I had just returned home from a trying day at the office—something of a laughable concept as I’m there only one day a week and I’d spent several hours wandering backroads on my return leg—and sitting down to supper barely able to keep my eyelids aloft heard a slight tapping, a gentle rapping at my side door.
“It’s back,” my wife said.
I turned and saw nothing out the window. Two more taps followed and then nothing more.
“‘Tis some nameless visitor, gray of visage, entreating entrance,” she said.
I sniffed the coffee for telltale signs of additives.
“How was your day?” I asked, uncertain in all respects how to proceed. Outwardly she looked fine if not a little weary.
“Oppressive was the heat, a fiery cinder stoked by a burning wind, ceaseless and undying,” she said. “And then fell the tapping at the window.”
“Same as mine only without the tapping,” I said.
I glanced around, suddenly consumed with dread. The kitchen was spotless, the counter cleared of everything but the coffee pot.
“Where are the knives?”
“I hid them.”
My stomach did a little flop. Behind me, unseen, came the gentle tapping.
To the hammering of my heart I whirled and strode to the stairs and looked out the entranceway windows. Beyond were trees pale and wan, their spring greenery leached by a merciless drought, elm seeds twirling down like embers, the sun molten on the dried and dying land. Long I stood there peering into the void before my wife spoke behind me: “It was a bird come to see you.”
“What kind of bird?”
“Featureless and gray.”
Catbird, I thought. I told her that sometimes males see their reflections in windows and immediately launch offensives to destroy the interloper. Which, of course, is patently impossible. The offending bird stays at this thankless task until it grows bored, knocks some sense into its head or dies from the effort.
And so I returned to the table and my meal, and sat there engaged silently in guessing, and no syllable expressing my embarrassment over the pang of unease that came unbidden. No cloaked harbinger of evil lurked on our doorstep, no revenant bidding me follow across the sundering sea. A bird, I thought, and nothing more.
Alas for my willful ignorance, my impetuous dismissal of the gray visitor! For it returned and again with a gentle tapping, a melancholic rapping whose brittle sound though faint and feeble echoed throughout the house like an invocation or summons. At first almost a novelty, merely the mad antics of a heat-addled bird, the unseen and unsettling cadence insinuated itself into the haunted silences between its deranged knocking until it became impossible to ignore. That demented fowl, that disturbed oracle whose intonations delivered so penetrating against the windowpane, so piercingly, must be confronted, I deemed, and sent packing to its hellish lair.
And so I lay in wait at the top of the stairs. The sun wheeled through the heavens and shadows grew long and lank, and the towering monolith of the grain elevator glowed like a beacon from a forgotten civilization, and in the gathering dusk a small gray form appeared at the window.
Startled at its sudden appearance, I gasped aloud before reason brought me to my senses. No raven, as I’d half-feared, but a female cowbird, its beak thick and sharp and tapping against the pane as it stared into my eyes.
“Tell me, foul fowl, what reason for this tapping?” I cried. “By what dark angel are you sent?”
For a pregnant moment it paused in its ministrations, studying me as if taking my measure. Its eyes were shiny and depthless black and nothing could read therein for nothing therein resided. In that fathomless stare I was transfixed, my blood congealing in my veins as I desperately tried to break that contact and could not. I felt myself falling forward, sucked into that Stygian abyss, until with a flick of a smokey wing it vanished.
But our doom had fallen. I knew then with dire certainty that the bird would return to torment us evermore. And so it was. For unending days now comes the endless tapping, the gentle rapping, of an insane gray-cloaked bird. I might have to get a cat.