Forest Trail

BIRD, UPSIDE-DOWN

a short story

Bill wakes with a start in darkness, his alarm clock bell ringing loud and shrill in his old ears. Reaching over stiffly, he silences it. Time to go.

   He dresses and goes downstairs, slips into his wellingtons and waterproof coat, and picks up his camera. As he shuts his front door behind him, the hazy orange glow of sunrise appears above the trees. 

   Along a muddy footpath, side-stepping puddles, Bill crosses a field towards a small wood. It’s been the same route every morning for years—he could find his way blindfolded. Vapour clouds escape from his mouth, and shivering with cold, he crosses his arms and rubs them to warm up. Mist hangs in the still air, and birds wake, calling to one another in their euphonic song. 

   Amongst the avian music, one voice rises above the others. A melody of five notes—de-dah-de-doo-dah. He’s reminded of his wife, Mary, singing to the plants as she gardened.

   With swollen arthritic fingers, Bill struggles to remove his camera’s lens cap, before pocketing it, and holding the viewfinder to his eye. He slowly turns the long lens, focusing on the leafy treetops ahead, trying to spot the source of the song. Nothing. For years he’s searched and the bird’s eluded him. He walks on.

   Once in the wood, Bill quietly picks his way between oak, horse chestnut, and beech, careful not to stumble on fallen twigs and the tree roots covering the ground like spiders’ webs. 

   He hears the song again and changes direction towards it.

   After a minute, the song is above him, high in a broad maple. He raises his camera, pointing it high into the dark green canopy. He focuses and moves the lens in slow circles, trying to spot the bird. It sings again, and he jerks the camera to the left. His heart races as he spots a shape and focuses tighter. His mouth drops open. There it is. He’s found it at last.

   The bird has the same hooked beak and glassy eyes of a crow, but it’s smaller, sleeker. And as its beak opens to sing sweetly again, Bill marvels at its unfolding wings, revealing an underside of brilliant blue feathers. He’s never seen such a bird. And most unusually, the bird is upside-down, hanging from the branch like a bat. 

   In awe, Bill almost forgets to click the camera’s shutter, and as he does, the bird startles and flies off. Bill frantically searches the canopy, unsure he’s taken a good shot. But the bird’s gone. 

   He checks his watch. It’s time to go.

   Arriving home, he changes into his suit and tie, puts on his good shoes, and leaves to catch the bus. And as he stares out of the bus window at trees and rooftops, he softly hums the bird’s happy melody—de-dah-de-doo-dah—and imagines Mary there beside him. 

   When Bill arrives at the hospital, he goes up in the lift, and hurries through a set of heavy swing doors to the ward. 

   ‘Here she is,’ he says, as he sees Mary in her bed. ‘The love of my life.’

   Mary does not speak—cannot speak. A canula sticks in her arm, clear fluid dripping from a bag down a tube into her withered, yellowed body. A grey plastic clip attached to her finger connects to a machine beeping steadily. He leans over and kisses her hand. It’s cool and leathery against his lips. 

   Pulling a plastic chair close and sitting down, he holds her hand and strokes it.

   ‘I saw it, Mary,’ he says excitedly. ‘I actually saw it. All this time searching, and today was the day. It had blue wings, Mary. The bluest blue, like your eyes.’ Her eyes, now grey, as glassy as the upside-down bird’s, stare vacantly at the ceiling. And as Bill pictures the bird hanging from the branch, he thinks how similar it was to Mary. Like the bird, Mary is spending her days upside-down—looking to Heaven and not to Earth. ‘I took a photo,’ he says. ‘I’ll bring it tomorrow.’

   Suddenly, Mary’s eyes turn to Bill, and she smiles, her entire face lifting, her old self appearing, as if to say she’s pleased for him. The beeps of the machine attached to Mary quicken. He holds her hand tight. ‘Mary,’ he says. ‘What’s wrong?’ Panic rising, the beeps seem to become the call of the upside-down bird—de-dah-de-doo-dah. ‘Mary!’ Her eyes close. A nurse comes. Mary breathes like air is being sucked from her. The nurse presses a button above the bed and a doctor soon arrives. ‘Mary.’

   After a minute, the doctor gently pats Bill on the shoulder with a large, warm hand and says, ‘I’m afraid she’s gone.’ The nurse straightens Mary’s sheets, then says, ‘I’ll leave you for a few minutes.’ Bill cries into Mary’s still chest.

   After some formalities, Bill catches the bus home. What do I do now? he thinks in a daze.

   His home feels empty. His heart, too. He sits staring at the kitchen table, recalling memories of Mary, until evening, when he takes his camera, enters his darkroom and turns on the red light, the same shade of red as the sunset outside. 

   He develops the camera film, and once dry, holds the negatives to the light until he finds the upside-down bird. He projects the image from his enlarger, but cannot get it to focus—the image is a blur—a smudge. It could be anything other than a bird. The picture is useless. He slumps to the floor and sobs into his hands, tears soaking his palms.

   The next morning, he wakes, puts on his coat and boots, grabs his camera and heads to the wood. The upside-down bird is calling, singing Mary’s beautiful song.