Off the clock, Mark Freid, President/Creative Director at Think Creative, writes short stories. Here’s one of them. Illustrations and artwork by the totally rad Kim Fox.
“The great freeze could come at any moment,” the old female bird at the front of the class chirped dramatically. And before the words had escaped her beak, the twenty-seven maturing males turned to the window on the eastern wall and gazed at the most inviting blue sky.
“Yes, I know it looks perfect now, calm and beautiful, a day just made for soaring through clouds and drifting on air currents without care or concern, but you aren’t baby birds any more. It’s time to get serious about preparing for the great freeze.”
The lessons of the great freeze were taught each solstice to all the young males in the flock who had turned sixteen bird years since the previous lesson.
The old female bird had taught the class for more than three bird decades. Having endured two great freezes over the course of her bird life, she knew what it took to survive. “When the great freeze strikes,” she explained, “temperatures will plummet without warning, the ground will turn to stone, and every berry will fall from the branches and shatter into dust upon striking the ground. If you fail to prepare for the great freeze, you are doomed.”
Weathered and worn, the old female bird stood at the front of the classroom, pausing uncomfortably between phrases, ensuring that she had every bird’s attention, and instilling at least a little bit of fear. Her head plumage was nearly colorless and her ancient beak was splintered so that she whistled when she spoke, and some of the less mature birds in the room struggled to stifle a laugh, while those with a little more experience under their wings shushed them and acted superior.
“It is not enough to rely on your down and underfeathers to retain body heat during the great freeze. Having a substantial quilt is imperative. A quilt will allow you to stay warm in the cold.”
All twenty-seven birds scribbled the lesson in their notebooks. Sitting in the back row, one young bird continued scratching away after the others had put their writing sticks down. That young bird’s name was Truman. It took him longer to take notes than the other birds because, while they wrote, “MAKE QUILTS TO STAY WARM DURING FREEZE” in precise block letters, he wrote, “When the chilly winds swirl southward, sidling through the minute cracks and crevasses of our birch bark nests, we will be longing for the warmth of a handsome handmade quilt in which to bury our beaks and swaddle our tail feather if we have failed to consider the importance of preparing such a tapestry beforehand.” Truman was a writer.
“In preparing for the great freeze, you must be regimented,” the old female bird squawked. “There is only time to accomplish so much in a day. It is wisest to spend your time “striving,” “achieving” and “accomplishing.” She said these words slowly, ensuring that each and every young bird heard and absorbed their importance. “Striving. Achieving. And accomplishing,” she said once more for dramatic effect.
The birds scratched the words into their notebooks, realizing, perhaps for the very first time, that, since their lives henceforth would be consumed with preparations for the great freeze, they would no longer have time for the diversions that had filled their days previously and made their lives so joyous.
Truman was not Truman’s hatchling name. It was the nickname his friends gave him in flying school when he missed his first solo flight because he’d stayed up late the previous night writing a story. He knew the birds were mocking him when they referred to him as ‘Truman,’ but he liked the name. It made him feel special.
“Survival is the objective,” the old female bird stated. “The only objective.”
The twenty-seven birds wrote, “SURVIVAL,” clasping their writing sticks with their wings, wondering if the cool breeze they’d felt as they flew to class that morning was, in fact, a harbinger of the great freeze she spoke of.
Forty-three bird years earlier, the temperatures had gotten so low they couldn’t even be measured. The instruments they used for such things actually froze themselves. They said that the wings of those birds who left the nest during the great freeze froze solid in mid-flap, snapped off and fell to the ground. The old female bird herself flew with a limp, and the young birds wondered if she too had been scarred by the great freeze four bird decades prior. It was after that great freeze that the flock instituted mandatory lessons for maturing males.
“When the great freeze comes,” the old female bird said with a casual air, “don’t panic.”
Not panic? The birds wondered how that was even possible, but they scratched the words into their notebooks, and several underlined them so they wouldn’t forget.
“While your inclination will be to bury your beak under your wing when the great freeze arrives, that is the worst thing you can do.” Twenty-seven writing sticks scratched furiously. “It is best to keep moving by twitching your tail feathers or rubbing your wings.”
Truman was well known within the flock for his magical and imaginative stories. Several bird seasons earlier, he had written a story about a father bird who collected the moments of his bird life in empty egg shells that he carefully cataloged and maintained in an abandoned squirrel hole in an old pecan tree. The father bird was compulsive about retaining and recording all that he deemed important in his life and was concerned for his son who simply lived for the moment rather than collecting the moments like he himself did.
The birds sitting in the classroom were showing signs of maturing. Their feathers were beginning to thin and fade, slowly losing the luster that was the hallmark of the juveniles in the flock. Over the next few bird years, their feathers would evolve from a luminous green and orange to a dull blue-grey that marked the fully mature birds of their species.
“It is important to find a mate before the freeze,” the old female bird said emphatically. “You will want someone with complementary skills. Attraction, I can tell you from experience, is overrated. Compatibility is more critical.”
“Compatibility, not attraction,” the twenty-seven birds wrote.
Six bird years earlier, Truman had written a story about a young female bird named Beatrice who had an unusual marking in the feathers that encircled her face. It looked as if a pale pink snowflake had settled on her bird cheek, and while her mama bird said it made Beatrice special, all the other birds found it repulsive and teased her for being different. But one day, a bird from another valley drifted into their flock and, upon noticing Beatrice’s unique coloring, revealed that on the underside of his wing, he had a similar marking that brought him shame. When the two realized that they shared these unique markings, they fell madly in love and warmed each other’s beaks for the rest of their lives.
“Collecting and saving massive quantities of berries is crucial to surviving. Remember, the freeze could come at any moment.”
The twenty-seven birds turned to the window on the eastern wall and gazed at the most inviting blue sky.
“You will be tempted to devour the most succulent berries you find on the very day you find them. This is a sign of immaturity,” the old female bird said softly. “You will have strong desires to fly off to exotic places and share your berries with radiant females of other flocks. This is a sign of immaturity as well. There is no way to be sure that there will be time to collect more berries before the great freeze comes. Therefore, as any mature bird will tell you, you will be much better served by not enjoying your berries in the present.”
“Don’t enjoy berries in the present,” twenty seven young birds scratched the words into their notebooks.
“Yes, the berries will become dry and less tasty after they have been horded for some time, but they will retain their nourishment and this is what matters most when the great freeze comes.”
Three bird years earlier, Truman had written a story about a magical old bird who lived separate from the flock, but each winter presented his flock mates with a magical sculpture created entirely from feathers. The young birds thought the old bird was crazy for separating himself from the flock and wasting his time on frivolous pursuits like creating feather sculptures, but these same birds gasped in amazement each season when they cast their eyes upon the sensational works that he presented them. And then, when the first spring breeze blew, the old bird’s feather sculpture scattered into the air and disappeared, leaving the birds to wonder if it had existed at all, if it had even been real. And when it was gone, they went back to believing the old bird was crazy. As Truman listened to the old female bird talking about surviving the freeze, he wondered if he was crazy, too, since he would much rather spend his time writing stories that, like the sculptures made by the old male bird in his story, were meaningless to the rest of the flock who employed their skills preparing for the coming freeze.
“Maintaining your health is vital to survival.” The old female bird went on, her voice dry and scratchy from talking so long. “The weakest members of the flock stand no chance during the great freeze. Therefore, you must exercise your wings three times a week and deprive yourself of unhealthy foods like grubs and earthworms, no matter how tasty they may be.”
The young birds paused before writing this lesson in their notebooks because grubs and earthworms were a ritualistic part of their maturing years, often consumed in great quantities during social gatherings.
“I know that you’re thinking that gorging on earthworms every now and then can’t cause any harm.” She said. “And certainly, the choice is yours. You are becoming mature birds. Just remember, the great freeze could come at any moment.”
The twenty-seven birds turned to the window on the eastern wall and gazed at the most inviting blue sky.
“I have shared with you today all that I know about surviving the great freeze,” the old female bird said. “It is up to you now to decide what you will do with this knowledge. I cannot survive the freeze for you, after all.”
As the old female bird concluded her lecture, and the other birds started to gather their things, Truman finally found the courage to ask a question. “Old bird,” he began, his voice sounding more like a squeak than a squawk as it had been hours since he or any of the other maturing males had uttered a word, “while I understand the importance of making preparations to stay warm in the cold, and I recognize that our primary life’s work from this point forward must be to ensure our survival in the event of a great freeze, do you think it is possible to make time, just a little time, in addition to preparing, of course…for other activities…such as writing stories?”
The other birds stopped what they were doing and with beaks agape waited for the old female bird’s answer because, while they didn’t have the courage to ask the question, and while they weren’t interested in writing, they each had other things that they liked to do besides preparing to stay warm in the cold. Some were excellent warblers, others loved acrobatic flying in the upper atmosphere, and some were skilled at designing exotic nests.
The old female bird paused and breathed through her beak while she collected her thoughts. Truman and the other mature males waited nervously.
Finally, she spoke.
“Have you not listened to a single word I’ve squawked today?” She asked with a huff. “There is no time for unproductive activities. The great freeze could come at any moment.”
And with those words, twenty-seven birds, including Truman, turned to the window on the eastern wall and gazed at the most uninviting blue sky.