The Foraging’, Shelly Jones

Illustrations © 2020 Joyce Chng

 [ Shrike, © 2020, Joyce Chng ] When the bird woman of Bellelago began her weary trek up the mountain pass, no one noticed. They had long ago forgotten the augury, forgotten the creased pages of the Shrike’s Ledger that foretold of fire. She moved slowly along the path, her slender feet sinking lightly into the ashes. The petrified trees posed in silent prayer, limbs shorn and outstretched, as she passed.

In the Age of the Blackbird, Regulus and his kin caged the birds, feeding them squirming insects that their slaves plucked from their own scarred bodies. When the young master died, the birds’ necks were broken, their tinny croaks reverberating off the marble pillars, and their downy bodies strewn across the funereal pyre. In the dying light of the embers, Regulus fell asleep, the smell of burnt feathers singeing his nostrils.

The bird woman of Bellelago had not heard the cries of those who perished in the fire, her mind so full of the shrill calls and harsh caws of the birds around her, flapping fiercely, a cacophony of feathers and beaks. She could feel the heat of the fire rolling in through the trees, but she did not waver in her step. Neither did she wonder if she should stop to pick up the fallen, or to bury those around her, but persisted up the mountain, the birds her guide through the seared debris.

In the Age of the Falcon, hunters cherished their avian companions, providing them nesting perches in their homes above their own beds. The falcons learned to hunt for their humans and roosted in the dark, waiting for daylight.

Those who remained after the fires were drawn to the sea, collecting at the water like gulls and grebes, bathing with abandon. They had forgotten the riptides and tsunamis of the Age of the Kingfisher and did not know enough to fear the churning sand at their feet. Seeing them far below from her aerie post along the mountain path, the bird woman of Bellelago could not call to them, to warn them, her voice too low, her lungs too constricted with smoke. And so she climbed on, tears preening the soot from her cheeks.

Once, the Kite was guarded, a bird of honor, protected by the law for its ability to clean and tidy the streets. A kept kingdom was a godly kingdom. But in the Age of the Swallow, folk were required by law to kill a red kite on sight. Those who allowed the vermillion-breasted vermin, for they were thought of as such then, to steal a neighbor’s wash or drag carrion and rubbish across the cobblestones were arrested. As punishment the guards whipped the perpetrators’ bare backs with switches ribboned with kite claws that shrieked through the air with each lash.

 [ Bird Woman, © 2020, Joyce Chng ] The bird woman of Bellelago whistled as she wandered up the mountain pass, a low repetitive note that reverberated amongst the charred tree trunks. She waited between breaths, listening for a reply as she plucked leek and poppy seeds from her pockets and chewed them thoughtfully. Occasionally she would let some slip from her wrinkled palm, hoping they might blossom next year in the ash-rich earth. But these were scattered by the wind, and feasted upon by the grizzled beetles that marched across the scorched land, their antennae waving victoriously like banners of war.

In the Age of the Owl, prey were taken in the night as silent, downy wings splayed before crooked claws. In the mornings, half-digested carcasses scattered the forest floor, matted hair and bits of cloth caked in a hoary pellet, and all that was heard was the fearful hiss of the righteous ones promising to return.

As a child, the bird woman of Bellelago escaped the whip and the hunt, fleeing to the pine wood like any other golden-crowned kinglet. The needle-strewn floor of the forest welcomed her as she slipped between trees. Crusty snow fell, collecting on pine cones, as she rested against the scaly bark of the conifer. She listened to the wind, expecting the muffled sound of horse hooves or the sharp cry of a guard shouting. Instead she heard the rhythmic drumming against damp wood. She looked up, spying a blur of red and black feathers cresting above her, and she followed. The bird rested upon a huge tree toppled over, its roots ripped asunder from the mossy earth. With quick jabs the woodpecker punctured the rotted log, its beak like a bodkin to flesh, easily piercing and drawing out its wriggling prey. With a dip of its head and splash of feathers, the pileated swept to new quarry, leaving the child to stare at the massive hollow trunk, as dogs bayed in the distance.

The Shrike’s Ledger once sat in great halls and monasteries and was as revered as the one true Flight, until the blood of the monks of the avian mysteries spoiled the pages, obscuring the words. When the first fires came, the monks fled, their feathered robes molting as they leapt from the mountain pass. They had believed their avian gods would protect them, transform their dingy fringe, stolen from the egrets and ravens, juncos and jays, thrushes and loons, into luminescent flights. But instead, they plummeted into the rocky cliffside, their stolen plumage uselessly flapping in the air. And the avian gods trilled and chirped, relieved that their vestiges had not protected the wicked, the forsaken.

It was in a forest like this that the bird woman of Bellelago once killed a man. Or rather, the forest killed him for her, and she watched. She watched as he lunged for her, his arms reaching out, and she slipped out of his grasp, her face scraping against the harsh trunk. She heard a wet sucking sound, like a sparrow regurgitating worms for her young, and she winced. The bird woman first noticed the man’s feet kicking spasmodically, his body dangling from a blunt, protruding limb. Blood began to seep across his insignia, a hunched black bird whose hooked beak seemed to pierce the man’s chest.

In the Age of the Vulture, bones scattered the dry earth, having been dropped from great heights by strategic talons. Generals would have these scavengers sniped from their roosts with bird-bone arrows and mount the petrified bodies in their makeshift tents along the battlefield.

In the Age of the Eagle, the bird woman of Bellelago had been escorted to the gallows by two leather-clad women. They thrust the noose around her throat, the rope scratching her skin raw. She did not fight against the executioners, their grey hoods crested with golden threads. As the floor shuddered beneath her, the bird woman felt a fluttering of feathers at her feet, her body uplifted, and she wept.

With a rasping cry, a Shrike will snatch a cricket or a shrew or even a cardinal, and, from the nearest hawthorn tree or thistle, impale its victim. The Shrike will wait, its head cocked thoughtfully, as the dying shudder, their own weight dragging the thorn further through their body.

 [ Flock, © 2020, Joyce Chng ] The bird woman of Bellelago, her bony feet caked in the ash, looked around her: inky tree trunks, blistered pine needles the color of rust, hanging lifeless above her. A feather glided down from above and she watched a bird shedding its charred feathers, stained and stiff with smoke and ash. She wondered, then, as she heard a single distant drum of a slender beak tattooing charred wood blonde, had she ever lived amongst other folks, or had it only ever been the birds and her all these years?

When the fires cool, the Shrike’s Ledger portended, the Foraging will begin. The avian gods will descend, gleaning and hawking for a new god, a new era for humans to slander and stain their divine plumage. With each corrupt age the avian gods bristled, but continued their Flight, like the northern tern who flies from coast to coast and must seek shelter atop the barren ice or plummet, exhausted, into the sea.

As the bird woman of Bellelago crested the forest ridge, she could smell the fireweed before she saw it. Tufts of morels sprouted from decaying logs and boreal toads hid, bunkered down beneath the leafy cowlicks. She could hear the papery wheeze of beetles flying from husk to husk, the rustle of golden spirea. The bird woman of Bellelago waited, listening for the thwacking of wings, the trill of a new call, one she had never heard before, expecting a new bird, the next era. But there was nothing. She gazed up, her skirt ruffling around her, nearly lifting her lithe body, and saw through the trees the Flock foraging in the burnt canopy. Dappled feathers sprouted from her fingertips and her thin arms blossomed in silvery plumage as talons lurched from her toes. She cooed and bowed her downy head. Then the bird woman of Bellelago took Flight, her new song like the wind passing through watery reeds, as she flew through the dark silhouettes toward the dusky light above.

© 2020 Shelly Jones

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