In July, we published the first of our four finalists from our first annual short story competition. (Read the winning entry here.) The second entry, “Fixing Miss Fritz,” followed in August. Then we published our third entry, “Cumpleaños Feliz” by Tasca A. Shadix. Now we bring you the final entry in our 2011 contest, “He Will Sing to You” by Michael McGuire. Stay tuned for details about the 2012 contest.
You could hear him coming. Not him, but his birds. So distant, so faint, they seemed at first to be calling from somewhere inside her head. She stopped and listened. Birds, she thought. Another vendedor.
Ana Laura knew what it was to work for a living.
Alone of her family she had attended university. She had taken a degree in law, but the only work she could find was teaching at la preparatoria in Pueblo Nuevo, preparing students to attend the same university and take the same degree she had. Or another, equally useful.
Ana Laura’s salary had been counted in pesos an hour.
Eventually she had found a job in Tamazula. It wasn’t work for a lawyer, but her training didn’t hurt. It was with an agency whose task it was to enforce environmental law. As such it had to stand up to the sugar company that darkened the skies over Tamazula and filled the lungs of everyone who lived there. The agency did manage to impose some fines, but they were inconsequential. The sugar company paid them and continued to darken the skies.
Her job in Tamazula was supposedly apolitical, but it transpired that the work was party-related. All the jobs in her office were dependent upon an affiliation with the PAN. When the PRI returned to power, someone else was tasked with imposing the fines which the sugar company would doubtless continue to pay and she and her colleagues had to find something else.
Ana Laura returned to Pueblo Nuevo. For a while she cared for her mother, which gave her a roof over her head. Months and, in time, years succeeded. Then her mother, who required constant care, died and Ana Laura got her old job back at la prepa. The salary had improved. Slightly. This time she knew she had better get used to the idea: more than likely, the job was forever.
Some workdays began early and ended early. Some began late and ended late. And one day, when the workday would begin late and end later, in the dark, when she was using the best part of the day, the morning, to prepare her work at home, she heard, not the bird man, but his birds.
The bird man carried four kinds in stacked cages, largest and loudest on top. Each had been chosen, it seemed, less for the sweetness of his voice than the distance of his cries.
Ana Laura had heard the chorus a block away. Her first thought was an especie migratoria, a flock on its way somewhere, had paused to rest on the roofs of Pueblo Nuevo. When she opened her door and looked out through the grillwork, it was the young man she saw, the bird man looking back at her.
Ana Laura stood and listened a moment. The birds made no effort to serenade her, nor he to sell them, though he had come to a stop at the sound of her door.
El vendedor de pájaros did not look like an itinerant. A bag of woven grass hung from his shoulders. His huaraches were worn but his feet did not suggest years on the roads and backroads of Jalisco. His cages looked small and uncomfortable. Crowded. Several species were represented. Suddenly the bird man was talking. His voice was less penetrating than the loudspeaker on the fruit and vegetable truck or, worst of all, the van of the man from another town who sold bolillos. It was soft, almost musical and, once he started, it seemed he would never stop…
Here on top you see the lark bunting, el llanero alipálido, who flies like a butterfly; next to him the flycatcher, el mosquerito de charral, who takes his prey in mid-air; here, underneath, is pyrrhuloxia, el cardenal desertico; here is the scrub jay, el chara azuleja, who gangs up on marauding hawks and himself robs nests; here is phairopepla, el capulinero negro, who feeds on mistletoe and, in distress, imitates the cries of at least a dozen other birds; down here is the song sparrow, el gorrión cantor, who sings 300 times an hour–he will sing to you–and last but not least, here on the very bottom, the white crowned sparrow, el zacatero mixto, the male who learns the song, not of his father, but of one barrio or another or, if he lives between poblaciones, learns the language of both and can sing in either, the world’s only bilingual bird.
Listen. That is the song sparrow. Female song sparrows are attracted to males with the most complex songs. But all my birds, señora, without exception, are songbirds, pájaros cantores, and you can have one very reasonably, muy barato, a bajo precio.
Her eyes wide at such fluency, Ana Laura unlocked her grillwork, stepped out and asked the price of one of the birds crammed on top. It was the same, the bird man said, as any other. And named the price. It was not that much, not much more than a sombrero from the man who walked the streets with two dozen on his head, all different sizes, all for sale.
Ana Laura didn’t have a cage and she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear such determined singing all day.
Suddenly the clamor was bothersome. She stepped away from the desperate chorus, half circling man and birds in the flattened sunlight of the street. A dozen small heads followed her. The song intensified. At a distance she thought she could see the misery in the small round eyes. They’d seen others of their kind chosen, taken away. Wherever, it couldn’t be worse than where they were. Having never had a chance to learn another, they sang the song they knew.
They sang of release, of liberation.
The bird man also turned to look at her. His look was not without hope. Expectation. At the least, he expected Ana Laura to ask a question. And she did.
Have you always sold birds?
The young man laughed, then answered.
I haven’t had time to find anything else.
Why do you have to find anything?
Everyone has to find something, señora. One man wheels his whetstone and sharpens knives; another carries his wife’s tamales, still hot; another shoes or remedios in tiny bottles; another carries bagre from the lake, stuffed with mercury. Yet another carries chairs he made up one street and tables he made down the other. I carry birds. Which one do you like?
Again Ana Laura half circled, ending up with the sun, which was almost overhead, a little more behind her than it was behind him.
Why did you choose birds?
I have no wife to make tamales. I know nothing about medicine or shoes or catfish from the lake. Birds are lighter than chairs and tables. I know where I can buy them a bajo precio. Económico.
What have you got in your bag?
Very little. A flute.
A flute. Can you play it?
The young man drew the flute from his bag of woven grass and swallowed, perhaps to draw some moisture. He raised the flute and, without pause, played a melody Ana Laura had never heard. It was only near the end that she noticed the birds had stopped their song of release, of liberation; that all, without exception, eyed the man with round eyes. At least as well as they could from their confinement.
It reminded Ana Laura of trying to read the minds of her students. Did the birds think the bird man knew and understood their fate? Did they think he was one of them?
He did have a beak-like nose, but that didn’t make him a bird. He was indigenous, that was all. He could speak an idiom he wouldn’t share with you or the birds. Unless, when alone, man and birds communicated in a tongue they alone understood. Perhaps, when they had traveled on, when the talk turned to Pueblo Nuevo, and at their ease in a lost language, they would speak of her.
When he had finished, Ana Laura applauded. It had been a nice melody. Looking at the flute, she wondered if the melody might reside in it and not the man.
That’s a lovely instrument. May I hold it?
Ana Laura held out her hand and the bird man, without hesitation, placed the flute in it. It was a simple wooden tube. Nearly weightless. Like the birds, she supposed.
Very nice. Did you make it?
It came with the birds.
Part of the deal.
Ana Laura had the urge to raise it to her lips, yet the mouthpiece glistened, which didn’t appeal. Well, she would never know if the melody made its home in flute or flutist. That’s the way it was. Mechanically, she returned it, remembering all she had to do before her class.
Which bird would you like, señora?
I do not have a cage.
I can sell you the cage too.
I do not know if I want a bird. Unlike your flute, your birds are very loud. Will you sell me the flute?
The flute is not for sale.
It is mine.
It came with the birds.
Then, like the birds, it can go.
I have made it my own. If you will excuse me, señora, I have many kilometers before me.
Where are you going?
That way. This way. I hope you will excuse me.
The bird man, nodding graciously, was moving away. Ana Laura realized she was standing in the street, that Jesús would be passing soon with aguamiel from the agaves that lined the backroad between Pueblo Nuevo and Pueblo Viejo, that Gabriel’s son with pony and empty milk cans would be headed the other way. It was time to get out of the sun.
What else have you got in your bag?
Your music. Can I see it?
El vendedor de pájaros, still moving away, drew a book of sheet music halfway from his bag. Again, the rough concord of the birds seemed to rise in volume.
Can you read music?
Sí, señora. Adiós, señora.
You must have plans for yourself. Ambiciones. Will you sell your book of music?
The young man, nearly walking backward, nevertheless was gaining speed.
Will you sell your bag then, your bag of woven grass? It is very nice, very simple. I will pay more than you paid for it. I…
Ana Laura knew her voice was rising, becoming harsher, shriller, but the bird man had turned his back to her now, hitting a stride designed to cover kilometers between here and there, between now and then; and his birds, calming themselves, preparing themselves for the road, seemed to have no need of their song of release and liberation.
Sometimes, Ana Laura remembered, when she was back behind her grillwork and her door, when they went out to the one tolerable restaurante in Tamazula, and ordered the one dish suitable for eating (if only with several glassfuls of tequila and Squirt), she and her colleagues had the feeling they were doing something. Really doing something. At other times, alone in the unfamiliar town, under its blanket of probably poisonous and never to be improved bad air, Ana Laura had been sure that asesinos from the sugar company, heavies in shiny cars, were eyeing her, targeting her, that if she weren’t careful her life would be over before it began.
Michael McGuire is the author of The Ice Forest, a Publisher’s Weekly “Best books of the year” selection, distributed by Northwestern University Press. His plays have been performed by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, etc. An unproduced play, La frontera, won the $10,000. International Prism Award. A collection has been published by Broadway Play Publishing and, like The Scott Fitzgerald Play, are available on Kindle.