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WHEN PATRICIA WAS six years old, she found a wounded bird. The sparrow thrashed on top of a pile of wet red leaves in the crook of two roots, waving its crushed wing. Crying, in a pitch almost too high for Patricia to hear. She looked into the sparrow’s eye, enveloped by a dark stripe, and she saw its fear. Not just fear, but also misery—as if this bird knew it would die soon. Patricia still didn’t understand how the life could just go out of someone’s body forever, but she could tell this bird was fighting against death with everything it had.
Patricia vowed with all her heart to do everything in her power to save this bird. This was what led to Patricia being asked a question with no good answer, which marked her for life.
She scooped up the sparrow with a dry leaf, very gently, and laid it in her red bucket. Rays of the afternoon sun came at the bucket horizontally, bathing the bird in red light so it looked radioactive. The bird was still whipping around, trying to fly with one wing.
“It’s okay,” Patricia told the bird. “I’ve got you. It’s okay.”
Patricia had seen creatures in distress before. Her big sister, Roberta, liked to collect wild animals and play with them. Roberta put frogs into a rusty Cuisinart that their mom had tossed out, and stuck mice into her homemade rocket launcher, to see how far she could shoot them. But this was the first time Patricia looked at a living creature in pain and really saw it, and every time she looked into the bird’s eye she swore harder that this bird was under her protection.
“What’s going on?” asked Roberta, smashing through the branches nearby.
Both girls were pale, with dark brown hair that grew super-straight no matter what you did and nearly button noses. But Patricia was a wild, grubby girl, with a round face, green eyes, and perpetual grass stains on her torn overalls. She was already turning into the girl the other girls wouldn’t sit with, because she was too hyper, made nonsense jokes, and wept when anybody’s balloon (not just her own) got popped. Roberta, meanwhile, had brown eyes, a pointy chin, and absolutely perfect posture when she sat without fidgeting in a grown-up chair and a clean white dress. With both girls, their parents had hoped for a boy and picked out a name in advance. Upon each daughter’s arrival, they’d just stuck an a on the end of the name they already had.
“I found a wounded bird,” Patricia said. “It can’t fly, its wing is ruined.”
“I bet I can make it fly,” Roberta said, and Patricia knew she was talking about her rocket launcher. “Bring it here. I’ll make it fly real good.”
“No!” Patricia’s eyes flooded and she felt short of breath. “You can’t! You can’t!” And then she was running, careening, with the red bucket in one hand. She could hear her sister behind her, smashing branches. She ran faster, back to the house.
Their house had been a spice shop a hundred years ago, and it still smelled of cinnamon and turmeric and saffron and garlic and a little sweat. The perfect hardwood floors had been walked on by visitors from India and China and everywhere, bringing everything spicy in the world. If Patricia closed her eyes and breathed deeply, she could imagine the people unloading wooden foil-lined crates stamped with names of cities like Marrakesh and Bombay. Her parents had read a magazine article about renovating Colonial trade houses and had snapped up this building, and now they were constantly yelling at Patricia not to run indoors or scratch any of the perfect oak furnishings, until their foreheads showed veins. Patricia’s parents were the sort of people who could be in a good mood and angry at almost the same time.
Patricia paused in a small clearing of maples near the back door. “It’s okay,” she told the bird. “I’ll take you home. There’s an old birdcage in the attic. I know where to find it. It’s a nice cage, it has a perch and a swing. I’ll put you in there, I’ll tell my parents. If anything happens to you, I will hold my breath until I faint. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”
“No,” the bird said. “Please! Don’t lock me up. I would prefer you just kill me now.”
“But,” Patricia said, more startled that the bird was refusing her protection than that he was speaking to her. “I can keep you safe. I can bring you bugs or seeds or whatever.”
“Captivity is worse than death for a bird like me,” the sparrow said. “Listen. You can hear me talking. Right? That means you’re special. Like a witch! Or something. And that means you have a duty to do the right thing. Please.”
“Oh.” This was all a lot for Patricia to take in. She sat down on a particularly large and grumpy tree root, with thick bark that felt a little damp and sort of like sawtooth rocks. She could hear Roberta beating the bushes and the ground with a big Y-shaped stick, over in the next clearing, and she worried about what would happen if Roberta heard them talking. “But,” Patricia said, quieter so that Roberta would not hear. “But your wing is hurt, right, and I need to take care of you. You’re stuck.”
“Well.” The bird seemed to think about this for a moment. “You don’t know how to heal a broken wing, do you?” He flapped his bad wing. He’d looked just sort of gray-brown at first, but up close she could see brilliant red and yellow streaks along his wings, with a milk-white belly and a dark, slightly barbed beak.
“No. I don’t know anything. I’m sorry!”
“Okay. So you could just put me up in a tree and hope for the best, but I’ll probably get eaten or starve to death.” His head bobbed. “Or … I mean. There is one thing.”
“What?” Patricia looked at her knees, through the thready holes in her denim overalls, and thought her kneecaps looked like weird eggs. “What?” She looked over at the sparrow in the bucket, who was in turn studying her with one eye, as if trying to decide whether to trust her.
“Well,” the bird chirped. “I mean, you could take me to the Parliament of Birds. They can fix a wing, no problem. And if you’re going to be a witch, then you should meet them anyway. They’re the smartest birds around. They always meet at the most majestic tree in the forest. Most of them are over five years old.”
“I’m older than that,” Patricia said. “I’m almost seven, in four months. Or five.” She heard Roberta getting closer, so she snatched up the bucket and took off running, deeper into the woods.
The sparrow, whose name was Dirrpidirrpiwheepalong, or Dirrp for short, tried to give Patricia directions to the Parliament of Birds as best he could, but he couldn’t see where he was going from inside the bucket. And his descriptions of the landmarks to watch for made no sense to Patricia. The whole thing reminded her of one of the Cooperation exercises at school, which she was hopeless at ever since her only friend, Kathy, moved away. At last, Patricia perched Dirrp on her finger, like Snow White, and he bounced onto her shoulder.
The sun went down. The forest was so thick, Patricia could barely see the stars or the moon, and she tumbled a few times, scraping her hands and her knees and getting dirt all over her new overalls. Dirrp clung to the shoulder strap of her overalls so hard, his talons pinched her and almost broke her skin. He was less and less sure where they were going, although he was pretty sure the majestic Tree was near some kind of stream or maybe a field. He definitely thought it was a very thick tree, set apart from other trees, and if you looked the right way the two big branches of the Parliamentary Tree fanned like wings. Also, he could tell the direction pretty easily by the position of the sun. If the sun had still been out.
“We’re lost in the woods,” Patricia said with a shiver. “I’m probably going to be eaten by a bear.”
“I don’t think there are bears in this forest,” Dirrp said. “And if one attacks us, you could try talking to it.”
“So I can talk to all animals now?” Patricia could see this coming in useful, like if she could convince Mary Fenchurch’s poodle to bite her the next time Mary was mean to Patricia. Or if the next nanny her parents hired owned a pet.
“I don’t know,” Dirrp said. “Nobody ever explains anything to me.”
Patricia decided there was nothing to do but climb the nearest tree and see if she could see anything from it. Like a road. Or a house. Or some landmark that Dirrp might recognize.
It was much colder on top of the big old oak that Patricia managed to jungle-gym her way up. The wind soaked into her as if it were water instead of just air. Dirrp covered his face with his one good wing and had to be coaxed to look around. “Oh, okay,” he quavered, “let me see if I can make sense of this landscape. This is not really what you call a bird’s-eye view. A real bird’s-eye view would be much, much higher than this. This is a squirrel’s-eye view, at best.”
Dirrp jumped off and scampered around the treetop until he spotted what he thought might be one of the signpost trees leading to the Parliamentary Tree. “We’re not too far.” He sounded perkier already. “But we should hurry. They don’t always meet all night, unless they’re debating a tricky measure. Or having Question Time. But you’d better hope it’s not Question Time.”
“What’s Question Time?”
“You don’t want to know,” Dirrp said.
Patricia was finding it much harder to get down from the treetop than it was to get up, which seemed unfair. She kept almost losing her grip, and the drop was nearly a dozen feet.
“Hey, it’s a bird!” a voice said from the darkness just as Patricia reached the ground. “Come here, bird. I only want to bite you.”
“Oh no,” Dirrp said.
“I promise I won’t play with you too much,” the voice said. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see!”
“Who is that?” Patricia asked.
“Tommington,” Dirrp said. “He’s a cat. He lives in a house with people, but he comes into the forest and kills a lot of my friends. The Parliament is always debating what to do about him.”
“Oh,” Patricia said. “I’m not scared of a little kitty.”
Tommington jumped, pushing off a big log, and landed on Patricia’s back, like a missile with fur. And sharp claws. Patricia screeched and nearly fell on her face. “Get off me!” she said.
“Give me the bird!” Tommington said.
The white-bellied black cat weighed almost as much as Patricia. He bared his teeth and hissed in Patricia’s ear as he scratched at her.
Patricia did the only thing that came to mind: She clamped one hand over poor Dirrp, who was hanging on for dear life, and threw her head forward and down until she was bent double and her free hand was almost touching her toes. The cat went flying off her back, haranguing as he fell.
“Shut up and leave us alone,” Patricia said.
“You can talk. I never met a human who could talk before. Give me that bird!”
“No,” Patricia said. “I know where you live. I know your owner. If you are naughty, I will tell. I will tell on you.” She was kind of fibbing. She didn’t know who owned Tommington, but her mother might. And if Patricia came home covered with bites and scratches her mother would be mad. At her but also at Tommington’s owner. You did not want Patricia’s mom mad at you, because she got mad for a living and was really good at it.
Tommington had landed on his toes, his fur all spiked and his ears like arrowheads. “Give me that bird!” he shrieked.
“No!” Patricia said. “Bad cat!” She threw a rock at Tommington. He yowled. She threw another rock. He ran away.
“Come on,” Patricia said to Dirrp, who didn’t have much choice in the matter. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We can’t let that cat know where the Parliament is,” Dirrp whispered. “If he follows us, he could find the Tree. That would be a disaster. We should wander in circles, as though we are lost.”
“We are lost,” Patricia said.
“I have a pretty reasonably shrewd idea of where we go from here,” said Dirrp. “At least, a sort of a notion.”
Something rustled in the low bushes just beyond the biggest tree, and for a second the moonlight glinted off a pair of eyes, framed by white fur, and a collar tag.
“We are finished!” Dirrp whispered in a pitiful warble. “That cat can stalk us forever. You might as well give me to your sister. There is nothing to be done.”
“Wait a minute.” Patricia was remembering something about cats and trees. She had seen it in a picture book. “Hang on tight, bird. You hang on tight, okay?” Dirrp’s only response was to cling harder than ever to Patricia’s overalls. Patricia looked at a few trees until she found one with sturdy enough branches, and climbed. She was more tired than the first time, and her feet slipped a couple of times. One time, she pulled herself up to the next branch with both hands and then looked at her shoulder and didn’t see Dirrp. She lost her breath until she saw his head poke up nervously to look over her shoulder, and she realized he’d just been clinging to the strap farther down on her back.
At last they were on top of the tree, which swayed a little in the wind. Tommington was not following them. Patricia looked around twice in all directions before she saw a round fur shape scampering on the ground nearby.
“Stupid cat!” she shouted. “Stupid cat! You can’t get us!”
“The first person I ever met who could talk,” Tommington yowled. “And you think I’m stupid? Grraah! Taste my claws!”
The cat, who’d probably had lots of practice climbing one of those carpeted perches at home, ran up the side of the tree, pounced on one branch and then a higher branch. Before Patricia and Dirrp even knew what was going on, the cat was halfway up.
“We’re trapped! What were you thinking?” Dirrp sang out.
Patricia waited until Tommington had reached the top, then swung down the other side of the tree, dropping from branch to branch so fast she almost pulled her arm out, and then landed on the ground on her butt with an oof.
“Hey,” Tommington said from the top of the tree, where his big eyes caught the moonlight. “Where did you go? Come back here!”
“You are a mean cat,” Patricia said. “You are a bully, and I’m going to leave you up there. You should think about what you’ve been doing. It’s not nice to be mean. I will make sure someone comes and gets you tomorrow. But you can stay up there for now. I have to go do something. Goodbye.”
“Wait!” Tommington said. “I can’t stay up here. It’s too high! I’m scared! Come back!”
Patricia didn’t look back. She heard Tommington yelling for a long time, until they crossed a big line of trees. They got lost twice more, and at one point Dirrp began weeping into his good wing, before they stumbled across the track that led to the secret Tree. And from there, it was just a steep backbreaking climb, up a slope studded with hidden roots.
Patricia saw the top of the Parliamentary Tree first, and then it seemed to grow out of the landscape, becoming taller and more overwhelming as she approached. The Tree was sort of bird shaped, as Dirrp had said, but instead of feathers it had dark spiky branches with fronds that hung to the ground. It loomed like the biggest church in the world. Or a castle. Patricia had never seen a castle, but she guessed they would rise over you like that.
A hundred pairs of wings fluttered at their arrival and then stopped. A huge collection of shapes shrank into the Tree.
“It’s okay,” Dirrp called out. “She’s with me. I hurt my wing. She brought me here to get help.”
The only response, for a long time, was silence. Then an eagle raised itself up, from near the top of the Tree, a white-headed bird with a hooked beak and pale, probing eyes. “You should not have brought her here,” the eagle said.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Dirrp said. “But it’s okay. She can talk. She can actually talk.” Dirrp pivoted, to speak into Patricia’s ear. “Show them. Show them!”
“Uh, hi,” Patricia said. “I’m sorry if we bothered you. But we need your help!”
At the sound of a human talking, all of the birds went into a huge frenzy of squawking and shouting until a big owl near the eagle banged a rock against the branch and shouted, “Order, order.”
The eagle leaned her white fluffy head forward and studied Patricia. “So you’re to be the new witch in our forest, are you?”
“I’m not a witch.” Patricia chewed her thumb. “I’m a princess.”
“You had better be a witch.” The eagle’s great dark body shifted on the branch. “Because if you’re not, then Dirrp has broken the law by bringing you to us. And he’ll need to be punished. We certainly won’t help fix his wing, in that case.”
“Oh,” Patricia said. “Then I’m a witch. I guess.”
“Ah.” The eagle’s hooked beak clicked. “But you will have to prove it. Or both you and Dirrp will be punished.”
Patricia did not like the sound of that. Various other birds piped up, saying, “Point of order!” and a fidgety crow was listing important areas of Parliamentary procedure. One of them was so insistent that the eagle was forced to yield the branch to the Honorable Gentleman from Wide Oak—who then forgot what he was going to say.
“So how do I prove that I’m a witch?” Patricia wondered if she could run away. Birds flew pretty fast, right? She probably couldn’t get away from a whole lot of birds, if they were mad at her. Especially magical birds.
“Well.” A giant turkey in one of the lower branches, with wattles that looked a bit like a judge’s collar, pulled himself upright and appeared to consult some markings scratched into the side of the Tree before turning and giving a loud, learned “glrp” sound. “Well,” he said again, “there are several methods that are recognized in the literature. Some of them are trials of death, but we might skip those for the moment perhaps. There are also some rituals, but you need to be of a certain age to do those. Oh yes, here’s a good one. We could ask her the Endless Question.”
“Ooh, the Endless Question,” a grouse said. “That’s exciting.”
“I haven’t heard anyone answer the Endless Question before,” said a goshawk. “This is more fun than Question Time.”
“Umm,” said Patricia. “Is the Endless Question going to take a long time? Because I bet my mom and dad are worried about me.” It was hitting her all over again that she was up way past her bedtime and she hadn’t had dinner and she was out in the middle of the freezing woods, not to mention she was still lost.
“Too late,” the grouse said.
“We’re asking it,” said the eagle.
“Here is the question,” said the turkey. “Is a tree red?”
“Uh,” Patricia said. “Can you give me a hint? Umm. Is that ‘red’ like the color?” The birds didn’t answer. “Can you give me more time? I promise I’ll answer, I just need more time to think. Please. I need more time. Please?”
The next thing Patricia knew, her father scooped her up in his arms. He was wearing his sandpaper shirt and his red beard was in her face and he kept half-dropping her, because he was trying to draw complicated valuation formulas with his hands while carrying her. But it was still so warm and perfect to be carried home by her daddy that Patricia didn’t care.
“I found her right on the outskirts of the woods near the house,” her father told her mother. “She must have gotten lost and found her own way out. It’s a miracle she’s okay.”
“You nearly scared us to death. We’ve been searching, along with all of the neighbors. I swear you must think my time is worthless. You’ve made me blow a deadline for a management productivity analysis.” Patricia’s mother had her dark hair pulled back, which made her chin and nose look pointier. Her bony shoulders hunched, almost up to her antique earrings.
“I just want to understand what this is about,” Patricia’s father said. “What did we do that made you want to act out in this way?” Roderick Delfine was a real-estate genius who often worked from home and looked after the girls when they were between nannies, sitting in a high chair at the breakfast bar with his wide face buried in equations. Patricia herself was pretty good at math, except when she thought too much about the wrong things, like the fact that the number 3 looked like an 8 cut in half, so two 3s really ought to be 8.
“She’s testing us,” Patricia’s mother said. “She’s testing our authority, because we’ve gone too easy on her.” Belinda Delfine had been a gymnast, and her own parents had put several oceans’ worth of pressure on her to excel at that—but she’d never understood why gymnastics needed to have judges, instead of measuring everything using cameras and maybe lasers. She’d met Roderick after he started coming to all her meets, and they’d invented a totally objective gymnastics measuring system that nobody had ever adopted.
“Look at her. She’s just laughing at us,” Patricia’s mother said, as if Patricia herself weren’t standing right there. “We need to show her we mean business.”
Patricia hadn’t thought she was laughing, at all, but now she was terrified she looked that way. She tried extra hard to fix a serious expression on her face.
“I would never run away like that,” said Roberta, who was supposed to be leaving the three of them alone in the kitchen but had come in to get a glass of water, and gloat.
They locked Patricia in her room for a week, sliding food under her door. The bottom of the door tended to scrape off the top layer of whatever type of food it was. Like if it was a sandwich, the topmost piece of bread was taken away by the door. You don’t really want to eat a sandwich after your door has had the first bite, but if you get hungry enough you will. “Think about what you’ve done,” the parents said.
“I get all her desserts for the next seven years,” Roberta said.
“No you don’t!” said Patricia.
The whole experience with the Parliament of Birds became a sort of blur to Patricia. She remembered it mostly in dreams and fragments. Once or twice, in school, she had a flashback of a bird asking her something. But she couldn’t quite remember what the question had been, or whether she’d answered it. She had lost the ability to understand the speech of animals while she was locked in her bedroom.
Copyright © 2016 by Charlie Jane Anders