Animals: “My Fiancé, Winston” by Janalyn Guo

My Fiancé, Winston

I met Winston one year ago. The trees were reclaiming the neighborhood I lived in. I read about the loss of trees and water in other parts of the world, but here in my backyard, it felt like a forest sprung up if I simply did nothing. The forest, determined to grow, would devour our houses and our strip malls and our golf courses if we were not on top of the maintenance. The once baby trees by my front door were suddenly huge, looming over the roof, their big branches swinging dangerously in the wind. Here, there was so much rain, so much water, deluges every year, feeding the tree roots, insisting on growth. Winston lived in the magnolia tree in my backyard.

                It started with a light tap tap tap on the glass window of my home office. When I looked to see what was making this sound, I saw a cardinal with a bright orange beak, his red wing feathers outspread. For days afterward, at the same time every day, he tapped lightly on the window. Tap-tap-tap-tap. The first few times, I just watched from my desk, amazed at his consistency. What was the meaning of it? I wondered if the reflection in the window at that hour was just so that it looked as if there was a forest in the glass. I went over to the window and waved. “Silly bird,” I said, “what are you trying to do?” I didn’t try to venture outside when he did his taps, afraid I’d scare him away. I’d grown accustomed to his morning greetings and didn’t want him to go. I thought of birds as skittish creatures. One sudden move, and they’d leave you forever.

                I looked up information on cardinals, and when I found out that cardinals didn’t migrate, that you could have generations of the same cardinal family in your yard, I bought a bird feeder and filled it to the brim with sunflower seeds. It was a gesture to the cardinals that I could be trusted.

                After I installed the feeder, I found Winston standing there frequently, eyeing the backdoor as if waiting for something. Once, I walked out there when the feeder was low with a five-pound bag of sunflower seeds. I saw Winston on a low-hanging branch of the magnolia tree, and I froze in my tracks. I thought he’d fly off, but he did something else. He rushed toward me, tangled himself in my hair, and rested there, as if relieved, as if finally home.

*

He told me his life story. He could communicate in English and had a sweet melodic voice. Winston, who had once been human, one day found himself changed into a bright red cardinal. He told me about his adolescence and his younger years, the milestones of his 20s and 30s, too—his aloof mother, his strict father, his relationships, his marriage, his father’s death, his divorce. He had always been social and outgoing. He ate meat. He used his sizable inheritance from his father to become a restaurateur. His friend circle was wide, and he had frequent gatherings at his restaurant. He was often lonely, too. He wondered why he was now a cardinal. He listed out each person he might have hurt or offended in his younger years, adding more to the list with each telling, banging his head against my windowpane in penance. Winston told his life story to me many times, and we analyzed and discussed different events of his life and whether any particular event or string of events may have led to his transformation. But it was all so speculative, so arbitrary.

                He kept mementos of his human life in his nest up in the magnolia tree: a set of keys, a photograph of himself.

                “Handsome,” I said.

                We spent many nights, he on my shoulder, researching on the internet how something like this could happen to a person. All we could find were fairy tales. The cure was: true love, a kiss, a noble and selfless deed—nothing more nothing less. 

                I told Winston that I was envious of him, knowing both worlds. Being among the birds in the sky, befriending them as he once did with people, and being my dutiful lover here on earth. Why not just let it be?

                After all, it was Winston in the form of a bird that I grew to love. Before I met him, I never opened my windows. I never paid attention to the environment. The cacophony of bird sounds was just white noise with no discernable elements. Now I could hear the sparrows, the robins, the grackles, the woodpeckers, and the jays. 

                Before I met Winston, I had given up on mating. I’d seen different people, but I didn’t like being with them more than being alone. It was the contortion act of compromise, the pain of not being fully yourself if you were always meeting some other human in the middle. My time with Winston was different. With Winston, I was myself with someone else. Winston had his world and I had mine. We lived on the same property, he outside in the magnolia tree, me inside in the bungalow with the big picture windows. We had a system. He tapped on the window when he wanted my attention. I called out to him when I wanted company. He always landed just so on my fingers. 

                My dog, Wei Wei, liked Winston, too. He was a yellow lab with small beady eyes and a furry white chest. He had a thick coat of fur that shed like crazy. Winston collected tufts of his fur from the carpet with his beak daily. He passed the fur onto his bird friends, who used it to waterproof their nests. Wei Wei had a love for bread and bones, which we did not withhold in his old age. Winston stood on Wei Wei’s back often, enjoying the vantage point. We went for walks together. Wei Wei quickly saw the both of us as equal caretakers. Winston walked Wei Wei himself sometimes to the consternation of our neighbors, and Wei Wei was careful not to tug on the leash too hard. 

                It was Winston as a cardinal that pushed me to new places. We flew together. I took paragliding lessons out on a great hill where the wind was consistent. I watched people unfurl their gliders and drift up into the sky, carried by the wind. Winston accompanied me on my flights. I watched what he did with his wings and did the same with my glider. It felt so freeing to fly. I heard about a woman who caught a thermal so powerful it sent her up into the ether where she was knocked unconscious, coming to much later adrift in a dazzling and calm blue sky. I heard there were thermals out there that would let me drift for thousands of miles. I looked up the wind patterns and planned a trip out west that allowed Winston and me to fly for hours at a time. We’d take off from a mountain where the wind was consistent early in the morning and then ride thermals for as long as we could. 

                Winston loved me, too. One night, he called me out with a birdsong telling me that Venus was visible in the darkening sky. I went out to meet him, and we gazed out at the horizon, me in my Adirondack chair and Winston standing with his skinny legs on my shoulder. We could see the planet twinkling in the sky like a diamond, yellowish white. When I looked down, Winston had a ring in his beak. It was made of intricately woven grasses and downy feathers, like a tiny nest with a hole in the middle for my finger.

*

Many things delayed the wedding. First it was the storm. Hurricane-force winds blew through the trees turning them into weapons. Winston was distraught about it. There were nests up in these branches, he said. I told Winston that his friends could shelter inside my house. He sang into the eerily dark morning sky, and the birds rushed indoors. All day, we could hear the rain pelting the roof and the pop-pop-pop of tree branches falling. Birds filled every room. All kinds of birds. I scattered birdseed across a newspaper on the floor. Water started to seep into my house. The birds stayed with me until it was calm enough to go back outside. After the storm, we all needed to rebuild.

                Then it was Wei Wei’s death. At the end, Wei Wei’s barks were raspy, his eyes cloudy. We spent his last days gingerly combing the loose fur out of his coat. Trimming his toenails. Giving him flea baths. Making him look neat and comfortable. They lit a candle for Wei Wei at the veterinarian’s when we put him down. Winston stood on my shoulder, his feathers touching my cheek. The whole room smelled like vanilla. We mourned for some time.

*

One night, sitting in my Adirondack chair and looking out at the stars, I told Winston I was ready to move forward, to be married. Winston hesitated. For such a light and airy creature, his heart was very heavy and burdened. He wrestled with every decision and how it impacted his chances of returning to his original form. The uncertainty paralyzed him.

                “Can we wait until I figure all of this out,” he said, “until I can pinpoint why?”

                “What if that never happens?” I said.

                “I just need to know,” he said. “Something doesn’t feel settled.”

                I could hear the obsession in his melancholy birdsong. It was a different kind of call that distinguished itself from all others: an aria, a song so self-searching that it made all the other birds quiet down and listen. Normal bird songs weren’t like that. Normal bird songs were meant to communicate with other birds. His song was lavish and self-indulgent. I could hear what he was trying to say: What has become of me?

                I maxed out my credit card buying wedding dresses to try. I rushed out to meet the delivery person who brought packages to my door, and I snuck back inside to try them on without Winston noticing. I looked up venues and caterers and flowers. I set up everything so that all he had to do was show up.

*

                “I think it’s you,” he said, when I revealed to him what I did. “You don’t want me to change.”

                I told Winston that I liked what I saw. I liked the two of us the way we were, cardinal and woman.

                “Why long for the person that you used to be?” I asked. “Why not move forward into the future?”

                That was the last argument that we had. Was it the fact that I loved him for him, Winston the cardinal, that endangered his chances of returning to his old form? It was true, I did not want him to be human.

                Winston stopped tapping on my picture window. I couldn’t find him in the magnolia tree, no trace of his picture or his keys. Other cardinals came to the birdfeeder, but they were not Winston. They squabbled with the jays and the doves and the woodpeckers for a place at the feeder. As the date of the wedding crept closer, I called up all our wedding guests and canceled. 

                When the wedding date arrived, I went to the botanical garden at the agreed upon hour. Just in case he’d changed his mind, I wore my red dress, and I brought a white top hat for him. Once early in our courtship, on a rare spring bluebird day, Winston promised me that it would not rain on the day of our wedding. But the thunderclouds darkened the sky, and it started to drizzle. I waited for him on a bench underneath a giant magnolia tree whose white flowers were closing in the darkness. Winston never came. 

About Janalyn Guo

Janalyn Guo author photo

Janalyn Guo is the author of the short story collection Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins (Subito Press 2018). Her writing has been supported by grants and fellowships from MacDowell and the National Endowment for the Arts, and her more recent works appear in wildness, pulpmouth, Juked, Indiana Review, and The Rupture.