The Death of Birds is Conducted Without Weeping



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Scene Title The Death of Birds is Conducted Without Weeping
Synopsis Gabriel reflects on the things he lost at Pollepel Island. One of them is unexpectedly returned to him.
Date December 23, 2017

On the Coast of Maine

In other parts of the world, people buy houses on the beach and pay exorbitant amounts of money to let the sound of the ocean rock them to sleep every night. The dull roar of water crashing against the bluffs on which his father's cottage stands provides no real comfort, only a distraction from the thoughts colliding violently with each other in his head.

He is never alone here. There are the waves, of course, and the distant shapes of boats floating on the Atlantic. Seabirds, too, from laughing gulls to the sleek little razorbills that make their nests in the cliffs below. Sometimes, on the clearest, brightest days, when the wind blows mild, he spies the familiar silhouette of an eagle cruising across the sky.

Human visitors are much rarer.

Today, deep winter shadows cling to the cottage like a funeral shroud. A thick layer of clouds blocks out the light of the sun, giving the overgrown garden a somber appearance that makes it feel like dusk even though night is still a few hours away.

The air smells like salt and beach weeds, as it always does. It's a perfect time to chop wood.

And chopping wood is a perfect passtime. Balancing log on weathered tree trunk like he's placing something for execution, turning the long wooden handle of the axe in his hands, and then swinging in a two-handed arc over his head. It had taken Gabriel some time to perfect the technique, which is harder than it looks, taking both force and finesse, but he'd learned it already on Halloween, in 1900 somewhere outside Versailles.

Such is the life of Gabriel Gray.


Wood springs apart into two pieces, and the next breath he expels is a thick fog into the frigid air. Black grain is growing in thick down his jaw and throat, and hair a few months after it ought to have been cut is kept slicked back with cool sweat, streaks of grey dark and dull. After a long moment — and sometimes he is given to this, minutes of pure idleness — he moves to collect the next piece.

Brings the axe overhead.


"It’s not good, son."

Benjamin Ryans’ words were a gentle warning. Or a cowardly one, depending on how Gabriel chooses to interpret the other man’s motivations. As he climbs the stone slabs leading up the Bannerman’s Castle — what’s left of it — he passes broken bodies belonging to Ferrymen and military alike. It’s difficult to tell the difference between them. Birds crowd the corpses, vying for the best pieces of meat. Crows, gulls, birds of prey in varying shapes and size, anything with feathers and a proclivity for flesh — they squabble over footholds, their wings mantling and beaks opening around hoarse warning screams and hoots.

Sleet washes away the blood. There is so much blood.

The air smells of death and smoke and pulverised stone, and Gabriel can't bring himself to hurry. Movement shakes off the stiffness of fatigue, even slow plodding steps like his, but he remembers the way he could never move faster than this when he stepped in church as a boy, and this — all of this — is having the same effect.

His eyes linger on where a small pack of wretched scavengers squabble and squawk over some strip of meat, more violent and ravenous than they should be.

The courtyard.

Arms wrapped around himself, he continues in that direction, stepping over pooling blood that dilutes with sleet and slowly freezes into the earth. He sends out psychic feelers like a faulty radio dial as birds bay and swoop over head and all around. Finally, he reaches for them, and the strange turmoil he is suffering of anger and fear and dogged determination tremor through the nearest flock. It seems to say: it's me.

She comes to him on bare feet. Gabriel recognizes Eileen’s small frame beneath the material of her nightgown, soaked through with rain and plastered to her body like a second, flimsier skin. Long brown hair looks black and oily in the absence of any light except for the fires guttering in the castle’s battlements at her back.

Kazimir’s cane is missing. Something else is, too, although he won’t be able to place what it is until later.

Pain exerts heavy, dull pressure on Gabriel’s heart. Some of it is his. Most of it is hers. He feels her fear, too: wild and careening, higher up in her head. This is the sensation, she’s thinking, of being able to intellectualize your own death as it happens.

Which means that she isn’t really here, but she moves to meet Gabriel anyway.

He's stopped in his tracks. Hearts don't really skip, but he can feel it ache in one wild flush of adrenaline when he sees her. She might feel it too, the way feelings emanate from impulsive biomechanical response before they translate into this strange psychic energy that's become so familiar to him. Important to him.

His expression clears like he's seen the sun.

And he reaches out for her, invisibly, a wild rush of empathetic feeling, and feels something like falling through, which has him lurch forward to meet her. Unlocking his cold fingers off his own arms.

"Eileen," he says. Choosing not to understand, not yet, even as something like white noise is building up and up in the back of his mind.

"Don’t." The warning is sharper than Ryans’ had been. Gabriel knows that tone; she’s turned it on him on so many occasions like a knife, sticking him with pointy little words where she knows it hurts him the most. She used to enjoy jabbing at his pride, once upon a time.

Now it’s for his own protection.

Don’t come any closer. Don’t look. She doesn’t want him to see her like this, whatever this is. Gabriel senses the last of Eileen’s energy siphoning into the illusion of wholeness, of physical being, fine grains of sand lingering for a few final moments in the top half of an hourglass.

Her shoulders heave and shudder with the effort of containing both her grief and everything she’s ever felt for him, which she wishes she could leave behind as a keepsake for Gabriel to analyze and dissect so he can understand all the sentiments her own pride never allowed her to put into words. But Eileen’s ability doesn’t work that way.

All Gabriel gets is her intention. When he reaches for her, she reaches for him too. Starts to say, "I love y— "


Gabriel’s axe cleaves another log in two.

A cloud of finches and swallows expel themselves from neighbouring trees in response to something more powerful than the dull sound of axe metal biting wood, and Gabriel pulls back from whatever strange vertigo almost has him sinking to his knees. Sits, instead, on the axe-marked trunk, axehead buried in the soft dirt between his feet and forehead against the handle's end.

Breathing. Remembering the way the ground had felt sharp and cold that night when his knees hit the ground, and trying not to remember it. Remembering the vast emptiness he clawed after, that same emptiness he claws after when he wakes up from sudden dreams, and trying not to remember that either.

Ice is beginning to spit from the sky, threatening the dry wood he's yet to collect. Instead of attending to it, Gabriel sits and breathes against the way grief has tightened his rib cage with screws, and isn't sure who he's trying to be so fucking stoic for.

She used to lay with him at night, her soft, dark head on his chest, and listen to the drum of his heart in her ear. Sometimes she liked to stretch out her legs as far as they would go and see if she could touch his feet with the tips of her toes beneath the rumpled sheets.

When she laughed, she often laughed herself hoarse, and once even cried from joy and embarrassment at the same time. Her feet felt best submerged in the cold water running through the creek behind the Dispensary in the spring, or walking on damp sand beaches with her dress bunched up around her knees. And she showed him things like how to stitch shut a wound, to arrange flowers, to coax colourful hummingbirds to rest in the seat of his palm.

His Eileen could transform in an instant from the side of herself she showed the world to the other half she reserved for Gabriel and a sacred few. There are so many good memories tangled up in the bad ones.

Feathers rustle in his peripheral vision and a thin, silver band fastened around a raven's leg winks at him from the bird's perch on a fencepost a few feet away.

Gabriel returns to the present moment like he's coming up from being submerged under water. Sweat dries along his hair line and down the centre of his back, and salt water of a different kind gathers in around the sockets of his eyes, between his nose and cheek, tasted when he takes a sharper, deeper breath and looks up. His hands relax around the grip on his axe where he'd worried his own grip that would rub raw more ordinary, human skin, as he first sees the glint of silver catch the meagre light.

He lets go of memory — a hooked finger tugging loose a long, dark coil of hair from behind her ear, watching it spin free as she turns her head — to squint across until the handsome shape of the corvid resolves in his eyes.

Anxiety clutches at him for a moment. He's not above seeing what's not there.

But he slowly puts out an arm, elbow angled. Invitation.

The raven hops off the fencepost and gives a few haphazard thrusts of its wings to carry it across the short distance between them. Its feet hook on Gabriel’s arm, clinging to him like a lost child.

Bran has come a very long way. A chain dangles from his beak; at the end of the chain a pocket watch still swings from the momentum of the jump. Once a rich, burnished gold, time has worn away its luster, but that won’t stop Gabriel from making a positive identification. Elgin railroad. 1920’s. The watch itself is older than the chain is, although its face has been replaced sometime in the last fifteen years.

He would know. He’s the one who made the repairs to it.

Gabriel touches the back of his knuckles to soft feathers, light and a little disbelieving, before taking the pocket watch by placing his palm beneath it, accepting its weight so that Bran feels free to drop it.

"If it stops, just let me know. I can fix it."

Thumb smoothing over its case, he holds it to his ear to as he makes eye contact with the raven's black and blue eye. It's foolish, after all this time, to check that it might still be ticking.

And at the same time, he quests forward. Senses the age settled in brittle bones. Fatigue.

Bran relinquishes the pocket watch to Gabriel without any fuss. The man might even feel an invisible weight lifting off the raven as soon as it’s no longer in his possession, an emotion closely related to what a dog feels upon returning a stick to its master and receiving an affectionate scratch behind the ears in exchange.

No passenger, no human consciousness riding along in a metaphorical back seat. This bird is just a bird, even if it's more fond of Gabriel than it is anyone else left alive.

That's something.

Gabriel folds his arm in a little closer, lending Bran space enough to stay perched but sharing a little the shelter of his own body, the warmth from closer proximity. Birds aren't dogs. They aren't people either. You can't hold onto them, bury your face in their shoulder, feel their weight lean against yours, but he doesn't need that, holding onto cool metal in his hand until it warms.

He still needs to gather up the fire wood before the damp gets into it. He could probably cobble together something comfortable for the raven to rest within or on, as the wintry night draws in.

And even if he doesn't have his fine array of timepiece tools, the silence of the object in his hand is going to bother him until he sets the time right.

That, too, is something.

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