From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Birds

Men fear the future, but it’s the past that kills them…

As the door folds open, the stranger’s words still echo in the sun-drenched bus. He lets them scatter like a handful of loose change before the driver lets him out. A cloud of dust envelops him as he heads for the hills along the lonely dirt road. A worn leather suitcase is clasped to his chest. A black hat bobs atop his bald head, looking as if it has been punched into shape. It’s noon and he has no shadow to speak of.

The bus belches a cloud of greasy smoke and clatters off. Later, the travelers won’t remember the man or his words, just the stop in the middle of nowhere.

#

The road stretches east. The ancient ruts are filled with dust. Tufts of yellowish grass rise up through the pebbles. The village remains out of sight for almost the entire walk, but the man counts his steps, just as he measures everything, and he knows exactly when he’ll arrive. The insects leave him be, while the lizards watch him from afar.

As he walks, cloaked in dust, he observes the arcing jumps of the grasshoppers and the hectic calligraphy of the birds pinning them to the ground to devour them. Everything is a symbol. Everything is a sign.

The remnants of a bridge stand at the end of the road. The metal crowns of the piles have not kept the wood, spiked with rusted nails, from splitting deeply. The deck is long gone. The bolt holes, stippled with yellow and orange lichen, outline a vanished roadway wavering in the burning air like some unattainable mirage.

Two groups of yews, each one odd-numbered, line the shore. Three on one side, seven on the other. The traveler inspects those he planted himself and shakes his head. In the midst of the close-knit and impeccably straight trunks, without a single fork for a nest, a young elm stripling struggles to reach the light. There’s something touching about the tender green twigs speckled with shadow. It will have to be uprooted and moved elsewhere if it’s to have any chance at all of growing.

The traveler whispers a promise into the folded cup of a leaf.

On the other side of the arroyo lies the village. To get to it, all who come must climb down into the almost dry riverbed and walk across the stones. A thin thread of water winds its way through muddy puddles, as deep as tombs. The man studies them, then looks up. The blank walls of houses crammed side-by-side block the horizon. When the bridge collapsed, the villagers collected the wooden beams and burned then. Next, they walled up the windows that looked onto the river. The dark portico that opens onto the village square is choked with brambles.

The bridge was not carried off by a torrential flood or a spectacular catastrophe. Twenty years earlier, there was war in the North. The men set out in trucks bedecked with flags, which were all too quickly covered with dust. The road carried back news, increasingly unfortunate. Those who left never returned.

Neglected, the bridge collapsed one morning as the bus approached.

#

Crossing the river, climbing the bank, grabbing onto the bushes to pull himself up, pushing the brambles aside… the traveler does all this without the slightest change in his severe expression. Inside the brick tunnel that leads to the square, his steps echo like the tock, tock, tock of a metronome. The sounds are strangely amplified under the vault and the traveler walks through swarming ghosts that vanish with the coming of light. The sensation of coolness lasts no more than a second.

On the other side, daylight. Implacable.

Dusty arcades surround the square. A rusty hotel sign dangles from the end of a pole in one corner. The carcass of a burned house fills the opposite corner. Eyes watch, hidden behind closed shutters. Chains creak as they sway. The plaster facades are crackled like old china.

The fire scarred the dreams of those who witnessed it. An abscessed mind heals poorly. The houses have not been rebuilt; the trucks carrying the building supplies can no longer cross the river. Those who work in the fields are too weary to look up once their day is done. And those who knit in the shadow never speak of what they feel and seldom of what they have seen. The charred carcass has become just another element in the decor, a perch for nightmares.

The traveler walks on, counting his steps, and stops before the first chalk line. An immense hopscotch court, drawn with painstaking care, fills the entire square. An incomplete one, opening onto infinity. At one end, `Heaven’ is missing. Obviously, the work needed just a little more time. Its maker had to go in for dinner, perhaps. Or, some household chore just could not wait. Almost all of the signs are there. Above the court, the air vibrates impatiently.

A flat, round pebble, polished by the water in the stream, lies in the first square, trapping the sun’s rays. The man kneels on one knee and picks it up. The stone is gray, speckled with flakes of mica, curiously cool to the touch. He turns it over carefully in his fingers, then slips it into his breast pocket without seeming to give it a second thought. When he stands up, slowly, he feels the weight of those who are watching him, yet will say nothing, on the back of his neck.

Determined, he heads to the hotel.

#

In the past, the bus stopped at the entrance to the village—a rusted signpost can still be seen there. Today, the hotel lounge is deserted. An ageless woman places mismatched plates on the tables, dusting as she goes along.

“I’d like a room,” the man says as he steps over the threshold.

The tired face of the waitress lights up with curiosity. “Where did you come from? There hasn’t been a hotel here in years.”

The newly arrived guest glances at the counter, graced with a register and an enormous brass bell, then at the poster next to the staircase. He takes in his surroundings leisurely, patiently, as if wanting to absorb the decor, all the better to forget it later. From a wooden perch, a bird of prey, stuffed and devoured by mites, stares fixedly at the visitor. A second perch, this one empty, waits next to it.

“We’ve kept everything as it was,” murmurs the woman. “Even the sign. It would have been far too much work to take it down.”

“I’ve been here before.”

Incredulous, the woman stares at him, then shakes her head.

“Liar!”

“Well now, you’ve forgotten me, have you?”

He raises his hat and the features of his face re-form much as whirlpools do around an obstacle. “I gave one of my best performances in this very room.”

“I’ll call the boss.”

The shrill clang of the bell provokes a flurry of activity upstairs. A footstep on the stairway. A silhouette bends over the railing.

“Someone wants a room, Madame Clara.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

The woman walks down the stairs, then stops, her hand on her hip.

“We’re closed!”

The traveler bows, hat held close to his breast. The woman inhales. Her mouth tightens into a hard line that ages her instantly. Yet, she can’t be more than thirty years old and she is still obviously beautiful, despite the invisible layers of sand deposited by the wind of time.

“I’ll take care of him,” she murmurs. “Anna, take the sheets from the chest in the cellar. I’ll tell you where to make up the bed.”

#

The shell of indifference that covers the village is cracking. To her surprise, Anna finds herself humming as she sets the table in the common room. The boss has closeted herself in her room and the traveler leaves his suitcase behind the bar before going back out. To do what? The waitress has no idea. In any case, the men will come back from the fields soon and find him here. That’s enough to create a space for possibilities that overflows from the village and extends as far as Anna’s limited imagination allows. It’s as if the wind were rising outside. She would give anything to sit down and watch the remainder of the scene played out.

“Did you take my pebble?”

The child is so tiny that he stands on tiptoe to question the stranger. He’s been living below the horizon of adult gazes so long now that he’s forgotten how to catch their attention. Most likely, he never knew how. The only person who notices him without fail is his mother and he’s guessed that the man is not of her kind.

“Perhaps.”

A strange smile tugs at the corners of the visitor’s lips, gradually invading his entire face. “Do you want to see a magic trick?”

“What’s that?”

“Something almost as good as a pebble. Watch this…”

The man lifts his battered hat and unfolds it with his fingertips, pulling on the felt brim. It makes a “plop” that is audible at the other end of the square. When he places the hat back on his shiny skull, it almost covers his entire head. The child laughs politely. Smothered twitters burst out as the stranger spins around, arms raised. He stops, then abruptly takes the hat off.

Perched on his head, a dove with clipped wings puffs itself up as it observes its surroundings. Its feathers are the color of dust. It hops up and down on the Magician’s naked head until he nimbly scoops it back into the hat.

Though eyes still ring the square, the child alone applauds. A shutter bangs. An emaciated hand slams it against its partner and locks them shut.

“Now it’s your turn…”

The hat swallows up the child. When the Magician removes it, ceremoniously pulling it off, he leaves behind a tiny lark that trills skyward before flying off.

“It was you,” the child says. “You took my pebble. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll find another when I want to.”

The bird circles above them before flying off into the sun. The Magician looks after it until the light forces him to look away.

“You don’t need it anymore…”

#

Later, the Magician asks to be served dinner in his room. The iron-wrought bed is covered with a clean sheet, roughened from too much washing. An enamel basin, half filled with water, has been placed under the window. The clicking of a meal taken together in the large room rises through the uneven boards in the floor. Metal against earthenware, glass against wood. The hubbub of beaks pecking.

He waits for the door to open before breaking open the bread and sprinkling a little salt around him.

“Is everything fine?”

“Good evening, Clara…”

The grains of salt form a Milky Way on the floor before disappearing in the cracks, swept away by the hem of the young woman’s dress.

“I never thought I’d see you again.”

The veil of illusion that the visitor has woven around himself vanishes. He removes his hat, kneading it into the shape of a crow. Clara’s face freezes. Slowly, she closes the door behind her and moves toward him.

“You’ve come to stir up the dust?” she murmurs.

“Against my will.”

He stands up and moves over to the window, stained blood red by the setting sun. “I was almost too late. The hopscotch court is almost done. You should have kept an eye on your son.”

“He’s only a child!”

“He’ll be seven tomorrow. At that age, drawings can encircle the world. If he’d completed the hopscotch court, he would’ve carried the village away with him.”

“I tried to stop him.”

“You did nothing of the kind. I warned you, three times, and you only listened to me with half an ear.”

His cloak billows about him, and then he shrugs. “These are human matters…”

“I won’t let you take him from me,” she grumbles. The salt border prevents her from reaching him. He opens the shutters and throws the crow out the window, as if getting rid of some unpleasant memory, but the bird returns to perch on top of his head.

“I didn’t come to steal him.” He shakes his head and gently closes the wooden shutters on the advancing night, then heads to the door. “I came to help him leave.”

#

Later, they walk around the square, side by side, plunged in a conversation that shields them from the watching eyes. The outline of the hopscotch court shimmers in the shadow, as long as one knows where to look. Overhead, the lark circles tirelessly among stars so old they no longer worry about being wise.

“I should never have called you, before,” murmurs Clara.

She shivers in the wind from the hills. They both turn away from the sleeping hotel and face the charred carcass of the old house.

“The village would be dead if you hadn’t… The war… The fallow fields… Forgetfulness…” The Magician appears unable to complete his sentences.

“What do I care about the village!” She lowers her voice, “My house burned and I’ve no one left to rebuild it. I raised a son so that one day…”

“A son you stole.”

“I took what I was offered. Men throw things away. Women pick them up!”

“The man you made the child with was not from the village. Or am I mistaken?”

Her response is inaudible, drowned by the creaking of shutters and the whistle of wind blowing through tiles. In the middle of the square, the air trapped by the walls is motionless. A few lonely gusts thread their way through the blackened remnants of the walls and the scorched beams of the torched house, drying the eyes of those who don’t take care and making their hair as brittle as glass.

“You ordered me to restore the balance,” continues the Magician. “So I took as many birds as I needed to replace the men who had left. I forced them to take on human form so they could marry the widows and work the land instead of merely flying about overhead. That was your wish. Have they done their job?”

“Your birds… Ha!”

She shrugs. “They were all there this evening, banging their beaks against their perches, too tired to speak. Taciturn, sterile shadows. They’ve never desired me.”

“Magicians can’t create desire. You need a soul for that.”

The traveler takes the pebble from his pocket and looks at it in the starlight. In his hand, it appears drab and heavy.

“You should have warned me,” complains Clara. “The other women have resigned themselves. They dress in black like crows and never leave their cages. Wherever I go, I feel the weight of their eyes on me. My son grew up alone. You’re right about his father. He arrived on the bus one day at noon. I’ve forgotten his name. He sold jewelry from a suitcase. He slept at the hotel. With me. That was almost eight years ago. Will everyone always be criticizing me for that little adventure?”

“You alone think about it.”

The shutters creak a final time and the wind dies. In one of the rooms a child pretends to sleep. Hands clenched under the sheets as he has been taught to do, he contemplates the impassible ceiling and wonders what it would be like to fly.

“He’ll be seven tomorrow,” says the Magician. “It couldn’t wait any longer.”

#

The next morning is drenched in sun. Clara gets up early. She sweeps the common room, listening. Soon, there will be footsteps on the staircase. Words spoken during the night are as heavy as dreams and she finds herself unable to shake them off.

When the stranger comes downstairs, the child is with him. He is wearing his best clothes, pockets swollen with sundry treasures.

“We’re going to play at taking a trip,” he says. “That’s what the man said.”

“No, not this morning,” answers Clara. “I need you.”

“But, Mommy…”

“I said no! And as for you…”

The Magician lifts the child up and sets him on the counter, on top of the dusty register in which the name of a passing traveler has been carefully inked over in black.

“What if you were to come with us, Clara?” he murmurs.

“And where would I go? There’s no one waiting for me anywhere.”

“This world is immense. What you think of yourself will be diluted in the thoughts of others. You’ve never been accepted here.”

“They may not have accepted me, but they do see me. Elsewhere, I’ll be nobody.”

The Magician nods his understanding. He reaches out to pluck the child from his perch, but the boy quickly grabs the shapeless hat and places it on his mother’s head.

“A magic trick, Mommy!”

Time stands still. Clara, the top of her head swallowed up by the hat, cries out in surprise. The felt brim rests just above her carefully plucked eyebrows and her pale blue eyes glance first at her son and then at the Magician. Slowly, almost reverently, the Magician removes his hat from her head. Nesting in the hollow of her hair, a tiny bird, as impossible to trap as a hummingbird, clumsily spreads its wings and flings itself toward the ceiling.

The tiny bird flies into one wall after another, striking the windows with pitiful sounds, almost killing itself. When its wings can no longer carry it, it returns to nest in Clara’s hair, before setting back out to search for the sky. The child claps his hands to encourage it. Minutes fly by, paced by blows and the crunch of the bird’s beak against glass. Then the Magician sweeps the hummingbird up in his hat, making it disappear, before helping the child down from the counter.

“Let’s go out,” he says, taking Clara’s arm. “Soon it will be too hot to walk.”

#

The square seems to have shrunk during the night. The hopscotch court has almost been erased. The black silhouette of the torched house has collapsed in on itself. Overhead, an invisible lark serenades the sun.

“Will you come to see me off?”

Clara tightens her grip on her son, but the Magician shakes his head.

“He’ll leave later, when he decides to.” The shadow of a smile tugs at his lips. “And you’ll accompany him. There was no need for me to come back, after all.”

“Once again, you’ve decided for me?”

Without answering, he takes the pebble from his pocket and throws it into the air, so high that it seems as if it will never fall back, then he catches it in the hollow of his cupped hand.

“Cross my heart,” he says, holding the pebble out to the child. “Are you coming?”

He guides them to the tunnel that leads outside, helps them to cross the arroyo, using the submerged stones. There isn’t enough water to skip stones on. The frogs sing a deafening song.

“You can play here whenever you want to,” he promises the child. “That’s my birthday gift to you, now that you’re old enough to enjoy it.”

“Is that so, Mommy?”

Clara nods, her throat tight. They’ve arrived at the clump of trees near the ruined bridge. The road stretches ahead toward the open horizon. It may be rutted and dusty, but it goes on forever.

“It’s time for us to part, little man,” he says, turning his back to the blind walls of the village. “But, before we do, I’d like you to choose a walking stick for me. Will you do that?”

The child heads straight as an arrow for the closest group of yews, setting off tiny avalanches of pebbles.

“I thought you were going to take him with you,” murmurs Clara. “I was prepared to follow you to the end of the world!”

He shrugs, his hat balanced cockily to one side of his head.

“I’m not cruel, Clara. I just keep an eye on my cages. I thought the inside of yours would be enough for you. I was wrong. You stayed for your son, but you want the sky too much. One day you will leave.”

“How can you know?”

“The empty perch in the large room. It was waiting for you. Your bird never chose to set down there.”

The boy runs back to them, brandishing the elm stripling. The clump of dirt imprisoning the roots breaks apart with each step. He hands it to the Magician, who takes it in his large hand.

“An excellent walking stick! I’ll plant it far from here when I’ve finished with it. But I think it will be with me for quite some time.”

In the distance, a bus honks its horn. The wind whispers secrets into the ears of those who wish to hear them.

“How is your own bird?” Clara asks suddenly, looking the Magician straight in the eye.

“Grey. Silent. Flightless.”

The next moment, he sets out on the road, refusing to turn back to see if they watch as he leaves. The world of men is so vast when you travel on foot. And the sky… Bah! The sky is a place where magic no longer works. On days such as this one, he almost believes that he is satisfied with his fate. Even the lark that brushes against him while playing is unable to entice him away from his path.

(First published, in French, in Asphodales 5)

dunyachJean-Claude Dunyach, born in 1957, has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and supercomputing. He works for Airbus France in Toulouse. He has been writing science fiction since the beginning of the 1980s, and has already published seven novels and six collections of short stories, garnering the French Science-Fiction award in 1983, four Rosny Ainé Award in 1992 (2), 1998 and 2008, as well as the “Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire” in 1998 and Prix Ozone in 1997. Jean-Claude Dunyach also writes lyrics for several French singers, which served as an inspiration for one of his novels about a rock and roll singer touring in Antarctica with a zombie philharmonic orchestra . . .

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