On The Thing That Smelled Of Birds

It was blue, it rotated, and it smelled of birds. The blue was cerulean, the rotation was slow and juddery. It was a general sort of bird smell, one could not with any certainty say ‘ostrich!’ or ‘guillemot!’, much as one might wish to. That slow, juddery rotation was accompanied by a very faint clanking noise, so faint that a passer-by, huffing and puffing up the hill, might think he imagined it, as he reached the top, put down his bag, and lit his pipe, perplexity furrowing his forehead as he puffed on the savagely bitter cheap Serbian tobacco, the flesh around his piggy eyes crinkling. If moles or other burrowing creatures had created a temporary tussock on the hilltop, the passer-by might sit on it a while to rest his legs, perhaps take off his big boots and socks, and pick in a desultory way at the sock wool before examining his feet with greater diligence. Flesh the colour of curd, little red sores on his toes, but his eyes would be drawn to that cerulean blue, and he would forget his feet. His socks were blue, too, but that was just a coincidence. His boots were dappled and dun, like a cow’s colouring might be, in a land where there were cows to be seen, unlike this land.

If fog came down and swirled about our passer-by, he would be reluctant to move. With his piggy-eyed vision occluded, that clanking noise would seem less faint, as his hearing grew sharper. Perhaps, too, once he had tapped out his pipe on a stone and the last wisps of the acrid Serbian smoke dispersed, he would become aware of the smell of birds, where there were no birds’ nests.

At the bottom of the hill there is a sordid tavern where miscreants and ne’er-do-wells plot acts of the utmost fiendishness, and cackle as they do so. The tavern’s walls are trimmed with gimp passementerie. It is Shrove Tuesday, so pancakes are being served. Unfortunately, the pancakes have been made with contaminated flour, and in days to come this scene will be referred to as The Mass Poisoning Horror Of Cackpod, Cackpod being the name of the village at the bottom of the hill, or one of its names, for it has others, in other tongues, this being a country of ten different languages, some of them spoken by only a smattering of citizens, and that smattering in its collective dotage.

Our traveller, with his foul pipe tobacco, is not in his dotage, and he crashes excitedly through the tavern door, having scurried down the hillside at the first hint of the fog lifting. There is something in his manner that suggests he is unused to the company of ruffians. There is a throbbing in his pituitary gland and beads of sweat upon his brow. He has of course put back on his socks and boots, and tucked his pipe into the breast pocket of his Austrian Postal Service jacket. Standing at the bar of this repulsive tavern, he asks the landlady for a refreshing, minty potage, with foam on top. He is thinking about cerulean blue, juddery rotation, and the smell of birds, and in his frazzled mind he is swept back to that day years and years ago when he danced a fandangoid hoocha with a floozie who wore a cerulean blue frock and span around like a wild thing as she danced, and though she did not smell of birds she had something of the look of a crow, bright black eyes and a corvine nose, and, yes, her hat was made of feathers, was it not?

The ne’er-do-wells ignore the newcomer, for they are too busy gobbling down the poisoned pancakes which, within hours, will find them writhing and groaning in the sawdust of the tavern floor. Emboldened by the first few sips of his foamy potation, however, the traveller asks the landlady, “I say, what is that thing on top of yon hill, that blue rotating thing that smells of birds?”

His voice is loud, and resounds in the stifling fug of the tavern, and there is a sudden silence. The landlady busies herself, pointedly polishing a tankard with a rag. Every single rapscallion stops chewing on his pancake. A dog that had been curled asleep at the foot of the pianola gets to its feet and pads slowly out of sight into a dark back room. The clock above the bar stops ticking. All is still, and silent, and heavy with menace.

Eventually – it seems as if hours have passed – the ancient dog reappears, and lies down in the doorway. The sounds of chewing and munching and clinking tankards start up again. The landlady flings her rag on to the floor and dishes up more plates piled with pancakes. Queasily aware that he has said something untoward, the traveller slurps down his potage and takes his leave, edging past the sleeping hound. He does not know that within hours all the pancake eaters will be dead and gone, that the dog is tormented by nightmares, that the tavern will be condemned and fall to ruin.

He steps outside. The sky is black. He peers with piggy eyes up to the top of the hill, but the blue rotating thing that smells of birds is engulfed in darkness and no longer visible. He turns to trudge towards Cackpod railway station. The image of that floozie flickers before him, and now he remembers how she winched him onto a ship from the rock where he had been abandoned for forty days, and how they danced and danced the tarantella, and how her frock was blue, and how she span, and how as midnight struck on the tavern clock she turned into a crow.

[Originally posted in July 2006.]

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