“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” – William Shakespeare
The first thing I saw as I entered the gate to the village, was a bird. Black as coal. A raven, or perhaps a crow – what the hell’s the difference anyway? It had perched atop the corroded metal arch above the gate.
It croaked and croaked, and then took off and flew away.
A small village in the southern end of India, sandwiched between two busy cities. Hundreds drove pass it every day on the highway, none ever bothered to stop. In a way this place was hidden, unknown, perfect…
Today marked the end of my third month in this village. Who would’ve thought I’d make it this far? I landed a teaching job in the city, which of course had not been a part of the initial plan. The plan had been a month of experiencing a different world, a month of detoxifying after the four years of college stress, then I would be back home preparing for jobs. But something about this village had taken me. I’d grown to quite adore the villagers who, rather ironically, weren’t the friendliest or the liveliest bunch in the world.
Yet, there was something about them, something about this place that just grabbed you, tied you to it. Whenever I thought of leaving or going home, I could almost feel it gently pull me back. I could almost hear it whisper, “Stay… something’s going to happen here soon. Something you’d regret to miss…”
You better slow down, don’t dance so fast, that was what the poem said, after all. And who was I kidding? I had no home to go to. No family, or friends – I could die here and no one would notice. My home wasn’t a home. I was a stranger there. An extra. An unwanted outcast. Here, at least I was being left to myself. Unbothered, and bothering none. Peace, yes. I lived for peace. I’d follow it wherever, even through the darkest abyss.
It was around a little past dinnertime, and the sky was unclear. I was walking toward my little rented room at the northern end of the village, near the fields and the rice mill. I had sprained an ankle at school today, and I was trudging with it along the dimly lit streets. A tornado of flies swarmed around the orange lights fixed atop the poles, and it was deadly silent.
“Has everyone gone to bed already?” A stranger might think. “Or perhaps, they’re out of town.”
But no. This was as normal as a night could ever be. They weren’t asleep, nor were they out of station. Despite the seemingly restful air this village exuded, there was no rest here.
A big, threatening shadow zoomed across the ground, making me jump. Hurt ankle and all I nearly fell down.
It was a bird. Up there, perched atop one of the electric wires connecting two poles. A white owl, staring down at me from its untouchable seat, scrutinizing, judging my character.
The eye of the Birdman.
Slowly and warily I walked past it, keeping my eyes down. I was approaching the spot where the linear street branched into a sharp left and right. These junctions were where the poles stood, therefore brighter and more orange than elsewhere.
I could go left, I could go right, or I could keep straight. The streets, if one could fly like a bird and looked down above, he would see something like a glowing grid of squares. I looked to my left, and saw the two men.
Pop, pop, pop – the birdie flew back and forth between their rackets, following a satisfyingly consistent trajectory. They could be robots, if I hadn’t known otherwise. Mr. Boregowda and Mr. Prasad. Good men, those two. They lived next door to each other, wined and dined together, went together on morning walks – you’d think they were brothers.
They weren’t. Just like everyone else in this village, the two men had once been complete strangers. They were just bonding over a shared experience, and a painful one at that. Both had lost their families in the fire. It had been years ago. It had been the Birdman.
Mr. Prasad noticed me standing there and gave me a small smile and a quick wave. I returned the gesture. Without bothering to pause their game with my dry pleasantries, I turned and looked to my right.
I could have closed my eyes and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I would still know exactly what was there. The duo of a mother and her daughter, taking the crippled father for his daily evening walk.
Mr. Kumar had once been a bright man, the brightest among his peers. He had smiled and spoke in front of thousands, capturing hearts of leaders and masses alike. He was the shining star of the village, the prince that was promised. Finally after such excruciating years of negligence, there was hope to bring the village out of the rut and to the attention of the authorities. Mr. Kumar was to be the man to do it. But the incident happened, leaving him in that pathetic state.
Holding himself upright with his three-legged walking stick, he stared out at me from within those bleak eyes. I had never seen or heard him utter a word, but I had been informed he wasn’t completely mute. Neither had I seen even a tinge of cheer on the two faces that stood beside him. Mr. Kumar had been lucky to survive, but the family’s hatred and ill will toward the Birdman was no less than that of those who had succumbed.
The sound of a rigorous flapping of wings came from above as a dark shadow passed me overhead. A tawny owl, bigger than the first one. It had assumed position atop the building a block from where I stood. The second sign of the night.
You have no business here. Keep walking, it seemed to say.
Knowing that the family would much more prefer to be left alone than to engage in an awkward exchange, I kept my head down and continued to walk.
When I reached my block, I heard the flap of wings above again. I caught a glimpse of a dark thing rushing through the thick trees. Then it was gone. All was dark and quiet. I climbed up the dog-legged stairs leading to my little room on the top floor. There was a nice balcony larger than the room itself. I stood there, like I did on many nights, staring out at the distance past the spanning paddy fields.
There it was – another orange glow in the night. But this one, warm and glimmering, was not like the others. It wasn’t just another street light. It was fire.
The feel of a strong hand tapping against my shoulder came upon me suddenly, and my body whipped around before my mind could think better.
My landlord was there beside me, chuckling. “You cannot be a jumpy lad and live in this village, Rafael,” he said. “Especially not in this building. We’re at the closest end, you know.” His eyes flew to the distant place where the fire was burning. He was smiling no more. And I didn’t blame him, for he too had lost his only daughter.
We stood side by side in silence. Then I spoke to break it. “The Birdman, sir…”
He coughed and grunted uncomfortably at the mere mention of the name. I carried on still.
“When will he strike again?”
As though one could breathe his way out of pain and anguish, he took a deep breath.
“Oh soon. Very soon,” was all he said.
Dissatisfied, I dug deeper. “But how does one prepare for it? Isn’t there something we can do to fight back?”
“Birds, a lot of birds you’ll see. Owls at night, pigeons and ravens and eagles during the day. They roam the village, like scouts, watching your every move. First you see these birds, a lot of them, and next thing you know there’s a missing person. By then, there’s no point in trying. The body has been burnt to ashes. To go looking for it is merely to smell the decaying stench of a loved one. The sacrifice has been made. It’s over. The Birdman has been rewarded by his god.”
“But I just don’t understand. He’s out there on his own, right? We outnumber him by a ton. Why not gang up on him and take him out, put an end to all of this?”
At that the landlord smiled. That slight narrowing of his eyes was not one I hadn’t seen before. People did that, squint their eyes with a certain facade of calmness, while in reality, the inside was a decrepit dungeon of lost hope and helplessness.
“You’re a stranger to this land, Rafael. A young cub. You haven’t seen the worst. You haven’t seen anything. No, the Birdman is not alone.” He put his rough hand on my shoulder, his demeanor fatherly. “But soon, you’ll know. Soon, all will be clear.”
With that, he slowly turned away and moved toward the stairs. The sound of his footsteps as he descended somehow felt therapeutic. Like the sound of slowly dripping water. Like the crackling sound of fire burning in the hearth. Like the merry voices of birds chirping at the break of dawn.
I went to bed, but sleep was out of reach. I twisted and turned and counted sheep. Useless, this was. No sleep tonight. I kept thinking of the village and the enigmatic Birdman. I thought of the owls I saw on the way home. How they had taken position and stood watch wherever I went. As though scouts, just like the landlord said.
Who, or what exactly was this Birdman? Till now, all I had was the tales of the villagers. Though the stories they told were rather colourful collectively, there was one theme that was unmistakably common. And that was their overflowing hatred for the Birdman.
First you see these birds, and next thing you know there’s a missing person.
Soon, very soon.
Should I be scared? There was no doubt I should. But… why wasn’t I?
I was already out of my bed, out of the building and following the tiny path running through the paddy fields. The moon was trying hard to power through the mist, and all was quiet apart from the whistling wind and the sounds of unseen animals. For an onlooker in the sky, I would seem like a man waist-deep in green grass, wading his way to his doom. The fire still burned ahead and just as bright, and I was getting closer.
The ample coconut trees on this side of the field provided me with a hiding place. This was it. In a few moments, I would behold the enigma, the source of all the horrible tales of gore, pain and death that had befallen this village and its dwellers. Yes. In a few moments, I was going to see the Birdman.
From behind a thick trunk, I took a peek at the fire which was now closer than a stone’s throw away. The flames rose and danced at ten feet tall, and the warmth it radiated partially reached my place behind the tree.
There, standing rather motionless beside the fire, I saw a man. Yes, nothing more than a simple middle-aged man, slightly graying at the sides. He reminded me of a fisherman I had once read about.
There was a little shack still further away from the fire, and on top of it were multitudes of birds, their eyes almost glowing in the night. Some took off, some came to perch on it. It was as though the shack was entirely made of live birds.
Then I saw a bird streaking down the sky, directly toward the man. The man didn’t flinch, not in the slightest. The bird slowed down, flapped its wings for balance and then neatly brought itself to rest on the man’s shoulder. Under the light of the fire, I could see the bird as clear as day. And it was no doubt the same tawny owl that had scrutinized my walk home earlier.
You have no business here.
All of a sudden, my heart started to pound against my chest, and my breath became heavy and loud. It was then that I saw the owl slowly turn its head, showing off its seemingly boneless neck. It kept twisting, until it was looking straight in my direction, staring at me with those large, round eyes.
Again, my body acted before my mind could think better. In the rush of my movement I fell to the floor. But I got back up quick. I didn’t look back to see if the man saw me. It was unlikely that he didn’t. I ran for my life, forgetting any sort of pain that my sprained ankle was giving me. I ran back through the vast paddy fields from where I had come, with a constant feeling of the Birdman’s presence behind me at an arm’s reach.
It was only a matter of seconds until I would be grabbed from behind and thrown to the floor, dragged by the hair across the fields and back into the Birdman’s territory. There I would meet my demise in the form of a fire. I would scream to the night as my body slowly melted away. But the only response would be the excited hooting of the owls that served the Birdman. And when my soul had left me and my body had turned to ashes, the sacrifice would be complete. The Birdman would be rewarded by his god, and my story just another bleak addition to the long list of horrific tales – told by the villagers, heard by none.
But somehow I managed to reach my building, though gasping for breath and drenched in sweat. I turned around and looked behind me. It was awfully quiet and peaceful. There was no sign of birds or the Birdman. And the fire – still burning strong in the far distance.
My climb to the top floor was in contrast, laboured and slow. Upon reaching my room, I took a cold shower and went to bed.
The next day at work, I found my mind fuzzy and unfocused. The class, which on other days needed a quieting-down every minute or so, was as silent as a grave. The kids’ faces were muddled by curious thoughts as they sat staring out at me from their seats. “What underworld demon is troubling our teacher today?” they seemed to think. “His eyes… they look possessed!”
A lot of paperwork and evaluation work held me in my office till past sundown. Almost dinnertime. When I was finally done, I locked things up and went down to the bus stop. It would be a forty minute drive, until all alone, I got down at that awkward stop in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.
It was the middle of nowhere, as I now saw – deserted but for the ugly gate visible in the distance. The stop lasted ten seconds, tailored for my needs alone; there was no official bus stop at the place. So every day I had to remind the driver a few hundred metres ahead, to drop me off there.
I diverted from the highway tarmac and stepped on hard, dusty soil. I walked for a few minutes and soon, I reached the rusty metal gates with the large corroded plate arching above it like a grey rainbow. Whatever writings on it, however beautiful they must have once been, were now illegible.
On top of the arch perched a raven. It croaked weakly a few times before it took off and flew away.
I went through the gates and stepped on another tarmac, different and unconnected to the highway. I walked a little more, and soon came the awfully familiar street and those orange street lights. The swarm of flies buzzing around the warm glows, the eerie silence – everything was just like yesterday. Just like every other day…
I don’t know if the thoughts of the Birdman and the experience of the previous night were messing with my head, but a certain unsettling feeling came upon me as I was walking the streets. I felt shadows move about in the darkness surrounding me, but at the same time, I was convinced of their non-existence.
Not to worry, I told myself. Closely ahead was the junction, to the left of which Mr. Boregowda and Mr. Prasad lived. The Kumars’ house too was the first block to the right.
I quickened my pace as I approached the orange light. But even as I got quite close, I didn’t hear the satisfying sound of a racket smashing into a birdie. I didn’t hear the soft murmurs that usually came from the right side. Tonight, it was truly awfully quiet.
I walked on, and just as I was about to turn my head to the left to check if the two men were there, a vigorous flapping sound came from above. It was that owl again, perched atop one of the power lines. This time, unlike the past night, it was hooting. It was talking to me.
Picking up my pace even further, I jogged on toward my place. All the while, I had this overwhelming sense that someone was close behind me, like I heard footsteps. Still, I never once turned around and checked. Birds zoomed above from time to time, more times tonight than any other night.
First you see these birds, a lot of them, and next thing you know there’s a missing person.
Finally I was closing in on my place. It stood there close ahead, quiet and untroubled. But where was my landlord? Why was his floor completely dark? My scalp was wet with sweat and my heart was rushing. Where was everybody? But it didn’t matter. I was not going to make the same mistake of going out in the night and trying to figure things out. Seeing things that shouldn’t be seen. Touching things that were better left untouched. I just wanted to take a cold shower, make myself a cup of tea. Then I’d be off to bed. I was tired. Dead tired.
I reached for the little entrance gate to my block, and what I saw standing there brought me down to the ground.
A hooded figure was standing at the gate, unmoving, like a statue. It was staring down at me through the black mask covering its face.
The Birdman had struck. I should’ve read the signs. They were all over the place. The birds, the owls – they had been a warning. The others – they knew what was coming. They’d read the signs, as they’d seen them so many times before. But the landlord, I’d asked him quite specifically last night. He could’ve told me. Could’ve at least warned me…
But no. That wasn’t the way things worked, as it turned out. You couldn’t tell. It must have been a law they had to follow at all costs. You could save yourself, you could save others. But never both. Break this law, and the Birdman will get you. It was almost funny, how I needed no outside explanation, how everything sort of cleared itself up at the last minute. All was clear, sadly even the surety of my ending.
Staggering back up to my feet, I looked around. What surrounded me was a multitude of cloaked men with masks, holding skull-tipped staffs and other grisly objects. The one at the front was holding a large leather drum and a stick to beat it with. The ones at the rear end were holding up a length of white cloth, like some sort of banner, and written across it in bright red blood, were the words:
ODD ONE OUT.
An owl hooted as it zoomed above, and I watched it fly. It flew toward the glowing, glimmering orange in the distance.
It’s funny how in your final moments, when the calculating, the thinking, all the things that the human body does in its attempt to survive – when all that has stopped and you’re left with no choice but to accept your fate, there is no more fear. What’s left is only plain humor. All the seriousness of life vaporizes, like morning dew when the sun shines on it. Maybe that was why, in the dark, grimly midst of it all, I was laughing. I laughed like never before. These nutcases with their stupid masks, and their bulky, bothersome robes – oh how ridiculous they looked!
One of them shuffled, and that was when I pushed my feet as hard as I could against the ground, and took off.
I was surprised at how awake and energetic I was, considering how tired I had been just moments ago. I was running along the same path among the rice plants. A rampage of footsteps surged behind me, and now I was certain I wasn’t imagining things. Yet, I was still somehow smiling and giggling through it all. What was I even doing? This was not even an act of escape. It was an act of play, a prank.
One last prank before I die…
Neither was I running away to safety. I was running straight to the fire, straight to where they would’ve taken me anyway. Straight to the Birdman himself.
And there was the fire, burning tall in the night. I was getting closer, the footsteps behind me too became louder. The Birdman was standing there beside the fire, just like last night. Unmoving, like a statue. Wait, was he actually a statue?
Then I saw the shack beside the fire move, like it had suddenly come to life. The next second an army of birds erupted from it, large enough in number to momentarily hide the moon above. Like a swarm of arrows they shot toward me, and I toward them.
That was it, the face of my demise.
But to my surprise, the army of birds flew past me and rammed down on my chasers instead. In that short moment of diverted attention, I tripped and fell to the floor. I hit my head on something hard, and a sharp pang shot through my body. The world blacked out for a few seconds but I soon came back, although mind-numbingly dizzy. Someone was dragging me across the leafy ground, and I could still hear the scuffle of birds and men behind – the men shouting and cursing, the birds screeching and squawking.
As the warmth of the fire reached my body, I edged toward normalcy. My vision had returned. Mustering my strength, I broke free from the arms that were dragging me and got to my feet.
The masked men had arrived at the scene as well, and the birds were gone. No, they were flying in circles, up there, high up in the sky. Perhaps recharging, regenerating. Or maybe they hadn’t attacked my chasers at all. Maybe what happened was just a fantasy, a trick my mind played on me to ease my agony – like a dose of anaesthetic before the big operation. The birds, the men – they were one, after all. This was the wrath of the Birdman, and I was all alone.
The flame danced and whipped beside me. On one side of me was a lone man, the same man I’d seen by the fire last night. The… Birdman?
On the other side, it was the masked multitudes. They were slowly, warily moving closer. The drum bearer brought his stick to the drum and started making an eerie, tolling beat. The others started chanting something in unison.
All the while they were moving closer to me, and I toward the Birdman.
When the masked men had come close enough and into the light of the flame, the Birdman brought his hand to his mouth and let out a loud, piercing whistle into the night. That was when the army of birds who had been circling above in the sky, came back down like bullets, charging down on the masked men.
This time it wasn’t a random berserk attack, but more methodical. The birds were digging their sharp claws into the masks of the men, and started pulling them off one by one.
It hadn’t been a fantasy after all.
The first mask was off. The face behind it had now been revealed, and it was out of shock that my eyeballs almost fell out of the sockets.
Mr. Prasad stood there, holding a skull-tipped staff, fighting off the birds.
Next, it was Mr. Boregowda, the neighbour and friend.
The more faces were revealed, the more I saw the faces of people whom I never would’ve thought of to suspect. Mr. Kumar, his wife and daughter and the rest of the villagers’ faces were being revealed every second. And finally, one familiar bird swooped down from the sky.
It was that same tawny owl that had been watching me. Or perhaps, watching over me…
It came down and dug its claws into the drum bearer’s mask and after a brief moment of hassling, the mask was off.
There, revealed in the light of the orange fire, was the face of my own landlord.
The villagers stared and gawked at each other, gasping, some of them crying. They touched their faces with fear-filled eyes, and slowly, they retreated. They backed off, they ran. Then at last, they disappeared into the night.
I turned to the man beside me, and it was only now that I realized his was the kindest face I’d seen in this village. In a hoarse voice and staggered speech, I asked him:
“Why did they run away?”
“Because they don’t like to show their faces,” he said. “It is their biggest fear, having their true selves revealed in front of strangers.”
“But they say all these bad things about you. They call you the Birdman, and they told me you had done terrible things to them. That you killed their families, destroyed their lives…”
The man chuckled. “I’ve never laid a hand on any of them. All those horrible stories they told you about me, all of it was their own doing. They are the ones who speak to a god. These people sacrifice their sons and daughters, their parents, their friends – they don’t care. They don’t care, as long as they think it will benefit them in some way. If the lord somehow rewards them, you know. They have been blinded by their selfish desires.”
A bird flew down and perched on his shoulder. The man stroked it gently. Very gently…
“When I wouldn’t join them, told them what they were doing was horrible, these people cast me out. Forbid me from crossing the rice field. Threatened to kill me if I did. They probably would’ve already, if it weren’t for my friends here.” He gestured toward the birds perched atop his shack. Smiling, he tickled the owl perched on his shoulder. “Then, they started telling all these stories about me to every stranger that came here. Paint me as the villain. And usually the strangers believed their tales. Some joined them. And some ended up in a fire… sacrificed.”
I looked up and saw the moon, now shining brightly and unobstructed. Silhouettes of many birds roamed the night sky. I turned to the man, who was now throwing more wood into the fire.
“Then how do you do it?” I asked. “The birds…”
The man smiled. He went into his shack and came out with a plastic bag. He handed the bag to me. Then he put his hand to his mouth and let out a curt whistle. The shack seemed to move with the birds.
“Grab some of that and throw it up there,” he said.
In the bag was something that looked like pieces of dried chicken. I did as the man said – grabbed a handful and threw it up to the birds. The birds excitedly rushed and fought over the food. Much like dogs, they were ready for another wave, ready to play. I threw the food again.
“Now don’t throw, but hold it up in your hand like this.”
I did that, and soon one of the birds came out from its place, flew down and perched on my shoulder. It was an owl, white as snow. It stayed there, waiting politely.
I brought the chicken pieces close to its beak, and it hooted gratefully as it pecked on them. I stroked the owl on its back. It felt cool in the night air, and its feathers were soft like cotton.
I looked at the man who had now gone back to throwing wood into the fire. I thought about the villagers – the duo of Mr. Prasad and Mr. Boregowda, the Kumar family, my landlord. I thought about the vague stories they told me. I remember the times when they avoided my eyes, fearing I would ask them more.
Now I understood. I needed no outside explanation. Now, everything had made itself clear.
Now, I was the Birdman.