White by Damian Kelleher


You look your boss firmly in the eye, his green pupils dilating with the intensity of your words. Your pour out your frustration, contempt, sadness, even the fleeting moments of joy, attempting to make this man, who earns much more than you ever will, understand just how much the daily grind of your job has destroyed your spirit, your heart. He rocks back in his chair, fingertips pressed to chin, plump stomach heaving up and down, straining the shiny buttons on his silk shirt and agrees that yes, maybe it would be best if you left. Twenty minutes after tidying your desk, you are outside the building, forever, mixed feelings of joy at finally doing what you have always wanted, and trepidation that, without a job, your life may very well be in for a bumpy ride, welling up inside.
Though you do not know it just yet, even now your wings are growing; sharp little bristles of cartilage working their way through shoulder muscle, subtle transformations of bone and ligament unseen but felt.
Your home is gloomy, opressive in the darkness. You draw back the curtains, letting the sunlight in, but this does not serve to fully alleviate the problem, for the glass is stained and the light coming through is yellowy and faint, without warmth. And the sun is setting. The kitchen is spotless, the stainless steel without a trace of grime or stain, living up to its namesake as you imagined it wouldn't. A brief meal is prepared, a tossed salad consisting mostly of lettuce and tomato, with a sprinkle of dressing, to taste. You take the bowl to the window, sitting upon the ledge, watching the street as people walk back and forth in the dying sunlight, their faces lowered, problems unshared. You sit there, for a moment, spooning the salad into your mouth, hardly tasting it, then you stand up and walk to the kitchen, change your mind, and walk back to the windowsill. Unnoticed in a darkening corner of the street is a homeless man drinking from a bottle wrapped in brown paper.
The salad is finished but you do not remember eating it. Mechanically, you rinse the bowl and the fork in the sink, wipe them with a towel and replace them in the cupboards above your head, your mind racing through endless possiblities now that your job is over. You could find another, but the thought of shackling yourself to yet another desk in yet another office with dreamless employees hardly appeals, but what else is there? In this day of multiple degrees and doctorates, you hardly studied, coasted through university as it were, fit now only for low-level work, which satisfies on the level of coming home tired after a hard day's work, but little else.
You interrupt this negative thinking to go to the bathroom, staring at your reflection in the mirror. You make faces at yourself, watching your eyes in a rock-steady gaze that another would find enviable. Toothbrush in hand, you scrub away at your teeth, idly watching the sink as it fills up with toothpasty spit.
After the bathroom, you sit in the one chair of the living room, staring at the space where a television would normally sit, but not in this house. Instead bookcases and shelves of records fill your gaze, none of which are appealing. Night has truly fallen, the luminous glow coming from the full moon that hovers, picture-perfect in your mirror, lights up the room.
An idle hour passes, then another. You discover bumps and scratches in the chair that you never knew existed. Your eyes find details in possessions you have owned for years and you chastise yourself for being so lax.
Sick of doing nothing, you stand and look out the window again. The homeless man is still there, but this time without a bottle in his hands. He appears to be sleeping, a dirty checkered red rag - perhaps once a blanket, perhaps - covering his too-thin legs.
You resolve to leave your house and talk to him, find out just what drove him to such depths of existence, why he no longer has family or friends to support him, so you put on your coat, lock up the house and walk down the narrow brown stairs of your apartment building - the elevator, as always, broken - and step outside. The air is fresher than inside your apartment, and you breathe it in, enjoying the crisp excitement that an Autumn night can bring.
You start to walk. You can't see the homeless man just now, you will need to turn up a side street first, but you know you are approaching him, getting closer to the corruption and decay; you imagine that you can smell him already, but pass the feeling off as fear.
Almost you make it. Almost you manage to steel your nerves to the task and walk up the side street. But almost isn't good enough, and soon you are walking in another direction, away from a guaranteed interaction with poverty, towards perhaps a more positive encounter. You berate yourself for being too weak to help another, mutter to yourself that life is easy for you, even without a job, you have money, a home, food, shelter, whereas he has nothing. But it is not enough, you keep on walking away.
Twists and turns through the city take you past shop windows filled with naked mannikins, butcher shops that were, only hours ago, brimming with meat and now empty, department stores with artfully designed displays showing off a life you cannot afford, children packed around cheap restaurants, artlessly courting one another with too-obvious looks and dubious undertones in every gesture. Insects swarm about the damp light of the street-lamps, their buzzings reflected very slightly in the bitumen below your feet. They scatter as you approach, even though your head finishes a good metre below their play area.
You walk through one of the many sanitised, cemented parks of the city where young lovers lie, even now, in the darkness, holding hands. Old people, perhaps homeless as well, sit on wooden park benches, feebly extending their hands to the swarms of pigeons that cluster about their legs, hoping in vain for a piece, a scrap, a morsel, of food.
Your shoulders ache. The skin of your upper back and arms feels as though it is stretching, moving about, trying to accommodate for something that should not be there. You scratch at your body, pat it, stroke your shoulder as you walk along, heedless of the sidelong looks being cast your way, but are not soothed. The dull pain, not even a throb, just a constant, nagging ache, seems to be inside your body, deep inside, rattling your bones, if that were possible. Raising your arms above your head sends a wave of pain through your body, you discover. The best position is to slightly tuck up your elbows, just a little, against your ribcage.
You sit down on an empty bench and look up at the clear sky. In the centre of the city, only the very brightest of stars are visible, but tonight, the heavens are on display. As you watch the dazzling array of stars, from tiny and faint to massive and bright, off to your left, just out of the cornre of your eye, a star shoots across the sky, near the horizon, and dies, fading away forever. Leaning back, you watch and watch.

Some minutes later, you shift your rapidly numbing body and look down. At your feet are pigeons, twenty, thirty, more, hovering around you and good naturedly pecking at one another, hoping for food. Grey-backed, they coo at you, pressing their bodies against your brown-panted legs, unwary of your humanity, perhaps foolishly, though you have no intention of harming them. You rummage about in your pockets for something, anything, but you know that there is nothing. Although, wait! Somehow, you aren't sure, but there is, yes, in your coat pocket, a hard, crusty piece of bread. How or why it was in there you do not know, but you remove it and break it into little pieces, scattering them as liberally as the pigeons will allow. They explode in a flurry of movement, flying a few feet into their and pecking at one another in an attempt to grab a piece of bread. Some are succesful, others are not, and soon the bread is gone and the pigeons are still waiting.
One of the other pigeon feeders, a fat old women dressed entirely in differing shades of brown, calls out to him about stealing her babies and cackles: her tone is good natured. You return the greeting, allowing little warmth to escape your voice. She speaks at you rather than to you for the next half hour as the pigeons wander about, randomly clustering at either your or her feet. You sit there letting the words wash over you, realising that she merely has a need to speak to a human being instead of a pigeon for a change.
You leave the park and can hear the woman speaking even when you are fifty metres down the road, but her attention has shifted to the birds. While distracted with the pigeons and the woman, the ache in your shoulders disappeared, or maybe it was just that you forgot about it, you can't be sure. Whatever it was, your only desire it to be at home in your bed. The night is late and there is no sign of lovers walking.
The walk home is uneventful, becoming colder as the night progresses to its apex, you fold your arms into themselves, burying your hands in your armpits. The presence of the homeless man in the side street is palpable, you do not even need to fight the urge to see him, realising now that it was a half-hearted attempt at doing a good deed for your fellow man.
Inside, your apartment feels as oppresive as always, though the sensation is heightened by the magical sense of infinity you experienced while watching the stars, increased by the earthy perfection of the pigeons and their dance. The moon has long since left the confines of your window and the light it provides is barely noticeable. Padding about in the darkness, you shut the blinds, check the locks, then fall into the sleep of the unemployed.
During the night, you dream. You are on a green field dotted with yellow flowers. The sky is so blue it hurts your eyes to look at it. You walk, but do not move. A low buzzing starts, far away, but approaching, you look about but cannot see the source. The sound seems to be coming from all directions. The noise increases in volume, then, in the blink of an eye, it seems, you are surrounded by locusts, tiny and brown, you can't see anything but their spindly little insect legs and alien carapaces. The noise is defeaning, you raise your arms to protect your head as they batter into your body, bruises feel like they are forming all over. The locusts collide into one another, falling to the ground, twitching, the carpet of green replaced with dying insects.
They cling to your body, suffocating, so close, so near, you can't move. You feel violated as they crawl inside your shirt and pants, their scratchy little feet all over your chest. You feel light, you look down, the locusts on the ground are far away now, you are rising in the air. The locusts are carrying you! They spin you about, move up and down, you feel sick, vertiginous. You flail about, thrashing your arms, wanting them off you, but then, to your horror, you realise that if you were to kill all of the locusts, nothing would prevent you from plummeting to the ground...
Hours later, in the morning, you awaken, the dream forgotten with the safety of lucidity. The soft blue light of false dawn greets your eyes as they pop open, your mind clear from the fog of sleep. You sit up in bed and wince, sharp daggers of paining stabbing at your shoulders. You try to lie down again, but the pain is worse, it feels now as though hammers are pounding into your bones as well as the knives, you have no choice but to greet the day.
Clad in pants only, you walk about the tiny living room, yawning and rubbing at your eyes. Constant movement keeps some of the pain at bay, but there is only so much pacing that can be done in such a small area. This early, there is no chance of being able to find a job or see a doctor about your pain, you decide a shower would be best.
The water is hot, it stings and cleanses your body. You run your hands through your hair, then scrub at your face. The delicious pain from the hot water combats the dull pain of your shoulders, creating a not unpleasant mixture of sensations up and down your back. You spend longer than you should in the shower, staying in until the water runs out, enjoying the feel of the water too much to stop voluntarily.
It is while looking at yourself in the mirror that you first feel the bristles. Gingerly touching shoulders that are beginning once more to ache, you discover that if you run your hand down your back, from neck to spine, the pain is soothed, but if you run your hand up, blinding flashes of pain cause your knees to buckle. You have the distinct feeling of a cat having its fir rubbed the wrong way. Twisting your neck this way and that, you try to look at your shoulders, to see what could be causing such pain, but there is nothing. The skin is smooth, white, unbroken. If it wasn't for the pain - which has increased since rubbing your back - you would think yourself in perfect health.
Toying with your shoulder and periodically sending yourself into spasms of pain is not a pass-time you can keep up for long. Before the shower, you had set out black pants, a freshly ironed white shirt and a brown blazer on your bed, you dress yourself and step outside, into the new day.
The sun is bright, juxtaposing with the dirty brown walls of the buildings on your street in such a way that you are, not for the first time, assailed with a sense of deep, unquenchable sadness at the unconquerable grittiness of a city. People dressed in the black and blue bruises of white collar work walk about with their heads held high but their eyes unfocused, you recognise yourself in them, only yesterday, and you wonder if they even notice your presence. Mothers are out walking children, they are the only splashes of real colour in an otherwise grim setting.
You walk towards the city centre, avoiding the park from the night before, instead walking along one of the busier streets in the opposite direction of most of the working men and women. This street houses your favourite coffee shop, just ahead, you can see it is open and walk inside.
The familiar smell of plastic and coffee greets your nose like a kiss. On the counter is a clear plastic container with freshly baked muffins inside, your mouth waters. The owner of the business, an ageing woman who always has a smile for you no matter how busy it is, looks up and begins to make your usual. You smile at her, trying to hide the pain of your shoulders behind your eyes, but you aren't sure whether it worked or not, because she places a chocolate chip cookie on your saucer, free of charge, with the coffee.
You add some sugar to the coffee and stir in the cream, toying with your senses, filling your nose with your most favoured of aromas. Satisfied that the coffee is as ready as it will ever be, you lift it to your mouth, the smell increasing with every centimetre, so rich, so elegant. You take a sip, and...
...Spit the coffee out. The moment the liquid touched your tongue you felt like vomiting, the tase was so foul. Suddenly the smell does not seem as lovely as before, you push the cup away and clean up the mess you made with some napkins. The excremental taste is not leaving your mouth, the owner comes up to you, concerned, a glass of water in her hands, and you gulp it down gratefully. She claps you on the back to soothe you and pain flares, you choke on the water and start to splutter. Still the taste will not leave, and the smell, it is everywhere, you can't escape it, you can feel your stomach churning, you need to get out. Pushing aside the owner you stagger outside, bending over, hands on knees, gulping in great quantities of fresh, clean air. You can feel eyes on you, there was no way such a spectacle would go unnoticed at such a busy time of the morning.
The smell of coffee lingers in the air, buffered by the walls of the coffee shop but noticeable, you know that if you stay here for much longer you may throw up. The bell chimes and the owner of the store stands by you, too afraid to touch, asking what is wrong, but you can't answer, you start to walk away, running almost, clutching your traitorous stomach until the smell of coffee has faded and your body settles down.
People are looking at you strangely, as with the owner of the store, you can feel their eyes. You fight the reflex to look down and shuffle your way out of sight, forcing yourself to look up and walk with pride. You feel less confident about your upcoming visit to the doctor now, you are almost scared.
You walk slowly, paying great attention to where you place your feet. Pigeons scurry about underfoot, you have no desire to step on one, even though you never have before. Often you bump into someone who is also not paying much attention to where they are going which inevitably results in some sort of harsh words or push, generally on your shoulders. Pain flares up with each assault, and, when it dies back down, always seems to be that little bit more intense than before.
Finally, the doctor's office. The insides are antiseptically white, you speak in hushed tones with the receptionist who informs you that the doctor will be able to see you shortly. You are friends from many years ago, all you have left is the occasional favour such as this. Seating yourself in a green plastic ergonomic chair that hurts your back more than helps, you look around the too-quiet room. Tasteful landscape paintings are hung at the precise centre of each of the four walls, and in the corners flowers are in vases. A spread of magazines you aren't interested are on the table next to your leg, you idly flick through the first one, information about which celebrity is doing what leaving your brain as quickly as it takes to read.
Minutes pass. An overweight, sweaty man comes in, breathing loudly through his mouth. He sits down on a chair opposite you, moping his shining forehead with a damp towel. He clasps and unclasps his hands together, looking at the floor, face reddening, wheezing and snorting. He looks uncomfortable and you wish you were somewhere else.
The receptionist calls your name, you look up and follow her pointing finger to the doctor's office. He greets you with the warm but emotionally distant smile of a friend who is no longer, motioning for you to sit and tell him what is wrong. Hesitantly, you explain your pains, he tells you to take off your shirt.
Slowly, you do. Not normally shy about your body, now you feel embarassed, immature even. You fold your arms around yourself until he tells you to stop. Humming and ahhing, he walks around your twice, studying you, his chin cradled in his hand. He stops behind you and touches your shoulder, lightly. You wince and he apologises in a voice so soft you aren't sure whether you heard it or not. The fingers do not stop proving, however, you grit your teeth against the pain while he murmurs to himself.
After what seems to be hours of punishment but could be only ten minutes, the doctor tells you that he has never seen anything like this before. You are unsure what he means, he holds a mirror up to your back and you can see that, on your shoulders, small fleshy lumps have appeared, obviously in the last hour or so, and they are coated with little white dots. You gasp and take a step back, as though moving away will make everything less real, but the doctor steadies you and the lumps are still there in the mirror.
You ask what you can do. The doctor does not have an easy answer for you, he says that he is worried, something like this shouldn't be happening. With careful hands he takes a razor-sharp scalpel and cuts at your right lump, taking a sliver of skin. The pain is intense, a flower of red blossoming on your shoulder that will not go away. Tears glisten in your eyes and your face goes pale. With clinical detachment, the doctor tells you that he will take this sample away to be tested, to see what is happening within your body. You thank him and dress hurriedly, wanting to get away from this man who has defiled your body - for you recognise it as such.
The walk home is unpleasant. You can focus only upon the pain in your shoulder. Your feet lurch about, unsteady, and your arms seem to not be your own. Rather than decrease, the pain has intensified, spreading out all over your shoulders and back, and you vow never to return to the doctor. With the pain comes a sense of having been violated, of being placed under impersonal scrutiny by a man you are no longer sure is your friend. You cannot shake the sense of wrongness flooding through your body, and, as you return home, you feel as though you should lock yourself away from everyone, so that nobody can hurt you again.
At home, there is a note pinned to your door telling you to visit your landlady immediately, underlined twice. Your shoulder hurts so much that your right arm is shaking, but you know you should see her. Her apartment is the bottom one, because she does not like stairs, and you have never been inside before. You knock twice, call out a hello, and wait. Your shoulder feels as though there is liquid trickling down, perhaps blood, but you pat it twice, gingerly, and your fingers come away dry.
She opens the door, peering at you with unfriendly eyes. Her mouth is pinched, pale and tight, and there is hair on her upper lip. She says nothing, simply standing there, waiting, but you don't know why she wants you so you remain silent. Finally she asks how you intend to pay rent now that your job has been terminated. Unsure how she found out, you stammer something about having savings and that your finances aren't a concern of hers. Again she is silent, the slams the door in your face, but not before informing you that if your rent is even one day late, you will be thrown out onto the streets.
You return to your apartment, suddenly tired. You are battered with the events of the day, the dream you had the night before, the coffee, the visit to the doctor, your landlady, and you are so sore, so very sore. You fall asleep right away.
And wake the next morning in a pool of blood.

No (Where James stuffs around on the roof and is kicked out)

For a long time it does not register that you are lying in blood. At first, you assume that you are still asleep, dreaming perhaps, not of locusts this time but of blood. Eventually though, as your senses returns, you realise that this is, in fact, your bed, and your blood.
You get out of bed, shoulders that before only ached not flaring into a fiery pain. Your sheets, mattress and pillows are covered in blood. Your face feels smeared with it and you can feel it trickling down your back. You touch your shoulder, the one the doctor cut, and it comes away bright red.
Panicking, you run to the bathroom, tripping over your chair as you go and sprawling onto the ground. You lie there a moment, stunned. You close your eyes and whisper a prayer as the blood trickles down onto the carpet. You can feel it running down your back in little scarlet rivulets, pooling at the base of your spine. Feeling as though you cannot get up, you do anyway, stumbling to the bathroom, your aching foot an additional pain to the immense lake that is your shoulder.
In the bathroom, after cleaning yourself, the skin of your shoulders reveal themselves to e a fiery red, sore to the touch, like a bee-sting. The lumps are larger, almost the size of a fist, and covered with white towers of cartiledge perhaps three millimetres high. They are hard to the touch but flexible, you try to pull one out, but the pain is so intense you pass out and awake a few moments later on the floor, your face aching where you hit it on the way down. Standing, there is now a purple bruise on your cheek in the mirror, and little dots of blood can be seen oozing from the white tips on your shoulders.
For an hour, you probe and touch your shoulders, learning where hurts and where doesn't, attempting to figure out just what these little white sticks of cartiledge could be. Ocassionally, you are assaulted with pain so great you vomit into the bath, but you quickly learn from your mistakes and the pain eases. While watching, it seems as though the little white dots are growing. When you first woke up they were only a few millimetres long, now they are almost a centimetre. At the tip of each is a tiny leaf shaped tuft that feels the same as the base, except it is ridged. You brush down your shoulder with the palm of your hand and they quiver.
Rummaging through your closet you find an old black jacket, large and heavy, you drape it around your shoulders. The weight is a little painful on the lumps, but nothing you cannot get used to. In the mirror, turning this way and that, you decide that the lumps are not visible as lumps; it merely appears as though you have large shoulders. Before leaving, you go the refrigerator and remove every piece of meat you can find; it appears that, since you awoke, you cannot stand even the thought of biting into a steak or chicken, in fact, the very thought of it makes you want to vomit once more. You cook the food, trying not to gag from the smell, then wrap it in plastic.
Arms laden with meat, you walk out of your apartment and step outside. The sun is bright and harsh on your eyes, you cannot shield them with your hand so you squint, walking awkwardly to where the homeless man was two nights ago. You can see evidence of his passing; cigarette butts, empty bottles, scraps of paper and cloth. You place the package on the ground, shoving it underneath a large piece of cardboard, hoping that the homeless man will find and eat it. The food is of no use to you, now, you walk away and do not look back.
The city is quiet. You avoid the busier streets, and, because it is early afternoon, you at times find yourself completely alone while you walk. You find yourself noticing the intense brightness of leaves and flowers more; many times you stop to inhale the scent from a particularly beautiful flower, or to rub the soft green underside of a healthy leaf. The sound of trickling water seems to take precedence over the more industrial noises of a city: cars, trucks, buildings, money changing hands, and you can smell little pockets of fresh air here and there, which make your head turn and your body follow before you realise what you are doing.
You notice that birds often make their nests in trees, a fact which has always seemed obvious, but one that you never really took the time to appreciate before. Stopping by a large, well-tended apple tree, you spy a tiny birds nest, high up in the branches. The gentle tweet of a bird can be heard and your bones sing with the effortless music of its voice. As you look around, more and more avian life appears to your eyes, as if, now that you know what to look for, you can see birds everywhere. Pigeons are predominant, but, as you explore, you see sparrows and bluebirds and flickers and blue jays and wrens and kestrels and starlings and robins. Each have their own unique sound, each sound becomes precious to you as the day passes and the lines stretch into shadow.
As night approaches, you find a pet shop and buy several large sacks of nuts and grain. The owner of the shop asks what birds you have at home, you tell him you have none and he looks at you strangely until you walk out. Cradling the bags in your arms and resisting the temptation to sling one over your shoulder to make the trip easier, you make your way back to your apartment, stopping here and there to sprinkle a little mound of seeds by a tree, on a bench, or next to some flowers.
At home, you relieve yourself of the load, placing the bags for now on the kitchen bench, then leave for the nearest nursery, which thankfully is still open. You buy packets and packets of seeds, all different kinds, as well as a trolley full of dirt, fertiliser, and small ceramic pots. Carrying them up the stairs to your apartment is a struggle, but the gradually infiltrating smell of rich, brown soil in your living room spurs you on, and by the end of it, your apartment has the fresh smell of a parklands.
The next few hours you spend setting up the pots, filling them with soil and carefully pushing tiny seeds deep into the earth. You place pots on bookcases, shelves, cupboards, your kitchen bench, windowsills and in intricate patterns on the floor. The grain and nuts you scatter all about your apartment, putting little mounds of food everywhere there is space, and piling it against the pots. You don't notice at the time, but while working, every few minutes your hand moves of its own accord into the food bag and then into your mouth.
You stretch tiredly and look up at the clock on your wall. It is nearly midnight, you have been working hard for almost five hours. With a startle, you notice a pigeon standing silently on your windowsill, watching, its head cocked towards you, one beady eye fixed on yours. Aware that now it is the one being watched, the pigeon becomes skittish, hopping back and forth and flapping its wings. You make a point of not watching it and continue working, finishing up the kitchen and setting the bag of grain down by the refrigerator.
You pour yourself a drink of water - the only liquid you are able to stomach, you've realised - and sigh with pleasure as the cool fluid runs down your throat. While you are drinking, the lumps on your shoulders move of their own accord, the hard white bristles quivering. You almost drop the glass in wonder as the sensation, instead of decreasing as you would expect now that you are aware, actually increases in intensity.
A few minutes later, the sensation fades and, try as you might, you are unable to consciously move your lumps, no matter how you try. On the windowsill, the pigeon is gone, but it has left its spoor.
Exhausted, you climb into bed, falling asleep as soon as your head touches the pillows and your eyes close. While you sleep, pigeons, sometimes one, but usually two or three, regularly alight on your bedroom windowsill, watching you sleep, pecking nervously at one another.
In the morning you awaken to blood on your sheets, but this time only in patches here and there. Not as frightened but still concerned, you walk to the bathroom, rubbing sleep from your eyes. You strip off your shirt and throw it into the bathroom, a bloody rag of no use anymore. With great care you clean the blood from your shoulders and inspect the lumps. They seem to be defining themselves into a distinct shape, growing sleeker and more muscular, while the white bristles are noticeably longer than the night before, the feathered white tips having broadened down the length.
Soft noises distract you from your examinations, in your living room there is at least twenty pigeons scattered about, pecking away at the food you have left out or absently cooing at one another. High above your head, a lone budgie flying round and round your roof in a fast yellow circle. As one, the pigeons stop what they are doing and look in your direction, heads tilted, feet nervously stepping back and forth. Creeping slowly, you tip- toe through the lines of pots, climbing up on to a relatively bare bookshelf and perching on it. The pigeons watch you for a few moments longer, then resume their interactions.
You sit silent for a few hours, marvelling at the interplay between the birds. As you watch, you begin to notice that they have individual personalities; some of the pigeons are more aggressive, actively seeking out food and driving others away, while a few seem capable of sharing, even going to so far as to be affectionate with their colleagues. Some time into the afternoon the budgie, tired from its constant circling, alighting on your shoulder, its little claws digging into your bare skin. You can sense the little bird's heartbeart, and while the rapid flutter is not in time with your own, there is a harmony of sorts that you are able to appreciate. It stays there for a very long time, stepping back and forth, exploring the expanse of muscle arm and shoulder and then it takes to the air, resuming its constant spin.
Towards the end of the day your lumps begin to quiver, stronger than the day before. You try to help the feeling along, desperately flexing and unflexing muscles in your back and arms to discover just how you can move the lumps voluntarily, and soon you are successful. Flexing is somewhat painful, at first, but as your joints and muscles become used to this unique movement, the pain decreases until it is gone and you feel as comfortable flexing your lumps as you would moving your arm.
Weeks pass. Your daily ritual consists of heading straight to the bathroom, where you practise for hours flexing your lumps in the mirror. You marvel at the swift changes your body is making, for the lumps now seem as a seamless part of your body rather than an extension. They are sleekly muscled, firm and hard to the touch, and you no longer wake covered in blood. The white bristles are two hands in length, the feathery tips reaching down to your elbow, tickling your arms when you flex them.
Then, you wander about your apartment, studiously avoiding stepping on the masses of pigeons, thirty, forty, fifty, you lose count there is so many. Watering your plants gives you a sense of joy you would have never experienced, six months ago, the healthy, leafy smell of the shoots emerging from the dark earth a pleasure to inhale. They seem to grow quicker than you would expect, and soon your apartment is covered in plants curling their way around books and into cups, through spaces between furniture and along walls. Some have begun to flower, adding their sweet aroma to the mix of green and brown, and on the floor there is a growing carpet of leaves.
Late afternoons is purchasing more food for yourself and the birds, sacks and sacks of grain that take many trips to deliver to your home. The remaining money is rapidly dwindling in your bank account but you try not to think about this, taking long walks in the scattered parks in the city, revelling in the gentle sing-song of birds calling to one another and the rustling sounds that trees make in the wind. You find yourself unable to stomach the harsh city smells that assail you whilst walking along the busier streets, the stench of cars and people going by almost too much for your increasingly delicate nostrils. You consider moving to the suburbs, but realise that this would take you away from your beloved pigeons, an unthinkable alternative you have no desire to pursue.
You spend increasingly greater amounts of your time with the pigeons, sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by birds, some resting on your body, others stepping about, but none are afraid. Several other species of bird have made your home their home, from budgies to sparrows, but for the most part, it is pigeons. At night, when you are asleep, most of the pigeons make their way into your room and silently watch you, a fact that comforts and cushions the impact of your increasingly disturbing dreams involving locusts and falling, always falling.
Another worry is your landlady. Often she comes around unexpectedly, pounding on your door until you open it just a crack to see what the problem is. So far, you have managed to prevent her from entering and seeing the masses of birds and plants that have taken over the apartment, but you know that this is an eventuality that must be faced all too soon.
Three months after you have quit your job you are standing in the mirror, as usual, inspecting your lumps. They are very strong and, if you were to try as hard as you are able, you can flex them so fast that your metres-long bristles whisper in the air, the sleek mass of feathery cartilage slicing through the air with powerful ease. You admire yourself in the mirror, spreading your lumps out as far as they will go, the span of which reaches almost three metres, long, majestic feathers hanging down as far as your waist. You hear a knock on your door and freeze; you know it is your landlady. Hastily throwing on your makeshift jacket, you open the door just enough to speak to her, but she is having none of it. She pushes her way inside and stops, a look of horror on her mouth as she takes in the layers upon layers of leaves and pigeon excrement no the ground and the great leafy masses protruding from every available space. Her hand to her mouth, she glares at you and leaves, commanding you in no little terms to make yourself immediately available in her office.
Sighing heavily, you agree and close the door behind her. For the first time in months, you make the effort to create a presentable appearance; you shower, shave, clean your teeth and wear your cleanest clothes, of course including the special jacket you made.
You make your way down the stairs, heart in your mouth. You expect eviction, or worse, some sort of monetary demand for the mess. With what is left in your bank account, there is no possible way you could pay for any damages caused, in fact, as your finances stand, if the best possible scenario of the landlady forgiving the pigeons and the plants, you would still probably end up homeless within the month. The thought of finding another job sickens you, and with the lumps being so large, probably wouldn't happen.
The door opens before you have time to knock and the landlady stands there, hands on hips, thin lips pressed together in a way that is decidedly unfriendly. She motions for you to step inside, and you do, the fact that this is the first time you have ever stepped into her home not going unnoticed. Inside, the room is shrouded in darkness, the heavy golden- yellow curtains pulled tight across, your senses cry out at the absence of sunlight. Even nook and cranny is filled to overflowing with all manner of collectible - There are coins, plates, porcelain dolls, china tea-cups, green glass, commemorative spoons, hats, toy cars, figurines, glasses, stamp books, statuettes, minature dogs, minature cats, tiny bottles of alcohol, pictures of famous people, snow-globes, lace doilies, tea cosies, pewter goblets, plastic ducks, clay angels, photoframes, scarves, faberge eggs, badges, tie pins, buttons, hats, little gold ornaments and hair- clips. You feel overwhelmed at this material pettiness, unable to comprehend the necessity for so many useless baubles when, in comparison, the gentle rustling of a green leaf seems so much more valuable. You take an involuntary step back then freeze when the landlady clears her throat.
The conversation is brief, and mostly one sided. In short, harsh words, the landlady makes it very clear that you are no longer welcome in these apartments. At first you consider questioning her decision, but you are aware that your chances are slim. Finally, your eyes lowered and head down, you shuffle out of her apartment, the weight of her eyes on your too- bulky jacket as heavy as an anvil. Climbing back up to your apartment seems a fruitless exercise as you know you will just be walking down them soon, forever.
Inside the apartment - for it is no longer yours - the pigeons seem to be in some sort of a frenzy. In the living room, they are swarming, pecking at one another and flapping their wings aggressively. As you approach, they explode and swamp you with their feathery kisses, buffeting you with their wings but the gesture is oddly gentle. Above your head dozens of budgies circle, coming to rest on lamp-shades and bookcases for a few seconds before leaping into the air once more, a dazzling cacophony of colour. The pigeons swarm around you so thick that you can hardly see anything but pink and grey bird-flesh, the smell of them is overpowering but comforting, you feel as though you are wrapped in a protective coating.
Gradually the pigeons disperse, most of them exiting sadly through one of the windows, as though they know that your eviction means that their own has arrived. A few linger on, watching with tilted heads as you assemble your possessions together, deciding on what you want to keep and what isn't necessary for the journey ahead. You are surprised at the ease with which you are able to discard items that once held such sentimental or monetary value to you, but now, with homelessness just around the corner and a heightened awareness of the organic beauty of nature, each abandoned item lifts a near imperceptible but growing weight from your shoulders. You settle finally on a few changes of clothes and some food, stuffing the lot into a left over grain sack.
You take a last, long look around the apartment in which you have lived for the past ten years. Hundreds of books stare solemnly back at you, along with pictures of your family, packed away clothes and cooking utensils, and that is all. Virtually no personal trace of you remains here, and you already feel as though it belongs to another. All the same, you are sad, and wipe away a tear. You turn and exit the apartment for the last time, shutting the door quietly behind you and depositing the key on the floor next to the landlady's door.
Outside, it is the middle of the day and the streets are busy. You walk slowly with your pack, trying to decide no your next move. A few pigeons waddly along with you, and all about, on street-lights and perched on the roofs of buildings they sit and watch, scurrying along to keep up with your movements. A green and yellow budgie lands on your shoulder and stays there, bobbing its head with your steps.
The alleyway near your house is empty and bare; not even the slightest indication that there ever was or ever had been a homeless man sleeping there, night after night. You wonder if he ever received the food you offered. For a time, you squat down where he used to sit, looking around, sizing up the small alcove under a rusty flight of stairs, deciding whether or not the discomfort and stench would be worth the luxury of a roof over your head, however inadequate. You shake your head, no, this is not your place, not yet. You hope not ever.
Eventually your feet take you to where you knew they would: the city park. The one remaining park left to you, the one park that you never explored, leaving it until last, so to speak, as though you knew it would be special, and here it is. The largest of the parks, it sprawls over acres and acres of land, alternating between lush floral arrangements, delicately sculptured bushes, chaotic jumbles of mangrove and more, with conveniently placed pathways to allow for the most tranquil, picturesque routes possible. The gates before you are iron-wrought and cold, massive and imposing, majestic even. Settled on top of each gate-post is a stone hawk, exquisitely cast, its eyes seeming to bore into you; the feeling is unsettling and you shiver.
You recognise this to be a momentous occasion. One step through these gates and you are lost, one step through and you are saved; both are truths you will have to discover. For the first time in over a month, your lumps throb, so painful your legs buckle and you fall to your knees, a supplicant before the hawkish overseers perched upon the gates. Tears of pain glistening in your eyes, you accept this first, symbolic introduction to your new future and walk through the gate, pigeons streaming in after you for hours, following your footsteps as though you have a solution.


The park is quiet at this time of the afternoon, a few couples walking, their arms wrapped around one another's waist. Near a small fountain a few young children played while their mother watched, smiling with tired love and shielding her eyes from the setting sun. Pigeons and sparrows, parakeets and bluejays, these birds and more prowl the neatly paved pathways of the gardens, resting on lamp posts and benches, twittering in delight of their ability to fly.
Slumped in shadowy corner or against poles or trees lie the permanent residents of the park: the disenchanted, the disillusioned, the lost, the poor, the mad, the enlightened. They are homeless, through choice of through circumstances, and they do not care whether you exist or not. A woman, twenty metres to your right, nestled within a fragrant bed of red and yellow flowers arranged in a bright spiral, is sitting cross-legged, her face in her dirty hands, and she appears to be weeping. Up ahead you can see a grimy man sitting on a bench, twitching and muttering to himself, looking as though he is conducting a conversation between many more people than your uninformed eyes can comprehend, his arms waving frantically to point out a flaw in another's argument, or now to admit defeat, or now to declare a truce. You walk past him, he looks up but does not see you and calls out, at first you think he is speaking to you but he is not, in his eyes, there is a person next to you, or persons, you cannot be sure. A third man stands underneath the shadowy protection of a great apple tree, a worn book in his hands, and he is shouting the word of God at the top of his lungs, turning pages back and forth to find the choicest morsel of heavenly wisdom to impart upon the 'sacriligous unbelievers', a title he confers upon all and sundry.
You walk the length and breadth of the garden before the sun sets, exploring and learning the intricacies of what you hope will become your new home. When night falls and you are still in the park - unlike so many others who, afraid of what the dark may bring, have left - a woman approaches you, similar in dress and manerisms to the one you saw crying several hours before, but it is not the same person, and she asks why you are here. With honesty and sadness you tell her that you have been evicted from your apartment and that you are lost. She nods wisely, her dirt- creased face sympathetic, you know she understands.
The two of you speak for some time, she tells you the best place for sleeping, the worst areas to visit during the day, and all manner of park wisdom that she has picked up along the duration of her twenty-year stay. She says that the police for the most leave everyone alone, but only as long as the peace is held. Occasionally a man or woman will come to the park with the intent to do harm or to steal, they never last very long, thrown in jail if they are not first ostracised and exited forcefully from the park by the accumulated might of the other homeless people. You sense that she is in need of a friend and are willing to accommodate her. She did not look at the lumps on your back once.
A particularly large, leafy tree catches your eye, you gaze up at the thick branches, mottled and dark, and without realising it you are nodding your head. The woman suggested a tree as a residence, because they offer the soft comfort of leaves, the sturdiness and security of branches and boughs, and the luxury of a roof, however unorthodox it may be. Gripping the bark, you slowly climb the tree to only a few metres above ground; it is the first time since you were a child that you have climbed a tree and you are afraid of the height. Soon though, the fear fades and you find yourself appreciating the hefty strength of the tree trunk, pressed firmly but not uncomfortably against your back.
You gaze up through an empty patch in the luscious canopy at the moon, it is full and bright. Stars are coming out now, slowly, one by one, as though shy about revealing their beauty. You watch with wonder and awe as, within the space of an hour, the sky is covered in diamonds, resplendent in its simplistic beauty.
The air is cool, but not so cold that you feel the need for the jacket. Mindful not to fall, you carefully remove the garment and drape it over a nearby branch, tying the arms together so it will not fall off. The skin on your arms goose-pimples from the wind and, in a sudden flash of inspiration and excitement, you cast off your shirt, revelling in the sensation of the night air on your powerful lumps. Experimentally, you flex them, your feathers battering against the tree, but softly; you are unhurt.
You feel comfortable this way, naked to the waist, as though it is a natural state that your body was waiting for you to be ready to aspire to, and, now that you have, you feel freer than ever before. Settling your body against the trunk of the tree, you carefully fold your lumps over your arms from the cool breeze, and within minutes you are asleep.
The next morning you awaken to the sound of pigeons chirping, hundreds of them. Your eyes spring open without a trace of tiredness or sleep; last night's sleep in the tree quite possibly the best you have ever had. Settling on every single branch is one, two, three, even ten pigeons, all shuffling about nervously, watching you as you slept, heads cocked, beady eyes fixated upon your body. You experience a sense of joy that the pigeons have followed you here, a completeness as though now, with your family and your tree-home, you are complete. One adventurous pigeon spent the night huddled in the space between your legs, absorbing your body warmth, you are surprised that the constant wing-flutterings it is performing now did not wake you up even once.
Below you, there are several homeless people, looking up at the pigeon-tree, hands upraised as if in shock or perhaps awe. You consider for a moment putting on your shirt but then you decide that, if you are going to be homeless in truth as well as deed, beholden to no man, that you will not meet the unecessary strictures of a society that you no longer feel appropriate to be a part of.
On the ground, the others greet you with warmth and thinly veiled curiosity. You speak for a time, making clear your intent to be peaceful and calm, a harmonious member of the city park, and that the pigeons are a part of you being here as much as, say, your arm. They accept this, each one having their own particular quirks and oddities - one man said the he had memorised the bible backwards and forwards and once, in a fit of pique of what he considered an unjust mandate, was expelled from Heaven for reciting it sideways - to a man, ignoring your lumps and perfectly formed, brilliantly white feathers. The woman from the day before who spoke to you of the informal but nevertheless strict rules of life in the park takes you by the arm, directing the conversation to matters of food and water, both of which can be plentiful if a person knows where to go and whom to ask.
The first day of begging is the most difficult, but you find that people tend to take one look at your lumps - always and only, the lumps - and then hastily pour coins, silver and gold, into your upraised palm. In the park, a few dollars will buy you a refreshing drink of water; many times, after dark, you parcel out money to the less successful of your new acquaintances.
Once each day, you leave the park, every time with a greater reluctance for donning your shirt. You realise the wisdom in such an action, but the constrictive embrace of the tightly woven wool makes you feel as though you are trapped, the worst part of it being that it is of your own volition. But you decide that the temporary discomfort is worth it for the benefit, loading your arms with bags of grain that you spend a few hours each night feeding the pigeons with, one loose handful at a time. You feast upon the nuts and grain, forgoing the manufactured food that is sold within the park, not wanting the artificial tastes and textures upon your tongue or in your stomach.
Time passes quickly in the park, Autumn deepening to Winter, Winter bursting into Spring, Spring blazing into Summer. You come to know and love each of the park's inhabitants, accepting their unique personalities and appreciating what they have to offer as people. Like yourself, there is something about them that could not exist properly outside of the park, it is only here that they can be who they wish to be, without negative ramifications.
Many hours are spent flexing your lumps, building the muscles in your chest and shoulders, while your arms seem to shrink away, becoming thin and delicate. Spreading the feathers as far as they will reach, from tip to tip the distance is nearly four metres. The feather are long, firm, and a perfect white. Often you stroke them, marvelling at their strength. Very often the pigeons will gather around while you are flexing your lumps, watching, as though waiting for something, but you are unsure what or even if you are capable of whatever it is that they want.
Soon a year has passed, and then another. You have become a fixture in the park, children and young teenagers referring to you as the Birdman, while parents pull them hastily away, pressing a coin into your hand so that you will leave. The casual shunning from adults does not bother you, the sense of gentle magic from the children enough to keep you happy. Often you will save a special wink and smile for a particularly wondrous young boy or girl, even going so far as to spread your lumps out as far as they will reach and then pumping them back and forth, buffeting the child with wind until they fall onto the soft grass, laughing and clapping.
For the most part the population of the park is steady, marred only by the occasional death or sudden absence, but generally new people appear to take their places. You instruct several newly homeless people in the ways of the park, calming their anxious nerves and stopping their darting eyes with your clear gaze.
Perhaps the saddest moment of your stay arrives late one night while you are asleep. The woman who first welcomed your into the park is standing underneath your tree, calling out your name in an urgent whisper. You climb down, avoiding the masses of pigeons on every branch, and ask her what is wrong. Tears in her eyes, she tells you that she is very sick and needs help. You do not know if there is anything you can do for her, but you go back with her to her home, spending the night cradling her in your arms, wrapping your lumps around her, warming her shivering body with your feathers. With the false dawn still in the sky, she seems to sigh and then collapse, as though something important has left her body, and then she dies. You hold her for a very long time as the sun rises.
Early one evening, almost three years after you first came to live in the park, you are accosted by four young men, obviously drunk. They walk with unsteady feet but shout as if they are swaggering, joyfully punching one another. You brush past them, pockets jingling with the day's collectings, one of the youth's pushes you, sending you sprawling into a bush. They laugh and crowd around you, waiting for you to get up.
You stand. The man who pushed you has angry eyes, his ire directed solely at you for reasons you cannot fathom. The other men, seeming to go along with their leaders plan simply because he is their leader, stand in an uneasy semi-circle, repeating the first man's jeers with a half- heartedness that is soon, to your dismay, full of malice and danger. The leader pushes you again but you remain firm.
He reaches out a hand to your lumps, grabbing a fistful of feathers and twisting; pain lances through your body and you cry out. You swipe at him with your arm, knocking the side of his head with your feathers and he lets go. The other men move in closer, grabbing at you and scratching with their fingernails. One of them - you cannot tell which - connects their fist with your face, sending you sprawling.
The first man takes advantage of the situation, kicking at your unprotected stomach with great vigour, while the other men taunt you with tongues of poison. You wrap your hands around your head to protect yourself, crying out with each kick. Your brilliant white feathers are dirty and brown, tread-marks on some while others are broken and bent, each destroyed feather a little finger of pain shooting up your shoulder.
The other men start to tire of this sport, their shouting lowering in volume and finally stopping, but the first man continues, kicking and punching, your pale white stomach purpled with bruises. One of the youths catches the leader's arm, telling him to stop, but the leader does not listen.
With a sickening snick, the first man pulls a knife from his belt, then kneels down and lifts your head up by the hair. He whispers words into your ear that you are too filled with pain to understand, then plunges the dagger into your side, a cold finger of pain rapidly spreading about your torso as your blood pools in the dirt.
The other men pull him off roughly, shouting at him and condemning him for his actions. You can barely hear them, but you know they have left, the knife wrenched roughly from your body.
Pain engulfs you, it is all you can feel, all that you know. Your eyes are open but you are having trouble seeing, you look down and all that your eyes can register is blood, at first bright red and gushing and then dark black and in periodic gushes. You know that you are bleeding to death.
A pigeon appears in your vision, small and grey and compact, one black eye looking you up and down. It hops about for a while, then comes in close, pecking at the shockingly large amount of blood that doesn't seem to stop flowing, trickling away in all directions, little tendrils of red escaping your pale, pale body.
Another pigeons appears, and then another. They scamper about your body, unsure what to do, but knowing that you are in danger. The pain is receeding now, becoming a sensation that, although you are still feeling it, seems as though it is another person's body, a far away person that you can only tenuously understand.
You open your eyes, spitting out dirt, and realise that you blacked out, for how long you are unsure. There are many pigeons here now, hundreds perhaps. All you can see are pigeons, the concerned cooing defeaning. You close your eyes, and die.
For a long time your body lies there while the pigeons mill about, cooing to one another. Not a single pigeon takes to the sky, not a single fight breaks out amongst the normally bickering group. As one, they begin to coo in unison, motionless except for their head, which tilts this way and that, their little black eye watching you.
Three hours pass, the pigeons maintaining their vigil. They are like a carpet that extends for tens of metres around your body, thousands upon thousands of pigeons clustering about, trying to get a glimpse of you, with more arriving every second. After four hours, a sort of critical mass is achieved, the rhythmic cooing so loud now that no other sounds are able to co-exist. Then, suddenly, they stop, and all is silent within the world.
You cough, once, dirt puffing up in a little cloud around your mouth. The silence remains, deafening in its intensity, and you cough again. With a trembling hand, you reach down to touch your side, the pain has gone now and so has the wound; you are healed. You shakily get to your feet, the pigeons moving only their heads to watch you, a thousand, ten thousand of them all around you, silent and immobile. You remove your pants, finding that where before you had human genitalia, there is now nothing but a smooth surface. Naked, you spread your wings out as far as they will reach, then you bring them back slowly, tucking them up against your shoulders. Testing the muscles, you begin to flex your wings, pumping them harder and faster than you ever had before. A few of the pigeons are buffeted with the force of your wings, but they remain firm, twenty thousand eyes on you.
With a great cry - which somehow comes out as a coo - you leap into the air, flapping your wings with all your might. You hover for a moment, your feet dipping to the ground and almost touching, but you pump your wings harder and start to rise. Soon you are level with the tips of the trees, you look down at the pigeons and a single tear is shed from your eye, plummeting to the ground.
As one, the pigeons burst into the air, the sudden return of noise exhilerating as it is deafening. They dance and whirl around you, marveling at the feat you have accomplished. With gentle wing strokes you accustom yourself to gliding, then to spinning, diving, soaring.
You fly.