Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

A Flock of Grief

The woman’s dress was perfectly correct. Indeed, it, and she, would have been utterly unremarkable, were it not for the bird perched upon her shoulder, black-feathered, eyes with the seasick luminosity of moonstones.

“Vulgar,” Sofie said to me under her breath. “Why go out in society at all, if you are going to appear like that? No one wishes to have a party disturbed by such reminders of grief and mortality. It’s an insult to the hostess.”

“Indeed,” I said, and thought of the bird I had caged before coming out to do the expected thing, and dance at a party. While I would rather dance than not, the expectation weighed.

“At least they are seeing her out,” Sofie said, and tipped her head in the direction of the mourning woman, who was being gently directed towards the door. “I really don’t know why she came at all.”

One sees them, every so often, those who have chosen to grieve in a manner they call natural, who do not take advantage of the alternatives. Pale-faced, shadow-eyed, the bird of grief perched upon their shoulder. As if carrying such a thing around, where everyone else can see, and is forced to interact with its presence, is in any way natural or respectful.

“Have you retained your Mourner yet?” Sofie asked, and tucked her hand in my elbow to lead me across the floor. “I can give you the name of the girl I used when dear Papa died.”

“That would be most kind,” I said.

We both stepped around the feathers that had fallen to the floor.

• • • •

The birds gather wherever there has been a death. Black birds, with eyes of pale, moonstone white. They are there for the soul of the person who has died, and they are there to embody the grief of those who are required to mourn.

It was an appalling thing, to be chosen as a mourner, to feel the tiny claws of the bird’s talons clutch at your skin. Mourning meant isolation from society, the need to drape oneself in heavy, black clothing. Neither to dance, nor even to listen to music, nor to eat foods of particular richness or flavor. To become like unto one of the dead oneself.

Horrible.

And there is no choice, not once the birds are there. One cannot mourn, unless there is a bird, and once the bird has chosen a mourner, one has no alternative but to either accept the burden, or to hire a Mourner to do so instead. Personal feelings play no role. Such a thing would be flashy, inappropriate. Vulgar.

• • • •

The bird of my grief was born from the death of my husband. It had not been a wanted marriage, nor had it been a happy one, but what was done was done, and when he died, it was necessary that the proper forms were followed. I was the relict, the widow, and therefore, I must be in mourning.

I must be, though any mourning I had done had been for myself, and on the day of our wedding.

Thankfully, his death had not only freed me from his tyranny, it had also rendered unto me a great deal of material wealth. Using some of that wealth to hire a Mourner was a pleasure.

I handed the caged bird to the girl. “Do whatever it is that is required, and then send the bill to my residence.”

“That’s not quite how the ritual works, Mrs.—”

“Do not speak his name. I am not that, and will never be again. You may address me as Sibila.”

“Sibila,” she said, and opened the cage door. The bird emerged to perch on her finger, its death-pale eyes fixed on me. “I will bear your grief. But you must be the one to speak its name and place it in me.”

I sighed, feeling the heavy woolen layers of black I wore, black I could not cast off until this nonsense was completed, compress my chest as I did. “Very well. By all means, let us do the thing properly.”

“Follow me, please, Mrs.—Sibila.”

The girl held aside a curtain of thick, black velvet. I followed her through the doorway and down a corridor, in far less good repair than the front of her shop had been. The wooden floor was stained and warped, the paper on the walls dingy and peeling at the edges. It was a sad place, and I wished the girl would walk faster, rather than forcing us to linger in it.

The bird flew from her hand to land again on my shoulder, feathers dropping in its wake. I shuddered at the prick of its talons.

The girl opened a door, then locked it behind us. “Forgive me, but the ritual requires that I disrobe.”

“Do whatever is necessary.” Sofie had told me there were things I might find strange, that I should simply accept them, and it would soon be over.

The girl stepped behind a black enameled screen, and I could hear the rustle and sigh of fabric. The room was hung with birdcages, from the ornate and filigreed to one so plain it hardly seemed that it would hold its shape were a bird actually to be placed in it. All of them were empty, all of them were closed. There was a low chaise, and next to it, a table. On the top, an assortment of silver knives, spread out like a fan.

When the girl stepped out from behind the screen, I could see what her clothing had obscured: She was covered with thin scars.

She lay down on the chaise. “Choose a knife, name your grief, and make your cut.”

“Name my grief?”

“You must say what it is I am to mourn.”

“My husband has died, and I am required to mourn his passing.”

Her eyes went the same luminescent white of the bird’s. “Name your grief truly.”

But I did not. I balanced my right hand just above the girl’s breasts, and cut the flesh between them.

As I did, I felt my own skin part, my own blood drip hot, and nearly fumbled the knife in my startlement. I pressed my hand against my chest, but there was nothing there. A phantom.

The bird flew from my shoulder to the girl’s chest, and then, beak first, entered the wound there. I felt something pull and tear inside me, felt the drag of feathers against the inside of my skin.

Then, nothing, and it was wonderful to feel so.

The girl was breathing heavily, and tears fell from her eyes, eyes that were dark, as they had been before. The bird was gone, the incision in her chest nothing more than a thin, pink line, distinguishable only by its freshness from the other scars she wore.

“Are we finished, then?” I asked.

“Yes,” she wheezed.

“Then I shall see myself out.”

“Sibila.”

“What?”

“The knife.”

I looked down. It was still in my hand, the blood on the blade darkening to near black, clutched so tightly my skin wore the shape of the handle. “Of course.” I set it back upon the table, and left, glad to have the entire disgusting business behind me.

• • • •

Except, it seemed, it was not.

My grief opened, a thin red line on my chest that wept into a teardrop. Out of it climbed a black bird.

The bird flew across the room, and battered itself against the window, trying to get out. I pressed my fingers to the edges of the wound in my chest. If I pressed hard enough, I could feel pain. It was discomfiting, unpleasant.

The bird crashed against the window once more, hard enough that a crack feathered across the glass. Hard enough that the bird fell to the floor in a heap of feathers.

Unsightly. I rang a bell to have it taken care of.

The bird of my grief was dead, its corpse carried away, but there remained a hole in my chest where it had flown out. When I looked in the mirror, I could see the white cage of my bones.

Completely inappropriate.

• • • •

My first thought when I went outside was that someone had died. The trees hung heavy with pale-eyed black birds. And not only the trees—lintels and rooftops and near every surface where a bird could perch. My hand went to the empty space in my chest, so as to prevent any of them from flying in. Bad enough I’d had to endure my own unwanted grief. I would not carry someone else’s.

The space in my chest was cold. Heavy and empty at the same time. As I walked through the bird-lined streets, I saw others stop, push hands—flat and fingers spread—against themselves, as if to check for hollowness, or to prevent anything else from emerging.

The Mourner was standing behind her shop counter, fingers bone-white on the edge of it. She gasped in a breath, and a scar that began at the outer corner of her left eye and traced down to her lips unknit itself and disappeared. She coughed, and a bird flew from her mouth.

“I see that you are already aware that something has gone quite wrong,” I said.

The girl coughed again, a thick, wet noise, and spat feathers onto the ground. She raised a hand to touch her lips, then let it fall again. “I do not feel at all well,” she said.

Her eyes rolled back in her head, and I watched as she crumpled to the floor. As she fell, my ears were assaulted by the thunder of hundreds of wings.

When her eyes opened they were again pale and shifting as moonstone. “Let me help you to the back,” I said.

She nodded, and leaned, heavy, on my arm.

I helped her onto the chaise. All of the knives on the table next to it were shattered, the empty birdcages reflected in their broken pieces.

• • • •

“It’s happened everywhere,” Sofie said, sipping from a teacup into which she had poured a liquid rather more robust than Earl Grey. “Old griefs reopening, birds emerging from the most inconvenient places.”

“Have you heard any speculation as to why?” I asked.

“Mama believes that something has affected the Mourners. A disease, like a flu, or a distempered air, that prevents them from carrying the griefs they have been retained to bear. It seems as good an explanation as any.”

I looked outside the window, at trees so black with birds that one could scarce see the green of leaf behind them. “But for there to be so many—surely some of these are older griefs, ones that should well have healed by now, ones that should be gone. Sofie, there are so many birds.”

She pressed her hand against her right side, just below her breast. “I know. Even had I mourned for him myself, my grief for Papa should have been over. The appropriate passage of time had been marked. None of it should have remained to hurt me. And yet this morning, a bird flew from me, and I wept for him.”

• • • •

As I walked home, I saw a woman with a bird of grief on her shoulder. It occurred to me as I did, that the bird that had crawled out of my chest had not tried to linger with me, as was the normal practice. One could bear one’s own grief for the allotted time, or one could hire a Mourner. One could not banish a bird otherwise.

She walked past and all the birds rose up from the trees, blacking out the sky. I heard a cry, the cry of a woman, not the shriek of a bird, and felt the pull of wings in the empty space inside my chest.

Then silence.

The birds—all of them—were gone. The woman on the street stood, weeping.

I could not say what it was that she wept for—the person who had been lost, or the reality that her mourning must now be over.

I had not thought that the passing of a grief could also be a thing to mourn.

• • • •

I did not at first recognize the girl when I returned to her shop. She was unscarred, and terribly thin, as if there were not even blood between her bones and her skin. As well, her hair was all white feathers.

“I would bear your grief for you, if I could,” she said, “but I do not think that I am able. The birds have flown. I will show you.”

She looked like a bird herself as she walked away, feathers falling behind her. Her presence barely disturbed the air she passed through.

She opened the door to a room hung with empty birdcages, all their doors open. Seeing them, I felt the brush of feathers along the inside of my bones.

“I asked the birds to come back,” she said. “To be here. To be safe. A grief must be cared for, or it flies wild. But they are gone, and they do not return.

“I am empty as a cage without them.”

“I would think there are those better gone. Not all losses deserve to be mourned,” I said.

“Loss begins earlier than you might think,” she said. “Grief is never solely about the person gone. It would not need to fly, if it were.”

“But it is also never wholly free of that person,” I said. “If it were, it would not require being held in a cage.”

• • • •

I began, that day, to collect birdcages. I hung them in my room, close enough that they might chime together if brushed. I left the doors open, so that they might be a refuge, not a trap.

• • • •

The presence of the birds became normal. People reacted as if it were nothing to see small flocks of grief roosting along the main promenades. Women wore dresses made of feathers, and wove moonstones into their hair. Clothing became cut to display the empty spaces left in a body when the grief flew out, as if such a thing were something to be proud of.

I did not dress myself in feathers. I wore nothing that displayed the empty cage of my bones.

“I can give you the name of my seamstress. She’s a miracle with a needle,” Sofie said. “You’ll want to look fashionable if you’re going to find a new husband.”

“I truly cannot imagine anything I would like less at this time,” I said.

“You don’t . . . miss him, do you?” Sofie asked, her mouth twisting as if tasting something unpleasant. “I know the birds came back quite soon after his death. Perhaps something went wrong with your mourning.”

My gaze fell to the embellished cutout in Sofie’s dress, marking the spot where her grief had emerged. “No, I do not miss him.”

“Then you must buy yourself some new dresses, and look a proper part of society again. Have a flirtation, take a lover. It will do you good.

“I know things have changed, but as my Mama says, if we are going to be forced to bear our own griefs, we must do so with style.”

Her advice was kind, and well meant, but the grief I bore was not for him.

• • • •

I never saw the birds in my cages, but I knew they came. I would find feathers and other discarded evidence of their presence. At times, even their shadows lingered past their leaving.

I did not need to see the cages full. I liked that they were there, waiting. That there was a choice of grief—to hold it close, or open the door and free it, to let it wing across the sky when it was time. That nothing was forced.

• • • •

I awoke one morning to find the wound in my chest closed over. No mark, no scar. It was as if it had never been.

In one of the cages, a bird. White-feathered, eyes like black pearls.

I did not close the cage door.

Kat Howard

Kat Howard by Shane Leonard

Kat Howard is the author of Roses and Rot, named one of the best SFF books of Summer ’16 by Publishers Weekly. Saga Press will also be publishing her next novel in late summer ’17, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in early 2018. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, is available from Subterranean Press. Her short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and performed on NPR.