The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Abram Brown’s Birds (Dead and Gone)



Curator’s Note: An eerie little tune called “Old Abram Brown” inspired the telling of this particular tale. I suggest you listen to it whilst you read, and pay particular attention to the lyrics below.


Old Abram Brown is dead and gone
You’ll never see him more
He used to wear a long brown coat
That buttoned up before
“Old Abram Brown”
from Songs for a Friday Afternoon
            by Benjamin Britten


In a mud-colored city piled high with towers, there lived a man named Abram Brown.

The city was a drab sort of place, though it hadn’t always been. Factories sat in squat buildings on the perimeter, and the smoke they produced leeched the color out of houses and horses and cabs and gowns until even the grass in the park turned crunchy and gray.

Abram Brown fit in quite well here. He wore a long brown coat that nearly brushed the ground, and his hair was gray, and his face was rather gray as well.

In fact, he looked much the same as his fellow citizens and might have gone entirely unnoticed in the drone of the city, just like most things were—had it not been for the flock of birds that followed him wherever he went.

The birds formed a sort of buffer around Abram Brown, his own personal shield, for you didn’t want to get too close to Abram Brown’s birds. No, you did not. They flapped silently about him, their feathers slick with the oil from the sky. They alighted on his shoulders and nested in his hat and burrowed into his clothes to poke their heads out between the dirty brass buttons of his coat.

Their eyes were black and beady, like any bird’s, but it wasn’t the eyes you had to worry about.

What you had to worry about was how, if the birds happened to glance your way while you carried on with your business, they would whisper while they watched you.

Their beaks did not move, but you knew it was them, all the same.

There was no mistaking the whispers of Abram Brown’s birds.


Octavius Sinclair hated his name but he had found his peace with it, even though the boys at school called him Octo-Face and Octavi-pus and all other kinds of horrid things.

Octavius was the sort of boy who made peace with things quite easily, because his mind was bright and open like the inside of a polished bell. This isn’t to say he was empty-headed. It’s simply to say that thoughts slid in and out of his mind with ease, never staying there too long to cause trouble.

For example, while most people either found themselves disgusted or tiredly complacent about the state of the crunchy, smoke-covered grass in the park, Octavius had decided it was actually rather beautiful.

“Is it true,” he had asked his father once, when they passed the park, “that the grass is bright green in some places?”

“I suppose,” his father had said briskly, checking his watch. He was always checking his watch, and polishing its smog-smeared face.

“Aren’t we special, then, to have our grass be such a lovely gray color?”

“What are you on about?”

“I mean, it’s lovely and gray like a dream. Like when you come out of a dream and everything is soft, and you hang there between two worlds. Like that, Papa.”

His father had snapped him hard into the street. “Keep up. You’re dawdling.”

Every day when Octavius walked home from school in his stockings and buckled shoes and that horrible burgundy jacket with the dirty brass buttons, he walked by the park where Abram Brown liked to take his birds in the afternoon.

Octavius had been quite small when he happened upon Abram Brown for the first time, right in this very park.

It had been the first day anyone had called him Octavi-pus, to the delighted jeers of all the boys in the school courtyard, so he had taken his time walking home. He had needed some time to himself to figure out how he felt about the day’s events.

Instead of paying attention to what lay before him, Octavius had been staring at his feet while walking. He therefore did not see the cloud of birds coming at him, and walked straight into it.

Most of the time, when someone walked too close to Abram Brown’s birds, they squawked and shrieked and flapped around until the intruder retreated.

But that day, they simply fluttered quietly to Abram Brown until he was covered in them, and stared at Octavius. They did not even whisper.

And Octavius, his mind so shiny clean, smiled at them, and said, “What a lovely collection of birds you have, sir.” Then he pulled out the sandwich from his pocket, which he had not had the appetite to finish after the incident in the courtyard.

He sat on a bench with Abram Brown and shared his bread with Abram Brown’s birds.

Once all the birds had eaten, Abram Brown had peered out from his beard and said, “My name is Abram Brown.”

“I know who you are. Everyone knows who you are. They say you are mad, and that I shouldn’t talk to you.”

Abram Brown had said, “And yet you are talking to me right now.”

“Everyone says you should not be mean to others, too, and yet everyone acts cruel anyhow. So why should I take them seriously?”

A bird on Abram Brown’s shoulder had cocked its head.

“Yes,” Abram Brown had said. “That makes quite a lot of sense to me.”


Every day after that, Octavius Sinclair took the long way home from school and met Abram Brown in the park at that same bench, and shared whatever was left of his lunch with Abram Brown’s birds.

It was a peaceful ritual, for a while, in the dream-colored park with the gray sunlight struggling down.

Until it wasn’t peaceful anymore.

Until the boys from school followed Octo-Face home one day, and spied upon him, and decided to have some fun.


The ringleader was a thirteen-year-old boy who wasn’t as horrid inside as he pretended to be, but we cannot excuse him for that.

His name was Horace Wickham, and Octavius baffled him.

Horace hated this city. He hated its sky full of towers and smoke. He hated that, no matter how many times he washed his hands, they still looked dirty.

Most of all, he hated the park. Parks were supposed to be green and bright, clean and full of flowers.

Didn’t anyone know that?

Didn’t anyone care that they lived in such a dirty heap of a place?

Horace cared very much. He wished he could leave, but he was only thirteen, and a small part of him worried that in fact the tales of bright green grasses and clear blue skies were merely legends from a long-ago time or a far-off world.

The hatefulness of his circumstances built up inside his heart and turned him rotten.

How could that stupid, soppy, thin-shouldered Octavius Sinclair walk about smiling all the time? How could he look around him and still be happy? It was inexplicable. It was unfair.

So Horace led the other boys from school to the park. He spied upon Octavius, and his insides churned hot and black.

“Here we go,” he whispered to the boys huddled around him. He fished out some stones from beneath the bristly black hedges and curled his fists about them.

For a moment, a thought came to him that this was a terrible idea. He wasn’t a bad boy, so he should not be acting like one.

But the stones in his fists were cold and sharp and covered in filth. The slick and slimy feel of them—and of the air, and of his own soiled skin—made Horace’s heart boil over with hate.

It was not fair, for someone to find such joy when he could not.

“Now!” he shouted, and the crowd of boys leapt out from beneath the hedges and began to throw.


The stones fell from the sky in showers of pain, striking Octavius’s head, arms, and stomach. No matter where he turned, they struck him. He was caught in a storm of stones and frantic black feathers.

Where was Abram Brown?

Octavius cried out in terror and fell to the ground, covering his head.

That is when he saw the bird—one of the younger ones, with a bright yellow beak and matching feet—lying on the ground in front of him. Its head had been split open, and it laid there, broken on the pavement, crooked and glistening wet.

Octavius began to sob and gently tucked the bird underneath him as he huddled there, shaking. His fingers came away stained red, and it was the brightest color he had ever seen.

He was so caught up in his grief and terror that he did not at first notice when the triumphant laughter of the boys from school turned to screams.

He did not notice when the cloud of birds left him, gathered together in one great shining black clump, and dove—pecking, biting, tearing with their tiny yellow claws.

When silence fell, it did not register with Octavius until a few long moments had passed.

He uncovered his head and dared to look up.

The first thing he saw was that the birds were gone. He saw not even a feather, heard not a squawk.

The second thing he saw was that the boys from school were gone, too—although not in the same way. The sight of them there on the ground, all red and misshapen, slid right through Octavius’s mind and out the other side.

It was not a sight worth holding onto.

The third thing Octavius saw was old Abram Brown’s long brown coat, lying on the soot-covered pavement, empty as a rotting fruit peel.


That night, Octavius Sinclair heard whispers in his dreams. Even when he woke up to fetch a glass of water, he still heard them—the same whispers, following him into the waking world.

At first, Octavius could not understand what these whispers said. He drank his water and tucked himself back into his rickety white bed and sat very still to listen.

Eventually, he pulled out three words from the whispers: Dead and gone.

They came to him, over and over. No matter how hard he tried to push them through his mind and out, they would not budge. They stuck there, right behind his eyes, and built and built. The words overlapped and fell apart and came back together again, but Octavius could still understand them.

Dead and gone.

Dead and gone.

When a sharp knock came at Octavius’s window, he got right up and opened it.

He knew, by then, after hours of listening to these whispers in his head, what he would find. He had begun to recognize the sounds.

A black bird hopped onto the window sill. It tilted its shiny round head and stared at Octavius.

Dead and gone.

“I know,” said Octavius. “Poor old Abram Brown.”

The bird snapped its beak open and shut, flitted up onto Octavius’s shoulder, and stayed there.

Together, they sat by the open window and looked out into the smoky night sky, waiting.

A sound came to them from somewhere out in the darkness—the sound of a thousand flapping black wings.


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8 Responses to “Abram Brown’s Birds (Dead and Gone)”

  1. Samantha says:

    This was perfectly entrancing. The event of reading this story accompanied by the music was superlative. And you captured the whispering crescendo of the choir near the second half of the song too! Now I *need* to share this to twenty-three of my story-hungry friends. Thank you for brightening up my grey day.

    • Claire Legrand Claire Legrand says:

      Hi, Samantha! Thank you so much for stopping by, and for commenting. I’m so glad you loved the story! Isn’t that song perfectly haunting? I’ve wanted to write something inspired by it ever since I first heard it. Thank YOU for brightening up MY day! 🙂

  2. Misha says:

    This is amazing! A very welcoming yet mysterious scenario flashed in my mind, and it was so calming yet so exciting!

    Also, thanks to my friend Samantha (above or below my comment), who has opened this new door to this awesome story and, I hope, so many to follow.

    Just Keep Typing!

    🙂 x

  3. senclair nevan says:

    now i know what to tell the chorus instructor

  4. Alan says:

    This is so strange.I am retired now and that song has haunted me since I was at primary school.Never heard it since yet almost once a month it will come back to me in my mind triggered by someone dying in the news or a film.Why I never ever heard about the bird part and only remembered the first few lines.Reason it stuck in my head is we had a canary at home bought for my Birthday which was almost black in colour but sang so much we called him chirpy.I remember to this day coming in to living room and my Dad saying do not go over to the covered cage.No one said chirpy was dead but I knew and tried to hold back tears and hide them.When I got to school we had to sing this song for first time,and the dead and gone verse choked me,and remember teacher shouting at me to stop crying and sing.No one ever knew my ordeal and never ever told anyone not even now.This is such a release just typing it even if nobody ever reads it xx

    • Claire Legrand Claire Legrand says:

      Dear Alan,

      I feel so terribly sorry for your younger self! But I’m glad you found this story, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Thank you for telling us your story and taking the time to read and comment.

      Yours In Curiosity,
      Curator Legrand

  5. Mo says:

    I just want to let you know that I read this story to my 5th graders before teaching them the Old Abram Brown song. I’m a music teacher and I love giving stories and contexts to songs, the students get into it SO much more when there is meaning!

    Each one of them listened intently, in silence and awe the entire way through… and on their way out one girl said “That was the coolest story ever to read in school!” Now they can not WAIT to sing the canon next week.

    Thank you 🙂

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