Tales from Faedom
The Cuckoo’s Nestling
Copyright by Ledia Runnels 2015
Cover Design by Ledia Runnels
from photographs of “Cuckoo” by Vogelartinfo (Wikipedia Commons) and
“Clouds” by Jo Naylor (Flickr Creative Commons)
A pair of cheap binoculars pressed to his eyes, Alexei stared through the rain splatter. The droplets trickled down the picture window framing the outside world beyond. A solid puff of gray sky hung over the dense forest, while the whitewater rumble of Rowlett Creek gave the illusion that a vast wilderness encompassed the orphanage. But if he listened carefully, he could hear the distant rumble of traffic coming from the metropolis that spread out just beyond the trees.
He adjusted the focus toward the river’s edge, studying a bird that perched in a nearby hawthorn tree. The beautiful songster measured over a foot long, from its yellow-black bill, rust-brown upper parts, and black bars that ran across drooped wings to its raised tail. Golden eyes darted this way and that.
Most likely on the lookout for the magpie in who’s nest, a ball of delicate branches, twigs, and vegetation stuck together with dried mud, the cuckoo had just laid a single, speckled-drab egg.
Knotted breath caught in Alexei’s throat as he watched the bird hop to a higher branch. His focused gaze locked on the vagrant as it then flew away toward the forest canopy.
Her haunting, “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo,” seemed closed in, as if trapped in a glass container. Lid screwed on tight.
The way he had felt before coming to live here. Alexei’s hands trembled as he thought back to the autumn day in City Park near where the Dnieper River flows…
Kneeling on ripped-jean-covered knees, he sketched black, yellow and red images on the leaf-strewn sidewalk. From the corner of his eye, he noticed the tallish woman. Dressed in black over gray, she stood within a thicket of trees a short distance away. He knew she watched him from beneath the dark hood that covered her rust-red hair.
When he looked again, the woman hovered close. Her golden gaze swept over his narrow shoulders, focused on his masterpiece. She said, “It is excellent.” Her deep voice lacked inflection as if her Slavic accent was void of emotion. “You will be a famous artist someday.” He smiled up at her. Their gazes caught in the gentle breeze that blew between them.
Pleased, he made a small adjustment to the drawing, the red chalk biting into the concrete as icy fingertips lightly stroked his hair. Startled, he looked over to find the space empty beside him. He shivered as the cool breeze suddenly turned cold.
For the next two weeks, between middle school classes and sleeping, he waited in the same place of the great room. One morning, before breakfast, he watched the hatchling, sturdy enough now to shove the magpie’s eggs out of the lovingly crafted nest. He could almost hear each egg, light green-blue with brown speckles, plunk as they fell to the forest floor.
Hugging himself to keep out the chill, spring air, he hurried to the place where the hawthorn’s roots bowed up from the ground. Next to the unbroken eggs that lay scattered on the leaves, he knelt in the damp earth. His hand swathed in a piece of blue blanket, he tenderly lifted each egg between his thumb and index finger, gently nestling them between the layers of soft cotton he had pulled loosed from his pants pocket.
Cradling the smooth eggs, he gazed up toward the nest where the cuckoo’s fledgling crouched, bill splayed wide open and hungry. A lump tightened in his throat as the black and white bird, a worm clutched in her beak, soared toward the nest. The magpie’s long feathery tail fanned out behind her. Too innocent to realize, the one she fed had only moments before tried to murder her real offspring.
Gazing down at the blue eggs that lay snug in the cotton swath, Alexei vowed to raise each baby so that someday they could return to the forest. He would do this for them, and for the beautiful bird whose wings glistened with iridescent blue in the morning sunlight…
Warm fingers stroked his hair, waking him. Through sleepy eyes he saw Jenny, the night attendant at the orphanage, sitting crouched near his head, and the place where the magpie’s eggs, still swaddled in the blue scrap-of-blanket, lay nestled inside a hole pierced shoe box, beneath his bed. A heating pad on low heat lay beneath the cardboard.
A smile spread from her lips toward soft crow’s-feet that crinkled at the edge of her eyes. Alexi propped himself up on one elbow watching moonlight glisten in their forest-green depths.
She said, “Alexi, have you ever taken care of baby bird eggs before?”
Shaking his head, heat rushed up his neck and face. He whispered, “But I looked it up in the library downtown. I have turned the eggs every three hours like it said I should, to keep them just the right temperature.” He yawned. “I will continue to do this every day for the next two weeks until they hatch.”
Again, warm fingers stroked the hair away from his forehead. Jenny said, “And what will you do then with hungry, baby birds to raise?”
The hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “I will feed them soaked cat food, hard boiled eggs, pieces of fruit and insects using a pair of tweezers to drop the food into their mouths. I already have a plastic bottle to make a flytrap so that I can capture fresh food.”
She gave him a conspirator’s wink. “It seems you have thought it carefully through.” Pinching her lips together she added, “But beware, that it is actually illegal to keep the eggs.”
Alexei frowned. “I can’t let them die.”
Jenny stood to her feet, fists planted on each hip, a determined lift of her chin. She bit her bottom lip before speaking. “I hate to tell you, but…” She stopped mid-sentence and leaned down to stroke his hair again. “Try to get some sleep. Morning comes soon.”
Every day, Alexei watched and kept warm the tiny, green-blue and speckled eggs. And every day he stood beside the picture window, watching the black banded bird hover in the nearby trees. The cuckoo mother kept militant watch over her banded baby that perched, greedy mouth open, in the magpie’s nest.
When a small fracture appeared from inside one greenish-blue egg, veins of fissures soon crisscrossed the shell until a naked chick, with blind eyes flopped out between the cracks. Sadly, the other two eggs lay smooth and quiet. He carefully laid the hatchling inside a small bird’s cage where a perch hung ready from the wire rafters.
Between chores, classes, eating, and sleeping, he fed and cared for the baby. One day he found it sitting on the hung perch chirping happily. Soon it could fly around inside the cage.
One morning, he took the caged fledgling, fat black and white with blue iridescence on the lower edge of its black wings, to a place beside the hawthorn tree. In the tree’s branches there hung the now empty nest. Its once perfect shape tattered by force of the wind, rain, and a belligerent cuckoo.
Through the cage, Alexei whispered to the birdie, “OK now, you can do this. I have complete faith in you.” Blue eyes, with pitch black centers, gazed at him with love and trust.
He lifted the small door and waited. Spreading its wings, the young bird flew toward the Hawthorne tree. Happiness swept through Alexei like warm butter until he saw the woman standing a short distance away, her rust-brown hair fluttering curly and loose in the late spring breeze.
Suddenly he wanted to cry, as an all too familiar, sickly-sweet sensation rushed over him. In the ten years since he was left wrapped in the drab blanket and screaming on the orphanage doorstep, he had traveled from Kiev to Texas, as four families tried to either adopt or foster him. Each time they made some excuse.
Hands twisting in guilt and frustration, one father admitted, “It is his bizarre behavior of drawing terrifying images of crazy-looking birds on the walls and sidewalks. Fear of what else he might do makes it impossible for us to keep him.”
Alexei had tried to explain but to deaf ears. “They are kukushka and can’t help how they are.”
Through the gossiping cracks of the orphanage, words trickled down to taunt him. The hateful voices whispered that each family who gave him back had afterward suffered a tragedy, “as if a vengeful god had rained down their horrible wrath upon them.”
“Because of me?” he sobbed into his pillow, tasting salty tears, streaming into the cracks between his pinched, closed lips.
Stepping away from the tree, he pleaded, “No. No. Don’t,” as he turned to run back into the great room. He hurried to hide inside the bowels of the orphanage while the magpie’s fledgling flew back through the still open door, to perch inside its cage.
Several weeks later, Jenny stood with him beside the front door of a house he had never seen. His suitcase gripped between his fingers, he squinted down at a tiny crack in the concrete porch beneath his feet. He heard Jenny say, “Well, don’t you want to go inside?”
He couldn’t move. His feet felt as if they sunk slowly into quicksand. He heard Jenny push the door open. Obediently, he followed the back of her brown, leather shoes over the threshold and then he stopped.
The scent of raisin, oatmeal cookies, just baked, filled his nose as Jenny’s shoes disappeared, replaced by a set of pink-glittered shoes looped with white laces pointing toward him. Slowly, he raised his gaze to the girl’s blue eyes. Dark hair framed her pale face.
Around his one age, she smiled and looked questioningly over at Jenny. “Is this my new brother?”
“It is,” said Jenny, who stood in the kitchen next to a smallish woman with blue eyes and dark hair like her daughter’s, cocked her head to one side, giving him and the girl a playful wink.
The girl’s face beamed at him as she took his hand between her warm fingers. “I’m Maggie. I’ll show you your room. It’s just down the hall, this way,” she sang out, pulling him toward the back part of the house.
As they passed the sliding glass door that led to the backyard, he saw a trampoline, a porch swing, a built-in barbecue pit, and on the other side of the wooden fence, the woman watching through dark glasses. Her rust-brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail beneath a black and gray striped ball cap.
“Leave them alone,” he whispered and narrowed his eyes in warning.
A strong gust of wind blew the ball cap off her head, and the woman stepped back to retrieve it, melting into the forest that grew a short distance away. When she did not return, he heaved a fleeting sigh of relief.
At the door to what would become his room, the girl rushed in and returned holding a set of acrylic paints and a paper pad out to him. She chirped, “Jenny said that you are an artist. What types of pictures do you like to paint? I like to draw birds, all kinds of birds.”
He took the offered gifts and smiled, genuinely happy for the first time since the baby magpies flew away.