A House for Dahlia

by Miki Arndt

The man in the bamboo house enjoyed a life of solitude. His house
was elevated high above in the sky, but it was sturdier than one
would think. Sometimes his house shook in the wind, and sometimes
the rain came through the weathered rods and seeped onto his skin
and wet the pages of his book, but this was never a cause for worry.
The man in the bamboo house knew he had everything all to himself.

At first, he had built only a chair. The bamboo felt tight and sturdy
against his hands, and he had enjoyed the task of building. The man
once had a daughter whom he had built things for. He remembered
her name to be Dahlia. She now lived far away, far enough to never
hear from her. It was hard to recall her voice, but he remembered
her hands. He liked to think of what he had built for her: her little,
square play desk with the carefully rounded corners, simple wooden
toy blocks he painted in vibrant reds and oranges because she loved
the sunset, and her wardrobe for when she grew older and filled her
room with clothes. He had tried to teach her how to build, and she
had listened, although both were just pretending. Her wary hands,
nails pink and fingers tender with laziness, prodded the sandpaper
and held the hammer awkwardly, her eyes scanning for something
easier to do.

The chair he had built with the armrest rounded comfortably, the
spine straight and just long enough; he loved this chair. He wished
he had built it when he could have shown it to her, but for now it was
enough. He loved this chair so much that he built around it. He sanded
down the roughness and ran his fingers over the smooth veneer
of the bamboo. Each curvature, each ridge felt right. He felt like if he
built with it, he could reach the sky.

***

And so he built. Pieces fit, ropes were tied, and he built more chairs
and added a dinner table. When he built too much to fit in his house
on the ground, he decided to build another house in the sky. He built
the bamboo house around a tree in his backyard. The house spread
out with the vigor of a wild flower, the bamboo stretching upwards
as he added more.

Birds made their own homes in various parts of the house. He
named some of them. He never thought he would grow fond of birds.
He had always felt wary in their presence, as if they were plotting
something unsavory while distracting the world with nonsensical
emissions. But now as he shared his space with them, he saw how
nurturing they could be—he felt a kindness toward them that he
hadn’t known he was capable of. He talked to them. “It is really nice
outside today,” he would offer. “Take care and safe flight.” “What book
would you like me to read?” “I dreamt of her last night, the way she
laughed.” “Do you think I put too much salt in this soup?” he asked
while he cooked. Though they hurried about their day, he knew they
listened, and that was enough. He felt comfort in the fluttering of
their wings and the care they took in carrying food to their offspring.

He had built the bamboo house around a tree in his backyard. Parts
of the tree came through and interrupted the walls of his rooms, but
he did not cut down any branches. Instead he used the protrusions
as efficiently as he could, fashioned them into handrails, coat racks,
and support beams. He went to the forest to collect bamboo rods. It
impressed him how fast they grew, shooting up in multiples to resist
his continuous harvesting. He kept his house on the ground, underneath
his bamboo house, but it felt like the abandoned remnants of
another, muddled life. The air felt clearer now. He belonged in an elevated
existence, and he could not return to what he had belonged
to before.

He kept track of how many months it would take for Dahlia to
come back with etchings on the side of a beam in his living room.
There were many marks, but he was not concerned. One day she
would return, and for that day he would patiently wait.

When Dahlia was younger he used to read to her at bedtime. She
often asked him to read “Jack and the Beanstalk” because she loved
to climb, entranced with the idea of a simple bean growing into a
monstrous, twining being to scale and mount, enabling Jack to enter
a fantastical land of giants. Dahlia climbed the tree in his backyard,
what had been their backyard. She had started finding solace there,
after her shadowless mother had left them both. With knees perpetually
scraped, she would relate what she saw from high up in the
leaves. “I was almost by the clouds,” she would breathlessly say, “I
could hear the birds. There might be something up there. Something
bigger than both of us.”

Dahlia would run into the house at dinnertime with twigs in her
hair and a satisfied smile on her face. She had an imaginary friend,
or maybe just a friend the man couldn’t see. The man often wondered
what stories she told this friend, stories that she would not
share with him. He had asked to be introduced, but Dahlia had only
laughed.

Then he tried to stop her from climbing the tree and once came
close to cutting it down. Worried for her safety, he had objected when
she asked him to build her a tree house. He didn’t like all the time
she spent up there, keeping company with some phantom from her
imagination. “I don’t want all those chairs,” she had cried out in frustration,
“Why won’t you build me the only thing I’ve ever wanted?”

***

Now his days in the house were idle as he observed the human roads
below. Occasionally a car would pass. He now understood his daughter’s
efforts to live in the clouds. There was nothing in life except a
long waiting, but up here it was rather peaceful.

It was half past four in the afternoon when the first bird talked to
him. The man had been going about his usual routine. He read aloud
for an hour. He noticed that this was the last book he had left. He
only visited his house below when he had to retrieve books to read
aloud to the birds.

“I’ve had enough of Fitzgerald,” the bird said.

“What?”

“I’ve had enough of Fitzgerald. You heard me,” the bird said.

“Then what do you want me to read?”

“If possible, nothing. But if you must, switch it up a little. Don’t
you have anything more contemporary? And not so American. One
gets tired of Americans.”

Another bird added, “And no Cheever either.”

This was the beginning of a new dialogue.

***

Slowly the birds began to talk. Once he could hear them, he heard
them all the time. How he had not heard them before, he did not
know. They argued, they whined, they plotted against each other,
and they wanted things that they could not have. They sounded like
everyone the man had ever known.

“He still doesn’t share his nest with me,” a bird complained. “And
I’ve been with him for all these years.”

“I’m having trouble laying eggs,” one said. “I’m worried that I’m
getting too old.”

“My child flew out of the nest,” one yelled, “and I haven’t seen him
since. Why won’t he visit his poor mum?”

They talked about what was wrong with the weather, politics, and
health issues. They talked about the price of meat and the price of
gas, though how that affected the birds, the man did not know. They
talked about strangers who tried to poke their eyes out. He still read
to them, but they talked over his reading. He could hear their petty
complaints even when he read in his loudest voice to drown them
out. Occasionally he would try to listen and offer words of wisdom.
But they would fly off and return with similar complaints.

“Even the worms taste bitter these days,” one said solemnly.

“I can’t believe you eat those things,” another one replied, “how
savage of you. I eat berries. Organic berries.”

The man longed for the way things were before they had started
talking to him. He looked imploringly toward the spiderwebs, elaborate
masterpieces being spun in the corners of his handmade house,
but the spiders had no sympathy. Every corner of his house was filled
with the unwelcome chatter of his newfound friends.

“Why are you alone?” one asked.

It took a minute before the man realized that this question was
meant for him. He was now accustomed to their conversing without
him. Aside from when they had told him to switch his reading
choices, they had ignored him. They usually kept to themselves and
discussed their lives and their losses above his head.

“Have you gone deaf?” the same one asked. It clacked its beak a few
times in impatience.

“I didn’t realize you were speaking to me,” the man answered. “I’m
alone because everyone else has left.”

“Your family?”

“I had a daughter, but she left. Her name was Dahlia. She used to
climb the tree that I built this house on. She always wanted a tree
house, and I never built her one. That has been my one regret. When
she returns, she’ll see that I’ve finally built her what she had always
wanted.”

The one who spoke looked at the man and asked, “So you’re building
this house for your daughter?” he asked.

“What she had always wanted,” the man repeated.

“Then how can you be satisfied with this?” the one asked, as he
shouted to the others, “Let us get to work! We need more rooms—a
dining room, to start. We need ourselves a home in the sky worthy
enough for your daughter. These gaping holes in the roof must go.
When we’re done, this house wouldn’t even be the size of the closet
in our new house.”

The eager one set out to build a model of their new house out of
twigs and stones. The man shrugged his head. But the bird was now
fervently excited, and the others followed suit. “Let’s build, let’s
build!” they shouted. “Let’s build a house for Dahlia!”

They sent their strongest flyers to survey the stock in the forest. A
larger work force would be necessary. They flew to telephone wires,
roofs of train stations, and every assembly area to recruit workers for
their new project. They avoided pigeons because they were classist.
Besides, everyone knew pigeons had dirty feet. “We don’t want them
making flimsy rooms out of debris. They would steal our supplies if
we’re not paying attention. Not to be trusted,” was the general consent.

“You were smart to build with bamboo,” one said to him, “Very
strong fiber, twice the compressive strength of concrete. About the
same strength-to-weight ratio of steel in tension. Strong and durable
enough to withstand the pressures of hurricanes and earthquakes.”

“And helps stop global warming,” another one quipped, “Did you
know bamboo homes sequester carbon dioxide within its fibers? I
was doing some calculations . . . .”

They assembled in the living room, crowding the man out with
their feathers. His head was starting to ache with all that was expected
from him. They finally had a project for which they could all contribute.
Their idleness had turned them against each other, but now
they were a community united by a mission. Everyone was assigned a
task—the strongest flyers would chip away at the bamboo, fell it, and
fly it over, while the smaller birds twisted the sprigs into shape and
tied them together with rope. Scavenger birds with keen eyesight
went on search parties for rope, and others directed and managed
the output of their workers. Everyone had an opinion. “Each column
will interlock with the floor structure as vertical and horizontal elements,”
the man overheard them say. “We need some strong cord or
wire for the roof . . . .”

Slowly the bamboo house grew. They added a second floor with extra
rooms, an annex with ornate bamboo furniture, etched with care.
They built stairs. They installed a porch and a swinging bench on the
porch. They built an attic and bookcases for the man’s many books.
They fashioned dressers and cabinets in case Dahlia moved back permanently
and additional rooms in case she came with family. They
spent extra time on the playroom to make it safe. They rounded all
sharpness, bit away at corners, and filled out the cracks. Then they
thought it was finally ready.

They were proud. Many flew from afar to see the progress and contribute
what they could. Even the man had been given tasks. They
showed him how to put twigs together to maximize their durability
and they pushed him to work later than he wished. He continued to
leave marks to count the days that Dahlia had been gone, but the rest
of them didn’t seem to care, telling him that there was no time to
waste, that he must hurry, any day she could return, and what would
she think if only half the roof was completed?

They asked the man what she was like. They often talked amongst
themselves of the woman that Dahlia would be. They fantasized
about a radiant woman who would sing with them and leave them
snacks. But they wanted to hear the man talk about her, they wanted
to hear the way she laughed.

The man began to realize that he didn’t know enough about her to
satisfy his friends.

“Does she look like you or her mother?” one asked, and another
one jabbed with its wings because perhaps that was a little too forward.

“She did not look like me, her hands were too soft. She bit her
tongue when she was worried. She said she felt relief when she
climbed. Everything up here, it all made sense. Her mind worked
better. I wanted to experience it for myself after she left. So I built
higher and higher to feel what she felt.”

“She had an imaginary friend? Did she tell you who it was?” one
asked.

“No, but he told her to climb,” the man replied. “I think she thought
that if she climbed far enough, she would find something more.”

“Why did she leave you?” they asked.

“Because she let go,” was all he would say.

***

When the house was done it was five times the size it had previously
been. They had expanded the kitchen in hopes that she liked to
cook. They added bay windows, high ceilings, insulated the walls with
sandbags. They sealed every crack and corner. They based the house
on their image of Dahlia and her needs. Her reading room, her tiled
bathroom with an assortment of tiles pilfered from many different
houses, her feminine drawers and cabinets, and her bedroom with an
antique mirror they had found unattended in someone’s bedroom.
They did not mind stealing if it was for their Dahlia. Each one brought
home small treasures that their beaks could carry, offerings for the
woman who would become the princess of their home. They replaced
the worn ladder with a spiral staircase. The house ran on solar power.
The tabletops and entrance were decorated with welcoming dahlias,
her namesake. Everything was ready for her return.

They had kept the man out of the rooms to surprise him. But the
man did not ask about the progress on the rooms. He did as he was
told; he worked extra hours collecting bamboo if it was required from
him, but he did not build as he had before. They had hired security
crows to ensure the man did not break his promise, but eventually
the guards were released of their duties.

When the house was complete and the man was told to explore
it, he did not bother to leave his chair. He ignored their request and
continued to read his book. They found him rude, but still they tried
to entice him into appraising their handiwork.

“You have to see the kitchen! State-of-the-art appliances. I worked
on it every day,” one said.

“And I built the playroom.”

“Start with the library we built,” another pleaded. “You will adore
it. We found more American books for you, though we ask you not to
read them out loud so often. We built beautiful rocking chairs on the
porch and perhaps you two could read together . . . .”

They finally managed to get him on his feet and around the house.
He walked through the rooms and nodded, but they could tell that
he wasn’t seeing anything. They couldn’t help feeling slighted. But
something strange was happening to the man. They had noticed this.
The more they asked him about his daughter, her whereabouts or
when she would return, the more he turned to his books.

“One day,” he would say, “until then, we must wait.” But they were
dissatisfied with that answer and grew impatient with the infinite
waiting. No wonder the man had existed in a bleak tree house full
of holes until they had come to his assistance. “We can look for her,”
they offered. “We can send her an invitation. She might not know
you’re still here or even alive. Maybe if we invite her, she will come.”
The man did not answer. Fights broke out between them, as some
of them bemoaned the time they had lost building this house for a
woman who may not exist. Others kept grilling the man for clues, to
no avail.

And so they searched for her. They searched far and wide, but the
man had been alone for so long that no one recalled him ever having
a daughter. They asked the man for pictures, but he would not oblige.
They went on the name of Dahlia, a girl with an imaginary friend and
soft, idle hands.

***

It was the one that liked worms that found her. It was digging harder
than usual, good worms were hard to come by these days, and it
feared having to switch to organic berries. Digging furtively with its
beak, it knew it shouldn’t dig at the base of the tree supporting the
bamboo house but no one was looking. The hand came first, though
it was no longer soft. The one that liked worms thought it was a stick
and dug around it to find that it connected to more sticks, stringed
together, pieces embedded in soil, a human wrist. The one that liked
worms called everyone together. They dug out strands of hair, a foot,
a small skull with a worm inside, though the one that liked worms
had lost its appetite some time ago.

The man returned as they crowded the pieces of their princess they
had found in the ground. They had unearthed their treasure, the one
they had been waiting for, but nothing about it was right. The man
came up from behind them.

“The friend,” he said quietly. “He told her to jump.”