Ming Zhao pushed through the kitchen door, and Ella lifted up and left Harold and flew around to the kitchen window and landed on the sill. She hopped back and forth and examined the scene of the crime.
Madame Alouette stood with her hands on her hips and looked around the room and tried to decide where to begin. When she saw Ella, she caught her breath.
How marvelous, she thought. A blue-eyed sparrow. Who in the world ever heard of a blue-eyed sparrow?
Madame Alouette broke off a bit of cake and placed it before her on the table. Ella looked at the baker, and at the cake, and back at the baker.
“Don’t you want to eat?” said Madame Alouette. “Nibble a bit of cake for me. Nibble, nibble.”
Cake, thought Ella. I can’t remember how to nibble cake. Maybe you aren’t aware that I’m far from home and have lost my appetite along with my way.
“Don’t look glum,” said Madame Alouette. “You look glum. And sad. Sad and glum. You should remember to keep a green bough in your heart.”
Ella stared at the baker.
“It’s a proverb,” said Madame Alouette. “A maxim. An adage.”
The baker’s chins waggled as she spoke.
She must nibble a lot of cakes, thought Ella.
“It’s a saying,” said Madame Alouette. “If you keep a green bough in your heart, the singing bird will come. See?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Ella. “I am already a singing bird.”
“Chirp, chirp, chirp!” said Madame Alouette. “Now you’re talking. Have some cake.”
“I’m looking for the raven who stole my mother,” said Ella. “I don’t have time for green boughs and cake.”
“Chirp, chirp, chirp,” said Madame Alouette. “Now is the time for cake. You must be ravenous. You look practically empty. You look as light as a feather.”
Madame Alouette laughed. She leaned back and laughed and slapped her thighs and held her round belly and let her chins waggle.
“Light as a feather!” she said.
Her eyes twinkled and glistened. She stopped abruptly and wiped them with her apron.
“Just a joke,” she said. “A quip. A bit of a lark. I mean—a jest. Not the lark, the herald of the morn.”
She giggled some more.
“It’s all this sweet chaos,” she explained. She wiped her eyes again. “What dark disappointment! What difficulty! What else can we do but laugh in this strange world of disaster?”
Ella sighed her tiny sparrow sigh.
Maybe this emptiness I feel is more than loss, she thought. Maybe the baker was right about the cake.
Maybe I’m hungry.
Ella flew to the table and landed beside the cake.
Because it was Zhao’s cake, it was strange, and wild, and familiar—all at the same time. Ella tasted the distant leafiness of unnamed herbs, a heavy pinch of something dark, and an unexpected sweetness that lurked behind it. The cake tasted like a warm afternoon in a wet wood, when the water drips from the branches and the sun hides beyond the clouds. Maybe a little ghost of something swishes past and turns its head and pauses just long enough to be seen, and then disappears again between the blades of grass.
Because it was Zhao’s cake, it conjured a memory.
Ella remembered standing in the rain.
On the day she learned to fly, Ella and her mother stood in their nest and in the storm. Ella’s mother perched at the edge of the nest. Ella huddled beside and a little behind her mother. Water beat down from the heavy sky and slapped the leaves and stained the tree trunks dark. Ella peeked around her mother and over the edge. The sodden ground lay far below. Ella pulled her long blue scarf tight around her neck.
Her mother shook herself dry.
“Can you see?” said her mother. “Nothing will weigh you down. It’s like water off a duck’s back.”
“I can’t see,” said Ella. “I don’t understand how we can fly.”
“You don’t have to understand,” said her mother. “You only have to fly.”
“But how?” said Ella. “How do we fly?”
“It’s complicated,” said her mother. “Everything in life is complicated. To begin with, we have hollow bones.”
“My bones are hollow?” said Ella. She held out her wings and examined them.
“And we have wings to push the air. We work with force, and drag, and thrust, and lift. We flap and fold our wings. We oscillate and yaw.”
“We twist our wings to meet the air. We have to. Imagine you’re flying, and the wind blows against you in some unsteady flow—”
“But what if I can’t fly?” said Ella. “What if I can only fall?”
Her mother gave her a gentle nudge and led her to the edge of the nest.
“Falling is actually an important part of flying,” she said, “and the most important part is how we fall. Do you really want to know how to fly?
“Yes,” said Ella. “Tell me.”
“And now this burglary!” said Madame Alouette. “Larceny and looting! Everything broken and busted and burst. And who knows why? Nobody, that’s who!”
Ella blinked and looked around the kitchen and remembered where she was. She realized she had eaten all the cake.
“Who is this nobody?” said Ella.
Beside her lay an overturned flour container. A set of tracks led from the spilled flour to the spice jars. Ella noticed some of the lids on the jars were missing, and some were scratched and clawed.
Ella hopped about the kitchen and examined the damage.
“Who knows who?” said Madame Alouette. “Who knows why? And who knows when? Nobody, nobody, and nobody. All we know is where, because the where is here, but where is the nobody who might know the rest?”
“I’m looking for a raven,” said Ella.
“Chirp, chirp, chirp,” said Madame Alouette. “And now the blue-covered book is missing. It’s an enigma and a conundrum. An utter mystery. An unsolvable puzzle.”
“Not unsolvable,” said Ella. “Look at these clues: the tracks in the flour. The scratches on the lids. This short, black feather.”
Ella pointed at the feather. “This is it,” she said. “This is the most important clue of all.”
Madame Alouette reached past the feather and picked up the whisk that lay beside it.
“This is a whisk,” she explained.
“I was pointing at the feather,” said Ella. “The whisk is actually not important.”
Madame Alouette whisked the air.
“Can you see how it works? Whisk, whisk, whisk. Maybe we’ll never know why. Maybe this is just a funny day when everything could happen.”
“I am a Maybe,” said Ella. “I see footprints, scratches, and a lost feather. I know something. I know why. I am going to find my mother.”
“Chirp, chirp, chirp,” said Madame Alouette. “I need to clean this mess. No more cake for you.”
“I’m going to fix everything,” said Ella. “I’ll rescue my mother and bring back your blue-covered book too.”
“Chirp, chirp, chirp,” said Madame Alouette. “Remember to keep a green bough in your heart.”
She turned the flour container upright, and picked up the brush and dustpan. Ella flew out the window.
“Funny little bird!” said Madame Alouette. “Funny scarf and eyes and chirps. And who knows what she’s saying? Nobody, that’s who.”
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© 2018 Colin Lewis · Brought to you by Unlikely Objects