The soufflé turned out beautifully. Unless and Carl praised the dish, and dinner was cheerful. Carl asked Unless to sing the toast again and joined in on the last verse. Carl then explained that where he came from the toasts were more like little speeches, not mentioning to his hosts that he was used to toasting before eating. He raised his jar of yellow wine (Unless and Until had decided the little winecups were much to small for him) and said, “To my hosts Unless and Until, here at the first resting place on this, my second journey. To you two seasoned travelers come home safe again, I ask blessing upon you in your home, and feel sure that my time with you has given me a blessing that my journey will also close in some kind of home-coming as well.”
All were misty-eyed and laughing, and none of them wanted to be the first to go to bed. Carl yawned and stretched, knocking the lamp with his knuckles, and nodded a good-night each to Unless and Until without saying anything more, and stepped as softly as he could up the stairs to his attic hammock room. Unless and Until, subdued, gathered the dishes and cleared the table, washing up together quietly. Then they both went to bed.
Carl could move quietly when he had a mind to do so. He had lived most of his life as a sailor. He woke at the first hint of light outside and had his hammock rolled and duffel packed before the Eastern sky was fully light. He did the best he could at scrawling a note for Unless and Until on a scrap of paper from the kindling bin and stood for a few minutes in the front garden, looking around himself and patting his sides. “Potatoes,” he said, “Too bad. Must be off. Maybe in town.” And he settled his duffel on his shoulder and left, down the road he had come by toward a larger town he knew of at a crossroad with a large thoroughfare good for travelling West, where he intended to go.
Not too long after, Unless and Until were up and about. Each puzzled over his scrawled note. As best they could make out, it said good-bye and that he would be back to visit again someday, and that he promised he would write them from the road.
Unless and Until were glad at this promise. Unless wedged the note under the edge of the blotter on the desk and decided again not to invite any of the neighbors to visit. Until went to the pictures by the back window and gazed at them with a soft smile until their own rumbling stomach urged fixing some breakfast. There were still plenty of potatoes in the larder. Until smiled more broadly and began to chop them up for frying, though not nearly as many as the previous morning.
While Until was cooking, Unless sat in the front room and studied the last picture from the trunk. Unless was thinking about wondrous birds, the birds Hespera Delia grew from eggs gathered in the ocean.
After a somewhat somber morning of fried potatoes, kitchen cleaning, and sundry chores, Unless and Until again sat together in the front room to look at the last picture.
“Looks like another one of those places where it is hot all the time,” said Until.
“Yes, it does, but dry with it,” said Unless. Unless was trying to decide if their claws would hold strong enough for they to walk the twisting boardwalks among clouds. Unless did not say anything aloud about this because Until had no claws.
“Perhaps those are roofs,” said Until, “But the main thing seems to be the birds. They might be wondrous, do you think?”
“They are speaking words, so that is pretty wondrous. Some are hatching, though.” Unless had felt a lingering sadness over Carl’s departure, and felt a little bold in challenging Until’s elegant interpretation.
“Birds that are especially wondrous might be able to hatch and speak all on their own, if they are too far from the ocean and from Hespera Delia.” Until was not generally given to fanciful notions, but there it all was in the pictures.
“The East then, perhaps? Perhaps these are sunrise birds that hatch in red sand, instead of growing in sunset light, far from Hespera Delia’s sunset water.” Unless knew that they had to concede that Until had seen more in the picture than they had.
“Far from any water at all it looks like. No wonder that big bird is so cross.”
Unless and Until gazed intently at the picture for some time longer. Unless began to get hungry and turned their head to look out the window and gauge the time of day. Until noticed the movement, looked out the window and suggested that the evening would be perfect for a picnic dinner of bread and jam down by the lake. Unless agreed immediately and went to gather up the blanket and cushions that would make everything comfortable. Until put the picnic food and utensils in a basket.
Unless asked, “Before we go, should we hang the picture?”
Until paused and looked at the picture again. They put the basket down and looked around the front room thoughtfully, “In here?”
Unless agreed the front room was best. They hung the picture over the fireplace mantle and Unless and Until together admired the effect with the shell halves just by it, under the hatching birds in the picture.
The two gathered all the picnic things again and found a nice flat spot near some trees by the lake, with the sunset light filtering through branches and reflecting off the water. They each ate fully of the bread and jam, throwing bits of crust to the many birds who were gathered in the branches of the trees and in the grass nearby.
Unless finished a long sip of water and turned with a smile to Until, “Shall we have a toast? What should it be?”
Until said, “Yes, we shall have a toast. We have looked at all the paintings, and we have learned so much.” And so Until sang a toast, with Unless and the birds all joining in once the melody was clear.
We sing first of a distant land
with winds that carve into red sand
The clouds have ledges, hard and flat
And birds may nest there for a chat
The birds there speak of wondrous things,
But one cross bird there never sings.
She’ll only curse and turn away
No matter what the others say
But that is not the strangest tale.
Our travels, both by land and sail,
Are only partly with us yet
And we must learn what we forget.
It was almost full dark, and a little chilly, so Unless and Until headed back up to the house. The birds descended on the picnic spot to gather every last bit of bread crust. After putting all the picnic things away, Unless and Until admired each of the paintings in turn, slowly, and then quietly went off to their beds and rich, restful dreams.