As ever, coming out of the dream I’d been having most nights of that year was a blessed relief until I remembered, and my heart was broken all over again.
I had fallen asleep in my chair in front of the fire after drinking a bottle of red followed by a glass of port. The fire had died down to a ruined glow. I opened a curtain and looked down across the village, the illuminated church spire on the mount, strings of lights decorating the main street. An almost full moon hung above the sea.
Picking up the poker from beside the fireplace, I took a deep breath, opened the door and peered out into the darkness. There was no wind, so nothing could have fallen over. I made out a shape on top of my wood pile. What looked like an eye glittered in the moonlight. I raised my poker.
A loud sound made me jump out of my skin. I let out my breath when I realized it was the empty wind-chime noise my mobile phone made when I received a message. It was from Marc, my neighbour.
I smiled as I read. Marc had left a bird on top of my woodpile. He had shot it in the forest. It was his contribution to our New Year’s Eve celebration. Although I was sure it was someone else’s turn, it had been decided that the New Year’s party would be at my house that year. Marc would be among my 12 guests.
Marc knew I’d eat anything he brought me. I never disappointed him and made sure to save a portion of whatever I concocted for him to taste. This always triggered a story of some fabulous dish his mother or grandmother would have made. The implication was that this would have been far better than mine.
‘I’ll deal with you in the morning, bird,’ I said. My voice sounded strange in my ears. I think it was the first time I’d spoken all day.
I only remembered the mysterious bird when I went outside to get wood for the fire the next morning.
Plucking and preparing the bird would take hours. I sighed, gathered an armful of wood and went inside to light the fire and put more logs into my AGA stove and cooker. I placed a large pan of water on the stove and a block of canning wax on my scarred old chopping board, ready to drop in when the water was boiling. I filled another pan with cold water from the tap, adding in a few handfuls of ice cubes from the freezer. After I’d waxed the bird, it would be toppled into the cold water. The wax would harden. When I peeled it away, the feathers would come off too. At least, that was the plan.
I dunked my face in the water and was shocked fully awake.
After I’d prepared myself a carajillo, coffee and brandy mixed, I selected some appropriate music for plucking – Carl Orff’s Schulwerk, which you may recall begins with the joyous but sinister Gassenhauer, played on xylophones. Whoever picked that for the movie Badlands knew what they were doing.
I took my coffee and a stool outside, intending to pluck the bird in the glorious winter sunshine, under the cerulean vacancy of the Mediterranean sky.
It took me some time to find the garden shears, with which I would cut off the toughest of the bird’s feathers. I had been unable to face my garden that year and had employed a person from the village. He had rearranged the garden tools to suit himself.
Armed, finally, with the shears and fortified with another carajillo, I grasped the bird by its feet and got a surprise.
‘And what have you done with my gift?’ Marc asked, eying the plates of 12 grapes I had placed in front of each guest. We were still only midway through the meal and it was already 11.45.
‘It was still alive last time I looked,’ I said. ‘Just not moving.’
‘Why didn’t you…?`He wrung an imaginary neck in the air above his plate and smiled.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.’
Marc’s wife Raquel patted my shoulder. Across the table, Carmen, a sculptor with the longest fingers I’d ever seen on a woman, sighed. Her husband tried to smile.
‘No, it’s not that,’ I said. ‘I’m sure it isn’t. I don’t think it is.’
‘Where is the bird now?’ Marc said.
‘On top of the woodpile, I guess. Where you left it.’
Marc stood up. ‘I’ll put it out of its misery, if it’s not already dead. I’ll prepare it for you myself.’ He shook his head. ‘I should have thought to do that before.’
Draining his glass of wine, he opened the door and went out into the night. A few minutes later he returned looking confused. ‘It’s gone,’ he said.
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘It’s almost midnight. Let’s take our grapes outside and watch the fireworks.’
Every year, a fellow on the other side of the village – a promoter of rock and roll bands or some such – had a huge party. Setting the night on fire was his gift to the rest of us.
The colours were astonishing, so bright they outshone the full moon, so brilliant they made the fireworks seem dull. Directly above me, the bird flew blazing circles in the sky. Its feathers flamed deep orange and yellow. I saw blue and purple on the tips of its wings and long tailfeathers.
I looked around me at my guests. They were intent on listening to the radio broadcasting from Madrid. Each time the clock on the tower of Puerto del Sol chimed, they popped a grape into their mouths.
As the bird flew in an ever-widening gyre, I felt an enormous sense of freedom, of joy, of something being lifted from me. It shot up into the sky, turned, opened its wings and, as the last of the chimes of midnight sounded, plummeted down towards me. I braced myself, but it stopped inches above my head.
I don’t know how long we stared into each other’s eyes, the bird and I, but my mouth must have been open because Carmen put a grape into it. I swallowed it whole and opened my mouth again. Each of my guests took a grape from my plate and placed it in my mouth as I watched the firebird become as small as a star and vanish.
I had looked into the eyes of possibility and they had looked back into me. That night the dream was not so bad.
David Holzer, 31.12.2018