She didn’t know how to answer the child. And maybe, she realized, it wasn’t important. Six letters; they made a name. What did it matter? She looked again at the word she had written, then erased it with her own toes, stamped the sand firm, and tossed the stick into a pile of glistening kelp nearby.
Alys had sent Old Benedikt to ask the favor of Lame Einar. Not long after, slow on his ruined feet, the young man made his way laboriously down from his hut on the hillside, carrying the twig cage on his back, with the bird inside.
“Here it be,” he told Alys.
Einar was not one for talking. His failures had made him a recluse, but people remembered the vulnerable boy he had once been. Though he had stolen from his father, they forgave him that; his father had been a harsh and unjust man. That he had climbed out, many admired, for the cliff was steep and jagged and the world beyond unknown; few had the courage that Einar had had. They regretted his failure, but they welcomed his damaged return. Einar, though, had never forgiven himself; he lived in self-imposed shame and stayed mostly silent.
“It sings,” he said. He leaned his two sturdy sticks against Alys’s hut and hung the cage on a tree branch near the entrance. He watched for a moment until the carefully crafted perch inside stopped swaying and the little finch stilled the nervous flutter of its bright-colored wings. Then Lame Einar took up his sticks again; he righted himself between them, for balance, and went slowly away.
The bird was chirping when Claire returned from the beach, carrying her sandals. She stopped in surprise, looking at the cage and the bird within. “It can’t get out, can it?” she asked nervously.
Alys laughed. “Were you to take it in your hand, child, it would tremble in fear. Have you never been near to a wee bird before?”
Claire shook her head no.
“You’ll feed it each day. Seeds, mostly, and some of the bugs from the field.”
“I don’t like the bugs,” Claire whispered.
“It will help when you learn them. Fear dims when you learn things.”
The bird chirped loudly, and Claire jumped. Alys laughed at her again.
Claire took a breath and calmed herself. She went closer and peered into the cage. The bird tilted its head and looked back at her. “It should have a name,” Claire said.
“Name it, then. It be yours.”
“I’ve never named a single thing.”
Alys frowned, and she looked at Claire with her squinted eyes. “Do you know that, then?” she asked.
Claire sighed. “I feel it, that’s all.”
“Naming is hard. Someone named you once.”
Claire looked away. “I suppose,” she said slowly, and then turned her attention again to the cage. “Look! It cleans itself!” She pointed. The bird had raised one wing and pecked fastidiously at its feathers beneath. “Isn’t that a lovely patch of color on his wing?” She hesitated, then asked, “What is it called? I know red. You taught me red from the berries. It’s a pretty red there around his eyes, but what is that bright color on his wing? I can’t think of its name.”
Alys was troubled by this, for she knew by now that the girl was clever, and filled with knowledge of many things. But she seemed lacking in so many ways, and the realm of colors was one. The names of the various hues were one of the first things small children learned. Yet when Alys had sent Claire on a simple errand some days ago, asking her to fetch some jewelweed, which Alys needed to treat a painful poison ivy rash on one of Old Benedikt’s grandsons, Claire had not known how to find the flower that grew in such profusion by the stream. “The bright orange blossoms,” Alys reminded her. “We gathered some the other day.”
“I forget orange,” Claire had said, embarrassed. “We gathered several things that day. What does orange look like?”
And now she could not name the color that decorated the wing of the little singing finch.
“Yellow,” Alys told her. “The same as evening primrose, remember?”
“Yellow,” Claire repeated, learning it. Yellow-wing became the bird’s name.
On a cool foggy morning, she climbed the hill to find Lame Einar and thank him. It had taken a while to accustom herself to the bird, to end her fearfulness around it. But now it hopped to the side of the cage when she brought seeds to it in a little shell dish and waited, head cocked, while she set the dish down. It would have hopped onto her finger, she knew, if she had held it still and waited. But she wasn’t ready for that, or for the feeding of live insects. The little girls took on that task, happy to find beetles and hoppers in the grass and bring them to Yellow-wing.
She found Einar near his hut. He was seated on a flat rock, cleaning a wooden bowl, scrubbing the cracks in the rounded poplar with a rag dipped in fire ash. Nearby, through the fog, she could hear the sheep move in the grass, and an occasional bleat. She approached the young man. She was nervous, not to be with Einar, who was always silent and unknowable, but because of the sounds of the animals.
He was startled to see her, and lowered his eyes to the bowl. Had he heard her coming, he would have fled into the fog and disappeared. But Claire had been silent, appearing without warning from the swirling gray mist, and his maimed feet made it impossible for him to jump and run.
“Good morning,” she said, and he nodded in reply.
“I came to thank you for the bird,” she told him.
“It’s nought but a bird,” he muttered.
Claire stared at him for a moment. A word came to her from nowhere. He’s lonely, she thought. People say he’s angry, and hermitlike, but it’s loneliness that afflicts him.
She looked around, and saw a log nearby. “May I sit down?” she asked politely. He grunted an assent and scraped some more at the spotless bowl in his hands.
“I know it’s just a bird,” she told him, “but you see, I have been afraid of birds. They’re strange to me; I don’t know why. And so the little bird you brought me—I call him Yellow-wing . . .”
She saw his puzzled look and laughed. “I know. It’s just his color. But I’m only learning colors. They’re as strange to me as birds. And so it’s a help, to call him Yellow-wing. I say his name when I put his dish of seeds in the cage. And you know what? He’s singing now. He was afraid at first, but now he sings!”
Einar looked at her. Then he arranged his mouth, gave a small sound as a trial, and then reproduced the sound of the small bright-colored bird, with its trill and fluttering whistle.
Claire listened in delight. “Could you do the songs of other birds?” she asked him. But he ducked his head in embarrassment and didn’t reply. He set the bowl aside and reached for his sticks.
“Sheep need me,” he said brusquely. He rose and moved with his awkward gait into the edge of the foggy meadow. He was no more than a blurred outline when she heard him call back to her. “Greens!” he called. “Not the color. But he needs greens. Willow buds be good, and dandelion!”
Then he was gone, but as she gathered herself to leave, she heard him whistle the song of the bird once again.
Alys and Old Benedikt stood watching the preparations for the marriage of Glenys and Martyn. Friends of the couple had built a kind of bower from supple willow branches and now they were decorating it with blossoms and ferns. Beyond, on tables made of board and set outside for the occasion, the women were arranging food and drink.
“It’s a fine day,” Alys commented, squinting at the cloudless sky.
“I was wed in rain,” Old Benedikt said with a chuckle, “and never noticed a drop of it.”
She smiled at him. “I remember your wedding day,” she said. “And Ailish, all smiles. You must miss her, Ben.”
He nodded. His wife of many years had died from a sudden fever the winter before, with their children and grandchildren watching in sorrow. She was buried now in the village graveyard with a small stone marker marking her place, and room beside her for Old Benedikt when his time came.
“Look there, at Tall Andras, watching the girl,” Old Benedikt said with a chuckle, and pointed. “He’s bent near double with longing for her, isn’t it so?”
They both watched with amusement as the young man’s lovesick gaze followed Claire, who was helping with the flowers. She hardly noticed him.
“She puzzles me, Benedikt.”
“Aye. She’s a mystery. But a splendid one!” While they watched, Claire lifted one of the little girls and helped her weave daisies into the twigs of the bower. The other little ones waited eagerly for their turns. “They follow her like kittens after the mother cat, don’t they?”
“Do you know she fears cats? Even kittens? As if she never see’d such before,” Alys told him.
“And birds, I hear.”
“Lame Einar caught a bird for her, and wove a cage for it. She’s learning to like it now, for it sings nicely. But, Ben—?”
“I had to tell her the colors of it. She don’t know the names! Yellow, and red: it’s as if they are new to her. And yet she’s clever! Clever as can be! She creates games for the little girls, and helps me with the herbs, but—”
“I never knowed one who couldn’t say the colors. Not even one who is weak in the mind, like Ailish’s nephew, who’s like a young boy though he’s thirty! Even he cries for his blue shirt instead of the green,” Old Benedikt said.
“Not Water Claire. She may long for the blue but don’t know its name. She’s learning now. But she’s like a babe about it.”
“So you’ve got you a wee babe to tend, after all these years without,” he teased her.
He patted her hip through her thick skirt, and she pushed his hand away. “Let me be, you old fool,” she told him fondly.
Tell me about weddings,” Claire asked as she and Alys carried the nutcake they had made to the feast table, where it would be placed with the festive puddings and sweets. “Does everyone have one? Did you?”
Alys laughed. “Not me,” she said. “But most do, when they reach an age, as Martyn and Glenys. When they choose each other, and the parents say aye, then we have the Handfasting. Always in summer, usually at new moon.”
Summer. Claire had learned, already, from Alys that summer is a time of year, the time of sunshine and crops and the birth of young animals. It had been one more thing she had not known.
She waited while Alys rearranged some of the other foods in order to make room. Then she set down their cake and together they decorated its edge with yellow daisies.
The village people were gathering. No one, not even the fishermen, was at work today. Babies perched atop their fathers’ shoulders. Claire saw Tall Andras with his parents, the three of them scrubbed and dressed in their best clothing. She could see that his mother was not well; she leaned on her son, and was flushed with fever, though she smiled and greeted the others.
Bryn waved to Claire. She was holding Bethan’s hand. For once the three little girls were separate, each with their families. Claire could see that beneath her lace-trimmed apron, Bryn’s body had thickened with the coming child. Alys thought the time of danger was past and that this one would survive.
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