"These are the best birds I have," I lied.
"That's why I'm asking. We don't want any of those inferior birds." The man waved a peach hand at the rows of rubber ducks and the fake tree with pouches that held singing toy birds covered with incongruous plush fur. He put an arm around the shoulders of his tiny, birdlike wife. Her blue eyes, caged by light coral wrinkles and gold-rimmed spectacles, held a peculiar lost look I recognized.
I didn't want to tell them that I had my own live bird back behind the storeroom – Fionnovar White Wing, who'd lived with me now for twenty-four years, my friend and companion who'd sat on Dad's mahogany finger and traded singing lessons. Dad had flown off into the Great Beyond, but my dove still spoke to me in my father's voice.
My human interlocutor looked almost as round as Dad. The buttons on his faded, blue-striped shirt puckered over a waist marked by worn brown trousers held high with suspenders. He planted a peck in the nest of his wife's blue hair. "She's my best girl," he confided. "That's why only your best bird will do."
I hoped he didn't read any meaning in the sweat molding my flowered dress to what doctors like to call my well-nourished form. "I understand. Have you tried a pet shop? The real thing is always best."
His wife looked up at him with hopeful, inquisitive eyes. He scowled. "Out of stock. Every store in a five-hundred-mile radius. A lot have closed their doors. Avian flu. And" – he leaned forward to whisper – "the fever. The demand, you know." He pulled a plain white handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopped his brow.
Bird brain fever. What pundit had called it that? They were entirely wrong. Nature's latest attempt to curb the human population had taken the form of a virus that befuddled the human brain in its maze of memory – as if the brain's internal poles had shifted slightly, like the planet on its axis, confusing us as much as some migrating birds.
Only one thing helped: retraining the neural pathways along a more ancient pattern – that of the sophisticated avian brain, last survivor of the dinosaur age. It turned out many birds still considered us friends – though God knows we didn't deserve it, after all we'd done to them. Even Virginia Belmont's dearest companions, who'd spontaneously spoken their love, still spent their nights in a gilded cage.
Too many sufferers. Not enough tame birds. The lucky humans formed a symbiosis with their new friends, living highly creative lives with their sky-minded perspectives, flights of fancy, and airborne intuitive leaps. We loved both our family members and their birds, who located our dear ones in the wilderness of their minds and led them out again.
Lacking enough live birds, some had suggested that the very idea of a bird would do. Andersen's emperor had, after all, loved his mechanical nightingale. Which seemed rather to miss the point of that particular story. And yet, it worked for some. Maybe the act of focusing intensely on one object helped forge a pathway for the will.
But I would never forget how Fionnovar had brought my father to life again. How Daddy had looked before learning the dove's song, his kind brown eyes bewildered behind their fishbowl lenses, his great intelligence and loving spirit trapped within the very intricacies of his own mind.
I could guess by the patched knees of the man's trousers and the woman's threadbare dress that they probably couldn't afford a bird, even if they found one. Maybe they had a retirement account somewhere – with so few gray strands smoothed over his pink scalp, the man looked old enough to have started working back when they still had those. Maybe he'd be willing to throw it all away for the chance to help his wife reclaim the sweet bird of youth. But these miracle cures only lasted for so long. Another nine years, at most. A lifetime.
I led them up and down our picked-over shelves. Every time we neared the stockroom, I sent up a silent prayer that Fionnovar wouldn't choose this moment for a ringneck dove's deep, soulful call. Unless, of course, he warbled out Dad's rendition of "I Believe in Miracles" or "Straighten Up and Fly Right."
The man spoke to his mate quietly, guiding her by the elbow as they bent over glass birds and set off cuckoo clocks. He whistled to attract her attention to windup birds and portraits of owls, communicating partly by his choice of song. Like Dad, he had a pretty good whistle, too. I caught myself wondering what would happen if they blew their life savings on a bird for her, and she successfully winged her way back to him, only to find him afflicted by the same disease.
It had happened with my mother. Fionnovar was a brave bird, but his wings did not have strength enough to carry two at once. And he'd already bonded with my father by then.
We reached the end of the store. She still clung to his arm as if to a perch, her eyes hopeful as they fastened on his.
My heart cracked like an egg. I put a finger to my lips for silence as I led them into the back room, where Fionnovar flew, the soft white undersides of his wings flashing as he danced above my head. He landed there, preening the hair I keep short for him as he cooed to me in Daddy's voice, "There Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens."
I pantomimed. With a little help from her husband, the woman copied me faithfully, holding out her skinny arm. Fionnovar hopped on her finger and nuzzled her cheek.
At the joy in their eyes, my heart soared.
For her master's degree in English literature with emphasis in creative writing, Adele Gardner (www.gardnercastle.com) studied the craft of fiction with Janet Peery and poetry with Janet Sylvester at Old Dominion University. Her accolades include one first and two third place awards from the Poetry Society of Virginia in 2018 and 2019. Publications include a poetry book (Dreaming of Days in Astophel) and over 400 stories, poems, art, and essays in American Arts Quarterly, Pedestal Magazine, The Cape Rock, and more. She's literary executor for her father, mentor, and namesake, Delbert R. Gardner.