Tuesday, February 09, 2016


I usually write long-form prose, mostly because I can't seem to form short-form narrative thoughts.  I fret over the stakes, obstacles, and story arc of birthday cards and grocery lists these days.  Everything ends up perilously long.

I decided to experiment with flash fiction for fun.  This isn't that flashy--it clocks in at just under 1,000 words.  I wrote it as an homage to my spiritual director who is quite the collector of avian oddities.  They stare at me when I visit.  This is me, staring back at them (where they can't get me).  


At first glance, the online form was no more remarkable than any other submission.  A Ms. Ruth Speiden filled it out for her father, Huck.  Ruth had answered all of the more revealing questions in the negative:
Does the hoarder consider himself a perfectionist?  No.
Does the hoarder avoid making decisions?  No.
Can the hoarder use furniture for its intended purpose?  Unknown.
What finally caught the casting director’s eye was what Ruth put for the less interesting demographic section:
Does the hoarder share his living space?  Yes.  With the dead.
A phone call to Ruth revealed that her father was a collector of birds.  Not just birds:  stuffed birds, ravens in particular.
They interviewed Ruth and her sister and a few neighbors over the phone.  Huck Speiden sounded like an open and shut case, albeit with a hoard unlike one seen on the show before.  Ruth agreed to fly up for the show’s taping, at the network’s expense.  Dr. Audry and Mr. Matt, the psychologist and personal organizer, were on board.  They’d helped obsessed collectors before; and secretly Mr. Matt welcomed the challenge of fashionably displaying feathers without going over the top. 
Ruth introduced herself to Dr. Audry, Mr. Matt, and Miss Kaitlyn (“the good-cop host!” she proclaimed cheerfully) in front of Huck Speiden’s three-story connected duplex. 
Ruth took a key from under the disintegrating welcome mat.  The two cameramen and one microphone guy started taping.  Dr. Audry looked straight into the lens and smiled.
The front door groaned open, wood against wood.  The jam seemed to shutter, unaccustomed to visitors breaching its threshold.  Ruth held the door open.  The cameramen went in first, followed by the earnest TV talent, all of them eager to let the healing begin.
“Holy shit,” whispered the first cameraman, just low enough that it would be easy to edit in post production.  Dim light filtered through a dirty window at the top of a staircase in the front hall, but the rest of the house was pitch black.  “Hold on, we got this,” said the cameramen.  He and his partner flipped on the bright lights attached to their Sony 900’s.  Dr. Audry screamed.
Anyone moving two feet to the right or left off the foyer had to travel in a single file line down narrow, musty hallways lined solely with birds: stuffed birds, wooden birds, oil on velvet paintings of birds, bird skeletons hanging from the ceiling.  Inky wings blotted out all natural light, save that one broken window in the stairway and that from the still-open front door.
Mr. Matt reached for the wall trying to find a light switch.  All his hand touched was a feather. 
Miss Kaitlyn, undeterred, convinced the crew to move down a suffocating passage into what she believed was the kitchen.  The front door clicked shut behind them. 
“Dad?”  Ruth called from the rear of the procession.  “You here?”  A muffled sound came from ahead. 
The cameras fell to the back and recorded Dr. Audry, Mr. Matt, and Miss Kaitlyn emerging into a larger, emptier space.  The camera lights showed that this room must have been the formal living area.  Ravens four or five layers deep stared down at them from all sides of the room, mounted as if in flight.  Carved eyes stared down from above, giving everyone the feel that they surely looked like carrion from above.
“What was that?”  Mr. Matt said.
“What was what?”  Dr. Audry said.
“I heard a rustling,” said Miss Kaitlyn.
“Shit,” the cameraman said again. 
“Ruth, what say you find your dad and we talk about this on the porch?”  That was Mr. Matt.  No answer came.
“Ruth?”  Silence.
“Well, there is a breeze coming from over here.  Maybe Ruth went to turn on a fan or something.  Let’s just wait outside.”  The cameras swung their lights in the direction they’d entered from.  Exquisitely sculpted birds barred the way.
“What the hell?”  Said a cameraman.
“It was this way,” said Miss Kaitlyn.  The lights swiveled again.  But every direction revealed only further avian sepulcher. 
“Oh my God, one of them just blinked.”  No one knew who was talking anymore.
“That one just moved its wing.”
Then the screaming started.  Later, it was thought to have started with Miss Kaitlyn, but post-production never could be sure.
The cameras recorded little but the chaos of a house cast into permanent night by a collection of birds.  They might have documented a flock of ravens  (an “unkindness” of ravens, the producer would later note wryly), tearing apart a team of television reality stars.  They might also have documented mass hysteria overtaking a group when a hoarder’s treasures gave way and caved in on them.  The images later retrieved were too grainy and dark to tell much.
When the equipment stopped moving, each camera lay on the ground recording a moment of stillness before blinking off.  The last image on each evidenced the glint from a beady eye.  But again, no one could be sure.
Ruth later claimed she had, in fact, gone to search for light switches remembered from her youth.  She called for the crew when she made it back to the foyer, but the well-lined walls must have absorbed the sound.  Finally she called the police, and it was they who started clearing the place.  They found Huck Speiden upstairs, skeleton picked clean by birds that must have gotten in through the stairway window.  The police then found the skeletal remains of the show’s cast and seized the cameras as evidence, but somehow the tapes made it back to the network.
A press release went out mourning the loss of talent (and, incidentally, an eccentric hoarder).  It goes to show, it read, that mental illness really can affect anyone.  It also noted that settlements to the victims’ families would be generous.
The show wouldn’t air, obviously, which the producer considered a pity.  It would have made excellent television.

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