The bird flew in through the half open window. It hopped from the bathroom sink to the taps, then back to the sink again, moving its head and neck mechanically. ‘Don’t’, I thought, ‘please don’t go near the mirror.’ I had often heard stories, of birds that would peck mindlessly at their reflections, against car rear-vision mirrors and glass panes, until their beaks were split and broken. Once, while at my desk, I had stared blankly through the window, out across the lawn, as an Indian Myna swooped erratically in front of me, slamming into the glass just a foot from my face. Birds and vertical panes – the combination worried me.
The bird eyed me as I waited near the shower, clutching a towel against me in a moment of indecision. I wondered if I should shoo it, or if it would just fly away. I needed the toothbrush and paste from the sink, and my clothes for the day were hanging on the rail beneath the window. The bird’s claws began squeaking as it moved closer to the mirror and its head turned away, toward the reflection in the pane. I held my breath, waiting for the chaotic response when the bird came to meet its own eye in the mirror. The movements of its eye became still, more focused, and it moved closer to the mirror in a very human way. It leant forward and touched its beak against the glass, almost carefully, so as not to make a sound. At that moment I yelled, waved my arms about my head, and the bird flew directly up, flapping its wings, and out the window. I waited a moment, then crossed quickly to the window, but there was only the empty square of sky.
I had two slices of bread with a fig jam for breakfast – a good jam in a nice jar, but not too expensive. The seeds from the figs were visible in the jam, suspended in whirls and clusters in the jar. I spread the jam on the bread to the soft hum of the fridge. The house was quiet, no wind today, no radio. There was a sound at the window, a faint scuffling maybe, but the window was closed and no bird could fly in. I finished the toast and reached for the radio, but I did not turn it on, waiting a little longer in the quiet. The bird might be in a tree close by, or perched on top of the house, looking for an opening. I wanted to hear any sound of it moving near the house, to know of any effort it was making to get in.
There are two floors in my house – a ground floor and a smaller loft room. Sun comes through a skylight and makes this space free of damp, and so this is where I store things to keep the house free from clutter. There are books belonging to my sister, an orange lampshade and a box of shoes, and the armchair and bookshelf David used when he lived here. Beside the bookshelf I have stored David’s stainless steel saucepans, a box of books and the badly decorated vase from his mother. I liked the feeling of space and emptiness downstairs, the natural quiet of the house and echo of the morning radio. The rent is expensive, but I buy cheaply from the supermarket, cook my meals in and hire out old weekly movies – I like the sound of the voices in the hallway in the evening. ‘Really! ‘You’re sure?’ ‘How?’ ‘Why?’ Last night it was the fast-paced dialogues of Manhattan – the thin man and laughing woman, duelling it out in the living room. On Sundays I sometimes go out to lunch with my brother. He has been made a partner in a firm and is very young for this promotion and so to celebrate we had Peking duck and a rosé wine.
I noticed the jam was nearly three quarters eaten. I would need to buy another jar for the cupboard next week. Since the tax return on the last year I have enjoyed some luxuries at the supermarket – prosciutto instead of ham and a few bottles of nice wine. As I opened the fridge to put the jam away the humming briefly stopped, and as it cast its light on my face I heard a sound from upstairs – a soft bump and a light, feathery scratching against glass. Perhaps the bird was moving on the roof near the skylight, trying to get in to the loft below. Perhaps it had already entered through the bathroom window and quietly flown upward through the house.
The bird’s eye in the mirror was unsettling to me, and of all creatures, I find birds the most difficult to know. Their gaze shifts so quickly, their gestures are so rapid, that they evade any sense of a human connection or rhythm. Its eye troubled me but there was something about the body I kept returning to – the way the feathers encased the head and curved over the scalp, then lay all down its neck in smooth flat strokes. I had seen this up close in nature books and in museums where the birds are displayed under lights and behind glass. The feathers of the neck were the smoothest, the softest. Books I have owned contain large, detailed pictures of birds, and maps of the world showing where the oceans and seas interconnected. The books described how an albatross could cover vast distances, flying thousands of kilometres without stopping to rest.
I wondered if I would have to make contact with the bird – if it became hurt flying in and needed help getting out, or if it flew at my face in confusion and panic. But at the top of the stairs things were quiet as usual and I opened the door onto an empty room. I waited for a sound or a sign of movement. The early sun came through the window and onto the floor, lighting the crates and cardboard boxes – things I didn’t want around, had not thrown away. I sat down to rest on a plastic crate for a moment. Looking at my watch I saw I was nearly an hour late for work. Perhaps I wouldn’t go in at all today. But people might notice, I might have to make up some lie.
Downstairs I gathered up my things from the kitchen table – an apple from the bowl, my jumper and a shoulder bag. I walked down the hallway and closed the front door behind me.
My work is on the third level of a four-storey building, and is an open-plan office, filled with desks and partitions. The partitions come to a few inches below the shoulder and are textured with carpet so that we can stick memos onto them – small things, I’m sure they imagine, from our work and home lives. No one questioned my late arrival so I sat down at my desk, shuffled through my folder and checked my tasks for the day. I have a city map on my partition wall, and a historical map of another city, a list of dates on yellow paper and a small calendar with an image of a coastline – the dates and months flip over while the coastline image remains the same. The bobbing heads and shoulders of my colleagues moved past me, then a hand appeared, stretching out as someone yawned. A telephone sounded quietly to the hum of the copier, and as so often happens, I was lulled by this place, where the days are swallowed away by the carpeted floors and partition walls.
As I sat at my desk I thought often of the bird, of its eye and beak in the reflection of the glass. I remembered a scene from a nature documentary describing the migration of birds and other animals. It explained the difficulties for birds covering vast distances as their eyes and senses try to adjust to the new light. With the late start and the disrupted morning I was finding it difficult to work, but I have found that it is best to stay seated at my desk until, eventually, some focus comes to me. There is a section in the paper I often turn to – the express news on the final page. Sometimes I also flick dully through the real estate, but there is something compelling about the final page, about those haiku of world disasters set out in their columns, condensing each item into a small, hard kernel. The back pages also feature stories of general interest, and today an article accompanied by a photo caught my eye, showing a penguin standing by a body of water. The story was perhaps only twelve lines long, and described how several types of seabird including penguin and albatross had been seen further north, migrating out of season. It suggested global warming and a new fishery on Macquarie Island as possible causes, among others, of the change to their habits. The article was concerned with the behaviour of the sea birds, which were gathering in large numbers on the northern beaches of the coastline. A penguin had threatened a woman out rock fishing and an albatross had apparently flown at a child. The article included a small, off-scale map showing the places where the seabirds had caused some disturbance. I liked the map, with its graphics and arbitrary scale, and so I carefully tore it from the bottom of the newspaper. I would keep it among the pages of the atlas upstairs, with the other torn pieces of newspapers and magazines.
I looked through the newspaper for maybe an hour although none of the other articles were especially interesting. If someone came to my desk I put the paper aside, and if my boss walked through the office I covered it with several spreadsheets. My mind was filling with images of the bird – of its feet on the sink, the soft feathers of its neck. In the afternoon Meg and Andrew came to speak with me, to discuss a new date for a meeting and report – on 2 May they would present the memorandum on the new garden, and the following day discuss the project on safety at road crossings. Looking through my calendar I thought how soon it would be winter, and how early in the evenings I would have to close all my windows and set the heater humming quietly throughout the house. Meg and Andrew suggested we have a drink in May, to celebrate the memorandum and the months working together. At the usual hour in the evening I left work, thinking often of the bird as I travelled home on the bus – I wondered if it were waiting or resting near the house. The streets were quiet, without a sound of any bird, as I walked the last distance from the bus stop to home. My house sat at the end of the street – a pale, empty shape, and I thought of a conversation I had had with my brother while out for lunch on a Sunday a few weeks earlier. If you keep going the way you’re going now, he said, in six … no, maybe in seven or eight years, you’ll have enough money for a loan on that place. I remembered the dull shine on the back of my spoon.
I reached the front door of the house and turned the key, then pushed the door open, hung my coat in the hall. I wondered, as I sometimes do, if I would really go into work tomorrow. I had the thought that I might not go into work at all. I left my bag on the table, went to the bedroom to change, and on my way I opened all the windows along the hallway.
The fridge lit my face as I opened the door in the semi-darkness. I had been sitting in the next room with the television on mute, reading a magazine while the figures moved on the screen. My mind was over-stimulated, my limbs heavy and tired. I kept thinking of the things that were piled in the attic, of the faces of my workmates, of maps and partitions. The film was black and white, all smoke and train stations. Now I was looking for some yoghurt to eat as I put the things away, and I reached for the container, between the jam and the prosciutto. There were only two slices of prosciutto in the packet, and the jam was more than three quarters eaten.
A wind started up around my house that evening. First I heard the shake of a pane in the window then the brushing of trees against the wall outside. I imagined the branches moving against each other, settling for a moment then starting up again with a faint rustling. I heard another sound – a slow sweeping across glass. Then came the sound of a bump and silence, and a light scratching against a surface upstairs. I switched the screen off and listened for a sound.
Perhaps the bird’s nesting place had been damaged and it was looking for refuge from the wind inside. Perhaps it was now huddled against the glass of the skylight, confused by the glass barrier between it and the space below. I imagined its eye moving quickly in the dark, its foot clawing against the glass, seeking a rail or a wire.
As I walked upstairs to the loft I thought of the documentary I had seen about migration, and in my mind I also saw the picture of the penguin, standing as if posed by a group of photographers. I wondered whereabouts the photo had been taken, whether in a zoo or in a sanctuary or in the wild, and again, I thought about why birds flew at mirrors and why they were inevitably attracted to glass surfaces.
At the door of the loft all was quiet again, so I opened the door and walked slowly in. The boxes and books were laid out as I left them, dim shapes gathering dust and shadow in the semi-dark. I looked up, and still there was no sound or movement, but I could see a dark shape on top of the skylight – a splayed-out mass about the size of a football. I plugged the old orange lamp into the socket, so as not to dazzle the bird with the overhead light, then piled one box on top of the other, making a small tower toward the skylight. The pile of boxes was stable enough, and so I stepped onto it, steadying myself with my arms. I could see just well enough by the orange glow of the lamp to find the catch that allowed the skylight to open. I pushed upward against the glass and felt the bird’s weight – it shifted a little, and slightly shuffled to one side. I reached out my hand into the cold and dark. Up close it was larger and fluffier than I had expected, and I thought I felt the softest warmth emanating from its feathers. I didn’t want a lost, panicked bird in my loft, but nor could I think of it waiting on the roof, disoriented by the wind and confused by the glass, and so I reached towards its feet, its wings and its feathery tail. Awkwardly I tried to grasp the bird’s foot, but it scrambled against the glass, flapped its wings. The bird gave a small cry like a human yell, rose from the skylight and left into the night. I swayed slightly, off balance, as the books slipped beneath me, then slid upright to the floor amid the jumbled boxes. The musty air of the bird’s feathers was in my mouth and nostrils.
The things in my loft were scattered around me – books at odd angles, papers and shoes. The old, orange lamp stood askew to one side, and nearby was the overturned vase from David’s mother. I closed some of the books lying open on the floor, stepped between the boxes and over to the doorway. There wasn’t a sound any more from anywhere in the house – the wind was settling as the night came over. I imagined each room, empty and silent, how the house would stay quiet for the whole of the winter. I didn’t return to the kitchen or to the lounge room. I walked to the bedroom and lay down on the covers.
I woke up on my side, still in my clothes and shoes. The room was dark but there was a grey light at the window. I rose to wash my face and change my clothes, but then I hardly knew whether to sleep again – it was between midnight and dawn. Perhaps it was the silence, or an actual sound, but something made me wait and listen carefully in the dark. I thought I heard the sound of a movement in the house – a sound of feathers and wings in still air. I stood in the hall, and thought I heard another sound – the foot of a bird on glass, or against a sink.
My mind was steady as I walked to the bathroom, my thoughts quietened by sleep and by the hush of the morning. I knew this time that the bird would be there, that it would stay for a moment and then leave through the window. I imagined that if I approached it, it might fly at my face. I also knew that the bird wouldn’t see me in the mirror, that it would meet its own eye, but not mine, in the reflection. I waited for a moment at the bathroom door, sensing the bird in the dim light near the sink. It had returned again, and this time I asked myself, what do you want? I switched on the light and saw the back of the bird – it was facing away from me toward the reflection. I could see the eye and a part of its face in the mirror. It showed no sign of distraction or fear, but just sat there, still, like a statue on the side of the sink. Its eye was fixed on a point near the mirror, calm and still, resistant to my presence. My towel was hanging from the rail beneath the window and my toothbrush and paste were waiting by the sill. I would be ironing my clothes for the day before too long, then hanging them on the rail near the sink while I showered. I couldn’t wait any longer in the stillness and quiet, so I scuffled my shoes against the bathroom floor. I rustled my clothing, knocked my knuckles against the wall. I took a step into the room. ‘Who are you, what do you want?’ and I thought I heard an echo, ‘What do you want with me?’ The bird seemed to register the sound of my voice, and it turned its head, began to clean beneath its wing. Are you looking for a place to stay, I wondered, and I stretched out my hand, simply to make it move. I reached the soft, flat feathers of its neck, and then stayed like this for a moment, uncertain. I could push it from the sink, ruffle its feathers to make it move, or pick it up and take it to the bathroom window. Its frame could fit into my two cupped hands but my heart thumped when I thought of the bird in my grip, of its eye and its beak and its feet moving in my palms.
At that moment the bird moved away from me, hopping to the side of the sink without fear. It jumped onto the tap then flew to the window, its body outlined against the grey light. As it moved to the window I walked quickly toward it, but at that moment it rose with a sudden flapping in the air, and when I reached out my hand it had already gone.
When I slept again I dreamt of maps and pedestrian crossings. Birds on the kitchen table and in the hallway, a loft overgrown with vines and partitions. A picture kept recurring, as if caught in a loop – an image of a bird moving slowly through a window. I woke at ten with the pale sun in my face, and sat at the kitchen table with the paper beside me, the bowl of fruit with only an apple left in it. All the things in my house were in their usual places – the kitchen bench was clear with the radio on top, and the fridge door was closed, letting out the soft, usual hum. The couch in the next room had a line of sun across it.
At midday I sat in the open front doorway. Everything was quiet – there was no wind, no birds, only a postman on a bike at a mailbox down the street. I missed the morning at work that day, and the afternoon at work, and I missed the next day as well. I planned to do some shopping by the end of the week, perhaps in another suburb, then go to a restaurant to eat. Someone called me from the office, and I got a call from my sister – I said I was free any time to have dinner.
The bird did not return to the house that morning, although I waited at home and kept the windows open. I kept the windows open for most of the week, and pushed the skylight ajar when the weather was fine. Twice I forgot to close it when it became damp or dark, and so I moved my books downstairs and stored them in plastic containers in the hallway. I left the windows open for the rest of the time that I lived there, and by the time it was cold, and it was winter, I had gone.