The Nature of a Bird
By Kellie Taylor
Copyright 2016 Kellie Taylor
Shakespir Edition, Licence Notes
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Artwork Love Nest by Regina Eccleston-Wirth
Cover Design by Regina Eccleston-Wirth
Wren looks down at the baby on her chest, its umbilical cord still pulsing. She shifts slightly to sit more upright against the stone wall and floor, and reaches her bloody hand into the basket beside her. She suspects, even before her palm rests on the tiny chest inside, that this one hasn’t survived. Her head drops back against the wall, eyes fixed on the ceiling but seeing further, two floors above where her Mistress is resting. She’ll blame me for his death, Wren thinks, and she’ll be right to do so.
She straightens her legs and winces. Her toes touch the canisters on the bottom shelf that she knows hold the flour and salt. The shelving covers the entire opposite wall but only the very top is visible in the thin moonlight. It filters through the long, narrow window above that sits at ground level outside. Butting up against her right shoulder is the stepladder she uses daily to reach anything above a child’s height, even though she is now regarded a woman. A faint odour of smoke lingers.
The sun had still been climbing the previous day when the Mistress started her labour. Immediately after, news came of a fire to the west that would threaten the property and then the town if left to rage on. Everyone was called to arms. Wren was left behind to quell the spitting inferno writhing in the bed before her.
“Where is everyone? Where’s the midwife? Why am I stuck with you?”
“They’re all fighting the fire, Mistress. Even the Commander.”
At the mention of fire, the Mistress stiffened and pulled back into her pillows. The weighty force usually emitted from her eyes, a constant presence in Wren’s life, had been momentarily pushed aside. Wren edged closer and stood with head tilted. She had never before been in a position to study the entirety of her Mistress’s face. On one side, the creamy skin and feline eyes that she envied, even in their present ashen and fearful state, seemed to perch there uneasily as if afraid the devastation of the other side would swallow it. She saw how the parched skin pulled at her features, twisting and knotting the surface so it appeared both raw and fragile. This was the side she had only ever caught glimpses of. Mistress took advantage of their difference in stature by always addressing Wren with head turned and nose pointed up as if to avoid an unpleasant smell.
Now it was Wren turning away as she cleaned the stench from Mistress and her sheets. The sweat and shit were products of the seemingly endless episodes of bearing down when the pains gripped her, and by the time candlelight flickered in the darkening room, Wren found herself preferring the guttural screams and clean up to the periods in-between. Mistress’s physical exhaustion didn’t dampen the poison she churned out amid laboured breaths.
“You really are useless, aren’t you? Look at you, with your withered body and weak little hands. That bastard in your belly has taken what little substance you had to begin with. Bad choice. Bad choice. How can such a weakling feed my baby?”
Wren jerked her hand from her Mistress’s wet brow and fell back a step, her arms circling her bulging stomach.
With half-closed eyes, Mistress let out a satisfied grunt.
“Silly little girl. That’s the only reason he bedded you – to provide his child, our child, with a cow to suckle from. With your mother gone, who did you think was going to do it?”
Wren stood frozen. Mistress’s hooded eyes remained fixed on her, as if waiting for any movement before swooping, until, eventually, she dropped into a restless sleep. Wren forced herself to move to the corner of the room. She sat down heavily in the chair; her last conversation with the Commander playing in her head.
“Turn over and look at me, Wren. I like to see your eyes. They reflect gold in the sunlight, did you know that? An old gold of well-worn and useful things. Much more interesting than the tepid blue I have in my wife.”
She had remained with her back to his body, and whispered, “So, why …?”
He hadn’t replied immediately. Perhaps, initially, he had no intention of answering her brazen attempt at a question, but she suspected the opportunity to educate her had been too tempting.
“A successful man must marry well. If he marries a beautiful woman she will look in the mirror and expect him to be grateful that she stays. But a grateful wife tends to look the other way in the hope that he’ll stay.”
“You think your wife ugly?”
“Not at all. I find her exquisite.”
His revelation had confused her, and as she grappled with trying to see him as the grateful one he let out an exasperated sigh.
“When a thing of beauty is imbued with a certain amount of horror, the result is intriguing. And, sometimes, irresistible. But what I think is irrelevant. It is what she believes about herself that is key.”
He had run a light finger from the wing of her shoulder blade to her hip and then circled the growing globe of her belly. With a practiced ease, she had closed her eyes and swallowed, extinguishing the conflicting emotions before they betrayed her.
Was she exquisite also? Just another thing of horrible beauty that he couldn’t resist, like the two-headed lamb foetus suspended in a jar, the hairless cats that sleep on his bed, the priceless depictions of hell that adorn the hallways?
When her Mistress called out for water, Wren jerked up and poured her a glass from the pitcher on her dresser. She braced herself for the insults that would surely come, but Mistress merely slumped back and looked away. After too many heartbeats to count, Mistress said, “I sometimes imagine where I would be if I hadn’t been scarred.” Her fingers slowly traced the contours of her face. “It’s not here. Never here.”
Silence swamped them both. When she turned back and saw the confusion on Wren’s face, a smile teased her lips.
“Do you ever wonder what your life would look like if your father hadn’t got himself killed before you were born? If your mother wasn’t so eager to sell herself as a wet-nurse?”
Wren clamped her teeth together and met her tormentor’s gaze. She took a faltering step toward her but then turned and stumbled into the hallway. Pressing her face into her hands, she fell against the wall, crying silently. She stayed just outside the door long after her tears had stopped, ignoring her name being called in increasingly vicious tones, until a scream shook her from her apathy. This proved to be the final hours before the Mistress’s baby was born. Wrapped in the finest wool blanket and placed in its padded basket, the baby had still not cried and his mother had still not held him. Spent, she had limply waved Wren and the baby away with instructions to keep him warm in the kitchen.
She carried the basket and a candle stub down the narrow stairs with a painful and exhausted gait. As she stepped onto the stone floor of the kitchen, a warm liquid gushed down her legs and flooded her shoes.
The sliver of sky she can see through the high window has gone from black to grey. Cook will come soon to stoke the fire and start preparing breakfast. Wren shivers. She fumbles for her shawl but it lies near the doorway, out of arm’s reach where it fell from her shoulders. There is a growing, dark pool of liquid surrounding her which she knows should worry her but the baby on her chest stirs and she concentrates on gathering him closer in search of any heat he might provide. Her mind flits from one memory to another, a twitchy string of dim pictures, never quite landing until it settles on a time when, as a young girl, she tried to relax into her mother’s warm lap, to remain still as the blood was wiped from her face and the ointment applied, but failing because of her constant furtive glances at the kitchen door.
“Why does he do it, Mama?”
“Perhaps it was just a bad aim. An accident,” she had replied.
Wren grew up seeing her milk-brother knock bully beef cans off the top of posts from twenty paces away, and bring down escaping possums with one fatal throw. She had shaken her head slowly, and her mother had abandoned her futile defence of the boy she had nursed from birth.
“He is a cuckoo, little one. It’s his nature.”
Wren had sat and basked in her mother’s healing touch, and listened to the oft-repeated story of the cuckoos and fairy-wrens that populated the surrounding bushland. How the cuckoo lays her egg in the new nest of a fairy-wren and waits close by. How the cuckoo chick usually hatches first and, systematically, even before it opens its eyes, heaves the other eggs on to its back and pushes them over the rim of the nest. One by one, they fall broken and discarded onto the leaf-littered floor. Without competition, the cuckoo chick calls incessantly for the fairy-wren mother to feed it, and how, because it is her nature, she obliges until she is exhausted and the cuckoo has outgrown the tiny nest.
Mama had taken her face in both hands and stroked her jutting cheekbones.
“You’ve paid a heavy price, I know. What little I had left for you was never quite enough, was it? You’re small and so very delicate, but you have survived, my little bird. You have not been thrown from the nest.”
Wren looks down at the baby and a new understanding of her nature begins to warm her. With eyes wide, she maps out a future inside her fluttering mind. She will retrieve her shawl and spread it beside the basket. She will lift out the tiny body inside, so light as if it had the hollow bones of a baby bird, and she will wrap it tight and complete. She will lie this other baby in the basket, cover him with the finest wool blanket, and place him near the fire. Walking away would be easy. She feels a lightness that would have allowed her to float up and fly through the window had she not anchored herself to her plan. With the thought of a smile, her eyes close, never again gold. Her hands slip from the baby’s back and fall on to the stone floor.
Thank you for reading my short story. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favourite retailer?
Kellie Taylor lives in Perth, Western Australia and grew up on water pumping stations along the Perth to Kalgoorlie pipeline. She moved constantly and discovered new worlds in her reading and writing. She was first published in Australian Short Stories when she was fifteen and is currently studying writing and editing at Edith Cowan University. Her short stories, “Taking Turns” and “The Umbrella” received Highly Commended awards in the Talus Prize competition in 2013 and 2016 respectively.
Wren is a young woman who finds herself in a situation seemingly predetermined by circumstance and the nature of those that surround her. From a cold basement kitchen, she sits with a newborn on her chest, another beside her and wrestles with memories of how she arrived at this point. Wren is at the mercy of a woman whose jealousy and dissatisfaction with her own life fuels her cruelty, and a man for whom beauty cannot be appreciated without the presence of the abhorrent. In her impossibly unbalanced world, how can she be certain of her own nature, and ever hope to feel free.