Katharine Searle By Blackbirds
‘Where are the birds? Where?’
It’s the only memory I have of my mother.
She stood at the window of our kitchen, looking out at the dust which was dotted with slices of bread. She’d thrown them the afternoon before, spinning them away like weird, white plates. ‘The birds will eat them,’ she’d said. ‘It was all mouldy. Like the world.’
The bread remained though. ‘Where are they?’ she said again. ‘The starlings and the robins, the jays and thrushes – where did they go?’
That’s when I knew she wasn’t right. That was the moment right there. I mean, she was asking me.
Me, who had never seen a bird my entire life.
The dust has spread since then, and there are still no birds. Only rumours of birds carried by travellers from across the dust. Grands writes all such rumours down in his book, his big hands buckled round the quill, the joints like angry red stones. The workroom window highlights the bench with its litter of cloth and wire - every piece of which is precious and hard to come by. Twine we have plenty of. I remake it from bundles of old rope that people bring us. It’s a process I invented myself, but of wire, there is no more.
I am Wren. I live in the North where the heat is bearable. After my mother went, Grands came and took us away from the rising water. We walked until we reached the hills, a long way from where we started. Rook and Heron are too young to manage alone though I am training them as fast as I can. All of us were named by Grands though none of us are his blood. We flew in, he said, like pigeons, along the way.
We are keepers of rare things, brought here by travellers to be kept safe. We have spaces in the mountains nearby which stay cool and the climate is reasonably kind. We get fires that start in the scrub of course, and rain. Fierce, sudden downpours with drops so large they could knock an eye out. We run with our heads down until it’s over, watching the rivers run in the channels we created for them, taking the dust with them.
Grands is also rare. When people come, we refer to him as they. It means we can’t make a mistake and give him away. We know he is a man, but he keeps it under wraps and only sees people in the dark of the workroom. If he has to come out, he wears my mother’s old robe which, with his long hair, allows him to pass as long as he’s shaved. For some reason, there are few men now. Women rule the earth – what’s left of it. It isn’t violence that he fears, but being taken away. He doesn’t want that. He says his breeding days are done.
I am Wren, as I already said, and I am in charge. I manage the collections, the little ones, the fires and the finding of food.
Grands makes birds. He makes them out of wire and twine and perches them on the branches of trees that he makes from Found Wood that he drags in from the dust. There are still stunted little trees, but we don’t cut them down. They need to be allowed to grow while they can. You could say we have a forest – sparse like the hair on an old woman’s head, but still. You can stand there and imagine – if you close your eyes – movement in the undergrowth. Maybe badger, fox, stoat or bear – things that are remembered now only in pictures.
‘What are you making today, Grands?’
‘A blackbird. I am making blackbird.’ His white eyebrows dive downwards, his fingers curl around the twine. Blackbird is taking shape. About the size of two fists with a spread tail and closed wings. It has an eye made from something small and shiny, I don’t know what. And its beak is yellow. Grands has used some of his paint stock to do that.
‘Where is it going?’
‘In the tree close to the waterfall.’
‘The waterfall needs repainting, Grands.’
‘It will have to wait. There is no more blue.’
I look at his face. Bland, untroubled. Calm. ‘No more blue?’
‘No more blue. But we could make some?’
‘Limestone, sand…something copper. It’s complicated.’
He goes on calmly stroking at the bird, forming its feathers and legs. Legs so thin I can’t believe they didn’t break on standing. I can’t conceive of the weight of a bird. Not the way you can picture the weight of other things. A rock, a child, a bucket of water. A bird is something else altogether. Grands says it was like holding a living thought. He held many birds in his time. He worked in the last world aviary before the hurricane tore through it, scattering the birds like blown grass. Sifting through what was left in the wreckage, he came across the body of the last eagle and something broke inside him. Something like a bone that he never knew existed.
‘So, no more blue, but I still put it there?’
‘Yes. Put it there.’
‘Tell me about blackbirds.’
He smiles, eyes still on the sleek black body. ‘Bird family: Thrushes. Length: 24-25cm. Wingspan: 34-38.5cm. –’
‘No. Tell me about blackbirds.’
Grands stops now, his eyes going to the window where the light has dimmed.
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Blackbirds…the song they used to sing… I wish you could hear it.’
He shakes his head, looks down. The magnifying glasses bulging before his eyes. ‘I’m glad I won’t last much longer,’ he says. ‘I can’t be doing without that song. Soon, I may go to the ice.’
I saw the ice once myself when I was very young. I am still young by the measure of Grands, but when I stand amongst the wire birds, in the painted forest, by the faded blue waterfall and imagine them real, I feel old as the rocks under my feet. I close my eyes and make the Whoooo, whoooo sound that apparently the trees used to make, waving their long limbs above the heads of the people walking below. So tall, Grands says, that you could break your neck tipping it back to see the tops of them with the leaves flapping about like a million green hands.
It was Grands took me to see the ice before it melted into water. He said it was pulling back from the rocks like gums inching away from teeth. Like Grands’ mouth. The mouth of the earth.
We climbed a long slope of scree and boulders until up ahead, the mountains shone under the sun – high up where I could never imagine standing. At our feet was snow – just patches of it here and there before the rocks, and then the ice itself, disappointing in its greyness.
‘Picture it…’ Grands said, ‘It once covered the land as the sea does now. A sheet so white and vast and cold that you could feel it hardening your lungs. So white you had to cover your eyes…’
I can’t imagine. There is only dust now. Dust and water. It would take too long to reach the ice, so we stay here, preserving the things that people bring to trade.
Today an old woman comes. She brings a book, fused together with water. She wants, in return, a pole to help her walk. She also offers a pair of shoes in return for holding Heron, who is the smallest of us. Heron doesn’t much like being held but she allows it for a while. Then the woman prepares to leave.
‘I want to be cold,’ she says. ‘I want to see the cold.’
‘I want to see birds,’ Grands tells her from the gloomy shelter of the workroom. ‘Just once more. They say there are some still – high up in the mountains. If you see one, will you come back and tell me?’
The woman only shakes her head. Her eyes are a tremendous blue, the lashes like spikes of wire. Her nose is like a naked bone so tight is the skin.
‘She isn’t coming back, Grands,’ I tell him. ‘Why don’t you go with her? We’ll be alright.’
He considers it. I see the idea lapping at the edges of his mind.
‘You could go and be a man and a woman together,’ I say, ‘For a last time. I can look after here.’
He looks at me – the whole forgotten world flashing suddenly across his whited eyes like the sun knifing through cloud. He casts a glance around the workroom, at the last twists of wire and the paintbrushes dry and solid in their pots. He lets out a great sigh and smiles for the first time in moons.
‘Do you think I might?’ he says. ‘If I see a bird, I can come back and tell you…’
I fetch his boots and he walks out without a backward look, following the flat footprints of the old woman, towards the ice and the hope of eagles.