Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sick Day by Jill Malleck


The halo told me I was on the edge, and this wasn’t a simple hangover from Benny’s Halloween party. The alarm clock, the ceiling light, even my bedroom door, all were bathed in a fantastical nimbus. Awe always filled me at this stage, as if I stood on the edge of revelation. Awe, and also terror, because for sure, I stood at the edge of pain.

I curled in bed and lay as still as I could, hoping I’d called the drugstore fast enough. If the migraine arrived before the courier, it would feel like an ax cracking into my skull, chopping my brain in two, and that ax would keep thudding into me for hours. Days sometimes.

A very faint tweeting sound inched its way over the ticks and drips of my abandoned shower. I recognized that sound. Someone in this old complex had a bird. A pet, in our no-pets building.

We’d had a bird when I was a kid. One of those blue budgies that were so popular in the ’70s. A bird we named Harley after Dad’s motorcycle. A bird I’d both loved and feared because of the wickedness of his beak. The déjà vu sound skittered over the pain. Definitely somewhere there was a bird – or more than one – by the sound of it.

With my migraine still at bay, I gingerly moved to the window. The ledges were generous, one of the things I liked about this place. Reminiscent of all the old Gotham City and cornered-man-on-the-ledge movies. I pushed up the window and leaned out and over to have a look.

There on a ledge, not right below me but one over to the left, were the birds. That was what I’d heard, not a caged pet like Harley. These were pigeons and mourning doves, bobbing up and down furiously, like those silly-hatted bird toys dipping their beaks. Even weirder–they were pecking at something. Looked like handfuls of seeds; sunflowers and such.

I knew that most of us, including the super, hated the birds up close. If they shat on the ledges you couldn’t get it off; the rough texture of the stone seemed impervious to a soapy rag. Most of us pulled drapes or shades shut when we left for work, to stop the birds from stunning themselves on the reflected glass.  I’d never seen anyone deliberately attract birds to their ledge. Strange.

While I watched, the birds squawked and minced on the ledge.  A few took off and then circled back. Bathed in my migraine nimbus, they looked as if they were bursting with light–like the Holy Spirit church doves on a pillar candle at the Dollar Store. Each flap of their wings leaving behind a strobing afterimage. Beautiful.

Poor Harley–as a kid, I’d loved that bird, but he’d never been as beautiful as this. My head now was throbbing like a metronome. Ah, the sunlight, of course. I should have retreated to my dark bed. Instead, I leaned over the cool brick and rested my right cheek where I’d have an unobstructed view.

What I saw next was incomprehensible. Out of the window below came a pair of Mickey-Mouse hands, holding a bright red satin cloth–was it a pillow case? With a flick of the wrist, the glowing white gloves shook the cloth out and over the birds and swept them cleanly into the apartment. Two or three gathered together. The others escaped. The ledge, now pecked clean of seeds, was empty. I might have imagined it all.

My buzzer went. I almost ignored it–I was supposed to be at work anyhow, but the irritating buzz went again. Right, the drugstore delivering my migraine pills.

I took the steps down two at a time, easier to do since they’d laid the winter rubber mats.  In the lobby, a slight young man in a black toque and fingerless gloves slouched against the small table under the mail boxes. He thrust a small paper bag, stapled shut with printed instructions on it, at me. Didn’t ask me for ID or anything. Didn’t wait for a tip either, just headed out to the bike leaned up against the glass doors.

As I listened to the ancient elevator clang down, I noticed a homemade poster taped to the wall above the row of silver mailboxes. I’d never seen it before. Really, it was the pigeon that caught my eye, then the cape. “Authentic Roma Magician,” the headline read. “Three generations of untold secrets. Birthdays and other parties. Inquire to Silvanus at Apartment 406.”

I guessed the photograph was of Silvanus, in top hat, white gloves and a satin-lined cape, holding a silver-tipped baton in one hand, with an ugly gray pigeon alight on his other hand. Pulsing curtains of light shimmied across the poster like an aurora–sure just the forerunner of my migraine. Or, maybe, the promise of magic. Man, I loved magic.

So, the red satin he’d used to snag the birds–not a pillowcase, the inside lining of a black cape, like the one I’d worn as Dracula last night. My cape was tossed on the floor of the darkened bedroom, shed in a drunken stupor.

Back upstairs I looked for it–half expecting it to be gone. It was there. I rushed to the window. I was apartment 504. Most certainly the now empty ledge below me was 406. Silvanus had been trapping his show birds.

I took a pill and lay down on the top of my duvet, a warm, damp washcloth laid across my closed eyes.

As I dozed, Silvanus’ plight filled me with sadness. I imagined him, a small boy, fleeing the village guards to gypsy freedom, crouched in a dark field near a meager campfire. On the poster, his lips had been tightly pressed together, no doubt to hide the teeth of poverty. In my dream, I see a silver-haired grandfather cupping the young boy’s hands gently around a white dove that coos softly and intelligently at the attention. Later, his father, angry and drunk, slaps him across the face and tells him to forget magic and get to work. Tells him he is stupid and lazy. 

Silvanus grows taller, and as his life gets darker the birds turn gray and black. From a dingy attic window, the broken man is only able to attract filthy and stupid wild birds. He binds their beaks with tape, so they can’t peck him as he tucks them up his sleeve for the grand finale.

When I woke, I was sweating. I’d felt the sensation of wings brushing against my cheek and eyelids. When I swung my leg off the bed and stood up I felt pins and needles in my feet. Time for another pill, but I stopped at the window and leaned out again.

The light was softer now, less direct, and the magical halo of my migraine was more serene. I stayed still, collecting the dusk, when the bird alit. She was beautiful. Pure, snowy white and bathed in light. She settled on my ledge like Noah’s dove returning to the Ark from a fruitless flight. The mica dots glimmered in the sandstone beneath her. She looked straight at me, her head still and not bobbing. I was mesmerized.

I backed into my room and slowly closed the window. In the kitchen, while I gulped another pill with milk, I saw the wedding favor I’d stuck in the fridge in June, a sliver of yellow cake with red and green jellied fruit, wrapped in a white doily.

On the way back through my room, I stooped to grab the Dracula cape. Maybe there was something special about the color or the satin. Maybe it calmed them or drew the birds like a matador’s cape does the bull. 

I opened the window, prepared to see an empty ledge, where I’d crumbled the cake. My dove was still lying there, still glowing, still beautiful, as calm and perfect as the dove I could picture in my Sunday-School Bible. The Holy Spirit dove, descending on Jesus at his baptism.

Not a feather ruffled when I leaned out. I laid the unwrapped cake slice on the ledge, close to me. She got up and walked to it, her head bobbing. I held the cape like a scarf, red satin up, then threw the fabric out and over her, and swept it all into my room, bunching the bundle at the top to hold her inside.

I’d expected wild aggrieved flapping and a wicked pecking that I’d realized too late might be the reason for the Mickey Mouse gloves. There was no fuss. Just a warm small weight at the bottom of the makeshift bag. Like capturing a hamster or a guinea pig who’d escaped its cage. Apparently, I had the touch for this.

The door to 406 was identical to mine. The man who answered my knock seemed bigger than he looked on the poster, and swarthier. A dark-haired potent force at the center of a pulsing white nimbus. Except that was my migraine, wasn’t it? His black hair, which had been covered by a top hat on the poster, was full and standing in waves, like he’d just run his hands through it. Under his mustache there was still no smile. He might have been frowning.

“I live upstairs. I saw your poster by the mailboxes…” I faltered. The noise of many birds stopped me. It sounded like he might have been watching National Geographic, or Alfred Hitchcock, on TV.

Now his smile appeared. His teeth were white and straight and fine.

“Oh, you want to have a party?  You need a magician? I can do… But not here. Not allowed. The super, he takes down my poster, and I put it back up. I can do a party…but not here. You have another place we can do the party, eh?”

The door was swinging wider. Behind him, just like in my apartment, was a living area and beyond it a door leading to the first bedroom, the larger one. I knew that to my right, down the hall, was a kitchen and another bedroom. The noise of the birds was getting louder, and he motioned me to step inside so he could shut the door.

“No, no, I’m not having a party. I saw you…with the pigeons…earlier today. I love magic shows. I’ve been to Vegas three times to see Penn and Teller. I just, I wondered, does it work? Can you train them even if they’re just city birds?”

When I’d said “no party,” his smile had disappeared. Like magic. But as I asked about his work, and said the word “love,” his smile reappeared.

“Yes, yes. Is good. Come and look. Meet my assistants.”

He was walking through the living room, toward the open bedroom door. It seemed dark in there, like the shade must be down. When we got to the door I saw that the shadow was actually the fine black lines of a net. There was a large fabric cage–floor to ceiling, wall to wall–of loosely hung netting. It stopped us at the door. Weights were sewn on the bottom of the net, which sat on a blue tarp. I imagined a shrimp net floating on the bottom of the ocean. There was a sharp tang of ammonia.

Inside the room, birds were flying or sat perched on coat racks. The tarp was covered in speckles of white and green droppings. There must have been eight or nine birds in the room, though they sounded like twice that many. I saw the dirty gray pigeon and a mourning dove–today’s captures. No longer glowing. Still, I think, how wonderful and generous of him. He has given the birds the master bedroom and he sleeps in the smaller bedroom down the hall.

Then I noticed bird bodies lying on the tarp. Were they dead? Had they flown into the walls? No, the clever netting was hung well away from the walls.

The magician saw my distress. “Oh, no, it’s alright…it’s okay…” he was reaching under the weighted netting at the door, tugging one of the still birds out.

“See, see…is okay. Touch it. Feel it…warm. It is thirsty, just thirsty. For a show tonight. See, I show you my secret. You love magic, see.”

He rolled the dark body between his meaty hands. It lengthened, spun and became like a clay rope. I remembered doing this with PlayDoh. The creature didn’t move. He stuffed it up his sleeve. If I hadn’t seen him do it, I wouldn’t have noticed the extra girth on his bicep. He moved down the hall toward the kitchen and I followed. When I stepped into the room, I saw him holding a backpack, an IronMan backpack, the kind with built-in water bottles and a hose that reaches your mouth, so you can drink without stopping.

“I don’t show you all of my trick…” he laughed. “But this…”  The unmoving cigar-bird was in lying in his hand again. He pushed the hose end into its mouth and pumped it a few times. As I watched, the bird inflated. Just as I thought it would burst, its eyes opened, and it fluttered to the floor. In two seconds, it was a pigeon flying down the hallway.

While I was been distracted by the bird, Silvanus had noticed the red bundle in my hand.

“A cape? Halloween done now, you want to sell it maybe?” he was asking as he hurried down the hallway. I realized he had to get the pigeon back into the aviary, and that meant capturing it and lifting the weighted net.

My bundle was stirring and gave a tiny coo. I prayed he hadn’t heard it over the general din and turned to the door.

“No, no,” I said. “Might need the cape again next year. Just heading to the laundry room on my way downstairs.”

He was frowning again, and I wondered if he recognized the size and shape of my lie. “Thank you so much, letting me see the birds,” I gushed. “I’ll be sure to tell all my friends at work about you and your services.”

I was out the door, and instead of fleeing to my apartment, I headed all the way down. I pushed outside and lay my bundle on the front stoop. I was terrified to open it. But there she was, lying there, just like she had on the ledge. Serene and innocent. Waiting for my prayer. I bent down and grabbed the edge of the cape like a matador, ready to shake it out.

“Go, go, go,” I said and waved it up toward the darkening sky.


Jill Malleck’s home is in southwestern Ontario, landlocked so she escapes to Lake Huron in the summer. Most of her life has been spent reading and speaking others’ words. Her writing was confined to business projects, family correspondence and blogging about leadership. Today she’s telling stories.  

"Sick Day" was previously published in Entropy magazine. For information on submitting to Entropy, see here.

See Brian’s complete current schedule here,  including online and in-person writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Alliston, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Southampton, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.


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