The dove doesn’t explode in mid-air, it just looks like it does.
The double back doors in my house are latticed with blinds, big glass panels providing windows to a tiny square of concrete and hopeful flower pots. Ivy grows on the fence, wild and dense between our little yard and the neighbour’s, who has a long stretch she putters around in to grow vegetables she occasionally passes over to us. Reeking spring onions, sweet, the dirt still on them. She grows a ridiculous Dr Seussian plant, more than two people high, with bursting pink trumpets for flowers. She slips gravity a tenner across nature’s table to keep them upright, there’s no other explanation. I’ve been told multiple times that they’re called hollyhocks, but every time my I reach into the cloudy bathwater of my brain, I come back with honky tonks. Every time.
The bathwater is particularly murky that morning. Waking up hollow-throated and with the word again? where the life should be, I turn to nature. Ecotherapy is a word I have learned in the last few months for the thing I’ve been doing for the last year or so to treat the problem that isn’t so much rooted in me as it is growing intertwined. Instinctively a part of me knows that the only way to combat the relentless press of days is to focus on something just as relentless. The beautiful things that grow and are. Lovely dogs and lovely flowers, dead leaves, grey skies, and a perfect half moon sitting over a smokeless chimney like an egg perched in a cup.
So I sit in the kitchen armchair and watch the miniature square garden, tiny and framed like a diorama of the things I need to see, need to breathe. Bird noises swell and I can’t see them but I know from the noise there are crows wheeling overhead. I only look away for a second. The wash of precognisant ice behind my sternum makes me look back up in time to hear a puff, see downy grey-blush feathers roll across the pave stones. Not the moment of, but the exhale after. I sit in it, holding my breath, a sinking feeling using my spine as a ladder.
I walk into the yard like a girl in a horror movie, vaguely stooped, hand pressed to my chest to keep the beating beating heart in. Turning in a circle to match the crows moving overhead, looking for what I’m afraid to see. Carnage, blood. Something dead. Or worse, something dying.
An eldritch contortion of bird-mass flies from an adjacent roof, over my head, down to the far end of the neighbour’s garden, where the foliage grows dark and sheltering like fingers curling into a palm. A bird—not a crow—carries the victim, and even in that moment of horror my eye goes straight to an open wing. Patterned in stripes of brown and cream, something that makes sense in the way the huddled mass of carrier and carried doesn’t. One wing, fanned out and perfect against a gentle, grey morning sky. Spread so all the stripes of brown and cream wave at me as it glides over.
Some frantic tapping on my phone after racing inside, crying quietly with a fist in my mouth, says it might be an owl. I look at pictures of a short-eared owl, the pattern of its wings. I learn the word crepuscular, feel guilty for feeling relieved that the prey wasn’t dropped in our garden, that I wouldn’t have to see it up close. Consider peregrine falcons, hope it was one of them instead, because death on impact seems kinder and the sound of that puff is still playing on a loop, a reaper breathing past my ear.
I wash my hands for no reason. Wonder if it was a predator at all, if it was another dove, carrying a loved one to a safe place. Remember reading that Eurasian collared doves are monogamous, that it’s possible.
My knuckles chafe in the towel. It’s possible—but it’s not true. It’s not true and I know it. A feather rolls, a delicate curve like the sun peering over the horizon, across the stone ground. My fingerprints smudge against the metallic rim of the sink. I know it like I know the sweat at the small of my back, the tears mingling with sleep at the very corners of my eyes. The bloodless throb of existing beats all the way to the bloodless snap of the last moment I was the only one to see—a dying thing knows a dying thing.
Soot dark, a blackbird lands, pecking idly before hopping to the loose feather, pressed up against the fence like ocean froth washed up on the shore by the breeze. The blackbird picks up the feather, pearl grey clamped in its jewel yellow beak. It flies away with it.
I cry again for having seen it all. Twist the towel in a long, threadbare rope then let it fall away. Relish the shake and the heartbeat and the dry, morning-stale mouth. Dying things live on.
Shannen Malone is a queer Irish writer living in Mayo, currently in the weeds of her masters thesis as she trains to be a librarian. She is, as you might imagine, vibrating at terrible frequencies at all times. Her work has appeared on Headstuff, Bindweed, and other venues, and she tweets @shannenmalone