“The Birds That Flew In Wartime”
by Tamoha Sengupta
Long ago, the last bird in the village of Tantipur died.
Its body was a shade of blue deeper than cornflowers, and the feathers on its head glowed golden when sunlight slithered through the bars of the cage that kept it captive.
It was a songbird, captured from the forests, and yet it never sang.
Its eyes were dark, and they traced the sunlit sky, which was endless and out of reach.
Years later, the first bird emerged from the despair that followed Saijal’s death.
When the fishermen caught her soaked, limp body in their nets and brought it to land, Saijal’s mother fell to the ground, her screams puncturing the air around. Her tears fell—drops of sorrow that wouldn’t cease—and that was when it happened.
From the ground it emerged, and it looked as if the dirt and mud were assembling themselves together into a shape, solid and cloudy at the same time.
At first, Kaashvi did not realize it was a bird. It was gray, like the smoke-coated skies above, and its feathers trembled as it stretched its wings. And then she knew what it was. She’d heard stories of the last bird, had seen Grandma draw the creature on the mud floor of their house.
“It’s a bird.”
With wonder, they all watched it rise up. Mud dotted its feathers, and its beak was brown, sharp like a knife.
Then it opened its mouth, and they all covered their ears: for no song emerged, but the wailing, heart-wrenching wailing of a woman.
Nobody bought the bird because it had too high a price, and everyone agreed that the bird-seller did not reduce the cost because he had grown fond of it. He stroked it through the cage, his brown fingers coarse on the feathers. The bird shrank into itself, curling like a ball, but the cage didn’t allow any escape.
There were dreams in its heart. Dreams of the green, green forest and of the branches that shook when it took flight. It remembered catching a glimpse of leaf-spotted skies as it sang and sang, while the river rushed down below, catching its reflection.
Without songs and with wings that could not fly, its heart broke and sorrow seeped out. It forgot that it was a bird, a lover of skies and air.
For when a bird cannot fly, it ceases to be a bird.
A broken heart and oozing sorrow are all that remain.
When Grandma died, Kaashvi knew she had to become the grown-up of the family.
Papa had run away three years ago, after Mama died while giving birth to her sister, Kavya.
Kavya sucked her thumb and followed Kaashvi wherever she went, the fingers of her other hand clutching the hem of Kaashvi’s skirt.
After cooking and feeding herself and her sister, Kaashvi sat down, and wove shawls, while Kavya slept beside her.
The shawls were their livelihood.
“Your weaving will take you places. You’ve got a gift, girl.” Grandma used to say, and these words were the threads with which Kaashvi weaved dreams in her head. When Kavya would be a little older, Kaashvi would take her and go somewhere else. It would be a place where she’d get fame and more money for weaving, and where they’d be able to afford milk every day. A place where these birds wouldn’t scare her with their wails of agony.
She didn’t know where that place was; just that it was out there somewhere. The world beyond their village was big, and there was a place for everyone to belong.
The bird-seller had a son. The boy often came with his father to the market, and he wished his father wasn’t a trapper of birds.
When the last bird was left, he tried to steal the cage key from his father, but could not.
He could read the sorrow in the bird’s eyes, in the bird’s wings. He knew what being trapped felt like, for he had lost an arm and could no longer climb mango trees in summer—something that he looked forward to doing each year.
“I’m sorry. I’d free you, if I could,” he’d whisper to the bird every day.
When he finally managed to steal the keys from his father’s pockets, it was too late.
The bird was dead.
“The bird will come back. The bird will want to break free.” Grandma often said, a smile on her face, as if she knew something Kaashvi didn’t.
“What’s a bird, Grandma?”
Grandma had drawn, her crooked fingers slicing through the dirt on the floor of their house till there was a shape there.
“This is a bird.”
The drawing had been strange. It had been unlike anything she’d ever seen.
One night, Grandma told her a story as Kavya slept on her lap.
“Your Mama feared them. She didn’t want me saying the stories,” Grandma said.
“Stories about what?”
“Birds? That thing you drew the other day?”
“They’re real things?”
“Of course they are. There were birds in Tantipur when I was a girl. A young girl your age.” Grandma said.
“Really?” Kaashvi turned her head towards Grandma’s voice, trying to trace her shape in the darkness.
“Yes, and they were beautiful. They had wings—red, and golden and blue. They were moving rainbows that flew everywhere.” Grandma’s voice held a smile and Kaashvi knew that Grandma’s eye was twinkling, the right one, because the other one was silvered by cataract and couldn’t see.
“What happened to them?” she asked. Outside, the crickets called in the darkness.
“Death, dear. You cannot turn blue skies to gray and still expect birds to live. Many were killed for meat when food was scarce. They were easiest to catch.” Grandma shook her head. “But the last bird did not suffocate to death, nor was it killed for meat.”
“It died in a cage. It was buried somewhere near the forest. I forget exactly where.”
“Did you see it?”
Grandma nodded. “Of course I did. The bird-seller used to sit on the corner of the main road. That is where I met your Grandpa. He was the bird-seller’s son. He was the one who buried the bird.”
It rained the day the last bird died. Sunlight flickered and vanished behind the clouds. Heaven opened its taps, and rain tumbled down.
The bird-seller’s son carried it to the edge of the forest, which looked drenched in gloom.
The hole that he dug was small, but it took him time. He hunched on the ground, and dug one-handedly, the cage holding his shirt like a tent sideways over the to-be-grave. The bird rested on his folded knees, feathers wet and sticking to the body.
When the hole had been dug, he lifted the last bird of Tantipur off his knees and laid it gently onto the concave ground. It took only a moment to cover its body, to bury it under the earth, to hide it from the skies.
And the last bird lay there, beneath the earth pounded by rain. But the sorrow of its broken heart still seeped out into the ground, till it was hard to say whether rain soaked it more, or sadness.
And no one knew as they walked around in the village nearby. No one, except the son, realized that it wasn’t only rain that wet the ground.
And how would they? None of them knew what the sorrow of a caged bird felt like.
At first, the gray birds were few, and the villagers learned to ignore them. It was the season of rain, and the birds’ wails were drowned out by the groaning of trees, the crack of thunder splitting open the sky.
Kaashvi sat and weaved shawls like her family had done for generations. Her fingers flitted back and forth holding a needle, and she watched as the threads took shape on the cloth—a burning sun, a flowing river, a flower. Sometimes she weaved waves, which had been her mother’s favorite, and on the small finite sky, she weaved a bird, for Grandma.
Kavya would watch her with wide eyes, and sometimes Kaashvi let her put in a stitch.
Life settled again into what it had been before Grandma’s death—a routine of eating, sleeping, and weaving.
And then, the war started.
“What’s the war about?” Kaashvi asked any adult whom she met.
No one knew. But what did it matter? War was a repetition.
People fought, people died, people waited.
This war was no different.
Except for the birds.
War was when the birds began to appear in earnest.
The last bird’s insect prey were predators now.
They ate away the last bird, and it ceased to exist in bits and pieces in the darkness of the ground.
Unsung songs, abandoned flights—everything was eaten away with it.
The last bird became dirt, and merged with the ground. And the ground held the dreams—dreams of flying, dreams of songs, dreams dreamt in sorrow.
Each day, the bombs fell—falling from high, high up, falling to destroy.
Each day, bodies arrived—empty shells of the living.
And each day, the number of birds grew—colored in sadness.
They ate the tears and grew strong. They cried with their beaks parted wide. They flew up and obscured the light from the skies. Day and night was one in darkness, in the whistling that preceded the falling bombs.
Exits and entrance points to the village were blocked by soldiers, and the village became a prison.
As food supply dried up, hunger clamped vice-like jaws on every inhabitant of the village. Despair grew, till it was all the villagers had, till it was all they were.
Most died, and fell to the ground, and became the birds, joining the ones already there.
War seized hold of lives and turned people into winged sorrows haunting the air.
Kaashvi hated the birds and the sound their wings made as they whooshed past her, beaks screeching—the sound grating her ears. She did not want any part of her to become these creatures—which seemed so different from the ones Grandma used to tell her about.
Whenever she went outside her home, she walked with her head down, Kavya clutched tight in her arms. The bird-seller had been her great-grandfather. The last bird had died in his cage. What if the birds somehow found out?
When fear clamped around Kaashvi so tight that she couldn’t breathe, she went inside her home and weaved. Nobody bought the shawls nowadays; nobody had the money. Yet the whisper of the needle against cloth comforted her, the familiarity of the action calmed her. Kavya would lean against her, humming the lullabies that Grandma used to sing to put her to sleep. Her weight was warm against Kaashvi’s knees, and it sheltered Kaashvi from the anguished songs outside.
Tangled with the sorrow was the memory of the boy’s voice, speaking of freedom.
Was there a way, after all? Could something be done?
The voice lingered, and seeped into the sorrow’s core, and colored it with hope. Hope for the free skies, hope for stretched wings.
The hunger was a throbbing pain in her stomach, but Kaashvi constantly reminded herself that the pain would be worth it. When the war would be over and they’d leave this place, everything would be much, much better.
She reminded herself that she still had Kavya.
Kavya no longer hummed the lullabies and was so thin that she looked like a skeleton with skin stretched over the bones. The ones who were still alive all looked the same.
Every day the whistling would sound—a shrill, high-pitched sound that drilled into their ears. And then the bombs would fall.
Kaashvi always felt a smile curve her lips when the bombs spared her home. The smile racked her with guilt at the thought that she could afford to smile when someone’s house was bombed, when somebody died.
But she couldn’t help it. Her little world was safe.
The war would be over soon. Kaashvi had heard people speak about it in desperate, hushed voices.
Just some more days, she told herself at the beginning of each day, hunger and thirst a constant fire in the pit of her belly, and then we’ll be free. It’ll all be over.
The voice tried to seek out the light, the world where a promise had been made. Near the surface it lingered, trying to find a way out.
Then tears fell.
A mother’s tears.
And a slice of sorrow became the first bird.
Kaashvi woke up because of the whistling. For a moment she lay disoriented in the darkness. Kavya lay beside her, wrapped in a mud-smudged shawl, curled up in a C.
Kaashvi sat up, looking towards the window, her eyes blinking to adjust to the darkness.
The awful whistling was growing louder.
Then, something hot and powerful slammed into their home, and the world shattered.
Kaashvi was lifted to the air and slammed back to the ground, her back hitting splintered wood.
For a moment, the world grew black and silent. No one gathered around to help. It was usual nowadays, seeing houses and lives being bombed apart.
Kaashvi tried to sit up, feeling nausea starting to creep in.
Blinding pain shot through her right shoulder, and caused stars to erupt in front of her eyes.
She looked sideways towards where her right arm was.
Or used to be.
There was nothing there, except the sleeves of her dress hanging loose, the yellow cotton fabric damp and reddened with blood that dripped and dripped on the ground, forming a dark pool there.
Her home was bricks and smoking dust in front of her, and nothing else remained.
The agony rose in her, sharper than the pain of a lost arm.
No sign of Kavya. No glimpse of shawls.
Everything her life had been, lost within minutes.
Her whole body was nothing but despair and pain and rage, and she wondered if, in spite of everything, she would become one of the birds.
Then, the rubble in front of her shifted. Two tiny feet emerged, followed by a body.
A thin voice called from the ruins.
For a moment, she couldn’t breathe as she watched her sister walk towards her, barefoot, wrapped in a shawl.
All around, the world was smoke and dust and darkness.
And in the midst of all that—this miracle.
Her sister—alive, unscathed.
Not a scratch on her.
“Didi. Didi. Your arm—”the voice trailed away in fear.
Kaashvi pulled her sister close with the other arm, the arm that still remained. Blood soaked the shawl around her sister, and Kavya whimpered.
“You’re hurt, Didi.”
“It’ll be okay. I’ll be fine.” Kaashvi said, her voice wobbling, the dim traces of a smile gathering on her lips.
She was alive, and Kavya was alive, and together they could weave back the frayed ends of their lives.
The tears that fell from her eyes weren’t of despair—but of something else.
And from her tears came the bird.
Blue in color, almost blinding against the ashen world around.
It stretched its wings, and its feathers brushed against Kaashvi’s cheeks.
“What is that?” Kavya asked, craning her head as it rose, its wings blurring as they flapped.
And Kaashvi knew.
“The last bird.” She whispered.
People around were starting to point, not at them but at the bird.
And then the bird opened its beak, like the gray ones had done. And a song emerged.
It was unlike anything anyone had ever heard. The song washed over them in waves, and Kaashvi’s heart thudded. The song was silver. The song was light at the end of a dark tunnel, the first blooming of leaves on a tree.
All around, the gray birds started to dissolve into nothingness, until not a single one was left. Sunlight rained down, unobstructed at last. It lit up the darkness and warmed the war-wrecked streets.
The bird flew higher, and the song fell like a fountain on the world below. Then there was a final burst of song, and the bird was gone.
Green of the forests.
Metal of the cage.
Mud of the earth.
And finally vastness—the glorious vastness of open skies.
Tamoha Sengupta lives in India. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Mad Scientist Journal, The Colored Lens and elsewhere. She sometimes tweets @sengupta_tamoha.