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You know what our problem is? We’re too damned accommodating.
That’s what I told my wife when she agreed to look after that awful bird. We already look after a friend’s toddler every Thursday, and take the lady across the corridor shopping, and then there are all the charity-case kids she teaches piano for free… It’s just too much. So when her Aunt Margaret asked us to look after her pet mynah bird while she went to Belgium, I wanted to refuse. Of course, my wife didn’t.
You must know the problem with mynah birds. They mimic sounds they enjoy hearing, over and over again. I read on the internet about a Japanese woman who looked after her friend’s mynah. After three days of the bird making the sound of a microwave, she could take no more: “Shut up, or I’ll make you yaki-tori!” Of course, that became the bird’s favourite phrase, and the woman spent the next month trying to re-educate it.
So, we spent the next two weeks on our best behaviour: no swearing, no shouting, no… well anyway, we were on our best behaviour. My wife’s aunt loves classical music, so we left the radio on Classic FM. Unfortunately, the bird grew fond of Alan Titchmarsh, so we had to switch to BBC Radio 3. Apart from the fact the bird could imitate the phone (bloody thing! I was waiting for a job interview), everything went smoothly until two weeks into its stay.
The first setback was a call from Belgium. The aunt had had an accident, and needed surgery. She apologised profusely, asking us to look after the mynah until she found a friend to look after it on a long-term basis. Annoying as it was, this was only a minor inconvenience compared to what happened next. I confess that something about that bird’s continuous chattering put me on edge, and I found myself unable to sleep. One night, staring blearily at the ceiling, I heard a snatch of music from the next room. I looked at the alarm clock: four in the morning. I wondered – had someone left the radio on, or was it the mynah? I wanted to ignore it, but I was on edge. I went into the next room, and checked the radio: off. I turned to the mynah; I was about to say something, but then…
Try as I might, I can’t fully describe what happened next. Somehow, what the bird said to me is still etched in my soul; I hear each syllable clearly. Yet I can not manage to get it down on paper. I will try to describe it for you: a deep guttural voice, weary but full of malice. It was as if the voice were coming out of the ground, from a distant, moss-eaten sepulchre. What the voice said I couldn’t understand, but it filled me with inescapable, crushing dread. It was both completely alien to me, and yet at the same time instantly recognisable, as if I had known that voice since birth. In a moment, I was back in bed, the covers pulled over my head, quaking as if my spine had turned to jelly. My wife, mercifully, is a heavy sleeper. Twice more that night, I heard the snatch of music, and then the voice. Each time the voice sounded nearer and nearer, and I could not help shivering.
In the morning, I asked my wife if she had been disturbed in the night. Thankfully she had not. I felt like asking to get rid of the mynah, but I knew that would make things worse. To be fair, I had been complaining about it for two weeks, and my bizarre story would sound contrived and only make things worse. When she went out to piano lessons, I took a moment to think. Perhaps my dread last night had been borne of the darkness, the sleeplessness, the aggravation the bird caused me. I needed to know whether my fear was justified. I needed to know what the bird was saying.
I got an mp3 recorder ready, and waited for the bird to speak again. It had plenty to say – mostly Groucho Marx, for some reason – but never repeated the spectral voice. It was only at 4 o’clock the next morning that I heard the snatch of music, and knew what was coming next. I grabbed the recorder, set it running, and rushed into the next room.
I heard the voice of a woman: “Go, out goes he.” I recognised that; it was from an old black and white movie we had watched that evening. Slightly apprehensive, I adjusted the volume slightly, and held the recorder to the bird. It cocked its head to one side, looked at me questioningly, and began its dark recital. I shuddered as I heard the deep voice, relayed by such an innocuous form and yet carrying behind it all the malice of Hell. But deep down, I felt I was winning: I had a recording. The bird went through its act three times in about two hours – the music, the woman’s voice, then that deep, haunting muttering – and I recorded it each time.
The next morning, I listened to the recording as soon as my wife left for work. In the daylight, I was able to recognise the music as part of Walton’s Facade . But I was still sickened as I listened back to that voice. Stupid as it sounds, I was also happy that the recording had turned out so well. As I left, I said “cheerio!” to the mynah. “Tell ’em Groucho sent you!” replied the bird. I don’t get what it sees in Groucho Marx.
I spent the day taking my recording around to find out more about it. I took it to the library, the local language college, the cultural institute, even the sushi bar in case it was oriental. In all cases, no-one knew or had ever heard the language spoken. Also, in all cases, they looked deathly pale when they heard the recording, and asked me to turn it off and leave immediately (in fact the sushi bar offered me some free maki if I promised never to come back, so that was a plus). But I still had no progress to show. As a last resort, I decided to try the Catholic Cathedral.
The cool stone floors and mosaic walls gave me welcome respite from the sun as I entered. The cathedral was dark as night inside, with light emanating from the canopy above the altar, like a tent on a hilltop. I looked around, and gave a jump as I saw the priest sitting at the information desk. He was tall, quite old and almost skeletally thin. Under his thick glasses, he arranged his mouth into a thin smile and gave a clumsy wave. I approached, with some trepidation, and told him why I had come. He listened to the recording in silence, his face displaying signs of recognition. Then he said, “Where did you get this?” I explained about the mynah we were looking after. He considered this for a second, excused himself and sauntered off. He returned with another priest, younger and rounder, with a walrus moustache. He listened to the voice for a second, before asking to see the mynah immediately.
I took both priests to the flat, and made them a cup of tea. Then the three of us sat in silence, watching the bird. Once again, the bird never repeated the sepulchral voice: it seemed only to do it at night. The younger priest made no movement nor sound as he listened, whereas the older, skeletal priest waggled his hands appreciatively every time the mynah mimicked Groucho, sometimes wheezing in appreciation. After half an hour, the younger priest spoke:
“Mr. Stevens, thank you for alerting us to this extremely serious matter. You did the right thing. I am happy to say that you aren’t in any immediate danger. The bird is merely copying some person it has heard saying this.”
“He also does an excellent Groucho!” interjected the older priest.
“However,” continued the younger priest sternly, “whoever said these words is in grave danger. I would ask you to find out where the bird learnt these words, and allow us to meet this person.”
“But how would I find out? It could be from the radio, or the TV, or…”
“I very much doubt that. You must try to remember everyone who has spoken to the bird.”
I looked into my tea and shuddered: the young priest sensed my reluctance and said “Mr Stevens, you should be happy! You have the chance to save a soul. Such opportunities are not common.”
After they left, I started racking my brains, writing lists of everyone who had visited the flat. To be honest, I suspected my wife. She had been increasingly distant recently, and I knew the fact I had been out of a job so long was taking its toll on our relationship. I did not know how her voice could get like that, but I knew I didn’t understand exactly what I was dealing with. A more promising solution, however, presented itself the next day.
Around lunchtime, the phone rang. I answered, but I felt my stomach turn and my heart race when I heard the voice at the other end. It was the deep, stony baritone – somewhat more cheerful than the mynah’s nocturnal chant, but with unmistakable menace. I tried to answer, but only choked when I tried to form words.
“Mr. Stevens? Are you there?”
“Ye… Yes, that’s me,” I replied, regaining my composure.
“You’re looking after Margaret’s mynah, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Oh good. Margaret just phoned from Ostend. She wants me to look after it. Can I pick it up tomorrow from your flat? 4pm?”
“Uhm, yes, of course. See you tomorrow at 4.”
Of course! How did I miss that? It wasn’t someone who came to this flat, the mynah had learnt it from a friend of Aunt Margaret. I felt relieved, but only for a second. Was Aunt Margaret involved in… I didn’t know, but I did know this friend of hers was some way involved. Now I had to face this man, this… this unknown terror. I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried; if I exposed this man, how would he react? Would it be safe?
The next day came. A monstrous summer storm had gathered, and the London sky was dyed dark green by the sapphire sun. Rain thrashed the windows and cried miserably as it slid into the gutters. It was a Thursday, so we were babysitting again. This was bad timing, as I didn’t want the baby there when I confronted the stranger. I looked anxiously at my watch – 10 to four. I shivered. One part of me wanted to just hand over the bird – don’t mention anything about the odd incantation. After all, why should I believe anything the priests told me? I knew what I was going to do… but then I heard the music.
That little snatch of music, so simple, but the precursor of that demonic voice. The baby gurgled happily on the sofa. I didn’t want someone so young to hear that voice, so I rushed to the bird. Now it started speaking in the woman’s voice – I felt my heart leap into my throat. My first thought was to throttle the mynah, but I was interrupted by a voice. That terrible, dark voice. Every fibre in my body wanted to scream.
The voice had come from the baby.
Credit To – YumCrunchFelix