2020 Junior Division: 2nd Place

Triptych

Cadence Chung

You and Kath were staring at the dead seagull at the steps of the war memorial. Its little white head rested against the marble, and you told her that the ombre of its feathers was really quite beautiful, now that you looked at it, even though you thought there was something particularly nasty about dead birds. A dead mammal on the side of the road ‒ a cat, or a hedgehog, or something ‒ well, that was alright, because it would undeniably be all squished, and you could see the spleen and blood and mangled organs, and would know it had been hot and fleshy like you. But birds, when they were dead, seemed to become heavy with beaks and claws and glass eyes, clacking and scratching and clawing. They looked like toy marionettes with all the joints loose, folds where you knew things could click, clamp down.

‘Bad luck to kill a seabird,’ Kath said.

‘We didn’t kill it, though,’ you replied. She glanced at you, and shrugged. It almost looked like she was going to edge her boots forward and tap the thing, but she seemed to decide against it at the last minute.

‘I dunno. Someone did, anyway.’

You crouched down to look at it, though your gut was clenching in that way reserved for nastiness ‒ not the hit of adrenalin, or the thrum of anxiety, but a thumping, edging feeling, one that felt it would never reach its climax. You felt like you would go home covered in something that couldn’t be washed or shaken off, something that clicked with beaks, clunked like a bag full of dry bones. Its black eye stared back at you. You remembered a line from a poem, about something that would fit into the eye of gull or gannet. You don’t remember what the something was, but it seemed important, somehow.

‘Poor thing,’ you eventually said, because it seemed the right thing to say. You don’t believe it. You want to leave, be rid of the nasty creature forever.

‘Far away from home,’ Kath murmured thoughtfully, her eyes stretching up to the blue expanse above, where a plane was drawing a thread of white cotton across the sky. You wonder if she believes in Heaven, or Hell, for that matter. You don’t think she does.

***

‘Do you believe in death?’ she asked. You were driving home, on a cold June night, weeks after you found the seagull. If it was daytime, you think you would have laughed at her, said something about that being a bit too deep for 11pm, don’t you think, Kathy, and she might have laughed back, and said maybe, and would have turned up her shitty Spotify playlist, and thought nothing of it. Right now, she just edged forward in her seat, putting on the Arcade Fire song, the one with all the synths that sounded like bells.

‘Well, yeah. Obviously. We’re all going to die at some point,’ you replied. You felt stupid. Endlessly stupid.

‘Yeah, I know,’ Kath said. ‘But I mean. It’s just kind of strange, that we do all these really complex things, think up all of that philosophy shit I’ve never understood, and then die from. I don’t know. Heart failure. Seems weird that we’re based on thoughts, but die through physical stuff. Like that guy who painted that…Garden of Earthly Pleasures. Delights?’

‘It’s delights, yeah.’

‘That bird creature he painted, swallowing a man. Or the tree with a human face. Or the…the way he painted the fire, lighting up everything from behind. His brain could make up that crazy shit but he died like…my fucking uncle, or something.’

‘What, you think that smart people should be killed through psychic waves to the head?’ you asked, and you knew that’s not what she was saying, not at all, and you knew you were just stupid, and trying to be funny, and failing, and stupid, stupid, stupid.

She looked at you and smiled. ‘You’re funny, Jess,’ she said. And god, you wished she would say anything but that. You wished she would argue with you, make you say what you really wanted, instead of saying things you didn’t even think, or want her to hear. You wish you could tell her how you stared at that painting on Wikipedia for hours, because she said she liked it. Staring at the way the fire burned white, not white like pure-and-good-and-crisp white, but white like a bone. Like something bleached.

***

‘I hated the seagull. I didn’t think it was beautiful. It was fucking gross,’ you said suddenly, as you both walked home from a concert. Your other friends laughed. They didn’t know what it meant.

‘Yeah?’ Kath said. ‘Me too.’

And you hoped she knew what you were really saying.

***

You went back to the spot that you found it, after that ‒ at least, you tried to, but you weren’t quite sure of where exactly it had been. You kind of wanted to see it again, and also really didn’t. You’d decided that you hated it because it was nothing but a body ‒ it made no protest, letting its grotesque little feathers flap freely in the wind. It would be embarrassing, being dead like that. Being limp. You didn’t even really mind the whole not-existing part, because it would maybe just be like sleeping. It was the fact that your body would be smelly and floppy and fleshy and you wouldn’t be in it anymore, but it would still be there.

***

‘Do you think it’s a warning?’ you asked her. ‘That painting. All the hellfire and creatures and death?’

And she thought about it, and then just smiled, like she always did.

‘I think it’s kinda pretty. The lights and the burning. It looks like a party,’ she said, and you could see the fire leaping in her eyes, the white line stretching across the rooftops.