From a tree nearby, a bird squawks “owh what! owh what!” I grab the edges of my pillow and press them hard against my ears.
The last time I heard similar cries, a man from one of the houses down the street slipped, knocked his head against the edge of the kerb and died. Was the man old and unsteady on his feet? Who knows?
But then there was this other instance. A young mother from the house adjacent to the bus-stop, bundled her child into the back of the car, reversed out of her driveway, stopped her car, and got out to close the gate.
As I boarded the bus, I saw the car rolling down the slight incline, before pinning the young mother against the black steel gates. I pressed the bell in the bus repeatedly, causing everyone to lurch forward as the bus driver braked violently.
Bloody imprints from the grooved edges of the vertical bars branded cruelly against her face and chest. In the uncomfortable silence as paramedics worked feverishly to save her, the bird squawked.
Later when I told Mother this, she said, matter-of-factly, “Burung Hantu” – Ghost bird. A Messenger of Death. “Stay away when you hear or see that bird,” she warned, ominously.
From then on, my ears were always pricked for such cries. I would go about my day religiously watching my steps and surroundings, muttering my prayers to ward off any bad omen or evil spirits lurking if I happened to hear anything that resembled the cries of the Ghost bird.
Here in the City devoid of trees, I hadn’t heard the cries of the “ghost bird” for decades…until today, that is.
Something taps my shoulder. Softly at first, before it turns into a sharp nudge. I open my eyes and turn. It is Lena. I sit up immediately. “What? What?” I ask, almost shouting. She scrunches up her face in fear, stammering inaudibly.
I jump out of the sofa and rush into the house. There, sprawled face-down on the floor with one hand still clenching the phone, is Maria. I gingerly remove the phone from her grasp and put it to my ear. I hear loud voices arguing on the other end.
“Hello? hello?” I shout.
The loud voices on the other end continued arguing.
I pass the phone to Lena. She speaks quickly to someone in her native dialect before putting the phone down. It is Maria’s daughter, she explains. She has just given birth to a son but the father says it is not his. The baby is different colour.
I laugh, hugely relieved. “It’s all gibberish. A messenger of death, my foot.”
I bend down to gleefully shake Maria out of her fainting stupor.
Her body rolls over, pupils dilated. A black bird buried deep in her gaping mouth.