Tom recognized it immediately. He looked away, into one of the shop windows he was just passing, thinking that he was imagining things again. But when he sneaked a quick peek upwards, it was still there. Round and black, a bundle of feathers, with large golden eyes looking down at him. He had seen that bird before.
He had to find out what kind of bird it was.
It was early, only 9:00ish, and the shops were just beginning to open, but seeing a door standing ajar, he ducked in and found an oldish woman in the back, sweeping with one of those picturesque handmade bundled brooms.
“Please, help me. Bird. What is name of bird?”
The woman looked up at him, with an expression of someone looking at a stupid child, and Tom realized that he really should not have expected her, here on this small Greek island, to understand English. He started to turn, but was stopped by her words.
“You’ll have to speak in complete sentences, young man, if you expect any help. Now, what bird are you speaking of?” Her accent was clearly British of some sort. Welsh? Scottish? He had no idea.
“The one outside, sitting on the ledge above the street. I have seen one before and I want to know what it is.” He walked as he talked, and she followed behind him.
“There – see it? Right on top of that ledge. He is huge, and black, and he’s looking down at us.”
“Sorry dearie, I don’t see any bird. My eyesight is usually pretty good, too. I’d say you were imagining things again.”
“Did you say ‘again’?”
“Again. Did you say again?”
“I don’t think so. No. Sorry I couldn’t help. I have to get back to me shop, now. The cruise ship is due to land in an hour and it will be a flood of tourists in here. Have to get my specials all displayed.”
The end of her sentence trailed out from the recesses of her shop, and Tom, stopped in the open doorway, looked up at the bird, which hadn’t moved from it’s perch.
Shortly a couple came along from behind him, the retired type, he wearing cargo shorts and fanny pack, and she with her white tennis shoes and foldable canvas sunhat.
“Excuse me please. Can you help me?”
“Yes,” the man answered, but with some kind of a heavy accent.
“Do you see that bird up there?” Tom pointed to the bird, who seemed to shuffle its position as if to get a better look at the retired couple.
“Yes, up there. That bird. Do you see it?”
The man turned to his wife and said “Weißt du, was er redet?”
“Ich habe keine Ahnung,” she answered, while looking at Tom, not her husband.
“Sorry,” the man said, taking the arm of his wife and walking her down the market alley.
Tom looked up and noticed that the bird seemed to have edged closer to him along the ledge.
Well, the cruise ship would be in port in a hour, according to the shop mistress, so he would just stay in position, and wait. He moved a few feet away from the shop entrance, put down his backpack, un-velcro-ed his water bottle, and leaning against the whitewashed surface of the ancient wall, taking a sip as he watched the bird. The bird didn’t move. It was already getting hot, even in the cool shade of the walled street. Tom realized that he could take a photo of the bird, since it was sitting so still, and pulled up his iPhone, centering the black bundled shape and clicking one, then two, then turning the position and clicking a third shot.
Just then an very tall, very thin, middle aged man came striding towards him, wearing a safari hat and khaki shorts, looking as though he had stepped right out of British India. He stopped beside Tom and said
“Good day there, sir. I see you are catching the way the light effects the angles of stone in these lovely old walled streets. Jolly good. It is a subject that is sadly not as appreciated as it should be. So keep up the good work!”
“I am taking a photo of the bird.”
“The bird? Which bird is that, sir?”
“The big black one, there, sitting on the ledge, looking down at us. There, see, he just moved a little.”
The man stood looking up at the ledge for a moment, watching, and then turned to pat Tom on the shoulder.
“Well, chap, I don’t see any bird, but carry on. I am sure you will find one.”
The angular man’s knees seemed to jump up ahead of him as he strode away up the slight slope of the stone street.
Tom checked his iPhone to see if he got enough detail in his shots to look up the bird at the Audubon website. But all three shots showed only the ledge. How odd. He must have aimed the camera lens wrong. So he pulled his up phone and took some more photos. He took ten, in fact, moving into several different positions in the alleyway so as to capture different angles of the big black feathered bundle.
When he checked his phone, none of the photos showed a bird. Just ledges.
Enough of this crap, Tom decided. He loaded up his backpack and walked down towards the little cafe area near the wharf. He ordered a cup of coffee and sat down at a small table to sip it and watch the little fishing boats come and go in the harbor. He was on a tour of the Greek Islands in a small boat, only twelve passengers total, and they were not leaving until 3:30, so he had the whole day to roam around the little island.
He tried not to think about the bird. There must be some reason it did not show up in the camera. And inner voice said, “Yea, and that might be the same reason that no one else has seen it, dummy. It’s not real. Not a real bird. You are imagining things again.”
Tom hated it when his inner voice talked to him. He hated that he could almost hear it in his head. But he knew he wasn’t imaging things. Again or otherwise. He had seen that bird, before, and now.
He would finish his coffee and the climb the steps to the old monastery, and go through their museum. He had promised to meet a few of his shipmates for lunch at 1:00 so he had enough time to read all the labels in the museum, which he loved to do, without being rushed.
At noon, Tom exited the cool of the old monastery into the heat of the bright sun, and quickly grabbed his hat. It was only May, but it was very hot. The tour guide on the ship had said it was unseasonably warm for May in Greece, but he wondered if he was trying to hide the fact that it was hotter here than it used to be. He had also mentioned that that fifty years ago all the window boxes in the Greek islands had tomatoes growing in them, but there had not been enough water to grow them for many years now.
As he descended the old stone steps, heading down into the cool walls of the lower town, he saw the bird again. It had moved. It was now on a new ledge, a different ledge, a much higher ledge. And it was standing up. He would have to walk beneath it, and as he moved down the stairs, he saw that the bird was looking at him. Then, to his amazement, the bird spread his wings. They were enormous! Tom stopped to watch as the bird rose into the sky, and circled around as if to get its bearings, and then turned toward him. It was going to dive! Tom realized with a sick feeling that it was actually coming at him out of the hot noonday sky and it was coming fast. Tom looked down at the uneven steps and began to hop down them, one then another. They were not the kind of stairs you could run down, because not only were they steep, and uneven, but some were considerably shorter than others. He went as fast as he could, but just as he thought he might have escaped the diving bird, something hit him, and it hit him hard.
He woke up in a hard bed on top of white sheets, near an open window over-looking the little harbor. The room was cool, in spite of being able to feel the warm air floating in the widow. All the walls were covered with pale green tile. The floors were stone. It looked like it had been freshly washed. Out the window he could see that the shadows were long, and that it must be late afternoon. The cruise passengers must have come and gone, for the public areas were sparse of people again, with only the odd tourist couple mixing in with the locals.
When he tried to roll off the bed and sit up he realized he was wearing a cast on his lower left leg. And he realized that it hurt. And so did his head.
The doctor explained, with the help of a young boy aide who spoke English, that he had had heat stroke and taken a bad fall on the stairs. They had set the bone but Tom had to stay off of it for at least a week, and then use crutches. He asked Tom if he would like to use his phone to call his party – were they on a boat, or somewhere on the island? Tom tried a couple of different numbers, but no one answered. When he found out it was 5:30, he realized that they were already quite a ways out in the Aegean and did not have cell service.
It was complicated, and also very simple. He had to stay on the island, and then when he felt better, take the ferry back to Athens, and fly home. So his vacation was ruined, but on the other hand he had a week of lazy days in the glorious Greek sun. The ferry ride was fascinating, and he enjoyed it much more than the little exclusive sailing ship he had started out on.
He was at home in his backyard in Aloha Oregon, sitting on the chaise lounge on his deck, reading a book, three weeks later, when he found out about the sickness. The tour company called him. Ten people, passengers and crew, had become seriously ill on the trip to the next island, and two had subsequently died. The others were still recovering slowly. The tour company was offering a lump sum compensation to each of the passengers. They would be sending him a check and a release form. They would appreciate it if he would have the release from witnessed and notarized, and send it back immediately in the overnight delivery envelope that would be provided.
For some odd reason, at exactly that moment, Tom looked up in the trees in his yard to see if he could see a large black bird. But it was not there. There was a Nuthatch, a Junco, and a Blue Jay, but other than that, the trees were empty.