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Home or Forest? (2nd Prize Winner - Group I)

March, 2011
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Nessie could never decide how it had all started. She was never satisfied with anything I offered as an idea, but she herself could not explain. Perhaps it started this way, perhaps it didn’t. As you will find, it was rather hard to decide.

“Hello? A voice squawked. The blue jay butted her beak against the wire cage.

“Who are you?” Young Nessie replied. She tried not to sound superior, but she couldn’t. After all, she lived in a Low Flier’s house. 

“No need to sound so posh. But if you really need to know, my name is Fanny.”

Fanny poked her little head through the bars. Nessie wrinkled her beak at the streaks of mud in her feathers, and the thinness of her body. Typical forest bird. Her own body was plump and pampered, her canary feathers clean and shining.

“What are you here for?” Nessie asked. She didn’t mean to sound mean, but it came out sounding that way.

“I could leave, if you want.” Fanny said, recoiling, slightly hurt.

“No, no. Don’t.”

“Alright then. I wanted to see how you pampered ones live. All the birds in the forest are curious, and the council picked me to come investigate. How do you live? Do the Low Fliers feed you?” Fanny asked, words firing from her mouth rapidly like mini bullets. They, like bullets, hurt. Feeding sounded so vile, coming from Fanny.

“It isn’t that bad. Of course we’re fed. What do you think? We live just fine, too. No need for your council to get their tail feathers in a twist over us. We can take care of ourselves just fine, thank you very much.”

Now there was hurt on both sides. But the ever talkative Fanny decided she wouldn’t let this vain canary keep her from fulfilling her duties. It wasn’t every day that the council appointed a baby bird to complete a task, especially a blue jay.

Little Nessie sensed this and, being a kind bird at heart, asked politely, “Can you fly?”

This was something that Nessie had been curious about for some time. Her mother’s wings had been clipped, so her mother wouldn’t teach her. Nessie felt, somewhere deep inside herself, that she already knew how to fly. She was just afraid that if she did, Sheila, her Low Flier owner, would clip her wings too.

 

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“Of course.” Fanny said. “ How could you be a bird if you couldn’t? Besides turkeys and chickens, I mean.”

“Well,” Nessie said, feeling uneasy because she couldn’t do something that Fanny could, “I was never taught. My mama can’t fly, her wings were clipped. She says it’s something fun and free, and I think I can fly. I just can’t, around here I mean. I haven’t ever flown.”

Fanny was astounded. “Well, I could teach you how to fly. I can slide that silver thingy over there, and you could come out. We could fly out that square hole in the wall , and I could show you how to fly.”

“No, no. I can’t.” whispered Nessie, startled. “I’m not allowed to go Out There. There’s danger and all, and I can’t.”

“Of course you can.” Fanny said. “I’d bring you right back. Don’t you trust me?”

Nessie shook her head. “ I can’t, and I don’t want to.”

“Suit yourself.” Fanny muttered, preparing to leave again.

“Please don’t go! Could you tell me about that place, that…that place Out There?

Fanny smiled amiably, and began to relate the things that had happened Out There. Nessie was interested in what Fanny said, even the littlest things, and in the hollow where Fanny lived, no one paid attention to the little chatty bird. So Fanny was happy to spill out everything she knew.

They spent most of the afternoon like that, talking(mostly done on Fanny’s part), and thinking(Nessie did much of that).

When Fanny finally bid Nessie good-bye, it was already late afternoon. Fanny promised to be back the next day.

Nessie, feeling quite excited, hopped to the bottom level of her cage to talk to her mama. Her mama was allowed to sit on the hollow wooden box that had openings ,because she couldn’t fly, anyway.

“Mama!” Nessie called. “ You wouldn’t believe what I just learned!”

“Well, what did you just learn?” replied her mother Marie.

Nessie passed on the little bits of gossip that Fanny had told her, all about Out There.

 

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Marie was troubled. Sheila had rescued Marie and her mate, Bryan, after she had flown into a sheet of glass on the wall and almost broken her neck. Sheila had nursed her back to health, and all Marie had to pay was her freedom, and her flight. That was a small price to pay if the only other option was certain death. When Marie realized she was ready to lay eggs, she had told herself that she would let her chick decide if she wanted to stay with her, or go Out There. Bryan had told her, before he died, that the choice must be Nessie’s, and that Marie was not to interfere. Easier said than done, of course.

“Do you want to go Out There?” Marie asked, trying to keep the reluctance from her voice.

“Of course not, Mama.” Nessie said, smiling. “Who put that silly idea into your head?”

Marie couldn’t help but be a little relieved.

.          .         .

Nessie had finished her meal of sunflower seeds, and was snoring gently on her little wooden swing. Marie was still awake, at her usual place next to the potted fern. Ricky the mouse, Nessie’s best friend, napped in the corner, on a cushion. Gerald, the orange tabby, was washing his face after his meal of tuna. All seemed peaceful.

But things weren’t going to stay like that. After Gerald had washed his face, he looked around, making sure everyone was asleep. Marie was worried, and moved into the shadows, behind the potted fern.

When Gerald was satisfied, he slunk towards the vulnerable Ricky. Marie folded her wings over her beak to keep from screaming. Maybe Gerald was just going to give him a bath?

Ricky never had a chance. He was a goner from the start.

.          .         .

“I knew I should have drowned you when you were born!” Sheila cried, her slender wing feather ( what Low Fliers called ‘fingers’) pointed at the startled Nessie. “Why did you kill him?” she whispered. “Why? Why? Was it because you knew he was my favorite? Oh, why did you do this to me?” Sheila broke down sobbing, huge tears rolling down her cheeks. Why was life so unfair?

Gerald meowed anxiously, rubbing his back against Sheila’s legs. “There, there, Gerry. It’s alright. I’m going to clip Nessie’s wings. She won’t ever hurt you, do you hear that? Never.

 

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What a two-faced liar! Marie thought angrily. The nasty thing. He never got any punishment. And Sheila thought it was be her little Nessie! She puffed indignantly.

Sheila stormed out of the room, Gerald trotting happily at her heels.

Nessie hopped down to talk to her mother. “Mama, what happened to Ricky? Where did he go?”

Marie jerked her chin towards Gerald, and Nessie’s beak scrunched up. A single tear matted her feathers. Ricky had been her best friend, too.

Nessie returned to her swing. She felt she needed to re-organize her thoughts.

Her feathers were going to be clipped. She shuffled them nervously, afraid for herself. There were many disadvantages to a bird when their wings were clipped. Say, for example, she slipped and fell of the edge of her perch. She would tumble down to the ground, and perhaps break her neck. Low Fliers don’t need to worry about that. She thought bitterly. They’re too big to fall.

The morning was a dreary one for Nessie. She felt sad when Sheila neglected to open her cage door and let her have ‘ Free Time’ where she could try and fly, or hop around the wooden boards with legs the Low Fliers called ‘tables’.

It seemed to be ages before noon came around, and Fanny’s familiar tapping echoed on the cage door.

“Hello? Anyone in there?”

“I’m here!” Nessie called, hopping as gracefully as she could towards the wire windows.

Fanny beamed, her beak stretched comically. Then she saw Nessie’s worn, sad face and asked, “Why, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing much. Sheila thinks I’m to blame just because her nasty cat Gerald ate my best friend Ricky. It’s not fair!” Nessie whined.

Fanny tried hard to look sympathetic, she really did. But there never was such a cheerful blue jay as she, and she couldn’t pull it off.

“Oh.” She said indifferently. But she brightened. “Want to hear what I’ve got to tell you?”

 

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Nessie’s curious eyes were enough invitation for her, and she quickly began to chatter, rattling on and on for long periods of time. Occasionally, Nessie would squeeze in a question that Fanny didn’t understand, though she did her best to cover it up, and often gave a little sniff and say, “Where’s the sense of asking that?” Where Nessie would shut her beak abruptly and be quiet again, until another overwhelming question came to mind.

When Fanny was finishing off, Nessie said, “You know, Sheila’s to clip my wings the day after tomorrow.”

Fanny had such an expression of horror on her face that Nessie wished she hadn’t said anything.

“How could she do such a thing?”

Nessie shrugged. “It’s something that they do.”

“You don’t sound like you care. Do you?”

“Not really. It was inevitable, anyway.” But after saying this, Nessie realized that she was reluctant for Sheila to clip her wings.

“Oh, scratch that. I guess I don’t, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.”

“What do you mean? Of course, you could come live in the forest, with me. It’s quite a nice place, the hollow.”

“No, no. I couldn’t. Besides, clipped wings won’t be that bad. Well, at least I hope not. What about my mama? Her wings are clipped, so she couldn’t come with me.” Nessie argued.

“Well, you could leave her here.” Fanny said, softly. “In the hollows, we wait for a chick to reach a certain age, and then they’re independent. You could do that, couldn’t you?”

Nessie’s eyes widened until they would quite possible pop out of her head.

“Leave mama? You’re joking, aren’t you, Fanny? Well, it isn’t a funny joke. Not in the least.”

Fanny insisted that she was telling the truth, and on and on. But, even after Fanny left, Nessie felt a feeling lingering in her heart. She couldn’t quite name it, but she was sure it was there, as sure as she knew Low Fliers didn’t fly. Which, if you don’t know, was quite sure.

Nessie didn’t tell her mama about that visit. But, even though Nessie hadn’t known, her mama had been listening from the top of the tall oak bookcase. She had made up her

 

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mind. Marie would not ask Nessie if she wanted to leave, because hearing the sorrow in her voice would influence her. No, Marie would not ask her.

.          .         .

Nessie was disappointed. Sheila had not come to feed her, insisting that she deserved some punishment for what she had supposedly done. Nessie wasn’t that hungry, but it wasn’t the food she missed, it was Sheila. She felt extremely dishonored and ate from her mother’s seed bowl.

She nestled down on her perch warily. She was slightly frightened of Gerald, glad that there was a row of bars separating her from the cat. She was worried about her mama, but Marie had assured her that everything would be all right. She had that glint in her eyes that suggested she had a trick up her tail feathers.

The door suddenly swung open, nearly knocking down the flower pot on the ground. Sheila stormed in angrily, her skinny ‘arm’ trembling.

“Why are you trying to ruin my life?!” Sheila demanded, stabbing a ‘fingerat her.

Nessie’s beady eyes got very wide. What had she done now? All she’d done the whole day was talk to Fanny.

“You… horrible thing! Poor Gerald. I didn’t think you would have eaten all of his cat food because I hadn’t fed you. I’ll clip your wings tomorrow if you don’t watch it.”

Gerald entered the room, his tail between his legs, mock sadness on his face. Sheila’s voice took on a gentler tone. “There, Gerry. I’ll go get you something to eat right now.” She slammed the door behind her noisily, making Marie jump.

“Nessie…are you all right?” Marie asked, tentatively.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Nessie said. She hopped back onto her swing and laid her head on her feathers. Why was Gerald trying to get her in trouble?

.          .         .

“Fanny,” Nessie asked the next day, “if I were going to live with you Out There, do you think Sheila would miss me?”

Fanny hid her triumphant expression behind a wing. “ Of course she wouldn’t. Look how she treats you now!”

Nessie said, “ If I were going to go with you, Out There I mean, couldn’t I come back to visit?”

 

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Fanny pondered this for a while, cocking her head to the side. “I suppose you could visit. But you might have to wait until Sheila loses hope in finding you again.”

“ But that will be centuries !” Nessie exclaimed despairingly.

A musical voice piped up in the corner. “There’s always the good with the bad. You have to suffer to get what you really want, sometimes.”

Nessie turned to look at her mama, not really surprised. “Hello, mama.”

Fanny shrugged. “Well, if you are going to live in the hollow, you’ll have to leave before tomorrow. Sheila is going to clip your wings then, apparently.”

She’s right. Nessie thought. I can’t wait forever. I have to decide, and soon. Nessie had never really decided anything for herself, and now the scariness of it all was, well, scaring her. She was clueless.

.          .         .

Fanny returned to Nessie’s house at night.

“I’ve made up my mind.” Nessie said.

.          .         .

“Wake up!” Fanny hissed.

“Alright!” Nessie sat up.

“Bye, mama.” She whispered.

“Goodbye.”

Nessie fluttered her wings. She had seen other birds outside of the windows do it, and she was sure she could. Fanny unlocked the door, and Nessie dropped out of the entrance clumsily. Before she touched the floor, though, her impulses kicked in, and she soared upwards. She wasn’t going to win the Olympics like this, of course, but she could raise herself above the ground.

They flew out the window side by side. The darkness outside swallowed them up, and then they were gone, flying in the night sky.

A tear rolled down Marie’s cheek.

.          .         .

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It was years later, and Sheila had grown up and gone to college. Marie’s wings feathers had grown back, and she had been set free. Sheila never knew, but Marie lived in a tree behind the house, never leaving it. It was lonely, though, and she missed Nessie horribly. On a bleary morning, when Marie was resting on a branch, two birds, a sapphire colored blue jay, and a bright yellow canary, flew toward her. “Come with us!” They chorused. “ Come with us, come home!”

 

By JESSICA WANG,

International School of Beijing

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