A crow told Amira she was pregnant. This was such an ominous sign, the young woman, in tears, sought the most respected oracle in Cyprus the next day.
Yes, a crow’s triplicate caw at midnight on the eve of a harvest moon foretells a cursed mother, the old woman agreed, fingering the long string of black beads around her withered neck. She bobbed her head like a chicken and thrust a gnarled dark hand onto Amira’s belly. “But I think maybe the baby bears the curse, not you,” the old woman said, closing her milky wet eyes and rubbing Amira’s stomach with such gentleness unique to a soothsayer that Amira became unnerved.
“A mother wears the curse of her child,” Amira replied, pulling away from the old woman’s hand. Amira tightened her shawl around her narrow shoulders and pulled back the long black hair that trailed her face like jungle vines. “What should I do?”
“Does your husband suspect anything?”
Amira was silent. There was no husband, only a boy, naïve like herself. Sweet and earnest. Young and tender.
Amira shook her head and looked at the dirt floor. The old woman grunted and turned toward the shelf behind her. Reedy fingers danced in midair as she considered the dusty glass bottles on the shelf—some full, others nearly empty. She handed a stout brown bottle with a cracked cork and yellow label to Amira.
“Take this,” she said. “Drink about half tonight and the rest in two days if nothing happens.”
Amira took the bottle tentatively. “What is supposed to happen?”
The old woman squinted at Amira then tapped Amira’s belly with a crooked index finger, as if testing a melon for ripeness. Somewhere outside a rooster crowed and the hut was becoming stuffy as the morning sun rose higher in the sky, its golden beams spying on them through joints in the sheet metal walls.
“It will take care of your problem, my dear. Now, if you please,” she turned a palm upwards, seeking payment.
Amira burst into tears, dropping the bottle on the floor. Brown glass shattered and thick, dark fluid oozed toward a low spot.
The old woman looked not unkindly at Amira. A familiar scenario, these raw girls, almost feral. “Then I’m afraid you really only have one option,” she whispered.
Amira wiped the tears from her cheeks with a shaky hand and leaned forward for the answer.
“Run!” the old woman hissed.
Amira bolted from the hut. She was never seen in her childhood village again.
A small, thin boy crawls under a giant, tightly woven net strung from the top of an ancient olive tree. When he gets to the junction of the net to the ground, he finds three trapped birds: two golden orioles and one bunting. Grabbing the two orioles in one fist and the bunting in the other, he quickly checks the net for holes. Finding none, he maneuvers out.
Sitting in the shade of the tree, the boy considers his catch. The two orioles are stunned, breathing heavily through gaping pointed orange beaks but the bunting, a local species, remains quiet, contemplating the boy as calmly as the boy contemplates the small, brown bird.
The boy knows one of his Uncle Joseph’s rules: don’t hunt the local birds. He tosses the bunting gently into the air. It catches flight and retreats to an upper branch of the olive tree, giving a rough and throaty caw before it flies away, the branch bouncing in its wake.
The boy looks at the remaining two orioles, knowing they’d provide a much more musical song if he were to set them free. But it’s meat over music, as his uncle says. The boy never gets any of the meat.
Amira doesn’t approve of her brother Joseph’s side business or her son’s involvement, but she keeps quiet. Her brother was valiant enough, at least in his own mind, to provide refuge seven years ago to his pregnant unwed sister and they both, as self-imposed exiles, try to find comfort in each other. They’ve formed a somewhat functional family unit as long as everyone contributes.
Joseph unloads barges on the river but it’s unpredictable work, equally dependent on the fickleness of local politics and the capricious nature of the river. As supplement, Joseph hunts the migratory birds that fly over Cyprus on their way to northern Africa. He peddles their delicate meat as a street vendor. Amira washes clothes.
Mory, Amira’s son, has recently started helping Joseph with bird hunting. Mory is adept at the work; his small size makes it easy for him to check the nets and his agile fingers can easily set ground snares and pluck the tiny birds from sticky traps in the trees. This is solitary, quiet work given its questionable legality. This, too, fits Mory, given his harelip and his general avoidance of the villagers’ stares.
On his way home, Mory checks another net and five snares he set the day before. All are empty so he continues through the marginal forest of olive and date trees, breathing in the humid air tinged with the sea, his steps light. The orioles in his hand remain still until one of them speaks.
“Goodness, boy, what on earth are you doing?” a crisp male voice calls out.
Mory freezes. Rarely does he encounter anyone else in the woods as he checks his uncle’s traps. Even the other children in the village won’t follow Mory into the woods. It’s a respite from their taunts. Mory crouches next to a stately date tree and looks around.
“Hey, hey boy,” the voice says. “Right here. Say, what’s the date?”
Mory looks at the two orioles in his hand. One remains listless, half-dead. The other is looking directly at Mory, its head cocked slightly to the side.
“It’s Tuesday,” Mory whispers shyly.
“But the date? The date?” The voice is insistent.
Mory shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what day it is? At Piccadilly, all the paperboys know the date.”
Having established he’s not being followed, Mory continues his trek home, holding the conversational oriole in front of him, a specimen to be examined far more closely than any previous bird.
“What’s a Piccadilly?” Mory asks the bird.
“Not what but where, boy,” says the bird. “Piccadilly—it’s in London. Bright lights, cabbies, newspapers on the corner.”
“Is that near Rome?” he asks.
“Rome!” the bird laughs, jumping a little in Mory’s fist. “What’s wrong with you, boy? Haven’t heard of England, have you? I must be further from home than I thought. Say, is this Italy, then?”
“Cyprus,” says Mory, the word exaggerating his lisp. He ponders the bird’s geography lesson. “You flew all the way from England?” He looks closer at the small bird, incredulous that such a tiny creature, so light and scrawny in his hand, could make its way such a great distance.
The bird puffs his chest. “Yes, I suppose I did. Not quite sure how, really, but I am hungry. Say,” says the bird, suddenly suspicious. “What exactly have you got planned?” The bird peers over at his doppelganger, which is now dead.
It is obvious to Mory that he can’t hand this talking bird over to his uncle. Nor can he walk into the village and introduce everyone to his new friend. Mory has seen enough so far in his short life to realize not everyone thinks unique things are special.
Returning home empty-handed is also risky. The last time he returned without birds, his uncle hit Mory with a belt, saying he hadn’t laid enough snares, he wasn’t mending his nets, and if he showed up without any birds again, his backside would resemble his cleaved face.
Mory considers the dead oriole. It will have to do. Freshly dead was tolerable—bloat hadn’t set in yet and the meat was still fresh.
“I have no plans,” Mory says to the bird. “Nice meeting you, sir.” Mory tosses the yellow bird gently into the air like he did the bunting and watches as the bright speck climbs higher into the hazy sky, its melodious call becoming lost in the wind.
Walking into the village, Mory wonders if the excitement of his conversation is obvious. A few villagers look at him a little closer than usual. Instead of turning away, others bear him a glance. Is he smiling? Mory has learned never to smile in public, as it exaggerates his lip defect. Did they hear him laugh? He tries to act as solemn and shy as he normally does, and heads straight to Joseph’s house.
Entering the empty cottage, Mory makes his way to the back to his uncle’s workroom. Old rusty snares, mangled ropes, and patchwork segments of old netting hang from hooks along the wall. Just before reaching the back wall where the holding cages for the day’s catch are located, Mory passes a tall, ovoid cage with polished bars. His uncle’s latest investment is a falcon, trained by Sicilians to catch small migratory birds. Assured that the raptor would pay for itself quickly, Joseph has developed a volatile relationship with the cunning and beautiful bird, haughty and unpredictably ambivalent toward its predatory role.
Joseph curses the falcon mercilessly when it returns from an unfruitful hunt, turning red in the face when he can’t remember the Italian hunting commands. When the bird does return with a swallow or a shrike in its talons, Joseph dances like a little boy, slathering the falcon with praise and small pieces of dried goat meat.
The falcon appears impervious to Joseph’s moods, only grasping the man’s leathered arm with its scaly yellow talons, not a shred of emotion visible in its black unblinking eyes. With Amira, however, it exudes warmth, gently taking pieces of potato or fish from her hand. Mory remains wary of the raptor, which is as tall as his own torso. He is unnerved by the bird’s stare, which seems to follow only him.
When not hunting, the falcon stays locked in the oval cage, the small bronze key in the top drawer of Joseph’s nightstand. Joseph puts a dingy sheet over the cage at night.
When Mory passes the falcon in its cage, he hears another voice.
“Dead birds won’t do,” it hisses. “He only likes live ones.”
Mory is sure he is alone in the house, with his mother still washing clothes at the village well and his uncle at the river until dinner. Mory stops and stares at the falcon.
“I always bring back live birds,” the voice brags. “He’ll be mad at you.”
This voice is quite unlike the oriole’s. Where the yellow bird’s dripped with cautious congeniality, this raspy voice hits like pinpricks. Mory flinches.
“He, he doesn’t mind them when they’re just dead,” Mory stutters, realizing that his earlier conversation with the oriole was not a fluke.
“Just dead?” the falcon sneers. “What’s just dead? Dead is dead. Like you’ll be when he gets home.”
The little boy’s heart hammers in his thin chest. “What do you know? You’re just a bird.”
“Just a bird?” the falcon scoffs, producing a laugh that sounds as if it has passed through miles of clogged pipes. “If you can hear me, does that make you just a boy?”
Mory doesn’t know what to make of any of it. Confused and scared, he grabs the dirty sheet and flings it over the falcon’s cage. Then he runs to the back of the room, tossing the dead oriole into the holding cage and tears out of the house. Mory hears the falcon laughing as he passes through the doorway.
Not all of them speak. Some are dead or die en route to the village, their little hearts unable to bear the stress. Others—most others—remain simply as captive birds should: jumpy, erratic, and tense.
Over the next few weeks, Mory talks to dozens of birds. A whitethroat caught in a sticky trap came from the beaches of Normandy; a red-breasted robin in a snare reported from Finland; a jay caught in a net only repeated one phrase: “Those men, always bugging me.”
Mory begins to introduce himself to every victim of his traps, wanting to establish his role as confidant and then rescuer, as he releases the birds that speak. He brings back the silent birds for his uncle.
Mory also notices that he is the only one who can hear the birds. The first time the falcon accosted Mory with Joseph in the house, Mory jumped from fright so badly he fell on his face onto the dirt floor, knocking an old, rotting net on top of himself. Joseph looked over at him but didn’t say a word. The falcon cackled maniacally.
What Mory begins to notice about birds, however, Amira is noticing about Mory. One night, while helping his mother clean dishes after supper, Amira grabs Mory’s face and looks at him intensely.
“Are you feeling all right?” Amira asks.
“Yes,” says Mory, squirming under her grasp.
“I think your eyes are changing color,” she says, her brow furrowing. “They used to be a beautiful brown, like an oak. Now,” she squints, “they look almost black.”
Mory wiggles out of her hands and looks down at the ground, sensitive to others’ comments about his appearance.
“And you’re acting strangely,” she continues. “I’ve watched you in the back. The other day, you were just staring at the sky.”
Mory has taken the habit of watching birds in flight, wondering who is talking, where they are going, where they came from. He blushes.
“You like the birds, don’t you?” Amira asks. She puts her hands on Mory’s bony shoulders. Her hands are cracked and she smells of soap and lye.
Amira sighs. “So do I, baba, so do I. But, Joseph says once he pays off the falcon, we can start saving to get your lip fixed.” She pulls Mory toward her, hugging him. “There are doctors that can come and do the surgery here,” she whispers into his dark hair. “Agar, at the well, says they do a good job. She says they fixed her niece perfectly, not even a scar.”
Mory hugs Amira back then pulls away and gives her a small smile. He is dying to tell someone about the talking birds. If he could tell anyone about this discovery, it would be his mother, his only ally.
“Momma,” he begins, and then hesitates. She is already worried, why bring up something else?
“Yes, baba?” she says.
“Mmmm, where is Normandy?”
Amira gives a surprised little laugh. “Normandy? What an odd thing to ask. Where did you hear about Normandy?”
Mory shrugs, his face burning.
“Normandy is in France,” Amira says. “Where they talk funny and eat snails. Ooh la la!” She reaches out to pinch Mory, who runs away shrieking with laughter.
Mory never accompanies his uncle when he hunts with the falcon.
“Man’s work,” boasted Joseph the first time he took the falcon out. “Not fit for women or children.” Usually after a successful hunt, Joseph goes directly to the street to sell his delicacies. Grilled on an open pit, the dark, bite-sized meat is sometimes sprinkled with sugar, sometimes pepper and salt.
One day, however, Joseph returns with live catches, saying he doesn’t feel well enough to sell on the street that night. He places his bounty in the holding cage, feeds the raptor its meal of goat meat, and covers its cage with the sheet. Then Joseph goes to bed.
After supper, Mory is helping his mother again with the dishes when he hears a shout: “Amira! Is that you?”
Mory freezes, all color draining from his small oval face.
“Amira! Amira! Praise be! It is you!”
Amira hands Mory a dish to dry and when he doesn’t take it, she looks over at him and gasps.
“Mory! What’s wrong?”
With the voice in the background still frantically calling his mother’s name, Mory begins to cry. How could his mother not hear the voice?
“What’s wrong, baba?” Amira pleads, embracing Mory in her arms, holding his head to her damp apron.
“The bird,” says Mory into the faded cloth that smells of spices and vinegar. “Can’t you hear it?”
“What, baba? What bird?” asks Amira.
Mory cries harder. “It’s calling your name, Momma, the bird. It’s calling your name.”
Amira holds Mory out at arm’s length. “What are you talking about? That thing?” She points to the covered falcon cage.
Mory shakes his head and leads Amira to the back of the room where the captive songbirds are held. There are several in the cage but only one is at the front, peering out. It is a plover, native to Cyprus. Joseph is letting the falcon hunt local birds.
The plover begins jumping around erratically when Amira approaches the cage.
“My god, there you are! Amira! After all these years! Boy, let me out. Let me out to see my daughter.”
Mory reaches into the cage and pulls out the little brown bird, its white belly bright in the darkness. Gently, he holds it in his palm for his mother to see.
“It says it’s your mother,” he says.
Amira’s soft face hardens. “Mory,” she says. “That is a cruel thing to say. Why would you make something like that up?”
Shocked at her disbelief, Mory cries, “It’s true! It talked to me! I can hear birds talk!”
A flame burns behind Amira’s dark eyes. “I will not have these stories in my house!” she growls, not loud enough to disturb Joseph only a closed door away. “You put that bird back and return to the kitchen right now.”
Sobbing, Mory pleads, “Momma! It’s true! It called your name!”
Amira reaches back and slaps Mory in the face. He recoils in shock and hurt; his mother has never struck him before.
“There will be no witchcraft animal talking in this house, do you understand me?” Amira says in a voice so low Mory can hardly hear her. The finger she shakes in front of his dripping nose trembles and she is on the verge of tears herself.
“How dare you strike that poor boy,” the bird scolds. “Amira! I shall prove it. Boy, tell her my name: Savina Maria Ionnou. Growing up, she had a small white dog named Georgi and when she was ten, she tried to make bread by herself and almost burned the house down.”
Mory relays this information to Amira who slowly shakes her head in disbelief, holding a hand over her mouth. The little bird peers at Amira. Everyone is motionless.
“How can this be?” Amira asks. “The other day at the well, Agar said she heard my mother was sick. I worried she would die. I haven’t seen her in so many years.” Rivulets of tears trace lines down Amira’s cheeks.
“There, there,” says the bird. “Yes, pneumonia, they said. Fluid in the lungs. Next thing, I’m flying, then hit. Something big. Dark, stuffed in a sack. Now this! Amira, what are you doing here?”
Mory acts as translator while Amira and his grandmother, whom he has never met, catch up, although Amira leaves several vital pieces of information out. She doesn’t mention Mory is her son, or that she is living with Joseph, her older brother who ran away from gambling debts as a young man.
Soon, the bird appears to grow weak. Alarmed, Amira grabs Mory’s arm. “What’s happening? What should we do?”
Mory understands the toll that the stress of capture takes on these animals. “We have to let her go,” he says. He motions toward Joseph’s bedroom door. “Otherwise she’ll die.”
Amira nods. “Is this why you like birds so much?” she asks. “Because you can talk to them?”
“They don’t all talk,” whispers Mory. “But the ones that do, I let go.”
“Of course,” Amira says, giving explicit understanding to her son. “Of course.” As they walk outside with the bird, Amira hesitates. “What about the others?”
“Uncle will know,” Mory says. “He’ll know we let them out. He’ll be angry.”
“Mory, that one little bird has the soul of my mother. What other secrets do those creatures carry?”
“Please don’t let them out,” Mory begs, thinking of the belt.
Amira shoos him away. “I’ll take care of it, don’t worry, baba.”
She meets Mory at the back of the yard with her arms full of birds of all colors. “Goodbye, Momma,” she calls to the plover and on the count of three, mother and son toss the birds into the air. A rainbow takes flight, yellows brighter, reds more murderous, green more verdant in the muted light of dusk. Amira has never seen anything more beautiful.
They walk back into the house together. Amira is deep in thought. She pauses by the falcon’s cage. “Mory,” she says, fingering the hem of the sheet that covers the cage. “What about the falcon? Does it say anything?” She looks almost dreamy.
Mory debates. Maybe he’ll tell her about the unpleasant falcon later. He shakes his head. Although worried about Joseph’s reaction, tonight, he feels relief. Someone finally knows his secret.
When Mory passes by the falcon’s covered cage on his way to bed, he hears a familiar gargling laugh. “I get to do what I want and I’m in a cage,” the falcon says. “You and your lovely mother will get punished for your reckless freedom.”
That night, Mory dreams he is caught in one of his own nets. Flailing against the rope, he watches as his uncle appears. With yellow talons, Joseph reaches into the net and pulls Mory out. Then Joseph eats him.
Amira is able to diffuse Joseph’s reaction to the lost birds because that’s what she calls them. She pleads ignorance and says Joseph must not have shut the door properly because she and Mory found the cage wide open the next morning, empty. Joseph scoffs but says nothing.
Between Mory and Amira it is mutually understood that Joseph is not to find out about Mory’s gift. Amira begins to firmly believe Mory is talking to the souls of dead people and asks Mory to milk the birds for information, like names, occupation, what they last remember. Mory complies but often these interrogations do not work. The birds are more interested in asking Mory where they are and what day it is. Mory is too shy to pry and ignorant of most dates as he can’t read and time passes without his care. He is instead content with a geography lesson.
The birds tell Mory about Brussels, the Eiffel Tower, the Isle of Man, and the tulip fields of Rotterdam. Amira brings home a worn map of Europe one afternoon and points out West Germany, Portugal, and their very own island in the Mediterranean. Mother and son spend the rest of the evening imagining what these places must look like.
It is during this evening, sprawled on the floor of their shared bedroom, giggling about the boot shape of Italy, the faded colors of the map flickering in the light of the oil lamp, that Amira thinks back to her own experience with the raven years ago. If this was the curse foretold, and not the harelip, then she was accepting of it. In fact, it hardly seemed like a curse at all. She starts to feel a weight lift off her chest. The anticipation of a fate far worse than this is dissipating. She feels almost free.
A few days later, while making Mory’s bed, Amira notices a few small, white, downy feathers among the sheets. Thinking her son simply isn’t washing up properly before bed, she chastises him and then forgets about the incident. A few more days pass and she finds more downy feathers along with two larger ones, bright yellow with a black border.
“Mory,” she calls, but the boy is out checking traps. Puzzled, she begins to pull out Mory’s clothes. Inside his threadbare shirts are more white feathers and in the seat of his pants, more yellow ones.
An odd feeling begins to overwhelm Amira as she contemplates the changes she is seeing in her son. Just then, Joseph appears in the doorway of the bedroom, proudly holding a sack full of panicked birds. “We’ll make some money tonight!” he says and continues to the back of the house.
The odd feeling in Amira’s chest flutters into horror and knocks her onto the bed.
During his daily checks of the snares, nets, and sticky traps, Mory lets increasing numbers of birds go, regardless of whether they can speak. Releasing those caught in sticky traps requires him to wet the birds’ wingtips and feet with his own saliva in order to clean off the adhesive goo. The bitter taste of the glue leaves him nauseous, so he stops setting sticky traps altogether.
Joseph begins to notice the drastic reduction in birds. Work on the barges has lately kept Joseph from regularly hunting with the falcon, so the side business ceases to be profitable.
At first, Joseph teases Mory about it, especially if Amira is around. But after several days of Mory returning with only one or two dead or nearly dead jays, Joseph grabs Mory by the shirt collar when Amira is out at the well.
“If I can’t pay for this falcon, you’ll never get your face fixed,” he snarls so close to Mory that the boy is showered in spittle. Joseph gives Mory a shake, then walks out.
Mory then hears the falcon laugh. “Poor little yellow bird,” it says. “Watch out behind you.”
Mory looks over to where he and Joseph were just standing. Three yellow feathers with a black border lie on the ground. Mory rushes over and scoops them up while the falcon giggles like a madman.
Amira soon notices Mory is losing weight. “You’re not eating enough,” she clucks at him, pouring half of her own fish stew into his bowl at dinner. “Look at how skinny he is,” she says to Joseph. “Don’t you think he’s too thin?”
Joseph barely looks up from his own bowl, distracted. “Maybe if he caught more birds, we’d have more to eat,” he replies.
Later that night, while they are getting ready for bed, Amira steals a glance at her son as he dresses into his nightgown. Convinced he looks different, Amira turns toward Mory in their bedroom.
“Let me see you,” she says softly.
Embarrassed, Mory stands in front of his mother in nothing but his underwear.
“You’re shrinking,” Amira says. “The hems on your pants? Lately, always dirty because they are dragging the ground. And your shoulders,” she grabs his bare shoulders in both hands, feeling his slight, boney frame through warm skin. “So very narrow. And your legs.” She kneels down to the floor to examine stilt-like appendages with hardly any meat. His bare dirty feet are scaly.
“Mory.” She takes her son’s hand. The skin between his fingers feels prickly. A small white feather is lodged between his index and middle finger. She plucks it out. Mory winces as a drop of blood grows in the webbing. “What’s happening to you?”
Mory begins to cry. He’s been wondering the same thing since the very first oriole spoke. When he first noticed feathers in his clothes, in his bed, floating in the latrine, he didn’t feel any different. Now, his heartbeat is always a rapid staccato. He is nervous, agitated.
“It’s all right, baba,” Amira says, hugging him. “I think I know. Embrace your gift. It was meant to be, from before you were born.”
That night, Mory lies awake listening to the songs of the birds outside his window. His skin is sore where feathers are erupting with the heat of a blister. Will I be able to fly, he wonders. He watches the top of the giant olive tree sway in the breeze, illuminated by moonlight. He flexes his puny arms, imagining what it would be like to lift his own body off the ground and climb through the sky, visiting places like Copenhagen and Lisbon. If he could fly, then yes, it would be all right.
The next day, Mory walks tenderly out to the woods to check his nets and snares. His feet feel pinched and the blisters between his fingers now extend up his arms. He is feverish.
When he arrives at the first net, he immediately notices something is very wrong. Large holes pock the net and in certain places it is torn completely, hanging impotently from dangling branches.
There is no way Mory can repair the damage. He carefully removes what is left of the delicate but strong woven rope and places it in his bag as salvage to be cannibalized by other nets for repair.
Moving to the next net not more than a quarter mile away, Mory finds remnants of another destroyed trap. With shaking hands, he again removes the remains.
Stomach sick with the fear of how Joseph will react to two destroyed nets, Mory hurries down his usual path in the woods and almost runs directly into his mother.
“Mory!” Amira exclaims. She laughs after her initial shock. There is a wild and exhilarated look in her eyes that Mory has never seen before.
“Mory, look what I’ve done!” She pulls out a pair of kitchen shears from her laundry bag as well as three of Mory’s own snares, disabled and smashed.
Mory gasps, incredulous at the very idea that his own mother would sabotage his uncle’s work. “Momma! My snares! Did you? The nets?”
“Yes, baba!” she says, her voice breathy and light, a schoolgirl’s rapturous glee. “You won’t have to trap birds anymore!”
Mory’s joy and love for his mother almost bursts his fluttering heart but the ecstasy is tempered by the thought of his uncle’s most certainly violent rebuttal. “But what about Uncle? He’ll whip both of us,” Mory says.
“He will not,” Amira declares. “We will tell him thieves ran through the forest, stole all his birds, and destroyed his nets and snares. I’ll have Agar spread the story at the well.”
Mory nods but wonders if Joseph would believe rumors propagated by an old woman at the village well.
“And look,” Amira whispers, almost to herself. She touches Mory’s face. “Soon you’ll have a beak. And you won’t need surgery after all.”
Mory reaches up and touches his nose, which feels hard and very pointed. He hasn’t been down to the creek in days and without seeing his reflection, he has been unable to appreciate the rapid changes in his appearance.
Amira grabs Mory by the hand. “Come and show me where the rest of your snares are,” she says. “We must get rid of them all. We are setting them all free.”
Amira and Mory return by mid-morning, having destroyed all the nets and disabled all snares. Any birds caught the night before are released. Mory can barely walk by the time they return.
“Lie down,” Amira says to Mory when they reach the house. “I’ll make you some tea.”
As Mory lies on his back waiting for his mother’s return, he feels he is on the verge of popping. His arms are now covered in feathers and his breath makes a whistling noise as he exhales through small, rigid nostrils. He is losing his fingers as they meld into one feathered stalk. His belly is expanding as his chest shrinks and his torso folds forward.
He drags a feathered appendage over his upper lip, feeling for the congenital split. It is almost completely gone and in its place a fusion between lip and nose, hard and pointed. Then his eyes catch a glimpse of the beautiful yellow feathers with black trim that are sprouting from his shoulders.
Mory begins to lose track of time when Amira doesn’t appear with his tea. He has only his fluttering heart for a metronome. Afraid she’s encountered Joseph, Mory means to leap out of bed to look for her when he finds he has shrunk so much he would have tumbled out and not been able to open the door.
Finally, Amira enters the room. She looks triumphantly radiant but her visage turns bittersweet as she looks at Mory’s bed only to see a small, yellow bird. Tears well up in her eyes but she smiles. She steps over to the bed and picks Mory up, cradling him in her palm. Until this moment, Mory hasn’t grasped the extent of just how small he’s become and he peeps in surprise. His heartbeat finally fits his body.
Amira laughs. “Little Mory!” she coos as she holds the bird to her breast. “Look how beautiful you’ve become!” She clutches him close as she walks out of the house to the back where the large olive tree stands. “I suppose you must now learn to fly.”
Amira is holding him so close and he is so excited that it isn’t until she places him carefully on the dusty ground that he notices a key dangling from a chain around her neck. It is the key to the falcon’s cage.
Mory’s tiny feet buckle underneath him at the sight of the key. He begins chirping madly.
Amira giggles and squats over Mory, the key swinging back and forth between her breasts. “I don’t know how mama birds do it,” she says. “Just flap your wings as hard as you can.”
Mory doesn’t care now about flying. He has to know why his mother has the falcon’s key. He continues to chirp and screech.
“What a noisy little thing you’ve become,” his mother playfully chides. “Now go, baba, go be with all the other souls that we’ve set free.”
She scoops Mory back into her hands. “I think maybe you need a little boost.” She gives a dainty kiss to the side of Mory’s body and with a gentle yet firm toss, Mory finds himself suddenly in the air.
Falling, Mory unfolds his still achy wings. He swoops and swerves and heaves until he feels a firm pillow of air beneath his fully extended wings. Then, with one mighty downward push, he goes up, then up, then up.
He hears Amira below him squeal with delight, calling his name. He chirps in response, preoccupied with the exhaustive yet somehow restorative feeling of the beating of his own wings.
Amira remains near the olive tree, hands shading her eyes from the early afternoon sunlight. She watches as her son rises in the sky, becoming just a bright yellow speck surrounded by blue. She is terrified yet sublimely happy.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, Amira sees a large, dark object swoop down from the sky. When she squints, she can make out a creamy throat and yellow talons, the very talons she released in her enthusiasm for freedom just a few hours before.
She watches, horrified, as the falcon gains on Mory, whose movements are still erratic. The falcon circles then dives, executing a silent blow that knocks Mory into a tumble.
Mory’s wind is knocked out of him and he feels dizzy. The falcon grabs Mory by a wing and carries him upward, dangling. The talons dig into Mory’s tender skin. He bleeds. A strange, hollow feeling grows in Mory as he realizes he is unable to cry.
As the pair rises in the sky, Mory gets a view of his island below. He sees the river and can make out a barge. The blue sea in the distance cuts a hazy horizon. He can no longer hear Amira screaming.
The falcon feigns dropping Mory then crushes him with both talons. Mory feels a bone pop.
“The date? What’s the date, yellow bird?” the falcon cackles.
The falcon works himself into a laughing rage as the pair flies out to sea. Mory’s sight grows fuzzy. He is exhausted.
“April 13,” he whispers. Although it is June, his mother’s birthday and Christmas are the only dates he knows.
“Eh?” The falcon slows to quiet the wind. It stops laughing.
“April 13,” Mory repeats.
“Liar!” the falcon shrieks.
The pair encounters a draft of warm air and soars on a pillow of upward pressure. Then, more to itself than to Mory, “Doesn’t feel like April.”
“Take me back,” Mory whimpers. “Take me back to Momma.”
The falcon gives a harsh, gargled laugh. “I take orders from no one, especially little lying yellow birds.”
It releases Mory and swoops west, toward Sicily.
Mory falls, his heart quiet.
Amira still stands under the olive tree, weeping. Mory is gone. The falcon is gone. The forest behind her is silent except for one harsh caw. A crow sits above her on a dying branch. It picks at a shriveled green olive, and then lets the pit fall to the ground. It looks at Amira as it clatters its beak.
Amira picks up the biggest stone she can find. She throws it at the crow and howls.
“Mory Takes Flight” first appeared in Unlocked: Short Stories from the Frederick Writers’ Salon.