Vasant 2024 Stories - J.B. Polk

 

Birds of Paradise

By J.B. Polk

 

The unusual sound came from the toolshed just as dusk began to blur Bilburry Hall's contours. Something resembling wings flapping against bushes or dozens of winged creatures attempting to flee the constraints of the wooden structure. Even though it was more of a feeling than an actual noise, Tom Davies, the gardener, couldn't resist investigating further. He approached the structure with caution, his heart beating with apprehension.


Of late, he noticed strange things happening in the garden. Things that, on their own, could have been mere coincidences, but when put together and given their frequency, caused him some concern. Things like a rake left lying against a wall when he knew he had left everything neat and tidy inside. The door not quite shut. A packet of Sweet William seeds scattered on the ground. And once, a box of petunia seedlings on the top shelf moved a meter to the right. Things had their place in his garden, and he noticed when they were out of order.


"No, nothing odd today," Tom thought.


“The door is shut. No tools are left outside.”


Both sides of the graveled path leading to the shed were lined with Strelitzia Reginae plants, whose delicate stalks swayed in the breeze. Sir Reginal, the 10th baronet of Derring and proprietor of Bilburry Hall, brought some seedlings from Cape Town before the Great War destroyed their lives forever.


Orange blossoms shaped like bird heads crowned the slender stems, tapering into blue and violet beaks so eerily similar to exotic fowls that they were nicknamed "birds of paradise." They were initially intended to be cultivated in the scorching South African climate. However, they also seemed content next to the toolshed in Bilburry Hall, partly in the sun and partly in the shade.


Sir Reginald, an enthusiastic botanist, and amateur horticulturist, explained to Tom that the plant rarely bloomed in cooler climates and urged him to take great care of the exotic specimen.


"It'd be fantastic to see these bird-like flowers here.You have no idea how real they appeared in Helen's garden last year when I stayed with her!"
Sir Reginald's youngest daughter, Helen, whom he visited every summer, was married to John De Reuck, a South African iron ore dealer who owned prime property in Cape Town's most affluent neighborhood and three mines in Limpopo Province.


"So real, in fact," he went on, "that I thought they were a flock of Malachite Kingfishers perched on the bush.It wasn't until I touched one that I realized they were flowers and weren't flying away," Sir Reginald laughed.


"Take care of them for me and use all of the magic of your green fingers to make them bloom here as they did in Helen's garden."


"I will, sir," Tom replied.


"The climate in Cape Town may be better, and the sun may be hotter, but nothing beats English soil and rain."


Despite Sir Reginald's vivid description, Tom couldn't conceive how a flower could resemble a bird, much less one with an orange head and a blue beak. It had taken him three years of applying the right amount of fertilizer, keeping the soil moist (but not soggy) throughout the warmer months, and simply sprinkling the leaves in autumn when rain was abundant. Every year, he waited for the orange heads to emerge from among the moss-green leaves, but he waited in vain. Until one morning in September 1911, which he would remember for the rest of his life because it was a week after his daughter was born.


He was left speechless as he strolled past the shed to begin the day's work and noticed the flowers. Like Sir Reginald, he initially mistook them for goldfinches that had descended on the paddle-like leaves. Since then, the arabesque blooms and Lilly's birth had been intimately interwoven in his memory.


"No wonder they're called Strelizia Reginae—the Queen's Strelizia," he reflected.


"For they truly are regal."


Although the Davises had intended to name their second child Mable after her mother, as they had done with Tom, their firstborn, they changed their minds when the midwife delivered the baby.


"Congratulation. Mom and Dad, you've got a great beauty on your hands," the elderly woman, who had witnessed many births in her life, said as she handed the infant to her father.


The child's skin was extraordinarily white and made even whiter by her incredibly black eyes - unexpectedly focused for a newborn and conveying an adult's intelligence and curiosity. Then there was her scent. When Tom cuddled up against her neck, he inhaled a sweet and delicate perfume that made his head spin like he'd drank a quart of the best whiskey.


As a gardener, he'd smelled the richest violets, the most exquisite laburnum, the musky aroma of lavender, and the exotic fragrance of greenhouse orchids. But his baby’s scent was a combination of berries and wild jasmine with a hint of unripe lemon- more exquisite than the costliest French perfume. He was immediately smitten by the tiny scrap of a human being that smelled like heaven.


"Mabel won’t do. Mabels are women like me—stocky, with thick writs who cook and do housework," said the child’s mother.


"She is so delicate that I can't picture her doing anything other than looking dainty all day. Let's call her something fancier. Let's give her a flower name!"
So, they called her Lilly. She lit up their days, and they just let her be like a delicate potted plant that requires much care but isn't expected to accomplish much other than look pretty.


Tom was happy. He loved his job, had a woman at his side who was an excellent wife and mother, and Sir Reginald was a kind employer. What more could a man ask for?


Then came the Great War, and both Derring sons enlisted: Reginald Junior, a Navy man, to serve on a U-boat built just ten miles away in the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard. Harry, a young doctor, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps.


After that, Bilburry Hall's residents returned to their old but now nervous routines. Sir Reginald occasionally received short letters from the front, which he read aloud to everyone in the house, including Lilly.


Winter had just descended on the village, shrouding it in a monochromatic gray, when Ed Johnson, the postman, cycled up to the Hall’s main gate. The morning chill had penciled icy scribbles on the ground, and Ed's elongated face was as bleak as the frost-covered land.


"Hello there, Tom."


His voice had a mournful tone that mirrored his expression.


"A wire for Sir Reginald. From the War Office."


Tom accepted the sealed piece of paper. He didn't have to read it. Back then, that meant either dead or missing in action.


It was the first one.


Tom watched Sir Reginald slowly unfold the paper with shaky hands.


"With deep regret, Capt. Reginald Paul Derring was officially reported killed. Submarine hit by mine Jan. 15."


He made no sound, his countenance remaining unchanged. He crumpled the paper, tossed it on the desk, and left the room, defeated. After that, he rarely walked in the garden or talked about the various plants and flowers with Tom. He spent most of his time reading newspapers and writing letters to Helen and his grandchildren. Until even that became too much to take, as the Daily Mirror wrote under a heartbreaking image: "Hundreds of soldiers, trapped by a gas cloud, lie unconscious in the trenches. Devilry, thy name is Germany."


Sir Reginald had never opened a newspaper again till the war ended.


"How can I?" His brow furrowed in sorrow.


"You know very well, Tom, that Harry is right there, in Gallipoli, looking after the injured fighting the Turks in Suvla Bay."


They hadn't heard from Harry since the campaign began in April. It was August, and many reported 100,000 casualties on both sides. The elderly baronet had almost given up at that moment. He seemed to sense that Harry would not return and that the Derring name would sink into obscurity with his death. Helen would remain in Cape Town and most likely sell Bilburry Hall to strangers.


"That’s how it ends, Tom," Sir Reginald would say to the gardener, who had become a friend rather than a servant.


"Ten generations of Derring baronets, uninterrupted since 1650...gone. The end to our family and our home."


Tom would nod and remain silent. Titles and inheritance meant little to him. But Harry's likely death cut deep. He'd seen the child grow up on the estate, from a naughty boy who trampled on his lettuces and carrots to a fine young medic.


No one could find the elderly baronet the next time Ed Johnson cycled to the gate again. Mabel searched all the rooms, including the cellar and attic, as did Mrs. Specks, the new cleaning lady who came from Barrow-in-Furness once a week to polish the silverware and do the heavier housework.


It was as if Sir Reginald had known that the telegram announcing Harry’s death would come that day.


Tom saw him walking with Lilly, whose small hand the nobleman held in his dry, blue-veined one, near the shed. He could hear the chirpy voice of his daughter, who could talk like a girl twice her age, even though she was only six years old.


"So, sir, you probably think they are birds. They're not! Dad said they were flowers. And they come from a faraway place that is beautiful and hot. And they miss being in the sun. They can't stop thinking about how to get back there. So, a magician turned them into flower birds. One day, they'll fly away, leaving only the stalks."


The old man listened intently.


"You are right, Lilly. When I look at them, I believe they are living birds. As though they had souls and were about to fly back to where they came from. To that hot and nice place where the sun always shines."


Tom listened to the two people—one who was entering the circle of life and the other who was probably ready to go out like a candle wick.


"They're alive, sir!" Lilly pointed out.


"All plants and flowers are alive! I talk to them like I talk to Jasper the cat and Hilda, your white mare. And they pay attention. Even though they never speak, I know they can hear me. Why don't you give it a go?


The girl drew the elderly gentleman closer to the bush.


"Speak with them. You'll feel better. I talk to them when I'm sad, and they make my sadness go away."


Sir Reginald turned and saw Tom standing there with the telegram.


He didn't say anything and instead walked over to the plant and touched one of the flowers.


"There goes the second one," he said quietly.


"And there is no one left."


His other hand never let go of Lilly's, and she led him toward the hall through the amber-colored August dusk.


When the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, the world celebrated, but Bilburry Hall remained in mourning.


The bodies of Harry and Regie had not been recovered. Memorials were builtin dozens of villages and towns across Europe, and soldiers’ bones,buried quickly in makeshift graveyards near battlefields, were slowly moved to real cemeteries. Sir Reginald hoped that one of them was the final resting place of at least one of his sons. He knew that Regie’s grave was forever in the cold waters of the North Sea.


Tom thought that once the war was over, some of the comfortable habits of the past would return. And they did for a while. Tom, who had just turned 15, was helping his father take care of the yard and was put in charge of the greenhouse by himself while Lilly started school.


When the first post-war winter was over, they heard for the first time that an influenza outbreak was sweeping the world, just like the war had done before. But it wasn't something that Tom was too worried about. Pandemics, political crises, and natural disasters didn’t happen in Barrow-in-Furness, and even less so in Bilberry Hall. Things like that plagued the grand metropoles of the world, cities like London, Washington, or Moscow.


Lilly came home from school on the first day of spring with a cough.


"My throat feelsscratchy," she complained.


Mabel gave her a spoonful of onion and sugar syrup that she kept on hand for times like this.


"There's nothing like the old cold cures," she said.


"I know it tastes awful, honey, but it will help your throat feel better."


But the next day, the child had a fever, and her cheeks were red and splotchy.


"My head hurts, Mommy," she said, so Mable put a damp tea towel on her brow.


Worried, Tom went to see Sir Reginald, who told him to get a doctor immediately.


“The newspapers say it's spreading like wildfire, so we should take care of it before it gets worse," he recommended.


"Stay calm, Tom. We'll have Lillyin shipshape in no time."


They didn't, though. Lilly only got worse, and then Mable, who had never left the child's bedside, got sick too.


"Please, God, please don't take her away," Tom prayed, and to his horror, he realized that if it were up to him to decide who lived and who died, he would not hesitate to save his daughter's life.


Lilly died on the third morning. Her face was paler than ever as she lay on the bed like a white hyacinth cut too early to survive in a vase. Fearing further contagion, they buried her the same day.


"People are not supposed to feel this type of all-encompassing grief unless they’ve run out of purpose," Tom thought on the way back from the cemetery.


“I'm not supposed to feel like I've run out of things to do because Mabel will need me. There's the hall that I'm fond of. And Sir Reginald is all alone. Young Tom will one day inherit the sheers and the trowel and take my place, if not here at Bilburry Hall, then somewhere as big, if not bigger. So there are lots of things to live for…"


He wanted to go on about all the things and people he should be grateful for, but he knew it would be useless because the one person he truly cared about was Lilly. But she was gone, like a spring petal frozen by winter's unexpected return.


Overcome by grief, he heard the sound in the shed again as he walked down the graveled path. Fluttering. Swishing.


The shed door opened, and Sir Reginald emerged. He appeared startled.


"I’m sorry, sir. I didn't mean to scare you," Tom apologized.


"Scare? No, you didn't scare me. I wanted to walk a little before retiring to bed when I heard a noise. A strange noise, like wings fluttering," Sir Reginald observed.


They faced each other, the aging aristocrat and his gardener, united in their grief.


"They are alive, Lilly thought," Derring stated.


"She said they would take some of my sadness away if I talked to them."


The two men strolled together to the Strelitzia Reginae bush. The baronet stretched his hand, and as he was about to touch one of the flowers, there was a flicker of wings, and three of the blossoms disengaged from the plant, hovered above the foliage like hummingbirds, and flew directly towards the setting sun. They soared side by side, three bird-flowers, three bird-souls of Tom's and Derring's departed children, letting their fathers know it was okay to no longer mourn for them. They flew somewhere where it was hotter and sunnier than this cold and rainy English garden. They were going home.


Neither man spoke. They just followed the birds-flowers-souls with their gaze until they were mere pinpricks in the darkening sky.



***



My family has remained in Bilburry Hill even though the official owners, the Derrings, no longer live here. Because for us, the Manor has always been our home. And given how long it has been since the story’s events, I feel comfortable relating them to you, just as my father, the gardener's son, told them to me.


Sir Reginald died before the outbreak of World War II. It was probably for the best because he would have remembered nothing save the two telegrams confirming his sons' deaths. For five years, identical telegrams arrived by the thousand in British homes from London to Manchester, from St. Ives to Barrow-in-Furness.


Even when Helen De Reuck, Sir Reginald's daughter, sold the estate to an American general and his British wife, my grandfather, Tom Davies, continued to take care of the Bilburry Hall grounds like I do today.


Nobody knowsif the story of the three birds of paradise is true. It may be that the old aristocrat and his gardener were born with the capacity to convince the tragically departed to make it through the portal and manifest themselves for one last time. Or perhaps, united in their grief, they bonded, falling prey to a momentary hallucination that caused them to see things that, in fact, only existed in their imaginations.


And today, with the arrival of the wonders of modern technology—conveyor belt TV dinners and fibre optic that shortens physical distances but extends spiritual ones—when Bilburry Hall is no longer in private hands, I tell the story to our guests.


I show visitors around the grounds and take them to the old shed that has been given a modern makeover. We sit in the shadow of the waxy rhododendrons and Japanese camellias, admiring the orange and blue heads of the birds of paradise, which are now nothing more than exotic blossoms, as the sun sets behind the gray hall. Because it is my home and I have grown up surrounded by its beauty, I take great pride in sharing its history with others.

 

It's a place where memories are made, and stories unfold, making each visit a truly special experience for the guests and me. Because the past isn't always perfect, acknowledging its shortcomings allows us to learn, grow, and strive for a better future

 

Polish by birth, J.B. Polk is a citizen of the world by choice. First story short-listed for the Irish Independent/Hennessy Awards, Ireland, 1996. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, more than 80 of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, have been accepted for publication. She has recently won 1st prize in the International Human Rights Arts Movement literary contest.

 

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