Among the Birds

by Will Greatwich

I do not feel hunger here, although I have tried to eat the birds from time to time. Out of boredom, or misery, or—an effort to provoke a response. Fire does not burn in this place, so I have had to have them raw.

The last time, I caught one of the spoonbills that wander through the dust banks in the great chambers. They dip their beaks listlessly in the half-light, searching in vain for the smallest morsel of food. It was not hard for me to creep up behind one, seize it around the middle, and wrestle its neck down until it snapped. I plucked it with my bare hands, and I cut its throat with the sharpened tip of a cage wire. After I had drained out as much blood as I could, I bit down into its raw breast.

I managed only a few mouthfuls before I threw it back up. Disgusted with myself, I crawled off into a corner to sleep.

The next day I saw the bird again. It was still there in the cavern, nuzzling the dust, albeit with more difficulty now its neck hung at such an acute angle. The bloody marks of my teeth sat like a brand upon its skin.

I did not try to eat again after that.


I speak of days, but only by convention. The half-light in this place never changes. It comes from nowhere and falls on everything evenly, so that time and distance are without definition. The corridors and chambers stretch on forever, mile after mile of grey-brown stone. In every corridor and chamber there are birds being tortured.

The greater number of birds are simply caged. They sit in niches along the corridors, with wire mesh nailed across to keep them in. Each bird’s niche is just too small for it to stand up, and too narrow to spread its wings. They sit mostly in silence. Many have turned to plucking out their own feathers with the obsessive care of a human psychotic.

In the chambers are found the more imaginative tortures. There are places where nesting birds hunt endlessly, depositing worms into dark holes that mimic the cries of their starving chicks. There are raptors that crawl the floor, wing-clipped and hobbled, hunting prey that vanishes when they get close. Then there are the diseased birds, those infested with parasites or dragging prolapsed organs along the ground, and the ones that are simply nailed to the walls like enormous butterflies.

Soon after I arrived here, I remembered a debate I had with another student in the seminary. He was a Christian Socialist, who later went to jail for locking himself onto an oil pipeline. We disagreed over our interpretation of God’s answer to Job. I defended the orthodox view: that when God speaks of the wonders of nature, of the “hunger of the lions” and the “wings of the ostrich”, He is using them as a metaphor for His own infinite majesty. “The world is so large and strange,” He says, “who are you to question its creator?” My colleague advanced a different position. He argued that these passages are evidence that animals and plants have moral standing in God’s eyes, and that He is concerned with their lives independent of their relation to humanity.

I dismissed his argument as a comforting fancy: the soteriology of a child, who wishes to believe his pet dog will be waiting for him in Heaven.

Neither of us considered that if God were concerned with animals’ moral lives, then He might also send them to Hell.


At the end of my life, before I came here, I saw God. This, at least, I am certain of.

I do not remember the moment of my death. There is a blank space there, like the passage into sleep. But I remember the months that preceded it: my body slowly failing me, legs giving way, hands shaking too hard to hold a pen. Scrabbling about in my mind for an everyday word I had suddenly forgotten. The blank walls of the hospice, the visits from people whose faces I no longer recognised.

One night, I found myself walking through a forest in the moonless dark. I knew the place very well. It was the national park where I had done fieldwork before my illness. Here I had spent many cold hours observing flight behaviour, dating migrations, tapping flock numbers into my tablet with numb fingertips. It was a cruel and beautiful time. Those were the years of the great die-offs, and my spreadsheets became records of the natural world’s diminishing. One species after another dwindling to zero, and I a lonely sentinel with no power to stop it. No power to save even one. Only to watch, and make a record.

Now I had returned. I walked between the trees, surrounded by the most profound silence I have ever known. The canopy opened up ahead and I came into a clearing. That was where I saw God.

He was not as I had imagined Him while I was alive. If He was the God of Abraham, He was not as had been described to me. Yet I did not have any doubts about His divinity.

He showed himself to me as a figure made of a hundred limbs, a being of wings, eyes, angles and suns. He had two heads, one of a man and the other an ibis; but I understood that He had many other possible faces, and these were only the two aspects I was permitted to see.

I fell to my knees. “O Lord!” I said. “Is this death?”

The man-head’s lips moved, but the sound that emerged was the twittering of a nightingale. Then the ibis moved its beak and said:

“What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside?”

His many hands coalesced into one. He pointed across the clearing, and I saw a path going on through the woods.

“This way?” I said.

I went on down the path—fearfully at first, then gaining courage. When I was at the threshold of the clearing, I turned back to look again at God. At the same moment, the ground opened beneath me and I plunged into darkness.

When I landed, it was in a drift of dust on a stone floor.


I remember little of those early days. Certain events are lost, and others out of order. But I recall the queasy admixture of horror and joy. I was in a new body, free from the degeneration that had killed me. I had steady hands and a clear mind. This seemed a blessing at first, even amidst the suffering of the birds. I had seen God and He had sent me here. Therefore I believed for a long time that there must be some purpose to it.

I wandered the corridors in a haze of hope, gathering theories around me. It was a lesson; a test; a punishment; a durance. I was in Purgatory. I was in Hell. But all these theories eventually withered away. They could not survive that vast expanse of formless time, the days and hours all the same, under the glare of the endless, sourceless light.

It is said by the psychologists that we all pass through five stages of grief before we reach acceptance. But in this place, those stages were not a linear progression but a cycle without end. I raged, prayed, hoped, despaired, and raged again. I tried to eat the birds, as I have confessed. At other times I battered my hands bloody on the walls, or lay in abject supplication under the high ceiling of some dreadful chamber. And I walked—for days or perhaps years in a single direction, until my feet were blistered raw and bloody. I would have been grateful even to find an ending: a wall saying, “You may go no further.” But there were always more corridors. More cages. More birds.


When I was alive, birds had always been a comfort to me. As a child, there was no turmoil in my soul that could not be calmed by the flash of a black cockatoo’s wings or the slide-whistle call of a currawong. Later, as I came to know God and do His work, I saw His light reflected in the birds’ imperturbable grace.

Later again, I left the clergy, and the study of birds became my work. I knew them then as a scientist: by their flock numbers and nesting cycles, their diets and diseases. I was happier then. That was my great guilt. I had carried God like a burden and then I had shrugged Him off. Perhaps He never forgave me that, for it was in the second year of my doctoral studies that I received my diagnosis.

In my final years, the memory of birds was something I clung to. Even when faces and names began to fade, I still had the gentle roll of a feathered neck, the graceful dip of a beak into water. Some of my last living memories are of lying in the hospice bed, unsure where I was, but holding in my mind the pure image of a wedge-tailed eagle in flight.

I had always scoffed at the modern idea that our own expectations decide the path of our souls after death. Yet I could not escape a suspicion that something similar had brought me to this place: that my dying thoughts had given rise to an error on a page of destiny God had overlooked.


At times I have attempted to survey this place, as a scientist would. I have recorded the species of birds and their punishments for hundreds of chambers, writing statistics in the dust with my fingertips. I had hoped I might discern some pattern that would show me the way forward. The birds’ numbers correlate roughly with populations in the living world, and by this I have inferred that they are the real souls of birds deceased, not mere facsimiles. One of the cruel gifts this place has given is to show me species that were extinct in my lifetime: the great auk, the laughing owl, the albatross.

Those species that humans might consider the most sinful—the parasitic cuckoo, the heartless shrike—are no more represented here than any other. But why should human morality be applied to birds, whose internal worlds are so distant from our own? Perhaps they have their own commandments, and their own transgressions, of which we know nothing.

Nor is there any underlying structure to the punishments themselves. Some birds are treated with a crude sort of irony: the clever kea lobotomised with needles, the songbird with its vocal chords torn out in bloody strings. But many more are simply brutalised: bent, crushed, split, impaled.

For a long time, I considered that this was my punishment: to see the ruin of the things I loved best. Perhaps this Hell was mine and theirs to share.

It is true I had abandoned my faith. My exit from the clergy formed a deep rupture at the midpoint of my life, and my later years, among the birds, offered little to shore up my belief. Those were years of salt and smoke. Great fires burned across the continent, and the sky was stained a chemical white by sulfate emissions. The birds fell dead in their hundreds from the searing air. Many times I asked myself: would a just God really allow His children to commit such crimes? Or if He did, how could He ever forgive us?

But faith is never clearly cut. It has strange contours, it ebbs and flows. From day to day, or moment to moment, I may have believed or not—the answer always dancing beyond reach, like a quantum particle that vanishes upon observation.

Perhaps such inconstancy was enough to merit punishment. But if so, was this really all there was? Where was the cage for me, where the flames to scorch my soul? To every bird was allotted some special suffering. I alone had no place here.

And so my theories turned again and again to the mistake.


After many cycles of anger and despair, I began to wander once more. This time I had no particular direction in mind. Perhaps I passed many times through the same chambers. But at some point, I came to a region where there were no birds at all.

Vacant niches lined the walls. Chambers sat empty, as though awaiting some grim architect to fill them with new tortures. Silence lay thick as dust.

I walked through this region for a long time, until I heard a faint but resonant fluttering. Following it, I came to a wide high-ceilinged room. In the middle, at the topmost point, a white dove was battering its wings uselessly against the stone.

I watched that bird for a long time with tears in my eyes. I believe in that moment I finally accepted, without reserve, that I would never leave this place.

But then—as if in answer to my acceptance—the bird faltered, and fell down dead.

In this incident, then, I discovered both inescapable despair and the possibility of escape.


From my experience with the spoonbill, I guessed that merely inflicting wounds on myself would not be enough to effect a second death. I would need something more total. Fire, as I have said, does not burn here. Suffocation also seemed insufficient. So at last I decided upon a fall.

By twisting together wires from empty cages, I was able to create a kind of crude hook. With this I began to scrape at the wall in one of the great caverns. I cut one foothold after another. When the footholds rose above my head I began to climb and cut, climb and cut.

The work took a long time. My hooks became blunt, and my hands ached from the strain. I had to be careful not to fall too soon: I did not want to drop from halfway and end up merely shattering my legs.

At last I reached the ceiling. I slept one more day to think on what I planned to do. Never in my mortal life—not even as my neurons crumbled in the final stages of the disease—had I considered throwing away God’s greatest gift. But here? What gift was this? If I left this place, whether for some deeper Sheol or for absolute annihilation, would He even notice I was gone?

The next day, I cleared the dust from all around my ladder. Then I climbed to the peak and threw myself headfirst down onto the unyielding stone.


I found myself again in the nighttime wood.

“Lord!” I cried. “Lord, are you there?”

And He came. This time His human face glowed with rage, and His bird head was that of a razor-beaked hawk. He spoke to me in the voice of the screech owl, tearing at the drums of my ears. But I would not be silent before him. I cried out:

“Lord, why did You forsake me here? Did You really send me to that place by mistake?”

He screeched again, as though to drown out my words. But, sinner that I am, I persisted in speaking.

“Or are You testing my faith? Was my life not test enough for You?”

But this made him even angrier than before. His human eyes flashed with fury, and the sound of His voice drove me to my knees. I questioned Him no more, but only begged.

“Please do not send me back there, Lord. Let me go to the outer darkness, the hell of humans, the lake of fire. Let me be a victim of your judgment, but not of your error.”

The man-head emitted one last shriek that blotted out the world, and I was overtaken by a vision.

It was a vision out of my past, formed from the clay of memory, but infused with a terrible meaning no living moment could contain. I was standing in the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora. It was a trip organised by my seminary. I was looking up at the fresco in the parecclesion, which depicts Christ leading the holy fathers out of Hell. In the fresco he grips Adam and Eve by their wrists, and behind him come Solomon, Abraham and the other virtuous Hebrews. Beneath his feet are trampled the gates of Hades. Death is overcome.

When I saw this scene in life, I was moved almost to tears—humbled by the mercy and the majesty of a God who would, in time, reconcile all His creations to Him.

When I saw it a second time, it rang so loud before me that I was flung into unconsciousness, like a spark flung out from a fire that disappears into the dark.


I awoke on the floor of the chamber where I fell. I was unharmed.

“Lord!” I called, struggling to my knees. “What do You want from me? That I should lead the dead out of Hell? But I am not Your son. I am only a man. I do not know the way. I do not have the strength−”

Heavy sobs rolled through me. Tears fell from my eyes and were guzzled instantly by the dust. I wept at last for the life I had lost, for all the things on earth I would never do. And I wept also for the senseless punishment, the mad unending massacre of the innocent things I had always loved, the birds.

When I was done with tears, I went out into the nearest corridor. The birds in their cages stretched away from me. And I saw them for the first time: not as points of data, nor reflections of divine grace, nor punishments for my own eyes—but as themselves.

I went to the nearest cage. Using my fingers, I pried out the nails from the stone, then rolled back the wire mesh. Inside the cage was a raven. It stepped out weakly and tumbled to the floor. At first it could barely stand, its legs stiff and unused. Then, slowly, it gained its balance and took a few short hops, and displayed even in this most tentative of motions the hollow-boned grace that was its birthright.

The bird regarded me with one white-ringed eye. There was no gratitude in that gaze, nor love, nor fear, nor any other emotion for which humans have a name. It looked at me across an unbridgeable gap. But it did look.

In this corridor were a hundred cages or more. Beyond lay corridors and chambers uncounted: millions or billions of birds. And I knew of no way out; perhaps there was none. Perhaps the raven would wander forever as I had wandered, its wings beating endlessly upon stone. But even that would be succour, compared to the cage. And so I went on. I peeled back another sheet of wire, and then another. By the fourth or fifth my fingers were already bleeding, warm red drops that fell to form perfect hemispheres in the dust. And I went on. And I went on.

Will Greatwich is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Aurealis Magazine, among others. He currently works as a librarian in Melbourne's northern suburbs, where he teaches coding to children. Will also writes a monthly review blog, Paperback Picnic, where he excavates the forgotten classics of fantasy and science fiction. You can find Will's short stories and other writing at, or on Twitter @roguesrepast.

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