The first to appear was simply a curiosity. I had no wish to see death at close quarters, but some force compelled me to look. The features once seen in motion from some distance now laid bare for close inspection. The exquisite curve of the beak and the feathered wing. What would have been a privilege to observe in life was sullied by the lack of animation, entrails exposed at the centre and the glinting eyes replaced by round sockets. You see me, but I am not what I was and that will be forever denied to you. I turned away quickly from the indignity and cut short my walk on the track past the old farm, snuggling my babies closer, not wishing to dwell on a dark reminder of the cruelty of life on such a sunny morn.
My babies demanded all my attention over the following days, all merged into one constant of nursing, changing, washing whilst trying to catch snatches of sleep when I could. My neighbours had been generous in their victual offerings at first, entranced by the third set of twins born in succession in the village. Now though the novelty had worn thin and the daily toil fell firmly on my shoulders alone. Summer poked her fingers through the windows and doors, beckoning me, but the babies' cries were stronger and more insistent.
The second bird appeared at the end of the week on the lane going out of the village. We had finally emerged from our domestic cocoon, the infants wrapped in slings as I decided I could no longer stand our hermitage. The babes shrunk from the light, their tiny pupils unused to such an influx. This time there was no inspection, only an acknowledgement of the lidless corpse. I already had a portrait in my mind with which to imagine the scene more intimately. Besides which the babies had begun to mither and would not settle. Their squirming bodies threatened to break loose our triad and so heeding their protests I returned home once more. That night was even more relentless than most and it was not until dawn that the babies seemed content enough with my ministrations to allow me a taste of sleep.
I would have thought little more of those poor creatures had not a third materialised. I could not bear another moment indoors, the walls pressing the muggy heat inwards, threatening to suffocate the very air from me. Once more we had ventured forth, daring to defy the yoke that bound us, the sky lifting away as I abandoned the domestic disarray for the trusted pattern of nature. Swifts darting overhead heralded our release as a summer breeze tusseled with my hair and the few flaxen wisps on the babies' heads. On the hedgerowed trail past the second farm another black omen stopped us in our path, the dark gaping holes in its skull and the cavity of its chest mocking the brightness of the day.
Three tracks out of the village now each with a feathered corpse. A sense of unease settled upon me, like an itch at the back of my neck. Midsummer is not the time for prolonged imaginings though, and so it was easy to soon dismiss such thoughts even as I turned back home to change the babies' napkins.
That evening the rest of the avian cohort stood their sentry in the old tree next to my cottage, gathering in the gloaming to roost. Their raucous calls announcing to all their presence without shame or fear. Their number was too many to count, but surely they must have noted the loss of three of their members in quick succession. I recalled hearing tales of some species of bird which held ceremonies for their deceased brethren and was certain it was some species of corvid. Perhaps their cries were a little louder and more guttural tonight? The babies kneaded my breasts in time with the caws, their sharp nails leaving tiny half moon indentations across my skin as their palpitations released the liquid gold into their
I made no further attempt to leave the confines of the village for some weeks after that and before I knew it autumn had crept in, the morning chill enough to penetrate the four walls of our abode. The corners grew more shadowy and the napkins, once drying above the unlit stove overnight, now took several days to be of use again. Restorative sleep still eluded me, the babies refusing to sleep unless they were in my arms and awakening as soon as I felt my own eyes grow heavy. Despite the monotony of daily chores, on reflection the changes were transformational. Where once I had been able to scoop up each baby with one hand, I now struggled with two. Their permanently sleepy blue eyes had darkened and peered into mine in earthy brown and on each head a crop of jet black hair had sprung forth, replacing the sparse tufts of fair hair at birth. If I did not know it to be so, I would not have recognised them for my own. I awoke one morning to find them both gone, shallow indents marking their spots in our bed. My brain foggy from the first night of uninterrupted sleep in months struggled to comprehend. They had made their first tentative motions towards crawling only the day before. In all things they seemed to pass the milestones simultaneously, their first smile emerging on the eve of the Beltane festival. Stumbling from the bed I blundered down the gloomy passage. Surely they could not have got so far? Had I passed them by, hidden in some shadowy nook? A lurch pulled up my stomach when I saw the front door inexplicably open. Stepping out I blinked in to the light and there beneath me were two sets of brown eyes peering up as if to say 'it is okay Mama, we are leaving now'.