There was once a great lady who was beautiful beyond telling. She had sleek black hair, perfect skin, and almond-shaped amber eyes. Her lips were cherry blossoms. She was born into a very great family, and married into another. Both families were thrilled when the lady conceived.
The great lady, whose name was Milk, was very happy for her families. Everything about her had so far pleased them. She hoped her child would not disappoint.
When her time came near, she took to spending hours by the water well in her husband’s family’s private gardens. There she would sit, surrounded by her maid servants, staring into the well and wishing.
“I wish,” thought the lady, “I wish with all my heart that my child is special.”
As soon as the thought occurred she felt abashed. After all, was she not already so blessed? Was she not privileged? She looked into the depths of the mossy green well and saw the surface break up. Bubbles of air clustered on the surface. The water spirit must be laughing.
“I mean it,” she said fiercely, communing with the water spirit. “I really mean it. I want my daughter to be different. And by the way, I want a daughter.”
The bubbles clambered one above the next, creating a crystalline froth. The lady saw it as the head of froth that forms on finest quality whipped tea, the Milky Way, and she dedicated it to her daughter.
The birth was easy. It was almost too smooth. There was no screaming, no crying, no remonstrations or urgent pleading. Instead the great lady delivered with the slightest of sighs. No one at the birthside spoke, and no cry was heard from the child.
“What is it?” asked the lady, as her maid servants drew her up the squat position.
“It’s an egg,” said the doctor.
“An egg?” gasped the lady.
“My lady, you have given birth to an egg. It is soft blue-green, and appears to be fragile. I might need to assist its contents into the world.”
“You mean my baby?” said the lady.
“I mean whatever is inside that egg.” The doctor looked extremely apprehensive.
The lady was standing, supported by her maids. She looked down between her legs as the doctor lifted a medium-sized egg, using both his hands, and raised it to chest level. The doctor and the lady and the maid servants all looked at the egg. The doctor snuck a glance towards the silk curtains, hoping no reports had yet been conveyed to the families. All he had in his favour was that the birth had been so quick, no-one would yet be expecting an outcome.
The silk curtain was drawn aside abruptly as the father’s father intruded. Close behind him was the lady’s husband, followed by senior advisers, with the grandmothers and sisters and their ladies’ maids crushed towards the fragile egg.
“My baby is different,” faltered Milk. Then she gathered her courage. “My baby is special.”
As she spoke the words, the egg-shell began to crack. First the finest fault-lines, then the smooth carapace fell apart. The shards dropped to the floor, leaving the doctor enfolding in his hands the tiniest child the world has ever seen, a perfect female child, with wings instead of arms.
“My baby,” breathed its mother.
Her husband looked at her helplessly and turned to his father.
“My wife has given birth to a wonder.”
The father’s father was astonished. He stared at his son, then frowned, then laughed.
“It is indeed an age of miracles. My youngest heir is a song-bird.”
So that is what they named her: Song Bird.
Song Bird grew up enclosed in the father’s family home. She never saw beyond its walls, and the people beyond its walls never saw her. But word spread fast about this magic creature, this tiny female with translucent skin, amber-bead eyes, and soft feathered limbs.
She had the range of the gardens and her mother’s apartments. Her mother loved her. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to walk, as her toes were bent double, like small talons, but she fluttered her tiny wings and stroked the air for momentum. It was difficult for Song Bird to learn to speak. When she opened her mouth, high trills emerged. She loved to explore her vocal range, and the sounds were melodic, but what came out of her mouth did not resemble human speech. Her tiny pursed lips were not formed for that purpose.
Her father worried.
“Song Bird is special, in fact miraculous. But she’s different. You do agree, my dear, she is tremendously odd.”
Milk smiled sweetly. In her heart she thought “Yes! My baby is different.”
The father grew anxious.
“What is the difference between unique and odd? Between magic and monstrous? What will people think? What must they be thinking?”
Milk bent her head meekly. In her heart she thought, “My baby is the gift of the water spirits. She is air and water. She is wondrous beyond words.”
The father grew fearful, and lost patience.
“This cannot continue,” he told his wife. “The doctor advises there are strangers, magic people, who can help us with this problem.”
Milk thought, “What problem? Magic made my baby. Magic is her friend.”
So the families called in the magicians from abroad.
There were three magicians, a woman and two men. They approached the father’s father divan and bowed.
“What is it needs doing?” the woman asked, her voice low and resonant.
“I have a grandchild who is different,” the father’s father pronounced. The assembled courtiers stayed deeply prostrate. “She is different in ways that cannot continue. She has wings. She cannot walk but flutters. She cannot talk but sings. She is tinier than ever a girl should be. We need this fixed.”
“In what ways does the great lord wish his grand-child fixed?”
“We wanted her to be just like her mother,” the patriarch continued, and Milk blushed. “We want her perfect.”
The female magician took a long look at Milk. She stared at her so long the courtiers bent limbs ached.
“As you say, great lord,” the female magi replied. “We shall make it so.”
The father’s father clapped his hands. “Bring the child,” he commanded his senior adviser.
“It is not necessary,” the second magician spoke. “We see the child, and we know its nature.”
“When nightfall comes,” the third magi said, “The child will transform.”
Then the three turned to leave, turning their backs on the great lord, his families and retinues, and made their way out of the audience hall. No-one made to stop them.
The great lord turned to his senior adviser and his son.
“What just happened there?” he asked. But no-one could say.
As twilight drew near, Milk sat in her rooms with her maids and Song Bird. Her husband and his father’s senior adviser sat opposite. The doctor stood to one side.
Song Bird had been chirping all day, but now she fell silent. The tiny creature shivered. She shivered and shook. She seemed to shrink.
Her mother touched the child softly, then picked her up in the palm of her hand. She stroked the child’s wings and sang to her, under her breath. She enclosed Song Bird in her hands and bent in close over her, so that Milk’s fine shawl fell across the child, caressing her and shielding her.
As twilight became dusk, Milk sat there with Song Bird. The others in attendance were mute. Finally shades of purple gave way to darkest blue, and the moon could be seen through the window, rising.
“Night has come,” the child’s father said. “Where is my true child?”
Milk said nothing, but lifted the edge of her shawl. In her lap sat a golden eagle.
“What’s that?” the father squawked.
“It’s a raptor!” exclaimed the doctor, then wished he’d held his tongue.
“A raptor?” said the father.
“A hunting bird. A bird of prey.” The senior adviser was on his feet. Within moments the father’s father would be told.
“She’s an eagle,” said Milk, mildly. “She was born to fly.”
And at that, the great bird winked an amber eye at its mother, and took off, spreading powerful wings. It flew straight out the window, towards the moon. It could not sing – it never sang again – but it flew straight as an arrow, up and up and up, through the night-sky to the heavens. As it flew the moon shuddered, like a pearl pendant on a woman’s breast. As the great bird flew, the Milky Way shattered, scattering diamonds across the cosmos. This is why the foam on the highest class of white tea is known as the Milky Way or Star Flight.
On and on the great bird flew. It flew on endlessly powerful wings, into darkness, and beyond.
They had silenced a fragile song-bird. But what had they let loose?