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The Birdstories of Jaywalker

by Jennifer Stakes

 

The honeyed scent of gorse warmed Jay’s nose, although he had to pull his bright cloth plumage around him to ward off the sharp October wind and dig his head lower between his shoulders as he tramped. He moved with the rhythmic patience of those who never get to where they are going, and are not sad when they don’t arrive.

As the seasons of the fields, inlets and woods flowed by him, the Birdstories ran through Jay’s mind. They grew and changed with each telling, giving birth to new tales. He had the latest clutch nearly ready for the Festival, keeping them in the fertile place behind his eyes.

He paused now to take stock of the country beyond. The quiet ruined tumble of the castle marked the slope of the sheep-pricked hill that fell away to the silver-edged sea. In the castle’s shadow, just above the high tide line, they were already setting the tents for the Storytelling Festival. He picked up his pace, looking forward to rare warmth and food.

He never asked for a fee but was always paid in kind. For his rent to live upon the earth was due soon and could not be late.

He moved among the tents, warmed by the chatter of festival-goers. A tangy vegetative smell rose from the damp autumn grass and curled a smile on his crevassed cheeks; the bouquet of a rich harvest. He passed from stall to stall, looking at the food on offer. He nodded at familiar faces and they acknowledged him with the respect of one professional to another. He handed over a token at last to a Moroccan stall and took a thick vegetable tagine to a table. Savoring the flavor, he watched people drift past and absorbed the music of a folk duo from a small nearby stage. She sang of loss while his bow danced upon the fiddle, his eyes closed. Jay felt the Birdstories flutter in anticipation.

He inspected the tent where he was due to perform that night. It was the same as every year: musty-smelling and ancient, thick white canvas, and a bright tapestry carpet in front of the stage for the little ones to sit cross-legged. A poet was in full flow, beating out the rhythm of an epic on a drum while he spoke. Jay heard a journey through forests, a cave and a magical fire. He closed his eyes and the Birdstories beat their wings as they absorbed the heat of the story.

Later, as the evening grew thick and smoky, he moved from bard to folksinger, hoarding their stories in his mind. The festival-goers fed him too: a child’s fib, a husband’s boast, a mother’s white lie. They could all be converted to his landlord’s currency. Then it was his turn to speak.

Eyes watched, clear and open, dimmed and yellowed, all magnetized by Jay’s Birdstories. The words danced through swirls of racing clouds, wove around snow-weighted branches, fed on the open hearts of fallen beasts, whispered secrets. The Birdstories flocked through the crowd, lifting them skyward to sing in defiance of night’s creep. Jay loomed above his audience, wrapped in bright layers of shabbiness, spinning his Stories and living them as the crowd lived them. He gave and gathered, storing his tithe.

And on the final day of the Festival, Jay left the crowd, left the aromas, left the noise and chatter behind. He shouldered his pack and climbed to the lower shoulders of a mountain, where a tarn cowered foetal under the folds of the cracked peaks above. He spread his blanket in a hollow where the sheer wall met the pool. He felt the agitation of the Birdstories and breathed deep to calm them.

The day was dreich, mists seeped inward to draw out every morsel of warmth. He lifted a flask to his mouth and drank as he watched the clouds swirl around the tarn. His body stilled and his heart slowed to nothing. His form slumped backward. Jay stepped out of the husk and surveyed his body for a moment before wading into the unmoving water, following the roots of the mountain down deep to their base. Then he went deeper, and deeper, retracing the route he took every year at this time to pay his tithe, his ten percent, to those who allowed him to harvest the Birdstories from the land above. For those Down Below needed stories too.

 

 

Jennifer Stakes moved from Bristol, UK to Washington DC a year ago. She writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry and is currently working on a dystopian novel. She likes medieval history and tea, and her ambition in life is to be an extra in a zombie film. You can follow her adventures at writerinthewilderness.blogspot.com


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ISSUE #20

October 2010

FICTION

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