The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Red Birds

Child’s Face in Red – Artist unknown

Once upon a time, in a country of mountains and forests and mirror-glass lakes, in the rookery of a great stone palace, the red birds hatched. The eggs were laid out in many little porcelain bowls, as if they were going to be eaten for breakfast, and the princess was there and the Queen Mother was there and the bird-keepers were there, and they all stood very still and listened as the tapping started, sharp and sudden, and the first cracks began to form on the shells, and then – pop! – a little head shot up, glistening-wet and red as a berry.

“Oh,” the princess whispered, when she saw it. “Grandmama, look. Look at its dear little red head.” And the Queen Mother said, “Do you like it? You may have one. Any one you like.” As for the red bird, it let out a hideous screech and began rolling about in the remains of its shell, polishing its red coat and fluffing its handsome crest.

The princess stared at it. Then she turned away and watched the other eggs intently as they shivered and wobbled in their bowls, and heads began popping up left and right, blooming like drops of blood out of the whiteness of the shells.

“Have you chosen one yet?” the Queen Mother asked after a while, because there were quite a lot of eggs, and quite a lot of red birds still to hatch, and the Queen Mother’s knees were not what they used to be. But the princess only shook her head and continued to stare at the eggs, the red bodies and the shattered shells. They stood for almost an hour, the  two of them, while the bird-keepers tended to their wards, and outside the flags flew, all of them stamped with red birds, which were the mark and seal of that kingdom. A cold wind whispered across the fields and over the rooftops, and the Queen Mother began to suspect she would never move again, so stiff were her joints, when just then, from the very last egg, there came a soft, gentle knocking, and the shell fall apart, and there sat gray bird, smaller than all the others, soft and feathery as a puff of ash. The princess’s face lit up when she saw it, and she clutched at the Queen Mother’s hand. “There he is,” she said. “That’s the one I want. Oh, look at him, Grandmama, isn’t he marvelous? ”

The Queen Mother squinted at the gray bird from behind her spectacles. She watched it sitting there, so still and quiet in the remains of its shell. She eyed its soft gray wing. She shook her head. “You cannot have that one,” she said. “And not because he is plain and common. He is the most important bird of all of them, and not all his proud brothers and sisters in their red cloaks are as significant he, but I fear you will not like him. Choose a different one, and then let’s go and sit somewhere and I will read you a very long book.”

But the little princess was adamant, and she knew her grandmama very well, and so eventually the Queen Mother relented and said, “You may have him. But you must take very good care of him and not tire of him and leave him to the servants to spoil.”

The princess nodded happily and took the little gray bird in her hands and brought him away with her, out of the rookery, and into the palace. The little bird looked over his shoulder as he left, at his brothers and sisters in their beautiful red garments, and he wanted to call out to them as he was taken away, but that was when he realized he had no voice at all.

 

*

 

The little bird and the princess got along splendidly. The little bird did not know what his special task was that the Queen Mother had spoken of, or why he was more important than all his siblings. He did not know why he could not sing, or why he had come into the world gray while they had hatched the color of roses and blood and hot coals. All he knew was that the princess was his friend, and she loved him, and he loved her too.  They ate together, studied together, ran screeching through the palace halls (or at least, the princess shrieked, and the little bird flew at her side as loudly as he could, which was barely as loud as a breath when all was said and done) and at night, when the Queen Mother came to read to them, they sat in front of the fire, the little bird folded into the hollow below the princess’s chin, and they both listened to the stories as if there were nothing else in the world.

But sometimes the bird would shift, or turn his head, and would catch the Queen Mother eying him, a little sharply and a little sadly, and somewhere deep in his tiny heart he knew it would not always be this way.

 

*

 

The little bird and the princess grew older, and still the little bird did not know a lot of things. He did not know that the kingdom the palace ruled was set next to another kingdom, a great and busy country, stacked high with guns and machinery. He did not know that the aeroplanes that swooped by on their canvas wings overhead and the airships and the red flags were all the trappings of a great kingdom, and that one day his dear princess would be queen.

He had not seen the red birds since the day of his hatching in the rookery, but he had heard they were all still there and where they were kept in golden cages and hardly ever let out. He, on the other hand, was allowed to fly freely throughout the entire palace, and he went with the princess wherever she went, and stayed in her pocket during lessons and during dinner.

“One day,” the princess said, when they were up among the towers, looking out across the land, “You will fly all across the entire world.” (And here she gestured toward the mirror-glass lakes, and the white-tipped mountains and the cotton clouds tinged pink) “You will fly across the waters, and across the forests, and you will have to be the bravest of any bird. Do you know what that means? Do you know how important that makes you?”

The little bird did not know what that meant. He cocked his head and peered at the princess, and waited for her to tell him what his purpose was, but she said nothing more.

He began to suspect it was something dreadful. Perhaps he was going to die. Perhaps they were going to kill him. He wondered if the red birds in their gold cages, with their proud crests and their foolish songs, had special tasks, and he wondered if it would not be better to be one of them. But he had no voice to speak, and so he sat silently and pondered.

 

*

 

The princess grew older still, until she was not a little girl anymore but a clever and sharp-tongued young woman, and even then she kept the little bird close. When the Queen Mother died and was laid out in white lace, and the entire city was decked in lilies (because the Queen Mother had lived a long life, and a good one, and there was no sadness in that) the princess wept, and the little bird was there to comfort her. When her mother, the Queen, died, the little bird was there, too, huddled in the depths of her pocket. And when the princess stood before the roaring crowds, cloaked in purple, and became a queen, she tucked her hand behind her back and the warmth of the little bird’s feathers gave her strength.

The princess grew into a good queen. A busy queen. She still saw the little bird from time to time, but there was no more running in the halls, and no one read to them anymore by the fire, and so the little bird spent most of his time under a chair in an old sitting room, watching the door and wondering over his secret purpose.

 

*

 

One day the queen came in looking worn and tired, and the little bird flew to her and alighted on her shoulder, and burrowed its soft head into her neck, and it was like a door had opened in the queen’s face. She let out a little gasp. She did not cry. She wanted to, the bird thought, but she did not. She simply stood, staring into space.

“There is going to be war,” she said, to the little bird, and the bird simply watched her out of one eye, and watched the glass windows with the other, and the sunlight and the blue sky. “They’ve decided to fight. There is a land between our two countries, and it is rich, and my mother kept it for many years, but now they want it as well, and they are spreading lies and- “ She looked down at the little bird, and the little bird wanted so badly to speak to her then, and give some small comfort.

“You must be good, now, little bird,” the queen said. “Are you listening? You must be brave for me, and you must never falter no matter what you see.” And then the queen laid him gently on the warm sill and hurried away, her skirts like a sail behind her, and though the little bird could not speak, he promised with all his heart that he would be brave.

 

*

 

The next day, the bird-keepers came into the queen’s chambers and caught the little bird under one of the chairs and brought him back to the rookery and put him in the cage together with the red birds.

“Now, my silent one,” one of the bird-keepers had whispered to him, as he locked the gate again. “It’s business from here on, and no mistake.”

And that was when it began to dawn on the little bird what he was here for and what he would have to do.

 

*

 

There was a war. The queen had spoken the truth. The neighboring country was displeased at the queen, who was clever and rich, and displeased at the way the lines were arranged on the map, and displeased by the queen’s army, which was quite powerful, and so the two countries agreed that the best way to solve this problem was to fight each other with guns.

It seemed a pleasant notion at first. There were parades in the city, and bright flags, and the red birds were sent swooping over the rooftops and through the streets, and everyone clapped and hooted, and then the soldiers went away, and no one heard much of anything, and life went on.

The little bird, high in the tower of the rookery, was taught to carry a brass capsule around his ankle, and taught to wait patiently while humans wrote messages and put them into his capsule. And while now the little bird knew what he would be used for he still did not understand the Queen Mother’s words, because all the birds were being taught just the same as he, and they all carried messages hither and yon, and the handsome red birds looked at him with disdain if they looked at him at all. He was not terribly important at all.

But the little bird did as he was told, and tried to avoid the red birds with their sharp claws and great wings, and he went to sleep in the far corner of the cage each night and hoped the queen would come for him soon and they would go back to the fireplace and someone would read to them.

 

*

 

One night, several months after the war began, and the countries had settled into an odd sort of routine, and the newspapers were becoming impatient because there was nothing exciting to write about, and both sides were coming to the conclusion that maybe it would be better not to fight at all, a round man in a square hat came to the palace of the queen. He played tricks in the hall all day, until he was noticed and was brought to the queen’s dining room to cheer her weary mind, and that was when he put a drop of poison in her soup while no one was looking, and she choked on her own tongue and died.

The little bird was not there to see. He was high up in the spires, following little flags on little strings, while below him the bird-keepers shouted at him – faster! and Not that way, not that way! But when he came back to the palace, he noticed the change right away. He noticed the sadness, like a velvet pall across the halls, and of course he noticed the absence of the queen, like a light gone out. And at the very first moment he could, he escaped the rookery and went in search of his queen. He found her in the chapel, but she did not move to greet him, and she did not smile, and though her eyes were open, they never looked at the little bird. She looked at the ceiling, at painting of clouds and starlight, and nothing the little bird did was able to rouse her.

The bird flew away, through the palace, deep into the cellars and there he saw a round man in a square hat, and the man was counting gold into a large bag and chuckling.

The bird did not understand. He did not understand how anyone could laugh when his queen had died. And he tried to fly away, and he tried to weep, but he could do nothing to match the grief he felt. Soon the bird-keepers had caught him again, and they brought him back to the rookery and put back in the cage. The red birds did not cry for their queen. They sat and preened and fought with each other, and when they saw the little bird weeping, they did not go to comfort him, because he was not one of them. In fact, they did not know what he was.

 

*

 

The death of the queen ignited a spark, and the spark became a flame – a fire of outrage throughout the whole kingdom. The war effort sprang up again in earnest, because when you are angry you want to fight, and you cease to think. Newspaper headlines screamed of the murder. Fingers were pointed, and fingers were cut off. The red birds were sent out in great number, and the little gray bird was, too.

His first assignment was to take a message across the bay to a man in a dingy garret of the enemy’s city. The man was a general, but he was dressed to look like a beggar so no one would know. The bird let the keepers clip the capsule to his leg. He let them toss him out into a stiff wind, and he saw them toss three red birds out after him. They flew with him a short distance, out over the city, their eyes fixed straight ahead and their vicious beaks like knives in the wind. And then they veered away in all different directions, and the little bird was left alone.

The bird did not know this, but as he passed over a beautiful green field, a rolling pasture of daisies and trees, he passed that invisible line that everyone was fighting over, and he was no longer in his mistress’s land, but in the enemy’s. All he saw was land, though, and houses, and they all had vegetable gardens out front, and vats for washing, and knickers hanging in the yard.

 

*

 

The little bird found the general-dressed-as-a-beggar waiting for him in the upper garret. The man’s head was in shadow and his eyes glimmered under his hood. He took the bird and read his message, and squeezed him tightly in his rough hand all the while, as if he thought the little bird would try to escape. The general did not understand that the bird had made a promise, and that he would keep the promise, and be faithful to his queen, even though she was buried beneath stone and roses now, and far away.

After the general had read the message, he scribbled out a new one and deposited it in the capsule, practically threw the little bird back into the night. The little bird returned to the palace, to the bird-keepers, and he slept, his head under his wing. He noticed that there were not as many red birds anymore, not as many as before.

 

*

 

The war moved quickly after the message had come to the man in the garret. It swept across the countries and burned them both, and when the little bird next flew from his roost, the capsule secure around his leg, he looked down in horror at the land. The queen’s city was all dark now, no windows lit for fear the enemy would find it in the dark and destroy it. He looked to his left and saw four of the red birds swooping away, this way and that, saw men below, shooting, the armies marching, horns blowing. And the fields beyond . . .  they were scorched. Black trees stood up like the charred ribs of an animal, and red sparks leaped and flew around the little bird in eddies and gusts. The forests were blackened and the pastures were gray as a blind man’s eyes. Ash fell, from where the bird could not know, and it made the fields look as though they were covered in snow. Ash from the sky, sparks from the earth, and wind that blew into the little bird’s face, bitter and hot as tar.

The little bird flapped on tirelessly, though its wings felt heavy, and they strained against the air. He passed over the empty hulls of farmhouses, passed over neat squares of weeds, once vegetable beds, but now the home of crows-foot and scrub, and tough, coarse weeds that did not mind the choked air. The bird passed over a family of refugees, huddled in the shelter of a mortared wall. They had only the smallest fire, though it was quite cold close to the ground, and they sat close together and sang, and it was the prettiest song the bird had ever heard though their voices were cracked and split with longing.

The bird flew and flew, and at last it came to the enemy city, and alighted on one of its tall roofs, looking out across it. It was a fine city, with peaked gables and strong chimneys and solid houses. The little bird thought for a moment about the message he carried, and what it meant, and whether it would cause this place to be razed as well, like all the lands between. But the little bird had made the queen a promise and so he went into a window, waited there until a red-faced, white-whiskered man barged in and read the message, and screamed and spat, and scrawled a new message on a piece of soiled paper.

The white-whiskered man rammed the paper into the capsule and sent the little bird off with a spank, and the bird dipped and flew as fast as it could away. But as the bird fluttered back across the wasteland, he kept his eyes sharp for the group of refugees he had seen on its journey there. He wanted to be sure they had made it further, made it somewhere better perhaps. The land seemed even more beleaguered than it had the last time the little bird had passed over it. Bombs cracked tirelessly in the distance. The wind whistled like a lost lamb, but below that, below the wind, there was  no sound at all, only a deathly silence, and the ash swirled up in ghostly forms among rotting walls of the farmhouses. There were no rising sparks anymore, and no ruddy glow. Those had all gone out.

 

*

 

The little bird passed over the wall where it had seen the refugees take shelter, but they were not there anymore. The fire was nothing but a pile of charcoal, crusted with frost.

The little bird flew low over the fields, searching for them, over hills and pastures. He came to a rutted, muddy trail where tanks and feet had gone, and followed that for several miles, winding among the forests and the hills. And that was when he saw them again, the refugees. They were lying by the side of the road, only they were dead now, stiff and cold, and there were dark holes in the whiteness of their skin. And beyond them, dotting the land like drops of blood far into the distance, were the red birds, bullets in their hearts, and their capsules opened, and their false messages read.

And that was when the little bird understood. He understood the Queen Mother’s words from far back in his youth, and he understood why he had no voice, and why he was gray when they were bright. The red birds were proud and beautiful, but they were not what they thought, nor as important. They were there to die.

The bird let out a silent cry, and swooped away from the earth, up, up, into the freezing sky, where it was cold as ice, but pure at least, and far away from the cannon and the death. There, the little bird looked down again, and saw the dull orange burst of bombs, and again he wished he could wail, or scream, or make any sound at all, but he was not meant to be heard.

He returned to the city of his mistress. People were lining the streets now, cold and hungry. Everything was gray, as gray as the ash that fell from the sky. Even the flags, so bright and red before the war, were dulled, and coated with grime, and nothing was left of the songs and the bluster.

The little bird received one last message, from a thin, starved-looking bird-keeper. One last message, and the last of the red birds to allow him safe journey. The little bird tried to tell them not to go, not to fly out over the land, as they were meant to die, but the red birds were proud and they only eyed him briefly and then veered away, and he never saw them again. He flew out over the land, though he was very tired now, and the ash weighted his wings, and the hot wind burned his eyes, and he did not want to fly anymore; he wanted to sleep. He passed over the fields, the farmhouses. The refugees by the roadside had wasted away to nothing. The soldiers trudged to nowhere, deep inside their greatcoats, their hats low. They sat in trenches, their boots in the mud. From time to time they leaped up and shot wildly into the gloom, and then they would all hurry across the waste and set up ranks further forward, and dig trenches where the cabbage beds had been, and it was a great victory and everyone rejoiced.

The bird flew on. He came to the enemy city again. And here he paused a moment, suspended in the air, his wings fluttering furiously. He recalled the land before he had carried that first message, before any of this had started. He recalled the green fields, and the blue sky, and the red feathers of the birds, so proud and vain and foolish. And then the image faded, and he saw what the land had become.

The bird did not fly into the window of the high tower where he had been instructed to go. He did not deliver his message. He thought of his queen, and he thought of his small wings tucked up under her chin, and he thought of the fire crackling, and grandmama reading. And if the little bird could have spoken, he would have said he was sorry. He would have said that he could not keep his promise to his queen, that whatever was in those capsules, whatever the little markings meant, they was foolishness, and man was foolishness, and he was tired. But he could not speak, and so instead he let out a pitiful cry, and only the wind and the falling ash heard him.

And at last the little bird flew away from the city. He flew away from the wastelands, the razed forests, the muddy roads, the bodies and trenches, and the weeping towns. He flew high, high above it all, into a piercing cold rain, and he did not stop until his wings ached and his head ached and he felt sure he was going to die. He dropped down out of the sky like a small stone, and came to rest in a green country, a land that was very like the old countries he had come from, but somehow not so far along as those, not yet spoiled. An old woman found the bird and brought him inside. She noticed the capsule on his poor blackened leg and took it off, and then she washed the little bird with soft cloths and warm water, and fed him berries. And when she thought he was asleep in the warmth and the silence, she rolled out the message from the capsule and read it:

Enough,” she said, in her cracked old voice. “We have had enough. Words are what started this war, and words shall end it. Here is our surrender.

The old woman threw the paper into the fire then, because she did not understand what it was about, and thought it was likely a dull sort of joke. And the little bird lay on its side and watched as the flames ate the paper, and it curled and blackened. He was not sorry to see it burn. His tiny, glimmering eyes did not appear to move, but their gaze turned from the fire to the window, and looked out into the morning light, at the trees and the grass. And the little bird wondered how long the war would take to reach there, and how long before those trees were burnt, too, and the grass was dead and the clouds were clouds of ash.

Because if there was one thing the little bird had learned in all his flights and his journeys across those ravaged fields, it was that there was no peace for man. They never stopped wanting, and they never stopped trying, and if they learned things, they forgot them just a soon. That was their blessing, and that was their curse. They were the red birds in a gold cage, and they flew to their death proudly, because they did not know what they were meant for. . . but oh, were their feathers bright.

Abram Brown’s Birds (Dead and Gone)

abram_brown

*

Curator’s Note: An eerie little tune called “Old Abram Brown” inspired the telling of this particular tale. I suggest you listen to it whilst you read, and pay particular attention to the lyrics below.

*

Old Abram Brown is dead and gone
You’ll never see him more
He used to wear a long brown coat
That buttoned up before
 
“Old Abram Brown”
from Songs for a Friday Afternoon
            by Benjamin Britten

*

In a mud-colored city piled high with towers, there lived a man named Abram Brown.

The city was a drab sort of place, though it hadn’t always been. Factories sat in squat buildings on the perimeter, and the smoke they produced leeched the color out of houses and horses and cabs and gowns until even the grass in the park turned crunchy and gray.

Abram Brown fit in quite well here. He wore a long brown coat that nearly brushed the ground, and his hair was gray, and his face was rather gray as well.

In fact, he looked much the same as his fellow citizens and might have gone entirely unnoticed in the drone of the city, just like most things were—had it not been for the flock of birds that followed him wherever he went.

The birds formed a sort of buffer around Abram Brown, his own personal shield, for you didn’t want to get too close to Abram Brown’s birds. No, you did not. They flapped silently about him, their feathers slick with the oil from the sky. They alighted on his shoulders and nested in his hat and burrowed into his clothes to poke their heads out between the dirty brass buttons of his coat.

Their eyes were black and beady, like any bird’s, but it wasn’t the eyes you had to worry about.

What you had to worry about was how, if the birds happened to glance your way while you carried on with your business, they would whisper while they watched you.

Their beaks did not move, but you knew it was them, all the same.

There was no mistaking the whispers of Abram Brown’s birds.

*

Octavius Sinclair hated his name but he had found his peace with it, even though the boys at school called him Octo-Face and Octavi-pus and all other kinds of horrid things.

Octavius was the sort of boy who made peace with things quite easily, because his mind was bright and open like the inside of a polished bell. This isn’t to say he was empty-headed. It’s simply to say that thoughts slid in and out of his mind with ease, never staying there too long to cause trouble.

For example, while most people either found themselves disgusted or tiredly complacent about the state of the crunchy, smoke-covered grass in the park, Octavius had decided it was actually rather beautiful.

“Is it true,” he had asked his father once, when they passed the park, “that the grass is bright green in some places?”

“I suppose,” his father had said briskly, checking his watch. He was always checking his watch, and polishing its smog-smeared face.

“Aren’t we special, then, to have our grass be such a lovely gray color?”

“What are you on about?”

“I mean, it’s lovely and gray like a dream. Like when you come out of a dream and everything is soft, and you hang there between two worlds. Like that, Papa.”

His father had snapped him hard into the street. “Keep up. You’re dawdling.”

Every day when Octavius walked home from school in his stockings and buckled shoes and that horrible burgundy jacket with the dirty brass buttons, he walked by the park where Abram Brown liked to take his birds in the afternoon.

Octavius had been quite small when he happened upon Abram Brown for the first time, right in this very park.

It had been the first day anyone had called him Octavi-pus, to the delighted jeers of all the boys in the school courtyard, so he had taken his time walking home. He had needed some time to himself to figure out how he felt about the day’s events.

Instead of paying attention to what lay before him, Octavius had been staring at his feet while walking. He therefore did not see the cloud of birds coming at him, and walked straight into it.

Most of the time, when someone walked too close to Abram Brown’s birds, they squawked and shrieked and flapped around until the intruder retreated.

But that day, they simply fluttered quietly to Abram Brown until he was covered in them, and stared at Octavius. They did not even whisper.

And Octavius, his mind so shiny clean, smiled at them, and said, “What a lovely collection of birds you have, sir.” Then he pulled out the sandwich from his pocket, which he had not had the appetite to finish after the incident in the courtyard.

He sat on a bench with Abram Brown and shared his bread with Abram Brown’s birds.

Once all the birds had eaten, Abram Brown had peered out from his beard and said, “My name is Abram Brown.”

“I know who you are. Everyone knows who you are. They say you are mad, and that I shouldn’t talk to you.”

Abram Brown had said, “And yet you are talking to me right now.”

“Everyone says you should not be mean to others, too, and yet everyone acts cruel anyhow. So why should I take them seriously?”

A bird on Abram Brown’s shoulder had cocked its head.

“Yes,” Abram Brown had said. “That makes quite a lot of sense to me.”

*

Every day after that, Octavius Sinclair took the long way home from school and met Abram Brown in the park at that same bench, and shared whatever was left of his lunch with Abram Brown’s birds.

It was a peaceful ritual, for a while, in the dream-colored park with the gray sunlight struggling down.

Until it wasn’t peaceful anymore.

Until the boys from school followed Octo-Face home one day, and spied upon him, and decided to have some fun.

*

The ringleader was a thirteen-year-old boy who wasn’t as horrid inside as he pretended to be, but we cannot excuse him for that.

His name was Horace Wickham, and Octavius baffled him.

Horace hated this city. He hated its sky full of towers and smoke. He hated that, no matter how many times he washed his hands, they still looked dirty.

Most of all, he hated the park. Parks were supposed to be green and bright, clean and full of flowers.

Didn’t anyone know that?

Didn’t anyone care that they lived in such a dirty heap of a place?

Horace cared very much. He wished he could leave, but he was only thirteen, and a small part of him worried that in fact the tales of bright green grasses and clear blue skies were merely legends from a long-ago time or a far-off world.

The hatefulness of his circumstances built up inside his heart and turned him rotten.

How could that stupid, soppy, thin-shouldered Octavius Sinclair walk about smiling all the time? How could he look around him and still be happy? It was inexplicable. It was unfair.

So Horace led the other boys from school to the park. He spied upon Octavius, and his insides churned hot and black.

“Here we go,” he whispered to the boys huddled around him. He fished out some stones from beneath the bristly black hedges and curled his fists about them.

For a moment, a thought came to him that this was a terrible idea. He wasn’t a bad boy, so he should not be acting like one.

But the stones in his fists were cold and sharp and covered in filth. The slick and slimy feel of them—and of the air, and of his own soiled skin—made Horace’s heart boil over with hate.

It was not fair, for someone to find such joy when he could not.

“Now!” he shouted, and the crowd of boys leapt out from beneath the hedges and began to throw.

*

The stones fell from the sky in showers of pain, striking Octavius’s head, arms, and stomach. No matter where he turned, they struck him. He was caught in a storm of stones and frantic black feathers.

Where was Abram Brown?

Octavius cried out in terror and fell to the ground, covering his head.

That is when he saw the bird—one of the younger ones, with a bright yellow beak and matching feet—lying on the ground in front of him. Its head had been split open, and it laid there, broken on the pavement, crooked and glistening wet.

Octavius began to sob and gently tucked the bird underneath him as he huddled there, shaking. His fingers came away stained red, and it was the brightest color he had ever seen.

He was so caught up in his grief and terror that he did not at first notice when the triumphant laughter of the boys from school turned to screams.

He did not notice when the cloud of birds left him, gathered together in one great shining black clump, and dove—pecking, biting, tearing with their tiny yellow claws.

When silence fell, it did not register with Octavius until a few long moments had passed.

He uncovered his head and dared to look up.

The first thing he saw was that the birds were gone. He saw not even a feather, heard not a squawk.

The second thing he saw was that the boys from school were gone, too—although not in the same way. The sight of them there on the ground, all red and misshapen, slid right through Octavius’s mind and out the other side.

It was not a sight worth holding onto.

The third thing Octavius saw was old Abram Brown’s long brown coat, lying on the soot-covered pavement, empty as a rotting fruit peel.

*

That night, Octavius Sinclair heard whispers in his dreams. Even when he woke up to fetch a glass of water, he still heard them—the same whispers, following him into the waking world.

At first, Octavius could not understand what these whispers said. He drank his water and tucked himself back into his rickety white bed and sat very still to listen.

Eventually, he pulled out three words from the whispers: Dead and gone.

They came to him, over and over. No matter how hard he tried to push them through his mind and out, they would not budge. They stuck there, right behind his eyes, and built and built. The words overlapped and fell apart and came back together again, but Octavius could still understand them.

Dead and gone.

Dead and gone.

When a sharp knock came at Octavius’s window, he got right up and opened it.

He knew, by then, after hours of listening to these whispers in his head, what he would find. He had begun to recognize the sounds.

A black bird hopped onto the window sill. It tilted its shiny round head and stared at Octavius.

Dead and gone.

“I know,” said Octavius. “Poor old Abram Brown.”

The bird snapped its beak open and shut, flitted up onto Octavius’s shoulder, and stayed there.

Together, they sat by the open window and looked out into the smoky night sky, waiting.

A sound came to them from somewhere out in the darkness—the sound of a thousand flapping black wings.

*

Ariel

Drawing by William Kentridge.

Drawing by William Kentridge.

The cage was far too small for such a large bird. Any cage is too small for a bird; but this dusty iron one was hardly bigger than the bird herself. Her own waste festered on the floor of the cage, which no one ever cleaned, and the fumes rose up around her all day.

Once she had had a nub of bone to chew on, but she’d chewed that to dust long ago. Now she gnawed on the bars of the cage—not with any hope of escape, but only to push away her fear and loneliness.

The bird had been in the cage almost, but not quite, her whole life. Faint memories of some of other place and other kind of time haunted her. She worried over it. Was there really such a time? Could she open her wings full and free once?

Was there really a place called Sky: infinitely blue, infinitely accepting?

When memories of Sky came like hot arrows into her fearful heart, she would pull out her own feathers, one at a time, to forget. It hurt terribly, but the pain eased or hid the pain of missing Sky, at least for a while.

Sometimes she was certain she only imagined Sky—that Sky only stood for a place and time that was not this place, and not this time. But whatever Sky was, she longed for it.

The bird lived in an old, high-ceilinged apartment, well above the city streets, with a thin man in a red coat and a little girl in a purple, frothy dress. Once a week, the thin man would seize the cage and carry it outside, banging the bird inside to and fro, through noisy, smoke-blackened streets, and into a dark building. Once inside, the man’s wiry hands would reach inside the black bars, seize the bird, and stuff it inside a suffocating black sack. Then he stuffed the sack inside a black hat and left.

For hours, as the bird struggled for breath, she would listen to muffled noises: first shouts and curses and laughter; then the blare of off-key trumpets; then the sleek and booming voice of the man in the red coat.

Then, without warning, the sack was opened, and the bottom of the hat was smacked, forcing the stunned bird into the air. It would flutter desperately, awkwardly, stretching wings that had not been used in a week. Bright lights blinded it, the rising roar of a crowd made it flutter, terrified, unsure where to fly. Within seconds, the man’s hard hands were back around the bird, thrusting it back inside the sack. And soon enough, it was back in its cage on its table again.

It was the job of the girl in the frothy purple dress to give the bird food or water, but often she forgot, and when she remembered, her hands were not always satisfied only to leave the food, but had also to touch the bird, and her hands were hot and rough and cruel.

Once, after slipping the food in, the girl seized one of the bird’s wings and yanked, nearly breaking it. In pain and fear, the bird struck at the girl’s hand, hard. Then there was no food or water for many days, not until the bird was crumpled at the bottom of her cage, breathing shallow and fast, and the thin man shouted and hit the girl.

But mostly the girl and the thin man ignored the bird. And mostly the bird turned its back on the room to stare at the wall beside its cage, watching the changing light. The light was all it could see of the outdoors.

One day, the light shifted—or perhaps the thin man or the rough, forgetful girl had accidentally shifted the cage. In any case, on the wall behind the caged bird, another bird appeared: a dark, shadow bird, in a shadow cage.

Shadow bird, said the caged bird: look, your cage is only shadow. You could leave at any time. Open your wings, shadow bird, and fly.

But the shadow bird did not move.

Shadow bird, said the caged bird: My cage is iron bars, but yours is made of nothing at all. It is only the dream of a cage. The window is open, I smell the street and the dirt and the trees outside. Fly away.

But the shadow bird did not move.

Do you stay for me? asked the cage bird. I think you do. I think you came to keep me company, and you stay so that I am not alone in this place, so far from Sky. If birds could cry, the caged bird would have cried with gratitude. Not to be alone was more than she had hoped.

To show her gratitude, the caged bird raised her wings the few centimeters she could raise them. In response, the shadow bird raised its wings much higher, much fuller. The shadow bird’s wings were bigger even than the shadow cage itself.

So things seemed almost a little better for the bird, for a little while. And then without warning, they were much, much worse. Because one day, for fun, little girl put glue on the caged bird’s perch. The bird pulled and strained in agony, trying to free herself.

Just then the thin man, running late and impatient to leave, strode in, opened the cage, seized the bird, and pulled hard. The bird shrieked in pain, and as the cage swung through the city, the blood from her talons trailed across the street.

And when the hat was smacked, and the bird was flung out before bright lights and roaring crowds, she could fly no more than a few inches before she fell to the ground.

The crowd laughed.

When they got home, the thin man tossed the bird and its cage furiously onto the table. The bird’s ruined feet could not bear the perch, so she lay on her side on the the cage’s filthy floor, facing the wall and the shadow bird. The shadow bird lay down, too, in its shadow cage. They held each other’s eyes.

In the room, the thin man and the rough girl screamed at each other.

“I didn’t do anything!”

“Except cost me money and reputation with your stupid tricks! The bird’s useless now!”

“It isn’t my fault, it’s the stupid bird’s fault!”

And then maybe—because by now the caged bird was feverish, and its head felt too full and light—maybe the cage door was yanked open, and a small hand pulled her out, shouting. “Fly! Fly, stupid! I didn’t hurt you so bad, you’re just lazy!”

Maybe the small hand flung the sick, wounded bird into the air.

And then—at least it seemed to the caged bird that this happened—then, somehow, the bird found strength in her battered, half-feathered wings. She pulled at the air, and the air carried her up. She flew near the top of the ceiling, and then she turned and faced the man and the girl.

“See—“ the child began, in triumph. But then—or so it seemed to the feverish bird—the child’s eyes widened in fear. The bird-no-longer-caged could see herself, she thought, reflected in the child’s black pupils. She could see herself, and she could see her own bloody talons outstretched, and her sharp beak open.

She could see herself, as she stabbed and stabbed at the child’s soft face and throat, until those pupils could not see through the blood.

And when the thin man came at her, snatching at the air around her, waving his wiry arms—then it seemed to the bird that she served him just the same, over and over, and over and over, until his face and hands and hair were as bloody-red as his coat.

The man and girl lay still and quiet on the floor, then—oh quiet, quiet, quiet.

That is what the caged bird thought, at least. But if you were the policeman who entered the room, after neighbors reported terrible screams, and then terrible silence, you would have seen a bird in a locked cage, lying on its side, facing the wall, still and cold and dead.

On the floor, you would have seen a child in a blood-spattered, frothy purple frock, and a thin man in a red coat, their faces and throats pecked into bloody mess.

And you would see, if you were a noticing policeman, a shadow of the dead bird’s black cage against the wall.

But you wouldn’t see the shadow bird. Because the shadow bird was gone. The shadow bird had flown. The shadow bird had done what it had come to do, and had returned to the Sky.

The Warmth of Secrets

High in the trees, the birds build their nests, a constant and ever-changing labor, their homes never the same shape from one hour to the next. Twigs weave with leaves weave with bits of fluff to create warm homes for their delicate eggs.

But this is not the only thing they use. They are only the things you can see.

The birds awoke Annabelle from a rather pleasant dream that she couldn’t remember the moment she opened her eyes. She was quite certain it had been a nice dream, though, from the feeling, like she’d had a big warm mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows. Annabelle stretched and climbed from her bed. Her school clothes were already laid out, selected by her mother the night before, but she stayed in her nightgown as she padded to the window and spread the pink curtains she secretly hated.

A small, night-black bird lit on the sill just the other side of the glass, a fine wisp of something glimmering slightly in its beak. It stayed for only an instant before flying off again, becoming a speck and then nothing at all in the distance. The trees in the garden of the Nelson house were just beginning to be touched by spring and sunlight, the tiny green buds tinged with gold.

Downstairs, the kettle whistled. Annabelle dressed and arrived in the kitchen just as her father took his first sip of tea. Her older brother, who was thirteen and very grumpy, left without a word from a mouth filled with toast, the front door slamming behind him.

“Good morning,” said her mother. “Oatmeal?”

Annabelle secretly hated oatmeal even more than she secretly hated her pink curtains. She couldn’t remember when she’d ever liked it, though she must have, surely, when she was too young to know better, or her mother wouldn’t think she still did. But there wasn’t anything else she wanted instead, so she said yes, and put half the sugar bowl on it when her parents were making a fuss over whatever had landed on the bird feeder outside.

It was very rare, apparently. Her father peered through a pair of binoculars that, this close, must have allowed him to see the glint in the bird’s eye.

This time of year, it was difficult to get them to talk about anything else. It was all feathers and eggs and whether this crow was the same one they’d seen last year. Sometimes, only inside her head where no one could hear, Annabelle wondered if she’d be more interesting if she had a beak. Still, she supposed, it kept them from pestering her too much about whether she’d done all her schoolwork or cleaned properly behind her ears or tidied up the mess in her room.

The rest of the day, until the afternoon, passed just as the morning had—which is to say, quite normally. Annabelle went to school and talked to her friends and only raised her hand in those subjects she enjoyed, staying silent and invisible during the ones she didn’t. The final bell rang through the classrooms, and she gathered up her things for the walk home.

Three corners away from Annabelle’s house, it happened. She saw everything, saw what was about to happen and the seconds that would follow, but there was nothing to be done. Nothing at all except to stand, mouth open in a scream that made no sound, as the bird hit the windshield of a car stopped at the lights and bounced off again, arcing through the air in abnormal flight, to land at her feet.

“Oh no,” Annabelle said, when her voice returned, lost amongst the hooting of car horns. The poor creature twitched at her feet. Mother, mother would know what to do, how to save it.

It felt soft in her hands. Soft and broken. “Hold on,” she whispered. “I’ll keep you alive.”

But she couldn’t. Two corners from her house, it gave a final, tiny chirp, almost a sigh, and went very still. Annabelle felt the stillness as firmly as if it had been a slap, and then a curious coldness through her whole body which turned, quickly, back to warmth from the sun overhead.

“Oh, no,” said Annabelle again. “I’m sorry, little bird.”

She did not, as usual, walk in the front door and announce she was home. Instead, Annabelle veered around to the side of the house, where the earth below the rosebushes was thick and damp from the spring rains. Digging with her fingers wasn’t easy, and soon they were black with dirt, but she kept on until the hole was deep enough.

There wasn’t so much as a whisper from the trees above. Patting the soil back into place, Annabelle looked up at the line of birds on a branch.

Watching her.

“There you are!” said her mother when she heard Annabelle come in. “Where have you been…and what have you been doing? Go wash up.”

Annabelle didn’t answer. The bird, beyond her mother’s help, now felt like a secret thing.

She scrubbed her hands. Ate dinner. Went to bed. Dreamed of flying.

And the voices woke her. So very many voices, like being in a room full of a thousand people all talking without a single pause. Was she still dreaming? Annabelle didn’t think so, though it was still night, no hint of light peeking around the hated pink curtains. She threw them apart and stared from the window.

“Buried him, she did.”

“Curious.”

“There’s a nice lot of crumbs down by the river bend. Get them before those greedy swans do.”

“There’ll be a nice breeze today. Anyone fancy a trip south?”

“Can’t. Expecting a hatch.”

Annabelle blinked.

The birds were talking. If she listened, carefully enough that her head began to ache, she could hear their normal chatters and chirps with her normal ears, but their voices, their words were loud inside her head.

She nearly screamed. She nearly ran to her parents’ room to shake them awake and tell them, but she didn’t. This, too, felt a secret thing. They’d think she was mad, or making up stories. Or—perhaps worse—they’d believe her and ask a thousand questions of a thing she wasn’t entirely certain she believed herself.

“Anyone have any spare twigs?”

Very purposefully, Annabelle climbed back into bed, pulled the blanket over her face, and lay in the dark, hearing all the voices until the sun came out. She dressed in Saturday clothes and went downstairs to breakfast.

When her mother asked if she wanted oatmeal, Annabelle said yes.

It came out as a squeak. Annabelle coughed. “Yes,” she repeated carefully. Her mother didn’t notice.

Her parents exclaimed out the window about the beautiful feathers on this one. Annabelle listened to it complain that those blasted starlings had stolen all the good seeds. Her brother stomped into the kitchen. “I’m going to spend the day at Tom’s,” he said. Annabelle’s mother nodded absently.

But Annabelle stared at him. It was a lie, and she didn’t know how she knew this. It left his mouth and drifted over toward her, a thin, glimmering thread of a thing she caught in her hand.

“And I’m going outside,” she said. Nobody heard her, which was perhaps a good thing. Her voice, once again, had not sounded entirely…human.

The birds were louder out here, much louder. The lie still clutched in her palm, Annabelle covered her ears, which didn’t help a bit. Down at the bottom of the garden, there was a tree just perfect for climbing. Every summer since she could remember, her father had promised to build a tree house in the low, wide branches, but he never had, and how she and her brother were probably too old for such things. It was easy enough to place her feet and hands just right, though, and rise up in the tree as simple as if it was a ladder.

She stopped when she found what she was looking for. The first, perfectly round nest, built of twigs and leaves and bits of fluff, and thin, silvery wisps. She touched one and knew Mrs. Livingstone four doors down on the road had thought of putting poison in her husband’s tea, but had never done it. She touched another and learned the man who came to clean the windows had always wished to be an opera singer.

She touched a third and knew—although she didn’t need to be told—that she hated her pink curtains.

A raven landed on the branch beside her. Annabelle startled and slipped, but didn’t fall. It fixed a knowing, wise gaze on her.

“We know all your secrets, all your lies,” it said, and once again, if she really tried, she could hear the ordinary birdsong, and the words in her head, all at the same time. “They line our nests, they keep us warm in the frosts. And now, you know ours.”

“Why?” Annabelle asked.

“We hear everything,” said the raven. “We are everywhere. Humans pay us no notice as they walk beneath our trees, thinking and saying the things they never should.”

Annabelle looked at her brother’s lie, still stuck to her hand. “I don’t understand how they keep you warm.” It made her feel cold, even on the pleasant spring morning.

The raven cackled. “You will,” it said. “Oh, you will. And soon.”

Annabelle climbed down. All day the voices crowded inside her until they fell silent with the evening. Her bones felt odd inside her. She went to bed early, the pink curtains billowing in the breeze from the window she left open as she fell asleep.

In her dreams, feathers crawled over her skin. Her feet shortened and toenails grew. The voices started again in the night, and Annabelle hopped from her bed, up onto the windowsill.

She chirped, once, and flew into the dawn, listening for dreams, for secrets, for lies with which to build her nest.

Butterfly Blood

(©Thomas Bachmann)

In the middle of a wide, snowy field, beneath a solitary tree, two nuns stood, side by side. Their black habitsblacker than the treeflapped about their ankles. Their white wimpleswhiter than the groundframed their faces. Their sensible shoes, patent-leather and pointy-toed, shone dully in the winter light.

The nuns did not move a muscle.

A man was approaching them from far across the barren field, tramping steadily through the frost and the silence. The man’s head was far too small. Or perhaps his body was simply too large; it was difficult to say. At any rate, he had a freakish set about him, like an ogre, and his skin had a pale, greenish tinge, a slimy-wet sheen.

The nuns regarded him as he approached, their expressions inscrutable. One of them, the smaller one, had her eyes opened very wide, but whether it was out of surprise or simply the permanent state of her face, it was impossible to say.

As the man approached, it became apparent that he had no fingers on either hand, only stumps, stopping at the first knuckles. When he ducked his tiny head, one could see he had no ears either, only holes on either side of his face.

The smaller nun didn’t say a word, but her eyes grew a fraction wider.

The man stopped several paces away, just outside the spreading reach of the tree. He bowed heavily and stood waiting, shifting from foot to foot.

The two nuns turned slowly and looked at each other. Then they looked back at the man, and the taller of the two held out a hand, as if to say, Have you got it? We have walked many miles. We have waited in the cold. Give it to us.

The man with the too-small head looked up at the tall nun. Then he grinned gapingly, and the nuns gasped in unison because he had no tongue. No ears. No fingers. No tongue. Eyes, he had, but those are not nearly as useful as most assume.

He was the perfect messenger, of course. The nuns should not have been surprised.

The taller one regained her composure, and held out her hand again, more insistently this time.

The man nodded his tiny head, and his eyes lit up, and he slipped something from his sleeve.

It was not a bottle or packet, or anything like that, as one might have expected. It was a butterfly, sapphire-winged and veined with black, and it emerged out of his sleeve and came to rest delicately on the end of one of his poor old stumps, flapping slowly, feelers curled against the wind.

The nuns looked at each other again. The younger nun’s eyes were very near to rolling down her cheeks. The man with the too-small head simply smiled down at the butterfly in his palm, a look of wonder on his face.

Finally the tall nun nodded and inclined her head formally toward him. Then she put the butterfly in a small cage made of wire, and the two nuns went away across the field.

 

***

 

The man with the too-small-head watched them go, and watched the glimmer of the blue butterfly-wings in the cage.

When they were gone, he shook his head and grinned again, and he didn’t exactly disappear so much as simply move someplace else, someplace that was not the snowy field, but was very close by.

 

***

 

The nuns came back to their nunnery very late. Before going inside, they made sure to pat some wet earth on the knees of their habits and clump a bit around the frosty heels of their sensible shoes, before finally letting themselves in through the great door.

They had herbs under their arms, but they had collected them the day before, so as to have some time free to seek out the man with the too-small head.

They looked around stealthily as they entered the nunnery, stood still and nodded as other nuns passed by. The cage with the butterfly was hidden tightly behind their backs. When the Mother Superior saw them, she twinkled at them, her eyes very bright and kind, and they both inclined their heads as she passed, but their faces remained stone.

And as the Mother Superior went on down the corridor, they watched her, their eyes following her back, and the younger nun’s mouth may have even twitched a bit, just a tiny, tiny bit; but in that flat, empty face it was like a bomb blowing up.

 

***

 

The nuns took the wire cage to the taller one’s cell and simply sat a while, admiring the butterfly through the mesh. The nunnery was a somewhat austere place, busy and soft, echoing songs and shadows and whispers. The music was often rather sad, and the colors were either dark or white, and so it was something of a marvel, this blue-winged butterfly in the gray cell.

The younger nun, finally, looked at the taller one in a questioning way as if to say, Do you think it will do the trick?

And the taller one looked back, eyebrows raised, as if to say, Who can know? They promised it would. Those wild things in the fields and moors, they promised, and I know they lie, but it should. It should do the trick.

Then she undid the latch of the cage with two long fingers, and the butterfly crept out, blue wings flickering tentatively.

It was about to fly away, about to beat those wings once, twice, and then flutter toward the ceiling.

Then the younger nun took out a wooden mallet from the folds of her dress and smashed the butterfly onto the table top.

 

***

 

The nuns let the butterfly sit, squashed to the table-top, overnight, exactly as they had been instructed. Then they scraped the blue from its wings and the clear, watery blood from its veins into a tiny thimble-sized bowl and set it out on the windowsill, in the cold, fresh air.

The younger one looked at the taller one, and her eyes said, I hope it works. We haven’t much time left. And what if someone starts to suspect?

And the taller one nodded in a way that meant, It will work.

 

***

 

The moon came out, half-full like a sleepy eye and squinted down at the bowl, and at the nuns, who looked away quickly and closed the casement.

In the bowl, the blue and the blood sat and drank in the moonlight, but also the night and the shadows and the cold, and then nuns went down to the evening mass and tried to forget about it until it was ready.

The Mother Superior was there at mass of course, and though her back was toward the two nuns, anyone raising her head from the hymn-book might have noticed the younger nun staring at the Mother Superior, her eyes so wide and still.

 

***

 

Five weeks earlier, the nuns had gone to the Mother Superior and asked her a question.

“Please,” the taller one had asked, and her voice was surprisingly soft and regular-sounding, papery and cool, and much quieter than her eyes. “Might we have the third Saturday of next month off?”

And the Mother Superior had twinkled at them, and said, “Of course you may have a day off! But not that Saturday. We’ll need you here for the weeding and the churning. You may have the fourth Saturday off. I will mark it down.”

 

***

 

You never would have guessed the nuns’ disappointment. They had looked at each other briefly, had nodded at the Mother Superior, and had slipped away without another word. But it was not the end of the matter.

Few people can plot quite as well as the ones you’d never suspect.

 

***

 

Here was the situation: a great violinist, a Master Garibaldi, was on a tour across the continent, and the nuns were determined to go. Master Garibaldi was playing Bach, all the Chaconnes and Voluntairs, and the nuns pined to hear it, and pined to see it, too.

And it was not that the mother superior was unkind. She simply didn’t know how lovely Maestro Garibaldi was, and how his hair shook like a lion’s mane when he played his violin and how his music felt like a lamp, glowing behind your ribs. And so when the tall nun and the short nun had been told they could not go to the City the day of the concert, that was when they began to plot.

They read great grimoires in the library and went on long walks across the moors, and came upon the creatures of stone and moss in the wild hills, and all the while Maestro Garibaldi crept closer and closer across the continent toward the City, and the nuns became more and more serious, and at last they had it all, everything needed to escape that day, everything but the last bit, the most important bit.

What is stronger than storms, yet weeps like a child, one of the old crusty books in the library had whispered to them. Colder than snow and softer than hair?

The nuns had thought about it very long. And of course they found out.

It was the wind.

 

***

 

So when they were sure their mixture had ripened well on the windowsill, and turned into a good thick paste, silver-gray and speckled with flecks of iridescent blue, the nuns brought it out into the early morning, in an open place where the wind blew strongly.

The nuns set the bowl on the ground and the wind dipped into it at once, picked up its contents and blew it into the air, straight up out of the bowl. The flakes whirled a moment and then began to form a shape. A human-shape. A nun in a black habitblacker than the stone walls of the nunnery. A white wimplewhiter than the nun’s teeth as they smiled and watched.

The wind swept over again, and the last of the mixture grew into the second nun, small and stout, with eyes like marbles.

The two sets of nuns stood looking at each other, one pair smiling, the other not. Then they nodded to each other, and one pair set off into the nunnery and the other took off its sensible shoes and put on ones with bows and went to the city where it heard the great Garibaldi on his violin and fairly well swooned.

 

***

 

That night, the wind came and reclaimed its breath from the delicate shell of butterfly blood and moonlight, and the false nuns fell to nothing. But by that time their namesakes where comfortably in their beds and fast asleep.

They weeded twice as many beds the next morning, those two nuns, and churned three times the butter, and perhaps, if one had watched them very, very closely, one might have seen them wink to each other over their baskets.

(Postscript: the butterflies of the area were less pleased by it all, and there was an infestation the next year in the nunnery’s dining hall, small onyx-winged insects all up the rafters and under the edges of the plates. No one could understand why it happened, not even the two who had caused it.)