Back by Popular Demand Short Stories by Salley J Robins
These stories originally appeared on a variety of writing platforms across the web.
This month's selection:
A letter arrived from France today. I recognized my sister Charlotte's writing and a photo fell out. I picked it up and what an image! Two little birds nestled together to form a heart. Their dark eyes looked straight into mine. The words faded before my gaze as I remembered...
Last spring I told my sister we were planning a European vacation and she’d urged us to come stay at her house for part of the trip. My husband, Pete, and I had already planned for Bobbi, who was twelve, and Jimmy, two years her junior, to meet their Aunt Charlotte and her French husband, Hubert, so this was ideal.
To stay in a village in the South of France would be a great adventure for them I thought. And after so many years apart, I longed to see my sister. My husband had six weeks of vacation saved up so we made our plans and booked a flight that left the day after school got out.
We arrived at the airport and packed everything into the rental car. My main concern now was whether or not Bobbi would be car-sick. She clutched a paper bag and Jimmy played the clown, threatening to jump out the window if she barfed. I scolded him but without conviction. I was also praying we would make the trip without hosing out the rental car.
Thankfully, it never came to that. The land unfolded, a quilt of sleepy agricultural scenes that were sewn together with quaint little villages. Without the sat-nav, we would have been lost. Road signs never mentioned the village once until we were practically there. It was midnight when the machine announced, “You have reached your destination.” We stopped in the tiny street, no bigger than an alley. My exhausted husband sighed and said, “Go see if they know where we can park. I’ll wait here.”
The old village houses were joined side by side with narrow sidewalks and front doors that opened straight onto the street. “Is that it, Mom?” Bobbi and Jimmy chimed loudly as they recognized my sister’s house from the photos she’d sent. “Shh! It’s late,” I hissed as the door in question opened wide. There were happy hugs and my sister said, “Leave the car there. Come in for a moment!”
My husband was loathe to do so and only ventured as far as the front door. Hubert sensed my husband’s discomfort and said in perfect English, “I’ll show him the parking. We can talk in the morning; everyone must be tired.” He wasn’t wrong.
It must have been the jet-lag because we all slept late. By the time we woke, it was mid-morning. Charlotte took us around the corner to the bakery which was loaded with unusual pastries. The baker was jovial and tried out his broken English on us declaring uncertainly, “You are very welcoming?” We bought breakfast and thanked him in our terrible French, “Mercy so much.”
We ate breakfast on Charlotte’s large terrace whose view over the red tiled rooftops led our eyes to the distant Pyrenees Mountains. Swallows flew over the village completing the picturesque scene.
We went to explore the village with its colorfully shuttered stone built houses, tiny lanes, a venerable church and a leafy village square of red marble paving stones. Here, Charlotte pointed out Old Pierre on “his bench,” as she called it.
He was the quintessential Frenchman of old movies; a dark beret covered his sparse grey hair and suspenders over his plaid shirt held up the baggy pants. “Bonjour Monsieur-Dame,” he intoned when she introduced us. The square was filled with children playing on bikes, skates and skateboards. Bobbi and Jimmy wanted to join in.
My sister called to a tall boy named Richard who was running a soccer ball in rings around two smaller boys. He left the ball and came over. “These are my family, Roberta and James.” My children made faces at the use of their proper names but said nothing. “They want to play. Help them,” Charlotte said.
The children went off together and my sister explained, “I tutor him in English. Those are his brothers. They’ll be fine.” I couldn’t resist calling, out, “Bobbi, be back at the house by noon!” “Yah Mom!” she yelled back already embarrassed by me in front of her new friend. After lunch they went right out to play again. That suited our plans since my sister and I wanted to go shopping. Pete preferred staying home to recuperate and watch soccer on TV with Hubert.
That evening, as dinner sizzled on the BBQ, we sat on the terrace and the children told us all about their new friends. After the meal, it became cool and I needed the sweater I’d left in the car. We’ll get it, Mom!” Bobbi volunteered. The children took longer than I expected. I was just starting to wonder what was keeping them when the door flew open. The sound of their feet on the stairs was almost frantic. What was causing them to gallop up the marble stairs in such a rush?
All was explained when they rushed back out onto the terrace. Bobbi was wearing my sweater tied around her waist and both children held their hands cupped before them. “Look what we found by the car!” Jimmy breathed, ”They were cold!” Each held a tiny fluffy bird as small as a golf ball.
“You put them right back!” my husband exclaimed. The anguish in our daughter's voice was plain to hear. “But Dad, there were cats all around! I saw their eyes shinning under the cars,” Bobbi pleaded, “Another minute and they would have been eaten!” Her eyes shone with worry. I quickly said, “You should put them in a tree or a bush where their parents can find them,” I suggested and, even as I heard myself say this, realized that there wasn’t a single bush in the street.
The look in my children's eyes was that of the firing squad drawing a bead on the condemmed traitor. Bobbi shook her head as if she couldn't believe I could have said that, “It’s cold, Mom," she explained very carefully, "They just climbed up into our hands.” The little bird snuggled in her hands for warmth. “Yeah,” Jimmy seconded, “I thought they were dead or something!”
Uncle Hubert nodded approvingly and told us, “They are Hirondelles. They eat all the bad insects. They are sacred. We must always protect our noble Hirondelles.” “Hirondelles!” Bobbi breathed the name, as if she had just discovered a new and magical creature. Pete and I refrained from saying that it was only the French word for House Swallows.
Charlotte said nothing, but went into the house and returned with a shoebox lined with a towel. “Here, they can sleep inside tonight. You can let them go in the morning.” The tiny birds were reluctantly placed in the box where they huddled together in the ridges of the towel.
The next morning, we saw that the tiny birds’ fluffy down did sport a few small feathers but were too small to have left the nest willingly. Pete and I exchanged worried looks. We were both thinking that lack of proper care would kill them. After breakfast I went out into the street and looked up at the eaves of the surrounding houses.
There were half a dozen nests built of daubed mud and one dirty space with remains of a broken nest. I was wondering how the birds had survived the fall when the children came out. Each had a jar. “We’re going to find bugs!” Jimmy told me happily, ”Aunt Charlotte put the bird box on the terrace and she says we can mash up bugs to feed them.” Bobbi shuddered at the thought but looked determined.
I smiled but I still felt sad. There was so little chance of the birds surviving. “Don’t go far!” I called as they hurried off. Pete and Hubert went to watch the locals play a game called “boules” so my sister and I had time to really talk.
Bobbi and Jimmy hunted but found only a dead beetle and a few ants. Down in the village square, they saw Richard. He told them that they should ask Pierre. “That man knows things,” their friend told them, “He was in the resistance.” Bobbi and Jimmy looked at Pierre with eyes full of amazement. Here was a man worthy of respect.
Richard made the introductions and the old man nodded gravely at each, saying, 'petite 'mamsel' to Bobbi and "messur" to Jimmy. They bobbed their heads and said, 'sir' just as seriously as if they had just met the new principal at school. Pierre approved and listened seriously as Richard explained what they wanted to know. Then he rubbed the stubble on his chin thoughtfuly and the children watched him intently.
After a bit, he began to outline a plan. Richard translated, “Soak dry dog food in warm water then mash in the yolk of a hard boiled egg.” Pierre waited for the translation, then took off his beret. “Attention, leur donner seulement cela,” he added very seriously. “He says only give this to them,” Richard explained. Yet more instructions followed. The children thanked him and Jimmy dared to give the old man a hug that was met by a look of astonishment on the part of the wise man. Jimmy never noticed. He and his sister were too busy rushing back to the house.
Aunt Charlotte went to the village shop and bought dog food. I boiled an egg. Bobbi and Jimmy cut the ends of plastic straws so that they were shaped like little shovels. The smell of wet dog food and mashed egg yolk was pretty terrible. I watched from the window that overlooked the terrace while they scooped the mush onto straw spoons and tried to feed the birds. The birds looked at the straws with distrust.
“Eat, it’s good for you!” Bobbi pleaded. She held the spoon edge to the baby bird’s beak. The bird ate! I was surprised. The rest of that day and the next, every time the timer beeped, they went and fed the birds without complaint. I was enchanted when I saw one bird jump up on Jimmy’s hand and cock its head to examine his giant benefactor.
That evening, Jimmy said, “We’ve named one Feisty ‘cause he hops around a lot.” “And the other?” I asked. “Serena,” Bobbi said quickly, “like the tennis player but mostly because she’s very serene.” Early on the third day, Bobbi was crouched in front of the box holding out food. She heard a loud “churr-eep!” above and the baby birds chirped excitedly in response. An adult bird hovered overhead.
Bobbi ran into the house yelling, “Hey, come see!” Jimmy and I ran up the stairs to the window where Bobbi was stationed. “Look! The momma bird has found them!” Her face shone with the same joy I felt. As we watched, the bluish-black and white form of an adult Hirondelle darted to the opening of the box. In unison, the two little birds opened their beaks wide. We rejoiced as the larger bird fed them. Perhaps they would make it.
Days went by and the pattern was repeated every few minutes. Feisty and Serena began to preen themselves and the tiny feathers grew. One day it rained and Charlotte took a picture of them in their box. The children still visited their little wards each day, but the visits grew shorter.
One morning, Bobbi went out to see the birds. She put her hand out and Feisty hopped up on her finger. He stretched his wings a few times. “Are you ready to fly?” she asked and she held her hand up high. Feisty launched himself into the air and flew straight to the nests across the street. “Oh!” exclaimed Bobbi and ran back into the house where we were sat at the kitchen table.
“Mom! Mom! Feisty flew!” She looked distraught and I hugged her. “That’s wonderful!” I told her, “It means you’ve saved him and he’s going to be with his family.” She nodded sadly. “What about Serena?” I asked. Everyone went and looked through the window. The second little bird was still snuggled in the box.
As we watched, the mother bird flew down again and fed Serina. “I guess she’s not ready yet,” Bobbi concluded. Three days passed and this time it was Jimmy who yelled, “Come see! She’s flying! She’s flying!” By the time we got there, Serena was perched on a planter preening a wing. Then she took to the air as if it were the most natural thing in the world and joined the swallows that filled the air.
After that, the children played less on the terrace and more in the village square. On the morning of our last day there, Bobbi and Jimmy helped Charlotte hang out the laundry. I heard a loud, “Hey!” from Jimmy and went out to see what the commotion was about. “They buzzed us, Mom!” Bobbi told me. And Charlotte agreed that two of the smallest birds in the flock had veered from the group. They flew so close that they brushed Jimmy’s head...
I sighed and read Charlotte’s letter. She said to tell the children that one day in October the entire flock of Hirondelles left for Morocco and from there to Africa, their winter home. She watched them go from the terrace and as they left, two of them dropped just low enough and buzzed her. I looked again at the adorable image of those two little sweethearts. On reflection, I thought, perhaps I should call them Birdhearts.
The Lady Who Wasn't There
We moved into the old, two-story Victorian house on a sunny spring day and thoughts of ghosts and hauntings were the farthest things from my mind. We were starting our life together. I stood on the sidewalk, while my husband unloaded my belongings, and looked up at the grand old lady.
Ten years before we’d met, my husband had bought this house which was in desperate need of rescue from years of neglect. He’d renovated and restored the original period features. Looking around, I saw that every house on this wide, tree-lined street in our small American town was unique and stylish.
I examined the steeply pointed roofline, sash windows, white clapboard siding and the large old-fashioned porch that embraced the front of the house. I sighed with contentment and waited until my husband returned to carry me over the threshold. “I’m home!” I thought as my feet touched the dark, shining wood of the entry hall floor. And so it began; a life of love in a lovely house.
“Now, there‘s one last thing you need to know,” my husband said as we wrestled my piano into a corner of the front sitting room, “Some people say this house is haunted. I’ve had my share of strange phenomena, but she’s always been nice to me.” “SHE?” I demanded. “It sounds like a lady,” he said sheepishly. “What sounds like a lady?” I asked in disbelief. “The ghost,” he replied, “Sometimes she calls my name.” “Oh. Right,” I bristled, “Well, she’d better not do it while I’m around!” “Okay,” he agreed, “I’ll tell her that,” and we both laughed. That was the end of the matter, at least for a little while.
A few weeks later, I was practicing the piano and marveling at the resonance of sound the high ceilings gave to the music. In the quiet interlude between two exercises, I heard the sound of someone walking upstairs. It surprised me because my husband had gone to the Post Office to pick up the mail. I sat silent, listening. Then I realized that he must have returned by the back door and I just hadn’t heard him come in. That seemed probable since I’d been absorbed in the music and our garage was in the back garden. I heard the sound of sliding, like drawers in the dresser and a quiet ‘whump’ as if something had been dropped on the floor. “Hey,” I yelled, “What-cha doing up there?” There was no answer.
The lack of reply didn’t worry me much since my spouse has very poor hearing. I jumped up and walked from the sitting room to the living room, stepped over our sleeping Afghan dog, crossed the room and went up the stairs. The house was completely silent. I strained my ears but there was nothing. “Darling?” I called in a less certain voice, “Are you there?” I’d reached the top of the stairs and looked down the sunlit hallway that led to our bedroom. Two other bedrooms that served as an office for each of us opened on either side of the corridor. We never shut any of the doors and what I could see of the rooms appeared to be empty.
I walked down the hall with a nagging sense of worry. Nothing. The room was as it had been when I’d made the bed that morning. Our huge orange tabby cat was stretched out snoozing in the middle of it. Maybe he was just pretending to sleep to avoid the blame for knocking something over.
I went back down the hall and glanced into my husband’s study. He wasn’t there either. The huge desk was stacked high with papers and books as was the rest of the room. It seemed undisturbed as far as I could tell. Next, I looked into my office. There were books on the couch just as I’d left them and a stack of clothes I meant to repair some day sitting by the sewing machine. I walked in and over to the window that looked down on our front garden. A breeze rustled in the leafy trees. I reflected how much I loved this room and the life we had in our house. I turned to leave and saw that a stack of magazines I’d set on a chair by the door had fallen to the floor. It gave me a sense of relief. That must have been what I heard! Then I noticed that the door to the attic stairway was slightly ajar.
“How strange,” I thought. I opened it and entered the dusty gloom. The air felt thick as I climbed and my eyes strained in a vain attempt to see. I was nearly at the top when an unreasonable fear gripped me. I couldn’t go any farther. My head was level with the floor and in the half-light that came from the slatted air vents I saw nothing unusual in the empty storage space. But there was an oppressive atmosphere and a chill ran down my back in spite of the warmth of the day. I felt as if something was there, something I couldn’t see but could sense.
I couldn’t keep from feeling panicky. I turned and fled, holding tight to the handrail as I took the stairs two at a time. When I slammed the door shut behind me I leaned on it. Back in the land of sunlight I felt silly. I both scolded and reassured myself sternly that there was no reason to be afraid of an empty attic. The sound of my husband’s car pulling into the back yard was as beautiful as a Chopin etude and, gratefully, I hurried downstairs to meet him. I told him what had happened and he didn’t laugh.
“You’re not the first,” he told me, “a friend who took care of the house once for me said she woke him up in the night and that he didn’t stop running until he’d reached the railway station.” I looked into his eyes and saw that this was a true report. “Well, I probably just imagined it all,” I said and we spoke no more about it but later on I set a pile of heavy books against the doorway that led to the attic. After all, there must have been a draft or something.
Months went by without any incident beyond the occasional footsteps. Eventually I put it out of my mind as being the overactive imagination of a poetry writer. Life was good and I was making bread in the large, old-fashioned kitchen. I had just set the bowl of dough on the counter to let it rise and was washing my hands. The day was warm but suddenly I felt cold. Then it happened. I felt the softest touch of a light hand on my right shoulder. I froze. My eyes slid to the side to discover who it was. There was nothing and no one there. I felt the hand pat me gently as a mother or grandmother would have done. And that’s when I lost it.
I spun around in that empty kitchen and ran right out the back door. My feet flew across the grass and through the gate that separated the lawn from our vegetable garden. I opened it and went into walk between the raised beds and think. There had been nothing there. “It didn’t happen,” I told myself firmly, “It’s just the heat playing with my imagination.” I sat down on one of the fruit crates that served as a small planter. I took a few ragged breaths, studied the marigolds and explained it to myself.
There had been NOTHING there because it hadn’t happened. It was imagination, plain and simple. The goose bumps on my arms and the hair still prickling at the nape of my neck refused to listen to this reasonable explanation. There was no way I could go back to the kitchen.
Since there was always some weeding that needed to be done, I decided to stay in the garden until my husband came home from work. When he arrived an hour later I told him my story. We carried the groceries he’d bought toward the house. Our dog met us at the still-open door with a look that said, “Can you believe what a wimp your wife is?” “I’ve heard that animals react to spirits,” I said, “Why doesn’t Prima freak out?” “I don’t know, but she never has. Once, I felt a small dog run by me in the upstairs hall when there was no dog there,” he said, “So I figured the two dogs get along.” I looked at him, skeptically but saw that once again, he was simply telling me something that he truly believed had happened to him.
After that strange encounter in the kitchen, I was feeling more open-minded about his beliefs. “Oh my! Look at the bread!” I exclaimed. The rising dough was bubbling as it spilled over the edge of the bowl and crawled across the counter. “You know, it wasn’t a mean kind of touch,” I said, “It was like she approved of me making bread. Maybe I was rude to run away.” I looked up at the high ceiling and spoke to the house, “Lady, I’m sorry I freaked out. This is your house as much as it is ours. You are always welcome here.” Needless to say, I threw the bread dough away.
The phenomenon of being touched never happened again. We often heard unexplained sounds and I never went into the attic. Occasionally I found drawers left open when I knew I’d shut them and I’d say, “Lady, you must shut the drawers!” then give a nervous laugh. But other than that, all was calm and nothing ever went missing. Time passed and eventually life had new plans for us so we sold the lovely Victorian house. When we told the prospective buyers that the house had a ghost, they scoffed.
We felt we’d done our duty and took the money. Some time later, a close friend told us that the people who’d bought our house moved out within months of moving in. The new owner claimed that the antique glass milk bottles we had left in a decorative case above the kitchen cabinets came out of their own accord and with deliberate aim, dropped around her. Apparently the ghost that they refused to believe in chased them away with one unexplained incident after another. The family who bought it from them only lasted one night.
Not that long ago, we received a letter from our friend telling us that the latest owners were very nice and much more comfortable with the Lady. Enclosed with his letter was a photocopy of some letters and an old newspaper cutting. The new owner of the 22nd street house had written a note at the top. “Tell your friends that the Lady is very happy with us. We are now one big happy family.”
The clipping was an article about a lady who had lived and died in the 22nd street house. There were letters, found in a wall that revealed more about her life. The tale was of love, never fufilled and told us that our Lady had been a very sad and lonely soul. We looked at one another and my husband said, “Perhaps she won’t be lonely anymore.” “I do hope so,” I said fervently and with a fond memory of those long-ago days, I thought of the Lady Who Wasn’t There.