a postcard story about songs at midnight and the sounds of gaslights

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The Birds That Sing at Midnight

a postcard story about songs at midnight and the sounds of gaslights

I can hear them, the birds that sing at midnight. At first their song is so faint and I believe you when you say I am imagining things. It must be the wind whistling through shutters, or the trills of a distant flute, or the whine of the gaslights. But night after night, the more you deny hearing them, the louder they become. Their twittering wakes me and I lie next to you in bed, listening as invisible birds sing of sunny days and you snore softly in the moonlight.

"There are no birds that sing at midnight," you tell me in the morning. "You were dreaming."

I do not say it, because it would make you cross, but sometimes I hear them even before I’ve fallen asleep. Some nights, I am so expectant of the sound, I cannot rest. I worry I will get used to it, that I will only be able to sleep to those voices, fluttering up like doubts in the night, like tiny ghosts of birds I have never seen and cannot picture.

"You haven't slept in days," you tell me. "You must be hallucinating."

I do not say it, because it would make you cross, but just last week you claimed I hear these things not because I am awake, but because I am dreaming, this should be a contradiction, but I have learned from loving you that the world is sometimes two ways: a dream when you sleep, and when you wake; a bird that sings in daylight, and at midnight; a man who loves you, but does not believe you.

You hush me and lay me down on your chest. For a moment, I am calm. But then I hear it. Faint birdsong, coming from inside you, as if your ribs are a cage for secret birds that aren’t always there. I do not know what to do. Who will believe me, that my husband is full of birds? That those birds sing midnight secrets only I can hear? Who will believe me?

Perhaps one day I will prove it. I will poison your soup until you cough up feathers, or open you with a kitchen knife and set free a flurry of wings and beaks. But for now I lay on your chest and pretend to sleep. Or maybe I sleep and pretend to be awake. The world can be two ways. I can be here, restful in the cage of your embrace, and also outside, a bird singing at midnight, a song the world cannot seem to hear.

My wife and I have been hearing birds singing outside our window at night since we moved to London, but it took us a few months of noticing it before either of us said something to make sure the other heard it as well. It got me thinking about what if only one of us could hear the song. I started exploring the idea, and the story slowly framed itself around some of the recent first-hand accounts I've read of women and trans people sharing their experiences with gaslighting and being in controlling, manipulative, or abusive relationships. Through a horror/weird fiction lens, I tried to depict someone trapped in a relationship where they are told they cannot trust themselves, and the doubt that creeps in when they start to realize they cannot trust their partner. For a longer, better version of this story, read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 story The Yellow Wall-paper. It's incredible.


Short story written by Peter Chiykowski

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Story prompt taken from a photo by Patrick Hendry

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