Home > All the Birds in the Sky(3)

All the Birds in the Sky(3)
Charlie Jane Anders

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.

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