Chapter 1: Brownbird's Luck
A Fantasy Series by Kriss Erickson
Chapter 1: Brownbird's Luck
Deila Weaver balanced on one foot then the other swinging a wooden bucket between her legs, while Gran stirred the great pot of oats on the cast-iron stove.
"Hurry, Gran! Molly's waiting!"
"Hurry yourself!" Gran chided. She half-turned, letting a rivulet of gooey oats run down the wooden spoon's handle.
"Oh! Now you've dripped on the floor," Deila said. Her voice was a little tight, reminding her that she was becoming impatient. Impatience would bring a scolding, which could slow the process further. She quickly formed her small pink lips into a smile and pecked Gran on the cheek. Gran wrung the spoon clean on her stained linen apron, but her blue eyes were too cloudy to see more than a vague outline of her granddaughter.
Deila grabbed a linen rag off a cane-backed chair and scrubbed the floor clean. Taking time to clean up every scrap of spilled food was an extra stress, but if her Da found the kitchen dirty, his hand would swing at her head.
"I've got to get this mash to the barn or I'll be late for my lessons," she said. She scooped the steaming mash into the bucket.
"I'm off, Gran. Molly will be hungry after delivering that fine strong colt last night. You'd best put that spoon beside the pot or you'll spill more porridge."
Gran pursed her lips, her wrinkled face puckering like burlap, which made Deila giggle. She turned her cheek to accept Gran's kiss and walked down the hall. Through the sitting room window she noticed that the sun was barely risen, gilding the flax and adding an orange cast to the gray barn. The barn was not painted but was natural wood, knothole and aged. It did not stand out among the other barns on the flatlands. The harvests had been poor for many seasons, so no one had the money to rebuild aging barns or paint them.
Deila hurried along the short stone path and cut across a corner of the kitchen garden. A glint of red and yellow peeking out from the ground beside the lettuces and radishes distracted her. She bent to pick the primroses, leaving plenty of stem. Her long fingers quickly wove the flowers into a necklace.
"There aren't enough flowers to make Molly a necklace. But the old stories say that a necklace of red and yellow primroses strengthens the blood. She stretched the necklace out in front of her, examining her work.
This will fit over the colt's neck, to give it strength and health."
She put the necklace over her head temporarily, picked up the bucket and walked toward the barn. The morning was a bit cool for May, but the air was clear, and the fields were nearly silent. A harsh sound disturbed the morning stillness. It took Deila a moment to recognize its origin.
Twitch-twitter-twitch! Then the scuff of her feet on the dusty ground for a few breaths. Then Twitch-twitter-twitch!
Deila cupped her hand over her eyes, pushing her lank, wheat brown hair out of the way. She saw one of the flax stalks sway then spring back. "A brownbird!" Deila cried. "The primroses finally opened today, and the brownbird hunts crickets in our field. This'll bring luck to Molly's colt for sure!" Deila watched the brownbird as she walked.
Deila had thought "brownbird" too plain a name for the slender bird that was nut-brown above, creamy tan beneath, that all the flatlanders called lucky. It started ten summers earlier when there had been no rain for months and all the fields were so dry the soil puffed around their feet like the powder that Belden city ladies used to cover their faces.
One day Deila's Da, Skalle, came in from the fields. His sandy hair and worn blue overalls were white with the dust. "Saw a bird today."
Deila smiled as she remembered Da's face, pale as flour, more alive than it had been in many years. "It wasn't much of a bird--just a little drab brown thing. Sounded more like a broom sweeping the kitchen floor than a bird. But when it flew across the big mountain, I swear it took a bit of snow from the top and turned it into a cloud."
Deila had laughed--and chuckled now--remembering. Da, telling a tale of luck, when he'd often said luck was plain foolishness.
"Where's the cloud?" she'd teased.
Instead of answering, Da had led her by the hand out the back door. Gran was already outside, her wrinkles smoothing as she tilted her head back into the moist breeze. Deila looked up too. Instead of one little cloud, the whole sky was gray. Soon rain fell, gentle and soothing to the dry land. The flax and the kitchen garden were saved.
Ever since then whenever the brownbird appeared rain soon followed. But the brownbird did more than bring rain. When it chirped outside a sickroom the patient recovered. No one knew if the brownbird brought luck, but everyone chose to believe it did. The drab brown bird found its diet of crickets supplemented with flax seeds, fruit or a bit of cake left on windowsills, until it became impossible to tell if the brownbird came to bring rain or to dine on delicacies.
Deila smiled at the brownbird, now perched on a swaying flax stem seeming to look right at her.
"Gran says you're a friendly bird," she called. "I hope our friendship is a good one!"
Gran had also said that to wave at a brownbird was good luck, so when she got to the barn, she put the bucket down for a moment and waved. The brownbird ducked its head and took off, dipping a wing at her as if to return her wave. Its dark body silhouetted against the great white bulk of Mount Spire. Deila shivered when she saw the huge snow-covered mountain that was topped with a fingerlike projection. The fingerlike projection was so long that it looked like it if it fell, it would crush the fields. It would be logical for the Mount to be brown after so many years with so little rain. But no matter how dry the fields became, the Mount glared white. Sometimes while farmers wiped the dust of the fields from their eyes, white clouds would form over the Mount. It seemed to some that the Mount taunted them, calling rain to itself and not letting any escape onto the thirsty flatlands.
Deila heard Molly neigh from the barn and picked up the bucket. Oswald, the orange and white striped barn cat, wove in and out of her legs, hoping for a tidbit, as she passed the stall where Tansy, the red and white Guernsey cow waited to be milked. But she had no time to pet the cat. Molly neighed again. Deila heard a note of alarm in her neigh. She ran down the narrow barn aisle, the bucket of mash bumping against the walls.
"What's wrong, Molly?" she cried. "Are you hungry?"
She hung the bucket of mash on a bent nail and clucked her tongue. Molly looked up, then neighed and pawed through the clean straw in her stall. Deila thought at first that the old mare was trying to nudge her foal to its feet. Then she remembered that it had been suckling enthusiastically when she'd left late last night to bury the afterbirth. Perhaps it was sleeping in the straw. She grabbed the top stall slat and pulled herself over.
"Where's you foal, girl?" The back of the stall had a door that opened into the corral but that was locked to keep out drafts. Deila went on hands and knees, digging at the straw with Molly. No colt.
"That's impossible!" she cried. Then she noticed a drop of red on the straw. She found another, and another. Deila touched one of the drops. It was wet, and sticky, and when she held it beneath her nose, it smelled salty, like blood. The drops led toward the barred corral door. She clipped a rope to Molly's halter, unsure of what she would find outside, then unbarred the door.
At first the corral seemed empty. Then she saw a gray lump in the corner beside the fence. For a moment she thought it was an old tapestry that Gran had woven, that Da used as a horse blanket. But the angles were too stiff to be made from flax fibers woven in to linen. She walked closer, her eyes focusing on a point that stuck above the lumpy object.
The point was an ear. A colt's ear. Molly's colt had been gray, like this lumpy object, and the colt was missing from the stall. She wanted to run back to Gran, to bring her confidant and comforter with her to confirm this grisly discovery. But Gran couldn't see the body, and if someone--or something--had taken Molly's colt and bolted the door behind them, she had to act quickly before something else happened.
Deila gathered her courage and approached the still form. There was no doubt that this was Molly's colt, and that the colt was dead. His head was tucked beneath his ribcage and his legs were all askew. She turned away for a moment; hand over her mouth to cover the smell that came from the remains. Though the colt had been dead only a short time, the carcass smelled like a skunk left to rot in the fields for a week.
Page Last Revised: December 26, 2006