This story is by Andrew Fairchild and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Pouli Kelaido had fallen in love.
The name of the girl was Athena Menairos and she was beautiful—beautiful as a woman of marble, beautiful as the secret name of a hidden star, beautiful as a soft melody wafting in on a summer breeze. And he could not have her. Because what Athena Menairos loved most, was not men, it was birds.
“Bring me a moment!” she said, when he told her, he loved her. “Bring me the song of a lark or the call of a nuthatch, or better yet, bring me an unhatched phoenix’s egg, and we will watch the burgeoning life within it come forth, together!” And she smiled that beautiful smile and told him, if he could not do this, he should go away. But Pouli Kelaido did not understand.
As he went away with his shoulders hunched and his bleeding heart in his shaking hands—metaphorically—he wondered what wonderful thing he could do, to win her love.
Ah, friend, I am Xenos. I am Xenos Menairos, and Athena Menairos is my precious jewel, my only joy, my daughter! For her, I formed from the stuff of emeralds, a mighty creation, a fire-bird. An hundred-and-thirty emeralds, melded together and as tall as my hand, when I hold it upright. As perfectly as the lines are traced on the most delicate lily, I carved every feather. Every proportion was on. I carved and melded till it seemed like a bird alive—with a fiery white spark in its heart.
There came to me, today a man, who wanted the bird—he had never wanted, he said, anything in his life (‘twas not true), so much as that bird. (‘Twas not true, for he wanted my daughter.)
“I am Pouli Kelaido”, he said, “I will pay the full price of the bird—twenty times its weight in gold!” But he paid me in fool’s gold.
So overwhelmed with grief was I, that he’d taken the bird—the one which I carved for my daughter—that I did not notice the trick he had played.
When I discovered the trick, Pouli Kelaido was halfway home. With a snap of my fingers I changed him into a bird, and drew the bird here, to my workshop and confined it inside a snow-globe, all in an instant—and in that instant, the carving fell, and it shattered.
Chirrup the bird flew back and forth, and he tried to escape from the snow-globe. But he bruised his beak one too many times, and so he lit on a marble statue and chirruped until the lights went out around him—there was only the glow of the snow.
How lonely I am, he thought in his bird-head, and he tried to explain to the statue, but it would not listen. So, he flew to the Church, to ask the archpriest to hear his Confession, but the Church was closed.
Then, in the distance, a Light! A single candle, glowing and glowing and coming ever nearer and nearer until it lit up his snow-globe just like the Sun. And in the light of the candle, why, Chirrup could see the face of his Beloved, Athena.
“Father,” said my daughter to me, “how could you trap such a pretty bird in a cold, glass prison, with nothing to eat?”
But I did not feel inclined to free the man who had cheated me.
Chirrup the bird, seeing the face of Athena, flew right up against the glass and fluttered his wings, and she seemed to cry out, for she put her hand over her heart.
“It is I,” cried the bird, “here! I am Pouli Kelaido, I have purchased for you a fine statue. A fiery bird, which will not wither nor die!” Then, he stopped, for he saw a tear in the eye of Athena.
“Please, Papa!” said my daughter.
“Come away, my treasure,” said I.
And Chirrup saw her turn and go away.
“Come back! Come back!” he cried, but she could not hear him. So, sadly, he flew back into the Church, through a window, for the door was not open, but the archpriest would not hear him, nor take his Confession, for he was a man of stone.
So, Chirrup sat on the steeple of the little church, and held his bleeding heart in his quivering breast—and cried.
For ten days, the bird tried to get out of the globe, and for ten days he bruised himself until he was tired and sore, but the glass of the globe did not relent. It was then, that he thought that the globe might be trying to teach him a lesson. So, he flew up and sat on the steeple of the Church, and looked around the town, to see what he might learn there.
Chirrup looked around the town and he spied a shop with a miser in it, a miser there, counting his gold. The bird had a vague memory, then, of shops and of gold, but he could not remember what it was. So, he flew to the shop, to find out what it taught, but the miser was a man of stone. Then, he flew to the statue, and he had a vague memory, but he could not remember what it was, and everywhere he went, he found that all was the same—all the people were made of stone, and they could not tell him anything.
I, Xenos, record here, that the fiery pox has come and infected my daughter. Though I tend her night and day, I fear she will die—and if she survives, she will not be beautiful.
What was it, thought Chirrup the bird, that he was supposed to learn, here, all by himself?
Growing hungry, he had tried to eat the snow, but it wasn’t snow, at all, and it tasted disgusting. And it glowed all the night, green and leprous and bright, and it kept him awake. So, tired, and hungry, all alone and undone, he began to meditate.
Sitting high on the steeple, looking down at the people, he breathed in and out and he thought about God. And a warm, funny feeling came into his being and he remembered a time when he was happy. Before Athena, before he was a bird, when he lived as a man and he had himself a little wife. A cheery little soul was she, and she made him feel as if, he was golden and good. So beautiful, he thought. And they would stand in the kitchen and cook rice, together, and laugh. He had made her a swing in the garden, with two ropes that hung from a tree, and she grew moonflowers up and down the ropes, and she loved to sit there in the evening, amidst the sleepy, spicy smell. And then in the night, he would tell her stories of all the Knights of Renown, and she would fall asleep with her cheek, soft, against his shoulder. Until the daylight came, he would lie there, with his arm getting sore, but he would not move and wake her, because he loved her.
Far up on the steeple, then, Pouli Kaleido cried little bird-tears and his bleeding heart began to heal. And he remembered how he had cheated the merchant, the man who had made the marvelous bird, that he stole for his pretty Athena.
I am sorry, O Xenos, he cried out with his mind, and the Magician heard him.
I lie in my bed with pox upon me, as I hear the apology of the man who cheated me, and I laugh. Everyone else was stricken with the pox, and many have died, but he—he who cheated me!—was saved, because I hid him inside the snow-globe.
Now, I am dying, but I cannot free him, or he will be dead or stricken with the illness! Now, that I would forgive him and let him out, I cannot! The shattered emerald remains of my bird do not trouble me, anymore. But I must come up with a solution!
At least, my daughter lives! She is now immune. Her beauty is destroyed, she says, and yet, I see it—one day, the scars will diminish, and her beauty will return.
Then, Pouli Kelaido walked around in the snow, with his little bird feet, and he made a message and Athena Menairos saw it.
LET ME OUT AND I WILL PAY EVERY CENT
Taking my last breath I snapped my fingers and let Pouli Kelaido out, but I let him remain a bird, that he might be a thing of beauty to my stricken daughter.