Fiction

A CAGE FOR THE BIRD MAN

As long as he believed he was a bird he was harmless. Then the law decided it was time to cure him

David Stuart October 1 1954
Fiction

A CAGE FOR THE BIRD MAN

As long as he believed he was a bird he was harmless. Then the law decided it was time to cure him

David Stuart October 1 1954

A CAGE FOR THE BIRD MAN

As long as he believed he was a bird he was harmless. Then the law decided it was time to cure him

David Stuart

“HE’LL SHOW UP THIS SPRING,” Becker was saying. “I’ll guarantee he’ll show—right along with the other birds.”

“Here we go again,” Moreau sighed, shrugging his shoulders.

At the time four of us were sitting in the Café des Deux Magots, and Becker had finally switched the conversation to his favorite topic—the Bird Man. I was the only one who hadn’t yet seen the marvelous creature, so Becker’s performance was chiefly for my benefit. And what a performance! Not that the other two, Moreau and Augier, were any less insistent about the Bird Man’s existence —they were just less theatrical. Becker punctuated his tale by cocking his head, hopping about the café—even climbing over the tables, if not prevented—and blasting out shrill rooklike caws. After each blast we’d see at least one café-sitter pick himself off the floor. It was ear-splitting entertainment, no mistake about that.

When we’d leave the café Becker would waltz me across the street and into the St. Germain des Prés churchyard to point out the spot where the Bird Man would appear. Now the yard was grim and bleak, the wooden benches colder than pump handles on your tongue, the trees bare.

the bird life of Paris had turned

“Patience, lad,” he’d say. “He’ll come on, brother, like the apocryphal roc!”

“But spring,” Becker reminded me, “is only three months off.”

Once a day for those three months I heard the tale of the Bird Man. Each time it was embroidered a bit more, but with each hearing I believed a bit more. The idea of a man’s insanity taking the harmless twist of making him a bird fascinated me. So when the cold finally let up I began spending much of my time hanging around the churchyard. Becker was busy painting, getting ready a spring show. Even so, he managed to drop by several times a day to make sure my interest didn’t flag.

And one day he did. I was alone in the yard, scratching some notes on the back of an envelope, when I suddenly heard a loud chirping. I looked up to see the Bird Man hopping along Rue de l’Abbaye, coming for the churchyard. He hopped through the gate and on to the far end of the yard where he went on chirping. And almost at once the air was filled with birds—thousands of them. They settled around him. They covered the ground like a patchwork quilt. It looked as if

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out for his welcome.

He was a tall, gauht man with piercing blue-black eyes that darted about like gnats around a rotting pear. The pupils were tremendous and looked artificially dilated. A knife-edge aquiline nose hooked over his thin, too red lips, and they were constantly pursed because he never stopped chirping. His fingers were long and brittle and the few nails not broken off short were cardboard thick and yellow. Over his thin shoulders he wore a cape of mousseline into which were woven feathers of a hundred different species of birds. Dirty chicken feathers were set beside fine ostrich plumes, duck beside egret, sparrow beside oriole, until the whole was a wild and crazy collection of colors and sizes. From his feather-covered, short cotton pants shot a pair of bony, knottykneed, hairy legs. And around his ankles and covering his bare feet dangled rings of feathers like those worn in certain native dances. He topped off this costume with a tuft of quetzal tail feathers thrust into his shaggy matted black hair.

Crouched down, sort of sitting on his heels, with the feathered cape covering him, he really looked like a monstrous bird—like something out of Chagall by way of Roquefort. And the amazing thing was that the birds accepted him. He moved among them chirping and clucking. He was one of them.

“How about the phoenix!” Becker shouted to me. He was coming full tilt across the street carrying a loaf of bread in each hand. “He’s the eagle! The king of birds!”

“He’s that,” I agreed. I took one of the loaves and set to work tearing it to crumbs. “But the king’s blown his stack.”

“Insane, you mean? He’s the only sane creature in the world today!” Becker bellowed.

There couldn’t have been more than a split second between Becker’s bellow and the Bird Man’s leap. He went high into the air, his cape spread like wings across his arms. And the birds rose with him, fluttering overhead until in some mysterious manner he signaled that danger had passed, when they returned to his feet.

“God! . . .” Becker breathed ecstatically.

By now the churchyard was filled with spectators, and a good hundred more were hanging on the surrounding iron fence. This group kept changing as the big green buses stopped at the corner to take some away and leave a new lot. A number of cars had lined up along the curb, the people standing on the fenders and engine hoods the better to see. Augier and Moreau elbowed their way through this crowd and stood beside us.

“You ought to stuff him,” Augier said, “and stick him in the next surrealist show.”

“Get lost!” Becker cracked. He placed the last crumb of his loaf in the middle of his palm and held it toward the Bird Man. “Here, birdie, birdie, birdie,” he called softly.

Augier let out a howl you might have heard twenty kilometers up the Seine. “Birdie, birdie! Holy Jesus! You’re both lunatics!”

The Bird Man cocked his head at us. Then he threw out his arms and flapped his feathered cape and the birds went into the air making a sound like the beating of waves on rocks. With a final glance at us he climbed onto the fence, dropped to the sidewalk, and hopped off down the street. He was out of sight in a very few seconds.

“You big-lip!” Becker yelled. “You’ve scared him off, you and your goddamn laughter!” He was as sore

as a Breton would be if you stood off and heaved rocks at his calvary.

Becker actually holds birds in high awe, subscribing to all the mystical flapdoodle about them. In his paintings the Good in Man is represented by bird forms: he paints birds in battle,

birds attacking and whipping the hell out of men, amorous birds, and birds of God. For all that, he wasn’t sore very long. Before we got out of the yard he was happily bombarding us with his theory about how the earth evolved from the mundane egg.

In the next two months I saw quite a bit of the Bird Man. As the days grew warmer he came more often to the churchyard until by the end of June he was doing three shows a week. Moreau’s and Augier’s interests fell off early. But Becker was with me whenever he could spare an afternoon from his painting. It wasn’t long before the Bird Man recognized me. He’d hop up and squat at my feet, cocking his head and looking at me with one bright eye as he snapped up the crumbs I held in my hand. I believe he liked me better than he did Becker. Becker was overboard in his sympathy. He bent backwards too far trying to make him a friend. The Bird Man would suffer it just so long, then hop away to his feathered pals. Personally, I preferred him to stand a ways off. He smelled pretty sour—like the bottom of a bird cage.

As far as I could tell he spoke no language, unless you can call clucks, chirps, quacks and gobbles a language. I tried him with the couple I know, and even read him a chapter from the Koran in the original. For this splendid effort he awarded me an earful of bird whistles. I finally tried cursing. I dumped a load on him that would have made the most inarticulate idiot, and particularly one the size of the Bird Man, knock my ears down. He took it all like so much birdseed.

FOR THE next month or so nothing particular happened. Then one roasting hot day in the middle of July the roof fell in. There were four people in the churchyard that day—the Bird Man, a middle-aged father, his noisy little son, and myself. The boy was dressed in a sailor outfit and was armed with a variety of rackety toys—mechanical autos, tanks and boats, a shovel and a pail (which from time to time he filled with gravel and dumped into his father’s shoes), and a slingshot. The Bird Man and his flock kept a weather eye on the child and stayed well to the far end of the yard. The streets were empty except for a policeman who spent most of his time by the fountain, dipping his handkerchief in the water and mopping his red face. The sidewalk cafés on the shady side of St. Germain were packed; on the sunny side they were empty. I had some time before given up the idea of writing and was now half-dozing in the sun. I couldn’t quite get to sleep because each time I was about to drop off the brat wound up one of his toys and sent it careening and rattling over the gravel. And each time the birds flew into the trees where they waited until the spring motor died and the Bird Man called them back.

Nevertheless, it could have been an agreeable afternoon had not the brat suddenly tired of his toys and taken up the slingshot. He singled out a bird that had hopped away from the others, loaded his slingshot, and proceeded to

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stalk the bird like a big-game hunter after lion. I watched out of partly closed eyes as he pulled back on the rubber bands, never dreaming he’d fire. T noticed that the Bird Man had hopped out of his flock and was watching nervously as the bands stretched farther and farther.

And suddenly the big-game hunter let go. There was a dull thud and the bird rolled over, its legs thrust into the air like the picture of Cock Robin in a children’s book.

“I got him, papa!” the hunter squealed, dancing about like a redskin.

What happened next happened so fast I couldn’t move for amazement. First the Bird Man pounced on the boy and with one whack sent him tumbling senselessly along the path. When he stopped rolling his legs didn’t stick up at all. They just flopped out like broken twigs. Then the Bird Man turned on the father, his arms whirling like blades of an electric fan. He was punching and clawing and pounding the fellow’s face all at the same time. And for the first time he spoke. All the while he belabored the father he filled the air with robust oaths, and in a voice as shrill and penetrating as a peacock’s. Everything he said was something I had once said to him.

Now the Bird Man had the father on the ground and was kicking him into insensibility. Just as I started across to help the man, the red-faced policeman came roaring through the gate swinging his white night stick. He clipped the Bird Man squarely on the head, smashing the tuft of quetzal feathers and sending him on his face.

I grabbed the boy’s pail, raced across the street and filled it at the fountain. I wiped the boy’s ear where the Bird Man had clouted him, and cleaned the gravel from his face. Not wanting to move him for fear he might be internally banged up I left him and started in on the groaning father.

“I’m going to call the wagon,” the policeman said. “You stay here and see that fool doesn’t escape.” He ran across the street to the café and came back in a moment and we both worked on the father. By the time the wagon arrived both father and son had come to. But not the Bird Man. He was still face down in the gravel, his feathered cape covering his head. The

brat was wandering around the yard rubbing his ear and bawling like a wounded calf. I wished the Bird Man had hit him harder. The father’s eyes, puffy and swollen, were slowly closing. His face was pulped and his clothes hung in ribbons. A mess.

The flic and the wagon driver carried the Bird Man out of the yard and dumped him into the wagon. After taking all of our names they drove off for the station.

“Can you and the boy get home?” I asked.

“I think so,” he mumbled through thick blue lips. With that they left, the brat still bellowing and the father stumbling along.

} LOOKED about the yard. It was littered with feathers, and the boy’s toys, like playthings forgotten when snow falls, were partly buried beneath them. I took a last look at the dead bird. Its legs were still sticking up in the air. Then I went across to the café and had a double belt of Courvoisier.

The next morning Becker and I went to the police station. Becker was pretty much broken up over the mess the Bird Man had got himself into. And he was sore as hell at the father and son. “He ought to have killed them both, murdering a bird. The lousy pigs . . .”

We asked at the desk what had happened to the Bird Man.

“He was taken to an asylum last night. He should have been in one years ago. Imagine, beating a small child.”

“Should have used a blunt weapon,” Becker muttered.

“Sir? . . .”

A heavy-set, moustached chief walked in. “Gentlemen. I heard you from my office. I’m on my way to his rooms. Want to come along?”

Indeed A-e did.

We climbed into the chief’s Peugeot and drove down Rue de Rennes, past the churchyard, and turned into Rue de l’Abbaye. Then we drove into Rue de Furstenberg and just beyond the Delacroix atelier we pulled up before an ancient moldy white building.

“He lives here?”

“Lived,” the chief corrected.

“How did you know?” Becker asked.

“I thought no one knew where he lived.”

“We’ve watched him for years. A funny character— up to now, that is . . . Let’s go. It’s on the top floor. A good hike. Watch the stairs, they’re about to collapse.”

We smelled the room three floors below. And when the chief kicked open the door the stinks roared out like wild beasts, all but tumbling us down the j staircase to the rez-de-chaussée. The I room was matchbox in size. The faded j blue walls were painted with black stripes running up and across the I ceiling where they converged in the I centre at the light less socket. The washstand was covered with a dirty white oilcloth and shaped to resemble I the porcelain drinking well in a bird ! cage. On the opposite wall a similar j oilcloth well was partly filled with stale I bread crusts. 'The floor was covered by a layer of dirt and crumbs and filth I three centimeters deep. The room was truly a bird cage on a grand scale

and smelled like one that hadn’t heen cleaned since the Upper Jurassic. The chief and I held our noses, but Becker was absolutely beside himself with joy.

“It’s incredible!” He went about f lic; room poking into f lu* wells, picking up scraps and feathers, thoroughly enjoying himself in tin* crud. “Lautrea| mont, kirnst . . .” he said, waving his I arms above his head. “Neither of them ever dreamed up anything like this, i He’s the brain the master!”

“Let’s get the hell out of the brain’s nest,” the chief said, sounding like he had a summer cold. We had to drag Becker with us. Had the chief let him, j I’m sure he would have moved in and set up housekeeping.

During the next four months Becker I and I made it a point to look in on j the churchyard at least once a day.

\ But the Bird Man was never there. His room had been boarded up and a sign reading Closed By Order Of The Police nailed to the door, the samesign, bv the way, as used to close a brothel. We made enquiries at the j police station: “Can’t you at least tell j us what’s happened to him?” They couldn’t. The case was closed. The I papers mislaid, or lost. No, they didn’t I know in which asylum he was—or even whether he was still in one. No . . .

Then ontday in the early part of ; November, when we’d almost given him up forever, we saw him once again, j It was a lovely day, a hang-over from 1 summer. The sun was bright and warm I and a few drying leaves still clung grimly to their branches. Becker and 1 were sprawled out on the benches in tinchurchyard sopping up this last bit of sunshine. Two children rolled hoops around our benches and over our feet, but when we didn’t provoke they shrugged and let us alone. I must have been dozing because when I heard the sound of footsteps on the gravel I sat up with a start. A tall, gaunt man dressed in a cheap blue serge suit was just sitting down on the bench opposite mine. I didn’t recognize him until he looked up. Then I saw his eyes. The pupils were no longer so large, but they were still a piercing blue-black. And no one could have mistaken his nose, knife-edge thin and hooked like a macaw’s beak over his mouth. For a moment he stared at me as though trying to place me. T hen lie looked down at the ground. I nudged Becker.

“Huh? . .

I nodded toward the man on the bench.

He rubbed his eyes. “It’s him, it’s him,” he whispered excitedly.

“Shhh! . . .”

For some time we all sat quietly, the man lifting His eyes to us only once.

A few birds were hopping about the yard, hut they went no closer to him than to us. The attraction was no longer there.

It was about this time that I noticed him suddenly sit rigidly on the bench and follow with his eyes a fat little sparrow. No part of the man moved hut his eyes. They were like hunters hidden behind the blind of his body. Meanwhile the sparrow came jauntily up flic* path. Finally it stopped and cocking its head looked first at the man, then at us. Very slowly the man took from a pocket a crust of bread. He tore off a bit and held it out to the sparrow. The bird eyed the crumb, then hopped over and pecked at it.

I didn’t even see his hand close. It worked as if by a hair trigger, because suddenly there the sparrow was in his fist, twisting its head this way and that, chirping like mad. The man held it up and stared into its frightened eyes. I didn’t look at Becker. But I could feel his tenseness as he sat forward on the bench. We were absolutely fascinated, like snakes by the fakir.

Seconds passed.

The sparrow chirped wildly.

Then as suddenly as the hand had snapped shut to trap the bird, if snapped once again. There was a sound like the crushing of an empty matchbox, and the sparrow’s head fell limply over the man’s thumb. Then silence except for the pounding of Becker’s furious heart. I put my hand on his arm to stop him from leaping on the man.

The Bird Man looked up, his face set and unsmiling. Very slowly he got to his feet and holding the dead sparrow out like a rare gift came across to me and dropped it in my hands. I looked up into his eyes. They were no longer piercing. Now they were a weak watery-blue, and slightly moist. A little drop of water on the tip of his nose sparkled in the sunlight. ★

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