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goldfinch

Fly Again

The wind dove down into the pastureland along the coast. It ripped its fast slender fingers through the ancient copses and stranded glacial boulders, surging and wailing in the billowing grasses, and then suddenly lifted up–straight up—and everything took flight. Foliage rolled back, baring the white knuckles of twiggy branches, clawing at the wind as the leaves broke free. Rain roared across the land, ragging like ghost-fire, blinding the sky. Amid the storm’s raucous symphony a flare of screaming laughter burst the tingling sound-waves.

Their canvas shoes found no traction in the streaming matted pasture. Rain dashed against their crumpled faces as they made for the trees. There were three children, out of nowhere, half-running, half-falling down the hill toward the woods. The smallest of the trio slipped when they reached the foot of the hill and dropped to the ground with a startled chirp. The oldest, in the lead, spun back while the third bounded on. “Come on, Leif.”

“I am.” He scrambled to his feet and they went on wrestling the wind into the shelter of the trees. The first tree at the edge of the field was a burr oak two stories tall. The children raced, wild and breathless to the shelter of its canopy. And suddenly there was no storm.

“Why did you want to go out when the sky was so dark?” asked the middle girl—about seven, and apparently intent on growing up to be a curlyhorse. She wiped the rain out of her eye and pulled back her springy blonde hair.

“Ember said it wouldn’t rain,” said Leif.

“I said it wouldn’t storm,” the oldest replied. “You and Persephone were all wet anyway. You went after the mudskippers.” There was nothing left of Ember’s braid at this point, so she slipped the band off the dripping ends of her wind-beaten flax hair and wrapped it around her boney wrist.

Leif seemed to have forgotten the mudskippers and stared at a point somewhere behind Ember and Persephone. He had a rather worried expression even when he was laughing and playing, but just now, he appeared to be truly perplexed by something. “What?” asked Persephone, as the sisters turned back to where his focus rested.

Someone sat against the dark mossy tree-trunk. Persephone passed a questioning look to her older sister. “Let’s see,” said Ember. The three moved in toward the tree and the boy sitting on the roots.

He didn’t look up when they approached. Apparently he had discovered an ideally comfortable place between the huge gnarled roots, and had no desire to resettle. His back was against the trunk, and his dark tranquil eyes rested with equal ease and serenity on something cradled in his hand. But what was truly fantastic was his hair—incredible curling black masses of it flowing all over the tree bark down his back and over his shoulders—though mostly dry, was beaded with a million perfect silver orbs of rain, still and clear.

As the children came closer, his right hand drew a silver needle smoothly up from what he held in his left. They could see, secured carefully between his thumb and index finger, a little black and yellow wing, spread like a tiny painted oriental fan. Leif moved in to see what it was. He cocked his head to the side a bit. “What do you have?” he asked.

“A bird,” he said.

“What kind of bird?” asked Persephone, leaning forward to see. He tipped his hand a bit and showed them the bird. It fit perfectly in the palm of his hand, lying on its back. It was mostly soft golden-gray with black and yellow wing-feathers and a black cap. Its cheeks were white and its face was deep scarlet. The eyes, with lids of fine gray velvet, were crumpled shut.

“It’s a goldfinch,” said Ember.

“What happened to it?” asked Leif.

“It flew against the glass,” said the youth, pushing aside the down on its still breast with the tip of his finger. He inserted the needle into the broken flesh and drew it together like a curtain with a hair of thread. The children watched his progress for a few minutes while the storm raged over the pasturelands.

“You have to be so careful,” Leif observed at length.

“That’s true,” he said.

“Did it break when it hit the glass?”

“Yes. Inside.”

“When did it happen?” asked Persephone.

“This morning, just after the sun came up.”

“How long have you been working?” asked Ember.

“Since then.”

“It’s hard?” Leif looked up at the boy’s face.

“Yes.”

There was another pause while the silver needle flashed in the rainy light and the wind moaned in the oaks. The girls came and leaned against the tree on either side of him, watching, silent. Leif licked his lips and leaned over the bird for a second when the young man paused in his stitching. His sad eyes combed the soft rumpled down. “Can I touch it?” he asked.

“Be gentle.” He held it out to him. The wind lightly played with the tiny body, making the wings tremble with the memory of flight. Leif reached out, touching the delicate crown with one finger he could barely feel the soft feathers, but he could feel the hardness of the little skull, like a seashell.

He lifted it to Persephone and then Ember to let them stroke it. They caressed the feathers, careful to avoid the threaded rift in the downy chest. The wind whistled in the high branches, like phantom birds calling back to the physical world. Now and then a heavy drop of accumulated rain fell through the dark canopy and burst on the mossy ground nearby. But the storm couldn’t come in. Under the tree was a tabernacle of calm.

The point of the needle slipped through again, and another quarter centimeter of the cold bloody opening vanished under the cloudy feathers. “Isn’t there a faster way?” asked Persephone. “Does it get too boring if you have to work so long?”

“It’s alright.”

“Why are you doing it?” asked Ember, at last.

He smiled. “Birds like to fly. I like to hear them singing in the woods when the rain gets quiet. They need to sing and raise young and gather together to fly south when the winter comes. And besides, the sky is empty without them.”

“But this is just one bird,” said Ember. “There are thousands of them.”

He let his hand drop to his lap and looked down at the dead bird. “But…this is one of them.”

For a minute they were quiet. The boy rearranged the goldfinch’s wing so one of the feathers that was being roughed by his palm would lie smooth. He lifted the needle again and pricked it through the pale gray flesh. The thread wove to-and-fro until, finally, the bird was whole.

The youth knotted the thread and snipped it between his teeth. He drove the needle into the root of the oak and gently stroked the bird’s wings to fold them against its sides. Then he turned it over on its belly, straightening the limp neck so that the head faced outward. Covering it with his other hand, he got to his feet. “Let me show you something. Come out into the field. I can make it fly again.”

So the children followed him out into the pastureland. The wind had died down, and the rain fell in straight chains on the ocean. They followed him across the sodden turf up to the top of the hill. The world radiated from that hill as if from the hub of a wheel. The dark blotchy sky looked on.

The boy’s profuse black hair billowed over his shoulder as the wind rushed breathily against their backs. He lifted his hand, uncovering the bird in his palm. The children watched. It was still lifeless. The clawed feet curled weakly underneath, and all the joints slack. He stroked its back with two fingers, flicking shattered raindrops of the feathers. Then he looked out across the stormy world.

“Can it fly in the rain?” asked Leif.

“Of course it can,” said Persephone.

“Will the stiches hurt when it flaps its wings?” asked Ember, looking from the dead bird to the young man’s face. “They won’t hurt, will they?”

“It will never feel it.” And he blew across the bird’s back. In a flurry of life and bursting energy, the wings flashed out and the limp body went taught, leaping from his hand and out into the air—into the sky.

A brilliant dash of painted feathers, the goldfinch snapped its wings open and shut, bounding across the pastureland, through the rain and dancing foliage. Away it went into the darkness of the woods. The children watched it out of sight.

The three looked back to find they were alone in the rolling pastureland. High overhead, thunder warned that the storm wasn’t over. There was a flicker of lightning over the sea. Ember sighed. “We should go home.”

The children melted into the shadows and whispers of the woodland, leaving the fields to the frolicking reckless wind, and the forest to the dying rain. As the next cell of the storm advanced in from the sea, there was a hush, and in the hush, dark thickets were still.

And in the still, dripping thickets, a single goldfinch began to sing.