This is a work of fiction.
I held the sketch in my hands and looked at it carefully. It showed two babies. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought it might be of the two children upstairs. Why had she done this sketch? It was as good as the ones she’d done when she was fourteen. She got better every year. What would compel her to drawn pictures for anybody but her mother and me?
I looked through the papers and found more sketches. In fine penciled lines on good paper, I watched the babies grow, until after thirty-two pictures, they were identical to the living ones above my head. Dates on the backs of each sketch told me that she’d done one per month, which made them thirty-two months old. The only question still unanswered was, why?
I searched the room for answers, but there were no more sketches. I added the thirty-two to my folder, bringing the total up to 319. I put it back into my bag and mounted the stairs. The children had fallen asleep, and the bird was still sitting on her three eggs. I wondered how close they were to hatching. I sat on the floor and waited for the children to wake up.
An hour later, the bird made a mournful sound and got up. She left two eggs exposed, and carefully rolled one a few short steps away, and sat down upon it with another mournful noise. I went over to the two abandoned eggs, and touched them. They were warm, and I wanted to hold them until the little birds came forth, but her behavior indicated that she knew they would never emerge from their eggs. I didn’t want to watch them grow cold and then decay, so I took them and put them outside in the snow.
“Goodbye,” I whispered, and went back into the temple.
When I entered the cage, the children were just waking up. They looked at the bird questioningly. She made two mournful sounds and the children both cried quietly.
“Do you know when the egg will hatch?” I asked. Both children nodded. “Can you tell me, please?”
“Twenty days,” they said together.
“Who are your mother and father?” They got up and I followed them. They walked out into the hallway, and into the room on the left.
“Mother’s room,” one of them said. They went into the room on the right.
“Father’s room,” the other one said.
“Do you mean the Leaders of Worship?” They nodded. “Were you in the Worship room when everybody was there?” They shook their heads. “Why not?”
“Not allowed,” one said.
Twenty days would have been an eternity if I’d been alone, but it was much better with the children and the bird for company. She couldn’t speak, but she appeared to listen attentively when I spoke to her.
During the day, the children and I stayed in the open cage with the bird, but at night, I took the children into their mother’s room, and I slept in their father’s bed.
As the days wore on, it became more difficult to obtain fresh food. I did not know how to bake bread, so by the third day together, we were eating preserves from the storage room below the cage. I calculated that it would last us another thirty days, and then I would have to search houses to see if I could find more preserved food. With every hour that passed, I felt further and further away from my wife and daughter. I was desperate to leave and go in search of them, but I could not leave the children and the bird alone; my conscience simply would not permit such actions.
At dusk on the twentieth day, I heard a loud chirp from the room where the cage stood, just as I was seeing the children into bed. We looked at each other in silent understanding.
“Would you like to come with me?”
Both of them shook their heads, and one said, “Dark.”
“See you in the morning,” I said, and went down the hall.
The bird stood beside the remains of an egg, and a young bird was pecking at some preserved meat that I’d left in case it hatched while I was in bed.
“Congratulations,” I said. Both birds chirped. “Do you need anything?” The mother chirped a negative. I said that I’d see them in the morning, and went into the room that had belonged to the male Leader of Worship. I lay on his bed and attempted to fall asleep, but I was too excited about my plan, which was to ask the bird if she could fly us down the mountain once her young was old enough to accompany us.
The next day dawned dark and forbidding. The wind howled, and by the time I had made breakfast for us, snow was falling and it was impossible to see even the nearest houses.
The young bird required a lot of food, and at the end of the second day after the egg had hatched, the storm was still raging, and there was no more food. I didn’t tell the children, but it was only a matter of hours before they would ask for nourishment, but I would be unable to provide them with anything. I lay awake listening to the wind, my failure to save us all lying heavily upon my chest. Only my daughter’s lovely sketches provided a small measure of relief, but they couldn’t vanquish the knowledge that if the storm did not loosen its grip, we would all starve.
I must have finally fallen asleep, because I was jolted awake, not by a sound, but by utter silence. I dashed to the nearest window and looked out upon a brilliantly sunny morning. Today was the day. I woke the children and brought them into the room with the open cage. The bird and her young were gone. My heart fell into my boots. There would be no escape for us. They’d flown away during the night, just after the storm had ended, in search of food, I had no doubt. I would have done the same thing for my daughter, so I knew how that mother bird must have felt, and why she’d left the children and me here alone. Well, we would just have to walk.
“I’m hungry,” one child said, and the other nodded. It was time to go and find more food, and then I would have to walk with the children down the mountain, and hope that another storm wouldn’t catc us out there. I knew that we were unlikely to survive for long; spring was always a bad time for sudden storms.
I looked through the bedrooms, the room containing the empty cage, and the storage room below, but could find no warm clothing for the children. They had only the formless gray robes all young children wore at home. I could bundle them up in several layers of these, but their legs would be cold, and their only shoes were sandles. The temple’s hearth kept the entire place comfortably warm, but once we left, we could only build small cooking fires.
“I will go and look for warm clothes for you,” I told them. “Please stay in your mother’s room.” They nodded, and I walked toward the entrance to the Worship chamber and the two massive pillars of stone. My footsteps echoed hollowly on the stone floor, and I wished with all my breath that I would wake up in my bed, with all that had transpired merely a bad dream.
Standing just inside the doors of the temple were the bird and her young. Beside them lay the wooden seat with bags attached at either end. The mother bird chirped softly, and looked from the seat to me and then over her shoulder.
“You want me to strap it on your back?” She chirped in agreement, and I did as she had asked. “Will your young fly with us?” She made a negative sound. “Should I put your young into one of the bags?” She chirped in agreement, and before long, her young, my bag, and the children were distributed between the two bags.
I left them for a few minutes while I went to a nearby house, where I found some preserved food, and then I returned to the temple.
I took a deep breath, gathered up all of my courage, climbed up, and sat down in the seat upon her back. I clutched my daughter’s sketches to my thumping chest, the bird spread her wings, and for the first time in my life, I left the ground.