Prem sucked in just enough air to mumble curses as he exhaled. Every day it was harder and harder to force his tired old body up the stairs. He was grateful for the cool breeze when he finally reached the roof. Orange light from the setting sun spilled through the railing, casting sideways shadows like prison bars on the dusty ground. A Mori bird waited for him on the railing, its claws wrapped around the wood. The dying light accentuated the patch of red feathers at the base of its slender neck, the only color on an otherwise black bird. A bloody-throated Mori bird, harbinger of death. It smelled like licorice.
From the wire cages to his right, other Mori birds cooed to welcome their returning friend. Prem approached the bird and picked it up. The black feathers had absorbed the day’s light and were warm in his hands. A folded slip of paper was tied to the bird’s leg. It held only a name, Kurec.
The bird stretched its wings and flew around the rooftop in a circle before returning to his hand. Prem put the bird into a cage and leaned up against the railing. In the alley below, men and women wrapped in brightly colored silks hurried home from the market. He had seen Kurec from this rooftop many times before, his walk had been slow with age, but he had worn the bright yellow of sunshine and life. Now he would walk no more, for the Mori bird had brought his name, and Prem had read it. He looked down again at the paper. Kurec was so old that the name was written not by Prem’s hand, but by his father’s.
Across the alley, yellow lamplight streamed out from a second story window. Prem told himself, as always, that he shouldn’t look, but he stretched himself farther into the alley to get a better view. The grain of the railing pressed through his shirt and into his skin.
Most people would not have found his neighbor beautiful. Her skin was the color of spiced coffee, laced with scars that cut across her back. The scars were lighter, like cream, whipped to the surface sometime in the darkness of her past. Prem imagined that she tasted like the strong brew—bitter coffee sweetened with sugar and spiced with cardamom. She was missing part of one foot. When she walked she wobbled slightly to the left and had to correct her course with each step. But her eyes were dark and deep, and there were places where her skin was still soft. The triangle of skin above her collarbone called to him. He longed to run his fingers down her neck and let them come to rest in that small patch of skin. Tonight, water dripped from her hair and trickled down her body, flowing in the space between the scars. She’d been swimming in the river, and now her entire body cried as if to mourn Kurec’s death.
She dried herself with a white towel, never once looking up at him. Did she know he watched? Did she care? He tore himself away from the railing and ladled water from a barrel into the dishes in the bird cages. The Mori birds required little care; it was the emotional burden of the birds that taxed him. So much responsibility weighed down on his shoulders. If he did not read the birds, the dying could not die. Decades ago, Father suffered for seven days before Prem gathered the courage to go and face his first bird. Father had refused to let anyone else read the name, had insisted that Prem would be the one to take on his curse. The memory still stung. Prem was not like his father, he could not inflict his pain on another. Certainly not a child. He’d sent away his wife and their three sons years ago. Driven them away with his bitterness. Protected them. Now he was always alone, here on the rooftop, surrounded by the darkness of his birds. He glanced down at the slip of paper, now wrinkled from being crushed in his sweaty hand. At least Kurec was old, and not a child.
He went back to the railing and saw that his neighbor had wrapped herself in vibrant red fabric. Her scars were hidden, and her eyes sparkled. Her lightness warmed him, and he made his way back down the stairs.
* * *
The next morning, Prem stood at the bottom of the stairs. The climb was daunting, but he could hear one of the Mori birds screeching, so he pushed himself upwards one step at a time. His heart beat fast in his chest, and his breath came in shallow gasps. He paused for a moment a few steps from the top and leaned against the textured stucco of the wall. His pulse slowed a little, and he continued to the roof. During the night the birds had lost some of their darkness. At dawn, the birds held the promise of life. Near the center of the wall of cages, one of the birds called to him. Scree, scree. The sound was quieter now; the bird could see that he’d come. He opened the cage, and the bird flew out and perched on the top of his head. Its claws tickled his scalp.
He let the bird guide him through the alleys and narrow roads to a building on the far side of town. When he drew close he could hear the wailing of a newborn baby. A man, the child’s father, let him in. The child was a girl. Once Prem was inside, the Mori bird hopped down from his head and perched on the bed where the mother held her newborn. Prem pulled out a slip of paper and a section of string.
“She is our third child,” the mother said, “We name her Tejala.”
Prem wrote the name down, and the Mori bird flew to his arm when he was finished. He folded the paper in half and wrapped it around the bird’s leg.
“Tejala. May her bird fly far and lose itself in the forest,” Prem said. The words were ritual, but he meant them. He wished that the birds would stay in the forest forever. He took the bird to the doorway and released it. It flew off to the East.
“And your bird as well,” the father replied. “Will you stay for coffee?”
Prem shook his head. He was tired, but he preferred to rest in his own home. The man had only offered to be polite anyway. “Thank you, but no.”
The man pressed two gold coins into Prem’s palm. Payment for his services. He set out across town. It was late in the morning now, and the sun pounded down on him, cooking his flesh until sweat oozed out. When he neared his house, he saw his neighbor kneeling in her garden. She was beautiful there in the dirt, peaceful. Her fingers plucked the weeds from the earth, kicking up dust that settled onto the perspiration of her skin, coating her in a thin layer of mud. Prem took a step towards her and opened his mouth to speak, but then thought better of it. He passed her in silence, and went into the shade of his house to rest.
* * *
Two nights had passed without birds on the railing, but on this night Prem had a heavy heart as he climbed the stairs. His legs were heavy, resisting each step. Before he even reached the top, he smelled the licorice scent of the birds, stronger than usual in the cool air of dusk. He hated the smell, and wondered if death would taste like licorice when it came.
The sky was the deep blue of an ocean at midnight, and the stars began to cut through the darkness as points of light. He was late. Three Mori birds perched wing to wing on his railing. His heart sank. Today he would take his comfort first, before he read the names. The dying could wait at least that long. He shooed the birds aside and leaned over the railing. Across the alley, light poured out from her window, but she was not there. Was one of these birds hers? She was his only spark of light against the black feathers of his Mori birds. He looked back at the birds, at the scraps of paper tied neatly to their feet.
He didn’t know his neighbor’s name, hadn’t wanted to know, had avoided the knowledge. A girl in a dream should have no name. Prem looked back to the window, but she still did not appear. Tonight he was alone with death, and one of the names on his cursed Mori birds might belong to her. He couldn’t bear to read them; he couldn’t take that chance. He wanted her, the reality and not the dream.
Perhaps she sensed his wish. When he turned, she was there, standing at the top of the stairs with tears in her eyes. How had she known to come? Was it just that she had seen the birds, on the railing so late? He studied her face, searched her eyes for any sign of sickness. Maybe she knew it was her time, and she had come to say goodbye.
“They’re waiting.” Her voice was raspy and low, as though her throat were full of sand and the sound had to force its way through.
“Yes.” Three people were waiting to die. Did her voice always sound that way, or was she sick? His heart ached at the thought of losing her.
Her eyes were flat, out of focus as if she was gazing into the distance, and her breath was shallow and quiet. He couldn’t bring himself to read the names. She saw him glance at the birds and walked to the railing. After studying the birds for a moment, she took one into her hands. She read the name it carried. Somewhere, someone died. It was not her. She removed the name from the second bird. Another death. Was it peaceful? Prem held his breath and waited for her to read the final name, but she did not. She put the bird back into its cage with the name still attached, unread.
“When you’re ready,” she said. Prem reached out to her. She was his dream, and she gave him the strength to bear his sorrow. He could not leave her like this, dying, but never dead. It would be so cruel, so heartless. The bird, her bird, stared at him from its cage. It was her cage, too. She had given him the key and become his prisoner. Could he release her? He went to her, held her in his arms as he had done in his mind so many times. He ran the tips of his fingers down the side of her neck till they rested above her collarbone, and the skin was as smooth as he’d always imagined.
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Serenya.” The name made her real to him. It made her scars ugly because her past was ugly, but her imperfections made her beautiful. Serenya knew the pain the birds brought, but she came to him tonight and bore the burden of death. He kissed her forehead, her neck, the exquisite triangle of skin he’d admired for so long. She pressed her face against his shoulder, crying. He wished he could hold her forever, console her, but there was only one thing he could do to take away her pain.
He brought out the bird, took the paper from its leg. The bird flew a slow circle around the rooftop before landing on Serenya’s arm. He looked down at the slip of paper and saw, not her name, but his. Death didn’t taste like licorice. It tasted like Serenya’s skin—coffee and spice with sweetened cream.