The Man Who Cried Bird

Standard
Digital drawing. Bottom half, a pair of binoculars, forward facing. Perched on the right side top is the translucent silhouette of a sparrow, seen in left profile, with beak open. Through the sparrow’s form and in the lenses of the binoculars are hazy layers of foliage, tree canopies. Branching shapes covered with light thorny patches frame the right and left side.

“It’s a blue cardinal, look.”

Roy looked as Andre swiped through the photos he’d taken of the bird perched on the branches of the tree near the picnic area of his park he’d visited that weekend.

“There’s no such bird, Andre.”

Andre closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose.  “That’s because no one has seen him, until now.”

“You know I don’t like to try identifying just based on pictures—even when it seems obvious—but this looks to me like it’s a grosbeak.  Blue, but not cardinal, I’m afraid.”

“Would you send it on anyway?  To your friend at the sanctuary?  She’d know for sure, right?”

“Happy to,” Roy said, and before he could ask that Andre send him the pictures, Andre sent the pictures.

As Roy turned to leave, Andre clasped a hand to his shoulder.  “She can be trusted, right?” Andre asked.  “To not steal the credit.”

Roy gave a solid nod.  “Of course.”

Andre patted the very shoulder he’d been grasping, and took a deep breath as he strode back to his booth.  The server had just set his plate of lunch down.  He’d caught Roy coming in for a pick-up. 

They next day—next morning actually—he already had a response from Roy, forwarded from the friend who worked at the avian sanctuary.  She had identified the bird.

Blue grosbeak.

***

A month later, Andre submitted to the group that he had spotted a Labrador duck on a recent work trip.  The duck was just waddling along beside a pond when he casually checked a few field guide applications on his phone and realized he couldn’t find it, not until he did a wider search based on the pictures he took.

The Labrador duck was not a new species. 

It was an extinct one.

And it hadn’t just gone extinct.  None had been seen in the wild for a hundred and fifty years. 

“Are you sure?” Andre asked, holding a hand over his open ear while he held the phone over the other. 

Megan—another member of his birding group—was on the other end.  She confirmed that the bird Andre had spotted was a long-tailed duck.  The duck in Andre’s pictures did not appear to have the distinctive long tail feathers.  But that could have been because they were lost in some mishap.

Andre grunted in frustration.  “I was sure this time.”

“Great picture, though,” Megan said.  “Did you get a new lenses, or something?”

“No, I just got closer.”

Megan was silent for a moment, and Andre sighed.  “I didn’t bother him, okay?” he said.

“I’ll get you a second opinion if you’d like.”

Andre made a fist and pumped it.  “That would be great, thanks.” 

Maybe Megan was wrong.

***

A few weeks after learning that Megan was right, and that he hadn’t uncovered the reemergence of a species marked as extinct, Andre was strolling along a hiking trail in his usual park.

He didn’t have his binoculars, or his camera.  He wasn’t looking at birds or people or the trees.  He was checking his phone for plane ticket prices.  Wherever the price was cheapest was where he would go.  He wasn’t having any luck discovering the unknown close to home.  Maybe he’d have better luck if he traveled farther away.

Someone whistled and he glanced up and around to check for a pedestrian or cyclist.  But he didn’t see anyone.  He continued on, hearing only the gravel crunching under his sneakers from one ear, and his nature walk playlist through the earbud in his other ear. 

But then came another whistle.  Sharp, clear, a lower note and a higher note, like someone trying to get his attention.

Andre pulled his earbud out.  A jogger approached.  She glanced at him and veered out and away as she passed him. 

As soon as she passed, the whistle sounded again.  In the dappled shadows lying on the path, Andre saw small shapes flitting between branches, and dry leaves fluttering in the light breeze.  He looked up.  He heard plenty of trilling, chirping, and even whistling.  But it all sounded like birds.

He stood for a moment and listened.  It came again.  One high whistle.  Then a two-note whistle.  He could almost imagine a guy holding two fingers together in circle, putting them against his lips and blowing.

He narrowed his eyes and caught a glint in the branches of the tree several yards down the path.  He approached slowly and peered up.  There was a bird in the tree, a sparrow, he looked like, though all his feathers were gray or bluish-gray. 

And he was looking down at Andre.

The bird cocked his head.

Andre stood still.

The bird straightened his head.  He opened his beak.  And he whistled.  One high note.  Followed by a two-note whistle, high and low. 

Andre had learned musical notes at some point in his youth, but he couldn’t name what notes the sparrow was singing now.  He raised his phone to face level, so he could snap a picture, and take an audio recording.

The bird hopped to another branch, a higher branch.

Andre pressed the shutter button just as the bird flew off.

He checked the picture.  It was nothing but a blur of gray. 

He decided to wait another fifteen or so minutes, in case the sparrow returned.  He couldn’t spare much more than that, being that he had a work meeting he would already be late for.

He didn’t see or hear that sparrow again.  He circled the tree, gazing up.  And he checked around the base of the tree for any fallen feathers.  The only bird-related matter he saw was a smattering of droppings.  There was a metallic sheen to some of the droppings, like melted stainless steel, or silver paint.

He looked at the tree trunks to see if they had been marked in some way.

Seeing nothing, he shrugged and started jogging back home.

By the end of the day, Andre had forgotten all about the curious sparrow.  He only remembered his encounter when he received a message about the Labrador duck he was certain he’d spotted.  Andre had found and consulted his own expert, a university professor who specialized in the study of extinct bird species or ancient bird fossils. 

The professor confirmed Megan’s assessment.

***

Andre peered at Roy as they sat across from each other at lunch.  He had just been lamenting about his latest disappointment with the Labrador duck.

“How long have you been at, Roy?”

Roy’s brow’s shifted up just a bit.  “Birding?  I don’t know.  A long while.  Started when I was a young man.”

“Megan says you’ve been at it for sixty years.”

Roy’s shoulders shook in a silent chuckle.  He shook his head, as he raised another forkful of fried rice to his mouth.  “Sounds about right.”

“Does it ever bother you that in all that time, you’ve never seen a bird that no one else has ever seen before?”

“Not as much as it bothers you.”

“Nothing wrong with wanting to see the unknown.”

“Of course not.  But is that the only thing worth seeing?”

Andre sat back.  One corner of his mouth drew up in a smile.  “Well, I did see something I’ve never seen before.  The other day.  On my morning walk.”

“Oh?” 

“I’m sure it was a sparrow, but all of its feathers were gray, or maybe a blue-gray.  And it had a whistling call.”  Andre whistled in his best imitation.

Roy took a sip of his iced tea. His eyes crinkled at the corners and he pressed his lips together, but didn’t say what he thought the bird might be.

“I swear he was looking right at me,” Andre said.  He leaned forward and hunched his shoulders.  He grinned.  “And I think he left some silver droppings.”

Roy’s taut expression relaxed.  He met Andre’s gaze and huffed out a laugh. 

“Diving deep into the legends, huh?” he said.  He dropped his gaze back to his plate of food.

“What?”

Passer plumargentis.”

Andre pulled out his phone to check his advanced field guide application.  But Roy raised a hand and shook it.

“Don’t bother.  I’m just teasing you.  Didn’t you find out that’s what they call him?  Or were you hoping you’d be the one to name him?”  Roy chuckled.

“Who?”

“The bird you’re talking about.  The one from the story.”

Andre blinked.  “I don’t think I know the whole story.”

“No one does, at first.  I picked up details along the way.  Thought it was real at first, just like you.  By the time I learned the ‘scientific name’ for him, I knew he was imaginary.  I don’t think I’m supposed to tell you the whole thing.  I’m supposed to let you have the fun of finding out on your own.  But I’m not forbidden from saying anything either, if you want to know.”

Andre was sitting still now, ignoring his own plate of food despite the rumbling in his belly.  He’d only taken a few bites. 

“I want to know,” he said.

Roy took a long swig of his iced tea.  “Well, it started with a few details,” he said.  “A painter back in pre-medieval times.  He’d found a way to make silver paint, you see.  And people found out about it.  Whenever he made a small precious batch of it, his rivals would try to steal it—or hire thieves to steal it.  The painter had a little daughter, who suggested to her father that he spread a rumor about how he got the paint to discourage the thieves.  She said he should tell people that the silver paint was actually the droppings of a bird who only ate the seeds or leaves of the silver willow, or something like that.  Somehow those seeds would turn into liquid silver in the bird’s stomach and would be released in the droppings.  Some of that silver even made its way into the bird’s feathers.  The painter was so charmed and amused by his daughter’s story that he spread the rumor.”

Roy paused and looked up at Andre.  “It didn’t stop the thefts.”

“So…the daughter’s story was completely made-up?”

Roy laughed.  “I think the whole thing is made up.  At some later time, a historian and philosopher found the account and was also charmed by the story, enough to give the sparrow his scientific name.  And in time, as other people found the story, they added their own details to the sparrow’s legend.  The haunting song the sparrow sings at night, a beckoning whistle.”  He pointed to Andre.  “And the sweet song it sings during the day, especially in spring. ‘As if in shy response to its delight at the blooming of all flowers,’ someone wrote.  I like that one.”

“Was there any bird—a real bird—that this story was linked to?”

Roy shook his head.  “This one is just a story.  Birders having fun adding to a legend that is definitely a legend.”

He raised his fork again, and sunlight glinted off a tine.  It reminded Andre of the metallic glint he was certain he’d seen in the tree with the gray-feathered sparrow.

***

He spotted the bird again on the trail.  He was prepared this time.  He had his binoculars.  So he could tell that the bird was definitely looking at him.  He could tell that the bird was definitely a sparrow.  With gray feathers.  And black eyes surrounded by rings of amber. 

He’d brought his camera too.  He’d recently bought a decent camera and very good lenses—so he’d been told—but he still didn’t quite know how to use them yet.  So he tried to get some pictures.  But he couldn’t quite capture the fidgety bird, who hopped from branch to branch. 

When he tried to take video, the bird retreated into the middle of the tree, and was obscured by branch and leaf.  The only audio was the chirping and trilling of the other birds, a random caw from a crow, the cooing of a passing pigeon.  He checked the leaf litter at the base of the tree again.  But there was nothing interesting there this time.  No unique feathers, no new droppings.

Andre was there almost two hours before he got tired and headed home.  Despite not getting a record of the bird, he left feeling assured.

The bird was real.  It was definitely one he’d never seen before. 

It was worth his while to look into it himself.

In his preliminary search, he didn’t find all of the details that Roy had told him, but he found enough.  He expected that if he did some deeper digging, he’d find more.

But he already knew what he needed to know from Roy. 

He didn’t need to do more research.

What he needed to do was capture the bird on camera, from every possible angle.

***

The next day, he didn’t see the bird at all.  He’d gone to the same tree at the same hour.  He waited and he watched.  He listened for that eerie whistle.  After an hour, he was telling himself that it was alright.  The sparrow might return some other time.  He walked the trail, checking the other trees, checking the skies every time a bird darted by overhead.

There was nothing.

He went home and checked through all the pictures and video he’d taken, just in case he’d accidentally gotten a great shot after all.

But there was nothing.

***

It wasn’t bedtime, but Andre happened to be lying on his bed, over the covers, in the dark.  So he happened to catch the sound, faint at first, of a night bird singing.  The song didn’t sound familiar.  But the longer he listened, the more the… “voice” of the bird sounded familiar.

He sat up and went to his window.  His unit was on the ground floor.  A path went by and beyond it was a grassy area with a few benches and a scattering of trees. 

Andre was certain the bird who was singing was sitting in the tree closest to his window.

Somehow the song was echoing, even though the sound was passing through the wide open air.

He went out and peered up at the branches, but it was an hour past sunset.  Even with the outdoor lighting turned on, he couldn’t see.  But the bird kept singing.  Certain notes sent a shudder through his breastbone.  He had to silently goad himself to go inside to get his phone, so he could catch a recording of the song. 

He wasn’t surprised that in the few seconds it took him to turn on his phone’s voice recorder, the bird had stopped singing.

***

The next morning, on his way out, Andre stopped under the tree.

He wasn’t surprised to see the gray-feathered sparrow looking down at him.

Did you follow me home? he wondered.

He was late for work already.  But he tried to take a picture.

And he was not surprised when the bird hopped around and then flew away before he could.  In the morning sun, he caught a flash of silver in the wings.

That evening, he glimpsed a tiny spatter of silver on the path below the tree. 

The gray-feathered sparrow was perched on a low branch.  A neighbor’s cat suddenly took interest and started climbing the tree.  The sparrow darted off.

Andre tried to shoo the cat away, even as he reached for his phone and made a call.

***

He borrowed video equipment from a friend. 

He set up the camera indoors, pointing up at the tree through his window.  He hoped none of his neighbors would think he was spying on them.

He’d thrown some bits of bread down near the base of three.  A few birds did swoop down and claim some of them.  But the neighbor’s cat reappeared and chased them off.

Over the course of the next week, Andre recorded the tree whenever he caught sight of the gray-feathered bird.  He kept the recording rolling through the night, hoping to at least capture the sparrow’s night song. 

He hadn’t officially reported anything yet, since he didn’t have any solid proof.  Just a log of his observations.  He told Megan, unofficially.  He even confessed that it seemed to him as if the bird was toying with him, and not letting him gather that proof. 

“I’d have a hard time believing that,” Megan said, “if it hadn’t happened to me too, a few times.” 

He had a feeling that she thought he was exaggerating as a joke.

He asked a few people from neighboring units about the sparrow.  Two people had definitely heard a lovely song at night.  But no one had been paying attention to which birds were in the trees around the complex, much less which birds were singing which songs. 

He considered inviting one of his fellow birdwatchers over, maybe even to stay the night.  Someone would have to corroborate his observations anyway.  But then he realized that the other person might capture a picture or recording before he did.  He tried to tell himself he wouldn’t mind sharing credit for the discovery. 

But then he reviewed his research, scant though it was, on the stories passed down about the bird.  This wasn’t a new species, or even an extinct species.  This was a mythical species. 

He began to wonder if just capturing the bird’s image would be enough.

He wondered if it wouldn’t be better to capture the bird itself.

He started casually looking up bird traps, and the cost of cages, and how to feed and care for a captive wild sparrow.  But then, he heard the whistle.  The one he’d heard when he first encountered the sparrow.  The high note.  Followed by a high-low.  As if the bird were saying, “Over here!”

Andre looked out the window and spotted the bird right away.

The gray-feathered sparrow was perched on one of the bench backs. 

“Now what,” Andre muttered to himself.  He grabbed his phone as he stepped outside, and slowly moved toward the bench.

The sparrow watched him approach. 

Keeping his eye on the bird, Andre slowly raised his phone.  He tapped his thumb over the bottom of the screen, trying to press the shutter button.  The phone slipped and dropped into the grass. 

The bird glanced down at it, and back up at Andre.

“Let me guess,” Andre said.  “I bend down to pick up the phone, and by the time I’m ready to take a picture, you’ll fly away.”

The sparrow cocked his head.

Andre knelt down, keeping his movements slow.  The sparrow hopped to the right, eyes following Andre’s movements.

When Andre’s hand found his phone, the bird flapped his wings.

Andre sighed.  He shifted his hand away from his phone. 

“You won’t sing when I’ve got the recorder on,” he said.  “You won’t let me take a picture.  You won’t sit still when anyone else walks by.” 

He frowned.  “Why am I bothering?  You’re probably not even that special.  Are you?”    

It occurred to Andre right then that maybe he knew that deep down.  Maybe all his failures to capture any proof of this bird were a result of his subconscious trying to keep him from making another mistake.  But that didn’t quite make sense.  Surely, his conscience mind could override his subconscious.

He sat on the ground, drawing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them.  “I don’t need to take any pictures of a common sparrow.”

The gray-feathered sparrow cocked his head to one side, then the other.  He ruffled his feathers, opened his beak. 

And he spoke.

“Not that I would have said ‘yes,’ but you could have at least tried asking.”

He lifted his wings, leapt into the sky, and darted up and away in a wink of silver.

Andre sat agape, unmoving, certain he would never see the bird again.

And he never did.



Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

2 thoughts on “The Man Who Cried Bird

  1. This is hilarious; I have had this exact same conversation with birds that you wrote about: “Let me guess,” Andre said. “I bend down to pick up the phone, and by the time I’m ready to take a picture, you’ll fly away.” Yes, they do fly away, permission or not asked.

    Liked by 1 person

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