- I -
There is no telling the age of the trees in the Pecan Grove. Maybe a million years, from ancient seeds buried in the glacial sludge of The Great River.
The trees were so old the branches fused into one huge tangled maze colonized by an infinite number of birds. In the spring they came from all over to nest and hunt for food, as berries were plentiful and insects spawned daily in the murky waters of a nearby bayou.
Bordering the grove, wedged between two fields of cotton, was a dilapidated house used to store grain and equipment. Behind the house was a porch, and on the porch was a large cage with several cockatiel families. After the chill of winter a new generation of scraggly little birds, featherless but resolute, ventured out of their shells to discover their small world.
Sury, the last of the batch, soon tired of wandering around the cage floor with his clumsy siblings. He preferred to watch the birds outside. He wondered why he was in a cage while they were free to fly where they wanted.
Legrey, a friend of his father, had managed to escape once, a long time ago, and all summer long Sury plied him with questions. The old bird told him what it was like to soar high above the trees, and Sury’s heart ached with longing. He’d stand on his spindly legs and flap his wings, but only managed to overturn the food and water and cover everyone in a cloud of feather dust.
- Be happy with what you have, his mother said.
His uncle told him about the hardships outside the cage; of snakes and cats, and dying of hunger.
- Much safer to stay inside, advised his aunt.
- Don’t you ever want to go back out? he asked Legrey.
Legrey told Sury what happened to him the day it snowed. He’d been out about a week, he was hungry and cold when the snowflakes appeared, first like a whisper then as thick as a blanket. He couldn’t see anything.
- Everything was white; the sky, the branches, the ground…and the cat.
He hadn’t noticed the cat right in front of him, motionless except for the slight twitching of the tail, which Legrey mistook for a worm he was so hungry. Suddenly the feline sprang in the air and caught the inexperienced cockatiel in its paws.
Had it not been for a flock of crows he would have died for sure. They swooped down military style and methodically pecked at the cat’s head until it finally let go.
- This is how I learned of the Kingdom of the Birds, he said.
The crows were on a quest to find it, and invited him to join their group. They would leave as soon as it stopped snowing. However, before he could join his new friends, Legrey was caught. Food had been placed near the porch, and as soon as he went to eat he was caught and put back into the cage. He was devastated, but the crows reassured him.
- There are more ways than one to find the Kingdom, said their leader.
- How can I know what I don’t know? asked Legrey, still terribly upset to be back in the cage.
- Keep an open mind and it will come to you. When it does, you will recognize it, replied the crow mysteriously.
For days they spoke through the bars of the cage until finally the storm receded. Frail shafts of sunlight sifted through the clouds and the snow slowly melted into the ground. It was time for the crows to leave the Pecan Grove.
- How much longer will you have to wait before you find the Kingdom? Sury asked Legrey after he finished telling his story.
The old cockatiel just smiled. Sury found Legrey’s complacency irritating. How could he be so patient? How could he just sit there year after year, waiting? The torrid summer heat weighed on the young cockatiel. He brooded and generally kept to himself. He wondered if the crows ever found the Kingdom.
In the furthest corner at the back of the cage a honeysuckle vine had eased its way between the bars, and Sury used it as his perch. The thick vines gave him a bit of privacy and the fragrant flowers helped him forget he was a prisoner. He was dozing, daydreaming, when suddenly a streak of brilliant red landed on the honeysuckle.
- Hello there!
Sury looked up, startled, and tilted his head. A cardinal was staring at him curiously.
- What’s it like, inside?
- Boring. Hot.
- And safe! added the cardinal, laughing. Sury had never seen anything quite so beautiful. She introduced herself as Yolanda. She and her family had just arrived to the Pecan Grove from up north.
After their first meeting, Yolanda came every day to chat with Sury and they soon became friends. She told him stories of life outside the cage.
Sury asked if she’d heard about the Kingdom of the Birds. She had. He pressed her for more information - he felt he would explode if he didn’t know everything right away about this magical place - but each time Yolanda changed the subject.
His friendship with the cardinal was not well received by his mother, who worried about her son’s unusual behavior. She was afraid Yolanda was “putting ideas” into his head and told him not to see her any more. Sury was angry but Legrey consoled him.
- Most birds feel threatened by anything that’s different from the usual way of thinking, he said. Everything will sort itself out eventually. Be patient.
Patience was not one of Sury’s virtues. He was crabby and withdrawn, and refused to eat anything until his father, who usually let his mother get her way, spoke up.
- Let him be. His relationship with the cardinal can’t possibly do him any harm. It’s better than sitting here listening to nonsense.
Sury was allowed back to the honeysuckle where, to his great relief, he found Yolanda waiting for him. He felt bad that his mother, offended, wasn’t talking to his father but Lakhi, a cousin who had taken Sury’s side in the conflict, told him not to worry.
- It won’t last long.
All summer the young cockatiel listened to the birds in the pecan trees. Yolanda came to visit every evening, sometimes with a family member, most often by herself. Sury for the first time felt what it was like to be happy until the day came for Yolanda to leave the Pecan Grove.
- Where are you going, he asked anxiously. When will you be back? He felt his heart was breaking.
She couldn’t tell him where, or for how long and the first days after her departure he felt completely abandoned. He’d stay put in the honeysuckle vine and refused to eat or drink, until Legrey came to keep him company. Neither spoke but Sury felt comforted by the old cockatiel’s presence.
Slowly, he turned his attention to what was happening inside the cage; his mother and aunt minding everybody else’s business, his siblings and cousins goofing off and quarreling. All the small, insignificant details that he generally avoided became the very things that helped him overcome his sadness.
The months passed, darkness came earlier and the days were cooler. It rained for a solid week, then just as suddenly it stopped, leaving the sky insanely blue in the crisp air. From his perch he noticed a cat near the porch, partially hidden in the grass. It was staring intently at a swallow drinking from a puddle. Sury cried out, and the small bird quickly reached the honeysuckle vine. The cat stalked off, tail switching, offended.
- How lucky you are safe in the cage, said the swallow.
- I don’t know. I’d much rather be outside and take the risk.
- Very well, said the swallow. I can teach you, in case you ever do leave the cage.
- Thank you! I’d truly appreciate it!
- The first thing you have to learn, if you want to survive, is know your enemy.