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  • Writer's pictureBulb Culture Collective

Bird of Paradise by Laura Pike

She almost missed it. It lay hidden beneath a crimson oak leaf, a brittle casualty of the

approaching winter. A person less observant than she, less sensitive to her surroundings, she

reasoned, would have walked right by it. But not Lainie Bell. Recognizing all things avian was

built into her very DNA. Both her parents had been ornithologists and had nurtured her love of

birds and, in particular, a passion for their beautiful plumage.

Lainie scanned the park grounds for potential naysayers, then knelt and slipped the Blue Jay

feather into a small plastic bag she kept for such occasions. The park police had warned her, not

two days ago, that taking feathers without a permit was against the law. This made no more

sense to her than forbidding the warmth of the sun upon one’s face, or denying oneself the tactile

pleasure of playing one’s fingers over the timeworn smoothness of a river rock.

With her lovely contraband tucked safely away, she headed for Singh’s Market. Not only

was it convenient, as it occupied the first floor of her apartment building, it gave her an excuse to

visit Kali. As she pushed open the door, Lainie was met with her loud and insistent screech. The

hyacinth macaw was perched atop her cage in the rear of the store, watching intently as Lainie

drew near. Every time Lainie saw her was a revelation. It bothered her to hear others liken her

color to the intense blue of a summer sky, or to that of a plump blueberry, or a brilliant sapphire.

Even the rarest of gems can’t soar above the trees, or nurture its young, or humble us in the face

of its exquisite animated beauty. No. She knew comparisons would always fail where nature

conspired to render us mute.

Lainie stood an arm’s length away and said, “Hello, pretty girl.” Kali bobbed her head, then

bent it at an inquisitive angle, but withheld her usual greeting. “No hello today? That’s alright.

Sometimes, I don’t want to say hello to anyone, either.”

The bottom of Kali’s cage was covered in broken nutshells, wood chips, and bird droppings,

and was prime hunting ground for feathers. There was a smattering of semiplumes and contour

feathers, and although they were beautiful in their own right, they were useless to Lainie. They

were too small. She would have preferred a wing or tail feather.

Disappointed, she finished her shopping and brought her few items up to the register.

“Good evening, Mr. Singh. Have you anything for me today?”

“Not today, Mrs. Bell. But don’t worry. She’ll drop another tail feather soon.”

“I hope so. Symmetry is absolutely crucial for flight, Mr. Singh. Without it, we would never

get off the ground.”

*

The apartment was silent. Lainie paused on the threshold, momentarily uncertain if she had

opened her door or a neighbor’s. The usual chorus of chirps, whistles, and trills did not welcome

her, and the unsettling reality of her solitude made her question decisions made and actions

already taken. But these doubts passed as quickly as a chattering of starlings. She had found new

homes for the last of her birds a week ago.

She set her mail amid the growing pile of bills on the dining table, then went to the kitchen

and emptied the contents of her grocery bag. The casserole dish she used to sanitize her feathers

had a permanent place on her counter top, with an unending cycle of feathers in and feathers out.

She laid the newest batch across the bottom and added a fresh mixture of flour, cornmeal, and

Borax. Clean feathers were categorized by size and color and lay in a tray by her favorite chair.

The wingback chair had been her mother’s. It was covered in a rich teal brocade with silk

embroidered swallows worn smooth by three generations of Bells. Lainie had spent many happy

afternoons sitting on her mother’s lap in that chair, enthralled by the brightly colored lithographs

in the ornithology books her mother and father collected. The volumes occupied every shelf and

tabletop, their spines cracked and frayed from constant handling. Her parents had a tacit

agreement to leave a certain amount of open real estate next to every chair for the inevitable

book pile that would grow beside it. Lainie’s favorite volumes were Richard Bowdler Sharpe’s

Monograph of the Paradiseidae, or Birds of Paradise, and Ptilonorhynchidae, or Bower Birds.

The blues, greens, yellows and reds were so vibrant on the page, she had believed if she were

ever to touch a real Bird of Paradise, the colors would surely stain her fingertips.

When Lainie became a mother, she too would sit with her child in that very chair with one

of Sharpe’s monographs opened wide across her lap. She reveled in her son Jeffrey’s fascination

with the birds’ fantastical beards and bonnets, filigree tails and glossy chest plates. Neither she

nor her son ever grew tired of looking at them.

“Is it true Birds of Paradise never touch the ground?” Jeffrey would ask her.

“It is, my dear. They live suspended between heaven and earth, flying both day and night;

surviving on nothing but the morning dew.”

“Until they die and go to heaven?”

“Yes, my dear. Until they die and go to heaven.”

And they both would giggle at the absurdity of it.

Lainie settled into her chair and draped the cape she had been working on across her lap.

She pulled the threaded needle out of the cloth, and made her selection from the tray: a deep red

cardinal feather with a sturdy quill. As she sewed, she studied the framed photos that sat on the

table by the window. They were of her son, then grown, on his many adventures around the

world. There he was paragliding in upstate New York, skydiving high above Lee Point Beach in

Australia, and zip lining through the jungles of Costa Rica. Her favorite photo was of Jeffrey and

her next to his Piper Cub. She held him tightly around the waist and rested her head against his

shoulder. Their smiles were joyful. He had often told his mother if he couldn’t be a bird, he

would fly with them as best he could.

She selected another cardinal feather of the same size, and attached it to the opposite side of

the cape, mirroring the location of the first. Working from the bottom up, she was mindful of

how the feathers lay, smoothing them as she went. She debated whether to affix the one tail

feather she had, or wait until she had two. The macaw plume wasn’t in her feather tray. It was far

too long. It lay wrapped in tissue paper and was secreted on a high shelf, as her mother had done

with her coveted finds.

Though filled with an impatience that comes from nearing the completion of an arduous

task, she thought it best to wait. Securing the last of the tail feathers in one fell swoop would be

both an ending and a beginning, and deserved a certain solemnity of purpose.


*


Three nights later, Lainie watched the first snowfall of the season from her window.

Waterlogged flakes fell in menacing gangs, knocking the last of autumn’s leaves from their

branches. The snow was early that year, giving Lainie the sense that time had grown restless,

casting off days, even weeks, in its rush to meet winter. This false urgency made her fingers

twitch in search of needle and thread. She moved from the window to her chair and picked up the

cape that was draped over one of its arms. The glow from the table lamp played on the iridescent

blues of the grackle feathers scattered throughout the garment, and she spent several seconds

turning it this way and that to enjoy the shifting colors. She smiled at the meticulousness of her

handiwork and whispered, “Almost done, my dear.”

The knock on the door startled her. Lainie hadn’t had any uninvited guests in nearly a year,

and the interruption brought a reflexive feeling of dread. The last stranger she had opened her

door to had laid a cold stone of grief at her feet. Too heavy to move, it sat there still.

But it was only Mr. Singh. He stood with one of Kali’s tail feathers pinched between two

fingers, as if it were the catch of the day. And of course, for Lainie, it was. “Hello, Mrs. Bell. I’m

sorry to bother you, but I knew you would want this.”

She was blind to his expectant smile. Instead, she saw birds in flight and trailing tail

feathers; all sky and no earth. “Finally,” she said. She took the feather from his outstretched hand

and closed the door, oblivious to the fact she hadn’t thanked him.

She retrieved the other macaw plume and set it on the table next to her chair, then went into

her bedroom closet and pulled out an old-fashioned hatbox. It was wrapped in flowered

wallpaper, and the pinks and soft greens of the cabbage roses were as bright and lively as the day

her mother had bought it. The box had been purchased decades ago for one reason only: to keep

a small piece of paradise safe. Curled inside were two feathers from the ribbon-tailed astrapia.

White with black tips and nearly three feet long, the plumes were meant to flutter like streamers

behind a bird when flying. Their only function was to look beautiful and attract the discerning

eye of a mate. Lainie knew what a treasure they were and what her parents had risked to bring

them home. They had smuggled them out during their last excursion to New Guinea. Tightly

coiled, the feathers made their way to the United States hidden inside her mother’s high and full

bouffant.

Lainie now had everything she needed. She poured herself a cup of Earl Gray and settled

into the well-worn comfort of her chair. The citrusy smell of the tea energized her, and cradling

the cup in both hands warmed her fingers, priming them for the important work that lay ahead.

As always, her gaze gravitated to the framed photos. Earlier in the day, she had placed her

favorite picture, the one of Jeffrey and her next to his plane, in front of the others because it

evoked so many memories and memories were all she had now. Conversations about life and

love and dreams for the future happened more frequently in Jeffrey’s piper cub. Maybe it was the

close confines of the cockpit, or the feeling of not being tied to earthbound conventions, but

difficult words flowed more easily between them amidst the clouds.

“When are you going to give me some little Bells?” Lainie remembered asking.

Jeffrey had given her a sidelong glance meant to silence her. “Mother, I’m not even married.

I think I’m supposed to find a woman, first.”

“You could if you chose to.”

“I choose not to. For now, flying is my only love.” He must have seen the sadness in her

face because he leaned over and patted her hand. “There’s plenty of time for me to be a daddy

and for you to be a grandma. Don’t worry.”

“You have to alight sometime, my dear.”

And weeks later he did alight, swiftly and violently, as the sky relinquished its hold on him

and sent him spiraling home.


*


Lainie gave the four tail feathers a perfunctory tug to ensure they were securely fastened to

the cape. She had no doubt they would be. She set the needle down and allowed herself a

moment to delight in her accomplishment. It had taken nearly a year to attach the hundreds of

feathers necessary to cover the entire garment and it was beautiful; so beautiful, in fact, she

imagined there was nothing quite as fine anywhere else in the world. She rose from her chair and

carried the cape into the bedroom where she could admire it in the full-length mirror. When she

twirled, she heard the rustle of feathers and swore she felt a slight lift as they caught the air. As

much as this thrilled her, she was dismayed to see the astrapia plumes brushing the floor, but

knew in flight they would float magnificently.

Exhausted, she decided to rest until morning. She laid the cape at the foot of her bed, then

fell into a deep sleep.


*


When she got out of bed, the room was cloaked in grey. Dawn was not far off. She bathed,

pinned up her long hair and put on her best dress. Before slipping into her cape, she drew back

the curtains and looked out the window. It had snowed most of the night, and the ground

undulated with hidden things. There was no sound and no movement. No wind rattling bare

branches. No distant sirens. No barking dogs. Even the birds were silent.

Days earlier, Lainie had felt as if time were in too great a hurry. Now it felt as if time had

stopped completely. Would it be possible to slip away before the world started turning again, to

disappear in the space between one heartbeat and the next?

Before leaving the apartment, she stood quietly for several minutes looking for anything she

may have missed, anything with the power to draw her back in. She breathed deeply through her

nose to catch any scent of the life she used to live, but there was nothing. Satisfied, she closed

the door behind her and climbed the five flights of stairs to the roof.

The snow from the night before had drifted against the door, and Lainie had to push it open

with both hands. Before stepping onto the rooftop, she gathered up the long tail feathers to keep

them clean and dry. The outside air was surprisingly cool against her face and she suspected that

if the sun battled its way through the cloud cover, most of the snow would be gone by dusk. The

snow was deep and heavy, sinking in spots under its own sodden weight. It numbed her toes and

soaked her stockings, but she hardly noticed. Her focus was to the west and the parapet that

faced the street.

A sense of excitement grew as she waded through the final thirty feet. Everything was fresh

and unblemished, and everything that came before was already dead and forgotten.

She scraped enough snow from the parapet to ensure firm footing, then stepped up, allowing

the astrapia feathers to fall from her hand. Their black tips lay stark against all that white. She

looked out over the street, and then to the adjacent rooftops and then beyond as far as she could

see. It was all so limiting, this life tethered to the ground.

With closed eyes and a tranquil heart she spread her wings and took flight, and for one

glorious moment she lived suspended between heaven and earth, living on nothing but the

morning dew.


Originally published by Profane Literary Journal 2016


Laura Pike is an administrative assistant who lives in Tampa, Florida, with her two rescue cats, Naya and Priya. Compelled to explore the darker recesses of the human psyche, Laura dives in deep and comes up dirty because, ultimately, writing is about the ongoing search for self. Find her on Twitter here: @lauraapike

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