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A Song That Claims No Language

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“Oh. Kiri. Er…what is it?” asked Caleb, quite awkwardly, as the little kenku pushed his door open and waddled on into his room.

When she only continued to stare at him, he tried again.

“Nott is not here right now,” he said weakly. “Perhaps she is with the girls?”

Kiri considered him for a moment, then made her way across the floor towards the bed where he was seated, cross-legged, on the covers with a book in his lap.

With only slight difficulty, she wiggled onto the mattress, sat down directly in front of him, and then cocked her head.

Caleb glanced around the room. He looked hopefully at the door. Then he turned his gaze back down at her. She made a soft, cooing sound.

Caleb was quite a good liar. He was a rather clever man. He was also, as Nott constantly insisted, the most amazing wizard in the world.

Here, he was completely out of his depth.

He stared at Kiri, who did not go away.

“What...er...what do you want from me?”

“Want from me?” Kiri echoed, and it was somewhat unsettling to hear a grown man’s voice coming from a 3-foot, fluffy bird-child.

Caleb ran a hand through his hair. “Ja, want from me. Is...is there something you need?”

“Something I need,” she agreed.

“Oh. Alright. Is it Frumpkin? Do you want him?”

Kiri shook her head.

“Are you…hungry?”

She shook her head again.

“Thirsty?”

Nein,” she said, in his own voice.

He sighed. “Maybe you should go talk to Jester, dreckspatz. I do not know what you are asking from me, and I was about to go to sleep—”

“Sleep,” she echoed, and he paused.

“…sleep? Are…oh. Are you having trouble going to sleep?”

This time she gave a short, delighted chirrup. “Trouble going to sleep.”

“Why?” he asked. “Is it too cold?”

She shook her head.

“Too hot?”

Nein,” she said, and before he could give another exasperated sigh she brought her feathered hands together and mimicked the motion of rocking a baby. Then she pointed to herself. Caleb’s heart sank.

“Oh,” he mumbled. “You miss your mother and father?”

“Your mother and father,” she agreed. “Miss.”

Caleb stared helplessly at her for a few moments. And then his shoulders sagged, and he exhaled slowly.

“I miss mine too,” he said softly.

“Mother and father,” she said again. “Trouble going to sleep.”

He ran another hand through his hair. “Yes, I understand now, Kiri, but…but what would you like me to do?”

She seemed confused by this question. “Caleb’s very smart!” she declared, in a pitch-perfect rendition of Nott’s shrill, crackling voice. “He always knows what to do!”

“You know, you shouldn’t always believe what she says.”

“Believe what she says,” Kiri argued, and Caleb had to applaud her tenacity if nothing else. They sat in silence as he tried to think of something, anything at all, to say. And then an idea struck, in a wave of gut-wrenching inspiration.

“Perhaps I may know something that might help,” he murmured. “Would you like me to try it?”

“It?”

“As…as a child, when I could not sleep…” he sighed, and rubbed his face, and tried again. “Whenever I had trouble going to sleep...my parents, they would always sing for me. And I am sorry, but I cannot bring your parents here. Hah, I cannot bring mine here either. But maybe, perhaps…perhaps I could sing for you?”

Her expression brightened immediately. “Sing for you!” she agreed, and before he could stop her, she had scooted across the bed and climbed into his lap, perching on one of his legs and letting her clawed feet hang off the other. Then she ruffled her feathers, got comfortable, and looked up at him with expectant eyes.

He sighed, gave her an awkward pat on the head, took a deep breath, and very, very softly, began to sing:

Schlaf, Kindchen, schlaf.
Dein Vater hüt' die Schaf.
Die Mutter schüttelt's Bäumelein,
da fällt herab ein Träumelein.
Schlaf, Kindchen, schlaf.

If Nott had been sitting next to him, she would have smiled and nodded along to the words. If Jester had been there, she would have giggled and offered to sing a few bars of her own song. If it were Yasha, they might’ve slipped into Celestial. Molly would have lounged against the headboard, grinning lazily as he drank in the simple melody.

But this was Kiri. This was a young child who just wanted to sleep. She leaned into Caleb’s chest. Her eyelids started to droop.

He began to rock her gently. Despite the sick feeling twisting through his gut, he continued.

Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf,
Am Himmel ziehn die Schaf,
Die Sternlein sind die Lämmerlein,
Der Mond, der ist das Schäferlein,
Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf.

On some nights, when the rain drummed against their thatched roof and thunder shook across the countryside, Caleb would duck under his threadbare covers and squeeze his eyes shut. His father would come into the bedroom and, seeing him trembling under the blankets, would sit down next to him and hold his hand and hum this quietly until he fell asleep.

Schlaf, Kindchen, schlaf.
Dein Vater hüt' die Schaf.
Deine Mutter hütet's Böckelein
das bringt dir feine Röckelein.
Schlaf, Kindchen, schlaf.

On some nights, just before he learned to call fire from his fingers and sparks from his tongue, he would wake up in the early hours, shivering weakly, numb from the cold and flinching at the sting of freezing air. He would wrap himself up best as he could and sneak into his parent’s room, where his mother would always wake and help him climb into their bed. He would curl up in her arms, and as the warmth seeped into his skin, she would stroke his hair and lull him to sleep with a soft tune.

Schlaf, Kindchen, schlaf.
Dann schenk ich dir ein Schaf,
mit einer güldnen Schelle fein,
das soll dein Spielgeselle sein.
Schlaf, Kindchen, schlaf.

Kiri’s head sank into his shoulder, eyes closed as she cooed soft, murmuring breaths. Caleb felt tears running down his cheek.

“You know,” he whispered quietly to the slumbering kenku child, “you really can be quite a handful sometimes.”

Then he carefully nudged her out of his lap, and lay her gently down on his bed. He drew up the sheets so that she was tucked in, and gave her a pat on the arm.

Gute Nacht, träum schön,” he murmured.

And then he rummaged through his travel pack, and found his sleeping roll, and spread it down over the wooden floor of the room. Frumpkin crept out from under the bed and curled up by his head. Eventually, fingers loosely draped across the cat’s back, Caleb managed to still his breathing and quiet his heart. Sleep came. Uneasily, hesitantly, and with the cold feeling that there was something vital, something he desperately needed, missing as he slipped into unconsciousness.

 

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The next morning, when he woke up, Kiri was gone and Nott was lying face-down at the end of the bed, having returned sometime in the early hours. He rubbed at the corners of his eyes, stretched out his back, and went to get some breakfast.

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“Oh, Kiri!” Jester cried, scooping the startled bundle of feathers up into her arms. “I was so worried about you when you didn’t come back last night! But Beau told me you would be fine—"

“She’s tough, she can handle herself,” grumbled said monk, half-asleep on their floor.

“—and so I did my best to be brave for you, and not panic a lot that maybe you had died—”

“She did a really shitty job of that—”

“—and now I am so happy to see that you are okay and where were you?”

Kiri started wriggling, and Jester put her down. She shook her body, and straightened out her feathers, and said, “I’ll go with Caleb!” in Nott’s voice.

“Oh,” said Jester, and frowned with surprise. “Um…okay. Was it nice?”

Kiri nodded emphatically.

“Are…are you going to be doing that always, from now on? Because that’s totally cool if you want to,” she hastily added, “I just want to make sure I know where you are, that’s all—”

Kiri shook her head. She held up one long, feathered finger.

“Last night was the only time?”

Kiri shook her head.

“Once in a while?”

Kiri shook her head again.

“One more night,” muttered Beau, still on the floor, and Kiri nodded.

Jester blinked. Then she shrugged and scooped Kiri back up into another hug.

“Good!” she cried, “I was really worried for a second there that you didn’t like me anymore, and that you didn’t want to be with me and Beau anymore, so I am super happy that you are staying, and I don’t mind at all that you will be with Caleb for one more night!” she declared. “Now come on! Let’s go get breakfast! There are tons of pastries here, and we haven’t even gotten to try a single one yet. You too,” she added, and the monk on the floor grumbled. Eventually Beau managed to stand up, stretch, and went to follow them out the door.

 

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That night, just as Caleb was about to turn in, he felt a wave of déjà vu wash over him. A familiar black-feathered face poked into his room and shuffled through the door. He sighed.

“Kiri, if you are here again tonight because you are sure you cannot sleep then I will sing to you, but I really do not think I have it in me again to—”

She clambered onto the bed and said, in Beau’s voice, “Shut up, Caleb.”

He blinked. And then he shook his head and raised an eyebrow. “I suppose we will need to have a talk about that later, but alright. What is it you need?”

Kiri settled down against the covers. Caleb leaned back against the headboard and met her gaze.

She ruffled her feathers. Then she took a short breath, and opened her beak.

The Kenku bear an ancient punishment from their creator, a condemnation of their betrayal and their supposedly traitorous sins committed millennia upon millennia ago. They were doomed to wander lost forever, bound to the earth, with no way to speak of their suffering. Under this awful fate they live on the edges of society and communicate only through mimicry, through imitation, through nothing more than echoes and reflections of what they hear, and what they used to be. They speak no thoughts. They have no tongues. Their mouths hold no sentences, no phrases, no syllables of their own.

But nowhere in their curse does it say anything about music.

Kiri sang. It was wordless, and it was quiet, and it could claim no language.

It didn’t need one.

Her song brushed through the air like a soft hand against his cheek, draped across his ears like a cat stretched out in the sunlight, stilled his breath like a kiss to the forehead, pulled at his heart with the loose strings of young boy’s threadbare tunic, two sizes too big, worn like a cloak as he ran through golden fields of autumn wheat. This song was vibrant. This song was alive. This song held Caleb in its arms and stroked his hair and hugged him close and whispered soothing promises that it was here, that there was nothing to fear, that everything would be alright and that the thunder could never hurt him.

Eventually, like the last trail of smoke spiraling upwards into the night, Kiri stopped singing. She blinked at him again, and rubbed at her face.

It had lasted all of two minutes. But to Caleb, it was a lifetime.

And when it ended, instead of feeling nothing but a deep, gaping, aching loss, he felt only warmth. He felt, for the first time in a very, very long time, the kindness and softness of his parents’ long-missing love.

He reached over, and with a corner of the bedsheets, wiped away the tears under her eyes. And then he ran a sleeve across his own cheeks.

“Did your parents sing that to you?” he whispered.

She nodded.

“That...that is a very precious thing you have given me, then. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” she echoed back.

He took a shaky breath, but when he smiled it came easily, and without effort, and without pain.

“Would you like to stay the night, here?” he asked. “You do not have to, if you do not want to.”

“Want to,” she said.

“It’s a good thing Nott doesn’t sleep much and doesn’t ask many questions, eh?” he asked. “Otherwise we would have some explaining to do.”

Kiri gave an affirmative trill, and as Caleb lay down, she snuggled into his arms like a child sneaking into their parents’ bed after a nightmare. Caleb had never been on this end of the gesture before, and it had been quite some time since he had experienced the other.

It was nice.

“Good night, Kiri,” he murmured.

Gute Nacht, träum schön,” she chirped back, and he couldn’t help but chuckle.

And then he closed his eyes, and hugged her close, and for the first time in a very, very long time, sleep came gently. With open arms and a peaceful, warm embrace.