“I call this meeting to order. Order, I say! Wingtip, why must you bob up and down on that cattail? Please! Be still and be silent!” warbled Quickeye as he called the flock of blackbirds to order. A solemn quiet claimed the marsh as Quickeye dipped his head at the slender young bird perched in front of him. “Here now, Singsweet, tell us your tale.”
Singsweet fluttered her wings then tucked them close. Her eyes glistened as she sang, “I left our nest to snatch a bite to eat. Bigtail rested nearby, so he could keep watch. When I returned he was far away, flying very fast. In front of him, but flying faster still, flew something big and brown.” At this news there was a rustling and ruffling of feathers amongst the flock. When the birds settled down Singsweet cried, “Our hatchlings were gone!”
Quickeye raised a wing and covered his head for a moment. When he’d recovered, he straightened and crooned, “You are most brave to sing to us tonight.” Quickeye glanced to his right. “Bigtail, will you now share your tale?”
The large blackbird clasping a nearby branch nodded. He cocked his head to one side, gathering the flock’s attention. “I heard a noise like the wind through high grass, and then our hatchlings fell silent. This…this great brown bird had landed on our nest! It snatched up our little ones and raced away. I flew after, but I was slow. Too slow.” Bigtail gazed sadly at Singsweet and trilled, “I failed you, my dearest. I am so sorry.”
One bird exclaimed, “We must protect our nests!”
“Yes, we must find a way!” another agreed. “More eggs will soon hatch.”
At the rear of the flock perched a slim young bird named Splitwing. He remained silent. Always a quiet bird, Splitwing often flew alone, seeking the wind in his face and the quietest of places in the swamp. No one knew him well, yet he was always made welcome when he perched with the flock.
Quickeye nodded. “Thornbeak, will you organize additional guards for each nest?”
A tough old bird with a narrow pointed beak nodded and fluffed his feathers importantly as a chorus of agreement echoed through the reeds. Thornbeak found himself surrounded, as bird after bird fussed and fretted while suggesting patterns to fly or where to perch while guarding each nest.
The top edge of the sun fell below the horizon and Quickeye whistled once more, a single long note, loud and piercing. He closed the meeting by singing, “Remember to report to Thornbeak again at first light. As for tonight, stay close and guard well. We must protect our young.”
Before the older bird could take flight, Splitwing soared up to Quickeye. “May I sing to you for a moment?” he asked. “Alone?”
Quickeye nodded and flitted into the darkest shadows at the edge of the marsh. He grasped the top of a cattail and turned expectantly to watch Splitwing land below him on the same stem.
Splitwing crooned, “Tomorrow I wish to be excused from guarding the nests. Instead, please allow me to circle high above the entire marsh, to keep watch on us all.”
Quickeye whistled softly in surprise.
As if in apology, Splitwing trilled, spreading his wings and tail feathers. “I am used to flying alone and can fly high, and for a long, long time.”
Quickeye considered this as the breeze pushed against them, making the cattails rock and sway. He flipped his tail up and down to keep his balance and nodded abruptly. “Very well. I will make your excuses to Thornbeak.” He raised one wingtip, waving Splitwing away.
Early the next morn, before even the sun heaved itself into the sky, Splitwing hunted out a quick meal. He then jumped aloft. As the dark of night folded, and the eastern horizon spilled pink into the sky, Splitwing flew upward where he circled, gazing down upon each tree and bush and thick patch of reeds. Again and again he circled. Just as yellow light reached upward to engulf the pink, he hovered, staring intently at the canopy of treetops that shaded the far western edge of the marsh.
Something brown fluttered amongst the leaves! He folded his wings and arrowed down. Yes! Again it moved! He glimpsed broad brown wings and a thick body as the bird ducked beneath branches, seeking always to hide in dark shadows. Whistling the alarm, Splitwing shot through the sky. The intruder twisted its head to glare at Splitwing before dropping from a branch to soar away.
Splitwing raced after.
The intruder stooped and turned on wingtip. Without losing a single beat of his wings, Splitwing swerved in exactly the same spot, but soon he despaired. With each push of his wide wings the large bird pulled away. He would escape!
Splitwing thought of Singsweet and her lost hatchlings. He remembered how kind the flock had been to him, how respectful and welcoming. His resolve firmed; he would not let them down.
Reaching into the depths of his heart, Splitwing managed somehow to beat his wings faster. He gained on the bird. Closer and closer he came. Soon, they were only a few wing lengths apart. But then the northern breeze lifted and Splitwing faltered. No! He was so close! He lifted his head and called upon the wind, trilling long and deep. He raised his wings to their highest point and slapped the air. Over and again. He pushed harder to find even more resolve, more strength, more speed. His wings blurred against the brightening sky as his heart raced. The wind weakened. Again Splitwing reached for more. Close. So close. He could see the fierce black talons of the brown bird, its thick strong legs clad in mottled brown and white. One more wing length. One final push. His wings smote the air and red flames burst from his black feathers.
Hurling himself upon the flock’s enemy, Splitwing curled his talons into the bird’s wide, right wing. Locked together, they tumbled and twisted through the sky, flames dancing from Splitwing’s wings onto the intruder’s before engulfing them both. They plummeted through the sky, a fiery ball that first grew large and then shriveled to embers.
Watching from below, the flock trilled and sang and fluttered and cried, their respect for Splitwing floating upward upon the very same north wind which had first challenged then supported him. As ashes drifted across the marsh, every bird fell silent.
That evening the flock gathered to trill, offering soft harmonies to accompany the sun as it settled down from the heights. The gentle blackbirds sang about Splitwing, the quietest of birds. The mothers whispered in sorrow but also wept with joy, for now their young would be safe. The fathers and brothers crooned, first one then the other, each praising Splitwing’s speed, his strength and courage, and his great resolve. Such a sacrifice. Such a flight.
Days flew by and when new eggs hatched there was great rejoicing; the flock would live on. Nearly every nest had hatchlings to feed and every bird sang with happiness.
Drowsing in the sun, Quickeye was startled awake one morning by Softwind, a young mother.
“Quickeye!” she whistled. “Come! You must see my fledglings!”
Quickeye shook himself awake and hurriedly took wing. He landed on the edge of Softwind’s nest. Startled and pleased, Quickeye lifted his wings from his chest, spread his tail feathers, and crooned. He glanced up into the clear blue sky, remembering the final flight of Splitwing, and then looked back into the nest.
“Be not alarmed, Softwind. Don’t you see?” Quickeye trilled as he gazed upon the young birds crowding so close. The two males were as black as they should be, but each bore upon their wings a blinding patch of crimson feathers edged by yellow.
“They bear wings of flame,” Quickeye continued, “just as Splitwing did on his last, great flight. Never shall we forget his gallant heart, for now it shall live with us forever.”