If it hadn’t been for the war, he might never have met her. It happened on one of those nightmarish evenings when above ground the city rocked with bombs while below ground crowds of people huddled together in subway stations converted into air raid shelters.
He stood alone in the wavering electric light and scanned the surrounding faces. His eyes searched for a friendly one that would allow him to exchange a few words and forget the worry that his apartment building might soon be replaced by a giant crater.
Then he saw her. She was one of the privileged few who had arrived early and found a seat on one of the long benches, crammed between as many people as used to wait for a train at rush hour. But this time the train would never come.
Yet, she did not seem disturbed by this. She was completely absorbed in reading a book.
A child cried on the lap of a middle-aged woman who sat next to her, but she never glanced in their direction. He knew then that she must be alone too. He wanted to know how she could be so calm, so poised when the world was falling to pieces around them.
Softly, he stepped in front of her and asked what she was reading. She looked up, not even startled, and showed him the cover. A bluebird perched on a narrow branch above a title that read The Birds of North America.
“I’ve never been to North America,” he said.
“Neither have I,” and she was about to return to the book. But he couldn’t bear to let the conversation die like that, not when he’d heard her gentle voice and seen her soft brown eyes, like two pools of light without a ripple of fear.
He could have asked her name or what part of the city she was from or made a joke about the planes, but he gazed down at the book and saw she had opened it to an illustration of a small brown sparrow in a cluster of pink apple blossoms. It reminded him of a long ago life when trees and flowers still grew in the city. His mother and father had been alive, and they gave him a canary as yellow as morning sunlight for his tenth birthday.
“Do they have canaries in your book?” he asked. “I had one once.”
A smile broke across her face. “Then you’re a bird person too? Some people are cat people, and some are dog people, but I have always loved birds.”
The words flowed out of her as she flipped to her favorite illustrations. It was as if she was as starved for conversation as he was. She must not know that with such a serious, intent expression on her face, her forehead furrowed over her book, hardly anyone would have dared to approach her.
“I could tell you what each bird sounds like,” she said. “I know hundreds of bird calls. I used to work in the bird market. Were you ever there?”
“Yes, several times.”
“Perhaps we saw each other. It was wonderful, right on the edge of the flower market, you know. Beautiful birds and beautiful flowers. Such colors seem unreal now. That’s how you know the world’s at peace—when you can waste money on a bouquet. You can’t even eat them!”
“Were the birds eaten?”
“What a terrible thought. I hope not. We let them loose the day before the bombing started. Pamphlets falling from the enemy planes to warn us, and we sent up a cloud of doves.”
That was how it started. Afterwards, he’d look for her whenever he came to the subway station, and they would talk for hours until it was safe to return to the surface.
But she wouldn’t tell him where she lived—she said she didn’t want to make any attachments, no new friends. She couldn’t bear to lose anyone else.
“My mother is alive in a village outside the city,” she said. “She’s the only one I still have in the world, and she’s safe.”
“Why didn’t you go with her?”
“No, you see, she’s lived there all her life. I left years before the war because it was a poor, boring little village, and I dreamed of the big city with towering buildings and opportunities flooding every street. But now I’m trapped in a gilded cage, aren’t I?”
“Not very gilded anymore.”
“No, I suppose not. The war will be over soon, though, I’m sure.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Modern wars average about five years. I’ve calculated it. But those are the ones that have many countries fighting each other. Ours is a much smaller war. And this is the second year, so we only need to survive another one, most likely.”
“A lot can happen in a year.”
“You are so grim. It might not even be a year. It might be over tomorrow.”
But the next day, the enemy planes flew like vultures across the city. He looked for her on the platform and could not find her. The subway tracks, covered with slumbering people, disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel. He stared into the blackness, imagining her fragile body shattered and unrecognizable in the rubble, and he felt as helpless as he had the day his canary died in his hands.
He realized then that he could not survive the war without her, not without the frankness of her voice, her bright optimism, the light of her laughter. They’d already started to muse over where they’d go together when the war was over. To North America, perhaps, to see the bluebirds?
As soon as it was safe to leave, he scoured every floor of the two hospitals in the city. His words faltered as he tried to describe her: a short, slight, young girl, in her twenties, only a few years younger than him, with long, brown hair like a sparrow’s wing.
The nurses told him he could be describing any number of a thousand patients. Desperate, he asked for a scrap of paper and a pencil. He had been a student at the art college before the war, but his fingers trembled as he tried to draw the girl as he remembered. The face was vanishing from his mind, as a dream fades when one awakes. But even once he’d finished the drawing, the nurses still shook their heads and said they had not seen her.
When he found the girl the next day on the station platform, she laughed at his story. “I told you not to grow so attached,” she said. “You’d probably say it’s inevitable that one of us will end up dying. Maybe it’s true. Fifty percent of the people on this platform probably won’t survive the war.”
“Now you’re the one being grim.”
“I guess your pessimism is rubbing off on me.”
“But if that’s true that one of us will die, you don’t have to worry about getting attached because you can mentally prepare yourself, can’t you? Why won’t you let me see you above ground, let me know where you live?”
She looked away. Her lips quivered. “It doesn’t work like that,” she said at last. “You can’t mentally prepare, can you?”
He’d never seen the shadow of hopelessness tinge her face before, but it passed in a second. She turned back to him with one of her mocking, though not cruel, smiles. “You’re pretty lousy at it though, aren’t you? Mentally preparing? Did you really go to both hospitals?”
She dropped the subject after that. There seemed to be something about it that alarmed her. It was too serious to joke about. When it was time to leave the platform, she did not disappear into the crowd as she usually did, but she let him walk with her through the wounded city to an apartment building that was only a block from his.
From that day on, they met when the bombs weren’t falling. She worked in the government offices, a monstrous black slab of a building. It was one of the few that no one would have been heartbroken to see erased from the city skyline, but somehow it had survived.
The news wires from the front bolstered her optimism. She assured him that their brave troops were winning, that the wires dripped with victory, as sweet as black market chocolate.
He wanted to tell her that you could never trust what the government said, especially not during a war, but he didn’t want to disturb the calm certainty in her eyes. And why waste time talking about that when they could stroll through the city arm in arm, remembering what it had once been like and envisioning what it would be in the future?
When he told her he had studied art and helped design several of the government’s morale-boosting posters, her eyes shone. “You must become an architect after the war,” she said. “You could design all the new buildings. What would you build there for instance?” And she pointed to a pile of rubble and crumbling walls that once had been the national bank.
But he said he didn’t care for drawing anymore. He’d tried to become a soldier, but it was a pathetic attempt—an accident in the training camp had erased the hearing in his left ear and left him partially blind in his left eye. After that, he’d been sent back to the city, to sit in relative safety while others risked their lives. And now he felt a twinge of shame whenever he picked up a pencil. He’d wanted to do something important, something courageous during this war.
It was the first time he confessed the true reason for the scars on his face. But she did not see what was so shameful about it. “Maybe you didn’t get sent to the front so your artistic talent would survive,” she said.
Her words reassured him, eased the burden of dishonor that had suffocated his soul like the weight of a mortar shell. He began carrying a sketchbook with him. First, she would tell him to draw the ruins to immortalize them for historic purposes. Then they would imagine what might rise like a phoenix out of the destruction.
Together, they poured most of their creativity into designing a building, a peace monument, to replace the government offices in case those were blasted into oblivion sometime in the future.
“I don’t think they will ever be bombed,” he said. “If the enemy takes the city, they will probably want to use them as their headquarters.”
“That is the saddest thing you’ve ever said,” and she insisted they continue working on the design. “It must have an atrium with windows of stained glass.”
Her favorite place in the city was a church whose spire she could see from the balcony of her apartment. She took him to the church several times. She’d sit transfixed before the rose window, praying earnestly for the safety of her mother and also perhaps that the delicate panes of glass would survive the war.
“Just stained glass?” he asked now. “I mean, do you think there should be pictures in the glass like at the church?”
“Yes, waves upon waves of birds. And a flock of doves leading them. That’s how you’ll know the war’s truly over—when the birds return to the city. There is a swallow’s nest on my balcony, but they never came back since the war.”
“We could put a garden in the center of the building, a forest with birds.”
“Now you’re thinking! A giant aviary. How lovely.”
The building changed shape and sizes each day. Once it was the shape of a dove. But a ziggurat soon replaced that, and then a skyscraper. Another time it took on the form of a palace. The next day it was a complex of multiple buildings. They could not decide.
And then the drawings stopped. The news bulletins had become alarming, like a dark cloud forming on the horizon. Even she sensed it now, that they were not telling the full story. Her creativity, her ideas, withered and so in turn did his. The light in her eyes was not as bright as before. A sporadic cough became more frequent, and her cheeks looked gaunt, her hair dull. He tried to find black market food beside the meager rations, but the gray meat looked as if it had come from an emaciated bird released years ago from the bird market.
One afternoon, he heard that the enemy had taken a little village outside the city. He found her in the church, unable to speak at first, a look of shock upon her face. Then the words poured out. She’d lost The Birds of North America that morning. She couldn’t find it anywhere. It must have been an omen, because later she’d heard that the village had been overrun. Her little village, where blue wildflowers would be blooming on the hills now and birds nesting in the tree outside the kitchen window. But the kitchen wasn’t there anymore, nor the trees, nor the birds, nor the flowers. And her mother wasn’t there. And perhaps the world would end tomorrow.
“You don’t know your mother is dead. Why would they have killed her?”
“Someone in the war office,” she said, her voice punctuated by sobs, “it wasn’t put in the news bulletin—but they knew. The town was leveled. That’s what they said. She’s dead, dead, and I never got to see her again.”
“You don’t know that’s true.”
“They are packing boxes in the offices, burning everything else. Don’t you see? We have lost. The city has already fallen.”
He tried to comfort her, longing for her false optimism.
But the next day, a Monday with a spring sky so blue a bluebird would almost have disappeared against it, the tanks rolled into the city. He and the girl watched from her balcony, while the fleeing president’s words of surrender blared from loudspeakers and echoed like rolls of thunder against the still standing buildings.
She sank against him. Her eyes were glassy, her forehead burned to his touch.
“I don’t think the birds will ever return,” she said.
“You can’t give up,” he said. “Not like this. We’ll fight, won’t we? Can’t you fight for your mother and everything they’ve destroyed?”
“I am too weak. Fight for me.”
He helped her to the bed. She slept for hours, but there was no improvement by morning. Her forehead still burned, though she complained she was as cold as ice. He lifted her gently—she was as light as a child—and carried her to one of the hospitals.
“It’s malnutrition,” said the nurse. “And she’s gotten a chill. But there’s no room for her here. All the wounded from the front, you know.”
“What am I to do?”
“I can give you a few pills of medicine for her, but that’s all I can spare. It’s touch and go with cases like this. She can pull through, but—,” and the nurse hesitated.
“What is it?”
She lowered her voice. “Despair. It’s in the air like a toxic gas. When the wounded have that haunted look, you know there isn’t much you can do. But I don’t blame them. We’ll all be infected with it before too long.”
He wanted to scream at her that it was a lie, that she must be able to save the girl, that this nightmare world could not go on forever.
When the pills ran out several days later, on an afternoon of pouring rain, he tried to reach the hospital. Two guards parading down the street grabbed him roughly and shoved a rifle into his ribs. They spoke his language with a heavy accent in cold, clipped tones, demanding his identification papers and his reason for being out in the city. When he told them, one spat on the sidewalk, and the other said that only the severely injured were allowed anywhere near the hospital.
They let him go, ordering him to get off the street, but he could feel their eyes boring into the back of his skull as he turned the corner. He was afraid they would follow him and make a note of where he lived so he decided to duck into the church to wait until they had marched past.
But the majestic wood doors of the church were split and splintered like the cracked teeth of a gaping mouth. Within, the pews had been broken to pieces, and through the shattered rose window, he could see shreds of gray sky.
An old woman, a black shawl covering her head, was searching in the rubble. She looked up like a frightened rabbit when his feet crunched on the broken glass. But she saw he wasn’t a soldier, and a light of recognition flickered in her eyes. They had seen each other in the church before.
She waved her wrinkled hands over the destruction, her gesture seeming to encompass the entire city, and muttered, “Look what they’ve done. They desecrate anything that is beautiful and good, anything that might strengthen your soul.”
Raindrops streamed through the windows onto his face, stinging his eyes. “I didn’t want to believe it would end like this,” he said. “I knew in my heart it would, but—”
“End? If you’re weak perhaps, but you do not look weak.”
“You don’t understand,” he said, and he told her about the girl.
At this, the old woman drew him away from the apse into the shadows. She whispered that there was a way to find food and medicine if he hated the enemy. There were other civilians writhing against the toxic gas of despair like him and banding together as rebels to keep an ember of hope burning.
A young boy had sabotaged the telephone lines. A band of girls had smuggled food out of the commissary. And the old woman—she was quite proud to tell him this—still mopped the floors in the government offices, now the enemy’s headquarters. She kept her ears open for information, and she sometimes made away with certain items from desk drawers when needed. Would he join them?
It was dangerous, but the promise of food and medicine drove him to accept the old woman’s offer.
When he returned to the girl and told her he had joined the rebels, she grabbed his hand in distress. “You shouldn’t put your life in danger for me,” she said. But he assured her that he would have joined even if there was no need for the medicine.
In the days that followed, he did not tell her that if he had never met her, he probably would have accompanied the rebels on their more reckless escapades. It was only because of her, because her life was precious to him and he had to keep her alive, that his life had also become precious to him now.
He also never told her about the shards of glass on the church floor. Instead, he made up stories, bits of news about the country’s allies, to bolster her faith. She clung to the thread of a belief that her mother hadn’t died, that the allied army would soon repel the enemy.
Once, he took her to a rebel meeting, and it seemed to help her more than the medicine, but after this, her strength ebbed. The apartment was drafty, and she’d never recovered from the first chill. She coughed up blood, and he feared she had pneumonia now.
But only three weeks after the enemy occupied the government offices, something solid and true came at last. A rumor spread through the rebel lines. It was news from the front—news that the enemy had tried their hardest to keep imprisoned behind locked doors. But the old woman’s ears were sharp, and as she washed the floors, she had heard the nervous laughter that attempted to disguise the officers’ fear and dismay: fear of an army of liberation that came sweeping down from the north.
As soon as the news reached him, he ran to the girl’s bedside, telling her that she only had to hang on a few days longer, that the enemy would soon flee the city like frightened dogs with their tails between their legs.
She wept at this, begging him not to tell her any more lies. Her speech was nearly incoherent. She had seen her mother wandering alone in a forest of skeletal trees, naked of leaves. Her mother was calling for her, a cry so fearful it rent the girl’s heart.
“It isn’t a lie,” he said to her. “This time it’s true. The city is sure to be freed, perhaps tomorrow. The rebels have asked me to watch with them and to fight when the skirmishing starts. And when it is all over, we will go and find your mother.”
“The war will never end,” she said, her eyes vacant. “The birds will never return. I am sure I will die tonight.”
She felt as hot as fire, and he knew she spoke the truth. The fever would either consume her tonight—or if he could persuade her to keep fighting, maybe, finally, it would break.
But how was he to persuade her?
“Go,” she said, her voice so fragile he could scarcely hear her. “At last, you will be a soldier.”
He knelt beside her, bewildered, unsure. If he left her and joined the rebels now, they would number him as one of the heroes for helping to free the city, whether he lived or died. But how could he leave her like this? Perhaps he hadn’t survived this long for that, perhaps it hadn’t been to save a civilization, but just to save this one girl’s life.
“No,” he said angrily, “You are going to live.”
He ran a hand through his hair, trying to think of a way to relight the ember of hope within her. The Birds of North America?
The rebels had stolen paints and brushes from a warehouse only a few days before and used them to paint slogans across the city. He brought the paints and brushes and a stepstool back to the apartment.
She looked at him listlessly. “What are you doing?”
He painted the first bird on the bleak, gray wall next to her bed: a brown sparrow in a spray of pink apple blossoms.
“You see,” he said. “The birds are returning.”
She stared at the picture, uncomprehending.
“There’ll be a hundred birds before morning,” he said.
He couldn’t remember all of the birds from the book so he invented them as he went. Black birds with crimson crests, crimson birds with black striped throats, green birds with yellow tipped wings, yellow birds with green tail feathers…She watched him with steady, inquisitive eyes, sometimes falling into a restless sleep, and then awakening and continuing to watch.
He’d painted forty birds when night fell across the city, and the skirmishes began. Shouts and screams in the street and the rattle of machine gun fire. He switched on a flashlight and gripped the handle of the paintbrush with resolution, his knuckles whitening, and continued working.
Then the faint light from his flashlight died. Twenty birds left to paint. She was very still in the bed now. He could not sleep and paced the room, praying fervently for the sun to rise. He’d never fully believed when he used to go to the church with her, but now he seized the girl’s faith as his last hope, and he begged God to keep her alive.
At last, the first streaks of morning broke across the sky, gleaming against the walls, illuminating a forest of intertwining branches, some heavy with white and pink flowers, all bearing birds.
Quickly, he climbed the stepstool to paint the low ceiling. He looked towards the bed and saw her eyes were closed, and he couldn’t bring himself to look again, afraid she had died sometime in the night.
Across the ceiling, he painted a blue sky as calm as a sea after a storm with islands of golden-pink clouds and a golden sun. And here in the center a wave of doves. He was dizzy, and he thought their wings fluttered softly as the light from the window struck them.
He sat down on the stepstool, exhausted, his hands trembling. There was noise in the streets, loud explosions, sporadic gunfire, and he strained his ears against it to hear if there was any sound of her breathing.
Then the gentle voice rose from the bed. Tears of relief caught in his eyes. She was counting: “96, 97, 98 — You said there would be a hundred.”
“I’ve missed two?”
His legs were weak, his arms ached, his eyes blurred. He dipped his brush into paint of royal blue, the only paint still left, and climbed back to the top of the stepstool. With slow, delicate strokes, two bluebirds appeared, cutting against the pale blue sky, leading the doves towards the window.
“They are so beautiful I can hear them singing,” she said. “Can you?”
The gunfire had died. The city was as quiet as a tomb. He worried she was still delirious, but he went to her and felt her forehead and knew the fever had broken. He took her in his arms, and he kissed her, and for a second, he thought they were the only two people alive on the earth.
But then he heard it too. Delicate chirps, growing stronger and stronger, until it was as if the walls were alive with the singing of the birds.
“Can you understand them?” she asked. “They sing of their joy for the morning, of their joy to be free.”
The silence of the city broke. In the streets, there was shouting again and scattered gunfire into the air, but the voices sounded unlike any he’d heard in the city for many years. They swelled with triumph and celebration.
He carried her to the balcony, and they looked out and saw the people dancing, waving the flags of their country.
“The enemy must be retreating from this part of the city,” he said. “The war will be over soon. We’ve survived.”
“Look,” she replied, her breath soft against his cheek, and she pointed up to the corner of the concrete overhang. There was the swallow’s nest, filled with birds.
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