“Birds of London”
by Beth Cato
Birds in London speak different dialects than they do in Sussex.
Doris rests her violin against her thighs and laughs to herself. Of course their songs are different. Everything is different here. In her three weeks in London, she’s heard more languages of the world than ever before in her life. The Great Tit she has dubbed Percy is perched upon the wrought-iron balcony several feet away. She knows him for male by the bold black stripe that bisects his yellow chest. She’s worked to earn his trust, though her music continues to make him skittish.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs, “but I must practice. This piece is new to me.” New, as London is new to her. This city is a strange, thick bowl of stew, and as carefully as she tries to sip, she feels she will choke.
The little bird regards her with incredible gravitas, as if studying her fresh-formed fear and hollowness.
A man’s loud yell causes Percy and Doris to similarly cock their heads to take in the bustle from the nearby thoroughfare. The flocks that frequent the sycamores can’t cover the constant city din—lorries on thin rubberized wheels, horses with laden carts, and the soldiers, cadres of tommies full of beer and song as they gather to save France and return by Christmas.
Percy bursts out in song—a string of semitones, a trill at the end. She automatically mimics in a hum, punctuated with vibrato. He hops closer, as if considering her a fellow bird.
Then Doris raises her bow. He dives from the balcony. Already, the Great Tit has come to regard her action as an unpleasant racket.
She stares after him, saddened, then sets down the bow to reach for a nubby pencil. In the margin of her sheet music, she scrawls Percy’s song. She recalls the still-empty journal Mama gave her last Christmas. That would be perfect for preserving bird song, perhaps to recognize patterns and find meaning.
She needs to find meaning in something these days.
The tempo is off. Doris can feel it the way she feels the warmth of a precious sunbeam. Even so, in the sway of the music, with bass heavy in her bones and drumbeats in her heart, it feels less wrong than everything else in the city.
“No, no, no.” The maestro, Mr. Overton, stalks around the orchestra. “The tempo is off, still off, forever off! Julie.” His eyes narrow at the violinist beside Doris. She feels the urge to cringe away, as if her neighbor is contagious.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Julie’s voice warbles like a Blue Tit’s morning greeting. In recent months, Doris has discovered each kind of bird favors certain songs throughout the day, as if they speak human scripts like good morning, good afternoon, farewell.
“Focus more. Listen,” snaps Overton, the word a whip. “A strict one, two, three, with stress on the one.”
They start again, and again, until finally Overton stalks off in disgust. The band disperses. Musicians gather into chatty clusters wreathed by cigarette smoke. Doris slips outside to a small courtyard garden. Unlike the orchestra, the rain maintains a steady tempo.
Even here, with a view of greenery and stonework, she cannot escape the exhausting relentlessness of London. Always, always, vehicles rumble and roar in the background, with some man about to holler for his mates to wait up. Doris aches for the quiet and peace of the countryside the way a feverish person craves water, even as they know it won’t stay down.
From on high, a Blackbird sings. Five gliding notes, followed by a trill. A new tune. She hums it to herself as she pulls her journal from her pocket, flipping to her Blackbird page. She has named this particular bird Penelope. Doris repeats the notes, louder. The curious bird drops to the pavement, only to flutter away as heavy steps approach.
“Talking to birds, eh?” Overton twitches a cigarette between his fingers. “A country affectation?”
“Yes and no, sir.” She squelches her annoyance. “A family affectation. My mother was fond of birds. We nursed a few fledglings during my childhood. I find myself… appreciating birds more, now that I’m in the city.”
Doris, being of an introspective nature, understands that she occupies herself in bird-watching the way other lonely people immerse themselves in alcohol and parties.
“Ah, your family.” Apology tempers his tone as he breathes out smoke. “A hard thing, to lose both parents in a crash. You should be conversing with your peers rather than idle out here with birds.”
“What?” The abrupt subject change takes her aback.
“Playing music, being in the music, means knowing your fellow players, feeling as they feel. You never go out with the others.”
“You do, and it shows, but you’re not here as a soloist.” He crushes the cigarette butt beneath his shoe and stalks back inside.
She glowers after him, then looks to Penelope on the eave. “Birds are people, too. Aren’t you?” Doris sings an afternoon greeting. The Blackbird answers.
“I should truly give you the boot, keepin’ a bird in here like this. Again.” The landlady, Mrs. Summerbridge, grips a basket of clean linens against her hip.
“I promised to keep my room clean. I do.” Doris and Mrs. Summerbridge stand within her shut room, watching a little Blue Tit hop about. Doris found him a week before. Due to his injured wing, she named him Nelson for the similarly maimed naval commander.
“You can’t cage him?”
Doris shakes her head. “I don’t want him tamed, only healed. Blue Tits are naturally shy. He needs to stay that way, for his own safety.”
“Better for you to collect birds than boys, I s’pose.” Mrs. Summerbridge huffs and sets down her laden basket. “So long’s you don’t end up like my cousin.”
Doris took the hint. “Oh?” To Nelson, she taps out a quick song on the tabletop. He stops pecking at her shoes and gives her as sullen a look as a tiny-beaked little bird can muster.
“She’s dead. So’s we think, anyway. We held a funeral. Not on consecrated ground, a’course.” Mrs. Summerbridge shrugs. “Her mum had her set for marriage with a bloke, a sailor. An officer, I think. She didn’t want none of it. At the lake nearby, where she went to watch her birds, searchers found one of her shoes. Never her clothes or her.” Her expression shifts into what Doris can only term as a shrewd busy-body look. “You ever think about getting married?”
Doris swallows a sigh. That question is as pervasive as queries regarding the weather, and about as appealing. “My music keeps me busy.” As do her birds, but then, they are much the same these days.
“I must busy myself with my most unpleasant chore next.” Mrs. Summerbridge sighs, patting the rectangular bulge in her apron pocket. “Need to do my ledgers. Numbers’re never my friend. Not even a tolerable acquaintance.”
“I’m good with numbers. I did my father’s books from the time I was twelve.” He was so proud of her, too. The memory causes Doris to blink fast to keep back tears. Grief is a sneaky thing. “I can take a look, if you want.”
Mrs. Summerbridge’s glower quirks into a smile as Nelson hops across the floor. “Hmm. You manage your own funds better’n most girls your age, I know that much. Very well, then.” She hands over the tablet bulging with scrap paper.
The records are a muddle, the task undoubtedly exasperating, but Doris wants to help. Mrs. Summerbridge has been nothing but kind and tolerable of her eccentricities—as have the other lodgers. “I think I can organize things, if given more paperwork.”
“I’ll still manage my own money.”
“Of course. I can do the books, nothing more.”
“And want a discount on your rent besides, I’m sure.” Mrs. Summerbridge grumbles, but looks more at ease with the task off her shoulders. “With a knack for numbers, you could get many a job in the city.”
As if Doris has not considered as much in recent months, especially when Overton gets in his moods. “How many of those jobs would let me work with numbers? How much more often would I be on the telephone or keep the kettle on for the men?”
“True enough, that.” Mrs. Summerbridge tucks away her papers. “Let’s palaver about this more later, the two of us. For now”— She hefts her basket. “I must finish these linens.” Her heavy, uneven steps send Nelson scampering beneath the sway of the long curtains.
Doris closes the door. “Come out, Nelson.” She taps a greeting to him in accompaniment to her words. He pops out again, a spry blue-and-yellow-ball of feathers. She represses a laugh that would scare him off again.
Movement at the window catches her eye. Percy watches her through the glass. She sings him a greeting, to which he replies. He studies her often these days—and he’s not the only one.
Maybe the birds sense something about her that no one else can. That notion pleases her—that she might be special.
She pinches a mix of birdseed and mince from a tin, and singing like a Blue Tit, tosses the morsel to Nelson. The little bird snatches it up and hops back beneath the safety of the curtain.
“You’re a clever one, Nelson,” Doris says. “That’ll help you survive once you’re well again.”
Doris finds Nelson dead the next morning.
His feathers are still cloud-soft, body stiff and cold. No outward sign of new injury. His soul is simply gone.
She holds him cupped in a palm, as if she can will life into him again. Doris doesn’t cry. That well has remained dry since her parents’ abrupt departure. Below, Mrs. Summerbridge bellows that breakfast is ready. Chairs scrape and teacups clatter.
With care, Doris returns Nelson to his shoebox nest in the closet. His garden burial must wait until evening. He will join other birds she has found dead nearby or had die in recent months despite her care.
Others, though, have lived. She glances toward the window. She’s not surprised to find Percy looking back at her—him, and two companions, the speckled Starling she’s dubbed Lucretia and the House Sparrow named Clapham.
“I tried,” she says, blinking fast. Percy cocks his head. She’s anthropomorphizing him, she knows, but she wants to think he understands.
When the day’s rehearsal is over, she is first to pack her instrument, first out the door to an afternoon as gray as her mood. Doris earned Overton’s criticism today. Her violin is in tune; she is not.
“Hey. Hey!” Cuthbert, one of the cellists, calls after her. “You all right? Fancy coming out with the gang?”
Doris has gone out with the strings section a few times, after Overton’s prodding, but felt like a dreadful bore as the others gabbed about nights out and lovers and the latest on the war.
“I’m not proper company tonight, I’m sorry.” Even with her fist clenched, as she walks onward, she can almost feel the softness of Nelson’s body. Many birds have died in her care, but this loss has hit hard. He seemed so healthy.
Her feet take her along uneven walkways and cobbles and around stacked freight and laughing men until she’s within Hyde Park. There’s no forest there, but oaks and beeches aplenty, and birds. Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Magpies, and more, plus the lake freckled with water birds galore. A bevy of Mute Swans turns en masse to watch her. Doris is prickled by unease. Being special may not always be a good thing. Swans can be as vicious as they are beautiful. Even other birds know to be wary of them.
Doris sits on a bench as she feels nothing and everything. Even here, surrounded by green, she hears the distant tootle of automobile horns and the rumble of aircraft above. She can’t escape the city, or her own hollowness.
A Great Tit lands on her violin case, his voice and song familiar.
“Percy?” she whispers. She’s a full hour’s walk from her lodgings, far beyond his home range. Even so, she taps a greeting out on wood, as she often has on her sill at home. His beak readily taps a reply.
“It is you,” she breathes.
He dances about, agitated. He hops to the ground, then returns to scream at her again, then again leaves.
“You wish me to follow?”
His chirp is a clear “Yes!”
They leave the park as light fades. He is impatient with her terrestrial progress, flustered and trilling. An increasing wind doesn’t help her speed. Her skirt tangles her legs, her violin case bobbing in her grasp. Though the route is strange, she knows the direction they travel.
He’s guiding her home.
She makes it in the door as the storm breaks. A crack of thunder applauds her valiant effort.
“Mercy! Listen to that! You all right, ‘en?” Mrs. Summerbridge emerges as Doris pounds up the narrow stairs.
“Yes!” she gasps. Her door closes, the window opens a crack. “Percy!” she calls, and beckons him with song. He glides to the sill, shivering water from his feathers.
She offers him seeds from her stash. He eats. “Thank you,” she whispers. She wishes she knew how to say it in Great Tit.
The storm rages, rain violent against the glass. The weather suits her mood. She pulls out her violin to play in accompaniment.
Percy retreats into the storm.
“Wait!” she calls, then sings out to him. Percy pokes his black and white head through the gap.
Doris hastily packs up her violin. Percy helped her today; she won’t make noise to scare him off. She hums him more songs as she places her violin in the closet—beside the shut shoebox that still cradles Nelson.
Grief thickens her voice. She shuts the door and continues to sing.
Winter in London passes in blacks, whites, and grays like a cinema feature, but for Doris, color comes in flashes of feathers and bursts of song. She immerses herself in music. Not the classics of Rachmaninoff and Brahms, but quick melodies that celebrate the new sun or the discovery of a worm.
Mr. Overton looms over Doris as she packs up one early spring day. “You’re not focused.”
Doris sits ramrod straight. “What do you mean?”
“You show up, you play. You fulfill your obligations, and no more.”
She hasn’t been practicing violin as often, that’s true, but she’s not playing badly. “I’m here. I’m doing my job.”
“You’re like a drayman’s horse who knows their route without the need of a driver. You haven’t made first chair. You haven’t displayed the passion that earned you your place here.”
Indignation warms her face. Back then, her parents were alive. Together, they toasted her acceptance with a dusty bottle of Champagne and plotted out her holiday returns to Sussex, how they’d visit her in London as often as possible.
Then weeks later, the crash. The funeral. London, and only London.
Doris formulates no reply. Overton sighs. “You’re supposed to be part of this orchestra, not simply a warm body in a chair. What’s the name of the violinist who sits beside you? Do you even know?”
“Violet. She’s been here a month.”
“What do you want from me, Mr. Overton?”
“I need you to choose to be here. Truly here.”
His unspoken threat leaves her shaken. She thought her place was secure. She hasn’t been absent once. She has done her part, and yet, that’s not enough. What is?
She leaves. The street’s tight white rows of buildings squeeze her like a cage. Automobiles rumble and men yell. People told her she’d get used to London’s noise and stench and relentless life; they lied. She could live elsewhere, certainly—but not as a professional musician. Elsewhere, there’d be even more pressure to marry, to mother, to conform.
“I don’t know where I belong.” She’s unsurprised as Percy glides around her. His black gaze is especially keen upon her today, as if he senses her vulnerability.
A song snares her ear. Not birdsong. She turns to find a club. This early in the evening, laughter and voices are few, allowing vibrant jazz to rise to a foamy head and overflow the door. The arrangement is simple: a piano and a woman singing effortless French with all the sweetness of crème patisserie. Doris glances up to read the club’s name. Le Pain de la Vie. The bread of life.
She wants to enter and listen, but not by herself, not when she knows men would gather around her like moths to a torch and pester her to dance or to have a drink. She doesn’t know how to talk to them; she just plain doesn’t want to. What she wants is to feel the music, absorb it, let the melodies wrap her bones like muscle and make her strong for a while.
Percy swoops to get her attention again, his tone shrill. She looks between the club and him. A bloke on a bicycle swerves around her.
“This is music, too,” she tells Percy, saddened anew that he can’t recognize it for what it is.
He sings again as he lands on a mail box, claws tapping on the painted metal. This song is new, long, undulating. Doris skims through her mental catalog to try to translate bits, only to fail.
When he pauses, all she can do is sing the Great Tit greeting song again.
A languid lyric beckons Doris to turn around. Instead, she clutches her violin case and follows Percy as he flies onward.
“What do you mean, you’re shutting down?” Doris’s voice joins a cacophony of exclamations and cries around the table the next morning.
Mrs. Summerbridge’s pasty face is ruddy with grief. “I’m sorry girls, I am, but my sister, she needs me in Leeds. I must go next week. There’s no one to run the place with my boy away.”
“But where’m I to go?” “Leave? Before next week?” Dismay fills the room. One woman breaks down in heaving sobs.
First, the threat of losing her seat in the orchestra. Now this. Doris cannot imagine how she will tolerate London without her view of the sycamores, without the company of Percy–and Rutledge, Snowy-breast, Tippy, Galette, Esmeralda, and Tony, and others besides. Percy may wander the city with her, but this place is his territory. She wouldn’t ask him to leave it, even if she possessed the language.
Rehearsal isn’t until afternoon. She should practice first, but in her room, she knows thoughts of impending homelessness will consume her.
Percy joins Doris the moment she steps outside. His song is querulous, concerned. She studies him sidelong as they journey down the block. Percy surely can’t understand the intricacies of modern human life, but he clearly realizes something is wrong with her—that in all their time together, there has been emptiness incapable of fulfillment. Now, more so than ever before.
Doris warbles a greeting.
He responds with a new song. Long, likewise warbling, the tune ends with a piercing trill that causes nearby dogs to howl.
Other birds descend as if they’ve been waiting—Blackbirds, House Sparrows, Blue Tits, Goldfinches, Woodpigeons, more. A sampling of all the city’s small birds on wing. She gapes. As she crosses a bridge, waterfowl amble and soar to join the parade.
Her knowledge of song fails her. “What’s going on? What does this mean?” she asks Percy, who continues to fly and sing without paying heed to her English.
When she stops to cross the street, beaks and wings nudge to the left. Automobiles toot their horns, passengers gawk. She goes as the birds direct.
Doris is being herded. Where? Why?
Fellow pedestrians cast her a wide berth. An old lady crosses herself. Boys in short trousers gaze with expressions between fear and admiration.
Doris summons to mind negative songs, the ones that Blue Tits use to defend nests, that Blackbirds cackle at dogs. Anything that might express “No” within their tongues. Instead, her voice is muted against the rising happy din around her.
“Please, I don’t want to walk this way,” she says, as if birds would ever think to inquire of her wants. And if they had, language failed all parties involved.
The flock reaches the Thames. The birds press against her. Their presence, their musk, near smothers her, as if she’s surrounded by people. Again, she tries to leave. Again, they stop her. She doesn’t want to kick or swat her way free. These are her friends. Aren’t they?
A dank mist thickens around Doris. Within feet, the noise of human civilization is muffled, then gone. She halts. Beaks nip at her calves, a Blackbird screeches in her ear. She staggers forward, and out of the mist.
Sunlight sparkles down. Moist grass kisses her legs. Before her is a meadow fragrant of greenery and spring blooms, every bush and tree bristling with birds. They welcome her in a discordant chorus. The scene brings tears to her eyes. This could be anywhere in the countryside, even Sussex. For birds, it must surely equate to heaven.
But, perhaps, it could not be Sussex now. She sees no electric wires, no trimmed hedges, no aeroplane contrails, no signs of the modern world.
Nipping beaks prod her across a spongy field. She pushes her way through bushes to find a grove of sycamores and oaks thick and gnarled by time. At their twined roots is a massive nest made of strangely bright-colored sticks. Only as she is propelled closer does she realize the colors are clothes rent to rags. Tangled necklaces and rings gleam beneath scattered sunbeams. She sees no bones in the nest.
This is not a place of death, but of birth.
Doris can become a bird. She can fly! Sing! Make a nest without a worry of money or landlords or obligations or social propriety. She could live free!
And die quickly. The birds in her private cemetery attested to that. Nor would she be free of social constrictions. Bird societies contained their own sort of order. She witnessed that often from her window.
Even worse, the compositions she loved would become mere noise not unlike the other rumbles and toots and screams of London. No more Brahms, or Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff. No melodious jazz from Le Pain de la Vie.
No bow in her hand, no violin at her shoulder.
“I never wanted to live as a bird,” she says, though she still does not know what exactly she wants from life. She’s so very human that way. “Such an existence would be different, but not better. Not for me.”
The birds ignore her protests.
“No!” she says louder, and when that fails, she covers her face with one arm and flails the other. “No! No! No!”
Flying birds scatter with surprised squawks and trills.
A goose pecks at her knee. The time for niceties is done. Her shoe lands in the goose’s side, deflating it like a bagpipe. A swan flares its wings and lunges. Doris dodges and runs through the bushes, across the boggy earth, back to the fog that—thank the heavens!—awaits her still. Birds follow her, snapping and tweeting and swirling, their moods changed as fast as British weather.
Doris dives through the mist.
The stench of the Thames greets her first—mustiness and rot and fumes—and then she’s staggering to a stop along the embankment. A few birds follow her through. She swats them away. A swan hisses and retreats to the water. She glances back to find that the mist is gone. Passersby look at her askance. She looks at herself. Blood seeps from bite marks in her calves, hands, and scalp. Her hair is crazed, hat gone. But she’s alive. Alive, and according to the sun high above, due at rehearsal soon.
A hysterical laugh escapes her, even as the thought grounds her in reality. She needs her job, her home. She’ll muddle out the rest from there.
As the blocks pass by, she ruminates her financial situation—and that of Mrs. Summerbridge. She enters the lodging to confront her landlady in the kitchen.
“What if you have help to keep this place open?” Doris asks.
Mrs. Summerbridge gawks at her. “What’s come of you? Were you attacked?”
Doris shakes her head, dismissing her ragged appearance. “How long must you be in Leeds?”
“Weeks for certain, and I may need to come and go for a while after that. Depends on how her man’s Blighty wound heals. What’re you thinking?”
“I can manage your books, as I have. The other girls must be willing to pitch in to take turns with cooking, laundry, and cleaning—and pay less rent while we do so, but the budget would allow for it.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps. I must ponder this a time, ‘n talk with the others.” Mrs. Summerbridge’s eyes fill with tears. “Thank you. I hate the thought of throwing you lot from the nest.”
Doris winces and smiles at once. “I’m rather fond of this nest, too.”
She washes up and changes clothes fast as she can. A song at the window makes her pause. Percy, on a branch just outside.
After a moment of hesitation, she approaches the glass and starts to hum.
He flies away, as he would from any human. She is human. Whatever potential he saw in her, he sees no more.
Her heart aches, but she understands. She made her choice. She will not regret it.
Doris arrives at rehearsal as her peers are taking their seats. Her flurried arrival earns her more odd looks—and a raised eyebrow from Overton—but there’s no time for questions. No, it’s time for music.
Their songs ring sweeter than ever before, out of tune and tempo as some bits are. Her violin resonates through her bones, and deeper.
Clatter fills the room as the musicians disperse for their break. The violinist beside her leans over. “You all right?”
“I think so.” Doris checks her attire.
The woman’s smile is shy yet kind. “Your hair is, well.” She waggles her fingers in the air. “And I think your ear is bleeding.”
“Oh, no.” Doris touches her right ear to find it sticky. Loose strands of hair tickle her fingers. “I forgot to fix my hair. I was so rushed.”
“Never you mind.” The woman digs into a satchel at her feet. “Here’s a kerchief, and—ah ha! Even better!” She shoves hair clips into Doris’s hand. “Whatever happened to you? You look as if you were attacked by birds!”
Doris blinks and laughs. “I was, actually. Your name is… Violet, right?”
She nods as her eyes widen. “Oh! I so love birds, but they can be vicious, they can, especially geese. Do you know London’s birds well? I spent my recent years outside of Glasgow. I don’t know all I’m looking at nowadays.”
Doris combs her hair with her fingers and begins to pin up wayward strands. “I do know a bit about London’s birds,” she says, “about as much as a person should.”
“You missed one—here.” Violet grabs a clip and helps Doris with gentle fingers. “Maybe we could do a bird walk soon.”
“Maybe we can,” Doris says as Overton clears his throat. Their peers shuffle back to their chairs. Doris settles back in her seat, smiling. She is ready to play.
Nebula Award-nominated Beth Cato is the author of A Thousand Recipes For Revenge from 47North (June 2023) plus two fantasy series from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native now residing in a far distant realm, usually with one or two cats in close orbit. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato. We at A&A are thrilled to publish one of her stories.