THE GOLDEN BIRD by Maya Levine

I will not follow the whims of some mortal. I will not be caught..
In the garden of a much-beloved King, a beautiful golden bird made roost in the highest boughs of the orange tree. She shimmered in the dawn light and glowed in the noontime sun, shining as the moon began to come up and the dusk light turned her wings red. Her song was the sweetest that anyone in the kingdom had ever heard, but she only sang out as she flew round the garden, not close enough to the King’s chambers where he lay, unable to move in his sickness.

‘Ah,’ the King lamented, ‘I must have that Bird sing to me as I sleep.’

Now, the King had married thrice, but each time his wives had died without leaving him a son and heir. At death’s door, only wishing for a few small comforts, the King declared that whatever youth in the castle might catch the bird and bring it to sing for him would receive the kingdom upon his death.

And now the hunters came, though many were forced to give up in the first minutes as the golden Bird circled high above them and darted away from their grasping hands and blunted arrows and myriad traps, merrily whistling a jaunty taunt.

Weeks passed and the King was left without his the Bird. The nights grew warm and balmy and stewards leaned out of the castle windows as the bird slept and tried to get their hands around its throat, but it always awoke in time and flitted away from them like a golden dream. Crows came to nest in the leaves that surrounded the golden Bird, and the Bird shone like the sun against their night sky.

‘Ah,’ the King repeated, ‘now it shall not be long before I see my father again, but all I wish for is the Bird to play my exit.’

The efforts redoubled and the true contenders began to present themselves. The first was a Fowler. He had been raised in the Aviary and could make hunting birds come when he called, but while he was well-versed in the art of control he had never learned to speak the language of the birds. He brought with him a slew of hunting hawks to catch the Bird in their cruel claws without altogether killing her. He released them all with a shrill whistle and the flock took flight, surrounding the Bird and trying to drag her down to earth. But the Bird flew higher and higher and circled around them and sang her tune, calming some of the hawks and evading the others.

‘Bird!’ the Fowler shouted. ‘Warbler! Oriole! Grosbeak! I order you, come down to me! I command your kind, I know your ways—”

But despite his demands, the Fowler could not catch the dazzling creature and returned to the Aviary with no Bird and no kingdom.

The second man was a Trapper, brought up by those that would go far into the woods and bring back game, caught with cages and ropes and sharp metal teeth. He was the most intelligent that the castle had seen in several generations and had even caught the King’s eye a time or two, if only for the King to lament that he had no son such as that, who could bring the woods to heel. The Trapper studied the garden in the burning heat of day and cool humidity of night and learned the Bird’s patterns and favorite places and then began to set his traps.

It was to no avail. If the Trapper was a locked room, then the Bird was air escaping between the door and doorway. Every night the Trapper brushed the gardeners and Spicers out of the way and set the traps anew. Every day, if the Trapper thought he had caught the Bird then really she had disappeared like morning dew.

‘Bird!’ the Trapper furiously cried. ‘I implore you! Fly into my traps, remain there—I have not yet failed, my designs are of the highest quality and I am of the highest regard! Come here, to me! I find your kind, I know your ways—’

The Bird warbled ever louder and circled the turrets of the castle, and so the Trapper was forced to return to his woods with no Bird and no kingdom.

The third was a Poet. His father had been the King’s Bard before the King had retired to his chambers for the last time and had been known for the soft, heartbreaking melodies that he could write.

The Poet had observed the Fowler and Trapper and knew that violent methods and trickery would not work on this dazzling Bird. Instead, he made himself a fixture in the garden. On the burning days he would sleep under the trees or in the herb garden, and as evening shadows began to fall he would alight from the ground and circle the Bird’s favorite tree, listening to her play in the moon and sometimes strumming his lute or singing along. The two of them began to build up a certain camaraderie and even composed new songs together as the stars began to shine. The King could sometimes hear the music from his chambers and was placated for a few hours. It seemed to all that it would not be long before the Bird had been caught and sure enough, the Bird flew lower and lower and sometimes came to light on the Poet’s shoulder.

‘Bird,’ the Poet sighed, ‘beauty, siren, enchantress, will you not come with me into the castle? We are friends, you have known me and now love me—I speak your language, I know your ways—’

‘Ah, Poet,’ the Bird spoke for the first time, ‘if you knew my ways you would know that truly, I cannot go.’

‘My friend, this cannot be!’

‘You, who call yourself my friend—if you knew my ways, you would know that I will not follow the whims of some mortal. I will not be caught.’

And so the Poet was forced to return to the scullery with no Bird and no kingdom.

Now the King began to despair. He could feel death’s shadow looming over him and only wished for a bit of comfort. The castle and kingdom rocked with discomfort, unsure of who was to inherit when the King finally passed. ‘Who?’ the whispers came, ‘who can do it? Who can possibly do it?’

The Spicer had been watching these affairs for quite some time from her place in the garden, and finally she decided to try her hand. She saved her crusts of bread to attract the Bird to herself. The Bird was proud and would not be wooed by these pathetic things, so the Spicer mixed up her sweetest herbs in the concoctions that the old aunts had once taught her and hummed some feeble melodies into the sweet-smelling summer air. On nights like these the mixtures were most potent and the Bird could not help but come to their call.

‘Will you not come?’ the Spicer asked. ‘It is all the King desires, and he has been a good man and ruler. We all love him. Will you not come? It would give him a last bit of happiness.’

The Bird let out her cruel, lovely laugh.

‘Ah, Spicer, I cannot go. I will not let myself be trapped, or sing at the beck and call of these tiresome humans, who hunt and trap and put out honey that is vinegar in disguise. The King’s happiness? What of my desire? It is all I want, just a bit of freedom.’

And the Spicer began to understand. She stroked the miraculous Bird for a few moments, tugged at the feathers, and then threw her potion into the night outside, letting the Bird go free.

The next night the Spicer went to the King’s chambers. ‘I have caught the Bird!’ she declared.
The chambers went into an uproar that a lowly Spicer had dared to say such a thing. They demanded that she show the Bird to them and that the Spicer bade her to sing.

The Spicer shook her head, heart beating fast but refusing to show her fear. ‘I have caught her, yes, but let her go.’

‘Let her go?’ a Steward cried. ‘Foolish maid, you have lost the King his hope!’

‘Liar!’ another called.

‘Insolent!’

‘Traitor!’

The Spicer pulled from her apron the golden feather she had tugged from the Bird’s coat the previous night. She thrust it towards them and it gleamed in the dull candlelight and in the moonlight pouring in from the window. The King’s attendants balked at it and the Spicer marched through them and to the King’s bedside.

‘A gift for you,’ she murmured.

Bones cracking, the King began to sit up and reach out a wizened hand. ‘A gift, my child?’

‘Come, my King. To the window.’

And slowly, slowly, the young Spicer helped the old King from his deathbed and brought him to the window, where the golden Bird flew down from the top of the orange tree, alighted on the windowsill, and began to sing a song of such longing and joy that no one in the room could help but to cry.

Cry the King did, but laugh he did also, at having his last wish fulfilled. He declared the Spicer the heir to the kingdom and ordered his Stewards to bring him a simple chair.

‘This cannot be,” they said, “she has not caught the bird. What ruler will she be if she is too soft-hearted to bring a bird to heel?’

‘What kind of ruler is one that ignores the pleas for freedom?’ the Spicer scornfully asked. ‘I shall listen, and I shall judge fairly. I will not let the whims of the high-born govern all lives in the kingdom. Neither I nor the King need a throne. All that we need is a wooden chair, from which we can watch all inhabitants live peacefully and happily.’

‘This Spicer speaks the truth,’ the King said, and demanded the chair once again. It was brought to him and he sat on it for the rest of the night, listening to the Bird, until the morning came, the King finally passed, and the Bird flew away to Who-Knows-Where.
Maya Levine lives in Palo Alto, California, and is from Chicago, Illinois. She has published two stories in the Leyla Beban Short Story Contest, and will have work featured in MoonPark Review and the Eating Disorders Project this fall.

Cover Art: "Zar Ptitsa" by Georg Oskarovich,1922, Wikimedia Commons
Layout: Amanda Bergloff


Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts with Maya about her story in the comments section below. She'd love to hear from you!
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Comments


  1. What a beautiful story! I loved the colors, and I loved the integrity and thoughtfulness of the Spicer.

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  2. This colorful, evocative story takes me back to when I was a boy read fables and fairy tales checked out from the local library. Stories that taught a wisdom and morality in my formative years disguised in a colorful, fun and imaginative story set in a land far beyond the furthest clouds, yet applicable to my life in dreary Realsville. Bravo, Maya!

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  3. Beautiful - classic, yet unexpected. It reminds me of Andersen's "The Emperor's Nightingale".

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