The Chattering Pond
Ella left Madame Alouette and the kitchen and pointed herself at the sky and soared up and up into the thinning air.
A discovery! she thought.
The grand uncovering of a clue.
The answer could be close. It could be here, under her beak. Today could be the day everything would happen.
Maybe, and maybe.
Ella glided across the Park. The canary and teapot weathervane gleamed in the sun, and the long shadows of the city buildings stretched out and slipped between the trees and reached down to the running river. The ducks splashed and laughed in the Chattering Pond, and a scruffy man lay asleep in the weeds beside the Broken Clock Tower. Someone sat on a bench hunched behind a newspaper and pretended to read in the morning light.
Another someone stood at the edge of the Chattering Pond. Around his feet crowded dozens of birds: pigeons, mourning doves, catbirds, cowbirds, flickers, warblers, starlings and more. A pair of ducks clambered up the bank from the Pond. Several sparrows landed and pushed into the middle of the crowd.
Ella knew there is only one real reason birds will gather in such numbers around a human. There are other fanciful and hypothetical reasons, but these are all highly unlikely. The one real reason is that food is involved.
Ella looked closer.
There was food involved.
The boy who stood near the edge of the Pond reached deep into a brown paper sack, pulled out a handful of crumbs, and scattered them over the crowd. At his feet rested a small canvas bag. Inside the bag he carried a ring of keys, a small collection of tools, and a card noting his acceptance as an apprentice by the regional chapter of the National Clockmakers Guild.
The young apprentice spoke quietly to himself as he fed the birds.
“Today,” he whispered, “I will climb the Tower. I need to repair the clock, and to reach the clock I need to climb the Tower. Therefore, I will climb the Tower today. Today, I will climb the Tower.”
The young apprentice kept repeating these words to himself although his heart did not believe them. The simple logic of the words was beyond question, yet his heart did not care.
His heart had no interest in logic.
His heart said simply: No.
Towers, his heart explained, are not meant to be climbed. Too many steps make the head dizzy, the legs wobbly, and the palms sweat. His heart suggested they would all be much better off if they stayed safely on the ground.
The apprentice did not want to listen to his heart.
My mother will be disappointed, he thought. I can’t let her down. Therefore, I will climb the tower.
I will climb the tower today.
Ella swooped past the apprentice and landed in the swirling middle of the hungry flock. Breadcrumbs rained down, and the birds dashed back and forth and nipped the crumbs from the ground and swiped them from the air. They jostled and shoved and squawked and peeped and stole from their neighbors as opportunity allowed.
Ella maneuvered her way through the crowd until she found the sparrows.
My birds of a feather, she thought.
She pushed close to a sparrow and tapped him on the shoulder. She had to shout over the noise of the crowd.
“I’m looking for a raven,” she said.
“What’s that?” answered the sparrow. “Oh, no.”
He stared at Ella.
“You would be better off looking for breakfast,” he said. “Preferably somewhere else and not next to me.”
He rushed off before she could protest.
The second sparrow backed away and said, “You should understand, I really don’t know anything about nothing.”
“About a raven?” said Ella.
“About a nothing,” insisted the sparrow.
“Not a nothing,” said Ella. “A raven. Why would I be looking for a nothing?”
“Exactly,” said the sparrow. “Why would you? You must be crazy.”
“Have you seen a raven or not?” said Ella.
“You better get out of here,” said the sparrow.
“Why?” said Ella.
“Listen to me,” he said. “I can’t talk to you. It’s very unhealthy.”
“But—” said Ella.
The second sparrow also turned and fled into the crowd.
The third sparrow heard her question, covered his face with his wings, and ran.
“What’s wrong with you?” said Ella.
She shook her head and moved on to a group of chickadees.
“Love the scarf,” said the first chickadee. “Hello, what’s that? Look over there.”
The chickadee reached out and tugged at Ella’s scarf. Ella pushed the bird away.
“Sorry, sorry,” said the chickadee. “Terribly sorry! Can’t help myself. I can’t! It’s a lovely scarf.”
“I don’t have time to argue,” said Ella. “I’m looking for a raven.”
“Oh-no-no!” said the chickadee. “That’s trouble-trouble. Steal you away! You don’t want that. I don’t know who you are. I haven’t met a blue-eyed sparrow, haven’t seen you. Look over there.”
The chickadee squeezed between a pair of finches and vanished.
Ella frowned. This was not going as well as she had hoped.
More birds arrived, and the young apprentice took another handful of crumbs and scattered them over the swirling crowd. The birds flapped and squawked with excitement. Everyone bumped and prodded and chattered loudly, but no one would talk to Ella or look into her eyes.
A mourning dove plowed her way through the crowd, stepping over and sometimes on the chickadees. She marched straight toward Ella.
“I want you to know I heard the news and I think it’s very sad,” she said.
“What news?” said Ella.
The mourning dove stared at her with wide, empty eyes.
“I forgot what we’re talking about,” she said. “Remind me.”
“Never mind,” said Ella. “I’m looking for a raven.”
“Oh, that’s right—I remember now,” said the mourning dove. “Isn’t that sad?”
“No, I’ve forgotten again,” she said. “Have you met the pigeons?”
“I’d rather not,” said Ella.
“You should,” she said. “They’re my relations. Did you know we’re related?”
“I have to go now,” said Ella.
“Good, I’ll go with you,” said the mourning dove.
A chickadee rushed past and looked sideways at Ella. Ella pulled her scarf out of reach.
Two mockingbirds saw the dove and looked at each other. They put on sad expressions and rude faces and imitated the dove’s voice and said, “Look! I’m so sad.”
“I know,” said the mourning dove. She bobbed her head in agreement.
The mockingbirds saw Ella.
“Uh-oh,” they said. They glanced nervously at each other and quickly flew away.
“Wait!” called the mourning dove. “Can you get us a pigeon? We need a pigeon.”
“We don’t need—” began Ella, then reared back her head. “Gah!” she said. “What are you doing?”
A pigeon pulled his face back from hers. His red-ringed eyes bulged round and wild.
“I am a pigeon,” he said.
“I can see that,” said Ella.
“I am needed here,” said the pigeon.
“No,” said Ella. “False alarm.”
“Do you like sandwiches?” said the pigeon. “I can teach you about them. I have recently discovered the secret of sandwiches.”
“I know what sandwiches are,” said Ella.
“I know too,” said the pigeon. “Today we are eating bread. A sandwich is made with slices of bread.”
He leaned in close to Ella.
“The genius part,” whispered the pigeon, “is that they put things on and between the slices.”
“Right,” said Ella. “Have you seen a raven?”
The pigeon stared at her.
“I have now forgotten what we are talking about,” he said.
He hopped from one foot to the other and bobbed his head.
More crumbs rained down, and the crowd of birds ran and spun and stole and argued and pushed each other this way and that.
The pigeon continued to hop and bob.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “This will help me remember.”
“That’s so sad,” said the mourning dove.
“No, it isn’t,” said Ella. “Stop hopping. What’s your name?”
“I have also forgotten my name,” said the pigeon.
He hopped and bobbed.
“That’s so sad,” said the mourning dove. “Did she take your name?”
“Take your name?” said Ella.
“You have unusually blue eyes,” said the pigeon. “There was something important that someone told me about someone else with unusually blue eyes.”
“Straighten up!” commanded a loud voice.
The first pigeon stopped hopping and bobbing, and a new pigeon shoved his way over to Ella.
“What’s this?” he shouted. “What are you doing here? You need to leave.”
He glared at her.
“Another pigeon,” said Ella. “Who are you?”
The pigeon gave Ella a fierce look.
“I’m not a pigeon,” he said. “I’m a rock dove. There’s a difference. I’m the Captain, and I’m in charge here. It’s my duty to tell you to leave.”
Nearby, a duck chuckled and poked her husband in the ribs.
“The Captain’s in charge here,” said the duck.
“I’m looking for a raven,” said Ella.
The Captain looked quickly from side to side.
“I don’t think you want to see a raven,” he said.
“Why not?” said Ella. “Have you seen one?”
“Of course not,” said the Captain. “No one here has. Have you?”
“No,” said Ella, “and that’s why—”
“Good,” said the Captain. “Having done my duty and warned you, I think we should both run away as fast as we can.”
He turned to leave, and Ella jumped in front of him.
“You have seen a raven, haven’t you?”
The Captain shook his head. “I can’t answer you,” he said. “I’m very busy running away. You should be too.”
“Where is this raven?” said Ella.
“Maybe I don’t know where she is,” he said.
“You don’t remember where she is.”
“Of course I don’t,” said the Captain. “And please ignore my pronouns. Let me remind you that we both need to run away as fast as we can. Immediately. Right away. Goodbye.”
He pushed his way off into the crowd.
“Goodbye!” said the mourning dove.
Ella chased after the Captain and caught up when a group of starlings panicked and jammed the path. The mourning dove swung around and knocked over another chickadee and trotted after Ella.
“This is an emergency,” said Ella. “It’s a question of life and death.”
“I don’t want to die!” said the Captain.
“I think you know something about the raven,” said Ella.
“There’s no time to talk,” said the Captain. “Just run. Fly. Flee. Go home.”
“I can’t go home,” said Ella. “My home is a faraway place tucked under the horizon. I can’t return.”
“It’s a lovely, lovely scarf,” muttered a chickadee.
The chickadee grabbed Ella’s scarf and yanked her off her feet.
A second chickadee grabbed the other end of the scarf, and they both began to tug and pull. The chickadees ran in circles and chased each other and spun Ella around and around and into a blur.
“Let go!” cried Ella. “Stop!”
The chickadees kept running.
“Stop!” she cried again, and this time, they stopped.
Ella lay on the ground, eyes shut and too dizzy to stand. She heard a brief scuffle, and the scarf went slack. A shadow fell over her.
“Hello, sparrow,” whispered a hoarse voice.
Ella opened her eyes and tried to focus. The woozy Park still revolved around her.
“Do I see a jay?” she asked.
“Do you see,” he whispered. “You do see a jay.”
“A blue jay?” said Ella.
“You do see a blue jay,” he said.
The jay circled slowly around her as he spoke.
Ella struggled to her feet. She turned her head and craned her neck to follow the jay.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just that you’re not altogether blue.”
“Is that so,” whispered the jay. “Is that what you think?”
“Of course not,” said Ella. “I mean—yes, but I didn’t mean to offend you.”
The jay who circled her was blue, but he was definitely not altogether blue. He had all his white, black and gray plumage, but he had lost a large number of blue feathers from various places on his body. His crest stuck out in scraggly points, and his tail hung limp and tattered. A strange bald patch dotted his back.
He looks half-plucked, thought Ella.
“Do you see trouble?” whispered the jay.
He moved closer.
“Maybe you’re searching for trouble,” he whispered.
“Not trouble,” said Ella. “I didn’t come here for anything like that.”
“I think you did.” The jay slowly nodded his head. “I think you came here for trouble.”
He leaned close to Ella.
“I think you’re looking for a raven,” he whispered.
One of the chickadees darted back in and tugged at Ella’s scarf.
“Lovely scarf,” muttered the chickadee. “Lovely, lovely scarf.”
The jay’s face filled with rage. He leapt in the air and threw back his head and screamed a deafening scream and knocked the chickadee head over claws into the crowd. She squealed as she tumbled away.
The apprentice reared back and stared.
As the jay’s scream pierced the air, the birds scrambled as far back from Ella and the jay as possible. No one spoke.
The jay glared at the silent crowd.
“If anyone wants a visit from her,” he whispered, “It can be arranged.”
After a long pause, the birds slowly returned to their breakfasts. They took care to leave a large empty space around the jay.
Ella brushed herself off and stepped in front of the tattered jay.
“A visit from her?” she asked.
The jay didn’t answer.
“I’m looking for a raven,” said Ella.
“I know,” whispered the jay.
The jay looked at her slyly.
“A little bird told me,” he whispered.
The Captain stepped forward from out of the crowd.
“Now see here,” began the Captain.
The jay gave him a hard look.
“It can be arranged,” repeated the jay.
The Captain stopped and looked away.
“Our friend here is looking for a raven. Anything wrong with that?”
The Captain stared at the ground and shook his head. “Anything?” he said.
“Maybe you meant: nothing,” whispered the jay.
“No,” said the Captain. “Or yes. Whatever it was. Maybe I don’t know.”
He backed away.
Ella looked at the jay.
“What can be arranged?” she said.
“Everything,” he whispered. “Everything is already arranged. All you have to do is go to the Tower.”
“What?” said Ella. “Where?”
“Right up there, at the very top.” He pointed. “Go to the top of the Broken Clock Tower.”
“What will I find at the top of the Clock Tower?” said Ella.
The jay laughed.
“That’s simple. A broken clock, of course.”
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Everything else,” whispered the jay. “I bet you could find everything you wanted up there. Everything in the world.”
“Is there a raven in the tower?” said Ella.
“Don’t forget to say I sent you,” whispered the jay. “Make sure you say that.”
“You haven’t told me your name,” said Ella.
The jay leaned close to her.
“I’m just like you, little blue-eyed sparrow,” he whispered. “There’s only one of me.”
He stepped back and looked at Ella.
“Goodbye, sparrow,” he whispered. He flew off.
The Captain immediately hopped over to Ella.
“I want to tell you a story,” said the Captain.
Ella nodded without listening. She fixed her eyes on the Tower.
Maybe, she thought.
Maybe everything will happen today.
“It’s important,” said the Captain.
Ella nodded again.
I will find you, she thought.
“Here’s the story,” said the Captain. “Once upon a time, there was a little blue-eyed sparrow—”
“Are you listening?” said the Captain.
“Hmm?” said Ella.
“Run away,” said the Captain. “Run away, run away, run away. And that’s the end.”
“What’s that?” said Ella. “I don’t think I was listening.”
The Captain was gone.
“That’s so sad,” said the mourning dove. She shook her head. “Life seems so difficult sometimes, don’t you think? It’s nearly impossible.”
Ella glanced at the dove and back at the Broken Clock Tower.
“A maybe is possible,” she said.
Ella lifted her wings and leapt into the air.
The apprentice turned the paper sack upside down and shook out the last of the crumbs. He folded the sack and slipped it into his bag.
“That’s the end,” he said.
The birds pecked a little more and wandered off. Soon it grew quiet again. The apprentice stood by the Chattering Pond and looked over at the Tower.
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe I will climb the tower today.”
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© 2018 Colin Lewis · Brought to you by Unlikely Objects