When Rhianna saw the first dead bird on the front step she sighed and bent down to where the bird lay on the morning’s newspaper with its wings outstretched, as if it were still flying; soaring down from the top of a tree perhaps, or surfing the wind. She thought it must have flown into the window beside the door and then fallen onto the newspaper to die.
She called her husband to come look but from the bedroom he just shouted, “Get rid of it.”
The bird was sparrow-sized, but pale grey where the sparrow is brown. Rhianna stroked its breast with her forefinger. “Poor thing,” she whispered. She blessed its tiny life lost and wrapped it in the outer sheet of the newspaper and dropped it in the garbage. Then she left for work and forgot all about the bird.
The next morning there was another bird, smaller than the first and still warm when she picked it up. A small drop of blood glistened at the corner of its beak.
She told her husband they would have to tape the glass beside the door, or something. When she got home she took a roll of blue electrician’s tape and criss-crossed the small window, ripping pieces of tape off with her teeth and pressing them down.
The following morning she opened the front door only halfway and looked down reluctantly. Bird number three fluttered for a moment in her white hands before it went still and the gloss in its eye turned dull. “Why is this happening?” she cried.
“Maybe they’re migrating,” her husband said, as he scrolled through Business Review Weekly on his phone, “and our house is in the way?”
She didn’t think so.
She buried the third little bird in the garden, near the crimson camellia. Feeling bad about the first two birds, she lifted them out of the garbage and buried them too. Several days went by and the tape she had stuck to the window rolled back at the ends, and the wind blew grains of dirt and a dandelion seed up to adhere to its curled sticky edges. There were no more birds, and Rhianna was relieved. Then the camellia, unnoticed, dropped all its petals into a pool of crimson and covered the graves of the three birds.
The following week Rhianna had to attend a training course in the city, and the start time meant catching a train in the still black morning, before most commuters were about. On Wednesday, in the chill half dark of pre-dawn, an older woman shrouded in a thick winter coat and scarf boarded the train. Despite the nearly empty carriage, she took a seat right beside Rhianna. Rhianna leaned away into the window.
The outside world flickered past — shadows, lights, backyard views into private lives Rhianna looked into guiltily. What happened in those railway line houses? Were their occupants happy? Did love reign inside, or something else?
The train rocked gently along. Rhianna’s eyes closed. As the train pulled in to the next station the thrift shop smell of the older woman huddled against Rhianna took her back to the first time she could remember catching a train as a child. She’d been with her grandmother and they’d been off to Melbourne to see the Myer Christmas windows.
“Don’t ignore the signs.”
Rhianna pulled out her ear buds. “What?”
The woman had stood up and was looking intently at Rhianna. “Understand? Don’t ignore the signs,” she said, and somehow Rhianna felt that she should know her; the tilt of her head and the gasp of air she took after each sentence were so familiar. Then the woman turned away and opened the carriage doors. As the train pulled out from the station, Rhianna could see the woman in her oversized coat walking away through the grey morning air. Suddenly disembarking the train and chasing after her seemed exactly what Rhianna should do, but it was too late. The train lurched around a corner and the woman was lost to view.
When Rhianna looked down into the seat where the woman had been sitting, she saw three feathers, tied together with black thread.
Rhianna fumbled for her phone and reached out to her husband. She heard only his voicemail: Sorry, I’m not available. She called her best friend. In a conversation diluted by her friend’s efforts to iron school uniforms, pack lunches and prepare herself for work before her two children woke, Rhianna heard, “Does it matter who she was? Either way, she was trying to tell you something. You should look it up in a dream book.”
“I didn’t dream these feathers, or the dead birds.”
“You need to know what it means.”
At lunch Rhianna went for a walk. In a damp and dingy laneway she found the Rose Quartz Bookshop, an incense fogged basement dangling with dream catchers and strings of polished gemstones. The shopkeeper took her to the back of the store and pointed to a book on dream interpretation. Rhianna stared at the shelf while her heartbeat settled and then reached for the book. Dead birds, she read, symbolize an ending or a change, and feathers, that she lacked courage.
“I looked up what dead birds in the yard mean,” Rhianna told her husband.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Rhianna, I’ll tell you what it means. It means birds have flown into our yard and then they’ve died.”
“It means,” she chewed out the word, “there’s a change coming, or I should make a change.”
“Go buy some new shoes. That should make you happy.”
She didn’t think so.
On Saturday morning while her husband was pedalling his bike mid-peloton along the beach road, she packed two bags; not nearly everything, but enough. On the doorstep she left behind the three feathers tied with thread.
As she walked out the front gate, a small finch flew over her head from the peppermint gum to the electricity wire.
Wendy Purcell studied professional writing and editing some years ago but then got distracted by a career in nursing. She has got that out of her system and is now focussed on writing. This is her third short story to be published, a fourth is upcoming in the next issue of Vautrin. She lives with her husband on small acreage outside of Melbourne, Australia that she pretends is a great English estate, despite being burdened by a complete absence of servants. When not writing she likes to garden, sew impractical clothes and ride her bicycle, preferably not up hills.