birdman – a short story
December 17, 2017 § 26 Comments
Paulina didn’t know why she’d invited him to dinner. Neither did she know his name, did not want to know it – but everyone called him the birdman. The old man was coming tonight, and meeting him had triggered a remembering in her that shone like a bright light and was feeding upon itself.
That first day she had seen him in the square she thought her mind had been playing a trick. Surely he had been an illusion. But the birds knew better. He stood quietly under the cherry tree with his arms raised as if saluting the sun. The sparrows swooped down from the tree, then swaying like pendulums landed on his shoulders. Some fluttered around his head then dropped like soft stones knowing it was safe to be in his open palms.
People talked. Some said he had been in the war and it had addled his brain, others said he had no family and the birds had become his kin. No one knew where he lived. He always wore a dusty satin dinner jacket with a white bow tie – not the sort that fastened with elastic – and clean white socks that were visible because his trousers – which he wore with red braces – were always too short.
This morning he sat on the bench by the cherry tree. His mouth was turned down at the corners as he whispered to a robin perched quietly in the palm of his hand. The bird cocked its head, then flittered away and landed beside a woman reading a book on a bench. She looked up and smiled as the bird fluttered around her head. After that the old man’s mouth turned upwards.
Paulina thought he looked very alone in the early morning mist – like a statue, a megalith, hardly moving and always there. He stared at the pavement. The first leaves were falling and skittered at his feet. Strands of moist, white hair fell forward over his face. He drew his fingers through the thinning strands and smoothed them flat. He seemed to be waiting for something, and today, even more than other days, he looked so like her father.
She sat down on the bench beside him.
‘The birds are gone, ‘ she said.
‘They always go in the end,’ he replied.
She pointed to a branch on the cherry tree. ‘Look. The robin’s back.’
They sat awhile and talked about everyday things, then Paulina stood up, clenching her fists tightly until the knuckles turned the colour of the mist. ‘Would you do something for me please?
‘Of course. And what would that be?’
‘Come to dinner.’
The old man looked surprised and blinked. But why?’
‘Why thank you. I am only used to giving kindness.’
As she left the square, she knew exactly what she would cook.
She trimmed the flesh from the neck of lamb and set the bones in a saucepan of water to boil. She chopped the meat into chunks, rolling each piece in flour, and sealing them in hot fat. She sliced onions and carrots, cutting away the coarse outer leaves of the leeks and rinsing away the grit. She had cooked this dish so many times for her father. She sighed, peeling the coarse fibres from the head of celery – they always got stuck between his teeth. She peeled and sliced potatoes, arranging a thick layer on the bottom of the casserole dish. She mixed the vegetables with the lamb, seasoned it with herbs, and poured it into the pot on top of the potatoes. She arranged the remaining potato slices in a spiral on the top, then removing the hot bones from the saucepan, strained the liquid and poured it over the stew. She slid the casserole dish onto the bottom shelf of the oven, and began to cry.
She dabbed at her eyes with the tea cloth and remembered what she had to do. She peeled and chopped apples, mixing them with blackberries she had picked from their thicket at the bottom of the garden. She rubbed margarine into flour, and stirred in soft brown sugar. She tipped the fruit into a pie dish and poured the crumble topping over it. The cream was in the fridge – he had liked his crumble with cream.
Paulina laid the table carefully. He would sit on one side, she the other. She took a large winter overcoat from the cupboard under the stairs, shook the dust away, and draped it carefully over the back of his chair. Then she curled up in the window seat, clasped her hands together on her lap, and waited.
This story has an elegant sadness about it without it every becoming ‘sad’ – like two lost souls reunited. Beautifully written, Rachael.
Thank you, Chris. I understand what you felt and really appreciate your input.
Thanks, Chris. You understood it well, as a piece about a reunion of souls and not physical people, yet with the physical such as the overcoat and the meal to somehow ground what would have been a ethereal piece would have been a bit mushy… 🙂
Oh my. Exquisite piece of writing.
Thanks, Libby. You made my day on this sleepy, cold, wet morning 🙂
This is a very special little story. Very nicely done, Rachael
Thanks, Dan. Loved the photo of your Red setter at your feet on the sofa btw 🙂
Thanks. That’s where she’s sitting now 🙂
This is beautiful Rachael. I’m always fascinated by people who feed the birds – I’ve written a story about a woman who used to feed the pigeons and there is a man who feeds the birds in my novel in progress. But what I love about this is not only the intrigue of who this man is, what is his history, but the love and longing in the food she prepares and the waiting – will he come?
Thanks, Andrea. I understand your fascination. For me, these people are like a portal into a world I can’t access. There is a supernatural quality to them somehow. How can they do it? What do they know that I don’t.
There are a couple of longer versions in the story, but the ending is always the same. Paulina misses her father so much she looks for a substitute she can care for. The birdman needs human love, so he accepts her invitation. And yes, he does come for dinner, and she presents him with her father’s overcoat. I suppose the story is an attempt to soften boundaries of what is real and what may not be, and what I am saying is in the end, does it matter, if both have their needs met…
Sorry, that was a little long winded and confusing . I should like to read your story 🙂
I like the open ending of the one you posted Rachael, but I also like the idea of her giving him the overcoat – I have a great weakness for stories about fathers and daughters, since I no longer have my dad.
This is a beautiful piece of writing:)
Thank you! Your appreciation is much valued 🙂
A delightful story full of feeling. Family ties are so precious but so are those between ‘kindred spirits’ who delight to share and give. Both young and old have so much to give each other, as in your story.
Thank you for your sensitive and valued comments, Richard. There is something very special about friendships between the very young and very old…
loved your piece..gives an insight on family ties…a very interesting topic
Thanks for your comment. You spotted what I was up to 🙂
This is beautiful! Loved it 🙂
Thank you! 🙂
Good story, thanks for sharing!
Thanks, Emily. Your comment is much appreciated 🙂
I’m not used to getting so much depth in short stories. I found this quite refreshing.
Thanks, Bliss. I like to dive in deep from the beginning 🙂
Quite interesting! I love it. Thank you.
Thank you. So pleased you like it 🙂