by Lia DeLand
Because Paul Selig’s book I Am the Word (2010, Tarcher/Penguin) made such an impact on my life I wondered if it might be possible to write a “children’s” story based on the principles in the book…
Special thanks to: Marlene Walker: writer, actress, artist, and editor extraordinaire; Candace Kerber: for your wonderful suggestions; David O’Neil: for your insightful and challenging mind, beautiful heart, and questing spirit.
Humm perches delicately on a pebble, looking up at the sky and wishing she could fly. Her feathers tingle as she imagines whizzing through the clouds. The rush of wind…the thrill of soaring and swooshing through the clouds… Suddenly she stops and glances around. It’s dangerous to think about flying. But she does think about it. Often. She sighs and her wings droop.
“What’s wrong?” says Caterpillar.
Humm looks down at her tiny legs. “It takes me forever to get anywhere. I’m exhausted. And I’m always getting stepped on.”
“Can’t you fly?”
She shakes her head. “I’m a Bridd. Briddas can’t fly. That’s just the way it is.”
This morning, however, Humm does A Very Brave Thing. Squirrel is romping around in the grass, playing with a pinecone. There is a flickering of grass as Rat sneaks up on him. Humm’s feathers go all prickly. She races over the grass and attacks Rat, scratching and pecking. Her feathers flash like emeralds. Squirrel zips up the tree. Humm whacks Rat’s nose with her wings. He flinches and she beats her wings faster. Rat is so unnerved by these buzzing wings he dives into the nearest burrow.
Bluebird sees the commotion and runs to join Humm. He watches for Rat while she catches her breath.
She’s trembling. “What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid?”
“I think it was brave,” says Bluebird.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” mutters Humm. “And I smell like Rat. Ugh.”
Bluebird leads her over to a puddle. “What do you see?”
“I see a very foolish little Bridd.”
He shakes his head. “What I see is a very small creature with a Very Big Heart.”
She stammers and coughs and can’t think what to say. Finally, she’s so embarrassed she hops in the puddle and takes a bath.
“Come to the river,” says Bluebird. “I have a question for Heron.”
They start off toward the river, shifting their packs. All the Briddas carry them. They hold everything they need to survive.
“What do you want to ask Heron?” says Humm.
Bluebird looks back at Squirrel, safely up in the tree. “Something is bothering me, Humm. About The Way Things Are.”
“What do you mean?”
“What does Squirrel yearn for?”
“Exactly. Nuts. And what does Butterfly yearn for?”
She looks around. “Flowers?”
“Right. She yearns for flowers. There are nuts for Squirrel and flowers for Butterfly. But what about Briddas? We yearn to fly. Why do we yearn to fly if we can’t fly?” He lifts his wings and lets the breeze ruffle his feathers. “Sometimes I wonder if we really can fly, but we don’t believe it.”
Unfortunately, Raven sees him. He wallops Bluebird with his heavy black wings. “What are you doing? You’re a Bridd, not a Bird!” Raven stalks off majestically, his glossy feathers glistening in the sunshine. Mockingbird follows close behind, as usual. He pecks at Bluebird, squawking, “You’ll never be a Bird if you break the Rules!” and then hurries off to catch up with Raven.
Bluebird picks himself up and sighs, “So many Rules.”
Humm agrees. The Briddas believe they’ll turn back into Birds if they can obey all the Rules. They try and try, but they make mistakes, so they feel bad. They try all sorts of ways to make themselves feel better. Pigeon eats, but she never feels full enough. Dove takes care of everyone else, and the more exhausted she gets the better she feels. Raven puffs himself up and makes more Rules. Mockingbird follows Raven around, repeating everything he says. Blue Jay is cranky, and the angrier he gets the better he feels. Peacock struts around, showing off his beautiful feathers. Starling pecks at the smallest and weakest Briddas. Sparrow tries to please everyone. Duck worries. Woodpecker bangs his head and complains about how much he suffers. The more miserable they feel, the more they strut, puff, and bang their heads.
Bluebird dusts off his pack. “It’s so heavy. And it hurts.” He stops and looks at it. “I wonder what it would be like to put it down?”
“But it keeps us safe!”
Humm wonders why Bluebird isn’t afraid. She’s afraid all the time.
Pigeon, Duck, and Blue Jay come through the trees, and they all walk on to the river.
Humm hops as fast as she can to keep up. Bluebird lets her get up onto his back where she clings to his pack. “Bluebird lifted his wings!” she whispers to Pigeon. “And Raven saw him!”
Pigeon tries to stretch her wings but trips and plops on her face. “Ooof.” She picks herself up. “It’s too-too-too dangerous. Someday the Teacher will come over the mountains and turn us back into Birds.” She pounces on a bug.
Humm says, “Maybe it will be another Cardinal. He said we were all Birds. He said we could fly.”
Duck hushes her. “You mustn’t talk about that, Humm. Raven and his friends said he was dangerous. They killed him, remember? If you start talking about Cardinal, they’ll think you’re dangerous, too!”
Humm buries her head in Bluebird’s feathers.
Blue Jay frowns. “If any magical Teacher was going to come, he would have done it by now. No one is coming.”
Duck glances up at the snowy peaks surrounding the valley. “Maybe the mountains are too high. Maybe he can’t find us.”
Pigeon says, “Thank goodness they’re too-too-too high. They keep enemies out.”
Starling comes along on her way to the river. Humm scrunches herself as small as possible, but Starling pecks her anyway.
As she passes, Duck hears something. “Are you singing?”
Starling jumps. “Of course not!” She pecks at him, too. “Briddas don’t sing!”
When they get to the river, everyone is panicking. There’s a new enemy in the valley, a Fox!
“Tell us what to do!” they say to Raven.
“Follow the Rules!” he says. Mockingbird echoes him, pecking at the nearest Bridd.
Fox is stealthy, swift, and deadly. As the days pass more and more Briddas disappear. They’re all terrified.
Bluebird sighs. “If only we could fly away from him.”
They try finding better hiding places. They try staying awake all night. They try standing guard for each other. Nothing works.
One morning Humm finds a scattering of blue feathers by the river.
Her heart breaks. She’s so sad she forgets about everything else, even Fox. And she’s angry that Bluebird is gone. Angry they can’t fly away from their enemies. Angry the Teacher hasn’t come over the mountains to help them. And when she sees how timid she’s always been, she’s angry at herself.
She sits by the river staring up at the mountains. Duck tries to hide her with his wings.
Pigeon hops around, slipping and sliding in the mud.
Dove frets, “Poor Humm. Shall I go fetch a bug?”
Blue Jay nudges her. “Come on, Humm, snap out of it.”
Humm doesn’t seem to hear. They get more and more worried about her.
Duck fusses. “Humm, talk to us.”
Humm says, “It’s about the nuts.”
“We need to be able to fly away from our enemies.”
Duck gasps. Blue Jay blusters. Pigeon falls in a puddle. Woodpecker gets so excited he accidently bumps into Blue Jay’s pack.
Blue Jay snaps, “Don’t touch my pack!”
Woodpecker slinks away and bangs his head.
Humm takes a trembly breath and draws herself up to her full no-bigger-than-a-mushroom height. She adjusts her pack and begins walking east, taking one tiny step after another.
“Where are you going?” says Duck.
“Over the mountains,” she says.
“What are you going to do-do-do?” flutters Pigeon.
“I’m going to find that Teacher and bring him back,” she says.
“Impossible!” says Duck.
“It’s too-too-too dangerous,” says Pigeon. “Fierce storms! Terrible enemies!”
“Monsters!” says Sparrow.
“There’s nothing on the other side,” grumbles Blue Jay. “An endless desert.”
“Can I help?” says Dove. “I could carry your pack.”
Humm keeps walking. Starling pecks her.
Peacock is taking a long elegant bath in the river. “Don’t be silly, Humm. You’ll get dirty.”
Raven screeches at her. “You’re breaking the Rules! You’re putting all of us in danger! Like your great-great-grandmother did!”
Humm flinches. She is more frightened than she’s ever been, but she keeps walking. Her friends stand by the river and watch her walking away, getting smaller and smaller.
Day after day she walks across the valley with her heavy pack. She pushes through tall grass and climbs over sticks and rocks. She circles around rabbit holes, trees, rotten logs, and sticker bushes.
She has to be constantly alert for enemies. One long night she shivers under a pile of rocks while Coyotes romp all around her, yipping at the moon.
Snake is the worst. The first time one comes gliding through the grass she jumps in the air and squeaks out loud. Fortunately, there’s a large lumpy bulge in his stomach. He flicks his tongue at her and slithers on.
She’s afraid she’ll never reach the other side of the mountains. But soon she learns how to be silent and still, cover herself with dirt, and blend in with the rocks and earth. It helps that she’s so tiny and slow because many creatures never even notice her.
It takes Humm many days to cross the valley. She reaches the hills, then the mountains. She’s exhausted. Her feathers are dirty and scraggly. The way gets steeper and hotter. One afternoon she stops to rest on a high rocky cliff. She’s tired, hungry, and thirsty. Her pack hurts. It feels like it’s getting heavier and heavier. The valley, surrounded by high snowy peaks, is spread out below her. She thinks about Pigeon and Duck. She thinks about the cool river.
Looking ahead she sees tall granite cliffs and white snowfields running up the mountainside. How will she ever walk up and over those peaks? It’s impossible. And what’s on the other side? Desert? Monsters? How will she ever find the Teacher? She doesn’t even know what sort of creature he is. Maybe it’s just a story. Maybe she’s doing all this for nothing.
She feels small, weak, and alone. She wants to go home. She adjusts her heavy pack and starts walking back down the mountain.
Then she passes a clump of blue lupine and remembers those blue feathers scattered by the river. She stands there for a long time. Slowly she turns and starts climbing up the dusty and rocky slope again. She trudges on, day after day. Once in a while, violent thunderstorms roar through the mountains and she has to find shelter quickly among rocks and root tunnels. Thunderstorms always frightened her, but for the first time she notices the strange and wonderful smell of the storm.
When she reaches the snowfields, she sinks in the snow and gets stuck. She tries walking slowly, walking fast, hopping, and sliding her tiny feet, but nothing works. She keeps getting stuck. Then she remembers Bluebird wondering what it would be like to put his pack down. It’s a terrifying thought. She looks anxiously over her shoulder, but there’s no one there to scold her. Up here on the mountain, in all this silence and space, the Rules are beginning to look a little silly.
She takes off the pack and holds it close. She’s scared and dizzy, but she sets it down and waits. Nothing bad happens, so she stretches her wings. The sun is warm on her back. She takes a small step. She sinks a little in the snow, but only up to her belly. She discovers she can scooch herself over the snow by paddling her wings as if she were a little boat. When she gets tired, she flips over and does the backstroke! It’s slow and exhausting but scooch by scooch she makes progress.
All the scooching and paddling is so absorbing she gets careless. Suddenly a huge animal is bounding toward her through the snow. It has thick fur, a short tail, and tufty ears. She dives into a tiny crevice in a wall of rock. In a flash Cat is upon her. Her heart pounds as he sticks his big furry paw into the crevice. He smells sharp and sour. He can’t quite reach her, but his claws are long, and the tip of one razor sharp claw rakes her chest. It slices through the blue and green feathers and leaves a thin trail of blood. Terrified, Humm holds her breath and flattens herself as far as she can into the back of the crevice. Cat stretches, strains, and snarls, but can’t quite reach her. Eventually he gives up and wanders off, yowling bitterly.
It’s two days before she dares to come out of the crevice. She’s sore and scared, and a line of dried blood runs down the middle of her chest. She waits until the sun is high, hoping Cat is sleeping. She pokes her head out, listening and watching. All is silent. Cautiously resuming her journey, she travels at midday and hides at night. Twice Cat sniffs her out, but Humm chooses her hiding places well and he gives up.
She finally reaches the topmost ridge late one morning as a storm rolls up from the other side of the mountains. It’s wide open on the ridge and there’s nowhere to take shelter. She feels panicky until she realizes it’s not a thunderstorm, just a gentle snowstorm. There’s nothing to do but fluff out her feathers and surrender to the storm. She waits and watches through the long day as flake by flake the snow covers her over and the world slowly disappears.
She thinks about her long journey, her terrible fears, the pack she left lying in the snow, and the wound on her chest. She’s all alone on an open ridge in the middle of a snowstorm. There’s no safe place and no one to help her.
All her fears get bigger and bigger. Fears of taking a risk. Fears of failure. Fears of being alone. Fears of freezing to death.
And then…Something. Cracks. Open. She takes a deep breath and lets the fears well up. She sees how they’ve kept her small and afraid. Instead of squashing them down she lets them get bigger and a strange thing happens. They soften. They dissolve. They turn into mist. She’s alone but not lonely. There’s nowhere to hide from Cat but she isn’t afraid. If he comes, he comes.
She wakes at dawn, swaddled in snow. She didn’t freeze to death. Cat didn’t eat her. The rising sun hits her frosty cocoon and each snowflake bursts into dazzling colors. She shakes her wings, scattering all the fears, all the Rules. Paddling herself over the soft new snow to the crest of the ridge, she looks down into the world on the other side.
No monsters. No desert. Snowy slopes descend into a wide green valley. Somewhere in this valley there is a Teacher. Raising her wings, she whooshes down the slope on her belly. It feels like f-l-y-i-n-g. She is filled with the wonder of speed and the sun sparkling on snow.
She glides down the mountainside until she reaches the forest and bungs up against a knot of gnarly trees. Lying on her back, all tangled up in juniper branches, she hears a whistley sort of singing. Looking up, she sees Robin dancing on a branch.
“What’s all the whoo-bub?” he pipes.
Humm, too surprised to be polite, says, “How did you get up there?”
He flies to a lower branch. “Well, how did you get down there?”
Humm shivers. Her feathers stand on end. “You can fly? You’re…a Bird?”
He frowns. “Hm. Did you bump your head when you crashed, sugarbug?”
Humm flaps around excitedly, getting herself even more tangled up. “You’re a Bird! A Bird!”
“No doubt about it,” he says, doing a rhumba. “I’m a Bird.” He stops dancing and frowns at her. “And why are you scrabbling around in the snow, sweetbeetle? You’d be a lot safer up here.”
She sighs. “I can’t fly.”
“No, I’m a Bridd.”
He stares at her. “Hm. Wings: check. Feathers: check. Tail: check. Are you sure you’re not a Bird?”
“I know I look like a Bird, but I’m not. I’m a Bridd. Briddas can’t fly.”
He gasps. “Egads. Why not?”
“We used to be Birds, a long time ago, but we broke the Rules.”
He can’t make head or tail of this, so he asks her where she comes from.
“From the other side of the mountains.”
“And are there more…boshed-in-the-head-whatchamacallits, like you?”
“Briddas. Yes, of course. Swallows, Ducks, Herons, Pigeons, even Robins…”
“And none of you can fly? Boogie through the blue? Caper through the clouds?”
“No. It’s too dangerous. It’s against the Rules.”
“If you can’t fly then how did you get here, sweetiebug?”
Shocked, he looks down at this weensy creature sitting in the snow and thinks of her walking all that way. He’s never been anywhere. When migrating Birds pass overhead, he’s filled with envy. He wonders where they’ve been and where they’re going. He yearns to do something adventurous.
“You walked over the mountains? On those tiny toes? All by yourself?”
“So you’re an adventurer!” He dances along the branch. “Like me! I’m a swashbuckler! I go on great adventures!”
“Well…” He coughs and flies down beside her. “This isn’t safe, you know. Grooving around on the ground like this.”
Humm shivers. “Is Fox here? And Cat?”
“Of course. Fox, Cat, Snake…. And if you lean too far over the edge of the big pond there’s Frog. Absolutely enormous. Big bulgy eyes. Long sticky tongue. Ugh. Why did you walk all this way?”
“I came to find a Teacher. He’s going to turn us back into Birds again. Do you know him? Did he teach you to fly?”
“Teach me to fly? Of course not. What sort of creature is he?”
Humm sighs. “Actually, we’re not sure. He’s very special. Maybe even magical.”
Robin shrugs. “Sorry, honeybug. Never heard of him.”
She sighs. “I see. Thank you very much.” She turns and begins paddling off.
“Wait! Sugarbeetle! Where are you going?”
“To find the Teacher, of course.”
He flaps and flutters. “But but but… You don’t know where you’re going! You don’t know how to find him! You don’t even know how to fly, for goodness sake!”
She shrugs. “I know. Bye!”
Robin watches her disappearing down the mountain, a tiny dark dot on the white snow. All his feathers tingle as he yearns to join her and go somewhere new. There’s a voice in his head saying, “This is an adventure! Don’t miss it!” But another voice says, “Are you crazy? You’ll get lost! You’ll get eaten! You’ll starve! You’ll die!” He stands there, frozen. Then his wings rev up, all by themselves, and he takes off down the mountain. One voice says, “Aaaaaah, what are you doing?! This is c-r-a-z-y!” and the other voice says, “Yay! Let’s go! Tutti-frutti!”
It doesn’t take him long to find her. As he flies over, he calls down, “I’m coming along, sugarbug. For a little while. I know a guy…”
“But I won’t walk!” he croaks.
They race down the mountain, Humm sliding down the slopes and Robin flying from tree to tree, dancing and singing as he waits for her to catch up. He warns her about dangers like cliffs and Cats, so she can go faster. Even so, it takes all day to reach the hills where the snow melts into mud and muck. He tells her about Owl. “He’s very old,” says Robin. “If anyone knows about this Teacher, he does.”
They trudge on through a thick woodland and before nightfall come to an ancient oak tree. Robin takes a slight detour and finds a big juicy beetle for Owl. As they approach the tree a soft whooing comes from one of the upper branches. A moment later Owl swoops down to join them on the ground. His feathers are a bit thin and scraggly, but he holds himself with great dignity.
Robin lays the beetle at his feet and Owl gulps it down.
“Go ahead, twitterbug,” says Robin. “Tell him why we’re here.”
Humm begins telling him about her quest, but Owl interrupts. “I beg your pardon?”
Robin whispers, “I forgot about that. He doesn’t hear as well as he used to.” Chattering loudly, he explains what they’re doing.
Owl frowns fiercely at Humm. “Teach you to fly? Turn you into a Bird?” She nods her tiny head.
“How extraordinary,” he huffs. No, I’ve never heard of a Teacher like that. Maybe Snake would know. He’s even older than I am.”
Robin thanks him and they are about to leave when Owl shuffles his large knobby feet. “May I suggest you spend the night under the tree? I’m told it’s quite commodious. It would be lamentable if I (ahem) mistook you for a mouse.”
They see the point at once. The root system is indeed “commodious,” and they make themselves comfortable.
Humm takes a deep breath. “What a wonderful smell.”
“What smell?” says Robin.
“The roots of the tree. It’s homey. Comforting.”
Robin tries this. “You’re right,” he says, surprised.
“Who is this Snake?” she asks him.
“He’s very old, so maybe he will know something.” He sighs deeply. “But…”
He shudders. “He’s massive. Monstrous. He lost an eye a while back. Very cranky. Doesn’t like dancing.” He groans. “But he loves little Birds.”
Humm thinks about that. “How are we going to talk to him without getting eaten?”
“I don’t know,” he sighs. “It’s tricky.”
They sleep peacefully under the tree while silent wings sail overhead.
When the sun is up, Robin shakes himself and does a jig, but quietly so he won’t wake Owl. “Come on, sweetiebug,” he whispers. “Let’s shake a leg.” Their journey is much slower now that Humm has to walk.
It takes several days to reach the place where Snake lives. A wide rocky hillside slopes down to the river. They sit at the top, hidden in thick weeds, making a plan.
At midday when Snake is asleep, they come out of the weeds and tiptoe around the hillside, searching. They find the tip of his thick, pale, mottled tail sticking out of a large crevice. Then they find a pile of boulders lying angled against each other in just the right way.
Humm tucks herself into a hiding place. “You can do this, Robin! You have magical feet!”
“Okay, sugarbeetle. Here goes.” He shakes himself until all his feathers puff out. He creeps up to the tail and gives it a sharp peck. It flicks and disappears. A moment later the huge head of the sleepy monster appears, blinking groggily in the bright sunshine. Robin flaps around, dancing and singing, and Snake slowly wakes up and starts sliding out of the crevice. And out. And out. He turns toward Robin and fixes him with that one, fierce, cold-blooded eye. When Robin sees how enormous Snake really is, he chokes. He loses his boogie. He freezes.
Humm bursts out of her hiding place. “Dance, Robin! Jive! Tutti-frutti!”
Robin jumps and starts dancing madly toward the pile of boulders. Snake slithers closer and closer. Robin yelps and dances faster. Just as Snake opens his mouth to strike, Robin squeezes into a narrow tunnel between the boulders. Snake lunges after him, forcing his big head into the little tunnel.
Robin, terrified and breathless, squeezes through the tunnel and out into the open. He turns and waits. Snake rams his head through the tunnel and out the other side. He opens his mouth and tries to charge but he can’t move. His enormous body is too big to fit through the narrow tunnel. He pushes and strains but can’t move forward and can’t back up. His long tail thrashes around on the other side of the boulders. He’s stuck.
Humm jumps up and down. “It worked, Robin! You did it!”
Robin stands there panting, with his knees wobbling and his tongue hanging out.
Humm takes a deep breath and cautiously hops a little closer to Snake. “Excuse me, sir,” she says, as politely as she can, “We’re sorry to bother you.” Snake slowly turns towards her and Humm takes a step back. “We’re looking for a Teacher.” Snake flicks his tongue at her, and she takes another step back. “A very special Teacher, maybe even magical…” Snake leans toward her. She quakes. “Have you heard of such a Teacher? Sir?”
Snake stares at her. Robin is in no mood for dilly-dallying after what he’s been through. He loses his temper, jumps up on the back of the reptile’s neck, and pecks at the big lumpy head. “Wake up, you stinky skink!”
Snake opens his huge mouth, flashes his fangs, and hisses at them. On the other side of the tunnel his long body snaps and writhes. He can’t move his head enough to strike at Robin or throw him off. Robin digs his little claws into Snake’s neck and hangs on while Snake, enraged, tries to twist around and bite him. “Answer her!” Robin says, pecking at him and avoiding the enormous fangs. “Do you know this Teacher? Have you ever seen him?”
“No!” says Snake.
“Never?” says Robin, still pecking.
“NO!” hisses Snake, furious. “NEVER!”
Robin stops pecking. He clings to the back of Snake’s neck, shaking and panting.
Humm droops. So that’s the end of it. Not even the oldest creatures in the valley know about this Teacher. He doesn’t exist. It’s all been for nothing. She stares off into the distance, waiting for Robin to recover his breath. She thinks of the weeks and weeks of hardships and dangers. She thinks of the long hard journey back to her valley and back to Fox, with no Teacher and no hope.
She looks back at Robin. Something is wrong. A shiver of panic runs through her and makes her feathers stand on end. “Robin! Get off!”
He looks around, bewildered. “Why? What’s wrong?”
She nods behind him at the little tunnel under the boulders, where Snake is stuck. Or had been stuck. “He’s getting longer! He’s coming through!”
Robin looks down at Snake and is filled with terror. He is coming through. Slowly and silently he’s thinning his big heavy body down to the size of the tunnel and squeezing himself through. His neck is slowly getting longer. In a moment he’ll be able to twist his head around. Robin sees the huge mouth opening. He sees the fangs.
Humm hops up and down and flaps her wings. “Go! Go! Go!” She charges at Snake and buzzes at his face, distracting him long enough to let Robin get away. They speed back up the hillside and don’t stop until they’re at the top of the bluff. They pause, breathless, to look back. Snake is still, slowly but surely, squeezing his long thick body through the little tunnel. They decide not to wait.
They don’t stop until dusk. They find safe shelter under a couple of fallen logs. As they’re falling asleep Humm chuckles.
“What’s that about?” murmurs Robin.
“Stinky skink.” She chuckles again. “Wherever does that come from?”
Robin smiles. “My mum. No one got near her chicks. She was fierce.”
They sleep until noon. From the top of a high crag they look back to see if there is any sign of Snake. There isn’t.
“What now?” says Robin.
Humm sighs. “Go home, I guess. There’s no Teacher. It was just a story.”
Robin thinks about Snake and shivers. “He was scary. If it weren’t for you, I’d be a lump in his belly. But there’s one thing that puzzles me.”
“When you buzzed at him so I could get away…” He hesitates. “…you flew. It didn’t last long, but I saw you. You were flying!”
“Impossible. Briddas can’t fly.”
Robin looks up at the sky. “What’s that?” As Humm looks up, he gives her a little nudge. She loses her balance and falls over the edge. A moment later she’s buzzing angrily at his head. “Why did you do that?”
He just stands there, looking at her. All of a sudden, she realizes what she is doing and falls awkwardly to the ground. She starts shivering. She runs under the nearest bush, burrows under the leaves, and disappears.
Robin follows her. “Why are you hiding? Did you see something?” There’s no answer. He flies up to a branch and looks all around. He flies back down to the trembling little pile of leaves. “What are you afraid of?”
There is a faint whisper from the pile of leaves. “Death and Destruction.”
“What? What are you talking about?” There is no answer, so Robin crawls under the leaves and joins her. “What is it, sweetbeetle?”
In a quavery little voice she tells him. “A long time ago we used to be Birds. My great-great-grandmother, Whish, flew so high she made the other Birds nervous. One day she flew higher than ever, up into the clouds. That’s when a terrible hailstorm hit the valley and many many Birds died. They said it was her fault, that it was dangerous to fly so high. All the Birds were in a panic. Raven’s great-great-grandfather made Rules to help them stay safe, but it just got worse and worse. They didn’t know how high to fly, when to fly, how to fly. They got so frightened they stopped flying at all. That’s when they became Briddas.”
Robin shakes his head. “Hm. I don’t think you’re a Bridd at all. I think you’re a Bird.”
She gasps. “But I’ve broken the Rules. I don’t deserve to be a Bird.”
Robin snorts, “Stinkbugs!”
“You’ve been fed a lot of Stinkbugs.”
She thinks about that. “Like the packs…”
“We all have them. They’re big and heavy. I was afraid to let go of it. But one day on the other side of the mountain I took it off.”
“And what happened?”
She shrugs. “Nothing.”
“See? Stinkbugs.” He shakes off the leaves and flies over her head. “Come on! Fly with me!”
She shivers and shakes. She clumsily tries to flap her wings. She’s so scared she has goosebumps all over. Then she takes a deep breath, jumps up into the air, and flies. She flies around the pile of leaves. She flies around the trees. Then she flies higher and higher. She’s filled with the wonder of sky and space, and the wonder of her own grace.
When they finally stop to rest high up in a pine tree, she’s so excited she can barely peep. She hops up and down on the branch. “I’m a Bird, Robin! A Bird!”
“Wow! You were hovering! You were flying backwards!”
“Can’t you do that?”
“Oh no. Robins can dance, but they can’t hover or fly backwards. No way!”
She laughs and does a little cha-cha. Then she stops. She thinks about Bluebird. She can almost hear his voice. She turns to Robin. “I have to go home. They’re all in danger.”
“Ah.” His feathers droop. “Of course. They’ll be happy to see you. Happy to know they’re really Birds.”
Then she remembers Cardinal and nearly slips off the branch.
“What’s the matter?”
“A long time ago there was a Bridd who told them they could fly, and he was…killed.”
Robin shivers. “So how will you tell them without getting killed?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll think of something. Goodbye!” And she flies off toward home.
“Tutti-frutti, sugarbug,” he says sadly.
It took her weeks to creep through the valley and over the mountains, but it only takes her two days to fly back home. She flies over the juniper tree where she met Robin. And over the mountaintop where she slept in the rainbow cocoon. Over the place where she took off her pack. And over the cliff where she nearly turned back. When she gets close to home, she flies to the ground and walks out of the woods. The Briddas all crowd around, squawking, honking, and chirping.
Quail is gone. And Pheasant. And Wren. And several others.
“You’re alive!” fusses Duck. “Where did you get that terrible scar? Where is your uh…uh…” He’s shocked she doesn’t have her pack but is afraid to mention it.
Dove bounces around in nervous circles. “I can get you a new pack, Humm.”
Humm walks through the clamoring crowd until she finds Pigeon, who looks half-dead, lying under a bush with a bruised and bloody wing. Humm gently sits down next to her.
Pigeon slowly opens her eyes and whispers, “It’s you-you-you. I’m so glad.” She takes a deep breath and stretches herself, gently moving her wing. “Did you find the Teacher?”
The noise and confusion get worse. Blue Jay scolds her for taking foolish risks. Peacock is irritated because no one is paying any attention to him. Mockingbird tries to peck at Humm, but she dodges him.
Raven turns toward her, glaring and making threatening noises in his throat.
Starling pecks at her from behind. Humm jumps and Raven is distracted as other Briddas crowd around.
Dove says, “Is he going to turn us back into Birds? Where is he?”
She looks toward the mountains. “Up there.”
Duck trembles. “We have to walk all that way? What about Fox? Snake? Coyote?”
Raven is angry. He comes closer. His beak is large and sharp.
Humm’s heart is pounding, but she stands her ground.
Pigeon gets unsteadily to her feet. “Is it true-true-true? Will we fly?”
Humm nods, watching Raven as he comes closer and closer.
They all start gabbling. Sparrow sidles up close to Humm and whispers, “All of us? Even me?”
Raven rattles his wings and squawks, “There’s only one way to become Birds and that’s to Obey the Rules!” The Briddas look at him, then at Humm, then back at Raven.
Blue Jay is skeptical. “You’re going to take us to this Teacher?”
Raven roars, “There’s no such thing! It’s just an old story! Only a fool would believe it!” He hops around furiously, rattling his wings and glaring at them.
Mockingbird squawks, “Fools!”
Humm looks at Pigeon, “You’ll fly.”
She turns to Starling. “You’ll sing.”
Raven flaps his wings violently and says, “She’s dangerous, like Cardinal! She must not live!” Everyone gasps.
Humm is terribly frightened, but she stands her ground and looks at Raven with her gentle eyes. “Come with me. You’ll fly.” Then she turns away and starts walking, taking teensy weensy steps toward the mountains.
Raven thunders, “You wicked little Bridd!” He takes a threatening step toward Humm and raises his sharp beak.
Duck is trembling but he steps forward to block Raven.
Raven puffs himself up to say something, but Duck is joined by Woodpecker, Dove, and Pigeon, bravely limping.
Raven is shocked speechless.
Duck, Dove, and Woodpecker turn and follow Humm.
Humm looks at Pigeon. “Will you be all right?” Pigeon nods.
As Humm passes through the crowd, Starling pecks at her again. Humm leans forward and whispers something in her ear. Starling glares at her but stops pecking.
As they pass Sparrow Dove says, “Come with us.”
Sparrow sighs, “Oh, I can’t. I’m too… I’m not….”
Blue Jay watches Humm as she walks away. He hesitates, frowning. Then he sighs, shifts his heavy pack, and lumbers after them.
Peacock turns away. “Hmph, I’m not going to muss my feathers over a silly story. I want my bath.”
Raven hops up and down and bellows, “If you leave you can never come back!” They hesitate, then continue walking.
Raven turns to Mockingbird. “Stop them!”
Mockingbird races after them, screeching, “Something terrible is going to happen! You’re going to die! We’re all going to die!”
Humm and the others ignore him and keep walking.
Mockingbird stops and looks back to Raven, who is still hopping up and down, flapping his wings, and making terrible noises. The little group slowly moves off, disappearing into the distance. Suddenly Mockingbird turns and speeds after them. When he catches up to them, he says, “I’m coming along. Someone needs to Maintain Control.”
The others shout, “No!” but Humm tells Mockingbird he’s welcome. They all give him a wide berth, however. The sound of Raven’s screeching gets fainter and fainter. When Humm glances back she sees Starling trailing along in the distance.
It takes them several days to reach the mountains. Every night Humm finds them safe places to sleep. Under piles of rocks. Inside hidden burrows or rotten logs. Sometimes she stops and listens, then says, “This is not a good place,” and they move on to another. Every night Fox terrifies them, sniffing, digging, and whining, but Humm has learned her lessons well and Fox can’t reach them.
These fearful nights unnerve them. Their excitement dissolves into grumbling. It’s too far to walk. Their packs are too heavy. They don’t believe they can ever become Birds. They’re afraid Fox will get them. Afraid Raven will never let them go home again. They get irritable with each other. They complain. They squabble.
Dove scurries back and forth, trying to keep everyone happy. When she’s utterly exhausted Humm says, “You don’t need to do that, you know.”
“But…they need me.”
Dove feels a little frightened.
Woodpecker and Blue Jay bicker constantly. One day Blue Jay whacks Woodpecker with his wing and Woodpecker pecks him back. Everyone squawks in alarm as it gets worse and worse. Mockingbird screeches at them about the Rules.
Humm walks into the middle of the fight and gets stepped on rather painfully. Woodpecker and Blue Jay peck at her in irritation, but she whispers something in their ears. They look uncomfortable. Woodpecker sighs. He tries to apologize to Blue Jay, but Blue Jay stalks off.
Starling watches them closely. She’s humming softly to herself.
When the weary travelers finally get to the mountains and begin climbing the steep and rocky trail, the complaining grows worse. They flop on the ground, grumbling.
“Why don’t you take off your packs?” says Humm.
“We can’t do that! They keep us safe!”
Humm shakes her head. “No, they don’t. They keep us stuck on the ground when we’re meant to be flying.”
Duck looks at her curiously. “What happened when you took yours off?”
“Nothing. I felt lighter. I could walk up the mountain. See that cliff up there? That’s where we need to go. How are you going to get up there carrying those big heavy packs?”
Dove starts chattering, “Maybe I could carry them for you.” The others just look at her. “Oh, I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” They nod.
Duck clings to his pack. “Oh dear. I can’t do this. It’s part of me.”
Humm comes alongside. “No, it isn’t. Come on, I’ll help you.” He’s trembling, but he lets her ease the pack off his back and set it down. For the first time he gets a really good look at it. He shudders. “Ugh,” he says. “It’s so old and dirty.”
Humm nods. “I know. So was mine.”
Duck takes a deep breath and looks around nervously. He stretches. He takes a couple of steps.
The others watch him. “Well?”
He takes a few more steps. “Oh my, look at that, I can move. Come on, Blue Jay! Aren’t you tired of carrying that heavy thing around?”
Blue Jay squawks, “But there are Important Things in this pack!”
Pigeon takes hers off and walks around. She bobs up and down. She passes up three bugs. “It’s such a relief! Who-who-who is next? Come on, Blue Jay!”
“No! I won’t! This is crazy. I wish I’d never left.” And he turns around and starts walking home, stumbling under the heavy pack.
They all beg him to stay, but he holds his pack tightly and stalks off. Humm watches sadly as he walks farther and farther away. He never looks back.
Mockingbird, too, refuses to take off his pack. “I can manage it.” He slowly huffs and puffs his way up the trail while the others pass him by. When it gets steeper, he collapses under the heavy load, but Starling comes alongside and helps him get to the top.
Everyone is looking around in confusion. “Where is he?” says Pigeon. “Where’s the Teacher?”
“There’s no one here. I thought so,” grumbles Mockingbird.
They turn toward Humm, outraged. She stands on the edge of the cliff, doing a little rhumba and humming a song.
Dove, who never gets angry at anyone, stomps her foot and says, “What’s going on, Humm?”
Humm turns and jumps off the edge.
The others shriek, rush to the edge, and look down. “Humm! Humm!”
Suddenly she zips up and over their heads. She zooms, darts, and flashes all around them. Squawking in alarm, they run and hide under bushes.
She comes to a soft sweet landing. All is silent.
They peek out at her and look up at the sky, waiting for Death and Destruction, but nothing happens. Duck creeps out from under his bush. He looks up at the sky. “No storm. No hail. How did you do that?”
“I’m a Bird. Birds can fly.”
They slowly come out of their hiding places.
“She flew-flew-flew!” says Pigeon.
Dove says, “The Teacher turned you into a Bird! Will he turn us into Birds too?”
“You already are Birds!”
They gasp, remembering the Cardinal.
Humm takes off and flies some more, doing loop-de-loops and buzzing their heads as she comes in for a landing.
Pigeon says, “Is it true-true-true? We’re Birds?”
Duck squawks, “They lied to us?”
Mockingbird is sitting by himself, looking frightened and confused. Starling walks over and whispers in his ear. He takes a deep breath.
Starling walks to the edge and looks down. “What do we do?”
“Follow me,” says Humm, and jumps. Starling stands there for a moment, flapping her silky black wings, then jumps. She is singing. Loudly. Beautifully. It’s a song she’s always wanted to sing. The rest of them watch her flying. Their hearts are racing, their knees are wobbling. One after another they jump. And fly.
All except Duck. He moans and fusses, too terrified to jump. Pigeon comes behind and gives him a little push. Squawking in terror, he falls over the edge in a mess of flapping wings and tangled feet, then catches the wind and spreads his wings. He glides gracefully, higher and higher, over the hills, over the valley, over the Fox, everything.
Mockingbird watches all this and slowly approaches the edge.
Humm says, “You can’t fly with that big heavy pack, you know. You need to take it off.”
Mockingbird trembles. “I don’t think I can.”
“I’ll help you.” And she does.
Mockingbird flaps his wings. “I can breathe,” he says. “I’m a Bird!”
“I have to go tell Raven.” He turns toward the edge and jumps off. Humm watches as he streaks off to the west.
Humm flies up to join the others. She imagines Bluebird flying next to her. “Tutti-frutti, sugarbug!” she sings to him.
All the Birds swoop and soar higher and higher, and the sky is filled with flight and freedom and song.
© Lia DeLand 2019 All Rights Reserved