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The Psittaculturist's Lesson

Marissa Lingen is the author of over one hundred science fiction and fantasy stories. She lives in Minnesota with two large men and one small dog.

The aviary smelled of a thousand different blossoms, the humid glory of the empire, and under them all the rich earth and the ammonia scents of the imperial parrots' droppings. The empress never took her meals there--the ammonia smell pinched her imperial nostrils, interfered with the perfect balance the imperial chefs created for her meals--but often she would walk there after, listening to the cacophony of the parrots.
Each spoke a different language. Each language was sweet in her ears, for each reminded her of the people who once had spoken it and now were gone, crushed under the boots of her soldiers and burnt to ashes by the lightning of her sorcery corps.
There were two hundred seventeen parrots in all.
The imperial psittaculturist was a small, tidy woman called Bila, and she was used to the Empress's demands. With this parrot or that, called out on display, Bila was ready every morning.
"Make it say 'moon' in Ciloat," said the Empress. And Bila would bow her head and comply. Or, "I wonder if the Blackthroats had a word for 'hairbrush.' I guess we'll never know unless the parrot tells us. Ask it, Bila." And Bila would bring out the tiny blue and green-feathered creature that held the language of the Blackthroats, dead these three years since the Imperial troops had razed the last of their villages.
Then the Empress would go about her Imperial day, protected by the guards and the strength of the spells upon her person. And she would not think of Bila the psittaculturist another moment.
An average of four assassination attempts a week were thwarted by the spells. Only one every fortnight came down to the guards. By this time, everyone knew that the Empress was so well protected by the magic that slew anyone who raised their hand or voice against her that it was hardly worth trying, and yet the well of hatred for her, for her conquests and wars and policies, was strong enough that the desperate remained.
The Empress spoke of it to the birds, but neither they nor Bila replied.
In the Empress's dreams, the parrots came to sit upon her shoulder but would never soil her robes. They came to her of their own volition, without the intervention of so inconvenient a creature as an imperial psittaculturist. The parrots, however, had not been reliably informed of this dream, and had no desire to participate in it.
It was rare, now, to enchant a new parrot. In Bila's younger days, they would come one a month or more, in the worst years twenty. Knowing what each one meant, Bila flinched to see them, though she loved each one, the tiny white ones, affectionate, barely more than flickers of feathers, the large greens that were like inquisitive mobile pliers.
They spoke often to Bila, but it took her ages to teach them a second language, and some of them refused to learn. The magic spells that taught them the words of the dying burned them, as far as she could tell. They hurt. They came to Bila for comfort, for food and preening and the kind of scratching that they could not reliably get from each other, in the places along their heads that their claws--large or tiny--could not reach from themselves. All two hundred seventeen parrots loved Bila.
Bila loved them.
It could have gone on like that forever. But it didn't.
There was a new parrot one morning: a proud grey creature with red feathers in his wings and head. He opened his mouth and croaked "abelwohr" before hiding his head under his wing.
It took Bila three days to make him eat.
She did not eat for those three days either.
The palace staff noticed about the bird but not about the psittaculturist.
The empress walked in her gardens after breakfast the next week, reviewing her birds. She wanted to hear "snake" in Manjoi and "whore" in Forien and "leaping" in Testaranian. She wanted to hear "banana" over and over again, and as many languages had it from each other, the birds sounded like a chorus for once, a trade wind blowing through the aviary, banana banan banayna banat.
The Empress clapped her hands together in delight.
"That was quite special," said Bila. "Do you want me to show you something else special? That I have found that your birds can do for the glory of your empire?"
Anything for the glory of the empire pleased the Empress. She nodded her assent.
Bila clustered the birds around her, tiny white flickers, solemn grey and red newcomer closest. She cleared her throat and began to signal to them.
The first said "lampshade" in the language of the Bakfordin plains. The next, "to climb by walking upright, to ascend" in the special dialect of the jungle Horsofforan, one of the first peoples to die rather than subject themselves to Imperial rule. Next, the conjunction "or" in the language of the Tianmorish people.
Halfway through, the Empress turned pale and said, "Stop."
Bila did not stop.
Bila showed no signs of hearing. Nor did the birds.
The empress raised her hands and began casting spell after spell, and the birds flapped wildly, falling to the ground. But she could not tell which had spoken already, and the last flew away after speaking its words, "a tiny local variant of tansy" in the language of Aruak City.
The Empress fell to the ground, dead.
Bila gathered the dead birds around her and wept. She nudged the Empress with her toe once, to be sure. And then, her arms full of dead birds, she walked to the guards, her back straight.
"The Empress is dead," she said. "The birds have made a counterspell of dead languages that overcame the protection spells upon her. Each piece fit together as no whole could do. You may crown who you like after her, or do something more sensible. I need to bury my birds."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 27th, 2017

Author Comments

I think a lot of us who write fiction are fascinated with the magic of language. Communicating with and through other species add layers to that for me: where is intent crucial to understanding? where does meaning get lost, where do words become noise?

- Marissa Lingen
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