Estimated reading time — 19 minutes
What I remember most about Grandma Dawn is that she loved birds.
She always put food out for them in her garden, and when she was still mobile she’d go birdwatching most weekends. Some of my oldest memories from being a young boy are of sitting on her lap as she flipped through giant scrap books full of the photos she’d taken. I’d often slap my tiny hand on a picture and say “Tha’ one” and she’d tell me all about the Dunlin or the Stonechat she’d managed to photograph on her trip to Dorset. The only time she didn’t like birds though, is when they were indoors. It didn’t matter whether they were in cages as pets or nesting in an attic, she wouldn’t have any of it. She wouldn’t even have bird-themed décor items in her house which I always found a bit weird. I was always baffled by her phobia, but when I came home from work that day to find a jackdaw sitting on my new coffee table it was all I could think about.
The bird was just sitting there and staring at me with its little white eyes, completely un-phased by its new surroundings. Luckily Boxer, my 2 year old cat, wasn’t hovering around as it gave me more time to actually save it. I opened the window before grabbing a newspaper to shoo it out. After I aggressively wafted the paper at the small black bird it hopped off the table, flapped around on the bare wooden floor before finally taking flight and gliding off outside again. Moving fast, I shut the window and went to check the rest of them. Going out having left another one open was not a mistake I wanted to make back then. Most of my stuff was still in boxes and easy for a thief to just come and take, after having just moved out I couldn’t afford to replace most of it.
The new house wasn’t too big, just a simple two-story build that used to belong to my Uncle Terry. He’d moved away to France that year and wanted the house to stay with a family member, so he sold it to me at a reduced rate. It only had one bedroom and a single bathroom upstairs, and downstairs consisted of just a small kitchen and a decent sized living room across the hallway. Most of it wasn’t decorated when I moved in but it didn’t bother me at the time. It was my own house and I didn’t have to live at home so it was enough for me and the cat.
Much to my confusion, all the windows were still closed, and I hadn’t installed a cat-flap for Boxer yet. I figured the bird had probably been stuck in my house for hours after getting in when I left for work. Shrugging it off I went to start unpacking the boxes in the living room, but I still couldn’t quite stop thinking about what my grandma would say. She’d only died two years prior to me moving out and I guess I still missed her at that point. I’d been going through some difficulties at university and hadn’t had time to deal with it back then. After finally managing to unbox and set up my TV I felt too tired to do anything else. I microwaved a small pasta pot dinner and dragged myself up to bed, ready for another early start at my old job at Parker’s Deli. Just before I drifted off I heard an owl hooting somewhere out behind the house, but I was too far gone for it to keep me up.
I was rudely awakened the next morning by Boxer jumping on my legs and yowling.
“Can you not wait for your damn food?” I groaned at the grey fluffy mog. Pushing him off I stumbled downstairs to go open another tin of kitty chow. When I got to the kitchen he stopped following me and sat down to yowl at me again, but I just stepped over him and opened the door. I gagged as I was met with a sour smell. It was clear that the “odour free” litter box granules I’d gotten were bullshit! Covering my face with my shirt I went to clean up the mess my cat had made, going as far as to scrub the empty tray before re-filling it to get rid of any extra stink. I wasn’t leaving my house in such a state!
After realising how long that had taken me, I quickly dumped a tin of food into the bowl and dashed to grab my uniform and go. I ran a comb through my mousey hair and practically jumped into my smart trousers before grabbing the cream work shirt and racing out to my car. The kitchen still smelt musty but I decided I’d deal with it properly when I got home, I didn’t know what my cat had eaten to make it smell that badly though.
Work went as regularly as ever that day. I made a lot of sandwiches and dealt with way more people than I liked to, but at least the pay was decent and I got to bring some extra meat home. As I backed my car up the drive I took the little grab bag out of the dash ready to just give it to Boxer as a treat. Usually he’d come running to greet me whenever I came home but not that time. “Hey, Box-man,” I called “I got you chicken!” There was still no sign of him.
He’d probably been sleeping, so I went to have another go at the kitchen. There was a small pile of dirty dishes building up next to the sink but that wasn’t my concern at the time. The foul smell had faded but there was still a light fuzz in the air. Leaving the chicken on the table I got out the marigold gloves and cheap bleach from the cupboard and set about scrubbing the dull-blue linoleum floor. I went to Boxer’s little corner by the fridge to move his tray and bowls only to find they’d been untouched since that morning. This worried me, was Boxer sick? I stopped cleaning to go and find him, I had to know if he was okay.
It wasn’t long before I caught him in the living room, sitting next to the coffee table with his back towards me. He jolted around to give me the guiltiest look I’d seen on an animal. His mouth was flecked with blood, there were black feathers at his feet and the half-eaten back end of a bird was dropped on the floor like a used-up toy. Groaning, I grabbed Boxer by the waist and pulled him away from his meal, yelling “How did you even get that?” as if expecting a reply. I managed to hold the thrashing cat all the way to the kitchen before putting him down and shutting the door. “You’re staying in there now!” I grumbled. The living room looked like a bomb site but I’m still glad that I hadn’t gotten the carpet in yet. I picked up the feathers and threw the corpse out with the same newspaper from the day before. How had he even managed to get that bird? While mopping up the blood with a paper towel I couldn’t help but think back to my Grandma again, I could see a point to not wanting birds in the house if this was the mess they left.
She never did tell me why she felt that way about birds being inside, and I didn’t get round to asking her in the end. I was nineteen when I last saw her at my mum’s birthday meal. She’d looked so healthy and happy that day, with her hair still nicely permed and dyed the same blonde she had when she was younger. Her burgundy nail polish and matching bead necklace were all on display as usual, and she was wearing a new navy dress that she was very eager to show off. I’d been wearing an old shirt with a stylised swallow design on and she got really scared by it. After some complaining from the rest of my family I finally went to the toilets and turned it inside out as I didn’t like her being upset. It was my mum’s birthday after all, and her mother shouldn’t have been angry on that day. I assumed she was going senile and didn’t question her about it. Looking back, I really wish I had. None of us thought we’d be losing her any time soon.
As it was a Friday I decided to stay up a bit later and relax that night. I watched movies on my laptop and made some loose plans to go out with the guys again soon. Moving house had been taking up a lot of my time and I’d gone a little bit stir-crazy over it, the birds and the smell in the kitchen hadn’t helped either. By about 1:45am I finally got tired and began to lose focus on whatever it was I’d been watching. I had no idea how late it had gotten until I heard that owl piping up again, making a whistling call somewhere in the darkness. It was pretty loud so it must have been in the woodlands or the field just beyond my back garden. Usually wildlife making noises didn’t bother me but that time it was too much. By closing the streaming website and switching to a boring newscast I’d tried to drown out the damn owl and actually get some sleep.
I don’t know whether or not it actually worked because I managed to sleep, but I’m sure those bird calls followed me into my dreams. That night I was a little boy again, back in the familiar moss-green and white front room of my grandparents’ house. The old box TV with the rabbit-ears was showing a man in a garden and my grandad’s pile of newspapers was still on the side table. I looked down and saw that I had little legs, wearing denim dungarees and football patterned socks. Beneath my legs were another pair of legs, covered with a long navy skirt. I was sitting on my grandma’s lap. Her gentle, crooning voice spoke in my ear as she opened up a big leather-bound photo album. “Let’s look at the owls, Daniel. They are such fascinating birds.” Her lightly wrinkled hands opened the book to a page full of photos. I recognised the Barn Owl and the Long Eared Owl, but not any of the other ones. My tiny hand slapped at random on some of the pictures. With a perfectly manicured, deep-red polished fingernail grandma pointed to the picture in the top left corner of the page and said “This one here is a Tawny Owl,” my child voice responded with “Ow-wuh…” It was a small owl, with little black eyes and some white feathers between them. A ring of darker feathers surrounded its face too. “Yes Danny, and Mr. Tawny Owl says “keee-wick, keeee-wick….” I tried saying it with her but my child-voice couldn’t make the same sounds. Grandma Dawn kept going on in a sing-song voice, repeating “keeee-wick, keee-wick” until it turned into the whistling screech of the owl and I faded out of consciousness again.
I awoke the next morning with a dull headache and didn’t want to leave my bed, but it was already 12:03 and I hadn’t fed Boxer. Begrudgingly I got up and went down in just my jogging-bottoms to get painkillers and feed my little friend. I opened the kitchen door and he shot out like a fox being freed from a trap. The rancid smell was back but his litter box was clean. My headache increased ten-fold as the smell seeped out into the hallway and I even choked a little. When the dizziness faded away I covered my mouth again and rushed back in to open up the window. I grabbed the box of tablets from the drawer, picked up Boxer’s biscuits and water bowl before hurrying back out of there. Whatever was causing that smell would need professional attention, I was beginning to think that maybe the dishwasher broke and there was stagnant water building up somewhere. Stumbling to the living room I put down the water and dumped a pile of biscuits on the floor, “Okay, you can eat here now, Box-man, all nice and clean.” I ran my hand along his back as he tucked in, before falling back onto the sofa and taking the medicine.
All I’d wanted was to sort out my new house and settle in but it seemed like I had a lot of issues to sort out. I didn’t think that birds would even try and get inside a house, and I’d definitely need a plumber to try and find what was causing that stink. My problem, I thought, was whether or not I could afford that. A loud thud came from the kitchen and I jumped up immediately. If something else had gone wrong in there I’d have cried. Preparing for the worst I readied myself for the smell and barged back across the landing. Multiple bangs came again from behind the door and I flung it open.
Zipping around my tiny kitchen were two large jays and a scruffy magpie, more carrion birds like the jackdaw from the other day. My big cupboard was hanging open, feathers were strewn on the countertops and one of the glasses from the drying rack was smashed on the floor. The chattering and bawking felt like tiny hammers chipping away at the inside of my skull. I couldn’t handle it that day, the headache came back, and my house was a mess. “Get out! Fuck you!” but they just stayed there, desperately circling the room the way flies do when trapped in a glass. Why had they all come inside? Were the woods not good enough for them anymore? I slammed the door shut and slumped with my back against it. hoping that if I left them alone the birds would fly out again like the jackdaw did.
I didn’t want to spend another minute inside that house. Realising I wasn’t dressed I stormed back to my bedroom, temporarily blocking out the bird calls with my heavy footfalls as I charged up the stairs. Hastily I pulled on my well-worn blue jeans and went digging in the dresser for a shirt, grabbing out a green and white polo from the bottom. Straightaway I tossed it back after unfolding it and noticing the little white eagle logo sewn into the front pocket. I settled for an old blue sports t-shirt and my tatty tennis shoes before running outside. The warm summer air hit me and I felt free for once. Boxer came to enjoy his first time outside since we’d moved too, I guess neither of us could stand the house.
After locking the door behind me I set off walking, I didn’t plan to go anywhere that day but it felt so good to be out. I walked down the road of terraced houses with Boxer following along for a little while. The whole street was lined with small brick-patio front yards and slate tiled roofs, but in the light of that summer afternoon it felt as bright and lively as a coastal resort town. Before long I’d pretty much forgotten about the past few days. In my rush to get out I’d left my watch and phone behind so I had no idea how long I went out for, but the sky was starting to develop a pink tinge when I’d decided to start heading back. I’d found myself in a little village shopping square but most of the buildings were either boarded up or closing for the day. The uninspired graffiti and broken cash machine had told me that I didn’t want to be there for much longer though. I’m not quite the biggest guy, and I’m too sensible to get into fights so I really didn’t want to risk dealing with the types of people that place probably attracted. An old man in a flat cap came out of the newsagents and began pulling down a rickety metal shutter to cover the shop front for the night, he was the first person I’d noticed that day. The creaking and shuddering of metal on metal echoed around the empty square. The loud squeaks and bangs put me on edge. With the daylight heat rapidly disappearing I became increasingly aware that I hadn’t brought a jacket, neither had I eaten that day. There was a little opening between a closed down bookies and the old man’s shop that lead back to the street I’d last walked down, so I turned and headed that way.
I broke into a light jog as I approached the alley. The old man glanced back at me as I got closer but kept on closing up his shop. He’d managed to pull the metal sheet almost all the way down but it was still making those rusty squeals. He went back to ignoring me as I nipped between the two buildings on my set route back to the house. The alley was only the length of the two buildings but in the dark it had seemed a lot longer, and those sounds from the shutter echoed along behind me. It groaned like a large animal and the heaving of the wheels made a hellish scream. Still jogging, I just focussed on the opening to the street. The dragging shutter began to turn into a long “Keeeeee-wick….” I don’t know if that noise was following me or if I couldn’t get it out of my head. “Keeee-wick…” it went on in a shrill tone. I picked up my pace and sprinted. The alley stretched out ahead as if to trap me in. I didn’t know if this was really happening anymore. Wind-chill bit through to my bones but I felt I had to keep running as the owl sounds got louder. “Keeeee-wick” was all I could hear aside from my own heavy breathing. I closed my eyes and continued rushing forwards. All I could think of was the smiling face of Grandma Dawn singing bird calls and saying, “We don’t let birds in the house, Daniel…” I’m sure I started screaming. I felt pain explode in my left shoulder and the wind get knocked out of my body.
When I opened my eyes I was on the ground, gasping for air on the corner of my street. There was a deep graze across my shoulder but at least it wasn’t bleeding. I must have been running with my eyes closed for a lot longer than I thought and fallen over the curb. Everything had gone quiet again, save for a car going by somewhere on the next road. It was as if nothing had happened, maybe I was going mad. Slowly I picked myself up and power-walked back to the house, trying to be as quick as I could as to avoid experiencing anything else that night. Boxer was sitting patiently on the doorstep waiting for me and I gave him a head-scratch before hastily unlocking the front door. The smell from the kitchen still lingered but it was too faint to bother me. I was actually glad to be back there, it was warm at least. I flopped back on the sofa and thought about ordering take away, I was truly starving by then.
After polishing off most of a greasy Mighty Meat-Feast I went to bed, but didn’t sleep. Not after that evening. It felt like I was really losing my mind, it was all too much to just be due to stress. I lay there in the darkness thinking about my gran. Why hadn’t she liked birds in the house? I regretted not coming home to visit when we first suspected something might be wrong, but I’d been so busy with my Environmental Science exams that I didn’t want to take time away. Maybe that wasn’t the most important thing though. I’d lost my chance to say goodbye and I hadn’t even gone back to visit her grave, I didn’t even know where it was. According to my mum she’d died pretty suddenly but she didn’t say exactly how. We knew she’d caught a bad Flu earlier that year so we all presumed it was due to that. What bothered me most in that moment tough, was that I never asked her about the birds. I fell into a fitful sleep but couldn’t drift off completely.
Waking up the next morning was awful. The afternoon sun was blaring through the blinds so intensely that it wasn’t even dark when I shut my eyes. My whole body felt like a deadweight and everything looked blurry. Boxer was meowing at my door but I couldn’t care less, he could eat my body as I rotted away. As if my head hadn’t been feeling bad enough my phone started ringing on my night stand like a pneumatic drill. I pulled my head under the covers and tried to ignore it until it stopped. When it finally fell silent I rolled over and picked it up, my mum had been trying to call me. Usually I hated missing calls from family but I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Of all the times my mother would want to talk to me, it just had to be then didn’t it? I cradled the phone in one hand and tucked it under my pillow. Laying my head back I tried to wake up. Then, a thought drifted into my hazy mind. Maybe my mum knew about grandma and the birds? She had been her daughter after all. I loaded up the contact info from the missed call and pressed to send a text, “Hi mum x I’m ok. Love you” and hit Send, then I followed it up with another message “Why didn’t gran like birds in houses?” I lay there like an idiot just holding the phone in front of my face, staring blankly at the text log screen. A few seconds later I received a text back “Hi Dan xx glad ur ok. Luv u.” I didn’t expect her to reply to m other text, she was probably thinking I was crazy. Then, about a minute later my phone buzzed again with a new message, “she said it meant death x.”
I dropped the phone. It bounced off the bed and clattered across the floor. My stomach was empty but I felt like I was about to throw up. Why would it mean that? I slowly became aware of bird calls coming from near my window and leapt out of bed like it had just been lit on fire. I wasn’t letting anymore damn birds get in my house! Grabbing Boxer from outside my door I stormed down to the wretched mess of a kitchen. It still reeked but I didn’t care. The whole room was covered in feathers and bird dung. The magpie was dead on the floor and the two jays were picking apart the corpse. A big ugly crow was perched on the table with the remains of another jackdaw beside it. “Not anymore!” I screamed as Boxer hissed and struggled, jumping from my arms to pounce on the smaller jay. Almost immediately the crow made a dive for him but I was fast enough to grab it before those talons hit my cat. I fought against the beating wings and grasping claws to try and throw the squalling creature back out of the still-open window. It thrust forwards in my hands, dragging me into the pile of crockery built up around the sink. Even more glasses crashed to the floor and shattered along with the china plates my Aunt had left me. Gripping the bird tighter I flung it at the window again, smashing it against the glass and stunning it. The bird dropped to the counter like a ragdoll and lay there twitching. I didn’t want to touch that thing again. A chopping knife was left lazily beside the sink, still dirty with food remnants. Almost without thinking I picked it up and brought the blade down on the crow’s neck. With two deep slashes its head came away and rolled to one side. I shut the window and grabbed Boxer off the floor, the dead jay was still clenched in his teeth. “Well, there’s your dinner today” I said, throwing him back into the hallway before preparing to deal with the last bird. The remaining jay was still on the floor eating the magpie. I grabbed a pan off the side and crushed it. There was a sickly crack as its tiny bones broke. “No more fucking birds” I snarled. I let the pan clatter to the floor and laughed at the unholy mess.
My kitchen was a warzone of shed feathers, broken glass and bird guts. But what bothered me more than anything was the stale odour that still clung to the air. What was it that had caused my house to stink so badly? Now that I’d dealt with one problem it was time to find out what the other one was. I didn’t think I’d really need to use it, but I went to the big cupboard under the sink to find the box of DIY tools my dad had given me. Apparently every house needed one and I decided that I needed mine right then. Dragging out the big red bag for the first time I turned it over and dumped the contents onto the table. There were lots of screw drivers in different sizes and some pliers, but I knew exactly which tools I needed. I picked up the hammer and the small handsaw and went to get to work. Originally I’d thought the smell was coming from Boxer’s litter tray, so that corner seemed like a good spot to investigate first. Kicking away the shards of broken glass and plates I knelt down next to the fridge. With the prongs of the hammer facing down I smashed it into the linoleum, tearing the cheap material and breaking through to the wooden subfloor. It only made a shallow crack, but I drew my arm back and hit it again until I felt it go right through. I hit it again, and again, smiling wider and wider with every swing. It was time to end this. I bashed away like a madman for a few minutes until I’d made a decent sized opening right in the middle of the corner floor section.
Putting down the hammer I picked up the saw and held the blade on the edge of the hole. With a heavy push I made the first deep cut into the lino, followed by another and another. I got into the rhythm of sliding the blade up and down through the wood. It was almost relaxing, moving my arm back and forth to push and pull the saw. A thud on the window broke my flow and almost caused me to hit my leg with the sharp edge. Turning around I saw a stocky brown owl perched on the windowsill, staring at me with its big black eyes. It had a white patch between them and a dark ring around its face. I knew what bird this was, “oh not you.” Snapping back to my sawing I pushed the blade faster and strained myself against the wood as I hit the joists, the heavy scraping sounds had battled to drown out Mr. Tawny Owl going “keeee-wick, keeee-wick…” It was as loud as ever but I knew that I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to find out what was under there. Picking up a large chunk of plate I lobbed it at the window to make the owl shut up. Sawing harder and harder I began to make progress, tearing through the thin flooring and severing the support beams as I went. Slicing and breaking the wood with my short jagged blade. Sweat had covered my bare torso, my arm ached and my face was red but eventually my frantic work made a haphazard square outline in the floor. The owl had still been making its terrible cry but I didn’t care by that point. I held onto the edge of the starting hole and gave the saw one last grind.The panel fell through and I collapsed backwards, panting heavily. With laboured breath I pointed back at the damn owl and laughed “Ha! I did it! You can’t stop me!” The owl just glared at me, “I win, you dumb bird!” I fell back and continued to laugh, surrounded by the debris of bird fights. It felt like I’d won, but I had to lift up that panel. My body moved like a worn-out machine as I strained to stand up again. Joints clicking and muscles numb. The rough cut-away square lay at an angle across the hole I’d hacked it out of. It was time to fix the problem, what was wrong with my house? I bent down, placed both hands on the opposite edges of the flooring board and lifted it up.
A tidal wave of stench hit me, stinging my eyes as I choked on the sour air. I stopped myself from vomiting and waited to catch my breath. When the smell cleared I looked down, and froze. In the hole beneath me, was a face. Staring up with dirty marble eyes stuck in its melting skin. It was waxy and pale with patches of brown and orange staining its sagging, bloated cheeks. The nose was barely more than a hole and the torn, declining lips were frozen in a smile. Wispy strands of blonde, curled hair clung sparsely to its stretched and deflated scalp. Little burgundy beads sat neatly on those shrivelled mushroom ears, and hung lazily in a chain around its collapsing hollow neck. Under the boards in my kitchen, was my Grandma Dawn. How did this happen? Why was she there, of all places? I could hear “keee-wick, keee-wick” starting up behind me, getting louder and louder. It wasn’t the owl call this time. My grandma was smiling up at me and singing in my ear. All I could do was cry. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry!” I sobbed,“I wanted to say goodbye!” Had my Uncle even known about this? Surely I’d gone mad and this was just a hallucination, but I could see her clear as day. This putrid thing was my grandma. My stomach gave up and I vomited all over my knees, covering my grey joggers in pizza bits and bile.“Keeee-wick, keeee-wick…” continued all around me and I couldn’t look away from the decaying ghoul that used to be someone I loved. Fighting against myself I slammed the board back down over the hole, but I could still feel that corroding face looking up at me. The owl-song filled my head, taunting me. I put my hands around my head and screamed. My knees gave way and I collapsed into the pool of my own vomit.
I must have passed out at some point, because the only thing I can remember afterwards was waking up in hospital. Apparently a neighbour had heard me screaming and called for an ambulance. I tried telling the nurses about the body in the floor, but they all ignored me and probably thought I was delusional or hallucinating. I was let out after a few days and went back to the house one last time, just to get Boxer and move my stuff out of there again. The hole in the floor was still covered, it almost looked as if I’d never cut it up. The smell and the mess was all gone but I couldn’t live there any longer. I had to move back in with my parents as there was nowhere else to go on such short notice. It felt like a step backwards but at least I could still keep my cat there. They understood when I told them my Uncle had “sold me a faulty house” that “didn’t meet regulations” and I had to get out. Luckily it only took me just over a year to save up for the place I have now. It’s just an apartment but the location is great and it allows pets. Living on my own again made me pretty nervous at first, it’s been a few years since it happened and yet it still keeps me awake some nights. I never used to be an overly cautious or fearful person, but ever since then I’ve been unable to handle the thought of birds being anywhere near me.