The old woman who lived in the bottom apartment called me. Her name was Basuma. Freckles covered her hands and arms and made her look like a ripe banana.
She pointed to a tree in our backyard. “Look! The momma bird is feeding the baby bird,” she said. “Daddy’s watching for cats. When he sees a cat scrunch itself up into a waiting rock beneath the tree with its mouth open and its tail ticking,” she continued, “he flies to the branch and warns its family to fly far away.”
I thought about that. “But how does a bird learn how to fly?”
She pulled out a brown and white feather from her grey hair and began to fan herself. “By watching the momma bird.” Sweat was beading off her forehead. “Sheesh, child, it’s too warm. Let’s go to the basement. I’ll tell you there.”
We climbed the winding wooden stairs to her small room. Basuma sat in a rocker. I sat on a blue rug and leaned my head against her bed. “Go on,” I patted her leg.
“Once there was a Bird Woman named Liana,” began Basuma.
“Liana!” I said. “That’s my name!”
She nodded. “She was nobody’s child and everybody’s child. Liana was an orphan who had been brought to the village as an infant. All the families in the village helped to raise her. She grew up learning something from everyone.
“One family taught her how to listen. She could hear ants digging inside their homes. Another family taught Liana how to sing. “If you know how to sing,” they told her,” you can move rocks from your heart.”
“But why are your eyes sliding off your face?” asked a sparrow who had made a trek down the bark of the tree to talk with her.
“I receive gifts from all the families in the village,” said Liana. “But I have nothing to give.”
The sparrow scratched her head. As small as she was, she knew many things. “I’ll give you a feather. Then you will have a gift.” With a tug from her beak, the little sparrow plucked a feather from her wing. “Here,” she said, and flew away.
Liana lived near a river that overlooked a thick stand of tall pine trees with Malley and her little brother Joosh. Liana was the oldest. Malley and Joosh’s parents were away collecting summer berries, but knew the other families would take care of them.
“The next morning Liana opened her eyes and saw that the moon had not yet disappeared. She held the feather inside her palm. It was speckled brown and white. Who would want a small feather that was no bigger than her nose? She tucked it inside a small gold locket that she wore around her neck, the only thing she’d brought when she’d first came to the village.
“What’s wrong?” asked Malley, who stirred inside her bed of soft fresh leaves. “Why are you up so early?”
“Now little Joosh always slept next to the fire to stay warm. He never wanted to miss anything. He was in such a hurry, he accidentally tossed the edge of his leaf bark blanket into the fire, which began to blaze.
“Oh, Joosh, you’re so dumb,” said Malley. The boy stuck out his tongue.
The girls tried to put out the fire, but it spread. They had nothing except a rusted can to carry water from the river. Joosh kept filling up the can. But why did Malley try to smother the fire with a deerskin? And why did Liana throw rocks, which only created sparks that flew everywhere in the dry weather? The pine trees caught fire.
Liana remembered the sparrow’s feather. She took it out and rubbed it on her chest. Her back grew thick with feathers. The wind parted her dark hair down the middle of her neck, which spread over her arms into two wings. Liana moved so quietly through the air, she didn’t even disturb the wind. She grabbed the two children and flew to the other side of the river where she placed them on safely the ground. The Bird Woman flew away. From high in the air, she saw how everything was connected to everything else, how the rivers flowed into the oceans, how the mountains sloped into the valleys. She called to Malley and Joosh good-bye. Her voice turned into a beautiful song.”