“Listen… I’ve discerned a pattern.”
A small group stood in the shadow of the church, at Canair, listening to James, the caretaker.
“I first heard the bird’s call the morning of the baby Aiden’s christening.”
The widow, called Mad Agnes, spoke. “The bird didn’t bring the Christening.”
Several moaned, “Oh, I pray not an omen…”
“Of course not. Father Ambrose says a healthy baby is from God. No one disputes that. After many difficult months, that bright faced baby, truly is a gift. The bird heralded that.” That calmed them. “But I didn’t heed it until this week. In the gathering storm, I heard it again.”
The crowd murmured.
James tried to imitate the bird’s call.
Sweeny, the publican, said, “It sounds like ‘gardyloo.’” Everyone laughed at what town maids yell, when tossing night-water into the street.
Someone said, “Doves foretell disaster.”
“Or a plover?”
“This ain’t no dove. And I think it’s a boon.”
“Never saw a stork here. This is large.” He spread his arms to indicate the bird’s wing span. “Don’t storks have long beaks?”
Mad Agnes said, “Keep storks from my house.” Everyone laughed. She wanted no more christenings.
Her man died years before. Some said, after eight kids, t’was small wonder. And the twins came months after he passed. Village gossips always speculated. Were they late? Or early?
Sweeny asked, “Did the bird call from Higgins’ oak?” James nodded. Sweeny shook his head and muttered under his breath.
The recent storm toppled the Higgins’ ancient oak tree and exposed a canvas sack in the tree’s tangled roots, filled with gold coins.
Word traveled fast. Everyone heard about, but few saw such a fortune. Some thought it must be pirate’s treasure. Why raiders would venture so far inland remained a mystery. A rumor the coins were Roman, made some think the druids buried them.
Higgins’ clan kept to themselves. But when hooligans dug up their yard, seeking more loot, they withdrew all the more.
For some, a strange bird calling from the oak’s crest, before the burgeoning storm, put sense to these occurrences.
An eerie sound drew their eyes to the bell tower.
People gasped and pointed. “Listen! Look! It’s there!”
Flapping broad wings from atop the roof ridge, the bird called out. James was right. Iridescent feathers shimmered in red and green. A single feather floated to earth.
Several ran to it.
James called out. “Don’t touch!” They recoiled in fear. “It might be cursed.”
Sweeny pulled his rifle from beneath his duster, and aimed.
“Don’t!” James lunged. Women screamed at the report. Smoke filled the yard. The echo faded. The bell rang out.
The bird spread its wings and flew off, unharmed. Men tackled Sweeny, pinning him to the ground.
“I had him in my sights!”
“Aiming isn’t hitting.”
Father Ambrose charged out of the chapel and strode into their midst.
“Who dares fire at my church?”
Sweeny stood and sloughed off his restraints. His rifle lay harmless at his feet.
Ambrose got into Sweeny’s face. “Are you mad? Whose tool are you?”
“That bird is the devil’s messenger, Father. I acted on your behalf.”
“Shooting does me no favors. ‘Take refuge beneath his wings.’ Did you never hear, ‘No weapon formed against you shall prosper’?” He spun to see who stood by. “The devil cannot touch me, lest you boost him.”
Sweeny looked down and kept his silence. No point in arguing with a priest.
Father Ambrose leaned in. “All things are from God. It’s people who play the devil’s hand.” He gestured to the others. “You, who have spare time to gossip, would benefit from spending a bit more time inside.”
People drifted off. Sweeny retrieved his weapon and left.
He said, “Drinks ‘round, on the house…”
Fr. Ambrose turned to James. “You’re not paid to spin tales in the church yard, James.”
“Yes, Father. Of course.” He looked down. “I tried to explain omens and boons.”
“Do you need direction?”
“No Father… I know my job.”
“You’ll do better attending to the task at hand.”
James nodded and returned to work.
But James couldn’t forget the bird which entered their lives with such power. He spent his free time tracking it. He scanned the countryside from the belfry. It vanished for days and then reappeared, seemingly from nowhere.
One morning, he watched it. He noted its favored perches in the tall trees west of the village.
James planned. One dusk, the bird landed on a high limb. Its call echoed off the surrounding hills. Everyone heard it. They lay abed wondering what the morrow would bring.
James looked up and smiled. He pulled the dangling rope.
The next day, a young stranger entered the village bearing in large haversack on his shoulder. He had a familiar air but no one knew him. A few followed. Speaking to no one, he knew his way, directly to Mad Agnes’ house.
Agnes screamed, dropped everything, and ran into his open arms. Ian, her eldest son, had finally returned. Gone to sea years before, he left to make his fortune. Few knew him. Most had forgotten him.
Agnes never did. She always worried for lack of news.
She said, “I feared we lost you to the fiddler’s green.”
He comforted her, “I’m back now. And I’ll stay.”
Some of her children had only worn hand-me-downs. Agnes brought the brood to the village and proudly introduced Ian to the shopkeepers. Happiness, never seen before, shone from her face. They now had food on the table. Agnes slept better that night than in years.
The mysterious bird seemed to have gone. For weeks, no one heard it calling.
The Higgins looked at their yard, torn up by treasure hunters. The giant oak tree lay where it fell from the storm. They decided, with the tree cleared, they could expand their garden, and sell surplus produce in the village market.
They hired young men from the village to cut the huge tree into firewood. They had plenty to share with Father Ambrose. The two hardest workers stayed on, to tend the garden.
Fr. Ambrose had an urgent task. He gave up looking for the elusive James, and set about finding a hammer. The tool shed door shrieked open and the good priest stood aghast at what he saw.
The great mysterious bird stared dolefully at Ambrose from the shed’s dark corner. Its bright feathers had dulled. James stood by with his mouth agape.
“James, what have you done?”
“I wanted to... I wanted it to sing for the whole village.”
“But that’s completely wrong-headed.”
“It hasn’t sung since I netted it.”
“Free it then. The bird serves no more purpose here, than a key to a cat. Don’t you see?”
James unchained the bird. It hopped to the open door. No longer forlorn, its shimmering colors returned as it emerged into the sunshine. Wings beating, the bird went aloft, and soared away.
James never saw, or heard it again. He kept one secret feather in his room. Suspended from a loop of twine, its colors shifted, turning in the draft.
Life in the village Canair carried on as it always had. The mysterious bird receded from memory. In the spring, rumors spread about a magical bird appearing in a neighboring village. Depending on who told the story, the bird either blessed or cursed the locals.
Sweeny chuckled at the trouble they received.
The Higgins tithed to the church. Their contributions helped Fr. Ambrose fix the bell and add a second. Naysayers said it sounded off, and blamed the devil.
But the tower’s triplet notes from the double chimes reminded others of the bird’s mysterious call and beckoned them.
The two bells ring through the Canair glens, to this day.