Monday, February 27, 2017

A Short Story: Birdsong

They called him Nest because he carried a little bird on his back.
Moo-ma?” chirped the little bird, chubby little legs wiggling as she grew tired of her bamboo carrier. “Where Moo-ma?”
And he’d cringe as he lied to her: “Sick, little Momo. She’s gone to buy medicine.” Then continue his slow going trek through the thigh deep water of the burgundy rice paddy. Shoulders slumping, water bugs sucking at his ankles, flies buzzing at his face, the combined weight of the little bird attached to his back and the sorrow of lying to the chirpy little girl was never too much to bear. For, you see, my brother is invincible.
It’s amazing you don’t just keel over and die.” Called a man from the edge of the paddy, with more skin than bone waggling about on his two-toned face. “I’ve got a message from the capital for you, Nest. You’d think,” he mused as he passed my brother a wood lacquer box, “the gods would eventually tire of death.”
Misfortune,” my brother said, grasping the box in both hands, “They tire of misfortune. Never death.”
And the man with the two-toned face spat into the muck.
A bitter cold swept in that night. Too cold for autumn, just right for winter. Though no snow fell, the winds howled like a woman giving birth and shook our little forest shack. My brother knelt on the threadbare tatami matting separating us from the dirt floor beneath and opened the little lacquer box. I remember it being the most expensive thing we had ever owned. It winked in the dying light of a blackened incense stick as he opened it, the little chirpy girl making shadow puppets dance in the dying light of the stick as he gasped. She did not care for pretty things as grown-ups do. But she did care for touch. She did care for love.
Moo-ma?” she whispered as the box wheezed open, “From her?”
He lifted a crinkled roll of parchment from the box’s satiny insides. The little girl spied a moth-eaten satchel that could have easily fit into the palms of both her hands.
It’s from…” he had to lie again, if only to make the little chirpy girl hope, “…Moo-ma.” He finally said, hazy eyes scanning the parchment, rolling down hastily scribbled letters. “She wants us to meet her…somewhere.”
The little girl could not understand. “Home?”
He shook his head.
Then where? The chirpy girl wondered. Where could they go and where would Moo-ma be?
My brother took the satchel and spilled it. Silver coins flooded forth, washing upon the bottom of the box like a wash of silvery waves. Tears pricked the little girl’s eyes.
What is it?” he snapped, her sniffling striking a cord within his head. “What are you unhappy about?”
Moo-ma had told them to stay—to never leave. How will she find her way back home? For the little girl knew an inkling of the truth, though feared giving words to it. Truthfully, she could not give words to it—not knowing the correct word to describe what she could only call a “death-lie”. She decided to remain silent, though her bottom lip quivered and tears fell. She hated her older brother’s attitude. I still hate it. Even to this day.
You don’t understand, and that’s okay.” He told her, though it seemed he mainly spoke to hear himself. “Moo-ma wants us to leave here—as we should have months ago. Don’t you want to go? Aren’t you tired of the bugs and the cold?”
The little bird shook her head. “Home.” She said, pointing her finger at the threadbare tatami. “Home!”
Home is here.” He said, pointing to his chest where his heart would be if he had one. “Where ever your soul is—that’s where home is.”
Of course, my brother would not know. For, though he attempted to share his idea with me, even as a child I could tell when he was lying. His face was expressionless and stoic. Cold as a Noh mask. He had as much feeling in his chest as a frozen mantis feels in its mandibles. Nothing.
Though, of course, I do not believe he thought that.
The child shook her head, “Moo-ma.” Was all she needed to say while pointing her finger at the dirt.
She would have wanted us to leave.”
Wanted? A slip of the tongue means nothing to a child. But, nevertheless, his eyes widened and he immediately regretted the word—wanted.
Look,” he said, closing the lacquer box with a snap. “We will see her in the capital—Moo-ma. You will see, little Momo. We must listen to her words and go.”
But, even as a child, I knew his words to be false. “Stay!” I snapped. “Stay, stay—stay!”
We need to stay?” he repeated coldly, narrowing his eyes. “You want to stay?”
The little girl challenged him and he did not like it. His upper lip rose, his face became pinched. He quickly became a wolf in the child’s eyes and she puffed out her chest. Child or not, she had feelings too. She had hopes and dreams and thoughts—and she wanted to stay. No matter what some letter said—she wanted to stay.
But she wasn’t the one toiling from dawn till dusk in the swampy rice paddies circling their home. She did not have a permanent hump in her back from carrying a little bird all day. Her fingers were not stripped of skin, cuts dipping dangerously close to red and white bone. She did not deal with the splintering back pain that kept him up all night, nightmares affixing themselves to the walls as sleep passed him by night after night. Only to come back during the day.
She was just a little chirpy girl. A bird. Something as trivial as a blade of grass; as the wings of a fly. If my brother decided to cut his losses and leave her on some mountain to die of cold, bitter, exposure; then he would be free. He could do as he liked.
But he made a promise to our mother, and he was not one to go back on his word.
So, when the morning came and the night’s bitter cold wove its way upon the brightening horizon, he listened to the crying and sniffling and words of hate the little chirpy girl threw at him. He let her kick and squirm in her little bamboo carrier, her tiny feet prodding his back like thousands of dull little knives. Her words hurt most of all, curses spewing from the rosebud lips of a toddler: “I hate you!” she told him. “Moo-ma will be back!” she said, repeating herself. Spitting the words over and over.
She won’t.” He said matter-of-factly, as her curses grew worse and her tears died off. “You know, she was tired of us. So, she left.” He shrugged. “Walked off into the mist.”
Not this time.” He swore, looking over his shoulder at her sheepishly as he trudged through rolling yellow hills. “It’s just you and me now, Momo. It always has been.”
Balling her little hands into even tinier fists, the little chirpy girl on his back bit her lower lip in silence.
The toughest lessons we learn are always selfish truths. Things that only relate to ourselves.
They are hard to accept.
Thank you for reading! Check back next week for more.
Click here to read Winterskin--book one in the Kindred Souls Series.


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