THE GREAT BIRD
Awakened by the storm, the slender young woman shivered in her white cotton nightgown. The rain lashed against the window, drops of rain trickling down the glass, reminding her of the many tears shed since Dr Valentine had examined her with a grave expression. The blood stained sheets had confirmed her fate. Consumption. Condemned to die at eighteen years old; coughing blood, growing pale as a phantom, wasting away as the disease consumed her lungs, draining her young life away. Sentenced to death by a doctor called Valentine- the cruel irony tasted as bitter as the laudanum he gave her to ease the pain in her chest.
A flash of lightening lit up the bedroom briefly; the embroidered roses on the counterpane glowed red then vanished, consumed back into the darkness. Outside the apple tree stood- a skeletal apparition, bare and bereft of leaves and the delicious rosy red apples of just a few weeks ago. Its branches creaked and groaned against the wind which pulled and tugged at them as though it were playing a cruel game. She watched the apple tree do battle with the wind and defiance rose within her. Putting on her dressing gown she crept downstairs; each slippered foot a mere whisper on the carved oak stairs.
Rest and no excitement, Dr Valentine had ordered; no music, no rousing of the passions, as she wiped blood from her lips with her handkerchief, for they would almost certainly hasten the Consumption. Her father had prised her music sheets from her cold white fingers and thrown them in the fire. Too weak to fight him, she had lain helplessly on her bed and watched the flames greedily consuming her one joy in life, silently weeping hot bitter tears which stung her cold white face.
From that day on, her life slowly passed by spent lying on her bed gazing out of her window at the garden, watching the new life grow in the Spring as hers slowly drained from her, prohibited from going downstairs to take part in her former life of music, laughter and gaiety. Once she had been carefree, the future had beckoned with promise of fulfilment, youth blossoming into adulthood, a lifetime of possibilities. The first sign of the promise denied by the red droplet on a lace handkerchief, hastily hidden from prying eyes, until the fateful night of the torrent pouring onto the white bedlinen cruelly cut away any hope from her aching heart.
She laid her hand on the doorknob and opened the door to the back parlour; there it stood, the ivory keys gleamed in the moonlight, inviting her touch. My fate is sealed now, she thought, so of what use is it to deny my heart’s desire? Gently, she lifted the lid and sat down on the stool; she hesitated for a moment, her fingers aching as they hovered over the soft white keys; it had been so long since she had been permitted to play. The piano waited patiently for her to begin.
The tall clock in the corner of the parlour ticked, each tick a reminder of precious time lost and her hands made contact with the ivory keys; the feeling was bittersweet; her hands created shapes and sounds in the shadowy moonlit room; the notes told of her grief and longing to live, to be the pianist she knew she should be.
The notes grew into melodies, giving rise to crescendos, her fingers working the keys faster and faster as her heart ached, and her chest ached and pain wracked her frail body. A paroxysm of coughing seized her- yet on she played, staccato, crescendo, then adagio…on and on she played till blood gushed over the keys and she gasped, inhaling one last time the rich woody smell of her beloved piano as she collapsed onto the lid and lay still.
Jess walked along the shore, her bare feet sinking into the warm sand. The sea danced and rolled as if it were alive; she held out her arms, relishing the wildness and smell of salt in the air. The desire to stay here and leave everything was overwhelming.
The sea spoke to her of an alternative to mere existence – spontaneity and freedom. She picked up a shell and carved life! into the wet sand and watched waves skim over it until it got washed away. Holding the shell to her ear she heard the wind murmuring through it.
A large surge of foam sprayed at her feet , bringing with it a dark green bottle . Inside was a piece of paper. Carefully she unfolded the thick yellowed paper to see a sketch of a young man with fair hair. Written underneath the drawing in brown ink she read:
I, Edward of Kittiwake Cottage seek my life’s love. Here by the sea I search for you.
Jess scanned the shore. The horizon was empty save for circling sea birds. Looking out over the sea a thrill of excitement washed over her- where was Kittiwake Cottage? She hadn’t seen it in the area. Was it across the Irish Sea?
She tore out a page from her notebook and drew a sketch of herself. It showed a brown eyed girl, long dark hair tossed over one shoulder. She took out her pen and wrote underneath:
I Jessica, here by the sea, seek Edward.
She folded up her paper, placed it in the bottle and swam far out as she dared and threw the bottle into the sea. As it landed with a loud plop she closed her eyes and wished for him to find it.
The young man moved the candle closer to the mirror and picked up his pencil. He worked quickly for candles were costly ; if his father caught him burning an extra candle he would surely clip him round the ear for being wasteful.
His pencil moved rapidly over the scrap of paper he had found in the street. Paper too was costly, and he rarely had a whole sheet to draw on. His soul was an artist’s one- he stole away some afternoons when his father was at the fish market, sketching the scenes he saw at the shore- birds, crabs and boats.
When he had no paper he drew on the sand. He liked to watch the waves wash away his sketchings; in his fanciful imagination he saw them as prayers to the sea, hoping one day they would be answered.
Shivering in the cold night air he threw the bottle out into the sea, watching it bobbing out further and further, a messenger of his secret yearning.
Each night his father’s heavy boots thudded up the creaking stair case invading his son’s dreams of a dark haired beauty; she of the kindred soul who glimpsed deeper into life’s surface and heard the language of the wind.
Later that night a storm blew; Edward and his little brother Will huddled under their blanket against the cold. In the other bedroom the fisherman prayed for calm seas the following morning- the sea decided if they made a living or not.
The office was stuffy, the air filled with the constant chattering of people and the tapping of keyboards. Making a living meant persuading people to sign up to packages and a stifling of dreams. Jess went through the motions, her mind drifting to the summer holiday at the seaside .
Her boss walked past her desk interrupting her reveries and giving her a meaningful glare. She quickly dialled a number.
“Hello, Mrs Roberts? I am calling you regarding your account with us…”
The day dragged on, voices at the end of the phone, targets and a headache.
When the weekend finally arrived Jess packed her things and took a last minute train to the seaside. It was a cold windy day and the sky was streaked with slate coloured clouds. The sea was choppy and wilder than ever.
She pulled her woolly hat further over her ears against the biting wind and walked up and down the length of the shore; eyes watering against the wind she searched for a small green bottle. It was madness she told herself- would he really have found it? And if he did, would he even reply? For hours Jess walked along the sodden sand; darkness fell and the only light came from the huge full moon that hung over the horizon.
At daybreak the fisherman hauled his boat out into the sea. The storm had raged for a day and had lost him work. As he filled the boat with supplies he noticed a shape lying on the sand. Moving closer he saw a strangely dressed young woman, her dark hair tangled and wet over her pallid cheeks. He put his ear to her mouth and found she was barely breathing.
“Ned! “ he shouted, running back towards the cottage, “Ned!”
Ned opened the door, bowl of porridge in his hand.
“What’s to do Da?”
“There’s a young lass half drowned down the beach, help me carry in her in!”
The two men carried the girl into their cottage and placed her by the fire.
They took as much of her wet clothes off as was decent and wrapped her up in a blanket.
“Take care of her lads. Ned you don’t have to come out with me today.”
“Yes Da,” he replied. After his father left he looked more closely at the girl. Gently, he moved her hair away from her face and gave a little gasp.
“J – Jessica?”
The girl stirred.
“Edward?” Her voice came as a whisper.
“You came,” he said, “ the sea… it took my message..”
Outside the wind rattled against the wooden shutters of the cottage. Edward walked over to the window, let the morning light in and blew out the candle.
THE GREAT BIRD.
My tribe has a legend that a Great Bird sang the world into existence. It is a handsome bird with blue and red feathers and a yellow beak and its song is so beautiful that nothing can compare with it. Our ancestors greatly revered the Great Bird and treated all birds with honour and kindness; for were they not the children of the Great Bird?
Today younger people of my tribe do not believe in this legend in the same way of our ancestors but they respect the birds. The Elders tell them that if the birds start to stop singing then all is not well with the Earth. Every day the Elders go into the forest and listen to the birds; for they believe that the birds sing the songs of the Earth, given to them by the Great Bird. Our legend tells us that when the birds stop singing then the world will end.
My people love the forest and treat it kindly for we know that it gives us food and life. The Elders are worried for they know that in other parts of the world the forests and the birds are dying; for not all people live as we do. Hason’e our Elder has listened to the birds and their songs are weakening.
This morning after I had bathed in the river and was eating one of the sweet yellow fruits from the forest, my younger brother Kal’aa came running down the river bank towards me.
“Wasan’e! Wasan’e!” he gasped , “The birds….the birds….”
“Easy…easy..” I soothed, putting my hand on his shoulder, trying to calm him. As he started breathing easier I waited for him to speak. His panicked expression caused me to shiver despite the heat. I had never seen my brother’s face show such fear.
“Listen…listen….” He whispered.
I stood and listened for a few moments. “I hear nothing,” I said at last.
Kal’aa looked into my eyes; as our eyes met a growing dread filled my heart.
“The birds…” I finally managed, my voice strangling in my throat.
“They are not singing,” Kal’aa said, tears falling down his face.
Hason’e emerged out of the forest and slowly walked towards us. One by one our tribe followed him. As he neared us, we could see that in his hands he held something brightly coloured; hues of red and blue caught the sun.
Kal’aa gasped. “The Great Bird!”
Hason’e gently stroked the feathers of the limp creature in his hands. He raised the bird to his lips and began to hum a song to it; one of the ancient songs of our tribe, a song given to us by the ancestors to honour the Great Bird.
As Hason’e’s voice rose one by one we began to join in; our voices soared over the forest, into the sky and beyond. The trees rustled their leaves, the wind howled. Yet the Great Bird lay motionless and silent in Hason’e’s hands.
It was too late.