THE OLD MAN AND THE BIRD
A short story
From his chair he was perhaps three feet from the bird on the other side of the window. So close he could see the bird's tiny eyelid quivering. The old man was quite snug and warm inside with the fire going and a wool scarf around his neck and an afghan over his legs. The bird looked cold on the snow-covered branch, hovering under the bush just sitting there and blinking.
The old man had just enjoyed a bowl of hot tomato soup and settled down in a comfortable chair to read when he heard the loud whack against the windowpane. The bird hit it hard then hopped under a bush and jumped up a few inches onto the lowest branch where it now perched, looking miserable.
Are you injured bird?
The impact left an odd mark on the window where it had disturbed the frost. He could see no blood or feathers though. Perhaps the bird was simply stunned and gathering momentum for a flight back to his home or nest or wherever it went to rest.
Can the bird see me in my warm room? If I move will it startle the bird and force it into flight before it has recovered?
The old man put his head down and opened the book slowly so as not to make any threatening moves and began to read. He read for ten minutes then without lifting his head he looked up and the bird was still there but he had tucked his head down under one wing and closed his eyes.
How long can he live in nine-degree weather with a wind chill of zero? Will his little damaged body freeze before he has recovered? Ethel would know but she isn’t here.
The old man rose from his chair slowly and went to the linen closet for a blanket. He could cover the small bush with a blanket and perhaps it would provide just enough protection for the bird until he was strong again.
His heavy winter coat was hanging on a hook next to the door and he put it on as well as his wool cap and gloves. He slipped his feet into the boots in the mudroom. If his wife had been there she would have made such a ruckus about an old man going out in the snow and cold to cover a bird he could not have even considered it. But Ethel was not there.
Ethel is dead. Buried. Dead and buried a year ago! So that’s that. Dear Ethel. She would know exactly what to do for the bird. She was always feeding them and nursing the sick ones that fell from their nests or slammed into the window.
He opened the door and was hit hard by a freezing blast of wind. He considered reconsidering but stepped outside and felt the cold on his face. His boots crunched through the icy layer of snow making too much noise. He climbed the small hill behind his house and peeked around the corner. He needed to catch his breath. After all he was 85 that month and had a little trouble breathing.
Light from the window shone down on the snow-covered bush and the bird was there in a circle of light, with his head still tucked down. He did not move.
Are you dead? Frozen?
The old man shuffled slowly through the snow to the bush, keeping his eyes fixed on the bird.
Don’t fly, don’t move, don’t be afraid, I’m here to help you.
Amazingly the bird did not move, did not even open his eyes. In one big gesture the old man threw the blanket over the bush, covering it.
That is all I can do for you bird. Perhaps in the morning I will check on you and leave you something to eat. Good Luck.
His trip back to his door was made more difficult by a sudden blast of sleet and wind that drove hard bits of ice into his face and he stumbled a little as he climbed back up the hill. Suddenly he was sitting in the snow breathing heavily. So tired.
This is silly, I need to rest a minute then get into the warm house.
When he pulled the blanket from the bush in the morning he could not believe his eyes. The bird was still there in the same position, not moving. Dead? The old man lifted the small-feathered body and put it under his coat and returned to his warm den. Near the fire he laid a pillow and put the bird down gently then tiptoed to his chair and his book.
He read for two hours, glancing periodically at the stiff little body on the pillow. He shook his head. Dead! In the kitchen he heated a bowl of chicken noodle soup and when he returned the bird was sitting upright on the hearth, blinking. The old man slid slowly into his chair and watched the bird. The bird looked back at the old man and then began to preen and clean his feathers. When he’d finished that task he hopped across the floor and jumped up on the arm of the old man’s chair and pecked at his crackers, which lay in a saucer by the bowl of soup.
“Good heavens,” he whispered. “You are a remarkable bird.” The old man crushed two crackers into fine crumbs and sprinkled them on the saucer and put the saucer before the bird. When the bird had eaten enough he jumped from the arm of the chair to the floor and continued jumping down the hall to the front door and stood there waiting for the old man. Once the door was opened the bird spread his wings and flew into the sunlight and disappeared into the winter sky. The old man smiled and returned to his book. Ethel would be proud.
A dark car pulled up in the driveway crackling over the ice and stopped next to the old man’s house. Two men stepped out and walked around the porch to the back yard.
“He’s over here Sheriff. I was afraid there was something wrong when I called last night and got no answer. What on earth was that old man doing out in the cold at night?”
“Dunno Hank. Looks like he just lay down and died right there by that bush with the blanket on it. Well, he was pretty unhappy with Ethel gone so maybe they are together now.”
“Do you suppose he was trying to protect the rose bush from the ice and died before he could get back to the house?”
“Looks that away. Poor old Henry came out here for some reason and never made it back to the house. He didn’t intend to be outside long, he left the door ajar.”
The sheriff reached for the door and a small bird jumped through the doorway and hopped across the snow then took flight.
“Did you see that? A bird was in the house. Keeping warm I guess.”
In a very tall tree, stripped bare of leaves by the winter wind and with branches frosted white, a little bird sat on a twig and looked down at the house and watched as they carried the old man’s body away. Then the bird headed home. His belly was full of cracker crumbs and he’d rested well during the night snug by a warm fire.