“Its eyes are human. There’s no other way of describing them. It has crystalline blue eyes with dark pupils, framed by heavy black lids. The bird had been staring at me with questioning, human eyes.”
“Kaia” won a second place prize in our 2015 New Voices contest.
THE COLD MORNING sun peeks through twin spires. Black forms rise from their roosts, a sudden torrent, occluding the light. They call a dawn chorus to Cathedral Square below. Right now, there’s no telling one from the next—they fly and swoop and escape as one indistinct mass. Eventually, though, the warmth of the sun falls across their black feathers and they return to roost and earth, to rest or forage. It is then, in the sudden calm, that I hear the wind whistling through the avenue of twisted oaks behind me. It is then that I ask how forever can end in moment.
THE RIVERSIDE CAFÉ is so quaint, I can’t help but think of suicide. I could drive the serrated knife into my wrist, spill my blood over the delicately filigreed tabletop—a bright arterial flow mixing with the jaunty yellows and periwinkles of the Swedish spring décor. But instead, I choose the more difficult option and open my email app. I haven’t erased any of Matthew’s messages—I can’t even bring myself to tuck his notes into a subfolder. I let my inbox remain littered by messages reading, “Hey there,” “Thinking of you,” “Dinner with Scott,” and the like.
My stomach tightens as I nudge the cursor to the “new message” icon and click.
I stare at the blank screen for several long moments before I begin typing:
You said that getting away would help. You were wrong. This trip has done nothing for me. I’d be better off back in San Diego, getting things arranged.
I push myself back from my laptop, tucking my neglected, too-long hair behind my ear. I think about my sister’s reaction. Jenna isn’t ready for the truth, for my truth. She is on a mission to heal my broken heart, bless her. But Matt left more than a broken heart. He and I had circled each other’s lives since we were teenagers—half my life. I’m not heart-broken; I’m empty. There is a hole threatening to swallow me, pull me into the emptiness that he left behind. Telling Jenna that her efforts are pointless would be about as effective as tying to close the door on one of those god salesmen looking to “spread the good word.” I delete the message and start over:
You were right. Stockholm could not be further from San Diego. There are days that I seem to completely forget about work at the data mill, etc. Midsummer is almost here and everyone’s positively festive. Between all the schnapps and crawfish, I’m almost ready to join them.
Yesterday, I took a trip a bit north to Uppsala—you’d love it. It’s a university town with lots of architecture and history, kind of like Oxford, but tiny and Swedish. Right now, it’s almost midnight and I’m enjoying the long twilight at a café on the Fyris river.
Oh, you wouldn’t believe the crows up here. Tens of thousands of the little guys circle the spires of the gothic cathedral in endless loops. It looks like a thunderhead of black birds. It’s eerie but fascinating. Check out my Instagram, I’ll post some pics in the morning.
Anyway, I just wanted to drop you a note to let you know that I’m doing okay.
I click send and the inbox reappears. A message from Matt stands like a headstone on the top of the list, “Home soon.” I don’t need to open it to recall what it says. He was running late and would grab fish tacos at the food truck. It’s his sign-off, however, that remains frozen in my mind: “Forever, love.”
I slam shut the lid of my laptop and stuff it in my bag, nausea cresting over me. Matt took his life exactly eighteen minutes after sending the message. And I’ve spent the last eight months trying to figure out why, what his message meant—if, as Jenna insists, it means anything at all. “Didn’t he always say things like that?” she had reasoned in a futile attempt to pry my mental grip loose from his last message. “It’s just a verbal tic, like saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes.”
I take a sip of the local wine the server had recommended. It’s sickly sweet. But I’m strangely comforted by the way the wine forces my mind to focus on the unpleasant taste, the way it coats my tongue as it moves to the back of my throat, the way it lingers long after I swallow. Still, I can’t shake the thought of Matt, so I let his memory take a chair. We sit together, in silence, watching the slow flow of the river carry detritus out of town. I watch a single leaf drift away and spin slowly, counterclockwise, almost suspended while the rest of the refuse continues to Lake Ekoln.
JENNA IS WRONG about one thing: I don’t measure my life as pre-Matt and post-Matt.
We were teens when we first met. Sure, we shared a great love affair, but despite pledging our undying love, we were drawn apart after a year or so. It was natural to lose each other—the gravity of growing up. I measure my life from the second time I met Matt— seventeen years later at a friend’s holiday party.
He threw himself into my arms, as if we had never parted—an eddy in time. I held him; the feeling of his rough cheek against mine overwhelmed my capacity for small talk. My mind traced the outlines of his face, connecting the boy I had loved with the man who stood before me. Everything made sense. His hair was shorter, black dye having given way to mousy brown. The full cheeks of youth had hardened, grown new angles. His eyes, although framed by the first signs of tight creases, were the same: crystal blue coronas with a ring of brown around his pupils. I had forgotten that his eyes weren’t a true blue—the mind, after all, tends to simplify, generalize. Memories jockeyed to take over the moment, projecting ghost images of the boy I had known onto the man who stood before me.
When Matt spoke, however, his words created a new memory, clear and sharp like broken glass. “Let me introduce you to my girlfriend.”
He introduced me as an old friend. I tried to speak—tried to go into that numb conversation mode of business parties. But I was at a loss. Matt held my eyes with that gaze we all knew—a look that pleaded, please don’t out me. It was a pact that I couldn’t break, so I complied in silence. But my mind screamed in protest. I couldn’t grasp having Matt thrown into my arms, then torn away the next moment. I muttered some niceties woven into excuses, eyes searching the ground between us, hands unsure what to do, pinching the bridge of my nose then brushing back my hair. I left soon thereafter, throwing coat and scarf over my arm and making my way to the door.
Matt wouldn’t let me escape that easily. “See you soon?” he asked, taking my coat and scarf and holding them for me to slip into. All the while, he held my eyes in a way that said he wouldn’t see me for a long time. I can’t remember what I said. Something pleasant, I’m sure, even though my mind was raging.
I’VE TAKEN TO enjoying my morning coffee on the stone benches that encircle Cathedral Square, watching the show put on by the birds. The crows, I notice, are smaller than the streetwise birds of San Diego, with their garbage-fattened bellies and patchwork feathers. The church crows are half the size of their urban cousins, thinner, sleeker. Their glossy black feathers glimmer in the light. Unlike city birds who work in twos or threes, the church crows number in the thousands, tightly gathered and perfectly coordinated in their dives and escapes. They circle above me, beaks turned downward, casting a long riverine shadow across the cobblestones.
I tear a piece from my sweet roll and toss it. A half dozen of the small crows peel away from the mass and dive, screaming a metallic “chyak chyak.” After a momentary scuffle, one hops away with the prize in its beak. The rest take flight, joining the endless circles above. I try to keep track of one. I am able to do so for a few moments before I lose myself to the hypnagogic patterns. They aren’t flying in one mindless loop—far from it. There is an outer shell that circumnavigates the cathedral, but inside that shell is a ballet of interlocking figure-eights, weaving and braiding their way through the cathedral’s twin spires.
I toss another bit on the ground, this time a little closer. The scene repeats itself, but one bird remains. It looks at me sideways, body leaning away, head lowered, ready to spring into flight. I toss some more pastry in front of it. Three quick hops and it has the morsel in its beak. “Chyak.” The church crow looks at me. I tear the rest of my roll apart and toss the bits closer and closer. The bird hops from crumb to crumb, erasing the trail I laid. I snicker, reminded of the birds that stranded Hansel and Gretel in the forest. I’d always wondered if those birds had been working for the witch, or just served as a reminder that nature had a way of undoing man’s best-laid plans.
When all the crumbs are gone, the little crow flaps twice and lands on the bench beside me, peering at my empty wrapper. It hesitantly snags the edge of the wrapper then flies to the backrest where it gazes at me sideways. That’s when I notice its eye.
My heart flutters and I gasp. The bird spooks and disappears into the circling mass above. Its eyes are human. There’s no other way of describing them. It has crystalline blue eyes with dark pupils, framed by heavy black lids. The bird had been staring at me with questioning, human eyes.
An old man laughs at me from an adjacent bench—the hoarse hissing laugh of advancing age.
“Excuse me,” I say. “These crows … have you—”
“They’re not crows, you know.” He nods to himself, a wide smile drawing a map of wrinkles across his ruddy face. “Djävliga kaior. What do you call them? Not crows … they are jackdaws. We call them kaia.”
“Are all their eyes like ….” I pause, my forefinger touching the corner of my eye.
The old man nods, making a sucking sound between his teeth then said, “Eyes like people, ja?”
“Do they all have eyes like that?”
“Ja, sure.” He nods again, tearing chucks of bread from a loaf in his lap and tossing them onto the cobblestones. “That’s why they’re here at the cathedral after all.”
The man removes his cap and turns his face to the spires. “The kaia, they carry the souls of the lost, those seeking forgiveness. Hoping for salvation. That’s why they come to the cathedral.” He points his balled up cap at the spiraling birds. “There sure are an awful lot of lost souls these days, no?”
I’m worried about you. You missed your flight home and haven’t bothered to call or write. Do you have a new hotel contact? What’s going on?
I KNOW THAT the kaia have something to tell me. I can almost read the message in the elaborate cursive of their flight patterns. Each loop forms an ephemeral letter, disappearing as the winged hand moves to the next curve. I try to decipher their code, struggling to hold the entire script in my mind before it’s overwritten by recursive flights. But their missive remains out of reach of comprehension, like a secret whispered just beyond hearing. I don’t let the elusiveness of their message frustrate me; it’s a testament to its importance. Instead, I visit the cathedral dawn and dusk to learn their words.
To my long-lost brother,
What’s up?! I can see that you keep posting pictures of those crows on Instagram, but we haven’t heard from you for weeks. Drop us a note and let us know how you’re doing. Please, don’t ignore this message. Don’t make me fly out there and look for you.
THE PHONE WOKE me in the dead of the night. A thin voice spoke from its tiny speaker, “I left her, Tim. It’s over.”
I recognized the voice as if it were my own. “Are you okay, Matt?”
Matt and I hadn’t spoken much since the party three years prior. I’d heard that he’d married his girlfriend. I’d seen Facebook posts from his honeymoon in the Caribbean, photos of his downtown condo, and of her. My stomach clenched every time news of his new life crept into mine, so I tried to screen off my memories, keep our occasional conversations brief, friendly, superficial. I couldn’t let him touch me in any real way.
“I will be,” he said. “It hurts, but it’s the right thing. I loved her and it was good—there was just something missing. I felt like there was a hole in my heart, even when we were having fun.”
“Why are you calling me?”
“Because that hole …” Matt paused. “It’s shaped like you.”
We never drifted apart after the phone call. We were friends at first, then lovers again, then we became one of those couples whose names were so connected that one couldn’t say Tim without Matt, or Matt without Tim. Everything was fantastic. Matt was my lighthouse, his smile beaming warmth and love over our home. Our jobs were going well. Everyone knew that we would be married soon. We’d found everything we ever wanted.
And then he was gone, and silence fell over me. It became the tongue of Matt’s final promise, forever, love. It was the language of my seclusion, a shadow of his laughter, the gap between his words, swallowing meaning from his message, distorting it, until his words floated unattached, suspended and impenetrable, rearranging themselves into a thousand possible messages—and in those words I tried to uncover reasons that transcended his sudden absence, that bound us together still. I knew that I was on the verge of discovery when Jenna stepped in and forced me to leave our home, forced a distance between me and Matt.
We are officially freaking out. You won’t respond to any of us. But we know you are getting our messages because of your damn Instagram feed. What’s up with those birds anyway?!?! Please write me. Write anyone. Just let us know that you’re okay.
ONE KAIA IN particular keeps my attention. Its feathers shimmer green then purple, depending on the angle of the sun. Its head and shoulders form a graceful arch that reminds me of the cathedral’s doorway—open, inviting and mysterious. The bird visits me, landing on the bench, cocking its head to square an eye at me, as if it’s waiting for me to ask a question. It hops two steps closer.
I toss it bits of my sweet bun. “Hello there, my friend. What’s new?”
The kaia responds, “chyak, chyak.” It preens itself, dipping its head and stretching a wing in a long low arc, like a bow.
“It’s certainly nice to see you again, too,” I say, tipping an imaginary hat.
The kaia jumps to the seat back, startled.
“Sorry to frighten you.” I toss more pastry on the bench and wait for the bird to settle beside me again.
I am not alone. For the duration of the sweet bun, I’m sharing my morning with elegant, if quiet, company.
Matt rarely spoke in the morning. His dreams often held him in thrall. That’s not to say that he was unpleasant or rude. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was ethereal, emanating warmth like the rising sun. He loved the transformative time between sleep and wakefulness, between dark and light. He told me that it was in those moments when fantasy was indistinguishable from reality. And I loved to sit in his quiet presence, sipping coffee, knowing that he was painting our world colors beyond my imagination.
“Chiah, chia.” The kaia hops off the bench and stands between me and the cathedral.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Chiah, chia,” it cries, taking to wing, and flying tight circles over my head before landing between me and the cathedral again.
I take a tentative step, not wanting to spook it, not wanting to lose my company. It hops in place, calling “chiah, chia.”
When I reach it, the bird flies another ten, twenty feet toward the cathedral and resumes calling. It’s leading me somewhere. I follow. And, after several minutes, it stops to peck and scratch at the ground, crying, “chiah, chia.”
I take the hint and approach. There is a glint of metal coming from the ground. The bird hops in place, beckoning me forward. I see a silver hoop caught between the cobblestones and pry it loose. It’s an earring—nothing special, just a simple hoop of wire. But the bird hops and cries.
“Is this what you wanted?” I ask.
“Chyak, chyak.” The kaia hops toward me, bobbing head and flapping wings.
“Here you go then.” I place the hoop in my palm and offer it.
Without hesitation, the bird hops forward. It holds my gaze with an eye, I notice, that is not true blue after all, but has an inner ring of brown encircling the pupil. Before I can say anything, it snatches the earring and takes flight.
I watch the kaia, beak glistening with its silver prize, as it makes its way to the cathedral’s twin spires. I am reminded of the way Matt had thrown his arms wide as if to embrace the world when I gave him a promise ring in the wake of the court ruling that opened the door to marriage. His joy, however, always followed a moment’s pause, when he would cock his head to the side and fix me with a lucid eye, trying to decide whether he was still in that fantastic time between wake and sleep—whether he could accept his happiness as real.
“IF EVERYTHING HAS to end, then why do we fight so hard for the here and now?”
Matt was in one of his pensive moods. And I couldn’t say that I completely disagreed with him. With rent, bills and taxes, it seemed at times that the only purpose of our lives was to fill other people’s wallets. We were dairy cows, kept to produce sustenance for others. Our family, jobs and hobbies were just distractions, making the slow process of being drained dry more bearable.
“Because some things don’t end,” I said, resisting the gravity underlying his question.
“Like what?” He wasn’t ready to let go of his mood. “No matter what we do, our house will crumble. If we had children, they would die, and so would their children. The goddamn sun will burn out. It’s one of the most basic rules of the universe—nothing lasts forever.”
“What about love?” I knew that my answer was premature as soon as I spoke.
He laughed dismissively. “Things only last forever in fantasies. If love is real, then it has to die.” Matt had a habit of speaking in absolutes when he was struggling to make sense of things. I always figured that these moments provided ballast for the free soul that woke every morning with both feet in the realm of the fantastic.
“C’mon, Matt, you of all people know that’s not true. What about all those stories that have lasted hundreds, thousands of years. Romeo and Juliet? Tristan and Isolde? Orpheus and Eurydice?” It wasn’t fair, I knew, to throw these examples at him. He had a passion for the classics and would never besmirch them—even when my argument was so obviously based on faulty logic. Under better humor, Matt and I would have volleyed about the concept of time when experiencing versus witnessing an event. But a cloud hung low and heavy over his head.
Matt sipped his coffee in silence. I followed his lead, not wanting to press matters further. We nursed our coffees until, finally, he spoke in a hushed voice, “Would you follow me into the underworld? Would you come find me like Orpheus?”
“Yes,” I said without hesitation.
“You may want to think twice about that. It didn’t work out so well for him.” He nodded, satisfied that he had won the argument, and returned to his coffee.
A week later, Matt wrote, “forever, love” in the email that closed the book on his life.
I KNOW NOW that the kaia is not carrying Matt’s soul—it is Matt. There’s no other explanation for those blue and brown eyes, the quiet mornings, those long gazes, the way it stretches its wings to embrace the air. He’s reaching out to me; he wants me to be with him. It’s my duty to listen and follow. So, day after day, I meet him at Cathedral Square. We share breakfast then he tries to tell me what happened.
You haven’t written or called in over a month. It’s time to end whatever’s going on and check in. Please don’t be pissed off at me, but I’ve contacted the consulate and reported you missing. I don’t know what else to do. I posted this on your Instagram because I know you’re here. BTW, cute bird shots. Call me!!!
“Chia, chiah,” Matt calls. He flaps insistently, hopping across the square. I follow. He leads me to the cathedral and stops. I look up the stairs to the great oak doors, capped by a corona of stained glass. The fact that Matt and I were to be married was the worst kept secret ever. You’d think that we would’ve jumped on the opportunity once the courts cleared the path for us to formalize our relationship. But years passed and we never bothered to follow through. At first, we held back on purpose—we wanted to let the cinders of his divorce settle and cool before doing anything that looked disrespectful. His ex had struggled with the revelation that her husband was in love with a man. But then years passed unnoticed, and our lives grew so entangled that marriage seemed an unnecessary formality, if not an expensive and logistical headache.
Now, looking at the cathedral, I regret letting him slip from my life without getting married.
“Chiaw, chiaw,” he cries, flying toward the door then sweeping upward toward the twin spires.
“Chiaw, chiaw.” He settles in the highest window of the spire to the left of the entrance. I feel I understand his insistent words, “Come, fly home with me.”
I drop a handful of coins into the donation box and disappear amongst the press of tourists viewing the church through the screens of their smartphones. None of them notice as I slip past a red rope and take the stairs that lead up the spire. I can hear Matt’s metallic call echoing down the staircase, “Chiaw, chiaw—come, fly home with me.”
I am breathless and my legs feel like lead when I reach the window, but I’m filled with an inexplicable lightness. Matt sits on the windowsill, preening himself on a roost of dark stone.
When I reach the window, Matt takes flight. He doesn’t go far, though. I am overwhelmed by desire. I want to join him, touch him, share in his cursive flight. I want to feel the ground disappear from under my feet, feel wings sprout from my back. I want to feel the wind catch me and bear me up to twin spires.
I climb to the window sill, prepared to answer Matt’s call. But instead of welcoming me to his dance, he raises an alarm, “kaw-kaw-kaw,” then turns on me, oil-black wings beating against my face. He is joined by other lost souls, a barrage of wings and beaks driving me back from the ledge. I retreat to the cold slate floor and listen to the cacophony outside the window. My breath is gone and my vision narrows. I feel the bond between soul and body weighing me down like a diver’s belt. Why does he call me, if he’s only going to drive me away?
He sits on the window ledge, watching me. I open my mouth, trying to find words that won’t come to me. In response, Matt spreads his wings to fill the narrow window, to block it. Not this way.
“I don’t understand,” I finally say. “What am I supposed to do?”
He remains silent. Forever, love, he had written all those months ago. I remember my promise, Orpheus and Eurydice. I remember Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde—all the classic love stories: tragic, enduring, infinite. How can a love story last forever if there’s no one to witness the lovers’ sacrifices?
I RETURN TO Cathedral Square the next morning. The old man who first told me about the kaia sits on the same bench where I first found him, tearing bits of bread from a loaf on his lap and tossing them on the cobblestones. Birds collect noisily around his feet, but one stands perched and quiet on the backrest.
“Tell me about her,” I say, taking a seat next to him.
The old man fixes me with a defiant look that softens after several long moments. “Her name was Ingrid. Oh, she was the most beautiful girl in all of Linköping. She was an engineer’s daughter, you see—wanted to be an engineer herself. But those were different times back then, and her father was a strict man. A cruel man, if you ask me. He thought it was me that put those ideas in her head. And he wouldn’t let her have anything to do with me. She fought and fought and fought, but it all became too much for her ….”
His eyes settle on a distant spot.
“But I’ve stayed true to her, for always,” the old man slaps the bench to punctuate his point. The birds around his feet flap about in alarm, but his bird doesn’t startle. Instead, it hops closer to him, making a soft clucking sound.
There is more to his story, I know. But not today. It’s a tale that will unravel with time and care. So, I give his shoulder a gentle squeeze and leave him to his company.
I glance around the square. Many more sit alone on the benches encircling the courtyard, tossing crumbs to the kaia. I will be witness to each story. And someday, someone else will come and bear witness to Tim and Matt. And when our story is retold, forever will cease to be a word, cease to be a measurement of time. We will be bound together as the tale passes from mouth to ear. A doorway to the infinite.
“Forever, love,” I promise. I walk to a grey-haired business woman who is picking at a croissant while a large kaia chatters next to her knee.
© Brian Hodges, 2016
From See the Elephant, Issue Two, Love and War in the Slipstream. Click here to purchase the whole magazine in ebook or PDF format for only $2.99. Every sale supports the future of this magazine!
Brian T. Hodges lives amongst the moss and mud and the ferns and forests of the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a lawyer, researcher, and non-fiction writer. He is also a musician, having released several albums of esoteric and ethereal music under the moniker, the Blue Hour (https://thebluehour.bandcamp.com/). He can often be found wandering stream beds or trails, turning over stones to find new stories. His fiction has been published by New Lit Salon Press, the Bearded Scribe Press, and Liquid Imagination, The Strange Edge received an Honorable Mention from the Writers of the Future contest (V31 Q1 2014), and was a finalist in the 2013 N3F Amateur Short Story Contest. He can be contacted via Twitter at @brianthodges.