To 2015 - 2016
Bouquet of robins

By Svetha Pulavarty

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    By Svetha Pulavarty, 12
At night, the old woman made birds by the side of the road, weaving together strands of dried grass until they turned into a crane, or a peacock, or a robin. Sometimes, if she felt like it, a drop of paint or two would fall onto the birds. Black eyes, maybe orange for a beak. Maybe a little red for the robin, white for a swan. People passed her by without noticing, often headed to Houston’s red and gold café, where they could drown their sorrows in coffee and sugar.
The pastries were always stale. Somehow, the only customers came at night, washed up from the day’s tsunamis, when everyone else had gone home. Cheap coffee, cheap pastries. Sugar and flour and water and milk.
The old woman came in every once in a while. The swans were for love, she said. Three dollars each. Cranes for general luck. Wrens for confidence. Blue jays for power. The customers would glare at her balefully. Sometimes, a romantic would buy a swan, then would come back to Houston’s the next night and the next, still eating stale pastries with a plastic fork, and would glare balefully with the rest.
Houston’s wife ran the café, tending to the customers’ tantrums when they happened, but mostly just dealing with the silence and despondence that cafés usually had after midnight. She’d closed it down once to try and sell it, but no buyers came. The place was too old, they said, and she supposed it was true.
The red and gold paint peeled off the walls. No one bothered to repaint them. No one cared.
The old woman’s teeth were crooked and yellow. She was always smiling, even when one of Houston’s customers dumped hot coffee onto her skin. Houston’s wife yelled at her to go away, but the old woman just cackled. Starlings helped with anger, she said. Two dollars apiece, and would the missus like to buy one?
No, the missus would not, thank you very much, and please do not come again.
Or maybe a swan for romance and faith? A dove for peace? Only a dollar apiece, just for the missus Laurie, just for her, since she was always so kind. Maybe the good Mr. Houston would come home, then, since he’d been away for so long.
Laurie Houston pursed her lips, eyes bright with unshed tears, and turned away without deigning to reply.
The old woman’s smile didn’t flicker. Without a word, she took the rickety cart with its twisted-grass birds and rolled it back to the side of the road. Birds for sale, birds for sale. Three dollars apiece. And oh, this robin would be perfect for the missus in the blue hat, and this jay would truly suit the young man beside her, what’s his name? Yes, the young Mr. Fairbanks. What were they doing out at this late hour? Oh, but swans were excellent for romance, and if she dared presume-- But of course the old woman dared not presume. Still, a swan was sold for three dollars, and the young Mr. Fairbanks gifted it to the lady with the blue hat.
The clock struck one o’clock in the morning, and Laurie Houston served coffee and pastries to the discontented. The café slowly emptied to make room for the incoming rays of light. Laurie sat at an empty table. A grass swan rested in front of her. Some poor romantic soul had bought it and then left it there. Laurie sipped from a cup of dismal coffee and sighed.
Five in the morning, and the café closed for the day. Laurie shuffled home. The old woman packed away her birds. The city stirred even as a few of its inhabitants went to sleep, unwilling to fight through another day.