Astrid wasn’t a lonely little girl, as others thought. Neighbors passing by the house would wave to her, hoping she would wave back, then shake their heads once out of view. “Poor child, she has not much of a life being forever trapped in her grandmother’s house.”
Though she lived a sheltered life, with her legs strapped to braces of leather and wood, on occasion, her Nonna would carry her outside to sit on the lawn and absorb the summer’s sun. Most other times, Astrid would peer out the window to watch the songbirds gather at the feeders hung along the eaves. There were finches, chickadees, larks, robins, and occasionally, forest pigeons would stop as they migrated south. She came to believe she could identify the birds which returned each year with their offspring to feed on the millet and seeds diligently put out by grandmother.
Nonna didn’t mind the added expense of purchasing the seed if it made her little Astrid happy. Her son was lost in the war, and his wife followed close behind from the stress of childbirth. Astrid was the only family she had left. Budgeting pennies for birdseed seemed hardly a burden if it pleased her granddaughter.
“Nonna, come here, but move slow so as not to scare the birds.”
The old woman moved behind the girl sitting at the window. “What is it, Astrid?”
“Look at that red-headed finch, at least I think it’s a finch.”
“Yes, I see the red, but it’s a little muted for a finch, don’t you think?”
“Maybe, but it’s not what makes him special.”
Astrid pointed as if following her finger would bring clarity. “Look at the top of his head. He has three feathers sticking straight up as if they were antenna.” She looked up at Nonna hoping the woman would understand.
“Well, I don’t know, dear. My old eyes are not as sharp as yours.”
Astrid turned back to the birds. “He’s so special looking. But why won’t the other birds eat out of the feeder when he is there, Nonna?”
“Well, Astrid, sometimes the group doesn’t feel comfortable around others that are different.”
Astrid looked up at Nonna. Her eyebrows knit close. “You mean like the way other kids don’t feel comfortable around me?”
Nonna bit her lower lip and sighed. “Yes, maybe, it’s like that, but only because they don’t know you. It could be same with this bird. He might be new, and the others just haven’t taken the time to get to know him.”
Astrid nodded and turned back to the window.
Days turned into weeks as the weather improved enough for Astrid to be carried to the yard to sit in the sun. Nonna spread a blanket on the lawn for her to sit on. Once settled, Astrid looked for her friends the birds, or so she liked to call them. There was only one bird alone in the feeder. He was stuffing himself with seed after seed, unlike others who would partake and fly-away only to return for another. His head was red, like her favorite finch, but something was different. Instead of the triangular shaped beak which merged with his tiny head, this bird had a head shaped like a ball, three times that of a normal bird his size.
Her gaze continued as this creature with feathers stuffed his beak. She hadn’t been out half an hour when the wind picked up and the sky turned dark.
Nonna rushed out to scoop the child up. “Grab the blanket, Astrid, it looks like one of those summer storms is a coming.” She carried her into the warm house and set her by the window. “I’ll make us some tea,” and she was off and about.
Astrid looked out the rain-streaked window to see if the strange bird was still at the feeder. He was gone. The feeder was empty. “Oh, Nonna, I can’t see the bird.”
Her grandmother joined her. “What bird, honey? I don’t see any birds.”
“The one with the big head. He was eating all alone when the rain started.”
She patted the girl on the shoulder. “Well, if he is as smart as the other birds, he has probably found shelter from the storm by now.”
Astrid sighed. “I certainly hope so.”
The morning arrived with the sound of birds rejoicing in the sunshine. Astrid craned her neck looking out the window for the strange red-headed bird but to no avail. After lunch, Nonna, once more spread the blanket on the grass to set the child in the sun.
Astrid watched as Nonna took down the feeder to clean and refill it. In the shrubbery below the hook which suspended the feeder, she heard a rustling of the leaves. Lying flat to be on the same level as moving leaves, she saw a ball made of feathers. Digging her elbows into the grass, she crawled closer dragging her useless legs behind her. Astrid gasped when she realized it was the bird with the round head.
His little wings would spread, pushing on the ground, as he tried to raise his head, but he ended up just rolling over either to his side or his back. The feathers under his wings rose up and down as he seemed to gasp for breath.
“Nonna!” cried the child.
Nonna returned to hang the restocked feeder. “What is it, my dear?”
“Nonna, the bird I told you about, the one with the funny head. He’s here under the bush. What’s the matter with him? He can’t seem to raise his head.”
The grandmother knelt to see under the bush and gasped. “Astrid, I’m sorry. I think he’s dying. Pitiful thing, he must’ve been out here all night.”
“Oh, Nonna, we can’t let him die.”
Nonna straightened Astrid and then sat next to her on the blanket. “My dear, there’s nothing we can do, but let him go in peace. It’s his time.”
“Oh, Nonna.” Astrid buried her head in Nonna’s lap. “That’s so sad.”
“C’mon, child, let me take you inside.”
Astrid pushed herself up and wiped away the silent tears she had shed. “No, I want to stay out here with him. No one should be alone when they die.”
Nonna used her apron and finished wiping away Astrid’s tears. “Such wisdom from one so young. All right, but call me when you want to come in. Meanwhile, I’ll find a little box we can bury him in, okay?”
Astrid hugged her grandmother. “Thank you, Nonna, I knew you would understand.”
Alone once more, Astrid rested on her elbows watching it take longer and longer for the bird to attempt to raise his head. “It’s not fair for you to have to die, little bird.”
“Actually, it is, for if nothing ever died there would be no reason for something to be born to replace it.”
Astrid popped up and back onto her elbows. Before her stood a man, or was it a woman, dressed in a robe of white, or was it black? The being’s eyes were blue, then brown, with straight hair of gold, long then short, while also being brown and curly. She closed her eyes tight and covered her face with both hands.
“Don’t be frightened, Astrid, I’m not here for you.” The voice was smooth and deep, and actually sounded comforting.
Astrid brought down her hands and pushed up into a sitting position. “How do you know my name?”
“We’ve met before, which is why you can see me. I am the Angel of Death.”
“Angel of—Death? Why are you here and what do you mean we’ve met before?” Her fear had replaced with wary curiosity.
The “angel” knelt in the grass beside the blanket. “Every living being, be it human or creature, has a set amount of time to spend on this earth. When the time is up, I come to escort the soul to heaven. I first met you at the time of your birth.”
Astrid tilted her head. “If you met me, then why am I still among the living?”
“Well, you can thank you mother for that. You see, I had come there to take you back to heaven, but your mother pleaded to take her instead.”
“My mother sacrificed her life for mine. Isn’t something like that against the rules?”
“Your grandmother is right. You are wise for one so young.”
Astrid smiled and dipped her head. “It still doesn’t explain why I am still here.”
“When I came for you, your mother begged you be allowed to live. When I explained how everyone is given a certain number of days, she offered up her own remaining days in exchange for those you had been denied.”
“Oh.” Astrid’s face fell as her eyes watered.
“I remember her saying, ‘Please, I want her to have the opportunity to see the warm sun on her face and feel the cool grass under her feet. Please let my baby live.’ I don’t think I’d ever heard a plea as heartfelt. I agreed to her request and exchanged her remaining days for those you were never meant to have.”
Astrid used the back of her wrists to clean her face. “I understand now how I can see you. I suppose I should consider myself blessed because of it?”
“Yes, in a way. Now, to the matter at hand.”
“Oh, the bird, is he dead?”
“No, but momentarily.” They watched in silence as the small creature took its last breath and grew very still. Its wings falling forward to the ground with nothing to hold them back.”
Astrid gulped and sniffed. “That was kind of beautiful.”
“Yes, child. Not every death has to be ugly.”
“Now what happens?”
With outstretched hand, the stranger said, “Come to me.” A shadow fell over the body of the bird, and like a double exposure, the spirit of the bird lifted up and flew to the upturned palm. The being then placed the bird on his shoulder and stood.
“Will I ever see you or the bird again?” Astrid clasped her hands together over her heart.
“Yes, when your borrowed time is up. You will join your mother, and father, in your heavenly home. This bird, and all the birds you have enjoyed will be there to sing for your entrance.”
“Will, Nonna, be there, too? I hate the thought of leaving her alone.”
“Yes, your Nonna will find a home there too. Now rest, my young friend, until when next we meet.” There was shimmer of light causing Astrid to turn her head, and when she looked back, she was alone.
“Is he dead, Astrid? I think this box is the right size.”
Nonna’s voice startled Astrid as she looked from when the stranger had been to her grandmother joining her on the lawn. “Yes, he hasn’t moved for several minutes now.”
Nonna got down on her hands and knees beside the bush. With a small piece of cloth protecting her hand, she gently picked up the dead bird. “Oh, look, Astrid, his head is enormous. It’s so swollen, he had bald patches between his feathers.”
“Oh, and his poor little eyes. It looks like he was barely able to open them, by the way the swelling was covering all his head.” Astrid and her grandmother’s heads almost touched as the bird and cloth were now laying in the box. “Oh, Nonna, look at the top of his head. He has three little feathers sticking up like antenna. This bird was my friend.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Astrid, but look at him. The swelling was beginning to split his skin. This had to be a painful life.”
“Was the swelling what killed him, Nonna?”
“Maybe, but I think from the way he was acting, his head probably got too large to carry and he suffocated falling over as he did.”
Astrid placed the lid on the box and nodded. “Yes, you’re right. He is in a much better place now.”
P.A. O’Neil’s stories have been featured in over forty anthologies, on-line journals, and magazines. She and her husband reside in Thurston County, Washington. A collection of her stories, Witness Testimony and Other Tales, is available on Amazon. She was the winner of the 2023 Mustang Flash Fiction Award with her story, “The Great Burro Revolt.” Her article, “Northwest Passage,” about the Ellensburg, Washington Rodeo from the Summer 2022 issue of Saddlebag Dispatches Magazine is currently a finalist for the 2023 Will Rogers Medallion Award. For links to books which feature her stories, please visit her Amazon author page: P.A. O’Neil.