Learning & Longing
Ming Zhao placed a small plate of golden cake inside the birdcage. He scratched Harold’s head, latched the door again and departed.
“Good luck,” said Harold to Ella. “I’m taking a nap.”
He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
“I know you’re pretending,” said Ella.
Harold snored a loud, fake snore.
Ella turned to the cake.
Maybe, she thought.
It looked like the same kind of cake the baker had given her earlier. What had that tasted like? It was hard to say. The morning had happened so long ago.
This is Harold’s favorite cake, she thought. I wonder what Harold thinks of when he eats this cake.
Ella nibbled the cake, and the strange, wild, familiar flavors rushed forward to meet her. Ella pushed past the distant leafiness of unnamed herbs, through the heavy pinch of something dark, and into the unexpected sweetness that lurked behind it.
I haven’t really forgotten anything, she thought. Not remembering is not the same as forgetting. Everything I have ever known is locked inside me somewhere. The problem lies in the shadows. There are shadows in my memories, and where they fall, they turn everything into secrets.
Ella moved into the shadows.
We stood in the nest, she thought, and in the rain, and the cold water dropped and splattered on the sheltering leaves above us. We stood in the little nest of twigs and grass stuck in-between the enormous earth and the even greater sky.
“I don’t want to go,” she said.
Her mother stood beside her at the edge of the nest.
Ella peeked at the damp ground far below.
Her mother shook herself dry.
“The rain will weigh me down,” said Ella. “How long has it rained? I don’t think it will ever stop for me. What do I do when the clouds descend upon me and refuse to leave?”
“The rain won’t always fall,” said her mother. “Some days the clouds weigh you down, and other days they buoy your spirits and lift you to new heights. You can’t have one without the other.”
“How can we spread our wings and soar while carrying the weight of the world?” said Ella.
“I don’t know,” said her mother. “All we can do is fly.”
“But how do we fly?” said Ella. “Everything feels so complicated.”
“Everything is complicated,” said her mother. “It’s big, and complicated, and we are only tiny birds. But we are not helpless.”
“Our bones are hollow,” said Ella.
“Our bones are hollow, but our hearts are full. Our hearts will never be empty, even though we may sometimes believe they’re only broken shells.”
“You told me something important about falling,” said Ella, “and when I needed it most I couldn’t remember. I have forgotten how to fly, and I can only remember how to fall.”
Her mother led her to the edge of the nest.
“Falling is actually an important part of flying,” said her mother, “and the most important part is how we fall. Do you really want to know how to fly?”
“Yes,” said Ella. “Tell me.”
She looked deep into her mother’s eyes.
“Listen,” said her mother. “This is how we fly: we throw ourselves into the air, and flap our wings as we fall.”
Ella looked at her mother, and over the edge of the nest. A thin cushion of fog spread across the faraway ground.
“Is that all?” said Ella.
Her mother nodded.
“That’s all,” she said.
Ella hopped up in the air. As she dropped back down, she flapped her wings and fluttered above the nest.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” said Ella. “There’s one more thing you have to know before you can really fly.”
Her mother looked at her and smiled a tiny sparrow smile.
Ella looked down and saw she had eaten all the cake. She pecked at the last few crumbs, and heard her mother’s voice in the distance and far behind her.
I miss you, thought Ella. I miss you, and I miss our home. I miss waking and seeing you in the morning, and the way you sang me to sleep in the twilight and under the stars. I miss the smells and the sounds and the light and the dark and the shapes and the shadows of the nest, because I have traveled very far and found nothing else that can replace it. I miss everything about the way things used to be, and my heart hurts as if it was only a great shattered hole in my chest that can no longer hold anything as fluid as love. And every morning I wake and feel the clouds have descended even lower and further hidden my path, and without you I don’t know how I can find it again and go on. Without you, I just don’t know how. I just don’t know.
“You know,” called her mother. “You will always know. You can fly.”
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© 2018 Colin Lewis · Brought to you by Unlikely Objects