“It’s dark in here, isn’t it?” the voice asked her.
Stella came to a dead stop. She hadn’t expected anyone to be in here: the house was meant to be empty. Nor could she tell where it came from. The room was black; only a few small chinks of light seeped in around the old and frayed curtains.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the voice continued. “Edmund said you’d be here as soon as he was dead.”
Whoever it was, they had that much correct. Who would know that? Stella’s grandfather had only passed away yesterday, and the funeral was still to come. But Stella knew she’d be the only beneficiary, so had hurried down to the old house as soon as she could.
It was time to clean up, get the place ready for sale. Her grandfather would have wanted her to keep it, to perhaps save it for a next generation, but it would sell handsomely at market right now. Stella had no inclination to hold on to something simply for the sake of family, of memory. It wasn’t how she operated, wasn’t in her nature.
A sound of humming came from somewhere in the room — not threatening, strangely more like the warm-up that a singer might make before chancing onto the stage.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Why are you doing this?”
No reply. Instead, incongruously, unexpectedly, came the sweet sound of a voice singing. Stella had no recognition of the music, but suspected it might be one of the arias her grandfather loved.
Scared, disoriented by the dark, confused, she still couldn’t help thinking how beautiful it was. A voice worth a million dollars.
“Did you like that?” asked the singer. “Maybe you’d be good enough to open the curtains now.”
Stella stumbled over to the bay window, pulled back the heavy cloth drapes. They were musty, a mix of many odours and dust, decay and age. She coughed heavily, eyes blinking in the sudden brightness.
“Hello,” said the bird.
It sat there on a pedestal, staring at her. Next to it was a large ornate cage, rusty with age and disuse. Calmly the bird hummed once more and then began to sing again.
I remember that song, Stella realised. It was a lullaby from her childhood.
The bird turned towards the window, looked out. “I’ve been waiting for you. For that.”
The sun, glittering on the garden outside, beckoned. The lawn was green and fresh, the plants in flower. A light wind blew, rustling through the trees.
Stella stared out the window, then back at the small bird as it began preening itself. “You can talk.” This as much a statement of fact as of disbelief.
The bird hopped left, hopped right, then took flight around the room. It hovered by the window, and began singing once more.
So beautiful, Stella thought. Priceless.
Its song over, the small bird alighted on the window sill. It rapped on the glass with its beak once, twice, then a third time. “Time to let me out,” it said evenly.
Stella sat down on a dusty chair. A pragmatic young woman, not usually given to dreaming, she still couldn’t help feeling just a little bit enchanted. “How…?”
“Your grandfather taught me to talk. And he’d play his music for me.”
I’ve never seen anything like this before, Stella remarked. And apart from her grandfather, she didn’t think anyone else would have, either. So beautiful, so rare.
She extended her hand to the bird, a perch for it to rest on.
It cocked its head to one side, looked at her for a second, then skittered aside, out of reach. “Then he’d tell me about you, that you and he only had each other in the world. How much he loved you and wished that you would come visit him every now and then.”
Stella pursed her lips in a thin tight line. “He taught you to sing wonderfully.” She put out her hand once more.
The songbird alighted next to her, tapped on the glass again, more urgently than before. “Actually, he didn’t. He told me that I deserved to be out there, outside, after all the time I’d stayed with him. But no, he never taught me this.”
That surprised Stella. “No?” Still she kept her hand steady, waiting.
The bird looked out the window once more, at the wind blowing free and loose, the flowers in full spring bloom. “No,” it said wistfully, “I don’t sing like this because someone taught me.”
An intriguing comment. “Why do you do it?” she asked.
The little bird stopped still for a moment, looked at her directly. “That’s simple. I’m a songbird. I sing because it’s in my nature. It’s what I am.”
Stella reached out one more time as the bird turned and stared outside. Catching the little creature unawares, her hands closed gently round the small feathered body. She felt its little heart beat faster as she drew it away from the window and put it in the cage. So beautiful, so priceless.
The bird stared around at its new prison, then looked at her, confused. “Why?” it asked.
“That’s simple,” she told the bird as she locked the cage door. “I’m not a bird, I’m a human being.” She smiled at it one last time, thinking of its sale price. “And I do this because it’s in my nature.”
Michael T Schaper is currently based in Australia’s “bush capital,” Canberra, where he spends a lot of time fruitlessly looking for some surf. He is also an adjunct professor with Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, and a keen reader of flash fiction in all its many forms.