Two weeks after his twenty-ninth birthday, Dan Whisper started getting up to pee four or five times in the night. This had never happened to him before. As a child he was only ever woken by other people: the nasal snoring of his younger brother, Ant, who refused to have his adenoids removed; the harsh trilling of the alarm clock his mother, Cheryl, bought for his eighth birthday after abandoning hope of waking him for school by other means. As an adult, he always took care not to fill his body up with hot drinks or alcohol close to bed time, so as to be sure not to wake his girlfriend Donella by rising to relieve his bladder. But, with no explanation, for the past three weeks, he had woken at two, three, five, and sometimes again at five-thirty, with his abdomen stretched.
The toilet was in a small room at the back of the apartment Whisper shared with Donella. It was the last door on the left of a carpeted corridor from which all the other rooms opened off. Their bedroom was furthest from it, and between those two rooms were a linen cupboard, the bathroom and the kitchen. Whisper was fairly certain that no sound could be heard in either room from the other, but still he carefully closed the door of each on his way back and forth to relieve himself. Once inside the toilet, Whisper lifted the seat, inclined his knees slightly, shifted his weight, then let out a long and satisfying stream that he felt sure would be conveyed, by its own pressure, from the pan down into the internal plumbing (though he always flushed – using the quick, quiet half-flush button – before carefully replacing the toilet seat).
Although puzzled by the sudden corporeal change, Whisper found it did not worry him. In fact, he came to enjoy the feel of his body, inexplicably and repeatedly, producing and excreting a powerful flow of liquid. As he had slept well since childhood, and never become a partygoer once an adult, Whisper had seldom had the pleasure of nocturnal wakefulness, nor felt the joy of being alert while others were unconscious.
As Whisper returned quietly from the toilet for the second time one night, he found a giant sparrow standing in the hall. The bird was the size of a large cocker spaniel. Its feathers were the standard sparrow concoction of light and darker browns. It had a male’s black bib beneath its quizzical, beaked face.
“You make almost as little sound as I do,” the sparrow said, turning its head to the left and fixing one black eye on him, as sparrows do.
“I try to be considerate,” said Whisper.
He was not sure why these were the first words he chose to speak to a giant, talking bird. He was not sure he should be speaking to it at all. This was surely a dream. Donella would wake any second now, annoyed at him for talking in his sleep, and roughly shake his arm. He waited for the pressure of her hand.
“Admirable,” said the sparrow. “I imagine you are wondering what I am doing here?”
“Amongst other things.”
The air of the unheated apartment curled around Whisper’s legs and buttocks, bare beneath his T-shirt.
“I’m a messenger, of sorts,” the sparrow continued, “though that might give you the mis-impression that I had a message of the regular kind to – how might you say it? – deliver … and from someone… which would not be right. Perhaps it would be better for me to say that you will shortly receive a message and it will not be without consequence that you have met me before you do so.”
The bird stopped speaking and twitched its beak under one wing to scratch at something in its feathers. Whisper waited for Donella’s voice, harsh as an alarm clock in his ear. After what felt like ten minutes of silence, he said:
“I cannot tell you that,” said the sparrow, as if no time had passed at all, “but rest assured, you will receive it soon. You have my word.”
“Sorry if this is rude,” said Whisper, “but why should I trust that?”
“Indeed, that is a little rude,” said the bird. “I would not have expected it of you, but perhaps that is a very good sign. I suppose it must come as something of a shock to you to meet me here. In fact, I see now that I myself have been very rude, I have not even done you the courtesy of a formal introduction. My name is Sparrow.”
The bird inclined its body, eyes briefly closed and wing tips lifting lightly as its head approached the floor.
“I’m Whisper,” said Whisper, though he suspected the sparrow already knew.
“It is truly of little significance what we are called,” said the bird, as if it had responded to his thought. “I know who you are. And you may come to know me. Should you need to.”
“Actually,” said Whisper, “I’m finding it hard to believe in you, let alone contemplate getting to know you. Again, I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Quite,” said the sparrow. “There is little I can do, I imagine, to persuade you. But that really is of no consequence. I can perform my function perfectly adequately with or without your belief.”
“Your function?” said Whisper.
“Yes,” said the sparrow. And he disappeared.
Whisper’s bladder gave a stab. However much time had passed as he stood speaking with the giant bird, it had been time enough for the liquid that appeared in his body, unsourced, to channel towards its egress. He re-entered the toilet, raised the plastic lid and bent his knees. The strong, savory smell of urine filled his nostrils as the potent flow began. Whisper breathed. “Here I am,” he thought. “I am here.”
Later, Whisper made his way cautiously back along the corridor, but he did not encounter the giant bird – or any other thing, living or imagined. He softly turned the bedroom doorknob. Slipping into the room, he felt that something had altered in the atmosphere. It was, in part, like the feeling of being watched by someone unseen, or of being about to run into an old friend randomly in the street. And yet it was not quite like either feeling. At its heart was not a presence, but an absence. Whisper lifted the duvet gently, so as not to disturb Donella. Then, as he slid in under the sheet, he realised what it was. Donella was not there.
On Whisper’s tenth birthday, his mother Cheryl, who at that time ran an occult bookstall in the city markets, took him to see a clairvoyant. It had been meant as a gift for him alone, but his brother Ant insisted on coming along. In the end, Whisper had to wait while his brother took first turn. When Whisper finally entered the musty booth, he had the uneasy feeling that the woman with pink hair and bloodshot eyes had been expecting someone else.
Whisper couldn’t remember much of what the clairvoyant said except for one phrase, imprinted like a question mark in his mind: everyone you know goes away in the end.
Ant, on the other hand, experienced an epiphany and recounted his prediction, word for word, every year that followed.
“She told me that she had one thing to say to me, but it was so important I must remember it forever, then she said “You are not destined to grow old and grey. You will flash in your youth like a firecracker, then burn and go out before you’re 30.” It was the best thing anybody ever told me.”
From the day eight-year old Ant received this prophetic news, he had lived his life like it was running out. Nothing he did was done slowly or quietly. Every chance he could take, he took; every risk he could run, he ran; every self-serving act he could perform, he did. It was left to Whisper to be the sensible son.
Whisper sat at his desk in the tenth story office building that housed Merchant Markers Ltd., the son-of-a-multi-national company for which he worked. Every ten seconds, he methodically pressed the down arrow on his keypad and shifted his eyes to the top of the screen. The memo from the Vice President, Customer Relations scrolled on “create synergies… maximise target markets… implement aggressive strategies…”. Whisper absently lifted a half-cold cup of coffee. The surface had formed a scum of greying milk and the three teaspoons of sugar he’d added when it was hot had conglomerated at the bottom of the cup so that he only now got a first hint of the thick sweetness awaiting him. His computer droned. It gave off too much heat. He had politely asked for it to be fixed or replaced several months ago. Perhaps it was time to send a gentle reminder. It was somewhere around 4 o’clock, the time when nothing ever happens in an office. The phone rang.
The caller said nothing.
Still nothing. After a pause, Whisper said: “Hello, Ant.”
“Hey there to you BIG brother!”
Whisper could hear his little brother sniggering, as he always did at this point in their calls. Whisper had never been able to decide whether this was directed at him for not recognising who it was – despite the regularity of Ant playing this so-called joke – or back at Ant himself. Whisper reined in a sigh.
“What can I do for you?”
“Why d’you always think I want something when I call, BIG brother?”
“You usually do.”
Whisper hated the way Ant called him big brother. Whisper was a large man, six foot three and wide with it. He walked with a hunch, more in an effort to cover his belly – of which he was anything but proud – than to disguise his height.
“Well I don’t want anything from you this time BIG guy. In fact,” and, in the pause, Whisper thought he could detect his brother enjoying the moment, “I’ve already got what I want.”
“Yes,” said Whisper, thinking of the countless times since their shared childhood that that had been true, “you have.”
“What?” yelled Ant. “She told you? That dizzy bitch. It was supposed to be me.”
“What are you talking about?” said Whisper, feeling frustration colour his voice. He glanced through his open office door, but there was no one there.
“Donella’s moved in with me. We’ve been sleeping together for two months. She says you started getting up at all hours of the night, and you never did it anymore. She found you dull in bed anyway. She wanted a man who wasn’t afraid to make her make some noise! Don’t worry. You can have her back when I die, BIG brother.”
Whisper felt the coffee rise in his throat. Ant began to speak again, but he replaced the receiver. After a moment he lifted it, noticing as he did so that the dial tone had gone dead, then lay it on the desk.
Whisper stepped out into winter sunlight. He was pleasantly surprised by how few people were on the footpaths. As he followed the lead of one final green light from the last CBD block to the entrance to the wharves, the breeze began to smell cleaner. Soon he was walking by water. Finally, he came to an empty park bench, facing out to the harbour. The wind was particularly strong in this unsheltered spot. Whisper sat.
Grey clouds rollicked across the sky and chunky white-topped waves broke against each other in the sea. Whisper felt drying spray draw the skin of his cheeks tighter. He thought, “I am here. Here I am.”
“Fine day for it,” said the sparrow, as it settled itself beside him on the wooden seat, tucking its thin legs up under its downy belly.
“For what?” asked Whisper softly, checking to see if there was anyone close enough to hear him talking to a giant bird, or to see the creature for that matter. There was no one.
“For it,” the bird repeated, inclining its head and peering up at him from its closest eye.
Whisper bit back a second “what?”
“You got the message,” the sparrow continued, “now what are you going to do about it?”
Whisper was silent. He wasn’t sure whether he had, in fact, received any message. The news that Donella was sleeping, now living, with his brother was not a message. There was no deeper meaning in it for him than that one way of living was over and another about to begin. If the message was not about Ant and Donella, then what was it?
The sparrow was silent. They sat together in the salt air, saying nothing. After a few minutes, Whisper turned to the bird.
“I am here, you know,” he said.
“Yes,” said the sparrow, “as am I.”
“You are really here, then?”
The bird nodded its feathered face.
“As here as me,” said the bird, its eyes shifting a little as it executed what looked to Whisper like a frown. “That is to say, I am as here as you. And the reverse also is true.”
“Is that the message?” said Whisper.
“That was my message,” said the sparrow, “the message that was delivered to me, many years ago.”
Whisper thought for a minute, then turned to the sparrow. “Shall we go?”
The grey sea rode up splintered wharf posts and the wind lifted the foam from its shoulders. The wind lifted the foam, white and sparkling in the wintry light, and tossed it onto an empty park bench.