THE BIRD BESIDE THE CHALICE • by Fiona M Jones

Maddelynne Baird stopped at the junction as usual, waiting for the lights. An early evening moon, whiter than all the laundry and shining tiled bathrooms of her workday, lifted her mood from weary to pensive.

“This is where I stand,” she whispered to the remote but reassuring orb. “In my soul. At the crossroads, waiting for the light. I await my true destiny.”

For Maddelynne, who worked as a cleaner in a large hotel, would never become a famous singer/songwriter as long as her day job tied her down geographically, filled her hours and sapped her energies. She might sing as she worked — at least until the guests complained… she might frequent local karaoke nights… she might send her recordings to all the established bands she knew… but for five years and more, nothing had moved.

And now her late grandmother’s estate, having taken over two years to dispose, had bestowed on her an attractive uptown faux-Tudor property — ideal, her mother said, for opening an olde-worlde English tea-shop, serving homebaking alongside traditional and speciality teas.

“If only…” Maddelynne sighed — “if only I could have a sign, like divine guidance…”

Maddelynne, never strongly religious herself, knew of someone reputed to exercise prophetic powers — perhaps not of Biblical proportions, but of useful personal guidance. She decided to visit him. She brought one of her best homemade cakes and a selection of her jams and pickles.

If Maddelynne had found his voice disappointingly ordinary on the phone, his physical appearance surprised her even more. No, she hadn’t looked for robes, sandals and beard, exactly, but neither had she expected jeans, jumper, tidy hair and a distinctly unmystical living-room décor. Her confidence wavered, but she sat down, accepted a mug of instant coffee, and told her story.

“Ah,” he said. “I see your quandary. Commit yourself to starting up a business or sell the place and commit to starting a band.”

“Yes,” said Maddelynne. “I could start a band tomorrow. I know two people who’d join straight away: Denn, the new barman, really quite good at guitar; Bernie, the dishroom guy, who’s helped me make recordings.”

“And which future do you want?”

“Well, you know—” Maddelynne felt flustered — “I’ve always dreamed — But, you see, it’s hard to be sure — I hoped you’d tell me which way to go,” she confessed.

“Whatever I tell you, Miss Baird, you’ll make your own decision. I’ll pray for you if you wish; maybe I’ll come to a clear answer or maybe not; but you’ll make the decision.”

“Okay,” said Maddelynne eagerly. “What do you want me to do?”

“You know what, Miss Baird, I’d really appreciate hearing you sing. Will you?”

“What — now? I’ve not got my words.”

“Well, let’s see what I’ve got.” He held out a hymn book with both music and words on each page. Maddelynne looked through it in dismay.

“I don’t know any of these,” she admitted. “I can’t just read the tune off the music lines.”

“No worries; look, it’s got Christmas songs here, quite well-known. Silent Night?”

“Oh, yes, I can do that.”

Maddelynne sang, scooping and vibratoing her notes, crooning off the end of every line, giving her very showiest in style and tone as the prophet sat listening, eyes closed, features expressionless.

“Thank you so much,” he said at last. “And thank you again for your excellent cake and preserves: you obviously have a real talent there. Will you wait here while I go and pray for you, or shall I phone you later?”

“Can I wait here?”

“Sure.” He left the room, and Maddelynne sat for a while, walked about, opened a book or two and looked out of the window. She saw no clock in the room, and would have opened her phone but for a vague fear that electronic devices might somehow interfere with the mystical communication process, like when a pilot begins to land a plane and asks you to switch off.

Eventually the prophet returned. Maddelynne jumped to her feet.

“Yes?” she said expectantly. “Did you get a vision?”

“Oh, I hate to use the word ‘vision’,” he demurred. “It sounds so very Old Testament. I just call it a visual, a sort of mental picture, that’s all.”

“What did you see? Tell me!”

He motioned her to a chair. “I visualised a bird crouching beside a bird-bath, not ready for flight, its wing feathers unpreened and bedraggled—”

Maddelynne leaped up again. “I do recognise it!” she cried joyfully. “One of my greatest songs yet, I wrote about a bird that bathed in a poison chalice, symbolic you know — and my very own song came into your vision!” She stopped to breathe.

“Symbolic. What did it symbolise?”

“What does it matter? I’ve got my answer! You’ve given me the sign I wanted — to go for it — to start that band — and sing! To follow my dream! Thank you so much!”

“Not at all,” replied the prophet, who suddenly looked weary. “Your decision entirely. But I’ll continue to pray for you.”

Maddelynne floated out of the house on a blissful cloud of elation. As the weeks passed she thought often of the prophet who had set her on this path, and wondered at that look of sadness which she had never remarked at the time. As the months passed and discouragement gathered, she hoped he still prayed for her.

And perhaps he did, for some years later a large music company bought up and produced a peculiarly haunting ballad about a young bird who had broken through the blue egg that held her and now dreamed of breaking through the farther blue of the sky.

The songwriter, bakery-chef and now at last shareholder in a small traditional catering company, appeared on TV to talk about her now famous composition.

“No, I’m not a singer myself,” she admitted. “I used to wish…. But maybe what I really wanted was just to be famous. I suppose it’s symbolic, like I’ve broken through. Found myself.”


Fiona M Jones is a creative writer living in Scotland. She is a regular contributor to Folded Word, Elsewhere Journal and Mum Life Stories, and has fiction published by Silver Pen, Bethlehem Roundtable and a number of other venues.


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