The following is a short story originally published in On Spec. Check them out and support Canadian speculative fiction!
“Rufus is a bad man,” Grandma said to me when I returned from the market. “You shouldn‘t spend so much time there.”
“I know,” I said. I sat on the hard cement floor and warmed my feet by the fire. The sun was out, but it was a cool day.
Grandma was watching me from her bed across the empty room. Only Grandma’s bed remained from the furniture we once had. The rest, like the floor boards and the wallpaper, had gone to the fire. Now our room was concrete and gray.
I thought. I waited. I scratched a picture of a bird onto the floor with a loose nail. I had drawn thousands of them.
“Put granny’s ring in the window,” Grandma said. “I want my mourning doves to come back to me.”
“Donna and Charlie!” I hopped to my feet and ran to the bed. Grandma smiled at me, and then she slid a gold ring from her finger and pressed it hard into my palm. There was something written in the ring, little letters on the inside, but I couldn’t read and neither could she. I took it and placed it on the concrete windowsill, where it glinted in the sun.
Outside the window, there were two other grey buildings, just like ours, making the walls of a square way at the bottom. On the fourth side, the square ended at the sea. Sometimes, when the storms came, the water would blow in, between the concrete circles that mom had told me once held trees, and then when the sun came back I could see the reflection of the buildings and the sky in the square, and it looked like we were floating through the clouds.
I waited for the birds.
Soon after, they came, swooping down at the sight of the ring, and landing next to it on the windowsill. Donna and Charlie, Grandma’s mourning doves.
“Hi Donna. Hi Charlie,” I said. I sat down and watched.
Charlie ruffled his brown feathers and spoke: “O Donna, your wings are the wings of angels, and your eyes are the light of the stars. I am just a poor dove. I have no possessions to offer you, no riches. I have only my heart to give.” Charlie had a deep, crackly voice, like the sound of distant thunder. Charlie didn’t speak to me. He had eyes only for Donna.
“Oh, Charlie, what good is your heart to me? Can it play me an aria, or write me a sonnet, or paint my portrait across the sky? No Charlie, I do not want your heart. Come back when you have something beautiful to offer me.”
“I will give you my feathers,” Charlie said.
“Then you esteem yourself too much.”
“But I love you. I cannot be without you. I am at my very wit’s end.”
Donna turned her head away from him. “Then your wit is much too short. And I cannot abide a bore.”
Charlie and Donna were funny. They sometimes used words I didn’t understand, but that was okay. Charlie never gave up on Donna, but Donna always turned him down. It was funny to watch Charlie keep trying.
When Grandma’s throat started to hurt, it was time for the birds to leave. I gave them each a few crumbs of bread, and then they said wooo wooo wooo in their bird voices and flew away.
I gave Grandma her ring back. Her eyes were droopy. She looked tired. She looked tired a lot and she never left her bed anymore.
“Would you go and get your poor Grandmother some juice from the market dear?” she asked me. “My throat feels awfully sore.”
I nodded and picked up a pigeon I had killed earlier and headed off to the staircase. The building had many stairwells, but only one of them still had stairs all the way down.
“Be careful,” Grandma said as I left.
Rufus traded us bread and apples and turnips and sometimes water when the rains didn’t come for a long time. In return, we gave him some of the birds we caught, the ones we didn’t eat ourselves.
Rufus was a big man. He had an angry face and was always frowning at a big black book he held in crooked little fingers. His legs were crooked too. He had got sick when he was a kid, he had told me. But Rufus was smart and he could read. Write too, as he sometimes did in that book. When he walked, his long black coat scraped the concrete floors, making a sound like rain.
His market was next to the big black pit in the centre of the building. Plastic boxes lay on the ground, filled with food and clothes. Tins of juice and water and beer stood against one blank wall. Against another there were little tanks of gas, for the cookers that some families had. A big mean looking man held a gun in the corner.
“Hi kid,” Rufus said when he saw me. “Got a bird there?”
“Yes,” I said. I held out the pigeon by the legs. “Grandma wants some juice.”
Rufus picked the bird up and looked at it. “Scrawny,” he said. “But meat is meat. Feathered gold, these days.”
He scraped his way over to the wall and picked up a little tin of apple juice. “Here you go, kid. For granny.”
I took the juice and smelled it. It smelled a little like the beer. Rufus said that was because it took a long time to get to us.
I looked up at Rufus.
“What you want kid? Didn’t you get what you came for?”
I had, but I wanted to ask him something else.
“What’s it like down there, on floor number one?” I said.
Rufus pointed a finger and scrunched his face at me. “Don’t ever think about going down there. I won’t allow it. You know what’s down there? Murderers, bandits, cannibals. You’d die. You’ve got the only source of meat right here,” he said lifting the bird I had given him, “in the whole damn city. And you’re lucky to have it.”
“But I want to know what—”
“No, you don’t,” he said. “Go back to granny.”
When I got back to our room, Grandma was asleep. I put the juice next to her bed, and went to the window to set up the trap to catch a bird for dinner. Dad had taught me how to do it: how to coil the metal and thread it through the wood so that the long metal arm wanted to bash down against the block. He taught me how to rest the twig lightly against it, preventing the arm from snapping until a bird came through the open window, nibbling at the crumbs of bread sitting on top. Then the arm would go smash! and the bird’s neck would be stuck. Usually they died right then, but sometimes they squirmed and I had to hit them with a block of concrete. Then Grandma would rip out their feathers, one by one, humming in her bed. We never hurt Donna or Charlie though.
After that, I sat on the concrete floor and drew more pictures until I heard the metal arm snap.
I looked up at the bird. It was still alive, squawking and flapping its wings, and trying to drag the whole trap around. It was a hawk, a big one too. I hopped up and dragged the bird into the centre of the room. It ran in little circles, its neck held to the side by the trap, scraping the block of wood a few inches one way, then the other.
I picked up a chunk of concrete and killed it.
Hawks were valuable because they had more meat. Usually we would trade these to Rufus for credit at his store, but I was hungry.
I checked the bird for patches of missing feathers or swollen eyeballs. It looked okay, but you had to be careful. Birds could make you very sick. One time dad wasn’t careful. His eyes got all pink and puffy and his forehead got hot and he couldn’t stand up anymore. A few days later, he stopped breathing, and mom and I had to carry him up to the roof where all the dead people went, and we left him there next to piles of bright white bones. Sometimes birds would come to eat there, but it was bad luck to catch those birds.
Grandma woke up while I was plucking the feathers from the hawk.
She sighed. “I can’t seem to stay awake anymore,” she said.
“I got your juice,” I said. “It’s next to the bed.”
She picked it up and smelled it and made her own scrunchy face. “Thank you sweetheart. And you caught a hawk too!” I nodded. Grandma watched me pluck the feathers for a while. When I was about to start stripping off the meat, Grandma waved me over. “Come sit with me a moment,” she said.
I left the hawk and sat next to Grandma. The bed shrieked like a crow. Grandma lifted her hand and put it on top of mine.
“It’s just the two of us now, you know,” she said. “And I’ve tried. God, I hope you know that I’ve tried.” She squeezed my hand. “I’m dying,” she said. “You know that. Everyday it’s more obvious than the last. I can’t be here for you much longer.”
I didn’t like it when Grandma spoke like this. It made my eyes feel like puddles.
“But you’re going to be okay,” she said. “I want you to know that you’ll be alright. I’m going to have Donna and Charlie look after you when I’m gone. I promise. One way or the other, they’ll look after you.”
I nodded. I liked Donna and Charlie.
“I want you to go to floor forty nine,” Grandma said. “Get Mrs. Asni to come speak to me.”
“Alright, Grandma,” I said. I thought it was a strange thing to ask. We rarely spoke to the other families. Most of them had stolen from us in the past.
I went and fetched Mrs. Asni. She didn’t want to come at first, so I offered her some bird meat, and she came. Grandma told me to go get some turnips from the market while they spoke.
When I got back, Mrs. Asni was leaving. She didn’t look at me as she passed. She just said “I’m sorry,” and walked away.
I asked Grandma what she meant, but Grandma’s throat was too tired to talk.
The next day, Grandma had Donna and Charlie come back again.
“For your love, I offer you my eyes,” Charlie said, “so that you might see twice as far and twice as well, and so that you might see my love for you.”
“What would I use another two eyes for?” Donna said. “I might see backwards, but then all I would ever see is you.”
“Then I will give you my voice, so that you might sing a duet on your own, and make even the songbirds jealous.”
“The songbirds may become jealous of a mute husband, Charlie, but not of your voice.”
“But what else can I offer you, my dear? I have so little.”
“Something beautiful, Charlie. Anything.”
Then Grandma’s throat was tired. I gave the birds some crumbs and gave Grandma her ring back.
“Come back to us,” she said to them before they left.
“Woo oo oo,” Donna said. Then they flew back out into the blue sky.
“What did she say?” I asked.
Grandma peered out the window towards the grey buildings. “Always and forever,” she said.
Over the next few weeks, Grandma asked me to go to more families and ask the adults to come and speak to her. When they did, Grandma always had something she wanted from the market, and sent me to get it. I never got to hear what they were talking about, but I did get to spend a lot of time at the market, watching Rufus.
“What the hell are you doing loitering here all the time?” he said. “Does this look like a fucking train station?”
“I don’t know what that is,” I said.
“Just get lost. This is a place of business. That means it’s for people with business. Go back to granny.”
“I can’t,” I said. I looked at Rufus’ black book. “Can you teach me how to read?”
“No, I cannot teach you how to read.” Rufus picked up a pigeon. “That would be like teaching this dead bird how to read. Don’t go back to granny, I don’t give a shit, but get the hell out of here!”
He nodded to the mean looking man with the gun, but I ran away before he could do anything.
Rufus was mean. I understood why Grandma didn’t like him. She had worked for him once, she had told me, a long time ago.
I climbed back up the same stairs mom had tried to run down after we put dad on the roof. She had tried to run all the way down to floor number one, but Rufus’ men caught her and dragged her back. Grandma tried to cheer her up with her mourning doves, but the next time Donna and Charlie flew back out the window, mom went with them. Things had got harder after that.
When I got back to our room after being in the market this time, Grandma looked sad. She always looked sad after she sent me away. I tried to help with whatever I had got from the market, and Grandma would smile, but her eyes were like the square outside after a storm.
Donna and Charlie came back a few more times, but they didn’t stay around as long as they used to. Charlie’s voice began to weaken until it was no longer deep like thunder, and Donna’s voice would squeak as she mocked him.
“Donna, I offer you my very gift of flight. Without it, I will be trapped here forever. But I would die happy knowing that you could soar even higher.”
“I fly high enough already,” Donna said. “And it would make such a sad sight of you. A flightless bird! Why, you would be a chicken then. And I cannot abide cowards.”
Now, before Donna and Charlie left, Grandma would look at them and ask “you will look after my young one when I’m gone, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Donna would say.
And then Charlie would add, “It would be our great honour.”
Grandma would thank them, and then they’d fly away again.
“See?” Grandma would say to me. “They’re going to look after you. Everything is going to be alright.”
She still had me go get adults from the other families, and she would still send me away while they spoke. Mostly, I would just sit in the stairwell and wait until I thought I had been gone long enough. I didn’t want to go back to the market. Sometimes, I would go to the roof and watch the birds that circled overhead, the ones we didn’t eat.
Eventually, all the families had visited Grandma.
The next time she sent me to get someone, it was Rufus. I had to give him two birds just to speak with her. “Alright,” he said. “Only for a minute.”
I waited on the floor below while they talked, scratching two birds into the concrete. Donna and Charlie, I named them. They were going to look after me. I didn’t know how, but they were. Grandma had promised me.
I caught Rufus coming down the stairs. He was moving slowly, one stair at a time. His twisty legs jerked beneath him.
“Shit,” he said when he saw me. But he didn’t stop walking.
“What did you and Grandma talk about?” I asked.
He looked at me for a moment, and then he looked away. “Not one family.” He shook his head as he passed me. “Not one damn family.”
I asked what he meant, but Rufus didn’t say anything else, and he disappeared down the next flight of stairs.
When I got back to our room, Grandma was crying.
“It’s okay,” she said. Her voice was as cracked as the concrete walls. “Donna and Charlie are going to look after you. I promise. Donna and Charlie will be there when I’m not.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
The next time I put Grandma’s ring in the window, it took a long time for the mourning doves to come. They stood on either side of the ring like they always did, rustling brown and black feathers. When they spoke, it was like the wind blowing past the window.
“Donna,” Charlie said, “I have one last thing to offer you. I give you this ring. Will you accept it?”
“Yes,” she said. “The ring is beautiful. I accept it, and you.”
That was all. They ate their bread crumbs, made their ‘woo woo’ noises, and then they flew away.
I picked up Grandma’s ring and brought it back to her.
“No, dearest,” she said. “You hold on to it. I need you to do something for me. I need you to promise me you’ll do it.”
“I promise,” I said.
“When I die, go get Rufus. Get him to take my body to the roof. Then you give him that ring. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Promise me again.”
Grandma died on a sunny morning. When I woke up and said good morning to her, she didn’t respond. I tried to nudge her shoulder but her eyes wouldn’t open. I put my hand over her mouth to feel her breath, but there wasn’t any. I knew from dad that meant she was dead.
My eyes felt like puddles again as I went down to get Rufus like I had promised.
“Already?” he asked.
“Alright, let’s go.”
We went back to floor number forty seven, where Grandma was still laying in her bed, and Rufus pulled her out from under the covers and threw her onto his big shoulder. He had a hard time getting her to the roof. His coat scraped every step on the way.
I got Rufus to put Grandma next to where we had put dad. He let her down with a thud that cracked the arm bone of another skeleton. “Phew,” he said.
Grandma looked peaceful. Her eyes were closed. She had died in her sleep.
I pulled Grandma’s ring from my pocket and held it out to Rufus. “Here,” I said. “She told me to give it to you.”
“You’re damn right,” he said. He reached out and took the ring from my hand and looked at it in the sun. I could see the carving on the inside of the band.
“There are words inside,” I said. “Can you tell me what they say?”
“So there are.” Rufus held the ring up to his eye and squinted at it. “To Donna. I love you forever – Charlie.”
I nodded. I wondered why Donna hadn’t taken the ring with her.
Rufus put the ring on his pinkie and I walked out to the edge of the roof, looking out over the ocean. A bunch of birds were flying back and forth above the waves. I tried to find Grandma’s mourning doves, but I couldn’t see them.
Rufus came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. Grandma’s ring shone on his hand and pressed into my skin. “You’re healthy?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“And you have some endurance? You can climb stairs?”
“Well, why don’t you get some rest. Tomorrow, I’ll take you down to floor one and we’ll pick up the bread together. How’s that sound?”
“Okay,” I said.
And then he left me, and I stayed on the roof by Grandma until the sun went away and there were no more shadows. And then I left too, and climbed back down the stairs, back to floor number forty seven, to catch a bird for dinner.