and one piece of a walnut. He decided the walnut might be too difficult for the bird to deal with and let it fall through his fingers. He scooped a palmful of slush from the top of a log and dropped the raisins into it. The bird chirped again and opened its beak.
“Patience, little one,” Day said.
He scanned the woods, alert for the grey man and for the bird’s parents. But he was alone.
In a few moments, he fished the raisins out of the handful of water and squeezed them gently between his thumb and finger. They still seemed shriveled and dense, but the bird was shaking with hunger or anticipation, and so he poked a raisin into its beak. The raisin immediately disappeared down the bird’s eager throat. Its beak never closed. He gave it another one and waited to see if there would be any problems. He didn’t think magpies probably ate raisins in the wild, in the woods. But this one seemed to have an insatiable appetite for them, and so he poked the last raisin into its beak.
He sat cross-legged in front of the bird and watched it. The raisins had changed nothing. It sat trembling in the leaves, occasionally chirping, its beak open.
He found his flask in another pocket and opened it, tipped some of the brandy into his mouth. He held the half-empty flask out and showed it to the bird.
“I don’t suppose you’d care for a bracer, would you? No, I thought not.”
He smiled and plugged the top of the flask, put it back in his pocket.
“What happens to you if I go on my way, little chum?” he said.
He looked at the trees again, hoping to see a nest or an anxious adult bird, but of course he saw nothing. His visibility extended perhaps four feet into the trees.
“Will you learn to fly? Will your mother come to feed you?”
“We both know something will eat you. Or you’ll simply die here in the snow and then bugs will come when things warm up out here. Bugs are something, too, I suppose. So, yes, you will be eaten. That’s how it works, isn’t it? You’ve left the nest too early and now you’ll be a victim of . . . of what? The forest, the world, the natural way of things?”
He reached down and gathered up the ball of fuzz. It was ridiculously lightweight. He turned it over and noticed that there were no feathers on its belly. The skin was nearly translucent, and he could see its heart beating, see its dark organs arranged within the compact globe of its body. He touched a fingertip, gently, to the smooth grey-pink casing and felt its pulse against his own.
“Are you supposed to have feathers there?” he said. “Are you sick? Were you kicked out of the nest?”
The bird closed its beak and kicked out with a twiglike leg. He turned it back over in his hand so that it could sit upright.
“Well, you’ll freeze to death out here, at any rate. Not a good idea to leave home without your feathers on a night like this. I’d best do something about you.”
He tucked the bird away into the empty pocket that had held the biscuit and he stood up. He checked to make sure there was room enough for the bird and arranged the flap of his pocket so that it could get air. He bent, carefully, and picked up the lantern by its handle, checked the trees once more for a nest, and continued on his way, listening for the random chirp of his new companion.
W hen Hammersmith, Campbell, and Grimes returned to the inn, it was just before dawn and smoke was already pouring upward from the twin chimneys. Grimes left the other two at the door with a promise to return after washing up and getting a bite to eat. Inspector Day had not been found, and the men were anxious to recruit more bodies to aid in the search. Campbell opened the inn’s door and waved Hammersmith through to the common room, where they were surprised to find Inspector Day sitting before one of the two fires, sipping at a steaming mug of cider, still wearing his quilted vest and heavy boots.
Day stood and greeted them warmly when they
Rita Mae Brown, Michael Gellatly