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The Bird WhoTold Him So
Young Paul Dear stared at his reflection one evening for a very long time. When his reflection began talking back to him, Paul began to think that perhaps he himself was actually The Boy of Legend.
In order to understand how that came to pass, it is important to learn of the events directly preceding the moment Paul’s reflection stuck its tongue out at him and threw several cocky and very saucy challenges his way.
Paul knew about pixies. He knew about elves and leprechauns. He knew about mermaids who dwelt beneath the chopping whitecaps from the times when his father and mother, Patrick and Colleen Dear, took him to Brighton on holiday. They would watch the surf and his father would tell him stories of such fancies as he knew. Sometimes Paul’s father would lean in and say softly, “Don’t look at your mum when I say this. But she is, in fact, part leprechaun, what with having the Irish in her blood. Hush! Are you not listening? If you look at her sidelong with a suspicious eye, she will disappear just out of the habit of her kind.”
“So I am part leprechaun as well?” Paul said eagerly. His father simply smiled in that puzzling way he had. It is, as we all know, the way that parents always smile when they want you to think they know the answers, and perhaps even want to convince themselves as well.
Paul did not press his father on the answers, knowing that he had learned all he was going to. However, if he had known that his father was going to go away, he might well have been more insistent in trying to determine the truths of the world in general and himself in particular. Paul did not know that his time with his father and mother was limited, for to all children time is an inexhaustible commodity and childhood an endless haze of day-after-day.
Paul was a fair-skinned boy, with short black hair cropped in neat, even bangs and the redness of cheeks that comes from adoring relatives pinching his face and saying, “Look at that lovely little face! Why, we could just EAT HIM UP, yes we could!” For a time, Paul lived in fear of being fattened up and devoured, and thus did everything he could to prevent himself from becoming a potentially tasty treat. This was a period which you and I would think of as Paul’s desperate and ongoing attempt to thwart some cannibals, but Paul’s parents simply referred to it as “That time when Paul was such a finicky eater, we have Absolutely No Idea how he managed not to starve himself to death, the poor lad—whatever is it that gets into children’s minds?”
Paul’s father, as we noted, was full of magic and mischief, while his mother was full of the ability to tolerate magic and mischief. As such they made a superb pair, with Paul’s mother smiling and shaking her head at her husband’s shenanigans. Paul was a bit unclear as to exactly what his father’s profession was. Patrick simply said that he was a paid, professional liar. Paul would ask various of his friends what a paid, professional liar was, and he would receive answers ranging from barrister to politician to writer to clergyman, depending upon the friend’s age and level of cynicism. His mother, all curls and patient amusement, mainly seemed to exist to say “Oh come now, my dear, really!” in an ongoing endeavor to bring Paul’s father up short. It never worked for long.
Paul’s sense of time, however, changed utterly, as did his world, with the arrival and startlingly quick departure of Bonnie.
Bonnie first made herself known to Paul when he was lying on the couch in the family drawing room, gazing at the blazing fire in the fireplace one chilly autumn London night. His head was resting on his mother’s lap, and she was gently stroking him about the shoulders and cooing soft words about what a kind and loving and excellent boy he was. It was at that moment that his mother’s stomach kicked him in the back of the head. This was an unusual occurrence in and of itself, augmented by his mother’s abruptly calling out for Paul’s father and announcing, “She kicked!” Paul was puzzled by his mother’s suddenly referring to her stomach as “she,” and his bewilderment only grew as his parents sat him down and explained to him that a baby was growing in his mother’s stomach. A baby girl, his mother insisted, although his father said that they didn’t know yet, but his mother said they did—or at least she did—and that was quite enough for her.
Paul gazed in wonderment at the passenger within his mother’s stomach. He was quite distressed to discover that she (for he had taken to calling her “she” since his mother seemed so confident) was bereft of clothing and toys, and at one point he came to his mother with some outgrown baby clothes of his and a rattle that he’d found during a walk in Kensington Gardens. He proffered the treasures to his mother and urged her to swallow them so the baby could clothe herself properly and have something to play with besides. This caused great laughter in his mother and his father, and for all those cannibalistic relatives whenever the story was told and retold. Paul never understood quite why it was funny, but since he liked bringing smiles to peoples’ faces, he never let it bother him too much.
He watched with continued fascination as his mother’s belly expanded in a manner that he never would have thought possible. As it did so, Colleen would spend inordinate amounts of time reading both to Paul and to his soon-to-be-sibling. It was not as if she had been stingy with her reading time before a baby had been placed into her stomach through mysterious means. But now she read far more often and even told Paul to join in. She said that it was wise to familiarize his little (probable) sister with the sound of his voice so she would not be completely bewildered as to who was who when she finally was removed from her place of residence by the doctor (through other equally mysterious means).
Colleen would read the tales of fancy that Paul’s father foisted upon them, although always with one eyebrow raised in grudging patience over such frivolousness. The aforementioned elves and leprechauns and mermaids—and jolly rousing adventures of piracy and wild Indians and such—paraded through the lad’s active imagination. And every day he would go out in the backyard and pass the tales on to whatever animals happened to be lounging about.
Still in all, Patrick’s practice of speaking tales pulled wholly from his memory rather than refracted through the prism of another storyteller were the ones that Paul truly adored, because they were more personal. And of all those, the tales of which he was the most fond were the ones involving the individual who had achieved fame far and wide as “The Boy.” The most splendid boy in the world, as he would not have hesitated to tell you given the slightest opportunity.
There was some confusion as to The Boy’s whereabouts, according to Paul’s father. He said that some claimed The Boy was an infant who rode on a goat in Kensington Gardens after lock-out, playing his pipes and cavorting with the woodland sprites that supposedly populated the area. Other times, The Boy was reputed to reside in a land called the Anyplace, which could be reached by flying to the third star on the left and continuing until morning. When Paul asked eagerly if his father had ever encountered The Boy personally, his father became very quiet and then seemed wistful, as if he was either remembering something he had accidentally forgotten or trying to forget something he had no desire to remember. Finally, instead of responding with a simple yes or no, he asked Paul if he thought he might have run into him in the course of his dreams.
Paul considered it for a time, and then said he had some vague memory, as a number of youngsters did, that had something to do with The Boy during one cloudless night. His mother had come into his room and woken him, and told him that he had been creating a frightful ruckus by clapping his hands together in his sleep and shouting, “I believe! I believe in pixies!” Paul had no recollection of doing so, and could not fathom why he might have; but his mother just sighed in some odd, knowing way and said, “It probably had something to do with the Anyplace,” and then settled him back down to sleep.
“Well, if the Anyplace was involved, there’s every likelihood that The Boy was as well. Maybe the pixie involved was his.”
“The Boy had a pixie!”
“Oh yes,” Patrick said. “And redskins who combated him and an enemy named Hack, a pirate with a hatchet instead of a right hand, who was so vile that even Long John Silver feared him. And others, but their names blur,” he said with a frown. “The memories one takes from the Anyplace are fluid at best, vapor at worst.”
The Boy sounded like a perfectly marvelous fellow to Paul. It was hard to dislike someone who flew and dispatched pirates and cavorted with redskins and pixies and such. Still, in some ways Paul disapproved of him; for, by all accounts, The Boy was a showy fellow, and uncaring, and really not all that heroic unless it suited his vanity. Paul was of the opinion that if one was going to be a hero, it should be from selflessness, not selfishness. His stated beliefs had prompted Colleen to say, “You are quite wise beyond your years, Paul. Well done and keep at it, and you shall be a grown-up in no time!”
When she said that, Paul felt a chill wind blow across his spine. He had no idea why that should be so.
That evening, lying in his bed in his nursery, he thought he heard something. A voice, perhaps, calling to him. It wasn’t speaking his name, though. Instead it was making sounds . . . animal sounds. A lion growling and then a clucking like a bird, followed by a crowing as if from a rooster. None of them sounded remotely like “Paul” and yet, in an odd way, they all did.
He slid out of his bed and crawled around upon the floor, looking under the bed to see if the sounds were originating from there. When he couldn’t find them, he stood and glanced around in the darkness, modified by only the illumination that came from the night-light his mother insisted be in his room.
Then he saw a movement in the mirror. His reflection, he would have thought, except he swayed back and forth experimentally and the reflection stayed right where it was, a smug grin on its face and an impish twinkle in its eyes.
Paul might have been dreaming or might not; he was in one of those places where the borders between the two became indistinguishably thin, but he did not know that. Slowly he crept toward the mirror, staring fixedly at it. His reflection continued to gaze back at him, chin pointed upward in a defiant manner.
“Hullo,” said Paul cautiously. “Are you . . . him?”
“Are you?” said the reflection. Then it stuck its tongue out at Paul, at which Paul was slightly taken aback. Paul was generally well behaved and well schooled, so it was odd to see himself acting in such a manner.
“I don’t think so,” Paul said.
“Then how am I supposed to know?”
Paul was mildly irritated at the vagueness of the exchange. “Look here,” he said firmly, “I asked you a question. You don’t have to play games.”
The reflection laughed. “If you think I don’t have to play games, then no wonder you don’t know if I’m him or you’re him. You don’t know anything important!”
“I do so,” Paul said defensively. “I know—”
“Stop,” said the lad in the mirror, holding up his hand in a preemptive manner. “Are you about to rattle off all sorts of things from school?”
“Well . . . yes.”
The reflection turned away, making a dismissive, snorting noise. Then Paul suddenly said, “Oh! And I know about gnomes and pixies and—and The Boy . . . which is who I think you are.”
The lad in the mirror snapped back and grinned, and then vaulted straight up, leaving a bewildered Paul craning his neck and trying to see where he’d gone. Then The Boy dropped back into view and bowed deeply. “So you are him,” Paul said.
“Am I truly marvelous?”
“Then who else would I be?” said The Boy, flashing his pearly baby teeth. He leaned forward, motioning for Paul to do the same. For a moment, Paul thought The Boy was going to pull him right through the mirror. Instead The Boy looked him up and down and stroked his chin thoughtfully. Paul mimicked the gesture as if he were the reflection and The Boy the reality, which for all he knew might be the case.
“There is some me in you,” The Boy said at last, “although not much. A passing resemblance at most.”
“You think so?”
“Maybe. Or maybe I’m lying. I am, after all, half brother to Coyote, the trickster god.” The Boy always made boasts along those lines whenever his veracity was questioned. In this case, it was indeed a lie, because being Paul’s reflection, he was in fact identical. Then, his voice soft and edged with the echoes of a thousand crafty plans, he said, “Would you like to learn some things?”
So The Boy taught him.
This happened repeatedly over a series of nights, although since Paul spent them in that delicate dividing line between sleep and dream, he lost track of how many and how often. His parents did not notice for the most part, although his father did look rather surprised when— while telling Paul about various adventures The Boy had had—Paul offered polite but firm corrections or clarifications. Plus there were other talents that Paul acquired, although it wasn’t so much acquiring them as discovering that he had always had them at his command and didn’t know until now, as if waking from a long sleep.