We resume our fiction series with the final half of Pierre Gripari's Pouic et la Merlette, as translated by yrs. truly. For Part 1, here's a quick link: https://www.dadeplanet.com/single-post/2017/07/05/Pouic-and-the-Lady-Bird
Pouic and the Lady Bird
by Pierre Gripari
Translated by Robin Ford Wallace
“Dear lady,” said I. “Excuse me if I trouble you, but seeing you this way, sad and solitary, it struck me that perhaps it would not displease you to have
a well-raised, respectful companion who loves you, adores you …” (I had been at school, you know; I know how to read posters, road signs, even the labels of canned vegetables.) “ … and I could not see you without being swept away by the storms of love …”
And so forth. All this in the blackbird language, mind you, which is a very gallant tongue, as you may have gathered.
She, meanwhile, looked me over, head to foot, with a knowing and critical eye and a remarkable coolness. Finally, she replied:
“Eh bien, we shall see … We could choose ourselves a tree and nest together. What would you say to that?
“Your wish is my command, ma cherie,” said I. (I felt I now had the right to talk to her like that.) “Anything you like, as long as I am by your side, as long as I can look at you, admire you …”
“Well, come along then,” she said.
And we began looking for a tree. That sounds like nothing, finding ourselves a tree to move into, but in reality it was quite an enterprise! We must have covered half the boulevard, after leaving the park, before we found anything suitable. Each time we approached a chestnut tree, some bird would chase us away:
“No room here!”
The trees were big enough for two nests or even more. But all the birds wanted their own trees to themselves.
Finally I noticed an unoccupied tree. I bore down upon it at top speed, but hardly had I perched when another male blackbird attached me, almost knocking me off my branch.
“This is mine!” he said. “Mine!”
“It is not,” said I. “I was here first!”
“It is my tree,” he said. “I saw it before you!”
“Liar,” said my lady bird. “If you had seen it before us, you would have gotten here sooner. You saw nothing at all.”
“Well, look at her!” cried another female blackbird (who was apparently the mate of the male). “You had better keep your beak shut, you lowlife sparrow, you redbreast, you pigeon!”
“Moi, a pigeon? Repeat that!”
“I certainly will: Pigeon! Pigeon! Pigeon!”
“You are not going to stand there and let me be insulted like this, I hope,” my lady bird said to me, trembling with rage. “In the first place, this tree is ours! Come on, you give the blackbird a good thrashing while I take care of this slut, and we will chase them out of here!”
I will admit that, me personally, I had no desire to scuffle. I approached the other blackbird but at that moment he commenced flapping his wings, neck stuck out, beak open, shouting:
“Get any closer and I will peck your eyes out!”
When I saw that, I told my lady bird, “He is a brute! What a crude individual. Let us go!”
And I dragged her away. She followed me with reluctance, while the other couple laughed nastily.
By good fortune, the next chestnut tree was available. To tell the truth, it was not as attractive as the first, and its leaves were not as dense. But there, at least, no one fought us for the space. My lady bird inspected it at length, sighing from time to time, then she sat down on a fork of the tree where two branches crossed and told me in a sulky tone:
“Eh bien, too bad! We must make do. Now, go find me some twigs.”
“Yes,” she said. “Twigs! Did you think this nest was going to build itself? And bring some pigeon feathers, too, and some strands of wool if you can find any – anything we can build a nest with.”
I asked, not quite convinced. “What is the big hurry?”
“What is the hurry? I have eggs to lay, monsieur! Then I must sit on them. And feed the little ones when they hatch!”
“Mais non!” said I. “I love you! Let us stay together a bit, can we not? We have barely spoken. I have not yet expounded to you my love!”
But the lady bird was no longer listening.
“You love me? Perfect! In that case, do as I say and fetch me some twigs. What are you waiting for? Go! Scat!”
I had no choice but to obey. I thought at first I could get away with bringing her one or two sticks and letting her do the rest, but she did not see matters the same way. Hardly had I come back with a slip of wood, a piece of fluff or a bit of material, I had to set out again to look for more. And each time she had criticisms:
“Ah! At last! You are back now? My poor friend, while you make one trip, I make ten! Oh, and look at this? What am I supposed to do with a scrap like that? You really have no grasp on reality. Come on, put that down there and try to find better next time. And faster, if you please.”
This lasted two days, during which we built the nest. Once the nest was finished, the lady blackbird laid her eggs, and then she applied herself to hatching them. It now became my job to feed her, and she could never get enough! I didn’t have a minute to myself; the day passed in comings and goings. And when I was ungracious about it, she would tell me:
“Are you sulking now? You have seen nothing! When the little ones are born, they will be hungrier than I am. It will be all the two of us can do to keep their beaks full!”
Finally I had had enough. I decided to change mates, to find one who was sweeter, more accommodating, more tender, not so bossy …
One morning, in the square, while I was pecking in a bed of geraniums, I heard nearby a small voice begging me:
“Pardon, Monsieur, could you spare me a tiny crawler?”
I was not sure I had heard correctly. I asked, “A cruller, as in a doughnut?”
“No, a night crawler, as in an earthworm, if you please. I am so hungry, and I feel so alone… None of the male blackbirds will have anything to do with me.”
It was a lady blackbird, not very pretty, to tell the truth. Well, ugly, in fact; but I thought for that very reason she would be sweet and eager to please, because she was afraid of being alone.
I gave her a few insects and we talked. She listened to me with tireless patience as I told her my story, complaining bitterly of the regime of forced labor to which my companion had condemned me. She sighed, sympathized, consoled me:
“I understand you. You are so sensitive! She did not understand you or appreciate you. Oh, how you must have suffered!”
This time I was satisfied. I had found my soul mate, a loving little birdie, a trifle scruffy perhaps but nicer because of that. At the end of twenty minutes, I said to her:
“Let us find ourselves a tree and set up housekeeping.”
The hunt was difficult, more difficult even than the first time. We found, finally, a plane tree missing leaves here and there. Once we had settled in, I wanted to say a few tender words. I sidled up to her.
“Ma cherie …”
Immediately, she cut me off. “Enough already. Now, go fetch me some twigs!”
Like the other, exactly like the other! This time I got it, and I left without saying another word, to go find the one I had left. At least, I said to myself, the first one was pretty!
So back I go to the boulevard, a good-looking fly in my beak as a peace offering. I spot the chestnut tree, my pretty little mate sitting on her eggs there, I fly, I fly, I arrive, I perch--
But here is another blackbird! He is in my place, and he is in my face!
“Hey, you!" he bellowed. "Where do you think you’re going? This nest is occupied.”
“It certainly is,” I said. “By me!”
“Pas de tout!” he said. “This is my place.”
“And furthermore,” I said. “That is my lady bird right there. We came here together.”
“That is no longer your lady bird, bub,” said the brute. “She is my lady bird. Now kindly make the tracks out of here.”
“Vraiment!” I said. “This is too much!”
“You do not wish,” he said ominously, “to make the tracks?”
Well! Could I help it if he were a beefier bird than I, the brute? And meaner, too. Still, I did attempt to argue.
“In fact, sir, I was here before you...”
“It is possible,” he said. “But here I am now!:
“It is not fair,” I said. “I promise you, sir, I shall lodge a complaint!”
“You will lodge a complaint with whom, you drooling idiot?”
“I am not sure,” I admitted. “Nevertheless, I shall lodge one.”
“Lodge away,” he said. “Until then, out! And give me that fly.”
So saying, the monster pried my beautiful fly out of my beak and pushed me into the void.
But what was worse was that my lady bird, who saw it all and heard every word, just sat there saying nothing ,as if it were all none of her business. I suddenly had the thought: I’d better take it up with her when he’s not around.
So off I flew, and I waited until he flew away (him too!) to find her insects to eat, and I took the opportunity of his absence to return to the nest. I lit right into her.
“Well!” I said. “This is how you defend me?”
“And why,” asked my lady bird, “would I defend you?”
“Because I am your mate, you told me that yourself!” I said. “We moved into this tree together. This is my tree, this is your tree, this is our tree; do you not remember that?”
She replied serenely:
“Bien, if it is your tree, defend it!”
“And you,” I persisted. “You are mine and you know it!”
“If I am yours, defend me!”
“So that’s how it is!” I said. “You accept belonging to somebody else now!”
This time the lady bird looked me right in the eye.
“Listen, mon petit ami, once and for all: I belong to him who can feed and protect my nestlings. If you are too weak, or too lazy, to defend your nest against another blackbird, how could you defend it against a crow? Or a cat? Or a man?
Moi, I need somebody sturdy, alert, capable, courageous, hard-working, responsible! I have no use for slackers and wimps!”
Well, I kept trying to argue, but it was no use. My rival came back in five minutes and I had to hightail it out of there.
For all the rest of that week, I led the sad life of the bachelor blackbird. Oh sure, you will tell me, I could still sleep under a roof and eat insects, to say nothing of the old gentleman in the square. Non! The other birds, who had heard the whole story, picked on me without mercy. There is no one more gossipy, mean and sarcastic than a Parisian bird! They stole my food, took it out from under my beak, sometimes in fact pried it out of my beak. And when the old gentleman arrived, they kept me from getting anywhere near him.
That is how it was I was so hungry that I did not hesitate, last Sunday, to peck the breadcrumbs from your table. And do I have to tell you with what impatience, that Monday morning, I waited for school to open? And hoped that the teachers were not on strike?
As soon as I saw my teacher, I flew to her and perched on her shoulder. She understood at once. “Look!” she said. “It is our friend Pouic!”
She made me come inside with the other kids. Once everyone had sat down, I stood in front of the blackboard, she recited her Chinese backwards, and I regained my human form.
That same morning, I made my report in front of the class. I told them the whole story. I was afraid they would make fun of me, but no. They understood that this was serious business, and even envied me a little, even though I hadn’t always acted like a hero.
Finally I told them (which was the truth) that it is easier to be a good student than it is a good blackbird, and that I was happy to be a young man even if it meant I had to work a little harder to make a living.
The teacher was very decent about it. She did not make fun of me or try to impose some stupid moral on the story. She let me tell the tale all the way to the end, and then gave us a math assignment.
Math can be oddly interesting, if one only pays attention!
That is the story of Pouic, just as he told it to me. I do not wish to be more irritating than the teacher, so I will add to it neither reflections nor commentary.