When my mother had me out, she knew she’d been cuckolded as easy as a finger snap. She could look back on the very moment–in the market with a basket full of gutted fish hanging from the crease of her elbow and her son pulling at her free hand while swiping snot from under his freckled nose. She cuffed him upside the head for dirtying his good clothes, and that was when the Sibyl put the baby in her. A smile, bound blind eyes, one hand brushed up over her navel–it was done. My mother scrubbed her skin with salt and a rag rubbed on a holy man’s brow. It was no use. I took hold in her and grew.
Curled up so near her heart, she couldn’t be rid of me. She spent a month close up to her husband just to make him think I was his, just in case I wasn’t. All the long while, as she grew with me, she spent hours on her knees hoping I was really hers.
It was clear enough who was my true mother when I had out of the one that wasn’t. Still, she loved me just the same. When her husband came in, saw me white as bone with two black eyes, he tried to toss me into the hearth fire. My mother went at him like a she-wolf with teeth and nails– screaming till he plugged up his ears, hunkered down and waited for her fury to withdraw. That night, when he thought her sleeping, he plucked me from her breast and set me under the pillow. She knew she’d had enough of the man then. Took his pistol from its place beneath the mattress and shot him once right between his eyes.
Quick as a blink she packed up both her children, hurried us out into the night, showed my moon face to the priest at the temple and was lead, one foot after another ringing on the marble, to the Sibyl.
She said in her country slur, “I carried this baby for you and I want to raise it, as you intended, but I had to kill my husband to keep her safe. Now what will I do? How will my babies eat? Where will we live? They’ll hang me come the morning.”
Sibyls, naturally, have no straight forward way of speaking. This one, my true mother, opened her plucked out, blood-hole eyes and said in return, “A blackbird pie.”
“A lot of good that,” replied my mother and spat at the Sibyl’s feet in disgust. She was surprised and horrified by the blood tears that seeped out from under the sagged down eyelids and plopped in maroon patches onto the Sybil’s white robes. “I guess her fate’s on me then.”
My magic rubbed off on those around me like dust off a moth wing. My brother was affected the most, since we slept like peas wrapped in one scratchy blanket before the roadside fires. It did him two ways. First, it got into his throat and gave him the sweetest singing voice you ever heard. Second, it rubbed off into his milky skin like coal–making him brown as a nut and his dark hair shiny as a bird wing. All these changes lost his true name to every other but our mother. He was called only Blackbird.
My magic wore off on my mother too from the nursing, the coddles, the kisses. She grew so shrewd, she could see a lie growing fat on a tongue before it even made its way past the teeth. She called me her lucky one, even though we were poor as all the rest traveling on the long roads in the wagons. To get by she sold my hair braided up with trinkets for coin. It was common lore that the children of Sibyls are lucky to all others but themselves. Too true.
My ill luck followed me around like a shadow. I burned red in the sun and had to wear long sleeves all the day, swelter in a bonnet like a cave’s mouth around my face, and sling around a pinafore of tattered fabric, faded and ugly, that someone found waiting around for a rubbish collector. I was sick one week out of four with every ill wind that blew through the ranks of travelers–colds, flues, runs, rashes, fevers till I was boiling in my skin and chills that left me shaking till my teeth rattled. Then, I had the gazes, the shy peeps, the outright stares. The leery glances shot out the corner of eyes, back and away again. My strange heritage was obvious in my bleached white face, my long snaky hair, my two black-stone eyes that had no whites. A Sibyl’s magic child standing in the shadows on the brightest day in hat, gloves and a dress that hangs from chin to ankle. Poor little mite, they might whisper. Ugly looking, little thing.
At the best, my presence was tolerated because I was a lucky one, very lucky indeed, to have about. No highway men took our merger goods or raped our women like was to happen to so many others traveling bands. No babies died coming out into the world nor accidents took the children. And of all the traveling people on the long roads, crisscrossing the dozen kingdoms, ours became the most prosperous.
I was the lucky one. The sibyl’s child called Pigeon by the tattered folk. It seems right for someone named after such a slow, bumbling bird to have wound up in a cage.
The king’s man found me in the shade of a tree sitting in orange leaves that had rained down in the winds the night before. Blackbird was playing a flute for passing crowds with his hat belly up between his skinny legs. The battered wool was filled near the brim with sparkling coins and rumpled bills. Mama was rolling dough for sweet buns that she sold out the back of the wagon. No one was paying me any mind. There I was alone, a normal girl at first sight, layered up in my mismatching fabric to hide from the sun.
“You the girl called Pigeon then?” he asked, swaggering with his hand on the hilt of his sword and his hat cocked off to the side.
“Maybe so. Why are you asking?” I had felt a little warning wiggle of fear in my gut when he came to stand over me. I clutched my gloved hands over it to hold it in place.
“I think you are, and I think you’d better come away with me and no fuss or my man, round about, will put a feather in the back of that pretty bird there.” His big hand gestured first to the man in the shadows between two wagons. I saw that he was squinting down the shaft of an arrow that pointed between the blades of my brother’s shoulders right to his heart. Then he gestured to Blackbird swaying to his music.
“Alright, then.” I took his offered arm and hung on it like a lady of class, following him in slow, leisurely steps from the circle of wagons and down the dirt road towards the city gates.
I got put before the peacock king as the drab little bird I was. He looked more than happy to have me, dusty and faded, at the foot of his thrown. The Queen, grotesquely fat, filled the seat beside him to overflowing. She ate honeyed cakes from a gold platter and sucked each of her fingers after, pulling one after another out with a pop.
“You are the one known as Pigeon?” he asked me while fiddling with his crown.
Under the shadows of my bonnet and pinafore, I could do nothing else but nod. My throat was dry, and my tongue was pinned in my mouth.
“Is it true you are the daughter of a Sibyl?”
Another nod and a ribbon of sweat down my neck.
“And is it also true you bring great luck to those around you?”
This required more than a movement in response. To say no, he’d find it a lie. To affirm yes, would give more credit to my birthright than was due. A swallow dry enough to choke, a cough and I found my voice–my soft cooing voice that bequeathed me my traveler’s name. “Some might find a bit of luck, but nothing a king would have much use for, I’m sure.”
His booming laughter startled the fat Queen. She choked on a honey cake, spraying her bodice with crumbs and sparkling droplets of drool.
“Most well said, for a peasant. Let’s hope you remain as clear spoken when I put you to good use, little pigeon.”
I was strapped down onto a great wooden table and removed of my bonnet so my slick raven hair pooled around me wiggling restless with my magic. The old man moved about me muttering to himself and tapping together the fingers of both hands. He said his name was Leo, and he had been in close attendance of a Sibyl once, maybe my mother? Maybe not? Ancient and shaking, I was sure he would burn off half my face with a few hasty droplets, but his bent fingers got steady at the last. Clean as a pinch, the acid fell into my staring eye and burned away my sight. In the rising echo of my scream, I had my first vision–hazy shadow shapes and the smell of my mother’s pastries cooking. I saw a thousand birds, black with feathers glinting emerald and royal blue, fly up into the face of the king. They plucked out his oiled whiskers till he was bald. Leaking blood from a hundred thousand rents in his skin, he fell forward and died.
“Ware the birds, my king.” It plopped out my mouth before I could bite it back.
Leo paused with the dropper over my still seeing eye. With a happy chuckle, he slid over to his book of notes to scribble lines of ink into the parchment. I stared at the ceiling with half my vision gone and half of it given unto something else.
“Here little pigeon. Here, here.” The fat queen held a pastry up to the golden bars. “Take it now, little bird. Take this treat.” I sighed and huddled back further into my cage against the cold bars, feeling hot tears leak their endless way from my unseeing eye. Soon the king would come, hammering at the bars with his jeweled staff. I would have to stand before the court, close my one seeing eye, and use my true mother’s gift. I’d feel the words spit out by my tongue before I could call them back.
He might ask, “How will I direct my armies to conquer the southern lands?” or “Where may I raise the taxes without causing the peasants to rebel?” He knew my gift was not so strong, since I was only half blinded, but at least sense fell out my mouth instead of riddles. On a good day, I could clearly answer his questions. Sometimes all I grabbed from the future was round about advice. “Somewhere to the west,” I might say. “Where two rivers come together.” The court would mumble and murmur and shout out guesses–as if the fate of people were a game.
Even hating him and the cage, I did not so much mind the magic that compelled me. But at night–when the fat Queen fell to sleep with crumbs on her jowls, when the guards in the halls snuck sips of wine at the end of each of their paces, when I sagged against the bars and wept missing Blackbird, my mother, and the other traveling people–I saw again, with my burned out eye, the blackbirds rising up like a cloud into the king’s startled face. I wondered what I would have to do to make it pass. I began to sleep with my blind eye open, hoping answers would come to me in dreaming.
I saw–flowers lay down at my feet. White petals, dusty centers, the smell of spring in my cage.
That morning I waited with my face pressed to the bars. I did not eat or drink. The Queen piled pastries over my toes and sulked when I refused to acknowledge her favor. I waited. I stared. I dropped out answers during court and did not change my stance. Then, finally, as I had seen, a guard slid a bundle of wildflowers between the bars. I unbent my limbs, slowly lifted the little treasure, breathed deep the pollen, and last of all–the most important part–I lifted my mismatched eyes. Gazes met. The future split and buzzed. I told him, “Tonight. The second hour. Come to me”.
A key on a chain. The sound of a lock turning and I was on my feet. When the dawn cracked the sky through the windows, he left me with my words held fast to his heart. “I will love you a year or two from now, and if you love me true this day, go to the travelers’ camp and whisper this to my mother, ‘Blackbird Pie’.”
“Little bird, I have a question for you.” The king reached up and tickled my ankle through the bars till the Queen frowned. “Some months hence I am having a great feast. I wish it to be the well remembered. What can I do to make this so?”
Closing my seeing eye, I smiled. Across the vast hall, my kind guard watched with pity–thinking all the world of me, the little bird in a gilded cage. “There is a traveling woman who makes the most amazing of pastries. Better than any in all the kingdoms. Your allies and enemies will taste of her work and be envious of your court.”
The Queen’s smile twitched from ear to ear and she sucked the honey from each finger with a louder pop than was usual.
The future was a shifting thing. I hid my seeing eye behind my hair for days and gazed ahead, unblinking, into possibilities. I gnawed my lips to scabs to keep from blurting out what I’d seen. Drew out the words on the floor of the cage–unreadable, unread.
I’d seen–my brother’s head in a basket, the king plucked bald by the birds, my mother a broken body on the stones, the king with a mouth full of feathers, a ring upon my finger, the kind guard lashed till he was split and seeping, and a baby in my arms.
I took great risks for my freedom, I knew. Gambled my hope with my greatest loves–my current and future family. Weighed a true life against that spent in a cage singing for a greedy king and his glutton queen. Was it worth it?
In the night I contemplated my nails and the fate of my still seeing eyes. Could love be power enough to have it out? Would total darkness set fire to my magic and show me the way? Would the madness lock up my tongue in riddles and then be no use at all? I stared with my blind eye and knew no certainties.
There was a victory in the war, a healthy boy born to the wife of the heir prince, and a sudden revenue of gold. My luck pulsed out to my prison keepers from my golden cage. I grew thin and frail behind the gleaming bars. I understood why my true mother had me put into another woman’s belly. Even kept in her fancy temple, she was a prisoner herself. Magic was a coveted thing. She had not wanted that same fate for me.
My hope for escape was the vision of blackbirds. One chance in many. I would wait and keep faith that my true born mother sent me to another for good purpose. My seeing eye was safe for now.
I came awake groggy, the hall already full of arriving guests. The smells of cooking curled out of the kitchen as nobles took their seats. A group of them stood below rattling their bejeweled hands against the bottom of the cage to rouse me. When I stood they pointed and marveled at the skinny girl, white as bone, with her blind eye staring out leaking tears. I hunched back into my hair to hide my face least they see my loathing of them.
I was brought a golden plate and a goblet of wine to enjoy the feast. I picked at it with my fingers, waiting, watching, barely seeing behind a fringe of hair and seeing nothing at all with the other side.
Then it was time–the last course. The sweets, the puddings, the cakes and pies, the chocolates and sugared plumes. The smells of vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, and lemon paste. Syrups, candies, creams, and frostings. And there, the largest pie I’d ever laid eyes on in a giant’s golden pan. The crust crinkled at the edges. The top, a cross-hatched golden brown. Wheeled forward on a cart overflowing with spring flowers, surrounded by tumblers, jugglers, fire eaters, jesters, belly dancers, little dogs jumping through hoops, and children rolling forward on hard rubber balls. My people. The people of the long road come so faithfully at but two little words. Words carried by a king’s betraying guardsman. A man who thought he loved me from across a room.
From the midst of these tattered folk, the flute trilled up and echoed off the ceiling. Blackbird, my dark brother dressed in ebon from head to toe, played like a madman. The pie came up to the king, and the travelers ringed around his high table in dancing circles. Swirled with linked hands around the king and his queen. Blackbird played hunched over and twisted around the flute like a sliver of shadow. A laughing child slipped the knife into the king’s hand. A little dog jumped up and leapt around the table to drop the pie server in his other hand.
The king stood to much cheering with his arms raised over his head and then bent to cut the first slice. The crust cracked. The air was filled with the sweet smell kneaded, stirred, and shaped with all my mother’s skill. Saliva filled the mouths of the people as the king lifted the first slice and laid it on his plate. Slowly he sat, arranging his fine robe around him. With finite care he smoothed a napkin over his lap, lifted fork and knife then paused. The tattered folk grew still watching, a few nobles stood to get a better view, and alone Blackbird played.
I was pressed hard against the bars with my seeing eye looking out. Waiting, waiting for that first bite. That moment when my vision would show itself true. The king raised his fork, slid the dripping purple pie and the golden crust into his mouth, chewed, closed his eyes in pleasure and swallowed.
Blackbird’s music grew crazed, wild, like the sound of a thousand birds taking flight from a tree into the sky. Twisting, battling aloof and spiraling down. Wheeling black shadows cutting the sun.
The king’s eyes grew wide. He clutched his stomach and screamed. Birds! Birds crashing through the crystal windows spewing feathers down. Birds erupting from the pie, black and swarming. Birds bursting out of the king’s belly. Feathers blowing out his mouth.
I could not see for all the feathers. Could not hear for all the screams. But I felt the cold keys, coiled on their chain, fall onto my lap. A little group of sparrows hopped along my thighs. Little claws pitter-pattered on the golden roof of the cage. I reached out an arm and worked the lock till it snapped. The golden door swung open and I dropped down into the waiting arms of the travelers.
They covered me in tattered fabrics, slid a bonnet around my head to shade my face and pulled me through the feathers towards my brother. My feet jumped up and twisted. We danced together, through a rain of black feathers, towards the sound of my brother’s enchanted song.
Around the fire that night, sitting in the grass along the road between my mother and my brother, my kind guard cast his eyes at me through the flames. I bowed my face to hide my blush and looking at my folded hands, I had a vision. I saw my true mother’s face with my unseeing eye. She was smiling.