The parrot had already eaten twenty-seven pages of the wizard’s book, and the wizard still hadn’t noticed.
The book was an overlong, bloated mess, stuffed with extra slips of paper and nearly bursting out of its binding, for the wizard believed his every thought important enough to immortalize with pen and ink. The page the parrot had most recently finished ended mid-sentence; it tasted like the outside of a hard seed she couldn’t crack. She fixed one black eye on the book, which sat splayed open on the claw-foot table. Even with her clipped wings, it’d take only a fluttery hop to get there. But she heard the wizard’s iambic shuffle just outside the room, so she stayed put.
“Beulah,” the wizard grunted. This was what he called her, though it was not her name. He stood in front of her perch, elbows bracketing his thin torso. “I need another feather. The one I plucked last fortnight was weaker than usual. If this keeps up I’ll need to find another bird to replace you.”
“Weaker than usual!” the parrot squawked, mimicking his affected pronunciation. “Replace you!” But in spite of her bravado, she ruffled her feathers nervously. She felt no weaker than normal, but perhaps the pages she’d eaten were affecting her in ways she did not yet understand.
Not that she was planning to stop.
The parrot’s ripping out and eating of the pages was, in the beginning, a simple attempt to annoy the wizard. A small but pointed retribution for shut windows and clipped wings and dozens of plucked feathers. Yet the book was too full, the pages too numerous, for the wizard to notice this desecration. He might recite a thousand incantations for a thousand paying customers and never have need for the particular pages the parrot had stolen.
She might have given up altogether. But a few days into her prank, the parrot ate her first spell.
Unlike the wizard’s otherwise endless rambling, the spells cracked like millet when her beak broke them open. They tasted like a fresh breeze through an open window; they tasted like a gray clouds parting for a fuchsia summer sunset. The parrot hungered for the spells almost as much as she hungered for the sky. Even now, with a freshly-eaten page still stored in her crop, she craved more.
The wizard pulled on a pair of thick leather gloves. The parrot shrieked, flapping her wings. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be,” the wizard growled. He wrapped one hand around her belly, pinning her wings in place, and used the other to pull out a tail father. The parrot felt it tug, then sting, then give. She snapped at his hand with her sharp beak. If he weren’t wearing gloves, she’d have broken three of his fingers, and the wizard knew it, but he had what he wanted.
“You weren’t my first bird, and you won’t be my last,” he warned. “Remember that.”
He removed the gloves, and then took both the book and the parrot’s feather into the chamber where he performed his magic and shut the door. The parrot noisily scraped her beak along her cuttlebone. Smoke leaked out from beneath the door—smoke that smelled like her beautiful silver-gray feather—and, along with it, the wizard’s words:
“Fire and air, smoke and breath. Those that ride in the darkness…”
“RIDE THE DARKNESS!” squawked the parrot. “FIRE AND AIR!”
It accomplished nothing, of course. The parrot’s feathers might be magical, but she was not a wizard.
The pages she’d eaten passed from her crop down into her gizzard; behind the door, the wizard’s voice continued to intone. The parrot stood on one leg and closed her eyes, and dreamed of flight.
* * *
The parrot snapped awake and cocked her head from side to side. This was not the wizard’s normal voice, nor his normal time to call for her. It was full dark outside; she imagined that if the window were open, the air would feel silvery-cool.
“That last feather was useless,” the wizard growled. “I might as well have burned my own beard.”
“Burn the beard!” squawked the parrot, sidling nervously from side to side on her perch.
The wizard picked up his leather gloves and pulled them on. “Now I’ve got a backlog of spells to complete. We’ll have to try two feathers tonight. Or three.” He wriggled his fingers. “As many as it takes.”
The parrot let out a stream of feces. She spread her wings to their full span and fluffed her feathers, making herself large, but she knew it wouldn’t stop him from plucking her bare.
The spells she’d eaten cracked open inside her like a nest full of eggs. They whispered to her from within and filled up her feathers from shaft to vane. They echoed the words the parrot had heard the wizard chant, night after night—words she’d taken in. Words she knew.
She hadn’t learned everything, the spells reminded her. But she’d learned.
The parrot cocked her head and looked at the wizard with both eyes. “Fire and air, smoke and breath,” she squawked. “Those that ride the darkness, wing their way to me.”
The wizard blanched. “What did you say?”
“Thunder and rain!” she screeched. “Frost and ice! Those that ride the darkness, wing their way to me! To me! To me!”
“That’s enough!” the wizard cried, his gloved hands curled into claws.
The parrot didn’t respond. She didn’t need to. She was a book full of magic. She was made of words. She reached her wings out from tip to tip and felt flight feathers push their way through, sharp as steel, silvery as the moon.
“Ride the darkness,” she said. “Ride!”
She shrieked in triumph, and all the windows shattered. When the night rushed in, it tasted like flight. The parrot took to the sky, and drank deep, and sang all her secrets into the air.
PATREON EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR JENNIFER HUDAK
FFO: The Wizard’s Book Tastes of Flight is comic & liberating. One can’t help but cheer the parrot on. There is a serious theme, the exploitation of animals, underpinning this story. Which aspect came first when you were developing this story?
JH: This story was originally written for a flash fiction contest in the Codex writers group, and one of the prompts—a random animal generator—produced a ferret that liked to eat books. I don’t know much about ferrets, but I used to keep parakeets, and I know how much they like to nibble, so I decided to make my main character a parrot. Her distinct voice emerged almost immediately. I decided that she’d be eating a grimoire rather than a typical book, because I loved the idea of the bird ingesting magic along with the spells. But it was only when I started to think about why she was eating the book, and what she’d do with the magic she was consuming, that the circumstances of her captivity and exploitation started to take shape for me….