‘Starling’. Photograph: Lori Garske/Flickr
I paused. There was a noise above my head, in the attic. It was intermittent. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard anything at all it was so indistinct, so gentle. The child which remained somewhere within me played with the idea of ghosts and spirits but I wasn’t intrigued enough to venture into the cold space that topped the whole house in wintry mystery. It had been a while since I had climbed the stairs up there. I resumed brushing my teeth with a stiff-shouldered shrug. My bed and hot water bottle were waiting for me, and silence had returned to keep me company.
It was the day after and I was in the garden. I wasn’t able to move all that well because I had wrapped up so tightly against winter, refusing to let in a single gust. Still, my face was furiously chilled, and my nose felt a separate extremity with the cold. At times I touched it with my gloved hand or scrunched it up just to move it about. The thought of a cup of English Breakfast tea warmed me, and the promise of it spurred me on. The field beyond the sparse lawn was veiled in crystal, and the early light offered a pearlescent shine. In fact every piece of patchwork land which stretched undisturbed to the distant horizon was painted in the same frosty hue. Each naked tree of the arboretum was paler in suspended death, the branches ready to snap. The leafless hedgerows were tangled streaks of caliginous grey against the earth; the ice-dry veins of the countryside. Nothing moved, except myself. Turning my back on the austere scene I proceeded to the open barn.
The barn was dark despite its facelessness. The machinery was dark too. The red of the tractor had become a sanguine brown, the green of the mower a murky sea colour and the black of the old car chassis blacker still. Above, in the wood-worm beams numerous items were suspended; rusted oil lanterns I had replaced long ago with torches; an ancient canoe which I had never used; rope, coiled like snake-skin.
The smell of fuel left its addictive trace on the exposed, broken carburetor which I knew lay abandoned upon the wooden workstation tucked into the deepest shadows of the old barn. The enjoyable scent accompanied that of the log pile I had to tackle before I could have that cup of tea.
And there they were, the logs, crowded together as if for protection. You’ll all burn eventually I said to myself. I reached down to collect the long-handled axe my father had left to me years ago. I dragged the tool to the chopping block, it felt heavier than last winter. Or perhaps I was weaker. I let the handle slip through my hand gradually until the axe hit the ground with a dull, resigned thump, and then I propped it against the block. I returned to the huddled logs and continued to load the rusted wheelbarrow with them, pushing them to the end of their road. The single wheel left a harsh trail in the crunchy, pale grass.
With a deliberate tempo I began the task. Each blow echoed from the barn behind, only to be shouted across the open expanse of the field in front. The countryside almost barked back in retaliation, and each sound bounced from the wall of my house. The arc and swing of the axe, its downward plummet and inevitable thud savagely marked the passing of time, and soon only kindling remained of the botched logs and sizable chunks of the clean-cut ones. I refilled the wheelbarrow with the butchered wood and left the axe to suffer the cold.
I looked up at the house. The attic windows, two eyes with pyramid pupils, stared across the land I had been gazing at. Like captive’s facing an enemy interrogation, they had a clandestine look. I remembered the bodiless noise I had heard in the attic, but again, was not certain if I had imagined it. And so I let the memory go.
I was in the garden again, but not for logs. I needed the stepladder to replace the light in the high-ceilinged drawing room. On my way to the garage I passed my car, the only car; the once-white-now-ashen estate. I still needed to take a look at the guts of it, to try and locate the cause of the splutter whenever the ignition was turned. I paused briefly, only to scratch the rust from the passenger door’s handle. I approached the large garage. The broken padlock hung limply, feigning protection, its mechanism no longer functioning. I considered throwing it out, but as I pulled open the heavy door with both hands the inclination left me. I had neglected to put on my gloves, and so my fingers reluctantly left the frigid surface of the handle. I rubbed my hands against one another and entered. The fragile light form outside fell through the crack in one severe splinter, cutting the darkness in two. The stepladder was in the light’s path. I marched to it, my lungs already chilled, my breath already short.
I hitched the stepladder under one arm. En route to the house I paused again, but it wasn’t my car which took my attention. The fountain was frozen. I broke the ice, cracking the hostile cover and promising myself I would do it the next day and the day after, and continue throughout the perpetual winter until the sun usurped the chill and stole my deed from me.
The drawing room was cold; I hadn’t heated the room for a while. Warmth never seemed to linger so I had given up trying the year my father had died. I opened the stepladder beneath the broken light. The neglected fireplace was beautiful in its dormancy. Before I climbed the stepladder I brushed the dust from the marble mantle. It was as I removed the spent bulb and slotted the new one into place that the slightest of sounds reached my ears. It had come from the attic, I was certain this time. My brow furrowed with the doubt that almost immediately pushed against the momentary certainty, and I kept still, one ear cocked upward. The noise didn’t occur again, but my heart felt a little quicker for the interruption. I returned the stepladder to the garage. Closing the door, I positioned the broken padlock, and turned my back on it.
The heat of my house wasn’t able to purge the frostiness from my limbs, nor did the tea do much to warm me. I made my second cup, the tinkling of the teaspoon stirring in the one-and-a-half sugars the only sound to grace the many vacant rooms. Even the fire seemed hushed, and outside there was nothing. It smelt of extinction and seclusion. As I tapped the teaspoon a final time on the edge of the aged cup I heard noises above, in the attic. They were a little more urgent, a little less soft. I exhaled and, pushing ghosts and spirits from my mind, began the ascent, leaving my tea to steam its life away.
At the foot of the attic stairs I lingered, and as if waiting for such an action, another noise sounded. A whispered beat. I climbed carefully until I reached the trap door. When I opened it the noise ceased with a violent blast of cold. I closed the wooden door behind me quietly and stood, the image of a statue. I turned my head slowly, my eyes falling over each corpse of furniture, each piece of moth-eaten fabric, each damaged toy with colourless faces and eyeless sockets. Old shelving units leaned this way and that under the weight of dusty boxes containing perhaps old photographs or once-sentimental trinkets. Mounds of faded newspaper cuttings rested precariously atop stacks of obsolete books. Some, it seemed, had been disturbed recently. I licked my lips and scoured the cluttered yet vacant space. Everything was shrouded by an insubstantial murk.
Then I saw it, the starling.
I was spooked by life, life that was carried on oil-coloured wings. I had startled it too, and at once it erupted about the eaves, its flapping noise suddenly frantic, no longer delicate. I followed it with my eyes, immediately captivated by its fervor, its movement. Some of the newspaper cuttings were blown about in a haze of dust which clouded my vision of the creature momentarily. Its silhouette became clearer as the dust settled back into place, coating the newly exposed areas. I inched closer, willing the starling to be calm, but I only panicked it further. It crashed against the large, slanted window pane before hurtling across the messy space, barely avoiding the detritus of bygone years I could not recollect the details of. It didn’t pass me, but it seemed to sense that its space was shrinking. One last attempt at the impenetrable pane drew it to a shuddering stop. I thought it had broken its neck but it looked at me, its tiny chest twitching with its heart’s troubled beat. Its black eyes seemed so full of fear that I halted.
I observed it, as it observed me. It was odd to see something so animated, I had become so accustomed to stillness. The colours of its plumage were like dark rainbows, peppered with pinpricks of white. A bird-shaped galaxy. Gradually, ever so gradually, I extended my arm, stretching my fingers until they gripped the cold latch, but my fingers were oddly warm. They had been so icy, white twigs, but now they were pink with life. I pulled and pushed and the window opened.
I waited. The starling waited too, uncertainty in the eye that watched me. Then it hopped once onto the window sill, and again into grateful flight. I hurried to watch the creature find its home. There it was, a graceful dot in the leaden sky rapidly being consumed by the otherwise lifeless space. I shivered, my hands were cold again.
About the author
Hannah Fairney Jeans was constantly imagining as a young child. These ‘imaginings’ were brought to life by her favourite toy; her type-writer. Now, twenty years on, Hannah is still penning stories, still consumed by her worlds, and still in love with creation, and her type-writer.