the true stories
Far down the end of the street where a man had been stabbed and a house shot-up was the large newer brick house of a Portuguese family. The man was middle-aged and he lived with his wheelchair-bound wife, his parents and his children. In the back yard were several beautiful well-tended fruit trees, a garden, a grape arbor and throughout the grounds were countless rabbit warrens.
Everyday passing by in good weather, I could spot the little hoppers going from hole to hole. The population was easily in the dozens and I believe they were served o coelho de estilo do caçador after eight or nine months of fattening up. Probably with some vinho branco from the grapes.
The mailbox was next to the front door and immediately to the left was a large picture window. The window was for a very large room that was decorated in warm wood paneling, a hand-cut stone fireplace and some sitting chairs. Each day, rain or shine, at the time I passed by, the man would be in the room feeding his wife from a beautiful tray stacked with fresh slices of apples, pineapples, watermelons and grapes.
Usually the elders were present and sometimes the teen-aged children. The woman in the wheelchair appeared to be in her late forties and still had curly shoulder length coal black hair. The husband would always wave and beam a smile out the window that could tame the snow, rain or sun. The old people would occasionally glance up with tight drawn expressions of varying degrees of mistrust and annoyance. The stricken woman always remained totally expressionless but aware. Her chair always sat in the exact same spot and her stare was always straight out the window.
I conjectured that she may have been quadriplegic and only able to move her mouth to eat. I always smiled back and waved after depositing the mail. I spoke once to the gentleman at his fence about the rabbits but did not feel it appropriate to launch questions about his wife, if he did not broach the subject first. I always looked forward to this call, for the view of the fruit plate, the rabbits and the life affirming sincere smile of the man.
He was a big man and looked as if he had done very hard jobs in his life. Perhaps mining, lumbering or road building. The delicacy with which he fed his wife and wiped the juice off her lips was a testament to humanity at its best. The tragedy of his wife's condition had been perfectly met by the care and tenderness of her husband. It was a daily lesson for me.
One day in late summer as I went up the familiar walk, I saw the whole family gathered in the room. The man was feeding his wife as usual and the others sat around, some chatting and some silent. The man beamed his smile and I waved hello. A streak went by my left peripheral vision and there was a loud clink and thud on the window.
I looked at the glass and there was a tiny smear of blood on the pane. Down on the spotlessly clean concrete porch was a sparrow. It was not moving and one eye had become dislodged from its socket and now dangled on the end of the optic nerve a quarter of an inch. I picked up the bird. The eye was also deflated and the connecting tissues torn.
I cupped the tiny creature in both hands and blew warm breaths on it. I was oblivious to the half dozen people several feet away behind the glass. I continued to blow. My first wife had a rabbit once that jumped three stories off a balcony onto concrete. I ran down to pick up the body. I assumed it was dead. It lay motionless and I touched it behind the folded ears. One of the ears sprang up like an antenna, then the other. Then it started to placidly hop away.
I was thinking of this as I blew on the bird. I don't know how long I stood there but in time the bird raised its head and ruffled its feathers. I looked at the folks for the first time. They were intently peering my way but their view was blocked by my hands. The oldest man shook his head sorrowfully. I turned around to hide the next action I took.
I took my Swiss knife and cut away the useless eye from the dangling nerve. The nerve retracted into the socket, which I reckoned now had a chance to heal without infection. I walked out to a plum tree in the front yard. I placed the bird in a crook about five feet off the ground. I hoped it could regroup before a cat discovered it.
I turned toward the window and saw that all the people had moved closer to the window. The husband had even moved the wheelchair to a front row seat. I rolled a smoke and waited. The bird could stand and move its wings and feet. Before I finished the smoke it flew. The right eye was gone, so the bird made a short ugly flight to the left and down immediately to the ground.
I retrieved it and went back to the tree. I spoke to it. I told it that it had one more chance to compensate for the loss of the eye. It was that kind of neighborhood. I turned again to the window. There stood the people in various poses like fans at a sports match. Each one showed expressions of hope or hopelessness according to their own beliefs and expectations. Except for the lady in the wheelchair. She sat like the ornamental cement pineapples on the front gate posts.
I realized that it was up to the bird. I took it in both hands and flung it upwards as high as I could. It took to wing about twelve feet up and I waited to see if it veered left. I was transfixed. It flew rapidly across the street very gently to the left and climbed to about twenty feet. It then returned to a straight trajectory and accelerated up and over the roof of the house across the street at high speed.
I felt a cheer inside and turned once again to the Portuguese window. The entire family stood pressed against the glass with amazement on their faces and all hands smiled. Some were clapping. I saw the Portuguese lean over and kiss his wife. Everyone who was able made the sign of the cross. I had to get moving. I had something in my eye.
Two decades later or five World Cups later, I was with my wife snooping through some antique stores near the corner where the Portuguese family lived. The man happened to come down the sidewalk and looked at us and stopped. He beamed his usual smile and grasped both our hands in his powerful mitts. “I remember-it your husband”, he said. “He brought-it back life to the bird.”
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.