This is from Pocket Finger, a collection of stories by Ryan Call, with illustrations by Christy Call.
“Ghost Bird” was originally published as “The Ghost Bird” in The Collagist in 2012.
A new story will be released for free every other week, or you can purchase a print version at PublishingGenius.com.
For a number of weeks, our family devoted itself to caring for a wandering soul, a ghost bird of indeterminate species, though how it had flocked to our home, we could not discover.
It merely appeared one evening, perching there suddenly upon my sister’s shoulder, making to preen, but failing on account of its rotted feathers. We sat rigidly in our chairs at the kitchen table so as not to trouble the air—as if a disturbance might set off some further unnatural occurrence in our home—and watched as the bird settled itself to roost, first raising one leg, then another, before twisting its skeletoned head back beneath its wing and falling asleep.
Avid birdwatcher that I was, I struggled to identify the make of this ornithological skeleton, and as a result, for the duration of the bird’s visit, none of us could agree upon its being. Each of us, in fact, referred to it differently. Our mother thought it some ancient raptor, a weakened bird of prey or carrion eater. My sister insisted that it was a long lost dodo bird arisen to again wander the earth. Our father referred to it as a hell-hen, one of Satan’s chickens released from the coop.
I could not be sure what it was, though I feared the consequences of our welcoming it to our humble home.
And yet we did, regretfully.
In the late hours after the arrival of this ghost bird, my sister constructed for the family a giant bird mask, which she insisted we wear as we cared for our new guest. She made the mask from a number of secret materials, the origin of which she could not tell us, though it smelled of sassafras, straw, and dung.
She presented the mask to me on the second night of the ghost bird’s stay, extending it out to me carefully, her eyes slanted, apprehensive.
A present for me, I said.
Your turn to feed, she said.
I had watched her earlier with the ghost bird. She had situated it within a nest of tissues, sticks, newspapers, and cardboard boxes in the middle of the kitchen floor. With the mask to her face, she had bent over the ghost bird, dropping bits of ground beef from her mouth into its scraggly beak.
I shuddered at the thought of leaning so close to this wraith, this essence of another century. I knew it could not hurt me, yet I simply feared being near such a thing of death as this. For what other explanation could attend the arrival of such a beast?
My sister prodded me in the shoulder with the beak of the mask.
I soon resented my having to wear the mask.
I felt as though the mask had begun to work some sort of terrible magic over my body, latching there against my face, and my fear increased tenfold. I often shook it hopelessly before me, tearing it off after the feedings and dangling it menacingly over our roaring fireplace so as to threaten my sister.
Would you destroy such a meaningful artifact, my sister said.
We have not yet begun to understand the nature of this thing, she said.
And you would have us forsake it, she said.
The ghost bird too seemed overly sensitive to my fears, and it responded terribly, for it especially prattled on when I came round during the feeding hour. It squawked a sickly squawking, puffed its ghostly feathers, and peered excitedly up into my face, as though to further welcome me to its barren netherworld. Days I marked its embrace upon my forearms, a series of talon-scrapings and hook-beaked bites.
The ghost bird meant not to punish me, I came to believe, but instead to latch onto some notion of family, of home, of nest, and I became a clear function of that frantic desire, so much so that the ghost bird soon ignored all other advances; it only responded to my presence, however anxiously, and I soon became its sole caretaker, leaving the rest of my family to attend to the difficult problem of how next to solve the problem of its haunting.
We believed that its unceasing presence did not bode well for the existence of our own family.
Soon enough my parents resolved to force it from our home.
On the day my parents had marked for its eventual release, my sister and I discovered in its filthy nest not the pale, glowing figure of the ghost bird, no, but the speckled light blue ellipsoidal shape of what appeared to be a true egg, a worldly egg, an egg of the living and of the breathing.
I feared this egg then, I fear this egg now, and I will fear this egg forever.
For what doom, I figured, had this ghost bird laid for us to discover in its absence? What evil mystery, then, awaited us in the cracking, breaking, crunching hatch of its formidable offspring? What terrors—the terrors that my sister and I had long incubated within our adolescent bodies—might suddenly find their corporeal form, scratching and screeching angrily from the downy stink of that ghost bird nest?
My sister and I stood anxiously before the egg, each of us a hand placed on the mask, wondering what we ought to do before our parents emerged from their bedroom.
Let us smash it and be done, I said.
But what of the ghost bird? she said.
What of it? I said.
It has suffered enough, don’t you think? she said.
Why should the culmination of its efforts be destroyed? she said.
I could give no reason, besides my own fear, and this my sister disregarded.
Do not tell anyone about the egg, she said.
I, for my own part, wished we had crushed the egg where it lay, glistening and mocking us, and I now believe that, had I stepped forward and done such a thing, smashed it with my fist, my sister might still yet be with us today.
But instead, I bowed to her desires and watched as she tentatively climbed onto the nest and settled down upon the egg to wait out whatever disaster might come for us. My parents too could not bring themselves to smash the egg, to separate my sister from that which she desired to protect, and so yielded to her stubbornness.
Rather than hatch, the egg grew and grew, by turns pulsing blue and black and mud red, by turns flashing glows of shudder and spangles of blood, by turns throbbing and shimmering, bruised and yellowing in our kitchen. By turns it seemed a death mask and an angel’s ovum, a frantic mirror and a highway dumpster. My sister soon could no longer perch over the egg, and she instead crouched miserably beside it, her arms about it as best she could manage, a terrified expression upon her face.
Do you need help? I said.
I can do this on my own, she said.
You need help, I said.
She shook her head, her body, her arms and shoulders.
In my anxiety, I came to destroy the mask. I hated all that my sister had created in its making. I hated how it had enabled her mothering of this terrible egg. I hated how it had taken over my body and forced me to surrogate this underworldy raptor, this ghostly presence that had overwhelmed our family and driven us apart: my sister kneeling in the kitchen, I watching from the hallway, my parents worrying in the living room.
The egg soon dominated our kitchen, this gigantic prehistoric thing it seemed, and we could no longer move freely about without disturbing my sister’s peace and quiet, so smashed and lopsided against the egg as she was. She too became touchy, off-kilter, a bit of a nervous blotch in the greasy space of the pantry-way. She occasionally moaned, night-shouted, ferociously wept, all as we listened anxiously from our respective stations.
And then one morning, it began to happen: we awoke to the sounds of eggshells snapping wetly apart, my sister’s delighted shrieks, and a sudden flurry of activity from the kitchen.
When we finally managed to push our way into the kitchen, past the broken eggshells and puddles of fluid, we discovered my sister standing next to the open egg, and there by her side, among the shards of shell and bits of nest was yet another ghost bird mask, terrible, fleshy, reeking of dung and blood.
My sister took up the mask and wore it about her face. She tied it around her head and sat there in the nest as we wordlessly looked upon her. Once she had shuffled herself into a comfortable position, she unnaturally turned her head around, gazed at us out of the mask, and opened her mouth to squawk at us.
No matter what we did, we could not encourage her from the nest, and so we were forced to leave her there for the rest of the day. Night came, and still she did not emerge from the kitchen, so we took turns watching over her as she sat there peacefully, her body crouched down into the nest, huddled and avian.
We spoke in whispers of the nearby hospital, how we might force her there.
She squawked, ruffled her arms about, and shat in the dusty corner of the kitchen.
As the days passed, we witnessed slight changes overcome her body, and we knew we could no longer seek help. The mask had grown to fully encapsulate her face so that we could no longer see her beautiful brown hair, her furrowed brow, her deeply hazel eyes, and her tiny lips. She had begun to grow from her skin tiny pale feathers, and her hands had locked themselves up beneath her chin so that her elbows jutted forth like miniature triangular wings. Her feet had curled up, grown scaly and thin, had clawed numerous scratches into the tiles of the kitchen floor. Weeks went by and we no longer recognized her as a member of our family, as a daughter, as a sister, though we did our best to sympathize, to show her our devotion, to keep her well.
And then, she too disappeared. We watched her rise from the nest one morning and test her feathers in the greasy atmosphere of the kitchen. The nest-dust stirred beneath her wings as she rose into the air. She threw herself against the kitchen window several times before my father hastily reached forward and unlatched it, quickly raising the pane lest she hurt herself. She hovered there in the newly changed air, dazed but strengthening, and then she flitted above us here and there as if to wish us goodbye, before departing through the window. We watched her soft form fly up into the sky, and we wished her well, though we feared for the next family, the family on whose kitchen sill she soon would alight, for with her she now carried a familial pestilence, one that would eventually settle all across the land, rending families apart, tearing siblings from each other’s arms, daughters from their parents, wives from their husbands, until all of the country had fallen into a great despair.
And so goes the story of the ghost bird.