The Lame Warbler

     I spent one day of my life as a bird-catcher. No, don’t think of me as Papageno,[1] rather as a boy whose life was spent in a cage. I won’t say anything about my late father other than that he tried to keep me sheltered from the evils of life, and that included avoidance at all costs of some of the boys that lived across the street, within a distance of a hundred yards or so. Those boys smoked, bragged about their girlfriends—imaginary most of the time–and used language not fit for my ears. No, I was going to be brought up properly, for, after all, I was a high school student (and they weren’t), and his expectations for me and my brother were high, although at that time I hadn’t the vaguest idea what they were. My mother (bless her soul) wasn’t far behind, and she looked at me with a suspicious eye when I made an exodus from out backyard door, even when she gave me a jar to go and fetch water from the fountain nearby. She guarded me like a watchdog, more so than my father, who was busy in his shop at the saw-mill and didn’t have the time to watch all my moves. Both believed I was disposed to mischief by nature—but that was just a condition I had developed from being watched too closely; besides, there was a war going on. Paranoia has many sources, but the Italian carabinieri patrolling the streets and German boots clamping on the pavement tended to accentuate whatever fear gripped our parents’ minds at that particular time.

     For these or other reasons I lived a confined life and looked for opportunities to slip away and join those street urchins, whom I envied from the bottom of my heart for the freedom they enjoyed. One of them, Nionios, a couple of years older than me, was a hard-boiled youth detested by mother for his foul language and crude manners. But his father, who was a fisherman, was allowed into our house freely to bring us fresh fish had had caught during the night. The Italians had imposed a curfew at night but some of the fishermen ignored it and rowed quietly into the shallows across the bay to cast nets and then sneaked back into the harbor in their boats unseen (which was dangerous) and sold their fish to the neighbors. Sior Angelos (that was the name of our neighbor) brought us his best fish—mullet, bass, flat-fish, whatever he could catch– first, and my father rewarded him with a few extra drachmas, holding his neighbor fisherman in high esteem because of his daring.

     But I was told explicitly by both my father and mother not to consort with Nionios, who sat at the doorsteps of his father’s shack, where he lived there with his father and old grandmother, with two or three urchins from the neighborhood who passed the time telling dirty jokes and gaping at the neighborhood girls when they came out to sweep their yards. One of those youngsters was Avantamos, older than Nionios by a year two, who had been in high school for ages, having been stuck in one of the grades there. He never studied so he never advanced, and I found him in the seventh or eighth grade and left him there, and he continued at the same post, guarding the classroom, for as long as I could remember. He was the son of a custom’s official, who had died and left a mother, a widow, and a daughter, a rather pretty girl in the neighborhood, who lived on a small pension—and Avantamos went along for the ride. He was so lazy and so indifferent to anything that teachers at the school had nicknamed him “Diogenes,” figuring that he would be so poor when he grew up he would have to live in a tub, like the ancient philosopher. (When I came back from America many years later, I learned that he had gone into the army and become a colonel, but I never saw him again in my life.) When once he raised his hand to answer a question, the teacher likened him to “a hen cackling before laying her first egg.” Avantamos wouldn’t care less about any comments made about him, good or bad, and went on as if life’s small irritations were no more than a mosquito’s bite. He had one interest and one only: song birds and he was the best bird-catcher in town. He shared his passion for nature’s innocent feathered creatures with Nionios, and the two of them were expert trappers, going on to their haunts outside of town, at a swamp called Vardania, during the spring or early summer when the song birds passed overhead in small groups, caught some of them and sold them to the many song-bird owners in out town who placed them in cages and bragged about their possessions to their neighbors. People, especially shop owners who had shops of various kinds along the streets, were very funny in this respect. They competed—actually ran contests—placing the cages with song birds side by side, and, as the birds got excited and started warbling, the one with the most powerful trill would eventually silence the other. The bird, always a male (for the females were mutes), clung to the wires of the cage wall, stuck its tale wide open on the wires and sang until it was almost dead of exhaustion—and the other fell silent. The owner of the victorious bird bragged when his bird was declared a winner—for a small crowd always gathered to watch—while the owner of the defeated one had to carry his bird in its cage in shame.

     I gradually grew to love birds myself and wished I had one in a cage to hang it on the outside wall of our house—a good singing bird to be heard throughout the neighborhood—but unfortunately I never had enough cash to make the purchase, for Nionios and Avantamos sold their catches right away to various buyers eager to own a potential winner in a contest. But, when I was able occasionally to join their group despite my mother’s watchful eye, I confessed my desire to own a bird to Nionios, and the latter suggested an inexpensive way for me to get one—join their group early one morning when they went to their expedition to Vardania. That way I could own any bird (but just one) I could catch, if I did my part to help them lay the traps. It was a rather elaborate process, and their small group could use a third to help them carry the implements of their trade there. They needed several branches of small trees, preferably an entire small tree for each trap, a can with pitch and a brush, a cage with the “caller” bird, a couple of other cages to carry away their catch, and a few other items, such as strings, etc. They planted the branch on the ground, in an area in the swamp where the new flocks of birds would pass overhead, daubed the branches and green leaves with pitch, placed the cage with the caller bird underneath, and waited. At one point, nearing the day break at dawn, the flocks of new birds would start their morning flights to go hunting or mating, and the bird underneath would begin to warble, calling its companions passing above it, for whatever reason of its own. Well, the foolish birds passing over it, heard it and came near it, landing on the branches with the pitched leaves, got stuck in the pitch, and fell to the ground. Eagerly, Nionios and Avantamos (they weren’t the only bird-catchers there), sprang from their hiding spots in ditches nearby and caught the bird whose wings, glued together by the pitch, was unable to fly. If they were lucky–and sometimes they weren’t and came back empty-handed–they would carry away a half dozen or more young gold-finches, the most desired species, making sure they got the males, for the females were useless and left there to their own devices. Some would eventually free their wings and fly away, others were picked up by passers by and roasted on the coals. (Birds during the war were considered delicacies.)

     I was lured by their proposal, and dreamed about it for many nights, happy at the prospect of having a gold-finch of my own, but couldn’t imagine how I could get away from the house at this early hour and escape the attentions of my father or mother. Then Nionios suggested a solution. In the summer time, and starting in late spring, some of us slept outside, on a spacious balcony my father had built in the west side of the house, just over our trellised vine, where the cats of the neighborhood roamed and pissed on the grapes without the slightest compunction. Some of us would prefer to sleep of the balcony, to avoid the heat of the house, and also the bed-bugs which swarmed during the night, nested in the bed stands or in the mattress, and made a living sucking our blood with great relish. My mother scalded the bed bugs with boiling water, killed most, but they came back. In the war, they were hungry like us. Well, in any case, my sleeping on the balcony, alone or with my brother, gave Nionios the idea: I would tie a string to my ankle, let the string hang loose from the balcony, and he would climb over our stone fence (he could do that easily), pull the string and wake me up. I would hold on to the vines of the poles supporting the trellises and in a few moments I would be in the street, and join his group.

     I was then thirteen or fourteen, and the war had made every step outside of the house a dangerous venture, for a German or Italian could see you and arrest you and that would be a disaster. I was quite aware of these dangers but my mania to own a bird was so intense I ignored my fears and decided to go along with Nionios’s plan. I agreed to go with him and his friend to Vardania, provided I got a bird, no matter what kind—for he had several cages hanging outside his house, ready for sale. He said he would give me the one I chose, if I went, and we set a certain morning, when my father and mother were gone on a trip to the village to get provisions from my grandfather’s farm, and my brother went with them. Only my paternal grandparents were in the house, and my grandfather, the priest, occasionally slept in the balcony, to avoid the heat and the bugs. He was slightly deaf and slept like a log, so it would be easy to deceive him. It would be real early, about five o’clock, well before sunrise, and I would have to be back at seven, or eight at the latest. If would ask me where I was, I would say I had slipped away for a moment to go to the latrine, which was outside in the yard.

     All went well. Nionios pulled the string, but when I awoke it was still pitch dark, and I couldn’t remember what we had agreed on. I thought ghosts had come over from the cemetery to pull me into a hole. It took five minutes of pulling, and some grunting from underneath to make me climb down the vines, shaking with fear and anxiety. I almost stumbled and fell, but finally, after he had to help me climb the fence, I found myself in the street, where the other was waiting, though I could hardly see anything. We heard the clomping of the boots of German soldiers in the distance, but I couldn’t tell how far they were from us, or whether they had heard us and chased us. Nionios and Avantamos, though, knew where they were going—they had dome this sort of thing many times before, so I followed them in the darkness, gradually being able to see a little, for a faint light spread over Mount Lamia to the east.

     We reached Vardania, but I was still so scared, I hardly knew what was happening. I was no help at all, but as more light spread around, they were experts laying several traps, and I finally realized that they needed me to hold the pitch can for them to smear the tree branches. When they were done, all three of us hid in a trench nearby, among the bulrushes and water plants, hearing the disturbed frogs croak as we moved near them. It was a long wait, for in the east, the sun was cracking from behind the mountain top. I was nervous and still fearful my father would somehow know about this, but then I heard the gold-finches, filling the sky over our heeds, flying by. Their trill was so beautiful I forgot all my fears. The bird caller in the cage began to twitter, straining to hold on to the side of its cage. It was a lively mating call, if anything, and the passing birds must have heard, for a few landed on the pitched branches next to the cage, and I saw with my own eyes a miracle happening. Two of them got tangled up and fell to the ground squeaking desperately. Nionios and Avantamos sprang to their feet, and a in a few moments both birds were in a cage. They would clean their wings with olive oil later. But no more landed. And after half an hour of waiting, we started back. I was not in a good mood, and rather sleepy. I told my grandfather, who was awake and looked at me with surprise when I climbed back to the balcony what I had done and where I had been, and he laughed. He had combed his white beard, had sipped his coffee, chewing a few sweet rolls grandmother had given him, and he was reading the Psalms of David, his favorite of all books, its yellow pages brittle with candle wax droppings. He was a kindly old man who had always treated me like an adult, more so than my parents–or anyone else for that matter.

     “Did you get a bird?” he asked me after I told him the story, in brief.

     “No, grandpa,” I said. “They only caught two, and they kept one each.”

     “That is not fair,” he said. “You should get your share of the catch.”

     “But how? How can one divide two birds into three?”

     “It’s easy,” he said. “Let them give you one of the birds, the one you carried in the cage for them.”

     “But they need that for their traps.”

     “Ask them anyway.”

     That’s all the advice he gave me, and I decided to use it. When I told Nionios what my grandfather had said, he looked at me, amused. “You talk shit,” he said, utterly contemptuous of my claim. “Just because you carried a cage, that doesn’t mean you deserve a bird. These birds are expensive.”

     “But you told me I could have one if I came along and helped.”

     “That was only if we caught several, not two.”

     “How much do you ask?” I said, determined to get one of birds I had seen hanging on his wall, and knew its trill. The ones we had caught would take a few months to learn their trills—for they have to imitate each other.

     “Two cans of olive oil.”

     “But how can I get that?”

     “I know your father has several. My father told me. It’s just inside your house, underneath the stairs. Go and get one now, and you can give me the other next week.”

     Foolishly, I went to the spot he had indicated, where the olive oil in the cans was. It was a valuable commodity in those times, worth much more than a bird. I had a change of heart. As much as I liked to have the gold-finch, I wouldn’t steal (in addition to deceiving my parents) to get it.

     I was ready to go outside the house empty-handed and tell him, when I saw my grandfather coming in, holding the cage in his hands.

     “This is for you,” he said. “Nionios gave it to me, to give you.”

     “But I can’t pay him.”

     “Well, his father was there when I told him what you had done, and he gave me the cage and the bird.”

     “How so?”

     “His mother is ill, poor woman. They think she might be dead in twenty-four hours, but I don’t think she will live through the day. I gave her last rites. That was my payment.”

     The bird turned out to be such a great triller it easily won three contests in a row, and I carried it through the streets proudly to show the various pet owners in the shops how it could out-trill the best of them. I was charged with feeding it of course, but my father got to like it so much (grandfather had told him the story omitting crucial details) that he brought it figs, opened up and stuck into the wires of the cage, and the bird, nicked-named the “Lame Warbler” (it had a defect in one of its legs and jumped from pole to pole in its cage leaning on one side) was the joy of my life, but only for a few months. It died within a year, having grown a huge scab on its side, while Nionios’s old grandmother revived after having received last rites and lived on.

 

[1] A bird-catcher in Mozart’s The Magic Flute

by Constantine Santas