“It didn’t behave like a bird, either. It did not fly. Instead, it liked to read—at least it looked like it did.”
House Sparrow by Chris Cascio
In Ole’s childhood bedroom, there had been a hole—no larger than a 50-øre coin and straight through to the outside of the second story—just a few inches to the right of the radiator. As a young boy, Ole had enjoyed crouching down and staring through the hole. Most times, he saw only the telephone wires sagging across the road. One time, though, as he pressed his eye to the opening, he saw another eye, a human eye staring back at him, and he fell backward in terror. But he was never sure it had actually happened.
When Ole was twenty-eight, he visited New York using some frequent flyer miles a flight attendant aunt of his had offered over a tall glass of scotch as a way for him to get—as she called it—some real culture, not just words from some dried-out books. Books that hadn’t been anywhere. And he was too skinny and shy. He needed to get out, get away from his job and shake things up, find a girl to shake up for a little while. And so he went. He stayed for five nights in The World Hotel on Bowery and spent his days wandering Lower Manhattan, studying faces, and drinking American beers.
On his second night, he met a young woman named Agony at a dive in the East Village. She wore a pixie cut and mismatched sneakers, and they spent hours doing boilermakers and talking about everything they had expected from the world and everything that had gone wrong. She was okay, she was breathing, just like everyone else, but a small part of her was still dying for the moment when something would happen. That one thing that would make everything just click and fall back into place and make sense again and be worth it. She was a puzzle with only a few pieces missing, but she still couldn’t see what the picture was, so she couldn’t say which pieces she needed. How fucked was that, to feel so close and still be clueless? She knew it was out there, though, that thing. She could feel it. She figured it would have to come from something lost or foreign or just plain out there because everything and everybody here was already spoiled and exhausted and full of it. And at that, Agony threw back the remaining third of her beer and confessed that she was full of it. She needed answers—she knew that much. Ole brought up his aunt and how her answer had been to send him to New York. He was starting to think she might’ve been right. Anything sure seemed possible here. Agony quailed and ordered two more drinks. They exchanged numbers. At the end of the night, as he helped her into a cab, she kissed him softly on the neck and whispered something he didn’t understand.
Ole spent his last full day in the city by taking the A train all the way up to the top of Central Park and then walking all the way back down. He loved riding the train. He watched the people and enjoyed it so much that he stayed on too long and got off at 125th Street in Harlem. Once back out in the sun, he started toward Malcolm X Boulevard, figuring he could take it south to the park.
On the way, he passed old men selling items from tables on the sidewalk. Most were selling clothes and most ignored him, but one selling decorated stones had urged him to buy. Ole took up one stone—a small, round one that fit nicely in his palm. He refrained, though, said he didn’t carry cash. The old man scoffed and turned away, and Ole pocketed the stone.
When he arrived back home, all he carried to remember the trip was a pair of sore legs, the memory of Agony, and the stone. He didn’t have much room for things, but the sole window in his studio apartment had been painted open for God-knows-how-long, and so he set the stone upon the sill, wedged gently in the corner.
The cat liked to sit on the sill sometimes. She was a fat cat, an old Maine Coon who took up most of the space in the window, which Ole wasn’t crazy about because he thought she might fall out if she got lazy. One day, after he’d settled back into the enervated regularity of his life, he pulled the fat cat from the window and her back foot dislodged the stone. It dropped onto his desk, and he and the cat both watched as it rocked back and forth and then settled and then cracked. Like an egg.
Ole and the cat watched as a small, black beak emerged from the crack in the stone. The mouth opened and closed. Then it withdrew, and a wet-feathered back pressed upward and widened the opening. It turned again, and a leg extended. Within minutes, crumbs of stone littered the desk, and a small bird lay fully exposed, belly down, its back swelling and settling like a miniature breathing balloon.
It stood carefully. It ruffled its feathers and became cottony. Then it tested its feet against the surface of the desk. With one foot raised, the bird noticed Ole watching. It blinked its round, front-set eyes in a way that made it appear interested in him. “Hello, Bird,” Ole offered softly, not knowing what else to do. It didn’t look like any bird Ole had ever seen. It more closely resembled a child’s drawing come to life: three inches tall, spindly legs and neck, silvery soot puffs for a body and head.
It didn’t behave like a bird, either. It did not fly. Instead, it liked to read—at least it looked like it did. Ole kept some books on the desk, the same books his drunken aunt had blistered: Einstein’s Relativity, Jung’s Symbols of Transformation, several works by Nietzsche. He watched as Bird stood on the pages of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, hopped down the lines, and then dragged the page corner over with one foot. The fat cat sat pleasantly—stuffed again into the space on the sill—while Bird read about the gunas.
When Ole reached out to touch Bird, it ducked its head downward, shortened its neck to nothing. Ole hovered a finger just above the crown of Bird’s head, trying his best to breathe evenly. Eventually, Bird extended its neck. Ole slowly lowered his finger and stroked the soft feathers on Bird’s crown. Bird appeared to enjoy this and pressed its head upward against Ole’s finger. Ole could feel Bird’s skull, slightly oblong. No bigger than a bean.
Then Bird spoke. Sort of. It all happened rather quickly. Ole had simply entertained a thought: could he afford to call out sick from work? Ole hated his job at the plant and came home aching almost every night. He never wanted to go, especially right now. Bird had been standing near the corner of the desk, pecking obsessively at a discoloration in the desktop. As soon as Ole had finished his thought, Bird faced him. Its mouth did not open, yet Ole heard a single chip in his head, clear as the call of any bird he’d listened to during his life. And he understood it. It said sure. You can think about some things, gain some perspective. This won’t last forever, you know.
Ole looked to the fat cat. It had not heard and did not care.
Ole got to thinking that Bird was some sort of hyper-intelligent being from who-knows-where and who-cares-how. So, he watched Bird read and then asked questions. Bird chipped in Ole’s head every time, and then Ole would check the page to see that Bird had reported accurately. Bird was faultless. Ole noticed that Bird never initiated conversation or had any questions. It did, however, appear curious. Bird watched Ole while he picked from his ear. Bird watched the cat and cocked its head like a dog.
While Bird was flipping through Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Ole decided to really test his theory. He was about to ask about what he’d seen as a child while staring through that hole, but then something inside of him shifted, and instead he asked about Agony. What was the missing piece she needed?
Bird lifted its eyes toward Ole, opened its mouth, and spoke an audible chip. And, at that moment, the fat cat that had been sleeping on the sill extended its arm and—in one swipe—severed Bird’s head from its neck.
Bird was now nothing more than a few bits of rock strewn about the desktop. The cat settled immediately back into sleep. And for a short time Ole reeled. The chip had just been that, a chip—no message in his head, nothing. He gathered the pieces and set them in a neat pile on the page. As he put on his work shoes, he noticed the telephone wires sagging across the road, a jet trail visible in the distance. And he understood that Bird had been stone. It didn’t have Agony’s answer—probably not his either. Like everything else in this world, it just had the answers it had.
Chris Cascio’s writing and visual art has appeared in The Southampton Review, Sand: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, The Manhattanville Review, and elsewhere. His short story, ‘Outbound,’ was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He teaches writing at Monroe College and also works as a freelance editor and portrait artist. He currently lives in Kings Park, NY with his dog, Samuel L. Jackson III.