Fiction: Quiet Birds in Circled Flight

Neera Kashyap

Neera Kashyap

 

Patricia Gonsalves pushed her laptop away to lean her head on the poetry volumes that lay stacked near her elbow. A wave of nausea assailed her for a moment. She kept her head steady till it passed. Instead of the anthology she was compiling of twenty contemporary poets on the theme, ‘Life and loves’, she had been thinking more of death. Her impressions were hallucinatory: waking from deep sleep by someone tapping her on her forehead – someone, whom she sensed, even through a fuzzed brain, was not there; dreams of crossing over a mountain pass, passing through a dark tunnel; a shadow lurking in the stairway; a sudden invisible hand shake.

 

What soothed Patricia was not Dylan Thomas who raged against death but Mary Elizabeth Frye: ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep/ I am not there.......‘ She sighed, murmured: ‘I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain…’ She, Patricia Gonsalves whose acerbic tongue had brought her students to their knees…and to their senses…. she who could set on track a student’s life with her insight and her sharpness…. now wished for herself just peace and rest, just peace and… ’I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight….’

 

She turned her head carefully to listen to the noise coming from the window sill. Her frayed flowered curtain ballooned into her eighth-floor apartment with the strong sea breeze. It was a parrot. On coming closer, she saw it fluff out its wings and pull its head down into its feathers. Its eyes were weepy. It stood unmoving, its left-wing dangling. Above the hurt feather was a streak of fresh blood.

Patricia watched the parrot for a while, then said sharply: ‘Come parrot, come to me, let me take a look at your hurt.’ The parrot did not budge, its red beak tucked deep into its fluffed out shivery green feathers. She said patiently: ‘Look parrot. I know Campbell’s poem. Would you like to hear it?’ She cooed, ‘A parrot from the Spanish Main, full young and early caged, came o’er with bright wings to the bleak domain of Mulla’s shore… now, parrot, we can’t get more realistic than that, can we? … will you let me hold you a bit?’ The parrot waddled over, its crusting eyes nearly shut. Patricia held its yielding body in her hands and slid the window shut.

In the toilet, her mind worked feverishly. She saw that the cut ran long and deep, the blood now flowing onto the trembling body. She pressed a pad of gauze on it and held it down for several minutes till the gauze was damp with blood. She tried to clean the wound with another pad of wet gauze but the bird fluttered in her hands, its sharp claws digging into her palm. She thought of diluted betadine solution, but felt helpless with the parrot’s restless pain and shock, both of which felt like tremors through her own body. She had no idea why she opened her apartment door to seek whatever help came her way from the staircase passage.

She stared at the shut door of the opposite apartment – the Kulkarnis – a surname she associated with loud altercations and midnight howls, an implacable man and an inscrutable woman, and decades of polite avoidance. The door opened. Diminutive Mrs Kulkarni stood on her threshold and stared at her and at the blood swab on the parrot, ran into her home and brought out a bottle full of a thick brown liquid.

‘Raw honey from my village,’ said Mrs Kulkarni, ‘the best remedy my grandmother showed me how to use.’ The women moved quickly into Patricia’s apartment, as if they had walked in together many times, instead of for the first. Mrs Kulkarni hummed as she worked: cleaning the wound, applying a thick layer of honey with cotton buds, wrapping a gauze bandage all around the wing and holding it in place with masking tape. She placed the bird carefully in a hastily-assembled cardboard carton, covering the top with a cotton towel to keep out the draft.

‘You could give it some soft seeds like rolled oats or sunflower seeds. It should not choke on anything too soft or too hard,’ said Mrs Kulkarni, hitching up her sari as she made to leave. Patricia Gonsalves had noted with amazement how still and restful the bird had been in her hands, almost as if it recognized who the avian vet was, and gave itself to her.

Over the next six weeks, Mrs Kulkarni came in several times with her bottle of honey to change the bird’s dressing. She helped Patricia try out the bandage wrap herself. The bird was more restless in her hands, blinked and gulped with each jab and twitch, but held out.

 

Alone, Patricia felt a living presence in her apartment, as if there was a life here and a reason to live. She would remove the towel from the top of the box and watch the parrot open its eyes to blink, to waddle across the length of the box, flap its good wing in an attempt to fly. When Mrs Kulkarni left just a honeyed dab on the wing, Patricia began to read out bird poems to the parrot. At first the poems she chose were of flying, Shelley’s Skylark: ‘Higher still and higher from the earth thou springest like a cloud of fire…’ and John Clare’s, ‘Just by the wooden brig a bird flew up…’ When the parrot graduated from eating chillies and oats to rice grains and watermelon seeds, she made her own switch to poems more eternal: Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:

 

‘Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown…’

 

One night she had been trying to read louder to outscore the agitated voices coming from the Kulkarnis’ apartment when she heard her door bell ring sharply. She turned on the lights and opened her front door to see the inscrutable Mrs Kulkarni – in a nightie this time, her tight bun now loose and wiry around her shoulders, her smile fixed. She asked after the parrot and flopped down on a stool at some distance from the carton. Soon her smile puckered into a grimace and her body began to shake with sobs.

 

Patricia Gonsalves laid down her book and waited. She felt the same impatience she had always felt when confronted by a weepy student who broke down after a tongue-lashing. But this was no ruthless assessment of a student’s acumen, nor a sly push in giving a student direction. This was a woman who seemed to get a daily drubbing. But surely, she could stand up to that cold implacable fellow, that unsmiling son-of-a-bitch, that….

 

‘It’s of no use,’ said Mrs Kulkarni with suddenness, her tears still wet on her cheeks, her wire hair sticking to her forehead. ‘I have done everything to please him… his family. It is never enough… never enough. I thought earning money of my own would win me some respect, if not affection. My catering business, it started small but grew, did well. The demand for my food service only grows. But his demands… first he wants me to show him my business accounts, then where I spend my money… my own money! His mother supports him, my sons… too. You get used to the abuse… but deliberate control!’ She shook her head, continuing, ‘You know, Miss Gonsalves…. I may wish to grow, to expand… but beneath this control is his indifference to my wish to grow, to expand… this really worries me. This wish wins no respect… this wish is ignored… deliberately controlled.’

 

Patricia’s irritation faded into an unfamiliar sense of helplessness. She unclenched her fist, put aside her book, and rose to get Mrs Kulkarni a glass of water. They sat in silence for a while till a calm descended on the room broken by the sound of wings fluttering against the towel thrown over the carton. Mrs Kulkarni ran to uncover the box. The parrot hopped out, flapped its wings as it waddled unsteadily across the room. Mrs Kulkarni removed the dab on the bird’s wing, asked for a piece for wet cotton to clean off the honey, so the ants don’t get at it, she said. The women nodded to each other, as Mrs Kulkarni took the parrot to the windowsill. They watched the bird waddle and flutter tentatively down its length. Then in one fell swoop, it flew into the sky.

 

Patricia plunged back to work on the anthology, only to see more clearly how the women poets seemed to make a brave bid for self-expression, only to be held back by a strong and assertive patriarchy. She was glad Mrs Kulkarni hollered back, even if her hollering sounded more like a wail. So much for her own brutal student assessments, so much for her own acerbic tongue that wished for nothing more than to strip off ignorance and let the innate flower.

 

Patricia’s earlier thoughts and impressions of death turned into an obsessive preoccupation with poems on death, with books on how different cultures approached death with an uncanny naturalness. Her own poetry acquired strong overtones of death. It was while writing a haiku that she felt the sharpest sense of pain and isolation, at the futility of it all. In the light of her table lamp, she looked at her cursive slant in her poetry diary:

 

gravestone –

the broad leaves of stinging nettle

cover the inscription

 

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she rested her head on the volumes of poetry stacked on her desk. She turned her head carefully to listen to the noise on her window sill. The parrot fluttered in the air before landing noisily. It strutted around confidently, trilling its arrival. Patricia approached it carefully. This was unnecessary, for the parrot flew straight into her hands, its heart beating warm and wild between her palms. Holding it close to her chest, she yanked open her front door. Mrs Kulkarni stood on her threshold.

 

Joyful laughter rang through the stairway.

***

1 comment :

  1. What a lovely uplifting tale, so well written. It was a pleasure to read.

    ReplyDelete

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