The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.
This week, much like a incautious traveller straying into some half-forgotten New England village just as the sun sets, I’ve wandered back into Lovecraft territory…
Most people thought the sound of bird song was lovely, but she always felt that it was a portent of impending doom. In particular, Ada had learned to fear the song of the whippoorwills from the tales her grandma told. The two of them had been sat beside her grandpa’s bed, the balcony doors flung open to alleviate the stifling summer heat while the song of the ill-omened birds drifted in from the moonless night.
Grandma had told her that the whippoorwills would gather outside the window and sing in time to the breathing of a dying person, matching it perfectly, biding their time. Ada was a precocious child, level-headed and not given to flights of fancy. She had been raised within the straight lines and known angles of the city, where there were no dark corners and no blank spots on the map. But since her parents had died and she’d come to live here on her grandparents’ Massachusetts country estate, it became a little easier to wonder at what secrets might be hiding just out of sight. Wide-eyed, Ada listened to what her grandma had to say on the secret lore of the fog-wreathed hills and lonely woods.
“Pay yer grandma no mind,” wheezed her grandfather, trying to laugh it off and set Ada at ease. He paused for a moment as his chest heaved rapidly, struggling to catch his breath. The unseen whippoorwills outside momentarily sped up their rhythmic singing, seemingly matching his gasps. “Besides,” the old man added craftily, “they won’t catch me!”
Ada listened with mounting horror as her grandma described what happened when the marked person finally breathed their last.
“The whippoorwills will try an’ catch a departing soul,” said her grandma, talking as though she was describing the most ordinary thing in the world, “if they get it then they’ll flutter off, cackling like daemons at their feast. If the soul escapes their clutches then their singin’ slowly fades to disappointed whistles.”
Ada’s uncle, a thin man named Greer, tutted disapprovingly from the corner of the room without looking up from his newspaper. He was only there grudgingly; the bottle was calling him and it had taken an awful lot of cajoling from Ada’s grandma and threats of withholding his allowance to persuade him to come up to the bedroom. Regardless of whether he wanted to be there or not, it was clear that he didn’t believe in talk of whippoorwills and souls. Ada took her grandpa’s hand, her eyes wet with tears. She silently prayed the old man was right and he would be too fast for the hideous nightjars that sung and trilled in the darkness of the garden, just beyond the light cast by the grand old house.
It wasn’t until nearly two hours later that Ada found out. The end was near, and her grandpa struggled to breath, his breath coming in ragged gasps, the song of the whippoorwills lifting to a crescendo and falling away as they matched his rapid sobs. Ada wanted to get up and throw something at the ghastly birds. But she was a dutiful granddaughter and stayed where she was, holding one of her grandpa’s hands, her grandma holding the other, and her uncle nonchalantly flipping the pages of a motoring magazine in the high-backed corner chair.
With one last heaving intake of air, her grandpa passed away. Ada clutched his hand even tighter and held her breath. Outside, in the oppressive night air, the song of the whippoorwills slowly faded to disappointed whistles and then silence.
“They didn’t get ‘im,” said her grandma, just as if she’d always known they wouldn’t.
From then on the old house seemed a little emptier to Ada. With grandpa gone it was just grandma rattling around the big rooms and long halls, and her uncle skulking around, never too far from the liquor cabinet. As the years passed Ada’s grandma became a little frailer, the house a little more dilapidated and her uncle a little more callous. When it was time for Ada to leave the house and attend a college in the city, her grandma begged her to stay. She told her that she was getting old and slow, and wanted Ada to stay with her until the end. It nearly broke Ada’s heart to pack-up and go; she didn’t leave because she didn’t want to stay with grandma. She went because she wanted to see the world again beyond the crumbling house and the sallow woods with the birds in whose songs she could find no happiness.
A month passed since her leaving, then six, and before Ada knew it she had been apart from her grandma for a year. At first they exchanged letters every week, but as time passed the letters became more infrequent and her grandma’s handwriting slightly less legible, until finally she received a black-bordered envelope. Ada opened the envelope with trembling fingers; the letter inside was from her uncle Greer, curtly informing her that grandma had died and inviting Ada back to the funeral, if she would care to attend.
The funeral was a quiet and solemn affair, for few of grandma’s relatives or friends were left alive to pay their respects. The casket was closed, contrary to the custom of the family and the church, which left Ada saddened that she couldn’t see her grandma’s face one last time. She asked her uncle why this was, but Greer simply shrugged, saying that he felt they’d all seen enough of grandma over the years and a little less would do them all a favour.
“Did the whippoorwills get her?” whispered Ada, blinking back the tears, “Did you hear them cackling when she died?”
Her uncle snorted derisively.
“Ain’t heard a peep out o’ those damn bird in months,” he said as he walked away, leaving Ada alone with her grief and the firmly sealed casket with its big iron nails.
After the begrudgingly offered and poorly attended wake at the old house, Ada found herself returning to the graveyard on the edge of the woods where they had buried her grandmother that morning. Ada hadn’t wanted to linger in in her former home anymore, especially now it was her uncle’s to do with as he pleased. Her train back to the city wasn’t until the following morning, and Ada found that she wanted to spend a bit more time paying her respects. She stood by the graveside, paying the world no heed as the sun began to set, the guilt of not being there at the end a tight knot inside her.
It was only as the sun slipped behind the woods and the long shadows unfurled themselves from the trees that Ada was snapped out of her introspection by the sound of bird song. She looked up at the nearest tree and the whippoorwill nestled in the darkness there. It sang a song like wheezing breaths, shallow and laboured. Other birds took up the song and Ada whirled around, suddenly realising her grandmother’s grave was surrounded by a ring of whippoorwills, sitting in trees and perching on headstones. Together they encircled her, taking up the suffocating, air-starved song, emulating breathing that most definitely did not belong to Ada.
Panic gripped Ada’s limbs and terror lent her speed, and Ada sprinted from the grave side, leaving the birds singing around the freshly dug earth where her grandma had been laid in the ground that morning. As she reached the rusted iron fence at the cemetery’s edge, Ada paused and looked back for a second. The song of the whippoorwills was reaching a final, laboured crescendo. Then suddenly the song stopped, and the birds exploded into daemonic cackling, taking flight from the grave side, vanishing into the night with their prize.