The realtor described the place as a grand old dame of a house: a three-story high Victorian in a state of slight disrepair, built in 1897 but with so many random, period-inconsistent architectural details added on over the years (a deck over the front door, a mudroom added on the side, several of the larger rooms broken up with wallboard and framed for apartments) it did not qualify for the historical registry. People simply knew it as the big old house at the end of the block.
Dead center, under the peak of the steeply sloped roof, loomed a single over-large window, looking out from the attic. John Lamb, when they first toured the house, thought the attic might make an excellent office, but when he called in a structural engineer, he found the house too old to support the weight of new walls and flooring. They repurposed the attic for storage, stacked boxes filled with clothes, old pictures, camping gear. An old sewing machine. A mannequin. An ornate full length mirror covered with a dusty blanket and a rocking chair had been left by the previous owners.
John put a hasp and a padlock on the door, feeling the room was too dangerous for the kids. The flooring had cracks and gaps in it; step on a board wrong and a fall through the ceiling of the second floor could result. Rusty nails poked from the shadows at every angle; the possibility of tetanus loomed like a thundercloud.
Alice Lamb hated the attic. She never expressed why but vowed to never set foot there, and for the most part, succeeded. John went up the steep stairs three or four times a year. He’d look for signs of termites, mice, spiders. He’d set traps and spray poison if necessary. He’d sweep away the dust, nail the loose boards of the flooring in place. Sometimes he’d look through old photos and mementos. Or Pose in front of warped silver of the mirror, smiling at the changes wrought by the imperfections.
The single attic window broke one night, during a storm. Strong winds tore a small branch off a tree and flung it through the glass. No one noticed at the time, but the flapping and cooing coming from above the ceiling of the second-floor bedrooms soon caught their attention.
Pigeons had set up roost.
John mounted the stairs to the attic just to assess the situation. The racket that arose when he opened the door and ascended the stairs nearly made him lose his balance and fall back down the stairs. They screeched and flapped and flew about the dark space in a panic, and the commotion of feathers and pigeon poop sent him straight back down.
John called pest control.
By the time the appointment rolled around the pigeons had all died.
The crisply uniformed pest control man walked up the stairs and was back down within five minutes, confirming that no live birds remained. He offered to do clean-up. John felt he could do that on his own. The man presented a bill for his five minutes of work; John wrote him a check, the man left.
The task proved harder than John expected. The pigeon poop had hardened to a caulk-like consistency, and much of it had bits of pigeon feathers embedded in it. John went through three buckets of hot water, three sponges, two putty knives and a generous amount of Lysol.
Alice offered to help, but he knew how much she hated the attic. The kids offered as well, but he considered the attic too dangerous for the kids, and so assigned them the job of standing at the base of the stairs, to make sure the cats stayed out of the attic. It was their job, he told them.
“The attic is off limits,” he said.
They took up the task with solemn vigilance.
John found the first dead bird fairly quickly. The thing lay at the foot of the attic window, still and broken. He picked it up with rubber gloves, covered it with a paper towel to prevent the girls from seeing it, and threw it in the garbage can out back.
He found the second dead bird in the corner as if it had been hidden away there. The ancient wallpaper near the bird had turned discolored, and John noticed on closer inspection that the paper had been ripped and shredded as well, not only in the corner but all along the periphery of the wall, from the floor to about an arm’s length high.
He found three more dead birds over the course of the day. One centered in the seat of the rocking chair. One balanced on top of the mannequin, where the head would go. One suspended by a nail in the wall that it must have caught a wing on. He surreptitiously threw them away, just like the others.
He found the last dead bird near Christmastime, several months later.
The bird lay inside a sealed box of Christmas ornaments. The family had just put up the Christmas tree, and while the main trove of decorations were stored in the garage, several of their favorites were missing, so John had gone up to the attic to look through the boxes while the rest of the family continued to decorate.
The dead thing lay half-buried in broken shards of fragile glass and ceramic, bright holiday colors infused with the smell of death. John assumed the bird must have beat its wings for quite some time, breaking nearly all the decorations in the box. It did not seem likely that this amount of destruction could be caused by one bird.
Some of the broken pieces had actually pierced the skin of the bird. Small droplets of blood stained the Christmas rubble, looking like just another holiday color.
How had the bird gotten inside?
Perhaps the tape had come unglued somewhere, John concluded.
He snuck the box out through the back door and into the garbage, so as not to worry the girls or his wife.
He reentered the living room, where the half-decorated tree stood, and told them a version of the truth: the pigeons had destroyed the decorations that were stored up there. The family made due with the existing decorations. The tree looked lovely.
They ate Christmas cookies and drank hot chocolate after trimming the tree. They played Christmas carols and sang along. They read the Grinch book for the hundredth time.
Later that evening, as they were putting the girls to bed, he took them aside, out of earshot of Alice, and said, “Remember what I said about the attic? This summer, when I was cleaning up the pigeon poop?”
The girls giggled a the word “poop.” El said, “Make sure the cat stays out of the attic. Never let her up there.”
“And what else?” asked John. “What’s the other rule?”
Em said, “We aren’t supposed to go up there either.”
He patted both their shoulders. “Right. The attic is off limits.”
They nodded their understanding: wide-eyed, innocent, vulnerable. Christmas music played in the living room. Alice readied their beds. John’s mind stayed anchored on the sealed box stuffed in the garbage can and the mystery that lay inside.