Forgive me – this is my last bird story! Next week will be a completely different subject and feel. It is just that this one belongs to the series. I hope that you enjoy it. I invite input – should I omit the last two sentences?
I met her on the stairs. Or, more accurately, I found her on the stairs. I was descending the architectural school stairs on my way home to crash after my final forty-eight hour design session and presentation in the fifth year architecture studio. I hadn’t slept, washed or shaved in three days and, although hungry and tired I needed the exercise to work my muscles atrophied from spending so long in one place. The stairwell, with its bare white walls, cold concrete and dim grey light, seemed to sap my mind and so I vaulted the treads, counting the steps aimlessly, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, jump. As usual I jumped the last three, hitting the landing with a thud of my loafers and then swung around with my hand on the frigid galvanized handrail to start the next flight, one, two, three…. She looked diminutive perched on the bottom step at the intermediate landing between levels four and three. Her arms clasped tightly around her knees, and her black leather gloves with her long fingers silhouetted strangely against her coat.
“Are you OK?” I asked. She looked at me with languid brown eyes and nodded. I watched her intently as her head, with its tight fitting skull cap, bobbed back and forth, saying the exact opposite from her eyes. I thought that she might be a dejected first or second year architecture student and so I said, “You’re not OK are you? Did you have a bad design review critique?” She still stared, wordless, so I sat on the tread beside her and waited. As I sat I could feel the warmth being sucked out of me, through my jeans into the cold concrete of the tread. I mused that the steps were like the last five years of architecture school sucking more out of me than I thought that I had to give. I wondered if she felt equally trapped and lonely.
After a few moments she turned and said, “It’s a bird. There’s a bird caught in the stairwell. It’ll die here. I can’t get it out.” Her high-pitched voice almost sang to me, sweet, and anxious with a slight staccato. It made my heart flutter.
I made my voice as reassuring as I could and gently touched her soft brown coat with my warm hand, “I’ll help you. What have you tried?”
“It got in when I came in through the roof hatch after a rooftop weathering experiment. I can’t prop the hatch open and it won’t fly out past me.”
“We could open the bottom door.”
“I’ve tried but it is also hard to prop open, and the bird doesn’t seem to want to use it.”
At that moment the bright rays of the setting sun came glinting through a small window over the landing. The light made surreal orange patterns on the bare concrete of the treads and risers. I indicated the window with my hand, “What about this window?”
“Yes, yes, that’s what I thought. The bird has flown at it a couple of times. Each time it stunned itself. But the catch is too heavy. I can’t open it.”
“But I could,” I said.
Almost as though it heard us the bird flew through the center of the stairwell, its brown form silhouetted against the white walls, and I saw a flash of red on its underbelly. It must have seen the setting sun. It flew into the window with a thud which resonated in the stairwell and then it fell with a lighter rustle on the window sill. My companion flinched as though she had been hit, then she put her thin hand on my arm, “Don’t touch it. They don’t like the smell of humans. If we wait it will probably recover.”
We sat in silence and then I said “Since we are working together, I’m Martin.” I extended a hand.
“Robin,” she said as we shook. She withdrew her hand quickly and reassumed her perched huddled pose. While we waited I thought about the sunlit world beyond the dreary walls of the architecture building. I mused about the freedom that I hoped to find now that I was about to graduate and I wondered if I had met her so that I could spare her some of the pain. Soon the bird moved and as it did she seemed to relax. It flew into the darkness above us. I reached and unlatched the heavy brass window catch and pushed the sash open. Soothing, invigorating, spring air came in, carrying the refreshing smell of cherry blossom into the stairs. “I think that we should move away,” I said. “Let’s go to the next landing.”
She nodded and we walked to our new vantage point. This stained and dirty landing smelled of ammonia, so we didn’t sit but stood with our backs against the third-floor door, leaning on the “No Entry” sign. I noticed that she had long legs in tan tights ending in tall brown, no-heel, leather boots. She stuck them out in front of her. As we waited I thought about the trapped bird and how good the freedom beyond this building was and wondered if a woman, like Robin, might be able to help me to find it. Or perhaps, I thought, we could find it together. I tried to come up with the right thing to say to her but the bird pre-empted me when it dived into view and took another swoop at the window and out to freedom. Robin turned to me, her face, ecstatic as she spoke, “Thank you, Martin, thank you. You saved our lives.”
Then she reached and pecked me on the cheek. It warmed me with a wave of pleasure as I wondered if this could be a kiss. She turned and ran smoothly, effortlessly, towards the bottom. Her arms stretched joyfully out from her body and her coat flowed behind her like wings. As she turned at the first landing I caught a glimpse of her red sweater, then she passed out of sight. I went back and quickly closed the window and took to the flights of stairs, fast, faster, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, jump, until I reached the bottom.
The door closer had just brought the exit door to a close so I pushed on the panic release bar and re-opened it. I wanted to see her again. I wanted to be free. I wanted to ask her out to dinner. “Robin, Robin,” I shouted. My voice, sucked into the emptiness, echoed off the buildings opposite, and sent some birds on a nearby cherry tree branch into the air. One swooped towards me and came so close that I could see its red breast. It circled and flew away. I looked in all directions across the wind-swept square. Although less than a minute behind her, I saw no-one. Robin had disappeared.