‘That’s the quarantine area,’ the old lady said from behind them.
They all jumped. They had no idea she was there.
‘It has only one occupant now,’ she continued. ‘But you can visit him if you wish.’
Alice made a face. ‘No, thank you,’ she said.
‘I want to see that bird,’ Evelyn cut in.
The song was growing louder, and it sounded sweet, sad and relentless. This is how love sounds like, Evelyn thought.
Alice made another face. Placing a hand on Evelyn’s arm, she leaned in as if in conspiracy and whispered, ‘Bird flu.’
‘Oh, no, dear,’ the old lady said. Alice gasped. She was convinced she had spoken in a low enough voice. ‘Nothing of the sort,’ the lady continued. ‘It’s just that he’s very old and I’m not quite sure it would do him good to be with the other birds. He’s quite a rare one and he hasn’t been himself for a while now. I’m sure he could take one visitor at the time, though,’ she said, eyeing Evelyn with a wide smile.
Evelyn wondered what the lady meant. She had seen how, when the invisible bird began its song, all of the others abruptly stopped theirs and become very still. Their bodies froze and only their heads moved, turning to where the song was coming from, until all of the avian eyes in the room were fixed upon the small door. It was obvious to her that it had some sort of power over them and, if anything, they were the ones that had to feel a bit ill at ease around it. She wondered why Gary and Alice hadn’t noticed this. Then again, they’d never been champions at noticing things.
‘I want to see it,’ she repeated.
‘Him, dear. See him.’
The old lady was still beaming. Gary and Alice exchanged an exasperated look.
‘You could wait outside, dearies,’ the lady said. ‘Or I could make you some tea.’
‘No, thank you,’ Gary snapped, seizing Alice by one arm. ‘We’ll just, um, wait outside.’
As they hurried out, the lady turned to Evelyn again. ‘Well, dearie,’ she said, ‘Go on, now, he’s not going to bite you.
He might do other things, but I can guarantee he’s never bitten anyone.’
Evelyn hesitated before turning the doorknob. She looked back at the lady, who nodded encouragingly.
‘I’ll be at my desk,’ she said, turning away.
The moment she shut the door behind her, the song stopped. A tree was growing in the middle of the quarantine room. There was no point in wondering why or how the tree was growing inside the room, since it was so obviously there. Evelyn took a few moments to examine it. She noticed it didn’t have much in terms of leaves. This hadn’t always been the situation, though, judging by the carpet of dried-up leaves covering the floor.
However, the bald look seemed to suit the tree, as it exposed the remarkable structure of the branches, long and intricate, twisting and coiling around each other in fantastical, improbable shapes. As if trying to protect something, she thought. Bending down to make her way between the branches, she noticed that a few of the fallen leaves were silkier and of a different colour than the others. She realised this was because they were not leaves at all, but feathers. Their shape reminded her of the way the eyes of cats looked in daylight, but she had never seen that colour before in the eyes of any animal. It was the most vivid orange, shining against the thin black slit that was the pupil.
As Evelyn examined one of the peculiar feathers, she was startled by a shrill and dissonant screech, coming, undoubtedly, from the feather’s previous owner. The lady had said the quarantine room had only one occupant, so Evelyn smiled to think that this was the same bird that had produced the achingly beautiful song she’d heard from behind the door. Nevertheless, thinking she must have come across as quite rude, she dropped the feather and made her way around the branches.
Soon, she was able to see it. The quarantined bird looked old indeed. Quite, quite old and pretty much half dead. Make that three-quarters dead, Evelyn thought, considering it. With most of its tail feathers on the floor, and the few ones left barely hanging on, the bird seemed to be right on its way to becoming as bald as the tree. Evelyn gasped when this – by all evidence – pitiful creature extended its almost featherless wings and jumped, landing on the branch nearest to her.
‘Um, hello,’ Evelyn said, but this time the bird was silent and quite intent on examining its visitor, with eyes that, despite everything, were startlingly alive. They were eyes of liquid amber, speckled with the brightest yellow and they seemed to dance without moving. Unlike the cat-like eyes of the tail feathers, they had small black pupils, which were round, delicate and warm. Moving closer, Evelyn saw a tiny white gleam inside each of the black pupils that were now reflecting her own image. Two Evelyns, and yet both were the same. She was one. She was whole. The bird’s sharp beak was almost touching her face and she was unafraid. It was not simply looking at her. It was seeing her. It felt new. Being seen. When the first tongue of flame burst from the bird’s body, she did not move back.
* * *
Evelyn stepped out of the Bird Room looking down at her hands, but this time not in shyness, nor in shame or sadness. She was looking at her hands because they were cupping something small and very precious.
‘Do you have it?’ the old lady asked, excited, and Evelyn smiled at the unnecessary character of the question.
The lady then held out her hand, in which Evelyn placed the small object she’d been hiding. It was a perfect orange sphere, and hues of red and yellow danced upon its surface as it was being passed on from one woman to the other.
‘Is it the only one?’ Evelyn asked.
‘He, dear,’ the old lady said, without taking her eyes off the egg. ‘I can’t possibly know whether he’s the only one. He’s been with my family for hundreds of years now. My own father’s great-great-grandfather was given the egg on one of his journeys. He thought it was a rare precious stone of sorts. Imagine his surprise.’
The old lady smiled and moved to place the egg on the velvet cushion at the centre of her desk. Suddenly the object stopped looking so out of place. So this is what it was for, Evelyn thought. Out loud, she asked, ‘When will he hatch?’
‘Oh, he’ll crack the shell when he’s ready,’ the lady answered. ‘It varies. And,’ she continued, ‘believe me, you’ll know it.’
‘You’ll just know. Every time he feels close to regeneration, he sings. He hadn’t sung since my father passed away. I have been trying to bring him people for over twenty years. Until now, nothing happened.’
She paused to look at the egg, shining orange against the rich blue of its pillow, then gave a happy sigh. Turning around to face Evelyn, she said, ‘You know better than asking how, anyway.’
* * *
Gary and Alice were waiting outside, just like they said they would be. Alice was rolling her eyes. Gary was looking at his watch.
‘So, what was so great about that bird?’ Alice asked as they walked towards the car.
Evelyn just shrugged.