The Bird Hypothesis

Lídia Jorge

Illustration by Florinda Pamungkas

With some dismay, the Professor saw the girl coming towards him with that ghastly pushchair, to which a member of the baby’s family—doubtless a man—had attached some kind of plough, allowing the wheels to slide with incredible ease over the sand, even when the going was rough. The child, eyes closed, head bobbing, was lying in the pushchair—an old model that must have belonged to another baby, now a grown man. Mother and child still exuded a repulsive smell of birth and breastmilk. And when, having put on his distance glasses in order to count the birds, the Professor caught on the air that whiff of blood and tender flesh, he felt obliged to stop. And whenever he stopped, he would think to himself—You’ll never do it.

And yet, two months before, he had put himself through the ordeal of sitting on a noisy bus showing American films, just so that he could choose a tranquil spot where he would be able to test out the hypothesis. At one point during the journey, which would end up taking far longer than stated on the timetable, he had asked a man—who, to judge by his way of speaking, appeared to be from the very region the Professor was heading for—which beach he would recommend for birdwatching. The man’s dark face was infinitely lined, contrasting with the sweatshirt he was wearing, which was rather youthful and had a Swedish word emblazoned on the back. “They’ve all left,” he said, as though gripped by the sense of tragedy that assails a certain type of person at a certain time of life. But the Professor had nevertheless found a quiet room, overlooking a small beach, where he had been assured no one would disturb him, and from where he would be able to see all kinds of birds—flocks of them—pecking at scraps of fish, just as soon as Summer arrived.

“Flocks?” the Professor had asked, feeling he was on the right track.

“Yes, whole clouds of them!”

Now, the word “flock” had taken on great importance for the Professor. After all, he had sought out that particular place precisely because he felt the time had come to do the test.

The previous winter, someone—doubtless a student—had sent him a photocopy of a passage whose author and provenance he only later identified. It was barely a dozen lines long, and even though he didn’t have the greatest memory, he had them off by heart that same day. Entitled Argumentum Ornithologicum, it opened with a sentence whose music immediately lodged in that part of the brain where ideas lose their meaning and turn into impulse. It was a text by Borges—“I close my eyes and I see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, maybe less. I don’t know how many birds I see. Was there a definite number of them or an indefinite number? ”—and he had been repeating it to himself ever since, his eyes closed. The crucial lines, however, were best said out loud—“If God exists, the number is definite, because God will know how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one will ever know the number for certain.” Now what the Professor wanted was for the number of birds he counted to be a whole one, so as to prove the opposite of what he had argued up until then, having always demonstrated—with great passion—that God did not exist. For him to change his views so radically he needed time, a good flock of birds, and silence all around, although that imagined silence had always included the rhythmic sound of the sea. He was no longer a young man. Being able to raise his finger and count one, two, nine, ten, twelve birds—a particular, finite number—had become a matter of principle. And so he had saved hard for three whole seasons and travelled there on that wretched bus, precisely so that, one afternoon when he was alone on the beach, with the sun already low on the horizon, he could test out this hypothesis. He could see it clearly in his mind’s eye. There he would be, at the water’s edge, with his trousers rolled up and a flock of birds flying off into the sunset, and he would count them one by one, thus symbolically penetrating the secret science of God’s whole numbers. The number would be definite. This was going to be the most important moment of his life. And in his sweet, somewhat obsessive fantasy, as if he were imagining a fond, future kiss, he would always be alone with his thoughts, no one else there. The Professor expected to feel like a new man afterwards, when he walked back up to the house, to his rented room. And yet, almost a month later, he had still not achieved his objective.

There was the sand, and there was the sea. There was the evening and the flocks of birds that could have been pigeons, seagulls, egrets—or any other species. The names were of no consequence. Contrary to what he had been promised by the person who had rented him part of her house, holidaymakers spilled over from other beaches and occupied the sands throughout the day, many staying on until nightfall. Worse, they came laden with noisy devices, as if barricading themselves behind all things mechanical and technological for fear of getting lost in some desert they were afraid to cross. Everything around him winked and roared. And when, at the end of the day, all this hubbub flowed back up the slight slope, down, alas, would come the girl with her baby and that pushchair-cum-plough. Her body, its flesh recently torn by childbirth, would come between him and the birds and stop him concentrating. As the flock flew past, he would begin to count. One, two, three, four . . . but whenever he reached bird number five, the shape of the girl and the pushchair would, to his great distress, get in the way. And this was his antepenultimate day. For the hundredth time, another fine flock had eluded him. Ah, if only that creature knew the anguish she was causing him! What he would not give for her to turn back and take that pushchair with her. The Professor screwed up his courage and, on an impulse, left his deckchair where it was and—doubtless driven by the resolve brought on by imminent loss—he started walking towards the girl. He was only vaguely aware that he was about to make a fool of himself. He began by smiling in the general direction of the baby. It was difficult to know what to say—“You know, it would be really helpful if maybe, one evening, you didn’t come down here with that pushchair.”

At that point, the girl placed herself right in front of the contraption. She looked straight at him, and her eyes took on a fixed yellow glow, like the eyes of a she-wolf.

“Oh, please, don’t misunderstand me!” said the Professor. “It’s not you, it’s me. All I need is to be left alone on the beach for one evening, and it never happens. As soon as those people leave, you arrive. I’m a scholar, you see, and I want to count the birds while they’re flying . . . ”

As he went on, his voice grew louder, and any sense that he might appear foolish was slowly fading. Surely a woman who had just given birth would understand why a man might want to make a precise count of each individual bird in a flock. But the girl, clearly alarmed, began to head back up towards the houses, tugging at the pushchair so violently that the child began to wail. The Professor’s heart sank. “Wait, wait! You can’t imagine how grateful I would be if you didn’t come tomorrow.” And trying to bar her way, he went on: “It’s pitch dark now, they’ve all gone to roost. How can I count them? How?” But by then she was far away, driving her wheeled burden before her.

Understandably, that night the Professor suffered an attack of insomnia. Not that he couldn’t sleep at all, but hardly had he closed his eyes than the birds would merge into an indistinct cloud, startled into flight by the noise of a car. “I’ll never do it,” he was thinking, swimming in sweat. The following day, though, when the flock of holidaymakers began to stream away with their picnic baskets and noise-boxes, he allowed himself to feel a flicker of hope. “Maybe I frightened her off. Maybe she won’t come today,” he thought. It seemed, however, that the girl was not to be frightened so easily. The departing crowd was now beginning to step off the walkway to make room for the pushchair coming in the opposite direction. But the girl, whose swollen breasts must have been full of milk, unexpectedly left the walkway and drew up alongside the Professor’s deckchair. Her eyes had lost the yellow hue of the previous day.

“There might be a way for me not to take my baby for his usual walk, but it’s my husband you’d have to speak to . . . ”

The Professor was a polite fellow. He had stood up now and was staring incredulously at the girl.

“If I was you, I’d go and see him right now. It’ll be dark again in half an hour, and I won’t go back up and you won’t count the birds. If that’s really what you want to do.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I want. Counting the birds is very important. You’ve no idea how important.”

“Well, if you say so . . . ” And taking one hand off the pushchair, which she seemed reluctant ever to let go of, she pointed towards the small bar built into the sea wall. The girl’s husband did indeed seem to be waiting for him behind the bar facing the beach. After the nomadic horde had made its evening exodus, the place was deserted. On seeing the Professor, the husband—a strapping fellow with a dark complexion and a black moustache—stopped tidying away the various containers on the bar and got straight to the point.

“Good job you came. My wife tells me you want to be left alone on the beach . . . ” And rummaging in a drawer, he took out a piece of paper. Written on it was one word, which he enunciated with some difficulty. “You’re an ornithologist?”

“No, I’m not, but it doesn’t matter,” the Professor replied, feeling optimistic.

“Well, whether you are or not, that’s your concern. All I need to know is how much you’ll give me for the girl to leave the beach. My son’s health has a price, you know. How much will you pay me?”

“How much are you asking?”

“I’d say . . . the equivalent of three nights’ accommodation.”

The Professor could feel the evening slipping away.

“Three nights’ accommodation for your wife, just once, to leave me alone on the beach? Even if it were the equivalent of one night, but three . . . Three nights is pretty steep!” said the Professor, and, realising that anything he might add would only increase his feeling that he was behaving like a madman, he left the empty bar, where fingers of evening light were reaching in through the window. Near the water’s edge, the post-puerperal woman was trudging along with the pushchair. It was a very clear evening, with not one bird in the sky. When there were any birds, their cries sounded far off, the flock forming an arc in the air, like the outline of a departing plane. Then it got darker. “I’m not going to be able to count them this time either. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps I should simply assume it is an indefinite number and that I’ve been right all along, and have been teaching it right too, because God doesn’t exist. And even if he does exist, it’s as if he didn’t, because he won’t allow himself to be counted so as not to reveal his finitude. But it’s all too easy for an infinite God who avoids being seen by those who seek him to become confused with the quest itself. No, he doesn’t exist,” that was what the Professor was thinking as he walked, sweating, up the gentle, sandy slope, carrying his chair and with his towel slung over his shoulder. And for a moment, he hesitated. Perhaps it was a bit over-the-top to go searching for the ideal conditions for counting birds. Why should God exist if the number counted were finite, but not exist if the number were infinite? The Argumentum Ornithologicum, written by the Argentinian poet, could well contain a challenge, but why would it necessarily contain a method too? Why? Wasn’t it simply an aporia intended more to amuse than convince? What insight would he gain if, one day, sitting on the beach, he managed to count—one by one—twenty or thirty birds. Softly, like someone carefully packing away the last vestige of a long-held desire, the Professor allowed the penultimate night of Summer to fall on the roof of the house where he was staying.

Then, on the last day, he went down to the beach and watched the same process repeating itself, the same noise, the same bustle that frightened away the birds he had given up trying to count. “I’ve been wasting my time,” he thought. “I was led astray by a false hypothesis. A hypothesis that not only cost me dear, but could have cost me even more if I’d given in to that oaf at the bar.” “What a mess!” he was thinking while that last evening drew to a close, his gaze never leaving the walkway. Just as well—the sand-plough wheels were once again carrying down to him the tiny creature wrapped in a blanket and, behind it, the girl, smelling of blood and milk. All three—pushchair, baby, girl—were heading towards his chair. As she came closer, the girl seemed ashamed. Her eyes were darker and she looked at him differently. It was the same with the pushchair, which she no longer tried to conceal from him, but seemed almost to be brazenly displaying. And although the baby was sleeping with its small clenched fists close to its ears, she stood there moving the pushchair back and forth as if she wanted the baby to fall even more deeply asleep. Baby and pushchair came and went before the Professor’s eyes. The girl had now sat down on the sand.

“You’ve given up on the birds,” she said, “I can tell you have. And to think that, if it had been down to me, you could have been alone with them. But there’s my husband, you see. What would I say to him?” She was looking over her shoulder at the open door of the bar. The girl must have been tired, because she was sitting very still, her legs drawn up beneath her skirt, and every now and then, her eyes would again become tinged with yellow. The smell of baby made him feel dizzy and dreamy, carrying him off to some far distant time. Even more so when the girl took the baby out of the pushchair and placed him on her lap. She unbuttoned her dress and hid the child’s face in the flesh of her breast. The last wave was receding and the beach lay stretched out before them. Suddenly, a few birds, larger than wrens and smaller than seagulls, began to scuttle about near the waves, and then, oblivious to the presence of humans, started walking in their direction, where the only movement was the feeding baby’s hand. The Professor put on his distance glasses. There were nine birds.

The girl let out a cry. “Birds, professor!”

Dazzled by the red band of sky left behind by the departing sun, the birds first huddled together, then took off.

Their white feathers gleamed. The birds performed several loops in the sky as if they were fishing for something in the air. The Professor wouldn’t have been able to count them while they were flying if he hadn’t already counted them when they were on the ground. But because he had counted them, he knew—finitely—how many there were. Filled with intense joy, he counted: “One, two, three, six, seven, nine . . . ” “I finally counted nine of them . . . ” he murmured.

He murmured this several times. The girl put her child back in the pushchair, and began, ever so slowly, to go back up the walkway. But he couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye. And he was hardly of an age to press her gratefully to him, not without revealing to her the fragility of both hypothesis and proof.

translated from the Portuguese by Sinead Crehan, Christine Fernandes, Margaret Jull Costa, and Hazel Robins