She heard the flapping of pages soaring through the air one morning as she stepped outside of the weather station. High on a clifftop, above the marine layer of fog that blanketed her peak, she could watch the bookbirds’ ascent. They popped through the clouds, and, flapping vigorously to shake off the dew from their wildly bound spines, they flocked to her garden where they rested on the branches of the pine trees that lined her vegetable beds. Spring had come at last. It was the first sign: the bookbirds coming to roost.
They fed on the bark of the trees, stripping them bald. But the trees didn’t mind, every year the bark would grow back. The bookbirds snapped up them the scraps from her typewriter, which she tossed them every morning. She would fill the birdbaths with ink and watch from the window as they sipped. When she wasn’t busy monitoring the clouds and sending telegraphs to the people down below, she would entice a bookbird with a dangled offering of watercolors. The creature licked it like an ice cream cone, as color spread through its pages in ripples. Then it would sit on her lap, fluttering contentedly as she stroked its spine. It would fall open and purr its words to her. The bookbirds’ secrets vibrated through her, songs she could feel in her bones.
She didn’t know where the bookbirds went at the end of the summer. They dived back down into the clouds and out of sight. When she had lived in the valley, she had never seen such creatures. All the books she had known were tamed, frozen, imprisoned in bookshops or libraries, neatly pressed into shelves, held in place with bookends. She always knew they were alive, even then, because when she ruffled their pages like feathers, she could hear them sigh. When she drew her fingers across their words, they thrummed beneath her fingertips. She didn’t tell anyone about the bookbirds’ visits. It wasn’t any of their business.
They didn’t ever say much to her about the state of things below, except for to confirm that the weather reports she sent were correct. She wondered if the information she passed onto them was even shared with the people who needed it, those who lived in the path of the storms, those whose lakes were drying up and turning into deserts. She doubted it. She had tried to warn the people herself, when she was younger and still believed that people’s minds could be receptive to science and facts. But they had silenced her, jailed her, and threatened her, until finally she agreed to carry out her duties in exile, on this lonely mountaintop. After fighting so hard for others and receiving nothing but scorn in return, she was happy enough to live a solitary existence, or so she thought. It was harder to forget the sounds of other humans, the memory of their touch, than she wished. When the bookbirds came, they fed her desire for companionship that she kept buried beneath her ruminations.
Each spring, fewer and fewer bookbirds arrived, until one spring, none came at all. She waited by her window every day, listening for the sounds of the flock puncturing through the clouds and landing in her garden with a satisfying thwack, but all was silent. She had lived up there on the mountain for many years, but she had never felt as alone as she did that summer, without the company of the whispered words breathed to life by the bookbirds. She watched as the summer thunderstorms descended onto the world below. Although she sent words of warning to whoever was listening for her messages, she heard nothing back from them. Even on the rare clear days when she could see the valley beyond, she couldn’t make out much. As she grew older, her eyesight weakened, and she had to rely on her instruments— her weathervanes, barometers, and an assortment of tools— to interpret the movements of the wind and the rain.
But one morning, she was sure that she saw smoke curling up from below. Though it came from miles away, she could smell it. It wasn’t just one trail of smoke— there were a dozen popping up like weeds all over the landscape. And despite her myopia, she could make out the glow of fires, red incandescent spots, like burst pimples on the face of the Earth. She shuddered to think of what could be happening below. She wished she had the courage to go and see for herself. If she were younger, she thought, or maybe stronger… but she knew she was a coward, who preferred the safety of her little garden to the world of conflict below. She dreaded the thought that one day, someone might remember she was up there and drag her back down into the valley. I’d rather be left alone, she would think. And then she would remember the bookbirds and her defiant solitude would twist into loneliness in her heart.
When winter came, the worst of the fires had all but gone out. The smoke lingered in the air for weeks, floating its way up to where she lived. She was forced to stay in her house, keeping the windows shut. She could hear the trees choking in her dreams, and when she woke, she felt the wind battering her window, like a bat was beating down her door. She peered out, and through the smoky haze she saw a bookbird splayed against her window, flapping persistently against it, as if it were begging her to let it in. She opened the window a crack, wide enough for the being to slip spine first into the room, and then she shut it quickly, before too much ash could infiltrate.
The bookbird spasmed on the floor, shaking back and forth like it was having a seizure, and for a moment, she watched it, entranced. Then as it flung itself pages down onto the floor, rumpling itself, and leaving a coating of dust, she gasped. Its bindings were charred on one side, and it looked like many of its pages had been ripped out violently. She sprang into action, grabbing a bottle of ink and a pile of scrap paper and began to nurse the poor creature.
It was weak; it had clearly spent most of its energy fleeing whatever was chasing it. But after a few weeks, she had nurtured the bookbird nearly back to health. The smoke finally dissipated, and frost coated her garden like glittery icing on a cake. The bookbird could fly again, but it was afraid. As it landed on the ground, it slipped on the ice and wetness stained its freshly repaired cover. She took the bird back inside, warming it up by the fire, and gave it a fresh coat of protection, a book jacket sewn with fur that had lined her old boots.
Every day, she coaxed the bookbird to sit with her. She stroked it like she had the others and felt for the creature more than just fleeting affection; she loved it, like one would love a child. The bookbird did not fear her, but it feared spilling its secrets. When she massaged its pages, they were blank. It remained mute, despite her coaxing.
“What did they do to you, little one?” she croaked, her voice raspy from disuse.
Then she remembered the old tin of watercolors that she had. Every week or so, she would receive a new delivery from the dumbwaiter on a wire line that was strung up on poles, connecting her back to the valley below. Most of the time, the supplies she received were provisions, worn clothing, or other practicalities, like a sewing kit, but sometimes her well-wishers, followers from her days as a revolutionary, would slip an extravagance into the packages. They were the extra treat, her bonus. She brought out the watercolors and left the bookbird alone with them, to see how it reacted. When she came back from checking the weather monitors, the bookbird was rolling back and forth on the ground, bloated with color. She hastily stashed the watercolors away, worried that the bookbird had gorged itself sick. It vomited little slips of color all over her floor. Finally, after belching again once or twice, it slammed shut. She let the bookbird take its nap, and when it awoke again, she approached it tentatively. It didn’t growl at her, so she gently opened it.
Oh, the images! The colors! It was like something she remembered from her childhood, a picture book. That was it. It told her everything, and as she read, a word started showing up here and there. Just one sentence at a time, and then whole paragraphs, and finally the illustrations were confined to the corners of every chapter’s first page. The bookbird explained to her everything that was happening below, how the humans had grown angry at one another, and then at the bookbirds. They didn’t like that the bookbirds told them the truth that other humans who they hated were good at heart, so they had burned them, every single one. But this one had escaped— it had toppled off the pile, somehow, and when the humans had gone to sleep, it had flown away, up and up to the places that the others whispered about, the place the bookbird thought was a made-up dream, a heaven of sorts.
“I’m sorry,” the old woman said, as she cradled the precious creature in her arms. “I should have kept you all here. Or warned you about the cruelty of humans. I could have stopped this.”
The bookbird didn’t answer. It had grown mute again. It was waiting for her to respond, to do something, anything, with the news it had just delivered. But what could she do? She remembered how every spring, the bookbirds would mate, and when they departed in the fall, their flock would grow. But how could that happen now, when only one had survived its yearly migration?
She pulled out a rusty typewriter that she had used solely for writing notes to send via telegraph. The keys often stuck, the ink smeared, the paper sat on its bed at odd angles. But her work was cut out for her. The bookbird needed a friend. Not a mate— she would not create something alive and then force it to do her will. She sat poised at the keys, waiting for the stormclouds in her mind to clear, for the lightning bolt of inspiration to strike. This creature already lived in her mind. It had for a long time now, and she had never acknowledged it, never let it loose on the world. Maybe she wasn’t brave enough to go down there yet, but she could send a part of herself to nurse the sick world back to health, in her own way. Maybe if she could save the bookbirds, she could send her secrets on their wings to the people below.
They would read her confessions, know she was a coward, but, she hoped, they would find it in their hearts to forgive her, and to heed her warnings. She did love her own kind once, she remembered now, as her keys massaged the pages with tenderness. The bookbird perched on her shoulder and watched every movement of her fingers. It watched as she conjured to life the feeling of hope in her chest with nothing but paper and ink.
Molly Montgomery is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches high school English. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her work has been featured in several literary magazines, including Entropy, X-R-A-Y, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. When she's not writing or reading, she spends her free time entertaining her calico cat, Lady Sybil, who has an insatiable appetite for attention.