Art Pact 268 - Spotting the bird

She was putting her washing out on the line when she saw the bird. She froze, holding the basket of wet clothes in an awkward half-way: not up  entirely and tucked between her arms and her body so that her hips could take the weight, not down on the ground so that she could relax, but a foot or so off the pacing stone of her garden path so that her back was bent over at an awkward angle and the full weight of the thing pressed uncomfortably through her shoulders and in the small of her back. The discomfort grew into pain but still she was unable to move in case she spooked the little creature.

It was about the size of her salt-shaker, and about the shape of her salt-shaker, because her salt-shaker (as many of her possessions were) was shaped like a little bird. She'd been given it ten years ago by an ex-boyfriend - well, at the time just a boyfriend, it was the intervening decade, an ignominious break-up and her marriage that had made him an ex - when she first shared with him her interest in birds.

"Birds?" he'd asked, puzzled. She knew then that she shouldn't have said anything. She was ashamed of her interest, had been hiding it for almost thirty years. "You mean, like... like, birds?"

She nodded mutely. She could tell how people would react to the revelation by their first few words. This was a reasonable response on her boyfriend's part - just surprised, not judging but also not quite accepting. This was the sort of thing she had come to expect a lot of. She knew what was coming next.

"I was into birds when I was a kid," he said.

"I guess I just never grew out of them," she'd told him.

It hadn't worked out between them, but she hadn't had too much grief out of him over the bird thing, and he'd even got her the salt-shaker. Her pepper-pot was in the shape of a lighthouse, because they'd broken up before he had a chance to get the rest of the set and her aunt had swooped in and begun buying her things with a nautical theme - she had never liked the sea, but the aunt in question was of the belief that a present should be an obligation, not a gift. The aunt bought presents that reflected her own tastes, basing this behaviour on the idea that whoever she gave a gift to should be reminded of her whenever they used it. It was a scheme that had worked perfectly - to its letter, in so far as her family members did indeed think of her whenever they looked at her gifts. The thoughts, though, were not fond.

The pain in her back grew from a minor irritation into a major one, then into a sort of lancing agony that felt as though her back muscles were pulling themselves inside out. She didn't want to move, but it was apparent that the longer she held her position the more likely it was that she'd be calling her husband down to take her to hospital instead of to join her in this amazing moment. She would have to risk it. Slowly, fighting against the excruciating pain, she lowered the basket to the ground. It seemed like it took forever, but the bird stayed where it was rather than fleeing, and she let out a silent breath of relief.

It was about five meters away, sitting on the ugly concrete post that held up the other end of the washing line. It had hardly moved since she spotted it, and for a moment she wondered if it were a practical joke of some sort - a model put glued onto the post to trick the crazy woman, or perhaps (thinking more generously) a present from her husband.

She wondered how she could call him. The bird was so small that it would obviously fly away if she made a loud noise - it wasn't one of the giant ones that everyone loved as children, the emus or cassowaries. Instead it was - what, a sparrow perhaps? Sparrows were the little birds she could remember from her books, but there had been a lot of work in bird classification since then, and the newly-discovered birds all had strange names that she found it hard to remember. She put it down to getting old, but really she knew that it was the time it all took to keep up to date. As a child she'd read and re-read bird books, but back then there had been so few. Now there were thousands of species of birds in the records and hundreds of books about them, all arguing one way and the other. You could not get away with knowing the difference between a penguin and a puffin any more - everyone knew that thanks to those programs with computer-generated birds.

If she called her husband from inside, he could bring her the camera. But by the time the camera got to her it would probably be too late. The bird would be gone, and she would be left standing in the back garden staring at nothing, unable to explain to him what the urgency was.

She had never told her husband about her love of birds. It had not come up when they had first met, and by the time she might have mentioned it it was too late - she feared the loss too much. She knew that she could trust him on most things, knew that what was most likely to happen when she told him about her obsession was that he would tolerate it with a happy smile, ruffle her hair and go about his day. But there was still a fear left over from her younger dating days, a worry that this man, this man she loved and trusted above all others, might be a harsher judge of her than some of her previous partners.  To have acceptance just within her grasp and not to be able to take it was maddening, terrifying.

The bird tilted its head. It was a drab brown, the way she imagined birds from the books of her childhood. She had not been entirely unsuccessful in keeping up with the press, so she knew that there were theories - and indeed, now evidence - that many birds were brightly-coloured, but she still found it easier to think of them in various shades of brown. She thought, indeed, that the bird looked just like a picture of a sparrow perching on a dead tree-trunk that she'd loved in her child's treasury of birds, the book that had been the genesis of her life-long love.

She felt in her pocket for her phone. It was an old candy-bar style phone with no camera of its own, but perhaps she could text her husband to come outside - or come to the window, maybe? - with the camera they'd bought on holiday. Would he do it before the bird flew away?

BRING CAMERA TO BACK WINDOW, she texted, her eyes flicking down to the screen only every few seconds. She did not want to take her eyes off the bird any longer than necessary.

She had barely had time to return the phone to her pocket when it buzzed and to her horror began to ring - her tone the ringing of church bells, the only thing the phone had that was loud enough to catch her attention. Oh Jesus, she thought, not now! Can't you for once just do what I ask you!

The bird opened its beak.


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