The bird was pecking at the glass again.
Sunday afternoon, Linda put a fresh loaf of bread on the windowsill to dry. It was for breadcrumbs, which she’d freeze for the following weekend.
Pete rolled his eyes at this latest escalation in the pursuit of the perfect, home-made Christmas dinner, but said nothing. She’d left the window open a bit, to dry the bread faster, and that was when Pete had spotted a robin helping itself through the gap. He lifted the bread away, but the bird had stayed on the sill and given him a look. A Come on, man—do a guy a solid, kind of a look. Pete’s mistake, instead of shooing it away, was to pull a corner from the loaf and slip it out.
The apartment was on the third floor of the block, with a concrete walkway running outside their front door and bedroom window alike. That same night, Pete spotted the bird on the balcony railing out front. This time, he swiped some fruitcake to crumble up for the little feathered thief, which he set out on the bedroom sill before bed.
“Okay, there’s such a thing as too much Christmas spirit,” Linda had snapped, struggling to get comfortable. Her stomach was perpetually upset from the stress she was putting on herself. Christmas dinner. For his family. For the first time.
“That thing shits on the window sill, you best believe you will be wiping it up.”
He’d laughed and called her Scrooge. But he would come to regret it.
It started that night.
Pete woke to a tapping noise, but he couldn’t tell from where. His first thought was that it was rats; a couple of the neighbours in the floor below had had rats in the past. In which case, he should wake Linda. But Pete knew that the minute she heard there might be rats, there would be screaming and then no way of getting her down from the ceiling for the rest of Christmas.
He had to be sure, therefore, so he crept from under the covers and over to the curtained window. He hoped he could shed as little light as possible into the room and yet still spot any hairy invaders.
It was there he found the real culprit. The robin was back at his bedroom window, pecking at the glass to get in. Pete watched it for a minute, tapping like a tiny jackhammer at the corner of the pane with its beak, before waving at the bird to scare it off.
The robin paused, regarded him sideways, and went back to its tapping.
“Get lost,” Pete hissed, tapping his side of the glass gently, not wanting to wake Linda. But the robin was relentless.
“What’s going on?” came a sleepy voice behind him. “What are you rattling?”
“It’s not me,” he whispered back, a little too loudly. “It’s the damn robin, trying to get me to open the window.”
“Well, scare it away,” she sighed, dropping into her pillow again.
“What the hell d’you think I’m…” he mumbled, and tapped on the glass a little harder, now that Linda was awake anyway.
The robin rapped back like a machine. Pete could see that it was starting to mark the glass.
“For god’s sake, Peter, open the window and get rid of it!”
Then, “Ah, hell, now I gotta pee.”
She went to the bathroom and Pete pushed the window up. The robin stepped back, but didn’t fly away.
“I don’t have anything for you,” Pete told the little bird. “So, be a buddy and knock it off, yeah?”
The bird cocked its head, but remained where it was. Pete waggled his fingers at it and it stepped further back. He continued this way, steadily pushing the robin to the edge of the sill, until it was forced to flutter up and retreat. Pete closed the window, smiling. Cheeky.
He’d barely laid down when the tapping began again in earnest. He sat up, all humour gone, as Linda returned from the toilet.
“I thought I asked you to open the window and shoo it,” she said.
“Can’t you feel how cold it is in here? I had the window open. I physically pushed him off the window sill. He’s relentless.”
“Well, whose fault is that, dumbass?” Linda shot back, slumping into bed and hauling the covers over.
Pete got back out of bed and wrenched the window open with enough force that even the brazen robin knew to fly away immediately. It disappeared beyond the railings, dropping down to the courtyard below.
Pete closed the window with more care, stooping to examine the scratches in the glass. It looked like the robin had been beating at it like a woodpecker. Neat round marks where the point of its beak had hit repeatedly, collected in rows in one corner of the glass.
Pete looked again. Yes: rows.
Regimented, vertically and horizontally, all aligned perfectly. Pete counted fifteen little dots in three rows of five.
This is like how…what are they? Swallows. How they fly in straight lines, Pete told himself. Magnets, yeah. God, animals are smart. Little bastard.
He told Big Mike at the deli, the following evening, about his theory of magnets, and the robin, and the pattern of tiny dots in the window pane, because Big Mike was a big fan of stuff like that. Loved his game shows, Big Mike.
“Bullshit,” said Big Mike. “Montreal smoked on yours, pastrami on hers, right?”
“No, smoked on both tonight, please. She’s got a hankering, she says. And it’s not bullshit. Come around, see what he’s done. Three lines, straight as you like.”
“Bullshit,” Big Mike assured him.
It happened again the second night. Sometime around four, Pete was woken by the frenzied little taps, faster and more insistent than the night before. Groggy, he rolled out of bed, stumbled to the window and gave it one hard slap with the palm of his hand.
“Pete!” Linda yelled. “Jesus!”
He turned and said, “Sorry,” then looked back to the window.
Leaning down to peer, blurry eyed, Pete found a fresh line of marks about an inch to the right of the first fifteen. He’d scared the robin off before he could get very far this time, thankfully, and there were just four little marks, but all lined up exactly as the others had been.
Bullshit, my ass, Mike.
Pete went back to bed.
He was at the toilet when he heard the tapping on the third night.
It was still early, though, just past eight o’clock and he and Linda had been watching tv. He moved quietly into the bedroom once he realised what was happening, but leaving the light off. The TV must have drowned a lot of the noise before Pete became aware of it, though, because there were already dozens of beak marks on the bottom of the window.
Pete returned to the tv room, grabbed his phone from the coffee table, and headed back into the hallway.
“Who’re you calling?”
“Nobody,” he replied. “Need the camera. He’s back. The robin. And Big Mike is gonna eat his words.”
The tapping continued as he crept back to the window, Pete tapping the capture button on the screen in time to it. The bird was just a silhouette in the pictures, though, and you couldn’t really make out the host of little dots beside it. Pete decided to put the light on, to get a clearer picture. He moved to the door and flipped the switch, but when he got back the bird was gone, scared by the light.
Pete zoomed in to get a better shot of each little batch of marks. The newest set were about an inch over from the four it’d made the previous night. This time there were so many, they reached almost all the way down to the wooden frame. Pete counted forty little marks, still in perfect little rows of five.
“No, that’s a picture of a robin beside some marks on your glass,” Mike argued.
Linda was setting out plates on TV trays when he got back. She’d now banned use of the kitchen for anything but Christmas dinner preparations, hence the continuing sufferance of Big Mike and his stubborn scepticism.
“Did you get me the herring?”
“Oh. No, I forgot. Sorry.”
“Pete! I asked you.”
“Yeah, I know, but Big Mike pissed me off and I got distracted. Anyway, pickled herring? I mean, why? It’s disgusting. You don’t eat shit like that.”
“Oh, no sir. You do not take a tone with me, just because you’re pissed at Mike over a stupid bird. I don’t think so.”
Pete put the bags down, hard. With his hands free, he gripped the counter edge tightly, just for a moment. But then he looked at his fingertips, how they’d gone white with pressure, and he let go.
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
She touched his face, and he managed to smile.
“Hey,” she told him, “your feathered friend was at it again this afternoon.”
Pete perked up. “Was he? Did you get a picture?”
“No, I did not! I was trying to get rid of the damn thing!”
Pete left the bags unopened on the counter. He was suddenly worried that Linda might have hurt the little bird or chased it off for good. It was the weirdest feeling. Caught his breath.
He looked at the latest pattern on the glass. Twelve marks.
Barely started the third row. She really scared you, huh, buddy?
Pete took the trash out that night but saved a couple of crusts, which he secreted in the corner of the bedroom window on his way back. They were gone in the morning.
“Linda’s seen it,” he told Big Mike.
“Linda has lost her damn mind, on account o’ your momma and Christmas.”
“Excuse me? My Linda is as solid as a rock. Dependable.”
“Sure she is. And here’s your herring.”
The combination of herring and the demented bird made Thursday night the worst of all.
Linda got food poisoning and spent the whole night retching and running to the toilet. In the few short periods where she would collapse back into bed, the robin would be battering away at the glass.
“Why?” She was in tears. “Why isn’t that stupid thing getting the message that we’re not going to feed it again?”
She sat up. “Did you feed it again?
“No!” he lied.
Pete gave the window a damn good shake each time he shoved it open, hoping to scare the robin away completely as he had the first night, but this time bird kept coming back.
“Maybe it’ll go away if I do give it a bit of food?”
At the very mention of the ‘F word’, Linda was up and running for the toilet again.
“Don’t you dare feed it,” she managed.
It was a sleepless night.
Pete was with Big Mike first thing next morning.
“She’s got food poisoning, Mike.”
“They’re bad. Dump ‘em. Or I’m calling public health, swear to God.
He stopped in Target on his way back, but didn’t know what to buy, so he called Linda.
“Can you get me some ginger ale, please?”
“And aspirin and a couple of magazines?”
“Thanks, baby. I’m so sorry about last night.”
“Shut up. I’m sorry for you, gorgeous. Between the stress and the bad fish, your stomach must be in a permanent knot by now.”
“I am definitely tired of seeing that toilet bowl up close. Did you speak to Mike?
“Yeah. Told him I was gonna call public health.”
“Good. Now you just have to speak to the bird. Twenty eight marks last night, seeing as how you been keeping count. Dirty bastard. You could go buy a cat, I s’pose, that’d teach—”
And then she screamed
“Linda! Are you alright?”
“Yes. Oh, that damn thing! It hit the window again.”
“No, it’s gone now but, Jesus, Peter, it hit the glass so hard!”
Pete could hear her rising from the bed and shuffling across the carpet.
“Oh my god, Peter, he’s really cracked the pane this time. There’s a big, star-shaped chip on the far side.”
“Do you see him?”
“No. I think he might have flown into it by accident, baby, he hit it so hard. Hang on.”
He heard the window opening.
“He’s not on the ground. But he’s off dying somewhere, I’ll lay my life on that. Ugh! Good riddance. Hey, baby, can you grab me some chocolate too?”
Pete couldn’t stop thinking about the little robin as he walked the aisles and queued to pay. He could have happily killed the thing himself last night, but he was sleep deprived and worried about Linda then. Today, walking in the sun, but feeling the frost, looking at the decorations on 13th Street; it seemed sad to think of a robin being dead at this time of year.
The north wind doth blow, he recited to himself, and we shall have snow, and what will the robin do then, poor thing? Poor thing.
He’d forgotten something in his distraction. Dammit! The chocolate.
He dashed into a corner store to get a couple of bars; he felt like having one himself, cheer himself up a bit. The girl behind the counter asked him if he wanted a ticket for the Big One as well.
“Lotto,” she said, pointing to a poster behind her. “Big Christmas Day draw.”
There was a robin sitting on the bonus ball of the lottery logo. Pete nodded at the bird.
“Cool. Do you want a quick pick?”
“No,” he said, quietly. “Can you just give me a slip?”
She pointed out the stand in the corner by the door. Pete went over and lifted the pen on its chain.
Fifteen, four, forty, twelve and—what had she said? He looked back at the robin on the poster and it came to him. Twenty eight. One more. One big star-shaped chip. He put a mark through the number one. Funniest thing was, he didn’t feel one bit foolish about it.
The bird was at the glass again.
Pete had watched the window in darkness for hours, but he must have eventually fallen asleep. Now he opened his eyes to see that the robin had given up tapping with its beak and was using its clawed foot to scratch at the wooden frame rather than the glass. Linda slept on.
Pete crept over to kneel at the window. He reached either side of him to pull the curtains round behind his head, to limit the draft blowing straight over onto the bed. He pushed the window up as quietly as he could. The robin hopped in immediately, inches from Pete’s delighted face.
“Hello, buddy. Merry Christmas. You hungry?”
He’d gone to bed with the crust of bread hidden in the palm of his hand, had slept gripping onto it. It was misshapen and soggy as he dropped it onto the sill, but the little robin didn’t care and pecked away at it. The chill began to flow down Pete’s bare back, he could hear Linda start to stir as the cold moved across the room.
“Right, my man, you’ve had your little visit. But, if your numbers come up tomorrow, there’s going to be figgy pudding.”
Pete lifted the mashed crust, deposited it outside, and watched the robin follow. He closed the window softly and winked at the little bird. It gave him its cock-eye, lifted the crust whole in its beak and took off with it. Pete watched it dive down to the courtyard and then stood to head back to bed.
That’s when he saw the great, long streak of bird shit, right across the outer sill.
“Aw, you sonofa—“
Pete tiptoed as quietly as he could to the kitchen to grab some paper towels and some cleaning spray. He couldn’t risk Linda waking before him and seeing what the robin had done outside the window; a window his entire family would be walking past when they came for dinner. He opened the front door and stepped gingerly across the frosty concrete in just his boxer shorts. He doused the muck with spray and began rubbing.
Only when it was washed away, as he was examining closely that he’d gotten it all off, did he notice the marks on the window frame.
It wasn’t dots this time. Into the wood, it had drawn straight gashes with its claws. It had scraped the shapes of letters, all in a row. It was words.
Into the painted wood, the robin had scratched out:
FOR YOUR LOSS.
An earlier version of this story, “And what will the robin do then, poor thing?” appeared in Season of the Macabre, 2012, published by Monico, an imprint of Clarion Publishing.