A short story
by Iztac Metztli
There was an old man who dreamt of being a bird.
He was a guayabera wearing viejito who never considered dressing in anything other than white. White was the color of dreams, of seagulls and clouds that drifted effortlessly. Most of all, white was the color of foam that burst against the shore. He was in love with the ocean and nothing tasted better than the flavor of the coast on his tongue.
Perched just beyond the beach was the old man's home. At noon, before he took his nap, he would sit on the porch and look out into the waves, watching where the light blue shallows divided into the dark blue of the deep sea. You could always find the old man slumped in his seat. The silver hairs on his chin scratching the top of his chest as he slept in his bright white rocking chair.
But before he became the old man who dreamt of being a bird, he was Rogelio. A man who loved his wife more than the sky or sunlight. He slept with his fingers wrapped around hers, his face buried in the curly heaviness of her hair.
In the mornings when she rolled over, her black eyelashes brushed against his cheek. She always smiled when she saw him.
“Oh, it’s you,” she would say.
“Yes, it’s me.”
She’d smile again, cup the side of his face in her palm and kiss him.
“Good, I’m glad it’s you.”
Rogelio would watch his wife as she stood in the kitchen, the Sun outlining her body like an eclipse. He was blessed to have her and not a day went by that he didn’t know it.
Rogelio loved the color of his wife’s skin.
“It’s as beautiful as sand,” he’d say.
“That’s because I came from the ocean.”
Rogelio believed her when she said this. As a young man he loved to sit in the plaza on the black metal benches by the trees. That's when she appeared. The rain was cold and fast, the orange lights of the street made her look like she was glowing. He laughed when he saw her, dressed in white and as slippery as a fish. There was still sand on her bare feet, tiny shells caught in the spirals of her hair.
Rogelio would crinkle the center of his eyebrows, “Why did you leave the ocean?”
“Ai, Rogelio…" she said, her black hair dancing around her waist. "To find you!”
After three children and years on land she still smelled like the sea. But his wife was changing. She loved her children but it didn’t stop the change. Since they had met they lived in an arid desert state where cacti bloomed in the occasional rain. The smell of salt water was evaporating from her body, her skin was drying, and when he pressed his head against her chest he could barely hear the rhythm of the waves.
The night of her forty-third birthday she curled under Rogelio’s arms and whispered, “I’m wasting away Rogelio, but I love you and I’d rather stay here and turn to sand than leave you and the children.”
Rogelio could feel his blood freezing, the ice in his arteries piercing his heart in half. "What if we go live by the ocean?" he said sitting up. "That way you could go swimming every morning and you'd be fine. You'd be like always."
"You don't understand Rogelio. My leaving was a great dishonor to the ocean. The only way I can return is if I promise to stay." She looked at him this time. "You won't see me again."
For as much as he wanted to stay with her, he couldn’t let his wife turn to sand; he wasn’t that selfish. Rogelio tried to rationalize. Their oldest was twenty-two, their daughter had just turned eighteen and their youngest was eagerly awaiting her fifteenth birthday. He convinced his wife, after much convincing of himself, that it was okay if she left them. The children were almost grown and he would raise the youngest the best he could and always in the memory of her mother.
They went on one last vacation as a family. None of their children had seen the coast. “Everyone has to see the ocean at least once in their lives!” she told them.
It was early in the morning on their third day there, that Rogelio said goodbye. They crept out of their beds at dawn, his wife memorizing the faces of her children as they slept.
The water was hungry that day, leaping forward and licking their feet as they stood on the shore. Before she left, Rogelio held her hand and kissed it.
Rogelio watched as she slowly stepped into the ocean. The farther she went the more it looked as if her body was dissolving in the water. Her legs and stomach turning into waves until there was nothing left but the black curliness of her hair, and then nothing.
Their kids, and everyone else they knew, lived the rest of their lives thinking she had drowned and that the tide had not been kind enough to return her body. It was after this that Rogelio became an old man. He moved to the coast with his youngest daughter, eventually giving her the house when she had her son.
Having fulfilled what he promised his wife and wanting nothing more than to dream, he made the porch his official sleeping post.
“Grandfather, you sleep a lot! What do you dream of?” his grandson would ask.
“I dream of being a bird.”
“Because the only time I felt like I was flying was when your grandmother was with us.”
“And dreaming about birds reminds you of her?”
He tilted his fedora over his eyes, “These are too many serious questions for a child. Go, be a little boy and let this old man sleep.”
Pouting, his grandson disappeared into the house.
The old man slept.
The sweat dripped down his gray head to the nape of his neck. The breeze ruffled his pants; the trees rustled. The waves responded to the wind. To the old man’s sleeping ears the sounds became bird song. He dreamt that he was all feathers, an elegant Quetzal bird made of green and red fire. Everything was damp in the canopy of the rainforest. The green moss on the tree branches tickled the spaces between his forked feet. He had the taste of avocado in his beak.
The tree shook itself.
‘She’s leaving today.’ It said.
The flames of his wings rose and flickered. ‘I know.’
‘Well, you aren’t going to stop her?’
The bird shook its head. His fire was wasting her way, he understood. He was in love with a blue macaw made of water. Ever since she hatched from the river it was her destiny to return to the sea. She swooshed in the air as she left, the bottom of her wings flashing a fierce yellow as she flew. His fire flickered. He stretched his head above the trees trying to smell the ocean, but the wind never carried her scent. The Quetzal dreamt of the coast, of the salty wind; he hid in the shadow of the leaves where the sun could not reach him. He was not worthy of sunlight without her.
The old man was still dreaming of being a bird when his grandson woke him.
“Hmpf” was the only noise the old man made.
“Abuelito hurry!” He wrapped his hands around his grandfather’s fingers and tugged.
“They caught a bird! A red green bird! You have to see, Abuelito, you have to!”
Half asleep, the old man followed his grandson until they were standing in front of a house where a crowd yelled, “It’s made of fire!”
Not sure if he was still dreaming the old man opened his eyes and pushed, “Let me through, let me see it.”
The bird was frail and flickering. Its small head hung low inside of the cage. Something woke up in the old man when he saw the bird. He put his hand out and nudged it onto his fingers. The fire did not burn him. In that moment the old man felt himself become Rogelio again. No one stopped him when he walked away with the bird. His grandson following quietly behind as they walked towards the beach.
“Abuelito, where are you going?”
When they reached the shore the old man, now Rogelio, whispered to the bird, “We will reach them soon.”
He turned to his grandson and laughed with more teeth than the little boy remembered. “Don’t follow me. When you are older you will understand.” He patted the boy’s head before he kissed it. Sensing what was to come, the little boy fit his hand into his grandfather’s. They stood there silently staring into horizon.
“The distance we travel for those we love is endless. Your grandmother traveled that distance for me and now I am returning to her.”
The bird on Rogelio’s arm cooed.
The little boy said his last goodbye and watched as his white-clothed grandfather walked into the ocean, holding the fire bird high into the air. He watched until there was nothing left of the old man and the bird but the smoke of their bodies meeting the water.
This time the tide was kind enough to return the old man’s white hat.
Copyright © 2012 by Iztac Metztli
Story image: © Christos Georghiou | Dreamstime.com
After a lifelong love affair with water, and a class with a perfect view of Lake Michigan, this story came to me. ‘The Old Man, the Ocean and the Bird’ became a way for me to ask the questions, what are the transformative powers of water? Where does its magic and beauty come from, and how can I portray that in a story? Whether or not these were directly answered, I can safely say that the tone and movement of the piece is completely inspired by my observation and appreciation of water.
Iztac Metztli is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago with a BA in Creative Writing. As a writer, her focus is on magical realism, spoken word poetry, and creative nonfiction. From Mexica (Aztec) dancing to her photography, everything she does is an attempt to tell a story, to remain present and preserve what is on the verge of being lost. You can reach her through her website: www.iztacmetztli.com.