Today’s Guest Fiction author is Rosanne Dingli. Rosanne is an award-winning novelist and author of According To Luke, Death In Malta and Vision and Delusion. She is from Western Australia. The following is a short story titled The Day Of The Bird. Find out more about Rosanne here: http://www.rosannedingli.com/ or read from her blog here: http://rosannedingli.blogspot.com/
Thanks So Much Rosanne!!!
The Day of the Bird
by Rosanne Dingli
I was sick of that place. From the start there was nothing but mould, leaks and draughts. I had exhausted my store of candles, and the lamp my landlady brought to the attic was a spluttering thing whose smell was as vexing as the small beetles that crossed the rag rug.
It was a thick rag rug which once, I suppose, sported a striped variety of colours to show the passing of years and the motley fabrics that wove through the family. Now it was a sort of mid-brown, with a grey fringe. My own muddy boots added to its stained appearance, I am afraid.
But I had come there to write: to live in a street so long, it dizzied the walker into thinking it would never end. But it did, at a place that passed, then, for home. I climbed the narrow staircase from the street, which itself was a fascination. Not for being busy or picturesque, but for its geography. Because that street, you see, lay exactly along the border between two countries, Belgium and Holland. Two countries whose choices presented themselves in a series of guises, since I left my mother’s hearth.
This was Putte, where one could see the change from Belgian to Dutch merely from looking at the faces of the women who came to the two bakeries in the two different countries along the street. They were – are still – faces so varied, so stoic, that I often regarded them as mere ovals when their blurred images passed. Eyes danced in the faces of the Flemish vrouwen, as if I saw them through a window channelled with rainwater, or full of tears. Chins jutted towards me on the faces of Dutchwomen, as if I had no business to be there. And perhaps I did not. Perhaps I had less right to be there, leaving damp footprints on Johanna de Platthy’s rag rug, than they, with their sturdy legs, pumping up and down on the pedals of black bicycles.
I was lonely then, and not because I was alone, since I never really had company before except for that of my mother, who would darn my mottled trousers while I crumbled the heel of one of her loaves of bread and cut paper thin slices out of her cheese. I was lonely because Johanna de Platthy said I was.
She looked at my clothes, my beard, my sodden boots, and tilted her head, not unkindly, while saying the words. She had just accepted me as a tenant. Goodness knows why. One of the reasons may be that she lived on the Belgian side of the street, and was one of the women with eyes that danced. I entered her home, sat on one of her unmatched chairs, gazed around at the looped curtains, the plants on her windowsill, the tiny cheap ornaments made crudely out of indifferent brass, and looked down at her rag rug to avoid those eyes. It was a clean rag rug, better than the one upstairs that she would lead me over later, but obviously one she made herself.
She seemed to have taken on the love the Dutch have for rag rugs. But what did I know? I had only visited Holland on two occasions before arriving in Putte. I did not know if the observation was either authentic or valid. I did not know the Dutch that well. And did not often now – unlike the way I did when younger and more arrogant – trust my powers of observation. Or the things I observed: the customs and artefacts, the behaviours and objects I saw. Or the way they translated themselves into fictions in my head. Then there was the lapse between head and hand, the frustrating slowness of the pen to keep up with the flow of words that seemed so perfect until a visible version of themselves appeared. What resulted on paper: was it a true, or even an adequate, way to describe the Dutch? What did I really know of them? Of Holland? Of women?
I had come there to write: articles, or even a book, as instructed by the man in Ghent, and now that the war was over I could sleep at last, and eat without haste, and arrive in new places without being viewed by townsfolk with fear and suspicion. Although I still looked like a fugitive, it was not from something over which I had no control, like the conflict between countries over borders that could be so confusing. I was a fugitive from grief, and not only the sorrow that accompanied the death of my mother. I grieved for things as they were, before the war sent me scuttling into the forest, over the long undulating plains; frightening birds, beasts and people alike.
Now that I had found a measure of peace, I could once more write, which was a relief. I wrote and scribbled to prove my poverty was self-inflicted. I sent my bundles of paper to the fat man in Ghent and he did the rest. Sometimes he sent back some cuttings with the money, and sometimes just a few lines to tell me what I should write about, and how long, and how soon. He said he had called me ‘Han Harben’ and it made me laugh, because I always avoid alliterations if I can help it. It would have made my mother laugh too, but for a different reason.
I did not care that Johanna de Platthy was completely bald. I asked myself whether I did – twice in the same fortnight – and really, I did not mind she had no hair at all. When I noticed, it was a swift and powerful shock, like the contraction in the stomach that strikes when one is discovered in a hiding-place by a soldier in a grey uniform. That happened to me twice, so I know. On both occasions I managed to get away, but not without difficulty.
And the feeling when I saw my landlady had no eyebrows, no eyelashes, and no hair under the headscarf she always wore was similar, but gave me no instinct to escape. I had to restart my sentence, of course, to disguise my discomfort, and managed to go on with what I was saying quite well.
I got used to her in a way. She was untidy and far from clean in her habits, but I ascribed that to her widowhood. She told me she was a widow, and I assumed her husband died in the war. I regarded the way she would sweep breadcrumbs off the table with the side of one hand into the cupped bowl of the other, vaguely, not minding that a large proportion of crumbs reached the rug. Her headscarf was always in place, indoors and out, and she would often raise a hand to pull it forward over her broad forehead. I thought it was a broad forehead, until my discovery that she had no hair at all, and that the broadness was baldness.
Sometimes, she would etch little marks with some sort of stick to signify eyebrows, before she went out to church. I noticed one Sunday when she called me down to eat. She had just returned after a long absence, which I calculated would be the length of a Mass and about an hour’s gossip on the forecourt of the small church. The downstairs room was as untidy as ever, with a months’ worth of newspapers piled near the window, the rucked rugs unshaken, the floor unswept and the curtains looped unevenly across dull glass.