The Impossible Bird by Jamie Lackey

Tommy dreamed of sunshine filtering through green leaves, of the taste of raspberries fading on his tongue and the sound of the brook rushing over smooth gray stones.  

A blue jay flitted in the branches above him, blue feathers brilliant in the sun. It paused and stared down at him, its black eyes keen. It cawed three times, then flew away.  

He woke to cold hands shaking him. “It’s your watch.” Dave climbed into Tommy’s bedroll the second he was out of it—there was no sense in letting his body heat go to waste. Tommy rubbed his face and felt something tangled in his hair. He tugged it out, and a sharp pain lanced through his scalp. He found himself staring down at a bright blue feather. “Go on,” Dave whispered. “You don’t want to leave poor Jerry all by his lonesome out there.”

Tommy tucked the feather into his coat pocket. A bombardment thundered in the distance and lit up the horizon, just visible over the top of the trench. Ice crystals formed on the dirt walls, and frozen mud crunched beneath Tommy’s boots.

He knelt behind a line of rusting barbed wire and stared toward the enemy lines. His breath made gray ghosts that dispersed into the frigid air. The eastern sky slowly turned gray.

A branch above him dipped, and a blue jay stared down at him. The branch bobbed under its weight.  

“You can’t be real,” Tommy whispered. “There are no blue jays in Europe.”  

The blue jay cawed three times, just like in his dream. It fluttered down and perched on the barbed wire, bright blue even in the thin gray light. It flitted down the line, landed, then flitted back.  

“I’m not going to leave my post to follow an impossible bird,” Tommy told it. “I’m not crazy.”  

It cawed again and shifted its weight from one tiny black foot to the other.

“Can you wait ’til my watch is up?”

It blinked twice, then vanished.  

His relief came bearing coffee in a dented tin cup. “Anything interesting?”  

Tommy shook his head and accepted the coffee. The bird was back, looking at him with its head tilted expectantly. “I think I’ll take a walk.”  

“Suit yourself. Don’t forget the countersign.”  

***

Tommy followed the bird into a copse of shattered trees. The shelling had left them in ragged pieces. But the blanket of snow softened them, almost making the scene inviting. The blue jay landed on a patch of snow, but left no marks.  

“Why am I doing this?” Tommy asked.  

The bird’s caws sounded like mocking laughter. It continued into the trees.  

Tommy followed.  

It perched on a fallen log, and Tommy found a frozen corpse pinned beneath it. A blonde boy, his helmet askew, tears frozen on his pale cheeks.  

Tommy reached down to check his pockets.  

The dead eyes blinked and struggled to focus. The corpse rasped something in German. Tommy didn’t understand the words, but the tone was pleading.

The bird watched, unblinking. The dead boy’s frozen hands creaked as his fingers flexed. “Bitte.” His breath did not mist in the freezing air. “Bitte.”  

“What do you want?” He turned to the bird.  “What does he want?”

The bird shuffled its wings like a shrug.  

Tommy pulled the feather out of his pocket and pressed it into a frozen palm. The boy’s fingers curled around it, and his eyes slid closed. Pride swelled in Tommy’s chest—he wasn’t sure how or why, but he was sure that he’d done something good. Something kind.  

The blue jay hopped onto Tommy’s shoulder. Its weight was solid. Real.  

Then gone.  

Tommy sat down on the frozen ground and wept.

***

Tommy dreamed of sunshine again. He flew with brilliant blue wings, and other birds—his flock—flew with him. They soared together into the sky.