A short story by Annie Kirby
A storm of red dust whirled from one continent to another and delivered the sunbird into my garden.
The morning after the red dust had fallen magically over the city, like sprinkling of coppery snow, I was wiping the washing line with a cloth to prevent the dust from staining my freshly washed sheets, when I heard a mournful, unfamiliar bird call, chee-ee-choo. I stood like a statue, moving only my eyes, searching for the source of the cry. It came again, chee-ee-choo, and this time I spied it, a tiny bird, no bigger than the palm of my hand, perched on an outer branch of the lime tree, its purple-black feathers almost a silhouette against the leaves. The bird turned towards me on its branch, chee-ee-choo, and I saw that upon its chest was a perfect circle of iridescent red, a bright sun rising in a midnight sky. The bird took off from the branch, followed a darting path of motion like a bumblebee, and hovered in front of the usually pristine white flowers of the morning glory, coated today with a film of red dust. The bird drank nectar from the cup of each flower before flitting to the next, its tiny wings a blur of graceful movement. The bird returned to its perch on the lime tree and called out, chee-ee-choo, chee-ee-choo. The bird paused, seemingly inviting a response and, when there was none, it cried out again. Chee-ee-choo. Something in that cry tugged at me from deep inside my belly and I watched the bird with the sun on it chest, mesmerised by its sadness, as I hung out the washing. Then Mario cried out from the nursery, and I hurried inside.
The bird was still in my garden that afternoon when it began to rain. Chee-ee-choo. The fat, warm, summer raindrops fell almost in slow motion, mixing the remnants of the African dust into a dark, russet paste. The bird ventured out from beneath the lime-leaves to the naked end of a twig, stretched out his wings and raised his chest into the rain. The rain washed the dust from its tiny feathers. It sang hopefully. I began to wonder if the bird might be somebody’s pet, an exotic bird escaped from its cage. I wheeled Mario in his pram through the strange, sluggish rain to the office of the Ekslusiv and placed an advertisement. The headline that day was perfunctory. African Dust Rains on City.
Walking home, the clouds relented and the warm rain fell unimpeded and joyful,vigorously splashing the hem of my dress, thundering on the pram hood and making Mario laugh. The rain had vitality enough to wash away the last of the miracle African dust, cleansing the city. I peered through the rainy haze into the garden, but could not discern the bird with the sun on its chest.I could see it in my imagination, though, a huddle of damp feathers sheltered in the densest centre branches of the lime tree. The rain drummed steadily onto the lime leaves, soaking up the echo of its call.
“You were talking in your sleep again, Asja,” said Petar. He swallowed the last of his coffee and pushed the cup away.
“Was I?” I said, from my place by the kitchen window, as I stared out into the garden trying to glimpse the sunbird in the morning light. “Well, you must be used to it by now.”
Petar folded his newspaper and snapped his briefcase closed. “Yes,” he said, “but it is not usual for you to call out another man’s name.”
“Are you jealous,” I teased, “of a dream?”
Petar kissed my forehead and ruffled Mario’s hair. He smiled, but his face was troubled, pensive. I felt guilty, even though I could not remember the dream. Petar was a good man and a good husband and I did not wish to cause him pain. Still, I was curious, and followed him to the doorstep.
Straightening his collar with one hand I asked, casually, “What was the name of my dream ljubav?”
“Well, my love,” I said, kissing his cheek, “let me reassure you. I have no lover called Micha, nor by any other name.”
I waved Petar goodbye, Mario balanced on my hip. I kept my smile light. After the rain of dust and the rain of rain, the weather had returned to normal, and the late summer heat was heavy and intense. I set a blanket down in a shady corner of the garden and smoked a cigarette as I watched Mario play. Chee-ee-choo. I looked up to see the bird with the sun on its chest fluttering down past an untended grape vine like a graceful butterfly to drink from the honeysuckle that crept along the rear wall of the garden,flicking its long tongue down into the trumpets of the flowers. I listened to the bird sing and thought about Micha, who was not my lover but my son, my firstborn child.
There were no replies to my advertisement about a found tropical bird, but Petar brought home a colleague from the university, Professor Ćosić, an expert in flora and fauna.
“Fascinating, fascinating,” said Professor Ćosić, sloshing his coffee into the saucer as we all crept out into the garden. “See how it hovers to drink from the flowers. This is a hummingbird, my dear, from South America. It must have escaped from a private aviary.”
“Perhaps we should try to capture it,” said Petar. “I don’t suppose it will survive in the open for very long.”
“An impossible task, I fear,” said Professor Ćosić. “See how fast it moves?”
“Poor thing,” I said. “I wish we could help it.”
The bird with the sun on its chest sat in the lime tree and sang mournfully. Petar and Professor Ćosić laughed and joked as they finished their tea, but I had ears only for the bird’s sad song.
“You are lying on your back,” I said to Petar, as the morning sun filtered into the bedroom. “You do that only when something is on your mind.”
I put my hand on his chest and tousled my fingernails through the dark hairs there. He rolled away from me, clinging almost to the edge of the bed.
“What?” I said. “Tell me.”
“Again, Asja, you called out for Micha in your dreams.”
The tremble in Petar’s voice shocked me. I always thought of him as being so strong. I pressed my body against his, resting my forehead against the back of his neck. We lay there for a while, in silence. I kissed his earlobe, but he did not respond.
“Petar, I promise there is no one. Only you. There has only ever been you.”
“I believe you, Asja,” he whispered, but I could hear the doubt in his voice.
This time I could remember the dream. I dreamt of my son, of the precious hours after his birth when I was permitted to hold him, nurse him,press my lips to his warm forehead. I dreamt also that my child was prised from my arms, that I screamed and begged them to let me keep him, but this part of the dream was false. It sweetened my guilt. In truth, I was meek and compliant, a coward. Perhaps my youth and inexperience pardoned me. I do not know. I kept his name silent, in my heart, and spoke it aloud to no one, not even to myself.
Other parts of the dream were true, like my son’s blue eyes, so deep and piercing they seemed almost not to be the eyes of an infant, and his mop of black hair that was strangely lustrous, not delicate like the hair of my younger brothers and sisters when they were born. His father was not important, just a boy, as I was just a girl. My mother arranged for me to give birth in a village to the west, in the house of a distant cousin of hers. The cousin – I cannot remember her name – had rosy-red apple cheeks, strangely incompatible with her unkind eyes and thin, disapproving lips. She negotiated with a childless couple across the border, a couple, she told me, of wealth, good character and status. My cousin predicted the child’s black hair would rub away within the month.
“Just as well,”she sniffed. “His new mother and father are fair-haired and fair-complexioned. I’m sure they would prefer the child to take their looks.”
The day after I gave up my son, my cousin delivered me to the bus stop in a shiny new car. The car was dark blue and she caressed it incessantly with her long bony fingers, as if it were a lover. I said thank you to the woman who had exchanged my baby for a motor car and boarded the bus back to the city. I touched my belly, feeling the still loose folds of skin there beneath the pretty dress my cousin had given me, and thought that I was just a husk now, a lifeless thing, like the new car my cousin loved so much. I did not weep.
Our efforts to capture the bird,with a butterfly net on loan from Professor Ćosić, were fruitless. When Petar, who was the tallest, made his attempt, the bird simply flitted from branch to branch of the lime tree, teasingly always just out of his reach. When I tried, the bird remained on its perch, watching me with fearful black eyes as I positioned the net. I was cautious, not even daring to breathe, but at the last moment, snagging the soft mesh on a twig, the net tore and the sunbird hopped up to the next branch, then the next one and the next one, until it was too high even for the long stem of the net to reach. The bird did not feed or sing for the rest of the day, but shivered in the safety of the highest branches of the lime tree. I felt as if I had betrayed it.
When the bird had been in our garden for a week, and on a day when there was apparently not much of import happening in the world, the Ekslusiv sen ta photographer and a junior reporter. The photograph of the bird, taken with a fast shutter speed to capture the scarcely detectable beats of its tiny wings as it hovered above the bell of a morning glory, was published alongside one of Professor Ćosić and an interview with him, in which he described the habits and characteristics of hummingbirds. It was a miracle,Professor Ćosić told the reporter, that the hummingbird had survived so long, feeding on the morning glory and honeysuckle that grew in this unsophisticated garden in the university quarter. The young reporter did not ask for my opinion, but if he had, I would have told him it was a tragedy, not a miracle.
I dreamt of Micha again. In this dream, he was the age he would be now, a ten-year-old boy kicking a football between the lavender pots in an ordinary, provincial garden. It took a heartbeat for me to recognise the garden in my dream as being my own. I was looking at it from an unfamiliar angle,perched high up in the lime tree, as my son played on the patio below. He had the same thick, dark mop of hair he’d had as an infant, when I’d held him in my arms, so different from Mario’s cherubic, blond curls. Engrossed in his game, Micha’s gaze was directed away from me and, wanting to see his face, his eyes, I called out to him, “Micha, Micha,” but the sound that escaped from my lips was not my son’s name, but the mournful cry of the bird with the sun on its chest, chee-ee-choo, chee-ee-choo. The football rolled away discarded and Micha turned his face up towards the lime tree to search for the source of the call. As I drank in the sight of his rosy skin and dark blue eyes, a deluge of red dust rained from the sky and covered Micha’s face. I called out again for my son, chee-ee-choo,chee-ee-choo, but the rain of dust choked me and muffled my cries.
In the morning, Petar was irritable and distant, his eyes ringed with worry and darkness. I tried to find the words to reassure him as he kissed Mario distractedly on the forehead, but I could think only of my firstborn son’s face covered by a blanket of red dust.
The photograph in the Ekslusiv caught the attention of a new Professor, from a more important university in the south.
“A hummingbird? Pah!” Professor Geminiani boomed.
Professor Ćosić, who had accompanied him, bristled silently. Professor Geminiani ignored him and addressed me directly.
“This is clearly an African sunbird, my dear. Blown over by the recent exceptional meteorological phenomenon, I should imagine.”
“He means the dust storm, Mrs Agnič,” sniffed Professor Ćosić, in case I had not understood all the long words.
“Of course, of course,” continued Professor Geminiani. “Something of a marvel that the poor creature has survived this long.”
“Well,” said Petar, who was standing on the other side of the professors with Mario in his arms, as much distance between him and me as possible, “it has been unseasonably warm, I suppose.”
After the professors had gone and Mario was asleep, I stood in the garden in the fading light and smoked a cigarette. The sunbird, in its usual place in the lime tree, called out. Chee-ee-choo. Chee-ee-choo.
Petar sat alone at the kitchen table, his knuckles and face pale and fearful in the darkening room.
“Now Asja,” he said, softly, placing his big hands beseechingly on the table, “you must tell me who this Micha is.”
“There is nothing to tell,” I said.
I learnt about sunbirds from a book in the city library. There were many varieties, ranging the length of the continent from Egypt to South Africa. The name sunbird had nothing to do with the bright red sun on the chest of the bird in my garden. There were sunbirds that were green and purple, sunbirds that were yellow and red, sunbirds that were black and orange. The females were generally less brightly coloured than the males, as is the way with so many species of bird. They mate for life.
The Ekslusiv published a supplement to their original story, containing the up to date information from Professor Geminiani and proclaiming the miracle of the sunbird blown over from Africa on a cloud of red dust. News of the sunbird spread throughout the city and beyond. One Thursday afternoon, two families,pilgrims returning from a trip to a village in the north where the Virgin Mary had appeared every day for a decade, visited my garden to witness the new miracle of our time. I served coffee and chocolate palacinke as the pilgrims filed across the lawn and craned their necks up to the lime tree to where the sunbird was sunning itself on a branch. The sunbird sang and the older pilgrims responded with oohs and aahs, as their children kicked dispiritedly at the tufty, yellow weeds that grew up between the cracks in the paving stones. The sunbird called out again and the grandmother, or great-grandmother, of one of the families, who had pale, rheumy eyes and was dressed in the old-fashioned style with a black head-scarf knotted over her white hair, was moved to kneel and genuflect. I helped the old woman to her feet as her relatives chattered, sipped their coffee and speculated on the miracle of the sunbird. I noticed, as I took the old woman’s elbow, that there were tears in her eyes. She blinked them away and whispered to herself and I wondered if she cried out in her sleep for a lost child, a lost lover, a lost continent.
The pilgrims were gone and I was putting Mario to bed by the time Petar, who was working at the University later and later it seemed, returned home to a kitchen cluttered with stained cups and plates smeared with melted chocolate.
I watched Micha from the lime tree as he played, making patterns in the red dust as he kicked a football across the garden.
“Micha, Micha,” I called out except that, once again, only the call of the sunbird came from my lips. Chee-ee-choo. But miraculously it seemed that this time my son heard the words beneath the bird call, for he turned his beautiful face up to the lime tree and smiled a smile of pure delight.
“Mama, Mama,” he called, reaching up towards the tree, his football rolling forgotten on the grass.
“Micha,” I called down, but the sound, again, was chee-ee-choo.
“Mama, Mama, look at the bird,” called Micha.
I blinked in confusion and, from my perch in the lime tree, watched a strange woman come to stand in my kitchen door. She was perhaps a decade older than I, pale gold from head to foot in the late afternoon light.
“Yes, dear,” she said, with the barest glance at me sitting in the tree. Her accent was unfamiliar, jarring to my ears. “Very pretty. Now come inside Ivo, it’s time for your supper.”
“Yes, Mama,” said Micha, and skipped to the door, his gaze still locked with mine.
The pale woman spat on her thumb and rubbed an imaginary smudge from my son’s brow. I cried out, helplessly.
“It certainly is a noisy bird, dear,” I heard her say, from inside my kitchen.
The sunbird lived on in our garden as summer withered along with the leaves on the lime tree and autumn gusted in and blew them to the ground. The stream of pilgrims and birdwatchers who visited our garden, with their rosaries and binoculars, unofficially established the sunbird as a miracle. The sunbird became even more popular than the Virgin Mary of the North. Father Kovac came to tea and referred to the sunbird as a blessing from God, an opinion he repeated in his Sunday sermon. I silently disagreed with Father Kovac’s interpretation. It seemed to me not to be a blessing for the sunbird to be separated from his continent and his mate. As the weather chilled, the first yellow buds of winter jasmine replaced the morning glory and the sunbird continued to feed, although less frequently than before. The sunbird’s song still echoed through our garden everyday, its beauty made somehow more melancholy by the falling temperature. As the sunbird cried out for Africa, I cried out for my son. Petar took to sleeping in the nursery with Mario, as he could not bear to hear me speak another man’s name in my dreams.
I opened my eyes to find myself once again in a dream, shivering high up in the winter-naked branches of the lime tree. I knew it was a dream because the garden below was white with virginal snow, blanketing even the winter jasmine. It almost never snows here. The sky above was also white, heavy with snow not yet fallen. Someone was climbing over the wall. I recognised Micha instantly, although in this dream he was almost grown, on the cusp of manhood. He was, in fact, about the same age as I had been when I gave birth to him. The barest hint of a beard curled along his jaw. His black hair was lank, hanging in clumps across his forehead. He stumbled into the snow and sank, up to his knees.
“Micha,” I called. Chee-ee-choo.
Micha looked up at the lime tree and smiled, the remarkable blue of his eyes undiminished by adulthood. His clothes, I noticed, were ragged and he was too thin. Slung across his chest was a rifle. He is too old, I thought, to be playing with toys. I fluffed up my feathers, to try to keep out the winter chill, and took flight, intending to hover in front of my son’s face and drink in his beauty, but instead I found myself in front Micha, in my own form, wearing the blue dress my cousin had given me on the day I gave him up to her. Micha seemed to stare right through me; his eyes were unfocused and exhausted. I wondered if, in this dream, I was invisible.
“Micha,”I said, half expecting the word to come out as chee-ee-choo. But it was my own voice, muffled slightly by the snow.
Micha flinched and blinked. He fumbled with the rifle and pointed it me. I understood then that it was not a toy.
He did not reply. I heard a woman scream in the distance, and the guttural sound of men laughing. Micha’s hands trembled as he attempted to control the barrel of the rifle. I could see that he had cut the fingers off the ends of his gloves, to enable him to handle his rifle more easily. His fingertips were raw with the cold.
“Why are you calling me that?” he said, speaking with the same, jangling accent as the pale woman I had seen in my kitchen in another dream. “That is not my name.”
I became aware of other noises – sporadic gunfire, crying, and a single, loud bang that would have reverberated across the city if it had not been for the deadening effect of the snow. Micha’s eyes darted from side to side and his shoulders jerked at every sound.
“Why are you pointing that gun at me?” I said, softly.
“B-because you are the enemy,” he said.
“No, Micha,” I said. “I am not your enemy. You look tired and cold. Come inside and I will make you some soup to warm you.”
“I shall take whatever I want,” he stammered. “I do not need your permission. We are victorious.”
“Come inside, Micha. Please.”
My son cringed at another scatter of gunfire and, as he did so, his face transformed into a mask of amazement. He threw his rifle aside and dropped to his knees in the snow, bowing his head low.
He stared up at me, his blue eyes animated with hope and wonder.
“Are you an angel?” he whispered.
I looked down at myself then, and saw that my body was not quite substantial and that my feet were not quite touching the snow. In this dream it seemed I was a ghost. Micha crossed himself and pressed his fists against his forehead. He began to weep. I remained motionless, suspended in the frosty, white air as Micha raised his face to me.
“I am not an angel,” I said. “But come inside awhile anyway. I would like to talk to you.”
I felt the bullet pass through me, a moment before I heard the report snap across the garden. The bullet travelled in slow motion, following a downwards trajectory, entering between my shoulder blades,shattering my spine, grazing the edge of my heart and piercing my diaphragm before exiting from my abdomen. I was aware, with exquisite clarity, the precise splintering of each bone, the hewing of muscle and sinew as the bullet passed through me but, as is sometimes the way with dreams, I experienced no pain, only the icy chill of winter air as it flooded into my body along the path torn by the bullet. I did not bleed because I was a ghost.
Micha grunted and slumped backwards into the snow. Bright crimson unfurled across his chest, soaking his filthy clothes.
“Micha!” I screamed, and dropped out of the sky, my feet sinking deep into snow that was no longer white, but pink. “Micha, no!” I knelt beside him, slid one arm beneath his head, held his hand.
“Please,” he said, as bubbles of blood gurgled up onto his tongue, “my name is Ivo. Have you come to take me to heaven?”
“Sshh,” I whispered. “Try not to talk.”
His blood was hot; it steamed and melted the snow.
“I want my Mama.”
“I know, Ivo. I know you do.”
The cold air that had rushed into my body along the path of the bullet flooded upwards into the space behind my eyes and froze my tears inside me. I stroked Micha’s hair as he closed his eyes. I kissed his eyelids and forehead. I tried to lift him, but it seemed I had only feathers for arms. Snow fell, and covered his face.
When I woke, the bed was too cold and the room was too bright. The bed was too cold because I was the only person in it. Petar was sleeping in the nursery, with Mario. The room was too bright because the snow that rarely falls here had covered the city and it reflected the low winter sun back into the room through a chink in the curtains. A wave of dread welled up in me, and I threw off the blankets and ran outside into the garden, barefoot in my nightdress.
“No,” I cried. “Oh, no.”
The sunbird lay frozen on the pristine snow, underneath the lime tree. I half-knelt, half-fell into the snow,soaking my nightdress, and scooped the sunbird up in my palms. The sunbird was cold and stiff and weighed almost nothing. Its little body had not made even the shallowest of indentations in the snow. Its eyes were open, but not seeing. I blew my warm breath onto its feathers. I cradled it to my breast. I rubbed my thumb on its chest, above the place where I thought its heart would be, but the sunbird was dead, lost to the pilgrims and the birdwatchers, lost to Africa, lost to me. Petar was in the garden, calling my name and touching my arm, but I shrugged him away.
I lay the sunbird gently down and, hardly noticing the cold, scratched snow away with my hands uncovering the hard, winter earth below. I hollowed out a hole in the dirt with my bare fingers, in among the roots of the lime tree. A few snowflakes fell from the sky, fluttering down like butterflies, melting on my shoulders.
I buried the sunbird in the cold, foreign European ground and covered it over with earth and snow. All the time Petar watched me, and all the time I wept. I wept for the sunbird, I wept for Micha, and I wept for myself.
My memory tells me lies. I know this, because it insists that the sound of my weeping was chee-ee-choo, the sound of the sunbird’s cry.
(c) Annie Kirby, 2018