Kenku Necromancer: Sigzik
The sparrow was dead on the windowsill when Sigzik came in from the market.
It lay on its back, delicate wings spread in wide arcs around its head. Its feathers still shone, buff, black, and brown. The beak cracked open like it had choked on a song. The low red light of the sunset lit the sparrow’s body in a funeral pyre.
There was a faint breeze stirring outside that brought noise up from the trampled earth street forty feet below the window: snatched intimate moments, a laugh, then silence. Sigzik thought it rather appropriate that the sparrow lay on the windowsill atop the bustling life of the city, riding the swells of time like a castaway caught on a wave at sea.
They had been at the shop all day, another long day of swelling inventory and painful social interactions. As they shuffled into the small apartment, cloak dragging the floor and talons clicking across the wood, they made a note to themselves about that social interaction: choose a better voice. The voice they used today, with the child, had been frightening. It was difficult when you could speak and understand, but had to borrow the voices of others to communicate. Sigzik had lived with it all their life, but that didn’t make it any easier. Stringing together meaningful sentences from snatches of phrases heard in dozens of different voices; it was enough to get past their dark eyes, their feathered face, their long, pointed beak: but then for that beak to break apart and shout twenty different voices at you? No wonder the child had been scared. No wonder the mother had looked at them that particular way, with the brow furrowed and the teeth bared. She’d only been protecting her young.
Sigzik sighed, reaching inside their cloak to pull out bits and bobs from the day. These things they lined up on the table in order from smallest to largest. They stepped back to look at the table for a moment before reaching forward to rearrange the objects in order from least interesting shape to most, which didn’t necessary act as a function of size. There was a twisted bit of wire from a hobbit in the market; a chipped tea cup with images of foxes chasing each other around the outside; a button with two buttonholes; a tarnished silver fork obviously missing a tine; a torn piece of paper with half of a personal note written on it. Sigzik let their eyes rest on each of these things, recreating the moment earlier in the day when they had been caught by the objects, almost at random, and compelled to pick them up and secret them away. Objects of significance, in some sense. Maybe even objects of power.
This menial chore done, they put a kettle on the fire stove and steeled themselves to deal with the dead sparrow on the windowsill. Sigzik dealt in objects of power on a daily basis; it was their stock and trade, what they had done for as long as they could remember. They couldn’t remember being a child. Their brain was full of stranger’s voices speaking phrases and catalogs of silver forks with missing tines. But every now and then, a small twist of fate would bless them with a power that they revered: death. Not only was this power present in the sparrow, but the windowsill was a border. A particular treat wrapped in a sugary sweet coating.
Sigzik clicked their beak together, using one talon to kick on of the threadbare woven rugs back and clear a space in the middle of the floor. From a large jar on a towering shelf, they sprinkled dark brown earth over the bare wooden floor in a circle, then filled that circle in, tamping down the earth with their talon. A stick from the northern border of the city lay on the north side of the circle; a feather scavenged from the west; a small mirror from the south; a small bowl filled with dirty water from the east. Sigzik used one claw to delicately trace a sigil in the center of the circle before shuffling over to the sill to retrieve the body.
Dear brother, they thought. Dear sister, welcome to my roost. Your flight has many miles yet before you are home for rest. I’m sorry. They scooped the little body up in their claws, trying to preserve the post of death as much as they could, aided by rigor mortis. This close, the feathers didn’t look as shiny and the beak looked as if it were caught in a scream instead of a song. Like many things, death was beautiful from a distance and showed true ugliness on close inspection.
Sigzik could taste a sharp odor on the air around the sill not entirely explained by the stalls and noise below. A stench that showed them the shape of the border and where the most minute crack in it was. One of the many clues they could use to slip a single claw through. As they lay the body down in the circle they had created, they imagined those wings in motion and that beak closing around a single sound. Like everything playing backwards, they could see it: the sparrow leaping backwards off of the windowsill, wings going down and up in the natural defiance of gravity, feathers ruffling in a backwards breeze. It was important that Sigzik see it in their mind, bend all their will on seeing it and making that sight real.
On the shelf there was also a bell. It’s polished wooden handle was the perfect size for Sigzik; its metal body shone in the late evening light like metal fresh from the fire. As they picked it up, quieting the clapper with their other hand, they swiftly translated that image of the sparrow flying backwards from the windowsill to a series of atonal whistles and chimes. The notes were variations on a theme of freedom and loss. Sigzik, despite all the voices they kept in their throat, could only hold one side of the dialogue that was about to happen. The bell was the other
They sat outside the circle, hem of their cloak splaying out around their crooked legs. They straightened their back, an unnatural posture; they caught the red light of the sun again in the polished face of the bell and slowly released their hand from the clapper as they raised the bell above their shoulder. The bell chimed.
From their beak that series of atonal notes dancing around the bell chime, a frantic conversation. They could feel that border they had sensed earlier, the border like the windowsill, the border like the smell, the border like the red, red light — it came into focus as the conversation continued.
The border was less like a wall and more like the film between water and air: permanent and malleable, but always there. Imperfections were impossible, but finding away to slip through always a promise about to come to fruition. As Sigzik sang to the bell, they reached their other hand forward to push at that frontier, to wiggle through, to pluck the sparrow from the veil.
“It’s time to go home!” They heard a mother shout from below, the voice carried through the open window.
“It’s time to go home!” Sigzik said in the mother’s voice, softer, their words frolicking around the lingering bell chime.
A wing fluttered fitfully. There was no breeze.
It wasn’t so long ago that they slept beneath the sky instead of in a run down tenement in the old town. They weren’t totally wild, but around their people, Sigzik could stretch and feel themselves connected to the life moving around the earth in a way that they hadn’t been able to recapture since. They were surrounded by siblings, people who looked like them with dark feathers and sharp beaks and hunched shoulders.
They weren’t like the sparrow; they had never been able to fly. Their people had evolved away from that a long time ago, when they stepped into the role of collectors and communicators. Flight was about freedom and change; you could not freely change a meticulously kept catalog. For as far back as they could remember, Sigzik’s people had not only been purveyors of objects of great power but also archivists, observers, keepers.
They weren’t performers. The songs they sang sounded sour to foreign ears. But they remembered.
Sigzik remembered now. How the disease came and how it took each of their siblings, one after the other, until no one was left. The open-topped wagons (with covers they extended during times of bad weather) abandoned in a circle, no one left to drive them forward. There were objects scattered across where the last fire had been set; objects with stories that would never be remembered and would absolutely never be told. It was the fifth night after their last sibling died when someone had finally stumbled on the camp to find Sigzik there cold and shivering. The sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth they spent in delirium, passed from one set of well-meaning hands to another. The tenth, they found their apartment. And then.
Sigzik never had wings. Looking at themselves in a tarnished looking glass, they saw only sloped shoulders and frail arms. Their arms were covered in feathers; feathers hung down like the vestiges of wings that couldn’t hold air. Claw-like hands that could touch, manipulate their objects. Frail torso. Drape it all in a tent-like cloth, worn through with holes and patched over and over again. Sigzik nearly always wore a robe and a cloak like armor, their face peaking out from under a cowl, their talons covered by cloth.
They sometimes dreamed what it would be like to be untethered to the earth. It’s why they chose a fourth floor walk up. The closest their building got to the sky. And yet.
The shop had been an accident. The things that Sigzik found spilled out from their tenement into a stall. Sometimes, someone would stop mid-step as something caught their eye. Sigzik knew the feeling well: a recognition between physical things. A similar vibration. The atonal vibratto of perfect alignment. Reaching across the border. It didn’t happen that often to people that weren’t Sigzik. The shop wasn’t very successful, but nobody came around making demands. Having a scary, pointed beak was sometimes actually good for something, even if that something was just avoiding conflict.
The sparrow takes flight.
Sigzik felt the power draw to a fine point inside their mind and in the atmosphere of their room. The sparrow’s wings fluttered once, twice, three times and suddenly it was rewinding. It leapt backwards to the window and in a moment it seemed almost as though time stopped. Sigzik could see the chest move, see the feathers adjust in flight, see the liquid sheen on the eyes, see the beak close around a sound. Moving in slow motion through the world with every sense heightened, Sigzik stood from their crouch on the bare wooden floorboards so that they could get a closer look at the sparrow, whose wings were slicing slow arcs through the early evening air.
It was getting even darker outside as the sun set, and Sigzik hadn’t bothered to light any lamps inside their home. Buildings and smoke obscured the dying light, making it even more surreal than twilight normally was. The air had a weight to it.
A beat, two. Sigzik only hoped the sparrow had a good story to tell. There was really no use in speaking to the dead if they didn’t have stories; it was like being at a party where every guest had just been born into the world fully-formed. No one would know what to do or how to connect.
They could see the lines of possibility traced backwards from the sparrow’s location. The further away from the sparrow the lines got, the blurrier they seemed: where the paths were less certain, and events may have happened several ways. Sigzik was a witness for the moment, but not for the millions of moments that came before. They let their dark eyes trace these patterns of possibility for a moment, reading what was written in them.
It was a sparrow. It’s story was fairly simple. Dust from the road and smoke from the factory conspired to fill its lungs with poison air. If it hadn’t come then, on the windowsill, death would have come in the same moment some other way: a closed window and a collision, or a hawk, or a particularly zealous child with a sling and a few extra stones.
Sigzik was contemplating this series of possibilities when the chime — the chime that they associated so subconsciously with the ringing bell around which they trilled the lullaby that called forth the dead — screeched upward in register, a piercing shriek that cut through all thought and reason. Sigzik dropped the bell to the ground with a loud clatter, their hands clutching at the sides of their head in an attempt to pry the siren away; it only seemed to get louder.
The bird was no longer tracing its arcing flight back over the windowsill. Sigzik could no longer see it. Everything seemed red, but they couldn’t tell if that was due to the evening light or to blood running in their eyes. It seemed like there should be blood; the high-pitched wail clawed at their head like a beast, sharp, slicing.
Then, like nothing, it stopped.
Sigzik lowered their hands cautiously. The light outside was dying, so they lit a small lamp, trying to still their shaking so they didn’t set the entire building on fire. It took a few tries, but once they had the lamp lit they felt better about the sudden severance from their magic. It had never happened before. The shadows had seemed to loom, to reach out across that shifting border, to claw at Sigzik’s head and mind with those singing, screaming claws.
They nearly had a heart attack a moment later when the tea kettle on the stove started whistling its readiness. The high-pitched whine of the steam didn’t cut as deeply, and with a heaved sigh and some reluctance, Sigzik shuffled over to prepare the tea that they’d been planning to have as a part of their quiet evening in.
Quiet evening in, indeed. As they poured the steaming water over a fresh bag of tea, they let their eyes stray to the circle of tamped earth on the bare wooden floorboards of the room. There lay the sparrows bones, bleached white against the dark earth, one long wing bone stretched to point West towards the setting sun and beak petrified shut, a white gravestone.