What They Did Last Night di Rachel Parris

All the drive home she felt light-headed. She drove slowly and deliberately with the windows cracked. The swan rode next to her in the passenger seat. When she stopped at the lights she reached over and rested her hand on it. Through the plastic bag she felt the cushion of dense feathers and beneath in the solid lump.

She could have missed it. The swan was halfway under the hedge and lying in the grass. Up close it was big and salt white. Because she was not sure if it was only sleeping, first she tapped it with the toe of her boot. Inside her gloves her hands were starting to sweat. She poked at its breast again with her toecap. The bird was hardening but there was enough give left in it yet. Outside it was cold, getting colder and it would freeze overnight. One day later and the swan would be hard as a frozen turkey and useless. In her belly, intestines twisted. 

On the other side of the lock, the cottage was dark at the windows. She looked around but there was nobody on the towpath and so she knelt before the bird and felt the spread of damp in the knees of her trousers. The air misted her face and she was clammy under the arms. She reached her hand under the swan’s head and lifted it from where it nested. In her fist the neck was tick and limp. She stretched it out and laid it on the grass, its black eyes wide open, dead and reflecting.

When she walked through the door Peter was at the sink washing lunch plates. He turned and looked at her. On the table between them, her place was still set.

“Damn” she said.

“It doesn’t matter” he said, although it did. “What’s in the bag?”

“Guess” she said. At the bottom of the bag, the swan slumped awkwardly.

“Is that legal?” Peter asked.

She considered it. In its place on the towpath she had left the velvet mole that she had carried all morning in her pocket.

She carried on past him.

There were no windows in the back room so to start it was all shadow. They had converted it from the pantry, replacing tins of tomatoes with jars of salty borax and acids and wire thread. She had stood on the countertop handing down packets and he had bagged them up and together they had made the place her own, with a work table and cabinets to display the first of the specimens: the birds and the mice. It had taken the whole weekend. When the cabinets were full he knocked through to the living room. Now there was little room left and so it was lonely zoo.

“Ready?”

The prepared everything in silence. She and Peter put on gloves, gathered the instruments, the salts and liquids. Peter laid out newspapers on the table and she flipped the bird belly up. On the floor they billowed a binbag mouth-wide and for a second smelled dry plastic in the air. When they were ready she stood over the body.

Peter sat, his arms resting on the papers. They left the kitchen door open so the day poured in and onto the tiles. In the bar of light, dust and cat hair drifted.

First, she parted the feathers along the breast bone with her thumb tips and then, following the line she had cleared, split the skin with a scalpel and opened the bird down the middle. Peter tried not to look into the eye of the cut. Inside, wet organs nestled. 

She teased at the edges of skin and pulled it back and away from the body, unstitching it. With a hand on either side she eased out the body and passed it to Peter. Against his fingers it was meat and pink as gums. He laid it in the bag on the floor. Left on the table was an empty jacket of feathers and down. 

Peter looked up. Pirate was sitting on the counter, watching. 

Peter looked at the cat and the cat looked at the swan; he could not tell if the cat looked with judgement or indifference. 

Once, at the beginning, when they were halfway drunk and trading stories, he had told her that as a boy he found a pigeon in the garden with a wing like a broken umbrella. He told her how his father laid a blanket over the bird and used a brick on the blanket. 

“Awful” she had said. “That’s awful.”

Peter did not tell her that he asked to hold the brick, or that later, he watched the cat licking at the patch of grass where the bird had been. 

Pirate stood and jumped down on the floor.

“Good cat” Peter said.

There was much work left to do and the afternoon spilled onwards. They picked the fat from the skin and dropped it in the plastic liner. Peter drilled the hole in the head and she plucked out the brain in little red clots trying very hard not to stain the feathers. Then they packed the cavity with hard set clay. They washed the bird in the kitchen sink and the empty skin floated in the soapy water. At the bottom of the basin in the metal strainer, they left behind a wad of white feathers. Then they laid it out to dry. 

It took them a long time to build the body with cotton balls and thread. Now and again she held it up to check it for size. Her hands moved slowly and while she worked she furrowed three deep creases into her brow. She sucked the insides of her cheeks, concentrating, and he thought she looked very beautiful. 

“Did you walk far today?” he asked. 

“Some” she said, without looking up.

When it was too dark to see what they were doing Peter got up and went through the house turning on the lights. In the living room he found the switch, closed his eyes and swallowed a yawn. Through his lids he saw the light shift. He listened for the bulbs and their quiet draw of power. Behind him in the pantry he heard her opening cupboards. With his eyes closed he pictured and overstuffed sofas, the animals in cabinets, rows of them at the back of the room and the tiny Muntjac deer staring blind into the parted lips in the fox. When he was finished he blinked open again and looked it over. He had it just right, save for the fox, which in fact had its mouth closed.

In the pantry she turned on the light and brought the skin to the table. Above it, the single bulb hummed and warmed. With a grapefruit spoon she took out one eye and then the next and held them out for Peter in the palm of her hand, black and jelly. Peter thought they looked like whole worlds but she felt queasy. Without thinking, she wiped her hand across her jeans and left a slick of blood on the thigh. From the cabinet at the back of the room, she took the jar of eyes, unscrewed the lid and upturned it. The glass beads were amber and black and they clicked against each other as they ran across the countertop. With bare hands now she fingered the spillage. It was cold. She chose two of the darkest marbles and carried them back to the table and tested them in the sockets. They fitted. Dipped in glue, she secured them. Her heart was beating too fast. Because the only light in the room was the one above them, they tossed long shadows into each other and over the bird. 

It was almost tomorrow when Peter helped her place the cotton body into the swan, although they had could not have said the time. She rearranged skin over breast and Peter held it closed while she stitched. The chest swelled, softer now. Pirate kept vigil, weaving himself through their legs and under the table, and then drifted into the other room, walking slowly amongst the slammer mammals. He finally stretched out on the floor with his back against a large hare where he purred and fell asleep.

“You’re excited” he said.

She said “Don’t be ridiculous”, but she blushed.

The procedure took a long time. When they were finished they stood back from it. The new swan lay upturned in the middle of the table.

“it’s beautiful” he said although it wasn’t. The heavy body was lumped and the feathers ruffled and bent. Just a few of them were smudged pink. Peter thought the swan looked mean. 

She said: “I think we put the wrong eyes in.”

Peter yawned. “Let it dry.” 

“You’re tired” she said, disappointed, and she sat down again at the table.

He walked around and stood behind her and rested his hand on her shoulder. He looked down at the crown of her head and there little naked patched he knew that she did.

After Peter had gone to bed she stayed a while longer looking at the bird but she could not say exactly what was wrong. In the end she left it on the table and turned it just a little so that it faced the wall. She hovered in the doorway to the living room. The room stared back at her. Somewhere inside was the light heave of Pirate’s chest. She turned off the light.

On her way upstairs she ran her hand down the back of the Arctic fox that Peter had given her as a gift. She had read once that in Australia baited dogs hang from trees like heavy fruit; a farmer’s punishment for robbing the soft kidneys from sleeping sheep. She felt unsteady, as if the balance of the house had shifted silently. 

In the bathroom, she found her toothbrush on the side with the toothpaste already on it. When she climbed in next to Peter, he was asleep. That night she went blind in her dreams and when she woke it was dark in the room and so she still couldn’t see. At her back, she felt Peter’s soft belly rise and fall, rise and fall.

Special thanks to the literary magazine «Iota Magazine» for permission to translate and publish this tale.