by Christina Persaud
Issue 5: Occult | 4108 words
© Heartland Arts
Lately, I had been feeling a dangerous shift in the air. It was as if something horrible was brewing on the horizon, just beyond the scant hardened trees and the city skyline to a place I could not see.
“Ready to see if she’ll dance?” Ralphie. Dear, sweet Ralphie smiled at me from atop our building’s roof where we stood that Saturday evening. He had made friends with the building manager as soon as we had moved in—an easy task for an amiable fella. I suppose it was in the same way he caught and held my attention nine years ago. He could make anyone feel special.
The wind rattled the locks on the tiny mesh cages on the rooftop of our old brownstone building. I bent down to peer inside, all of the cages empty except for one. A white dove sat solemnly alone. It looked back at me from inside the dark box with its red eyes. Another strong breeze rolled across the city block. The dove pushed back and nestled deeper in her captivity.
“Not today,” I told him, “she’s not ready.”
Ralph sighed but nodded. He slipped the key to the cage into his pocket, put the lid back on the bucket of bird seed and slid it beneath the table before turning to leave. I followed, but not before glancing once more at the caged bird over my shoulder. The wind whipped my hair in protest. Long black strands threatening to slash my eyes.
Our two-bedroom apartment was a luxury for a youngish couple such as ourselves. The interior brown brick wall sat behind a white sofa, bringing a piece of the city inside to roost with us. I dotted the decor with hints of blues. The completed look had me feeling as if I never quite left the rooftop.
I went to an oversized pigeon blue armchair and sat less than an arm’s length away from a large bay window. It was a place to call mine alone within our mutual dwelling. Ralph had taken the second bedroom as his home office. These days the walls seemed thicker between us. I picked up the book I had set on the windowsill and cracked its spine. Ralph busied himself in the kitchen, humming along with a tune in his head. He stopped to mention pasta, and I agreed, only half listening. Pots knocked about, and water ran from the faucet, but the noises from the kitchen soon dulled, and the black ink from the page in front of me blurred as my attention was drawn to the window. I could feel an autumn draft seeping in through the seams and reached out to the cold glass.
Down below ran a Brooklyn street. Bits of paper and debris raced along the sidewalk. Dead leaves swirled and floated up into invisible funnels in this corridor of brick and asphalt. I pulled the blanket from behind me and draped it over my thin shoulders. Even in the darkened sky, I could see the clouds thick and swirling, parting only for momentary windows of a fat moon.
When we sat down to dinner, Ralph ate with savage hunger. His teeth tore into meat cooked rare. Bread crumbs tumbled and scattered in his neat beard. I looked the other way.
Afterward, he went into his office. I heard the door click purposefully soft behind him.
I cleared the table and filled the dishwasher. A stroll in the city might’ve been lovely if it weren’t for this awful weather. Ralph and I used to take them after dinner most weeknights, but that was last summer, when the sun stayed high longer and we were in better spirits. My students’ work sat waiting at the other end of the dining table, assignments waiting to be graded. But at that moment, paperwork was as appealing as papercuts. I found myself wandering back to my chair, where I sat once more. The book was put in my lap, though I didn’t bother to open it this time. Instead, I looked out the large window, watching the illuminated bulbs of the streetlamps. I glanced at silhouettes of movement from the windows across the street, a brick row house partially hidden behind a tall Hangman’s Elm, its trunk thick and uncompromising in a city vying for every inch of space.
It must have been quite late when I decided to go to bed.
Heavy eyelids and a sore neck urged me to move, or else pay the hefty price for falling asleep in my chair. I threw the blanket back and began to rise when something outside of the window, something quite out of the ordinary, moved in the dark.
At first, I questioned whether I saw anything at all. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and blinked in quick succession. As my vision came into focus, it only validated that I had, indeed, witnessed something that perhaps I was not meant to see. Across the street, on the rooftop of the rowhouse just opposite, were birds. But not just any birds. Large, massive creatures. As big and as tall as any man. I began to count, “One, two, three, four…”
I could not keep track. Every time I got to five or six or seven, their movements, their… dances, would confuse me so that I’d have to start again.
I leaned forward in my chair, nose pressed against the glass, straining to see them. Their dark feathers, or at least what I assumed were feathers, shone in reflections of street light whenever they stretched their wide wings. When they turned to the side, their profile displayed a long beak that would open and shake with what appeared to be jaunty laughter. I shrunk away from the window, shuddering from head to toe. They were just beginning to mill around something I could not see, their bodies circling in wicked motion. I could stand to look no more, yet I could not leave.
What were they? I wondered. And as a mind often does when confronted with explaining the unexplainable, I found an answer even I did not believe. They were a newly introduced species to the area. Vultures, perhaps. Vultures were highway birds or country scavengers. They didn’t belong here, not in New York City. Were they predators? I fumbled to find the answers to my own questions. Well, perhaps passive predators. They devoured the dead, while flesh rotted away from bone, and limbs melted onto heated pavement. This was the extent of my knowledge on the foul creatures. My thoughts went to Ralph’s dove on the roof. Was it in danger? I wondered. Would the giant birds crack open the little cages with angry beaks and snap the neck of his homing pigeon? His dainty dancer in training? I stood from my chair so suddenly that the book fell with a thud from my lap. I half expected the birds to stop and turn, catching the spy from behind her window.
I ran down from the living room to Ralph’s office. Light spilled from beneath his closed door. I rapped with white knuckles. “Ralphie? Ralphie, do you have a sec? It’s urgent.”
The tapping on the keyboard ceased. A moment of silence. Then, the squeak of his office chair. The door cracked and he looked at me, his face washed clean since dinner.
“I need to show you something,” I said.
He followed me wordlessly to the living room window, and I nearly pressed myself against the glass, my eyes searching in the dark. But there was nothing to see. Not a hint of anything worrisome happening on the rooftop of the building across the street.
“What is it?” he asked at last.
I didn’t answer. How could I? The proof was gone, all that was left were the ramblings of a madwoman. “I-I thought I saw something,” I finally said. “Are there vultures in Brooklyn? Or any other really large bird?”
“No way,” he shook his head. “Pigeons. Cardinals. Robins, maybe, in the spring. But not vultures.”
“I think the dove might be in danger,” I said pointing upwards as if our ceiling was suddenly made of glass.
His eyes softened. “You’re a sweetheart,” he said and moved closer. He kissed me on the forehead. “And I think you’ve been reading too many books.”
He strolled back into his office and, this time, left the door wide open. I looked back at the window and then cocked my head, listening for the sound of sharp talons dancing on our rooftop above.
“I’m heading out.”
It was a Saturday morning and I felt my stomach lurch.
“Where ya going?” I asked and hugged my coffee mug tight.
“The office. Last minute reprints. So stupid.” His voice rang with annoyance, but the hop in his step to the front door spoke differently.
I kept the smile plastered on my face as he put on his shoes and reached for his bag and keys. If he had looked up, he would have felt shivers crawl down his spine from the uncanny replica of his human wife watching him, forcing a smile too large for the moment, trying to pull one over his eyes.
But he never did.
I was asleep or had been. I was certain of this.
The bedroom was bright with morning light. Sun cascaded through white semi-transparent curtains, spilling on a clock that read 9:14 and a dresser with the drawers half opened from too many clothes.
I felt the weight of his body on the bed next to me. Asleep in the land of dreams. I found some solace in this.
My eyes went over the bedroom again. Something seemed not quite right. The humming of the apartment and the white noise from the air filter drowned out the ticking of the clock and any snoring that came from Ralph.
Then, the sound stopped. Not a sudden stop, not a power outage, but a sudden disappearance, as though it had been sucked through a vortex, and I was left gasping, having suddenly gone deaf.
Another body lay upon the bed, taking up the space between Ralph and myself. Invisible but dense. In a voice, low, strong, demanding, it spoke to me in one word.
“Jump,” it said.
Then, as soon as it had gone, my sense of hearing returned to my ears, and I opened my mouth to scream only to find that I could not. Moans of horror and fear pressed through clamped lips as Ralph’s panicked arms reached for my flailing body. “It was just a dream,” he said, repeating it over and over again. “It was just a dream.”
Fellow teacher Stacey Lincoln and her husband Michael sat on the other side of the dining room table, each with a glass of sangria, and Stacey about to roll the dice.
It was our turn to host game night. I had cleared the table of any hint of my work, and the apartment felt light and airy. It had been weeks since my nightmare, and as I wiggled my toes deep into the carpet fibers, it could not have been farther from my mind. I rose from my seat and topped off everyone’s glasses, even if they were still near full. I don’t know if it was the drink, but I was beginning to feel stupidly giddy.
“Got any more of that brie? Crackers are getting dry,” Stacey said. She had made her move.
“In the kitchen.”
She got up from the table before I could protest. “I think I can handle it, Mrs. Singh,” she said and smiled. I wrinkled my nose.
When she returned, she carried the rest of the block of cheese on a plate and set it down with a frown.
“There’s cheddar in the fridge if you prefer,” I said, but she didn’t pinch back.
“You guys into the occult or something?”
Ralph started to choke on his cracker, and Michael looked at his wife with mouth open.
But Stacey was looking only at me. I knew what she was referring to, the papers I had moved from the dining table to the kitchen counter before their arrival.
“Of course not.”
“What’s up with the papers in the kitchen? Please tell me it’s research for a screenplay,” she said and tried to smile.
I could feel Ralph’s eyes on me. “Birds?”
“They can be pretty fascinating,” I said. Now everyone was staring. “Did you know that a group of vultures is called a ‘committee’? They’re super social, almost as smart as crows. They have all these rules they live by; they’re not just dumb animals. And, get this—” I was becoming excited, finally able to share what I had been learning over the last weeks via internet searches, “When they’re all together and they’ve found something dead, they have to eat it right there. They can’t carry it away like other birds do because they actually have weak legs. That’s why you see them along roads huddled around their meal. Their stomach acid is so much stronger than other animals. They can eat just about anything that’s been dead for a really long time. And… okay, this is a little spooky… when a committee is eating rotting flesh, it’s called a ‘wake’.” I glanced around the table with a huge smile on my face. “Isn’t that wild?”
No one else was smiling.
“What are those pictures you printed?” Stacey questioned.
“What pictures?” I asked, genuinely confused. Then, I remembered. Some say that within vultures are demons. The pictures weren’t the sort I’d want to get mixed into my students’ assignments.
“I thought you were over it,” Ralphie said, his voice low but still audible.
When the clock reached 11:00, our friends said their goodnights and we walked them to the door. I hung my arm around Ralphie’s waist, though the jovial atmosphere had dissipated hours ago. “That was lovely,” I said, hoping he’d agree with me once the door was closed again.
Ralphie bent down and began putting on his shoes. “Sorry. I got the text while we were in the middle of the last game. Sonofabitch. They can’t do anything without me.”
“But it’s almost midnight!” I didn’t care if my voice was raised or if I seemed needy. I didn’t care if Stacey and Michael Lincoln could hear shouting as they stood waiting for an impressively slow elevator.
I watched him tie the last shoe and reach for his bag. “You sure you’re gonna need that?” I felt the words rise up into my throat like sour bile. I swallowed, instantly regretting it.
He threw the venom back. “Don’t wait up.” He closed the door with a slam.
I felt hot tears well in my eyes and I blinked, pushing them back. I couldfollow him, I thought. I went into the bedroom and changed into my pajamas. I could check his computer history. I wiped the makeup from my face and brushed my teeth.
“What an ugly thing you really are,” the mirror spat.
I cried harder. Red eyes staring back.
It was the dead of night when I jolted awake.
The bedroom was covered in darkness despite the streetlights outside. I was alone. I knew Ralphie’s side of the bed was empty without checking. A wife knows these things. Somewhere in the apartment, someone tapped on glass.
I listened to the otherwise quiet. I had forgotten to turn on the air filter. There was nothing to coddle my senses.
Tap, tap, tap.
Nails on glass.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
A thief? But why us? All the way on the fifth floor? Would they come inside the bedroom? Yes, they would. Seeking hidden cash and jewelry.
I no longer felt safe in the bed.
Sliding my feet to the floor, I winced as it creaked. The noise might as well have been a
gunshot. I looked around and, upon sight of Ralphie’s nightstand, I remembered the large aluminum flashlight he kept inside the drawer. He once told me how to wield it in case of an attacker. “Flash the light in their eyes,” he had said, “bring the base down hard to make contact.” At the time, I laughed him off. Now, I struggled to remember every last word.
With flashlight in hand, I poked my head out of the bedroom and looked up and down the short hallway. My hands shook, and the flashlight threatened to fall, but I urged myself to keep moving. I walked past Ralphie’s closed office door, past the potted plant at the head of the hall and the framed photo of us on vacation in Cozumel.
Past this was the living room and kitchen. I could see no one. Standing taller, I went to the front door. It was locked.
I began searching for glass. Every glass we used now sat in the dishwasher. There was little to no glass out in the open. I looked at the living room. My chair. The window.
The next day, I did not mention the home invasion to Ralph because there wasn’t anything to tell. I hadn’t stumbled upon anyone, and I surely wasn’t going to say I suspected something sinister. I didn’t want him giving me that look they had all given me that night while playing board games. I wasn’t crazy. I picked up my stack of papers from the kitchen counter and threw my research on those disgusting birds into the trash can. Perhaps Ralph was right; I should not have given them any more thought.
Ralph ate his breakfast with haste so that we would not have to linger together in the kitchen for longer than necessary. He went into his home office, perhaps as a way to bring about a sense of normalcy despite the bitterness that permeated our home. We did not speak to each other. Instead, hunkered down in our own feathers, we pretended the other did not exist.
I stared at his closed door each time I passed it, wondering what to do, whether or not it was I who was being childish and unforgiving and all too imaginative as to what he was up to inside. When lunchtime rolled around, I was beside myself in discomfort. I wanted his arms around me again, his breath in my hair, his weight pressing down his side of the bed. But when he came to the kitchen to make a sandwich, I said nothing and pretended to stare at my laptop until he was gone once more.
I found comfort in my chair by the window, despite the memories of strange tapping in the night. When school let out, children played hopscotch, and mothers pushed strollers on the street below. A meter maid dropped love notes on unsuspecting windshields. Two pigeons fluttered to a telephone pole and stopped to balance on a wire. They bickered and jutted their heads. It only lasted a moment before they took off, but they reminded me of the dove Ralph kept on the roof. It had been so long since I had been up to see her.
I went up the narrow stairwell to the door that read “Roof Access” and pushed, feeling the city wind instantly fight back. The setup for his hobby was the same. Only now the mesh cages were covered in a blue tarp, most likely to protect the bird from the rain. My shoes crunched on seed, and I looked around for a broom. As I glanced more intently, the entire place could have done with a cleaning. I wondered when Ralph had last been on the roof to care for his pet and bent down to look into the cage holding the dove. I blinked. Was this the same little bird? I saw skin where feathers should have been and dried blood along its wings and beak. The floor of the cage was covered in droppings, layered like a wall painted over too many times. The food dish was empty, the water green. A wave of anger I had not expected boiled from deep within me. I opened the dove’s cage and picked up the little creature, carried it gently to another, unused cage and put her inside. Then I refreshed the bowls with food and clean water, knowing that one day I’d let her go, but not until her feathers had grown back and she was healthy enough to survive.
Ralph didn’t say anything when he saw the cage sitting on the living room floor in our apartment. In a way, he knew.
That night, I ached to nestle in his embrace. He hugged his side of the bed, and I held tightly to mine.
The sound of the wind bellowing outside whistled through the seams of the building and apartment. Ralph could not fall asleep. I could feel him moving and shuffling beneath the covers. He was restless. I, too, urged sleep to come. When it did at long last, I was rustled awake once more by strange noises.
He had heard it too.
Tap, tap, tap.
Ralph sat up in the bed and motioned for me to stay put. He listened again.
Tap, tap, tap.
Scraaaaaaaaaap. Then a bang.
The noise startled Ralph into action. He jumped from the bed and raced out of the room. I leaped, too, but grabbed the flashlight and followed, not caring to be stealthy, as Ralph was already in the living room, blood pumping, sweat on his brow, hands made into fists.
When I entered the living room, I saw him first, standing before the window looking up as though he had never seen it before. “What? What is it?” I yelled.
Ralphie didn’t say anything, he only pointed. “There’s a bird out there,” he said.
The black bird flapped its wings hard to keep its heavy body hovering and threw its head back. Before I realized what was happening, the bird opened its mouth and grappled with the window frame. Slowly, the window began to open.
I threw my hands over my ears.
There were more of them across the street, dancing on the brick row house behind the Hangman’s Elm. A dozen or more formed a circle, wings flapping in frenzy at first, then in unison. They began to dance. The moonlight glistened off their black feathers, and when they opened their beaks, they did not squawk. They sang with voices. They sang with low voices dripping of sugar and honey.
He grabbed the window and pressed down, trying to close it. When he got it to slam, the first flying bird was joined by another, and the two of them began again, reaching out with beaks to pull the window up once more. Each time the window opened, the dove in its cage screamed.
When the third bird joined to hold the window open, Ralph could not bring it back down. They saw their chance. The first bird, with its black eyes, grabbed Ralph by the hair and pulled him nearly completely through the opened window. I rushed to him, throwing my arms around his waist, praying for his feet to stay on the ground. But he was slipping. I had to do more. The flashlight was within reach, having been dropped on the seat of my armchair. I grabbed it and turned the light on and off again quickly. The strobe effect blinded the birds enough for them to loosen their grip. Ralph stumbled backward. The singing across the street stopped. The dancing ceased. The two birds that had joined the first flapped their wings harder and flew away. Then, one by one, the vultures across the street took to the sky. The giant black bird’s talons tapped on the glass as it tried to lift the window again, but it could not. Defeated, it spoke to us.
“If you live according to the flesh, you will die.”
I watched as the last bird flew away, its black feathers blending in with the night. Below, the sidewalk lay barren and absent of blood. There was no flesh to be had today, nothing dead or dying to feast upon. Ralph’s hand was bleeding, and I took it in my own. We looked at each other, more deeply than we had done in a long time.
I helped him clean his wound, and he wiped my quiet tears. We went back to bed and laid in each other’s arms, the sound of the howling wind finally dying down outside.
Christina Persaud was born in Ohio to Indo-Guyanese parents who instilled in her a love of folklore. Christina Persaud has written for Spectator and Spooks Magazine, Six Strings Magazine, and Meet My Ghost Podcast. She currently resides in Maine with her husband and a ferociously sweet Yorkie named Kaiju. Find her on Twitter @EerieChristine.