Birth of the Dodo ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This short story is a continuation of “I Have Never Known the River Ishcabob to Flood.”
The sky was overcast. No sunshine for days. I was sitting on the couch with my feet propped up, reading an article entitled “How to Take the Rigor Out of Rigor Mortis,” when Mrs. Goldoni came into the room. I heard her insect feet clicking long before she appeared.
I looked up from my magazine and said, “Why are you still here?” There was just a touch of malice in my voice, but nothing I said ever seemed to bother her.
“I’m staying on as housekeeper,” she said. “At least for a little while.”
“Did I say I need a housekeeper?”
“No, sir,” she smiled, “but I’ve lived in this house for many years, and I think it’s only fair that I stay on and help you until you’ve had a chance to get used to the place.”
“I can get used to the place on my own,” I said, “without any help from you or anybody else.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“And while we’re on the subject of ‘this place’,” I said, “yesterday I was downstairs and I noticed some rooms I hadn’t seen before. When I tried to go into them, I discovered to my disappointment that they were locked.”
“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Goldoni said.
“Isn’t this my house?”
“That cannot be disputed, sir.”
“I bought it, paid for it with every cent I had. You signed the papers transferring ownership to me.”
“That’s right, sir.”
“Rooms in my house belong to me, then, don’t they? I should be able to go into them whenever I want.”
“That’s true, sir, but this is not like any other house,” she said.
“In what way is it not like any other house?”
“You’re finding out, sir, as you go along.”
“As I go along,” I said.
“That’s the thing we all have to do. Learn as we go.”
“I tell you I don’t need a housekeeper!”
“I think you do, sir,” she said.
“Wouldn’t you say that I’m the boss and you’re the employee?”
I would expect these words to hurt Mrs. Goldoni’s feelings, but they seemed to have no visible effect on her.
“I’ll leave, sir, whenever you say.”
“What I want you to do,” I said, “is get the keys to the rooms that are locked so I can open the doors and see what’s inside the rooms.”
“That might not be so easy, sir,” she said.
“As I’ve said before, it’s an old house and a different sort of a house.”
“Different, yes. I turned a corner yesterday and saw a strange woman walking toward me. She was holding her arms out stiffly at her sides and taking skating steps as though she walked on invisible skis. She was wearing a billowing white robe that went from her neck down to her feet. I just caught a glimpse of her face, but she had, I’m sure, the face of Miss Kay Francis.”
“Miss Kay Francis, the nineteen-thirties movie star. Long dead and mostly forgotten.”
“I don’t keep up with the movies,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Did the lady speak to you?”
“No, Mrs. Goldoni, she didn’t. I wanted to ask her what she was doing in my house, but she was gone before I had a chance to say anything.”
Mrs. Goldoni laughed. “That’s the way things happen here.”
“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t want people in my house?”
“Is anybody bothering you, sir?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, no,” I said. “Not exactly.”
“If anybody bothers you, sir, you be sure and let me know and I’ll tell them to stop.”
“Yes, but who are they?”
She laughed and straightened the dust bonnet on her head, apparently casting about in her head for the right words. “So many people have lived in the world and have died. You are now in the place where you can see some of them.”
“I can hardly accept that as an answer,” I said with what I hoped was a measure of sternness.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
She gave me a wan little smile and maneuvered her legs about to leave the room.
“How’s the arthritis?” I asked.
“Oh, we manage!” she said cheerily.
“Sometime we’ll have a long talk over a cup of tea,” I said, “and you can explain to me how arthritis turns you into an insect.”
She was gone, though, so I was sure she didn’t hear me. Like a mother, she had the facility of not hearing what she didn’t want to hear, but always hearing what you wish she hadn’t.
Two days later, I was walking along an unexplored corridor on one of the lower floors in my house, when I turned a corner and saw several people, mostly women, crowded around the doorway of a room I had not had the pleasure of visiting.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
Some of them turned and looked at me and, I swear, they dissolved into the air as soon as they saw me. There were still four or five people remaining, though, blocking my way and keeping me from going into the room.
“It’s all right,” I heard Mrs. Goldoni say. “Let him come in.”
The room was small with a bed; four women, including Mrs. Goldoni, were standing around the bed. There was a person in the bed and a sort of tent over the person made of bedsheets. The only parts of the person that weren’t underneath the tent were head and shoulders.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“This is Lulu, your wife,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “She’s giving birth.”
As astonished as I was at that statement, I was more astonished at Lulu in the bed. She was a human-sized doll with a painted face and a lacy Jane Austen cap on her head. Her lips were drawn on in the shape of a cupid’s bow and her cheeks were red. Her eyes were small and sparkling, with lashes like spiders’ legs.
“Very funny,” I said. “You know I don’t have a wife.”
“Well, if didn’t have a wife before, you have one now!” Mrs. Goldoni said.
“So, that’s the way marriage happens here?” I asked. “You’re not married and then you are married before you even know it?”
“Well, yes, if sometimes happens that way here.”
A woman standing at the foot of the bed was holding a stopwatch. “The pains are closer together now,” she said anxiously to Mrs. Goldoni.
Mrs. Goldoni said to me, “You can either go back upstairs where you’re comfortable, or you can stay here and witness the birth of the dodo bird.”
“’The birth of the dodo bird’,” I said. “I believe the dodo is extinct.”
“You’re about to find out!” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Here comes the head!”
Lulu the doll didn’t make a sound, but the women standing around the bed made encouraging little clucks with their tongues. I stood there watching, not sure what I was about to see. In about two minutes, Mrs. Goldoni pulled from underneath the sheet-tent a fully formed dodo bird. She held it up so I and the others could get a look at it.
“Is that really a dodo bird?” I asked in amazement.
“What do your eyes tell you?” Mrs. Goldoni said.
“Wait a minute!” I said. “A dodo is a bird and birds are hatched from eggs.”
“Not always!” Mrs. Goldoni said.
“Nobody has seen a dodo bird for hundreds of years,” I said with real and not fabricated wonder.
The dodo bird made pitiful little squeaks with its mouth. Mrs. Goldoni handed it off to one of the women and bent over Lulu with her ear to Lulu’s mouth. I didn’t hear a sound but I knew that Lulu was whispering into Mrs. Goldoni’s ear.
“She wants to know if the baby is all right,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Yes, dear, the baby is a fine male dodo bird, exactly as you expected.”
I looked at Lulu’s face but saw no change in her expression because she was a doll and doll’s expressions remained the same, no matter if a dodo bird has just come out of their bodies.
“She’s wants to name him Sheridan,” Mrs. Goldoni said.
The women clapped their hands and gave little expressions of approval and Mrs. Goldoni turned to me.
“The baby needs to be fed and changed and I think it’s time for the poppa to go back upstairs.”
“I’m not really the father of a dodo bird,” I said. “I think you’re playing a joke on me.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to sort this all out before you’re through,” Mrs. Goldoni said.
“Through with what?” I asked, but she took hold of my elbow and ushered me out of the room and closed the door firmly.
I went back upstairs, excited at the prospect of being the father of a dodo bird. Nobody else I knew could claim the distinction. I wanted to take a picture of the dodo, my son Sheridan, because I was sure my friends were not going to believe me. (I was forgetting for the moment, I suppose, that I didn’t have any friends and wasn’t likely to make any new ones.)
I began looking through my things for the camera that I once owned, but had no luck finding it. I needed to buy myself a new one. It’s so seldom that you become a father, especially the father of a male dodo bird named Sheridan, that you must have pictorial documentation so that people may know you’re not going insane or are already there.
Out the windows on the upper floor of my house, I could see the scenic little town of New Garland nestled among the hills. Somebody had told me when I first came to the house that New Garland was a mile-and-a-half away. Since shank’s mare was my only means of getting anywhere, I would walk there tomorrow and find a shop that sells cameras and buy one.
In the morning after breakfast, I went to my room and dressed in outdoorwear, cap, jacket and hiking shoes. When I went back to the kitchen to tell Mrs. Goldoni I was going to be gone for at least a couple of hours, she was sitting at the table with Mrs. Woolwine, the smashed-flat woman who ran the bed and breakfast next door. They liked to have confabs a couple of times a week in which they exchanged gossip and talked about their various ailments.
“How are you, Mrs. Woolwine?” I asked.
“Feeling a little flat these days,” she said.
“We’re full up,” she said. “We’re always full up. People love to stay here on their way to some other place.”
“Wonderful!” I said.
“Are you going somewhere?” Mrs. Goldoni asked me.
“Yes, I’m going to walk to New Garland. I’m in the market for a camera. I want to take some pictures of Sheridan so people will believe that I really have a dodo bird in my house.”
“The proud poppa!” Mrs. Woolwine said with her flat smile.
“No, it’s not so much pride as it is amazement. You know and I know and everybody else knows that I can’t be the father of a dodo bird, except in the sense that I would be the father of a kitten that I found on the street and took home to raise into a cat.”
“I wouldn’t talk that way around Lulu if I were you,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “She’ll think you don’t love her anymore.”
“I don’t love her and never have loved her. She’s a doll. You know she’s a doll, I know it, and I’m sure Lulu knows it. Dolls don’t give birth to anything, but especially they don’t give birth to dodo birds.”
“Sometimes they do,” Mrs. Goldoni said.
“I might eat lunch in town,” I said, “so If I’m not back by lunchtime, go ahead without me.”
“New Garland is a long way to walk,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “Watch out for the Followers.”
“The Followers? The Followers of what?”
“The Followers of the Father of All Lies.”
“He’s also called by a lot of other names,” Mrs. Woolwine said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“They want your soul,” Mrs. Goldoni said. “They’ll take it, too, if you let them. You’ll be safe as long as you ignore them and don’t engage with them. They can’t take your soul without touching you, and they can’t touch you unless you allow it.”
“They try to seduce you,” Mrs. Woolwine said.
“It sounds like a story to scare children,” I said with a laugh. “Believe me, I’ll be fine.”
So, I set out in a northerly direction alongside the River Ishcabob toward the town of New Garland. After a half-hour or so of walking, I heard screaming and looked to the source of the screaming out in the middle of the river. It was a woman flailing about in the water, apparently drowning.
“Help me!” she screamed. “Save me! I’m drowning! Oh, I’m drowning!”
I stood on the banks of the River Ishcabob watching the drowning woman. I didn’t for one second consider trying to save her. My shoes were new and I didn’t know how to swim, anyway. I had had a scratchy throat for the last couple of days and I knew that getting myself all wet wouldn’t help it any.
The woman stopped screaming, stopped waving her arms, and went under for the last time.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” I said, hoping that if there were any Followers around they would hear me.
The town of New Garland was old and quaint. There were a few people on the streets, but they moved quickly and didn’t look at me. As I looked at the little shops on the main thoroughfare, I doubted that I would be able to buy a camera in this place.
After I walked a couple of blocks, I saw a place of business with a shining glass window on which was painted the legend Witherspoon’s Photography Studio, and underneath that, Photographs of the Deceased. I went inside and was greeted by a tall man with a drooping mustache and a high collar.
“What might I do for you today, sir?” he asked with a friendly smile.
“I’m looking to buy a camera,” I said.
“A camera?” he asked. “You want to buy your own camera?”
“Yes. I had a camera before but I can’t seem to find it anymore.”
“They’re very expensive, I’m afraid, sir,” he said.
“What year are we in here?” I asked.
“Would you like to sit for your portrait?” he asked. “It only takes a few minutes.”
“Well, no, I wasn’t wanting a picture of myself. I have plenty of pictures of myself and I keep them hidden away. I have a dodo bird in my house and I want a picture of my dodo bird before it gets away or before something happens to it.”
“Do you have your dodo bird with you?” he asked, looking down at my feet.
“No, no!” I said, running out of patience. “I want to buy a camera so I can take my own picture of my dodo bird.”
“You can’t buy a camera here, I’m afraid, sir.”
“Well, where, then?”
“You could try the town of Gladstone.”
“And where is that?”
“It’s about twenty miles that way,” he said, thrusting his chin toward the street.
“I’m walking,” I said. “I obviously won’t be walking twenty miles to buy myself a camera.”
“Well, sir, since you’re here, would you like to sit for your photograph today?”
He took me into another room and I sat on a small dais that resembled the throne of an emperor. After the man and another man fussed with my hair and clothing, I was aware of a bright flash and then it was all over.
“Call for your picture in a week,” the man said. “You don’t have to pay until then.”
After I left the photography studio, I was hungry and thirsty. I spotted a place across the street with a sign that said Fine Eats, so I crossed over and went inside.
There was nobody else inside Fine Eats, so I sat down at a table next to a window overlooking the street. A very small woman came out from the back and set a glass of water down by my elbow and handed me a menu.
“Fried catfish today’s specialty,” she said. “Served with slaw and fried potatoes.”
I looked at the menu, but I couldn’t keep from looking at the tiny woman over the top of the menu. She had red wooly hair piled high on top of her head. Her ears stuck out very far on each side of her head and her eyes were blank but bright like the eyes of a doll. On the backs of her hands were what appeared to be the kind of spikes you would find on the back of a Gila monster in the Mohave Desert. I couldn’t help but believe that she had an affliction similar to the one that was causing Mrs. Goldoni to turn into an insect.
I glanced over the menu and said, “The fried catfish will do.”
She brought me a beer in a large glass container to keep me occupied until the fried catfish was ready.
The food was excellent, I had to admit. I couldn’t remember when I had food that tasted so good. I couldn’t, in fact, ever remember eating any food of any kind before, although I had a vague recollection of eating breakfast that morning. Something was happening to me and I didn’t know what it was. I was experiencing many things I had never experienced, including an uncharacteristic loss of memory. Maybe I too was turning into something other than what I started out to be.
The tiny woman waitress didn’t come back, so I paid for my lunch with Roman coins and left Fine Eats and went back out onto the street.
The clouds had dissipated and the sun was shining. The birds were singing. It was a spring day that reminded me of spring days when I was in school in the lower grades. I took a deep breath and started for home. I wasn’t anticipating meeting any Followers, but if I did I was sure I’d know what to do. And when I got home, Mrs. Goldoni my housekeeper who was turning into an insect, Lulu the human-sized doll, and Sheridan my dodo bird son would be waiting for me in my own four-story house on the banks of the River Ishcabob. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
(To be continued.)
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp