Seedsprout
Marking the beginning of fledging season and the end of the cold, hard winter, the sparrows venerate Seedsprout over all other holidays. It does not always exactly coincide with the warming of the sun and the plenty of seeds and young shoots to eat, but their arrival is always heralded.

Longday
The midsummer celebration of Longday is when the newly fledged chicks take their places as full members of sparrow society. The longest, hottest day of the year, it is also an opportunity to remember that winter has begun its approach and that the halcyon days of summer are fleeting.

Flutterleaf
The most dour of all sparrow holidays, Flutterleaf is a final feast on the latest-blooming, the cherries and their ilk. One final chance to fatten for the hardships to come, it is also often fledglings’ last chance to seek assistance from their parents before their first winter alone.

Darkday
The coldest and darkest day of the year, Darkday is a time to remember all those sparrows that have perished in the previous cycle. But it is also a hopeful time, because spring has finally begun its arrival. Darkday Dances are often the place where sparrows meet their mate for the season.

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The Conclave was a special meeting of the Great Council called every ten years. It was attended by the delegates, or the sons of the old delegates, and it was there that birds were added or expelled.

Only the largest and hardiest birds were represented, and only those native to the area. Thus, the great ostriches and emus were not represented, though the Council did seek their advice on occasion. At this meeting, the Council consisted of an owl, a crow, a hawk, a vulture, a gull, a heron, and a goose. Smaller birds were assigned a Council member; the sparrows were represented by the crow and the ducks by the goose, for example.

At this Conclave, a motion was introduced through the crow to expel the hawk from the council. The reasoning was that, since the hawk tended to eat its fellow birds, it exercised undue influence and could not be controlled.

The hawk natrually protested that this was a transparent attempt by its prey to avoid predation and undermine the natural order. The owl agreed, noting that it too often took other birds as meals, though not with the frequency of hawks. Fearing that its omnivorous habits would be impinged, the gull joined them.

However, the crow was in favor despite its own wide-ranging diet, and the goose and heron concurred. As they ate mostly non-birds, they saw nothing wrong with the hawk’s demotion and argued that it could be ably represented by the owl.

This left only the vulture, who had long held a reputation as a crafty negotiator. Weighing the alternatives, he declared that he did not care one way or the other, since birds who died of natural causes were his only avian prey. He therefore, instead, declared that he would vote for whoever offered him the finest gift.

The others insisted that this was quite unprecedented, but the vulture would not relent. It was his nature to seek profit where he could, he argued, and this was no exception.

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Strange creatures wandered about in the dark. Through tunnels and off ledges, the bird creatures walked, trying to escape the sacred geometry.

Sometimes things swam up out of the darkness at them at the ends of the ledges. Whales and drowned men who claimed to have been sent by God and swallowed by a fish floated up and all the creatures could do was watch, faces upturned for one brief moment before looking back at the ground and continuing their path. Sometimes, if they stood still too long, roots began growing from them, pulling them into the walls, peeling forth from their flesh like curling pages.

And there were eyes, watching from the dark, though they could not tell if they were their own. And one of these creatures was named Mona.

Mona was one of those always at risk of growing roots. She loved the thought of the surface too much to remember to keep moving. Every day as she trudged along in line with her fellow birds, she imagined what the lives of those holy men must have been like before they were swallowed. Their clothes were always white, she noticed. Somewhere, then, there was no such thing as algae, or as dirt. What it might be like to never have to clean her feathers!

Mona dipped down to the surface, telling herself it was just for a moment. Only one moment, and then I’m on my way, she thought. Mona leaned way down toward the surface, her beak swaying just at the hem and horizon of the other world. Dipping millimeters more, she peered into that world, her eyes less than a foot from the divide. There were fish, and men, but of unsettling shape and character. What a strange place! she cooed. Her back shot up as she sensed something moving behind her.

The air from Gerard’s wings pounded against her back.

“If you love the humans so much, grow your roots already and save us some trouble,” he squawked at her. “Either touch the earth, or get back in line!”

Silently, she flew back toward the heavens, wings outstretched and silent tears in her eyes. There was a time and a place to grow roots, to finally become one of the beings she had always dreamed about, but she wasn’t ready to say goodbye, to this life or her family. She had no idea what would become of her once she was swallowed up. And there was really only one way to find out, but that was a one way trip she just wasn’t willing to take yet.

So she kept flying, thinking maybe, eventually, she would be able instead to touch the sun.

Uncounteable hours later, exhausted and the sun no closer, she sank to the ground, defeated, amid a small grove of her kind that had also tried for the sun and failed. She could feel her roots beginning to work their way into the soft soil and wept miserably at her failure.

One of the others bird-bushes in the grove was of a curious motley pattern Mona had never seen before. He asked her, in calm but erratic tones, if she would prefer a free-flying life to the rooted existence that so clearly vexed her. It could all be hers, he said, for but a little price.

“Okay,” Mona said. “I’ll do it. I’ll do anything.”

No sooner had the last syllable gasped out when she awoke. No longer a bush-bird, as if awakening from a dream. She was the lone volunteer, the sole occupant of the suicidal Daedalus mission to re-ignite the sun, and her freedom and quest for the sun were both about to be fulfilled.

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Here at the Sanctuary for Unusual Birds, we do our best to offer a safe and secure environment for avians that for whatever reason are not able to function in their natural enviornment.

Take Phil the Polychromatic Chicken. Like all of his kind, his feathers change to whatever hue someone mentions, from pink to purple to burnt sienna. However, he has been shunned by his kind ever since some terrible person mentioned plaid to him and caused poor Phil to have a nervous breakdown, half-plaid and half sea-green.

Then there’s Kiki the Gyrostrich. Like all Gyrostriches she is a natural dancer and can often be found in the wild busting a move. However, she dances tap, with shoes scavanged from the wreck of a Carnival cruise ship. The other Gyrostriches dance ballet, and therefore shun her.

And who could forget Claude, the vegan hawk? The Sanctuary found him half-dead in the dumpster of an organic health food store, living on discarded tofu and enriched kale.

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“It really is quite remarkable,” said Burgess, gingerly sipping his warm tea, which he had taken in the kitchen to avoid another staring contest with Mr. Forrestal. “I have heard of and seen many deformities of the body in the literature and as a boy at the freak show. But Melinda is no Mr. Merrick, no gross and twisted creature.”

Mary, who had been put at ease by a shilling and the promise of more, agreed over the sound of her washing. “You’d never think that she were a freak,” she said, “but rather that Master Peter’s wife had a naff with a blackbird. ‘Course that ain’t the case, as those what knew her father see plenty of him in her.”

“Surely there are ways to be…less dependent…on Mr. Forrestal,” said Burgess. “An anatomical curiosity such as hers could command a healthy living in the penny gaff trade, or as a curiosity at the London Hospital…”

A clatter of dishes. “Oh no, sir. Begging the master’s pardon, but that could never be so,” cried Mary.

“Why ever not?”

“Well, you’ve seen her. A delicate, gentle creature with the soul of a songbird. Such a cage would flatten her! And Master Forrestal would never allow it, besides. To see the family name besmirched, his secret shame revealed to all the world?”

“Yes, I suppose not,” said Burgess gravely. “Mr. Forrestal does seem rather concerned with appearances.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Mary said darkly. “You don’t know the half of it.”

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Melinda’s voice was raspy. “You are…Mister Burgess, are you not?”

The former greenhouse was a warren of books and genteel tintypes, with a narrow path winding between them. Burgess could hear the squeaking of Melinda’s chair nearby, but could not immediately see a way to reach it.

“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “Your uncle spoke to you of me?

“Oh, no.” More rusty squealing as Melinda reoriented herself, sight unseen, to seek out Burgess amid the chaos. “Uncle is…terribly protective. I’m sure you noticed.”

Burgess rubbed the spot on the small of his back where Uncle Forrestal’s gun had been pressed. “I did indeed. But I am here because of your father.”

The squeaking, and the rasping, were closer now. “Uncle has told me of Father. I remember…little of him, but I am sure that he had my interests at heart when he left. Mother’s death at my birth was, I am told, quite the blow.”

Burgess snorted softly. The man the constabulary had fished out of the Thames had clearly only had his own at heart, judging from the betting slips in his pockets. “Well, Miss Forrestal, your father was, if nothing else, a registered barrister and the owner of not inconsiderable assets. If you are of age and of sound mind and body, you stand to inherit all of his holdings in lieu of your uncle, the only other next of kin.”

“I am quite sound of mind, thank you, Mr. Burgess,” croaked Melinda. She turned a corner into Burgess’s field of view, covered in a shawl, her twisted and thin legs beneath a blanket clearly unable to support her weight. “As for sound of body, well…I am told that, while she was in the early stages of bearing me, Mother was attacked and nearly killed by a flock of ravens.”

She cast back the hood, and Burgess recoiled in horror from the visage, far more birdlike than he had expected. Melinda’s beak clicked as she continued: “And, as those things do, it has…left its mark on me.”

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“I love this waterfront. Nobody does a riverwalk like the Europeans.”

“It probably wasn’t as romantic a hundred years ago when this was all pollution and ooze.”

“Still, look at it now. All that stonework…ships in the river…everything is so clean and orderly.”

“Just like the stereotype of France, I’m sure.”

“Can’t you just enjoy the experience? Look at that sky! Look at those buildings!”

“No, I can’t. And I’ll tell you why.”

“Why?”

“See that aviary over there? Those birds have been staring at us through their old-timey bars since we got here.”

“Probably just looking for a handout.”

“No, that’s not what scares me at all. One of them has something in its beak.”

“What is it? I can’t quite see.”

“It looks like…the key to a Renault. What kind of car did we rent again?”

Inspired by the song ‘Heckle and Jeckle’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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It was that hum that first keyed most people into the fact that something was deeply wrong.

Oh, there had been signs before. Flocks of birds flying south in June, for one. Massive deaths among the ones that stayed, like the flock that beat itself to death against the front windows of the IGA. Lots of people lost their dogs, and lots more found them cowering under couches and in crawlspaces.

But that hum, that ominous pitch-defying hum that seemed like the music of the spheres one moment and a dire portent the next…that ever-uneasy tone that seemed straight out of the sound design for a horror movie.

We knew where it was coming from: cicadas. 17-year cicadas, emerging from their split shells to sing from the treetops. It shouldn’t have been anything to worry about, just an annoyance. But seeing the creatures was what made most people sit up and take notice.

It had only been five years since they’d last come up. The 17-year cicadas were 12 years early for the first time in human history, and nobody had any idea why.

We found out soon enough.

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With delighted quibbles, the bird alights. A cuckoo enters the nest, level and light, balancing a bit to clutch twigs for a smaller bird. A nearby sparrow shouts a warning as the interloper lays a fake.

A sparrow weathers the events beside his hen, an apology unspoken between them. The hen runs claws against her clutch, against the interloper. Nearby, in the leaves, the cuckoo waits: ready to wreck nest and meat within should things go ill.

The sparrows have decided. They will keep the child and love it with offerings of chitin as if it were their very own. Perhaps their love will be enough, and their child will no longer savage the nests of others but build its own.

Theirs is the hope of a doomed generation.

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In the old days, when the world was but young and the creatures were but new upon it, a sparrow approached its young mother, the Earth below, with a request.

“Mother,” it said most politely, “I have a boon to ask of thee.”

“Speak, then, little flutterer,” said the Earth. In those days, young and so very proud of her creations, she whispered lovingly to all of them in the dewey mornings and misty evenings. The stony silence she bears now is, after all, borne of the long hurt that only a mother can know, and not of hatred.

“I would like to know why it is that I must die,” the sparrow said.

“Many have asked me this before, and it has ever been a prelude to asking eternal life of me,” answered the Earth.

“I would be lying, dear Mother, if I said it were not so,” said the sparrow. “But Father ever gives off warmth and light, seemingly asking nothing in return, while thine gifts are only good for a time, until we inevitably return them to thee.”

“And yet has your Father in the sky ever held thee, ever whispered to thee, ever provided hollows in which to hide and sticks with which to build?” asked the Earth. “I think not. His gifts are fine and without recompense, but they are the gifts of an absent parent, sent instead of love rather than with love, by one who is too busy flitting and dancing for real responsibility.”

“But I also flit and dance after a fashion, dear Mother,” said the sparrow. “Surely thou can part with what it would take to show me the same regard that Father does.”

This greatly saddened the Earth. “I will make you a bargain then, sparrow. I will hold myself apart from thee and take thee not into my bosom in death. We shall see, then how much regard I show for three.”

The sparrow eagerly agreed, and that very night he sprang from the jaws of one who would otherwise have slain him. But soon he came to see he folly of his request: in holding herself apart from him, the Earth offered neither shelter nor succor. Perches and nests failed to warm, food failed to satisfy, water failed to slake thirst.

Worse, the sparrow came to see how its mate, its chicks, and all of its flock in time came to rest in the embrace of their loving mother. The sparrow was soon cut off from family and flock, regarded as a curious old outsider even by his own descendants.

After the passage of much time, the sparrow returned to his mother. “O mother, I beg of thee, take back this gift which has been my curse,” he wept. “I see now what you meant all those many years ago.”

“Do you now, little flutterer?” The Earth was much saddened in those later days, and already beginning to withdraw herself from her beloved children into solitude. “What would you ask of me now? What impossible and selfish demands?”

“I ask only to return that which I once borrowed from thee and, in my impudence, sought to keep,” said the sparrow. “I can hear the keening call of the Great Flock, and wish only to be reunited with them.”

“You see now what your pride has wrought?” said the Earth.

“I do.”

“Then embrace me, O flutterer.”

That was the last time a sparrow ever spoke to the Earth, our mother, and the last request she granted unto us. And yet we remain grateful all the same, for without her daily gifts, we would perish. And without returning to her in time, we would not have repaid all that we owe.

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