THERE WERE WARNING SIGNS in the Ward that day that anyone could have seen. The children must have seen the danger in their own games, in the crescent moons, roughly cut from tin, that they strung from fishing line on sticks and dangled to cast shadows beneath the pale sun. They knew, as I knew, that the festival meant the militia would be out in force, seeking to fill their quotas for arrests. They would find infractions enough in the Ward, whether from drinking or improper dress or any of the many offenses you can commit when you’re Half Kith.
Maybe I should have been more careful from the moment I saw the bird from my little window in my little room in the tavern attic, so cold I had been going to bed fully dressed. Ethin—a pretty name for a city, and this city was pretty for the right sort of people—is usually warm, so warm that tiny purple indi flowers grow out of the cracks of crumbling walls. Thin green fingers dig deep into stone. A heavy scent thickens the hot air. But every now and then a wind blows from the west that freezes everyone’s bones, Half Kith and High Kith and Middling alike. People say teardrops of hail spangle the pink-sand beaches outside the city. They say the trees beyond the wall become jeweled by clear pearls of ice, and that the High Kith drink bitter hot chocolate at outdoor parties where their laughter is white lace in the chilled air.
I had never seen the shore. I didn’t know if chocolate was something I would like. I had never even seen a tree.
I woke because of the way the bird sang. The song was sparkling, limpid: a string of glass beads flung onto a polished floor. I thought, Not possible and Not here and That bird will soon die. Maybe I should have guessed then how my day would end. But how could I? When I came close to the window and palmed away the feathered frost, when I dug my nails into the window frame weathered from the times when the damp got in, eating the wood, softening it, I could not have known. When I saw the spot of red flickering amid the brown and white rooftops, I could not have known, because I thought I knew myself. I thought I knew the things I could do, and what I would not. Here is what I believed:
I would do what was expected of me.
I could trust myself now.
Anyone I missed would not come back.
I would die if my crimes were discovered.
So you tell me what would make a good, quiet girl get herself in trouble, especially when she had so much to lose.
“ANYONE COULD CATCH IT.”
“With the crush of people out there for the festival? It will never fly down.”
“True. Someone will have to go up.”
“To the rooftops, yes.”
I wrapped the hem of my apron around the oven’s hot handle and opened it. Heat breathed over me. Morah’s and Annin’s voices rose. You could hear the longing in their tones. It was the kind of impossible wish you treat as though it is precious. You make a home for it in your heart. You give it the downiest of beds for its rest. You feed it the choicest pieces, even when the meat it eats is your very soul.
What they wanted was not the Elysium bird, but what the bird could bring them.
“A child could do it,” Annin said. “I’ve seen them clamber up the sides of buildings along the gutter pipes.”
I could guess what she was thinking: that she was light enough to try it. I hate heights. They turn my stomach inside out like a glove. Even if I’m standing on something firm, being high up makes me feel like nothing is solid, like nothing in the world can be relied upon—except the fact that I will fall. I looked at her shrewd expression and thought that I could never do what she was thinking. And I didn’t like the thought of her scrambling over the rooftops, either.
Morah shook her dark head. “Someone would be waiting at the bottom when the thief came down with the bird, and pounce, and take it.”
The fire at the back of the oven, which had been burning all night, glowed dark red. It sucked on the fresh draft of air and blushed orange. I scraped the ash into the hod. Then, one by one, I used the long-handled wooden paddle to slide domes of bread dough into the oven. They were each a cream-colored pillow, scored with a delicate pattern that would reveal itself as the loaf baked, no two the same. The loaves would show scenes of rainfall, fanciful castles, portraits of pretty faces, flowers, leaping animals. An artist, Annin sometimes called me. Little did she know.
I shut the oven door and dusted my floured hands. “It will freeze before anyone catches it.” The Elysium bird had surely escaped from some High-Kith lady. It would not be ready for life outside a cage.
“Even dead,” Morah said, “it would fetch a fine sum.”
Annin looked stricken. She had unusual skin for a Herrath—paler than most, even milky, with freckles that dusted her cheeks and eyelids. There was a fragility to her features (fair eyelashes, flower-blue eyes, a small mouth with dainty upturned corners) that made her look far younger than me, though we were close in age.
“Pit the cherries,” I told her. “I need them for the pies.” The tavern was lucky for the bushel of ice cherries. Who knew how Raven had managed to get them. The black market, probably. She had connections with Middlings who were willing to trade such things for wares made in the Ward. It was not legal—just as Half Kith couldn’t wear certain kinds of clothes restricted to the upper kiths, we also couldn’t eat certain foods. Half-Kith foods were plain and filling and the City Council saw to it that no one starved. But no food was tangy or sour or spiced or sweet.
The ice cherries wouldn’t need sugar, they were so sweet on their own: pale golden globes with glossy skin that would melt away in the oven. I wanted to taste one. I would sneak just one in my mouth, let my teeth slide through the flesh to the unyielding pit, honeyed juice flooding over my tongue.
The kitchen seemed full of wants.
“The bird won’t die,” Annin said. “It is the gods’ bird.”
Morah sniffed. “There are no gods.”
“If it died it would be gone,” Annin said. “You couldn’t do anything with it.”
Morah and I exchanged a look as she wiped wet dishes dry. She was older than Annin and me, old enough already to have shoulder-high children. Her manner, too, suggested that some invisible child moved around her. Her gestures were always careful, her eyes sometimes darting warily to make certain everything around her was safe—that a fire did not burn too high, that knives lay out of a small person’s reach. Once, I had glanced at her as she sat at the worktable, picking one-handed through a bowl of lentils to remove any leftover hulls. In her other arm, she cradled a baby. But when I glanced again, the baby was gone.
I knew better than to mention this. It had been my imagination. I had to be careful. Sometimes an idea took root inside of me—for example, that Morah would be a good mother. Then the idea would become too real. I would see it clearly, as if it were real. It would displace the truth: Morah had no children. She had said she never would.
She and I were similar in one way that Annin was different. Morah and I were good at managing expectations—I by not having any and she by imagining the prize to be more attainable than it really was. Morah had probably decided that a dead Elysium bird would not be such a miracle as a living one. Therefore, it would not be impossible that she would be the one to have its valuable corpse.
“There are its feathers,” she said. “Its meat.”
And its hollow bones, which play a lilting melody when you blow through them.
I cut butter into flour. “The bird is out there. We are in here.”
Annin opened the one slender window. Cold came in like water. Morah muttered in annoyance, but I said nothing. It hurt to look at Annin, at her hope. The shape of her stubborn chin reminded me of Helin.
Annin swept crumbs from the worktable into her palm. I didn’t watch her go to the window. I couldn’t. There was an ache in my throat. I saw things that weren’t there. Things I wanted to forget.
She sprinkled the crumbs on the open window’s sill.
“Just in case,” she said.
THEY SAY THAT THE SONG of the Elysium bird makes you dream.
They say that these dreams remedy the past, take the sting out of memories, dust them up along the edges, blur them with soft pencils, the kind of pencils whose color you can smudge with a finger. The dreams make what’s missing in your life seem unimportant, because what is there suddenly entices.
Imagine the stars hung closer: spikes of ice. Imagine the simple comfort of an ordinary blanket gone gorgeously soft. How could you ever slip the blanket off, when it feels like the fur of a mythical creature that can read your mind, and knew who you were before you were born?
Its song holds the grace of a mother’s first smile.
A kind stranger brushing rain from your shoulder.
A kite flown on the Islim shore, sky peeking through its vented slits: little slices of blue so solid in color that you feel you could catch them and carry them home.
Feeling someone’s arms around you grow heavy with sleep.
They say the bird was blessed by a god, though we can’t remember which one.
That the sight of its red feathers will charm people.
In the Ward, where we must live the whole of our lives, never leaving, never allowed to leave, the promise of anything different was enough to bring everyone out into the streets. Turn them into hunters. Demolish friendships. I wanted to tell Annin to shut the window. Don’t go outside. This is the sort of thing people will kill for.
But I wanted that bird, too.
Copyright © 2020 by Marie Rutkoski