Alice was going to make some tea before leaving for work. It was on one of those rare occasions when Gary left the house earlier than she did. This time, it was something related to an emergency visit to the library, following an argument with his PhD supervisor regarding some work he’d cited. She was surprised to find Evelyn in the kitchen, especially since she’d already made tea. As her cousin was taking out the cups, Alice noticed a crumpled piece of paper on the table.
‘Put that in the bin,’ she said. ‘How many times do I have to tell you?’
‘Leave it,’ Evelyn interrupted. She placed the cups on the table and turned to the refrigerator. ‘I want to go there,’ she added, taking out the milk carton. The first thing she did when she sat down was take out her cigarette pack and lighter. Alice felt her fists clench under the table, but said nothing.
‘I mean to The Bird Room,’ Evelyn continued. She was looking intently at the piece of paper and nodding to herself. Alice realised it was that strange flyer from the other night.
‘I really want to see it,’ Evelyn repeated, taking a long drag from her cigarette. ‘Do you know why I want to see it?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Alice answered, waving her hands in front of her. ‘Could you not blow smoke in my general direction?’
‘That’s all right,’ Alice said. Her still waving hands said otherwise.
‘Well, don’t you want to know?’ Evelyn asked again.
Alice wasn’t especially interested in knowing why her cousin was so intent on seeing The Bird Room, but had the feeling Evelyn would tell her anyway.
‘I once dreamt I had a bird’s head,’ Evelyn said. ‘Like in a Max Ernst painting. They always have those dripping bodies that look like they’re made of wax. Well, in my dream I still had my body, but I had a bird’s head.’
Alice eyed Evelyn’s cigarette pack and wondered about the true nature of its contents.
* * *
It took them over three long hours to find the manor that contained the damned Bird Room. They got lost on at least six different occasions and there seemed to be no one around to ask for directions. When they finally managed to come across an old man walking along the country road, he turned out to have nothing to say about their destination besides a mumbled ‘Never heard of it’. Alice was fuming behind the wheel, while Gary was trying to crack jokes and not really succeeding. Evelyn was sitting in the back, hugging herself and saying nothing. They were beginning to wonder whether they should just drop her on the side of the road and drive off. And yet it was Evelyn who eventually spotted the manor.
‘I think it’s that one,’ she said, pointing to a roof barely visible among the tall trees.
‘There are no road signs,’ Alice said.
‘It’s that one,’ Evelyn insisted. ‘It has to be.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I’m only guessing. Let’s just try and if it isn’t this one, we can go home.’
Alice was delighted by the prospect, but her joy was short lived, as the manor indeed turned out to be the very same one they had been looking for.
The only person there turned out to be a rather peculiar old lady, who greeted them in the enormous lobby. She looked like quite the character. That is, if that character was Miss Havisham. She was tall and thin, with long white hair, worn high on the top of her head in an especially elaborate sort of rat’s nest. A few strands, no longer held in place by hair pins, were hanging past her shoulders, loose and long like white ropes. She was wearing a sort of crochet shawl over a long, buttoned-up dress that looked and smelled as if it had been in the family since the Edwardian age.
‘So, how much to visit?’ asked Gary, searching for his wallet.
The lady made a dismissive gesture.
‘I don’t do trade, dear,’ she said. She sounded positively insulted. ‘I give the birds a home, like my family has for generations.’
‘Where do you get them from anyway?’ Gary couldn’t help asking. Alice stuck her elbow in his ribs.
‘My ancestors were explorers,’ the old woman answered, matter-of-factly. ‘In fact, my own son is in Madagascar right now, looking for rare specimens.’ She puffed. ‘And saving some darling things from rich people who keep them as pets and care nothing for their little hearts.’
Alice rolled her eyes.
‘Well, what are you still standing here for?’ the lady said, clapping her hands together. ‘You’ve come to see them, haven’t you?’
She pointed to a large set of double doors made of solid wood, with intricate gilded decorations. The three of them made for it, as if the lady had pressed a button.
‘Keeping exotic birds in an indoor room,’ Gary mumbled as he held the door to let Alice and Evelyn in. Always the gentleman, Gary. ‘I can bet there are laws against this.’
‘Will you just shut up?’ Evelyn blurted out.
Gary blinked at her in surprise. Before he could think of a reply she was already inside the room, looking around. The chirping was annoying to the point of being downright unbearable. All the birds – that is, besides the mute ones – were making speeches in their own languages, to the point where all songs overlapped, into one sound, with a life of its own. There were cages everywhere, piled up on top of each other. Yet the situation didn’t seem especially dismal to any of the room’s occupants. Each cage was clean and contained water bowls in various shapes and sizes, as well as the adequate types of foods in more than sufficient quantities. There were fake branches and toys inside the cages, and some even contained jewellery and flowers.
Despite the high unlikelihood of it, all the birds looked healthy and quite cheerful, and the place didn’t smell as bad as one would have expected it to. Next to each of the bird cages there was a plate mentioning its Latin name, natural habitat and eating habits. Other things were written there as well, things that Alice and Gary found quite odd. ‘Most of them love Mozart, though Baroque era church music is their absolute favourite. What you should never play for them is Wagner, as it makes them terribly scared,’ said the sign next to the lyrebird’s cage.
Gary let out a snort. ‘This is ridiculous,’ he declared.
‘I love Baroque era church music,’ Evelyn remarked, smiling in the lyrebird’s direction. Alice and Gary rolled their eyes at each other. A kiwi bird walked up to the bars of its cage as Gary stopped to look at it, and then turned away almost immediately, wiggling its small behind. Gary could swear the wingless little bastard had just dismissed him. Evelyn went to look at a large cage that rose from floor to ceiling. A giant bald eagle considered her from behind the bars. ‘This thing could have you for lunch,’ Gary said, chuckling proudly at his own joke. Unless it would rather have you, Evelyn thought, walking away.
There was one other door at the far end of the room, a rather small and unimpressive one. In fact, it was the commonest, most boring type of door imaginable. A door that had nothing to do in such a place. Evelyn took a few steps towards it, only to stop in her tracks as birdsong erupted from the other side of the most boring door in the world. It wasn’t like anything Evelyn had ever heard. The other birds were all suddenly quiet. She knew it was because they’d heard their master song.
[To be continued]