Harvest time in the land of many fields was a time of hard work. Everyone had their job, even Bailey, the littlest blackbird. Bailey, the fifth sibling in his nest, was send back to the barn first, as soon as his little beak was full.
Bailey dropped the few corn kernels he held into the collection bucket at the base before King Darius’s throne. Darius was away, on the highest branch of the royal oak, directing his council birds hither and yon—away from the noisy machines of men and toward the not yet harvested rows of corn. Under King Darius’s direction, the blackbirds gathered many kernels and seeds.
Bailey was so hungry. All his roost mates were still out in the fields. Bailey snapped up a kernel from the bucket, crunched it in his beak, and swallowed. A satisfied “ah” escaped, just as he heard the “whoosh” from the powerful flapping of a flock of wings.
King Darius landed gracefully on his throne, followed by the six fattest blackbirds Bailey had ever seen. Their red shoulder patches were larger than his own wings. The six flanked the king at his hay bale throne. The king fixed him with a piercing eye. “Littlest blackbird, you have been eating my kernels.”
Bailey shook his head. “No,” but before Bailey could finish with “Only a kernel I earned today,” King Darius interrupted. He glared at his assistants, “What say you, council bird?”
The fattest blackbird hopped forward. “Open your mouth.”
Bailey slivered his beak.
The council bird flapped a wing at the littlest blackbird’s mouth.”There’s a dribble of corn mash. He ate.”
The six flapped their wings at Bailey. The air pushed Bailey back a couple of hops.
“He stole from the barn,” the fattest blackbird said. “The punishment for theft is banishment.”
King Darius flapped his wings, rising up to his full stature. “Bailey Blackbird, you are banished from the barn, never to return. Your disrespect has cost you the warmth of my benevolence. Be gone.”
The days after his banishment were hard days. Long, lonely days. He lived in an empty knot in tall white pine across the rocky lake. He ate windblown seeds off the lake and insects buzzing in the underbrush. Every night he dreamed of returning to the comfortable nest with his bigger siblings. One night, after he’d eaten an unusual purple, four-winged insect, his stomach rumbled and he dreamed that his sisters told him not to eat unusual purple, four-winged insects.
As the nights grew colder, he added pinecones to his roost.
Pecking at pinecones gave a tiny bit of nourishment, but they didn’t satisfy hunger. His gizzard got full, but also hard and achy.
How was everyone in his home roost doing?
After a long winter, finally, the ice melted and green shoots sprinkled among field browns. He hoped to find his siblings out of the view of King Darius and his wing birds.
Although the spring growing season had started, there was no guard at the barn’s high eave. Quietly, Bailey flew in. He flapped his wings softly, towards the nest where he’d last had a comfortable sleep.
No one was moving. Bailey didn’t hear any chirps or whispers from any nests. He landed on the edge of his nest and carefully looked inside.
Six skinny corpses lay in quiet, eternal sleep.
Bailey jumped away, into a downward flight to King Darius’s throne.
The collection barrel was empty. King Darius slumped, but still alive on his hay throne. His six lieutenants lay, perhaps alive but all unmoving, on the floor, much skinnier.
Bailey turned to leave but King Darius had seen him. “My tribute. Where is my tribute? Where are my kernels?”
Bailey didn’t stop to answer. He flew out the eave slit. He flapped his little wings as fast as he could, until finally he reached the next farmyard.
Three brisk blackbirds stopped him before he could land at their barn. The lead bird demanded, “Who are you? What is your business at Leader Silver Owl’s domain?”
“My name is Bailey. You’re all right! Not starving! I’ve just come from King Darius’s barn, my old barn. All my kin have starved to death. The King is barely alive. His lieutenants are dead or nearly dead.”
“Hah,” the lead blackbird chirped. “It’s been a hard winter, but there’s no famine here.” He tipped his wing toward the barrel by the barn door. Its bottom was covered with fresh seeds and kernels. “Although we’ve just started gathering, since it’s early in the season, soon our barrels will be filled.”
“But my roost is all dead. Starved to death. Why aren’t you?” Little Bailey looked this way and that way, searching for an answer.
“Doesn’t make sense.” The brisk blackbird shrugged. “Silver Bird insists that all workers must eat enough to work.”
“Oh.” Bailey’s eyes widened. “King Darius insists that he and then his council birds get all they want. Whatever is left over is divided among the field blackbirds.”
The chief blackbird clicked his beak. “That explains it. The field workers starved to death over the winter. Now there’s no one left to gather more kernels for King Darius and his assistants.”
“Bailey, if you want to work, you can join our roost.” He turned to his wing birds. “Take Bailey Blackbird to the fields. I must tell Silver Bird of our bonanza, a new field to work.”