The first sighting of the Scarlett Tanager was an indication—Summer had arrived. Rolling in at sunup from the forested northern hills, her birdsong played across the waters in familiar configuration. An old trapper heard it first. Camped on the ice crusted edge of Lake Faultless, the man hoped it was only the milieu of a bad dream, but even in Mossie C. Mossburg's worst nightmare, the Tanager had never performed. In one swift move, Mossie shot from his tent to a rigid stand and scanned the nearby treetops. Upon the bird's next refrain, he spotted the brilliant plumage, flagrant like a bleeding wound against the snow-flanked branches; the seasoned trapper fell to his knees and wept. Mossie could not recall the last time such vivid emotion had overcome him, maybe last spring, when he was just a boy and Summer's daughter heralded that same awful tune . . .
* * *
"It's a fair tune," said Early. Her yellow fringed pupils were more pronounced amidst reflections of flame. "And those red feathers sure are pretty."
* * *
Cobby felt a shiver play up and down his spine. "Pretty ain't always good," he mumbled, scooching closer to the budding fire.
"Why did old Mossie hate that bird so much, Cobby?" she asked. "Why do you? What's it mean?"
Cobby kicked a log and cursed, sending a small shower of asteroids into the dark universe beyond the campfire. "I don't hate the bird," he barked. "And it doesn't mean a damn thing. It's just an old tale, Early. Just ask anybody. Summer will never come again. Would've happened by now." Another shudder rattled Cobby's teeth together, likely initiated by the lie he'd been trying to believe since seeing that damn bird. Hearing it at sunrise that very morning, right on the shores of Lake Faultless, had seemed especially ominous, too. It was just like old Mossie's story, put him in a foul mood. And the girl's pestering wasn't helping one bit. It seemed like she sensed Cobby's deepest itches better than Cobby himself; the urge to pass on the Mossburg farback was as strong as the urge to empty every bottle of grot Cobby Mossburg laid his hands on. Funny how nobody else cared. Why this one? Why Early Unnamed?
She mumbled, "Well if it don't mean anything, you could at least tell me the story." She kicked a log and cursed, but Early's grouch-fueled ire wasn't as practiced as Cobby's. The campfire's pyramid of logs collapsed some, sending up a spark-filled plume of smoke and smuts. Before Cobby could stop her, Early reached in and saved the skillet he'd been heating up for supper, moving it to a leveler perch atop the flames.
"Don't you know better than to touch a hot skillet handle, girl?" Cobby said. "Here. Lemme see." He grabbed the girl's hand, ready to thrust the scorched fingers into a patch of snow. But Early's flesh was a healthy pink, smooth and uninjured.
She yanked her hand away, lifted a shoulder. "The handle wasn't hot yet." After a moment of sulkiness, she added, "Still hurts though. If I heard a story, it might take my mind off the pain."
"Mmhmm." He chuckled. But good humor soon fled. The Tanager had that effect on Cobby Mossburg. "Folks go about their lives thinking the curse of the Scarlett Tanager is a superstition," Cobby said, more to himself than the child. "Like a carving on some Hope Stone meant as a lesson, but hardly meant to be taken seriously." Unless your surname was Mossburg, he considered, it meant nothing. Oh, the red bird came around every so often, piping and brash, more like an awareness of doom than doom itself. And the seasons changed from winter to the mildest springs. Ice melted, harvests ripened, and warm weather flowers bloomed. But winter always followed. Summer was only a scary story told around campfires when the grot flowed and the tongues loosened. But even deep in the steady foothold of winter, Cobby's apprehension remained. Like some disease sitting idle in his gut and brought to life by the Tanager's simple refrain, the prospect was always there—Summer was only one red bird away from striking.
"Was Mossie really just a little boy last time he heard that bird?" she asked.
Cobby nodded. "Yep. Time moved on and folks forgot about Summer, but the Maker sent the Scarlett Tanager. Summer's daughter, she was a warning. That song you think is so pretty? Well, it made an awful mess."
"I always thought the Maker was, you know, just a story," admitted the girl.
"Stories can be true," he snipped. "Never experienced a Summer myself, but not seeing a thing don't mean it's not real."
"I sure would like to hear that story." Early exhaled loudly, forlorn and disappointed. For a child, she didn't ask for much. Cobby reckoned it must've been nearly a year since he found Early Unnamed, wandering the shores of Faultless, practically naked and too skinny for the buzzards. When prodded for an answer, the child claimed a trading caravan had gone off and left her. Amazing she'd survived. The hills were no place for a lone girl, especially a child.
Torn between duty and dredging up painful memories, not to mention scaring the child silly, Cobby scratched his beard, wishing for a nip of grot. Made the telling go easier. Yet his stash was bone dry. Wasn't much work around town anymore for the likes of Cobby Mossburg. He'd burned his last bridge and lost his last friend years ago, thanks to a makerlovin' affection for grot, an affection he'd developed to cope with the stories ingrained into his soul since birth. That was Cobby's best excuse, anyhow. Now, he'd be happy for the tiniest nip.
Hoping to take his mind off his unjust sobriety, Cobby fiddled with supper. He tossed the sliced peppers and squash into the skillet, now sizzling with hot grease, adding an extra few dollops of bacon fat. If he couldn't have grot, at least his veggies would be flavorful. At least they'd taste like bacon, even if his stash of that indulgence had also run dry.
Early abided his fiddling. Then, looking meek and devious at the same time, she reached into her furs and pulled out a shining object. Wasn't even half a pint of liquor remaining, little more than a nip or two—just enough to warm Cobby's tongue and put him the mood for telling a story. He smiled at the girl.
"Well, now," Cobby said with a chuckle, his mood vastly improved. "Why didn't you say you had some grot?"
"Will you tell me the story now?" Early asked.
"Will you pass that bottle over?" Cobby countered.
Early narrowed her eyes. She dangled the bottle higher, shook the contents. Then gingerly, with the utmost care, she leaned forward and placed the liquor at Cobby's feet, like an offering.
With a nod of understanding, of gratitude, Cobby retrieved the bottle. Yanking out the stopper, that familiar ploink sound alone elicited a flood of saliva. And when the lovely fumes hit Cobby's nose, his mind fled to the past, first alighting on the happiest memories of crisp winter nights, cuddled up at the hearth with his sweetheart. Before folks began to sneer at Cobby Mossburg. Before they called him an old fool, an old drunk, clicked their tongues at his tales and damn near bullied him out of town. He took a drink. The memories, good and bad, diminished some after the liquor hit his gullet; and Cobby held up his side of the bargain.
"Well, it's a farback tale," he began. "And before you ask, I'll tell you what a makerlovin' farback is. My daddy's daddy heard the story from his own daddy's daddy. Maybe even farther back. A farback."
"A farback," she said.
"You must understand," he continued, "so long unlived, so long untold, a tale grows cold. And a farback tale, it gets blurred in the telling. It tends to grow cobwebs. But the gist is the gist." Cobby downed another shot, mesmerized by the flames with cheeks coloring red. As his mind swept away those cobwebs, the tale began to reemerge, a story he'd heard since birth, a story he'd inherited as an obligation. More like a curse, Cobby reconsidered. Folks were no longer interested in the mystics, those stories from farback when the town of Possibility was just that, a possibility.
Cobby breathed deeply and began, "Now, Mossie was an amicable fella, but tougher than most. Never took sass from nobody. He heard that Tanager's song, set eyes on those flashy red feathers and well, old Mossie lost it. He fell to his knees and cried like a baby. See, Mossie remembered Summer," Cobby whispered. He swallowed. He whispered again, "Summer. Mossie wasn't like the others. He couldn't forget. He . . . he . . . "
Cobby took a swig, cleared his throat, determined not to break down and cry himself. "Mossie, he wiped away his tears, stopped his blubbering," said Cobby. "Summoning sense, he rose and didn't bother to pack his traps, deeded down the Mossburg line for time eternal. With a sharpened axe at his side and a spear tucked behind his back, Mossie hiked into town."
Arriving before the sun dipped behind the hills, none could blame Mossie C. Mossburg for stopping at the tavern first, though he afforded no instance for idleness. By the whites of his eyes and the tremor in his step, fellow imbibers sensed the customarily sociable trapper was in no mood for chitchat. They left him be. Mossie downed two quick shots. He slapped a liberal nugget on the bar, rushed back into waning daylight and sprinted the thirty-three steps leading up to the Great Hall. Bursting through the carved oak doors, he leaned against the balustrade and breathless, Mossie alerted the mayor. "Summer is here," he told the woman. She uttered a small fearful sigh. And by nightfall, the high hills of Possibility were dotted with the flames of thirteen beacons.
* * *
A rare occasion, all citizens gathered in one place at one time. Even the outcasts, the rugged folk, were drawn to the Great Hall by the light of thirteen beacons. Loitering outside amongst the misting fires and the rambunctious children; noses raised high, they were too proud to step inside, but too nervous to enter. Moon at full zenith, Mayor Venda Cale called the meeting to order. Even the fires halted their crackles, the air stilled and the babies found a suckle. As the grimmest news was formally announced, Mayor Cale's gentle voice travelled far into the night.
"Now, I won't bore you with the rote speech," Cobby told Early, "passed down from mayor to mayor since time eternal. But it began with the usual flimflam."
"What's the usual flimflam?" she asked with a mouthful of crisped veggies. "What'd the mayor say?"
"Oh, such and such," replied Cobby. "Every mayor knew the words." He lubricated his throat with the final swallow of grot, sparing time for a regretful sigh. With a flourish of hand, Cobby recited the mayor's speech in a high and crackled falsetto. "Good people of Possibility, the Scarlett Tanager has been sighted. Summer's daughter is come. Inevitably, darkest times are upon us. We must fight, we must band together and bladdity-blah-blah." Cobby looked toward his audience of one, having forgotten the remainder of the old sermon, and added, "So on and so forth. Mayor finished up with the usual honeyed Hope Stone carving: Sure as the Maker will lovingly destroy, the Maker will lovingly create. "
"Seen that carving a million times," said the girl. "Always wondered what it meant." She wiped her mouth on her sleeve and reached into the skillet. Heedless of spits and sizzles, Early pecked at the last slivers, the crunchiest bits of squash and peppers, closest thing to bacon without actually being bacon. As if a hankering to speak occurred only with a mouthful of half-chewed supper, she added, "Don't seem right."
"How's that?" asked Cobby.
"Well, how can it be both? How can killing be a loving thing?"
Cobby p'shawed the question. "Maker only knows," he said. "Maybe folks get too big for their britches and they need a fresh start. Just like they need Summer's daughter, a fright lurking somewhere in the cracks, to keep 'em in line. Stoke the fire, child," he added. "I'ma turn in for the night."
"Shoot," she carped. "Ain't even fully dark yet."
"Story's over." And the bottle of grot was empty. "Tanager came. Mossie told the mayor. Thirteen beacons were lit. Summer came to Possibility. That's it."
"But what happened when Summer came? And why . . . why'd they light thirteen beacons, anyway? Why not fourteen or twelve?"
"Don't you know any of your history, girl? Thirteen beacons, on the thirteen highest peaks," he said gruffly. "Like one of those newsie papers they spread around town, it's a way to let folks know what's going on."
Still met with a blank-eyed stare from Early, Cobby explained, "Child, if you ever see thirteen big old fires burning on the high hills of Possibility, you best do two things and do 'em fast. First, drop to your knees and beg the Maker to spare your sorry ass and second, make your way into town."
"Is town safer?" she asked.
"Is town safer," he mimicked the child. "Ever heard the term safety in numbers?" Early shook her head no. "Well, now you have," Cobby added. "That's it. The end. Goodnight and may winter be unending. May Summer's daughter never cross your path."
Early snarled and huffed in complaint. Then, she played the other ace stashed up her sleeve, knowing what it took to keep the old man talking. Pulling out yet another bottle of grot, mostly full, she shook it, swishing the contents around the sides, making music to Cobby's ears.
"Where'd you get that?" he asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion, mouth drenched in need.
"I got my ways," she said, dangling the bottle like bait. Cobby knew he should reprimand the girl, recite some Hope Stone carving about how thieving is wrong. But that first bottle, only a few swallows to begin with, had only awakened Cobby's need. He always wanted more. Well, there was more. The indignities of thieving be damned, Cobby's eyes lit up and he reached for the bottle, but Early snatched it away.
"Tell me, Cobby Mossburg," she said with a sly grin. "What happened next?"
"The Maker destroyed," he said, keeping his eyes planted on the bottle. "The Maker created."
Cobby licked his lips. He would feel better, calmer, just holding the bottle in his hands. But as usual, Early was full of piss and vinegar. Ceaseless in her pestering, she wouldn't give in until he did. Oh, he'd told her a hundred tales as they'd navigated the hills bordering Lake Faultless, but not this one, never this one. Up until this morning, thank the Maker, they hadn't come across the Scarlett Tanager. No use in bringing it up. But Cobby knew he'd give in, eventually, with or without that second bottle. The bottle only made it easier.
"Well?" Early asked. "What happened next?"
He snarled and stomped a foot. "You sound worse than any Scarlett Tanager. Why? Why? That's your song. Why? How come? What happened next? The song of Early Unnamed. Why do you ask so many questions, girl?"
Early grinned and fiddled with a peppercorn stuck in her tooth. She lifted a shoulder. "Just curious I guess. Just wanna know. What else happened at that meeting in the Gray Hall—"
"The Great Hall."
"Well?" Then, gently and with reverence, as if she held the quivering body of the Tanager itself within her cupped hands, Early rested the bottle of grot at Cobby's feet, like an offering.
The liquor swayed gently. Unable to settle on one color, like snowfall on the highest peak, it glowed silver at sunrise, and golden as the sun set. "Did you steal this?" he asked. Early offered no explanation. She only grinned, waiting for Cobby to accept her offering, knowing he damn well would.
With an equal amount of reverence, Cobby accepted the bottle and held it close to his heart. Cold dread, residing in that muscle since sighting the damn bird, melted some. "Well, the rest of the story . . . ain't so easy to tell."
"Why?" she asked.
He sneered at the word, might fork over one third of every sip of grot just to never hear it again. Speaking of grot, Cobby decided it was better not to question Early's timely acquisitions, how she'd scored two bottles in the middle of nowhere. Moreover, best not to wonder if she carried a third; it was better to drink. He uncorked the bottle, took a satisfying pull and considered how to temper the dreaded ending for a child's ears. But there was no way to soften the blow of Possibility's fate. He sighed and took an angry swig.
"Not so easy to tell, girl, because Summer came to Possibility," Cobby grumbled. "Old Mossie, he couldn't say which was worse, Summer's arrival or the people's reaction to it. Or maybe they were the same thing. Maker only knows.
"Gathered at the Great Hall, despite the mayor's encouragement, Mossie watched the townspeople lose all sense. Neighbor attacked neighbor. Children were trampled. The elderly and infirm, they were easy targets." Looking away, he added, "Witnessing such mayhem, it wounds a man, Early. But witnessing . . . well, that's what a Mossburg does."
"How's that?" she asked.
Cobby took two deep swallows, one for himself and one for old Mossie, and sneered at the child. Seemed like there were two of Early Unnamed sitting by the fire now. A good vintage will do that, he considered. "Folks used to say my ancestors were chosen by the Maker himself, to remind people of what they'd forgotten. Now they just say we're worthless."
"Nah," she scoffed. "You're a bonafide Hope Stone carving, Cobby Mossburg. A holy man."
Coby grinned. "Not exactly holy. But the Mossburgs are known for squirrelling away a tale, learning it by rote and repeating it to avid ears. Trouble is," he added, "ears aren't so avid these days." Silently, he pondered the contradiction; the same reasons folks had admired Mossie Mossburg was the same reason they despised Cobby Mossburg. Nobody wanted to hear, and they damn sure didn't want to believe. Nothing to be done about it, Cobby took another pull.
Early wiped her nose on her sleeve. "The way I see it, Maker blessed the Mossburgs," she said matter-of-factly.
"Gave you a gift," she added.
"If by gift, you mean curse," Cobby muttered. "Summer passed, and folks snapped out of it. But only Mossie remembered."
"Still," she mumbled. "Being alive is a gift. Maybe knowing the truth is a gift, too." Early beamed and slapped her knee. "Say, maybe that's why I found you out here, wandering the shores of Lake Faultless. I like a good story and you sure do tell a good story, Cobby Mossburg."
Cobby opened his mouth to refute; though he disagreed with who'd done the finding, Early's words swelled his heart, and he said only, "Thank you."
She lowered her chin. "And maybe the worst part is meant to be heard, otherwise the good parts don't mean so much."
"Now that sounds like a Hope Stone carving," Cobby chuckled. He sighed and sank lower into his furs. "You're pretty wise for a child." He peered across the flames, noticed how they danced wildly over Early's face and colored her hair to a deeper shade of red. Firelight suited her; she'd make a handsome woman someday. Though the girl's exact age was a mystery, sometimes Early Unnamed was ignorant like a newborn, sticking her hand into a hot fire; but other times she was sharper and shrewder than him. Having scored two bottles of grot from thin air was for damn sure a talent Cobby lacked. And, she'd survived alone in the wild hills. Who was she? He pondered the question often enough, but there were bundles of unwanted children tossed out like old bathwater, left to fend for themselves. The notion was passable, and history could be a repetitive bitch for the Mossburg male; maybe Cobby had spawned a few orphans of his own, likely a guilty motivation for taking Early under his wing.
"You'd best finish up, Mossie," she spoke in a melodic voice. Had she called him Mossie? Made Cobby shiver and feel hot at the same time, one of those reactions provoked only by high fever or inebriation; and Cobby never got sick. He studied the bottle of grot, expected it to be more emptied than it was. His tolerance was lower. Made sense he was getting good and drunk off the girl's lucky acquisitions.
He hiccupped and swayed and watched the light playing inside Early's yellow crested eyes, a remnant of the old ones. She was an orphan of no particular line, a nobody special, a child so unwanted she was left unnamed—and even she was marked by Summer's daughter. And though Cobby hadn't peeped his own reflection in years, the yellow flavor resided in his eyes, too. They'd all been kin at one place in history—joined by a shared experience, and time was small where the Maker was concerned. Whether folks believed or not.
Early would abide Cobby's silent, drunken musings for only a short spell, before she opened her beak and peppered him with her irksome brand of birdsong, so he resigned himself to the task. They'd struck a deal, after all, and though a Mossburg may be guilty of many failings, a Mossburg never reneged on a deal.
He took another swallow and said, "It didn't take long before Possibility was overcome by the soldiers of Summer. While everybody was gathered at the Great Hall, they crept in from the woods, snuck down the mountains and crawled from the streams. Some say the Maker's minions rose up from the very flames of thirteen beacons." Cobby hiccupped, reached up to scratch an itch in his beard, but missed and poked himself in the eye. "Issa strangess thing," he slurred. "Must be a good, a good vintage. The best." Holding up the bottle, it was still mostly full.
The fire's flame raged anew. Fingers to his brain, their heat prodded him onward, bringing to the forefront an old Hope Stone carving. Long forgotten by the people, passed over for the fluffier and more sterile aphorisms, Cobby recited it like a chant. "Maker's spawns of smoke, heat and ash, fill their houses, fill their minds, and dance."
"Dance for me, this Summer's night and show them love from hate and fright, " said the child.
Cobby stammered in surprise, "You've heard-heard that one before?"
In a collective voice, she spoke the words like wind whistling through a fire, "Multiply their ugliest sins, make them wince, make them cringe. Make them question every fact, every notion, every act." Spellbound, Cobby swayed to the rhythm of her song. "Suffer they will for hours to come, until the light o' morning sun. For once the dark has passed o'erhead, so the soldiers will fall down dead."
Struck with sudden awareness, Cobby continued the verse in a whisper, "Memories wiped clean, bloodied on hands and knees, let them awake to see their slaughter—"
"And leave one whole to speak the words of Summer's daughter."
In the ensuing silence, a tingle ate through Cobby's bones. He whimpered, shivered in the fire's too consuming heat. With blurred eyes, Cobby sought out the girl's form through the flames, but she blended too easily now, hidden amongst their fiery shades. "Who are you?" He might've only thought this, might've asked this out loud; Cobby couldn't say for certain.
"Don't forget the farback," she said. Cobby shook his head, not the best decision. The motion only increased his wooziness.
"We struck a deal," she added. "A Mossburg never reneges on a deal."
Cobby fingered the bottle of grot. It felt warm to the touch, as if stashed in a ray of sunshine rather than held in the girl's pocket. "Like an offering," he whispered. Cobby took a few deep pulls. But the bottle didn't seem to be getting any lighter. He hefted it up to the fire and peered at the contents, which seemed plentiful, both delighting and distressing him at the same time. Across the flames and through the bottle's warped lens, Early's shape morphed and twisted. Cobby thumped the side of his head, to shake free the liquor induced visions. The visions remained.
"The farback," she said, reminding Cobby Mossburg of his duty. "You won't forget."
Cobby nodded slowly. He swallowed his own gathered saliva, but it ran hot like liquor down the back of his throat, even sloshed in his belly, just like a pull from the bottle. His eyes played tricks. They lied, showing the girl changing shape in shadow of flame, with vivid red feathers peaking at the crown of her head, with lips forming to a bright yellow point to match her eyes.
A brilliant light caught his eye. With a gasp, Cobby turned his head, only for a second, and saw the high hills of Possibility dotted with the flames of thirteen beacons. Just as quickly as the vision had appeared, it vanished, replaced by the fecund greenery of a Summer's night, revealed only in flickers of campfire. And Cobby swore silently, if he survived this night, he'd never touch another drop. Unless once again, he heard the Tanager's call. And once again, he heard the Tanager's call.
He turned his head, to look for Early Unnamed; but Summer's daughter was gone. Cobby shot to a rigid stand and scanned the nearby treetops. Upon the bird's next refrain, he spotted the brilliant plumage, flagrant like a bleeding wound against the snow-flanked branches; he fell to his knees and wept. Cobby could not recall the last time such vivid emotion had overcome him, maybe last spring, maybe never. But Summer's daughter heralded her awful tune and Cobby had an obligation. It was a Mossburg's duty to inform the mayor.
He summoned sense. A deal was a deal, and Cobby didn't bother to pack his meager belongings. With a mostly full bottle of grot at his side and the furs on his back, Cobby Mossburg hiked into town. He didn't bother to stop at the tavern, either, having the forethought to bring along Early's offering. He wasn't welcome there, besides. And as morning's sun peeked over the mountains, Cobby stumbled up the thirty-three steps leading to the Great Hall. Bursting through the carved oak doors, he leaned against the balustrade and breathless, Cobby alerted the mayor. "Summer is here," he told the woman. She uttered a small, pitiful sigh and then turned her back on Cobby Mossburg. And by nightfall, the high hills of Possibility remained untouched by the flame of a single beacon.