The parchment cracks and sheds as you unroll and flatten it on the sitting-room table. Every edition has an air of antiquity about it. The Bird of Passage, volume unknown, issue unknown. Print run of two, or perhaps two hundred thousand. This one arrived today, tightly rolled and slipped into your daypack at some point during your morning errands. Who delivered it? Don’t ask stupid questions.
Some of the contents make you wince, or smile, or gasp in disbelief. Some excerpts take you back to your childhood, while others dig up ancestral memories predating your great grandparents. Still others conjure sights and thoughts from unknown distances and times yet to occur. Every word sticks like a barb, ripping parts of you away as you move to the next.
You tightly roll the parchment and return it to your daypack as soon as you finish reading, careful to not introduce any more damage than necessary. This one has three, maybe four reads left to it. Departing into the night, you meander through the streets until you find the tavern with the right look. At the bar, a silver-haired woman scribbles intently in her journal. You slide the rolled parchment into her cloak pocket as you pass and find a seat further down the bar. There’s a drink waiting for you, and it will do for now.
The marketplace is dull this time of year. It’s the same tired material by the same complacent vendors. The people of letters have grown fat selling variations of the same stories, and the new voices spend more time carousing than honing their craft. They think much too highly of themselves, and their work shows it: pompous drivel, deliberately outrageous. No chance they’d ever point their analytical eye inward to learn that lesson, though. No time spent in cultivation.
Maybe it’s time to travel again. Hire a porter and tour the exotic north. See how those people live an authentic life. I could hire the tribe’s story-keeper to return with me; heavens know those people won’t produce any high literature on their own.
“Nothing catching you, good sir?” The merchant has a wide, earnest smile. I must have made my displeasure too quiet. I continue looking through his selection with a deep sigh.
“Oh, plenty catching, but releasing just as quick.” I wave him away without raising my gaze.
“No, no, you’ll not find any substance in that pulp, to be sure. Not for a cultivated mind like yours.”
“You pandering out, I’ll have you—” I look up in a rage to see that same broad smile and the merchant holding a small, thin volume in his hand.
“What you need is something different. Something exotic. I assure you, you’ve not read these stories before.”
“The Bird of Passage. A serial journal? Never heard of it,” though there is something alluring about its weathered cover, its uneven lettering, the musky aroma of far-away lands, sweat, blood. I tremble as I reach for my purse. “How much?”
“One of those coins would be too much. Don’t you worry, I’ll take something worth far less in exchange.” The merchant smiling that big, generous smile. He sets the small text in my hand, heavier than I was expecting. My eyes flutter closed and my knees buckle. I can hear the smile in his voice before I drift to sleep. “Caught you.”
Intersession is always a quiet time on campus. Faculty members awaiting their new appointments—waiting to see if they will have a job in a month’s time—have left town in droves, and the students have been scarce since their final exams. Not that the current crop spends much time in the library, anyhow. You are of a traditional demeanor, so you prefer things this way. Quiet.
Weeding season again, and you’re taking your list through the stacks. You can’t afford to be precious about the sanctity of books when space is at a premium and so many titles are unused or overused. A pristine copy of the peaceful history of the Kesch people, long since decimated by rampaging colonists. Never lent in 20 years, not even worth being a freebie. Clean books like this make fair kindling. You check it off your list and set it on your cart. A reproduction of some controversial new critical treatise, cheap ink smeared and the low-weight paper creased and torn. You’ll order another one, and today can be a lucky day for the next graduate student you see. Or, perhaps, it too can stoke the furnace. You check it off your list and set it on your cart. The middle ground: that’s the secret for a long shelf life.
You enjoy having a steady job, a steady process. Your cart fills over the course of a few hours, and you begin to make your way back, draping a small red ribbon at the end of the last shelf you thinned. Walking at a steady pace, you glance down the aisles, more out of habit than anything. No students here to mishandle the books. No new faculty helplessly out of depth with research and instruction demands. Quiet and more quiet.
The quiet ends with a gasp: your shocked gasp at seeing a wildly disarranged section of journals, hundreds spilling off the shelf and onto the floor. You’d just been over this section yesterday! Exasperated, you shove your cart aside and stride down the row. Frayed and torn, the titles strewn about are in worse condition than any you’ve ever seen. You’ll need a shovel and a barrow for this. You grimace as you reach into the pile to see if you can find something—anything—salvageable. Immediately, you touch intact vellum, out of place among the pulp. You carefully retrieve it and gently brush it off, shed pages of other texts sloughing to the floor in wet rot. The Bird of Passage. An unfamiliar text, an unexpected loudness.
Nestled atop the mass of discard and decay, you are quite comfortable. As you open to the first page, you feel a blaze stoked inside yourself, and with a bellow, you are consumed.
THE BIRD OF PASSAGE was an idea I had for a TTRPG zine back before I ever really explored the existing zine scene. Born out of short-form adventure hooks and scattershot ideas, it fizzled a little because constantly writing minuscule adventures without ever building them into anything is tough. Usually when I have an idea worth putting into pixels, I tend to flesh it out a little more. These were 500-word flash fictions, and as much as I enjoyed writing them, as I explored the TTRPG space I found myself wanting to make (slightly) bigger things.
Still, there were aspects I loved and wish to continue in some fashion. Namely, the above blurbs. In my mind, THE BIRD OF PASSAGE is multitudinous. It’s something of a secret society unto itself. Plus, the zine exists in the worlds within itself. People in the stories encountered the book and found it vaguely menacing. Esoteric. Pretentious? Totally, and that’s probably why these were my favorite parts to write. In the first, the narrator is in on the secret. In the second, the narrator is unworthy of it. In the third, the narrator is engulfed by it.
The chances of me fully realizing my initial goal for the zine are low: full-time employment, lots of other writing projects, additional hobbies, and attempting to be an attentive parent and partner… these things all take time. Still, I often think of the people who get their hands on a copy. I know it affects them, as it has affected me.