Jessica is a writer from Funchal, Madeira. She first moved to London to study Digital Film Production, where she focused her interests on creative writing. Her work incorporates elements of isolation, old age and domestic horror, often within a setting of magical realism. Jessica is currently waiting out the pandemic in Portugal with her family and cat.
On an island with no outside contact, a family commits an unforgivable crime: killing a sacred bird. What comes after is the divine punishment of each family member, as their inability to communicate and connect with one another becomes unsustainable.
Death of the
The Killing of the Bird
In the morning of Joana’s wedding, Mirtila saw her grandmother emerge, fully naked, from the chicken coop, blood and feathers stuck to the folds of her leathery body. The day had begun with clear skies and a cool dryness that prickled the hairs on Mirtila’s arms. The coop was out in the back of the house, by the avocado tree and the granary.
Mirtila Comodor had been ten years old for a very long time and did not expect to grow any older. As far as her grandmother was concerned, that was more than acceptable. Girls older than ten have a tendency to round out with the gravity of their inner complexities, eating up the world around them in a crunch of too much attention. That was how Joanna, Mirtila’s older sister, had found herself rounding out around the belly and pulling António Alegre into her orbit.
Such was the way Leonor described it to Mirtila, who, at her chosen age, had not the propensity for metaphors of her own. Leonor was their grandmother, and she used to say she had lived all her life in the pursuit of the perfect simile. She told the girls, similes are the truest form of magic; once you know what things are like other things, you find the missing links. The rest was just nonsense, she said, but she still performed all sorts of magic rituals with the same certainty as she did everything else.
Leonor sat on a stool and began to wash herself with a bucketful of water and soap. “Go tell Aida and the others to clean it up, and tell the cooks none of those chickens are for eating,” she told Mirtila. “I’m seeing good omens for today.” She splashed water on her neck and chest, and the chickens’ blood ran pink and diluted between her legs. “Very good omens.”
Aida and the other servants picked up the slashed heads, wings and feet off the floor, folding their aprons around bundles of reddened feathers. Mirtila observed them from her swing. It was held by two ropes tied to an acacia branch. Yellow petals fell all around her, sticking to the ground and to the sole of her shoes.
Aunt Alice was shouting Mirtila’s name from the porch in the same strident manner she always did. Servants moved behind her, some carrying flowers and others carrying baskets that seemed to be brought from Aníbal’s bakery. She was already dressed in her finest black. Looking from afar, the lace all over her dress made her look like she had been attacked by an army of clothing moths. Alice was Leonor’s sister and Mirtila and Joana’s great-aunt. Mirtila gave herself a few more swings and with the impetus of a grasshopper, she threw herself out between the falling petals, onto the firm grass. Alice was still yelling for her.
Mirtila ran, navigating the familiar obstacle trail of rocks and dried mud to the porch and almost tripped on the last step going up to her aunt. Alice wet her tobacco-stained thumb with her tongue and rubbed Mirtila’s nose.
Aunt Alice always had a little red velvet pouch of snuff tied around her wrist. She would often stop whatever she was saying to take a pinch of snuff between her thumb and index finger and stick it up her nose. It used to be that she let her little fingernail grow longer than the others, so she could use it to scoop up the snuff with it and sniff it from there. With time, the nail grew rotten and fell off, taking the top bit of her little finger with it. Grandma Leonor said her nose would eventually follow if she didn’t stop the nasty habit. Alice took offense at that and said Leonor’s nose would be the one to fall off first, if she didn’t stop shoving it in other people’s business.
Mirtila dodged another wet thumb attack and her aunt asked her why she hadn’t bathed yet.
“No one told me to,” Mirtila said.
“And do you only bathe when others tell you to? Are you a pig? Should we prepare a bed for you in the pigsty so you can sleep there from now on?”
“Maybe I should sleep in your room instead.” Mirtila ran away before Alice could strike her.
Aida found Mirtila dropping pebbles into the well, Aida’s apron still smelling of the chickens’ last bowel movements. Mirtila was then taken to her bedroom and plunged into a bathtub filled with lukewarm water. Her bedroom was mostly white but the pink and yellow dresses on her porcelain dolls gave it some colour. She wanted to ask Aida about the chickens, but Aida snapped at her for not being quiet.
The oldest servant in the house, Aida had been raising Mirtila for years and never seemed to get tired of it. Aida once told the story of how her mother had worked there too and had given birth to her on a table at the kitchens. Before she had the chance to hold Aida in her arms, she had scrubbed the blood and natal fluids off the table and taken it outside to dry under the sun. That night, Aida’s mother cooked the best chicken soup the household had ever tasted, and sucked on the leftover bones for better, stronger breastmilk. That’s why Aida was so strong and could not stand idleness, she said so of herself.
The preparations for Joana’s marriage, however, seemed to be putting some strain on Aida’s nerves.
Mirtila was told to go to her mother, clean and perfumed. She was wearing the blue dress with the ribbon that Alice had bought her for her First Communion, but which Leonor had never let happen. The house had many rooms, and the corridors were long, but kept cosy with flower pots, credenzas and random piles of books. Mirtila had scraped her knees many times on the green carpet that ran down the wooden floor.
Mercedes had her back to the door, working on something Mirtila could not see. She was wearing a white lace shirt tucked under a long lilac skirt, with Leonor’s old brooch under her chin. Mirtila once had her fingers caned for stealing that brooch for a day and a half. Her mother never shared her clothes and trinkets, not even with Joana.
Mercedes kissed her daughter’s curls and sat down on a chair. She had the best room in the house. It got most of the sunlight, which she kept away with thick, red velvet curtains.
“Let’s go over your role,” she said.
Mirtila was made to demonstrate the carrying of the flowers. She and José Miguel, her three-year-old cousin, were the respective flower girl and ring bearer. José Miguel didn’t have to put in the effort like she did. He had run down the aisle the previous practice in a display of absolute buffoonery and all the women had simply laughed. When Mirtila didn’t smile once during her walk, Alice asked her who she hated more: her mother or her sister.
“You just wanted to embarrass me in front of those women, didn’t you?” she said as she pinched Mirtila’s arm. “Embarrass me, your sister, your mother, your father… Is that what you want?” she pinched harder.
Mercedes was pleased with the way Mirtila walked – pausing at the heels, and how she gracefully held the basket with one hand and spread phantom flowers down the imaginary aisle with the other.
“I just wish your smile wouldn’t seem so forced, dear,” she said. The way her mother said it, so gentle and kind, made Mirtila swear to herself she would smile with pleasure when the time came to make her proud. “Now go to your father, I hear he has been looking for you,” Mercedes turned back to what she had been working on before. Mirtila noticed she was trimming the bride’s veil almost in half, trying to fix a rip across the middle.
She found her father in the library. His hand was buried in one of the baskets from Aníbal’s bakery, rummaging for pastries. In his other hand, he held a cigarette that he took to and from his mouth like he was throwing kisses. Some of her uncles and aunts were there too, with their respective spouses and children.
“Hello Fernando!” She spotted her cousin standing away from his parents, looking at the books on the shelves. Of all her cousins, Mirtila liked him the best, even though he was already twenty years old. She had told her mother they would be married when she was older. Her mother had laughed and said that would be fine, indeed.
José Fernando smiled at her and gave her a small pat on the head. She wanted to stay there with him and talk about the spinning wheels at the quarry where he worked. He had told her he’d take her in one of the baskets one day.
The spinning wheels were giant constructions of wicker that spun down the hills to the coast. In the hollow of the wheels there were baskets filled with stone, people and other things that remained immobile as the outside of the structure rolled at high speeds. Fernando’s job was to drive these wheels. His mother was not happy at all that he had a job, much less that one.
Before she had the chance to initiate a conversation with him, her father became aware of her presence.
“Daughter!” he called her. “My beautiful, perfect, sweet daughter.” Mirtila thought that sometimes he lengthened sentences so he’d hear his own voice for longer. “Did your mother tell you I wanted to see you? Father has a favour he wants to ask of you.” He had powdered sugar all around his lips and she recoiled from the cigarette-stained fingers trying to wrap themselves around her arm. “I want you to go to grandma, yes? Father wants you to go to grandma and tell her to make you an anti-sickness spell, all right? Tell her you feel sick and if you don’t have the anti-sickness spell before the wedding, you won’t be able to walk the ring down the aisle, all right?”
“I’m the flower girl,” she said.
“Right, remember what I’m asking you. Anti-sickness spell. And don’t tell her I sent you!” he sent her off with a pat on her lower back.
She looked over at José Fernando on her way out. He pursed his lips in a pitying half smile.
Mirtila did not plan on going straight to her grandma, she decided she had better things to do. Her father had asked her for similar favours before. Her mother and grandmother were not fond of her father’s eating habits, which were closer to that of a pig than a person. Leonor would know what the spell was for and not give it to him.
Leaving the library, Mirtila made for the swing. Instead of walking back through the corridor, she left the main house and walked through the herb garden at the back. The wedding was to start at four o’clock; she still had some time left.
No one ever went to that part of the villa and no one ever asked her about the swing. When it rained, they asked her about her wet dress. In Midsummer, they asked her about the sunburns on her ears and shoulders. When her tutor complained about her long absences to the privy, they asked her about her unwillingness to learn. But the swing remained a right, an entitlement that had become so essential to her person that neither herself or others would separate the two in their minds.
Mirtila looked south, to the horizon over the fields of wheat. The little waves of heat trembling in the distance made her more aware of the sound of crickets, and of the soft wind breathing through the grass.
The bustling of the servants between the main house and the patio was at an enough distance to have a calming effect on her. Lulled by the separation of the here and there, by the comfort of life happening somewhere else, Mirtila closed her eyes and leaned back towards the ground. Her long brown hair brushed the grass in an act of love as her face relaxed into a smile. It smelled like spring.
“Aida and Alice are going to give you a whipping if they have to wash your hair again today.” José Fernando was standing near the swing, hands in his pockets.
Mirtila sat back straight.
“Sorry, did I startle you?” he asked.
“No.” Mirtila was happy to see him there.
“You’ve never told me who made you this swing,” he said.
“Father did, when I was born. Mother told me. Do you want to see how high I can go?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said, even though he didn’t look very excited.
Mirtila pushed harder and harder with her feet until both her dress and hair were flying wild. José Fernando stood there with an unaffected smile.
She stopped the swing, pressing her white slippers against the dusty ground.
“Did you see?” she asked.
“Yes, very impressive,” he said, “listen…”
“Where’s your sister?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“How is she? Have you seen her today?”
“I don’t know.” Mirtila shrugged her shoulders. “She’s always in her room now, I never see her.” She did not like it when José Fernando talked about Joana.
When he was ten, like Mirtila, they would play together whenever his parents visited and brought him along. Mirtila counted the days he was gone and learned to look for him in the dusty trail on the horizon, as his father drove the carriage towards the house on every other Sunday.
José Fernando used to like to play girl games with her. They would go from hopscotch, to puppet shows and play make-believe with her dolls. He used to let her dress him up, paint beards and moustaches on his face, so he could pretend to be a prince in her enactments of plays and love stories. He did this until the year of his twelfth birthday. Joana was twelve too, but she never played with them. Sometimes she’d approach them with her own dolls, but soon lost interest when Mirtila and José Fernando’s methods got too wild for her. She preferred playing on her own.
That was until José Fernando stopped wanting to play dress up, or hopscotch. His interests focused on Joana instead, and on the books she carried with her everywhere. They would sit for hours under the grove and read until it got too dark to read outside. Then, they’d read indoors by the hearth until José Fernando’s parents, loud and befuddled by brown liquor, drove him away in a disappearing trail of dust into the night.
One evening, when José Fernando and Joana were sixteen, Mirtila, feeling betrayed by José Fernando’s abandonment, decided to make her displeasure known. The entire thing culminated in Mirtila pulling Joana’s hair and kicking José Fernando in the shins. Their mother had Aida drag Mirtila to bed, to the sound of their father and José Fernando’s parent’s laughter and the clinking of empty bottles falling and rolling down the floor.
One day, she made a point of following him and her sister on one of their retreats to the orchard. When she saw them there, kissing, she realised how much they had grown together and learned to let them go. Mirtila never bothered them again after that day, and she never felt jealous either. Because even back then, she knew Joana would never marry him.
José Fernando stood by the swing and Mirtila scratched her nails against the twisting of the ropes.
“Have you met António?” He tried to grab one of the swing ropes.
Mirtila pushed the swing back from him. “Yes, he comes to the house sometimes,” she said.
“Do you like him?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged her shoulders again. “I think he’s handsome.”
“Is he nice to Joana? Does your mother like him?”
Before Mirtila had the chance to shrug her shoulders again Aida called them from the porch.
“Mirtila! José! Your grandmother is asking for you! Both of you! Come now!”
Leonor was waiting in her bedroom. She told José Fernando to wait outside while she talked to Mirtila. The room was cluttered to no end. Birds in cages made a ruckus of cawing, cooing, singing, chirping, tweeting, hooting, shrieking and crying. Fluttering feathers everywhere. A very frail-looking raven sat on a wooden beam and shat on the floor, missing Mirtila’s hair by an inch.
“That one is vengeful,” Leonor said.
“Why?” Mirtila asked.
Leonor had been sitting by a desk, its pale wood engraved with a variety of symbols and letters that Mirtila could not read. Leonor closed the heavy tome she was writing on and threw the pen over it. She got up with some difficulty, her upper body too large for her skinny legs. Mirtila knew those legs very well, with their age spots and their thick blue veins.
Mirtila watched as Leonor walked over to a shelf full of jars, pots and books, and took a small glass horse from within the clutter. She brought it over and held it in front of Mirtila’s eyes. There seemed to be nothing special about it.
“He’s been angry since I took his voice,” the old woman said, her long nails scratching the glass, “I was going to make you a miniature crystal carousel when you were born, filled with the music of birds.” She held the horse tighter in her palm, bringing it closer to her chest. “But once the sounds were trapped inside the glass, there was no way to hear them but by breaking them,” she threw the horse against the wall and a sonorous caw filled the room.
(to be continued)