Man and Bird

Fiona McFarlane

Man and Bird

Salon’s Laura Miller called Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest “a novel of uncanny emotional penetration . . . How could anyone so young portray so persuasively what it feels like to look back on a lot more life than you can see in front of you?” The High Places, her debut collection of stories, is further evidence of McFarlane’s preternatural talent that reads like the selected works of a literary great.


The High Places
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In the hour of his humiliation, Reverend Adams still wore his hat: a black bowler that sat upright on his narrow head, like a fortified town on a hilltop. His clerical shirt was also black, and his single-breasted jacket (all three buttons firmly fastened), and his trousers and shoes, but all in slightly different shades, which gave him a regrettably scruffy look, simultaneously prismatic and funereal. The parish had great hopes for him at first. He’d had excellent theological training, came with good references, and was moreover unmarried, which stirred the ashes of many a virgin breast; and so, in the beginning, when he entered his new congregation, it was as a bridegroom into a rose garden.

His appearance was promising. The slope of his nose, echoed in the angle of his chin, gave an impression of profound endurance. There was a suggestion of sculpture in the marble-like whiteness of his skin. Yes, he was prim and pallid, in excellent health, with well-made ears, and in his battered blacks he presented a respectable, even slightly romantic figure. Also, he was kindly. He walked with an incongruous maritime swell that might, in another man, have passed for a swagger, and was careful in the maintenance of a small yellow car that he rarely drove faster than seventy kilometres an hour. He spoke in long, dignified sentences, rich in clauses, reminiscent of a veterans’ parade on a memorial holiday, and as he delivered his sermons he had a tendency to rise to the tip of his toes, so that finally he appeared to be levitating behind the pulpit. This was disconcerting, but forgivable. He also caused a minor stir early on when he removed two ancient trees from the churchyard because, he said, they interfered with the grass.

What worried people most of all was his parrot.

It was fitting that a man of Reverend Adams’s calling should have acquired few objects on his way through the world, but why should one of them be a parrot? An entirely white parrot too, as if it had once been red and yellow and green and blue but was now in some kind of Chinese mourning, except for the sulphur crest on the back of its head. Every member of the congregation can still recall, with perfect clarity, the appearance of that prodigious bird: the stiff crinoline of its feathers, the Pentecostal lick of yellow flame on its head, the tiny eyes and wormy claws, that grey, awful beak. When it fixed you with its enigmatic eye, it suggested nothing so much as the sorrowful ghost of a parrot, but you were aware, nevertheless, that it was not above a kind of solemn cheekiness. And when the parishioners saw man and bird together, they were reminded of certain ordinary dining rooms on whose walls fantastic wallpaper repeated bamboo and nightingales. It unnerved them to think of Reverend Adams and the parrot, alone together, eating their bachelor meals.

As Reverend Adams settled into his position, the congregation developed the opinion that he talked too much about death, and with the wrong emphasis. The way he described it, it was as if the arrival in Heaven, the longed-for meeting with God, would be about as melancholy as you might imagine the reunion of a father and son in a railway station, under artificial light. Eternity seemed less glorious, then; it seemed a cheerless thickening of time, rather than a new expanse. And so Reverend Adams was given to understand, by certain older and well-respected members of his congregation, that his flock had begun to pray for him, that he might receive insight into the mysteries of Heaven and the inheritance awaiting him there.

Reverend Adams withdrew to his rectory, troubled by this rebuke; trouble drawn into the furrows of his brackish brow, which he mopped with a handkerchief he kept stuffed in the pocket of his black trousers. But that night, as he slept, he dreamed of Heaven. It was a sleep so close to sleeplessness that when he woke he was able to recall every detail of his dream of paradise: the river that flowed with dull silver, the endless walls of the City of God, the streets paved with gold, and the holy clamour of the passionate elect, who worshipped God day and night without ceasing. He was led through this vision by a strange figure, half bird, half human—an archangel, he assumed—with white feathers and a tongue of fire on the back of its head. There was a quality to the light which was, it seemed to him, something like an old photograph, taken at night, in which white becomes silver and every other colour a shade of blue. This dream left him both elated and bereft—he felt he’d been born into entirely the wrong tradition to take advantage of it, and so, in his sermons, he skirted its great thicket and made instead for the sparser grove in which he’d been trained.

Nevertheless, the slight oddness of his person increased, imperceptibly at first, but more obviously toward the end of that year. He began to pause mid-sermon as if made curious by what he’d just said. Yes, it was as if his beliefs were surprising to him; he appeared to be baffled by their mysterious survival. He resembled his parrot most uncannily at these moments because he was so like a bird suddenly given the power to understand its own speech.
Of course, even this might have been tolerated if his behaviour hadn’t become stranger still. He took to carrying his parrot everywhere with him, perched on the back of his right hand. The bird sidled on his hand. It stepped to the left and stepped to the right. There was no distracting it from its great love: Reverend Adams. It had eyes only for him. And the Reverend, in turn, would gaze at the bird in respectful consultation, as if waiting for some message. This was not a particularly talented parrot, the kind that can repeat whole sentences, the kind suggestive of a soul; it only made strange stops and clicks with its plump bird tongue, bobbing up and down as if kneeling to pray or to take communion, its head cocked to one side. Stop, and click; warble, click; and stop. Even the stoutest of the Reverend’s suitors withdrew at the sight of him waiting for his parrot, and turned their hopes elsewhere.

Of course, even this might have been tolerated if it weren’t for the sermon he delivered on Christmas morning—a joyous morning when an old truce is declared, so that the sinners of a parish, the neglectful and the ambivalent, the absent-minded and the repentant of spirit, can flock with the faithful to church and expect to be met with cheerful news of the life everlasting. But on this day of days, overwhelmed, no doubt, by the goodness of his news, Reverend Adams chose to stand at the pulpit, on his toes, and inform his congregation that their prayers had been answered: that on the previous night, and every night for months now, he had been visited by visions of Heaven so magnificent, so vivid, that the world around him seemed almost to no longer exist, and he had come to rely on his bird, that messenger of God, to guide him through it, so that he could keep his inner eye fixed on the paradise in store for God’s people. Then Reverend Adams began to weep, and as he did so his bird lifted from his arm and flew, in perfect calm, into the vast expanse under the roof of the church, which had been designed long ago to encourage men to raise their eyes Heavenward. It seemed now to have been designed for the flight of the white parrot, which continued for some time until finally the bird came to rest on the great cross in the chancel. By then the Reverend had been led away from the pulpit and, as his congregation sang carols and murmured the benediction, could be heard sobbing in the vestry. He pulled himself together, however, to stand outside the church door in order to perform his regular duty of greeting each parishioner after the service, and it was here that certain older and well-respected members of his congregation suggested to him that he might consider taking a long and possibly permanent break from his ministerial responsibilities, which appeared to be taxing him beyond endurance.

This was the hour of his humiliation. He left the church at once. He drove with his yellow car pointed toward the sea, because this was the pattern of his annual holiday and he was unsure where else to go. A long flat plain and a range of mountains separated the Reverend from the sea. His bird rode above the steering wheel, on his right hand, as they crossed the plain and climbed the mountains, and as they descended, the clouds broke open and admitted a column of sun. Reverend Adams was moved to lower the window of his car and thrust his bird-heavy arm into the void, so that his parrot was obliged to take flight. He withdrew his arm and sealed himself in. And the white bird flew in the shaft of light above the car, above the revolving earth, until finally, man and bird together reached the sea.

The High Places

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Fiona McFarlane was born in 1978 in Sydney, Australia, and holds a PhD from Cambridge University and an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Michener Fellow. Her work has been published in Zoetrope: All-Story, The Missouri Review, and The Best Australian Stories, and she has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Phillips Exeter Academy, and the Australia Council for the Arts.

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