Above the old man’s head was the dovecote, a tall white-netted shelf on stilts, full of strutting, preening birds. The sunlight broke on their gray breasts into small rainbows. His ears were lulled by their crooning, his hands stretched up toward his favorite, a homing pigeon, a young plump-bodied bird, which stood still when it saw him and cocked a shrewd bright eye. “Pretty, pretty, pretty,” he said, as he grasped the bird and drew it down, feeling the cold coral claws tighten around his finger. Contented, he rested the bird lightly on his chest and leaned against a tree, gazing out beyond the dovecote into the landscape of a late afternoon. In folds and hollows of sunlight and shade, the dark red soil, which was broken into great dusty clods, stretched wide to a tall horizon. Trees marked the course of the valley; a stream of rich green grassed the road. His eyes traveled homeward along this road until he saw his granddaughter swinging on the gate underneath a frangipani tree.
Her hair fell down her back in a wave of sunlight; and her long bare legs repeated the angles of- the frangipani stems, bare, shining brown stems among patterns of pale blossoms. She was gazing past the pink flowers, past the railway cottage where they lived, along the road to the village. His mood shifted. He deliberately held out his wrist for the bird to take flight, and caught it again at the moment it spread its wings. He felt the plump shape strive and strain under his fingers; and, in a sudden access of troubled spite, shut the bird into a small box and fastened the bolt. “Now you stay there,” he muttered and turned his back on the shelf of birds. He moved warily along the hedge, stalking his granddaughter, who was now looped over the gate, her head loose on her arms, singing. The light happy sound mingled with the crooning of the birds, and his anger mounted. “Hey!” he shouted, and saw her jump, look back, and abandon the gate.
Her eyes veiled themselves, and she said in a pert, neutral voice, “Hullo, Granddad.” Politely she moved toward him, after a lingering backward glance at the road. “Waiting for Steven, hey?” he said, his fingers curling like claws into his palm. “Any objections?” she asked lightly, refusing to look at him. He confronted her, his eyes narrowed, shoulders hunched, tight in a hard knot of pain that included the preening birds, the sunlight, the flowers, herself. He said, “Think you’re old enough to go courting, hey?” The girl tossed her head at the old-fashioned phrase and sulked, “Oh, Granddad!” “Think you want to leave home, hey? Think you can go running around the fields at night?” Her smile made him see her, as he had every evening of this warm end-of-summer month, swinging hand in hand along the road of the village with that red-handed, red-throated, violent-bodied youth, the son of the postmaster. Misery went to his head and he shouted angrily: “I’ll tell your mother!”
“Tell away!” she said, laughing, and went back to the gate. He heard her singing, for him to hear:
“I’ve got you under my skin,
I’ve got you deep in the heart of . . .
“Rubbish,” he shouted. “Rubbish. Impudent little bit of rubbish!”
Growling under his breath, lie turned toward the dovecote, which was his refuge from the house he shared with his daughter and her husband and their children. But now the house would be empty. Gone all the young girls with their laughter and their squabbling and their teasing. He would be left, uncherished and alone, with that square-fronted, calm-eyed woman, his daughter. He stopped, muttering, before the dovecote, resenting the absorbed, cooing birds. From the gate the girl shouted: “Go and tell! Go on, what are you waiting for?” Obstinately he made his way to the house, with quick, pathetic, persistent glances of appeal back at her. But she never looked around. Her defiant but anxious young body stung him into love and repentance. He stopped. “But I never meant…” he muttered, waiting for her to turn and run to him. “I didn’t mean. . . .” She did not turn. She had forgotten him. Along the road carne the young man Steven, with something in his hand. A present for her? The old man stiffened as he watched the gate swing back and the couple embrace.
In the brittle shadows of the frangipani tree his granddaughter, his darling, lay in the arms of the postmaster’s son, and her hair flowed back over his shoulder. “I see you!” shouted the old mail spitefully. They did not move. He stumped into the little whitewashed house, hearing the wooden veranda creak angrily under his feet. His daughter was sewing in the front room, threading a needle held to the light. He stopped again, looking back into the garden. The couple were now sauntering among the bushes, laughing. As he watched he saw the girl escape from the youth with a sudden mischievous movement and run off through the flowers with him in pursuit.
He heard shouts, laughter, a scream, silence. “But it’s not like that at all,” he muttered miserably. “It’s not like that. Why can’t you see? Running and giggling, and kissing and kissing. You’ll come to something quite different.” He looked at his daughter with sardonic hatred, hating himself. They were caught and finished, both of them, but the girl was still running free. “Can’t you see?” he demanded of his invisible granddaughter, who was at that moment lying in the thick green grass with the postmaster’s son. His daughter looked at him and her eyebrows went up in tired forbearance. “Put your birds to bed?” she asked, humoring him. “Lucy,” lie said urgently. “Lucy. . . .” “Well, what is it now?” “She’s in the garden with Steven.”
“Now you just sit down and have your tea.”
He stumped his feet alternately, thump, thump, on the hollow wooden floor and shouted: “She’ll marry him. I’m telling you, she’ll be marrying him next!” His daughter rose swiftly, brought him a cup, set him a plate. ” I don’t want any tea. I don’t want it, I tell you.”
“Now, now,” she crooned. “What’s wrong with it? Why not?” “She’s eighteen. Eighteen!” “I was married at seventeen, and I never regretted it.” “Liar,” he said. “Liar. Then you should regret it. Why do you make your girls marry? It’s you who do it. What do you do it for? Why?” “‘The other three have done fine. They’ve three fine husbands. Why not Alice?” “She’s the last,” he mourned. “Can’t we keep her a bit longer?” “Come, now, Dad. She’ll be down the road, that’s all. She’ll be here every day to see you.” But it’s not the same.” He thought of the other three girls, transformed inside a few months from charming, petulant, spoiled children into serious young matrons.
“You never did like it when we married,” she said. “Why not? Every time, it’s the same. When I got married you made me feel like it was something wrong. And my girls the same. You get them all crying and miserable the way you go on. Leave Alice alone. She’s happy.” She sighed, letting her eyes linger on the sunlit garden. “She’ll marry next month. There’s no reason to wait.” “You’ve said they can marry?” he said incredulously.
“Yes, Dad. Why not?” she said coldly and took up her sewing. His eyes stung, and he went out on to the veranda. Wet spread down over his chin, and he took out a handkerchief and mopped his whole face. The garden was empty. From around the corner came the young couple; but their faces were no longer set against him. On the wrist of the postmaster’s son balanced a young pigeon, the light gleaming on its breast. “For me?” said the old man, letting the drops shake off his chin. “For me?” “Do you like it?” The girl grabbed his hand and swung on it. “It’s for you, Granddad. Steven brought it for you.” They hung about him, affectionate, concerned, trying to charm away his wet eyes and his misery. They took his arms and directed him to the shelf of birds, one on each side, enclosing him, petting him, saying wordlessly that nothing would be changed, nothing could change, and that they would be with him always.
The bird was proof of it, they said, from their lying happy eyes, as they thrust it on him. “There, Granddad, it’s yours. It’s for you.” They watched him as he held it on his wrist, stroking its soft, sun-warmed back, watching the wings lift and balance. “You must shut it up for a bit,” said the girl intimately, “until it knows this is its home.” “Teach your grandmother to suck eggs,” growled the old man. Released by his half-deliberate anger, they fell back, laughing at him. “We’re glad you like it.” They moved off, now serious and full of purpose, to the gate, where they hung, backs to him, talking quietly. More than anything could, their grown-up seriousness shut him out, making him alone; also, it quietened him, took the sting out of their tumbling like puppies on the grass. They had forgotten hint again. Well, so they should, the old man reassured himself, feeling his throat clotted with tears, his lips trembling. He held the new bird to his face, for the caress of its silken feathers.
Then he shut it in a box and took out his favorite. “Now you can go,” he said aloud. He held it poised, ready for flight, while he looked down the garden toward the boy and the girl. Then, clenched in the pain of loss, he lifted the bird on his wrist and watched it soar. A whirr and a spatter of wings, and a cloud of birds rose into the evening from the dovecote. At the gate Alice and Steven forgot their talk and watched the birds. On the veranda, that woman, his daughter, stood gazing, her eves shaded with a hand that still held her sewing. It seemed to the old man that the whole afternoon had stilled to watch his gesture of self-command, that even the leaves of the trees had stopped shaking. Dry-eyed and calm, he let his hands fall to his sides and stood erect, staring up into the sky.
The cloud of shining silver birds flew up and up, with a shrill cleaving of wings, over the dark ploughed land and the darker belts of trees and the bright folds of grass, until they floated high in the sunlight, like a cloud of motes of dust. They wheeled in a wide circle, tilting their wings so there was flash after flash of light, and one after another they dropped from the sunshine of the upper sky to shadow, one after another, returning to the shadowed earth over trees and grass and field, returning to the valley and the shelter of night. The garden was all a fluster and a flurry of returning birds. Then silence, and the sky was empty. The old man turned, slowly, taking his time; he lifted his eyes to smile proudly down the garden at his granddaughter. She was staring at him. She did not smile. She was wide-eyed and pale in the cold shadow, and he saw the tears run shivering off her face.