Bluesky awoke alone and freezing.
Every fiber of his body ached with excruciating pain, as if a suffocating cloak was wrapped around his very soul. It sucked away his breath and pressed against his heart so hard it threatened to stop it.
He desperately needed relief.
He contemplated dying; perhaps then he would know relief. However, he quickly realized he was too tired even for that. Bluesky was drained in every way -- emotionally, physically, and mentally. He sat on the frozen branch, completely sapped of his lifeís energy.
He had not eaten in over twenty-four hours, and anything the intense stress and sadness had not drained out of his body, the night-long battle to stay warm had taken.
The one-legged Mockingbird slowly leaned forward and looked down at the ground far below. The grass looked so soft from up here.
He leaned further.
Without warning, the small bird fell off the branch.
He opened his wings, but his muscles screamed with pain. He couldnít fly; he couldnít even glide.
He fell to the ground with a thud, his feeble wings outspread on the brown grass. The frozen ground instantly began to suck the last bit of warmth from his body.
He realized if he simply lay there he would die.
He didnít have to do anything else.
Of course, if the cold didnít kill him, the two cats that lived at this house would probably finish him off. He changed his mind again when he recalled that a more dangerous yellow tabby also hunted here because seed was abundant and attracted large numbers of birds. Bluesky decided it would be the yellow cat who would take his life, the cat with the burning green eyes.
He didnít care.
All he knew was that he needed relief from this overwhelming pain. And if death were the only way to get relief, he welcomed it.
He would just stay there and die.
No one would care anyway.
The one-legged Mockingbird closed his eyes for the last time.
In the next moment, a sudden burst of noise distracted him.
Bluesky turned his head toward the excited chirps and whistles.
A small group of Sparrows and Doves hopped on the ground eating seed a short distance away. Their entire attention was focused on feeding in order to keep warm.
He laid his head back on the grass and closed his eyes, hoping against hope his end would be swift and painless. A soft sigh of resignation escaped into the chilly morning air.
The morning sky was laden with low, gray clouds. Suddenly, strong winds parted a group of the thick clouds, and shafts of golden sunlight streaked through from the burning orb of the sun.
One of the shafts of light glowed brighter than the others. While that particular ray of light shot to the earth below, its brilliance increased tenfold -- like a shining beacon of hope. Down, down the beam of shimmering sunlight came, like a mighty arrow shot from a heavenly bow.
The brilliant beam of light reached the earth and now surrounded the unmoving Mockingbird in a tight circle like a spotlight. The world outside the bright spotlight remained cold and unforgiving. The area within glowed with a comforting warmth.
And then something else happened...
At first, Bluesky noticed nothing while he continued to lie there with his eyes tightly shut. Because of his total exhaustion, he fell into a deep stupor somewhere between wakefulness and slumber, that mystical place where dreams and reality mix and combine into one until the dreamer is unsure if he is dreaming or really awake.
Bluesky dreamed, but this time his dreams were pleasant ... even happy, filled with noise -- so much noise ...
A great number of birds flocked all around him.
An instant later, even more birds arrived ...
A myriad of birds filled the air all around him, and ... and they sang to him! They sang of joy and happiness.
Even more shocking, they sang of their friendship -- to him, Bluesky!
Somehow, he knew he was no longer alone.
In fact, he realized that all of these birds were his friends. Yes, Bluesky the one-legged bird, had hundreds of friends now!
Oh, how he yearned for friendship.
He wanted a friend; he needed a friend -- even a single friend would be great. But these birds were innumerable! There were hundreds ... and then there were thousands ... and then tens of thousands, and now hundreds of thousands! More and more kept singing out to him ...
A sudden realization of the sheer numbers sent a shock throughout his being.
Every bird in the world was his friend ...
A new feeling grew inside him, a feeling of intense delight, a feeling of such exquisite happiness and of such unimaginable joy that he felt alive as if for the very first time. This wonderful glow inside his heart grew and grew until it filled him completely. This burning feeling nourished him; it gave him strength. It gave him a new life.
It gave him warmth ...
Yes, he felt so wonderfully warm ...
Bluesky groaned, and his eyes fluttered open.
He looked around quickly, at first not realizing where he was. He grimaced when he realized the sad truth -- he had only been dreaming. Suddenly, he felt the wonderful sensation of the dream fading away.
"No!" Bluesky protested. "Please, let me go back into my dream. Please! Please! Please!"
The cloak of sadness flooded back into his mind and heart, and he cried out at the terrible, excruciating pain.
And yet, something was still there deep inside. He felt the smallest surge of energy rejuvenate his soul. In a flash of recognition, he realized he felt better -- it was the warmth giving him strength.
Lying there within the beam of sunlight, he felt the burning glow caress him deeper and deeper.
Next, he felt hungry.
A movement caught his eye.
A juicy bug crawled within the circle of light, drawn to the warmth that now healed the birdís body. Bluesky eyed it carefully while it crawled closer and closer, almost as if it wanted to be eaten!
With a swift lunge of his curved beak, Bluesky took the morsel and chewed it with unimaginable joy. After he swallowed it, he actually felt his body absorb the vital nourishment. He was amazed at how much his pain lessened simply from eating a single bug.
Now fully awake, he looked around again.
The shaft of light quickly thawed the ground of winterís icy grip. Even more quickly, the feathers that covered Bluesky absorbed the heat; it quickly penetrated to his skin and even seemed to make him glow inside. It felt so good to feel the sunís warmth after the long night of freezing cold. It was like ... it was like hatching out of the egg again, being freed at last from the confinement of the shell and emerging to find a new world.
Suddenly, more bugs crawled straight toward him.
Bluesky shook his head in dumbfounded amazement. His motion alone should have scared them away. He didnít realize that they too were drained from the cold of the night, and the only thing they could focus upon was the light and its promise of removing the icy chill -- that was how close to death even these insects were now.
Again and again Bluesky lunged and ate. It was almost as if dinner were coming to him. It was so easy.
A funny thought struck Bluesky. Lying on the ground, still weak but feeling better by the moment, it seemed like he was back in the nest and his parents were feeding him.
But there were no parents that he could see, just these bugs willingly coming to him so he could eat.
A personal favorite of Bluesky crawled slowly toward the edge of light. This one, however, crawled with more authority than the others, and when Bluesky cocked his head to one side for a better look, this bug did react and turneH
With wings spread, Bluesky chased after him with a burst of energy. His curved beak stabbed the juicy bug on his first attack.
He chewed the bug slowly, appreciatively, enjoying the flavors that sent more surges of energy throughout his being.
Bluesky now began to hunt in earnest. It seemed the bugs were literally coming up out of the ground in every direction. In just a few minutes, heíd eaten enough for two meals!
While he stood and carefully wiped each side of his beak on a fallen branch, he looked over at the Sparrows and Doves still pecking at the fallen seed. The Sparrows moved with quick, jerky motions of their bodies, as if they were in a constant state of high energy. The Doves moved more slowly, more deliberately. When they walked, their heads bobbed forward and backward in rhythm with their steps.
Bluesky chuckled at the sight. Heíd never seen a bird that walked so funny.
The patch of light he stood within now widened until it encompassed the entire yard and every bird. One of the Doves stopped eating and glanced over at him.
With a surreal whistling sound, the Dove took wing and flew straight toward him. The gray-brown bird landed right beside him and looked him over carefully with soft bobbing motions of her head.
Finally, she spoke. "Are you all right, little Mockingbird?"
Bluesky looked at her with puzzled surprise.
"I donít understand?" Bluesky asked.
The female Dove walked all around Bluesky, her head bobbing back and forth with every step. She carefully checked him over with obvious concern.
"You seem to be fine, but are you in pain?" she asked with feeling.
"Why?" Bluesky paused, still in a quandary. "Why do you ask?"
"My flock and I saw you fall from the tree earlier. We thought at first you had succumbed to the cold of last night. You fell pretty hard and didnít move for a long time." She looked deep into Blueskyís eyes. "Many birds have stopped flying the last two nights. Itís been a real struggle for all of us to stay alive against this bitter cold."
Bluesky still couldnít grasp why this bird was interested in his health. He looked from her back to the four other Doves still pecking at the seeds scattered on the ground. Finally, he turned back at her.
He could tell from her eyes and from her demeanor that she was an older bird. She carried herself with the experience of many seasons.
"You seem to be better now. I just wanted to warn you that a yellow cat hunts here, and you need to be careful. Donít stay in one spot for too long, or heíll eat you."
"I want to die."
The Dove bobbed her head up and down a few times in total surprise.
"Why? Youíre such a young bird, and you have your entire life before you. Youíre a Mockingbird. Youíve got lots and lots of happy songs ahead of you."
"My father has left me. He took my brother and sister. Now, my mother has left me."
"A mother never leaves her baby."
"My mother left me."
"I donít believe it." The female Doveís expression now changed to puzzlement. "What is your name?"
"Well, your parents gave you a name of great honor. That alone shows their love for you."
"They left me. They were ashamed of me."
"Pshaw! Why would they be ashamed of a good-looking young bird like yourself!"
Blueskyís surprise deepened further at the Doveís words. It seemed she spoke them with complete honesty in spite of his deformed condition.
"Havenít you noticed? I -- I only have one leg."
The old Dove glanced down at his leg. "Well, I hadnít really noticed until you mentioned it. You know, we all have our little imperfections. As Iíve gotten older, some of my feathers no longer fit together like they used to. See, these on my right wing stick out and look pretty ugly." She turned and displayed her wing, where indeed several feathers stuck out with ragged edges, no longer smooth like the others.
She chuckled merrily a moment. "You mightíve guessed by now, my eyes arenít that good either. I donít see too well -- probably why I didnít notice your leg." She leaned closer and whispered to Bluesky, "Thatís why I need younger birds in my flock. Theyíre my eyes now."
Bluesky was shocked that this bird had shared such personal information with him. No other bird had ever done that. Even more surprising, she shared her own imperfections and even laughed about them.
"What is your name?" Bluesky asked in a soft whisper.
"My parents called me Fallingleaves. My dad always did love that time of year. Not me though -- it always reminds me that the warmth of summer is over and the cold of winter is on the way." She shook her entire body for emphasis and fluffed out her feathers.
"I like your name." Bluesky smiled shyly.
Fallingleaves laughed with a twinkle in her black eyes. "Thatís a nice thing to say, young bird. A nice bird like you must have lots of friends. Iíll remind you again, your mother didnít leave you. Where was the last place you saw her?"
Bluesky briefly related how he and his mother lived after Treetop left with Songjoy and Cloudshadow. He poured out his heart, fears, and emotions at being ostracized by all the other Mockingbirds -- the pain and hurt it caused him. He especially emphasized the pain he felt at seeing his mother so sad and knowing he was the reason. He spoke of how sheíd urged Bluesky to eat and prepare for the cold, but how he saw his mother pining away and not eating and seeming to grow sadder each day.
Finally, he told Fallingleaves of his motherís promise to never leave him. He spoke about the final night they spent together just two nights ago.
"Iím afraid I have some bad news for you, Bluesky." Fallingleavesí expression softened.
"What could be worse than being abandoned by your family? And being ostracized by all of my kind? And being totally alone?"
"Your mother didnít leave you, not really. I can tell that she loved you with all her heart. Iím afraid your mother most likely has ... stopped flying."
The thought that his mother had died that night had never occurred to Bluesky. On waking up that morning and finding her gone, heíd just assumed she had left in the night like his dad. But he did recall how she seemed so weak that night ... and she was having trouble staying warm ... and she hadnít eaten like she should have ...
Bluesky raised his head and cried out, stricken with grief once again. His single, forlorn note pierced the air just like it had all the previous night. A single note filled with melancholy and sadness echoed through air. Slowly, that single, sad note faded away on the wind.
"Was that you crying out all night?" Fallingleaves asked in surprise.
"Yes. I couldnít sleep. I-I hurt so bad. I kept waking up afraid and sad and so alone." Bluesky looked down at the ground. "The sadness hurt so bad, it made my whole body hurt. I felt so helpless ..."
"If you cry out like that again tonight when the night is warmer, something will come and take you. A possum or a cat -- theyíll hear you and come for you in the dark."
"My heart hurts so bad ..."
"Itís okay to grieve," she whispered comfortingly.
"It hurts so bad, I donít know why my heart keeps beating ..."
Blueskyís tears streamed down his feathered cheeks, and the sadness and the loneliness overwhelmed him again.
Fallingleaves watched silently a moment. Her aged eyes studied the Mockingbird while he trembled and stood on his single leg as if in the midst of the most terrible of storms. Perhaps it was true, but this storm raged inside his heart and soul. She stepped beside the sobbing Mockingbird and gently caressed his neck with her short beak.
In Blueskyís mind, it felt like Sunshine had just comforted him. He jerked his head up in surprise, but when he saw the Dove, his heart sank with bitter disappointment.
Fallingleaves saw his expression of hope change back to despair.
"I want you to call me by something else -- by the nickname my flock calls me."
"T-t-they donít use your name?" Bluesky sobbed.
"They call me, Olí Gray Mama." The Dove opened her beak and smiled at Blueskyís obvious surprise. "Iím the matriarch. Yes, itís only a little flock. At times some of the birds fly off and join bigger flocks. And sometimes they come back. Some are my relatives, and the others are just my friends."
"Why-why do you want me to call you that?"
"Because youíre going to join my flock, Bluesky. Itís not good for a bird to be alone. Besides, you can help me keep warm tonight. I want you to roost right next to me. I need help staying warm too!" She laughed merrily.
"I thought that only íbirds of a feather, flock togetherí?" Bluesky asked.
"Pshaw! We can flock with whoever we want. Weíre all birds, arenít we?"
Bluesky nodded in puzzled silence.
"Good, itís settled," Olí Gray Mama said.
"But I donít know anything about Doves." Blueskyís eyes widened with surprise.
"Ah, weíre just a bunch of old birds. We fly kind of slow. We eat kind of slow. Shoot, we do everything kind of slow. Címon, letís fly over there, and you can meet the others." Olí Gray Mama took wing with a whistling sound and flew over to where the four others pecked at the ground in search of seed.
Bluesky took wing, amazed at how much better he felt. The healing warmth of the sunshine and the nourishing meal had rejuvenated him. He flew with strong strokes of his wings and followed Olí Gray Mama to her little flock. He landed a bit behind her, still feeling a bit awkward in the company of these new birds.
"Well, I declare, Olí Gray Mama, what have we there?" The Dove that spoke was also an aged female. She looked questioningly at Bluesky.
Bluesky quickly noted that all five Doves had gray-brown feathers all over their bodies, though when the sun hit their feathers at a certain angle they seemed to shimmer with color. Mostly, they were simply plain birds -- just as he had heard.
"This is a young Mockingbird named Bluesky. He lost his mother to the cold and is all alone. So, I invited him to join us."
The four Doves gazed at Bluesky a moment in obvious surprise.
"He ainít no Dove! Weíre a flock of Doves!" the lone old male protested.
The other Doves, all females, nodded in agreement.
"You remember how cold it was the last two nights?" Olí Gray Mama asked with a twinkle in her eyes.
The Doves all nodded slowly.
"The more birds we have perched together nice and comfy on a branch, the easier for all of us to stay warm!" Olí Gray Mama laughed out loud.
They all nodded agreement enthusiastically.
"Tarnation -- I hadnít thought of that. I hope he donít mind flocking with a bunch of dried-up old birds like us. Remember this, young fella, we ainít no fancy singers like your kind either." The old male chuckled with a mischievous glint in his black eyes.
"Now, Pops. Donít be makiní no trouble for this Mockingbird. Lots of Mockingbirds donít think theyíre all high and mighty like some of them do."
"Donít mind Pops," Olí Gray Mama whispered. "We call him Pops, but his name is Redsky. Heís Firstflowersí hubby, her mate." She nodded at the two Doves who had just spoken.
"My name is Foggymorning."
This female Dove seemed a bit younger than the first three. She cooíed soothingly. However, Bluesky remained silent and unsure. He didnít know what to say, really. Heíd never met so many new birds all at once.
"Foggymorning is my daughter from three seasons past," Olí Gray Mama clucked proudly. "Sheís a widow like me now. She likes the company of all of us old birds."
"Hello, Bluesky. My name is Treeshadow."
"Thatís my niece."
Bluesky nodded silently at each in turn.
"He donít say much for such a hoity-toity Mockingbird, does he?" Pops laughed.
"Be nice, Pops. Heís a sad little bird," Treeshadow said.
"That was him singiní so sad all night long," Olí Gray Mama added.
All five Doves cooíed softly over and over again. The soft, forlorn sound filled Bluesky with a strange, comforting feeling -- not quite sad, but not quite happy either.
"Why I declare, that was the saddest sound I ever heard in my entire life," Foggymorning cooíed.
"Heíll fit right in with us." Pops laughed.
"Yeah, you know what they say about us Doves." Olí Gray Mama opened her beak and smiled at the others.
"What do they say?" Bluesky peered at her curiously.
"If it wasnít for sad songs, weíd have no songs to sing!"
"Yep, we love them sad songs." Pops uttered a series of melancholy cooing calls for emphasis.
"I guess I might fit right in with you guys," Bluesky said.
The old doves all smiled at him.
For the first time in two days, Bluesky smiled.