carrion

The first time, he brings an old pound coin that I can’t use any more. Taps on the window, like I should have been expecting him. I was raised to believe the wild wished me harm, that I’d be torn apart by tooth and claw if I got too close. The wild is dirty, parasitic. But I wipe my hands on my skirt and go to the window anyway, struggling with the stiff latch before it gives. He pushes past me, deposits the coin on the windowsill. Cawk.

His feathers are oil-slicked, eyes two small currants that twitch back and forth appraisingly. Clack as his beak snaps once, twice. I don’t know much about birds, have never really paid attention to their garden society, but a quick Google tells me he is a rook. Rook, like the chess piece, which isn’t a bird at all, but a castle. I’ve never played.

He hops onto my bedpost. I worry he’s going to shit on my duvet and I’ll have to explain to my parents that I’ve let this strange thing into my room, and they’ll glance at each other and rub their temples. Any complaint will be saved for late at night, when they think I can’t hear, exorcising their frustration in time for breakfast, when all that’s left are bruises of disappointment pressed under their eyes.

I lean over the bed and grab my backpack. The rook tilts his head, curious. I fish around for a snack-pack of raisins I can feed him and instead find something sticky, still moist from a mouth. They’ve stuck my bag with chewing gum again. My fingers fuse together, webbed with it, mint oil stinging my nostrils. By now I’ve learned it’s easier to scrape the gum off rather than buy a new bag; you can get most of it off if you rub an ice cube over the fabric and scrape with a butter knife. I sink back into the bag and find the raisins. The rook swells, impatient as I pour a few onto my palm. Could his beak pierce my skin? Silly, of course it could. Did he carry diseases? Silly, of course he did. Trembling, I hold my hand out, palm-flat, and gasp as he pecks the raisins one by one. His beak feels hard and smooth, like a nut, darting so precisely I soon stop worrying he’ll hurt me and begin to feed him more. I wonder if I might touch him, and immediately decide against it. 

When the packet is empty, the rook gives a final chuckle before leaving the way he came, wings opening like a shroud.

 

*

 

The second time he comes, I am nursing a welt on the back of my head. Danielle Smith informed me it’s called a donkey punch, and I’m probably into that sort of thing anyway. My vocabulary had burst open in secondary school, and was still growing into sixth form. Words which felt gritty, that stuck in my throat, seemed to spew effortlessly from other girls, who recited them with all the confidence of an incantation. Every day there was a new word, and I learned that many of them were about me. Minger. Frigid. Dyke. A boy would walk past me in the corridor and try to pinch my chest, sneering Lezza! when I pulled away. I’d go into the bathroom, wading through a fug of Benson & Hedges, and be chased back out again with hisses of Grass, Snitch! following me.

My head throbs as I walk home, hands digging deep into my pockets. Danielle Smith’s body spray has imprinted itself on me; I catch a waft of it every other step. There are rumours about her – a father in and out of prison, a year-long absence from school for a mystery illness - which, if they’d been about me, would have meant social suicide. Instead, she’s one of the most popular girls in my year; she’s had at least three boyfriends, one of which goes to the grammar down the road. I used to try and copy the way she wore her uniform - rolling my skirt up, shortening my tie to a stub - but I could never get the look quite right and got tired of my skirt riding up unevenly.

When I get home, the rook is already waiting. He is perched on the guttering, pale face like a plague mask. Again, there is something perched in his beak. I open the window and hold my hand out. He places it gently on my palm. A bottle cap. I put it next to the pound coin on my windowsill and together we admire his treasure. He claps his beak expectantly, and I rifle around in my backpack, looking for things to feed him. I crumble up a cereal bar and hold the pieces out to him, and he gobbles them up without hesitation, shifting from one foot to the other in anticipation of the next bite.

 

*

 

He continues to bring me treasure. A rusted key, an empty tea light, another pound coin (new this time, I almost used it to buy chocolate). I stack them all on my windowsill and shout if anyone tries to clear them away. I begin spending my lunchtimes in the school library, learning as much as I can about birds. Rooks like to eat seeds and earthworms and sometimes carrion, which I discover means dead things. The collective noun for rooks is a parliament or building or clamour, and to see a group of them is considered bad luck. But I’ve only seen the one so far, so I think I’m alright. I take as many books out as my library card allows, and carry them with me everywhere; they distract me from the hair pulling, the cigarettes stubbed out in my sandwiches. I go to a pet shop and ask for some mealworms, expecting a tupperware of squirming spaghetti, and am relieved to find they’re already desiccated. The rook snatches at them as if he’ll never eat again.

 

*

 

PSHE, supposed to teach us about health and wellbeing, is only ever taught by a substitute who never remembers anybody’s name. None of us bother taking out our notebooks, and so our bags sit on our desks, shielding from view grasping hands and games of Snake. He begins handing out photocopies, a how-to in safe sex. There are illustrations I can’t comprehend - bodies tessellating, parts oozing – that I know better than to ask about. Halfway through, he runs out of copies and goes to make more. The classroom holds its breath, waiting to see if he’ll return. When he doesn’t, the release of energy is almost physical.

I feel my skin prickle. Someone begins watching music videos on their phone. Make-up cases are extracted from purses, the air clouding with press-on powder, lips turning slick with strawberry gloss. A calculator is hurled across the room and shatters against the whiteboard. In a moment, chaos is wrought. I turn the photocopy over and over, my shaking hands crinkling the paper. There’s a questionnaire, and I’m not sure about any of the answers. Perv, someone shouts. Look like yours, does it?

Something is flung at me. It hits my cheek and I flinch, prod my face tentatively. My fingers come away red. For a moment I think they have cut me. Whatever they’ve thrown has landed in my lap, caught by the hammock of my skirt. At first I’m not sure what it is. It carries a smell, animal and fermented. I pick it up, dangling and stained, and realise what they’ve done.

I run out of the classroom to predatory screaming.

That evening, while the rook makes himself comfortable on the windowsill, I strip out of my uniform. My skirt still has a dark stain, but I told my mum it was just dirt. She said to be more careful, that she couldn’t afford to be washing my clothes all the time. I change into a pair of pyjamas that are too small for me now; they’re from my favourite childhood cartoon, the pattern almost faded. I used to have matching bed sheets, but I don’t know where they’ve gone. I keep one eye on the rook as I undress, and he keeps both on me. He’s still carrying something in his beak that catches the light and almost blinds me. I ask him to show me, and he deposits it on the sill with a small chink. 

The glass is green-hued, small and sharp, probably from a smashed bottle of lager. It fits perfectly into my fist, and just for a moment I’m tempted to squeeze. I look at the rook, but he’s already chipping at the bowl of mealworms I’ve left out. I can hear them crunch as he breaks them apart and swallows. Rather than place it next to my other treasures on the windowsill, I hold the shard close to my face, until the point is almost touching my eye. It’s the most beautiful thing he’s brought me. His feathers ruffle, and I know it’s a message, a commiseration.

My parents call me to dinner and I sit there stabbing at overboiled carrots with one hand, and in the other turn the glass over and over, memorising every part of it. If I eat, I don’t remember. Afterwards, I run myself a bath and trail the glass through the water, like a shark’s fin, not stopping until it’s cool and grimy.

I go to bed hugging the shard, rubbing my thumb over its point, until I’m sore.

 

*

 

This time when the rook comes, his beak is empty. That’s alright. It’s my turn to bring him treasure.

I dip into my bag and withdraw a small bundle of tissue paper, peeling away the layers with utmost care. The rook perches on the guttering, inclining his head, eager to see what I’ve brought. Inside is the fragment of glass and next to it a perfectly severed digit, the nail tipped with pink varnish. Probably something with a sickly-sweet name like Tango Kiss or Flamingo-go-go. I take it out, waggle it like I’m telling him off. A couple of hours ago I was able to bend the finger but now it’s grown hard and rigid, darkened to the colour of orange peel. For a second I’m tempted to keep it, but the rook has given me so much, he deserves this. I place it gently on the windowsill for him to take. A beat passes, another, and then he plucks the finger carefully in his beak, a chip of pink still visible.

He breaks into the air with a thunderclap, an ink splash against the limpid sky.