The Song of the Night Bird
by Harry Lang
On the eastern edge of the Plain of Hkhmadd was a very old tea plantation. I grew up there with my eleven brothers who worked in the fields, my two sisters who waited for husbands, my father who maintained robots, my beautiful mother and our silvery pet grenx.
I was not allowed to work in the fields because I was weak. It was just as well; wisdom was the only strength I sought.
The night after my fourteenth birthday I was awakened by the song of the night bird. I saw the ghost lights and met a demon who promised me everything I always wanted. Such a thing never happens, except in stories. This is my story.
In the darkest hour I heard the song of the night bird. It stopped as soon as my eyes were opened; I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a dream.
My brothers slept like ice, exhausted after a day in the fields. Our room was black but I was guided by their warmth as I carefully stepped over them one by one.
The grenx snarled softly then cooed and swiped her fluffy tail across my feet as she recognized my scent. The door whispered, “Goodnight!” as it opened to let me out, and the cold, smoky wind filled the sleeping house. Moonlight lay upon the fields of the plantation like snow, turning the blazing leaves of the autumn tea to frost and the last of the crickets spent their strength in the shadows of the amber grass.
The one who called would never be found by conscious thought, so I decided to be a leaf upon the wind. With a clear mind I wandered among the rustling bushes, thinking only enough to avoid my father’s spidery black robots moving silently, sensors blinking ruby and sapphire as they monitored the health of the crop or trained their weapons on nocturnal pests. My aimless ramble soon brought me to an irrigation canal deep in the shadows of a grove of ancient trees and I dove in without hesitation, ignoring the cold.
That’s when I heard the laughter like tiny bells on the smoky wind. I climbed out of the canal and stood listening on the gravel path.
Now I ran, heart pounding, a mindless leaf no longer. The laughter grew louder and seemed to emanate from the strangely effulgent stars as they struggled to free themselves from the branches of the watchful trees arching across the sky over my head.
I knew exactly where the path led; the plantation had always been my home but I was soon disoriented, as if a mysterious new path had replaced the familiar one. The cold bit through my wet fur and the violet taste of the canal water was still on my lips. This was no dream.
The path swept me from the grove and into a fallow field where the bent forms of deactivated robots gleamed in the brittle light of the pearl moon. The wind whistled through their spidery frames, slamming the hinged access panels of their empty crania and in the spectral radiance it was impossible to tell if their targeting sensors tracked my movements. I imagined they did and ran faster.
The neglected tea bushes soon gave way to high, shimmering grass, and before I realized how far I had run I found myself in the middle of a vast silvery sea with no land in sight. My breath came in faint steaming jets as I stopped to rest and get my bearings. Looking down I saw no path beneath my feet.
The laughter returned. Lights sparkled, as if the stars had been rescued from their captivity and turned loose to run and play in the swaying grass.
I was afraid. I knew it was childish but I could not banish memories of ghost stories and monster tales. The grass rustled and I knew the damaged robots had followed, animated by some malevolent intelligence. I imagined them moving through the field with supernatural speed, taking up positions all around me, silently inching closer as they took aim...
The spell of the fearful scenario was shattered by the clear sweet song of the night bird hidden somewhere in the cool grass. Turning toward the sound I noticed a clearing, where the grass had been flattened and the moonlight overflowed like the water of the River Kloon in spring. The laughter stopped as I stepped into the brilliant circle where the bird sang.
“Man born of woman is of few days, full of trouble. He springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure.”
A figure stood on the other side of the clearing. At first he seemed to be a moon-drenched statue, so still did he stand. He was dressed in the star-spattered vestments of a temple priest, but unlike the clerics he wore a long, silver mask which reflected the moonlight with such intensity that I had to look away.
“Man, approach and touch the enduring immortal.”
I ventured to the center of the circle but no further. “You called me,” I said, remembering the night bird that woke me. “Why?”
“Because you were listening.”
“You have always listened, from the darkness of your mother until now.”
“And you command the night bird?”
“Are we The God? None serve us but the free and willing.”
All around me the ghost lights had settled in their places. The rushing wind flung the towering stalks of grass across the indigo sky like the spray of the Eldritch Sea, but there was no sound other than his speech.
“You are just a boy,” he said in a voice that was dark and sweet and seemed to echo from somewhere beyond the mask, “yet you recognize the tragedy of the song. It haunts you.”
“Must we stand at the precipice to know it lies along the path?”
“Yet you ran, heart pounding, along a dark path made the darker because it should have been familiar. You answered the call of a stranger. You ache for the mystery.”
“And if I do?”
Lightning split the cloudless sky and the ground shook.
“Speak to us of ‘if’?” he thundered.
“Grace! How can I know immortal ways?”
“Immortal ways? Immortal?” The ground was still, the sky peaceful again but some change had taken hold of him. His speech was suddenly odd, as if our language was difficult and foreign to his kind. For a moment he was afraid. No, he was terrified. I could see his fear through the mask; I could feel the heart fluttering beneath the robe made for more noble creatures than he.
He mastered himself. “A new thing is about to happen,” he said. “The God is an old man; He has no grip. What He has made spins from His grasp toward the void. You understand this.” He spoke without passion, like an uninterested student assigned to memorize and deliver The Conflict of the Wise or the Comedy of Nine Weeks. His voice seemed to come from much further away than the inside of the mask; it was otherworldly but not supernatural, if such a distinction can be understood.
I noticed something else. Two sleeves of the priest’s robe were empty. Did he hide his arms within as the priests often did when the weather was cold or did he have only two?
“Spirit, why have you taken the form of a man and entered the world of men?”
“To show the two futures and make you a wise power in the world.”
“A wise power! Oh...”
I fell backward onto the cool grass before him.
“The knowledge of good and evil shall pass to you; you will be like The Power On High. All mysteries cast their shadows in your light. You have no quarrel with any alive or dead; you desire no satisfaction from any offender, so the lives of men shall be your treasure. You desire no riches; the world will be entrusted to you. You know the tragedy of the song and the cruelty of the curse of death imposed by The God at the beginning of people; long life shall be yours. Wisdom is the principal thing; get wisdom and in all your getting get understanding. With no pain or labor we pass to you our wisdom.
“The second future is thus. The God is an old man. All He has made shall be taken in our grasp to be made in our image. All who cling to Him shall be pursued alone across our waste and desolation. All love, all joy, all peace shall be drained from them before the blow falls. Their mothers shall cry to them from the torment, their children shall choke and bleed before their eyes. By the force of our hate they will be crushed.”
All I had ever wanted set against my greatest fears...
“What am I to do?” I could hardly say the words.
“Belong to us. Be our prophet. We are spirits and can enter the world of men only through men. Be our path into the world. Now, that you may know who stands before you...”
The sun rose, crossed the sky and set. One by one the planets of our star system passed before us, their benighted inhabitants living their lives as we watched. Space opened up; I saw the outer worlds swarming with unimaginable creatures, their alien philosophies, religions, loves and hatreds revealed with perfect clarity. Such a flood of knowledge, the merest sprinkling of the infinity that awaited.
I was breathless as the cold smoky wind of the indigo night returned.
“None serve us but the free and willing.”
“I will be a wise power,” I whispered dizzily, feeling a flame of life, a power such as I had never experienced, “and it is written, Lo, fear of The God, that is wisdom and to turn from evil is understanding. Away, spirit!”
It may have been my imagination but before he vanished, leaving me lost in the middle of the field in the middle of the night, I thought I saw the terror return.
Now the night grew colder, the wind blew harder and faster as if all warmth had been sucked into the wake of the demon’s passing. I had always been small for my age; I could not see over the tops of the rippling stalks of grass and had no idea which direction to take. The plantation stood upon the edge of the uninhabited Plain of Hkhmadd, also known as the Grassy Sea. I could be lost forever.
I prayed for guidance, as anybody would, but my only answer was an ominous rustling in the grass around me. My fear of the robots returned; I was just small enough to be mistaken for a pest. It was not safe to move. It was not safe to remain, and The God to Whom I clung sent no help from on high.
The sounds in the grass moved closer. Something was definitely approaching. I was at the point of running in blind panic when it sprang into the clearing and snarled.
I laughed with relief as I saw it was our grenx. She must have followed me.
My relief was short-lived. Without the slightest acknowledgement she dashed into the grass on the other side of the clearing, apparently in pursuit of her dinner.
The cold forced me to a decision, and I started walking in the direction from which the grenx had appeared, careful to keep the setting moon at my back for as long as it was visible. I thought about singing to boost my courage but had the unreasonable idea that this would attract the attention of robots, ghosts and monsters. Not to mention demons.
The moonlight was almost gone when I heard the grass behind me rustling as before. In the failing light I was just able to make out the form of the grenx as she slowed to trot along beside me, her prey still squirming in her jaws. Her tail waved over her head with pride and contentment and I followed her all the way to the canal (this time I took the bridge) and back to our house, where she dropped her prize on the flagstone by the door.
Stepping unsteadily over my sleeping brothers I found my mat and collapsed into a dreamless stupor.
* * *
“Chk’oki! Chk’oki, wake up! You have to see this!”
Blinding sunlight flooded the room. My head pounded and my stomach churned. My fifth brother was shaking me.
“Get up! The robots caught a monster! It came from the old field! You have to see it! It’s awesome!”
The first thing I saw as I emerged from the house was the mauled body of the night bird in a pool of blood on the flagstone. The grenx sniffed it, then rubbed against my legs and cooed.
“They’re bringing a priest from the morning temple to examine it. Come on!”
A crowd had gathered under the trees by the canal. My brother and I were small enough to shove through to the front.
The monster was hideous. Sparse patches of black hair sprouted from a few spots on its thick, pale body. Its legs were long and shaped almost exactly like those of a man but it had only two arms. Its face was completely alien and could not be read, but there was no doubt it was terrified.
The star-spattered robe lay in the dirt. The mask was nowhere to be seen.
The crowd gasped and drew back as the beast growled and flailed at the air with its hands. Its breathing was shallow and difficult, its face was changing color and I knew its fear would soon kill it. As I listened, the growls seemed to resolve themselves into syllables, as if it was trying to speak. It pounded upon itself, repeating strings of the guttural sounds over and over until finally I thought I could discern what may have been a word.
And then it died.
I ran to the mortal being sprawled upon the dirt of a world it never could have imagined, surrounded by monsters it never could have believed in. Had it been a wise power in its world before being dragged across the gulf of space to be used and abandoned by its lying master?
The crowd stared as I fell to the ground beside it, tossed dust upon my head and cried for the terror and confusion it must have felt and for the foolishness that possessed it before the demon ever entered it.
I never told my family about the incident of the night bird, but when the priest arrived from the morning temple I withheld nothing. His reaction astonished me.
“The demon was right,” he said, “but not about The God. A new thing is about to happen. They will find their prophet; the weakness of men will bring it to pass. The demon was right about you as well. You will be a wise power in the world and you will be pursued across their waste and desolation. Prepare.”
Now the leaves have fallen from the autumn tea and snow drifts across the plantation. The canal is frozen, the robots stand idle in their sheds. My brothers skate on the canal and play in the snow, but my father is silent and my mother cries at night because I will soon leave for the temple, never to return.
Every path ends at the precipice, but my path will be long and desolate. The weakness of men will bring this to pass because The God is no tyrant.
None serve Him but the free and willing.
Copyright © 2007 by Harry Lang