Pretty much what the title suggests. This is my first short story (although it's much longer than I'd anticipated) in a loooooooooooooooong time, I hope it's not utter pants. :)
A long time ago, in a timeline that had branched off from ours many years before humanity started to eat itself, there lived a young man, called B. Despite his name, B had a good imagination, so much so that he often lived in his head. However, what he shared his brain space with didn't always make for good company. After living a relatively normal childhood, he decided that he needed an adventure and set off for Pastures New. He didn’t know what he would find, or indeed even the language that he would hear there, but life had got a bit stale for him in the land of his birth.
Upon his arrival in Pastures New, it took him a while to acclimatise. Every day an angry sphere launched itself into the sky, replacing the slate grey clouds that had menaced his childhood. Apart from that, everything else seemed seemed quite normal. Up was what he understood to be up, and down likewise. Over time he noticed with concern that left was increasingly moving to where he thought the right was, while what he considered Right frequently turned out to be Wrong.
But stumble along B must, so stumble along B did, instructing the swarthy locals about the magic of his homeland and regaling them with tales of days as dark as nights, and summer nights as cold as winter days. With time he learned their language (called Lingo) and settled into a lifestyle that would be euphorically described by his compatriots as ‘awrait’.
For some time, perhaps intoxicated by the adventure of his new life, and despite the nagging boredom he felt in repeating the same stories, B was content. Happy was a big concept for him, and was something that he didn’t strive for. To be clear, he wasn’t a masochist or a misery-merchant, but rather, happiness, in his opinion, was as fickle as the wind and as an emotion couldn’t be relied upon. Contentedness on the other hand suggested to him a state of wellbeing that transcended the moment, and was something that was made up of a number of constituent factors. So, for some time B considered himself to be content. This was good.
However, even though he had got to grips with Lingo and had seemed to have been accepted by the diminutive locals, something was lacking. In communicating with them, he could explain how he felt and what he wanted, but he missed the connection of speaking to someone from his homeland. Someone who would understand his mentality and his outlook on life. It wasn’t that his people and those he found himself surrounded by were so unalike, it was just that they had slightly different perspectives on things. People from Pastures New’s favourite jokes were frequently crude, and poor B suffered from flatulence, which for a while made him feel like the butt of many of their jokes. It took months for him to understand that they were laughing at the entirely natural bodily process of expelled gas that he inadvertently produced, rather than at him. This lack of cultural awareness stung him, though, and he retreated into his shell a little.
One evening while he was walking near his home, he heard singing coming from a nearby tree. In the tree he saw a majestic bird sitting atop an empty nest. Its song was beautiful and sad, and something held B there to watch the bird as it would in turn preen its feathers and then sing for what seemed like months, but couldn’t possibly have been because by the time he eventually arrived home later that evening, it was still that evening, only later. Even though he had only seen that bird once, he decided to call it Coso, as with a name he figured that it became more tangible than without.
That night B couldn’t sleep; the sad, lilting song of the bird seemingly reverberating in his room. He was sure that the bird had wanted to tell him something; that if he could just grasp the meaning of what the bird had sung, he might be able to sleep in peace. Of course, this didn’t make sense - the bird was simply singing, and it seemed sad to B because he projected sadness onto the notes, but at the time, and for a long time afterwards, he couldn’t see this. So instead, he was followed by a doomed yearning to understand that bird’s song. While the outside world fell quiet as people went to bed, his nights remained sleepless, filled with birdsong.
Weeks passed. Every day he would go back to that same tree, full of hope of hearing the majestic bird and its beautiful sad song. Every day he turned around disappointed and headed home. Months passed, and he still couldn’t decipher the song’s meaning. Sleeplessness stubbornly stuck to him, and he started to feel as if he was fraying around the edges like a flag being tugged, slapped and blown by a relentless wind.
It was in this state of mind that one day he made a decision. If the bird wouldn’t come back to him to reveal its secret, he would look for another one and keep it at home. Just as other people filled a void with expensive toys or new lovers, he would replace what he yearned for with an equivalent.
Three weeks after this decision, B found what he was looking for. Hingmy, as he would call it, was of a similar breed of bird, but whereas Coso had bright green feathers streaked through with a dash of yellow, Hingmy was pure green, which depending on the light could be as bright as dewy grass in spring, or as deep and rich as the needles of a mountain spruce. Hingmy sang less, and with less apparent urgency than Coso, but was nonetheless sweet. Coso’s song still lived in the murky silt of B’s mind, so he didn’t particularly notice Hingmy’s reluctance to sing at first.
Over time, however, Hingmy became more and more central to his daily life. Its company, as much as it was, gave B a great deal of pleasure. Although he at first thought that he wouldn’t be able to forget its predecessor’s beautiful sad song, with time this slipped back into the recesses of his memory. For the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, B found that sleep would creep up on him and envelop him in its comforting cradle.
In this way, life continued. In this way, B found himself once more feeling content. In the evening he would sit with Hingmy by the window, where they would both gaze out at the world. He would be lost in thoughts, or otherwise blabbering away as if he were sitting with a person, while she (he’d started to think of her as a she rather than an it) would sing. She had started to sing more often, or at least he thought she had, though he couldn’t be sure because although Coso’s song was by now just an echo of a memory, for so long it had consumed so much of his mind that he could never be sure how much Hingmy had actually sung before.
Hingmy’s singing was comforting. It was beautiful, just as Coso’s had been, but it didn’t seem to have the same tinge of sadness to it. In many ways it was similar, but even within the similarity he could sense a difference. It was neither a good nor a bad difference, but was just that: different. She would start singing when he fell silent, and so in this odd way, he felt almost like they were having a conversation. He would tell her about his day and what was on his mind, while he imagined she did the same through her song. The fact that they didn’t understand each other wasn’t important - it was that they were communicating. This gave him a great sense of calm, so much so that he began rushing home to maximise their time together, at the same time starting to slip out of contact with his human friends, almost without noticing. Everything he needed, or felt he needed was at home.
He was always careful to keep his window closed, for fear of Hingmy flying away. She was after all a wild animal, and as domesticated as she might have been, and as content as she seemed to be perched beside him in the evenings, he couldn’t countenance the thought of her succumbing to some instinct and flying through the open window.
Beyond contentment, B started to feel happy. Rather than an amalgamation of parts that when added together equalled contentment, with Hingmy he felt happy. His previous reluctance for happiness, and his fear that it was nothing more than a passing emotion, ebbed away. Whereas before he had thought of happiness as being akin to a cloud, and therefore something ephemeral, now he felt that happiness was rather more like a cloudless summer’s day, whose warmth and light would bathe him in its glory. Of course, clouds might muster on the horizon, but they were passing inconveniences; shadows that might suggest doom, but which were really just temporary events that would sooner or later make way once again for a clear azure sky.
One of the these clouds, although at the time it didn’t seem to him as such, was how Hingmy reacted when they sat by the window and she saw other birds outside. She would become agitated and her singing raised up a notch. It seemed to B to be insistent, to be curious, to be shot through with a hint of sadness. This perceived sadness of Hingmy’s started to weigh on B. It brought back memories of Coso, and how desperate he had been to understand her secret song. Thinking in that direction made him feel guilty about Hingmy. What was she, if not an attempt to recapture the memory of Coso? Furthermore, while Coso was free, in his effort to find her meaning, he had made a prisoner of Hingmy. She was after all, a wild animal. He deprived her of her natural habitat so that he could enjoy her for himself, worried that if he opened the window for her she might not come back to him. These thoughts threatened the brilliant summer’s day of his mind, despite the change in perspective he’d only recently had. He could sense banks of clouds massing just where the visible became the invisible, like an invading barbarian army ready to blot out the happiness he had found.
Over the next few months B’s mood deteriorated. He would no longer rush home to sit with Hingmy at the window. When he arrived, she would still sing her enchanting song, but whereas it once brought a warmth to B’s heart, now it made him feel guilty and uncomfortable. He would still sit with her and tell her about his day, but doing so made him feel like a wretch. While his mouth formed words, his brain circled around and around on itself. He knew what he had to do. He didn’t want to do it, but he knew he had to all the same. Oh, for the bliss of ignorance!
So it was, that one day before leaving in the morning, B left his window open. He only discovered this when he arrived home later that day, and couldn’t for the life of him remember having done it. Was it an accident, or did his subconscious instruct him to do it? It was a question that he couldn’t answer, and even if he could, it wouldn’t have changed the fact: Hingmy had taken her chance and had flown away.
B spiralled. Not at first, however, as in the days immediately afterwards he found consolation in telling himself that he had done the right thing, whether it had been deliberate or not. Even if he hadn’t meant to leave the window open, the right result had been reached. This rationale shielded him from the sadness and solitude that had taken up residence in his house. The friends that he’d disconnected from were still friends, but a distance had built up between them, a gulf that couldn't be described.
He started going back to the park where he had first heard Coso, but by now she was long since gone. Other birds sang, but their songs were simplistic, two-note calls to other birds. They sang from habit, from memory, from evolutionary necessity. None of them sang for the love of singing and communication as Coso and Hingmy had seemed to him to do. These elementary songs would ring in his head just as the sad, beautiful song of Coso once had, but in an altogether less welcome way. They both echoed in his brain; but while Coso and Hingmy’s reverberated like that of church bell being rung to celebrate a wedding, these new songs were instead the insistent echo of a tinnitus sufferer.
Only in his dreams did the noise stop. Only in his dreams was he able to escape the song that tormented him, that reminded him of what he had let fly free. In his waking hours he could explain it away to himself; that he had done the right thing; but all of these explanations, all these justifications and salves were accompanied by the juvenile chattering song of the birds in the park.
In his dreams, B would be by his window. Sometimes Hingmy would be beside him, closed inside as she had been for what seemed like so long. Sometimes she would be sitting on the window sill outside, looking in on him. Sometimes she couldn’t be seen at all. In all of these dreams though, she could be heard. Through her song she would tell him where she was (though he could never remember where when he woke up), and what she was doing now that she had flown away. He would in turn tell her what he had been doing, and explain to her what he had been thinking before she had left. He was rarely able to find the right words, as somewhere between his brain and his mouth there was a disconnect, despite having thought it through more times than he could count.
These dreams didn’t help B’s mood. Although he didn’t want to forget Hingmy, just as he hadn’t wanted to forget Coso, a part of him still wished that he could. She wasn’t in his life anymore, but clung to his memory like seaweed to a wet leg. If he could have reached inside his mind and plucked her out, he probably would have. Only ‘probably’, because despite the irony of her being a bird which had flown away, she was the last thing in his life that made him feel grounded. She was only a bird, but he felt that she was more than that, and had certainly played a bigger role than that to him.
So, all of these thoughts and the incessant singing of the birds in the park (he had stopped going there many months before, but their songs remained) swirled round B’s mind like a whirlpool. He could sense himself slipping closer to the centre, but didn’t know what to expect there. Its strength and darkness scared him, but he felt as powerless as a leaf in a gale. All he could do was to keep his head above water for as long as he could manage.
Then, one evening while he was sitting by the window surrounded by a thick pall of silence and smoke, a thought dawned on him: He had projected sadness onto Coso’s song. He had searched for her to no avail, and just when he was starting to give up hope, he had found Hingmy. She hadn’t replaced Coso, because they weren’t the same - while he could replace his socks because they were all more or less identical objects, he couldn’t hope to replace a living breathing entity with another. Rather than mourning the loss of these birds before trying to find a like-for-like replacement, he should be happy for what he found with each of them. Coso had sung so beautifully that it had haunted him and started him on the journey to Hingmy. With her he had felt more than just content; he had felt happy. As fantastic as it would have been to have felt that way forever, he knew that clouds would have appeared on the horizon from time to time. Happiness could always win through though. Maybe not anytime soon, but eventually it should. He mustn’t look for those birds anymore, nor search for what they made him feel. By looking for a copy of the past, he would never grow as a person, nor be able to find true happiness again - just as a photograph of a photograph has a lower resolution, so a copy of a past love or experience makes for an inferior version. They wouldn’t leave him, and they shouldn’t.
That night B dreamt that he was an ant that had fallen into a kitchen sink. The water around and below pulled at him, and he spiralled and swirled towards the centre. He sped ever closer to the darkness in the middle of the whirlpool, always closer, always closer, but never quite there. He wasn’t afraid now, he was just…… waiting. Then, all of a sudden as if a hand had grabbed his feet and yanked him down, and with a deafening SLUUUUURP he was finally pulled under and into the darkness.
He opened his eyes to bright sunlight. Blinking, he slowly started to see that he was somewhere strangely familiar. He had definitely been here before - he recognised the horizon, the layout, the features, but he couldn’t put his finger on where exactly he was. He saw people walking around, and one person looking up at him standing still. As B looked closer he could see it was himself - B was looking at B. What a strange dream, he thought. He shouted out to himself, and almost fell over in shock. When he shouted, it wasn’t a human voice that came out but a bird’s call! He looked down at his body and saw that he had wings, feathers and two feet that gripped an empty nest on a branch. What a strange dream!
He tried to shout again - and again no comprehensible words came out of where his mouth should have been (he had a beak!). Himself in human form continued to look up at his bird dream form. This seemed familiar to B. He’d been here before, of course he had - the bird his human form was looking at was Coso. He shouted out again that Coso was him, but again, no words came out. What a strange dream.
Without really knowing why (this was after all just a dream, he told himself), he shouted to human B that he shouldn’t worry about bird B’s song. That he should look for Hingmy, but not worry too much about the right thing to do. Above all, he shouted that just as Coso had come and gone like a spring shower, so Hingmy would only be a temporary part of his life as most things were destined to be, and that he should enjoy her company while he could. He called out that nothing lasted forever and that he should enjoy things while they did - he had to live in the moment rather in his head (had this not have been a dream, B might have seen the irony of him telling himself in a dream not to live in his head so much). He shouted at his still impassively watching human self that Hingmy wouldn't eclipse Coso because memories are rarely blotted out by newer experiences, but rather that she would be different and that he should revel in this difference. His mind had more than one page - rather than trying to cram everything together and therefore constantly overwriting old experiences, life was made up of different pages and chapters, each deserving of their own space and bearing their own importance. He shouted that life was a chain of experiences, some good, some bad, some relevant, others less so, but that he should try to take something from all of them. He shouted until he couldn’t shout anymore, even though he knew that what his brain was formulating was actually coming out of his beak as bird song. He remembered that this song had seemed at the time to be sad, but now he knew that it wasn’t - it contained sadness, as so many things do, but it was a call to life and to accept everything that happened in it.
Exhausted, bird B looked at human B. After what seemed like an eternity of silence between the two of them, but may have only been a second, B felt the weight that had been on his mind ever since Hingmy left had been blown away, as if all his woe and self-questioning had simply been a feather all along. After one last look down at his human self from all those months ago, B stretched out his wings and jumped off the branch. The lightness he felt took his breath away. He swooped upwards, wheeled to the left and climbed high into the sky.
He felt so free; he felt so light. This didn’t feel like a dream. He soared higher and higher, the wind rippling through his feathers, until he was just a speck, then even the speck disappeared into the clear azure sky.