Inside an alehouse whittled from a whale’s spine is where the last willie-wagtail whispers to herself, composing commemorations while cleaning tables. One night all a-sudden a tourist tesla-coil lilts, “Who’ll tell us a tale?” and looks across the quiet crowd. “Down a dowry’s worth of whisky and sing away the waning night?”
Amongst requests and suggestions comes a commanding whistle. “Where be the rag-bird?” queries blind tide-soiled cockatrice. “She’s a vicious history to share.”
“Here!” A marsh-deer’s shadow ushers the dishevelled little wagtail into sight.
“Hello all,” she hails, shuffling her feet. “I’d like to glimpse you a maggie-lark’s look into the book of birds. Heard I first this vast work from a welcome voice in the nest. Shelling swallows tell of two wrens: betwixt and between, better than brothers then though never well-met after a winter mellower than any other. Either whichever way the weather canters, canary cannot twice fly her feathers farther than autumn’s maudlin naught-sinned new-sewed noose. From nests westward hawk and jackdaw wonder whether we shall ever sever summer’s very-fiery-vast vain—”
The crowd complains.
Agrees great cockatrice: “Tell us your tale of avian valiance, of since-lost stoic soldiers, of sly lank canines assailing your citadel of dancing lights. Girt us with war deeds, whether fair or foul.”
For a while the white-vested storyteller hesitates, but after further insistence and assurances of a free supper she starts: “Water-fowl souls. Well, ol’ wolf loves their flavour. For they, flambéed and bathed in brine, briskly brighten even the sickliest of lives. As if fallen leaves given to ground he gathers them thick then consumes his soul-meal. Truly a pity his appetite passes passing smew and Muscovy scores. For more he moans, for more he forces his fastest foxes to tend the future of his fixation. Silent they stalk and catch duck and diving goose to soothe wolf’s want until his fill he (theoretically) has. Mallard hordes they score and sauce, and still more he screams. It seems no lunch quenches his hunger, so hunted still the silver teals, to the last, ‘til every single diver, wader and dinner was done, and our doom was begun.”
She trembles and takes a moment. The tesla-coil moves closer.
“While white wolf whittles down daily his dinners stored, the scores of captured, pilfered water-fowl souls were found out and their feathered bodies brought bemoaned to our beloved—not yet beleaguered—Raven Grove. Grieved, raved and wailed we did for our fox-felled brethren; knowing not their deaths’ cruel cause we cremated and lamented their lost (later discovered devoured, drizzled on salted salmon) souls. For how would they find and dwell within the fairest white walls of Celestial Fall, that tall tree-lined residence of the virtuous and divine? Five forlorn dawns and six sorrowed sunsets turned until ash and monody minuted once-existence for every single one of those severed from living and also after-life.”
Lifting a wing the wagtail wails: “We were not to know that to follow! The folly, the unfairly Furies, the future fallen! If to them I could cry, why I could warn—this war I have seen, I would wish it away! I would trade the weather my feathers for a false future of survival! A lie I desire, of life and free fortune, not a truth so bloodthirsty it sinks fangs into families, feasts severely on fair countries. But so fast our fate was sealed, all our legends Medieval and Mesozoic combined could not have saved us. For once that last dusk of buried dead ducks had ended, we discussed what to do, and though diplomat pigeon was our planned decision, the sneaky penguin clan acceded not. Secretly the salt-sea birds sent an assassin siskin, skilled in shadow-killing, to savagely avenge their cousins. Since she travelled solo and lacked restrictive bureaucrats, the blood-letting siskin reached the lupus lair well before our patch-winged pigeons gained pig-faced wolf’s favour for a conference.”
“And then, what then?” a nether-earl’s heir whines. “Were there warted witches or worse, were there unseen twists and turns in the narrative, did vital fighters become victims or heroes? Whose deaths are set and who survives? What transpires, who expires, are there vampires? Siskins and pigeons now; what then, and then?”
His houndstooth-patterned nanny spanks him, starting a cascade of calcite tears. “Stories and titles are not for the discourteous,” she states and strictly makes him regret still more ‘til sore royal brimstone boy says his sorries.
The history-bird stares. “My tale as told holds blood, but no bold imbibers,” she says and the nether-one nods. Coughs and clears her beak, the wagtail, before continuing on: “In his own cold blood boss wolf was found drowned.”
“The howls we heard for weeks, the weepin’ went on wi’ no end that winter,” adds a tawny quilt-weed, seesawing on its stuttering susurrus.
“Quite quickly,” continues willie, “while wolf’s wife wailed away weeping, wishing she were sleeping a sad dreaming sleep, slips away the slayer siskin in success, sky-sailing to the iced-land Spheniscidae sea.” The history-teller spits a curse. “If any ice-bred penguins still live, I wish them all ill! The naïve villains, I ask the carnivore demon ducks to—”
She catches and calms herself. “Ahem. The siskin, she’s kept her promise, she presents to the sorrowing sable-wearing war-sowing penguins her bloodied blade, proclaims the completion of her operation, and takes her compensation. If only patience or sense the fat penguins possessed! Unsurprisingly the crying lupes suspected our innocent diplomat pigeon. His pinions they sent back, snapped. We asked for answers, for his safety. His feet we received. Seeing this senseless (to us, until the siskin’s actions we discovered) and severe savagery, we seethed. Several succinct communications ensued. No truths or answers were written, no regrets were given, though great grievances were aired. Our views on the wolves (and their thoughts on us, I’m sure) worsened. One last letter we wrote, a threat—what were our thoughts, where were our wits? We were rash in action, but was our ruin warranted?”
“The war, the war, when will we hear of the war?” urges a wight topiarist. “These politics, they bore, so where is the brawn? Woe or whatever the wading birds—for seven score years or more mourn for them, sure. I begrudge not your grief, but simply beg for some gore to grace your grand tale! So far we’ve gross gourmet misdeeds—missing ducks deep-fried!—from a wolf despot so despised for despicably supping on lake-born webbed-toe souls that he’s deposed by a slayer sneaky-sent—retaliation by sea folks too sorrow-filled to think of incensed canid reactions—who sadly led an innocent to be indecently detained and increasingly maimed for crude pieces sent unnecessarily in cruel reply to inquiries duck-related. Yet, tail-wagging tale-telling bird, your waxing war yarn yearns for more meat.”
“Yarn?” Her black wings the bird riffles. “The bodies of our dead (that we found) we burned ‘til more embers than feathers filled the firmament. Their faces I forget but the fetidness, the fear—seeing nest-fellows felled not once, not twice, but forever more and further, for this is a war and your sorrows occur over and over. If even the cassowary corps cannot conquer coyotes, if the unscrupulous penguins are outswum by suborned seals, if our skilled hawks are executed by hired cats, what chance we the small, the weak? What will stay our slaughter when our assumed allies the reptiles (once cherished) turn us away?”
The wagtail sags. “My yarn you urge so insouciantly, this story you insistently solicit—it is a litany of calamities, a catalogue of extinction: quail, crane, cuckoo, kingfisher, gamefowl, flamingo, frogmouth, puff, gull, hornbill, humming, nightjar, pigeon, grebe, trogon, ratite, parrot, raptor, tropic, pecker, petrel, roller, owl, loon, pelican, tinamou, turaco, waterfowl first of course, swift, mouse, albatross, stork, sandgrouse, dove, plover—all but vultures and some few perching birds, of whom this small one is called upon to sully the lamented’s memories for amusement’s sake.”
“Mollify yourself if you must, but the mysterious heroes and melancholic myths are of your making,” remarks cockatrice.
“Do I diminish the dead in today addressing these momentous en masse deeds instead of describing discrete birds’ actions and conditions? Would any here hearken to names, care for a commoner’s chronicle? Course not.”
The tesla-coil coruscates. “Try us, teller-bird, please. Bestow perhaps your personal story? What was it you did during the war?”
“I?” The wagtail tilts her head. “The dead, I sang their dirges. I always had; even peace requires requiems sporadic. During the conflict my song seemed unceasing, increasingly for avians nameless! And the soulless, oh, I iterated their psalms as if sounds could produce replacements! My voice gave out. Our Raven Grove fell to wolves. But before the final offensive, before their fire and our full defeat, I fled. I linger in life feeling the graveness of my duty to elegize all the lost, but there are so many, and I must manage to eat.”
Amongst mutters the tesla-coil says, “I will listen, willie, if you’d like, to the appellations, to your laments. The allure of unparalleled rare lore amplifies my fauna fascination.”
“Not lore, not—”
“Later, later!” calls cockatrice. “First, the war!”
“The war, the war!” the rapt throng implore.
The wagtail glances sidelong at the tesla-coil, sighs, and sings away the night.
Story copyright © 2014 by Penny Stirling
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Kat Weaver
Penny Stirling is a legal transcriptionist who writes speculative prose and poetry lest they forget that language can be beautiful. They live in Western Australia and can’t imagine it without willie wagtails. Their work has appeared in Goblin Fruit, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, and Heiresses of Russ.
Kat Weaver is an illustrator and writer whose work has previously been published in Apex Magazine and The Toast. She lives in Minneapolis with her girlfriend and two birds.