For the next few days the home was relaxed and happy like a honeymoon. No thoughts of work, of bank loans, of secrets behind walls. It couldnít last forever, though. When he returned to work his wife had pouted but made him promise to come home early so that they could eat dinner together. He had tried, he really had, but the amount that he had to catch up with chained him to his desk until past well past nine.
There was cold stew awaiting him that night. Same with the three nights after that. Unsatisfied and cold, Hajime returned to the chest, his secret.
One case was already open. This painting was stark, created with lines and no shading. Drawn on the white in childish black outlines were birds, similar if not the same to the dissected one in the cage. Their wing feathers had been drawn in exquisite detail, spread in flight as they headed upwards out of the canvas as if migrating to a better place. It was hard to tell how many there were, because over the canvas stretching from the top right-hand corner to the lower left was a dark red smear, as if someone had dipped his hand in paint and dragged it over the painting. It came off onto his fingers like moist dust. Hajime had the uneasy feeling that it might not have been paint. He washed his hands after hiding the painting away, but they still felt dirty.
Two days later, one of his wifeís old friends invited them out to dinner. The food was decent, the service less so, and the company downright unpleasant. Hajime watched his wife and her friend laugh and reminisce about things and experiences he knew nothing about and wondered why his thoughts grew dark. By the end of the evening he was chewing his liver for dessert, and when his wife kissed her friend goodbye, he suddenly wondered if he cut the wings off a bird, would it still be a bird?
Once Hajime and his wife left the public space and returned home, Hajime tried to find out.
"Donít try to deny it; I was there; I saw you with him!"
"For goodness sake, I havenít seen Takuma-kun since high school, we were just talking!"
"ĎJust talkingí my foot! You were flirting!"
"Heís an old friend, I gave him a friendly kiss goodbye! Good God, I had no idea that you could get so worked up over something so trivial!"
"You are my wife! Mine!"
Smashing glass. "If you keep going on like this, I wonít be!"
The blinding had happened too far away for him to do anything, and besides, the one who had done it was untouchable. That by itself had been bad enough, but seeing that other untouchable, the one who had to choose, there at the bedside of his wounded one, compounded the tight burning in his chest that found no release until he brought out another new canvas.
The birds had been difficult to do, but then there had been an interruption; he was forced to go out and finish a job that should have been finished last week. It had taken a couple of hours, two hours of stalking. The job itself had been over in a minute. The feel of blood between his fingers as the lungs contracted around his fist was profoundly satisfying, but he was distracted, wanting to return to the painting. But he must have lost the momentum of the work, because when he finally sat down to continue he found that he couldnít. He stared at the birds flying away, the blood drying on his left hand, the paintbrush impotent in his other, and couldnít think of what to do. In the end he gave up in frustration and smeared his bloody hand over it all as if to wipe it away. The rules of the spell, however, set that whatever started had to be sealed away, no matter how distasteful or displeasing, for it is always instinct that is most true. He shoved the painting into its case and tied the seal-knot tight.Afterwards, he went to the young manís hospital room. He slid into the bed with him and took the otherís hands, tracing the back of them with his tongue to reaffirm his presence there.
The young man didnít wake up for him, but at least the burning in his chest was gone.
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