Copyright is held by the author. This story was orginally published in Spanish as “Aves” on enamoralarte.com.
NOW HE was on welfare. He had worked for several businesses in the past and could prove to the world that he was a skillful bookkeeper with exceptionally neat printing. And like everyone else, he could use a computer to navigate the net. But to get a job these days required something else — something much more technology oriented and cutting edge, with a catchy label attached to it (and a job description wildly unrelated to anything that Javier enjoyed doing or had ever done at all). At least he had this appointment at the temp agency today. He should not totally give up. It should be possible to find a simple gig just for the summer.
“Please fill this form in,” said the receptionist.
She wore wide-rimmed glasses that gave her young face an expression of seriousness bordering on concern. A tightly fitted vest squeezed her torso over a silky top. Javier had decided on his brown suit that morning, a choice he now resented. Twenty years ago he went around in spotless, fashionable clothes and beautiful shoes. In the warmest days, he would rise extra early to reach work before the sun was out. It was imperative to beat the crowds and enjoy a gracious ride on the city bus, because anyone who took the bus during rush hour would arrive to work with the appearance of a rumpled traveler, even in one of those fine, almost translucent cotton-linen shirts from the upscale stores.
“We’ll call you.”
Javier stepped outside just before 10 o’clock. The air felt as crisp as when he left home a couple of hours earlier. How could he fill the rest of his day? He might walk to Retiro, the old city park, and stretch his legs a bit. No matter which avenue one takes, one ends up at the gates of Retiro from any corner of the Salamanca district. Inside the park he headed to the Glass Palace, where large brightly coloured placards hanging on the front announced an art exhibition. Clusters of tourists were already lining up, but Javier walked past them. He hit the promenade along the large pond, trying to slow down his pace. The park was almost empty. He sat down on a bench to look peacefully at the water. All of a sudden, a cloud darkened the surface of the pond and a swan glided over its reflection. The receptionist’s voice emerged from the silence:
“We’ll call you.”
Soon he was only hearing a faint ringing of telephones. Then nothing.
Javier was cruising the downtown core in one of the old subway cars with red paint peeling off its metal frame. The train stopped at Alonso Martínez station. What was he supposed to be doing there? He could not remember. But he used to work in the area and a vivid memory of the swanky bar that he frequented in those better days came rushing to his mind. Would they be open for mid-morning snacks? He could walk in casually, pretending to be looking for someone. Surely no one would recognize him. There was the street sign with pointy yellow letters: ¨Bar Gaudí.¨ He went inside and realized that this was no bar. The place had changed into a bookstore, with stacks of paperbacks from floor to ceiling and bundles of comic books sitting on every corner. Javier was feeling uncomfortable. He took his jacket off and eased the knot in his tie. There were endless volumes on the shelves and he wanted to browse them all. Something was growing around his arms while he was checking the titles of the books. Whatever it was, it felt unmistakably like feathers. A heavy old man gestured to him from the cashier counter. Javier froze, stared at the man, turned around and ran. He was carrying a book with him.
The subway car was not quite full. Javier was peeking at his hands, which were all covered with grey-brown feathers. His sleeves failed to hide those absurd feathers. At Cuatro Caminos the train came to a halt and for a few long minutes the doors remained open. He tried to read the book on his lap, burying his head in his chest, but the text was written in French and every sentence looked entirely like a riddle. Just before the train was set back in motion he jumped off his seat and stepped onto the platform.
Back in the street Javier was breathing fast. He was very agitated, but no sweat dropped from his brow. Tiny round eyes on the sides of his head captured strange views of the road. The houses and the passers-by seemed like pictures taken from the wrong angles. He quickened his pace and kept going for a while. When he stopped, he was at the wire fence of the large property that belonged to the water company. A couple of massive buildings stood at the back, nicely surrounded by a few clumps of pine trees and a freshly watered lawn. The bittersweet smell coming from the trees invited Javier to move closer. Managing a few jumps, he reached the top of the fence. Then he fluttered his wings to make it to the branch of a giant spruce and disappeared into its foliage.
When Javier woke up his feathers had vanished. His features were normal and he was still sitting by the large pond in Retiro Park. People strolled by and a boy who could be 12 or 11 sat next to him. The boy was engrossed in a small book with numerous illustrations of birds. As he finally put it down, Javier saw the title on the cover and the name of its author, Alfred de Musset. He remembered having previously held such book in his own hands, probably at a bookstore, and how it felt like feathers to touch.