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The Thing with Feathers

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It’s been a year since John didn’t blow his brains out in some secret place and he still can’t sleep in the dark, but he has a new lamp with a dimmer control to help him work his way through the shades of dusk. He doesn’t know why it’s so important to him to be able to sleep in the dark but it is.

Although he doesn’t have nightmares anymore, sometimes he talks in his sleep. He can hold entire conversations, which is how he accidentally tells Sherlock about one sad fragment of his life, or really someone else’s life, that he believes he forgot about, or let go of, months and months ago. Then he drifts back into the deeper countries of his night, outside which Sherlock must impatiently wait till morning to question him further.

“Where did that family live?” he asks, casually, over breakfast.

Sherlock is not able to act casual well enough to fool John, who side-eyes him and protests: “You can’t go stealing it. They were kids.”

Sherlock lays his hand flat along John’s sternum, to which he has easy access because this breakfast is taking place in bed, and which access he takes advantage of because John’s breast is solid and because Sherlock likes the valley between John’s pectorals, which are hairy to exactly the correct degree, in Sherlock’s opinion. The feeling of John being alive is also an excellent feeling. “I won’t steal it,” he promises. “But tell me anyway. Tell me about the house, just to try your memory. It’s good for your brain. You should do mental exercises, to keep your capacities youthful.”

So John looks at Sherlock as sternly as he can, which is not very sternly, in retaliation for Sherlock’s being ridiculous. He describes the house, four doors away from the awful flat he shared with Charlotte and Colin the Warlock, the lion door knocker that summoned no one, the Legos all over the floor, the tired mother, the five children. As he talks he drifts back to that day and his voice loses its color. When he gets to the part about how Beakley tried to stay in the shoe box instead of going in his cage, he has to stop.

Sherlock’s heart stutters.

Two days after John returned the lovebird, he was walking around and around London, and what if Sherlock hadn’t been knocked over by that scooter? The empty room in his Mind Palace, the one with the list headed “Things I would like in a friend,” would still be empty. John sees the look on Sherlock’s face and says “It’s all right, I’m here,” and presses Sherlock to himself and then both of them are distracted by subsequent events that don’t involve breakfast except in connection with the spreadability of jam, so that John forgets all about the conversation.

But Sherlock doesn’t.

*

Sherlock arrives early one morning at the house with the lion door knocker and watches from across the street, magically inconspicuous to tired mothers and racketing children, until all the inhabitants have left; he double-checks by buzzing the buzzer fruitlessly and then he slips out his lock picks and lets himself in. The Legos might still be in the same spots on the floor as when John delivered Beakley, for all he can tell. Beakley at least is not in the same place – his cage is hung from a stand and it enjoys a patch of sunlight.

But it is barren. There is no cuttlefish. There is no bell to ring. There is no climbing chain or food-puzzle toy. There is not even a mirror. There is a perch, and there is a bowl of food, and there is a bowl of fresh water. Sherlock wishes he could unmake his promise not to steal Beakley, a winged sociable creature of trees and plains who exists in a desert of boredom. Beakley would probably become a cocaine addict at once if given the opportunity. His feathers are shabby and all in all he looks much the way John’s voice sounded when he told the story.

Sherlock takes the food out of Beakley’s bowl and scatters it around his cage and then covers most of it with some pieces of plain paper he unearths from among the Legos and stuffed toys and whatnot. Beakley watches dully.

“It’s a puzzle,” Sherlock explains. “For you. To give you something to do, for a few minutes at least. You see, you push the paper aside to get your food out from under it. After you’ve eaten, you can tear the paper to bits and fling it about. Or you can do that for a break between courses, if you like. It’s to stop you going mad in your cage. Although perhaps you already have. I don’t know whether I can fix that, but I’m going to try.”

He leaves the house, not looking back at Beakley.

After the door locks behind Sherlock, the little lovebird hops down from his one perch and begins, tentatively, to poke at the paper.

*

The key to solving the problem of Beakley, Sherlock considers, is that Beakley had fresh food and fresh water, and his cage was in the sun. The tired mother and her five children are not unfeeling, but she is too stretched by her other duties to give Beakley much time or thought, whereas the children are, well, children. Not as idiotic as adults in some ways, but it will not have occurred to any of them to wonder whether what is, is any different from what should be. After all, Sherlock spent his entire childhood and young adulthood not conceiving of even a hypothetical friend for himself: the world was simply as it was, and he was simply a person who had nothing to do with the notion of a friend. It’s no great surprise that five ordinary children are incapable of imagining that a winged creature might prefer a life different from the one provided.

*

London is largely populated by those who owe Sherlock favors. The roster of the beholden includes Maria Wiesner, Ph.D., the woman in charge of the London Zoo’s Blackburn Pavilion, where birds fly about in an ersatz but pleasant rainforest and cloud forest –

“ – neither of which constitutes a suitable habitat for the species you’re describing,” she informs Sherlock, regretfully. Sherlock caught a malicious online prankster who had chosen Dr. Wiesner, quite at random, to be provided with a new identity as a heroin trafficker, so she would want to help even if she did not feel sorry for the little bird. As she does.

He glares at her.

“I didn’t say there was nothing we could do!” Dr. Wiesner turns to her laptop and pulls up the web page she wants. “Here. And I’m owed a few favors myself, you see, so I think we can persuade them to take in a bird on short notice.”

The website belongs to Greater London Lovebird Rescue. Sherlock regards it with pleasure. Photographs depict lovebirds of several species, flying about well-lit aviaries large enough to hold small trees, a fountain, and plenty of toys and puzzles. The caption explains how the toys and puzzles are switched out every few days, to preserve the birds’ interest in them by keeping them novel. To the right of the last photograph of the aviary is one of a young man who hones his arts-and-crafts skills by inventing additional, clever birdy puzzles.

There is a separate aviary, in sight of the large one but smaller and quieter, where newcomer birds may acclimate. The photograph of this aviary is accompanied by some brisk text explaining how carefully potential adopters are scrutinized.

If the world were perfect, Beakley could go to live on the African plains where his relatives must once have lived, but he would not know how to conduct himself there. A wild baby lovebird learns how to be a wild grown-up lovebird. Beakley never got these lessons. If he must be a lovebird in a cage, then at least he can be a lovebird in an immense and interesting cage with some bird friends. What might the first item be, on Beakley’s list of “Things I would like in a friend”?

*

Outside the pet supply store where the tired mother buys lovebird food, there appears a table laden with information about Greater London Lovebird Rescue. The table is set up and run by a young woman who used to be part of Sherlock’s Homeless Network and who now, being no longer Homeless, is simply part of his Network. Mysteriously, she and it manifest themselves about an hour before the tired mother goes lovebird-food shopping, and then unmanifest themselves a few minutes after the tired mother has bought the lovebird food and left the shop, having been offered, and having eagerly taken, a flyer:

 

A HAPPY NEW HOME FOR YOUR LOVEBIRD?

Do you love your bird, but find yourself overwhelmed by the many demands on your time … ?

 

*

“But, Mum, Beakley’s ours!” wails the second-youngest of the five children. The youngest is too young to follow the discussion and is only crying because of the second-youngest’s distress. The three older children have tight sad faces and are just waiting for the upshot.

“But I’m not sure he’s happy.” The tired mother shows the second-youngest, the middle, and the two oldest Sherlock’s brochure, with its color photos taken from the lovebird rescue group’s files. Lovebirds make merry in trees, on perches, on wooden ladders, in the air. Lovebirds chew sticks. Lovebirds roll balls along the aviary floor. “Look at the birds in these pictures, and look at Beakley. What do you think?”

The oldest child says nothing, because oldest children often find it wearisome always to go first. The middle child says nothing, but weeks have already passed since she privately began to feel strange about how quiet Beakley always is. The second-oldest child looks at the brochure, looks at Beakley, bursts into tears, and says, “We should take him there now.”

“I hate all of you,” the second-youngest says, meaning that he knows they’re right.

*

The tired mother gets a warm hello when she phones Greater London Lovebird Rescue, arrangements are made for the family to bring Beakley in the next afternoon, and Sherlock is briefly tempted to pump his fist in the air when he gets the text from the rescue group’s director. He recovers his dignity in time and spends the evening in the kitchen, producing small, controlled explosions to stand in for fireworks. It remains only to shanghai John, which is easily done because John generally prefers to be wherever Sherlock is and also has not got work the next day, so there will be no need to wheedle him into phoning in sick or to kidnap his patients and thereby prevent them from turning up for their appointments.

*

“Sherlock, why are we standing behind an array of potted palms and watching an aviary?” Sherlock doesn’t often do things that make John sad but today is an exception. The lovebirds calling out, flying, playing with their toys, and grooming one another all remind him of Beakley, of course. Maybe Sherlock thought the sight of so many happy birds would somehow outweigh John’s memory of one who was sad. However, this still doesn’t explain why Sherlock has concealed himself and John behind the potted palms.

“Ssh,” Sherlock says. He even puts a finger to John’s lips. The door at the far end of the aviary room is opening to reveal the director of Greater London Lovebird Rescue, the tired mother, and the five children, whose sad faces brighten when they see the airy room and the joyful birds cheeping and twittering throughout. The mother is carrying Beakley in his too-small cage. Even from this distance John can see him raise his head at the sound of the other birds, and begin to look about him.

The director and the family approach the smaller aviary, the one for new arrivals. There is only one other bird inside it now, and she watches alertly, murmuring, as the people come near. The director slides open the aviary door as the tired mother unlatches Beakley’s cage and reaches in to take him on her finger.

Beakley hops right up.

John is clutching Sherlock’s arm as hard as he can, and biting his lip. Sherlock takes a worried look at him: John’s eyes are shining and he draws, if possible, closer to his friend.

“Goodbye, Beakley,” says the oldest child.

“Bye, Beakley,” says the next-oldest.

“I’ll miss you, Beakley,” says the middle child.

“He’ll be happy, right?” says the second-youngest.

“Yes,” says the tired mother, in a voice of certainty. She conveys Beakley, on her finger, to the aviary’s open door.

The very youngest child says nothing and only watches with her mouth hanging open.

Beakley stays perched on the mother’s finger at first. His head turns right, and left, and up, and right and left again. He catches sight of the other lovebird. His wings open. The muscles are weak, because he has had almost no opportunity to fly in years, but he bats them as hard as he can, and then he bats them harder.

He leaves the tired mother’s finger and travels, waveringly, upward, in the air, not exactly free, but freer, in the air, at last, to where he will have a friend, up in the open space.

A crumb of sorrow in John’s heart also lifts its wings and rises, waveringly, higher and higher; and higher yet; and then it is gone.