The Bird House
In the middle of the metropolis lay the park with the important and hard-to-remember name—the Something Something Memorial Public Garden. No one ever used this name. Instead, they simply called it the Park, and this made life a little easier for everyone.
If you entered the Park and turned left at the Statue of the Lost Poet, and walked three minutes until you passed the Chattering Pond (but before you reached the Broken Clock Tower), you would find a tall, round building with a sign above the door that read: Ming Zhao’s Majestic Teahouse of Many Delights. And because of its shape, and what it contained, and because this was also a long and hard-to-remember name, everyone called it instead: the Bird House.
High above the Bird House, a little brown sparrow with a long blue scarf spiraled slowly down through the edge of the night.
Maybe, thought the sparrow.
Maybe, and maybe.
She repeated the word like a charm, or a spell. Maybe what she wanted was only slightly possible, she thought, but it was not impossible.
It was a maybe.
On top of the Bird House stood a copper weathervane formed in the shape of a canary and a teapot. The canary perched on the teapot’s lid and held a tiny cake in its beak. Four pointers extended below the teapot and ended with the letters N, E, S, and W.
Ella Jane Sparrow swooped down and landed next to the canary. Around her, the Park emerged in the early glow of the day. It was the bluest hour before the dawn.
“Hello,” said Ella.
The copper canary said nothing.
I wish you could tell me where to go, she thought.
She looked across the Park and sighed a tiny sparrow sigh.
In front of the Bird House, the very young proprietor sat on the steps and waited for his baker.
Change, thought Ming Zhao. The substitution of one thing for another. Something is about to happen.
Two hours earlier, Zhao had woken in the dark and felt a change stir the air. He could still feel it as he sat there in the blue light. Nothing in particular had changed—nothing he could see—but he felt that change was out there, waiting for him.
Change, he thought. Maybe something has already happened.
The stars above winked out in twos and threes and one by one until only a single star remained. Somewhere in the Park, a bird greeted the day with a low melody. Soon another joined in. In a few minutes, hundreds of birds sang, and the songs dipped and soared and crisscrossed and merged, and together they stitched the dawn into the end of the night. A whispering breeze blew past Zhao and rippled up and over the Bird House and nudged the weathervane and rolled away. The weathervane swung toward the Broken Clock Tower, and the canary caught the first light of day and began to shine.
Ella steadied herself as the weathervane turned.
A maybe is possible, she thought.
Zhao leaned back and closed his eyes and listened to the breeze and the birds stir in the Park.
Although he was only a boy, Zhao had already chosen his life’s work: the three things that brought him the most happiness in the world.
The first was tea.
The second was cake.
And the third was birds.
This, thought his parents, was very surprising.
“Tea!” proclaimed his mother.
“Cake?” exclaimed his father.
“And birds,” complained his mother. “Are you aware that all these things are very non-important things?”
“And are you aware of how you will earn a living from these very non-important things?” asked his father.
“I am not aware,” admitted Ming Zhao. “Should I be?”
His parents pointed accusing fingers at each other. “This is all your fault!” they shouted.
Zhao held a large plate before him, and in the middle of the large plate stood two tiny, perfect cakes. The cakes glistened from the heat of the oven, and above them rose little curls of steam that twisted and twirled and vanished in the air.
Zhao’s canary saw the cakes on the plate and began to sing.
“Please,” said Zhao to his parents, “try one. And then I must go. Today I will set out to work with the three things that bring me the most happiness in the world. I will of course return in time for supper.”
“No and no and no,” said Ming Zhao’s mother. “There will be no making tea and cakes for you. We need to see your uncle about getting you a job in the company. Right away!”
“Right away,” echoed his father, “although you are only a boy.”
Zhao had never completely understood the mysterious company and the vague nature of his uncle’s work. He knew his uncle spent his days in an office, and that the office connected to a factory, and in the factory they made a kind of inexpensive, disposable, and forgettable gadget. Zhao wasn’t sure what the gadget was supposed to do, but he understood that whatever it was, it performed the job poorly and sometimes not at all. He once overheard his father refer to the uncle’s contraption as My idiot brother’s useless toy.
Zhao did not find happiness in the idea of making forgettable gadgets or useless toys.
He thought: I choose tea, cake, and birds.
“Your plan with tea and cake and birds won’t fly,” said his mother. “It’s impossible.”
“Not impossible,” said Zhao. “It is a maybe, and a maybe is possible.”
Zhao took a short step toward his parents and lifted the plate higher. The curls of steam rose from the cakes and unfurled and reached out toward them.
He took another step.
Zhao knew it is difficult to say No to cake. Most people, when asked if they would like cake, will say Yes. This is part of the basic nature of cake. Even those who would normally say No to any of the many wonders of the world (the view from a tall ladder, or a sudden toll of bells, or a small rumpus of kittens) will still say Yes to cake. And when confronted with cake so hypnotically delightful as Zhao’s cake, it is very nearly and almost completely impossible to say No. If that cake sits nearby, still warm from the oven, and the breeze drifts in and fans the cake’s unusual and extraordinary aromas across the room, the word No can only melt in even the coldest, most curmudgeonly mouths and be replaced—if not by a Yes, at least by words that for all intents and purposes can mean nothing else but simply: Yes.
Zhao’s mother looked at the plate and licked her lips.
Zhao’s father did the same.
“Oh,” said his mother. “That’s right. Right away.”
“Right away?” said Zhao’s father.
They stared at the plate.
“Right after we eat these cakes,” said his mother.
Inside Ming Zhao’s Majestic Teahouse of Many Delights—the Bird House—tables and chairs stood beneath each of the many windows in the round room. Hooks extended from the ceiling above each window, and a chain hung from each hook. At the end of each chain hung a large birdcage. On Sundays, and birthdays, and the very many in-between days, patrons came to the Bird House for tea and cakes and to watch and listen to the birds—the canaries and budgies, lovebirds and lorikeets, and one large green parrot named Harold.
Ella left the weathervane and floated down and around the Bird House and landed neatly beneath the brass cage that hung in one of the open windows.
Harold perched inside the cage and snored. His deep green feathers ruffled lightly in the breeze.
Ella adjusted her scarf and looked up at Harold.
“I’m looking for a raven,” she said loudly.
Her words, she thought, sounded determined and bold.
They sounded like a plan.
Inside the cage, Harold yawned and blinked and scrunched up his face and shook himself awake. His gray eyes drooped and his hard bill curled and he peered down at the tiny sparrow and did not smile.
“Huh,” he said. “You look for a raven, and a raven looks for you. Thanks for waking me to tell me this important news. Goodbye.”
This was not the answer Ella had expected.
“Looking for me?” she said. “A raven?”
Her words, she noticed, no longer sounded determined and bold, or anything at all like a plan.
“Let me check,” said Harold.
“Yup,” he said. “She’s definitely looking for you.”
“But—” began Ella.
“I’m hungry,” interrupted Harold. “I sincerely hope you brought me some cake.”
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© 2018 Colin Lewis · Brought to you by Unlikely Objects