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.

6 Responses to “The Red Birds”

  1. Samantha says:

    Stefan, you should make this into a BOOK.

    • Samantha says:

      ..Considering you can’t put this in the CoC real book anymore. But this is purest gold, I tell you.

    • Stefan Bachmann Stefan Bachmann says:

      Aw. Thank you! 🙂 And thanks for reading! I don’t know if I could make this book-length, though. I feel like it’s done and I have nothing more to say on the subject of birds or wars. xD

  2. Wendy says:

    This story, like all your stories, was exquisite, the message melancholy yet strangely heartwarming. I have your first book – the Peculiar – and I adore it to bits, even though I am 17 years old. In fact, I’m a writer myself, though I only started writing seriously in the last month or so. I could slap myself for not starting sooner. Now that I’m older, and feel like I don’t have time on my side, every horrible story I write is terribly discouraging. My own writing makes me want to drive a wedge through my skull (not literally). There’s such a gap between my visions and execution, and I am beginning to fear my writing dreams will never come to fruition. I only wish I had been homeschooled like yourself, and not crammed into the public school system to have my creativity well and truly stamped out of me for twelve years. Being highly introverted and sensitive to external stimuli didn’t help either – each day after school I was too tired to do anything creative after dull and pointless homework. Only now is my imagination and my interest in writing beginning to revive. All that wasted time! It is agony, this regret. Oh, dear. This devolved into a rather self-pitying paragraph. I love your work, I love your imagination, I love the rhythm of your words and your startling metaphors and I think it would be the best thing ever to meet you. You seem absolutely awesome. Keep writing, and I wish greater literary success and fulfilment. Oh, and happiness. And lots of laughter. 🙂

    • Stefan Bachmann Stefan Bachmann says:

      Hi Wendy! First of all, I’m so, so happy you liked this story. I still have a soft spot for it, and usually I hate everything I write after about a day. 🙂 So thank you!

      Secondly, you don’t need to worry at alllll about when you started writing! I felt this way, too, at first, like there was some invisible-age-deadline I had to hit, but really, 17 is still young, and learning how to write is always hard no matter what age you are. It’s also super fun. I think if you don’t let yourself be bothered by expectations or comparisons and just write about the things you’re interested in, your writing will get to the point where you can enjoy it. (I’m not quite at this stage. But ONE DAY.)

      Also, I’m so sorry public school wasn’t right for you. I hope you don’t stop writing, though. YOU CAN DO EET.

      Thanks again for reading, and I wish you all the very best, too!! 😀

      • Wendy says:

        Thanks for the encouragement! 😀 Though I’m not sure if that feeling of not-quite-happy will ever go away. Apparently a lot of really talented creative people, who have won major awards in their fields, still sometimes feel like imposters or frauds. Or hate their books. Or read their books after some time and feel like someone else has written them. Maybe it’s the bane of the creative life. You know, this is probably not the place to have a random conversation, but I was thinking about books and words and art lately (as one does when one is a writer) and how trivial and at the same time wonderful and important it all is. I mean, beyond the imagination and mind of the reader, they don’t mean anything. Without someone to read it, a book is just bits of paper strung together. At the same time, it’s wondrous how these scratches or markings can create entire worlds and characters in people’s minds. It’s like magic. For me, they may be “just words” but they are life. They make life worth living, these little doses of magic splotched on paper. And there’s something existentially disheartening about books, how easily they can be destroyed, how they will die and be nothing but paper, nothing but words, once humanity dies (this is getting rather depressing, SORRY) but there’s also something incredibly uplifting about them. Through literature, you leave a piece of yourself after you die. You can speak to others across space and time. Others can speak to you across space and time. It’s sheer wonderfulness.

        I love books, is what I’m saying. And now I will stop, because this is getting way too long. Thanks for taking the time to reply, and I hope your writing is going well. 🙂

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