“Swallows” by Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek, PSP permanent faculty member

This piece was originally commissioned by a gallery in Great Britain for a catalogue of paintings. It’s set in Prague. I was on my way to observe a master class at the Music School of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts some years ago and looked up to see a girl sitting on ledge above the street.  I felt I needed to tell someone but didn’t know who and finally told a person in the coffee shop but when we went back outside the girl was gone.


Secured by a spider web, the girl dangles her legs over the ledge as she chats up a pigeon, although her intention when she crawled from an open window in the Academy of  Arts was to converse with a gargoyle.

“Is that thunder?”

The question carries from a window of the Academy out over the tile rooftops of the city followed by the glissando of a Steinway.

The girl’s seat on the ledge feels a bit precarious. That keeps her from turning her head to see from which window the question escaped.

“Momma’s playing Chopin.  She wants me to study piano my next birthday like she did when she was a girl,” she tells the pigeon.  “When my Nana told my Momma that girl’s aren’t ready for Chopin, Momma’s piano teacher with the blond mustachios said she was precocious.”

At the mention of Chopin, the pigeon begins to pace along the ledge, nodding its head in a way that makes its cooing sound anxious.

“When I was a little girl,” the girl says, and pauses, but neither the pigeon nor the gargoyle ask: And what, pray tell, are you now?

“When I was a little girl I begged my mother to buy me for my birthday a clear pink plastic umbrella so I could watch the rain painting the houses pink. But no, instead I get piano lessons.”

At the mention of an umbrella, a gust smudges the clouds and the curtains flutter out of the windows of the Academy like hankies waving farewell from the ocean liner that her mother insisted they sail off to Europe on so that once in their goddamn lives they could live as people did when travel was elegant and a crossing meant something.  What it meant, the girl thinks, was learning that once in her goddamn life was more than enough to be seasick.  She can hear her name ringing from room to room before the windows of the Academy are banged shut.  Only a brief respite, and then her name rises from the misting, echoey street—Isabella! Isabella!—as if adults are playing a game of hide and seek. The cobblestones below glisten like the roof tiles.  They have taken on a hue of stones at the beach in Brittany.

“The beaches there are pebbles not sand and you pick the stones like they’re as precious as beach glass,” she tells the pigeon. “Except, by the time you get them home, they’re just dull stones and  you can’t see why you wanted to keep them.  But if you rub them with spit they come back to life.”

The pigeon examines her first through one eye and then the other as if it’s wearing monocles.

“Once, when Papa still lived at home, I snuck out like this and sat on the top of the stairs listening to him tell stories at a dinner party for his birthday.  I loved when Papa told stories.  They made it seem like he was an exciting stranger.  He’d insisted on his favorite cake, a baba au rhum, and refused to blow out the birthday candles.  The room was dark, the candles were flickering down, and everyone was drunk from eating cake and nobody knew I was there listening.  He was telling a story about waiting at a train station for Momma before they were married.  She was engaged to her blond-mustachioed piano teacher then, a teacher she’d had since she was eight who used to kiss her on the mouth if she had a good lesson, but now she was coming in on a train that was running late, for a rendezvous with Papa.  It was spring and he sat down on a bench beside the tracks and took out his sketch book and a blue pencil and began to draw her from memory as if she were modeling for him–not that she had modeled for him, he said, not yet anyway.  But he couldn’t concentrate because he was listening for the whistle of the train with every fiber of his being.  Listening for the train, Papa said, like a dog listening for his master’s whistle.  When he first sat down he’d noticed a man with dirty long nails and shock-headed gray hair like a grown-up Streuwwelpeter sitting at the other end of the bench eating the popcorn they sold at the station from a crushed, greasy white bag.  The man had no luggage and looked too raggedy to be a passenger waiting for a train, and Papa wondered if he was a hobo who’d scrounged the popcorn from the trash. Papa had been careful not to stare at the man when he sat down, and then became so absorbed in his sketchbook he’d forgotten about him until the raggedy man asked, “What are you looking at you dumbass wobblehead?”  “Pardon me,” Papa said, afraid the man thought that maybe Papa was sketching him because he looked like an escapee from an old German fairytale.  “Not you, I’m talking to him, “ the man said, pointing to a pigeon.

The story the girl has been telling concludes with the exclamation of a lightning flash, and the pigeon flaps off as if offended.

Swooping from the roll of thunder, a flight of birds glinting a metallic purple alights on the gargoyle’s wavy green hair.  They are birds she has never seen this close before and at rest.  She has only seen them high above her, darting and diving, like a World War I dogfight, as they attacked some invisible swarm of insects. Raindrops with big spaces between them have begun to splatter, but the amazement she is feeling reassures her that when Momma sat at the piano kissing her old, white-mustachioed teacher again, she was right to sneak away.  If she hadn’t, she would have never got to see how one by one the birds flit up and vanish into the gargoyle’s gaping, silent shout. It’s not that she expects a reply, but she feels compelled to tell the gargoyle anyway, “I would never have realized that’s why they’re called swallows.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *