The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Warmth of Secrets

High in the trees, the birds build their nests, a constant and ever-changing labor, their homes never the same shape from one hour to the next. Twigs weave with leaves weave with bits of fluff to create warm homes for their delicate eggs.

But this is not the only thing they use. They are only the things you can see.

The birds awoke Annabelle from a rather pleasant dream that she couldn’t remember the moment she opened her eyes. She was quite certain it had been a nice dream, though, from the feeling, like she’d had a big warm mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows. Annabelle stretched and climbed from her bed. Her school clothes were already laid out, selected by her mother the night before, but she stayed in her nightgown as she padded to the window and spread the pink curtains she secretly hated.

A small, night-black bird lit on the sill just the other side of the glass, a fine wisp of something glimmering slightly in its beak. It stayed for only an instant before flying off again, becoming a speck and then nothing at all in the distance. The trees in the garden of the Nelson house were just beginning to be touched by spring and sunlight, the tiny green buds tinged with gold.

Downstairs, the kettle whistled. Annabelle dressed and arrived in the kitchen just as her father took his first sip of tea. Her older brother, who was thirteen and very grumpy, left without a word from a mouth filled with toast, the front door slamming behind him.

“Good morning,” said her mother. “Oatmeal?”

Annabelle secretly hated oatmeal even more than she secretly hated her pink curtains. She couldn’t remember when she’d ever liked it, though she must have, surely, when she was too young to know better, or her mother wouldn’t think she still did. But there wasn’t anything else she wanted instead, so she said yes, and put half the sugar bowl on it when her parents were making a fuss over whatever had landed on the bird feeder outside.

It was very rare, apparently. Her father peered through a pair of binoculars that, this close, must have allowed him to see the glint in the bird’s eye.

This time of year, it was difficult to get them to talk about anything else. It was all feathers and eggs and whether this crow was the same one they’d seen last year. Sometimes, only inside her head where no one could hear, Annabelle wondered if she’d be more interesting if she had a beak. Still, she supposed, it kept them from pestering her too much about whether she’d done all her schoolwork or cleaned properly behind her ears or tidied up the mess in her room.

The rest of the day, until the afternoon, passed just as the morning had—which is to say, quite normally. Annabelle went to school and talked to her friends and only raised her hand in those subjects she enjoyed, staying silent and invisible during the ones she didn’t. The final bell rang through the classrooms, and she gathered up her things for the walk home.

Three corners away from Annabelle’s house, it happened. She saw everything, saw what was about to happen and the seconds that would follow, but there was nothing to be done. Nothing at all except to stand, mouth open in a scream that made no sound, as the bird hit the windshield of a car stopped at the lights and bounced off again, arcing through the air in abnormal flight, to land at her feet.

“Oh no,” Annabelle said, when her voice returned, lost amongst the hooting of car horns. The poor creature twitched at her feet. Mother, mother would know what to do, how to save it.

It felt soft in her hands. Soft and broken. “Hold on,” she whispered. “I’ll keep you alive.”

But she couldn’t. Two corners from her house, it gave a final, tiny chirp, almost a sigh, and went very still. Annabelle felt the stillness as firmly as if it had been a slap, and then a curious coldness through her whole body which turned, quickly, back to warmth from the sun overhead.

“Oh, no,” said Annabelle again. “I’m sorry, little bird.”

She did not, as usual, walk in the front door and announce she was home. Instead, Annabelle veered around to the side of the house, where the earth below the rosebushes was thick and damp from the spring rains. Digging with her fingers wasn’t easy, and soon they were black with dirt, but she kept on until the hole was deep enough.

There wasn’t so much as a whisper from the trees above. Patting the soil back into place, Annabelle looked up at the line of birds on a branch.

Watching her.

“There you are!” said her mother when she heard Annabelle come in. “Where have you been…and what have you been doing? Go wash up.”

Annabelle didn’t answer. The bird, beyond her mother’s help, now felt like a secret thing.

She scrubbed her hands. Ate dinner. Went to bed. Dreamed of flying.

And the voices woke her. So very many voices, like being in a room full of a thousand people all talking without a single pause. Was she still dreaming? Annabelle didn’t think so, though it was still night, no hint of light peeking around the hated pink curtains. She threw them apart and stared from the window.

“Buried him, she did.”

“Curious.”

“There’s a nice lot of crumbs down by the river bend. Get them before those greedy swans do.”

“There’ll be a nice breeze today. Anyone fancy a trip south?”

“Can’t. Expecting a hatch.”

Annabelle blinked.

The birds were talking. If she listened, carefully enough that her head began to ache, she could hear their normal chatters and chirps with her normal ears, but their voices, their words were loud inside her head.

She nearly screamed. She nearly ran to her parents’ room to shake them awake and tell them, but she didn’t. This, too, felt a secret thing. They’d think she was mad, or making up stories. Or—perhaps worse—they’d believe her and ask a thousand questions of a thing she wasn’t entirely certain she believed herself.

“Anyone have any spare twigs?”

Very purposefully, Annabelle climbed back into bed, pulled the blanket over her face, and lay in the dark, hearing all the voices until the sun came out. She dressed in Saturday clothes and went downstairs to breakfast.

When her mother asked if she wanted oatmeal, Annabelle said yes.

It came out as a squeak. Annabelle coughed. “Yes,” she repeated carefully. Her mother didn’t notice.

Her parents exclaimed out the window about the beautiful feathers on this one. Annabelle listened to it complain that those blasted starlings had stolen all the good seeds. Her brother stomped into the kitchen. “I’m going to spend the day at Tom’s,” he said. Annabelle’s mother nodded absently.

But Annabelle stared at him. It was a lie, and she didn’t know how she knew this. It left his mouth and drifted over toward her, a thin, glimmering thread of a thing she caught in her hand.

“And I’m going outside,” she said. Nobody heard her, which was perhaps a good thing. Her voice, once again, had not sounded entirely…human.

The birds were louder out here, much louder. The lie still clutched in her palm, Annabelle covered her ears, which didn’t help a bit. Down at the bottom of the garden, there was a tree just perfect for climbing. Every summer since she could remember, her father had promised to build a tree house in the low, wide branches, but he never had, and how she and her brother were probably too old for such things. It was easy enough to place her feet and hands just right, though, and rise up in the tree as simple as if it was a ladder.

She stopped when she found what she was looking for. The first, perfectly round nest, built of twigs and leaves and bits of fluff, and thin, silvery wisps. She touched one and knew Mrs. Livingstone four doors down on the road had thought of putting poison in her husband’s tea, but had never done it. She touched another and learned the man who came to clean the windows had always wished to be an opera singer.

She touched a third and knew—although she didn’t need to be told—that she hated her pink curtains.

A raven landed on the branch beside her. Annabelle startled and slipped, but didn’t fall. It fixed a knowing, wise gaze on her.

“We know all your secrets, all your lies,” it said, and once again, if she really tried, she could hear the ordinary birdsong, and the words in her head, all at the same time. “They line our nests, they keep us warm in the frosts. And now, you know ours.”

“Why?” Annabelle asked.

“We hear everything,” said the raven. “We are everywhere. Humans pay us no notice as they walk beneath our trees, thinking and saying the things they never should.”

Annabelle looked at her brother’s lie, still stuck to her hand. “I don’t understand how they keep you warm.” It made her feel cold, even on the pleasant spring morning.

The raven cackled. “You will,” it said. “Oh, you will. And soon.”

Annabelle climbed down. All day the voices crowded inside her until they fell silent with the evening. Her bones felt odd inside her. She went to bed early, the pink curtains billowing in the breeze from the window she left open as she fell asleep.

In her dreams, feathers crawled over her skin. Her feet shortened and toenails grew. The voices started again in the night, and Annabelle hopped from her bed, up onto the windowsill.

She chirped, once, and flew into the dawn, listening for dreams, for secrets, for lies with which to build her nest.

One Response to “The Warmth of Secrets”

  1. Mary Alice says:

    Beautiful. 😀

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