The Wooden Bird

A thick line of flotsam hugged the shore by the time the old man finished scraping the underside of his skiff. There were the usual things—scrapes of wool and linen, the half-rotted leather thong of a sandal, a sliver of vellum with smudged writing—but it was a wooden bird with chipped black wings that made the man toss aside his grimy brush. His fingers grazed the frozen shore as he picked up the toy. Accustomed as he was to the chill that perpetuated the river, he shivered and looked longingly toward the opposite shore where the milky morning sun had already softened the cracked earth and melted the ice that formed in the shallows.

Memories were etched in the carved grooves of the bird’s beak, in the tail feathers that spanned half the width of his palm.

A hot summer sun heating the sand until it burned his naked feet. Sailors tossing their nets into the calm midday waters. Squinting at the surf where a curly head of golden hair bobbed above the surface of the water. A hand rose about the surface beckoning him. But he could not swim like the golden-haired boy; he feared the waves would pull him under, that the salt water would fill his nostrils, and burn his eyes. He feared the last thing that he would see would be the gulls circling overhead, waiting for his head to fall beneath the surface. Would the golden-haired boy rescue him? Or would he wonder why someone who had lived near the water all their life couldn’t swim? In his pessimism, he assumed the latter, saw his inability to pump his arms, to flick his legs, to sail through the water and waves like the fish they ate almost every night, grilled over the flames, as a failing, perhaps a judgment on his character. The golden-haired boy must see it too, or he would have swum back to shore and guided him into the azure waters.

The old man shook his head and dropped the bird into the pocket of the leather pouch tied around his waist. It was no good to dwell on the past when the mists were swirling on the opposite shore, threatening to coalesce despite the brightening sun. As if it were featherweight, the old man flipped the skiff and it landed with a heavy plunk in the river. He stepped in, barely making a wobble, a fact that would cause consternation elsewhere, but here on the river, no one noticed. He untangled his oars from the reeds that grew fat in the silty soil and beat them against the stern. Flecks of mud dotted the skiff and his robe, but it didn’t matter, most barely noticed him as he rowed them back to his side of the river.

Moaning from the other bank disrupted his reverie. The cacophony rose in volume until the old man noticed his heart pounding in his chest. It had been so since he began rowing people across the river. He should be accustomed to their agony by now, but he wasn’t. Their cries still made him pump his arms, hurrying the skiff across the river as if he was an errant child afraid of punishment. Perhaps he hoped that delivering more to his side of the river would quell the sighs and moans that traveled on the rippling waves. If so, it was a foolish hope. The opposite bank filled up as soon as he emptied it.

He shook his head as if he could dislodge these thoughts and rowed across the river. The current was languid today. On some days it was swift, on others treacherous; he had never figured out its rhythm, its idiosyncrasies. The opposite shore came into view just as the sun crested a nearby hill. Slowly, the mists coalesced into discernable shapes. A pair of legs, the hem of a tunic flapping in the breeze, a loosened hair ribbon. He began counting the shapes but stopped when he spotted a head of curly hair. The top of the old man’s head tingled and his face flushed. It couldn’t be.

When he got to the shore, the old man beckoned the curly-haired one to enter the skiff. The others cried out. “I’ve been waiting longer than him,” one said. “It is my time, take me,” another wailed. The old man ignored them as he helped the curly-haired man into the skiff. He looked closely at his face and realized how much the distance from the shore and the swirling mists had concealed the passage of time. The smooth skin he had loved to brush with the back of his fingers was deeply lined and dotted with age spots. The hair, once so soft even after drying in the sun, full of sea salt, was wiry and gray. The curls remained, but time had robbed them of their luxurious shine. Their appeal was gone. They were harsh like iron and stone mixed together.

The oar was lax in the old man’s hands. He stared at the once golden-haired boy, now as old as he was himself, waiting for a sign of recognition, proof that those days lying on the hot sand as the sun turned their bodies brown weren’t a product of his imagination. But the curly-haired man just stared at him, waiting to be rowed across the river. The old man’s heart clenched, but he picked up his oars and started rowing.

His pace was slower than normal. The sluggish current tugged the oars from his hands; he barely maintained his grip. The river and its pearly gray sheen, the log on his side of the river where he cleaned and mended the skiff, its surface covered with his tools, flicker in and out of his vision. Even the visage of the curly-haired man couldn’t stop him from revisiting the day he’d tried so long to forget.

He rubbed the hairs above his lips and the ones on his chin, sitting on the dock as the tide came in. They were always comparing their new growth, each convinced his was more prolific, his manhood more advanced than the other. Damian always complained about the lightness of his hair, convinced that this was why the hair on his face appeared less dense. He once stole the charcoal his mother used to darken her eyes and drew little lines all over Damian’s face. Damian declared himself swarthy and they’d marched up and down the agora, begging a sip off the wine merchants, trying to convince them they were men grown. The merchants beat their darting hands with sticks, and they raced to the shore waving their bloody knuckles in the air, laughing and stumbling as if they did have bellies full of wine.

Damian was late today. The boats had started to come in. Their nets were full, almost bursting with wiggling fish whose metallic scales flashed in the sun and made his eyes hurt. At first, he was worried that something had happened to Damian. Then, as the last vessel docked, he became angry. How dare Damian be late when it was his idea to meet? He had sounded so urgent this morning.

Now the sun was setting and the wind coming off the waves made him shiver. He turned from the docks toward the agora, thinking of all the ways he’d punish Damian tomorrow when he saw Damian weaving in and out of the fishermen hauling their catch to the marketplace. When Damian made it to the docks he was out of breath and kept whipping his forehead on the hem of his tunic. He watched Damian in silence, determined not to be the first to speak.

“I’m sorry,” Damian said between breaths. “Didn’t mean to make you wait, but I have good news! I’m to be married!”

He felt like he was watching Damian from an expanding distance. Damian’s curls, his sweaty tunic, and his bright smile grew dim, the details obscured. His head felt light, and he grabbed the nearest railing to steady himself. When Damian reached out to take his hand, he yanked it away.

Damian stepped back. “I thought you would be happy for me.”

“You promised. You said only you and I…”

“We were children! Do you expect me to defy my parents? To run away with you to the mountains and live off rabbits and berries for the rest of our lives?”

He wanted to answer that he would, that he would do anything if it meant they would be together.

“Gia comes from a good family. Her uncle is powerful. He’s promised to help me get elected when—”

“Since when do you care about politics?”

“I always have, Theo! If you spent less time playing with my curls and running your hands across my back and face, you might have noticed. How many times have I told you about how I want to help the city? That I want to be elected so I can build better fortifications, schools, and houses for the poor.”

Theo looked down at his feet. He had assumed these were just daydreams, fantasies whispered, but not in earnest.  

Damian fidgeted with something in his hand. He thrust the thing into Theo’s hands. It was a bird carved from driftwood. Its wings were painted black; the little beak was as yellow as spring flowers.

“I started it that day on the beach when you were wading in the water, too scared to swim.”

Theo remembered Damian sitting in the sand staring down at something in his lap. He had been angry that Damian wouldn’t join him in the shallows.

Now in the darkening twilight, Theo traced the grooves in the bird’s wings, the smooth contours of his head. He was so enthralled by the curve of the bird’s belly, by the weight of it in his hands, he didn’t notice when Damian left.

He heard months later that Damian and Gia had married, and that they were expecting a baby in the spring. He never saw Damian again, face to face. When, amidst the crowds that jostled each other to hear the famous politician speak, Theo caught glimpses of his curls, of his hands as they gestured toward the people.

The old man had stopped rowing. He hadn’t noticed the boat drift downstream, pulled gently from his typical course. Damian reached out for the oars, and his hands brushed the old man’s hand for the briefest moment. The old man jerked away, causing the skiff to rock so violently from side to side, that water trickled into the hull, pooling around their feet. Something bobbed in the water and when Damian reached down to retrieve the object, the old man realized his leather pouch was empty.

Realization spread across Damian’s face as he beheld the bird. “Theo,” he whispered. He took the old man’s hand in his own and traced the wrinkles with his fingers. He rubbed the calluses, hardened from years of rowing.

The old man did not return his grasp, though neither did he take his hand away. Damian’s hands were soft, the flesh malleable, exactly as he expected. Damian had never toiled as he had. The only sweat that ever dampened his brow was due to overcrowded assembly rooms. His pale hands were the first soft thing the old man had touched in so long. He could have stayed like that forever, just sitting across from Damian in the skiff. But the current was strengthening. The old man could barely make out the log on the shore, the tools spread across its surface were invisible. He drew his hands back and began to row.

Damian opened his mouth to speak several times, but nothing ever came out. The old man could feel his gaze, could sense Damian imploring him to break the silence. But the old man had nothing to say that he hadn’t already said a hundred times to Damian in his mind over the years. Besides, nothing he could say would make a difference. He couldn’t turn back the years to those sun-drenched days on the shore. Damian’s future lay on the approaching shore, past the log and the old man’s tools. Damian would follow the well-worn path until he disappeared. Where Damian went, the old man could not follow.

They reached the shore. Before he left the skiff, Damian dropped the bird into the old man’s hand. “Keep it,” he said when the old man tried to give it back. “I made it for you.”


Jordan Dilley lives and writes in Washington. She has an MA in literature from the University of Utah. Her work has appeared in the Vassar Review, Heavy Feather Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Barnstorm Journal as well as other publications. Her 2022 short fiction piece “Lani in the River” was nominated by JMWW for a Pushcart Prize.