THE TIME OF SINGING HAS COME
I never see them, only the blurred edges of their shadows. I hear their singing. It keeps me awake during the long, hot nights when I cannot sleep with my shutters closed because the heat becomes too oppressive in the house, yet I cannot sleep with my shutters open because my heart is suppressed in my chest, beating to get out. Their singing makes it flutter like their wings.
When I walk through the garden in the mornings, I almost catch a glimpse: I step around a broad-leaved plant, hear broken whispers, the battering of wings, but all I see are lengthening silhouettes, and when my eyes try to follow, they are blinded by the sun.
My brothers think my longing is a sickness. They hate that I spend all afternoon before my harp, trying and failing to recapture the music that haunts my waking dreams.
"They are not for the like of us," Brother Agnus tells me. "We are creatures of the earth, Dunna. To them, we are no more than gorillas, lumbering across the land."
Sometimes, when he speaks like that, I weep. I hide in my curtained room and stare at my reflection on the wall – heavy-limbed, long-armed, big-handed. Why must I be an ape? Why did my brothers create me in their own image? Why was I born into the wrong form?
"Calm yourself, sweetling," Brother Camus says. He comes to find me when I close myself away. He brings me a tray of food and watches while I eat, hating to chew and swallow because I know the grains and fruits of the land only make me heavier, reinforcing that I am a thing of flesh and bone. I will never be hollow. I will never be light. I will never fly.
He kisses me on the forrid. "You must stop wishing to be something you are not. Love them for what they are, but love yourself as well, my dearest." He takes my empty tray away and leaves me sitting on my bed, staring out across the lush landscape. His words echo in my mind, but I cannot heed them. How can I not wish to sing?
When I was a child, I used to sing all the time. I sang 'Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake' as I made mud pies by the river and I would dance about the open house, bellowing joyful hymns about the beauty of Creation. I stopped singing the day after the Flock came to the forest. I was drawing water from the well when I heard the great clatter of many wings and lifted my eyes to the skies, although the sun was too bright for me to see anything but shadows — the outline of many bodies passing overhead. I was too awed to be afraid. I stood unheeding as water from the broken ewer gushed across my feet.
When the Flock had passed, I raced back to the house, calling to my brothers. They had not seen it and did not know what the great exodus was, but they could guess. That night, as we sat outside at dusk, savouring the shadows, their conjectures were confirmed when we heard them sing. It was then that the world stopped for a time, and when it started spinning again I was changed. The next morning, when I walked in the garden, I opened my fingers to the bright flowers and sang. I heard my voice as if for the first time. I did not sing again. But my fingers found the harp.
"I wish they had never come here," Brother Egru whispers as I play. "They have ruined our Dunna."
"They'll move on soon," Brother Mihel says. "They have nearly picked the trees clean. They will have to leave."
"And so, will we," Brother Agnus mutters.
"But what will become of her then?" wonders Brother Natanial. "Will she heal? Or will she waste away with longing?"
My longing is not a waste. I know that, although my brothers will not see it. It has refined me. I am sensible now of things that had never occurred to me before: that it is uncouth to bawl across the fields that supper is now served; that what we do, what we are, is laborious, wearisome, dull. We are leaden. Plodding. Earthbound. When I hear them sing, I understand that only through the harp can I hope to make myself better.
My brothers try. They are good. They work very hard. I watch them with their hoes and spades, their test tubes and microslides. Brother Agnus taught me how to plough. Brother Egru taught me how to sow. Brother Mihel taught me how to reap. Brother Natanial taught me how to sew and read. And Brother Camus taught me this:
When the world was dying, we had many possible paths — we could continue as we were and perish along with the earth, our mother; we could depart and leave her to suffer her fate alone, although we had brought her doom about; or we could change. We chose to change. There was a time of great transformation. Some of us transformed more than others. And when it was over, those of us who remained upon the earth, we formed the Arks. For God said unto us: "Be fruitful and replenish the earth, and minister to the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and every living thing that moveth under the heavens."
And Brother Camus taught me the harp.
I play in the garden now, while my brothers are at their labours. They are sorry that I no longer toil alongside them, but they do not punish me. They do not raise their voices or shout. I know that in some way they understand.
For I saw their faces on the night the Flock first sang. Brother Egru and Brother Camus wept. Their bearded cheeks shone in the lantern light. Brother Mihel shifted back and forth and then he paced away. Brother Agnus stood like stone. I do not know what I did, what my face and body showed. But, when it was done, when the song died away in its first lull of the evening and the Flock swept in a rush of wings above our heads across the sky, no-one spoke but Brother Natanial. With his face still lifted to the night, he whispered, "Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let the winged ones fly above the earth across the open firmament of heaven." Then he turned away, his shoulders hunched as he trudged into the house.
I try not to think of my brothers when I play. I close my eyes to all, but the vision brought by the music: I see shining and the fluttering of wings. One day I play in the shadows of the garden in the afternoon sun. I play for hours, and when I stop, my fingers throbbing, I realise I almost have it – I have achieved something as close to the song of the Flock as I might ever manage. My heart is happy.
I open my eyes and he is there.
He is not as I imagined. He wears no clothes, but then he does not need them, for feathers cloak his flesh. He is black-feathered, like a raven. He is tall. His long legs end in splayed feet with four talons for toes, like a perching crow. Between his legs, he does not have that other part my brothers take great care to hide from me, that makes them blush and cover themselves with towels when I glimpse them at their baths. His torso is thick with muscle and bone, his arms vestigial, his hands like claws. Tucked at his back are massive wings, the feathers quivering faintly.
I stare at him. I know that my eyes are wide, but they are nothing like his eyes. His are huge in his face, more night-dark owl than human. In other ways, his face looks almost normal, although his neck is long, and his ears are pointed and tufted. We watch one another, and I am too petrified to open my mouth and croak a greeting. Instead, I reach into the basket at my feet and take into my palm the fruit I did not eat for lunch.
I offer it to him. He does not take it from my hand to his hand, like a friend. Eventually, I roll it along the carpeting grass. It lays there for a time, and then he launches himself upon it and backs away several steps with it in his clutches, as though he is a songbird I am feeding. I cannot take my gaze from him, but it is only when I look away that he lifts the fruit to his mouth and tears it open. My heart hiccups as I see that he eats like a bird, in great ripping mouthfuls. His teeth are pointed, drawing his mouth into a beak-like shape.
When the fruit is gone, he spits the stone upon the ground and flaps his wings several times. Is he as nervous as I? I stand, slowly, behind my harp. I try to speak to him, conscious of the roughness of my voice: "What is your name?"
He does not answer me.
"What is your name?"
One of my brothers calls to the others in the fields and I cry out, protesting, but it is too late: he has taken wing. I slump back onto my seat and watch him winging overhead, the sun bringing great black dots across my vision so that soon I cannot tell which of them might be him.
That night I do not eat. I cannot. And the following morning I wait for him in the garden. He comes again in the late afternoon, as the sun is pulling long shadows from the trees. I give him fruit, and when he does not answer my questions, his head tracking every leaf-twitch, his wings fluttering all the time, as though he might at any moment spring into the sky, I sit once more before my harp and play for him.
My heart stops beating when he parts his lips and sings.
I do not remember much of the time after that. Just that there are days of melody and descent. Enthralled, I dance upon the air. Every night at dark he leaves me, and I carry my harp back into the house, but every afternoon he returns and eats the fruit I bring and accompanies me in song. I barely hear my brothers in their conversations over supper:
"How much longer, do you think?"
"I'd say little more than days. They have nearly eaten the entire crop. When they go, we will ensure that the forests and the fields will reseed, and then we will leave this place."
"I think it's best if we join another Ark for a time."
I sense their gazes on me, but I do not respond. My eyes are fixed on another place, another time, other voices raised in song.
On the last day. The day the Flock begins to gather to depart. I know something is wrong when the afternoon shadows lengthen, and he does not come. My heart beats so hard in my chest it hurts. I pace. I bite my fingertips. And finally, I sit and play. Will he not come to me? Why will he not come?
He comes in a flutter of feathers. I cry in gladness. He is anxious. He bounds back and forth at the edge of the glade. I carry the basket to him. After so many days of harmony, he lets me draw close. He takes the fruit I offer; I watch him eat.
"Will you not talk to me at all?" I murmur.
I know that he will not. I have observed him long enough to recognise that he responds not as if he does not understand me, but as if he does not hear me. It is not that he speaks a different language – it is that language has no meaning for him. Words are like raindrops, the susurration of water and wind. He pays them no attention. But his head lifts and he squawks a response at raucous cries to the east.
I have never heard them make such noises before. They gather to leave. My heart aches. I reach out to touch the face that looks away from me. "Please. Stay," I whisper.
Twisting his head like a snake, he bites me — and thrusts me away as he springs into the air. I fall. I lie on the ground with my back in the soil, watching as he flies higher, becomes smaller. Smaller. The sun blinds my eyes. I lay my wounded hand against my wounded heart.
Brother Camus finds me there, hours later. He clasps me close as I cry. He listens as I choke out explanations while he binds my hand with his shirt.
"Hush, dearling," he beseeches. "Do not let it break your heart so. They do not sorrow. They do not remember how."
I sob against his sturdy chest. I listen to the warm beating of his heart.
"For at the time of great change," he continues, "God said: 'Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet the earth feeds them. Are you of more value than they?' And we agreed that no, we were not. So, some of us flocked into the skies."
Tears trickle down my lips. My cries quieten to the rhythm of his breath.
"They gave up much," he says. "They gave up much for flight. It was the weight, you see, not just of the bones, but of the brain. Flight was unachievable without such costs. So, they became more than us, but they are also less. Different. We are all different. But beautiful. We are all equally beautiful in the eyes of God."
He falls silent. I swallow. I sniff. I breathe.
"I am sorry, child. I am sorry that we brought you into this confused and confusing world without answers, without any ability to protect you from pain. We wanted a little one, you see. We wanted a sister. And you were happy, were you not, before the Flock came?"
His voice is earnest. I cannot not answer. "I was."
"Then you will be again. Those of us who remain," Brother Camus says, "we are bound to the earth with its practicalities and its sorrows, but we have consciousness as well as sensation to succour us. And we have something important to do, to give."
From the moment I first heard the song, it had seemed to me to say all that needed saying, to be all that needed being. It had seemed the only thing worth doing. Now, as the darkness mantles our shoulders, the Flock's song no longer floods me with its sound. Memories of its harmonies run through my mind in rivers instead. There is room between them for the mountains and the bare earth. There is room for my brothers and me to stand upon the empty spaces and sing.
"Rise now, Dunna," Brother Camus urges me gently. I allow him to pull me to my feet, to dry my cheeks and kiss my forrid. "These tears will pass. In a week or two, we will leave this place and join another Ark. You will meet your sisters, and brothers your own age. Then it will be the time for laughter and dancing."
He smiles, searching my face until I find an answering smile for him, my gentle brother, who hoists my harp that once was his upon his shoulder and carries it for me into the house that we will soon abandon in search of a new home.
I follow him, knowing that there I will leave my harp-playing to the quiet evenings and the dreaming time. But my days will not be silent. For there were songs I sang as a child and I will sing them all again.
I will sing in the forests and the fields as I labour. And I will smile upon all of my brothers and sisters and rain my paeans upon all those who help the flowers appear on the earth, now that the time of singing has come.
THE TIME OF SINGING HAS COME
Shelley Chappell is a writer of fantasy fiction and fairy tale retellings. She is the editor of Wish Upon a Southern Star (2017), a YA collection of radically retold fairy tales by twenty-one New Zealand and Australian authors, and the author of Beyond the Briar: A Collection of Romantic Fairy Tales (2014) (nominated for a Sir Julius Vogel Award), and a variety of short stories.
Editor: L. Naisula
Cover art: Shompole, N.L.