I had just sunk at long last into my easy chair, pipe in hand, glass of palm toddy at my side, when my door fell victim to rapid-fire tap-tap-tapping.
I fluffed and sputtered but it did no good. The tapping came again, insistent as a woodpecker. I made a severe face at my pipe. “That’ll be those squirrels again, I expect. Tut! Still fixed on the idea that their grandmother left nuts here twenty winters back.” I tamped out the pipe and set it beside the toddy as the raps rattled through the tree once more.
“Cecilia!” came a cry, as unexpected as the blossoms of witch hazel on a chill December day. “Grandmother!”
On my feet at once, I moved rather more quickly than my old heart was accustomed to, and bustled with the many locks as fast as my beak permitted. “Bertie!” I chirped, and could only stare as the dear chickie staggered into my hall.
Chickie, of course, the dear bird was not — fully fledged these last four winters, though he would always be a warm and comfortable egg in my heart. A delight in my old age, quick and bright and as colorful as the first bugs of May. May all grandmothers have such a chickie as Bertie to comfort their years! Which made his current state of dismay all the more disconcerting.
“Are you quite all right, dear?” I inquired, henning over him and urging him toward my easy chair.
“It’s too horrible, Grandmother!” Bertie slumped into the seat, looking small and bedraggled beneath his vest and cravat. I pressed the toddy between his wings and urged him to drink before he said another peep. My mind caught and pecked through a dozen ideas in a moment. Cats? Surely not; Bertie himself had led the charge against the old Tom down at the willow place. Eagles? They were beasts of legend, scarcely seen in these fields since before my grandmother’s grandmother’s time. Humans? Noisome and changeable beasts, friend and foe in equal turns, yet Bertie had been taught all their ways and would not be left quivering at the thought of them. Unless —
“The north rookery!” he gasped. “Horrible!”
“Start at the beginning, dear,” I said, preening his neck until he grew calmer.
He pulled himself together with an effort. That boy has always done me proud. He set his shoulders and raised his head and his eye glittered when it met mine.
His song came out the way he had been trained to report. “We were on patrol past the old fallow field. The one behind the undercut bluff along the riverbend. There were four of us, Beryl and Markham and Gwendolyn and myself. We flew the sunward angle toward the river, which would take us over the north rookery. Beryl likes to see that all is well there, having hatched there herself.” Here his discipline scattered across the winds once again. He buried his face against my breast and keened. I felt a chill spreading upward from my legs, a chill that was not just the touch of age.
“The north rookery,” I whispered. “Is it — gone?” Untold horrors flapped through my mind’s eye. A landslide — had the bank collapsed, dragging the entire forest with it into the muddy river? Such things had happened before. The north flock would have to rebuild, find a new stretch of woods to settle. But where else would be as rich with beech and oak as the north rookery? I stared over Bertie’s head at the portraits and photographs and medals I keep on the wall above my easy chair. Citations and honors from old campaigns. Old companions from my days in the brigade, proud birds, brave birds whose sweet songs would never again sound in the clean morning air. Many of my old flight-mates had been born and raised in those north woods. Some — oh, may the Pole guide them home — some indeed must still have been living in those trees, enjoying their quiet retirement even as I did here in mine. I, perhaps, had another flight in me, but how many of my old friends had gone down into the river?
Bertie pulled back and stared at me. His eyes seemed to plead to me as they once did, with all the hunger of early spring, before the warmth awakened the fresh bugs — to plead as they once did when a fine young hen had spurned his calls and left him alone his first season to nurse his pride. But this confusion and hurt went far beyond those childish things. It went indeed far beyond anything his sweet Grandmother could fix.
“Oh, Grandmother,” he whimpered. “The birds were eaten. All of them. Every single one.”
* * *
“Eaten,” I said, and my pride is such that I must say my voice held steady. I dare say Bertie found some comfort in that. He breathed for a time, pressing his face against my robe, before mustering himself once more to complete his report.
“Humans,” he snapped. “Foul, wretched apes. They have a new magic — or perhaps a greater perversion of an old one.”
“Humans,” I repeated, dumbfounded. “Can they catch so many of us? Can their clumsy arms carry them into the skies now?”
“This is foulest evil,” Bertie whispered, his voice gone hoarse. “They wrought their magic before we arrived, though the air stank of their saltpeter and charcoal. When we arrived — every bird, every mother, every father, every chick, was on the forest floor. The humans’ familiar beasts, the hogs, flooded through the woods, crunching up every dear soul they could find.”
A cry surely escaped me, though I have no memory of what words I used. Some griefs are too deep, too vast, for song.
“They eat the hogs, you know,” the dear boy went on, finding his dauntless courage again at last in the depths of this outrage. “Their own familiars. So alike they are, their skins smooth, their bellies round, mammals all. They could be brothers. They eat the hogs, yes, but first they fatten them. They used to send them into our woods to eat the beech mast and the acorns, but we always shared with them, the hogs. We pitied them their doomed hunger. They could not reach us in our houses above…” Bertie trailed off, and it was his turn to comfort me.
At last I found the strength to murmur, “You saw this?”
“The nests, the houses… empty?”
“Yes, Grandmother. We swept through the trees. Every house had been smashed by the humans’ spells. Some birds had escaped the initial barrage, but even as we flew low to see it with our own eyes, they cried out to us to leave, to escape, to spread the word. The humans used their gun-spells again, and even those birds fell.” He snuffled and cleared his throat, puffing his feathers as grief welcomed her brother anger. “Beryl was magnificent. Like something out of your old tales, Grandmother — the very picture of justice and heroism! She flew directly at the human who seemed to direct the spells. We followed her but could not match her. Her flight was breathtaking. She flew into his face and sent him howling into the brush!”
“Oh, well done, Beryl!”
“Beryl,” he said, and here his feathers deflated again. “They killed her and flung her to the hogs,” he whispered. “They almost got Markham too, but our bravery had not matched Beryl’s — we didn’t get as close. Our cowardice saved us.”
“Oh, Bertie, my dear, dear bird. Tut! Not all bravery is of the ‘forlorn hope’ variety. Now you are here to give warnings to the other nests of this foul magic. Now Beryl will have someone to sing of her deeds. Every bird shall know of Beryl’s courage!”
His eyes gleamed. “So they shall! But you speak of warnings, Cecilia. I have been remiss in that duty. I came here directly. I — I was in no state to spread the word.”
“Well.” I bustled myself up and put on my best air of dashing bravery. I dare say it would have done my old flight-mates proud to see me then, faded though my feathers were. “I expect that toddy’s gone cold, but no matter. You will fly at once to the eastern command. Fortify yourself for your duty, chickie, but no more delays. You must let them know at once.”
* * *
There are disadvantages to living out in the lone chestnut on the hill, all on my own. The squirrels scarcely have the sense to leave an old brigadier alone, and one bird by herself is not sufficient to discourage them. Out in the open, without the protection of the forest, the winds blow colder when the sun is low. In the warm months the sun bakes hotter, though of late that feels good on my old bones. There is always the risk of a vagrant cat or rock-throwing human child. But worst of all is how slowly news reaches me.
Waiting for Bertie to return, I puttered around, keeping as occupied as one could manage in order to distract my imagination. I polished picture frames, straightened my medals, even brought out my old brigade uniform for a dusting and airing. Thoughts of those poor birds — reduced to nothing more than fattening feed for some doomed hogs! The waste, the futility, the staggering outrage! I could not keep such thoughts entirely at bay, yet I gave it every effort I had left in my aged body.
I thought instead of Beryl’s forlorn advance, her bold strike at the very face of the human scoundrel. I thought of my dear bygone husband, Alastair, ever my wing-mate even after we became nest-mates. I smiled at his photograph as I buffed the glass, remembering our first mission together, a sally against some nest-jumping cuckoos who had occupied a neighboring spinney. We were so young, the albumen practically still damp beneath our wings, but we worked so well together, on flights as well as when raising our broods. He looked so dapper in his uniform, so proper and disciplined, decorated most fetchingly all down his breast from each of our campaigns, with just a hint of mischief in his eye. My heart ached when I thought of our last flight together —
I set his portrait back among the rest along my wall. Bluff comrades, jokesters and serious faces nestled together, brilliant fliers and bold hearts all. As do many of those who reach a certain age, in recent years I had begun to persuade myself that birds had been braver in my time, sentiments nobler, hearts and eyes clearer. The grand old days of the songbird brigade, I thought, were long past. Yet Beryl, in her flight, had reminded me that courage was not a depleted resource. My dear Bertie chastised himself over his failure, yet he had persevered through a harrowing ordeal, witnessing horrors none of us in the old days could have fancied — and his valiant soul had emerged from it like the fresh new growth after a raging fire. No, you silly old sot, I admonished myself — there is heroism yet in all our fields and trees.
At last I slept. I woke and fluffed at first light — and still I had to wait.
* * *
The following day, toward evening, I heard the horrid thunder of the humans’ magic, like a summer storm somewhere near the horizon. I woke from an uneasy doze, clutching Alastair’s portrait to my breast, and listened to fusillade after fusillade, a sustained hecatomb that quite made me weep. The stiff upper beak of my generation, indeed. I roused myself and attempted to locate the source of the dreadful sound — was it to the east, in the oak plains, where Alastair’s grandmother’s flock nested? — but my head swam, and even from this distance my nostrils itched with the hateful smell of the humans’ magic powder. The barrage tapered off into scattered reports and rolling explosions, until at last only the crickets and cicadas kept me company as night stole over the land. The horrid feast that followed was only too clear in my mind’s eye.
I had no appetite the next day. I dared not even glance at my store of dried bugs and old winter berries. At times I imagined Bertie carrying the day, leading the charge into the very mouths of the humans’ spell-guns and driving them back to their cities and trains. Other times I imagined Bertie blasted and broken, his body just another crunchy morsel for the hogs, his song never to be sung. I didn’t let go of Alastair’s portrait all through that wretched day.
Tap-tap-tapping came again at my door, rousing me from an unhappy slumber. For a moment I quite forgot where, or rather when, I was. “Alastair?”
“Captain Cecilia!” came a hoarse call outside my door.
That old fool — at a time like this! Reginald had been pecking after me ever since Alastair had passed, as if I had forgotten how he had shirked his way out of the brigade by claiming his hallux pained him. “I’m not having it, Reginald. I’ve told you many times –”
“It’s your boy,” Reginald croaked.
I had the locks undone and the door thrown wide in an instant. Reginald stood there with a pitiful collection of other old-timers, scarcely enough to fill a beak — and no Bertie.
Before I could make sense of what I saw, Reginald sang on, “Steady now — nerve yourself, dear bird. Hold her — Patricia, dear, hold her up.”
“Bertie,” I murmured, and slumped against one of the birds, scarcely aware of whom.
“Steady,” Reginald fretted uselessly.
Bertie — gone. Gone from this world in a sweep of human fire.
My dear chickie. The sun of my old heart. My comfort, when I needed him most.
“The east oaks,” Reginald began, and faltered. I looked at him, really looked at him. He was as frayed and gray as the last of the goldenrod come November, his face downturned, his eyes bleak and empty. He had used the dregs of his courage, never in great supply, to bear me the awful news. His very feathers seemed wrung with his anguish, his barbs all fuddled and unsmoothed.
Near about Alastair’s size, I decided, and here I had Alastair’s uniform collecting dust instead of honor.
“The colony,” Patricia wailed, and all of them took up the call, giving hoarse vent to the loss, a cry without hope and without praise. Their song spun around me, dizzying, a gulf of empty air far beyond the guidance of the Pole.
This would not do. Bertie deserved a song of pride and courage. Bertie deserved a song of dash and glory.
I stood up straighter, taller than I have in many a season. The other old ones fell silent, dare I hope seeing a gleam of the old brigade in my eye.
“We shall fly,” I said. “Our wings shall sing.”
* * *
Sing of us.
Sing of our flight, my lovely songbirds. Praise the shine of our medals, the threadbare glories of our uniforms. Sing of our bright feathers and our brighter hearts. Tell the story of the sun at our backs, the air fresh and sweet in our remiges, every leaf alight with the clean fires of autumn. Sing our forlorn hope, dear birds — echo our cry of vengeance whatever the cut of your feather. Scream like the wind of our last dive, with all the grief and joy and rage in your throat. Sing of Alastair, sing of Bertie, sing of Beryl, sing of Reginald, sing of me.
Sing for us the tale, my loves. Sing the last flight of the passerine brigade.
Rick Hollon (they/them or fey/fem) is a nonbinary, queer author and editor from the American Midwest. Feir writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, Kaleidotrope, Prismatica, (mac)ro(mic), perhappened, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter @SailorTheia, or visit their website: mimulus.weebly.com.