The White Bird, By Eric Pazdziora


Nobody saw when the white bird first came to the cottage by the forest. The father heard it first as it sat by the chimney like a ray of sun and sang with words he couldn’t quite understand. “Ch-witt, ch-witt, ch-witt,” it called, mournful as a lost child.



The little boy—they called him Lucky—fell in love with it at once and sat watching it for hours, feeding it scraps of bread. Margaret, the eldest though not by much, was sensible and thought no more of it than of any other pigeon on the roof. The mother hated it and tried to kill it with stones, but she never hit it.


The family was poor. They never seemed to have enough food however hard the father worked. One night as the white bird nestled by the chimney, it heard the mother and father talking.

“What do you mean, stop them eating?” said the father. “Lord knows we’re short of food, but talk sense, woman.”

“Then we’ll all starve,” said the mother. “Always eating and eating like pigs, they are. You’re too soft on them and you’re making yourself weak.”


“I can’t help it if they’re hungry, can I? I’m doing all I can.”


“You’re killing them, that’s what you’re doing. Without food, they’re good as dead anyway. It would be better for everyone if we took them out in the woods and let them fend for themselves. I know a nice little place by a river—”


“Are you out of your mind, woman? They’re your children!”


“Do you want to watch your children starve? Do you want to watch the meat fade off their bones? Do you want to see their little eyes looking up at you and saying ‘Daddy, why—’”


“Stop! For God’s sake, stop!… All right. Do it. God forgive you. But don’t you ever talk to me again.”


The white bird closed its eyes and sang. “Ch-witt, ch-witt, ch-witt.”



The next morning, the mother led Margaret and Lucky into the forest to look for berries. Lucky looked back every few feet to throw a crumb from his piece of bread on the path for the white bird.


“Don’t waste that bread, you,” said the mother. “Or you’ll be hungry later.”


“Birdie’s hungry,” said Lucky. “And he’s so sad.”


“Birds can’t be sad, silly,” said Margaret. “They don’t have feelings.”


“Nor should children,” said their mother. “Now come along and I’ll give you a lovely surprise.”


They walked deep into the forest. As the children hunted for berries, their mother left them.



There is no word for the fear of a child lost, hungry, and alone in a dark forest. There are only tears, bitter tears, and the children clung to each other and wept and called for their mother and father. The forest was silent.


Then from a tree came the song of a bird. “Ch-witt, ch-witt, ch-witt!”


“It’s Birdie!” said Lucky. “He followed my crumbs.”


“Birdie?” said Margaret. “Do you know where our mother is?”


“Ch-witt,” sang the white bird. It hopped from one branch to another, fluttering its wings.


“That way?” said Lucky.


“Ch-witt!” called the bird again, fluttering even more frantically. The children ran down the path where it curved downhill into a sudden clearing.


There, to the children’s wonder, was a hut made of food, all the nicest bread they had ever had at home but that had been so scarce lately, all the sweets they had been promised but had never seen. Down the hill the children ran, even as the white bird cried, “Ch-witt-ch-witt-ch-witt-ch-witt-ch-wittch!”


No sooner had the children fallen upon the hut of food, tearing off handfuls and devouring, than the door creaked open and a high, wild voice sang as if from a great distance, yet strangely familiar.


“Someone’s eating at my house again,” it said. “If it’s that little mouse again, I’ll catch it and make it a big fur cap. If it’s that little bird again, I’ll wring its neck and make it a blackbird pie. And if it’s little children again, I’ll make them some lovely hot food, won’t I?”


“Please,” said Margaret, “we’ve lost our father and mother and we’re alone in the woods and it’s dark and we’re hungry and…”


Her voice trailed off as a face appeared in the door. Its unbrushed hair stuck out around its head like a thistle, its face was red and smudged with ash, and its puffy eyes were so dark they looked almost like empty holes.


“Children!” said the high, distant voice. “I thought you’d never come. Poor old Mother here all alone with no one to eat my food. Look at you, all skin and bones. Why don’t you come inside and Mother Machandel will fatten you up.”


For all her wild hair and frightful clothing, there was something familiar and homely about the strange woman. Margaret and Lucky went into the hut of bread and sweets, and Mother Machandel served them a hot meal of cakes and biscuits and a meat pie and ladyfingers. More full than they had ever been, Margaret and Lucky fell asleep at the table.



When Lucky awoke, he was in a cage, no bigger than a dog kennel. His screams woke Margaret, who ran to him, only to be pulled up short by a chain around her ankle.


“So sorry about that, love,” said Mother Machandel, watching from the table with a smile, “but we wouldn’t want you to be naughty and run away like you left your poor father, would we? No, no. They must be good little children now and their father will be so pleased to see them once I’ve fattened them up as they should be.”


“What are you going to do to us?” said Margaret.


“Well, you be good obedient little children,” said Mother Machandel, “and I’ll make you a rich black pudding and a savory, savory stew. And I’ll take you back to your father and he’ll never be hungry again, once he’s had his own good son and daughter to eat.”


Margaret turned away so the woman would not see her trembling. “You,” she said. “You witch.”


“Temper, temper!” scolded Mother Machandel. “You mustn’t call people such terrible names. It isn’t kind.”




The next while might have been days or weeks or a month. There was no way to count time. The bread hut had no light but a fire-pit in the floor. The old woman set Margaret to grinding flour with a millstone and plied them both with fine food. Lucky ate his fill, but Margaret touched as little as she could.


Every so often the woman took Lucky by the wrist—“I’ll have none of your tricks with skinny fingers,” she said—to see how fat he had become. Then she pleaded with him to be a good boy and eat, not like his cruel, ungrateful sister. Margaret said nothing and found she could not cry even if she wanted to.


After who knew how long, when Lucky was sleeping, Mother Machandel said, “Today is baking day! Such a lot of flour you’ve made. We’ll knead the dough and roll it out together, and then we can chop the meat for the stew. Won’t that be lovely?”


Margaret held the millstone close. “You’re a witch,” she said.


Mother Machandel’s voice had no emotion. “You know I don’t like it when you say that word.”


“Witch.”


“Such a wicked, rebellious girl. You should be ashamed.”


“Witch.”


“Put some wood on the fire, Margaret.”


“How did you know my name?” said Margaret. “I never told you my name.”


“Why wouldn’t I know your name? I’ve always known your name. Put some wood on the fire so we can make our Lucky stew.”


“Witch!” shouted Margaret.


The woman leapt forward to grab her. Margaret dodged and fell as the chain pulled her ankle. She lost her grip on the millstone and it flew through the air, crashing a hole into the gingerbread roof. Bright light poured in—for a moment Margaret thought it was the sun, then she heard the flutter of wings and the piercing call, “Ch-witt! Ch-witt! Ch-witt!”


The white bird snatched the millstone in midair and dropped it on Mother Machandel’s neck. The old woman staggered and choked. Margaret swung the chain, tripped her. Mother Machandel toppled into the fire-pit.


Margaret buried her face in her hands, but she could not drown the howls and screams as the witch, her neck trapped and broken under the millstone, burned alive.


Finally the screams died to a soft sobbing. Margaret peeked through her fingers. The witch was not quite dead, but, blinded by the light from the fire and from the white bird, Margaret could only hear her voice.


“Margaret?” said the witch. “Hans? I love you when—”


There was no more.


Then Margaret knew where she had heard the witch’s voice before. It was her mother.



Too dazed to feel, Margaret hugged her knees to herself and rested her head. Lucky whimpered softly in his cage, a trembling bundle in the corner. She'd have to get him out. It might take time, but she’d do it. But then—she’d have to tell him about—and then—


She felt the white bird alight on her shoulder. The bird chirped softly, and Margaret found with wonder that she could understand the words of its song.


“My mother, she killed me,


My father, he ate me,


My little sister Marilee


Buried me under the juniper tree.


Ch-witt, ch-witt!


What a beautiful bird I am now.”


“You too, Birdie?” said Margaret, her eyes filling with tears. “You too?”



“Ch-witt,” said the white bird.

--------------------------------------
 
Eric M. Pazdziora is a composer, a pianist, an editor, and an author for a wide variety of publications and venues. He lives in Chicago with his wife Carrie and their spoiled cat Eloise, where he works as a copy editor and a freelance musician. Information on Eric's writing and music can be found at http://www.ericpazdziora.com.

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