And all the stars were crashing round
As I laid eyes on what I'd found.
In her dreams, she flies.
What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.
He huddled under the covers, sending out mental feelers to see how urgent the call was. Urgent enough. He sighed. Forty-eight still seemed too young to be having to get up in the night so often to relieve what was patently an old man's need, but there would clearly be no getting back to sleep until the matter was addressed. Maybe if he was quick about it he wouldn't even really need to wake all the way up. Yes. All right, then. Here we go. Upright, down the hall.
He gasped as he stepped onto the bathroom floor, cruelly cold against his bare feet. The room had no radiator, just a mysterious flat pad-type thing on the wall he could never describe it adequately to other people that, when turned on, grew too hot to touch while also managing to not even vaguely warm the surrounding air. He'd been meaning to remedy the problem since he'd moved here after the divorce, but a ninth year had just passed, a tenth begun, and here he was, still freezing his toes and the surprisingly soft skin of his arches as he stood, naked, at the toilet.
'Cold,' he murmured, using the glow of moonlight through the window to more-or-less aim into the bowl, guiding the rest by sound once he'd got a stream started.
The winter had been strange and contradictory, as if it were battling with itself. Mild days, even sometimes gloriously sunny, but nights that were particularly bitter, the damp of the house making them seem even more so. A huge city allegedly thrummed and dazzled just metres from the man's doorstep, yet inside might as well have been draped in the chill fog of a hundred years past. At her last visit, his daughter Amanda had stopped halfway through taking off her coat and asked if he was expecting a plague cart.
He finished urinating, shook off the last few drops, then tore a square of toilet paper to gently dab away the excess from the tip of his penis, a habitual action that his ex-wife had inexplicably regarded with enormous affection. 'Like pretty eyelashes on a bear,' she'd said.
She'd still divorced him, though.
He dropped the square of paper into the bowl, leaned forward to flush, and in that ignominious moment the sound came again, heard consciously for the first time.
He froze, hand mid-way to the flush handle.
The bathroom window faced his small back garden, a narrow one that elongated back in perfect mirror of the two on either side, and the sound had clearly come from there, somewhere beyond the marbled glass.
But what on earth was it? It matched nothing in the hurried catalogue of plausible things it might be at this time of night in this particular neighbourhood: not the unnerving scream of a mating fox, not the neighbour's cat trapped in his garage (again), not thieves because what thief would make a sound like that?
He jumped as it came yet again, slicing through the night, clear in a way that only very cold things are.
A word sprang to his groggy, shivering mind. It had sounded like a keen. Something was keening and it welled him up with entirely unexpected, in fact, frankly astonishing tears. It tore at his heart like a dream gone wrong, a wordless cry for help that almost instantly made him feel inadequate to the task, helpless to save whatever was in danger, pointless to even try.
A sound which, later on, when he remembered this night forever and always, thwarted all sense. Because when he found the bird, the bird made no sound at all.
Copyright © 2013 by Patrick Ness
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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