He rushed to his bedroom to dress: trousers without underwear, shoes without socks, jacket without shirt. He didn't look out of any of his windows as he did so, the one logical action, simply checking on what the sound might be, left bafflingly undone. Instead, he moved with instinct, feeling somehow that if he hesitated, it whatever it might be would somehow slip away, dissipate like a forgotten love. He merely moved, and quickly.
He bungled down the stairs, fiddling his keys out of his trouser pocket. He stepped through the cluttered sitting room and into the kitchen, angering himself at how loudly the keys banged against the back door lock (and who had a key lock on the inside of a house? If there was a fire, then whoof, you were gone, banging on a door that would never open. He'd meant to fix that as well, but ten years later . . .).
He opened the door, swinging it out into the freezing night, knowing that whatever had made that noise must be gone, surely, in all the racket he was making from his clumsy door-openings and key-clatterings. It would have fled, it would have flown, it would have run
But there it stood. Alone in the middle of the modest stretch of grass that made up the modest back garden of his modest detached home.
A great white bird, as tall as he was, taller, willowy as a reed.
A reed made of stars, he thought.
Then, 'A reed made of stars'? Where the hell did that come from?
The bird was illuminated only by the moon in the cold, clear winter sky, shades of white, grey and dark against the shadows of his lawn standing there regarding him, its eye a small, golden glint of blinking wet, level with his own, its body as long as he'd been when he was at his teenage gangliest. It looked somehow, he stupidly thought, as if it was on the verge of speaking, as if it would open its pointed, clipped bill and tell him something of vital importance that could only be learnt in a dream and forgotten on the instant of waking.
But he felt too cold under his one layer of clothes for this to be a dream, and the bird, of course, remained silent, not even a repeat of the keening that could only have come from it.
It was magnificent. Not just in its unexpectedness, its utter incongruity in the backyard of a London suburb celebrated for its blandness, a place from where native- born artists were noted for moving away. But even in a zoo, even to a non-bird lover, this bird would have caught the eye. The staggering whiteness, even in the dark, of its breast and neck, a whiteness that seemed as much a part of the cold as the frost on the grass behind it. The white- ness flowed down into its wings, the one on the side facing him dipping almost low enough to brush the grass.
Triangles of black pulled away from its bill on either side, and a startling cap of red crowned its head, distinguishable even in this low light, like a military insignia for somewhere impossibly foreign. Its stare was commanding, unyielding in that way of birds. It knew he was there, it met his eye, and yet it didn't start or fly away or show any fear.
Or rather, he thought, the fear it showed wasn't of him.
He shook his head. These thoughts weren't helpful. The cold, far from waking him, was so ferocious it was actually making him sleepier, and he thought for a moment that this must be how people die in snowstorms, this lethargy which felt warm against all available evidence. He rubbed his arms, then stopped should the action startle the bird away.
But the bird remained.
A heron? he thought. A stork? But it was nothing at all like those hunched, purplish grey birds he sometimes saw skulking around the city like unwashed old gentlemen.
Then, for the second time that evening, the word came to him. Who knew if he was right, who knew such things any more, the right words for birds, the right words for anything, who bothered to remember them in an age when knowledge was for putting into a cloud and forgetting, then forgetting again that you ever needed to remember it? But the name came to him, and regardless of where it might have come from or how it might be right, it was right. He knew it, and speaking made it more so.
Copyright © 2013 by Patrick Ness
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