The Birdhouse

Submitted into Contest #215 in response to: Set your story in a haunted house.... view prompt



The ancient demon Mara is older than man. The Buddhists were the first to recognize him. The sounds that make up his primordial name were first recorded in Sanskrit. Sanskrit and all other languages are flawed in their representations of his name. The true symbol of his name cannot be expressed in any language. But it can be described.

Four crosses, joined at the base, jutting in opposing directions. Northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest. 

I almost took the birdhouse down, and I should’ve. But I was so proud of it. The detail was amazing, a perfect copy of our two-story Victorian, down to the alternating shades of green trim. It was so good, in fact, that people noticed it when they came to visit. I would act casual, like it wasn’t the best thing I’d done. I truly believe that. I think that birdhouse might be one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life. 

I was drinking in the garage, feeling down. A vision of the birdhouse flitted through my mind and I smiled. I had the comforting thought that everything wasn’t that bad because I had built that birdhouse. The thought immediately on the heels of that was a question. “Is that the best thing you’ve done?” I started to sob.

That’s why I couldn’t tear it down. Even after all the deaths. The mysterious bodies. The spoiled tinge of the compliments when it was noticed. It was the best thing I’d done. 

I’d finished it in the fall. In the winter, Carole and I helped pick a perfect place for it in the backyard, ready for spring. The year exploded into a lush flurry, our garden thriving under the temperate sun. 

By the middle of April I was already thinning the corn and tying the beans and running my hands along the spines of the tomato leaves and smelling my palms. The smell of eyes opening. The green and bristly youth of spring. If the smell wasn’t a cousin of the optimistic wisps that danced from the marigolds when the sun baked them, it was at least a fine complement. 

A blue jay’s head lay in the gravel below the neighborhood of birdhouses I had hung and posted along the southern fence. The hodgepodge of styles was a tale of my progress as a craftsman. They were beautiful under the dappled shade of the mulberry trees. In the middle of that was the beat up head. 

It lay as if it had fallen from the doorstep of my masterpiece. I toed at it, and supposed our girl cat. I felt a vibration and turned to the bird-sized replica of our home. An ominous melody played in my mind. I peered into the first story opening and squinted as I tried to make out what I was seeing. 

A nest in the corner. Three chicks lay slumped about the nest, the mother dead on the floor, and the father’s blue, headless body stiff in the entry. I scowled and left them there. 

We worked the garden, one of the best summers I can remember. The squash was prolific, the mulberries sweet, and the tomatoes red. The evening waterings breathed an unthirsty petrichor into the evening breeze. And as I tended the garden I always had an eye turned to the birdhouse. My masterpiece. The best thing I’d done. 

That winter I opened the house and found the remains of the family and poured them into the dust bin. I reassembled the house and touched it up and reposted it, and it sat proud. The next spring a large family of finches moved in. They built nests and made a show of things as Carole and I worked the garden. 

It was a late Sunday afternoon when I walked into the backyard, appraising our bountiful harvest to come. My eyes settled on the darkened door of the birdhouse. I turned an ear, listening for the birdsong. There was none, and their remains were much more gruesome. Into the dustbin they went. Followed by an even more carefully intricate refurbishment. 

I posted the birdhouse in the fall. It wiggled in the wind and gathered leaves and faded in the winter cold. When spring came I cleaned it and touched it up again. Carole and I worked the garden. And the birds visited my neighborhood of houses. They negotiated over ownership and settled on the best and second best of them. The flocks thrived and flurried through the garden as we worked it.

By the next fall I knew the house would be filled with the dead bodies of mutilated birds. I examined them and threw them out unceremoniously and took the house into the shop, and left it in the dark on the bench. 

It was more than six weeks before I returned to refurbish it. It had been three seasons now and the house was beginning to show wear. Webs had gathered and eves had bent. I tapped the hammer and brought it back to plumb. I painted it with careful strokes and brought back its original luster. As I proudly appraised it my smile turned to a frown. Its base had become worn. I had been so focused on the fine details I had overlooked its foundation.  I turned it on its side and saw the brand that I had burnt when I had finished building it, all those years ago.

I poked at it. The burns held fast but the wood around it crumbled under the stroke of my thumb, sprinkling fine sawdust. I decided the brand needed to go and the bottom side of the house resealed. I disassembled the steeple and the second story and turned it upside down and took the sander to it. I sanded through the whole board, the echoes of the burn ran through the entire piece of wood. I sanded for hours and in the end I had turned the foundation of the house into a piece of paper and the brand still shone through. I scoffed and wondered why I cared so much about removing the mark that I had ruined the base of the house. I pulled the thin board free and cut a new piece of wood to take its place. It was pine, but it was thick and clear, and I carved into a perfectly fitting foundation. 

After that, no more birds died in that house.

It was almost three years later when my thoughts turned to the brand I had used to sign the bottom of my masterpiece. I was sitting at my work bench in the garage. Carole had gone to bed early and I had retired, with a few beers, to my corner. The birdhouse I was working on had lost my attention and as I reached into the mini fridge for my next pop. The blue light cast across the debris that I had neglected to clean, left over from the base of my best birdhouse. Somehow the brand was still clearly discernible amidst the thin planes and chips and sawdust.     

I found it in Thailand, or more accurately, Carole found it amidst an overflowing assortment of offerings at one of the more eclectic stands of the bustling street market. She surprised me with it that night after dinner. At the time, I was taking a deep dive into wood burning. Carole, the thoughtful woman that she is, always kept a peripheral eye turned to my hobbies. That’s how she had recognized the hidden tchotchke as a branding iron. Not only was it beautifully crafted, but the symbol in the center of the marker was made of four crosses joined at their base, almost like a crosshair. It looked like four lowercase ts. All three of my names start with t. What she liked the most about it was that it held my initials. That night we laid in bed. She rested her head on my chest and dozed after a perfect day. I sighed and twirled the brand in the soft light admiring its intricacies.

I snagged a beer, closed the minifridge, shutting off the cascade of blue light. I cracked it open with a hiss, tossed the cap into the cap-jar, and took a deep slug. I burped and exhaled a thick breath as I leaned down and opened the third, right drawer. I pushed at the brands on top out of the way and saw a twinkle flash off of the item I was searching for. I plucked its stem and shook it free of the others, and held it under the lamp.

I probably wouldn't have done it if I hadn’t had one or two too many.

I stood in the backyard in the dark, my face lit by the flame of my torch as I heated the brand. Before long it started to glow hot. I killed the torch and the brand glowed, almost impossibly bright, in the pitch of the night. I turned it slowly, lost for a moment in its brilliance, before lifting it and pressing it into one of my less beloved birdhouses. 

Luckily, I didn’t set the yard on fire and in the morning I had no memory of it. I only began to remember after the birds started dying again. Three heads laying in the gravel. Titmouse heads. I saw them from a ways away and when I came close my heart fell. The little chickadees were one of my favorites of all the birds. I found their cute little mohawks and bashful behavior endearing.

The next deaths were a couple of wrens, a species I liked less. I turned a blind eye to the bodies that built up, not wanting to admit that the mark of the brand undeniably brought death. I let the bodies build up for two seasons. A pile of decayed heads laid under the columbarium. Bodies spilled through the doorway. 

In October of the second fall after I had branded the lesser house, I found Carole in the section of the garden she rarely visited, examining it. I surprised her as she poked at it and peered through the opening and toed the mix of skulls and fresh heads. She jumped and I sipped my coffee and raised a brow. 

Carole turned to me, her eyes wide, brows raised higher than her shoulders, slowly shaking her head as she gestured toward the gruesome display. “What happened? What is this?” 

I gulped my mouthful of coffee as I searched for an explanation, found none and shrugged. 

She narrowed her eyes. “Thomas?”

I raised a palm. “I really don’t know.”

She flashed an appraisal, bought it, and turned back to the scene with concern. “Are they being poisoned? Is something killing them and stashing their bodies here?” She turned back with an idea. “The cat, maybe?”

I nodded along at the possibility. “Maybe the cat.”

She turned back to the birds and nodded at the comfort of the explanation. “Yeah, the cat.” She examined them for another moment before turning and placing a soft hand on my chest. “Clean them up will you?” She gave a final glance over her shoulder before she kissed me on the cheek and let her hand fall as she left. “Horrible.”

“Yes, darling.” I watched her go as I took another sip. I loved to watch her go. Even in our late sixties, she still did it for me. I grumbled as I turned back to the macabre tableau. Instead of cleaning and refurbishing the birdhouse, I tore it from its mount and stuffed the rest of the remains inside. I set it into the fire pit and returned that evening with a pair of beers and a can of lighter fluid. I doused it thoroughly, exhausting nearly all of the can. I set the can down, cracked a beer, and pulled a deep swallow. I fumbled with my breast pocket and pulled the ancient pack of cigarettes I had pilfered from a neglected bay of cupboards in the garage. I popped one in my mouth and brought a matchbook from my pocket. I tore a match free, turned the book and struck it. It flared, yellow and red, blue at its center. I lit the cigarette and inhaled the stale, harsh smoke, coughed, and placed the cigarette back in my mouth. It dangled as I held it with the expertise of a lifelong smoker. 

Just as the match began to dwindle I held it to the match heads, still in the book. They caught instantly and hissed as they spat a sulfuric flame. I stared into them for a moment and then tossed them onto the petroleum soaked haunted house. 

Almost six months later I was sitting in the den, watching the Padres getting their butts handed to them, when I heard the door close with an unusually loud thump. I raised my chin toward the kitchen and the foyer beyond. At first I thought Carole had brought company home, but as I listened, over the game, I realized she was muttering to herself. I caught a glimpse of her as she passed through the kitchen and furrowed my brow as I heard her stomp up the stairs.

I turned back to the game, staring through the tv, unable to return my attention to it. I turned an eye to the ceiling, picturing Carole, and tilted my head as I heard a muffled sob. I finished the last slug of warm beer and pushed myself out of my chair with a groan. 

As I took the last step, I paused on the landing. Our bedroom door was closed. Our bedroom door hadn’t been closed for more than a decade. I heard Carole’s muffled voice, and tried to creep closer. The floorboards groaned. I listened and heard nothing. I straightened and walked across the hall and held the back of my hand up to the door. I listened again, heard nothing, and lightly rapped a knuckle. “Carole?”

I heard her shuffle, then a few steps.

I turned the knob gently and opened the door slowly. “Babe?”

“Huh?” She sounded fine and slightly annoyed.

I relaxed, opened the door the rest of the way and walked into the room. She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, wiping a single finger across her cheekbone and breathing deep through her nose.

I shambled to the door of the bathroom and stood awkwardly. “Are you ok?”

She turned a smile to me. An obviously labored smile. “I’m fine.” She tilted her head, “What’s up?” and sniffed. 

“Nothing.” I raised a hand in reassurance. “I just… I just thought something might be wrong.”

Her smile became genuine as her crow’s feet wrinkles deepened. She spoke low and soft. “I’m fine.” 

I loved her eyes and my smile deepened in return. I stepped to her and braced her elbow with a hand. “Good.”

Her eyes flitted around the room before settling on mine. She lightened, pulled her elbow free, snorted, and pushed me away. “Go finish your game.” She gave me a wave as she turned back to the mirror and preened an eyelash. 

I smirked and obeyed and stole a final glance before leaving. 

That night at dinner she told me all about it. She started off by telling me that she felt silly even bringing it up and it was all really nothing.

I blinked patiently. “Tell me.”

“Well,” she thought for a moment, “you know how much old Gil hates the hedge.”

I nodded as I took a bite and listened. 

Almost fifteen years ago we had planted a hedgerow of boxwood to separate our driveway from our neighbor’s, Gil Harker, an ornery, angry old man, now in his early eighties. The hedge had always been a point of contention between us. He would grumble that he shouldn’t be expected to maintain the bushes, and yet would not allow us on his property to prune his side, which Carole—who maintained the front of the house and the drive—would have gladly done.

That morning Carole had neatly trimmed our side. She had done her best to reach as much of Gil’s side as she could manage and pull the branches back to our side with a rake. Gil had come bursting out of the house lambasting her with epithets. She apologized and swore to not do it again as she retreated back into the house.

“It just scared me.” she threw up her hands. “I know he’s harmless and I don’t know why I let it get to me.” She looked up and away searching for a reason, found none, and shrugged. “He just kind of scared me.”

“You’re right he’s harmless.” I agreed, trying not to show that my blood was boiling over. “I think he’s getting a touch senile, as well. I’ll talk to him.”

“Oh, please don’t, Thomas.”

I had grown tired of our feud with old Gil, and making Carole cry was the last straw. So I lied, “Ok. I won’t.”

After dinner she retired to our bedroom to read her latest romance novel. She’d be asleep within the next twenty minutes. I went to the den and turned on the night game, not that I cared who won. Really, the game was just background noise as I swilled beers and kept the corner of my eye on her bedroom window, waiting for her to turn her light off. She had taken longer than I had expected. By the time the light went off I was on my eighth beer. My anger had not subsided.

I pushed through the hedgerow, almost tripping on my face, dragged my feet across the drive, and swayed as I fumbled to light the torch. The flame burst to life. I turned the valve until it became a superheated blue and held the flame to the brand and watched it begin to glow. I smiled and pressed it into the side of Gil’s house.

September 15, 2023 21:52

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