I could never say how many times I heard Nina tell this story. Many years ago, when I was a little boy, my brothers and I used to spend the holidays at her house. By the way, she was our Grandma. When it was time to sleep, there she would come.
She’d put us to bed and dim the lights. Then she’d tell us the whole tale as if it was the first time.
All of us – maybe for respect, pity or a mixture of both as Nina was very old – listened to it attentively, as if we’d never heard a word of it.
Maybe that’s why I still remember every single word. Nina’s voice trembling as she spoke, while her eyes shone at the infinite.
Catherine could hardly believe it. The bird had appeared out of nowhere. A Belgian canary. Just like the one she’d seen in a picture book. Its yellow chest puffed, the wings with tiny white spots. And it was standing on the window sill unaware of any danger.
The girl moved slowly, on tiptoe, trying to make no noise. She wanted to get closer to the bird. Luckily, she was in her socks. The canary sang, oblivious to her presence, a strong and melodious whistling, as if blowing joy. She slipped behind the chair, crouching. Finally, she stopped.
What a beautiful bird …
The canary sang again, finishing with a baritone warbling, the peak of its performance. Catherine felt like giggling. She wanted to call someone – anyone – but she couldn’t move. She didn’t want to frighten the small bird. Without thinking, she jumped toward the little singer, trying to grab it. But it was faster. The canary soared and dived toward the woods, down the street, leaving the girl empty handed.
Catherine shook her head, annoyed. She didn’t want to waste any minute. She put on her shoes and ran downstairs, pounding the wooden steps. She lived in a big house, but took no longer than a few seconds to reach the dirt road in front of it. Even though, she heard the housekeeper shouting:
— Catherine, where you goin’? Lunch is almost ready! It’s chicken!
Where you goin’… Why does everyone always want to know where I’m off to? Why do I have to tell them all my whereabouts?
She couldn’t stand so many orders any longer. She wasn’t a child anymore.
And moreover, she hated chicken.
Anyway, why couldn’t she just go and be free? Her life was really boring. She lived in that huge, empty house, where loneliness afflicted her all the time. And to make things worse, her parents didn’t care about her lack of friends.
Actually, she was envious of the birds.
I wish I could be like them.
She went down the dirt road, which was full of puddles, dodging off branches and stones. She wasn’t supposed to get dirty. Surely, she would be preached if she did. I don’t care. She’d go into the woods down the road, as always. It was her favorite place. Finding the Belgian canary was all that mattered, in the end.
When Catherine arrived at the track that crept between the trees, she stopped for a second.
She remembered the first time she had been there. On that occasion, she felt a little frightened because of all that green wilderness. The dense forest and pine trees seemed to launch frowns in her direction, like sentinels in a bad mood. At that time, as well as today, it was hard for the sunshine to penetrate the canopy. The forest was definitely a gloomy place. But Catherine quickly learned to like that place and eventually found the courage to discover it entirely. It was, in the end, a place of her own, where solitude was her perfect mate.
As soon as she entered the forest, she started to whistle, trying to imitate the sounds of that yellow bird. However, there was no response. All she could hear was the wind shaking the leaves and branches of pine trees. The girl walked on watching, aware of every sound. But there was no sign of that canary. Suddenly, she reached a glade, after a small slope. She sat on a rock and waited. Her brown hair, usually pony-tailed, was released. She looked at her clothes and giggled. She wore her nicest dress, embroidered with butterflies, by no means appropriate to enter that kind of environment. And it had never been dirtier.
She raised her head and the sun hit her face. Instinctively, she protected her eyes, taking her hands to the forehead. There was no sign of any bird whatsoever. Anyway, she whistled again.
— What’s that whistle for? — Someone asked from the back.
Catherine turned, startled, and saw a boy about her age approaching.
— It’s nothing, I … Well, it’s just an old song, you know — the girl said, slightly embarrassed, trying to disguise her surprise. She had never seen anyone there in the woods. Her woods.
The boy came closer. He wore a white shirt and gray shorts with suspenders, where he placed his fingers. His eyes were black as coal drops. He had a snub nose and his hair was yellow as corn husk.
— Who are you? — She asked, trying to put herself in the lead of the conversation. She didn’t like to be on the defensive side of it. And, after all, she felt as if her territory had been invaded.
— My name’s Phillip. What’s yours?
— I’m Catherine — she replied, lowering her eyes experiencing an unexpected shyness.
— Where do you live? — He asked, sitting on a rock beside her.
— Up there — she pointed with her chin — It is not difficult to find. It is the only house in that direction. How about you?
She returned the question while standing up, a little uncomfortable with that situation.
— Oh, I also live nearby, but on the other side of the woods — said the boy pointing with his chin too to the other direction.
— How long have you been living around here? — the girl asked, crossing her arms, assuming the same pose as the governess used to do, back at her house, whenever she was late for dinner.
— Well, a couple of weeks — the boy said, turning to her.
Catherine watched him for a second. Actually, she was ready to send him away from there. How dare him? Approaching her like that, out of blue, without even asking. That place, the entire forest, belonged to her and no one else. Who this boy was thinking he was? He should go home at once!
But before she could say anything, something scratched the air.
It was the Belgian canary.
Yes, it was it. It crossed the space so close to her head and the boy’s, that they could hear its wings.
Catherine immediately forgot the role she was representing. Actually, she forgot all about the boy. Her eyes were fixed on that bird.
Surprisingly, the canary circled the air and landed on the ground, right in front of the boy.
Catherine made a move to get closer, but her feet made some noise. The bird looked at her and hung its head sideways, as if questioning what that fuss was about. The girl froze, afraid that the bird would fly away again. Luckily, the canary stood there. It bounced around the boy for a few seconds and started scratching the earth, as if looking for something.
Phillip looked at the girl, his face shining with amazement. Suddenly, he made a sign with his hand for her to stay where she was. His eyes asked for silence. He bent down slowly until his knees touched the earth. He bit his lips and reached out toward the bird, so slowly that it seemed that the entire spring would pass by.
Catherine watched, hardly able to breathe. He’ll grab it. He’ll grab it. Please, don’t hurt it.
Then, the most incredible thing happened: the canary climbed in the boy’s hand. Just like that, with a short leap, as if the boy’s finger was a branch or a twig. Phillip smiled awkwardly and looked at Catherine. The girl didn’t know what to do. She wanted to laugh but she was afraid to frighten the bird. Actually, what she wanted, more than anything, was the bird jumping over to her hand.
Noticing the girl exasperation, Phillip made a sign for her to come closer. She should move very slowly, as fast as a lame turtle. She did so. Raising her hand as if it weighted as much as an entire elephant, Catherine carefully put her forefinger next to the boy’s hand. The bird was still there, watching her with a questioning expression. Then it whistle, that powerful and beautiful sound she loved, and so, without the slightest warning, with a new jump, settled itself in the girl’s fingers.
Catherine could feel the grip, the feet of the canary pricking her hand. She looked at it and then to Phillip. She couldn’t help a giggle, as it was impossible to contain so much happiness. That was enough to make the canary take off and fly towards the trees.
It had been three months now. Soon, Catherine would be back to school. A College for Young Women, according to her father. Regardless of this, the girl went every day to the woods. Phillip was always there. Together, they talked about thousands of subjects, specially about birds. Sometimes they were lucky enough to see one or two of the most colorful, but they never happened to see that brave Belgian canary again.
— Do you want to come to my house and have lunch? — Catherine asked. It was, perhaps, the tenth time she did so. — Our cooker is very good, you know. We’ll have a delicious chicken.
— Oh, I don’t know … — The boy said. — My dad said that I shouldn’t and …
— You always say that, Phillip — she interrupted. — That you can’t go to my house, that if your father finds out that you did so you can no longer talk to me.
The boy raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
— Why do you never come? Adults forget everything, don’t you know? I bet your father doesn’t remember telling you not go to my place…
— You don’t understand, Catherine. My father never forgets. He remembers everything. If he finds out that I disobeyed him, he’ll forbid me to come here and play with you. And I don’t want it to happen.
— I know, I know. You repeat this excuse all the time. What’s wrong about disobeying some stupid order, anyway? It shouldn’t cause any harm, should it? And I bet he’d never know that we went there and had some chicken.
— You don’t…
— Why is it always me? Every time I’m supposed to come down this dirty road and meet you. Every time it’s me who gets messy. It’s me who always hear comments like “Catherine is always dirty”, or “Have you seen her shoes? Horrible.” And you, well, you’re always here, happy, clean and coquettish. You’ve got no problem with your parents, except for this stupid order that forbids you to go to my house. But the worst part is that you never intended to do any sacrifice for me. No one at all.
Phillip remained quiet, sitting on his stone, staring at the grass. Catherine felt a twinge of guilt for what she had just said. She might have been a little hard on him. But, anyway, what was the big matter about leaving the woods and going to her house? It was so close. Only five minutes and they would be there.
The truth was that Phillip was a nice friend. Unfortunately, he was a coward too. At least that’s what she was thinking at that moment. The boy was simply incapable of disobeying a ridiculous order. Catherine, on the other hand, was tired of countering her parents, the housekeeper, her teachers, and whoever came in front of her to do what she wanted. Actually, being there in the woods was a contempt, since she had heard a million times that she shouldn’t go back to that place, for she always came home with her trousers and shoes covered with mud.
— Hear something, Phillip. — she said, breaking the awkward silence. — You know where I live. I mean, you know how to get there. If you want to see me, all you gotta do is show up at the gate and call me. Until then, I won’t come here anymore.
Having said that, Catherine started to walk towards her house. She didn’t say good-bye or even look back.
— Don’t go, please — the boy asked.
Catherine almost stopped, but kept on walking. She was feeling a mixture of anger and frustration. Maybe she liked Phillip.
No, I don’t.
She had made up her mind. Not even if a bird spoke she would turn back. That was it. If the boy wanted to see her, it’d be him who should come after her. At her house. End of story.
She continued to walk, but still heard Phillip say “You’re my best friend.”
Weeks have passed and Catherine remained faithful to her promise. She was very stubborn.
To make things worse, she had been feeling strange for some days now. It was as if a ball of fire had been consuming her form inside. She was feeling irritated for no particular reason. Actually, she’d never felt in such a bad mood in her entire existence. Mom had said it was part of every girl’s life in her way to become a woman, but Catherine didn’t quite understand it.
Maybe the reason for her resentment was that she was missing Phillip. No, she said to herself. She missed te woods. Only the woods. And the birds, of course. There was nothing to do with that boy. And, after all, she had made herself a promise. She wouldn’t break it just because of some fool yearning even if it existed.
However, whenever she went to sleep, she recalled Phillip. Those pitch black eyes of his and that funny nose. Definitely, she couldn’t lie to herself. She missed him too. A lot. He was her best friend. Her only friend.
One night, a huge rain punished the place where Catherine lived. Huddled in his room, already in bed, she could not sleep. She pulled the blanket up to his ears, as if it could protect her from the fury of the thunders. Lightning came from time to time lighting up her dolls and toys on the shelves. It had been a while since she last played with them. She remembered Phillip once again. Would he be afraid of the storm as well?
Dawn was about to come at any moment. Catherine had been half asleep most of the night, and because of that, she had no idea what time it was. Anyway, she realized the rain had stopped. Or almost. There was a persevering drizzle pattering on the roof. Unable to sleep, Catherine got up and peeked through the window.
There was something strange out there. Although it was still dark, it seemed that there was a kind of glow coming from the street. Catherine felt immediately she needed to check it out. She walked to the door of the balcony and turned the handle slowly, trying to make no noise. She didn’t want anybody to wake up. She felt she was about to uncover a secret. A secret of her own. The door creaked and complained a little, but the girl just needed a small space to move. From the top of the balcony, finally, she saw. The street in front of her house, normally covered with mud, was shining as if it had been paved with brilliant gems.
Catherine rubbed her eyes. She couldn’t believe. Probably she was sleeping. She looked again. It was so true. Tiles were lining on the street, glistening even more because of the accumulated water, reflecting the stars that were emerging from behind the clouds.
Catherine’s amazement, however, immediately gave rise to a sense of urgency, the kind that burns from inside. It was as if someone had given her a slap in the face, waking her up. Without knowing why, she realized she needed to go there. Into the woods. She couldn’t wait. It had to be now. There was no time to lose.
She opened the wardrobe and put on a heavy coat over her pajamas hiding the drawings of chrysanthemums on it. She grabbed a pair of shoes and went downstairs. She didn’t want to make any noise, so she held the shoes in her hands. She opened the front door as silently as possible and felt cold air of the early morning hit her face. With her shoes on, she finally walked toward the gate quickly and opened it.
It was the most beautiful street she had ever seen. Her street, covered with bright tiles. She ran a hand through her hair as if this gesture could make this scenery easier to believe in. My God. Then she remembered what she had to do.
Catherine ran as fast as she could. The cold air burned her lungs, but the sense of urgency — as if she knew something was about to happen to him — was even greater. She felt the first tears arise the minute she got to the entrance of the trail in the forest. At that moment, dawn was imminent. She pushed away the dry branches and went into walked on into the woods. The rush scrambled her senses. She had had been a thousand times among those trees, but now everything looked different.
Gave off a vapor is abundant on all sides, giving the place a feel even colder. Alternating Curves, branches and roots made her stumble. There was still some fireflies dancing among the leaves.
My God, where is the glade?
Anyway, after some time – no one could tell how much — Catherine reached the spot he sought. There was her favorite rock. That one she used to sit to watch the birds. And there was Phillip’s stone too. But the whole place was empty of life.
Slowly, Catherine walked to the center of the glade. She sat down, sinking her hands in the pockets of her coat. Her pants were all dirty because of the mud.
She had her eyes lost in the blurry images of the ground, as it gained the first colors of the morning. The tears continued to roll down, making lines on her face dirty. With the back of the hands, she wiped her eyes.
– Phillip! – She called, finally releasing all her anguish.
Somewhere a bird sang. But Catherine did not budge.
– Phillip! – She repeated, sobbing. – Don’t go away!
She wept profusely now, without any shame. Nobody was watching her, anyway. And that was the saddest part: no one would answer her call either. Ever.
– I’m sorry … – she said. – I didn’t want to offend you.
Some time passed and a light rain started to fall. It was bit strange because there was no clouds in the sky.
– Come back, please – she murmured at last, her voice dying. She felt as if her heart had been stolen.
Phillip was there. Beside her. But Catherine couldn’t see him.
The boy had wings now. His father had called him home.
With a sad face, Phillip stared at her.
– I’ll miss you too – he whispered in her ear, even though she would never listen.
He also he had his heart stolen.
Whenever Nina told us this short story, she ended with tears in her eyes or, at least, a tinge of sadness in her voice. Then she would look at us for a second and a faint smile would appear on her wrinkled face. An awkward smile. Finally, she would say god night and turn off the lights.
But every time – and it never failed – as she left our bedroom, she would start singing the first verses of an ancient lullaby for children, her voice disappearing in the solitude of the night.
“If this street, if this street was mine…”
Translated from the Portuguese Version by the author.