Before the flute is a flute, it is a bird. This is the first act of magic. This is the first lesson the girl learns, when the world is still young and shaggy-coated with lingering winter. Sometimes things can be other things. An axehead hides in a chunk of flint. Before it is a meal, a mammoth is a squealing calf tagging along behind its mother. A fox is a white spirit barking curses until an arrow finds it and turns it into a friend that shields your ears from the wind’s teeth.
And before it is a flute, a bird is a song lodged in a treetop.
The girl listens to the song. Every day she listens, and it makes her feel things she can’t describe, like when the boar-dancers charge and prance and the fire flickers so they almost look real. She wants to share that feeling, but she’s no boar-dancer. She wants to take that feeling and hoard it deep down where the frost never thaws, beneath the roots and sod.
“Come play with us!” the other children tease. Warmer weather shuffles in, longshadow days when the sun lingers at the edge of the world like a wandering storyteller at the end of a feast. There are blue flowers in the grass like stars, a mosquito buzzing in every ear. “Come and pick hazelnuts! Come and hunt lark eggs! Come play Bear-And-Elk!”
But the girl sits beneath the tree, listening, head cocked to cup the notes in her left ear.
She turns a bundle of sticks and twigs and sinew from the midden pile into a cage. She watches the fisherwomen at their weaving, twisting reeds and tying knots with their flashing hands until a tangled nest of net nestles at their feet. Her twists are not so smooth and her knots fray and fuzz and the spaces between her links would barely keep a minnow from slithering through, but all she needs is all she needs, and it only needs to work once. She strips the grasses of their seeds and collects them in a little pouch until it bulges like a he-lemming’s sack. The other children have dismissed her as a lost cause; the adults are beginning to furrow and frown.
The weather turns. The songs in the tree grow hungry. She scatters a little of the seed every day, until they flitter and flutter and settle at her feet—not trusting, exactly, but side-eye greedy enough to risk a girl’s presence. Their bellies are round and splattered with speckles like mud on a hunter’s calves. That something so plain could sing so sweetly is also a marvelous magic. Nearness turns them into something familiar enough to seem attainable. It gives her the courage to at last one day throw her net.
She keeps the bird in its cage near the head of her sleeping place at night, and feeds it a little of the grass seeds every day. At night the music wraps around her dreams, twisting them into songs as well. The adults indulge her strangeness and hang an amusing name around her neck: Whistlecage, the girl who spent an entire season’s worth of warmth capturing a thing anyone could hear in the trees with no trouble at all.
But the sound is sweet, that they have to admit. When blizzards howl and stomp outside their shelters like the great sloths in rut, the bird’s song burbles unthawed, a reminder of green grass and yellow fat and longshadow days past and still to come.
• • • •
Before the future child in her future city is a revolution, she is a dirty-faced mudlark picking through the sticky treasures of low tide. The shores are white with the bones of all the people she’s seen die—her mother and her father, her siblings, and so very many of her friends. The river’s edge is a wide-open dare. She comes back to it time and time again, too hungry and desperate not to take the wager. You can find useful things in the stained sagging crumple of buildings that line the shores. Linger too long and you’ll be drowned or picked off by drones. Dig deep, and sometimes you’ll be fed for a week by what you scrounge up.
There’s a half-submerged temple tilted half-in, half-out of the black water, algae crawling up its columns. Every evening bats spill from its cracked dome like midges rising from the river’s surface. The girl is intrigued by what may be inside, although most of her curiosity is because she’s so hungry she’s been eating half-rotted fish scavenged from the mud. She watches and waits for a time when the waterline is low enough to reveal the slimy marble of the great staircase, crouched nearby in the undergrowth like a forgotten, stave-ribbed gargoyle.
• • • •
Before the flute is a flute, it is a stag’s death. It drops into the world like all deer, slippery and wobbling but soon swift-footed. It drinks mother’s milk, cuts the turf with its hooves, and grows into a great antlered thing that whistles and sings as sweetly as any bird in the trees. It meets hunters in the tall grass, and they work the magic that hunters work and turn it into meat and skin and handles for the people’s knives. Bones, too. Marrow fills the hollow places, so rich and good they save it for special occasions and special persons, like the wrinkled witch who wanders up out of the marshes one day, slimy to her gnarled knees.
Whistlecage has never seen her before, but others have. She is a gatekeeper, they say. She knows paths through the wet places that lead into other worlds. Many objects dangle at her belt. Bird feathers and seedpods. Polished oyster shells that turn the light, tiny pointed skulls with yellow incisors and empty eyes. A great flat oval of rock that roars like a bull mammoth when she spins it over her head on its rawhide tether, causing the children to cry out and flee. She laughs at them and her white teeth flash. How does she still have all her teeth, and how are they so startlingly bone-white? No one has ever seen a mouth like that.
They feast her and they house her and in return she tells them stories. She sees all things at once, she says. The days that have come and died, and the days yet to be born. Settlements where people swarm like termites in mounds that scrape the sky. Fevers and fires, all the lives in all the graves scattered across the yellow-grassed world and all the lives that will not end until the glaciers give up their dead. Her stories scare them. They shiver at the immensity of the things they were born too early for and will die too soon to see, edging closer to hear more.
The others point out Whistlecage to the witch and laugh. She does not join in. She watches the girl with eyes like bright burning drops of tar. Children should run and roll and fight like lion cubs, the elders say, not sit in front of a cage alone listening to stolen songs. If she keeps this up we’ll have to smash the thing, cage and bird together.
The witch simply watches. She is patient. Long life makes one patient. She sets a snare with her gaze and soon enough the girl stumbles into it. Passing by with her cage and her bird, near enough that the witch can tighten the noose and draw her in with one crooked finger.
“Girl,” she growls, rasp-tongued as any old tigress. “What have you got in that cage, girl?”
Whistlecage stops dead in her tracks, startled. She’s used to teasing. Being teased by a witch, though—that seems a more dangerous business. She tries to make herself small. She thinks shrew-thoughts.
“A bird,” she mutters, staring at her feet. “A singing bird.”
“A singing bird.” The witch’s voice holds no mockery, but she’s a witch; perhaps that’s part of her magic. “And why, shaggy-skull, do you carry a singing bird about in a cage with you when there’s one of her kin singing in every tree?”
She shrugs. That’s easy enough to answer, at least. “Because of the way it makes me feel,” she says.
“I see.” The witch seems satisfied. She says nothing else, letting the fire’s crackle and the bird’s warble fill the gap between them. Whistlecage is about to take her leave and be glad of it when the old mother speaks once more.
“Would you like to hear my bird?”
Now the witch is mocking her, Whistlecage thinks. It’s almost a relief. But when she looks up at her, prepared to take her lumps as best she can, the witch is fumbling with one of the bits hanging at her belt. A smooth, hollow spar of bird bone, bored through with holes. She catches Whistlecage’s eye and holds it fast as she raises the thing to her lined lips. Her fingers dance spider steps down its length.
And the bone sings to the bird.
It starts as an imitation at first, good enough that the bird whistles back. But it doesn’t stop there. It takes the bird’s song and expands it like an unfurling pelt, twisting all sorts of new sounds and flourishes and ups and downs into the tune. The girl has never heard anything like it. There are drummers among her people, and those who sing stories on special days, but this is different. This is a sound that fills the contours of her insides like it was carved from ivory for the purpose, something she has never known she needed. It is an instant connection between her heart and the old woman’s. Just like that they are the same, because of the song.
The feeling wells up in her and spills out of his eyes.
“There are more singers and whistlers in the world than you’ll ever be able to meet, child,” the witch says, “and each one carries as many songs within them as stars in the sky. You’ll never be able to hear them all, and when you grow woman-sized you’ll lie awake at night haunted by that. All you can do is learn how to sing your own and hope that someone somewhere remembers.”
“But I want to hear them all!” It bursts from her before she can stop it. She cringes back, thinking of all the things she could be turned into. The witch just shakes her head and smiles, sadness gathering in her papery dimples.
“I’ve got long sight. Sight like a sea. It covers everything from beginning to end, bad and good, all the ways the waves might shape themselves, and I still can’t hear all the songs that will ever be.” The witch sighs and lets the strange little instrument fall to her lap, like the effort of holding it up is suddenly too much. “It’s a hard row to hoe—sorry, you haven’t quite gotten to agriculture just yet, have you? It’s a heavy burden to lift, is what I mean to say. I don’t like it any more than you do. But your songs—ahh.” That unsettlingly bright smile flashes again. “Those I can tell you about, seeing as how we’re both here right now.”
“My songs?” Whistlecage is fully snared, the bars of her future already taking shape around her. “But—I don’t—I don’t have one of those things.”
“Easily remedied.” The witch points a gnarled finger at Whistlecage’s bird, hopping from bars to perch and back again. “I think a wingbone will do in this case. Maybe the leg. Hard to get a good length on a creature so small, but I’m sure you’ll manage. The rest—well, the rest is just practice. Practice and patience, and since you caught the thing in the first place I know you’ve got plenty of the latter.”
Whistlecage yanks the cage to her chest protectively. The witch looks at her horrified expression and laughs like pebbles in a skull.
“Oh yes, child,” she rasps. “When immortality is on the line there’s always a sacrifice. Change doesn’t come for free, you know. It’s up to you, of course, and you’re young yet, but tell me, truly: Would you like to live forever? Even if you can’t hear all the songs, even if all of you doesn’t quite make the transition, is the life of a caged bird worth some small part of you surviving?”
Behind the sheltering night of Whistlecage’s arms, the bird flutters and flutes an alarm. The girl stares down at the tiny scrap of song for a long time before slowly raising her eyes to meet the witch’s own, guilt already bubbling in her chest.
“Don’t feel so bad,” the witch says, amused. “Most of the trick will be just doing what you love, but I’m afraid there’s no magic worth speaking about that’s not a little bloodthirsty.”
• • • •
Looking over her shoulder, ears pricked for the buzz and ping of hunter-killers, nails scraping and scrabbling long white scratches in the slippery green, the girl clambers and climbs the temple steps, banging her knees to swollen green-and-purple knots. She hums a tune as she scales the crooked stairs, a lullaby about a brave badger sow her mother sang to her before their hovel was bulldozed. It was a very old song, Mama had made sure to impress, older than the cities and the countries and the remote-controlled armies swarming across them. The song was written by Anonymous. Anonymous, she always went on to say, was just another word for the land itself, the mother of them all who would one day wake up and shake off all the barbed wire and free her poor starving children from cruelty and abuse. The girl should never ever forget the songs the land had left her. They were how the Land would recognize Her own.
And so the girl hasn’t. Even with her name fading from memory like painted advertisements on brick and hunger shriveling her stomach, she keeps the melody tucked safely behind her heart. It makes her bold when she wants to hide. It boosts her and gives her a helping hand over and up the last few stairs and on into the clammy-cool mouth of the temple.
There are letters over the great doors she can just about make out: M and SEU and another M. She hopes desperately that they spell “food.”
• • • •
Before the songs are memories, they are calluses on Whistlecage’s fingertips, thick pads building themselves from the friction of sweeping against rough-hewn holes in bone. She plays until the movements of her fingers are as automatic and thoughtless as breathing air or squinting against the sun. At night, while she sleeps, they go cranefly-courting across the sleeping skins pulled over her chest, crafting melodies for the things that live in dreams.
They still call her Whistlecage, but more and more the name is whispered with reverence. Her fingers are bewitched, they say. She makes up songs nobody has ever heard before, songs she plays over and over until they stick in your ears like thorns. She grows in skill and stature. The girls and boys who used to mock her now gather at her tent-flap, dreamy-eyed, hoping for a smile or a word or a long lingering glance. Whistlecage isn’t blind. Her songs become langourous, coy, sinuous as coupled garter snakes. Hands as nimble as hers, she quickly learns, are good for weaving many alliances.
People from a week’s walk across the hills come to hear her play. They carry away her tunes in their heads, on their lips, nestled in the branching forks of their hearts. They sing them to babies in their crèches. They wrap them around words, little lessons of love or caution. When a tiger opens a hunter’s ribcage or sickness steals a child in the night, more and more often it’s Whistlecage’s melodies they sprinkle across the grave mixed with their tears. Some even fashion their own flutes. They play for their families and they play for others who pass through and small skirmishes break out over these new songs and who is allowed to use them. If a man is going to share a map of his heart with the whole wide world, they say, he deserves tribute. And this is not entirely unfair, for many of these men have families with mouths like baby sparrows waiting fractious in their tents.
But not Whistlecage. She takes a wife, and she takes what offerings are given to support that wife and herself and whatever lovers she feels like plucking from the crowd that season, but her joy of joys is watching the shape of her feelings wing across the world, flitting from wrist to wrist. She is a dandelion. She blows into her flute and for the length of a song everyone who hears it is a small girl beneath a tree, the world still young and shaggy-coated with tawny lingering winter around her. Her ghosts scatter from the bone flute’s holes: the color of late afternoon sun through a fallen leaf when she was barely able to toddle, the taste of bear grease on a cold day. The smell of her hunter-father’s wounds going rotten as he died from that same cave bear’s claws, leaving her alone in the world. Most never recognize that they are being possessed by her memories. They never sense that they are being changed, dug into like roots in the rich dark earth. Who could resist working such magic? Why squat over yourself like a dog snarling over a gutpile when you could be so many?
The ones who do understand what has happened are dear to her. They are the people of her personal terrain, her thought’s own beloved kin. They find each other like bats chirping in the night: Here I am, where are you? They swap melodies swaddled in old ghosts, re-shaping each other in a cycle as never-ending and natural as salmon fighting upstream. The witch’s words haunt Whistlecage; she will never meet them all. This is her sorrow of sorrows, keener now than it was even then: Not that part of her may yet die, but that the dying will cut short all those meetings, all those pieces of her heart left unfitted, the unheard songs and stories scattering in every direction like starlings shattering an evening sky.
• • • •
The water inside comes up to her knees, so thick and oily it barely ripples as she wades her way farther in. There’s a long, zigzagging crack of light reflected across its black surface from the broken dome above. The girl follows it, still humming bravery into her bones. The room is bigger than any other she’s ever been in before. The song turns to an echo in its great mossy throat, shaking a few restless bats free from their perches. She instinctively flinches away from their fluttering dives, remembering small deadly shapes, her mother with roses blooming at her throat and across her chest. The fear never quite goes away, even when there’s a roof.
There are little glass cases sticking out of the water like rotted piers, most of them broken, others so scummed and mossed over you can’t quite make out what’s inside. None of them hold food or anything useful. One has little stone figures arranged in rows. Another holds the skull of an animal with teeth like long jutting knives. The girl slowly works her way back into the shadows, checking each container with growing disappointment. The light from the crack fades. Overhead, nestled in the distant curves of the dome, more bats stir and squeak. Soon the water will rise, submerging the lower levels of the room almost completely. She knows she needs to go, but she’s come all this way and wasted all this energy and she can’t bring herself to give up just yet. Just one more. One more glass case and she’ll go back the way she came, slipping down the stairs on her rear to join her friends in their nightly doorway piles for warmth and safety.
• • • •
Before she is a woman in mourning for a lover lost in the hunt, head shaved and arms tattooed and the first fractures appearing at the corners of her eyes, Whistlecage is a sleeping mound of furs next to her wife, a meeting ground where the living and the dead come to parlay. The witch is there with her, as bowed and surf-voiced as she was so many seasons before. She hasn’t changed. Like a moth in amber, time has simply thickened around her.
“Well then, girl,” she says. They stand in the bowl of a meadow long ago swallowed by the rising sea, golden waist-high grass rippling in a memory of wind. “How has your life suited you so far? Are the songs you hear pleasing? Does your name and your renown fill the empty spaces inside you?”
“You know they don’t,” says Whistlecage, sullen. In the dream-meadow she is still a child, but the words and the confidence are all the now-her’s, the one who has lived through so much, the one with tears staining her cheeks and a mounting sense of dread over her missing lover chewing a slow, steady hole through her slumbering heart. “You know what I want. I told you that before, remember? The first time we met.”
“And I told you it was impossible. Move on with what mortal life you have left, little whistler of feelings.” The witch shrugs. Her belt-trinkets move with her, all the oyster shells and polished stones and skulls of sparrow and snake clattering gently in agreement. “Isn’t knowing your songs will last enough?”
Frustration builds in Whistlecage’s chest with a feeling like steam gathering beneath a blocked geyser. Some distant part of her notes the sensation and stores it away for future songmaking. “No,” she says. “No! If I’ll be immortal like you say, why can’t I go on hearing all the other songs? Is there no way to collect them all?”
“Because sacrifice burns up all the soft parts of you, girl. You’ll see.” In the waking world, Whistlecage’s wife stirs in her sleep, knocking some of the dream apart. The smell of wet ashes and fur leaks through the gap. “There’s no shame in being greedy, but sometimes a field has to burn to keep growing.”
• • • •
The final pedestal is cracked wide open, one side of the glass broken out completely. At first it looks like there’s nothing inside but more moss. But at the last moment, just as she’s turning away with wasp-stings of frustration pricking the backs of her eyeballs, something white snags the fading light—something smooth and stick-shaped, like a leg bone or a tusk. Cautious pawing at the mound of moss reveals that it is a bone. Not a familiar one from a person or a dog. It’s very small, like a bird’s wing, surface worn smooth as polished stone. Four holes have been drilled into its length. It fits the shape of her hand almost perfectly as she pulls it free, careful again not to slice her wrist on the jagged edges of glass.
She angles it this way and that—peering through the holes, testing the heft of the strange object in her hand. The water has quietly crept to just above her knees. She glances up at the first bats taking flight, then back down at the bone. It’s better than nothing, she decides. Maybe someone will want it as a curiosity. So long as it nets her a meal, she’s really not bothered about the particulars.
• • • •
Before she is a martyr, a memory, or a song—before the flames, before knives and tears and smoke blotting the sky in blood-red clouds—Whistlecage is an elder of the community, a wrinkled, toothless relic. She is old, older, oldest. They call her Grandmother Whistle, the cage long since splintered by the crash of endless days against its bars. Time is a great worker of magic. It takes a legend and turns her to a landmark. It strips all the things that made her a person—her lusts and desires, her bad days and good days and joys and fears—and sands her down to a gentle, edgeless doll. She is treated with cloying respect. No one is left alive who remembers the bird in the cage.
Her songs have outlasted her. There are many flutes now, all modeled on her memory of a witch’s instrument. The village children play them like twittering birds. Youths court their lovers with tunes she warbled especially for her own. It hurts too much for her to play any more; her knuckles are knotted tight with aching roots. She listens to melodies shaped like her bones, smiling when they bring back dear ones long since gone to rest beneath the grass. Her wife, mouth stained purple with berries, laughing herself red-faced at some forgotten joke. The rapt faces of friends carved into black and orange angles by shadows and firelight. The new musicians take all those parts of her and change them, like a mammoth tusk whittled into a wolf. They wrap their shoulders with her skin and build their own stories beneath the shade of her ribs.
And perhaps this would be enough. But before Whistlecage can fully become a song, there is a sacrifice to be made. Change always demands a sacrifice. Before the flute was a flute, it was a bird.
They come to her village at sunset. There is no warning and no why. Maybe this place was theirs the previous season. Maybe they want the people’s winter stores of hazelnuts and dried meat. Perhaps the smell of the midden pile has offended their noses. There is no chance to ask. Their clubs and their axes and their knives stop questions with a crunch and a burble. They wear the skins of roe deer over their heads and faces, ochre-smeared antlers snagging the sky. Chunks of polished amber fill their empty eye sockets.
The fighters of the village do what they can. The old and the very young are shuffled into a tent together, quiet and still as frightened rabbits. They leave a guard outside. The smell of smoke and sweat and fear is almost overpowering. Children sniffle and sob in the dark, clinging to Whistlecage’s robes. She feels strangely unafraid.
“Shh,” she says. Outside someone shrieks a prayer. There’s a meaty thwack and the invocation abruptly stops. “This will pass. Everything does. Be still, be still. Be patient.”
The tent suddenly shakes and shimmies as if caught in a great wind. The guard comes reeling through with an arrow embedded in his neck. He stumbles, gurgles, and falls facedown, expression already going blank. Behind him, silhouetted in the opened flap, a stag-man stands, amber eyes glowing in the sun’s last rays.
From the day the witch first laid her snare, Whistlecage has known nothing but music. There are peaceful times and there are times of war, and Whistlecage had the fortunate good luck to drop from her mother during a stretch when fish silvered the waters and hazelnuts grew in abundance and no one really felt hungry enough or belligerent enough to go clubbing and spitting their neighbors like lemmings. Brief famines had come and gone, and winters when the people were reduced to boiling leather to survive, but through it all there had always been a need for songs, reminders of warm sun and full bellies, a bird in a cage whose sweet melodies could ward off despair. Like hanging a painted eye around a sickly infant’s neck, it was a charm to send the cold wind shrieking back down whatever malicious throat had coughed it.
Whistlecage does not have a song to drive these beast-men away. Shriveled like a dried current, bent double by the years, she staggers to her feet, knowing exactly how useless and ridiculous the gesture is as she does so. Her knees crunch stones between their jaws. Something seizes in the arch of one foot. Her heart pounds so hard the breath catches in her throat.
“Go,” she says to the children. “Run. Don’t look back and don’t stop until you reach the woods. No crying. Just go.”
The bigger ones herd the littler beneath the tent’s edges and away into the oncoming night. Most of them do as they are told. A few linger, watching, too scared to move or slow to miss seeing what happens next. They are the ones who will carry the story with them as they flee, scattering to other villages as their own burns. They will whistle and flute the song to their own babes, a lullaby about a badger sow and a stag and the power of planting your feet and never letting up. Time will sand it down to a gentle child’s toy, but if one lifts it to their ear and gives the thing a shake, they will hear the bones of truth rattling deep down inside.
Staring up at the stag-fighter, a dead man at her feet, Whistlecage knows the only thing left her song can buy is time. She does not take her eyes off the enemy. Hands thickened by leaf-deep years fumble at her belt for the bone flute. Fire shoots from her knuckles and wrists up the length of her forearms as she goes through the familiar movements, arranging her clumsy fingers just so.
Ahh, what did I tell you? Immortal, girl. The witch’s voice is as clear and close as if she’s speaking directly into Whistlecage’s ear. Take off that worn old skin and become the song you’ve longed to be since you were small and lonely, sitting beneath a treeful of birds.
The stag-man steps forward, a flint knife in his hand. Whistlecage closes her eyes and plays.
• • • •
Why the girl does what she does next will remain a mystery to her all the days of her legendary life, throughout all of the alchemy that will change her from a mudlark to a great leader of people. Maybe it was hunger, she’ll consider absentmindedly as she plays for a curious circle of onlookers, a half-hearted child’s hope that a dried-up old bone might somehow stop her belly from growling. Maybe I just wanted something to eat.
Or perhaps, she’ll sleepily ponder on the morning before the ambush, nestled close to a best beloved who will drown facedown in the mud—perhaps it was something else.
Maybe, she’ll think to herself, fluting the badger sow’s glory-song at the head of a charging, desperate band of ragged survivors, dancing her way between explosions and shells that land howling like the hounds of Hell—maybe it was Anonymous. Maybe the Land sent me this song and the instinct to play it. Maybe I am Her awakening.
But before the girl becomes a woman who becomes a revolution—before any of these other things can happen, for good or ill—she lifts the bone flute to her lips and breathes a single curious note.