The piano was leaking. With every note that was played- plink! - a drop of silver would fall- plip!- into the quickly collecting puddle on the carpet.
Surely she ought to tell someone. Surely someone ought to know. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Her voice was drowned by the soft, silver music. She reached up and grabbed her father’s sleeve, giving it a sharp tug. The music stopped and he stared down at her, his eyes full of annoyance.
“What?” She could smell the brown bottle liquid on his breath.
She tried to communicate what was happening with one meaningful look. But as usual, he did not understand her. Worse, the puddle of silver had disappeared and he would never believe her now. Guests were starting to murmur, their yellow faces shining in the yellow light. Her father said something to pacify them, then looked down at her and said something else. The only word she caught was ‘bedtime’ and her heart clenched up, gripped tightly by fear.
‘Bedtime’ meant she’d be left alone in her room, where the shadowy snake would bite her. ‘Bedtime’ meant she’d be forced to let the dark ivy of its venom creep its way into her veins, making her sleepy and helpless. During the day it dozed peacefully under her armchair, quietly coiled up like a small patch of black. But at night, its ugly heads came out, surrounding her in writhing scales and filling the air with the smell of brown bottle liquid. It would wrap itself around her eyes like a blindfold and she would be forced to lay motionless and still as it bit her in funny places late at night. She had scars all over her body from the games it played with her.
They reached the top of long staircase and her father dropped her off in her room. The snake lay in wait as she made her way to her bed. She shivered and wrapped herself in her blanket, hoping it would afford her at least a little protection. But of course, it did not. The moment her father left, the snake encircled her playfully. It was the hunter, she was the prey. The only thing left to do was to try and distract herself. She strained her ears to hear the loose strands of silver music floating through the air and wafting up the stairwell.
If only her mother was there. Her mother never would have banished her alone to the snake’s den, her mother would have stayed there with her, reading her stories until she fell asleep on her own. But as her father so often reminded her, her mother was gone.
She remembered the hatred with which he’d regarded her, after the death of her mother. As if the whole incident had been her fault. Which it wasn’t, of course. Her mother’s death had nothing to do with her and the strange piece of metal she’d picked up. She remembered the look of panic in her mother’s eyes, how frantically she’d gestured. At first she thought her mother was trying to tell her to put down the strange heavy stick. But now she knew that her mother had been pointing at something behind her, for then the bird came out.
It was tiny, and black, and it zipped straight across the room at her mother, burying itself in her gut. Her mother had doubled over in pain, as the bird delved inside of her, and red blood began to spread across her outside. Father came running, he must have heard the bird hit, and rushed her mother to a white room where they could see the red blood better. She’d thought that they were going to try and take the bird out, but perhaps it was too late. Perhaps the wicked thing had already dug so deep into her mother it was making a nest and laying eggs there. All she knew was, when her mother died, the bird died with her. For it too went into the ground and never came back out.
People kept telling her that it wasn’t her fault. She knew that, of course. It was the bird’s fault. But she let them comfort her and stroke her face, and murmur words like “terrible accident,” “she still loves you,” and so on. Her father was the only one who didn’t try to tell her everything was okay. He didn’t hold her close, letting her sob into his side and just let go. If anything, he’d seemed furious at her, as if she herself was that little black bird, and she herself was responsible for her mother’s death.
She liked to think that perhaps it had just been a snake-bite, sending her mother into a dazed darkness that would eventually subside. Just like she herself woke up every morning after spending the night in a similar state. It wasn’t that she couldn’t deal with her mother being gone for good. Mother hadn’t been a whole lot of help anyways, since she was powerless over father, even if she meant well. But it sounded a lot nicer in her head, the thought that someday perhaps her mother would return.
Just then, she heard something and she was sure it was not the snake. For one thing, the snake was much stealthier, slinking through shadows and slithering around, ready to run its forked tongue up and down her body at an unexpected moment. For another, the noise seemed to come from outside, and the snake only stayed in her room. So she stood up, feeling the chill air on her ankles. She was surprised to find that the snake let her move about. Perhaps it hadn’t noticed yet, or perhaps it was only waiting, watching her every move with interest. Downstairs, the piano played on.
She stood up and made her way to the only window. The white curtains billowed out around her, as she opened it and let the night air in. The source of the noise was perched on a thin branch right outside, easily within reach of her short arms. When she saw it, her heart caught in her throat and she started to back up, tripping on the ghostly cloth. She fell and it fell with her, entangling her like a spider’s web. A soundless scream escaped her, and the metal rod hit the ground with a bang. She froze, guiltily. What would her father say now?
She crept back into bed, her heart racing. The snake’s venom seemed to have stopped working on her, for she was wide awake and afraid. She lay there for what felt like an hour, but nobody came upstairs to see what had happened. Not once did the silver music halt, and not once did the unseen monster pull off her blanket and night gown to expose her bare skin. Finally, she stood back up, feeling stronger somehow. If she could outsmart the snake, perhaps she had what it took to defeat the thing outside.
Was it still there? She held her breath as she made her way to the windowsill. Yes, there it was, the small black bird perched innocently atop a twig by her window.
“You,” she whispered, her voice filled with venom. “You’re what killed my mother.” She stared at the bird with the same angry stare that her father had given her on that fateful day.
The bird cocked its head to the side, mocking her. She knew what she had to do. Only fear could stop her now. She looked down. Her father had once told her that her room overlooked the garden, but now she could see he had been lying. Stretching out below her, reflecting the moonlight, was a green pond that she would slip into with a gentle splash should she fall.
She felt comforted knowing this, though she wondered briefly if the bird would fly at her like it had done with her mother. She imagined the curtains turning from white to bloody red in a matter of seconds like a canvas her mother colored with words from the stories she used to tell.
“Stop telling her these things,” her father used to say. “She’ll get all kinds of crazy ideas.”
But her mother had insisted that the stories did her some kind of good. She kept on telling them until the day she died, and they stayed alive with her daughter, a cursed legacy. How she hated those wonderful stories.
She hoisted herself onto the windowsill and began to reach for the bird. It shifted uneasily but did not fly away. Encouraged, she reached further, this time placing her other hand on the branch upon which it was perched.
It happened in a matter of seconds. A loud noise, like the sound the bird had made when it attacked her mother, pierced the starlit sky. She felt herself rushing downwards, unable to tell water from air. She hit the bottom, which felt strangely dry and solid.
Later on, people would say that she’d been driven to jump by the guilt over what she’d done to her mother. People would shake their heads and sigh. Such a shame, and only five years old too. She was always a troubled child, perhaps it would be for the best. And some would blame her father, repeating the rumors of abuse and neglect they’d heard from all their neighbors.
Alas she knew none of this. All she knew, as she lay on the grassy ground of the garden, was that the bird had gotten away. She watched it now, through her barely open eyes, as it stared at her with an expression of satisfaction, for it too had claimed her life. Then it turned, spread its wings and disappeared into the darkness. She uttered her final cry for it come back.