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Song of Birds

by Isabel Atherton-Reimer 9 months ago in Short Story
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Letting Go and Holding On

It had been three days since she had last seen a spirit.

Mo knew this because she had counted. Many times. The minutes, the hours, she had counted - every flicker sending her hope soaring, every shadow enrapturing her attention. But in the end, they were just that, shadows and tricks of the light.

She threw another piece of bread at the birds at her feet, watching halfheartedly as they darted after the meagre offering, the many grey blurs pecking at the surrounding grass. The wooden bench she sat on was beginning to feel harder than granite, each of Mo’s stiff muscles aching from the hours spent sitting on it.

Fruitless hours, it seemed, because all that Mo got from her trouble was a troupe of squabbling birds and a sore body. Worse still, the birds were pigeons - Mo’s least favourite.

She would have even gone for crows, despite their omens, but alas, she was in a city, and the grey birds were as common here as a homeless person on a street corner.

Ghosts liked birds, for reasons beyond Mo’s understanding - were attracted to them like the disease-infested animals were to food. So Mo kept them around, feeding the heathens to keep them close. Where Mo went, at least one small, feathered creature followed, if not more - or rather, followed the scraps stuffed into her pockets.

She detested the tiny demons, yet required their presences all the same.

The sun began its decent, the trees and grass flashing with orange and red hue, dancing with the day’s fiery farewell. It was these colours that Mo liked the most, as if the very sky was on fire, burning the day’s blue to the dark ash of the night. Sometimes, if Mo was lucky, the sky would turn dark before that glow burnt out, giving the illusion of the last, dying embers of a fire.

She watched it now, though distantly, heart pumping with anxiety and eyes straining for forms made of flickering mist. The winds kissed her cheeks, though not even the mild breeze could whisk away her anxiety. Mo was worried, and she had good reason to be.

In her eighteen years of life - in the six that she had begun to view this world differently - Mo had never known spirits to be absent this long. Even when they did not make themselves known, Mo had always felt their presence, like a solid, reassuring grip on her shoulder - a soft brush of comfort. But now, Mo simply felt… nothing. Where that presence had been now stood a chasm of emptiness, growing wider and darker the longer those ethereal beings were absent.

Three days of this nothingness, and Mo had a sinking suspicion that it was only the beginning.

Only when the last of the light bled from the sky did Mo leave her bench. On stiff, creaky legs, she stood, dusting crumbs from her hands and lap as she went.

She made each turn that she had made what seemed like hundreds of times before - right, left, left - until the path finally spit her out from the green earth and dusty trails to a cracked concrete overpass. Mo liked to think this was her own little spot, high above the cars rushing below, above the noise, while nature’s haven rested at her back, waiting. In reality, this overpass was traversed by many feet on the daily. Mo simply ignored them all.

More often than not, when Mo really took the time to look and all of the headlights and vehicles seemed to stop their headlong rush, she thought that they resembled the stars. It was as if the ground was mimicking the sky - its own mirror image.

Mo was feeling too defeated to gaze at the mirrored sky tonight.

She set her feet moving, taking her above the rushing traffic, a long drop blocked only by a small, weak chain-link fence. Her feet crunched on loose stones and thick dust. Mo trudged through the grime, uncaring how dirty her frayed shoes were becoming.

Mo didn’t take much care with her appearance - didn’t see reason to - a fact that seemed to irk everyone besides her.

Eventually, the overpass tapered off into a crumbling set of steps, leading to a path that branched off in two separate directions. Mo took the path leading right, almost immediately turning left and beginning her ascent up the sturdy, peeling wooden fence that lined the side.

Using the gaps between the boards as hand and foot holds, Mo climbed to the top, landing with a thud as she jumped into the dim alley beyond. The alley always smelled of engine oil and garbage, and in an odd way, the awful aroma grounded Mo.

She took a second to look up, observing the back of the apartment complex with detached familiarity - the fire escape snaking across its surface like some metal beast. The place was where she lived, but it wasn’t home - hadn’t been for a while now.

Using the large garbage can as a base, Mo made her way up the rickety fire escape, her tread light. Once she reached a window wedged open with a small piece of wood, she stopped. Mo slid her fingers into the gap, reefing upwards, letting out a breath of relief once the window finally relented and screeched open.

Mo slipped inside, tugging that window shut behind her.

She didn’t check on anything in the place - Mo never did - instead moving in a direct path to her destination. That was how it always was: in one way, out the same.

Mo especially paid no mind to the hallway that always felt so much darker than the rest of the apartment. Usually.

She began to skirt past the turn, to enter the living room that seemed much more inviting, yet she stopped. For some reason, she stopped.

Look. Mo didn’t want to, but something in her mind told her that she needed to.

Look.

She obliged that small voice. It had been years, years since she had stepped foot into that hallway - years since she had dared look down its expanse. Sometimes, she forgot why she avoided it so. That lone, firmly shut door was really all the reminder that she needed.

As she did on the nights when she bothered to sleep, Mo settled on the couch in the sparsely furnished living room, pulling her knit blanket up to her chin. She couldn’t help but curse her stupidity at having not just left it alone.

Mo tossed and turned that night, her body fighting sleep while her mind fought the darkness leeching from beneath that door, like reaching hands that might never let her go.

The dead could always be found lingering in places rife with life. Though the stories always claimed the dead to hover above graveyards and foundations where tragedy had struck, Mo couldn’t find anything more untrue.

Why would the dead need to be reminded of more death? It didn’t make sense. They loitered in that world, were that world, and constant reminders of something that they already knew were unnecessary.

No. From her experience, the dead enjoyed basking in the joys of the living. They lingered by nurseries and parks and all of the places that all things young and new might kiss. Perhaps they enjoyed living vicariously through the living now that they were no longer a part of that world. Or perhaps it reminded them that they, too, were once alive.

This was why it often baffled Mo that the dead chose to linger in her shadow; Mo was anything but filled with the joys of life. She was the most dead living person one might ever meet.

The swing beneath her gave a great creak, assuring her that she was, in fact, alive, and quite possibly too heavy for the rickety structure. Sometimes, Mo forgot that she lived and needed to be reminded.

Swinging one more time, Mo slid from the twisted seat, hands coloured red from the chain’s rust. She wiped her palms upon her jeans, watching as the red streaked onto the faded, blue fabric.

She cut across the quiet playground, skirting the lone child racing from the bottom of the slide to the ladder, then back again. Aside from the child, the place was void of people, the small, run-down structures looking lonely without children and parents to occupy them.

Mo supposed she could have chosen a place that bustled with more life, but she didn’t particularly feel like spending time with the living at the moment - not that she ever really did. It made her dread her next destination even more.

Besides, Mo had a feeling that the spirits wouldn’t come regardless of how busy the place that she chose. It had been over a week, now - over a week without a single spirit - and Mo had almost resigned herself to this loud silence. Almost - that one key word was the reason she was in that park to begin with.

Once she reached the street, Mo didn’t bother with the crosswalk, instead waiting for a break in traffic to cut through the middle. She traced a crack running through the pavement as she crossed, a car horn chasing her from the road and onto the sidewalk at the other side.

Following the sidewalk for another block or so, Mo finally stopped, taking in the plain exterior of the building in front of her.

Beans read the sign of the shop that was her destination, the lowercase font looking as if someone simply slapped on the typed out word overtop of the door’s awning, basic font and all. Mo could appreciate the simplicity of it - the apparent laziness that verged on transparency.

The bell above the door jingled as she pulled it open, stepping into the oppressive heat of the coffee shop. Mo’s eyes skated over the interior, brushing past the brick and exposed beams, ignoring the rustic scenery in lieu of locating a familiar face.

The place was packed with people - faces that Mo brushed to the background - but she was only interested in finding one. Mo wasn’t concerned with the living, spirits her preferred company, so she didn’t bother herself with them unless she had to.

Finally, Mo found who she was searching for.

She was seated at the far end of the room, probably as far as one could get in the space, one ankle crossed above another, seated on a hard, rustic wooden chair as if it were the most plush of office seats. She kept glancing at her phone, smooth black hair and freshly ironed blazer giving the illusion of disinterest - careful composure. Mo knew differently - knew that the constant checking was anxiety talking, the slight, nearly imperceptible furrow between dark brows worry.

She was concerned that Mo wouldn’t come.

She almost hadn’t. Really, with her sister having not yet spotted her, she could still sneak away. The door at her back would spit her back into the street, and she could disappear, with Joy being none the wiser.

She thought about it, weighing her options, hand already reaching for the door before she thought better of it.

Joy would just pester her until she agreed again, and Mo would be forced to make another trip - another outing. No, it was best to get it over with.

Letting her hand fall away from the door, she brushed off her own top - a sweater that was as comfortable as it was shapeless and drab - steeling herself for the meeting. Ghosts may have liked such atmospheres, but as far as Mo knew, she was not yet one.

Mo made her way towards the woman, weaving through tables filled with midday patrons, bustling with noise and activity.

People often said that the resemblance between the two was uncanny - that they could be twins, not sisters a few years apart, for all that they looked alike. Mo disagreed. Her and Joy looked alike, yes, almost to the point of eeriness, but in the way one resembled their ghost. Mo looked like her sister with all of the life sucked out.

Black eyebrows above grey eyes framed in dark lashes; sharp cheekbones tapering into a pointed chin; rounded lips. It was the same on both women, even down to the slight crook in otherwise straight noses. Mo had always been a little more drawn than her sister, though, a little paler, grey eyes dulled a bit while her hair lacked some of its sheen.

Sitting across from her sister, Mo uttered a quiet pleasantry, avoiding her surprised stare by busying herself with a drink menu. She didn’t need to look, only something to occupy her gaze with. Mo had never developed a taste for coffee, and sweet things always felt like too much, so she always opted for tea. It mattered not what kind; Mo wasn’t picky.

A waitress bustled to their table, flyaway hairs sticking to her flushed face. Mo looked up long enough to order, flash the woman a watery smile, before sticking her gaze to the table. Her sister ordered something long and obscenely complicated, a string of words that sounded like gibberish to Mo’s ears, then the waitress was hurrying away again.

She popped up minutes later with their orders, and Mo accepted her steaming mug with a small thank you, watching as her sister did the same.

The mug warmed hands that she didn’t even realize were cold.

“Mrs. Sivel called again.” Mo had just taken a sip of her tea, but the words coming from her sister’s mouth made her want to spit the flavourless, scalding liquid back into her cup and launch from her seat. Mo didn’t like that tone of voice on anyone - patronizing, questioning, and so very concerned - least of all her sister.

She set the warm mug down, tea instantly forgotten.

Suddenly, Mo knew why her sister invited her for coffee - no, insisted she come. This wasn’t a simply a check in, it was an intervention.

Mo tamped down the urge to flee, to escape, knowing it would only make things worse. The only way to get her sister off her back, to placate this concern, was to act as if everything was okay. It was getting harder and harder to keep up the charade.

Mo swallowed her tea before answering. She feared she might choke and give herself away if she didn’t. “Is that so?” Her voice came out measured, as if leisurely inquiring about the weather instead of her nosy neighbour who had nothing better to do than spy on her and rat her out to her sister.

Mrs. Sivel needs to learn to keep her mouth shut, Mo thought bitterly. She knew it was wishful thinking. The old maid spied, and gossiped, like it was her job. Mo wouldn’t be surprised if her sister actually paid the woman.

“She told me about the wandering.” Joy swirled the cup in her hand idly, the leaf pattern on her drink blending, mixing, into one large blob. It had been beautiful a second ago, content to be left alone, then her sister had prodded it and now it was unrecognizable - jumbled and senseless. Mo could relate.

“Did she?” Mo continued to play dumb, surprise colouring her tone. She knew that admitting might make her sister finally stop this misery, might speed up this dance that Mo could predict in her sleep, but she didn’t care to. Mo and Joy were never good at confronting things, and Mo refused to be the one to cave this time.

The sisters watched each other from across the table, neither willing to run straight through the bush, to speak of the unspoken. They were blood, played like the best of friends growing up, but to Mo, her sister had never felt like more of a stranger.

“It has to stop,” Joy finally blurted, as if the words had been building up and could no longer be contained. Mo watched her sister’s cheeks grow red, feverish, the words coming fast and harsh as if, once started, were a torrent that could no longer be stopped. “We can’t do this again, Mo. She wouldn’t want you to lose yourself for her.”

Mo said nothing, even though every fibre of her being wanted to rail at her sister. To scream and smash things and tell her that she had no idea what she would want - she had no idea how the woman would feel because she was gone. She said nothing, all of the things left unsaid forcing between the sisters and pushing them farther apart. It was a divide that Mo was no longer certain she could cross - no longer certain that she wanted to.

Joy’s voice dropped to a harsh whisper, pitching low as a few curious patrons glanced their way. “Please, stop this.”

Stop this.

Joy was always worried about what others thought, what they heard, as if they might view Mo as crazy - might see her as Joy did. Mo had no such reservations, such frivolous things as opinions the least of her worries. So she spared not a glance to the eyes around her, to her sister, as she pushed back her chair with a thundering screech and leaped from her seat.

She would stop it, alright - would stop this conversation that was yet another exercise in disappointment. Joy was always judging her, always wishing for her to change - to stop this, as if it were that easy. Mo didn’t know why it always seemed to surprise her.

As she passed through the door, the bell drowning out her sister’s pleading whispers, Mo knew she had no one to blame but herself.

She didn’t know how she had ended up at the bridge.

Upon leaving the coffee shop, Mo had broken into a run. She ran until she felt like stopping, until her sister’s words and concerned face faded from her mind. All she knew was that she had to get out, get away. For some reason, her feet had taken her here.

Mo looked down at the river, or tried to through the haze, the railing that she had in an iron grip slick with rain. It had started to pour minutes after she had arrived, the rain soaking Mo to the bone, plastering her hair to her face. She should have left, but five minutes had turned to ten, then ten had suddenly become thirty, and still Mo couldn’t seem to tear herself away from the churning below.

Not a soul was on the bridge, the cars few and far between, as if people weren’t willing to weather the rain even from within a vehicle.

So Mo was by herself on the bridge, a lone girl standing in the rain, soaked but unwilling to leave. She had resigned herself to living without the living, but without the spirits, Mo had never felt so alone - so empty.

Why did you leave? She wanted to rage. At the spirits, at what felt to be her heart ripped from her six years ago. The words died on her tongue, curling up and laying to rest in her throat.

The wind howled around her, rain pelting her face, but Mo received no answer. She never seemed to have any answers.

Mo leaned forward, as if bringing her body closer to those raging depths might bring some clarity. Suddenly, Mo was pitching forward, her body moving of its own accord as her hands slipped from the wet railing.

She tried to grab onto something - anything - but not a soul was around and the metal at her fingertips offered no purchase. So she continued to pitch, ever forward into that answerless abyss, scream trapped in her throat, and Mo closed her eyes to the spray —

only to find herself jerked back.

Slowly, inch by inch, Mo found herself rising back onto the bridge, her downward plummet stopped at the last second by a grip on her rain-soaked sweater.

On shaky legs, Mo turned, opening her mouth to explain herself, to thank her saviour. Her mouth snapped shut at what she saw. The woman was like a beam of light, shrouded by mist, her form ethereal.

No, Mo realized, the woman was the mist. She floated an inch or two above the bridge, her face serene, and Mo couldn’t help but stare.

“I wasn’t trying to jump,” Mo whispered, her utter terror tempered with relief, because there was a spirit next to her, and it had saved her from death.

The woman nodded, giving Mo a knowing smile. Still, her misty hand trapped Mo’s wrist.

The wind raged around them, Mo’s hair flying into her face, rain stinging her eyes, while the woman’s gown and hair seemed to be caught in a different sort of breeze, swishing softy.

Mo had so many questions - wanted to grab this woman of mist tight and never let her go, but that woman beat her to it.

Let go, my child, the woman urged.

“I don’t know how.” Mo’s lips trembled, from cold or something else, she couldn’t tell. All she knew was that everything was getting away from her and she didn’t know how to get it back. It was gone, like everything else.

Yes, you do. The words echoed in Mo’s head, jarring it loose to float away.

It bounced off of the metals beams of the bridge, ricochetting back to Mo, settling in her heart - her soul.

Yes, you do.

The winds began to settle, rain slowing to a patter, and when Mo looked up again, the ghost, too, was gone.

Mother.

Wife.

Friend.

Those three words were all that lay carved on the headstone, along with dates and a name, a summation in its simplest form. It might have once bothered Mo, those measly words, but it didn’t now. Mo knew all the rest, as did all the others that loved her, and that was enough - was everything.

Everything she was and everything she wasn’t were memories that Mo would cherish, even though she had once cursed the pain they had caused. They still hurt, Mo didn’t think they would ever stop hurting, but that pain was now tempered with remembered happiness.

Mo pushed against the dirt on which she knelt, stopping to arrange the flowers at the foot of the headstone once more.

She brushed the dirt from her pants, but she kept the memory that came with it. With one last glance, Mo made her way through the maze of headstones, the grey and black glinting in the morning light - glittering was more like it.

Once she was at the gate, she turned once again, breath catching in her throat. Above the headstone, a form flickered, one hand idly passing through the bouquet as if to stroke the flowers, the other lifted in a ghostly wave.

A goodbye and a hello.

Mo lifted a hand in farewell, uncaring if her sister was right and it was all in her head, if this was all of her own fabrication and her closest companions these past years were simply a way for her to give reason to that without.

They were real to her, and in the end, that was all that really mattered.

Alone in the cemetery, a place she had avoided through whatever means for the better part of six years, Mo allowed herself this moment - allowed herself a true goodbye to the mother she could never truly let go of.

Letting the gate softly clang shut behind her, Mo left the resting place of the dead behind - a place truly meant for the living - and allowed herself a soft smile. A bird chirped, another cawed, a call and answer made by the different breeds of feathered creatures that graced this city - calls that Mo knew by heart. Tilting her face to the clear, blue sky, Mo allowed herself to bask in the song of the birds.

Short Story

About the author

Isabel Atherton-Reimer

Isabel has harboured a love for stories for as long as she can remember, be it those of her own creation or of others'. She is a regular optimist with nihilistic tendencies, and a romantic who still isn’t sure if she believes in love.

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