sweep's story

Leaves fall, branches whip back and forth, the ground shakes; a flock of birds bursts into the air, shouting, “Fly-fly! Fly-fly!”

Startled, Sweep cowers on his branch, his head bobbing this way and that, looking for the danger.

“Fly,” cries a black-singer as he shoots past, “the no-wings are coming!”

But Sweep hesitates: he is too small to fly high like a white-swimmer, or fast like a black-singer, and he does not have the talons of a mouse-catcher—but, maybe, if he stays very still, the no-wings will overlook him. He huddles behind a palm frond.

Time passes.

The noises get louder.

Closer.

A no-wings passes by, less than a frog’s-leap from his branch.

Sweep frets. Should he have gone with the others? Is it too late to go now? Could he—?

A big no-wings bumps into the branch beneath him and, without thinking, Sweep throws out his wings and flies towards the sun, like all the other birds.

...

He hears the cries of warning too late and crashes into the web, tangling his head, a wing, and—when he struggles to free himself—a foot, too, in its strange, thick strands.

“Keep still little yellow-bird,” cries a red-singer, “keep still or you will break your wing!”

Sweep closes his eyes and lets himself hang—“Yes,” says the red-singer, “stay just like that!”—but Sweep’s heart still tells him that he must get free and, even though he is exhausted, he keeps kicking his legs, every now and then.

...

The no-wings smells of rotten meat, and its skin is rough, but it handles Sweep gently, freeing him from the web and dropping him quickly into a darkness that smells of dry grass and other birds.

Sweep immediately tries to fly, but his wings bump into rough walls and he falls to the bottom of the black hollow.

After a while, he pecks—the wall is dry grass and bits of it come away—and he pecks and pecks and pecks until his neck aches and his beak hurts, but he knows in his heart that he will never escape.

...

Days later

A shaft of blinding light wakes him a split-second before the no-wings reaches into the hollow and grabs him. Sweep is too frightened to struggle, but the no-wings does not hold him long—it sets him down inside a small wooden ribcage and clucks at him: “There. Do-you-like your-new-cage? Do-you? Do-you?”

Sweep does not understand; and, though he does not think this no-wings wants to hurt him, he waits until its back is turned before he flutters up to one of the thin wooden branches, and looks around.

There are no trees!

And at first he thinks there are no other birds. But then he hears one, down below, and he tilts his head and sees a strange brown bird, pecking at a shred of flesh lying in the dust. “Where am I?” Sweep cries. “Please, brown-bird—where am I?”

The stranger peers cautiously at the no-wings—but its back is still turned—then he flies up and perches on one of the bare, straight branches overhead. He leans down. “You are in a cage,” he says, “on a stall, in the souk, in the great city of Carhilivren.”

“Why?” asks Sweep.

“Because the no-wings wants to sell you.” Brown-bird hops closer. “You do not know what ‘sell’ means, do you? No. Well, it means that this no-wings wants to give you to another no-wings in return for some shiny metal, and the other no-wings will take you home—oh, do not look so frightened! You are far too small to eat. But,”—he tilts his head—“can you sing?”

“Yes...”

“Good. Then start now. The better you can sing, the better the no-wings will take care of you.”

...

Some time later, a small no-wings with bright, dark eyes pokes a finger through the ribs of Sweep’s cage. “He-llo,” it tweets, “he-llo!”

Then it turns to the big no-wings and twitters—“Five? No-one-will-pay five,”—and the other clucks back, and then the small one presses its soft beak against the ribs, and tweets again: “Can-you-say Ke-ret? Ke-ret? I'll come-back to-mo-rrow. If some-one-else tries to-buy-you before-then, bite-them. Bite-them.”

...

It is almost dark when the no-wings sells him, for—Sweep counts the shiny metal: beak, wing, wings, foot—foot round pieces.

The new no-wings is tall and fair-skinned, with thick yellow feathers on its head and under its beak. It carries Sweep through its flock, gently swinging his cage as it walks, calling out to its friends, and to several of its mates until, suddenly, it lifts the cage up to its face, and booms, “HERE-WE-ARE YOUR-NEW-HOME.”

And it carries him up a broad, sloping branch, into a vast nutshell, floating on water that stretches for as far as Sweep can see—and he has just time to wonder whether this can be the Great Green that the white-swimmers once told him about, when the no-wings plunges him into darkness.

Months later

For as long as Sweep can remember, his days have been the same.

His no-wings wakes him at first light, tapping on his cage and clucking, softly—“He-llo, li-ttle fe-llow. How-are-you this mor-ning?”—and it gives him seed and water and, although Sweep is not sure whether it does expect anything in return, he sings it a song, just in case.

For a while, then, it settles down beneath his cage, and scratches marks, either onto a large white skin, which it carefully unrolls and smoothes out, or onto smaller skins, bound together in a block. But after an hour or so it goes away, leaving Sweep alone for the rest of the morning, and that is when he finds out what sort of day it is going to be.

On a good day, the nutshell floats calmly on the Great Green, and his cage sways gently, and Sweep can see the water, if he sits at the top of his cage and looks through the hole in the shell.

On a bad day, the nutshell pitches and tosses on the angry water, and Sweep’s cage jumps, and jerks back and forth, and he is forced to huddle in a corner until the storm has passed.

On the worst days, the four-legs comes, and climbs up, and peers into his cage with its big yellow eyes, and scratches at the wood with its sharp claws, and Sweep, knowing exactly what it wants, wonders if this day will be his last.

But when the sun is at its highest his no-wings returns, and shoos away the four-legs, and goes back to making marks. Often it stays with him for the rest of the day, and then Sweep exhausts himself singing. Other times it goes away again, and does not return until late.

But every day, as the light begins to fade, the no-wings drapes a dark skin of night over him.

Sometimes, when Sweep sleeps, he dreams of a place outside his cage, where he can stretch his wings and fly from branch to branch, and the branches are covered with green leaves, and with flowers that smell of pink and yellow and white...

And when he wakes he wonders whether that place is real and, if it is, how he can find it.

...

One day, Sweep’s no-wings carries him outside.

The blue overhead is paler than Sweep had expected, and the air is cooler, and, as they thread their way through the flocks of strange no-wings, leaving the nutshell and the Great Green far behind, he is suddenly afraid, and he drops to the bottom of his cage and cowers, as if a storm were blowing.

...

The first thing Sweep notices is the darkness—are they back inside the shell? He looks out through the ribs of his cage. No, this is somewhere else. It smells different: sharp and earthy.

And there is another no-wings here, a male, with a soft voice—“Five sil-ver,” it sings.

“TEN,” booms Sweep’s no-wings.

Six,” sings the other. “That-is my-fi-nal off-er.”

“NO.” His no-wings picks up the cage. Sweep’s heart flutters—are they going home?

Eight.”

His no-wings sets the cage down again.

Some weeks later

Every day, the wicked no-wings hangs his cage outside; every night he brings it back inside.

The street—Sweep has learnt that word from the sparrows—is dusty. Every day his yellow feathers turn greyer; every night he does his best to clean them in the dirty sand at the bottom of his cage.

Sweep thinks he can remember a time when things were better than this.

He thinks he can remember a no-wings who spoke to him, and gave him seed when he sang...

But then he wonders whether that was just a dream.

...

Sweep sits at the top of his cage and watches the no-wings pass by. There is the small one, who is always running swiftly, leaping up to bat Sweep’s cage as he passes; there is the old, four-legged one, that waits patiently every morning, snuffling in the dust for a few stalks of dry grass, until a two-legs appears and climbs upon its back; and—

Today, there is a new one, walking slowly by, looking anxiously this way and that, and she is what the sparrows call a ‘girl’.

No-wings, Sweep has noticed, do not grow feathers on their bodies. Instead, they wear false plumage, made, he thinks, from big petals. This girl’s plumage is yellow—not a rich gold, like his own (when it is clean), but a pale, soft, spring-flower yellow.

Sweep tilts his head to look at her more closely.

His heart tells him that the girl is kind and, at this moment, very sad.

He flaps his wings and she turns, and looks up at him, twittering, “Poor, li-ttle-bird,”—and Sweep sings back, hoping to cheer her, but she passes beneath him, and disappears into the wicked no-wings’s ‘shop’.

...

Sweep waits.

And waits.

And there is movement, further down the street, and he peers out, and sees a flock of no-wings riding past, and—

Sweep’s heart leaps at the sight of them—their beautiful, shining faces, their soft voices, their pure spirits. He bursts into song and, for the first time ever (so far as he can remember), he longs to leave his cage, and he flutters against the wooden ribs, trying to find an opening—

But, at that moment, the girl and the wicked no-wings come outside.

And Sweep is lifted down and given to the girl.

...

His new home is sweet-smelling—the girl sets his cage beside a bowl of dry petals. Then she opens the ribs and tips some seed inside, singing, “There-you-are. There-you-are.”

Sweep does not know what her song might mean but he sings it back to her, and she seems pleased, because she repeats it—though she makes a few mistakes—and then she adds a new melody: “What-am-I going to-do-with you? What-am-I going to-do?”

And Sweep sings that back too.

...

It is dark but a small light is glowing, near Girl’s face, and Sweep, sitting at the very top of his cage, watching her sleep, knows that he is happier now than he has ever been. And he does not want to sleep himself for fear that, when he wakes, he will find that Girl has gone.

...

Girl picks up his cage and warbles and, although he does not fully understand her song, Sweep knows that she wants him to be quiet. He settles down on his branch, and they leave their home, and climb down and down and out into the fresh air—but only for a minute—then inside again, and up and up, and once more into darkness.

Girl sets down his cage, and Sweep is filled with a strange excitement and, being careful to make no noise, he hops up and looks around—and his heart leaps, just as it did that other time—

A shining no-wings!

The no-wings is sleeping, but something is wrong, and Sweep does not have time to decide exactly what before Girl lets in the light, and the shining-one springs up, and catches her, and holds her too tight and Sweep flutters up and down in anguish, but Girl has told him to be quiet...

Then another shining-one—no, a gentle no-wings, like Girl—sings, and the shining-one lets Girl go.

And then...

Then the shining-one lifts Sweep’s cage, and looks at him, and Sweep is wrapped in a soft, warm glow and held safe there, singing for joy. And the shining-one tells Girl that she must keep Sweep safe forever, and Girl leans in close, and sings that she will—and Sweep understands every note!

And then the shining-one says he will make sure that Girl can keep Sweep with her, wherever she goes; and he says, “Your mistress loves you very much, little Sweep, and she will always take good care of you.”

And Sweep sings—“Thank you! Thank you!”—again and again, because he knows that what the shining-one promises is true.

 

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