Three Birds

Once upon a time, there were two birds that lived out on the edges of a fruit orchard in the most fertile part of the Middle Kingdom. During their youth, an unexpected spring storm knocked their nest from a gnarled persimmon tree. They fell with great impact, breaking bones. An old farmer, who wandered by on the way to sell his produce in the city, found their smashed nest and brought the birds into his house to heal them. The bird called Ching had broken the very tip of his beak, but the old man fashioned Ching a new one in ox bone, slimmer and more beautiful than his old bill. In thanks, Ching sang joyously for the man every day, and although Jang, the other bird, thought that his own voice was not quite so lovely, he sang too when Ching did. The old farmer was delighted and began showing the pair to his neighbors. Through the years, Jang layered his voice with Ching's in increasingly intricate ways until people from afar in the province began to visit the man to hear their sweet harmony.

The day after a great noble lady had come to visit in her palanquin, the man swelled with pride and thought to himself, "I will charge three yuan for each person who wants to hear the birds sing. I will put my plow down and give up honest work. I will not have to weed or sow or hoe. And in return, I only need to give the birds rice, seed, and praise!"

And so, the farmer began to charge visitors for the honor of seeing his duo. Ching sang dutifully from dawn to dusk. Sometimes, Jang joined him, but other times, he did not. Jang found that he could be very agile on his talons and he sometimes danced around Ching while he sang. Jang would have been an even better flier, but the old man clipped their wings daily and only brought their cage out into the fresh air for an hour a day. At all other times, he left the birds on a table by the windowsill where the sun could come in. Both Ching and Jang enjoyed the sunshine when the man opened the window, but as their working hours grew longer, the birds found themselves only being able to appreciate moonlit nights that felt increasingly chilling.

"I am not well, Jang," Ching sang one pre-dawn, only it did not sound like a song, but a cough that shook down to Ching's brittle bones.

"Do not sing today," Jang said. "I will dance."

When their first audience of the day arrived, Jang danced and danced. He did not sing by himself because he lacked confidence, but the people did not like him as much as Ching's song and the man did not get as much money. In rage, the man opened Ching and Jang's shared bamboo cage and grabbed Jang, shaking him violently.

"You stupid little ingrate!" The man shouted. "Who fed and took care of you?"

Ching watched from a corner of the cage, huddled and sick, and trembling.

The man finally threw Jang back into the cage. He left the birds with a mound of seed and water and took no more notice of them for five days. The seed grew stale and the water putrid, but for five days, Ching did not sing and Jang did not dance. Eventually, Ching's voice mended itself with rest and Jang recovered from his bruises.

"Sing for him today," Jang said after the sixth day had passed.

Ching preened his feathers. They had grown and were brightly colored, unlike Jang's, although they were siblings. Ching had to be very careful with how he took care of them, because his ox bone bill was harder than his natural one and difficult to maneuver.

"Let me help," Jang said when Ching did not answer. Jang hopped over, carefully grooming the feathers around Ching's eyes and spoke no more about singing for the man. That night, they slept together, wing to wing.

The next morning, Jang woke and saw that the latch to their cage was open. Ching was gone. Jang took one timid step forward towards the opening and then another step back. An hour later, the old man rose from his bed with the sour smell of rice wine thick on his breath. He lumbered past the cage for the toilet and Jang hopped around in fright at his sudden appearance. The man was quickly elated and he rushed toward the cage seeing that Jang was recovered, but then he noticed that Ching was missing. The man leaned out his open window, cursing the sky. Then he quickly realized that Jang might try to escape too, so he quickly re-clipped Jang's feathers, despite the bird's struggles, and closed the cage. This time, the man bolted it shut with a lock.

A week passed and Jang stared longingly out his cage, wondering where Ching was, when the man brought home a new bird. Jang could tell the newcomer's flight feathers had just come in, although they were bent at odd angles. Also, the bird was slim, drab-colored like Jang, although Jang thought the newcomer's ebony-colored pinions made the stranger handsome, unlike Jang himself. Jang did his best to be friendly.

"Did you fall out of your nest?" Jang inquired politely.

"No," said the new bird and from the first syllable, Jang could tell he had a powerful voice. "The farmer caught me. I would like to leave this place as soon as possible."

"But there is a lock on the door."

The new bird hopped over to where Jang indicated and turned his head this way and that way to look at the lock.

"Do you have something long and thin?"

Jang looked around his cage, and buried under the seed, was a long tapered twig. Jang wondered who had brought it. Surely it was not the wind? Jang looked out the window and to the sky. Jang handed the twig over to the new bird with his beak and watched as the bird took the twig and stuck it into the lock's keyhole.

"What will we do when we get out?" Jang asked as his new acquaintance rummaged around the lock with the twig. Jang heard mechanical clicks as inner cogs and springs released.

"We will fall from the window. The autumn leaf litter is thick and we will not be hurt."

"Ah, I see," Jang said, nodding. "What is your name?"

"Xi."

Xi finished picking the lock and pushed open the door of their cage with his beak. He hopped out to the windowsill and dropped from it as promised. Jang jumped hurriedly after his new companion. He pressed against Xi worriedly, checking for injuries, forgetting the possibility of his own when a familiar three-note whistle from a lilac bush near the man's house halted him mid-prod.

"What is it?"

The three-note sounded again, spiraling down like a mournful poem. Jang turned away from Xi, eyes bright and ears strained. The whistle sounded anew and Jang closed his eyes against the tears gathering there and smiled.

"Come, intelligent one," Jang said to Xi. "I need to tell a friend that his song is terrible."

As Jang puffed up his chest and hopped on courageously, Xi followed obligingly.

That autumn night, an old man was left with an empty cage, and as he lamented his fate, he heard three birds; two sang together as calmly and welcomingly as the moonlight and the other laughed at him mockingly.