The day Janice began to hear the curious voice was quite like any other. Her tea had gone cold. She was lying on her stomach and tracing the edge of a bone white saucer with her pencil. Her sketchbook languished by her side and her mind flitted from wondering why teacups looked fossorial to what it would be like to be an archaeologist like Uncle Selim, uncovering all manner of lost, once living things. Dust, dust, dust and one fine moment of discovery. Whole impossibilities rippled before her inner eye: fantastic, decrepit palaces, crocodiles guarding steaming river mouths at the edge of thick jungles and gaping so you could see right into their tunnel like throats. Intricate glass cities sang with colour and narrow alleys wove through them, promising treasures around every corner. There were storybooks you could fall into. All this and yet when she saw the mantis swaying between the grasses she found herself at the quiet core of the spinning earth. Sometimes reality enchants people from their endless dreaming. The girl was besotted.
The mantis’ creamy complexioned face went almost unnoticed amid the undulating grasses. It was tinged with pink like a newborn sky. In the sunlight her wings gleamed like fresh olive oil in a bottle and they folded elegantly behind her. Each was stamped with a white circle. She swayed and they rippled with iridescence. Her arms inclined toward each other in a gesture that reminded the girl of the folded arms of ladies in Renaissance paintings. Each was wrapped with terra cotta bands and scalloped with jagged edges like a bread knife. The hairs on Janice’s own arms stood on end and her heart existed beyond her ribs, pulsing in the trees around her. The clouds that had been traversing the sky slowed to the pace of a prophet’s concentration.
A bee had been circling around the creeping wood sorel between them. The mantis struck. In an instant she captured it and began to saw at it, her serrated teeth working overtime. She wasn’t picky, nor did her apparent elegance translate to mercy. She devoured it alive, head first to prevent a struggle. Janice was so fascinated she hadn’t any time to feel pity but as she watched the mantis eat the bee, a sick sweetness, like figs putrefying in the heat, settled in her chest. She watched the mantis finish her meal, drop the remnants and clean her face, forelimbs
and antennae in an endearing manner, rather like a kitten. Janice lingered for a few moments. Then she turned on her back and closed her eyes. Fear and wonder and joy were all knotted together. She wanted to draw the mantis but she couldn’t. And this was the perennial problem.
The moments she tried to capture slipped through her fingers. They would escape her when she tried to remember them. They would escape her even as they bloomed before her eyes. Long after she stopped hearing the curious voice she would wish she had a net with which she could capture each frequency. When she faced her sketchbook she was running in the dark. Her chest was weighted by a stone of ennui and the rest of her was weightless and undone. Panic seems like a million strings inside you are coming apart, ends flying in the wind, liable to be caught and pulled by any person walking by. It’s a homeless feeling and Janice headed for shelter the moment it pervaded her happiness. She went straight to the stable by Khalid’s house.
The stable, at eye level, was like any other. Its ceiling told another story altogether. There were forty eight coloured sparrows hanging by threads from the rafters and Janice kept track of each new addition. Khalid’s father Ibrahim was a glassblower and had taught him how to make useful things like plates and vases. Khalid himself was good at making those things but he he never succeeded in finishing them, or he did so in a half hearted manner. What he liked to make were little figurines of animals. They weren’t remarkably detailed in texture. They had fluid forms that teetered on the brink of magic and insanity. Each seemed likely to either fly, spring, hop, pant, scuttle, scamper or bound the moment you touched it. He started with sparrows because nesting sparrows have the simplest shape. Soon, however, he was making sparrows in all forms of motion, taking off, landing, soaring, floating, flapping. He tied delicate white strings around the middle of each and hung them from the rafters of the abandoned stable where they seemed to hover, suspended in time. Real sparrows regarded them with curiosity and liked to sit in the rafters chattering to their silent glass likenesses. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into the stables and find Khalid and his father creating their glasswares while Janice read her books in a broad shaft of sunlight, surrounded by glowing dust motes.
Neither Ibrahim nor his son were there when she came in. The stable was empty apart from the work table and the chair that had quietly been placed by the window a few weeks after
she first started to come. It smelled strongly of horse since it was also the home of Cobra, the speckled dapple grey colt belonging to Ibrahim.
She made her way to the work table where she began inspecting some of Khalid’s new creations. There was a glass possum caught mid waddle and an unfinished canary caught mid warble. She opened a box on the table and gasped. It was filled with insects and they were perched so precariously on the cusp of existence that it took her a few moments to realize they were not real. Delicately, she removed a honeybee from the assortment. She held it in the palm of her hand and peered at it.
“I’ve had it. I can’t take it anymore. Give me a break.”
Janice almost dropped the honey bee. Then she brought it close to her ear and said, “Excuse me?”
The barn rang with laughter that bounced off each of the glass plates, jars, baubles and
animals. She turned an apple shade of red. The laughter stopped and voice resounded by her ear. “You heard me.”
“Of course I did.” Janice turned around but she couldn’t find anyone. “This isn’t you Khalid, is it?”
“No,” said the voice, suddenly sounding far away. “It isn’t.”
“Where are you?”
Janice looked up but saw nothing besides the rafters, the garrulous sparrows and the glass ones glinting in the light.
“Alright, I’m looking.”
“Have a guess. Go on then.”
“I don’t see anybody up there.”
“Nonsense. There are loads of us. Forty nine to be exact. I’m the only one like me.” “There’s nothing there but Khalid’s birds.”
“I wouldn’t be so dismissive.”
“Rubbish. You’re telling me you’re one of Khalid’s birds.”
“I’m my own bird, thank you very much. I’m the starling.”
She was struck by the sight of a new bird Khalid had made. A starling that seemed to wink with every speckle. Janice took note of it dubiously.
“Are you quite sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Are you telling me I don’t know who I am?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You’re right not to. But you’re unbelievable to me too.”
“How so?” Janice kept peering into the rafters to find the real source of the voice but she
couldn’t see a thing.
“First of all, you can hear me. Second, you’re still here. And last but not least, you’re
talking to me. You know what? You’re far gone. You’re probably well on your way to insanity since most sane people would think they’re crazy by now. What’s your name?”
“That’s what I said.”
The door opened and with a start, Janice dropped the bee. It shattered on the floor,
making a loud cracking noise for such a little bee. Janice stood there, frozen and Khalid stood before her. Silence seized them and barely released its hold as Janice ran past him apologizing. When she looked back, her mind spinning with all she had heard, she could see him stooped, gathering the fragments of his precious work.