Not One Golden Feather

When they grew old, and he could no longer rise from his bed, she asked him, “What can I get for you?”

The skin around his eyes wrinkled when he smiled, but the eyes themselves shone bright as ever. “I don’t need any kind of thing,” he said, squeezing her fingers.

She cupped her hands around his. “You once searched the entire village for the perfect scarf to buy me. Let me do something for you, now.”

He looked over at the scarf, hanging from the mirror at her dressing table. Gold, stitched with blue and red flowers and flying birds. She’d worn it every time she left the house, for twenty-one years. It had faded, of course, and had frayed at the edges, but she wore it even so.

He remembered something, then. A tale he’d once heard, long ago, from his father. “I wish you could bring me the golden bird,” he said.

She drew in a long, slow breath, and nodded. “I’ll bring it for you, then, if you tell me where to find it.”

So he began to recount the tale, as his father had told it. “Through the field of tall grass, over the roaring river. Walk for three days, and turn right at the flowering tree that drops petals like snow. There, in the woods, you will find it. Sing, and it will follow.”

She committed the words to memory, and the next day kissed him on the forehead. “I will go and find the golden bird, and bring it back, to make you happy.”

She wrapped her scarf around her head, took up a sack full of apples and cheese, and set off down the road.

After pausing to eat beside a farm, she asked the people there where she might find the field of grass. They pointed, and she followed, and after a while she found the place. It must have been right, for she’d gone just the way she’d been told, but this did not look like the field that she sought. The grass no longer stood tall, and had faded from green to pale yellow. It crunched beneath her feet as she walked, but she continued on.

At the far side of the field, she came to a stream. It trickled over rocks on the muddy bed, which was dry and cracked at the edges. She looked up and down, and noticed a turtle plodding along on the bank.

“Friend turtle,” she said. “Is this the roaring river?”

The turtle turned its head to look at the stream, and then back to her. “Once. When I were a lad.”

She thanked him, and made her way across, holding her skirts up to keep them dry. On the opposite bank, she turned back to wave at the turtle, and it gave her the slowest of nods.

On she walked for three days, stopping only to eat and to sleep. She saw no towns, no villages or farms. Nothing grew here but the dead, yellow grass. In the hottest part of each day, she put her scarf over her head for shade, and at night she wrapped it tightly around her neck for warmth.

Near the end of the third day, she saw something up ahead, something standing tall and reaching to the sky. Just then, a gust of wind tugged her scarf, and pulled it away to go dancing and sailing through the air. She gave chase, as fast as her legs could stand, and when she caught up it had tangled in the branches of the only tree in sight.

“Now what?” she said to herself, looking up at her scarf in the bare tree branches.

“Would that be yours, then?” asked a voice. She looked down to find a chipmunk by her feet.

“It is, friend chipmunk. I’m afraid I can’t reach it.”

“It’s nice to see some color up there,” said the chipmunk. “This tree hasn’t flowered in years.”

“I should like to have it back, if you wouldn’t mind.”

The chipmunk rubbed its paws together and scurried up the tree, where it grabbed the scarf and dropped it. She reached out as it drifted down, and caught it in her hand.

“Thank you, my friend. Did you say that this tree once had flowers?”

“Yes, yes.”

She thanked the chipmunk, turned to her right, and walked until she came to the edge of a forest. Looking about, she found a path through the trees, and entered by it. When in time she came to a grove, she stopped and listened. Never had she witnessed such silence. Not a rustle, not a sigh of the wind could she hear.

So she began to sing. Her voice cracked at first, but she soon found her breath, and it carried through the trees, weaving in and out among the branches.

For a day and a night she sang, but the golden bird did not come.

Despairing, she sat on a stump with her chin in her hands. And while she sat, a chickadee came hopping up and paused before her.

“Was it you I heard singing?” it asked.

“Yes. I wanted to find the golden bird, and lead it home to my husband, who cannot get out of his bed.”

“The golden bird had feathers the same color as your scarf,” said the chickadee, looking off into the trees. “It had the longest tail, and the brightest eyes. But I have not seen it in many a year. I think it must be gone.”

“I am sorry to hear it.”

“If you’ll but sing for me, I will come with you instead. I am no golden bird, but I will come.”

And so she sang, and the chickadee followed, sometimes flying, sometimes lighting on her shoulder. In the hottest part of each day, she let it nestle under her scarf for shade, and at night she wrapped it tight against her neck.

When she passed by the tree, she bid good day to the chipmunk, and by the stream she greeted the turtle, who had not gone very far since she left.

All the while she sang, and the chickadee followed. When she got home, her husband sat up in his bed, his face lit with a smile.

“What a fine bird,” he said. “And was it you I heard singing outside?”

“Yes,” she said, and kissed his cheek. The chickadee perched on the bedpost, puffing its feathers, and chirped.

After that, she took to singing around the house, and the chickadee often sang with her. She made a nesting box, attached to the window sill, and it slept there nestled in her scarf. It talked with her husband for hours, listening to his stories, and he thanked her every day for the bird that she had brought him.

Never once, in all the years to come, did he remark that the bird had no golden feathers.