The Birdcage and the Banyan Tree

It was by nothing more than a mere coincidence that Edgar stumbled upon the metal birdcage fifteen feet off the pale dirt edge of a running path, half-buried at the foot of an impossibly tall and ancient banyan tree, set back behind a tall, lulling patch of pastel emerald grass. From its trunk, exposed roots stretched about like shriveled tentacles, digging in and out of the cracked soil with no distinct pattern or rhythm. He peeked out past the layer of grass to get a better glimpse of the cage.

Even in the deep, flickering shade, the cage was freckled with rust. But he could see that it had endured well under the wrath of bipolar rain patterns and blistering tropical humidity. Its cylindrical steel frame extended no more than a foot high and a foot wide, doming at its peak.

A fleeting anticipation arose in him from nowhere, beckoning him to trudge to the banyan tree through the waist-high grass, but fear stopped him cold. Swaying grass tips waved at him like fingerless hands.

Since he and Julia had arrived at their vacation home outside a scarcely populated nook of a town forty miles west of Milo, Hawaii, he had already jogged the path on three consecutive mornings, seeing nothing more than the occasional toad leaping in the dirt or an exotic-looking bird tailing him off in the distance. Still, he couldn’t be sure.

A new and unidentifiable sense of anxiety began burying itself within him. Thunderclouds mulled in the emergent distance, operating in some other world completely, and when the sun briefly dipped behind the looming, flush green tropical leaves above, the scene before him was cast in shadow. Slits of insipid yellow light flickered through the narrow gaps between crisscrossing branches, fading to gray. He felt relief when he hurried off the path and unearthed the birdcage.

He knew that Julia wouldn’t appreciate his find. It was, in a spiteful cloud, part of the enjoyment festering inside of him. He also knew that it didn’t matter much anymore. Once back in New York, he would hang it up in his bar as a tribute to his and Julia’s last trip together. He imagined future customers of his bar in New York reveling in its secret history. It would summon a distinctly different energy to the bar, acting as a lurid discussion piece.

On the remaining stretch of path leading back to the vacation house, Edgar glowed with excitement. When he reached the front door, he spied a small yellow piece of paper tacked to its wooden ebony surface with Julia’s distinctive scrawl inked across it. It flapped in a threatening gust of eastbound wind, and Edgar had to snatch it midair to keep it from leaving forever.

It read: “Out to get dinner, be back in an hour.” In microscopic print at the bottom corner the time was written, eleven am. Edgar glanced at his wristwatch and was delighted to see that it was only eleven-fifteen.

Edgar stepped inside and headed towards the kitchen sink, crumpling the note and tossing it in the trash along the way. He flipped on the hot water, letting it run until clouds of slow-moving steam began floating up from the metal basin and drifting into the hot kitchen air.

It wasn’t until he started actually scrubbing it that he spotted a scarce, hurried message engraved on the bottom piece of the steel frame. He had nearly missed it. An unnerving chill rode up Edgar’s spine and tingled the nape of his neck, shot down his arms and hands and fingertips when he read the message, although he couldn’t readily pinpoint why. The words seemed to endlessly echo in his head, like a metal coin clinking against the sides of an empty chasm on its way down.

It read: “If freedom is love, then love me when I am free.

Minutes later, he hung the cage beneath the white aluminum awning of the outside porch and leaned over the faded wooden railing, spying the edge of the yard. Trees swayed with unease in the billowing gusts of an approaching thunderstorm. A faint, brooding silence filled the air. Without warning, rain fell from what seemed to be an immense ravine in the sky opening up. It pelted against the black asphalt shingles and trickled off the awning and down the gutters. A filmy curtain of rain shielded Edgar from the outside world, but through it he could just vaguely discern the horizon line, where a beaming slit of pastel crimson light illuminated what appeared to be another world completely. He half-expected to see a pair of yellow headlights appear from the gloom in Julia’s return, but was relieved when the gray only thickened. Thunder roared from a closed, black sky above. When it began shaking the windows and the walls, he could feel its bassy rhythm beginning to rattle him from the inside out and he turned back inside.

Once amongst the indoor shadows of the living room, Edgar found himself leafing through a faded cardboard box sitting beside a modestly ornate, ash-black stereo system. The box was full of dusty CDs. Save for a couple of Eric Clapton’s early albums—Blind Faith, and Cream—and Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely, the collection was comprised of either heavily jazz-influenced, eclectic albums birthed during the early stages of disco and hard rock, or subtly classical, more piano infused ballads that Edgar did not recognize

He slipped in the early Sinatra’s Only the Lonely and contemplated his failing marriage.

Edgar met Julia shortly after his second semester in college, just as the most humid Boston summer in Edgar’s memory was beginning to unfurl. Rather than the heat broadcasting from an insipid yellow sun above, it seemed to sift up wetly through the pavement, as if the searing, clinging steam of a sauna. Most of the college students went home during the summer break, but Edgar’s family resided in the suburbs just outside the city of Boston itself, so he was close enough to continue working at a coffeehouse gig he had just picked up six months prior. It was there that he first met Julia, on an afternoon where the sun was a scalding halo etched into a pale sapphire sky.

He remembered clearly the first time he laid eyes on her from across the room. Her eyes were the same pastel emerald shade of a cat’s, two glowing circles accentuated by hair a deep shade hazelnut, pinned into a strict bun.

Edgar didn’t necessarily believe in love at first sight. He didn’t really know what to believe in. But he knew that was the closest he’d ever come to finding love, and that feeling would never change.

After several hours of vigorous internal rehearsal, Edgar finally introduced himself.

Their first date went swimmingly. That night in the diner, he spied something keen hanging in Julia’s eyes, shining like a forgotten treasure deep at sea. The vivid green of her eyes starkly contrasted with her red maxi dress, firmly complementing her figure. They were seated in a narrow maroon booth with a faded plush vinyl surface, the kind that may have once sparkled in the hard diner light but was now too stolid with age.

Outside, flashing retro diner lights splashed a jaunty, urban glow against the wet black tarmac, shimmering in a colorful neon cascade. That night in the diner was one of the best nights of his life.

He discovered they were two individuals of many differences, but the attraction was a blossoming, pleasantly inescapable sensation. Julia was studying to become a physical therapist, Edgar an English major, a young aspiring novelist in the making.

He gave up on his dream shortly after graduating college, in the aftermath of a single phone call.

His Uncle Marlow from New York City first proposed his idea to Edgar from over three hundred miles away on a sickly damp, gray Sunday evening. Marlow called to offer him his bar, the Blue Lounge, at a discounted price before he planned to hire a realtor to put it up for official sale. Edgar declined the offer at first, afraid to take the plunge. But he knew that Marlow was getting too old to manage the business side of things, too weak to tackle the light maintenance work, though he would never admit it. He could hear it in his voice. If the business failed under Edgar’s care he would be considered a failure to Marlow, his immediate family, to Julia.

Marlow’s offer turned out to be shockingly low, however. Edgar couldn’t bear to decline it. So he quit his job, packed up the contents of his one-bedroom apartment, and moved with Julia out to New York City to run the bar.

Thickening scents of fresh garlic and red onions wafted into the living room and slowly awoke Edgar from what wasn’t quite sleep, but not quite a daydream either. The intruding aromas saddened him. From a trio of bay windows above, rectangles of brilliant crimson light swam through the glass panes and spilled their glow about the decadent living room carpeting and décor. The room was illuminated in the maddening hues of the approaching twilight. The strange shades showered him as he stumbled towards the kitchen.

A rather chintzy oval clock hung at the farther corner of the room, announcing that it was just past six in the evening. Sinatra’s baritone voice still hummed from the stereo speakers behind him. Edgar wondered how many times the album had looped through, playing its songs to an audience of one.

“How long was I asleep?” Edgar asked. But he already knew the answer. He purposefully asked Julia questions he already knew answers to—notwithstanding that it drove her mad—if not for the simple purpose of stirring up conversation.

Julia was dressed in a black sleeveless shirt and form-fitting khaki shorts. With her back turned to him, the dim yellow kitchen light flattered her figure. He wondered if she had lost weight. A knife in her right hand sliced through the air and whapped against a cutting board like a bird methodically pecking wood. Tonight, her hazelnut hair was pinned into a tight bun, a clear indicator of her mood.

Julia didn’t turn or slow down her process with the knife. A sigh escaped her. “The whole afternoon.”

Then she asked, “Did you call Rosie? To check on the bar?” The unmistakable frequency that shifted curiosity towards annoyance began channeling into her voice, as if being dialed in through a high-pass audio filter.

Calling Rosie had slipped his mind completely. He had given the neighbor girl a twenty-dollar bill to take a walk over to the bar once a day to make sure that it hadn’t been burglarized, or worse, burned to the ground. Rosie was only thirteen, but Edgar knew that most children could be entrusted with basic responsibilities if these were accompanied by reward and encouragement. Julia thought that keeping eyes on the bar would be a pointless endeavor.

“You might as well not bother with it now,” she said. Then as an afterthought she added, “We need to talk tonight, Edgar.” She tossed a steaming pan into the sink basin and it banged too loudly against the hollow metal. “We’ve been putting it off for too long.”

Thirty minutes later they ate in a silence only broken by the clinking of forks on ceramic plates, and the distant chirps of a lone bird harboring outside beneath the sinking tangerine sun. For a brief, fleeting moment, Edgar wished that he were as free as that bird, free from the binding prism of mediocrity that consumed his relationship, his personal life, and his failing bar. He imagined soaring through the tapering Hawaiian sunset on feathered gray wings, gliding with no cause or cares beneath goldenrod clouds stamped into a blood-orange sky.

“I think I want a divorce when we get back.” Edgar went dizzy for a second. His plate of pasta swam before him as a blurry, doubled image. He didn’t notice the tears welling in her eyes.

She went on. “I think it would really do us good. So no one gets hurt anymore.”

“How long have you had that idea in your head?” Edgar asked. His tone was breathy and harsh and not his own. When he looked into her eyes he saw they were clouded with tears, yet somewhere beneath them two hidden worlds glinted as if they were treasures on a sandy ocean floor twinkling in a reaching sunlight. Freckles dotting her flushed nose and cheeks seemed to stare directly into him as an audience of unblinking brown eyes.

“A few months.” Julia considered this, chewing her pasta but not tasting it. “Maybe a year. And Edgar. There’s something else.” Her eyes flickered, and in the cast of the yellow dining room light, her expression was vague and unreadable. The pit of his stomach began to curdle, and hot bile licked at the tip of his esophagus. She reached out and gripped his hand. Her pale skin was so cold he nearly winced, but he didn’t let go. Not yet.

“I slept with someone.” She stopped. “That came out wrong. We’ve just been going through such a rough patch. It just happened. I know you’ve felt the same about us.” She didn’t stop talking, and Edgar wished she would’ve.

“It was platonic. Nothing at all—no love. Just two people…reacting to the same situation. You were always away at your bar. I thought you stopped loving me. When I did it, I realized how stupid I was for doing it. I didn’t mean for it to happen. I’ve been having the hardest time not telling you, Edgar. But I thought you deserved to know. It’s the least I could do.”

Edgar stood, looming before his plate of pasta. He was surprised by how quickly a venomous anger spread through him, and even more surprised that it felt so good coursing freely inside of him.

Yet he couldn’t muster any words at all. I loved you since that rainy night in the diner followed by the question Was he any good in bed? were the words that wanted to spill from his parched lips, but only a faint croak escaped him, a noise so flat and not his own that Julia squinted her eyes in confusion.

Edgar stormed out of the kitchen and rushed past the dusk-covered living room. He stepped out on the front porch, slamming the front door shut behind him. He moved to the edge of the porch and leaned over the chipped wooden railing once again. Almost directly above him, the birdcage tottered in midair, its roost unpleasantly vacant. Along the rope attaching the cage to the hook in the awning, a million tiny nylon fibers poked out in every direction, blowing wildly in a faint breeze.

Edgar knew Julia enough well enough to know that she would not chase him. He had been alone since he had chosen the bar.

He stood there an unknown period of time, motionless under the spell of his own thoughts. He imagined his own wife sprawled naked atop a faceless stranger, two human bodies fulfilling a single, intimate purpose, and enjoying it. He envisioned an alien warmth in her passion towards the faceless stranger that made Edgar question his place in her heart. He thought of all of the kinks she had been apt to explore, and wondered which she and the stranger had performed together. The thoughts labored him with internal, needle-sharp pains, a dartboard wall in a room full of flinging darts.

The hint of starlight was starting through the seamless twilight sky. All that remained of the sunlight lurked just above the horizon line as the sliver of a single staring crimson eye. Puffs of cotton, dandelion clouds surfed overhead, shimmering with the grandiose shades of a dimming auburn sky surrendering to the cobalt hues of the night.

Edgar saw that even the rusted bars of the cage appeared healthy in the strange light. He was transfixed. He wondered what type of bird had once dwelled inside that wiry prison. Then he contemplated the person who had routinely sedated its hungry squawking by slipping food between the bars. He wondered what type of harbored pains that person carried with them when they had engraved the message into the metal underbelly of the cage, if they were anything like his own.

Bugs were beginning to float about the sticky dusk air in thickening, blood-thirsty swarms. Just before Edgar retreated inside, he stopped at the screen door and stepped back towards the railing. He remembered that he was still holding a piece of bread between his fingers, covered in a homemade garlic spread, compliments of Julia.

On a whim, he opened the small metal door of the birdcage. Its hinges creaked with neglect. He placed the piece of bread at the center of the roost and retrieved his hand, propping the little metal door open until he could feel the hinges beginning to buckle with resistance. Edgar then rotated the front of the cage so its opened mouth stretched wide towards the space in the open night where the sun had set just moments prior. He turned and went back into the house, allowing it to swallow him in its darkness.

Sleep evaded Edgar that night with a maddening ease. He was stretched across the black leather sofa, where he had slept for hours beside the eternal loop of an early Frank Sinatra leaking through the stereo speakers. Now, only the faintest splash of lemon moonlight traced through the bay windows, painting a panel of iridescent rectangles against the living room carpet. Flecks of dust twirled midair within them.

He couldn’t stop imagining Julia and the faceless stranger, naked and sweating and fulfilling intimacy—no, having sex—Edgar reminded himself. He envisioned the entire act from start to end, a film with no pause or end, just a macabre, infinite loop of terror. He wondered if during sex after the night of her affair she dreamt of the faceless stranger in his absence, yearning for the stranger’s warmth instead of Edgar’s.

Julia’s affair, Edgar thought, was only the mildewed, ripened bulb of a flower that had been decaying for years, and that he had planted the seed himself when he chose the bar, the first decision that divided their marriage. He was sure that his part in destroying the marriage wasn’t just that single act, but a countless multitude of small things he had done to push Julia away from him.

Darkness hung in the air like a thick smoke. The white popcorn stucco ceiling swirled in and out of existence. He stared out towards the foot of the staircase, as if to find Julia descending its wooden banister, but she was nowhere to be found.

He imagined floating up the staircase and down the hallway to her bedroom and looming in the open doorway, looking upon her as a distorted silhouette, guilty of no identity. Billowing air swished against the bedroom walls. Outside, trees whispered into another world. He listened until there was nothing left but the vague hum of Julia breathing in the darkness, listening to those sounds forever.

What awoke Edgar hours later wasn’t the nectarine dawn brightening the living room but a curious scratching, like claws against metal. Edgar stretched off the couch and lumbered towards the front door, drawing closer to the sound. He pressed his ears against its door and listened to the world outside.

The scratching continued, gaining an almost furious rhythm. Edgar twisted the doorknob with the delicacy of a man holding a diamond, slowly opening the door and stepping out into the humid, already blistering heat.

The roost of the birdcage was occupied by a single red-crested cardinal. Edgar could only see the back of the bird, and the sharp tip of its beak protruding into the atmosphere. A head the color of brilliant scarlet led to a soft white neck, connecting to a tiny matte-gray torso. Beneath that, leathery, paper-thin legs clicked against steel.

He stared at the feathered creature, grappled within a strange transfixion. Just as someone must have done a time ago, Edgar saw that he could capture the cardinal if he so desired.

Without thinking he began inching towards the cage. The bird stopped cold, tilted its head up and sideways towards him, its eye was a single searching black disk that glinted in the light. After a moment it found him, trapped him in its gaze.

The bird pivoted on its webby feet, inspecting the world outside the rusted bars of the cage. Its visible eye gleamed an impossible neon red in the morning twilight, the shade of retro diner lights at night shimmering off rainy tarmac.

He knew with undoubted certainty that if the cardinal stared at him directly, he would find Julia hiding deep within its eyes, and he would descend into utter madness. And like he so desperately wanted, he would be unable to set her free. It would be easier to close that door and not let go.

Suddenly, it flew out into the lucid cherry sky, gathering an eloquent speed in its ascent. It swooped up past the telephone wires, soared freely towards the edge of the yard, coasting momentarily where swaying green crowns of trees merged with the horizon line. Edgar watched the bird with its impossibly familiar eyes vanish into the glow of the rising sun and the worlds beyond it.

Under the literary umbrella of writers such as Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, Joe Hill, and Ernest Hemingway, Matthew Evans has been immersed in the realm of the short story since a young age, understanding its valor in the world of literature. Often broadly encompassing and abrupt, the short story is like a passing glimpse through a narrow and often clouded window into other worlds, and it is with this perspective that he writes his stories.

Evans is a college undergrad who has previously published work with Eunoia Review and the Ithaca Times.

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