An excerpt from The Bird Box

His movements were cumbersome, with an awkwardness that didn’t parallel with his strong athletic frame. His gaze washed over the ornate, carved stone bridge he had just traversed and slipped down the embankment to the waxen surface of Humber Creek. The night was hot and moist. A heavy calm weighted the air. Jakie flicked his head as if trying to awaken. He did not trust the calm—did not trust Dr. Davidson’s pills.

Standing motionless, he struggled with the voices in his mind, sifting through them to seize on one that sounded familiar. To a casual observer, he might look like a contented man, idly caught up in a daydream. But Jakie Hewitt was far from a contented man. His internal being lived in constant distress. Distress at the mutiny of his mind. Distress at the loss of his soul. He began an argument within himself. Had he actually heard the noise? Or had it originated in his head? As time wore on, it got harder to tell.

Slowly he lowered himself into a crouch, his movements surprisingly fluid. Like a candle melting down over itself. Pulling up the bottom of his stiff jeans, his right hand worked the air to maintain his balance. Carefully, he lifted the flap of the pliable leather pouch strapped to his calf and extracted a glinting twelve-inch knife. Distracted by the beauty of his handiwork, he dropped onto his knees and admired the hand-forged blade with its carved bone handle. He murmured quietly, a long flat finger working its way over the intricate symbols like he was reading Braille. The knife was not allowed. Of this, there was no confusion. Dr. Davidson ran his asylum with an iron fist. No weapons or excessive force would be tolerated from either staff or inmates. He had set out very clear procedures for everyone to follow. Follow the procedures he believed and everyone would stay safe. But then, Dr. Davidson was a very believing man.  However, what Jakie Hewitt knew that the doctor did not was that the procedures failed on an almost daily basis.

Sitting back onto his haunches, cocking his head like a curious dog, he listened to the sounds of the night. The unsteady bleep of a bullfrog. The occasional swoosh of a car passing by on Lakeshore Road. The soft sudden shudder of the trees as the night sighed. For a brief moment, he even imagined he could hear the moon but then remembered this was no longer possible since the moon had whispered him those lies.

Below him, down by the big spruce, a movement alerted his eye. Not much of a movement. Only a flicker really, but he rose, electrified, his dark eyes scoped onto the site. To the ordinary eye, to the eye dulled by a comfortable life, the movement might have passed unnoticed. Or, if it had been noticed, attributed to the brush of a branch as an animal walked beneath.

But Jakie was an expert at interpreting the nocturnal dance of the forest. And he knew that this had been a discordant step. A quick downward jerk of the branch. Like the end of a fishing pole when a fish takes the lure. Or the frantic tug of the rabbit finding itself suddenly immobilized by the snare around its neck.

Moving as swiftly as he dared, he made his way down the embankment toward the tree. It was not a pretty sight watching Jakie Hewitt walk. Years earlier, left unsupervised to plow a field with another patient, Jakie had somehow gotten tangled up in the plow. Panicking, the other man had fled, the horse dragging Jakie and the plow back to the stable. Dr. Davidson was able to get a specialist in Toronto to save the mutilated leg, but he’d always felt it was a patch up job at best and not really much of a success.

Ten feet from the bushes, Jakie stopped and listened to the darkness. Slowly, he melted into a crouch. It was an eternity’s old game. Who could outwait whom? Who would be the first to break? The static position almost immediately caused burning pain in his damaged left leg, but he held his pose. The physical endurance was not what worried him. What worried him was his ability to harness his mind. He differed with the doc on that point. The doctor was unhappy about Jakie’s tendency to spend so much time inside his own head. Encouraged him to socialize with the other patients. Tried to get him to speak of his thoughts so he could write them down. He knew the doctor considered him insane. He’d seen it written in his file. He didn’t argue. But he didn’t agree. He wasn’t insane. Unless insane meant a good man lost and trying to find all the pieces once again.

From somewhere a soft mewling melody filled the air and then ceased. From where exactly, he couldn’t tell. Deaf in one ear, he no longer perceived direction. He felt panic bubbling up his throat like bile as lurid images with ghastly smiles dove into his face.

“Not real...not real...not real,” he chanted, the hard bone of the knife handle cracking in time against his prominent forehead. His lips, smooth and generous as slices of peeled peach, worked together silently, giving him the appearance of a man lost in an ecstasy of private prayer. The song rose again. An anguished, beautiful sound. Like God crying.

It was not impossible, he reasoned. God had visited him before. Visited him and Paul and Mary. Abraham and Joseph Smith and St. Francis of Assisi. There were even some in the asylum here who claimed visitations. But those he considered suspicious. Antichrists abounded. Dr. Davidson, who agreed he could accept the teachings of some, unequivocally dismissed Jakie’s claims, a fact that bothered Jakie deeply and caused him to fear for the doctor’s soul. God himself was silent on the matter. He imparted truth but seldom understanding.

Sheathing his knife, Jakie stood up and edged closer to the sound. He felt watched. Observed. And as he moved closer he could sense the thing in the forest recoiling in fear. Or disgust. He’d met the feeling before. Tittering girls attracted to his generous smile only to be repelled away by his dithering mind and crippled gait.

His eyes groped the dark shadows under the tree, finally coming to rest on a soft undulating shape rising from the ground like a miniature foothill. He held his breath and watched. A quiver. Shallow breathing. A deer, he thought, somewhat relieved. A small one. Perhaps even a fawn.  Sick, he guessed. Or else run down by a passing car and come here to die. He knelt swiftly and pulled his knife clear. Coyote, his teacher in the wild, had frowned on his sensitive spirit. Admonished him to let nature be. Broken legs, abandoned pups. It didn’t matter. Nature had its own way of taking care of things. But it wasn’t that Jakie was squeamish about the death or the killing. He just preferred it fast, nature seeming a little heartless to him that way.

 

His body felt well oiled. This he knew. This he understood. To kill a sick animal fast was an easy thing. All it required was a certain fluidity of movement. He practiced the motion in his mind. The snapping back of the head. The clean, graceful sweep of the blade. Slowly positioning himself within arm’s reach, he marveled that the animal did not even make a last frantic struggle to save itself.

Suddenly, before he had even realized that he had done it, his hand drove into the dark space, seized a handful of fur and exposed a slender white throat that glistened in anticipation of his arcing blade. A pandemonium of shrieks filled the night, but he was too terrified by the narrow miss of his knife hand to know if they belonged to the creature or to him. Stars exploded around him, blinding his mind. The singing, the singing, the singing, they accused and he knew that this should mean something. But for a long moment, it did not. The animal was singing, he repeated, trying to clarify his thoughts. And then the clouds disappeared from his mind and he saw the sun.

 

“Oh!” he garbled as he strained desperately through the darkness, trying to locate her.

She had scrambled as much as she could behind the trunk of the tree. And although the trunk was not large, the majority of her body was blanked from sight. Closer to him, he could see the outline of the blanket she had been lying under before he seized her.

“What’s your name?” Jakie asked, trying for softness, because he could see the fear in her face. Hear it in the short ragged gulps of her breathing.

She said nothing. Gave no sign she’d even heard him speak.

“Didn’t mean to scare ya. Thought ya was an injured deer, that’s all.”

Still, she was silent. Silent and watching through emotionless, wide eyes that glittered like polished river stones. She had on what seemed to be a tattered nightdress. Over the top of this she wore what looked to be an embroidered sweater. Riddled with snags, its sleeves ended far short of her twiglike wrists. The nightdress was an inadequate length, and Jakie was pleased but shy that he could see the bottom of her legs right up to her knees. Around one ankle, a thick chain shackled her to an overhanging branch. Around her shoulders he thought he could make out a frayed shawl, but when she moved her head, he realized it wasn’t a shawl at all but rather the single mangled matt of her hair. Her angular face remained in the shadows, giving it the appearance of mottled bruising. However, a second later, when she lunged forward into the light and grabbed a bag from under the blanket, he was shocked to see the shadows remained. Scrambling backward, almost dropping his knife, he poised to defend himself. But, having pulled the bag into her lap, her demeanor changed abruptly. Her eyes were absorbed with something inside it, her hands busy rearranging its contents. It seemed as if in a split second she had forgotten Jakie was even there. And although he tried his best to focus, he could not be quite sure that it was a baby she was suckling at her breast.