She was exhausted, tired and spent. All she wanted to do was crash on her adequately comfortable bed and snore away to tranquillity. Her terrible grades and the immensity of the homework that awaited her, gnawed at the sanity of her mind. Her brain felt like a crumpled piece of paper and her heart was laden with a thousand rocks. She tried to keep all that misery out of her mind and focused all her attention on making her way back home. Just as she was trying to compose herself, she saw a flurry of movement from the corner of her eye. Somebody was following her. She turned around. There was nobody except a sparrow perched on an electric pole. It seemed to be watching her. That was ridiculous; she must be seriously losing her mind, she thought. She kept on walking but, after a few steps, she turned around again just out of curiosity. The sparrow had now shifted to a dead deodar tree and was still nonchalantly gawking at her. Its head kept twitching, cocking from left to right. “What is this bird’s problem!” Misha exclaimed to herself. “No sense of privacy in this Godforsaken place, not even from the wildlife” she huffed out loud and quickened her pace. Half-amused with how ridiculous she sounded, she trudged on forward. She entered her room through the window and shut it before falling on the bed. Her mother’s unawareness of her arrival would give her a precious few moments to read the book, which, according to her mother, was a waste of time by virtue of not being “a part of her curriculum”. With only a few pages left in the young-adult fantasy, she thought it would be a good idea to finish reading it before plunging into coursework. All her plans flew out of the window – quite literally – as she heard a gentle knock on the windowpane.

It was the same sparrow; it didn’t take an ornithologist to tell that it was the same bird. It was quite clear, really. For some strange reason, no other sparrow had ever seemed so beautiful, so out of place yet so captivating. She opened the glass window and let it in. There was something masculine about the bird. So, without much thought, Misha started addressing the tiny thing as “he”. He looked a little like those animated characters in sci-fi movies, abnormally well-defined, almost in HD. Although he didn’t actually seem like anything from this planet, Misha convinced herself that she was probably being too paranoid. It was, after all, just a bird for God’s sake!

“Why are you following me little bird?” She asked him wistfully while stroking his ashy brown feathers. The bird didn’t fidget an inch, though he did not seem to be enjoying the pampering, either. He just stayed still; perched on the window, watching her intently as she ran her fingers over his velvety feathers. Misha knew that this was easily the strangest thing that had ever happened to her. She should have been screaming bloody murder right now or at least trying to shoo the cartoon bird away before it drove her completely insane. But something had come over her as she just pushed her normal response process back into the crevices of her mind and kept cossetting the sparrow as if it were a part of her everyday life. But then, quite suddenly, the sparrow took flight and knocked down the half-open bottle of blue nail-polish that her little sister had left unscrewed on the desk.

“Hey! What the…” she exclaimed. But, before she could think of any appropriate expletives for the fiendish bird, the sparrow did something even stranger. He dipped his beak in the paint and wrote something in big blue letters.

Sif’s Café, Saturday 5 p.m.

The mysterious brown sparrow gave Misha one last look before he flew away

She read the scribbled message with scrunched-up eyes. The sparrow didn’t wait to witness her shock; he flew away through the same window he came from. She just sat there staring at his note with an idiotic look of sheer bewilderment writ large on her face. “A bird… just left… an appointment request… at my desk… in blue nail-polish… What the heck is going on? Birds know English? Birds can write? Or is it just sparrows? So… biology means nothing? Birds can process and understand language with their pea-sized brains? Is all that humanity knows nothing but a big lie? Is science even real? Can trees talk? Is the sky a giant bird’s toilet bowl? Am I going insane?” Misha kept rambling on. Just as her sanity was coming undone, her mother burst into her room to restore some semblance of normality to her life.

“Mishu! When did you come home?” her mother screamed at her without bothering to look around. “How many times have I told you to use the front door like a normal person? You didn’t even wash up, did you?” she prattled on without registering the shock on her daughter’s face. “Are you hiding your storybook under the covers? Mishu, you know you have to finish your homework first. It’s your last year. You have to focus on your studies if you want to get into a good college” and on and on she went.

Her mother’s harangue brought her back to her senses. She had to somehow get her mother out of the room before thinking about what to do next.

“Alright… alright, fine”, she tried sounding her normal frustrated self. “I’ll wash up and come out in a minute for lunch, okay? Now, can you please leave? I have to change.” With that, she started pushing her mother out of the door without waiting for a reply. Once she was out, Misha slammed the door shut and sat down to contemplate the absurdity of the situation that she was in.

“Let’s look at this practically. Maybe the bird was a drone of some kind; a really good and authentic-looking drone. Maybe somebody was playing a prank on me. Yes! That must be it.” Her brain could not comprehend any other justification. Then, her eyes went to the fantasy book that she was reading a few minutes ago, which suddenly seemed like a lifetime now.

“Could it be… magic?”

No. She could not entertain that assumption at that point of time, for her mind would shatter like a glass vase if she did. The only way to find out more would be to go to that café and see for herself. Yes, that was the most practical course of action she could think of.

She wiped away the nail-polish message and carried on with her day with the sparrow still lurking at the back of her mind. Tons of homework and her mother’s incessant nagging helped keep the weirdness out of her head for the day, but the thought would creep back into her psyche every few minutes.

Sif’s Café was the posh pretentious café downtown. A half-full cup of coffee cost 500 bucks there! However, it seemed like a small price to pay to salvage her sanity, or at least some part of it. “What if no one comes?” she thought. Fine, she’ll just dismiss the whole thing as a prank that nature played on her. “But… what if somebody does come? What if it’s the sparrow again? Well, I won’t let it fly away this time, that’s for sure.”

As the D-Day beckoned, Misha got ready to face whatever was coming her way. She booked a cab to reach the place, all the while trying not to scream out of sheer frustration. Once she was finally there, she grabbed a table closest to the door and ordered a regular coffee. A minute passed, then another and then a few more. Misha sat there holding her breath, her coffee still untouched. Just as she was about to lose hope, a thin, rangy, deranged-looking boy stepped in and immediately sat next to her. He had on a brown camouflage T-shirt and grey corduroy pants. The most unnerving part was his hair – a symmetric blend of brown and grey; it was swept back and looked as if the individual strands of hair were connected to thin sticks in the middle, as though his head weren’t covered with hair but feathers. “Misha Rizal” he said in a gravelly voice, “I thought you wouldn’t come after the way we had to meet.” Misha kept her calm, all the shock giving way to a certain sense of tranquillity.

“Did you send that sparrow drone? What do you want?”

“All your questions will be answered. But first, you must pay for the coffee. We have to go somewhere.” The mysterious stranger started to get up.

“Oh no, Mister. You are not taking me to a secondary location. Also, this coffee is 500 bucks and I haven’t even sipped a drop. Say whatever you want here and now, or leave my life forever”, she said this all out in a single breath as a very weak attempt to unnerve the stranger, who just gave her a very demented look as if her words came straight out of some Shakespearean play. The shock was finally getting to her.

The boy shook his head with exasperation and gave in.

“Fine, finish your precious coffee. We’ll talk here.”

Misha prepared herself for finally getting an explanation.

“Has your mother ever told you about your heritage?” he asked her while leaning back into the chair.

“All I know is that our forefathers emigrated here from the mangrove islands of Oksana in the north-eastern part of the world during the 1840s and we’ve made a home here since then. And Dad is just a normal guy who lived here all his life, I guess. That’s it.” She replied while sipping her expensive lukewarm coffee with her brows furrowed.

“Do you know anything else of your maternal forefathers? The tribes they belonged to? The powers they had?” he asked Misha with a smouldering look in his pitch-black eyes.

“Powers? What are you talking about?” Misha inched forward with a bewildered look on her face.

The boy began, “Legends say that the high tribes of Oksana had shared many powers, especially among the royal families. They had gotten those powers from the forest that surrounded them, from the groves in particular, in order to fight the men who had come to destroy their home, the forest itself.”

“Am I supposed to believe a complete stranger talking stories about my heritage?” Misha crossed her arms with skepticism writ large on her face.

“You would know this if you had ever bothered to learn more about your roots. It’s outlined in numerous books about anthropology” the boy replied while looking down at her.

Misha pursed her lips and kept quiet.

“I’m just going to say it. Please don’t run away or faint. I’m a shape-shifter and so are you.” As he said this, his hands on the table started folding in themselves and started spouting feathers as if turning into wings – brown feathery wings.

Misha started shaking, her vision narrowed, disorientation started setting in and she began to faint.

The last thing she saw was the shape-shifting boy’s exasperating face as her unconsciousness unraveled, giving way to darkness.

To be continued…

…now that you’re here

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Ria and her love affair with reading