Ella woke with a heavy head and tried to remember. It is not easy to remember after staring into the deep eyes of a raven.
Someone told me to run away, she thought.
The whispering breeze rolled by and spun lightly around her. In the distance, a voice called her name.
I drifted past you earlier, said the breeze. Why did you come here?
I saw an open window, thought Ella.
“Ella,” said the faraway voice.
You sat on a weathervane, said the breeze. I tried to show you the way.
The jay sent me, thought Ella.
I’m sorry to see you here, said the breeze. I have to move on, and other things will happen, but it feels difficult to leave you here like this.
Like what? thought Ella.
A prisoner, said the breeze.
A prisoner, thought Ella.
Ella’s heart raced. She blinked hard and rubbed her eyes.
She sat up. The row of cages lined the wall, and the pocket watch lay next to her. A cage stood beside her. Ella looked up at her mother inside the cage.
“What are you doing here?” said her mother.
Her mother stared at her with hard dark eyes.
“Who, me?” said Ella.
“Yes, you,” said her mother. “You have to get out of here.”
“But I just arrived,” said Ella. “I’m rescuing you.”
That much, she thought, should have been obvious.
“You slept for ages,” said her mother.
Ella brushed herself off and straightened her scarf.
“I have a plan,” she said.
“No,” said her mother. “You need to run away. Leave the planning to me.”
“Listen to your mother,” said the warbler in the next cage. “You don’t want to end up here.”
“Do you mind?” said Ella’s mother to the warbler.
The warbler shrugged.
“But I‘m here to save you,” said Ella.
In Ella’s imagination, her rescue mission had always unfolded more smoothly than this, and with more appreciation on her mother’s part.
“I found you,” said Ella. “I flew from a faraway place tucked under the horizon. I traveled days and nights through cold and hunger. I flew alone. You left me.”
Ella’s mother pressed against the bars of her cage. She reached through them and tried to touch Ella. “Come closer,” said her mother.
Ella raised herself up and leaned forward and pressed her head against the bars and close to her mother’s heart.
“I don’t understand,” said Ella. “I can’t just leave. I searched so hard to find you, and now I have nowhere to go. I can’t go home. Even if I could find my way back, you wouldn’t be there.”
“I can’t let her catch you,” said her mother. “Hide in the Park. Hide anywhere. She’ll let me go eventually and I’ll find you. We will meet again.”
“Hide in the Bird House,” said the warbler. “They’ll give you cake.”
“Would you leave us for a minute?” said Ella’s mother to the warbler.
“Where am I supposed to go?” said the warbler.
“Why would she free you?” said Ella.
“Hurry,” said her mother. “She’ll return at any moment.”
“Your mother’s just trying to be nice,” said the warbler.
“Be quiet,” said Ella’s mother.
“I can’t leave,” said Ella.
“You have to,” said her mother. “I’m ordering you.”
“I really can’t,” said Ella.
Ella unfolded her crooked wings and wiggled them up and down.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. “I can’t remember how to fly.”
There, thought Wednesday. Now I’ve got you.
Wednesday walked to the back of her storeroom. A cage peeked out from behind a large pile of miscellaneous objects. She leaned down and gave a big tug and yanked the cage free. Little dust clouds billowed up, and the whispering breeze rolled past and picked them up and rolled away. Wednesday walked backward and dragged the cage from the storeroom and through her maze of artifacts and ephemera.
She rounded the last corner and swung the cage into the room that contained the bird collection.
Ella saw the raven and shuddered.
“We’re too late,” whispered her mother.
Wednesday stepped back to admire the rusty cage. The door hung slightly askew. Wednesday brushed the cobwebs away and reached behind her back to where a key with a little loop of brown string tied to it hung from a hook on the wall. Wednesday took the key and inserted it into the cage latch. The latch groaned a little. Wednesday pulled on the door.
It wouldn’t open.
Wednesday frowned. She pulled harder, twice, and finally the door gave a frightened squeal and a long screech and swung open at a funny angle. A piece of dark metal fell from the latch and clattered on the floor.
“Broken,” muttered Wednesday.
She looked over at the birds.
“I suppose I don’t need two sparrows,” she said.
She marched toward Ella.
“What are you going to do?” said Ella.
“As there aren’t enough cages,” said Wednesday, “you will stay, and your mother will go.”
“No,” said Ella. “I won’t let you. I—”
Wednesday knocked her aside. Ella tumbled backward and struck her head on the floor and lay there groggy and dazed.
Wednesday picked up the pocket watch and leaned close to Ella’s mother. The raven swung the watch back and forth like a pendulum.
“Why don’t you let me go instead?” said the warbler. “You can use my cage. No one collects warblers nowadays.”
Wednesday frowned and turned to face the warbler. The warbler’s eyes began to follow the watch.
“Stay out of this,” said Wednesday.
“Yes,” said the warbler in a monotone voice. His eyes followed the watch as it swung. “I will stay out of this.”
The chickadee laughed.
“Look-look!” said the chickadee. “She hypnotized the wrong bird!”
“I am the wrong bird,” repeated the warbler.
“Be quiet,” said Wednesday.
She turned back to Ella’s mother.
“Relax,” she whispered. “Listen.”
Ella’s mother backed into the corner of her cage.
“No!” cried Ella—but it was too late. Her mother’s eyes already followed the swinging watch, and her frightened expression grew blank.
“I will begin to count,” said Wednesday, “and by the time I reach thirteen you will be fast asleep.”
She looked at Ella and winked.
“One,” she said. “You hear only my voice. The world around you melts slowly away. Two. A new calm envelopes you. Three.”
“Please don’t,” whispered Ella.
“I only hear your voice,” repeated the warbler.
The chickadee giggled.
“I’m going to leave an order in your mind,” said Wednesday, “and you will follow it exactly when you wake.”
“I understand,” said the warbler.
“You will remember nothing that has happened here,” said Wednesday. “You won’t remember how you arrived, and you won’t remember your child. You will fly from here and not wish to return.”
“This is what you did to me,” said Ella.
Wednesday reached over and wrapped her claw around Ella and squeezed a little. Ella gasped.
“When you wake,” said Wednesday to Ella’s mother, “you won’t remember me, or when I came to your nest and stole you away. Is that clear?”
“Not exactly,” said the warbler.
Ella’s mother shook her head: No.
“Sparrows are so stubborn,” she said. “I’ll try again. Listen to me: when you wake, you will have forgotten your child and this place and everything about me. And you’ll forget your name, too, since you’re being so difficult. Is that clear?”
Ella’s mother looked confused.
“Don’t forget me,” said Ella. “You can’t forget me.”
Ella’s mother slowly nodded her head.
“Good,” said Wednesday. “Now step out of the cage.”
The raven dropped the watch and opened the cage door, and Ella’s mother stepped outside. Her empty eyes saw nothing.
The warbler walked into his cage door and hit his head.
“Ow,” he said.
Wednesday lifted up Ella and tossed her inside her mother’s former cage. She locked the door.
“You don’t have to say goodbye,” said Wednesday. “She’s forgotten you already.”
Ella’s mother stood and looked at nothing in particular.
“And she’s leaving now,” said Wednesday. “Aren’t you, little sparrow?”
“I’m leaving,” said Ella’s mother.
She looked at Ella without recognition.
“Don’t leave me!” said Ella.
“Go on,” said Wednesday.
Ella’s mother stood and blinked at them.
The warbler walked into his cage door again.
“Get out of here,” said Wednesday.
“I will find you,” said Ella. “We will meet again.” She struggled to her feet and pressed her face against the bars. “You remember me, don’t you? You have to remember me.”
Ella’s mother cleared her throat, but didn’t say anything.
The warbler eyed the door again.
“Wake up,” said Wednesday to the warbler.
The warbler blinked and said, “Am I free?”
Wednesday nudged Ella’s mother and they started for the exit. The raven’s claws clicked and clacked on the floor as they went.
“You sang to me,” called Ella. “You sang every night as I fell asleep. You sang our favorite song.”
Wednesday and Ella’s mother moved steadily away.
“Remember me!” shouted Ella. And then she began to sing.
Ella sang their favorite song, the one about a silver sea and a flowering tree and the quick merry swallows that follow the spring. As she sang she pictured their nest, and the night, and the way the evening light rolled down one side of the sky as the stars above them twinkled to life. Halfway through, Ella grew so heavy with sorrow that she forgot where she was in the song and had to stop and return to the beginning. She lost her place a second time and started over again, and then again, and again.
Ella’s mother listened as she marched slowly away with her eyes blank and her head thick and her memory full of holes, and the song reached inside her and uncovered the light that burns and burns and never goes out, and the little flame flickered there and leapt up and into her eyes. And inside her head she began to hum a familiar, but forgotten melody: da dum, da da dah da dum, da dum.
That reminds me of something, she thought. What could it be?
And then Wednesday nudged her, and she flew from the Tower and out into the Park and didn’t look back.
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© 2018 Colin Lewis · Brought to you by Unlikely Objects