When the bird sang

Father brought the clock back from the war. He’d found it in a bombed-out village in France, the only intact item in the house. When he asked about the owners from those who had not fled or died, he was greeted with shaken heads and mutterings. The same when he offered money.

A cuckoo clock, he told me. Exquisitely handcrafted, with a stamp on the underside which told us it was made in Germany in 1888.

I have it on my desk beside me as I write, my wonder at its intricacy and brightness – unfaded over 100 years – as much a delight as it was to the five-year-old me.

Father set the clock on his desk – this desk where I sit now – and carefully wound it, moved the slim brass hands to the correct time, and then we watched and waited. He had saved all this to do until we were together, wanting me to feel the suspense of expectation, of hope, with him.

The grandfather clock in the hall struck midday, and the little bird sprang through the red doors of his cage. Not a cuckoo. Father and I looked at each other. What bird was this? Gold tufts sprang from his head, laid back in a smooth wave to rest on gold and black horizontal neck feathers. His breast was the colour of ripe greenhouse tomatoes blending into a royal blue body. As if to half-apologise for all this finery, his tail was long and well-feathered, but in shades of brown and cream. Every feather had been carved and carefully painted. He seemed alive. But what was he?

Our question was stilled however, when the bird sang. A tune as mysterious as the songster himself. A haunting melody which reached into my young soul and nestled there, taking root, sending out tendrils of joy and contentment. My eyes welled with happy tears and my heart soared as the bird’s song rose and fell. I looked at Father. His eyes shone, glistening.

When the song’s minute ended, the bird retreated smoothly behind his doors. Father and I gazed after him, and then at each other.

‘We must wait another hour,’ he said, ‘to hear the magic again.’

‘I can’t,’ I cried. ‘Let’s set the clock back and let the bird think it is noon again.’

Father grinned. ‘Of course, clever girl.’

But when he put his fingers to the slim brass hands and gently eased them backwards, they stuck fast. He pushed them forward. They would not move.

‘Let me try,’ I said. I pushed my way between the clock and Father, and even as he cautioned, No, don’t force them, I tugged too hard.

Snap. The minute hand broke, our glorious songster’s tune silenced forever.

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3 thoughts on “When the bird sang”

  1. When the bird sang, the whole village stopped in its tracks.
    It seemed to think it was the self-appointed lookout, though no one had ever trained it as such.
    However, long experience of danger or disaster over the years had taught the villagers that, when Jezabeel (as they had christened it) warbled, it was time to take defensive or evasive action.
    No one really knew what type of bird it was. Big and black, it perched on the village ramparts and surveyed the surrounding countryside with a beady eye – never saying a word but always nodding its head to passers-by.
    The only time it opened its mouth was to warn of impending danger. The first time this happened – about 10 years earlier – no one took any notice, and it was only when they heard the thunder of approaching hooves amid the accompanying sounds of clanking armour and shouting, that the villagers knew they were in trouble.
    Caught totally unprepared, wholesale slaughter ensued that day and the population – men, women and children – was decimated.
    The survivors quickly learned from that and prepared a solid defence against attack that included a labyrinth of underground tunnels in which they could hide and escape detection if necessary.
    These days, it was a comfort to know the bird was on constant watch and the defences, while tested many times, had always held strong.
    The only question peoples sometimes asked was how long did they think their marvellous sentinel could live for.
    The answer was anyone’s guess as no one knew how old the bird was. He had just appeared one day, perched atop one of the houses, and had never left.
    What they were sure of was that, once the bird sang its final song, they would be in deep trouble.

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