Wednesday, January 11, 2012


The Bir's

One night in his Paris garden apartment, my best friend Juan was making me dinner (spaghetti with frankfurter rondelles, carrots, tomatoes, and onions, his specialty), and he told me that a bird had come to visit him the day before. He was puzzled that birds were always coming into his apartment from the garden. I explained to him that it was only to be expected: viewed from the garden, his place didn’t really seem to be inhabited by a human being at all. The back windows opened onto the garden at eye level — and by opened, I mean opened wide every morning, all year round, whatever the weather, because Juan believed in fresh air, and he never put the heat on.

One winter, Juan had my dog for the night. She gave him a fright in the morning when he had trouble waking her up from her curled up frozen torpor, and he was afraid to think what might have happened if he’d slept in. The apartment was very dark and very damp, the stone walls were raw, the ceiling beams were hung with spider webs, and there was practically no furniture. Clothing left in his closet for any length of time re-emerged covered in mold. The only reason Juan himself wasn’t continually covered in mildew was because for his birthday and for Christmas I always gave him a good supply of those little humidity-absorbing boxes that they sell in hardware stores.

The birds, starlings mostly, would peer into the gaping window from the garden tiles, cocking their little iridescent heads to the right and to the left, viewing it with each eye, intrigued, whistling in awe. Perhaps they mythologized it, telling tales to their hatchlings about the Forbidden Cavern at the foot of the garden.

Over the years, bolder birds had made tentative efforts to explore and colonize his place. There was one old starling who would hop over the windowsill and walk, like a tiny Groucho Marx in a dusty old tuxedo, the entire length of the bedroom, hop down the three wooden stairs into the front room, then walk the rest of the way to the foot of the desk where Juan would be sitting, sipping his maté and reading Heraclitus or Proust. There the bird would pause and look up at him. Probably thinking: “So, this is the Giant of the Forbidden Cavern.”

Sensing a presence, Juan would look up from his book and see nothing. The bird would look up expectantly, maybe open its beak to say something, and the small movement would attract Juan’s attention. Juan would look the bird in the eye and quietly say, “No,” raise a very long arm (because he was, in fact, a giant at 6'6") to point like the Angel of the Annunciation in the direction of the garden and command, “Animals: outside!” And the bird would turn around and obediently walk away, hop up the stairs — boing, boing, boing — back through the bedroom, back to the window, and out to the garden again, no questions asked.

But he’d be back later.

One spring, after a severe windstorm, Juan found that bird dead in the garden and called me upstairs in my garret (we lived in the same building thanks to a friend who had space to rent) to break the bad news. I was upset, and spent a few days reproaching him for having put the bird in the garbage with no funeral or anything, Juan repeatedly informing me that I was acting “like a kid.” But he’d been more than just a bird for me. I knew that bird’s wife. She liked to give me quick visits on the windowpane of my vasistas (French for “flimsy skylight”), her delicate talons making scratchy noises on the glass as she perched on its edge, whistled, then took off again.

A few weeks later Juan announced that she’d found a new boyfriend. “He look essactly like the other one,” he assured me, “same color, same size: same bir’.” (That’s how Juan says bird: bir’. He also says gir’ instead of girl. Goo' gir’, he’d say to my dog, Carmen, every now and then.)

But the bir’ of yesterday’s encounter was not at all the same. This one apparently just quite impolitely invited itself in, perched on his dusty sofa, and sat there, steady and indifferent.

“I was very confuse’,” Juan kept saying as he shredded carrots over the chopped frankfurters for his sauce, “he just sit there. And he was not a nice bir’.”

“What kind of bird was it?” I asked.

“A horrible bir’. Horrible.”

“Yes, but what did it look like?”

“Horrible. I’m telling you. He look more like a rat. He was the color of a rat, and he had a strange, yucky tail, as if somebody cut it with a scissor. Just a little, horrible, ugly bir’. And I didn’ want to touch him. I don’ like to touch bir’s. Yeccch! ... YECCH! I don’ know what it is. I was very confuse'. He wouldn’ listen to me. I try to tell him to go out, but he just … don’ … move. He just sit there. I ask him to leave, but he don’ listen! He stay for more than one hour and a half. He stay there while I eat my breakfast, and while I take my shower. Then I finally come back to him, and start screaming at him. Maybe that’s what move him. He must be thinking, ‘Is no longer very agreeable to be here, with this big guy screaming at me.’ So he get up. But first, he poo on my sofa. Like he say, fine, I’m going, but first — pff!”

And Juan made a really cute movement, like a bird using his wings to pump out a dropping, to show me how insolent this bird had been.

“That bir’ really confuse’ me.”

Later that day, as I returned home from walking the dog, Juan opened the door of his place to say hello as I entered the vestibule. I told him I’d been writing about him and the bird today.

“Oh, that bir’,” he said, looking conflicted, “I feel so bad. He come inside maybe just because he want to say something to me.”

Then he hunched up his shoulders and held his arms to his sides like wings to imitate the old starling, and said in a crazy little bird’s voice, “I … I want to say … SOMEthing!”

“Poor bir’,” he continued, then seemed to reprimand himself, “But he cannot come inside!  Bir’s have to stay outside! I hear him again today from my desk. I say: ‘Bir’s, stay OUTside!’ If he want to talk to me, he have to find another way. He have to stay outside and wait for me.”

Then suddenly, he cried, “HEY!” as he looked into his apartment from the doorway. “Oh, no! Oh, no! ... Carmen ...”

It was my dog, standing on his table, helping herself to the huge wedge of cheddar cheese that had been sitting there beckoning to her as we spoke.

Juan really has a problem with animals not respecting his space.

A few days later I decided to go to Juan’s office to use his computer and do a “grants for women” search on the Internet. I’d done one before, on “jobs in NY.” I was preparing to return to New York after more than a decade in Paris. The idea was to find a way to finance it, ideally with someone else’s money. I’ve never been good at that kind of gambit, and it was, in my mind, a measure of my ability to be a bona fide, networked grown-up (a measure that I’d revise later, my inner opportunist be damned, because it became evident I’d pay my own way forever). But for this last try, I needed to use Juan’s work computer, because there were so many query results that it just about killed my whirring old Powerbook.

I’d gone downstairs to pick him up at 1:30 p.m. Juan had a great gig at an international bank, for which he arrived after lunch, and left pretty early, too. His job had something to do with getting information for people, and though it didn’t pay much (actually, considering how many times he spent his whole shift frantically recovering entire databases he'd accidentally deleted, it paid very well), it gave him a diplomatic visa and the leisure to pursue his thesis on Heraclitus the rest of the time. They loved him there, and would tenderly recount stories about how Juan would give someone an incomplete phone number, and when informed that a digit was missing, say, “Sorry, chef, that’s all I’ve got.”

When I got to his door, I found it unlocked so that I could come in and wait: a sign that he was running late. I could hear him in the shower. I make a point of listening to friends in the shower any chance I get because what people do (and say) in the shower is always very educative. I could hear he was at the nostril-clearing stage, therefore almost done. So I waited.

That’s when I noticed there was a strange smell in his place. A really unpleasant smell. A smell like a putrid Chinatown back alley. As I stood there sniffing and feeling disgusted, Juan came out wearing a red towel wrapped coquettishly around his waist, his hair in a ponytail, long leg hair still wet and plastered to his calves.

“You look like somebody’s ugly big sister,” I said, “and by the way, it smells weird in here.”

“Ah! Must be the garlic in the kitchen,” he said, raising a finger to put me on pause, then opened one of the front windows, closed the kitchen door, and went up the stairs to the bedroom to get dressed. I decided to go outside and get some fresh air and a banh mi sandwich. But when I came back with my sandwich to eat while he shaved, it smelled even worse.

“No. It really smells in here Juan. And it’s getting worse. Something’s wrong.”

We looked at each other in consternation. He sniffed the air, and made a face. Looked perplexed. We looked at the sofa at the same time.

“Do you think the bir’ ... ?,” and he pulled the sofa back from the wall. “Oh no,”  he said ruefully, and then, as if he were Death itself pronouncing a sad “tada” at the end of the magic trick that was the bird’s life, “there he is ...”

I ran to open the other window and the door while Juan gathered the remains. While he poured disinfectant on the tiles around the sofa, I came in and said,

“So, that’s what he wanted.”

“Poor bir’,” he said, “I … I just don’ know. Bir’s seem to think that this is a bir’ cemetery in my house! This is the thir’ one! I don’ know, I don’ know ...”

He sighed.

“I guess God send him to me, because I’m a grow’-up, and I have to be a man, and I can take it. It’s like God say to me, ‘OK, you’re a man, so … face the music!’ Or like my garden say to me, ‘Okay, you can do something for me for once!’ And to think he was there while I was sleeping! We spen’ the nigh’ together! An’ he die! Eee … heeheehoohooooo … !”

And he made a sort of Vincent Price horror-movie face.

Then, “Ooooh! But you know, if somebody call me to say, Tonigh’ this bir’ is coming to you house to die next to you bed, and all you have to do is be quiet, I guess I woul’ say yes.”

Previously: My Gift of the Magi.

Carolita Johnson's cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.

80 Comments / Post A Comment


I guess I woul' say yes

This is so beautiful, love it.

Faintly Macabre

This is lovely! (Like all of your stories so far.)

I am also incredibly jealous that you lived in Paris, by a garden, with a dog. But I don't understand how Juan himself didn't die of hypothermia...


@Faintly Macabre Juan has an incredible tolerance for the cold. But he did admit once that while sitting at his desk tapping his foot against the wall while he worked, it was so cold that his big toe had gone numb, and when it thawed out, it was black and blue! But I'll tell you, I tried it once (living without heat), myself, before I even met Juan, and it's totally possible and not really that hard (except if you want your friends to visit you without making fun and demanding the heat be put on). I didn't catch one cold that winter, either. But I never had the fortitude to do it again.


@Faintly Macabre I have totally also done that to my toe, although I am not that cold tolerant. I just don't have great circulation.
Juan is crazy though. That bird pooping impression must have been a riot.

Faintly Macabre

@Megan Patterson@facebook Yeah, my parents keep their house in the 50s all winter, so I am usually curled like a piece of frozen roadkill, and my fingernails are always blue. Maybe the birds were trying to offer Juan their warm feathers!


I think... I think this might be the best one yet. I hate to choose a favorite, but this is surreal and beautiful.

Katie Scarlett

@PistolPackinMama I think this is my favorite so far too. Really dreamy.


@PistolPackinMama Yes, "surreal and beautiful" is exactly right. It's like a much less freaky cousin of The City of Lost Children. (The City of Lost Birds?)

Katie Heaney

@PistolPackinMama Thirding the favoritism.


@Katie Heaney FOURTHSIES.


@punkahontas Fifthies. Gorgeous. I want to write like this.


@Teffodee Sixthsies. God, this was wonderful. I loved being able to spend my first few minutes of work esconced in a Parisian garden.

Honey Vadger

@PistolPackinMama Yes, magical realism conjured from real life. Carolita, you're amazing.


This is like a Bergman movie or something, it's so good.


This is so wonderful, Carolita. Please publish a book of personal essays before I finish what I'm currently reading so it will be waiting for me when I need something new. K? K.


@melmuu I'll do my best! :) I hope you're reading something about five thousand pages long, boring, and are a slow reader!


@carolita How did you know I was reading Roberto Bolaño?
I kid.


@melmuu BTW, I love your avatar. What is it?


@carolita Thanks! I think I just Google imaged "Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie" and found it there.


@melmuu When Anne Fadiman's book Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader was published, I gave everyone I liked copies for Christmas. A book of essays by Carolita Johnson would, hands down, be the second time I gave everyone I liked the same thing to read. Do it! Doooo it!


@melmuu excellent!


@PistolPackinMama coming! :)


@carolita That has made my night. It really has. Yay!


@PistolPackinMama To tell you how much I agree, the moment I read your comment here--THE VERY MOMENT--I dropped everything and bought Ex Libris off Amazon, straightaway.

Carolita, write a book and let us make you rich.


@eccles I hope you love reading it as much as I did! Come back and tell me!


@PistolPackinMama I also love Ex Libris! And her other collection, At Large and At Small.I want to be Anne Fadiman's friend.


Agreed. This is so wonderful and we're so lucky to get these stories. There's this limpid quality to your words, and a general sense of goodness everywhere. It's such a good world. Your use of the word "educative" knocked me right out.


@eccles "It's such a good world" YES!


@eccles thanks! I don't know where I picked it up! For a secone I thought it might be a french word that crept into my English. I looked it up just now to make sure it was really English! Phew! :)


Aw, Carolita, I adore these so much that they want to make me write my own personal essays. (They'd be rubbish, but that's beside the point.) Your writing has this quality of grace to it that makes me sit up and begin noticing all the tiny, bizarre miracles that are happening all around me every day. It's fearless.


@Decca (blush!) all these comments are so encouraging. Thanks, everyone. (:())


This is so lovely! Thank you.

Oh, squiggles

Can I be you when I grow up?


@Awesomely Nonfunctional You have to be particularly shameless to be me when you grow up, but it's easier to shed shamefulness than to acquire it, luckily! ;)

Oh, squiggles

@carolita That's actually really great advice! I love your writing so much!



...ok now to read the article.

tea for all

"boing, boing, boing"

my heart! it is warmed!


Not only another installment of Scandals of Classic Hollywood, but a Carolita essay, too? Are Jane and Edith trying to overload us with goodness?


Where have I been!! Carolita you are a breath of fresh air! Hilarious witty wonderful! Thankyou! I'm addicted to your writing now.


This was truly wonderful to read.

What if... Carolita and Esther teamed up to create a powerful HAIRPINJOYUNSTOPPABLE team? No really, what if?


@teebs OH MY GOD - an Esther cartoon of a Carolita story would make my life 1000% better. Ladies - to the Collaboration Room!!

Editing, because I forgot Carolita was a cartoonist as well - so, now I want a series of graphic essays by each of you! Please do this immediately!


@Bebe sometimes I think about doing these pieces as a graphic essay but I find I don't have the patience. I'm more of a one-panel cartoonist. However, after experimenting with Hildegarde of Bingen here (http://thehairpin.com/2011/10/hildegarde-of-bingen-to-the-rescue), I am reconsidering. My ultimate intention is to put together a book of essays and stories with some illustrations, and maybe some graphic essays, all mixed together. Is that weird? I'm weird. :)


@carolita How did I miss Hildegarde??? I was a Medieval Lit major! That is brilliant. You could a do Ladies of the Middle Ages graphic novel (novella?). Just imagine the possibilities - Margery Kempe! Wife of Bath! Julian of Norwich! And, um....ok, so it would be a pretty short book.

Also, not remotely weird, but AWESOME.


@Bebe Just out of curiosity, since you read medieval lit, have you ever come across any descriptions of hygeinic practices during your research? I was in medieval anthropology, and my thesis subject (abandoned for cartooning) was menstrual hygeine and attitudes towards menstruation by medieval nuns. It was damned hard to find anything just in lists and letters, and I always wondered if there was anything anywhere I wasn't looking. (This was because menstruation is what made nuns unable to handle the sacrements, according to the more conservative branch of the new Christians. It was a political question that I found interesting.)


@carolita Medieval anthropology? I think I love you!

I honestly do not remember a single mention in literature of menstruation. Blood in general is mentioned a lot, and there are some instances of bathing (sometimes erotic, sometimes as ritual), but outside of that, it's like menstruation didn't exist. There were those household texts for young women/new brides that discussed uses of menstrual blood in healing and spells, but you obviously read those. I even just consulted my Riverside Chaucer (yes, I still have it) and can't find anything...

Only semi-related, because it is on the same shelf as my Riverside: Have you ever read Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross? She imagines a biography for the Pope who was rumored to be a woman.


@carolita Also, there are still some branches that maintain that menstruating women and women who have just given birth are "unlcean." My grandma is Greek Orthodox, and she and some of her sisters used to have to miss church if they had their periods.

Hot Doom

@Bebe I would buy this. Christina Mirabilis, up a tree, disgusted at the smell of man and doing wild cartwheels, all in graphic form!


@teebs oh yes, love Pope Joan! :)

Katie Scarlett

@Bebe I would read this also! But I imagine that it would have to rely very heavily on mystics and sometimes that can get a lil old. ("I held baby Jesus in my arms, AGAIN.") Might need some early medieval ladies to spice things up. St. Foy? Egeria? Hilda of Whitby?

I always wanted to be a cartoonist when I was a little kid and - hand to God - the Hairpin has actually inspired me to start writing and drawing again after a very very long lull.

Hot Doom

@Katie Scarlett I read this as "I always wanted to be a contortionist when I was a little kid.." and I thought 'ME TOO!!'. Cartooning is great too and that's awesome that you are returning to it (I for one, will be doing some spine stretching). I am all for following one's childhood dreams!

Typo Zonies@facebook

Knew you were a wonderful cartoonist which by the way was my childhood dream never pursued due to my inability to hold a pencil in my clunky hand. BUT, Christopher on a cracker, by Gawd, you are a WRITER.....a damn good writer. Who are you? Are you a human being? So gifted- I so enjoyed this story that I am looking forward to a book of sh stories illustrated by a New Yorker cartoonist named Carolita!!!!


@Typo Zonies@facebook thanks! I'm working on it. Each piece you see here is a warm up for that! I'm only just getting started. Never wrote before. It was Edith who got me started! :)

Faintly Macabre

@carolita Oh, wow, really? That's crazy to me--you're so good at it!


OK, I am afraid of birds and convinced they are all hatching (heh) an evil plot to peck my toes and eyes out at all times (especially pigeons - that's right, pigeons, I am on to you!). HOWEVER, "birs" is breaking my heart. I kind of want to hug Juan and give him some soup, and then ask him open-ended questions all day just to hear him talk.


@Bebe I am going to have to try the "Animals: outside!" thing on the next animal that sneaks into my house (I am looking at you, geckos).


@wharrgarbl Juan also does that with flies. If a fly enters his living room, he simply opens a window and points to it. He doesn't even have to say "outside." Works every time. It didn't work with the mouse, once, though. He had to patiently wait for it to leave. But they parted on good terms.


This is absolutely amazing. I want a Juan in my life! Also a bird who hops down my stairs and hangs out with me.


I was completely transported while reading this. just out of my office and into Juan's apartment. I could see the shade of red towel. everything. Really nicely done.


This was gorgeous


UPDATE: just got Juan's seal of approval on this story. Phew! :) (Actually, I showed it to him as a draft, before I thought about giving it to The Hairpin).
Yes, Juan is real!


@carolita beautiful, wonderful story, i really enjoyed it. btw, is juan from argentina or chile, perhaps? i ask because of the no heat, belief in fresh air and the mate...in chile, it is windows open year round and heat is almost a foreign concept - at least in the middle, where i live. my chilean husband genuinely believes we will suffocate if we don't have at least one window open.


@Kulojam Uruguay.


This is evocative and beautiful and I want to read it over and over. Thank you for being there and writing about it...I feel like a bright-eyed starling looking in from the garden at the Great Long-armed God in the Cave.


If a guidebook is ever published on how to live the most perfect louchey-glamorous life imaginable, Carolita needs to be the one to author that book.


love this!

but, honestly, doesn't anyone else think starlings are kind of dicks? they are noisy and eat all the seeds i plant! going into your house to die seems right in character for them.


I love carolita's writing. would miss the Paris dispatches though were she to move to NY.


I am in NYC! Have been for ten years! So don't worry. :)


a very heart touching story.


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Owais Ahmed@twitter

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@Domas Smona@facebook
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