The Red Bird

Sophia Horton, Staff Writer



Once, there was a bird.


It was red.


It flitted and flied and soared around the blue skies, swooping in and out of clouds. It was part of a flock, all of the small red birds which folded and bent like paper.


They lived on a ship: tall, regal, and wrecked. Named the Sea’s Feather. Tattered sails flapping in the wind, destroyed portside creaking against the salty rocks. It was dark and shadowed, ominous. Wicked.


The little red bird fell from the sky, dove  into the water, and came up twirling, shooting like an arrow towards the horrible ship. It landed on the bow, shook itself once, and hopped down onto the deck.


The mast, long since broken off at the top, still held its T shape enough for the watch-birds to roost. There were hundreds of them, thousands, all sitting silent and fluffed against the wind. 


They looked like blood.


None of them spoke. None of them even opened an eye. They just sat, and breathed. And so the little red bird ducked under a loose floorboard, hopped to the cabins in the belly of the ship.


The Sea’s Feather was an old Victorian ship, its royal carpets soggy, damp, and full of mildew. The glass was dirty and cracked, the furniture rotting and slumped towards the floor. The red bird hopped past all of this, its head turning to see everything, miss nothing. It passed rooms upon rooms, their plaques rusted too far to see the number. 


In one of the doors, there was a little hole near the bottom left, just barely tall enough for the bird to scrape through. A feather caught on the jagged spikes of ruined wood adorning the hole and fluttered gently to the ground.


The room was nothing special, rotting and old just like the outside. A rocking chair was tipped over in one corner, a mirror shattered against the floor. Cabinet doors were strewn among the other wreckage, china plates and cups in pieces.


It was, overall, a mess.


But the red bird didn’t care. It paused, looking around once, before hopping onto the rocking chair’s tilted arm. A second bird waited there, its tiny glasses perched above its beak, smoking a pipe. It was quite old.


The red of the second bird was fainter than that of the first; it was dulled by dust and age, its feathers broken here, bent here. But the first red bird loved him all the same.


“Grandfather,” chirped the bird, bright and quick. “Grandfather.” Grandfather coughed, stopped smoking, and blinked through the haze of smoke he’d created. 


He hummed in recognition and wheezed softly through his nose. “Hmm, yes, yes, little bird. Yes, what do you need?” A curl of smoke drifted towards him, and he blew it away, shaking his head. 


“Things are so quiet around here,” the bird said, hopping from one foot to the other.


Grandfather frowned. “Well, I suppose things do get quiet,” he muttered. “At least, when you aren’t here.” He gestured a trembling wing towards the small bird. “Yes, yes. . .you must find somewhere to be. Go, play with your friends and the wind. Leave an old bird to die in peace.”


The small bird sighed, turning to go before Grandfather’s words sank in. “Oh dear,” he cried. “You won’t actually die, will you? You can’t. You’ve got so much more to live for!”


Grandfather was silent for a moment, and then he let out a laugh. It broke off in a cough and a sneeze, but it was well enough that the little bird smiled, patted his Grandfather on the head, and left without too much worry.




The sky was angry the day the red bird met the blue bird.


The rain was pouring down, thunder booming and lightning crackling. The sea raged against the rocks, drenching them in foam and seaweed. The Sea’s Feather rocked furiously but stayed upright, its timbers’ creaking drowned out by the thunder.


The rest of the birds had gone inside to take refuge in the rooms, the mast unusually bare.


The small bird poked its head out of one of the many broken windows, flinching when a drop hit its feathers. It briefly paused, shaking its head, before squinting outside again. There was a flash of wings, and suddenly—there it was. The blue bird, dancing among the rain with naught a care in the world. It was beautiful.


It made sense, the red bird supposed. The sky was blue, the sea was blue. The clouds and the rain were blue. Grandfather’s smoke was blue. And this bird. It was a flower, a sapphire. . .


“Come, come now, small bird, come,” murmured Grandfather, who shuffled over to peer out the window. “Ooh,” he said, surprised. “What do we have here? A blue bird, flying in a storm? Well, well. . .” And he thumped the small red bird on the back, chuckling under his breath. “About time. . .”


The red bird glanced at him but turned his attention back to the blue bird. It was simply. . .magnificent. It was nothing he’d ever seen before. He was half-tempted to join the bird in the rain, but looked nervously at his feathers and ruefully shook himself. What had gotten into him? He knew his feathers would dampen and drag him down into the sea. 


Unable to look any longer, he turned away and tried to ignore the feeling of yearning he felt towards the sea. He sagged his tail feathers and avoided Grandfather’s sharp eyes. Instead he tucked his head under his wing and tried to think of warm fires and cozy nests.




The second time he saw the blue bird it was a clear night, the wind cool and crisp against his wings. He was sitting on the very end of the bow, looking up at the stars, when the blue bird came and landed on the mast. It was an uncanny sight, seeing a single blue drop where thousands of red had been before. The red bird looked up curiously.


“Hello,” said the blue bird, and nervously ducked its head. “Who are you?”


The red bird was astounded. How mistaken this blue intruder was! How very different it had looked among the rain. He was foolish. He should have known better than to think. . .


“Excuse me,” he said, drawing himself up importantly, “but in this case it is I who should be asking who you are. This ship belongs to the red birds. We have no room for blue here.”


The blue bird cocked its head, hurt showing in its eyes. It flew down from the mast and landed next to the red bird, who startled at its proximity. From this close up it was easy to see that the blue bird was a she. “Well,” she said. “Whom do the rocks belong to? And the cliffs? The wood? All of it belongs to the sea. They are her children, and she created them all. Yes, red bird, you may have your ship. But I will have its wood, because I am the sea and it is mine.”


The red bird looked a little shaken, but quickly regained his footing. “You mean to say,” he said, “that you are the sea? A small blue bird, with wings? From all the things the sea could choose, one would think it would choose fins, like the dolphins, or gills, like the fish. But wings? No. All you are is a bird who doesn’t know her place. Go back from where you came, and do not return.”


But all the blue bird did was smile, spread her wings, and leap from the bow. “I’ll be seeing you, red bird. Then we shall decide who does not know their place.”




Days passed. The red bird learned to look for any sign of the blue, but with no luck. He let down his guard, stopped watching the skies. Instead he spent his days caring for Grandfather, who was too old and creaky to do much but too stubborn to say anything about it. The two often took walks around the deck, Grandfather’s wings being too heavy to fly. He would perch on the railing and smoke his pipe while the red bird patrolled the sky.


The red bird flew among the clouds, enjoying the cool mist on his feathers. He closed his eyes, content to drift on the wind. The other birds had taken up their spot once more, sitting silent upon the mast. Their millions of bright feathers shone up to him.


“Well, well,” murmured a voice, and the red bird’s wings missed a beat, along with his heart. His eyes flew open and met those of the blue bird. “The red bird can fly.”


“You,” muttered the red bird. “What do you want?”


“Come now,” the blue bird said. “Don’t pretend you aren’t happy to see me. Fly with me.”


“Sorry?” asked the red bird. 


The blue bird sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. “Fly with me. Let’s go beyond the sun.”


So the red bird reluctantly touched wingtips with her, and they soared off together above the clouds. A current swept by, and laughing, the blue bird followed it. How strange was this creature, thought the red bird. Ever changing, like the sea. Maybe her word is true. And he followed, entranced.


The two dipped and dived, dancing in and out of the current. They chased each other around clouds, forgetting their differences, and eventually the red bird was smiling again, his earlier vision of the blue bird gone.


“Where do you go?” he asked her, once the sun had dipped below the horizon. The two glided quietly over the ship, their shadows following them over clouds. “When you aren’t here.”


She hesitated. “I sleep on the cliffs,” she said. “There is a grove of trees, a little ways away, and there I have my nest. It is not far from here, just beyond the curve of the rocks.” 


“Will you take me?” he asked her. “Someday?”


“No.” she shook her head. “It is too dangerous. Your flock does not like us blue birds. We tend to stay away.”


“But you came,” he said.






“The sea,” she whispered. “It pulls me closer.”


They flew in silence for a while, thinking.


“Will I see you again?” asked the red bird.


“Perhaps,” she told him.






“There is a room,” said the red bird, after the blue bird had visited for the fifth time. “It is hidden away on the ship. I am the only one who knows of it. There is an entrance from the outside. Meet me there. It is on the left side, under the hull. I’ll be waiting.”


And he did wait. He paced the room, but still the blue bird did not show up. He worried that she had been caught, or lost, or. . .worse. 


The room had once been a vanity, mirrors lining almost every available surface. They had long since shattered, and were either in pieces or cracked. Desks had rotted, stinking piles of wood and muck in the corner of the room. A broken chandelier glittered faintly, half-buried in the floor of the room.


The sky grew dark. The red bird knew he should go back to Grandfather, but he could not leave without seeing the blue bird. His pacing grew more frantic, and he peered out of the hole in the ship. But she was not there.


He slumped into a corner, his head in his wings. He should go look for her. He should do something. But he couldn’t. He didn’t want to know, he couldn’t bear to see her wrecked body lying broken among the rocks. 


Something sharp cut his foot, and he peered down to see what had happened. A small shard of mirror glimmered on the floor, the sharpest edge marked with his blood. He moved to brush it away, but at that moment a flash of blue caught his eye. His chest swelled with hope, and he hurried upright and over to the entrance. There, among the rocks, was the bird. She let out a happy chirp when she saw him, and hopped a little faster.


Once both of them were safely inside the room, she covered his wings with her own before pulling away. She was beautiful, his sea bird. 


Her sharp eyes took in the ugly state of the room. She glanced appraisingly at the red bird, who grimaced in her direction. “It’s not much, but. . .”


She half-smiled. “It is enough.”


Her nimble feet traced their way towards one of the mirrors: half of it on the wall, half of it on the floor, shattered. The red bird followed, interested in what she had found. A small gap, on the corner of the mirror. Barely large enough to squeeze through.


The two shared a look, and then, mischief glimmering in her eyes, the blue bird ducked through. The red bird stared after her, trying to see what was beyond the hole. There was nothing, only darkness. Nervously, he followed her.


In here, the dank smell of mold was sharper. He could not see the blue bird in front of him, but he could hear her soft breaths. She brushed a wing against his own, and they started down the corridor.


The closer they got to the end, the brighter it got. Eventually the red bird had to squint in order to see, unused to the light. He shaded his eyes.


In the center of the room there was a large table.  It was perfectly preserved, upright and untouched by the sea. Upon that table there stood a bottle, tall and empty. And upon that bottle, there was a label. Written in a cursive font were the words:


Regret: Corrosive


The red bird marveled at those two words. What could it mean? He looked towards the blue bird and was shocked to see her eyes wide and scared. He looked around. Nothing else was in the room, so what was there to be afraid of?


“We must leave this place,” whispered the blue bird. “We are not welcome here.”


The red bird took one last look at the bottle before turning away. “I’ve never known this place existed,” he said. “Why did it show up just now?”


“Strange things are happening,”  breathed the blue bird. “I should not be here.” And she turned and fled.


“Wait!” he called, chasing after her. “What do you mean? Come back!”


She did not answer, instead flying through the mirrored room and out into the air, shooting like a bullet away from the Sea’s Feather. The red bird faltered at the edge of the rocks, gazing at her retreating figure. Soon she was swallowed up by the fog.




Even for days afterwards the weather stayed cold and foggy. Grandfather complained about it all the time, driving the small red bird insane. “It’ll freeze my bones,” he moaned horribly. “I won’t be able to fly.”


“You already can’t fly,” muttered the red bird, wings over his head, trying to keep Grandfather out. He’d been staring out the window for hours, trying to spot the blue bird. There was an ache in his heart that had nothing to do with the cold and everything to do with her. 


Grandfather was silent. He pushed himself to his feet with a groan and hobbled over to where the red bird sat. “You know,” he began. “If you miss her that much you should look for her.”


“Sorry?” said the red bird. He shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


“I’m not blind, boy,” Grandfather said. He let out a wheezing cough. “And this ship does have windows. Don’t pretend I haven’t seen you fly with her.”


The red bird sighed, gave up. “Alright,” he muttered. “But I’m scared. I don’t want to know what’s happened. . .”


“Well,” said Grandfather thoughtfully. “Look where you saw her last.”


“The mirrored room,” breathed the red bird. “Maybe she left a sign.” He crouched to take off but at the last moment turned and looked sadly at Grandfather. Grandfather stared, unblinking, back at him.


“Go,” he told the red bird, inclining his head to the window. “She is waiting.”


“Thank you,” said the red bird. He waited a moment longer, memorizing the lines on Grandfather’s face. Then he turned, and his wings carried him to the small entrance under the hull.




The room was empty, the mirrors untouched. All was silent as the red bird peered around the room. He headed towards the corridor which led to the table and the strange bottle. Something about it seemed. . .different. The silence sinister. The light glaring, instead of shining.


The red bird peered through the opening and gasped at what he saw.


The blue bird was chained to the wall, the table pushed back so that the bottle was underneath her. As he watched, a tear rolled down her face and dripped, with barely a splash, into the rest of her tears which filled the bottle.


And all along the walls were the watch-birds.


They watched him with their hawk eyes, their shadows following him around the room. They did not move.


The blue bird raised her head. Her eyes were red and bloodshot. She pointed one trembling wing towards the red bird. A trickle of blood emerged from her beak and ran down her heaving plumage.


He rushed forwards, for once ignoring the watch-birds. He grabbed the bottle, corking it with a pebble from the ground. For a moment he stared at his sea-bird, willing her to fight. But all she did was turn away.


She let another tear fall, splashing to the wood of the table, and the red bird’s heart broke. He nearly staggered with its impact, his wings going to clutch his chest as he gasped. He stumbled backwards, falling once in terror and then hurtling down the corridor. As one, the other red birds lifted from the walls and spread overhead like a red curtain. As one they opened their mouths and let out a cry, much like that of a Crow. It was a harsh sound, and the red bird spread his wings and flew low over the hallway floor, his little heart beating loud in his ears from fear and heartbreak.


Clutched in his claws, the tears sloshed against the bottle’s walls. Thankfully the cork stayed screwed in tight.


The red bird practically threw himself from the mirrored room, gulping in the sea air. He spared one glance backwards and caught sight of the red Crow focused solely on him. The cluster of birds together formed one shape, which spread its magnificent wings and soared that much faster than it had before.


The red bird flapped into the clouds, breathing in their once-calming mist. Now all it did was slow him down, the drops collecting on the tips of his feathers. Still the Crow chased him.


The red bird squinted against the light of the sun, unblocked beyond the clouds. It scorched his body, his breath rasping harshly in his throat. His eyes fluttered. The altitude was too high, even for him. He could feel the muscles in his wings giving out.


He fell.




The Crow had watched him.


Oh, how they watched. Their piercing eyes never missed. Their sharp beaks always found their mark. Their wings held the wind.


They knew from the start that he was trouble. They knew he was raised by his clever Grandfather. They knew he had a secret room, hidden under the ship. They followed his blood on the mirror. They knew of the bottle. They had put it there.


They waited as he met the blue bird. They waited while the two danced among the stars. They waited while the blue bird realized they knew.


They knew everything.


And they were angry.




The Crow had forgotten it was more than one.


They opened their mouth to swallow the red bird, but he plummeted through their ranks and plunged into the sea. The Crow took a minute to reform, let out a caw of fury, turn, and dive after him.




Under the sea, it was quiet.


Here, the Crow could not get him. Here, Grandfather could not bother him with his complaints. Here, he didn’t need to think of the blue bird’s blood and tears staining the wall.


The blue bird.


His eyes opened.




All the red bird inhaled was water.


For a minute, he panicked.


Then his claws closed around the bottle, his waterlogged feathers swirling around him. His head broke the surface, and he coughed up seawater. Above him the Crow hovered, it’s great head turning to catch him. He inhaled as much as he could and ducked back below the water.


As the cold blue closed over his head, the red bird swam as best he could towards the rocks. He could feel the Crow above him, its shadow rippling over the surface of the water.


By and by his breath ran out until his lungs were burning. He poked his beak out of the water and was almost immediately bombarded by the Crow. He managed a quick breath before going back under.


Once he reached the edge of the rocks, he wearily pulled himself up, away from the cruel sea. The Crow grinned and fell upon him, the thousands of watch-birds pecking and clawing. The red bird was too tired to stop them.




A few mornings later, the red bird managed to peel his eyes open. He still lay on the rocks, his body battered and broken from the Crow. They’d left him here to die.


Next to him was the bottle, still intact. And beyond that. . .the blue bird lay, her back to him.


A rush of panic rushed through the red bird, and he forced his aching limbs to work one last time. He stumbled over to her, shaking her body with one wing. She flopped towards him, but her eye was blank and staring. An X was slashed through her chest, the blood long since dried on her ruined feathers.


A spasm of anguish coursed through him, and his own tears soaked her quills. He cried his agony to the sky, but it went unanswered. All that came back was his own echo.


The bottle of tears lay next to him. He uncorked it and took a large gulp, saltwater running down his throat and over his feathers. He drank more and more, until the bottle was empty, until he was drowning in his own regret.


Then he lay down next to his love, and slept.