Birdsong

Mr. Kuth missed the birth of his son. He left as soon as the messenger arrived, but The Canon would not let him cross the bay. His autocarriage had to stop behind the long line that stretched out from beach. He ran out and joined the crowd that clustered together and beseeched The Canon to help them once more. Mr. Kuth did not have the red flowers that all the other travelers offered up in cupped hands. In his hasty departure, he hadn’t thought to gather them. Men and women alike held these flowers aloft and murmured their requests to cross the bay. But The Canon held his head up indifferently. Mr. Kuth was desperate. In his panic, he lost control. He lifted his voice and shouted up at the god that ignored the quite pleas of all those around him.

“PLEASE, CANON! MY SON!”

Everyone else fell silent and stepped away from the man who had so shamed and cursed himself. The great, serpentine head of The Canon turned to gaze at Mr. Kuth, and then dipped down to look into his face. All those who held the red flowers knelt, placed them on the ground, and then withdrew. Mr. Kuth stood alone on the sand, face to face with the dreadful god. Bright yellow eyes penetrated his own. Mr. Kuth felt puny next to the massive head, many times the size of his body. But concern for his little family overcame his fears. Ignoring all the rituals, he spoke in a calm, even voice.

“Please, I must cross! My son is birthing early. I am afraid for his life!” No one ever addressed The Canon in this way, standing upon his feet and in a level tone. Those who watched this scene expected no other result except for The Canon to devour Mr. Kuth, and then deny passage across the bay for weeks or months. Instead, The Canon immediately withdrew its head from in front of Mr. Kuth and placed it into its spot under the cliff near to the beach. The god settled its lizard-like body down into the water and flattened its back.

Relief and hushed amazement washed over the crowd of onlookers. They were still too shocked and reserved to give any sort of cheer. But Mr. Kuth turned and ran back toward his autocarriage, and his urgency startled the other travelers back into activity. Everyone hurried to their own cycles or autocarriages and resumed their journey across the bay. The line moved to the edge of the cliff and then down onto The Canon’s head. Its body completely spanned the bay, with the tip of its tail resting on the other side. They crossed quietly, respectfully, and then dropped down onto the road that began at the opposite beach.

At Mr. Kuth’s home, the new mother laid her infant son down in his cradle. The nurse had bathed the boy, and then he had been fed. The nurse taught Mrs. Kuth how to wrap the baby so that he would feel safe and warm. Yet, he cried and cried when his mother set him down. The nurse watched from the doorway.

The nursery was on the second story of the house. The window of the room was open, and a warm breeze stirred the sheer, white curtains. Bird songs poured in from the tall tree beside the house, as though the creatures were responding to the child’s cries. Mrs. Kuth was too absorbed in trying to comfort the boy to notice when a blackbird alighted on the windowsill, but the nurse saw. The bird took up the chorus of those that sang outside and filled the room with a voice, louder than even that of the boy.

So unexpected was this visitor, so suddenly did he introduce his birdsong onto the scene, that even Mrs. Kuth looked up. The little blackbird sang, beautiful and capricious, so that the boy began to quieten. The sound soothed him, and soon he was asleep. The two women watched in astonishment, not daring to move or speak, lest the bird should startle away. But the bird looked upon each of them with intelligence, and then flew right up and perched on the crib rail.

Mrs. Kuth jumped back in surprise and gave a short cry of dismay. Then, her protective instincts rose up within her and she swept forward to shoo to blackbird away. But the nurse had already come near and caught Mrs. Kuth by the elbow. She made a shushing sound in Mrs. Kuth’s ear and restrained her. Always easy to subdue, Mrs. Kuth deferred to the nurse’s assumed authority and apparent wisdom. The blackbird never paused in its song, but watched the women as they withdrew to the doorway. The nurse whispered.

“Such a thing must be a blessing from a god! Do not refuse their goodness when they choose to give it! Besides, the bird clearly means no harm. Just rest in your chair and let it also sing you to sleep. Doubtless, the bird will not stay long.”

And so Mrs. Kuth did. She sat down in her chair in the corner of the nursery and soon fell asleep. Strong though she was, and easy as the delivery had been, she was still exhausted. She slept, sure in the nurse’s protective presence and reasonable advice. The blackbird finished his song and immediately darted out through the window. The nurse went to look for him, but all the birds of the tree had joined him in flight. She watched as they soared away out over the city. Mr. Kuth arrived home not long after.

The nurse showed him in to his sleeping family, and his fears for their safety were alleviated. He heard the story of the blackbird, but did not relate his encounter with The Canon. In his mind, nothing was more important than his wife and son. Accounts of his bizarre behavior made the paper, but he remained forever anonymous. In the coming weeks, several people would try to speak to The Canon as Mr. Kuth had, but always with disastrous results. Mrs. Kuth and the boy awoke, and the nurse left the three together.

The blackbird returned and sang at the boy’s crib the following day. His parents could think of no reason why they should receive this attention from a god. Still, they welcomed the boon. They agreed that the window should never be shut. And so the boy grew up under the consistent song of the blackbird. Sometimes the tree outside the window would be full as though with a choir. Often, the blackbird came alone. If the bird called while the boy slept, the Kuths noted that his sleep seemed to be the most peaceful while the bird sang his lullabies. If he was awake, he would sit in rapt attention to the melody.

As the boy matured into a young man, he built the blackbird a perch of olive wood. If his mother or father chanced to look in on him while the bird sat upon it, they would find him listening intently and gazing fixedly upon the creature. It was as though he understood all that the bird spoke. From time to time, he would pass on a bit of knowledge or wisdom which seemed impossible for a boy of his age to posses. Though even his parents doubted his explanation, he insisted that the blackbird was his source.

The Kuths belonged to a sort of middle caste in society. Mr. Kuth explained to his son that it was the most favorable station in life. In the higher castes, one had much responsibility and worry. It is very expensive to maintain appearances and relationships among such people. But the lower castes are very poor, and they have dirty, disgraceful jobs. The worst were those of the Jarwin caste, born into a lifetime of detainment, forbidden by the god Balthrop from ever leaving the confines of the high, black walls of The Bastille. But in the middle caste, Mr. Kuth reasoned, one had enough money and favor from the gods to be comfortable, without the demanding burden of high society.

Mr. Kuth took his autocarriage to work outside the city each day. When The Canon allowed, he could cross the bay on it’s back. When it was necessary, he would join the other supplicants in the the traditional fashion. He never again attempted to address The Canon as he had on his son’s birthday. The benevolence of the gods was not to be abused. Occasionally, when The Canon was implacable, Mr. Kuth was obliged to travel the long road that circled the bay. He took his son with him one day and showed him the high peak of Mount Kiru, where the snow fell year-round.

The road passed close by the base of the mountain. They could see the path that lead up to the cave of the great dragon. Farmers lead oxcarts laden with tremendous pots of milk up the path. These they presented submissively. In return, the dragon would fly to the peak of Mount Kiru and melt the snow with his breath. The water trickled and flowed down the mountain to irrigate the fields and fill the cistern.

The cistern itself sparkled in the distance. A massive, apish figure loomed beside it. Mr. Kuth explained how those farmers whose crops were too far afield to benefit from the dragon’s water would come and prostrate themselves before Gadth. Gadth was the god who had dug out the cistern. When the farmers had earned his favor, Gadth would fill his giant, brass pitcher and pour it into the aqueduct. In this way, the outlying farms also stayed well watered.

Time passed. Each day, the blackbird would fly into the boy’s room and sing while the boy listened. The matter no longer seemed to be of any great importance to the Kuths. Their son would soon be a man, and they had begun to seek for him a wife. But one day, his father walked into his son’s room just as he was in the act of swinging his legs over the windowsill.

“What are you doing?”

“The blackbird tells me that it is time for me to go with him.”

“Go? But where are you going? You will fall to the ground if you leave that way!” Mr. Kuth immediately began to think that perhaps his son was being called into the service of a god. Such a thing could bring pride to the family, but he was concerned. They had never discerned from whence the blackbird had come, or by whom it had been sent. Maybe his son knew, but he had never confided such knowledge to his parents.
“He has asked me to help the Jarwin.”

“The Jarwin? The Jarwin are accursed! They do not deserve our help. Balthrop holds them captive so that they may do no harm to us. I have told you all this.”

“No, Father. It is not as you say,” The boy was still climbing out the window as he spoke. “The blackbird says that the Jarwin are good people, but Balthrop spreads lies about them.” Mr. Kuth rushed forward and seized his son by the arm, pulling him back into the room. He looked out and saw the bird perched alone in the tree. He turned back to his son.

“The bird is the liar, not I, not Balthrop! We should never have trusted that evil creature! But no longer! You will listen to it’s song no more!” Mr Kuth closed and locked the window for the first time since the day of his son’s birth. As soon as he could lay his hands on a hammer and nails, he fastened the window shut.
The boy was devastated. He had never known a day of his life without the birdsong of his faithful visitor. He wanted to be a good, obedient son to his parents, but his heart was broken. Over and over, his father explained to him that Balthrop kept prisoner the Jarwin because they were a wicked and malicious people. Mr. Kuth saw the protest in his son’s eyes, but his son always listened without further contradiction. The Kuths watched their son go about his days with a heavy heart. They thought themselves fortunate to have avoided such a catastrophe, and that their son would recover in time.

However, just as the dawn broke one morning, the Kuths heard a heavy crack and rending sound coming from the upstairs room. They ran to see what was happening, but all they found were black feathers in an empty room. The window had been forced, and now swung on it’s hinges. The couple rushed outside to search for their son. Immediately, they saw an immense flock of blackbirds, more numerous than any they had ever seen before, flying throughout the brightening sky.

The birds constricted and expanded in flight like a thing that breathed. Here and there, they changed direction, circled, and doubled back as though every move was part of a choreographed dance. They Kuths watched as this cloud passed across the city and back around again. A new terror rose up in their hearts. In the center of the flock was a large, indiscernible shape.

All at once, the blackbirds dropped down and passed just above the rooftops. Mr. and Mrs. Kuth heard the flutter of wings by the thousands and sharp bird calls, so different from the sweet songs they used to hear. On and on they came, and the Kuths cowered under the sheer number of them. And then they saw that large, dark shape approaching, and they knew that it was their son.

He flew just as one of the birds, borne up on long, black wings that sprouted from his back. In his hand he held a long, bright sword. He passed above his parents suddenly and with incredible noise. He did not look down, his countenance was set. The flock rose, and he rose with them, soaring high up into the air.

“What is happening? Where is he going?” Mrs. Kuth yelled at her husband.

“The Bastille! We have to get to The Bastille!”

The Kuths sped off in their autocarriage. The Bastille was located in a low spot of the city. It was a perfect square of tall, black walls surrounded by a great stretch of empty, sloping pavement which Balthrop had declared forbidden. There was but one break in the wall: a gate which was vigilantly guarded by Balthrop, the keeper god who took the shape of a cyclops. The blackbirds no longer curved and danced across the sky, but moved in a straight, black line toward The Bastille. As the first of the birds reached the prison, they began to ascend straight up in a narrow cone. Around and around they swirled and rose. A small crowd of early risers noticed their strange behavior and gathered nervously at the edge of the forbidden ground, the Kuths among them.

Balthrop crawled out from the gate and stood tall beside the prison. He shouted and cursed and menaced the sky with his fists. The flock now resembled a dark, spinning tornado over The Bastille, it’s funnel slowly withdrawing into the anvil cloud so high above. The Kuths saw their boy flying among those at the lowest tip, climbing up to join the birds that had taken him away from them. The mass grew darker and darker as the last bit of their number pulled up into that height and turned like a black wheel in the sky. They had so slowly assembled that the swiftness of their attack surprised the crowd of onlookers.

Down the flock shot like a rock thrown onto an enemy below. In a moment, the first of them were upon the cyclops. They landed on his arms, his chest, his face, pecking and scratching as he screamed. Balthrop swatted and crushed the small birds. But many, many more took the place of those who died. Mrs. Kuth gasped in horror at the viciousness of the battle, as well as the sight of her son diving down, sword in hand, at the end of that dark flock. Balthrop could not keep up with the birds. He was soon overwhelmed, a shouting, shaking, black tower next to The Bastille.

The tail end of the flock was approaching. The Kuths marked their son break slightly away from the line as the last of them found a mark upon Balthrop. The boy swooped out away and low over the pavement to approach Balthrop head on. He flew with wings flat, just a few feet above the ground, brandishing his sword in front of his face. At the last instant, he pumped his wings and arced up into the giant’s throat. The winged boy disappeared into the black. The god howled hideously and staggered back, clutching at his neck. Mr. Kuth broke away from the crowd and ran for his son. Started gasps erupted from the people he left behind, conditioned to fear Balthrop and forbidden clearing.

Balthrop dropped to his knees and then forward onto his face. The blackbirds that covered him clung to his body and allowed themselves to be crushed under their enemy. Mr. Kuth crossed the bare expanse quickly and came to the still body of Balthrop. The birds that survived the battle were crawling off of the dead god and covered the pavement in a slowly expanding carpet of black. They left a small circle around Mr. Kuth where he knelt at Balthrop’s neck and tried to extract his son from under the crushing weight. The boy was as quiet as his adversary. Blood ran freely from the gaping hole in Balthrop’s neck. It flowed out around Mr. Kuth and over the birds’ feet.

Mr. Kuth cried and slowly pulled his son free. The birds watched in silence, still crawling over each other to occupy a bare space of ground. Mr. Kuth saw that his son’s body was crushed beyond any hope. They boy opened his eyes and looked into the face of his father. He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t make any noise. His eyes fluttered, and then he was gone. His blood flowed out and joined that of the god. The mixture spread out across the pavement, always running down the slope toward the high gate of The Bastille. Just as it ran up against the wood, the gate gave a terrific crack.

Mr. Kuth looked up at the noise and watched as the wood of the gate splintered and crumbled down. The huge iron bands clattered to the earth and threw up a blinding cloud of dust. All was quiet, and after a moment Mr. Kuth began to make out silhouettes through the dust. They were people, tall and thin, shuffling out from The Bastille. They approached unreservedly and the blackbirds parted to allow them passage. Threadbare cloth hung on their bodies. Mr. Kuth saw nothing but bones under their skin and realized that they were emaciated, almost at the point of starvation. As they neared the body of Balthrop and the winged boy, they sank to their knees and crawled forward. Each of them laid a hand on Mr. Kuth’s son and whispered in hoarse voices.

“Thank you, Blackbird.”

“Bless you, Blackbird.”

“You have saved us, Blackbird.”

They crawled on past the boy and his father, through the black sea of silent birds, and across the ground Balthrop had proscribed. Mr. Kuth held the body of his son, lost in amazement and sorrow as more and more of these refuges emerged from their prison. The sun rose higher into the sky and the crowd of onlookers grew. The Jarwin crawled up and into their arms. No one could help but to pity them. A great rush arose throughout the city to care for the people they once execrated in their ignorance. It was not long before people began to cross over to Mr. Kuth. The birds dispersed and Balthrop was burned. Sacred men carried the boy to a tomb where he was buried with great ceremony. The Kuths went home, mourning and bewildered. They climbed the stairs to their son’s room, removed the window shutter from the wall, and cast it down into the yard. There they waited until a blackbird came and sang to them a song of comfort.

Inspired by:

Indian Fairy Tales

Balthrop, Alabama

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Birdsong

  1. Excellent. Just watched a show on discovery where they have found black crows are highly intelligent…were able to bend a wire to make a hook and then put it in a bottle to get a piece of meat. Loved this story.

    Posted by Janet | 04/11/2010, 8:50 pm

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