By Jade Hayden
Time passed while the woman sat on the bench at the corner of the park’s clearing. Beneath trees that shook and whispered she gazed ahead at almost nothing in particular. She was barefoot and there were fresh cuts, red and raw, from the dead and sharpened branches hidden in the grass below. Her stomach, still swollen, still hard, protruded from her lemon summer dress that was still three sizes too small. Earlier her hands had been shaking but now they had stopped. She had walked to this spot, this clearing, in the park not sure where she had been heading. It had been 11.49am when she left her home. In a few moments she would close her eyes. In a few moments time would stop.
Rustling beneath the leaves of the colossal oak tree was a singular magpie. It revealed itself in a shower of cracked browns and yellows, and stood perched on the thin branch, watching. Its head jolted side to side, almost manically, considering its next point of contact before extending its wings and clumsily lifting itself into the air. The wind could have carried it further than the bird would ever have had the power to. The magpie made it approximately one quarter way across the clearing before it plummeted to the grass below. Stopped dead in flight by a force that was neither visible nor comprehendible to those who would later pass by. The bird fell from a height of eight foot three inches before landing with a meagre thud. It was dead before it hit the ground. Its heart had simply stopped.
The woman on the bench had closed her eyes and the air that she inhaled now tasted stale. It had an agedness about it. An ancient muskiness usually reserved for the insides of abandoned houses, the spaces between the wood of a coffin. The woman relished in this air and allowed it to fill her lungs. Its stagnancy rushed with blood to her brain and when she opened her eyes she saw that the trees leaves were no longer moving, the thick clouds in the sky no longer drifting. Her stomach no longer aching.
The woman stood and walked to where the magpie lay. She stopped only when her left foot accidentally nudged the creature’s wing. Black feathers shifted at the touch. Otherwise, no response. The woman bent and cupped it carefully in both hands. They rested comfortably above the swell of her middle. She noted the steadiness of her grip and was surprised to find that her shakes had subsided. Good. Perhaps that meant she could go home now.
She had held the magpie close to her chest. Cradling.
Almost motherly. But not quite.
The bird had not been alone in this undue decease. Beneath her feet, among bushes and ferns, high in the trees that remained utterly and completely still lay the tiny bodies of hundreds of flies, spiders, grasshoppers, butterflies, worms, moths that had, too, been killed. The woman could not see them, but she knew that they had been there. Disclosed, and yet known. Hidden, and yet, not saved.
The wind had halted, these creatures ceased to be, and the small two dollar watch on her thin wrist had stopped for the second time today.
Gulping in waves of aging oxygen, that was quickly becoming close to putrid, the woman made her way back to the bench. She should have moved faster for she knew that this air was running thin. Instead she walked slowly, a leisurely place.
Her heart would not stop. This was not how this worked.
When she made it to the bench she placed the magpie on the faded wood where once upon a time the sun had shone a little too brightly. Carefully, she folded the bird’s wings – still outstretched, still feigning flight – across its body, the tips of its feathers hardly covering the slackness of its beak, the drooping black eyes. It could have been sleeping.
Like a baby, she thought.
Almost childlike. But not quite.
The woman turned her head aside. All around was still.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she mused whether the tenderness she had shown the magpie could have been utilised more efficiently.
Some place, some time else.
When the hands of her cheap watch had stopped for the first time that day.
Before the hands of her cheap watch had stopped for the first time that day.
As far as she could see, as far as she was aware, all was static. Frozen.
What was left of her air was sour. Depleting. Someone else might have breathed it with the trepidation of inhaling in a smoke filled room, just before the fire catches, before the walls crumble.
The woman allowed herself to become consumed by the creeping decay. This immobility was precious. A gift. She closed her eyes a second time and felt the nothinged void slither across skin. Limbs weak, eyelids heavy.
But through the rushing darkness of her self came the image of an infant. A baby, hardly a few days old. Its cheeks were plump and tinted rose, its skin almost porcelain, too easy to crack, too easy to smash. Its eyes were shut and its features were still but the sounds of wailing, screeching, crying had erupted from someplace inside of her. Noises so violent they were almost painful. Sharp. Suffocating.
Her eyes snapped opened. Fresh air filled her lungs. The dull throb in her stomach resumed.
Seconds began to pass again and she wished that they wouldn’t. She had longed for control. Permanence. Buried deep amid the scars of desperation and anxiety for an existence that did not need to change. Progression was not merely tiresome and unnecessary, but her own incubus that was sucking her dry. The more she nursed it, the more of her it stole. Devoured. Like it was nothing.
Never had the possibility of the earth’s immobility seemed so desirable.
Different was not sufficient in describing her abilities, and different was not an adjective that she had ever been branded with. Her skin had not been scorched by the vapidity of classification but the banality of the moving world. It spun on its axis but nobody ever fell off. Nobody ever jumped.
Somewhere in the distance she could hear another bird singing. A bird that had been lucky enough to escape. A bird that was blissfully unaware of its own mortality, its own narrow departure from immediate death, as the leaves on the trees started to sway again, and the grass rustled a familiar yet disturbing tune. A bird that did not notice the small blip of time that it and the rest of the world had missed. A tear in the fabric of progression, a gap in time, a disturbance of the known. But only slightly. Unnoticeable. Untraceable.
The magpie was still dead. Around her, countless insects had failed to regenerate with the rest of the world. They had died instantly. Living creatures always died instantly.
She would tell you that she had been able to do it for as long as she could remember. This was a lie. Instead, it could be traced back to a dreary night in October. 1974. The seventh. A Monday. At 9.32pm, when the woman was a younger woman who told herself that the specifics of time did not bother her.
Before she finished her degree.
Before she struggled to decide on a career.
Before the structured routines of education and pre-adulthood had ended.
Before she had to convince herself that she had fallen in love.
Before she became pregnant.
She had been sitting beneath the rungs of the Brooklyn Bridge when it happened, first. The rain had been falling severely all night, a damp curtain covering the city. The East River was murky in the hazy darkness. Rather than water it could have been oil or ink or solid ground beckoning one to come closer, closer, until it swallowed you whole.
The woman had always hated water and she had sat beneath the rungs of the Brooklyn Bridge to escape its downpour. Regardless, soaked clothes still clung to her body as droplets fell continuously from the bridge’s surface overhead. She had been young and she had been out walking along the river’s bank when the first splashes had tumbled from the sky and she had taken cover. Sodden and shivering in garments that hung in soggy swathes, she appeared as a desolate figure, hunched and cowering, in the darkest spot in New York City waiting for this to pass.
And yet, she had felt calm.
The blackened downpour had separated her from the thousands of men and women she passed on the crowded streets day to day, other students she was forced to share discussions with, people she recognised a genuine likeness for but who sometimes enveloped her, subsuming her one motion at a time. She would move constantly, progress repeatedly, achieve something, but here beneath the Brooklyn Bridge she felt a stationary freedom – a fundamental solitude – that was more than necessary every now and again.
But complete and utter loneliness was an illusive desire.
Out of the corner of her eye, the woman saw a sleeping figure shift under a heap of discarded blankets, torn sleeping bags, unwanted fabrics. Another one of New York City’s homeless seeking a spot to shelter. Another one of New York City’s sufferers seeking a spot to hide.
She cast her eyes out to the East River, straining them, gazing far ahead, struggling to focus on the outline of something in the distance. There was nothing to see so she closed them. Halcyon.
If only the whole world could be this peaceful. If only-
It happened then.
Thirty five minutes passed and only then did the woman notice that the murky depths of the river no longer fluxed from side to side, the incommodious traffic noises from overhead had ceased, the air had become thicker, heavier, still.
She stood and was hit by vertigo instantly. Her limbs felt excessive and abundant, and as she lifted a feeble hand to her head the grit below her feet shifted and swirled behind her eyes, and the ground rotated, slow then faster, sucking her back to its surface.
She bent forward and vomited. The emptiness of her stomach displayed on the dirt before her. Light brown. Wet.
When she no longer felt like she was about to pass out, the woman had taken tentative steps alongside the river’s edge, searching for any signs of movement, any trace of life of which there had been none.
She didn’t know how she had done it but she had. A small smile played on her lips.
It stayed there until her eyes drifted towards the sleeping figure beneath the discarded blankets, torn sleeping bags, unwanted fabrics – the sleeping figure that was no longer sleeping because his heart had stopped approximately thirty eight minutes before. The sleeping figure who would never sleep again. Who would sleep forever.
She hadn’t wanted to but she had forced herself to go over there, to remove those blankets, sleeping bags, and fabrics, to see what lay beneath them. She bore witness.
A man of about sixty lay before her. His body was cold to the touch. His face was haggard, his expression weary, his mouth turned up in a half-grimace that should not have been visible in the darkness.
But mostly, he was still. As still as the silent river. As still as the black city above.
As still as a magpie on a bench in a clearing.
The woman, now older, took one last look at the bird she had killed and rose to her feet. Still bare, muddied and abused from her journey, they carried her out of the clearing. Her body still ached and the swell of her stomach still caused some discomfort, but the shaking had stopped a long time ago and it was time to go home.
When she got back, the scent of stale air still lingered in the bedroom. The radio had since come back on, the electric fan resumed spinning, the washer dryer in the room next door had continued its cycle. It could have been almost impossible to know that anything had changed at all.
Except the air was still stale.
And the baby lying in the cot in the corner of the room wasn’t breathing anymore.
The woman tiptoed towards it, holding her breath, as if even the smallest of sounds could somehow wake it. Remnants of dirt and blood trailed behind her.
The child’s face was frozen just as she had left it. Pink, wailing, slick with the sweat from the hysterical fit it had been having. Ever since it had entered the world. Ever since she had pushed it out of her.
The stain was still visible on the carpet by the kitchen door. Crimson and wet.
She could have reached forward and closed its eyes. They stared up at her, wide and glassy, baby-sized tears streaming from baby-sized holes leaving flesh coloured streaks all over its face. Contorted with anguish. Riddled with pain.
Nobody had ever asked if she had wanted to be a mother.
Nobody had cared.
She could have picked it up and cradled it to her chest and wept before carrying it downstairs and burying it beneath a blossom tree. She could have regretted the moment her watch stopped for the first time that morning. She could have let this consume her. She could have.
The woman sat, her insides a mess of the agony of childbirth, her mind recalling an image of the magpie she had killed. Accident, it was only an accident, she said.
The clock on the bedroom wall read thirteen past two. It was a few minutes slow but this did not concern her. Outside, the city droned on. Inside, a child lay dead. The clocks did not stop again.