The same bird. Again. Was it that one yesterday or the day before? He thinks so. Strange. They never used to do that, back when he was young, when the world was more solid and certain. He's fairly sure of that.
Was it yesterday or this morning? Hard to say. He could ask, but they'll likely be angry again. They get angry a lot, these days. He doesn't quite understand why. Only questions. He likes to talk to them, likes to know, though he can't always remember their names, why they're here.
Shimmering and songs, tinsel and ornaments. He doesn't remember her putting the tree up, but he's sure that he might have helped, at some point, that she might have sighed and sent him away to sit down with a cup of tea or brandy. Why? Why isn't he at home, with the TV and fire and garden? Where's the dog? He used to know her name, used to remember her so fondly...now, it's all ghosts, all mist.
He wishes he could go the same way.
A boy. Old Winter, old Christmas, in that freezing farmhouse, the stone walls, no central heating, no boiler. Only the open fire, the stove, boiling kettles to fill the tin bath. Spiders the size of his hand. Massive, black spiders, skittering between the stones. Not even knowing about the war, save in the vaguest sense: something that Mom and Dad sometimes talk about, something that sometimes comes on the radio.
It might as well be happening in a foreign country.
Outside, the ground is frozen hard, the surrounding fields buried in snow so deep, he can't wade through it.
No playing outside; not this winter. Too cold, enough to freeze the blood in his veins, enough to turn his eyes to ice. He stays upstairs, with his brothers and sisters, huddling under the same blankets, their breath misting as they whisper stories and secrets to one another.
Lies, he'll later learn; all lies, but ones he loves, even now.
The same bird. He's sure of it; outside the window, staring in at him with its dark, dark eyes, somehow clearer, more real than everything else. It sees him here, he knows it, and it sees him there; little boy and old, old man, not yet formed, not yet sculpted, going to sludge in his own head, on his own bones.
The boy is merely fascinated, wanting to crawl out of bed and open the window, invite the thing in and feed it scraps of ginger loaf. The old man is afraid. Afraid of what it means, what it brings. Of remembering and drowning in his own tears.
It's gone from the farmhouse window, from his childhood, with a croak and a flap of its wings, the boy all but forgetting it in the next instant, intent on some other game, some other story.
It's cold here, too. So cold. Coughing through the afternoon while they laugh and drink and eat below. Doorbells, frightening voices: ghosts come to say hello. He used to know them, but today, they are no one: misty, smoky things with uncertain, swimming faces, who use words and names he doesn't know any more.
It's so tiring. He tries...tries to hold on, to follow them, but it's like trying to grip a live fish with his bare hands. He can't go down, can't even bring himself to wake, yet. Not entirely.
A few more moments in this cold room, with its bare floorboards, its immense window, the trees and empty sky staring in at him.
She used to be here, the one whose name he can't remember, whose face has begun to dissolve behind his eyes, no matter how eagerly he tries to maintain it. He remebers her...oh, he remembers her! Twenty five, when they first met, how pretty she was, how funny, how much his.
And later: years and years, endless roast dinners and arguments and bills and dogs and cats. Motorcycle rides and foreign holidays: Austria, once. South Africa, three times.
And later, with wires and tubes and beeping machines, with tears and questions and pain.
The bird comes again, today, waiting for him. It has never been far away; he remembers, now: how consistent it has been, there almost every day, in the branches of trees, perched on rooves or windowsills, grubbing worms from gardens or fields.
Always there, eating his eyes and his thoughts, waiting for him to be almost empty, so that it might tear him open, carry what's left away.
Standing, shivering, he listens to the voices below: daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, neighbours, friends.
Unknown to him here, at the end; alien, no matter how much he has loved them, how much he has tried to make them laugh or safe or contented.
They don't know him and he doesn't know them. Their world is one of ghosts, and he...he can't bear to live there any more.
The window sticks, obliging him to lean against it. It gives all at once, the bird not taking fright, not leaping into the air, taking his one chance of escape with it.
Instead, it cocks its head, regarding him with its dark, inquiring eyes, asking him if he remembers, if he knows what was promised, when it came to him as a boy.
Cold air, chilling his flesh, reaching cold talons inside. He feels them around his heart, gently slowing it, freezing the blood in its chambers and channels.
Do you remember?
An old pact, older than humanity, older than ghosts, older than snow and souls. The bird flutters its wings, coming to him now that he no longer stands, now that he sloughs off the born burden of yesterday.
They don't hear, down below. Christmas songs and laughter, drunken barks and affectionate arguments.
They don't hear, and he doesn't care any more. Worm-eaten meat, fungus-minded refuse. He already sees and remembers so much more.
Spreading new and old wings, he takes flight into the cold, happy to forget and be forgotten, at last.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.