It’s a relief to escape from the wake and into the small yard I often played in as a child. Inside the house all is oppressive, discomfiting. Grandad’s been in the ground less than an hour and the familial cracks are already showing. Grievances from before I was born and which I don’t fully understand. Nor do I want to.
Grandad’s beloved bird shed squats in the corner of the yard, all crude brick and concrete. If any part of him lingers in this world, this is where it will be.
I unlock the door and drag it wide so that the dusty scent of grains and seeds spills out, followed by a chorus of excited birdsong. It takes me back to weekend mornings spent helping Grandad feed and water the birds, then sweeping the old sawdust from their cages and laying down the fresh. Such tender care for the prisoners. When I was younger I never questioned any of it. Love and awe can excuse a great deal, that much I do understand.
Inside all is as I remember, wire-fronted cages stacked like bookshelves along the old brick walls, the birds inside hopping from perch to perch in an endless dance, unable to spread their wings but singing anyway. I recall their names: goldfinch, bullfinch, chaffinch, greenfinch, canary. Each beautiful in a different way.
They sing partly because they’re hungry: the funeral has taken all morning and no-one has been to feed them, Nanna uncomfortable in what has always been Grandad’s sanctuary. And so, while the family gathers in the house for fractious conversation over thin sandwiches and neat whiskey, I’m sent to tend to the birds. One of Grandad’s friends, another old birder, will collect them tomorrow and all this will be gone. Already it seems to belong to another time.
The walls are streaked with cobwebs that house hirsute spiders in their depths. Several times as a child I watched Grandad tease one from its web and pass it through the bars of a cage, the bird within gulping the struggling thing into its undulating crop. Each time I was convinced that the thrashing spider would force itself out of the bird’s mouth. None ever did.
I roll up the sleeves of my new silk shirt, bought for the funeral and probably the finest thing I own. Some of the newer scars on my arms are itchy, not quite healed. I don’t look at them. Not that they matter. It’s no great shame to make an ugly thing uglier.
I look to my task.
There are the bags of bird feed: grains, seeds, mashed and dried egg, ground weeds. There is the old wire cage Grandad would bait with chunks of sausage to catch cats before casting them into the river to drown. If you love birds, even caged ones, you must hate cats.
There is the old chest of drawers in which Grandad kept all the medals and rosettes he’d won at countless county bird shows.
I slide open the drawers and take a few out, thick silk and velvet soft beneath my fingers. Hundreds in all, most bearing stylised finches imprinted in the centres, above declarations like Best in Show or Award of Merit. The spoils of a lifetime spent breeding birds.
The bottom drawer is locked, but Grandad’s keyring holds a small brass key that fits. Inside are more rosettes. As I take out one of the grandest something else comes too: a pair of torn red knickers. I laugh and shake my head to hide my embarrassment, in case Grandad is looking down.
I put the panties back, but as I do I see there are others. After a moment’s hesitation I pull them out, surprised at the many different types, colours and sizes. Most are ripped. Some are darkly stained. And beneath them all is the dark wooden handle of a folding knife. I weigh it in my hand before teasing out the blade. It is bright and clean.
This may be something I should ask Nanna about, or Mam. Though perhaps not right now. I stuff everything back into the drawer and move to the end of the shed, where the sacks of feed are stacked.
As I reach for a sack I note that behind the pile is a thick curtain the same shade of dirt-brown as the wall, and just as covered in dust and cobwebs. I can’t recall seeing it before. After a moment’s consideration, I drag the sacks away and slide the curtain back on its ceiling rod. A full-length mirror is mounted there, surface dusty but still crystalline in its clarity. The wooden frame is carved into a frenzy of interlocking serpents that seem to writhe against each other in eternal struggle, each of them chipped and tarnished with age. It’s beautiful, despite its condition.
But the reflection in the glass isn’t mine.
It resembles me. But the image is too clean, too perfect. The boy’s skin is fresh and clear of acne. His face is more filled out, the nose less hawkish, the teeth straight. He stands taller, his posture admirable. The boy in the mirror is handsome and confident. He can’t be me.
I press my fingers to the glass. The surface is cold and almost supple, like melting ice. It’s enthralling. But I must get on: when the birds are fed I can ask Nanna about the mirror. And maybe the contents of the drawer.
I scoop up some seeds from the first sack and move from cage to cage, filling the small troughs. The birds cling to the bars with their talons to watch me. Some cages have a single occupant, others pairs that Grandad had selected to breed.
One cage holds a pair of chaffinches, nestled together: the male deep russet with blue cap, the female dull grey but with bright white bars across its wings. The female skips to the trough to feed but the male cannot: its leg is hurt, held curled to its body like a broken twig.
I open the cage door and reach in, enfolding the bird in my grasp. It’s used to being handled. Its heartbeat tickles against my palm. As I move to the window to take a better look at the leg I stumble over one of the sacks and lose my grip, the bird flitting to the window, the door, the ceiling, then back and forth along the length of the shed, trailing a comet’s tail of cobweb.
It hits the mirror hard. I wince, expecting to see its broken body fall, but catch my breath as the bird disappears. And then, so that it would be easy to doubt it was ever really gone at all, it is back, streaking from the glass in a blaze of bright auburn. I grab a cloth from a pile on the windowsill and when the finch alights on the floor I cover and bundle it up before reaching carefully into the folds to retrieve it.
It’s calm in my hand, its heart almost still. I’m not even sure it’s the same bird: it seems bigger, colours brighter, plumage thicker. I put it back in its cage and it moves easily, leg intact and unharmed.
I turn back to the mirror.
The chaffinch went in. I’m certain it did. And came out changed for the better. Healed. Improved. Superior. This is impossible. And yet. What if a person could do something just as impossible? I think of Grandad: handsome, energetic, smiling, joking, loved by everyone. The keystone holding together an entire family. He’d lived at this address since he was a boy. Built the bird shed himself. He would know this mirror. It was his.
My reflection is staring at me. It’s smiling, though I’m not sure that I am. I touch the glass again, gentle at first, then pushing harder, leaning my weight against it, but it doesn’t give.
Who wouldn’t want to be a better version of themselves, given the chance?
The bird had struck the mirror hard.
I walk to the other end of the shed and turn, considering what it would feel like to hit the glass at a run if it didn’t let me pass. How much blood, how much pain? More than I inflict on myself, alone in my room? The mirror calls to me, the faint echo of my name hanging in the air.
Did Grandad once stand uncertain before it, as I do now?
The birds have fallen silent.
In the mirror, my perfect reflection is waiting. It winks.
It must be worth a try. Not too fast. Arms in front of my face to cushion the inevitable impact when the glass shatters.
I go, and it’s almost like practising long jump at school. Three fast strides and a little leap, eyes closed at the last moment.
But the impact doesn’t come. It’s as if I’ve leapt through an open doorway, and when I open my eyes on the other side I’m in the bird shed, facing away from the mirror. I wonder if I even reached it at all, or got turned around somehow. When I turn back, the mirror’s surface is intact but cloudy, opaque. I rub at the tarnished glass, trying to clear it, but it doesn’t work. My reflection is little more than a dark smudge.
I take out my phone and tap the camera icon, peering at the image the screen presents. I’m still myself. But yes, my complexion is clear. When I bare my teeth, the crookedness is gone. My nose is straight. I’m almost handsome.
The scars on my arms are gone.
I walk the shed in a daze, lightheaded, a slow trickle of elation rising from my stomach.
Wait until the family see this!
As I pass, there’s a commotion from the chaffinch cage. I peer in.
The male chaffinch stands atop its mate on the floor of the cage, its beak bloodied. It pecks at the struggling smaller bird, teasing out an eye. I draw a sharp breath and the chaffinch pauses, cocking its head to look at me with something like amusement. Then it returns to its task.
I watch for a moment. The scene is fascinating. I’ve never seen an animal act with such pure and careful execution, calmly dipping its bloodied beak in and out until the female stops moving. Beautiful, in its way. The vibrance of the blood. I’m a little disappointed when it ends. I’d like to see it again.
Someone is calling me from the house; it sounds like Nanna, her voice wet with whisky. I’ve been out here too long, and I should go in and toast Grandad’s memory, pay my last respects.
I stop at the drawer to retrieve the knife from beneath the soft undergarments before slipping it into my pocket. It feels like it belongs there. Like Grandad meant for me to have it. I lock the drawers and the door to the bird shed as I leave. Before I make my way back to the house, I rest my fingers on the door, my final farewell to Grandad and his legacy. The birds within are silent still.
My fingers seek out the knife in my pocket, and I grip it tight as I walk back to my waiting family.
It’s hard not to run. I can’t wait to show everyone the new and improved me.
Rob Francis (he/him) is an academic and writer based in London. He writes short fantasy and horror, and his stories have appeared in magazines including The Arcanist, Apparition Lit, Metaphorosis, Tales to Terrify and Weird Horror Magazine. He is an affiliate member of the HWA. Rob lurks on Twitter @RAFurbaneco