This story is by Stuart and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The Sand Rock Tree
“Tell us, Feeder, tell us again,” my children clamored.
“Yes, tell us,” said my layer, settled amongst our nestlings.
“What? What shall I tell?” I said, teasing them.
“Tell how you went down the sand rock tree,” said my sons in unison.
“Tell how you flew all the way down and came out into the dead air of the stone fort,” said my daughter as she snuggled more deeply into her brooder’s breast feathers.
“Only that part or do you want more?” I said.
“All of it! The whole story, from start to finish,” chorused my family.
“Are you sure? After all the times you’ve heard it?” I said.
“Oh, very well,” I said with a sigh, as though I found the business tedious. I fluffed out my feathers and gave myself a shake to smooth them. “It was cold late winter, but already the speckled hard beaks and the yammering swarmers were shrieking about the spring, making claim to all the best pockets, dips and hollows round the stone fort. It was my first year to find a nest site, and I was anxious. I had yet to find my song, and could tell I’d made little impression on my prospective layer. I feared I’d be passed by entirely if I failed to find a superlative site.”
“I was young, and untried, but already I knew I could not contest the hard beaks and survive. And I knew no layer would consent to the worrying of swarmers and their crass relentless shrieking. It was a terrible frustration to me that their brassy like had seized the best locations around the stone fort, but no scheme I could devise provided a solution to their monopoly. My song, no matter how I struggled, remained painfully thin, laughable among the Great Voiced, and though I tried to keep my practice private, nonetheless the meadow mimics heard me. They broadcast their version of my strangled music for all to hear, and thus shamed, I found I could no more utter even that pale pathetic music. Thus it became even more important to find an exceptional situation.”
“And so I recalled, from my fledgling summer, the boasts the sky skimmers made about their sand rock tree. They congratulated themselves endlessly over how safe their spit stick nests were, tucked away down its sheltering hollow, what stable support it provided, and how private and quiet a retreat its depths comprised.”
“Now, both Brooder and Feeder had warned all of us young ones to pay no heed to the twitterings of the come and go flocks, for their wisdom took wing with them when they departed upon the short day cycle, while we who stay abide by the dictates of the sunspan whole.”
“But I was young and felt I’d die if my prospective layer passed me over, for already I’d set my heart on a fair quick winged candidate.”
“But not our brooder,” said one of my sons.
“He already broke canon choosing before he had a site!” my daughter said, full of disdain at my foolishness.
“Wait and see how you feel when you are out and seeking your first site,” said my layer, with a tone of slight reproof.
“To continue,” I said, and paused. Seeing I’d regained their attention, I picked up my tale. “So, I thought I might die if my prospective layer passed me by, and thus, in my desperation, it occurred to me. Why I should not try something new, unthought-of so far? The sky skimmers’ flock increased year by year, or so I’d heard it told. Why not try their sand rock tree? Neither speckled hard beaks nor shrieking swarmers ever dared it, and safe too, so bragged the sky skimmers, from ground shadows, legless and otherwise, secure from ring-tailed snatchers and even taloned fierce maws. And so I decided to investigate the potential held within the sand rock tree.”
“Up I flew and stopped on the edge of its hollow. It was very dark, the air within half stale even from where I perched. Despite this, its utter stillness was appealing. And so, I entered the hollow of the sand rock tree. I saw the remains of the spit stick nests as I descended, and what flimsy affairs they were. I couldn’t see, even I, a young bachelor bird, how any layer worth the name would risk her eggs in such as those. I was reconsidering while I chanced my exploration a little further down. It seemed to me that none but a wanton in search of a dump would ever give the stinking place more than a sneering glance. For as I descended the walls grew black with foul sticky stuff, further splattered with sky skimmer ordure. I was readying to depart, disappointment mounting as my heart grew heavy, when I spotted a smudge of illumination just a little further down. “
“I reached a ledge within the hollow, framed by thin seams of light. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, for it was the ideal size for a nest, and level, too. I excitedly took its measure, thinking its vaunting would more than make up for the feebleness of my song, when two things happened.”
“Hot breath and felid aura waved through the light leaking clefts, and then I heard the unmistakable huff of feline excitement. I was so startled that I swept backwards, slipping instantly away from the ledge. I went swirling down in the dark, while overhead the ledge and its light disappeared, and left me in a fathomless nothing. Frantic and disoriented, I took wing and made for a dim light far below.”
“I flew free of the darkness, only to find myself in a box of barren air. Dead tree and dead plant artifacts such as the stone fort dwellers favor surrounded me, and the overwhelming scent of ground owl permeated the otherwise empty atmosphere. In that vacuum, the blades of my flight feathers resounded alarmingly. In seconds, three slender shadows snaked across the inert grass matt that covered the deadwood plain.”
“As we have taught you young ones, when there is no thicket, tangle or bramble, climb. And climb I did. I followed the light up the twisting dead wood hill where above I thought I saw the sky, but it was false, no freedom there. I flew on to the next brightest light, hoping I might find the way out, but struck sand ice, nearly stunning myself to stupefaction. Just behind me the shadowing ground owls pounced and I was nearly taken. I felt their claws rake the air just beyond my tail feathers.”
“And so, according to the custom of the Great Voiced, I sang, to ready myself to meet the Creator. But instead of the feeble wisps I was accustomed to utter, I was astonished to find my own true Great Voice. My song split that empty air, and vibrated from my very soul out to every feather’s tip. Brilliant, its resplendence announced my life even as I faced its end. The sheer thrill of its energy surged through me, and I sped beyond the reach of the feline threat. But now it seemed my deliverance had merely drawn another menace, awaiting me in the form of the stone fort native, the wily upright bare face, whose capture I had at all costs avoid, better killed and eaten than the slow ruin of confinement.”
“The bare face stalked me, closing off avenues of escape one by one. I flew frantically ahead of my pursuer, hardly knowing where I went or why. I gave full voice to my newly found song to the Creator, crying out for deliverance. How could it be that I should finally find my heartsong, just to be ended here? I was prepared to fly again into the sand ice, to beat myself to death against it, when, of all miracles, the Creator answered.”
“I smelled sweet air, full of life. I felt fresh wind, and heard leaf sound, branch rattle and earth sigh. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of unimpeded sunlight. I flew straight for it, and out I was, into the clear. Even before I gained total freedom of the stone fort, I burst into an even brighter song, brighter than any I had ever yet heard among all the Great Voiced.”
“All my kind and many more took notice of me, and I flew to the highest rampart, bold upon the stone fort’s top, heedless of the hard beaks and swarmers, and sang my song, long and loud and liquid. And despite the fact that I had no site, many a layer let it be known she would consent to partner me, including my intended.”
“But one quiet, brown and shy, hung back from among the others. Her very stillness caught me, and I saw wisdom in her eyes. With the faintest of motions, she beckoned me to follow her, letting me know that I alone should find her. And so when the day wore down, and dinners beckoned and night loomed, and I found myself alone, I went as she had indicated. I walked a vine, and pushed through a thicket, climbed a limb, and squeezed past a bramble. And there I found her waiting for me, in a site the like of which I had only dreamt. How hidden, how quiet, how tucked out of sight, and not a swarmer or hard beak had a notion that it existed.”
“And to this very day, not a one has ever found it, not a nestling has fallen from it or been taken, briar laced and thorn shielded, leaf shaded and branch braided, more subtle year by year, our haven site we’ve held, your brooder and I, your feeder, watching over each year’s young, growing safely to fledge.”
“All because you went into the sand rock tree,” said my sons.
“And found your song,” said my daughter.
“And was then chosen by your brooder,” I said.
My brooder gave me a quick quiet touch with her bill, saying, just before she tucked it beneath her wing, “Which just shows what good may come of folly.”