The bird was small and brown, a common sort of bird, distinguished only by the blood that matted its feathers, the chunk of wing missing, and the shiny slip of some internal organs spilling forth from its torn belly. The tiny victim of a cat mauling, the bird struggled to survive, its black eyes rolling terribly, its beak opening and closing as though trying to speak. It was a house wren, Troglodytes Aedon, though the girl who found the bird was ignorant of this fact.
Drawn by the movement on the sidewalk, she’d crossed the street to find the bird in this state, good wing flapping in spasms. She beheld the blood, the mangled belly and wing, then continued on, unable to help. But it nagged at her, this tiny life force that refused to die, or perhaps begged for a death that would not come. She returned to find it had moved a short distance, leaving a streak of dry blood and feathers in its wake. The beak opened and closed, opened and closed. She nudged the bird with the toe of one boot and it thrashed, dropping a loop of intestine onto the cement. Still the bird lived.
The answer presented itself and a shiver tickled the girl’s spine. She made eye contact with the wren and it seemed to still in anticipation as she raised one foot. Dropping the boot before she lost her nerve, there was only a slight resistance followed by the snap and pop of its tiny hollow bones breaking like dry kindling under her sole. Tears poured forth from her like the blood seeping out from underneath her boot, tears that would never fully stop.
The woman was a small, bony sort, distinguished only by the streaks of auburn blood in her mouse-brown hair, the sheet metal shrapnel that jutted from beneath her shoulder blade, and the carbuncles of windshield glass speckling her pale skin. The victim of an obstinate maple that had refused to yield to her speeding station wagon, she was a wife and a mother, though the young man who found her knew none of that.
He was training for next spring’s triathlon through the Smoky Mountain roads of eastern Tennessee when the gleam of crumpled metal wrapped around the Acer pensylvanicum caught his eye.
Ditching his bike, he crept forward with the caution of one approaching a rattler. Felled twigs popped beneath his cycling shoes and sent chills up the length of his spine. The woman looked dead at first glance; eyes closed and shards of bone spiked through skin like split bamboo. Her body was warm and blood still wet as he placed two fingers beneath her jawline. Her eyelids fluttered, and she gasped, a bubble of blood bursting from her lips. He jumped backward, the front of his pants betraying his jittery bladder.
“Are you okay?” he asked, regaining his composure.
Clouds of breath, rather than words, issued from her gasping mouth, but her blinking eyelids whispered infinite pain. He panicked and retreated to his bike, getting on, then off, as tiny snowflakes spat on his face. The world was silent, still.
He approached the woman once more.
“Does it hurt? Blink once for yes.” He quivered with fear, rather than chill.
The woman blinked once.
“Can I help?” he asked, tears nearly frozen to his cheeks.
The woman blinked once, then rolled her eyes to indicate the metal protruding from her back like a crude wing.
The young man touched the cold shrapnel, and the woman blinked again.
The steel warmed beneath his hand, but he made no move. “I can’t do it,” he said.
Yes, she blinked, then clenched her eyes shut. The young man closed his own, then took a deep breath and gripped the metal tighter. He marshaled his strength and felt the shrapnel yield with a sickening, sucking sound.
The clouds grew smaller until her lips were still. Tears poured down his face as blood pulsed from the open wound, baptizing the single wren tattoo peeking through her rent clothing.
He is a body in a bed, in a place full of bodies in beds. Felled by a microscopic tangle of his own platelets, he is distinguished only by the endless sleep which has stripped the meat from his bones and the mind from the man. The woman at his bedside holds his hand, as he once held her mother’s, though she is unaware of this intimate detail.
There is a song outside the window: lilting, sweet, and sad; a lamentation, rather than a dirge. His mind produces the image of a small, unprepossessing bird, and from the gulf in which he now resides he struggles to find the word for this thing, this small beast that suddenly seems so important.
The song brings tears to the eyes of the woman, and she blinks them away with the skill of one practiced at hiding her emotions. Her final duty to him nearly complete, she is here for her client, and for his daughter who can’t bear to watch these final moments tick by in silence, the machines stilled and respirator now ominously quiet.
His eyes shiver beneath their onionskin lids in a constant state of REM; a sleep deeper than sleep. Breath comes in scratchy gusts through the extraneous tube in his throat, each a bit further apart from the last, a bit smaller, as though the air in his lungs is carrying away the last bits of his soul, until the sound stops and the eyes settle.
He finds the name at last, finds his bones have become as light as air, though his form is no longer brittle but strong and healthy. There is a song in the air and an imperative in his heart, pulling him home, as he takes to the sky and is gone.
Note on the Collaboration
This chain-story was composed in three sections. The first installment “Humanitas,” written by Emma McMorran Clark, was inspired by the Amanda Palmer song “Killing Type.”
The second installment “Caritas,” written by Jonathan Riley, was inspired by Emma’s first section.
Emma finished the story off with the third and final installment “Patientia.”
After the completion of the chain-story, we sent a copy to Dino Parenti to see if it inspired any photographic genius and indeed it did. He supplied the multi-media image “Flock #1” to accompany the story.