The Songbird

Winter: flawless, treacherous. Sleep will not come. The emperor rises, watches moonlit snow from his porcelain palaced chamber. He’s hugged in wide furs but the stench of wolf hangs about him and these pelts are streaked with the blood of fresh-kill.

He throws open a window for the melt of snowflake on his tongue. Rough wind shivers in at his furs but outside, there is birdsong warm enough to melt ice, thaw hard hearts.

‘I must have this bird that sings a sweet night lullaby,’ says the emperor.

Morning, and the bird is caught. A courtier comes, leather-gloved, the bird tied with silver jesses. She is a small, grey thing, dull of eye.

‘I thought her feathers would impress, says the emperor, and pokes with a long fingernail at the bird’s breast. ‘Sing, little one, if you know what’s good for you.’ The bird bates, warbles. He claps: ‘See how its small throat works up the song! Cage it, cover the thing with cloth; it’s drab to my eye.’

A golden cage, draped in fine gold silk. Next night, in the emperor’s bedchamber, the bird flits from perch to bars, bars to perch. Finally the emperor lights a lamp, whips the cover from the cage. ‘Stop your flitting and sing me to sleep!’ he cries. The bird cocks her head, eyes him, but stays silent.

This is how it goes: he orders song. She is quiet. Song, quiet. In the end the emperor growls. He opens the cage door, reaches in with one great paw which closes around the bird’s neck, and squeezes. The wings would beat. The beak opens, closes. The small head flops.

‘You flapped me to despair,’ he says, and weeps as he covers the cage. Inside, the grey-feathered body, still warm. Leave the door ajar: bird, silk-entombed.

Next morning’s shame: the emperor will throw the bird from his window; let it sigh in falling air, since it would not give song for him. But when he pulls the silk cloth from the cage, he sees no small, grey stiff-cold corpse but a full-black, gloss-winged crow that hunches in the cage, dances, one taloned foot to another. It’s eye is bright with intent.

The emperor draws back. ‘What dark magic has brought this menace in?’ he cries. He would throw the cloth over the cage once more, but the bird already has the silk in its claws, is already out. Such flapping in the room! The emperor flails his arms as the bird comes at him, fixes talons into fur that smells hotly of slaughtering wolf. Close – too close – the hooked bill snaps. He sees the gape of bird’s mouth, within the dense back interior, squirm of small tongue.

The crow begins to sing. Its voice is a grating crawl of sound that judders in the emperor’s ears while the beak pecks quick for the first squash of eye.

‘Sing, emperor, sing!’ she cries, and how he does, as she flies from the window in snow-hurled air.

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