When the Birds Vanish
The sound of the birds was long gone from the forest. Sometimes he thought he heard a flap of a wing, a chirp, but he knew he was wrong. There hadn’t been any birds for a long time. He didn’t know why, he didn’t much care, but he did miss them.
Helm put the empty cup of tea in the sink and closed the kitchen window. Then he made a sandwich, took the can of coke out of the fridge and put it in the plastic bag he always kept with him. It was one of a kind. He put on his new shoes and walked outside. The air was crisp, cold and comfortable. He took his trench coat and locked the cabin. He walked down the steps, they creaked badly and he reminded himself he needed to fix them. A few nails would do the trick. He headed down the pathway and up towards the bigger trail.
He walked it every day. It was a part of his routine. He had his sandwich and his soft drink with him in the bag. He walked for an hour, sat down by the big cherry tree, ate his lunch and then he kept on walking until he came to the old cottages by the creek. They called it Tithe village. There were ten cottage in all, but only two of them were currently occupied.
He remembered when they were all filled with happy families. Now all that was left was old Kristy, who was blind but still baked a damned good caraway seed bread. He spent some of his summer days picking corn, caraway and other things from the fields. They seemed to grow there without much hassle during the summer months. It wasn’t too hard, for the three of them, to get enough into the barn. But it was just spring, and not much left of last years crop.
Old man Joe was the other occupant of Tithe. He was even older than Kristy, and remembered when the trees were all alive and the fog sometimes lifted and was replaced by sunshine. He sometimes told stories of the times before the fall. Of big cities, and raging wars. Helm wasn’t sure how much was true and how much the old man made up, he was sceptical that there ever had been machines that flew through the sky with over 200 people. Why would such a machine even be needed? But he did enjoy the stories, they were wildly entertaining.
Helm hadn’t seen much sunshine in his life, maybe a dozen times the sun had shone on him and that was a long time ago now. The fog never lifted, but he was used to it. It didn’t bother him. The weather never bothered him. He was used to the drizzle, he had his trench coat and now new shoes.
The birds vanishing had bothered him, however. It made the forest even more quiet than it had been before. There were still a few squirrels, a few rabbits and snakes sizzling around, but they were quiet beings, rarely visible, and although he could sometimes allow himself the time to sit down and really listen, he rarely did.
He was anticipating a good walk this morning. Maybe there would even be a few flowers on the cherry tree. He had seen a few promising buds the previous day. The forest felt abiding this morning, he wasn’t at ease in this stillness. It made him edgy, so he started to whistle.
He had an old record player in the cabin and sometimes when the windmill was working overtime he indulged a little. His favourite record was “If I didn’t care” by a group called The Ink Spots. And he liked to whistle the tunes, he especially liked “I don’t want to set the world on fire”.
It was about love. He knew little about love, except love he knew from the books he read and the songs he listened to, and they made it sound like magic. He was afraid it was magic that had left the world. He had seen his parents when he was a little lad, they had kissed and hugged and smiled a special smile at each other. But those days had gone with them.
He whistled while walking to the cherry tree, and when the muscles around his mouth became tired, he started to hum instead. He didn’t sing, but he could hum. When he tired of the same song he switched to “The Prayer” and he picked up his pace. When he came to the cherry tree he was pleasantly surprised by a single cherry blossom. He put his bag on the table under the tree. He didn’t know who had put the table there, but it was there and he used it. He sat so he could see the flower, and ate his lunch. He drank his coke and reminded himself that he had to pick up a new can from the automat in Tithe. It was an easy job. He fumbled in his coat pocket to see if he still had a coin there. And it was there, for sure, as always.
He drank the last drops from the can and put it back into the plastic bag. Then he smelled the cherry flower, and walked back to the path, heading for Tithe.
He hadn’t arrived in Tithe yet when he realised that something was wrong. It wasn’t just the forest that was unusually quiet, there was a stench in the air. A stench of old wood burning.
He picked up his pace, the tunes leaving his head and his lips. A large worry line appeared above his greying brows. When the Tithe cottages appeared as he turned a curve he saw the atrocity.
The cottages were on fire.
He could hear old woman Kristy screaming in the distance.
He ran towards the sound, but realised before he even started running that he wouldn’t be able to do much to help her. He didn’t stop at her cottage though, but ran further towards Old Man Joe’s cottage. It was just cinders, and nothing else.
He looked around, frantically trying to find a clue as to what might have happened, but there was nothing to see but fire and smoke.
He took a deep breath and ran back to Old Kristy’s cottage. The screams had subsided, and he watched as the fire took the last of her home. He sat down on a large rock and waited. The fire had spread from one to another, but had avoided the trees and the grass around them. Things that logically should have been consumed by the fire.
Helm shook his head, sadly.
He was alone now.
They had said it would happen. Old Kristy had taught him how to bake the bread himself, and Old man Joe had smirked and told him that after the two of them were gone he could do what he wanted with the forest.
“You’ll be able to fill it with doves, or demons” he had said laughing.
Old man Joe had been mad as a hatter.
When the cottages had burned down to the ground, only a linger of the fire was left alive. He got up and looked at the ruins. For an instant he was sure he heard laughter echoing through the forest, but like the bird song it was just in his mind. He watched the fire burn the fence down and then wondered if he should just let it do what it wanted.
But then he shook his head, stomped the remains of the fire out angrily, and turned away from the spot. He scratched his head, and started walking towards the shopping mall.
Old man Joe had called it a shopping mall, Helm didn’t know what that meant, and Old man Joe hadn’t felt the need to explain it. It was as good a name as any though. The tall concrete house was still standing. He entered through the red door on the side of it, avoiding the broken glass of the giant doors in the front and headed towards the red automat. He pulled his coin out of the pocket, his hands shaking violently. He swallowed and pushed the coin in the little slid, and heard the familiar sound as the coin fell through the machine and into his pocket again. Then he pushed another button and a louder sound was heard from the machine.
And there it was, as always, his can. He put it in his plastic bag, placed the empty can in the corner beside the automat and looked into the bigger room. There were isles after isles of things he had no idea what were for. If there ever was anything else eatable in this place, it had vanished to mould and rot a long time ago. Or the rats had eaten it. Either way there was nothing else there. He had found his shoes there however, the red shoes he now wore everywhere he went. They were comfortable and he wondered for a moment if this was the right day to walk inside and see if there was something else to be found.
Then he thought of Old Kristy and Old Man Joe and he shook his head, “no, not today” he told himself out loud and turned to go.
He heard her before she said anything, yet she startled him.
“Out with the old, in with the new” she said.
He turned around, feeling the protest in his limbs to this sudden movement.
She was standing there wearing a white summer dress, all too thin for the spring chill. Her hair was brown, curls covering her shoulders and her eyes were blue as he imagined the sky once was. She wore no shoes, but her toe nails were painted bright red.
“Who are you?” he whispered, suddenly feeling dry and ever so lonely.
She didn’t answer, but tiptoed towards him, cocked her head and stroked his cheek.
“Oh, how you have changed” she said, her smile radiating with warmth and comfort.
“You know me?” his eyebrows travelled together, his lips trembled.
“I know you” she said, “you are the last of your kind”. She smiled as if this was something to be celebrated, like he had won a competition, or done something heroic.
“Well, you’re here” he said drily. He wanted to turn back, but he couldn’t take his eyes of her. She was a vision, a deity he had pictured in his mind so often and now she was standing there, just like in a story book.
“You go back to your forest” she said, “keep it’s secrets, just like Old man Joe always did. Keep it and be like them” she took a deep breath, as if she was smelling something she hadn’t smelt in a while, and then she took his arm and led him outside.
“The forest is slowly dying. Keep it’s secret hidden and all will be well”.
He stopped and stared at her. This woman aggravated him, made him angry. “All will be well?” he said louder than he’d intended. “You think this is what we wished for ourselves?” he was shouting.
“No” she said, “but what you wish for and what you get isn’t always the same thing”. She appeared to be changing in front of him. The beautiful woman was changing. Suddenly she had on blue jeans and a leather jacket. Her hair was fastened in a pony tail in the back and she had a pair of boots and a sly smile.
Outside a large bike waited her. Helm had never seen anything like it before, and when she sat on it with her left foot touching the ground, he just stared.
“Don’t change a thing” she said.
“What happened in Tithe?” he asked, his anger had vanished.
“Old man Joe flicked the switch” she said. “It was way past their time anyway”.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“You’re asking the wrong questions” she said, “you should be more worried about who you are” she smiled. “You’ll find out soon enough, just don’t reveal the secret the forest keeps”.
“I don’t know what secrets the forest keeps” he whispered.
She smiled, started her motorcycle and sped off into the wrong direction.
He looked after her for a long time, wondering what was beyond the hill she had vanished behind. He had no idea he realized. He had never been beyond the Shopping Mall. He had never ventured outside of the area that had been deemed “clean” by his elders.
He took one step towards the hill and stopped. He couldn’t go there, it was forbidden territory. He looked back over the forest, there weren’t many trees left alive. The landscape was filled with barren, black barked trees that would never spring to life again. Only a few, like the cherry tree, were left alive. He looked over towards Tithe. He could still smell the fire, the fire that had come alive and burned so strangely, not taking the flammable trees and grass around the cottages.
He turned towards were he knew his cottage lay. It wasn’t visible from where he stood, of course, but he knew the direction and he knew that it was waiting for him, just as he had left it.
His bag was light, empty except for the can of Coke he had. This fact made the decision for him.
He turned back to the hill and started walking. He didn’t think about it, just turned his face to the ground and walked up the hill.
He didn’t look. He was terrified of what he would see, and he had no idea which of the images that flew through his mind was worst.
He walked until he felt he was on top of the hill. Then he forced himself to look.
What he saw hadn’t been one of the images in his head. What he saw was the forest. It was the same forest, and it wasn’t. It was the same forest, he recognised the trees and Tithes cottages. But there were leaves on the trees.
And in the distance he heard laughter of children playing.
He looked over his shoulder and stared at his own forest. The ruined trees, the empty scorched village and the loneliness.
He lingered. His gaze going back and forth. He knew that one more step would decide it for him, but he couldn’t take it.
Laughter, men in a small field beside the forest working, strong, young men doing honest work. Women carrying small children, doing laundry, baking caraway seed breads.
He sighed and turned away. He took in a deep breath and looked up to the sky.
It was clear and bright. The sun was shining down on him. He felt the warm rays hit his skin and he smiled.
Then he turned and walked back to his cottage. The forest was still dying, the quietness almost deafening, but it was his comfort, at least for another day.
When he came home he climbed the creaking steps and opened the door. He made himself a cup of tea and searched for bread recipes in his book old Kristy had given him. He found the one for the bread he used to eat and put the open book on the kitchen counter. Then he sat himself in the living room chair, stared out the porch window for a while and wondered.
The knowledge crept up on him as he dozed. He was the keeper of the forest now. He was the keeper of its secret. It’s time would come again, all he had to do was wait.
He was the keeper of the ever after. All he had to do was wait and there would be laughter again.
There would be birds again.