“Bird in a Cage”
by Leena Likitalo
“You sent for me,” Escamillo said, beaming with the natural charm that always helped him out of the various kinds of troubles he managed to get himself into. Though, this time he wasn’t that sure what he’d done.
“I did? Oh yes,” Professor Alehandro said, stirring behind his table. He studied Escamillo for a moment, the glass beads tied to his dreadlocks glinting more brightly than his eyes in the light of the parrot-shaped copper lamps. “We both know you’re going to fail this class.”
“Professor Alehandro,” Escamillo said, forcing a chuckle. “But surely not!”
“You just don’t know how to pull yourself together.” Alehandro tugged at the silver charms attached to the glass beads. Once his dreadlocks had been the same blond as Escamillo’s fashionably cut hair. Now they were greying from the roots.
“I promise to try harder,” Escamillo said. He wasn’t lying as such, merely giving his word to try. It couldn’t be his fault if the call of adventure would prove again louder than that of duty and responsibility.
“I bet you do,” the professor laughed. “You always do, but if we take into consideration your success rate in keeping your word during the past two years or so, I think my prediction will prove right.”
“I…” Escamillo mumbled. That, he hadn’t expected. Usually people believed or at least wanted to believe in him.
“I’m merely mentioning this,” Professor Alehandro said, “because I’m dying.”
Escamillo lowered his eyes, confused about how to respond. The topic had suddenly changed from his apparent failures to a subject much graver.
Professor Alehandro poured two glasses of amber liquid from the crystal decanter on the table and offered one to Escamillo. “Sit. Sip.”
Dumbfounded, Escamillo obeyed. What was he supposed to say to a dying man and how did that relate to him failing the class?
“Have you ever thought that perhaps you weren’t meant to become a lawyer?” Professor Alehandro asked, his voice kind as a breeze from the southern sea.
“My father is a lawyer,” Escamillo said as if that explained all. “It’s my family’s wish. It’s what I want,” he hurried to add ,for his father would disown him if he didn’t graduate.
“Really?” Professor Alehandro tilted his head. The pieces of glass in his hair chimed against woven-in silver clamshells and sea-stars.
“Yes, really,” Escamillo said. Well, maybe he didn’t want to be a lawyer, but admitting that was a sure-fire way of getting kicked out of the university. “It’s always been a dream of mine.” More like a nightmare in his worst moments, and at better times a distant dream he could never make himself work hard enough for.
“Immaterial things, such as dreams and aspirations, tend to evaporate with time.” Professor Alehandro cut the air with his hand to prevent Escamillo from interrupting. “No, what I see before me is a bird in a cage. One that is tempted by freedom but afraid to leave the safety of its cage even if someone were to unlock the door.”
“I am not!” Escamillo gulped the glass empty in one go. It didn’t burn his throat pleasantly – it wasn’t liquor at all, but some strange herbal extract instead. Curse the professor and his outlandish preferences of drink!
Escamillo sizzled with anger, even as Dr. Alehandro slowly sipped his drink. He’d had his share of adventures, and the professor’s condescending attitude annoyed him hugely. Not everyone could leave the university to learn to ride the waves with the Iguassus like a certain professor had done when he’d been a student.
“I’m heading back to Haco and I would love someone to keep me company while I wait for my body to fail me,” Professor Alehandro said. He fixed his eyes on Escamillo, the two grey piercing diamonds recovering some of the shine that had lately so dulled. “Such a person might find a degree awaiting him upon his return.”
There was a cage in the corner of the balcony. Inside, a green bird–a parrot as far as Escamillo could tell–sat on a perch. Left in the apartment by the previous owner, the bird seemed pleased to have company again.
“Watch,” Professor Alehandro said: an old man tired by the three-month journey through forests, deserts, and sea, but still excited.
Escamillo hurried to the balcony, to Alehandro’s side.
The Haco Bay opened before them in all its magnificence, stealing Escamillo’s breath away with its vibrant colors. Turquoise waves rolled in, roaring as they kissed the black volcanic sand, whispering white foamy sprays. The sun set slowly, sighing scarlet, vermillion and yellow streaks of clouds. On their way to Haco, they’d seen countless bays separated by rocky capes overgrown with lush vegetation. Of all the bays, Haco was the most beautiful one, almost magically so.
But it wasn’t the scenery that had Alehandro grinning like a fool. In the sea, surfers were riding the waves on their gem boards. They were only small shapes amongst the restless surface, mirroring the shades of the sky, but their boards glimmered like sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds under the all-seeing eye of the holy sun.
“They are so skilled,” Escamillo said, unable to tear his gaze away from the enchanting sight. Sure, Professor Alehandro had told stories about the surfers . . . but it was a whole different thing to see the action live. And Escamillo knew fun when he saw it.
Dr. Alehandro shrugged. Escamillo waited for the trinkets of his dreadlocks to chime a jolly tune fitting to the place’s atmosphere. No chime came, for he’d had to remove the trinkets, least the ailing professor’s brittle locks snap like dry twigs.
“Nothing so difficult one couldn’t learn, given some time and effort,” Alehandro said, fainter and frailer without the charms.The parrot in the corner croaked once.
Escamillo sweated but refused to open more shirt buttons, least the locals wouldn’t see that his shirt was cut to the latest fashion. He, unlike Professor Alehandro, had a difficult time getting used to the higher temperature that prevailed in Haco. Though the journey had greatly fatigued the professor, he older man pranced his way down the beach, and it was Escamillo who was short of breath. For all of Alehandro’s apparent ease, he could have been one of the locals, marking all the tales told about his wild past true.
“Come, come,” Alehandro called, nodding cheerful greetings to the sellers on the market stalls. The men wore only knee-length trousers, leaving their upper bodies bare. The women… Escamillo stared in open admiration and appreciation at all the lovely arms and legs in willing display. The girls back home covered every inch of their body with embroidered scarves and one was lucky indeed to lure them into flashing an ankle or elbow. Here the girls displayed their virtues boldly, wearing only short skirts and shirts that left their bellies uncovered. Additionally, their hips swayed as though they were dancing as they strolled the road curving alongside the beach.
“Oh, it’s still here,” Alehandro said, veering to right towards a market stall filled with cages. A loud ruckus erupted, one of croaks and whistles. “I always intended to visit this one.”
Tall palm and coconut trees threw lengthening shadows on the sandy slopes. Escamillo would have preferred to linger in the shade but hurried after Alehandro. When he reached the stall, the professor was already deeply immersed in a conversation with the bird seller, an older man who smiled broadly, beaming assurances that his products were the best available.
“My bird could use some company, don’t you think?” Alehandro mused, inspecting the brightly-colored cages and the birds inside. Escamillo saw flashes of green, violet, and scarlet, all the magical colors that shone back at the university only by their absence. He stared at the mighty, over-proportioned beaks and small beady eyes. Not one of the birds appeared sad despite their imprisonment.
“This one,” Alehandro said, pointing at a rainbow-striped parrot. “I remember it singing beautifully each time I returned home at sunset.” He glanced at Escamillo, continuing in a quieter voice. “It wouldn’t surprise me if these were the same birds I used to admire back then.”
The birds started singing, filling the stall with a happy, somehow harmonious tune. They seemed as content as the man selling them for his living. It was as though they, both the man and the birds, had no aspirations of becoming more or knowing of what lay behind their respective cages.
Shaking his head, Escamillo picked up the rattan cage. He couldn’t imagine such a life, not one spent in captivity nor one of insignificance, of lacking even dreams of becoming more. When he returned to the university, he would finish the degree, no matter how much hard work it required. But first he’d have some fun.
“To get a board, you will need to pay a price,” Alehandro said as they strolled down the beach. His shirt shimmered on the bony frame of his body as the pleasant breeze set the linen undulating.
Escamillo glanced at the rainbow parrot in the cage. No money had exchanged hands in the shop. “With what?”
“An experience or emotion,” Dr. Alehandro said. “But as with any other currency, once you give it away, it’s not yours to share anymore. You may faintly recall that you once felt something, but the specifics of that memory will be lost to you forever.”
Escamillo stopped in his tracks so suddenly that the cage swayed in his hands in a wide arch and the parrot voiced a loud complaint. Parting from something that rightfully belonged to him and only him didn’t sound that attractive.
“Ah.” Alehandro placed a palm on Escamillo’s shoulder. His skin felt cold and leathery, decaying. “It’s not like they’re going to suck your soul dry. I advise you to offer only what you don’t want to carry with you.”
“And the more I give, the more I get,” Escamillo said. He no longer felt wary, but strangely relaxed.
As they reached the rocks at the tip of the bay’s curve Professor Alehandro abandoned the track. “We’re almost there,” he said, his pace not slowing down at all, though he had to circle the driftwood littered on the sand.
Escamillo followed him. The sand ground annoyingly against the young man’s toes, but he pretended not to care about the inconvenience. The professor had abandoned his leather boots in favor of shoes that left his toes open. The sandals were horrid, but Escamillo saw their practicality. He might have a pair made for him later on.
Soon Escamillo’s suffering was rewarded as he caught the first glimpse of the fabled Iguassus. There were three of them, a green, red, and blue one and they were all lying on the rocky outcrop with their legs tangling in the water, their translucent bellies towards the sun, soaking themselves in its kisses.
The green Iguassu stood up and waved his hand in a happy greeting. Alehandro called out musical words in reply. The Iguassus scampered to their feet and came to embrace the old man. Escamillo stood by the professor’s side, envious of his ease, though he would never admit that.
“My friend, Escamillo, would like to have a board,” Alehandro said after the fuss had lessened to mere frolicking.
The green Iguassu tilted his head, his long turquoise dreadlocks dancing quite delightfully in the sea breeze. He offered his hand to Escamillo, inviting him to shake it.
“And now you offer him something,” the professor advised. “Start with something small to see how it feels.”
Escamillo shook the green Iguassu’s hand hesitantly. He thought of a thing he wouldn’t mind loosing and let it… go. The green Iguassu’s eyes brightened a little. He didn’t let go of Escamillo’s hand, but whistled a sad note.
“Ah, apparently that wasn’t enough.” Alehandro shrugged his bony shoulders. When he’d still worn a coat and vest, his frailness hadn’t been so evident. Now seeing him, what was left of the once vibrant adventurer, made Escamillo sad.
“What did you offer?” the professor asked, refusing to acknowledge pity.
Escamillo shifted his weight from one leg to another, ashamed. “The experience of drinking coffee with you this morning. I meant no insult. I just wanted to test how it feels to live without a memory of a specific event.”
The green Iguassu whistled a bright note. A flock of magenta parrots left the trees behind the rocks, flapping their wings in a quickening flutter. They swooped in the air, arching higher and higher. The parrot in the cage displayed no signs of envy or distress.
“None taken.” Alehandro’s words brought Escamillo back to the moment. “The Iguassus are willing to hear your real offer.”
Escamillo thought for a moment about what he could afford to lose. Then he grinned. He’d loathed himself immensely for failing in his studies. If strong emotions were what the Iguassus were after, that was something he could spare.
The creature’s eyes widened. A huge smile split his face and, as a new breeze from the sea threw his locks almost far enough to touch Escamillo’s face, the creature let go of his hand.
“What…” Escamillo mumbled. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea to offer the creature bad memories, whatever those had been about.
The green Iguassu took three running steps and dived in the water. The waves parted before him, the white foam closing behind. Though the blue water was clear, the creature had soon dived too deep for Escamillo to see even a trace of him.
“Now we wait,” Alehandro said, setting a palm on his student’s shoulder. “Bringing inanimate objects to life takes its own time.”
The blue and red Iguassu sat on the rocks, embarking upon a conversation of whistles and tongue clicks. Minutes passed, but they didn’t seem in the least bit concerned that their friend was still diving.
“How can he be underwater for this long?” Escamillo asked.
“They don’t understand the concepts of hurry and rush here,” Alehandro said as if that explained it all and turned to admire the scenery. To lessen his own nervousness Escamillo did likewise.
Pebbles carved twisting paths on the silky, smooth sand as the tide dragged them towards the sea. Tiny crabs hurried to their next hiding place amongst the coconuts and pieces of driftwood that were gigantic in their size compared to the small creatures. The shapes on the beach, whether animate or inanimate, became insignificant things between the clear bright sky and the immense ocean. Maybe it was the combination of those two that caused the people to forget their aspirations, to be content with less.
When Escamillo had concluded that he had to have offended the green Iguassu so badly that the creature wouldn’t return, the Iguassu’s head burst into the surface. Then a tip of something bright green emerged likewise, dripping water from its elliptical length – the board. The Iguassu slid on the board and started to paddle towards the outcrop, gliding effortlessly through the maze of breaking waves. As the Iguassu reached the rocks, he nimbly climbed up, whisking the board up from the water.
The board was a thing of beauty. Ten feet tall and broader than Escamillo’s shoulders, it glimmered in the sunlight like coated with emerald dust. As the green Iguassu handed the board over to Escamillo, the red and blue Iguassu gathered around him, admiring the inanimate object brought to life, but not with envy. The board was locked to Escamillo by a magical leash that couldn’t be broken.
The green parrot croaked once as Escamillo entered the balcony, bare-chested, for the evening sun warmed the apartment pleasantly. Professor Alehandro sat in a wheelchair, his eyes closed, his slow breathing rasping more by each day. Escamillo studied his teacher in silence. They’d spent six months together, becoming good friends but yet remaining distant. That puzzled Escamillo. He’d never spent as much time and thought in studying anything, or someone. He was drawn to the mystery of the man that Alehandro was.
“I’m not sleeping,” Alehandro said but didn’t open his eyes.
“Yes, yes,” Escamillo said, strolling to his side. He took in the waves and the surfers that hadn’t realized that there would be no more good waves to play with tonight. “Just admiring the view with your eyes closed.”
Alehandro blinked with a visible effort. Escamillo gently helped the professor to reposition himself in the wheelchair.
“Yes, just that.”
Escamillo felt guilty that as Alehandro had decayed—there was no nicer way to describe the change—he himself had started to feel more alive. He’d become infected by the festive mood and easy-going life of the Haco Bay. He hadn’t had his hair cut in ages nor did he bother that much with his clothes anymore. He could almost, but not quite, see why the people of Haco had no special need to improve in anything or learn new things. Though one day he’d return to the university to claim his degree, that day was in the distant future.
“You know,” Alehandro said. “I could use some company during my long, lonely days.”
Escamillo whistled a guilty note. He’d become so caught up with the sea, sun, and fun that sometimes he almost forgot the existence of the professor. He’d come to Haco to keep the dying man company. He’d found unexpected happiness in cutting his path through the waves on his emerald board and he’d ended up gradually abandoning the old man. He’d thought it was enough that when he came back with the sunset, he told Alehandro all he’d seen and done that day, censuring his stories only mildly. Perhaps that wasn’t the case. “Do you want me to…” he offered, too little ashamed of the reluctance in his voice.
“Ah…” Alehandro grinned, revealing the few teeth he had left. “I don’t blame you for enjoying your life – that’s what I brought you here for. Anyway, the boards don’t last long out of water. If you were to spend your time here with me, yours would wither, flake, and finally disappear, leaving nothing behind but a puff of colored sand.”
Confused, Escamillo scratched his stubble. “Then what would you like me to do?”
“I would like you to bring me more birds.”
The dozens of toucans, macaws, and humming birds in their respective cages greeted Escamillo with a cacophony of captured joy as he entered the apartment. His shoulder-length hair dripped water on the hall’s woven mat as he positioned his emerald board on the rack by the door. Even after all the hard use, it shone enticingly, like a slice of an exotic fruit waiting to be devoured.
“Did you have a good surf?” Alehandro asked, craning his neck to better see. He had a tiny cobalt blue bird perched on his forefinger. The bird flapped its wings incredibly fast, creating a humming sound.
“Interesting one,” Escamillo said. He’d put on some muscle, resembling rather a healthy farm boy than the wealthy student he was. His pale skin had tanned and the wrinkles on his face were those left by laughter, not of perpetual mischief and resulting worry.
“Good, good,” the frail professor smiled, revealing more gaps than teeth.
Escamillo grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his shoulders as he strolled to the balcony. He sat next to Alehandro on a creaky chair and took hold of the professor’s free hand. It was all sharp ridges and dry skin. “Tell me, Alehandro, when you were a young student like me, did you ever fall from your board? Did the waves take a hold of you and threatened to never let go?”
“Oh yes,” Alehandro chuckled. The veins on his neck protruded prominently through his pallid skin. The birds croaked in unison as if hearing words unspoken. “Plenty of times.”
Escamillo nodded to himself. “That’s what I thought.”
“Why do you ask?” Alehandro wanted to know. His now-bald head mirrored the rays of the setting sun, giving him a healthier appearance for a moment at least. “Doubtlessly you’ve fallen before on the ten months we’ve spent here.”
“That I have, but today I almost drowned,” Escamillo said, hastening to gesture the professor not to cut in. “And you know what – I wasn’t scared at all. Not even when the waves pressed me down to the sandy bottom, rolling me around until I no longer knew which way to struggle up for air.”
With an obvious effort, Alehandro flicked his finger and the cobalt bird flew off. It landed on the balcony rail, eyeing its cage and master in turns. Alehandro turned to gaze at the sea, biting his chapped lips into a thin, thoughtful line. Escamillo held on to his hand, perhaps more firmly than one should squeeze a man as frail as the professor.
“As the current dragged me deeper, I saw shapes diving towards me. Strange shapes of colorful creatures too big to be fish, and I can’t help but wonder what they were,” Escamillo said, pausing to let his words sink in. Like he’d sunk deeper into the sea. “Hallucinations of my oxygen-deprived brain perhaps?”
Alehandro didn’t offer a reply. The birds in the cages stopped their customary shuffling about, as if they too were interested in what their master left unsaid.
“Aren’t you curious at all?” Escamillo asked, leaning closer to the professor. He lowered his voice, perhaps because of the unwavering, unnatural attention the birds paid to the conversation. “I think you know how the story continues.”
“Now do I?” Alehandro feigned ignorance, badly.
Escamillo studied him in silence. He shivered as he realized that with his gaunt face the professor resembled a bird, a vulture to be more specific.
“I’m an old man. I’ve forgotten many things.”
The birds started to flap their wings as if agitated or frightened. With an effort, Dr. Alehandro craned his neck to better see them, swallowing in pain. “I think it’s time to let them go.” His voice was almost drowned by that of the birds shuffling. “It was wrong of me to keep something intended to fly free for my own amusement. Would you mind helping?”
Escamillo walked to the nearest cage and stared at the bird inside. It was a toucan with a multicolored beak and ink-black body. It shrieked at him an ugly note, not begging for mercy or freedom even when offered the chance. “I know how you feel,” he whispered and opened the cage.
The toucan didn’t immediately fly away, but tilted its proportionally too-big head, its small bird-eyes bright, understanding.
“What did you say?” Alehandro asked. Sometimes he had trouble hearing, but Escamillo doubted that that was the case this time.
“Nothing, my friend. Nothing important at all,” Escamillo assured him. He’d escaped one cage just to find himself in another. With that thought on his mind, he clicked open the rest of the cages. “I think we both know the truth now even if you won’t admit it.”
Alehandro admired the flock of parrots, macaws, and toucans rising to the air in a cloud of magnificence, an expression of contentment smoothing the wrinkles on his face.
“You never were a student like me,” Escamillo continued his monologue. He should have put the pieces together sooner. He shouldn’t have been so gullible. And there was something wrong with the birds in the sky, but he couldn’t quite pinpoint what either. “You’re not even Alehandro.”
Dr. Alehandro turned his head slowly, his vertebrae clicking a sad tune. He stared at Escamillo long and hard, his grey eyes dull as the worn-out tips of charcoal pencils.
The birds rose higher in the sky, becoming bright dots against the sunset. Escamillo watched them for a long while, searching for courage to say what he’d deduced. “You are one of them.”
The birds were no longer birds at all, but small colorful clouds. And Escamillo knew, just knew – the birds had never been alive, just magic bound to life with wishes and memories.
Alehandro cleared his throat, coughing a rusty croak. “That’s not the entire truth.”
The sunset was the most gorgeous one Escamillo had ever seen. He lifted Alehandro from the wheelchair and wrapped the professor’s arms around his neck. Though the professor was barely more than bones and dry skin, Escamillo’s steps sunk in the sand, giving him the time he needed to set his thoughts straight.
The breeze from the sea tugged his hair, whispering the professor’s tale in his ear.
We never steal but trade.
They’d become such close friends. That the professor had lied to him, lured him to a paradise to further his own interests . . . . Yet Escamillo couldn’t make himself hate the old man for the deception.
When I pulled that poor student out of the sea, his mind had already abandoned the body.
Escamillo had reasoned that the one who called himself Alehandro had taken the drowned body for his own use. The professor, after all, wasn’t entirely human. But that hadn’t been the case.
“I can hear the waves,” Alehandro whispered. A tear rolled down the curve of his sunken cheek. “I can feel them calling me home.”
The sun was setting fast and both the surfers and Iguassus had left the waves for the night. Escamillo started his hesitant way towards the water. He and Alehandro had the beach for themselves – no one would try to stop them.
Whenever I watch you surfing, you look so happy, so content with your life. Do you remember the life you used to lead back in the university? Can you imagine being satisfied with that life now that you’ve tried something else?
Escamillo cast a sad smile at Alehandro. Alehandro acknowledged it with a blink – he was too tired to say more. To return home . . .
You can’t, not after glimpsing the opportunities the world has to offer. And that was how I felt. I wanted to learn and experience life myself, but my kind can’t survive long out of the sea.
Escamillo waded into the water. The waves sloshed against his shins, as if asking if he was sure. He was and wasn’t; such a strange thing it was.
Alehandro closed his eyes, lulled by the sea into something resembling a peace of mind. Escamillo wrapped his hands tighter around the professor. The calm on the professor’s face didn’t belong to one who could lie.
I only want to trade with you as my kind does.
Escamillo, who’d been half-sure that the professor had intended to steal his body, was relieved to hear that. He understood the professor’s desperation. Who would want to die when life had so much left to offer? He continued wading deeper.
I offer you all my memories and experience to use as you wish, a chance to become something, someone greater if you so wish.
“For a price,” Escamillo said aloud, but the professor didn’t stir. Wave crests broke against his thighs, against his elbows. As a huge wave approached from the distance, he stood still, clutching the professor’s body against his chest, trusting, believing.
I would become a part of you, a thought at the back of your mind that you wouldn’t even notice. I would never bother you. Please, Escamillo, I ask you as a friend. I don’t want to die when there’s still so much to see and learn.
The wave rolled closer, closer. After a moment of stillness or perhaps some kind of hesitation, the wave curved, blanketing Escamillo and Alehandro with white gentle sprays.
The sun was still setting when Escamillo returned to the beach alone. The sight was beautiful but just one among the many thousands he’d witnessed. Given time, he would undoubtedly see something more magnificent. And time . . . that he had now, and he would use it well.
Leena Likitalo a writer from Finland, the land of thousand lakes and countless untold tales. Her fiction has appeared in Weird Tales and WeirdFictionReview.com.