien race from a plethora of sickness and disease.
Or maybe it’s something much worse.
In the expanding corners of a never-ending universe, the creator smiles. Its work here, is done.