No one bears witness to the capture of the birds. It happens at night, after all the people of the town are in bed. The low vibration of a thousand fragile hearts pulsates through the sleeping houses, but it is not enough to wake a soul. It is true that a child stirs when the faint, unearthly melody from a single lark, breaks the silence for a moment. Who knows what melancholy dreams that solitary song inspired? The slumberer emerges groggily into consciousness, asking only a murmured “What was that?” as the vestiges of the dream evaporate, and sleep once again reclaims them.
Towards dawn, a struggle of beating wings sweeps unnoticed through the air of the town and is gone, leaving behind just a handful of feathers, adrift on an unexpected waft of wind.
The townsfolk sleep through that first strange, hushed sunrise. On waking, drunk with sleep, their bleary brains struggle to work out what is missing. When little Idris tugs at his mother’s skirt and points wanly at the deserted birdfeeder, she simply bats him away. Similarly uninterested in the heap of feathers he finds on the front step, she swishes them to one side with her broom. There are more important things for her to worry about.
A few days pass before people begin to ask each other about the birds. It starts as the odd muffled comment and perhaps an inquisitive look up into the empty skies but before long it is practically the only topic of conversation in the town. What is so disturbing? It is a strange indefinable absence that has unsettled everyone. Within a fortnight a meeting is arranged in the municipal building to discuss the town’s birdlessness.
When it comes to it, there is standing room only and some latecomers are even turned away, much to their disgruntlement. An irate vicar leaves in a huff, balking at the huge turnout for a meeting about the trifling matter of a few birds when his Sunday services see just a paltry scattering of attendees. The jostling throng is not easily contained, and a deafening hubbub soon fills the sweltering hall. Eventually, the town’s mayor presses through the unruly crowd, pushing people aside as he does so. There is a hush as he climbs onto the dais, but when he begins a lengthy lecture on the importance of birds, eyes roll and the chatter resumes. People do not want to know about birds in general, they are only interested in what has happened to their own birds, and that is that. By the time the meeting concludes they are no further forward.
There is much sighing as the townsfolk push their way out of the stuffy heat of the hall, even if it is into a bone-dry, dusty market square. Here they gather in small groups under the scorched canopies of the few cherry trees to discuss matters. But where is Dai the inventor, father to Idris, husband to Ffion, in the midst of all this hullabaloo? He is usually at the centre of things.
In the small kitchen of their two up two down terraced cottage on the side of the mountain, we see Ffion. Perhaps she too is wondering where her husband has got to? It is well known that Dai’s fascination for inventing had been one of the things that attracted her to him, but who could guess that the grim reality of his occupation would be the bare larder she now stares into. His latest success was an ingenious idea of fixing two snow shovels together at their midpoints, scissor like, and using them to gather up piles of leaves during the autumn months. Sadly, few were actually sold at the local store, and no repeat order has been forthcoming. Dai has much higher ambitions than the scissor-shovel-leaves creation though. He sits for hours crouched over the kitchen table with sheets of paper, rulers and pencils, plotting unlikely designs. Idris is often to be found at his side, a striking replica in younger form. Both are skinny thatch-headed chaps, with vivid blue eyes set in pallid freckled faces.
Early morning on the day following the town meeting, anyone caring to look would see Dai turning into the forest lane at the end of the road, with Idris running behind him. Only we can see Dai bending to take his son’s hand, just as they pass out of view of the town. Soon the pair are on a lane that gives way to a track which becomes a narrow path, before petering out altogether. Huge trees grow so close together with such dense foliage at their crowns that the light from the blazing sun can barely make its presence felt. The air is thick with quiet as they wend their way ever deeper into that labyrinthian wood. Though birds have always been fewer in the depths of the forest, you would still expect to hear the drumming of the lesser spotted woodpecker, and warblers too. Not to mention the pied flycatcher, with its pretty trill. But listen…there is nothing. Not a sound. Just the heavy hush of the birdless forest.
A pale hint of light creeps up to meet the pair. Though very faint and dreamlike at first, its strength steadily increases until the gloom gives way to bright sunshine. Now Dai and Idris are in a clearing with a lake at its centre. The sky above is a perfect blue, washed at its edges with a halo of ochre, rimmed more darkly by the very tops of the tall trees. Had there been any clouds, they would have been mirrored in the glassy surface of the lake. As it is, the water takes on the azure of the sky, while ripples catch jagged rays of the sun that hurt the eyes. Before young Idris can possibly take all this in, a smattering of birdsong reaches him. This builds to a such a crescendo that his eyes widen with delight, and he has to clap both hands to his ears. The sound is coming from an enormous cage across the lake. Even from this distance it can be seen that it is fashioned from a frame of tree trunks with struts made from twigs all tied securely together with thick twine. Inside throng a myriad of birds.
How could any child keep themselves from running towards that cage? Before Idris gets more than a few paces around the edge of the lake, his father catches hold of him and swings him in the air by his arms. “Hey, not so fast”, he laughs, “let’s swim first”. With that, Dai strips off and dives into the crisp waters. This is a game they have played often enough. Idris waits for his father to emerge before running full pelt to throw himself through the air, only to be caught by a pair of strong arms. Dai tosses his son up in the air and splashes him back down into the water, before returning him to the bank for a repeat performance. It is clear that Idris loves the water, and he can even swim on his own, so it is said.
Shivering after the surprising chill of the water, the two now lie on the warm rocks at the edge of the lake, but Idris cannot be kept from the birds for long. There he is, scrambling back into his clothes and shoving on his sandals without doing them up, then running towards the cage, with his father close behind. By this time, the birdsong has intensified into such loud screeching that Idris must shout his multitude of questions in order to be heard above the din, “Who put them here, Dad?...Can we let them out?” Not waiting for answers, he grabs hold of two twig struts and stares at the birds within. The broad smile on his face quickly wanes though, and his chin begins to quiver. Following the line of his son’s gaze, Dai can see that the floor of the cage is strewn with dead birds. As father and son stand watching, a dozen or so more fall to the ground and lie struggling, having crashed headlong into the bars. The wild sounds coming from the birds are not their usual melodic trilling, but the maniacal shrieks of creatures scared half to death. Other birds are quiet, huddling in the far corner of the cage and fluttering about in agitated bewilderment. What can Dai do but gather Idris up and walk quickly away? And what is that to the side of the cage? It is a pile of pale plucked corpses that Idris surely must have glimpsed, despite his father’s efforts.
Inside a hut at the other side of the lake, Dai distracts Idris by telling him a very important secret, that he must not to tell anyone, not under any circumstances. He begins by drawing a little picture of a swan. Dai explains that when the swan dives under water, its feathers stay completely dry. He tells Idris that the swan’s feathers keep him warm in winter, cool in summer, and also help him to float. Actually, he does not seem too sure on that last point. Dai tells Idris that feathers are special and that he is using them to make a magic cloak with a lining of the softest golden duckling fluff. Then he shows him intricate pictures and diagrams he has drawn but they are complicated, and Idris only stares blankly at the pages before him, his mouth turned down in a sulk. So Dai leads his son to a corner of the room where he whisks away a sheet from the table to reveal a prototype of the cloak. He even lets Idris try it on. The duckling fluff encloses his neck in a tickling embrace. The feathers are smooth and soft, in a multitude of brilliant colours. Despite the stifling humidity in the hut, the cloak is completely dry and cool to the touch. The feathers on the cloak shimmer in a shaft of sunlight that suddenly bursts through the small window of the hut, bringing its colours into intense focus. The way it shudders and glides through the air as Dai twists it this way and that makes it pulsate with life. Idris wants to run around outside in the cloak, what child would not? But the garment is far too big for him, and Dai does not want the hem of it to be dragged around in the mud at the edge of the lake.
On their way home, Dai tells Idris that he needs the birds’ feathers for the cloak which will make him a fortune and the whole family will then be able to live in a mansion. When Idris asks why they cannot set the caged birds free, Dai carefully explains that it is sadly necessary to dispose of a few birds for the sake of the cloak.
The thrill of that magical cape eclipses Idris’s distress at the captured birds’ plight, but it seems that his dreams are not spared. In the nights that follow, it is not unusual for him to cry out in his sleep and awaken muttering something about feathers and he cannot be soothed. Ffion is worried but Dai blames the townsfolk and their constant talk of lost birds, which he says is giving everyone nightmares, not just the children.
During the days, Idris is often to be found drifting off in his own imaginings. Anyone able to look into his mind would see that he longs to wear the magic cloak and he envisions himself floating across a glass-like lake, diving down to swim underwater before emerging, dry and warm in his soft duck lined garment. On a few occasions Idris has been seen by various people at the edge of the forest on his own, gazing into the wood with glassy eyes and the hint of a smile on his lips. Early one morning Idris, still in his nightgown, can be seen following his father. Dai looks so engrossed in his own thoughts that he does not notice his son following him as he makes his way through the forest.
Upon reaching the golden clearing, Idris can be seen to hang back and watch as his father scatters some seed into the cage before heading off up a footpath on the far side of the lake. But what is Idris doing, lurking in the thick scrub at the edge of the clearing? Not sure if Dai is going to return or not, Idris waits for what seems like forever, but eventually he feels safe enough to creep into the little hut. He longs to set the poor birds free, but first he cannot help but take a look at the magic cloak. It is there under the dust sheet, just where it had been when he first saw it, beckoning him. Idris smooths his hands along the duckling down lining and sighs. Then he wraps the cloak around himself and slips out the door. At first, he finds entertainment in charging around the entire perimeter of the lake. The cloak is actually quite heavy and although he had been sure that he would be able to keep the hem off the ground, it is more difficult than it looks. Eventually, he just gives up and the feathers at the lower edges begin to take on a greyish hue. It does not help that he accidentally dips it in the water while making a sharp turn in his dance around the lake then drags it through some clods of mud.
Tired of running about and holding up the heavy garment, Idris has the idea to jump into the lake wearing the cloak. It will, after all, keep him dry and it will float too, his father had said so had he not? It might be possible for him to dive under water like the swan, and he would surely then just bob to the surface again.
Instead of jumping in, which might cause something of a scary splash without his father there to catch him, Idris decides to slither down headfirst so that he can make a smooth entry into the lake. As he slips into the water, there is a pleasant plopping sound, which makes him laugh. At first, he whirls himself around on the surface and feels quite dry, but he has forgotten that the cloak is not sealed at his feet, and it is not long before he feels icy wavelets slopping at his ankles. Ignoring this, Idris tries to dive down swanlike, but it is difficult to do in practice. He keeps rolling over onto his back and it is a struggle to right himself. When he tries to get out of the water, he finds that the steep sides are slippery and he cannot get a firm grip, instead he starts to drift towards the middle of the lake. It is as if the cloak itself is a living breathing thing, propelling itself forward, as it gets heavier and heavier, and weighing him down, pulling him under the water. Idris feels his breath coming in quick bursts, and his heart begins to beat very fast. He wants to call for his dad but wonders what trouble he will be in for jumping into the lake wearing the magic cloak.
It is then Idris notices that the birds have become eerily quiet. There is just a pock-pock-pock sound, and he can see some sort of bird of prey with a large sharp beak pecking at the twine holding the cage door shut. A sudden creaking jarring noise is followed by a rush of wind and flying feathers as the door bursts open, and the birds soar out in a great flock. They swoop in a wave over the lake flying fast and low straight over Idris, so close that some of their wing feathers brush his face. Idris did not like the thought of the birds stuck in their prison and he had wanted to set them free himself but the excitement of wearing the cloak distracted him. The birds begin circling, faster and faster, emitting high pitched shrieks and cackles. Some fly high into the sky before turning to dive through the air straight at him. Though Idris tries to shield his face, it is difficult because he is doing all he can to keep afloat, and that involves quite a lot of flapping of his arms in the water. But the birds are not trying to attack him, they swoop down to grab at the cloak with beak or claw. They keep diving and pulling at the garment until they have loosed it from him. Then they tear into the air carrying it away. As they lose their grip on its bright feathers, it seems as though the cloak itself is flying. It dips and ripples and, caught by a sudden breeze, the edges spread outwards, like huge wings, soaring high in the sky, up towards the sun, where in a dazzling rainbow it glistens and is gone. Then there is just Idris, alone in his sodden nightgown, in the middle of the freezing lake.
Idris never returns to the town, and neither do the birds. Some who have since ventured into that golden clearing say they have heard the laughter of a child along with the distant echo of birdsong. A few claim to have a seen a small tow-haired child atop an eagle, flying fast and low over the lake, intense blue eyes in a pale freckled face, a cloak of bright feathers streaming out behind him. Ffion clings onto these supposed sightings, and is often to be found by the lake, scanning the water for her lost child. Fists permanently clenched, her eyes raw, yet she does not give up hope. Idris’s birdfeeders can be seen hanging from a nearby twig, but the seeds are untouched. Ffion avoids the hut at the water’s edge where Dai has taken up residence. He sits there, barely moving, occasionally glancing miserably around him, imagining Idris dancing once more in that multicoloured magic feathered cloak. Dai has lost his hunger for inventing it seems and has cast aside his drawings of the prototype. Whenever he picks up his pencil and ruler, he gets a cramping in his heart that will not go away. If we were to look at the pages before him now, we would see that there are no new projects sketched thereon, he has only drawn small hands cradling a fragile bird, over and over, the picture repeating on sheet after sheet.
And what of the townsfolk? They have never got over the loss of the birds. For how can a town survive without such creatures? They can just about remember the mesmerising flight of a murmuration of starlings; swirling mass of dark blotches against a clean sky, the heart-stopping dives of their flawlessly imperfect formations. Sudden juddering twists and turns in mid-air, a voluminous mass arcing and plunging, forming, dividing, reforming. They recall too, the waxwings and their massing, rippling flight. Scouring and stripping the hedgerows of berries in a startling flash of yellow tail and vermillion-dipped wings. While the humble sparrow may seem dull in comparison with his dun-coloured plumage, think of the suffocating silence the absence of his fierce trilling would leave. Listen. Listen to that silence.