Martin B. George is a local of Buffalo, NY. A proud member of the LGBTQIA community, his interests include exploring international cuisine, painting and reading Haruki Murakami. Whenever possible, he likes to travel.
The Boy who Dreamt of Birds
The timer showed thirty seconds. Nestor turned away and grabbed the bowl from off the cutting board countertop. He spun round, retrieved the ladle and spooned in some broth. He set the bowl down, swapping the ladle for chopsticks. The timer showed ten seconds. Nestor waited; when the beeping began, he pulled the noodles from the water, cooled them to prevent their overcooking, and placed them in the broth. Using the chopsticks, he separated the noodles. Picking up the tongs, Nestor laid two slices of chashu pork over the top of the bowl. He set the bowl back on the countertop, sliding it to the next person on the line.
“Nest?” Shiho said.
“Go on break.”
Nestor examined the line on the other side, the tickets still to go out.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Okay,” Nestor said. “I’ll be back in ten.”
Outside, the shining sun set his eyes to watering, stinging with the salt of his sweat. Blinking repeatedly, Nestor managed his way over the tramline and across the square. He picked a picnic table at random, pulled out his tobacco. Rolling a cigarette, he studied his surroundings, watching the couples eating, the birds prowling for scraps, the buskers on their unicycles and stilts. Nestor stood up and edged his way down the knoll to the water. Ducks were in the river, along with some kayakers. Upstream, a punter was making their way down. Smoke curled and drifted away, and Nestor watched the water. When he finished his cigarette, he tossed the butt on the path before him. Half a dozen gulls swooped down, squawking, disappointed. Nestor observed them.
And then it struck him. Birds don’t have ears.
That night, at dinner, Nestor brought up his discovery. But the others at the hostel weren’t so surprised, nor so enthused.
“Oh yeah,” one remarked. “I guess I never really noticed.”
“Yeah,” another one said. “It’d be pretty funny if they didhave ears. Big human ears like embryos.”
“Embryos?” someone asked.
“Yeah, don’t you think ears resemble embryos?”
And that was the end of the discussion.
But Nestor couldn’t let it go. They must have ears, he told himself. Just inside. He tried to think of other animals without external ears. A hundred thousand sea creatures and fish swam before his mind’s eye. Salmon and tuna. Whales and dolphins. Krill and flounder. None of them had ears. So why wasn’t he feeling the same shock? Perhaps, he wondered. But no…
Perhaps he had never envisioned himself a fish, not even a great blue whale or a sentient dolphin. Not as he had birds—hawks and eagles, owls and ravens, even sparrows, robins. As a boy, Nestor had loved watching the birds in his backyard. He photographed them with his grainy Polaroid so he could reproduce facsimiles by hand. But his drawings were never very good, hardly accurate. Come to think of it, in almost every one the birds had ears. Had he been blind all this time? Had he always been ignorant? Had they never had ears—were birds always so ear-less?
Nestor couldn’t say, for he had completely forgotten that time in his life. High school had erased it; boys and basketball and friends replaced it. And then life. University, growing up. Jobs and choices. The traveling.
He lay down, still consumed by doubt and wonder. It takes, on average, seven minutes to fall asleep. Nestor knew this. He checked the clock. Ten minutes had passed since he entered his bed. He rolled over, curled up, and breathed. Twelve minutes. He switched sides, stretched a leg. Fifteen minutes. He contemplated going for a walk. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. He lay on his back (nineteen, twenty) and drifted into an uneasy sleep.
He was in bed; there was a gull atop him, strutting circles about his chest. It had an ear, but only the one. Where the other should’ve been there was but a bloodied hole. Nestor looked to his left; on the ground, a dozen gulls fought. The one-eared bird squawked, and Nestor returned his attention to it. He studied the tunnel created by its missing ear. There was something there, something inside, something waiting to be discovered.
Suddenly Nestor was falling. The world around him was nothing more than a rush of colors. He was floating, tumbling. Sound pierced the vibrant walls around him. Birdsong, Nestor knew. Wood thrush. The warbling was growing louder, louder, louder. Glass shattered, and Nestor was in the real world again, the ground beneath racing to meet him. He sputtered, frenetically flailing, arms lunging like newborn wings. A flock of gulls circled him. “Fly,” they squawked. But he couldn’t hear them.
They had eaten his ears.
Nestor spent the next day confused. Everything was a blur, foggy. He kept returning to his dream—how strange it was, what it all meant. Were the birds trying to tell him something? Was he trying to tell himself something? Was it only nonsense, a dream, unimportant?
“Nest,” Shiho said.
“Hmm?” he asked, awakened.
“You burned the nori. Again.”
“What?” he said, hardly aware of the blackened seaweed in front of him. “Oh, that. Sorry.”
“Is everything OK?”
“Yeah,” Nestor answered, placing a new square of nori on the grill. “It’s just…”
“I know this is going to sound strange, but do you ever feel like your dreams are telling you something? Like someone is trying to tell you something? Or something, an animal maybe.”
“Are you familiar with Shinto?”
“Not really,” Nestor responded.
“When I was a little girl, still in Japan, my father used to take me to the shrines. He would explain to which kami each was dedicated to. Kami are sort of like spirits or gods, but not quite. It’s a difficult word to translate precisely. But these kami—some of them have messengers, animals they send to us, to admonish us, to advise us. Hachiman, the god of war, who was very popular with my father, would send a dove to communicate with followers.”
“A dove? Isn’t that ironic that the god of war should employ the symbol of peace?” asked Nestor as he began to work on the next order.
“Well,” Shiho answered, “maybe dove was poor translation. Picture a pigeon instead. There’s no difference, scientifically, between the two.”
Back home, Nestor retraced his conversation with Shiho. The Tokyo native had always been friendly, as well as patient. Then again, Mikio always said she’d never show her anger. That she’d just walk away. That was the way with Japanese women, he said. But what did Mikio know? He was from Osaka; they didn’t even speak the proper dialect. Besides, it wasn’t her attitude that concerned Nestor. It was what she said. Some of them have messengers, animals they send to us. Hachiman…would send a dove…
But in my dreams it was a gull, he told himself. Aren’t gulls the more common bird here, surrounded by Pacific waters? he rebutted. Was Hachiman trying to advise him? Was there a war approaching? Inside him? Was that the message of his dreams? Or had the war come and gone, and he had slept through it? Were his dreams telling him to flee, to confront his oppressor, to break free? Was that why the birds had suddenly lost their ears—were they, like him, deaf to the goings-on around them? Or had they always been that way?
He woke up in a nest. It was insulated with feathers, and disguised by lichen. Nestor examined its structure. Bark, leaves, spider’s silk, he thought. Hummingbirds. Rising, he realized his body had changed. While his head was still his, his arms had become feathered wings, his legs thinned, his toes tiny. He tried to move, but his head was too heavy and he tumbled out of the nest. Before he hit the ground, a pair of hummingbirds flew to his rescue, each taking a wing in its beak. Absurd, Nestor contemplated. Nothing but an eagle could carry my weight.
Yet, the little birds worked without struggle. They returned him to the nest.
“Thank you,” Nestor told them.
“You’ll never fly with a head so big with thoughts,” they replied.
The alarm clock showed eight in the morning. Nestor shut it off. He didn’t work today, he could go back to sleep. But somehow he didn’t think he could manage. He rolled onto his back and kicked out his legs. He stretched his arms. Both were his, both were human. Good, he told himself. You’ll never fly with a head so big with thoughts, a far-off voice whispered.
“I’ll never fly with a head so big with thoughts,” he silently repeated to himself.
He wiggled his fingers and toes, curled into a ball, and rolled onto one side. With renewed energy, he sprung himself out of bed. Pulling on his glasses, he left his room, doing his best not to bother the others.
The morning was brisk, windy. The sun was out and the sky was blue, but the nighttime’s cold still reigned supreme. Nestor retreated indoors and boiled water. He made a cup of extra strong instant coffee, and returned to the veranda. He sat on a bench and tried not to think.
But think was all he could. The hummingbird’s words playing again and again. You’ll never fly… The key was not to think. To silence the voice that talked for lack of better things to do. The neurotic one. Why couldn’t it ever be quiet? How often was it stringing Nestor along unthinkingly, and him the whole time believing he had put those thoughts there? But all it ever did was revisit the past or contemplate a never-coming future. It always missed the here and now. That’s it, he told himself. The here and now.
He sipped his coffee, then set it down. He looked around. The yard was much the same: a garden, some fences, a lawn strewn with cushions and sports balls. There were no squirrels or rabbits. Maybe a few insects, early morning grasshoppers chir-chirring. A gull landed on the grass before him. It pecked at the ground in search of grubs. Nestor studied it, noticing the tiny details he often missed: the red-orange of its beak and feet; its silver wings with tips of black; its…ears?
Nestor gasped, nearly spilling his coffee. The bird looked up. Their eyes locked.
“Fly,” it squawked.
“What?” Nestor asked.
“Fly,” it repeated.
Nestor shook his head. I must be dreaming. He pinched himself; it hurt.
“Fly,” the gull squawked again, and flew away.
Nestor jumped to his feet and ran to his bike. He hopped on, never losing the gull’s sight. Twice opening car doors almost knocked him lifelessly to the ground. He sped down Armagh Street, his helmet unattached, his feet struggling to match the rotation of the pedals. The gull spread its silver wings and coasted, its black ears brilliantly silhouetted against the azure sky. Where are you going? Nestor wondered.
The traffic light ahead was red, but Nestor didn’t stop. He couldn’t risk losing the bird. His tire stuck in the tramline, and he almost fell. A car honked, then another. He hopped onto the sidewalk, weaving between passersby and parking meters, stop signs and shoppers. The bird glided rightward, gaining air. Nestor pursued, but a car cut him off. He squeezed his brakes, narrowly missing the oncoming sedan. The bird was gone. The driver was yelling. Frantically, Nestor studied the skies.
“Move,” someone was yelling. “Get out of the way.”
But Nestor hardly heard. His eyes darted in every direction, looking, searching, hoping. If only he could…there!
There, that’s it. Atop the bell tower.
Nestor got back on his bike, pedaling hard for the campanile freestanding amongst the city’s wreckage, the surviving soldier of the earthquake’s offensive. He skidded to a halt and dismounted. He stalked around the perimeter of the tower, scanning its eaves and ledges for the gull. It was still there.
Nestor ran back and forth scouring the grounds for an entrance. Finally, he found an unopened door. Behind it, there was a set of stairs. Up and up and up they ascended. Without thinking, Nestor started climbing, sprinting, four or five steps at a time. Please let it be there, he implored nobody in particular, turning the phrase over repeatedly like a mantra.
Breathless, he reached the top. There were three arched openings acting as windows on every side. The gull was perched on the backend; behind it was the city, the endless construction, a café.
“Why did you call me here?” Nestor asked.
“To fly,” it squawked.
“But,” Nestor began, inundated by questions, flooded with memories. He stopped speaking, ignoring the voice inside his head. The past, the bullying, the future—it didn’t matter.
“Fly,” the gull said, and as if demonstrating how to do so it launched.
Nestor slid within the arched opening overlooking the city, searching the skies. But the bird was gone, vanished. Fly, he urged himself. Fly.
He stepped onto the banister and, without a second thought, he jumped.
A woman across the street, the only outdoor patron of the café, watched as Nestor came hurdling toward the concrete. She screamed. But no one came. Then the body smacked the sidewalk with a sickening crunch, and she screamed even louder.
This time the barista came running.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked.
The woman pointed, stuttering. “There, there, there…”
“What’s there? What happened?” the worker asked, wrapping her arms around the woman as she did so.
“There. He jumped. He jumped…”
“Him,” the woman screamed, waving her arm at where Nestor contacted the ground.
But when the barista went over to investigate, the body was gone, as if it had never been there at all.
From the Editor:
We hope that readers receive In Parentheses as a medium through which the evolution of human thought can be appreciated, nurtured and precipitated. It will present a dynamo of artistic expression, journalism, informal analysis of our daily world, entertainment of ideas considered lofty and criticism of today’s popular culture. The featured content does not follow any specific ideology except for that of intellectual expansion of the masses.
Founded in late 2011, In Parentheses prides itself upon analysis of the current condition of intelligence in the minds of these young people, and building a hypothesis for one looming question: what comes after Post-Modernism?
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By In Parentheses in IP Volume 7
32 pages, published 1/15/2022
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80 pages, published 10/15/2020
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