A Writing on the Net TM
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By Karen Engelmann
Copyright 1998 Karen Engelmann

 From the book ORNAMENTS, by Karen Engelmann
Published by Smithmark Publishers, New York. 1998.
Available online at Amazon.com

A grandmother brings a handed-down bird ornament out of hiding.

She lifted the lid from the box slowly. It was one of those white cardboard gift boxes from a long-defunct department store in Chicago. Inside were wads of tissue and Styrofoam pellets. Her rough, bony hands shook slightly as she peeled away the layers, until finally she hooked her middle finger through a black thread loop and held up a glittering, silver-colored glass bird. It was shiny, but not the shine of cheap plastic or chrome. It had a deeper shine, somehow reflecting time as well as light. It twirled lazily in the air, its wings and tail a shimmer of glass threads. “You see, it does fly!” she crowed triumphantly. “You must hang it on the tree where there is plenty of room to move. It’s a creature that demands its freedom, even tethered to a string.” She lifted her pale, thin arm high in the air, as fragile as a dry branch that might crack at the slightest breeze. The silver bird swung now in a wide arc, still turning as it flew. She grabbed it with her other hand.

“It had been hidden for years. But it was always mine. I remember when this bird first came to me, one Christmas so long ago. I must have been nine or ten. Even then the bird was old, or old to me. I think of these things differently now, of course.” She moved slowly to the sofa and sat down, as if a quick movement might startle the bird.

“It was born in Austria, my bird. I say born because it was born out of the breath of some glass blower, an artist who gave it form and iridescent feathers, these wings that somehow translate flight into matter. The bird was sent to a shop in Vienna to be sold for the holiday season. The shop was called Gutterman’s. I remember their name from the beautiful box: gray felt, with red printing so thick you could feel it with your fingertips. There was a coat of arms stamped at the top in gold, of two bears and a lily. I have no idea if it meant the Guttermans were royalty, or purveyors to royalty, or if it was just a gimmick. But it looked altogether splendid to me. Inside it was lined with watered silk, also red, and had a satin band to hold the bird still. The box alone would have proved sufficient as a gift, but when I opened it and saw the bird, I was completely dumbfounded. Father knew I loved birds. I was always out scattering crumbs from the breakfast table, and Mother would scold me for bringing round the pigeons.”

She gave the bird a twirl. “It’s true the pigeons were messy, but once in a while you’d get meadowlarks, or a bluebird, even mourning doves. I didn’t know all their names, but I liked to see them swoop down onto the walkway and peck at our biscuits, still buttery and soft. I would have liked those crumbs myself a few years later, after Father was gone and times were hard. There was the war, and everything changed in a flash. But you can’t go picking at the past.” She placed the bird on her lap and stroked its tail.

“But why do you say it was hidden?”

“It was hidden by my mother for many years. Father had given it to me, but my younger sister, your Great-Aunt Gen, claimed that it was hers. Our constant bickering every year made Mother decide to put it away. She said once that she had sold it, but I wept so bitterly she admitted that in fact she was saving it for when I married and had a house of my own. It was my link to a beloved past that had otherwise disappeared. When I told Genevieve this, she was furious. Mother tried to explain that there were other things from the old house that were meant for her, but Gen insisted the bird was hers. Well, of course, we grew up and moved away, and forgot all about it. When Mother died, Gen went first to the house to clear up. I was busy with my own family by that time, and so I never knew what was in the attic or the closets. It wasn’t until perhaps six or seven years later, when we were spending Christmas with Gen and her family, that I spied the bird hanging on her tree. She knew I knew, but didn’t say a word. And neither did I. We had been brought up to be…discreet. And very, very stubborn. The following year, Gen had a trimming party and I asked specifically to hang it. Gen seemed a little flustered, but found the bird, which was now stored in a plain brown box, and showed me where it should be hung. I asked about the beautiful gray box with the red-and-gold trim. She claimed it had disappeared; didn’t I remember that Mother had thrown it out, that it was all covered with mildew? No, I didn’t remember that, I told her politely. I did dig around in the ornament boxes that year, hoping I would see it, but it was not to be found. At least I had the bird. I mean, I knew the bird could still be caught.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, sipping a glass of Grandma’s best kirsch.

“I mean it was mine and I meant to have it. If she wouldn’t give it to me, then I would find a way to make the bird fly away on its own. And I did.” She held it in her opened palm, like a pet, and spoke to it. “Isn’t that right?”

“Now you’re getting loopy, Gram. How does a glass bird fly?”

“It’s a matter of setting the stage. And preparing the audience. One Christmas your grandfather and I spent with Gen and Fredrick, we brought two lovely bottles of port, which they drank to the bottom. I pretended to have a few glasses, too. The lights were low, only the tree and some candles, a fire in the fireplace. I went up to the tree to spin the bird, as I did every year, only this time as I spun it, I acted as though I was wildly intoxicated, and swung the bird too high. As it lifted in the air, I caught the string with my one hand and threw a silver ball to the floor with my other. Crash! In the confusion, the bird flew right into my pocket and, frightened to death, refused to emerge. I apologized profusely. Genevieve was too tipsy to notice there were no tail feathers in the debris—she’s never read a mystery in her life—and went immediately to bed in a state. We weren’t invited to Christmas the next year. Or the year after that. Your Grandfather was confused why Gen and I were no longer on speaking terms: he knew about the bird, but couldn’t possibly understand what it meant. I hadn’t let him in on my scheme, so consequently, the bird was forced into hiding again. Eventually my clumsiness was forgiven, or rather, it was tolerated in the interest of the nieces and nephews. One year, Gen hosted a big family Christmas party. I passed by her little sewing room on my way to the bathroom, and what do you think I just happened to see? Way up high on the topmost shelf, filled with buttons. Gray felt, with red and gold printing.”
“Oh, you didn’t, did you?” I grimaced.

“But it didn’t exist, remember? Mother had thrown it out, so who was to say?” She hung the bird on a long branch that swept out over the rest, and pushed the ornament into its arc of flight. “It’s silly, really, how the smallest things can create a space as big as the sky if you let them. And then you’re not sure how you’ll ever get home.” She watched the bird swing gracefully through the air, then turned to me. “Meanwhile, my bird needs a new perch. I’m not going to be around much longer, and a bird shouldn’t be kept in a box, no matter how pretty. I think your tree will do nicely.”

“Oh, Gram, how lovely. Knowing it was yours when you were small, and the shop in Vienna—I’m thrilled to have it. Thank you so much…but,” I said. “Maybe you should tell Aunt Gen.”

“Tell her what? That your grandmother gave you a bird just like hers? That we are both ridiculous old ladies, acting like fools? No, no. If I tell her anything, it might be that birds cannot be held. Time flies. Life flies. A flutter and crash.” She finished her glass of brandy and yawned. “It’s awfully late, isn’t it? Perhaps next Christmas I’ll give her back the buttons.”