The Bird Reader’s Granddaughter

The climb to Grandmother’s is hard and long. Today I trudge up the cliff alone, my heart heavy with news.

The knotted rope straps of my bulky pack burn my shoulders. I set down the heavy kettle filled with my clothes and stop to rest on a rock that overlooks the sea. The water is calm, as flat and blue as the sky. Gulls circle below me, their cries muted on the still air. On the beach I spot scavengers, tiny as sand fleas from this height. For a jealous, moment I wish I were among them, calling to my friends, Look what the storm brought. Another treasure!

From where I sit, the town and the shoals are hidden by a headland that juts far into the sea. Two days ago those shoals claimed my father, and grief claimed my mother. I lost both parents in an afternoon storm as ferocious as any ever seen in these parts.

On that day, dark clouds roiled. Wind whipped rain sideways and tore tiles off roofs. I stood with my mother and others behind the Widow’s Wail, a high stone bulwark that protected the town from the sea. Waves battered the stones as we watched for the fishing fleet’s safe return. The rain stopped long enough for almost every woman in town to witness the boats foundering on the shoals. One moment eight boats bobbed and twisted on waves taller than trees; the next, they disappeared. No one has ever survived those treacherous waters.

My mother was not the first to jump from the wall, nor was she the last. She turned and hugged me, her eyes searching for understanding. She tugged the gold ring from her finger, tucked it in my pocket and fastened her locket around my neck. “You’re fifteen and old enough. Promise you’ll go to Grandmother’s. She’ll be expecting you.”

Not Grandmother’s!

What would I do? Grandmother lived with her birds on a barren hill far from town. The townsfolk feared her and rarely visited. Despite my repeated requests, Grandmother refused to teach me more than the rudiments of her craft—much like a baker’s child who measures ingredients but never learns how to bake the bread.

She also refused to tell me why.

Mother’s mouth tightened and twitched. She shook my shoulders gently. “Promise me, Catia.”

I dared not argue and keep Mother from leaving. A wave crashed against the bulwark; spray wetted my face. I nodded reluctantly and hugged her again.

“Bide well,” she said, caressing my cheek.

Weeping, I gave my mother a leg up onto the bulwark and watched her dive into the next wave. According to our beliefs, couples joined together in death lived together in eternity. Of course, mothers with young children or other responsibilities don’t dive; neither do women whose husbands have treated them unkindly. And neither do those whose deaths are separated by too much time.

Those left behind give the wall its name.

My pack bulges with my parent’s treasures, hastily wrapped china, a mirror, ivory carvings, cutlery, scissors, needles, mother’s thimble, and a blanket woven by her. Tonight—before the town’s elders sell the house to repay my father’s debts—I’ll slip back into town to retrieve the linens, more of mother’s handiwork, and the rest of her sewing supplies. As long as things are stored at Grandmother’s, no one will dare seek them as payment.

I hug my knees, peer up the path and wonder why I haven’t seen her birds all day. Usually their swarm blackens the sky above her cottage. Fear’s cold fingers creep up my back. I lumber to my feet and scurry up the path with new found energy. Not much longer. Finally, I reach the flattened top of a hill and gasp. Fall has arrived.

Before me the leaves of an ancient oak blaze red and orange—its wind-twisted limbs afire in autumn glory. Beyond the tree, Grandmother’s weathered board-and-batten cottage sits near the edge of the cliff, overlooking the sea. Smoke rises from the chimney. I sigh and stop to catch my breath. For once the air is sweet. Grandmother burns apple wood.

Between the tree and the cottage, birds the size of gulls crowd the ground. Hundreds of them. They make a low sound that throbs like a drum. As I stumble toward her door, they waddle apart, allowing me narrow path. The sun turns their black feathers a sparkling blue-green, like the insides of mussel shells. The birds’ eerie thrum fills me with dread.

I rap three times on Grandmother’s door: once for the spinner, once for the weaver, and once for the unraveler. The proper knock for a seer.

“Catia, come in.”

She knows it’s me!

I set the kettle on the stoop and open the door reluctantly. This is my new home.

* * *

The next morning, Grandmother shakes me awake. She’s wearing a sea-gray dress made from material woven and dyed by my mother to match our eyes. I outgrew my dress when I was ten. Grandmother’s a tiny woman. Her white hair is pinned in a bun. She dyes the wisps about her face with tea and curls them around a hot fire poker. From where I lie, only her tea-stained curls are visible and she appears blond, but the wrinkles around her mouth and eyes betray her age. I share her long, square-tipped nose and large-knuckled fingers. Her smile is kind.

“Almost time to run through the birds, Catia. Let’s see what this day will bring.”

I burrow under the covers and cry. In past visits, running through the birds each morning was my favorite part of the day. Grandmother even taught me how to read a few signs, but never enough to read a fortune, despite my pleading.

“The life of a seer is not an easy one, Catia,” she said. “Imagine knowing the world’s ills long before they happen. Imagine knowing how your friends and neighbors and loved ones will die. Imagine knowing that your actions might harm others.”

But her reasons never dissuaded me from asking, from hoping she would change her mind.

This morning, however, I miss my parents. For years my mother awoke me with a kiss on my forehead and a steaming cup of tea. Most mornings the sweet smell of griddlecakes turned by my father enticed me to the table, and his jokes brightened even the darkest day.

One storm. Just one storm. That’s all it took to take my happiness away. My future seems as bleak as this hillside.

I rise reluctantly, wash my hands and the tears from my cheeks, then sit at the table to eat a steaming bowl of oatmeal—poor fare after griddlecakes. It’s delicious, though, sweetened with chunks of dried fruit. I raise an eyebrow.

“Dates,” Grandmother says, smiling. And she tells me of her latest visitor, who traveled far to have his future read. “He brought dates and enough rice to last us until next summer.”

“Was his a good fortune, Grandmother?”

She shrugs and musses my hair. “It was his fortune and little can be done to change it. Now run. Run through the birds.”

I walk out of the cottage, and she follows close on my heels. Dew is heavy on the ground. In the still air, the bird smell is strong and sour, and not unlike an old, empty pickle barrel. The birds face east waiting silently with their necks thrust tall, amber beaks pointing toward the sky.

I, too, wait for the first glimpse of sun on the horizon. The birds will not fly before sunrise, nor after the sun’s set. They appear so vulnerable. Grandmother warned me that they would shatter like glass if I ran through them too soon. Yet Grandmother has never lost one of her flock to foxes or wolves or poachers. Nothing seems to disturb the birds’ roost.

A cluster of morning clouds brightens the eastern horizon with purple and pink. The air is crisp. After grandmother reads the birds, I’ll slip into town. I was too tired to return last night, and Grandmother promised to help this morning. At least she’ll walk to the bottom of the cliff to carry a load back for me. That way I can bring the bedding, for her linens are old and much mended.

I wouldn’t dare ask her to come into town for fear of her life. Even while the fishing fleet sank, people along the Widow’s Wail cursed her name and her wisdom, blaming her for the storm, blaming her for not warning them of tumultuous weather, blaming her for the loss of sons and fathers and lovers and husbands. I blush and hang my head. Despite my love for Grandmother, after Mother dove off the bulwark, I cursed the loudest.

“Get ready,” Grandmother says.

Shaken from my dark memory, I run along the edge of the birds’ nesting grounds until I stand east of them. Then I wait, facing her and the birds. The sun’s first glare is captured and reflected in hundreds of eyeballs. I spread my arms, close my eyes and run through the birds in three giant looping circles. Wings swoosh, but I continue to run, confident of avoiding a collision despite where I step. Trampling a bird was once a great fear of mine, but it’s impossible during the day.

The birds take flight and swirl overhead. Three times they circle, roiling, weaving a complex dance. My grandmother stands in the middle of the field, arms spread, head tilted to the sky. I stop near her. At the end of the third pass, the birds split apart—patches blacken the morning sky as tea leaves dirty an emptied teacup. The birds freeze and hover in their places long enough for Grandmother to spin around three times, arms still spread. I spin, too.

At first the dark splotches are impossible to decipher. I squint and see—a horse and rider, a sword, and the symbols for anger and love. I close my eyes and fix the pattern of the birds firmly in my mind. I’ll beg Grandmother to explain everything later. 

When Grandmother finishes her circles, the flock reforms and heads far out to sea to feed. The birds whorl as if they are leaves caught in a wind eddy. They fly close to each other, yet none collide. When the flock veers left, they all veer left. None leads, yet all follow.

Grandmother moans. I turn in time to catch her as she crumbles to the ground.

“Take me inside,” she whispers.

Her gait is uncertain, and she leans heavily on me. The cottage’s interior is dark after the bright sunrise. I blink hard as I duck through the doorway and lead her to the rocker by the fire. I poke the embers and add a precious log. When the kettle boils, I make tea and sweeten it with honey. “Here, Grandmother, this will make you feel better.”

Her hands shake as she takes the mug. I tuck a brown plaid blanket around her. Finally she sighs and asks, “What did you see?”

“A horse and rider, a sword, love and anger.”

She tilts her head to the right. “The horse and rider were hard to find.”

“What else did you see, Grandmother?”

She tuts like her birds. “I’ll not read your fortune for you, Catia. You know that.”

“Teach me to read my own.”

She shakes her head. “Sometimes it’s a gift not to know what the future holds.”

Grandmother hasn’t said no. I ignore the deep sorrow in her voice and say, “Teach me your wisdom.”

She’s silent for a long time and won’t meet my eyes.

My stomach twists. “I don’t have the talent, do I?”

“That’s not the problem.”

My jaw drops, and the stirrings of excitement replace the emptiness in my stomach. Never before has she suggested that I have the talent. “Teach me. What else can I do here?”

The blanket slips off her lap. “It’s a great responsibility, seeing what the future holds.”

I grab her left hand and clutch it tightly. “Trust me! I’m responsible.”

She stares at the fire. The rocking chair creaks loudly, and I wonder at her indecision. The log sputters and sparks. I stamp out the embers that fall on the hearthrug.

“Others will come,” she says softly, still staring at the flames, “and from today on, I’ll teach you to read theirs. You must be able to care for yourself. I’m old. Twirling makes me dizzy.”

Suddenly I’m afraid. “Grandmother, is there something I should know? Have you...”

I can’t ask if she foresaw her death. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll be with you for a long while.”

She points at the rug and sighs. A tiny tendril of smoke wisps beside my ankle. My face flushes. I stomp out the ember I missed. Burnt wool scents the room.

“How soon will I be able to tell fortunes?”

“It takes years, perhaps a lifetime, to understand and interpret the signs. There’s much more to seeing than reading the birds. But you’ll be able to start telling simple fortunes when you learn the most common patterns. As your knowledge grows, so will your powers of sight.”

In my excitement, I gnaw my thumbnail painfully below the quick. 

“Bring me the slate,” Grandmother says, “and I’ll explain more patterns.”

By afternoon the wind is howling. I shut the door, glancing first to make sure that the birds roost safely. My head pounds from staring at the slate, but my heart is light. Finally, I have my heart’s desire. I’m learning to read the birds.

“Grandmother, another storm’s coming. I can smell it. I’m going back into town to get more things before it starts to rain.”

She settles into her rocker and closes her eyes. “I’m too tired to help you now, Catia.”

“I’ll manage. If there’s more than I can carry, I’ll hide things by the trail to bring up tomorrow.”

“Be careful. No one will be happy that you’re living here.”

* * *

The bell tolls again as I slip into the town. No one is in the streets. Today, the third day after the storm, everyone is gathered in Remembrance. Each person who died in the storm will be Remembered, in turn, by those still living. The town boy closest to age sixteen rings the bell between each Remembering. I wonder if they have Remembered my parents yet. I’m overcome by the guilt of not being there.

So I do my own Remembering as I open the door from the garden into our kitchen. I must hurry now, for clouds darken the sky and the house may already be sold. I take a deep breath, but the smell inside is of rot, not sweet lavender. I take no time to find the spoiled food. A fleeting sunbeam streams though a heavy, blue glass bottle that sits on a tiny windowsill near the door, casting an azure shadow on the well-scrubbed floorboards. Mother kept fresh flowers in the vase for as long as possible each year, until winter withered her garden. Today, purple asters sag from the lack of water.

I turn slowly and fix in my memory everything about this room where I was so happy. Father’s    chair and my stool are positioned by the fire. When he was not fishing, this is where we sat and he told stories about his adventures. The chair is too heavy for me to carry to Grandmother’s. My stool is covered with Mother’s needlepoint of her favorite flowers. I can’t leave that behind.

Beside the fireplace is my bed nook, with gaily stenciled doors and interior, and a tiny diamond window made from colored glass. I cram linens and blankets into the pack knotted by my father. I grab my sweater and mother’s cloak and sigh. Everything I want to bring is bulky. I can’t take it all.

The bell tolls again, and wind rattles the windows. The storm. I’ll have to Remember later. Maybe Grandmother will help.

A cold wind blows the door open. I take Mother’s waxed cloak out of the pack and stuff in her skirts. We’ll use the material, somehow. I sling the pack on my back, throw the cloak over my shoulders, and grab the stool and hold it under my arm. The cloak is big enough to enfold everything. I’m almost out the door when I spy the blue bottle. I don’t have time to put it in my pack, so I pluck the wilted asters out of the mouth and grab it by the neck with my free hand. In my haste, I don’t bother to close the door.

Ten townsfolk stand in the garden, their faces as dark and stormy as the clouds above. I nod to them. One, a woman who was jealous of my mother’s fine needlework, calls, “Where were you, Girl? You missed the Remembrance.”

I’m not sure what to do. They block my way.

“Where were you?” another asks.

Honesty’s best. That’s what Father always advised.

“At my grandmother’s.” I suppose their reaction shouldn’t surprise me, but it does.

The jealous woman shakes her fist at me. “She’s wicked. A fraud.”

“It’s her fault so many died,” says her husband.

“No,” I shout, “it was our misfortune.”

“Liar!”

I’m not sure who throws the first stone. It catches me on the cheek; another hits my forehead. One pings off the bottle. I turn and flee into the house as rain pelts the ground. Someone swears, but no one follows me inside. I lean against the door and cry—for my mother, my father and myself—so happy four days ago. Now I only have Grandmother.

In the dying light, I pack the bottle then peek out the door. The townsfolk are gone. This time when I leave, I close the door and latch it tight.

* * *

Five days after my arrival at Grandmother’s cottage, a donkey brays loudly outside and someone knocks gently on the door. Grandmother smiles and winks at me. “That donkey would be Flower. Her owner is the eldest Bascome boy, Jole. His mother’s farm is way east of town. Do you know him? He brings the apple wood. Vegetables, too. Ready?” She hands me a shawl.

We go outside. The clouds are low, and the air, damp. I draw the shawl tightly around my shoulders. Flower pulls a two-wheeled cart filled with wood. Two baskets perch on top. The rich scent of apples disguises the bird stench. I lick my lips.

Grandmother introduces me to the man beside donkey. “Jole, this is my apprentice, Catia. Today, she’ll read the birds, too.”

Jole towers over Grandmother. Though he’s only eighteen or so, I don’t remember seeing him in town. He looks like most of the townsfolk—straight blond hair, high cheekbones under eyes that change color like the sea. His nose ends in a point, and his smile is merry. A long, green woolen coat hides his shape. I can’t help but stare at the flat hat he has pulled low over his left ear. The colors and pattern are the work of a master knitter. He catches me staring. I blush and loosen my shawl. I’m too warm.

He shuffles his feet.

Grandmother’s smile is sweet. “Run through the birds, Jole.”

Jole grins. “Remember our bargain, old woman.”

I bristle at his insolence, but Grandmother laughs merrily. “I know, dear boy, only the good news.”

He runs agilely through the birds. They take flight, swirl, then break into blotches that darken the sky. With my hands outstretched, I twirl, fixing the shape of the patches in my mind, trying—as Grandmother explained—not to find meaning at that moment.

In my inexperience, I interpret the patches too quickly. I see love. Deep love. And somehow it’s love that involves me. There’s more, too. I grit my teeth and push the images from my mind. I stare at Jole for a moment, my heart pounding, before I race to the cottage and slam the door.

After a long while, Grandmother returns. Her eyes are red. I’m sitting in her rocker by the fire with my legs curled under me. She says nothing about my extravagance of burning two logs, though winter approaches rapidly.

Grandmother puts a hand on my forehead and smiles reassuringly. It’s a kind smile that lights her eyes and raises her wrinkles. It puts me at ease.

“Tell me,” she says. “What did you see?”

My face feels hot under her cool hand. “I saw love.”

Grandmother tuts. “Is that all?”

I shake my head and turn from her. “I saw my future with Jole.”

“Is that all?”

“Mostly.” I didn’t want to say the bad parts aloud. She would have seen them, too.

“Had I known what you would see,” she says softly, “I wouldn’t have had you read his fortune.”

* * *

Though Jole comes each week to bring fresh vegetables and apples, eggs and cheese, and more firewood, he has never asked for his fortune to be told again. For a long while, we’re nervous and quiet in each other’s presence. But one day he brings me a bouquet of autumn daisies. My smile finds his. He has captured my heart.

I run into the cottage, throw open the chest where my treasures are kept, and pull out Mother’s blue bottle. It’s been stored since I returned from town. I bring it outside to the well to fill.

“How did that happen?” Jole points to the ding and a crack in the thick glass—a dark blue, jagged lightning bolt surrounds the middle of the bottle.

I remember the townsfolk throwing stones at me and chanting, “Liar.” Before packing it, I hadn’t examined the bottle.

“It was a beautiful bottle,” I cry. “My mother’s treasure.”

Jole senses my deep despair. He puts his arm about my shoulders, lightly at first. I lean into him, and he pulls me closer. “It’s still beautiful, despite the fault. The jagged line reminds me of waves separating the sea from the sky.”

He takes the bottle, fills it with water and arranges the daisies. It doesn’t leak. The bottle catches the sun, sparkling bright blue glass with yellow-eyed white daisies.

 “It’s almost as beautiful as you,” he whispers.

My heart soars.

Every week I wait anxiously for Flower’s brays. Until the death frost, Jole brings flowers for the vase. When I’m older, Jole will ask me to marry him. Yet I face a dilemma. Jole is a farmer, and as eldest son, he will inherit the Bascome farm when his mother passes. Grandmother and the birds live on this hill. The birds would scatter to the four winds before they would follow me to the farm.

I read my indecision in his fortune, but in my embarrassment, I didn’t see what lay next. What am I to do? I’m hesitant to ask Grandmother.

* * *

Two years pass, and it’s early spring. Jole still has not asked me to be his wife, though I’m the age that many girls marry. His mother is ill, and he stays away for weeks at a time. I’m bored. My patience thins. I wonder if I want to be his wife on a farm that is apparently as isolated as this hilltop.

Since coming here, I’ve read the fortunes of ninety or so men and women and one young boy whose father wanted to know how to train him. At first, Grandmother asked me what I saw when the birds hovered, and she explained any signs I missed. Now I tell fortunes to our patrons without consulting her.

Others clamor for Grandmother’s wisdom, too. When these men—most often soldiers dressed in uniforms—ride up to our cottage, she briskly hustles me into the cottage and bids me to stay inside until they leave. I asked her once why I couldn’t read their fortunes.

She said, “They come wanting to know if they will win their battles or their wars. I do my best to impart my wisdom, in hopes that their battles will never be fought.”

Astonished by her answer, I asked, “Do you not tell whether they will win?”

“I try to tell them how to win without fighting.”

And so today, with my grandmother away tending Jole’s sick mother, a soldier wearing a deep purple uniform rides up to the cottage as I lug the washing outside to hang on the line. His tall black horse snorts and bucks as I set the basket on the ground. The birds closest to us flap their wings and resettle a short distance away. My hair is pulled back. I wipe damp tendrils off my forehead with the back of my arm and look up.

“Tell me my fortune, sweet lady,” he says.

“No, I cannot. Only my grandmother tells the fortune of soldiers.”

“Please find her. I’m in a hurry. My battle won’t wait.”

I shake my head, truly sorry that she’s not here to help him. “She’s away, tending a sick friend.”

He’s a beautiful man, sitting tall in a silver-encrusted saddle. Sun lights his hair in a golden crown. His eyes are the blue of my bottle. When he smiles, I need to place my hand on the saddle’s stirrup to hold myself upright. He seems to know his effect on me and presses it.

“You tell fortunes, too. Is that not true?”

I nod.

“Then tell mine. It’s important. Essential.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t help you.” When Grandmother left for the Bascome farm, she made me promise not to tell the future of soldiers.

He pulls a small purse from his saddlebag and dangles it before me. “Gold,” he says, “enough to live on for a year or two.”

The purse’s strings strain under the weight. Even if the purse only contained copper, we could live on the money for years. Reluctantly I shake my head. “Only Grandmother tells the fortune of soldiers,” I whisper.

The purple soldier is off his horse in an instant and stands before me. He’s taller than I believed, with broad shoulders and easy charm. I find it hard to look him in the eye.

“At least draw me some water to drink and some for my horse.”

“With pleasure.” I back away toward the well.

I water the horse first. His smell is strong, of sunlight and manure, and not unpleasant. Then I fetch our finest drinking glass from the cottage. The horse snorts as the man mounts gracefully. My heart is singing. I flush and reach into the well to draw up another bucket.

When I hand him the glass our fingers touch, linger. As he smiles, I smile. Our eyes lock. “Please read my fortune.”

I can only nod yes. Around us, the birds tut.

He leans over and hands me the purse, then gently sweeps the hair out of my eyes. I stretch toward his touch, and he caresses my face. My body shivers, and I yearn for him in a way that I never yearned for Jole.

Jole! I push him from my mind. He’s a boy compared to this man.

The soldier draws his fingers across my lips. I kiss them in reflex and almost say, Come off your horse, there’s more of me that needs to be touched. Instead I reach for his hand and still his caress. “Run through the birds,” I whisper. “Three times without stopping.”

The soldier squeezes my fingers and hands me the glass.

Blindly I set it down, not caring where I place it.

Then, without dismounting, he kicks the horse and gallops through the birds.

“Wait,” I call, reaching toward him, “not on the horse.”

He’s heard me, I’m sure. But he doesn’t stop.

My heart’s in my throat, pounding wildly. Birds scatter, their scolding loud. Miraculously, the horse’s giant hooves harm not a one. The soldier and the horse circle three times. Hooves pound the earth, shaking me through my shoes. When he stops, the birds hover. I stretch out my arms and twirl three times, staring at the black patches in the sky, wondering what Grandmother would say to this soldier.

“You’ll win the battle,” I blurt when I stop. The signs are so clear. What isn’t as clear are the results of battles to follow.

“Will I be wounded?”

Slowly I shake my head. Nothing indicated that he would be wounded. I search for more to say—to stop the battle so no one gets hurt. To offer wisdom like Grandmother. My mind blanks, and I’m tongue-tied. In a moment of panic, my confidence falters and I realize I lack her skills.

“I knew it!” he says triumphantly. He kicks his horse sharply and leaves without saying or waving good bye. A hoof catches the glass and shatters it.

* * *

Until Grandmother returns from tending Jole’s mother, I must stay on the hill and take care of the birds. When Grandmother was my age, she started this flock with twenty birds. As the flock enlarged to hundreds, her powers as a seer increased. New birds filled in the gaps and completed the sky pictures so they could be read easily and truly. Imagine having only two birds to make the figure for love, when five are needed for it to appear clearly.

The birds don’t need much help, but during fair weather, I do need to run through them at dawn each day if we want to keep the flock together. It’s part of their magic. Otherwise they’ll disperse to the four winds.

The morning following my soldier’s visit, I resist the temptation to read my fortune. I’d glimpsed my life with Jole, a future I now wanted to reject. Besides, Grandmother taught me the folly of reading one’s own fortune when I first moved into the cottage, after I told her about the townsfolk throwing rocks.

She said, “Catia, the morning of the storm that claimed my daughter and your father, I told my fortune and knew the storm approached. I’ve known for years that your father would die on the shoals. Just not the specific day. Your parents knew what I knew.”

I leapt up from my stool and pointed a shaking finger at her. Resentment and anger loosened my tongue. “You knew! You could have prevented the fishermen from setting sail. You killed Father and Mother.”

My voice was shrill and my passion hot. I stared angrily until I realized how still she had become. Her eyes were closed and her wrinkles set in paths of grief so deep, I leaned forward to caress her cheek, desperate that she not leave me, too.

“Grandmother? I’m sorry.”

When she opened her eyes, I cried to see their sadness. \

“Their boats left on the tide, at dawn that day. What was I to do? I could not reach town in time to warn them.”

I hung my head and remembered those who condemned her along the Widow’s Wail. I blushed, recalling my loud curses. Perhaps the townsfolk were to blame. For unlike the Grandmother’s patrons from far-off lands, they ignored and condemned her services as a seer. If one of the townsfolk had visited regularly, maybe Grandmother would have foreseen the storm’s immediacy, and the fishermen would have been forewarned.

We never raised the subject again. I dare not tempt fate by reading my own future.

I dream of my soldier, his blue eyes and smile, and wonder if he’s thinking of me. Something magical passed between us that morning. While his name remains a mystery, my feelings are not. I’m in love. Jole no longer occupies my daydreams. I laugh that I once wanted to be his wife.

Though I watch for him, my soldier does not return to brag of his brilliant victory. Instead, five days later fire scents the air. Black smoke billows to the south, in the direction of the town. The smoke continues all day, and I worry that more than one house burns, but the wind is still. Surely the townsfolk would have extinguished a single house fire by now.

The birds get loud after dark. Across the hill, lanterns light the field near the path from town. I open the door wide and set my lantern on the stoop, so the travelers know where to come. Six people, one old man and five women, crowd into the cottage. Dirt smudges their faces, and they reek of sweat and burning timbers.

“What happened?” I cry as I fill the kettle with water and rice.

Tinson Rascolm who once fished with my father says, “Soldiers ransacked and burned the town.”

The blood drains from my face. My legs wobble. I reach out for support.

Tinson grips my arm. “Steady,” he says.

My stomach twists into knots though I’m confident my soldier, so gallant on his black horse, wouldn’t stoop to burning a town. “Soldiers? What soldiers?”

We crowd by the fire. The women stare vacantly. One shrugs. I know them—they’re gossips, always chattering. The youngest is Tinson’s daughter, Dellila. Their silence frightens me in a way that nothing else does.

Tinson says, “Red soldiers stormed the town this morning brandishing torches. Searched houses, then set them on fire. We hid in my fruit cellar until dark. Didn’t know where to go. Thanks for opening your door, Catia.”

“Why did soldiers burn the houses?”

Tinson squints and shakes his head. “They seek the leader of the men wearing purple. That’s what we overheard. Last week, many townsmen joined him to fight. My son-in-law did.”

Dellila moans. One of the older women puts a hand on her shoulder to comfort her.

I gulp and turn to stir the rice.

“There were two battles to our south,” Tinson says. “Great battles, according to the people who fled north.”

“Who’s fighting, Tinson, and why? Who’s red and who’s purple?”

Tinson shakes his head. “I’m not sure. Not sure even why. I’m just an old fisherman who once tended a fine garden. The purple soldiers said they wanted to protect us from the Reds. Never paid attention to things beyond our town. Most didn’t. Nothing ever affected us, except the sea. Not in all my years. Not until now.”

My head sags. I study the women through my tears. One whimpers.

Tinson clears his throat. “Didn’t even know that soldiers wore purple until Dellila’s husband put on the coat they gave him.”

I can’t help my great sobs. I should have told my purple soldier about the battles he would lose.

“Watch the flame, girl, or you’ll scorch the rice.”

* * *

In the morning, I slip out of the cottage before sunrise. Tinson follows me. I’m tempted to ask if he wants his fortune told. But misery etches his face, and I fear to compound it. While Tinson watches, I run through the birds. They break into splotches against the sky.

“Can you read the birds, Catia?”

I nod. “Grandmother taught me.”

He bends, picks a blade of grass and shreds it, then picks another. “Have you read your own?”

“Once. Well, twice,” I say as I think of Jole. “The second time I didn’t intend to. I haven’t since Grandmother warned against reading my own fortune. She read hers the day my parents died, but there was nothing she could do to warn the fishermen, they’d already sailed on the early tide. Sometimes, though, it’s hard not to look.”

Tinson scratches his head. “Never wanted to know what surprises my life held. Been happiest that way. Imagine knowing that someday my house would be burned and I would be fleeing town. How could I have enjoyed my life?”

We watch the flock roil in great twists out to sea.

Tinson shifts and puts a hand on my right shoulder. “Your father knew he’d die on those shoals. He told everyone who fished in his boat. Knowing didn’t keep them ashore.”

I ponder Tinson’s words as I fix a kettle of oatmeal sweetened with honey for everyone. Knowing the risks, my father had warned others and they still had gone to sea. For a brief moment I’m angry at him for risking his life. He could have stayed on land, then I might be at home with him this morning, drinking tea, eating griddlecakes, listening to his jokes.

I clench my fists and realize the folly of my thoughts. He loved the sea. His heart was happiest when salt spray wetted his face and his boat rocked beneath him.

During breakfast the women remain silent. Though their faces are clean, their hair and clothing still reek of smoke.

Tinson’s anxious to leave. “Best you come with us, Catia. Don’t let the soldiers find you here alone.”

I walk outside with them and shake my head. “If I don’t tend the flock, the birds will disappear, and my grandmother and I will be unable to see the future.”

“What good are fortunes?” Dellila says, her voice shrill. “What good are they if they don’t prevent battles or shipwrecks? Did your Grandmother know our town would burn? Did she let it burn because the townsfolk have been cruel to her?”

“How could she have known about the battles?” I shout. “She’s been away. And no one from town ever seeks to have their future told. So how could she have foretold that soldiers would burn the town?” My chest heaves, and my face is hot. I clench my fists.

I’m not being truthful, and the expression on Dellila’s face tells me that she knows it too. Grandmother must have known for years that soldiers would come. Had she warned the elders? Had they laughed in her face? And, like my father knowing his fate, what could the elders have done even if they had known?

Tinson puts his hand up. “Enough. If you won’t join us, Catia, we’ll say bide well. Stay safe, young one. Hide if the soldiers come.”

“Sorry,” I say to Tinson’s daughter as she walks by. “You’ve lost so much.”

She nods, then stoops to pick up the food I packed for their trip. She slings the bag over her shoulder and pushes her hair off her face. “I don’t know what’s happened to my husband,” she whispers through tears. “I wanted to jump off the Widow’s Wail, but my father wouldn’t let me. I may have missed my chance at eternity with the man I love.”

Her red-rimmed eyes are wide with panic. “Do you know if he’s dead?”

I shake my head. “I wish I could help. If you stay until the birds return, I’ll read your fortune.”

She twists the gold ring on her finger, then brings her fist to her mouth. “I can’t. If I knew, what could I do now?” 

“Stay safe, Dellila”

She turns slowly and trudges after the group. They head east, away from town toward the city, along the path that most of our patrons follow. It’s been quite a while since Flower has trod up it. While daydreaming about my soldier, I’d been glad that Jole had not visited. Now, watching the ragged line disappear, I worry about what might have happened at the Bascome farm.

And for the first time I’m concerned about my survival. Our patrons often bring food as payment. That’s how Grandmother survived some fifty years on this barren hill. But if soldiers are burning towns or making travel impossible, I don’t expect that I’ll have any customers. Belatedly, I realize that I shouldn’t have been so generous with my rice and oatmeal. Little good my bag of gold will do if there’s nowhere to buy supplies. Perhaps Tinson’s garden or another survived the burning, and I can glean early plantings from there.

I’ll find out tomorrow after running through the birds.

* * *

Sunrise turns hundreds of bird eyes a gleaming pink. Wearily I make three slow loops through the birds. Last night I tossed and turned with worry—for Grandmother, Tinson and Dellila, my purple soldier and myself. I debate whether I should see what the sky foretells. My arms are stiff, and it’s difficult to hold them high as I twirl.

I have to know. Just a peek.

Reluctantly I open my eyes and read the sky. The soldier and horse is the first pattern I see, then the sword.

He’ll return! Elation courses through my body, and I don’t bother to read the rest of the patterns.

Though the air is heavy with the acrid scent of smoke, my steps to town are light. In places the path is overgrown, the weeds trampled by Tinson’s group. I push their plight from my mind. I’m sorry Dellila and I traded harsh words. She married the baker’s son the summer before my parents died, and they made the bread we bought daily. The baker’s shop was a happy place, and more than once, they were kissing when I walked inside.

I consider her dilemma about using the Widow’s Wail. If I thought my purple soldier was dead, would I jump to be with him for an eternity? As I muse about this, I crest the hill that overlooks the town. Reflexively, I duck.

The town smolders, and the wind brings the smell of charred flesh. I cringe and heave my breakfast. Hundreds of white tents line the streets, and red uniformed soldiers shout orders. For a long while I lay there, trembling, wishing I had read all of this morning’s sky.

Slowly I back away from the overlook and creep into a thicket. Thorns scratch my face and tear my dress. My mouth tastes foul. I huddle uncomfortably, holding my breath each time the wind rustles the grasses. Mid-afternoon the wind changes, bringing a storm off the sea. When the rain starts, I shield my face from the thorns, crawl out of the thicket, then dash up the path like a rabbit.

By the time I reach my flattened hilltop, the wind picks up. Rain stings my face. Someone stands in the cottage’s doorway. He’s blond and dressed in purple. Despite my grief, my heart bursts with joy as I run to greet my soldier. He runs, too, nimbly jumping over the nests. It’s only after he sweeps me up and twirls me that I realize my mistake. I slip from Jole’s embrace. He smiles broadly, and I force a smile in return, unable to share my disappointment. Yet I’m strangely happy to see him.

He grabs my hand and pulls me toward the cottage. We dash inside. “I’ve not much time. Your grandmother’s well. She’ll return when the roads are safe to travel.”

“Your mother?”

He shakes his head and sprays the table with a shower of raindrops. “Five days ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’ve brought you food, as much as I could carry. And a few of my treasures,” he says shyly. He wipes his face with the towel I hand him.

“Where’s Flower?”

“The soldiers took her. We gave them most of our food and animals in return for protection against the Reds. Your grandmother overheard them talking to me outside. She was smart and hid the things I brought behind the bed, then laid down and played dead. That’s the only reason they didn’t take me with them. I said I had to bury her. But they gave me a coat and told me to take the road north.”

“What’s going on, Jole?” I cry. “Who’s fighting and why?”

Jole stops by the doorway and drops my hand. “I’m not sure. The Reds want our lands. That’s what the purple soldiers told me.”

His fingers trace a scratch across my forehead, then tenderly brush the tears off my cheeks. “Run through the birds, Catia. That’s what she wants you to do. Don’t let them separate.

“I wish you could tell my fortune now, but I know the birds won’t fly in the rain and I must be quick. I’ve until midnight to join them. The soldier who allowed me the time to bury your grandmother cautioned me not to tarry longer. He said their leader’s an angry man, especially since he lost his arm in the first battle.”

He leans over and pecks my cheek. “Stay safe. Run if you spy a Red.”

“Stay safe,” I whisper, but Jole is already sprinting down the path.

The doorjamb supports my weight. Could the leader Jole speaks of be my purple soldier? No. I shake my head, certain it is not he. His fortune told of no wounds in battle.

Refugees, burned and occupied towns, loved ones going to war. Was this my fault? Perhaps my talents as a bird reader were not strong as I thought, for I had foreseen none of these things.

I should have told my purple soldier about the other battles. Why, oh why, did I ever agree to read his fortune when I had promised Grandmother not to?

Sheets of rain drive me indoors. Tonight I light a blazing fire to dry out my clothes and drive out my demons. As I peel off my wet things, I feel naked and exposed. The Reds could be watching. I hide under my sheet to dress.

The food Jole brought is stacked neatly on the table. A simple gold bracelet and woman’s ring glint in the fire’s light—his treasures. I try neither on.

Grandmother was practical in her choices of what to hide—mostly dried fruits and vegetables and a sack of flour. I muster a grin when two small butter cakes tumble out of a napkin. The cakes are her specialty. I put on the kettle, make tea. By the time I finish the cup, both cakes are eaten and I’ve made plans.

Tomorrow I’ll start conserving wood. Jole’s not here to bring more, and I don’t want smoke to attract the Reds. Over the next few evenings, if it’s not too humid or raining, I’ll bake hardbread with most of the flour so it doesn’t spoil. The hardbread will keep until fall and beyond. Every day I’ll tend the birds and the garden, then forage for berries and greens and later in the summer for fruits.

I look for Grandmother’s arrival every day. Spring blossoms into summer, then fall fades into an early winter. The days and nights are cooler, but there hasn’t been a frost yet. I venture into town when I find the Reds have left. The smell of wet charred wood lingers as I scavenge every garden, looking for anything to harvest. In Tinson’s garden I gather bunches of herbs and harvest a row of juicy thick carrots into my knotted bag.

As I return to the cottage, I spy what appears to be a blue blanket thrown in a heap on the path toward the city. My heart thumps wildly as I turn in every direction to see who might have dropped it, but the hill is bare. Even the birds are gone. As I stare, the blanket moves. An elbow sticks up. I drop my gatherings and run to find out who has fallen. It’s Grandmother! She collapsed a ways from the cottage. She smiles limply at me. I pull her to her feet and wrap her arm around my shoulder. We stumble toward the cottage, and finally we’re inside. She’s shivering, so I collect wood from the woodpile to light a fire.

I make tea and bring her a piece of hardbread and the raspberry mash I use as jam.

The food revives her. She licks her puckered lips and tries to stand.

“Sit, Grandmother.”

She shakes her head. “I must see my birds. I heard them return.”

I help her outside. The birds crowd around us. She sighs and smiles. “They’re fine. Has anyone come for their fortune?”

I shake my head. “Not recently.”

The silence grows between us. Finally it’s unbearable. “Grandmother,” I blurt, “a soldier came last spring and asked me to tell his fortune. I refused, but he insisted.”

“And?”

I tell her all but how the soldier captured my heart. She nods as if she knows everything that had happened.

“How do you know all this?” I ask.

“I saw it when I read your fortune, the day after you arrived. Remember the rider and horse and sword? I thought that by keeping you from the soldiers who ventured here, I could keep this from happening. But it was not to be.” She wobbles, and I put my arm around her.

We stand together and watch the sun set. Birds settle around us, thrumming softly. The clouds turn a brilliant pink and orange. With the sun gone, the horizon turns a bloody red. “Time to go in,” I say.

When we turn to the cottage, dozens of lights bobble toward us.

“Run, Catia. Hide!” Grandmother screeches.

I pull her after me toward the oak. Hooves pound and a dark shape cuts us off. The horse snorts softly. Beside me Grandmother shakes. Her scent of fear is strong and mingles with my own. Though my knees threaten collapse, I stand tall. Other horses surround us. Soldiers lift their lanterns. And in the light I see that it’s not the Reds. My purple soldier has returned. He greets my smile with a sneer.

“Well, Seer,” he says, “you were right about one thing, I did win the first battle. But I did not emerge from the battlefield unscathed.”

He holds the reins with one hand. I stare at his other arm for a moment.

“Ah,” he says, “you’ve noticed how neatly my sleeve is pinned. A sword severed my arm at the shoulder. The field surgeons were unable to stitch it back together. They sawed it off.”

I cringe. Grandmother moans.

His face is filled with wrath, and I look away. For months I had imagined his smile, his hands caressing my cheek and brushing my lips. I want to reach out, to tell him how sorry I am, but his fury keeps me at bay.

More soldiers surround us. They hold their lights high. The birds tut loudly.

“Quiet those birds,” my purple soldier orders.

I say, “They’ll quiet if we move into the cottage.”

“I have another way.” His smile menaces. “They shatter at night. Like glass. That’s what I’ve been told. Run through the birds,” he orders, mimicking my voice. “Run through them, men, and trample each and every one.”

I gasp. “My soldier, please. If I’ve made a mistake, take me. Not Grandmother’s birds.”

He laughs and not kindly.

“Fool,” my grandmother says.

The night grows quiet.

The men with the lights hold them higher and draw closer.

“What did you say, old woman? What did you call me?”

“Fool! You rode through the birds on your horse. It’s your horse’s fortune she told. I wager you sit on his back right now. And he was never injured.”

His snarl turns uglier. “Run through the birds, and run through her, too,” he says pointing at Grandmother.

“No!” I run to his horse, intending to beg his mercy. He kicks my face with a boot. Dizzy, I fall backwards. Grandmother catches me, and we embrace. Savage hands pull us apart. Then the deed is done. A gleaming sword turns bloody. Grandmother lies dead at my feet.

The men shout as they run through the field wielding spears and swords. Since it’s after sunset, the birds don’t move, and they’re easy prey. Loud shattering like glass breaking fills the night. I hold my grandmother and weep. Soldiers ring us with drawn swords. There’s nothing I can do to save the birds, to rescue my future.

Finally the men’s shouts stop, and for a moment, the hilltop is eerily quiet. Then the black horse snorts and rears. Hooves hover above me for a terrifying moment.

My purple soldier rides off, and I still don’t know his name. Who am I supposed to curse?

At dawn, I drag my grandmother to the oak. Without leaves, the oak’s wind-shaped limbs hover over the ground like fingers beckoning me. Snow falls in saucer-sized flakes. The faster it snows, the smaller the flakes grow. Weary from carrying Grandmother, I gently cover her with my cloak. Later I’ll bring stones to form a cairn.

Tears freeze on my cheek, but I can’t feel the cold. My jaw aches from the purple soldier’s kick.

I don’t know what to do. Grandmother’s dead. The town is destroyed. I have no idea where the Bascome farm is located. The birds, my livelihood, lie broken at my feet. The gold is tainted. There might be enough food to tide me until spring. The carrots! I dropped them yesterday after I spied Grandmother lying in a heap. I must gather them before they freeze.

Huddled against the wind, I trudge back to the cottage, my shoulders bent by the pack filled with Tinson’s carrots. Sadness overwhelms me—a desolation so complete, it takes my breath away. Snow crusts my lashes.

Closer to the cottage, dead birds lie fractured like broken eggshells. As I tiptoe through the pieces, I realize that not all the birds have been killed. Some sit, heads straight up. The snow forms a white cone around them, protecting them from the cold and the icy wind. When the storm passes, they’ll dig an exit hole at the bottom of the cone and use the hollow cone to protect their nest. Twenty-four, twenty-five. Falling snow obscures any distant ones.

I stare numbly at the cones. Grandmother’s flock started with fewer birds than this. I’ve no choice but to stay here, to keep Grandmother’s flock together. That’s the least I can do.

No! my heart shouts. Look at the trouble you’ve caused. See what yielding to temptation wrought. Betrayal. Greed. Lust. War.

And death.

I’ve been selfish. My head hangs and shoulders sag under the responsibility of contributing to so much grief by seeing only the future I wanted. Perhaps Grandmother was right when she said, “Sometimes it’s a gift not to know what the future holds.”

Right now, I’d consider it a greater gift not to know what the past holds.

The few birds around me are silent. Already I miss their scolding, but I won’t be deterred. “You’re free,” I shout. “Free to leave.”

When the weather breaks, I shall leave, too. I’ll make a better future for others by helping them. I won’t need birds to show me the way.

The door is slightly ajar when I reach the cottage. Something is cooking that smells good. I stumble inside. A purple soldier sits by the fire smiling. This time I know his name. He’s by my side in a moment.

I open my mouth to apologize, to let him know of my betrayal.

He silences me with a kiss. “I know,” he says, softly. “Your grandmother told me everything the day I met you, even though she was supposed to tell me only the good things.”

I moan. “I left her under the oak.”

“She tried to protect you. So did I. But we must accept what the future holds for each of us. What it held for you.”

I stare at my feet. Clumps of snow melt around my shoes. “How can you still love me?” My voice wavers.

“Did your father still love the sea?”

It’s not enough. I weep, trying to understand what he is saying.

Jole moves to one side so I can see the table. Somewhere he found late-blooming purple asters. They are arranged in mother’s bottle.

He reaches for my hand and says, “Isn’t your blue bottle still beautiful, despite the crack?”

THE END



© KA Gillett 2011-2017