It was long ago that there was a family with three children, and they all lived happily enough together in a thatched-roof cottage on a knoll outside a great oak forest. Father sowed the surrounding fields, which brought in a plentiful harvest of oats and barley. Mother tended to the family garden as well as the animals in the yard – the chickens, the pigs, the cow. Ava was the oldest child, and it was her responsibility to care for her two younger siblings, Caleb and Faline, since her parents were so hard at work otherwise.
In the summer her job was easy. Ava took her infant siblings to the base of the apple tree, and while Caleb and Faline cooed to one another, Ava would watch her father as he cultivated the fields.
“Can I help you, Father?” Ava would call out occasionally.
“Thank you, dear, but no,” he’d reply. “It’s your job to watch the babies. Perhaps later in life I’ll need your help, but for now just do as you’re told, and appreciate it.”
In the afternoons Ava would move Caleb and Faline to the back of the house, where they could watch Mother select the vegetables in the garden that she would collect to accompany their supper.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Ava would ask her mother.
“No, thank you, sweetheart,” she’d reply. “I need you to watch your brother and sister, and you’re doing that very well. Someday I might need your help, but for now I can manage on my own.”
As the days grew colder, they also grew shorter, but that did not mean that Mother and Father could stop working. In fact, they needed to work much, much harder in order to make sure they had enough to make it through the long, difficult winter ahead. Ava found herself confined in the cottage with her brother and sister. There was no sunshine, only smoke from the hearth. There was no cool breeze to relieve them from the dry indoor heat. And there was nothing Ava could do to keep her brother and sister from crying all the time. She changed their clothes often, but they were dry. She mashed up food for them to eat, even scooping it into their mouths, but they were not hungry. Finally, Ava sang to them. She had a voice so sweet and clear, a voice that could waft through the air like a fragrance or pound out the notes like a drum. Her voice soothed the infants who watched her with their bright round eyes, and grabbed at the sounds with their tiny fists.
Ava found that not only was she good at singing, but she enjoyed it. She sang every song she knew, starting with religious hymns in Latin mondegreens. Then to her repertoire she added some common ditties and improvised ballads she’d heard once and failed to remember completely. As she sang she forgot about her brother and her sister, who continued to look on in wide-eyed wonder until their eyelids drooped and they fell soundly to sleep. She sang for herself only, concentrating on the notes and the words and the beauty of her own voice. Her mother and father came back into the house, but she didn’t notice when. They sat and listened to their daughter until she stopped.
Her father applauded. “Admirable, admirable,” he told her.
“Very good,” her mother agreed.
Ava decided then and there that she would make something of herself because of her talent. “I’m going to earn fame and fortune,” she remarked to her parents. “Someday I will sing for royalty, and entire nations will clamor to hear me. I will be so wealthy that I will live in a house made of gold.”
“Now Ava,” her mother replied, patting her on the shoulder. “Don’t get too caught up in dreams. What’s important is doing your duty.”
“It’s all right to pursue them,” her father added, “but you mustn’t let them control you.”
“The Bible says that we mustn’t hide our talent under a bushel,” Ava objected, quoting the priest’s last sermon.
“The Bible also prescribes patience,” her mother said. “Your day will come. For now we need you to look after your brother and your sister. It is always useful to learn hard work. It is good to know it and not to mind it.”
In the days ahead Ava often used her talent to calm Caleb and Faline, but she became resentful of her chore. She wasn’t allowed to help her mother or father outside, and she was forbidden to sing outside of the cottage when, after Mass one Sunday, she had drawn attention away from the liturgy with her beautiful voice. She was only allowed to sing as long as it lulled her brother and sister, but soon she stopped even that.
“Ava, you’ve spoiled them with your singing,” her mother told her, trying to rock one of the inconsolable infants to sleep late one evening. “Please sing for them, just a little, so they will calm down.”
“If I am not allowed to use my voice for fame and fortune,” Ava answered, “I see no reason to use it at all.”
Her mother was too busy with the babies to reply, but her father’s eyes reflected his disappointment in his daughter.
One night, just before the winter came, Ava was left in charge of the babies while her parents worked all through the night. Caleb and Faline began to cry, and they would not stop. Ava gave them food, but they weren’t hungry. She bundled them up in blankets, but they weren’t cold. They looked at her hopefully with wide, wet eyes.
“No,” she told them. “I will not sing for you!” She had gotten greedy with her talent, and had had enough of working. But the babies cried and screamed until she could take no more.
“Cry,” she told them. “You can cry as long and as loud as you want. I won’t be here to listen anymore.” She quickly threw on a woolen cloak to cover her linen undergarments and slammed the door on her way out.
She trudged through the oak forest, clutching the cloak closer and closer as she went deeper and deeper into the darkness. Though it was still too early for snow, it was not too early for the stinging cold to penetrate even the thickest, warmest clothes. The interlocking branches above blocked out even the brightest rays of moonlight on that clear night, and Ava found herself jumping at various sounds that emanated all around her. Even a sound as mundane and harmless as the snapping of a twig made her heart leap with fear. Still, the cold and the darkness were not enough to compel her to return; so stubborn was she that she reached a precipitous edge that marked the forest’s edge. The cliff descended into a cavern that, in the darkness, appeared bottomless. Ava sighed and sat at the edge, now and then glimpsing the edge of the forest as though she feared that she’d been followed. What she did not know was that she’d reached a place of ancient magic, and that was what made her hair stand on end.
“I want to go away! Far away!” she cried into the depths. “I want to sing for royalty, and I want to live in a house made of gold!”
Just then a giant belch issued forth from the cavern. A great wind swooped upwards, so swift and so powerful that it snatched the girl right from the edge of the cliff.
The wind traveled swiftly to a land above the clouds and beyond the horizon, taking with it the girl. She was frightened and cold. There was no way to hold onto the wind, and she was sure she would fall. The wind, however, held tightly onto her. The cold gradually dissipated, and the air turned warm and mild. In the distance the girl saw a bright city beneath a dark sky, with a great walled palace in its center. The wind took her into this palace and gently deposited her on a balcony terrace, all alone.
The entrance to the balcony was a great granite arch draped with a crushed velvet curtain. From behind the curtain Ava could recognize sounds of celebration – laughter, music, the clink-clink-clink of crystal glasses and porcelain dishes being jostled about. She crept up to the curtain and pulled it back, revealing the revelry inside. In the hall, lined with marble and swathed in fineries, there were men and women in all manner of elaborate dress. They were clad in satin and silk, wearing suits and gowns in bright colors and inlaid with precious stones and enamel. Some were dancing in pairs or in fíor céili to the music of a nearby orchestra – lutes, dulcians, harps, kortholts, racketts, sacbuts, an organetta, dulcimers, rauschpfeifes, shawms, flutes, crumhorns, cornamuses, a hurdy-gurdy, pipes and tabors, gambas, viols, zinks, psalteries, and even more that had no names. Others were seated at an enormous table made of jasper and raised on a dais. The table was spread with a feast, larger than any that Ava had ever seen before. A peacock had been roasted in its feathers and sat in the center, its argus-eyed tail erect. It was surrounded by exotic dishes whose pungency Ava could smell, even from outside: quail, venison, goose, sanglier, gilded and slivered calves’ heads, mutton, all complemented by sides of walnuts, dates, pistachios, aspics, sausages, and endless varieties of fruits and cheeses.
Out of all the guests in the hall – courtiers and concubines, noblemen and odalisques – one man stood out in greater finery than all the others combined. He stood on the dais, directing the serving men and women as the replenished the dishes on the jasper table. He was a tall and muscular man, wearing a billowing robe of bright colors. He wore exquisitely fitted shoes with toes that curled inwards, elaborately embroidered. His hands were adorned by rings of all shapes and sizes, and his mustache lent his chiseled face both an air of dignity and a hint of playfulness. His head was capped with a silk turban embellished by a diamond diadem. His gaze was piercing, penetrating, so much so that it took Ava a moment to realize that he was looking directly at her. He gestured sharply with his right hand, and all at once the celebration halted. Soon everyone had fixed their eyes on Ava, who trembled at the attention.
“You, there,” the impressive man called out. “Enter, I command you.”
Ava released the velvet curtain from her tenuous grasp, and hesitantly stepped into the hall.
“Come here,” the man demanded.
Ava was so nervous she thought she might cry. Her face flushed and her eyes watered with hot, hot tears. She felt the stares of the revelers boring into her, stinging her like irritated insects whose hive had been invaded. Slowly she approached the base of the dais, and the impressive man looked down on her.
“I am King Alman,” he told her. “And you, young girl, have interrupted our celebration. Introduce yourself and explain this intrusion.”
“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” Ava whimpered, at a loss for what to say. “I am only a poor peasant girl who landed on your balcony by accident. I ran away from home so that I would not waste my talent, and instead earn fame and fortune.”
“And what is this talent?” the King inquired.
“Your Highness, I can sing,” she told him, gaining more confidence. “I have a voice that can float through the air like perfume. I can calm people in an instant, or distract even the seraphim from their own choir.”
“How fortunate!” the King declared. “A singer! That is just what our orchestra lacks. If you are so assured of your ability, please, please join them, and sing us a merry tune to dance to!”
Ava was wide-eyed at the opportunity. “Your Majesty!” she gasped. “It would be an honor.” She skipped gratefully to the orchestra and stood in front of them, smiling. “Do you know ‘Flow My Tears’?” All members nodded their assent, and they waited for Ava to begin before joining her.
Though it was long since Ava sang, her voice rang out even more beautifully than it ever had before. In fact, it was even more pure and clear than she had boasted. The occupants of the hall stood, agape, unable to move for fear of trampling the sound, unable to eat for fear of swallowing it. They patiently waited until Ava had reached the end of the song and then burst forth with applause as tears spilled from their eyes.
“Fair maiden!” declared the King, hand over his heart. “What a heartbreaking rendition! You must continue,” he commanded. “Sing us one to dance to!”
And so Ava did. She sang one merry tune, then another. She sang all of the songs she knew, ballads and canticles and lullabies and shanties. The night wore on interminably; the sun was no sooner to rise than it had been at Ava’s arrival. The celebration would continue endlessly. She sang brightly, without stopping, until the effort exhausted her.
The orchestra played on as she approached the King to entreat him. “Your Highness,” she muttered plaintively, “I’m so tired. Is it all right if I go home now?”
“You cannot go!” King Alman insisted. “You must have something to eat.”
“I will wait, then,” she conceded, her stomach growling. Her eyes fell upon the feast on the table, as the attendees had been unable to diminish the amount of food at all, even though they had not stopped eating. “But as soon as I’ve eaten I must go home. My mother and father will be worried, and Caleb and Faline will miss me.”
The King saw her eye fall upon the food on the jasper table, but he placed his hand on her shoulder to draw her attention away. “I shall make you something myself,” the King declared, and promptly he disappeared into the dark corridor from whence the serving men and women emerged.
King Alman returned with a tureen filled to the brim with the most delicious-smelling stew imaginable. Various vegetables bobbed at the surface – carrots, leeks, cardoons, asparagus, radishes, sweet onions – regardless of whether they were even in season. The broth shimmered in the light like beaten gold. The serving men cleared a place on the table for the tureen, and one of the feasters graciously offered Ava his seat. Ava watched, her hunger escalating, as the King himself ladled a sizable portion into a bowl for her. As he set it in front of her, Ava forgot her manners and grabbed the nearest spoon, hurriedly scooping it into her mouth. It was the most delicious soup she had ever tasted. It was at once spicy and sweet, tart and tangy, thick yet smooth. She said neither please nor thank you, but that did not stop the King from ladling a second portion into her bowl as she scraped the bottom. Strangely enough, the more she ate the hungrier she became. She continued eating, splashing the broth and spilling the vegetables, until she had nearly finished the entire tureen.
“That’s enough, that’s enough!” the King insisted as Ava licked her fingers. “It’s nearly gone,” he said as he tilted the tureen towards her so she could see. “Haven’t you turned out to be a greedy little girl.”
Ava winced as though the verbal barb had been a physical one. “You Majesty, King Alman,” she whined, “you said I could go home once I’d eaten.”
“I said no such thing,” the King retorted. “I said you cannot go home. Now it is too late to even try!” he laughed fiercely.
Ava recoiled, frightened. Suddenly the finery of the hall loomed much more threatening around her. The guests were not like the happy people they’d appeared to be just a moment ago; their faces curled into ominous grins. Ava watched the orchestra members transform from men to wild animals – the lute players became cranes, the shawm players were deer, the man on the organetta turned into a boar, the large viol player was, in reality, an ox. Her head was swimming in confusion as she turned back to the tureen. She jumped back, revolted, when she saw that the broth was not broth but blood, and the vegetables remaining were not vegetables at all but eyes, fingers, and hair.
Her stomach lurched. She wanted very much to vomit, clutching her waist and heaving. The horrible stew, however, refused to leave her innards, and in fact had already begun its magic. She doubled over and fell to her knees. It was a most sickening transformation. First her blood dried right into her veins. Then her eyes fell out of her head, and her tongue slipped down her throat. One by one, every hair on her head was shed, and one by one her fingers fell off like a leper’s. Her teeth fell backwards into her mouth, and she swallowed them. Her skin began to loosen itself from the bone, and as she brought her useless hands to her unseeing face it began to peel away. Her joints came away from one another – hands from arms, arms at the elbows, arms at the shoulder, legs at the hip and knees and ankles. She could see herself as a conglomeration of separated body parts, a wretched pile wrapped in her linen undergarments on the cold marble floor.
But – how? How was it that she had fallen apart, but could still see? She could still hear, as well, and she could still feel terror. The king snapped his fingers, and two servants came forward holding a gilded cage. They approached Ava and trapped her within.
“Now, my pretty bird,” the king slyly smiled. “You must stay with me forever, and entertain me with your beautiful voice.”
Ava opened her mouth to object, but her mouth was not a mouth but a beak. Only birdsong poured out – a string of desperate pleas and angry protestations became nothing but a sweet, indistinct warble. She collapsed to the bottom of her golden home as it was carried by two servants into the king’s garden menagerie.
A variety of dignitaries from foreign lands strolled through the menagerie on occasion, in this strange country where it was always night. King Alman was proud of his zoological collection, and it never failed to impress his visitors. He led them on grand tours of the garden, pausing at each individual caged creature for lengthy perusal. Ava was forced to sing for each guest, and they left coins and jewels in her cage afterwards for luck. No one could get enough of her voice, and in return she’d earned what she’d always desired – fame and fortune, the chance to entertain high society and a house made of gold.
One day, after years of imprisonment, it happened that two visitors to the menagerie were dignitaries from a foreign land, a land they described to King Alman as he took them through his garden.
“It is a land rich in resources,” the man, a duke explained, “especially great forests of oak trees.”
“Land that is not forest is grassy,” the woman, his sister, added, “with the citizens cultivating their fields of oats and barley.”
King Alman smiled even as he sighed. “It sounds very boring,” he told them. “I have no knowledge of what resources my nation has, or what crops the peasants cultivate. What I do have is a variety of amusements and distractions to keep me happy. This menagerie is one of them, particularly this songbird,” he added, gesturing emphatically to Ava in her cage.
The duke and his sister approached, looking intently at the bird, expectantly waiting for it to sing. Ava did not, she could not. Her voice stopped in her throat.
“Bird, if you don’t sing,” the king muttered, “you won’t live to regret it.”
Fearing for her life, Ava began to sing. In spite of her trepidation, each note came across sweet and true, and for the first time ever Ava let her emotions spill out into the song. Each measure was an expression of sorrow, of hopelessness, and it moved the woman to cry. The man gently placed his arm across her shoulders, while the King laid his hand sympathetically on hers.
“I’m sorry,” she said, dabbing away her tears. “I know it’s ridiculous, but that song reminded me of a sister we lost, long ago.”
“I remembered her too,” the duke agreed. He turned to King Alman to explain. “We had an older sister who sang to us when we were infants. We don’t remember much about her; she disappeared when we were still so young.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” the King replied. “Please, have a seat,” he said, leading them to a nearby bench. The duke and his sister sat down, shifting uncomfortably on the smooth surface. “Perhaps some sustenance should help restore your spirits. I shall go to the kitchen and fetch you something, even if I have to make it myself.”
“Your Majesty is most kind,” the woman replied, and the King vanished through a corridor.
In the King’s absence the siblings were free to speak to one another without restraint.
“I do not like this place,” the duke admitted.
“I especially do not like him,” his sister agreed. “Please, Caleb, let’s leave here, before he gets back. Who knows what goes on in his kitchen.”
“You’re right, Faline – there is something sinister about him. We must leave.” The duke stood immediately to flee, clutching his sister by her arm.
“Wait, brother!” she insisted. “The bird…” Faline could not explain her hesitance, although the songbird lingered at the entrance of the cage, looking at her expectantly with wide, wet eyes. “I must free it. It’s the least I can do for its moving song.” With one swift movement she swept forward and lifted the door of the gilded cage. Ava left and perched on the woman’s shoulder.
“Quickly, quickly!” Caleb insisted, now dragging his sister along with him, Ava still clinging to her cloak. They disappeared down the corridor, encountering King Alman with a tureen of his nasty soup. He shouted in protest at their escape, and Ava flew to his tureen and with all her strength tipped it, letting its golden broth hit the floor in a bloody mess. Caleb and Faline didn’t even look back, and Ava flew swiftly in order to catch up with them. They burst forth into the great hall, where the celebration never ceased. All eyes were upon them as Ava boldly flew to the balcony where the wind had abandoned her a lifetime ago. The duke and his sister, unable to find another exit, followed to the crushed velvet curtain, clumsily hurdling through the dancers and feasters to make it through the great granite arch.
King Alman emerged from the corridor, soup-covered and sullen. “Stop them!” he roared. “Don’t let them get away!”
Caleb and Faline, trapped on the balcony, retreated towards the rail. Frightened, the two collapsed on the terrace, clutching one another without hope as the revelers stopped reveling and approached them.
“Please,” Ava pleaded aloud , hoping whatever powers that brought her here still listened. “Please take them away from here. Take them far away.” But even as she spoke, the words came out as only birdsong, and she, too lost hope. All she could do was cling to Faline’s cloak for comfort.
But the old magic understood, and before the others fell upon them, the wind roared up from beneath the balcony, bearing away all three siblings – man, woman, and bird – and whipping them away from the grasps of the disappointed regiments. King Alman cursed wildly as his precious quarry escaped on a belch from below.
Caleb and Faline cried out as the wind whipped them up, up, up, over the mountains and over the clouds and into the freezing apex of the firmament. They clutched each other fearfully until the wind wound its way to the same forest ledge that Ava had left from so many years earlier. In the descent from the clouds the night turned to day, and the wind carefully placed them all on the ledge in the forest before retiring with a hollow bellow to the depths of the caverns below. Caleb and Faline did not know the way through the forest, but they followed Ava as she flitted from one tree to the next, leading the way. The sun was high in the cerulean sky when they burst forth from the wood’s edge at the border of their father’s fields.
“Mother! Father!” Faline shouted joyously, running towards the house to embrace their parents. Caleb, smiling, followed; Ava observed their happy reunion from her perch on the thatched roof. She never wanted to leave again, even after her siblings returned to their great house to govern the duchy. She made herself a nest under the cottage’s eaves, singing brightly as her mother worked in the garden, or as her father labored in the fields. She never turned back from a bird, but on the other hand, she never was greedy with her talent again.