They began looking over their shoulders and exchanging glances. Whispering to each other. Who was the stranger dressed in black at the back of the church? They had expected a quiet affair. The family, a few friends and a couple of old work colleagues. And that was pretty well how it was. Most of the mourners knew each other, or a least knew who each other were. Except for that one shadowy figure behind them.
They filed silently from the gloom of the church into the bright sunlight of the crisp winter morning. They gathered around the grave. The priest offered up prayers for the saving of the departed soul, and through tear-filled eyes, the bereaved saw the stranger moving slowly around at the rear of the assembled crowd. The coffin was lowered into the ground, then the mourners turned, and with bowed heads, walked away. No one noticed the stranger move forward and throw a hand of soil onto the cask. And no one saw him leave. He just disappeared.
The wake was a solemn affair. Not at all what he would have wanted. There was much discussion about the mysterious stranger. Who was he?
Just outside, high in a tree sat a large black bird. Watching. Observing. Head darting from one side to the other. As the people left, it silently and slowly flapped its wings; as if in slow motion. Up it flew. Up and up and up. Higher and higher until it disappeared from view.
It was inconceivable that Jimmy Dupre would be lying in a grave today. So young, so vibrant. So full of life. He had everything he ever wanted. A loving wife and beautiful twin children. A circle of friends that adored him, and a life most people could only dream of. But something had been occupying his mind of late. He seemed distant and ill at ease.
He had started talking about his funeral. Not just talking about it, but planning every detail. The music, the guest list. The collection of fine wines which he built up over many years was to be enjoyed and appreciated he said. And strangest of all, he said he would be there to make sure all of his wishes were honoured. He hoped his friends and family would miss him when he was gone.
Two weeks earlier he’d not come home after work. A couple of days later he was found, his life drained from him, in a copse a few miles from home. What had happened was a mystery. Had he been attacked? It didn’t seem so. Had he taken his own life? It didn’t look like it, and why should he anyway?
The police were satisfied that there was nothing suspicious about Jimmy Dupre’s death. The coroner’s report concluded that he had, in fact, take his own life with a cocktail of drugs, some of which were unknown. What were they? Where did he get them? The experts were baffled.
The day following the funeral, the sun continued to shine. It was still. It was quiet. Nothing moved but a glossy black bird which strutted up and down the fence at the bottom of the garden. Candice sat on her bed, a child in each arm. They silently sobbed. Together.
Suddenly a wind began to swirl around the garden. It whistled through the half-opened window. For a moment she was sure she heard his voice. “I’ll never leave you and you can never leave me” a breathy voice seemed to say. But then again it was probably just the wind playing tricks with her confused mind. And then it became calm again. The bird flapped its wings and flew up into the sky. Up and up and up it went. Higher and higher until it was gone.
Candice, his wife of ten happy years, needed to understand why it happened. What led to it and why she had never spotted something was wrong. Surely something was very wrong. She spent hours sitting with his list of funeral music in her hand. Would these titles give any clue as to why he decided to leave her and the kids? She played them over and over in her head. She wrote down the words, but nothing jumped off the page. Some songs were his old favourites. Another, ‘You Are So Beautiful’ was the song they danced to at their wedding. She closed her eyes and drifted back to the moment he took her in his arms. The moment when the clapping cheering crowd seemed to fade away as they turned and turned on the dance floor in their own private heaven.
‘You’re everything I hoped for, everything I need. You are so beautiful to me’
Tears fell on the sheet of paper which she held in her trembling hand. But then her water-filled eyes were drawn the final piece of music on the list. She suddenly went cold. A vision of the black bird in the tree in the churchyard flashed into her mind. She saw a glossy black bird flying in slow motion up, up and up into the sky. She stumbled to the CD rack and searched for the disc. Where was it? She grabbed handfuls of records and threw them this way and that. It must be here. It must. Then she found it. She pushed and shoved the disc until she finally managed to locate the slot in the player. She pressed play.
‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise’
Had he come back to haunt her? Don’t be silly, that only happens in movies. ‘Get a grip of yourself.’ she shouted. She broke into a sweat. ’It’s a sign. It is a sign‘. Everything around her was spinning.
‘Black bird fly
Black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black sky’
Suddenly the lights went out. The music stopped and Candice just sat there, numb. It was so quiet she could hear the beat of her heart. But she refused to let it alarm her. After the events of the past week, she felt nothing could possibly hurt her anymore.
Through the still darkness, she thought she heard a faint sound. Or did she imagine it? The children were asleep upstairs. Perhaps one of them stirred. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She was drifting away. A calm descended over her.
The light flickered back into life and she slowly opened her eyes. She stared at the empty fireplace and in her mind, she could see Jimmy sitting on the rug with the kids trying to make out pictures from the glowing red specks on the fireback behind the dancing flames.
Whoosh! She physically jumped when a cloud of soot fell down the chimney. There was the sound of frantic fluttering. More soot. Blood-curdling squawking.
The light went out again and the silence returned. She drew her knees up to her chin and sat shaking, afraid to move. There was a faint shuffling sound somewhere in front of her. First from the right then the left. Then nothing.
After a few minutes of silence, she remembered about the candle and lighter they kept in the drawer of the dresser. Slowly she uncurled her body and gently put one foot and then the other on the cold wooden floor. She raised herself up and took a step in the direction of the dresser gripping onto a chair back for support. There they were. A few moments later the warm glow of the candle filled the room. As she turned to go back to the sofa she trod on the pile of discarded CDs she’d thrown on the floor earlier. She slipped and fell, thumping her head on the dresser sending the candle flying across the room. Once again all was black.
Something was creeping around in the darkness, she was sure. The light came on then straight away went out again. For that brief second, she was sure she saw Jimmy sitting on the chestnut leather Chesterfield, a crystal glass in his hand. “What are you doing to me?” she screamed “What have I ever done to you? Why are punishing me? Answer me you bastard! For God’s sake answer me”
Outside, the clouds cleared and a blanket of blue moonlight settled on the room. She’d imagined him. That’s right. She must have imagined him. Her mind was playing tricks. The Chesterfield was empty. But in the dim light, she saw a crystal glass laying on the rug. Getting up from the floor her eye was drawn to something on the window ledge. Something dark, long and shiny. It was a black feather.
Encircling its quill was a wedding ring. Jimmy’s wedding ring….
Candice stumbled upstairs to the children’s bedroom. As she crashed through the door they stirred but didn’t wake. She shook Lily who groaned, whimpered and turned onto her front. “Wake up, wake up”’ she yelled. She grabbed Lily’s arm and tugged her from her bed and onto her feet. Jack sat up and rubbed his eyes then crept backwards as he stared at his mother’s frenzied moonlight face. She hurriedly put them into their dressing gowns. Clutching the battery-powered bedside light she held Jack by his arm and dragged him and a complaining Lily down the stairs, out of the door and into the Range Rover.
With wheels spinning on the gravel she reversed at a furious rate back through the gate, sending a wooden flower tub rolling down the road. As she accelerated away, she glanced through the gaping front door of the house and felt certain she saw a figure.
Minutes later she swung into her parents drive and slid to a halt. Dragging her protesting children to the oak door, she banged and thumped as hard as she could. A light came on and a worried voice called out “Who’s there? It’s the middle of the night”
“Mum – let us in! The kids are freezing. Open the door. Please”
Once inside Candice settled Lily and Jack into their beds and began to go over the events of the evening. It was at moments like this she wished her father was still alive to hold her hand. Janice, her mother sat listening and wondering if the stress of the last couple of weeks had begun to have an effect on Candice’s mental state. Eventually, they both retired to bed for what remained of the night and agreed to talk more in the morning. Perhaps in the light of day things would be clearer and a simple explanation would be found.
It was a beautiful sunny winter’s morning. There was a dusting of snow on the grass and icicles dripped from the gutter on the shed. After breakfast, Candice wrapped up the children and sent them into the garden to play. “Can I have a biscuit Mummy please?” asked Lily.
“Of course you can sweetheart”
She sat listening to them happily giggling, and for the first time in days, she felt herself relax. Her precious children were safe and that’s all that really mattered to her. She crossed to the window. They were on the lawn. She smiled as she looked at their rosy cheeks, and the white of their breath floating into the air.
Then she noticed that Lily was crouching down. Her hand was open. In her palm the biscuit. Pecking it was a big black bird. Lily was laughing.
Candice rushed through the door, across the patio and round the corner of the house to the lawn. The children were nowhere to be seen. The lawn was deserted but for a black bird sitting amid the white snow on the frozen grass. Staring. Blinking. Menacing. Candice rushed around the garden calling out their names. She was beside herself with fear. The black bird looked on.
Suddenly out leapt Lily and Jack from behind a bush. “We were playing hide and seek with Daddy’ said Jack. “Just like we used to”. Candice turned around to face the black bird. It was not there. The snow was undisturbed.
It was the week before Christmas. For the sake the children, and her own sanity, Candice tried to put the events of the past three weeks behind her. She had a life to lead, and she wasn’t going to let a tame blackbird get in the way of rebuilding her future. There were explanations for all of the odd events that had recently taken place. Co-incidences, dreams even.
The house was a frenzy of activity. The Christmas tree was in place and the floor was strewn with ornaments and tinsel. “Let me Mummy – let me” pleaded Jack as he reached to plant a golden angel on a branch, then toppled forward whilst his sister shrieked with laughter.
There was a thump on the doormat as a pile of Christmas cards fell through the letterbox. Lily rushed to scoop them up. “Let me open some Mummy, please”
At the bottom of the pile was a letter. Candice felt sure she recognised the handwriting. It couldn’t be. Surely not. Her eye fell upon a letter ‘A’ in the address. Jimmy always made his A’s look like Z’s. She had never seen anybody else do it. But the postmark said that it had been sent yesterday. But Jimmy was buried weeks ago. Suddenly those feelings began to well up inside her again. Feelings of despair. Of terror. Of lost love. Of hatred for what he was putting her through. She began shaking and felt rage coming from deep inside her.
As she walked toward the kitchen her legs turned to jelly and room began to spin. “You can’t do this to us Jimmy” she whispered. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “How DARE you do this to us Jimmy”.
She tumbled down onto a chair. Should she open it – should she throw it on the fire? No, it had to be opened. It may just give her a clue as to what the hell was going on.
It opened easily. Inside was a piece of white notepaper and a downy black feather. She unfolded it, wiped the tears from her eyes, and gradually focused on the three lines of typed words. Beneath them was a scratched blotchy signature as if it was written with a quill pen. She read the sentence over and over again, the rage building within her as every second passed. She couldn’t believe what she was reading. Surely it was a joke. A practical joke. Some sick bastard was playing tricks with her mind. That’s right. Just as he or she had done almost every day since the day of the funeral. “This can’t be happening to me”.
She read it again. Slowly. One word at a time.
My darling Candice – I have to tell you…………………..
“Mummy Mummy what’s the matter?”
Those were the last words Candice heard as she fell to the cold stone floor.
Diagonal rods of rain stabbed the trampled grass around the gaping hole that was to become the final resting place of Candice Dupre. It seemed unbelievable that just weeks after the burial of her husband, the same sombre group of people would be once again be huddled together in this bleak graveyard. It was almost impossible to make out who all the mourners were. To defend themselves from the ravages of this dreadful winters day everybody stood covered from head to foot in rain soaked clothing, like so many eerie black statues. Two little children were being comforted by their ashen face grandmother. A distance from the assembled crowd, two shadowy figured stood, huddled together. Minutes later they were gone.
The following week, Candice’s mother Janice was reluctantly going through the house, hoping to find some clue which might explain her daughters’ sudden death. Her eye was caught by a piece of crumpled paper under a chair. It was a letter. As she unfolded it she realised it was in Jimmy’s hand. It was dated just days ago. She began reading it.
‘My darling Candice – I have to tell you….
A sudden shattering of glass shook Janice to her core. Through the smashed window pane flew a black bird. Round and round the room it flew, knocking paintings from the wall, sending ornaments crashing to the floor and scattering bottles and glasses everywhere. Round and round it flew, squawking and shrieking. Round and round and round. Janice cowered in a corner, her arms covering her head. When would it stop? Round and round and round, then it took the letter in its beak and flapped back outside. Then silence. A deafening silence.
It was several minutes before she dared peep out from behind her hands. All around her was chaos. The room was wrecked. An icy breeze blew through the broken window, curtains flapping like unsecured spinnakers on a runaway yacht. She crawled across the floor and felt sudden pain as she sliced her knee on a shard of glass. Grabbing hold of the ledge, she slowly pulled herself up and peered out into the flooded desolate garden. She felt the warmth of her blood trickling down her leg.
Through the sheeting rain, she could just make out the image of two black birds.
The wind was tugging at a rain-sodden piece of paper which one was holding in its beak. In an instant, the wind tore it away. Janice watched as the paper tumbled across the lawn then snagged in a rose bush several yards away. She looked back to the lawn. The black birds had flown.
It was April. The death of Jimmy Dupre remained a mystery. Why his wife Candice should have met her maker just weeks after her husband baffled the experts. Their children Lily and Jack were young enough to continue with their lives almost as if nothing had happened. Before long, however, the ugly reality of their parent’s untimely demise would surely dawn on them.
It was the kind of spring day that lifted the spirits. Puffs of wispy white floated in a sky of blue. Primroses gave way to a sea of golden daffodils which nodded in the warm breath of the breeze. A brigade of brazen bluebells stood to attention under a canopy of palest green. Shoots of green grass stretched toward a shimmering yellow sun and across the field and beyond, the first lambs of spring frolicked in the rising warmth of a new season. Creatures of the undergrowth dared to raise their heads and survey the blossoming scene unfolding before them.
Janice had visibly aged. To lose her son was bad enough, but to lose her precious daughter-in-law just weeks later was devastating. Suddenly she had children to care for again. They were now the centre of her life. Her very reason for living.
Janice and the children had not been back to the house since Candice died. Lucy and Jack needed to grieve in their own small way, and this seemed to be the best way to set the process in motion. But far from being subdued, they seemed positively elated. They rushed up to their rooms and played with their trains and dolls as if nothing had ever happened. Janice sat on the couch and allowed the memories to flood back into her mind. She looked at the Christmas tree and thought of happy Christmas’s past. Just a few months earlier they had all sat there celebrating Candice and Jimmy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Tears flowed down her cheeks as her eyes fell on a picture frame – its broken glass jagged over a photo of their wedding day.
She was suddenly jolted back to the present “Can we play in the garden?” pleaded Lily.
“Please” added Jack with an irresistible grin pasted across his chubby face.
Janice watched them running around as if nothing had happened. Jack kicked a deflated ball around, whilst Lily clambered up the wooden climbing frame her father had built last summer. They laughed and shouted and screamed and giggled.
“Bet you can’t catch me Daddy” yelled Jack as he jumped from the frame and dashed down the lawn.
“Let me go Mummy” screamed Lucy as she tumbled on to her back in fits of laughter.
Janice went cold.
The children ran behind the shed just as Janice was climbing down the steps from the door out into the warmth of the mid-day sun.
“Granny, granny – look here, quickly!” yelled Lily.
“Come and see” called Jack. “Look at this Granny”
“Where are you?” Janice called as she walked to where the voices were coming from. She felt herself drawn toward a budding rose bush. A tattered piece of paper was trapped in its thorns and just below it a bird’s nest. She peered into the woven bowl of twigs and for the first time in weeks, she broke into a smile. There, peering up at her, were two tiny baby birds, their fragile little beaks open wide waiting for the next morsel to come their way.
It was then she noticed the smudged words on the washed out piece of paper.
My darling Candice, I have to tell you…
She grabbed the note and it fell apart in her hand as she tried to flatten it. The joyful sounds of the playing children had ceased. She turned and looked for Lily and Jack. All she saw was two black birds sitting on the fence above the rosebush; above the nest. Lily and Jack were nowhere to be seen.
Walkers in Badger Copse yesterday discovered the bodies of two children. Although the Police have so far refused to comment, they are thought to be those of the missing Dupre twins, Lily and Jack age 4. There were no signs of an assault having taken place.
First Jimmy, then Candice and finally their children. Janice died of a broken heart.
Jimmy Dupre had planned his exit from this world to the smallest detail. He apparently died of a mysterious poisoning. He was able to come back to his own funeral as a stranger and what he saw was unbearable. Something of his old self remained with him, and he was desperate to tell Candice what had happened to him.
He wrote a note – a short note, but enough he felt, to help her come to terms with his disappearance. He just wanted her to know that he was always watching over her. Unfortunately, he revealed a little too much and his guardian spirits went to any lengths they could to ensure it remained unread. It still remains unread.
All he could do was to use his power to take his family away from their world of despair and to a place where they could once again be together.
At last, they are all together.
Last week the good folk of the village met in the local church to join together in a service of remembrance for the Dupre family. Everybody turned out. There was just one pew left empty; the one where they had sat as a family each Sunday. In the middle of his moving address, the priest suddenly stopped, unable to speak, and a look of horror came over his face. Standing at the back of the church he saw four strangers. A man, a woman and two small children. With a shaking hand, he pointed toward them, then slumped to the floor. The congregation turned toward the back of the church and saw – nothing.
As the stunned congregation left, four black birds flew into the sky. Higher and higher. Until they were gone.
The Stranger – Footnote
Followers of the paranormal have for centuries believed there are spirits visiting us in the form of black birds. Ancient wall writings and drawings on cave walls in Egypt thought to date back to the thirteenth century, suggest that a chosen few are taken from our world to a better place. They are able to visit in the form of black birds, and return to their worldly bodies for short periods. No evidence of this phenomenon had ever presented itself.