The world outside was still black when the man awoke. Heavy curtains draped over the cold expanse of glass, separating the outside from what lay within, and in the darkness, the man tossed restlessly. Shifting traces of light snuck beneath the door, beckoning him to wakefulness; he opened a single eye to glare blearily at the seeping white light. What he wouldn’t give to sleep again, to slide back into the nothingness… to dream of birds whose beaks were tied shut with ribbon and bodies bound with silver wires.
He frowned. Birds?
Even as he thought it, the crisp edges of a little blue wren seemed to materialise out of the darkness. Its dark eye was fixed upon him, delicate bones straining against its bindings as it held the man with its gaze. The image was so vivid, he almost expected he might be able to reach out and touch it, despite the distrustful murmur of his own logic lurking beneath the sudden flare of hope. He forgot, and he reached out.
It hopped onto his hand.
It never looked away. Small dark talons curled and uncurled against his rice paper skin, and he marvelled at the almost imperceptible weight of it. It shifted restlessly. Beneath the door, the strip of light persisted, fragmented by shadows moving across it, and perhaps the murmur of voices. For a moment, he thought it was his wife, but then he realised that he was now less than completely sure that he knew what he had once thought he knew. The only thing that remained was the remembrance of her chipped red toenail polish peeking out from beneath the covers, and her continuous declarations that tomorrow she’d paint them. He lingered in the memory for a moment, touching every corner of it, trying to imprint it on his bones. It was slippery, though he wasn’t sure why. Beneath the restless sea churning within him, he felt her absence. It ached.
The bird waited, as though it knew that such recollections would be short-lived, and the man’s attention would return.
It did. Of course.
Across the darkness, the man’s gaze was drawn to the little blue wren. Despite the lack of light, he could see each feather clearly delineated, as though the body were a lantern, refracting the illumination from inside, out into the darkness. The delicate wire spun around the bird was a strangling cocoon of venetian lace; the ribbon binding its beak shut was yellow.
Yellow, for sunshine.
Yellow, for cowardice, his treacherous brain reminded him. He backed away from the thought as one would a shotgun aimed at the belly. Unperturbed, the bird hopped a little closer, its presence, the weight of it on his flesh insisting, demanding—what? For him to see, to remember, he thought, and his gut churned restlessly with the knowledge, even as his mind fought to identify what was missing.
If only he could sleep.
Again, the bird moved closer. It was trying, he realised, to sing. Muffled squeaks snuck past the ribbon and its tiny body shuddered with effort. But it failed, and failed again. A brief, white hot flash of anger suffused him.
Yellow, for cowardice.
Part of him cried out in pity, and he found himself caught in a tug-of-war between tenderness and scorn. Yellow is for cowardice. The bird was craven, he reminded himself angrily, or it wouldn’t be bound, wouldn’t be silenced, and it could fly free. Yellow, for cowardice. The silent words burned across his brain even as he thought them. Something more tugged at him, begging to be seen, yet try as he might, the memory wouldn’t appear before him. There had been hawks waiting in the garden for the little blue wren, with eyes that always watched and ears that always listened, and the wren had fallen, the man knew. But yellow, yellow, yellow.
Yellow, for cowardice.
Something beeped insistently nearby.
The man reached again, desperately fighting to pull away the veil that obscured a memory. The memory, he knew. The bird hopped closer. Its black eye locked onto him were a brand against his soul.
There was no knock before the door opened—just the silence and the darkness, and the patient watching eye of a little blue wren—and then there was a broken fragment of speech and a flooding of light. The man flinched away from the sun and the bird began to fade away. He opened his mouth—or he thought he did—to cry out, to the wren perhaps to stay and show him, or to the woman bustling around his room with all the propriety of a mother with her babe, to help him.
But his tongue was leaden in his mouth. His body refused to obey his commands. The woman smoothed the sheet and checked on the monitors by the bed. She glanced perfunctorily at the body in the bed and ran a weather eye over his chart.
“Of course,” she said to another nurse as the shift changed, “nothing. Just a blip a few hours ago, but I wouldn’t worry about it. His mind is gone.”
On the window sill outside, the little blue wren cocked its head at the coma patient in his hospital bed. A shimmering thread of being bound them, the wren bound immobile by the man. The link flickered. Above, the shadow of a hawk loomed and the bird, sensing danger, opened its wings.
There was a final sigh: the filament of light disintegrated and disappeared as the monitors began to wail. The hawk folded its wings into its body and dropped like a missile towards its prey.
The wren hopped once, twice; it glanced for a last moment at the hospital bed.
Then it soared, leaving the hawk with empty, grasping talons.