Almost a month ago my dear Wyeth Bailey wrote a piece called The Bird Girl. It’s a beautiful, poetic short story that immediate tripped all the right levers and buttons in my mind for a companion piece. Mine is, and will be, considerably longer, in part because she already laid out such a beautiful framework that it was easy for my imagination to take it and run.
Below is the first part of a story I’m calling The Feather Collector. As I read The Bird Girl I had a very clear scene pop into my mind of Augusta encountering someone who is something of an intimate of birds, but in a different way from her father. When I first sat down to write this little tale I started it in Augusta’s voice…then realized that I couldn’t write that – it would have to be written by Wyeth. So I backed up and investigated just what made the man I envisioned tick.
As this is directly related to The Bird Girl – please, go meet Augusta first, then come back and meet Gordon. The man she will perturb and who will find himself plucked out of his content existence just as surely as he removes birds from theirs.Image from http://thesmittenimage.blogspot.com/, no infringement intended.
Gordon loved birds. He always had, even before his father led him out from the gamekeeper’s cottage to hunt for the master’s table. The old man didn’t understand the feathered residents of the lands he tended but Gordon did. From the time his mother would let him out the door untended Gordon would find a shadowed nook to settle in and wait.
There he listened for the pheasants, the grouse, the ptarmigan, the partridge. He knew them intimately; the course call of the ptarmigan, the pheasant’s sharp cluck, the partridge’s almost musical one. He paid close attention to those gamebirds, the ones he would see dangling from his father’s gnarled fists and crowding limply in his satchel. Gordon grew up enamored with the variety of feathers, beaks, shapes, and ways of the different avian residents of his world.
When at the age of forty his father lost his footing and broke his leg, Gordon stepped into his place. Somber and quiet, the twenty-two year old Gordon delivered game to the kitchen without fail. The Earl let Gordon fill the position and all continued as it had.
He loved all the birds, though, not just the ones he delivered to the kitchen to be dressed for the table. He loved the way the small finch fit in his long-fingered hands, her tiny heart fluttering against his palm. And the mourning dove pair that cooed from the willow by the brook, their sound so solemn and full of things he couldn’t feel. For months they sang to him every day on his way to the manor house until one afternoon he heard a guest of the Earl singing in the parlor. Her voice plucked at the meat of him until Gordon interrupted the cook’s compliments on the day’s catch and bolted. That evening he pierced them as one with an arrow let loose from his longbow and cooked them for his dinner, though they had little on their bones to eat.
He thought he would be rid of the Earl’s disturbing guest; no one stayed long at the isolated estate. Gordon was wrong. A few days later as he stepped out into the slanting afternoon rays and a voice reached out to snare him from the hedge. “Pardon, gamekeeper?”
Gordon slowed, bowing as he turned. A tall, pale woman looked at him, her head cocked like an owl, eyes wide and unblinking. “Yes’m?” His eyes fixed on the ground after a glance. Her gown, hair, jewels; she was a lady from head to toe. Gordon felt large and ungainly, the plow horse next to a fine-hocked mare.
He could feel her eyes on him and his shoulders tightened as the silence stretched. At last she spoke, her voice just as unnerving as it had been when she sang. “Could you bring me a bird?”
Gordon’s eyes lifted to hers and his brows tugged together in confusion. “I just brought-” he started and she waved her hand, interrupting.
“Not dead. Alive. Could you bring me a dove, a swallow, swift?” Gordon blinked, disarmed by her steady stare. He nodded. “Good. Please bring one to me tomorrow. Every day after if you can. It seems I shall be here at least a fortnight and my fath-” Her voice wandered off and she pressed her palm against her breastbone. “Thank you.” She spun and walked away and Gordon frowned. He almost would have thought he heard. . .but surely not.
He strode down the lane, his mind already wondering if the small willow cages he made in his youth still hung high in the eaves of the cottage. Still, even as he contemplated the difficulty of catching, and keeping, the small birds she requested alive, he couldn’t help but think back on the small chirrup that had tickled his ear. It minded him of the one time he dared sneak in late one afternoon to peer into the falconer’s peregrine nest and found two eyases, creamy white with beady black eyes.
The cages hung where Gordon remembered, above the wall where feathers dangled on scavenged bits of thread, his collection. Long, short, pin, tail, plume, down; he had some of every shape, size and purpose there. The fickle light of his candle revealed how long he’d been away from the loft, how long it had been since his mother and father were set up elsewhere with positions more suitable to their age and his father’s bum leg. Gordon brushed away the cobwebs and blew at the dust, earning a sneeze for his efforts.
The next morning he set out early. He filled his game bag with grouse and four young rabbits. The cook would be pleased. He then turned his considerable skill upon the birds that had long thought them safe from him. Doves would be easiest, but since eating the pair that nested in the willow he knew of none close at hand. It would have to be the swallows in the hayloft, then.
Gordon propped his homemade cage in front of a broken slat. He smoothed his finger along the shiny wood, polished by millions of wingstrokes. Behind him tiny chirps betrayed the nests. He reached back with a pitchfork and poked, just a little. The chirps erupted into agitated calls for help. Six swallows dove into the willow cage and beat against the bars, trapping themselves neatly within. Gordon smiled.
The cook was indeed happy with the catch. Gordon waited by the hedge with three of his willow cages at his feet, each covered in burlap. He didn’t know why the strange lady needed birds but thought six sparrows and their chicks might save him from having to be near her again. His skin felt tight and he shifted his feet, anxious to be away.
“The maid was right. You are quite good at what you do.” Gordon flinched as the woman again startled him, her voice wrapping around him from behind, her soft shoes making little sound on the path. “Please, follow me.” He felt his mouth open to object but her big eyes erased his ability to speak. “I can’t carry them all.” She lifted one of the cages, peered inside, smiled, and started off without a backwards glance.
Gordon looked at the cages at his feet, the whisper of feathers and feet shifting loud in the quiet of the afternoon. The sounds soothed him and he lifted the two carefully before trailing after the Earl’s guest. He would deliver her birds and return home. His chest ached with the need for that solitude, a broad, coldness as if winter settled months too early. Ahead the woman began to hum to her sparrows and the ache rippled across his chest, his ribs thrumming like stroked harp strings. Six would just have to be enough, he thought, hunching his shoulders as if it would ease anything.
…to be continued…