October 6, 2020

Wings Over the Plain, by Kathleen Jowitt

Editor’s note: The descriptive language of this story really grabbed my attention, as did the fact that Kathleen also leaves room for the reader to fill in the blanks. A gorgeous story.

Winter is harsh out on the high, broad, plain of Castile. There's nothing to stop the wind: it blows in cold from the sea, and becomes colder still as it crosses the mountains. Sometimes it brings snow; sometimes it just sweeps bitingly around every hunched tree and huddled building, and the people get through the winter as best they can. And on those long, cold, nights, the sky breaks into stars, more of them than you could count, brighter than you can imagine, showing a westward path that only the very devout or the very foolish follow at this time of year.

In the spring, the days get longer, and the nights shorter, and the lonely trees break into small green buds, and the path of stars still shines, though you have to wait longer for it; and the pilgrims walk, more and more of them. In every village there’s a church with a roof of red tiles crimped like the edges of scallop shells, and a bell that hangs from a gable made of the same yellowish stone as the rest of the building. And on every church there’s a messy nest of sticks the size and shape of a bass drum, balanced on a ledge or a corner. And on every nest there's a pair of storks, long-legged, long-beaked. If you look up, you'll see them. One might be standing tall, preening the head of its sitting mate. Or, perhaps, you'll see them swooping in the skies over the square, wings extended crosswise and legs trailing behind them, before returning to their nests amid a performance of ungainly flapping.

Storks, like human beings, build their homes to last. If the nest was good enough last year, why not use it again? Unless, of course, some other pair has got there first, or unless one stork or the other has found another partner, a more promising prospect for a family this year. These things happen. It’s sad, I suppose, if you choose to see it that way, but it’s the way of nature. There are other storks, other nests, other villages. 

In this particular village, the church is particularly ornate, with a bell gable sweeping in generous curves towards the top with three ledges on either side, and with four bells set in pairs. It was on one of those three ledges that the storks in which we are particularly interested had built their nest. They were not the first storks to have chosen this church, not by any means. Over the years hundreds of chicks must have been hatched and raised here. And even this year they were not the only ones to have chosen this church; there was another pair opposite them, and a third beneath them, on the corner of the roof.

But this nest was different. This nest contained no eggs, had never contained any eggs, not in any of the years that they had returned to it together.

Why, in that case, didn’t they seek other mates? Why didn’t one of them move on? Why hadn’t some more successful pair claimed the nest? I don’t know. All I can tell you is this: up in that nest, there, on the middle ledge on the left-hand side, there were no eggs, there had never been any eggs or any chicks, and yet that pair of storks kept coming back to it.

This is not to say that the nest was empty. Not this year, at least. This year, this nest contained something that this pair of storks guarded as carefully as any of their neighbors did their eggs.

This is what had happened:

Over the winter, the air had become cold and brittle, and small, strong fingers of ice had found their way into every crack and gap—between the slabs of the road, in the bricks of the houses, in the stonework of the church. Freezing and melting, freezing and melting, breaking stone silently and strongly.

And then, some days ago in the fierce breezes of spring, a small piece of stone, about the size of a man's hand, had become dislodged from the ledge above and had landed in the storks' nest. There was nothing very remarkable about it, except the fact that it was there. They had found it there when they returned from the south and reclaimed their nest. And it was this stone that they sat upon, turn by turn, and it was this that they warmed with the heat of their bodies.

Forty days they brooded, turn by turn, day and night. By day, beneath them, the pilgrims tramped eastwards, dusty and footsore. By night, high above them, the sky split from east to west in a glowing path of stars. And, day by day, night by night, the stone warmed through until at its heart it was burning hot, too hot for you or me to touch, though the storks did not seem to find it uncomfortable.

At the end of those forty days, the stone broke open. It split from end to end with a crack that sounded like the end of time, and yet nobody stirred: not the landlord sleeping over his bar, not the priest in the presbytery, not the pilgrims in the church porch, not the farmers in their houses out on the plain.

And from within the stone came something remarkable. 

Oh, it was as bedraggled as any hatchling, and it made the plaintive peep peep sound that most young birds make. And although it was already stronger than either of them, the parent storks fed it as they would have fed any other chick, and it ate obediently if not eagerly. But it was like no chick that has ever been seen in this world before or since, though you would be hard put to describe precisely what it was that made it different. It had the wings, had it not? And the downy fluff? Yes, but even so, it was different. If you tried to describe it, you would find that in fact you were talking about any ordinary young stork, and you would know that you had failed to convey its true nature. And all you would be able to say, feeling a little foolish, would be, yes, but it was different. 

The stars shone; the pilgrims walked. All of the adult storks went out to the wide flat fields outside the village and followed the plow. They waited for the worms to turn up in the disturbed earth, and brought them back to their chicks.

Spring gave way to the scorching heat of summer. The roads dried to dust and the sun took command of the wide blue sky. The pilgrims stopped to fill their flasks at the fountain in the square, and sat in the shade of the church to eat their bread and cheese. In most of the storks’ nests, the chicks ate and squabbled and grew; they clattered their beaks; they ventured up onto the sides of their nests and stretched and flapped their wings, and, tentatively, taught themselves to fly.

It was not like this for the chick that had hatched from the stone. It was as if this one had always known about flying, had never belonged to the ground, had only been waiting for permission to rise up. It rose—flew—went up, high up, out of sight, dissolving into the blue sky, and swooped back down again, circling joyfully around the skies around the tower where it had hatched. Its parents clattered their beaks—in approval or grief, dismay or joy, I can’t tell—and it gave a strange cry, replying, and rose up once more. But this time it seemed to get bigger as it rose, so big that it filled the whole sky, and bright wings spread from horizon to horizon.

Have you a minute to spare? Then come into the church with me. Look up, into the rafters; turn your head a little to the side. Do you see that angel, with the white robe and the dark face and the outstretched golden wings? Somehow they always forget to mention it in the guidebooks; but nobody who has seen it forgets. No one knows who carved it or who painted it, and every art expert who looks at it has a different opinion from the last on how old it is. The woman who came in today swore that it dates from the eighteenth century; the man last week said it was medieval. I don’t think it matters, myself … .

Oh, but it's getting late. You’ll be wanting to eat. Come, I'll walk back as far as the hostel with you.

Look up, into the sky; turn your head a little to the side. The stars are just beginning to come out. Do you see it, that iridescent shimmer? That's all that you and I can see of those great white wings that stretch from end to end of that long westward pathway, and, for all I know, further, beyond the end of the world.


Bio: Kathleen Jowitt writes across a range of genres, exploring themes of identity, redemption, faith, and politics. Her work has been shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize, the Selfies Award, and the Betty Trask Award. She lives in Ely, UK.


Image from Pixabay.


Kelly Jarvis said...

Beautiful ❤️ I love the use of the second person voice near the end which pulls you into the story and makes you search the skies.

Wolfchick3 said...

This tale had a similar feel to a Hans Christian Anderson tale with the narrator speaking to the reader and the detailed observation style of writing. Jowitt also kept me intrigued with the simple mystery of what the “egg” was. Overall it was a great story.

Kathleen Jowitt said...

Kelly - thank you! I wanted to pull the story into the present, to give it a sense of immediacy, and putting the reader into the story seemed to be a good way to do that!

Wolfchick3 - thank you so much! While this wasn't a conscious attempt to pastiche HCA, I do love his style.

Katew said...

Kathleen evokes the best of Andersen. I didn’t actually think of him when I read it. I did definitely think it was a literary fairy tale.

Katew said...

Well put, Kelly!

HulderMN said...

I love the pacing of this story. And I'd like to sit down with that storyteller and share a flask of wine as more stories of the town are shared.

Joanie said...

What a beautiful tale of enduring love and hope.

Kathleen Jowitt said...

Thank you to both HulderMN and Joanie.

Stories rarely come singly; there's always another one waiting its turn. And I think we all need love and hope these days!