A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds

The letter from my grandmother arrived twenty years after she died. It—and its contents—were completely unexpected.

“She left me her house,” I told my mom.

“Well, you ought to be able to get decent money for it,” she said.

“That’s the catch. I have to live in it for a year first. Otherwise the money goes to charity.”

I could feel the silence through the phone.

“I’m moving in when my lease is up in June,” I said. “I think it will be fun.”

“You can’t expect me to come visit,” she said.

“I know, Mom. I don’t.”

I’d never been to my grandmother’s house before. She and my mom weren’t close, and Mom refused to set foot in the house, even after Lily died. “I never felt comfortable there. Not one day. I see no reason to go back.” So beyond the photos the realtor had emailed—which showed a pleasant enough, if somewhat old-fashioned place—I had no real idea what to expect.

That was fine. I was excited. I’d lived in a series of apartments since college, and having a house of my own seemed like it would be an adventure.

The house was tucked deep into a forest of tall pines. Space near it had been cleared into a yard, and there were patches of sunflowers in front, and garden beds around the side.

Two wooden chairs sat on the front porch, and the house was a pale, faded blue with white trim, two stories and an attic tall enough to have windows. The paint was flaking a bit, but I could fix that if I wanted. I turned the key and opened the door.

That was when things got weird.

The house was full of birds. All kinds of birds. Sparrows and blue jays and cardinals and ravens and magpies and a small hawk of some sort and a wood duck in the kitchen sink and a particularly grumpy-looking owl, staring at me from the mantel over the fireplace in the dining room. And that was just the downstairs part of the house.

Upstairs there were doves and red-winged blackbirds and starlings and there was a peacock in the bathtub. He seemed friendly enough, but I preferred taking baths by myself.

I called the real estate agent who had handled the paperwork and given me the keys. It had been her firm that had acted as caretakers since my grandmother’s death, that had sent the letter on the date Lily had specified, and then made sure the pipes worked and the toilets flushed and the utilities were turned on so that I could move in. Angela had been the one who had done the walkthrough, had sent me pictures of the inside of the house and a list of suggested contractors, in case I wanted to make repairs or upgrades. There were no birds in any of the pictures she had sent. “Hi Angela, it’s Luna. Luna Ryan. Um, anyway, I was wondering, did you notice anything unusual about the house the last time you were in it?”

“Unusual? Not at all.” Her voice professionally pleasant. “Has something gone wrong? I can take you to a hotel if you need.”

There was a peacock with his head in my purse. I felt certain that he would qualify under anyone’s definition of unusual, which meant it was pretty unlikely he had been here when Angela had last walked through the house. “No, you know what, it’s nothing actually. Sorry to bother you.”

Things were strange, but I didn’t want to leave. It was the good kind of strange, the kind that fizzed in my brain like those candies that explode in your mouth, a surprise and a sweetness all at once. It was something amazing, a mystery that was mine. None of this was normal but I liked it.

There was a letter from my grandmother in the middle of the kitchen table.

Dear Luna,

Please forgive the passage of time, but a place must stand empty before its ghosts can decide to leave or stay.

I have always loved this house, and everything in it. I hope that you will love it, too. Even more than that, I hope that you will find what you need here.

Welcome home.

Love,

Lily

Everything in it, she had written. A tiny ruby-throated hummingbird flew into the kitchen, paused as if looking me in the eyes, and then zipped away, too fast for me to follow the flight path. When I’d imagined what I might find here, the pieces of Lily’s life, the connections to my own past, a house full of birds hadn’t been part of it. Still, it was kind of cool.

I walked through the house again. Most, maybe even all, of my grandmother’s stuff was still here—furniture, dishes, books, even her clothes. Everything had been left as it was when she died—it felt like I had walked into a time capsule. I wanted to go through it before sending what I didn’t want off to second-hand stores. On any other day, the beauty of her wedding china and the patterns of her silk scarves would have been the highlights of what I found.

Today, I was distracted by the flutter of wings over the back of a sofa or across a room and by the other strangenesses in the house.

There was no mess. No piles of birdshit. No loose feathers, no piles of seed hulls. Not that I was complaining, but it was unexpected. Though, honestly, not that much more unexpected than the birds being here in the first place.

There were nests, but they weren’t the expected sort of birds’ nests, twigs and grass and maybe pieces of string or fluff that people had set out in their trees. There was a robin, for example, who had made a nest out of thin silver chains—necklaces and bracelets I guessed were stolen from my grandmother’s jewelry box—in a champagne coupe in the china hutch. A fierce-eyed kestrel sat at the top of a bookshelf in a nest of flatware—forks and knives woven together. A sooty poof of a chicken clucked happily in a pile of scarves at the end of a wrought-iron day bed.

There were no eggs in any of the nests.

Also, the birds all seemed to get along. I’m not an expert—there were definitely birds in the house that I couldn’t identify on sight—but I was pretty sure that some of the ones that were living here usually preyed on some of the others. None of that was happening. Soft hoots and chirps and coos filled the air as background. It was oddly soothing.

With the birds like white noise in the background, I unpacked until I was exhausted, crawled into my pajamas, and then into bed.

I don’t sleep well in unfamiliar places. I’m like the princess and the pea, except instead of a pea keeping me awake, it’s every creak of the house settling, or breath of wind in the shingles, or rattle of a branch against a window. It’s the weight of sheets that aren’t my own and pillows that can’t be squished the way I like them, and a slant of light where the curtains don’t quite block out the moon.

Which meant that night, as tired as I was, I found it almost impossible to fall asleep. I lay for hours in that twilight between sleeping and waking, where you know you will be exhausted the next day if you don’t fall asleep, but you’re too close to sleep to get up and do anything useful. And in that grey and dreamlit state, I heard voices telling stories. Not from beginning to end, but in bits and pieces, as if I was overhearing snips of conversation.

“It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but we all make our choices, don’t we.”

“If only I’d had time.”

“I won’t regret it. I can’t.”

Shadows and wings and feathers crossed my walls in the moonlight. Eventually, sometime near dawn, I slept.

When I woke, it was to a small pile of feathers at the end of my bed, and three missing birds. The robin that had been in the champagne coupe, the scarf-nesting grey chicken, and the grumpy little owl. Others may have been gone, too, but those were the ones I was sure of.

None of the doors and windows were open.

The bathtub peacock was still there, but thankfully allowed himself to be shooed out so I could shower. None of the birds in the house acted particularly bothered by my presence, so I went about my day. I unpacked more of my own things, and started making lists of my grandmother’s stuff—what I wanted to keep, what I wanted to store, what could be donated somewhere.

I still didn’t have any clue as to why it had mattered to her that I live in the house. There was no personal note beyond the letter I had found, no stash of memorabilia that set off an ache of connection in my heart. There were just… things. Some of them beautiful, some ordinary, some—a drawer full of bread bags—a complete puzzle as to why they had ever been saved. But nothing I could read as a map to my grandmother. Nothing that made a line between us.

A new bird arrived that afternoon—a lime green parrot, who flew after me like a shadow. It perched on shelves and in cupboards, watching me unpack, and when I went to bed that night, made itself comfortable on the headboard. It was cute. I liked it.

I didn’t sleep much better than I had the night before, but as I was drifting off at one point, I heard another tiny scrap of a story.

“… easier to come here first. To see everything one last time. And then the stars…”

I couldn’t tell which bird was gone the next morning, but there were feathers, a gorgeous shade of rich blue, on the pillow next to mine. Three of them, and too pretty to get rid of. I gathered them up, pulled the ones from the day before out of the bedroom wastebasket, and put them all in a drawer.

The phone rang later that morning. My mom. “Luna, I’ve been expecting you to call.”

“I know, I know. Sorry. I’ve been busy settling in.” And running some weird sort of aviary.

“I still can’t believe you moved into that place.”

“It seems okay so far,” I said. “And if it turns out that I hate it, I can sell it at the end of a year. I’m trying to get an image though—what was it like when you lived here?”

“I hated it. It felt haunted to me—like I was always being watched.”

“But did you ever see anything unusual?” Like, say, the green parrot, currently flapping its way from lamp to lamp.

“I thought I heard voices once. I told your grandmother, and all she said was that I’d hear them better if I cared enough to listen. Like somehow whatever was happening was my fault. I wish you’d leave that place. I worry about you being there.”

“It’s fine, Mom. I’m fine.” We spoke a bit longer, until I could feel the ambient stress of the conversation tighten my neck, stiffen my shoulders. I made an excuse about unpacking, and ended the call. After I set the phone down, the parrot flew to my shoulder, and preened its bill through my hair.

It took me about two weeks to figure out where the birds were coming from. Or, more accurately, to figure out what they were. It was the day I woke up to find the bathtub peacock, who I had taken to calling Bob, gone.

I stumbled, bleary-eyed and wild-haired, into the bathroom after another mostly sleepless night and found only feathers. Four of them, tailfeathers, beautiful and long. At this point, I was used to the sudden disappearances enough that I knew Bob was truly gone, not just hiding. I wanted to put his feathers in the drawer with the other ones, but didn’t want them bent, so I reached in the drawer to make sure there was enough space.

Wedged at the back was a thin black notebook. I drew it out carefully, then felt the back once more, to make sure there was nothing else I had missed. Nothing. I opened the cover. Inside, Lily’s rushed, slanted handwriting.

It was like a birdwatcher’s journal, but also, not. She’d listed the types of birds, but had also how long they’d stayed, how many feathers they’d left, and in some cases, pieces of stories.

There was a note, after the first set of these: “The birds seem to speak only while I am dreaming, and I am reluctant to assume that ghosts hold to mortal standards of honesty in biography, but as the speaking of these stories seems to be a rite of passage for the spirits, I have done my best to record them, in case there is meaning in these final words.”

Ghosts. The ghosts she thought might leave, sometime in the twenty years that the house had stood empty. I looked up at the sherbet green parrot strutting along the top of the cabinets. I’d never thought of ghosts as looking like cheerful little parrots, but it made as much sense as anything. Plus, it would explain the odd nests, the lack of mess.

It would also explain my mom’s suspicion that the house had been haunted.

Ghosts. Not birds, ghosts. Okay.

I flipped through the rest of the notebook. There were sketches, at the back, of wings—large ones, with a harness, like the kind that would fit a human. Another note from my grandmother, on the final page: “Consider if these might be useful.”

It was a strange thing to think of, that maybe Lily had known how Mom had felt, had watched her daughter live in a haunted house that she didn’t understand, and had done nothing to help her. If that was the case, no wonder Mom had left and never come back. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Lily, knowing that she knew there was a possibility that the ghosts would be here when I moved in—did she also suspect I would be able to see them as she had? Did that matter to her?

Now that I knew what the birds were, I paid closer attention to them. Some of them stayed for a long time, some barely even passed through. But they had all been people once, and then they had been dead, and now they were ghosts that looked like birds and they stayed in my grandmother’s house and they made nests out of things like old maps and a garishly floral print shower curtain and a pile of men’s watches.

And they told stories.

I got used to it, the rustle of voices in the night like wings in the air. And the feathers—there seemed to be always a pile, a tiny fallen rainbow of them on the pillow when I woke up in the morning, the birds that had shed them gone. Like Lily, I started writing the stories down, in a notebook that I kept by my bed. I continued to collect the feathers, to keep them in a drawer. I looked for the ones Lily had collected, but had no luck finding them.

And I wondered, of course I did, whether one of the birds in the house might be Lily. I hoped not, when it came down to it—she’d died a long time ago and I didn’t want her to have waited all these years for me, but I wondered. And there was a part of me that wished to hear her voice, telling me a story—telling me anything about why I was here, what it was I was supposed to be doing in this house, with all these birds, something I still wasn’t any closer to figuring out.

Then one morning, I woke up and there was no lime green parrot parading back and forth on the bed’s footboard. There was only a bright pile of feathers on the pillow.

I’d slept deeply. I hadn’t heard the bird’s story, hadn’t said goodbye. I sat in bed and cried, as if the parrot had been a person that I knew. It had become something like a friend to me, and I felt like I’d failed it because I hadn’t heard its story.

I needed to do something. I went back through Lily’s notebook but found no clue there. The stories she’d written down were like the ones I’d heard—bits and pieces of sentences, nothing more. Like recording them was all that mattered. Then I turned to the final page. The drawing of the wings. Consider if these might be useful.

It didn’t say useful for what. But I was going to find out. I was going to make the wings. And if they were somehow useful to the birds, I thought, as I wiped my eyes and tucked the brilliant green feathers away, even better.

“So are you still planning on staying there?” my mom asked.

“I am,” I said.

“I don’t understand why.”

“There’s something I need to do. It’s important.”

“That’s what Lily always used to say. It was why she hardly ever came to visit me, not even after you were born. There was always something important at the house.” Even now, hurt in her voice.

“Did she say what it was?” I asked.

“Of course not. All I know is that it was too important for her to leave and come see her own family.”

I thought of the birds and their stories and I almost understood my grandmother’s choice. It would feel wrong to leave the ghosts with no one to hear their stories. Still, there was the living to consider, too. “I’m not quite settled in enough to leave yet, but maybe next month. And you know you can come here, Mom. Anytime you want.”

“No,” she said. “I can’t.”

I had no thought of actually making working wings when I got started. But I kept coming back to Lily’s words, and the idea that the wings might be useful and useful meant flight—at least it seemed to for the birds resident here. I hadn’t seen any penguins or ostriches among the ghosts.

I was so clueless at first that I googled “How to make wings” and then stared dumbly at an internet that brought me back pages and pages of recipes involving blue cheese and spicy buffalo sauce. I did better on the search the second time around.

And so I started with internet directions, a printed out diagram, and my grandmother’s sketches. I used wood from the trees outside—the ghost birds could fly into the yard, and return to the house without problem, so that seemed fitting. I made a frame, and made it large—wings that would look right on my body, wings that I could imagine lifting me into the air.

That was the end of my planning. After that, I just attached the feathers to the frame—different colors, different sizes, all together. I hung Bob’s peacock feathers from the ends, grace notes on the awkwardness I had built. I was about ninety percent sure that they wouldn’t work—that at the end of the day, I’d wind up with a piece of art that was beautiful only because of what it had been made from.

But there was that remaining ten percent. And maybe. Just maybe.

I finished the wings late at night, and leaned them carefully against my bedroom wall. That night, the voices were even louder:

“I missed him so much.”

“The music so loud it shook the room we danced in.”

“… to see sunflowers one more time…”

I dreamt of wings, of feathers, of flight.

Then it came time to see if I could fly. I shrugged into the wings, enjoying the colorful weight of them on my back. I thought it was just possible that this might work. It wouldn’t be the most unlikely thing that had happened since I moved into this house.

I crouched in my bedroom window, which was both large enough and low enough to the floor that I could manage this with relative ease. It was, also, on the second floor of the house, but I figured even if this was a complete failure, I wasn’t likely to get really hurt. The wings would—I hoped—create some form of drag.

The birds crowded around me, flying in and out of the window, scolding from the trees. I pulled in a breath, grinned, and flung myself into the air.

I launched in an explosion of feathers and birds—it seemed like every ghost in the house decided to follow me. For a brief moment—not even a second, but maybe a heartbeat—I thought that I had done it, that the wings were working, that I was flying.

That moment was exhilarating.

Before I had finished the thought, I crashed—hard—to the ground. There was a terrible snap, and the breath left my lungs in a huff. Aching, I picked myself up, out of an audience of indignant bluebirds. Feathers fell like tears as I stood, and the wings dangled in pieces. The snap had been the frame breaking.

I pressed my hand to the pain in my side, and brushed tears and blood from my face. It hurt to look at ruined wings. I gathered up the pieces, and took them inside. Upstairs, to the one section of the house I hadn’t sorted through yet, the attic. They’d be out of the way there—it was summer, and the attic was unairconditioned and staggeringly hot, so I had no plans to do any work in it until the temperature dropped. I ignored the piles of boxes and heaped the broken wings into a corner. They had not, after all, been useful.

I didn’t know what I had been thinking—to build a set of wings that would actually work? Just because I lived in a house full of birds didn’t mean I was one. And if I wasn’t careful, I’d wind up more like them than I wanted to be—a ghost. It had been a ridiculous idea. Even Lily had never actually made the wings.

The phone rang. Mom. Probably calling to tell me again to leave. I was half-tempted to—my entire body ached with failure. “You should look in the attic.”

“Hello to you, too.” I said.

“You wanted to know what it was like living there, what she was like. Any personal or important stuff would be up there. That was where she stored things.” The words all in a rush, as if speaking them was hard.

“Okay. I’ll look. Thanks, Mom.”

I knew what it took, for her to look back at the life she’d flown from, and pull that memory from herself. I heaved myself back up the stairs, into the attic’s stale, sweltering air, and brought down a stack of boxes.

Later that night, after I’d soaked my bruises in a hot bath, I started going through the boxes. Here were the pieces of Lily’s life I’d been hoping to find—pictures, including ones of my mom, from when she was a baby, and first day of school pictures, all the way through high school. I could see my mom’s smile getting tighter and smaller as the years progressed, could see the space growing between her and Lily. The pictures didn’t show me why Mom had left, but they did show the inevitability of it.

There were piles of letters, bundled together with string. Notebooks, like the one I’d already found, a record of all of the birds that Lily had kept track of, for years and years, including when my mom lived here: Karin doesn’t see them, though I think she senses their presence and is made uneasy by it. I wish I knew how to reassure her, how to let her hear them. The key is in the feathers, I know, but I cannot tell how, and until I can, I can’t explain it to my daughter, no matter how much I see her hurting. And I cannot abandon the ghosts who have chosen this place for their nest.

In the third box, I found Lily’s stash of feathers.

I ran my fingers through them, the riot of color in the dusty box, and I thought of stories and wings and voices in the dim grey of the night. I thought of my mom, haunted by stories she couldn’t hear.

I went to the attic one more time, and I brought down the broken wings.

I repaired the wings, added my grandmother’s feathers in with the ones I’d gathered. The wings were fuller this time, richer. And this time, I didn’t try to fly when the sun was out—I waited until night, until I heard the voices of the birds, whispering their stories. Then, I climbed into the window, and stepped out.

Everything held like a breath. And then I heard:

“… always one more moment.”

“Forgiveness.”

“A place to say goodbye.”

I bent my wings and, full of stories, they caught the air.

I flew. Jerky and awkward, but I flew. And it was glorious.

The birds flocked around me, and there—in the night, in the sky—I could hear their stories clearly. Not in bits and pieces, but in their full voices. Some I recognized from the snippets that I had heard before. Some were new. As I listened, I flew and flew, until my body ached from the effort. And then:

“I wish I had told Karin I was proud of her in person, instead of just in a letter.”

My grandmother’s voice.

I looked up, around, but couldn’t tell which bird it had been. Shaking, I tucked my wings and landed, stumbling a bit. The sky was lighter now, the sunrise just pinking the edges of the horizon. The birds were calm, quiet in the trees.

I walked inside, and carefully took the wings off. Then I took the bundled letters, and untied them. Most were opened, saved correspondence. There were even a couple from me, when I was little—thank you notes and a Christmas card I had sent. Then I found the one addressed to my mom.

I called her. I didn’t tell her all of it, only that I’d found the letter. “Do you want me to send it to you?”

There was a long pause. While I waited, an oriole flew in the window, and perched on the kitchen faucet.

“Actually,” she said. “Maybe I could come out. Just for a day. And see you.”

“I’d like that, Mom,” I said. “I’d like that a lot.”

As we spoke, more and more birds flew into the kitchen, filling the room with an entire flock of brightly colored ghosts.

Kat Howard

Kat Howard lives in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in Year’s Best and “best-of” collections, and performed on NPR. Her debut novel, Roses and Rot, was named one of the best SF/Fantasy/Horror books of Summer 2016 by Publishers Weekly and is a finalist for the 2017 Locus Award for First Novel. Her second novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, will be out in September 2017 from Saga Press, who are also publishing her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in fall 2018. You can find her on Twitter at @KatWithSword.

One Response to “A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds”

  1. nottenst

    Definitely going to put this on my list of possible Hugo nominees.
    Earlier this year we finally sold my parents’ house, so this story had extra meaning with what we’ve been going through the past two years.

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