“Just one more what?” inquired an overweight man who was taking up two bar stools, one for each cheek. I was sitting two stools away, waiting for my draft beer to be poured and brought over.
As I waited, I wondered what the customer was asking about. Had the bartender noticed that the man’s wine glass was almost empty, which it was, and the customer was slow on the uptake?
The barman finished pouring my beer, brought it over to me, and asked if I cared for something to eat, which I declined since the only food I saw were pickled pig’s feet in a large jar on the counter, something that I’ve never seen outside of Montreal, where I grew up, and never tried.
He returned to the other customer who, seeming to have now returned to his surroundings, asked, “Does the story continue like that, with the statue asking the swallow to stay just one more night and take another gold leaf to another poor person somewhere?”
The barkeep leaned back against the counter and said, “Well, yes, at least until all the gold leaf is gone. But, by now winter has come and it’s too late for the swallow to rejoin his flock.”
Looking into the distance—I imagined that he was seeing the empty grate with no fuel to keep a fire going, feeling the numb fingers of the seamstress who can’t rest until she has finished hemming the gown of a lady who needs it the next day, if she is to expect any payment.
“But eventually all the gold leaf is gone,” he added.
“Then what happens” the customer asked, “What does the statue say next?”
Without being asked, the barman takes a bottle off the counter behind him, refills the customer’s wineglass, and says, “The statue says what he says every evening: Little swallow, little swallow, stay just one more night.”
The customer took a sip from his replenished wineglass, nods approvingly, and, as if solving a logic problem, observes “But if all the gold leaf has gone, why does the statue need the swallow to stay another night?”
By this time, I was getting drawn into their conversation. I increasingly sense that the bartender is feeling emotion swirl around inside him and I turned on my stool in his direction.
“The statue was not only covered with gold leaf. He had gem inlays in the hilt of his sword.”
“Ah, he saved the best for last. So, the swallow delivers those gems to a few other lucky people. Is that the end of the story? There aren’t many busses running this time of night, and I see that it’s starting to snow.”
Perhaps the bartender didn’t hear the question. As if reciting a poem or a liturgical refrain, he repeats the statue’s request, “Little swallow, little swallow, please stay just one more night. There’s a mother trying to care for her sick daughter, but the daughter can’t get better unless she has some medicine, for which she has no money.”
The customer took another sip of wine and observed, “I can’t help feeling that the swallow is the real hero here. The statue is more like a rich guy who can just write a check and feel good about himself. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed talking with you, but I have to catch my bus and head home. What do I owe you?
The bartender said, “Just for the first glass. The second is on me.”
Removing the empty glass and wiping the counter, he looked at me, the only other customer in the place, as it was almost closing time. Hoping that he would continue, I glanced at my empty glass and nod. Then, not wanting to let on that I already know this story by Oscar Wilde, said, “So Winter is almost there, the swallow has nowhere to go to escape the cold, and the statue has almost nothing left to give to the world; yet he still sees the unbearable suffering across his city. What can these two beings possibly do to keep helping?“
He looked at me strangely, perhaps suspecting that I couldn’t summarize the moral core of this story so clearly, based simply on overhearing the earlier conversation. But, sensing that this story was meaningful to the man behind the bar, I hoped that he would continue.
“You know this story. Even if you haven’t read it yourself.”
I nodded, willing to let him think that I was just a good listener. And sure enough, he continues.
“When the gems in the hilt of the sword are gone, the Happy Prince urges the swallow to pluck out his eyes. And when those gems are gone, he has nothing left to give to the world.”
He was silent then for quite a long time. He seemed to be having difficulty continuing, so I finished telling the rest of the story.
“The next spring, the mayor is leading a tour of the town to visiting dignitaries and ends with the pride of the city, the statue in the park. When he sees the deplorable condition of the Prince, with a dead sparrow at its feet, he . . .”
The bartender continued, “He orders his city counselors to take everything away, melt the denuded stature down—’and sweep up that dead bird’.”
I take up the final coda, “The foundry workers report back that they have melted everything down except the Prince’s heart, which would not melt.” I added, “I’ve always found that a strange image. Don’t we say that our hearts melt when something moves us?”
He nodded slowly and said, “Perhaps when our hearts don’t know how we can help people who are suffering, they’ve already melted and are invincible to anything else the world can throw at us.”
I wanted to ask him whether some personal loss had made this story meaningful to him; but I realized that being moved by a story is not the same thing as sharing your life with a stranger.
He walked to the front of the bar and turned off the illuminated signs for Labatt’s and Molson’s beer; I buttoned up my coat, pulled out my tuque and gloves, said Goodnight, and walked out into the night, where a stiff wind was blowing sharp pellets of snow up the hill. Glad for the walk home, I pulled the hood of my duffle coat up around my head and imagined that I could fly into another world, where my own losses had never happened.