“A Lick of Night” by Max Porter

A story about the bizarreness of grief

AN INTRODUCTION BY JESSE BALL

Let’s imagine that there’s a device and it’s made of paper. What more can we say about it? It is a sort of machine, and it contains within it many more machines. The inventor of the machine is a man named Max Porter. He lives in London. He has a family. He looks a bit disreputable in a train car or on a bus. He does many things, and one of those things, so it would seem, involved creating of a special sort of paper machine for conveying grief.

Click to purchase the novel, and hear Jesse Ball give a reading.

I met him, and I must say, he does not look like a person who makes paper grief machines. But the marvels of Max Porter’s mind are visible as soon as he opens his mouth. His life has created in him a person capable of extraordinary feeling. I imagine it must have been painful.

However that may be, here’s what happens when you find this paper machine, you pick it up, you turn it, lift it, fold it, set it down. You assemble in it and through it thoughts you hadn’t had before, vivid and strong Max Porter thoughts that a person should have before they die.

I think it would be a mistake for you to finish whatever other book you might be reading currently. Perhaps it’s good — but is it necessary? Will it change you? I want you to do the important things from now on, and leave out the useless things.

Please, this minute, read Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

Jesse Ball
Author of A Cure for Suicide

“A Lick of Night” by Max Porter

BOYS

There’s a feather on my pillow.

Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep. It’s a big, black feather.

Come and sleep in my bed.

There’s a feather on your pillow too.

Let’s leave the feathers where they are and
sleep on the floor.

DAD

Four or five days after she died, I sat alone in the
living room wondering what to do. Shuffling around,
waiting for shock to give way, waiting for any kind of
structured feeling to emerge from the organizational
fakery of my days. I felt hung-empty. The children
were asleep. I drank. I smoked roll-ups out of the
window. I felt that perhaps the main result of her
being gone would be that I would permanently
become this organizer, this list-making trader in
clichés of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines
for small children with no Mum. Grief felt fourth-
dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar. I was cold.

The friends and family who had been hanging around
being kind had gone home to their own lives. When
the children went to bed the flat had no meaning,
nothing moved.

The doorbell rang and I braced myself for more
kindness. Another lasagne, some books, a cuddle,
some little potted ready-meals for the boys. Of
course, I was becoming expert in the behavior of
orbiting grievers. Being at the epicenter grants
a curiously anthropological awareness of everybody
else; the overwhelmeds, the affectedly lackadaisicals,
the nothing so fars, the overstayers, the new best
friends of hers, of mine, of the boys. The people I still
have no fucking idea who they were. I felt like Earth
in that extraordinary picture of the planet surrounded
by a thick belt of space junk. I felt it would be years
before the knotted-string dream of other people’s
performances of woe for my dead wife would thin
enough for me to see any black space again, and
of course–needless to say–thoughts of this kind
made me feel guilty. But, I thought, in support of
myself, everything has changed, and she is gone and
I can think what I like. She would approve, because
we were always over-analytical, cynical, probably
disloyal, puzzled. Dinner party post-mortem bitches
with kind intentions. Hypocrites. Friends.

The bell rang again.

I climbed down the carpeted stairs into the chilly
hallway and opened the front door.

There were no streetlights, bins or paving stones. No
shape or light, no form at all, just a stench.

There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked
back, winded, onto the doorstep. The hallway was
pitch black and freezing cold and I thought, ‘What
kind of world is it that I would be robbed in my home
tonight?’ And then I thought, ‘Frankly, what does it
matter?’ I thought, ‘Please don’t wake the boys, they
need their sleep. I will give you every penny I own
just as long as you don’t wake the boys.’

I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything
was crackling, rustling.

Feathers.

There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of
just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and
yeast.

Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my
mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up
a foot above the tiled floor.

One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking
slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out
from a football-sized testicle.

SHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

shhhhhhhh.

And this is what he said:

I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.

Put me down, I said.

Not until you say hello.

Put. Me. Down, I croaked, and my piss warmed the
cradle of his wing.

You’re frightened. Just say hello.

Hello.

Say it properly.

I lay back, resigned, and wished my wife wasn’t
dead. I wished I wasn’t lying terrified in a giant
bird embrace in my hallway. I wished I hadn’t been
obsessing about this thing just when the greatest
tragedy of my life occurred. These were factual
yearnings. It was bitterly wonderful. I had some
clarity.

Hello Crow, I said. Good to finally meet you.

And he was gone.

For the first time in days I slept. I dreamt of
afternoons in the forest.

CROW

Very romantic, how we first met. Badly behaved. Trip
trap. Two-bed upstairs at, spit-level, slight barbed-
error, snuck in easy through the wall and up the attic
bedroom to see those cotton boys silently sleeping,
intoxicating hum of innocent children, lint, flack,
gack-pack-nack, the whole place was heavy mourning,
every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat,
welly, covered in a lm of grief. Down the dead Mum
stairs, plinkety plink curled claws whisper, down to
Daddy’s recently Mum-and-Dad’s bedroom. I was
Herne the hunter hornless, funt. Munt. Here he is.
Out. Drunk-for white. I bent down over him and
smelt his breath. Notes of rotten hedge, bluebottles.
I prised open his mouth and counted bones, snacked
a little on his un-brushed teeth, flossed him, crowly
tossed his tongue hither, thither, I lifted the duvet.
I Eskimo kissed him. I butterfly kissed him. I flat-
flutter Jenny Wren kissed him. His lint (toe-jam-rint)
fuck-sacks sad and cosy, sagging, gently rising, then
down, rising, then down, rising, then down, I was
praying the breathing and the epidermis whispered
‘flesh, aah, flesh, aah, flesh, aah,’ and it was beautiful
for me, rising (just like me) then down (just like me)
pan-shaped (just like me) it was any wonder the facts
of my arrival under his sheets didn’t lift him, stench,
rot-yot-kot, wake up human (BIRD FEATHERS
UP YER CRACK, DOWN YER COCK-EYE, IN
YER MOUTH) but he slept and the bedroom was
a mausoleum. He was an accidental remnant and I
knew this was the best gig, a real bit of fun. I put my
claw on his eyeball and weighed up gouging it out for
fun or mercy. I plucked one jet feather from my hood
and left it on his forehead, for, his, head.
For a souvenir, for a warning, for a lick of
night in the morning.
For a little break in the mourning.
I will give you something to think about, I whispered.
He woke up and didn’t see me against the blackness
of his trauma.

ghoeeeze, he clacked.

ghoeeeze.

DAD

Today I got back to work.

I managed half an hour then doodled.

I drew a picture of the funeral. Everybody had crow
faces, except for the boys.

CROW

Look at that, look, did I or did I not, oi, look, stab it.
Good book, funny bodies, open door, slam door, spit
this, lick that, lift, oi, look, stop it.

Tender opportunity. Never mind, every evening,
crack of dawn, all change, all meat this, all meat that,
separate the reek. Did I or did I not, ooh, tarmac
macadam. Edible, sticky, bad camouflage.

Strap me to the mast or I’ll bang her until my
mathematics poke out her sorry, sorry, sorry, look! A
severed hand, bramble, box of swans, box of stories,
piss-arc, better off, must stop shaking, must stay still,
mast stay still.

Oi, look, trust me. Did I or did I not faithfully
deliver St Vincent to Lisbon. Safe trip, a bit of liver,
sniff, sniff, fabric softener, leather, railings melted
for bombs, bullets. Did I or did I not carry the hag
across the river. Shit not, did not. Sing song blackbird
automatic fuck-you-yellow, nasty, pretty boy, joke,
creak, joke, crech, joke. Patience.

I could’ve bent him backwards over a chair and drip-
fed him sour bulletins of the true one-hour dying of
his wife. OTHER BIRDS WOULD HAVE, there’s
no goody baddy in the kingdom. Better get cracking.

I believe in the therapeutic method.

BOYS

We were small boys with remote-control
cars and ink-stamp sets and we knew
something was up. We knew we weren’t
getting straight answers when we asked
‘where is Mum?’ and we knew, even
before we were taken to our room and
told to sit on the bed, either side of Dad,
that something was changed. We guessed
and understood that this was a new life
and Dad was a different type of Dad now
and we were different boys, we were brave
new boys without a Mum. So when he
told us what had happened I don’t know
what my brother was thinking but I was
thinking this:

Where are the fire engines? Where is the
noise and clamor of an event like this?
Where are the strangers going out of their
way to help, screaming, flinging bits of
emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment
at us to try and settle us and save us?

There should be men in helmets speaking
a new and dramatic language of crisis.
There should be horrible levels of noise,
completely foreign and inappropriate for
our cozy London flat.

There were no crowds and no uniformed
strangers and there was no new language
of crisis. We stayed in our PJs and people
visited and gave us stuff.

Holiday and school became the same.

CROW

In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect
devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things
other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets
and have theatrical battles with language and God. I
was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom,
figment, specter, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst
and babysitter.

I was, after all, ‘the central bird … at every extreme.’
I’m a template. I know that, he knows that. A myth
to be slipped in. Slip up into.

Inevitably I have to defend my position, because my
position is sentimental. You don’t know your origin
tales, your biological truth (accident), your deaths
(mosquito bites, mostly), your lives (denial, cheerfully).
I am reluctant to discuss absurdity with any of you,
who have persecuted us since time began. What good is
a crow to a pack of grieving humans? A huddle.
A throb.

A sore.

A plug.

A gape.

A load.

A gap.

So, yes. I do eat baby rabbits, plunder nests, swallow
filth, cheat death, mock the starving homeless,
misdirect, misinform. Oi, stab it! A bloody load of
time wasted.

But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief.
There are very few in health, disaster, famine, atrocity,
splendor or normality that interest me (interest
ME!) but the motherless children do. Motherless
children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is
ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.

DAD

I’ve drawn her unpicked, ribs splayed stretched like a
xylophone with the dead birds playing tunes on her
bones.

CROW

I’ve written hundreds of memoirs. It’s necessary for
big names like me. I believe it is called the imperative.
Once upon a time there was a blood wedding, and the
crow son was angry that his mother was marrying
again. So he flew away. He flew to find his father
but all he found was carrion. He made friends with
farmers (he delivered other birds to their guns),
scientists (he performed tricks with tools that not
even chimps could perform), and a poet or two. He
thought, on several occasions, that he had found
his Daddy’s bones, and he wept and screamed at the
hateful Goshawks ‘here are the grey bones of my
hooded Papa,’ but every time when he looked again
it was some other corvid’s corpse. So, tired of the
fable lifestyle, sick of his omen celebrity, he hopped
and flew and dragged himself home. The wedding
party was still in full swing and the ancient grey crow
rutting with his mother in the pile of trash at the foot
of the stairs was none other than his father. The crow
son screamed his hurt and confusion at his writhing
parents. His father laughed. KONK. KONK. KONK.
You’ve lived a long time and been a crow through and
through, but you still can’t take a joke.

DAD

Soft.
Slight.
Like light, like a child’s foot talcum-
dusted and kissed, like stroke-reversing suede, like
dust, like pins and needles, like a promise, like a curse,
like seeds, like everything grained, plaited, linked, or
numbered, like everything nature-made and violent
and quiet.

It is all completely missing. Nothing patient now.

BOYS

My brother and I discovered a guppy fish in a
rock pool somewhere. We set about trying to
kill it. First we flung shingle into the pool but
the fish was fast. Then we tried large rocks and
boulders, but the fish would hide in the corners
beneath small crevices, or dart away. We were
human boys and the fish was just a fish, so
we devised a way to kill it. We filled the pool
with stones, blocking and damming the guppy
into a smaller and smaller area. Soon it circled
slowly and sadly in the tiny prison-pool and
we selected a perfectly sized stone. My brother
slammed it down over-arm and it popped and
splashed, rock on rock in water and delightedly
we lifted it out. Sure enough the fish was dead.
All the fun was sucked across the wide empty
beach. I felt sick and my brother swore. He
suggested flinging the lifeless guppy into the
sea but I couldn’t bring myself to touch it so
we sprinted back across the beach and Dad
didn’t look up from his book but said
‘you’ve done something bad I can tell.’

DAD

We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-
ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.

The house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-
longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the
principal difference between our house and a house
where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their
last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles
of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK-
CHEEK.’ She was not busy dying, and there is no
detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then
she was gone.

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush,
thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel,
peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for
her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

BOYS

We found a fish in a pool and tried to kill
it but the pool was too big and the fish was
too quick so we dammed it and smashed it.
Later on, for ages, my brother did pictures
of the pool, of the fish, of us. Diagrams
explaining our choices. My brother always
uses diagrams to explain our choices, but
they aren’t scientific, they’re scrappy. My
brother likes to do scrappy badly drawn
diagrams even though he can actually
draw pretty well.

CROW

Head down, tot-along, looking.
Head down, hop-down, totter.
Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT
KRAAH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p. 45).
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

DAD

There is a fascinating constant exchange between
Crow’s natural self and his civilized self, between
the scavenger and the philosopher, the goddess of
complete being and the black stain, between Crow
and his birdness. It seems to me to be the self-same
exchange between mourning and living, then and
now. I could learn a lot from him.

About the Author

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