The Pilgrim Woman tells another peppercorn story.
Two servants lived in great content beside a famous palace. Their role was to look after all the beautiful birds in the exquisite Royal Aviary.
Every day before the Royal Family rose, the two servants swept the aviary path clear of droppings, just in case the King or Queen or Princess might call. They gave the birds all the amaranth seeds, macadamia nuts or meal-worms their beaks would open for.
They picked up the glorious feathers and gave them to the Court Milliner. From time to time, they guided visitors around to marvel at the sunset-red macaws, the rare pheasants in colours of maple leaves and hawthorn berries, and the showy peacocks with their shaking, humming tails.
No-one loved the birds more than they, and they both took great care over their softly-feathered guests. It was a huge aviary – some Princedoms were smaller than it. Indeed, a small river ran through its ferny glades. The birds were happy enough: able to fly and perch without cats or hawks threatening to eat them or raid their nests. The Royal Family were well pleased: so many paying visitors came to see the birds that their small realm was rich.
The birthday of the Princess drew near. Every part of the country was commanded to send a new bird or two in celebration. Week by week, carts and cages came with new songsters or specimens with dazzlingly coloured plumage. The Keepers of the Birds ticked off their list of provinces, outposts and islands.
Only one remained. An obscure region in the far north. Then the Royal Post-carrier delivered a small box to their bothy. On lifting it up, they heard a faint scuffling.
‘That’s no way to treat a bird.’
‘We musty open it directly.’
They peeled off the brown paper, much punched with holes and found a pretty little birdcage inside. The curls and spirals of well-forged metalwork let in air enough, but at its centre there was no bonny wee birdie, but a hunched-up bundle of dull feathers.
‘What a pitiably ugly thing.’
‘Perhaps it sings well?’
‘It would have to with that hideous beak.’
The cage door squeaked as they opened it, but the bird did nothing. It hung its bulbous head with a grey beak resting on its breast.
‘Poor unhappy thing.’
One of the bird-keepers slipped a cautious hand inside. The bird hopped onto the offered palm, then sat still and silent. The keepers tutted and shook their heads.
‘What a pathetic offering for the birthday of the Princess.’
‘It would be almost an insult from anywhere else – but the Northern Provinces are remote and uncouth. Perhaps it’s the best they can do.’
Still, the bird-keepers still tried to please the wretched creature. They offered it pecans and pine-nuts, sunflower seeds and sesame, small crickets and soft caterpillars. It just sat on a twig, a thumb-sized patch of drabness.
‘Perhaps it’s bored?’
They gave it mirrors and bells to play with, enticed the best chorister of the whole aviary to sit beside it and sing. All the little bird did was gaze upwards to the sky. Its eyes, each no bigger than a pinhead, reflected the passing clouds. Its beak never opened except to sip from the cold waters of the little river that ran through the enormous aviary.
‘Why can’t it be happy like the other birds?’
‘We’ve given it everything it could possibly want.’
The day of the Princess’s Birthday came – bright and full of spring sunshine. The keepers and their families made the Royal Aviary joyous with hanging ribbons from the roof and vibrant flowers in pots along the central Royal Path. With fine, almost invisible, netting they drew all the birds close to the route the Princess would take. Their feather and beaks formed a rainbow that flapped and chirruped whenever someone passed.
All except one. The bird from the Northern Province had wriggled its way to the topmost twig in the aviary. With ragged wings folded down its back, it stared upwards – a blotch of misery against the blue sky.
‘It won’t do.’
‘No, poor mite.’
One of the bird-keepers found a brass handle tucked away. It was meant to let the rising heat out in summer. With a twist, oiled gears turned and rods twirled. Glass glinted and began to move far above. One tiny pane had scarcely tilted half way before the little northern bird squeezed its way out.
‘Thank goodness it’s gone.’
A fanfare of flutes came down from the Palace.
‘Here comes the Princess!’
The music faded and the Birthday Parade halted. On the highest,most windswept pinnacle of the Palace, a tiny bird trilled the most exquisite song. Mouths hung open. How could such a small creature hold so much joy inside it?
Other beaks opened. Other songs filled the aviary – and burst out from the open roof vent. The smallest birds fluttered up first. They tore holes in the netting. A cascade of feathers fell, some caught in the mesh.
Scores of bigger birds rose and burst their way out. In a great song-spout, all the captives rose above the Royal Aviary. Then they twisted and turned to follow the little northern bird in a stream of wings and noise.
The two bird-keeping servants gaped in wonder, just like all the dukes and duchesses, servants and even the Princess – and then puzzled what the birds’ freedom would mean for them.
‘Hm,’ said the Lord-by-the-Sea, when it was clear the Pilgrim Woman had finished. ‘What was the point of that?’
She paused on her way back up to the garret. The little spangles on her skirts tinkled as she spoke.
‘I leave that for you to decide – I merely tell the tales.’