Bird of Leaves

—Jay Lake—

Once there was a bird of leaves, who lived in the Old Heartwood. Her life was full of bright sunlight and laughing rain and the clean, clear touch of the wind. She always had water fit to drink, and she dined on air, for leaves eat nothing that grows on the land. She flew high above the treetops to dance with the hawks, and low in the heather to caper with the pheasants, and her world was good and better.

Until the fire tiger came into her forest.

Jane left home when the Amis burned down her church.

She hadn't spoken in the four years since they'd shot her brother. The time of silence had brought blood between her legs and breasts to her chest, and in turn boys to her door—ragged, furtive, skulking along alleyways under cover of darkness. Mama turned them away with the flat of her pan and threats to call the Home Guard.

No one ever threatened to call the Amis. No one wanted that kind of help, not ever.

Mama took Jane to services every Sunday and Wednesday. They always sat with space between them for Aidan.

Mama prayed.

Jane stared at the scuffed tile on the floor.

Mama sang.

Jane stared at the plastic sheeting in the rafters, which mostly kept the rain off the congregation.

Mama listened to the sermon.

Jane stared at the dirty pictures carved on the back of the pew in front of her.

Mama always found a pence or two for the collection plate.

Jane stared at the old plastic dish with its scattering of buttons, pence, ration tokens, and pencil butts. If Jesus ever came by, she might have something to say to Him. But the Amis owned Jesus. He was one of their politicians or something.

The trees whispered to her with the voices of the dead. She could read the past in the fall of the sticks. Anybody could tell the future, but what she did was much harder. The future was hope. The past was memory.

The homily had been delivered by a dark-skinned man with a dog collar and a big wooden cross on a bead chain around his neck. Most priests dressed like everyone else these days. He'd shouted harder words, fighting words, tougher words than Reverend Malone usually said. Afterward she went outside to pull weeds in the graveyard while Mama stayed with everyone else to talk, have fellowship, and share that dreadful acorn coffee.

A bat-shaped Ami airplane passed overhead so fast she barely saw it. A moment later fire pushed out the church windows and doors like red flowers fighting through cracks in the sidewalk. Flaming splinters rained down on the graveyard.

She stood, watching the church burn until it was nothing but smoking beams and ashes. Leaves crumbled in her hands.

She stood, watching the Ami officers speak for camera crews about terrorist cells and the need to kill fish from the head down and how worldwide democracy had been strengthened once more.

She stood, watching the Home Guard come later, until one them noticed and chased her off with blows from the butt of his Kalashnikov.

After that she didn't so much leave home as not bother to go back again.

The fire tiger was a wondrous beast. His legs were flame, his stripes smoke and lightning, his voice thunder, his breath summer wind. Storms raged in his eyes, while his tail whipped like a white-hot wire.

He stalked through the Old Heartwood, proclaiming his virtue so loudly even the rocks feared him. "I am good," he roared. "I know best. Heed me and you will be safe."

Each step burned heather and gorse. Each swish of his tail fired the bushes and saplings which were the next generation of the forest. Each leap and bound spread fear faster than he could shout the good news of his coming.

Everything with feet or wings or slithering belly fled the fire tiger, save for the bird of leaves. She was drawn back to his bright flame. In her eyes, he was the sun come down from the horizon's bed.

Jane became a prostitute because it was easier than being raped. Or at least she had something to show for it afterwards.

Like most things in life, the first time was the hardest. She had taken to living in abandoned attics, close as she could be to the sky while still sheltered from the weather. She moved through the narrow old streets by night, selling what she could find overlooked in the looted houses for better trash than she could fish out of the gutters herself.

One night an Ami patrol caught her crossing Bancroft Park. Jane knew better than to traverse an open space, but it was the work of an hour or more to find her away around, and she would have to avoid the Home Guard snipers who lurked to the south shooting cats and drunks when they couldn't find Amis to sight in on. So she'd gambled and lost.

Someone big and fast ran her down. He had her face pressed into gravel and her wrists zip-tied together behind her back before she understood he was an Ami and not a yob or a Home Guard. They rolled her over and barked those hard, fast Ami questions which seemed to presume everyone was an idiot, a terrorist, or both.

No one believed her silence.

After they got bored with yelling at Jane, they searched her. That process left her naked on the leaves and sticks at the side of the path, wrists still behind her back and aching to the breaking point. It was a natural progression from there to a very male form of intimacy, tender as church bombing, sweet as a massacre.

The sergeant tucked a wad of Ami scrip between her sticky thighs. "See," he said, the first time any of them had talked to her as a human being, "we paid for it. Ain't rape that way, missy."

Laughing, they walked into the dawn glow with their weapons on their shoulders, trailing cigarette smoke and sex sweat.

She was nearly caught in the flames trying to lead a flock of pheasants out of the burning brush. Her leafy pinions began to smolder, and when she beat for higher, clearer air, the action of her own wings fanned the flames. The bird of leaves folded herself tight and dropped toward a meadow still green, taking the fall hard on her back, and rolling to put out the sparks in the evening dew.

Exhausted, she lay there a while, until the false dawn of the fire tiger's trail threatened too close. Then the bird of leaves took the air once more, wondering as she went how she might live to see another true dawn.

The fire tiger took everything beautiful and twisted it to ash and bone.

She lived in the woods along the increasingly wild verges of the park. It was safer. A tribe of feral moggies slunk about their own business there, suspicious and resentful as cats ever had been. The trees whispered to her with the voices of the dead. She could read the past in the fall of the sticks. Anybody could tell the future, but what she did was much harder. The future was hope. The past was memory.

Memory and despair were Siamese twins.

Jane thought of her name less and less. It was easier to be just another cat, fur matted and torn, eyes glowing in the headlight gleam of convoys rattling down the roads nearby. Though in her dreams she flew above burning churches and long, snaking lines of olive-colored tanks and trucks filled with fit, laughing boys with her brother's face.

In her rare hours of idleness she began making a bird. There was always a cat watching her as she worked. Sentinel for the tribe, guarding a border that moved wherever she did. Jane was never sure how large the bird should be, but there were sticks and vines and leaves aplenty. It contained multitudes, and it was many.

Finally it occurred to her that the cats might be watching the bird, not her. Meanwhile, she scavenged as always, and took money for slipping loose her trousers and pressing her face so hard against old brick that the tears stayed ever dammed within.

The bird of leaves followed the fire tiger to a high place. He stood upon a rock that stabbed toward heaven like Gaia's finger laying blame on God and surveyed his mighty work with evident pride.

"Freedom," roared the fire tiger one last time, and curled himself into a glowering ball to sleep the sleep of the just.

Behind him the Old Heartwood burned. Deer that had been driven against the riverbank roasted or drowned, depending on where their panic sent them. Birds rising into the evening sky to flee further were brought down by hot updrafts and winds robbed by the flames of their sweet air. Trees defended only by time and dignity became torches to illuminate the fire tiger's pride.

She spiraled close, flexing her wings to ride the rough winds. What was he? What did he think he was about? Were those storm-eyes blind to everything except his inner light?

The bird of leaves envied the fire tiger his certitude, if nothing else.

She rose on the night's wind, looking for her friend the rain.

Jane became known as the Quiet Girl. After a while, they let her into their camps. The Amis seemed to think that because she didn't talk, she didn't hear anything either.

Like a brick wall, Jane heard everything.

An Ami major, the taste of his semen still salty-stale on her tongue, staring at a map and mumbling into a voice recorder about attack vectors. Later that night in her little camp near the cats, Jane wrote a note, then burned it.

A captain briefed his first sergeant and platoon leaders as she combed out his hair and rubbed his shoulders. This time she didn't burn the note.

Two GIs passed her back and forth, gossiping about a new deployment of armored personnel carriers as they waited to recover their hard-ons. Jane had begun to keep a notebook.

When the Home Guard finally came in the night to break her ankles and slash her cheeks for an Ami-loving traitor, she protected herself with the information.

"More," said the patrol leader, an old Sikh whose turban had deep brown stains. He tapped her in the forehead with the notebook. His three men looked disappointed at being deprived of their sport. "If it proves good, more of this. Else we'll be back for double, missy."

She hated what the Amis had made of her people. Jane nodded.

More. More. More.

The bird had no wisdom for her, but its wings sighed in the autumn wind. If she lay close to the dry, brown feathers, she could hear it singing in some far distant place.

The old Sikh came by at least twice a week. Jane rationed what information she could, for the Amis must surely find her out sooner or later. She could not lie to the Home Guard sergeant, only leave things unwritten. When she tried leaving out too much, he beat her and called her traitor. When she left in too much, she walked in fear through the Ami camps, sure each step would be her last.

One night Captain Brownlee, a regular of hers, whispered in Jane's ear as he stroked her hair and held her close: "Lie low a few days, Quiet Girl. Word is there's a security crackdown coming. I'd hate to lose you when they round up the hookers." He sighed. "I don't suppose you even understand me, do you?"

The next time the old Sikh came, all she had written in her note book was two sentences.

The Amis suspect me.

I wish to die well.

He left smiling. She climbed into the belly of her bird and flew into the night sky high above a land that was green and quiet and blessedly free of Amis.

Her country, as it should have been.

The bird of leaves rode on the shoulders of the rain. It soaked into her wings, filled her body until she was logey, drenched her eyes, draggled her tail. The rain carried her, changing her as it went, following the trail she had laid for it.

Ahead, before the storm, she could see the fire tiger sleeping amid the smoldering ruins of the Old Heartwood. He twitched in his dreams. He was just a beast. He didn't know better. But he had ruined everything for everyone, and in his pride threatened to burn the world.

"It is almost time," said the rain in a burbling voice.

She nodded, so heavy now that only the great grip of the rain's gusts kept her aloft. Her leaves were budding, flowers blooming, changing her graceful bird shape to a tumbling bouquet of petals and stems and thorns.

Cold water and claws the size of thorns hit the fire tiger at once. With the last of her strength, even as she burst into colored riot, the bird of leaves tore at his beautiful storm eyes.

Carrying a sheaf of wildflowers and vines, brown leaves tucked in her hair as a garland, Jane walked into Firebase Charlie. The guards waved her through. They knew her all too well. She knew them, too—decent men, as almost all the Amis were in person. Their sickness was a disease of the mob, not the individual mind.

It was Sunday morning. She headed for the mess tent, where so many of her clients would be singing hymns now. It was the only occasion when all the senior officers were gathered together without exception.

The explosive belt that rode low on her hips wasn't as heavy as she had thought it might be. The control hidden inside the flowers was a small thing, fitting in the palm of her hand. The men singing before her made a joyful noise, beautiful music full of pride and surety. The chaplain nodded at her from his pulpit set up in front of the serving line.

She spread her wings, shedding sticks and leaves and angry cats upon the crowd even as the cheap little organ faltered. Jane was big as the land now. The fire in her belly erupted, but she was already climbing toward the bright, burning flower of the sun.

image 2005
B. Nierstedt
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his books and two inept cats, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects, including the World Fantasy Award-nominated Polyphony anthology series from Wheatland Press. His current projects are Trial of Flowers from Night Shade Books and Mainspring from Tor Books. Jay is the winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com.

content Copyright 2006, Joseph E. Lake, Jr.—All Rights Reserved
image, "Firebird," 2006, Darin C. Bradley—All Rights Reserved