The rushing current and the birds’ cries rose to a boisterous chatter. Yhvie wrapped her fly line in a loose knot to the pole as Freda bounded past, flinging mud. The cabin sat visible up the long hill but with a grueling hike to get to it, one that had grown hard on her knees over these past eighteen months.
In the bucket lay three trout, their mouths gasping last breaths and looking insane, eyes bulging wildly as their world shrank down. Yhvie stared with some empathy, hard baked into her from the years of readying the dying for their ends.
“It’s a good catch,” she said emphatically and began the trek back up the hill.
After the long walk, she fired the potbelly stove. Only a few pieces of furniture adorned the single room: a stuffed, flower print chair; a wood table with two matching benches; a dilapidated trunk for storage; two roughly built bookshelves; and a twin bed along the windowed wall. The entire contents of her cabin had been hauled up and over the mountain by two locals–friends of John, the Pisgah Supply Junction proprietor–and paid in Pabst Blue Ribbon. She cooked with a spoon and skillet on the stove’s flat top and washed after in a plastic tub.
Like all days, she tended to the garden after fishing, then checked and reset her three traps. They were illegal, of course. The chance of some wayward traveler losing a foot to one, though, was about as likely as snow in June. Freda spent a month being disciplined on the ways of the metal jaws. She knew where each one rested in hiding and steered far clear.
Today’s rounds fetched a rabbit. The animal still breathed when Yhvie knelt, though its chest moved shallowly. The iron teeth bit into the poor thing’s abdomen; the trap had caught it mid-bound when the jaws snapped shut. One of its eyes was sealed with yellow gunk; the other lay open and staring with a milky fog. She snapped its neck with a quick twist, then freed its mangled body from the trap.
Yhvie lit the lantern, which cast dancing shadows on the cabin walls. For dinner, she ate trout and Chioggia beets. Her garden, lacking any consistent sun, best grew the root vegetables, with a bit of swiss chard, cabbage, and arugula. Freda always received as ample a plate as she did.
Tomes from Bronte and Coleridge and Dickens lined the bookshelves, the only bit of civilization she brought with her. Tonight, The Blithedale Romance, the goings on of Zenobia and Priscilla, the Veiled Lady, and the torporific allure of death. Though the paperback showed wear, she leaned into the preface as if for the first time. Fifty pages in, however, her eyes began to droop.
Like many nights, she never made it from overstuffed chair to bed. The book upon her tummy, hands on lap, Yhvie snored. Freda curled at her feet, back warmed by the still smoldering stove. If there had been a clock, it would have ticked past two AM as they both lounged in their slumber.
A girl’s voice, barely perceptible above the sound of a summer wind, began to sing. The words could not be heard, if they were words at all and not indecipherable moans. Freda stirred, soft whimpers as she raised her head, ear cocked to the side. It was more her frantic movements than the singing that woke Yhvie. She clutched the book as if it were a gun.
“What is it, Freda?” She stood alertly.
The voice had a quality like that of an old radio speaker. Yhvie couldn’t place its direction. Maybe from a car radio on Route 281, but that would be over five miles away. When the wind waned, the melody came as painfully as heartbreak. So much ache hung in the air, tears welled up in Yhvie’s eyes. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe.
Then the wind caught the voice until it was a whisper. Yhvie opened the front door to stare out into the night. Tall trees gathered like a church choir, all in their stiff and heavenly postures. An owl hooted with urgency. Freda wandered between her legs, her snout stuck into the crisp night air. The songling had disappeared.
Yhvie shut the door softly, leaving a palm against it for a moment before turning. “To bed, Freda, it’s well late.”
They marched uphill from the cabin in the opposite direction of the rising sun, first up cresting hills and then down through the valleys. She had picked this hidden spot because of its rustic seclusion–quiet among the mountains and trees, and away from people. But supplies were critical, too. The trek to John’s and back was a full-day affair, a distance that was near perfect.
It had taken twenty-five years of hospice nursing to save enough to retire at forty-seven. Years of wiping up their shit, and watching their dread eyes ponder death, and heaving their empty husks onto gurneys. With this cabin, just up the mountainside from the Saint Georges River, she need never worry about any such horrors again. If escape were possible at all. The imagery of death haunted her every thought and motivation. Escape, if that were a real thing.
Freda, a seven-year-old Akita, accompanied her on this venture–not that she had any say. If the dog kept any lingering pangs for life in their Durham apartment, she never let on. Yhvie was here and her constant companion, and life in Somerset Valley suited them both.
The ramshackle store on the northwest side of the mountain came into view. Route 281 curved sharply in front of the parking lot and disappeared in both directions into dense forest. John’s store, even if on the way to Pisgah National Forest, was a ghost. Yhvie had no idea how he stayed in business.
“Morning, John,” she said with the bell tinkling behind her. Freda lay on the porch outside.
“Come for news of our decaying times?” John asked.
“No, just a few things for the stock shelf.”
They both smiled cautiously. Yhvie perused his five aisles of barely ordered chaos. Between a stack of shoelaces and cans of deviled ham, she found box matches stacked high. From another shelf she took a gallon tin of lantern oil.
John chewed on a toothpick and watched her. “They say a cold August means bad storms for fall. You got emergency supplies for yourself?”
Yhvie always felt John intentionally tried to spook her. She suspected he thought she was a spiritualist nut come to live wild.
“I’m good, but thank you. In fact, I doubt I’ll be back for a month. Stock up on some cold weather supplies then.”
He nodded and plopped on his stool, his gaze drawn to a small, flat screen TV. A Clint Eastwood western, though Yhvie couldn’t say which one, only that Clint was so young and his eyes glinted with an internal fire. When she set her items for purchase, the luster in John’s eyes had died out from when she first entered. Yhvie admonished herself for feeling guilty.
“You let me know if you need anything,” he said as she stuffed her goods into the backpack.
“I appreciate that. But we’ll be fine. If it’s more than six weeks, send a search party. Just mind the traps.”
His face showed a touch of sadness, a look Yhvie could empathize with but could not fix. To her, loneliness was a battle that required a strength interlopers would only impede.
“Aye,” he said, “I’ll do that. I worry about you up there.”
She smiled and turned. The bells tinkled again, though were muted from the outside, as she and Freda walked away. John’s rusted Ford F-150 nestled against the side of the building. A car whisked through the turn behind them, come and gone in a flash. Freda leapt ahead as they left the hard scrap of parking lot and entered the hillside trees. The backpack straps dug into Yhvie’s shoulders through their long trek. The only grace was the deep woods and silence.
The next morning’s sun brought an immediacy. Though Yhvie preferred the night, with its cocoon-like comfort–a world drawn down to solitude–sunrise brought activity like no other time of day. Today’s dawn chorus consisted of savannah sparrows, eastern bluebirds, chickadees, and the crows. Always the crows. The bleats and tuts combined into an unruly symphony.
Freda wandered the perimeter of the cabin to gauge for activity and do her business. Yhvie left the door open as she grilled the previous day’s rabbit, then paired it with a jar of pickled beets. A little masa harina and she had stove top tortillas. Freda got the tougher bits of meat and bone.
And then into the day again, more fishing at the river. The ground still covered in dew made for rough footing. Her feet slipped and snagged in thick briars. The effort exhausted her today, made her heart beat hard in the chest.
On top of all that, when she tied up her fly line early, the day’s bucket held a single rainbow trout.
“They’re being difficult today,” she said to Freda.
They returned at a leisurely pace. About halfway up, her eyes caught red flutter. At first, when she set her gaze on the flittering bird, she suspected an oriole and then a scarlet tanager. She stopped to watch it hop along a limb, its back to her. The fat body ended in an oddly shaped head, lacking in feathers and instead carpeted with fine, black hair. When the bird turned, it revealed a girl’s face the size of a plastic doll’s, with piercing green eyes and pink lips rather than a beak.
Yhvie was so dumbfounded that she staggered, nearly tumbling back down the hill. The woods swirled around her, a devilish mix of blurs.
“Oh, god,” she muttered as she reached her hand for the closest tree.
Freda barked but sounded far off, having chased some phantom of her own. Yhvie shot a look back at the bird. The face was full of pale white feathers and black markings etched into them so that in the right light it must have looked like a girl’s face. What had been hair was a band of black plumage. Yhvie laughed. Her fish had spilled out of the bucket, which now held only a splashing, brown residue. The trout lay on the ground coated with pine needle mulch, gasping in staccato breaths.
The bird darted to another tree, landed, and parted its beak, emitting the loveliest tones. Yhvie recognized it as the voice in the night. She had found her songling. The melody twisted in on itself, a beautiful, if oddly chromatic series of notes. The phonetics were crisp now, though Yhvie could not understand the words. Lost was the tinny quality of the voice. Here it belted out as an aria.
The songling hopped from limb to limb, from tree to tree. Yhvie stumbled along after it. They progressed like this until Yhvie was far from her original path. The song reminded Yhvie of a woman at the hospice who would sing all hours of the day. She thought of the terror in the woman’s eyes when the doctor told her, “There’s nothing else we can do except ease your suffering.” The singing stopped as she waited to die. It took less than twenty-four hours.
Yhvie stomped on, her eyes locked on the red bird, but her mind seeing the morgue where she wheeled the woman–where she wheeled all of them. She always made sure the sheet was tucked in so that no fingers or toes were exposed. The room was so cold goosebumps formed.
The song so shrouded her that she never saw nor felt the trap’s plate under her foot, only its swift, vicious bite. The loud thwap hit her ears just as her nervous system sent the distress calls of pain. At first, it felt more like a tickle, the kind you get when your leg falls asleep. Then she screamed until her voice went hoarse.
Collapsed to one knee, the other leg held vertical by the trap’s clenched teeth on her ankle, she struggled to keep from falling prone. The tibia was the only thing that kept the metal mouth from closing completely.
The wound was a near amputation. Blood streamed down the cuff of her jeans, giving it an ugly, purple shade. Gasping for breath, Yhvie worked her fingers at the levers so the jaws would loosen, but with her hands occupied she couldn’t then pull them apart. Those black, iron fangs snatched skin and muscle as she wretched her leg through. When her foot passed the last bit of metal, Yhvie collapsed to the ground, her gaze on the treetops and sky.
The songling lit on a low branch. It sang its hurtful song, then rose on fast wings, and zipped up and toward the mountain’s crest. Yhvie tried to track its flight but lost it amidst the congested limbs.
Freda bounded up and nuzzled her face, attuned to the sudden pain shimmering through Yhvie’s body. The dog whimpered and circled her protectively. Yhvie gradually wrapped her arms around the dog’s torso and cried into her fur. They worked together to get her balanced uneasily on the good right leg. With a hand pressed to Freda’s back, they made the way from tree to tree. The pants leg was so thick with blood it looked dipped in motor oil.
Overhead, crows squawked. Nature was not so much alive as a maelstrom, piqued by Yhvie’s plight. The forest was askew with its fractal branches and explosions of green. The birds started to caw in a fury, as a Roman crowd might scream into the pit. The birds could sniff her misery and fear, could see her true nature–not a survivor at all, but a woman on the verge.
Yhvie arrived at the cabin door, pushed through, and collapsed. Her hands fumbled at the snaps of her jeans, which she worked off with tortuous effort. The metal teeth had bitten to the bone; the tibia’s whiteness peered through. The cuts gushed blood like water spilling over a low dam.
A metal box lay under the bed. Inside, her self-stocked first-aid kit: antibiotics, bandages, needle, thread, scissors, and bottles of pills. She stitched the wounds as well as her shaking hands would allow, knowing full well that stitches would bring no salvation. The idea to amputate crossed her mind. She swigged from a half-full bottle of Old Grand Dad bourbon.
“For medicinal purposes only,” she said to Freda and tried to laugh.
Outside the crows screamed in their madness. Something massive slammed into the door. Yhvie scooted backward, wincing at the sharp pain as her leg caught on the stuffed chair. Another bang, this one more forceful than the last. Freda cuddled into her, no longer barking but instead catching frightened cries in her throat.
Yhvie imagined a phantom force trying to barge in and finish her off; something in these woods had come alive. She grabbed a log and threw it at the door, which brought a loud crack. The birds stopped their frenzy. No further frontal attacks came. Unable to lift herself, she pulled the pillow and blanket from the bed, stoked the fire–Freda curled between her legs–and passed out.
Freda woke her, posed at high alert. It had grown dark outside. Yhvie’s leg felt on fire. The flesh had the stench of rotting meat. She pulled out a gallon jug of water and mason jars with pickled fish and turnips. Freda drank her water from a bowl; Yhvie guzzled straight from the jug. They ate the food cold and in the dark.
Through the window the sky still had the tiniest hint of ash gray. Maneuvering for the matches and lantern proved so deleterious to her leg she nearly passed out again. Her vision narrowed to a pinprick. Freda stood to protect, her steely, blue eyes looking aglow, as if some inner torch fired hot. Yhvie finished the task with the lantern, and the room erupted in light.
Settled with full bellies, they reclined against the chair’s front, each drifting again into sleep. As they dozed, the mysterious songling started again. Yhvie jumped when she heard it, the sound so distinct it might have been next to her ear. The vocalization had the syllabic structure of words, but the language struck Yhvie as ancient and unknowable. The bird sang, high-pitched and the melody as obscure as the words. This was not just chromatic notes but quartertones, the dizzying steps sounding celestial.
She again saw the hospice, the shadowed rooms, the empty beds, and the darkened, basement corridor where she wheeled the remains. The song’s words–though as alien as worlds scattered through the cosmos–sang of those trips to the underworld, of Yhvie’s task to ferry those passengers onward to their dark oblivion. The songbird sang with surety.
Yhvie had to shield her ears. Freda cowered under the table, more at Yhvie’s strange behavior than the song. Yet caught in the voice’s power, Yhvie stood, the pain in her rotting leg so distant it didn’t register.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said absently, “and right.”
The melody rose and fell with the same quality as wind gushing and then falling away. Yhvie’s eye was drawn to movement in the rafters. In the web-filled crevice of the roof’s V, the red bird fluttered its wings. Yhvie lifted the burning lantern over her head. The designs of the human face again upon it, the songling opened its tiny beak, and that voice emerged as if by magic.
“Come down here, little one,” Yhvie called, motioning with her free hand. “What wondrous thing are you?”
The bird responded with a melody so severe and so heart wracking that Yhvie froze, and this time the images in her head raced at incredible speed–not of the hospice but of Armageddon: cities barely seen below billowing, black smoke; the forests left scorched; bones strewn in the streets. The bird sang of the nightmare of being and of ending. Yhvie had stared into those faces at the hospice and knew the look of gazing into the abyss. Now the songling looked down at her as Yhvie had looked at them.
The bird leapt and glided in a circling path. It maneuvered between the rafters, gaining altitude and then losing it. Yhvie held out her arm, desperate for its touch. The red bird’s spiral grew tighter, its altitude lower, until it was just over Yhvie’s head. She was sure it intended to alight on her arm.
But the bird, in a quick alteration to its path, dived, and the beak slammed into Yhvie’s eye. Though a slight bird, its beak–formed of keratin and strong as rock–pierced her right eye as a bee’s stinger pierces skin. Warm fluid drained down her cheek. Though splashes of color continued to hit her retina, the vision was ruined. Yhvie struck out with an open palm and slapped the bird out of the air. It landed with a thud on the floor.
“No, no,” Yhvie cried.
With the song and the trance ended, her leg buckled. The pain shot up her spine like electric shock. Her body tumbled downward, her nose planting into the floor beside the bird’s body. Its small eyes remained wide open–they still contained life. Yhvie, with her weight on her elbows, scooped the songling atop her palms and closed her hands to protect the strange creature within.
“Please sing again,” she cried into her closed hands. “I need to hear it.”
Freda ran to the other side of the room as clacking sounds exploded on the roof, like the rattling of a thousand taiko drums. Then came an angry mob screaming into the night, with their caws and their talons scraping at the cabin sides. They screamed in a unified voice, the sound of a hellish litany. Within her cupped hands, the songling’s voice came, too. Its force rippled against Yhvie’s palms like a shock wave. The songling’s melody drifted above the crows’ dissonant choir.
Beyond the veil, only darkness. Be not afraid, for there is peace in no longer being.
Yhvie peeked into her hands. In the eye which the bird attacked, not only did its face again take on human form, encircled by black hair, but the bird form disappeared entirely. Within her hands she held a tiny girl who sat balled, hands over knees, the naked body luridly beautiful. But with Yhvie’s other eye, the one undamaged, she saw only the red songling with the odd markings on its face.
“What are you?” Yhvie asked.
The bird/girl looked up, and her eyes glowed. Yhvie understood. It had come to guide her, to allow her to finally see. Yhvie crawled to the trunk and placed the bird inside. The melody became as muffled as the cries of those dying in the hospice when–as long as no one was looking–she would shut their door and leave a palm against it. So many passengers to ferry.
Unable to crawl any longer, Yhvie pulled herself into the padded chair. The Blithedale Romance still rested on the arm, open to her last read page. The bandage on her leg had become stiff and black. The flesh beneath was rotting on the bone.
The clacking birds and their demon choir fell away. Even the songbird nestled quietly into her dark space.
The sun arrived long after Yhvie woke. No dawn chorus would come today. Her leg emitted a rancid odor. She could feel it no longer, nothing below the knee. Her injured eye had swollen to the point it was no longer so much an eye as a tumor boiled up.
The metal first aid kit was still within reach. She took it and popped open a pill bottle. In the bowl from the table, she dumped its contents and mashed them with the wooden spoon. More than a third she molded into a ball with a chunk of pickled fish.
“Come here, girl,” she said.
Freda walked up and chewed it without hesitation.
“I’m sorry,” she said and hugged her companion, “but it’s for the best. There are monsters out there.”
She made a fish ball for herself–more pills, less fish. It slid down her throat with a bitter aftertaste. A pencil and notecards sat on the bookshelf. She grabbed for them. As she wondered about how to start, the songling sounded from within the trunk, her voice muffled but persistent.
The writing went on for an hour, long enough that her remaining vision grew foggy. Freda already lay sprawled at the front door, her death tongue dipped to the wood. Yhvie wished she could close the dog’s eyes. They no longer glowed but were instead filled with an empty longing. It was for the best, she wanted to say again.
When the note was done, she scanned it a final time. “To John,” it began. She knew he would read it and knew he would open the chest. It might be unfair to go about things like this, to unleash the red songling on him and the world. But there was nothing else she could do: the little beast only meant to ease their suffering.