Two young lovers there were of humble origin. Caihong, who was more brilliant to her lover than the rainbow. Jin, who was more precious to his lover than gold.
Though young, they were sensible, and had already made their plans for the lives they would live together—the number of children they would have, the color of the roof on their house, the trading of places for the scholarship each sought to pursue, one in medicine and one in art.
Late in the morning, they strode along the road one day, each bearing baskets from early errands. They were so enchanted with each other that the vibrant energies of their love pulsed far and wide, and far, far above. Those energies attracted the attention of an unusual creature, a great bird with ten heads that lived in the forbidding depths of the mountains that bordered their country.
This bird felt and followed the warm and shocking pulses until it flew overhead and glimpsed the couple walking along below.
The bird swooped down. Its talons snapped about each lover.
And it carried them both away.
The flight was fierce. The air thin. The lovers could just reach other to clasp hands.
And then they were tumbling to the ground. Yet still high in the air.
Caihong and Jin found themselves in a cavern set within a cliff. They clung to each other, though the bird flew away, and they found they were not alone.
Eight other youths huddled in the cavern. A few rising and stepping forth to meet the two lovers.
A young woman wearing heavy robes smiled at them, though her eyes showed fear.
She beckoned to them. “I am Ning,” she said. “Rest assured, we are not the creature’s allies, but its prisoners, just as you are now.”
She gestured to a tall and muscular young man who leaned against the cold stone wall. “This is Yanchao.”
The young man bowed his head to the lovers.
Ning gestured to another of the captives, but before she could speak, there came a great rushing of air and the muffled beat of great wings flapping, and the snapping of many beaks.
The creature who had abducted the lovers, and all the youths in the cavern, appeared at the cavern mouth.
It was a great bird, the size of two bulls at least. Its colors and the shape of its feathers reminded Jin of a golden pheasant. But where he expected to see one head, even a head as big as a bull’s, he instead saw many.
Through his terror, Jin counted, and he found that the bird had ten heads in all. They looked much the same, though with subtle differences, in the color of their beaks, or the cresting of the feathers upon their heads.
Ning’s hands shivered. She hid them in her robes as she stepped toward the bird creature.
Jin heard moans and gasps from some of the others. But he was too stunned by the young woman’s courage, or perhaps her foolishness, to utter any sound at all. He only clung to Caihong, as she clung to him.
The creature watched Ning approach.
She stopped, and then she spoke, in a voice both calm and smooth.
“Great Shí Xīn Niaͮo,” she said with a deep bow, “will you tell us why you have brought us here to this cavern?”
Three of the creature’s heads looked at her. “That is not our name,” they said in unison.
Jin flinched, startled by the sharp, eerie voices, their pitches just different enough to pick out that more than one voice had spoken.
Three other heads hissed, and four remained silent, only staring at the youths.
Long had rumors spread about the terrible many-headed bird who haunted the shadowed cliff side. Most sensible folk considered the story an exaggeration of a few travelers’ encounters with some poor bird, who had built a nest in a poor spot and had abandoned her chicks, who in the lonely shadows may appear as one creature with many heads.
But here the creature was, the dying sunlight glinting off its richly colored feathers.
The three heads spoke again, this time in answer to Ning’s question.
“We have brought you here because we have chosen you.”
Ning bowed her head. “For what have you chosen us, great one?”
Twenty eyes turned toward her, blinking, and staring.
Three voices answered her.
“For marriage, of course. And for children. Each of you will give us many children.”
One of the youths wailed and fell to the ground. Some began to weep. And some were silent, simply staring ahead, unable to comprehend the fate that lay ahead of them.
But somehow, Ning seemed to remain calm.
“I have studied the laws of marriage in our land, great one,” she said. “And there is more than one prohibition for what you propose. For one, there can be no marriage between animal and human. For another, there can be no marriage between one and more than one. And last, there can be no marriage between one and one who is already married.”
Ning then revealed that she was already married. And that she was certain her husband was searching for her.
Twenty eyes stared at her.
Three voices answered her.
“I can refute those prohibitions.”
The three voices, speaking in eerie concordance revealed that they were not truly a bird.
They had begun life as human. Ten humans, in fact, all beautiful youths like the youths in the cavern. They were siblings, born to a petty father and weak mother. One day, without warning, their father cursed them for some minor offence. They bickered sometimes, as siblings are wont to do. And he grew tired of their bickering.
Their father, while not a sorcerer, possessed many enchanted treasures. Among these were many curses. He threw one at them, and it would have joined them in one body, ten minds and ten souls in one body. They would have surely have gone mad and died shortly thereafter, but not for their mother’s interference.
She was too weak and slow to stop their father from cursing them, but she was clever-minded enough to soften the curse, using another one of those enchanted treasures. Joined they would be in body, but not in mind, for the body would have a separate head for each sibling. To ensure that their father’s wrath would not follow them, their mother transformed that one body into a great bird with strong wings, so that they could flee and find a home elsewhere.
But their fool mother had turned them into a strange creature indeed. There was to be no other home or life for them. Even though they still bore their human heads, when they showed themselves, people fled in fear. Or tried to capture them for sport or profit.
In time, the transformation of their body spread to their heads. Separate they remained, but their heads grew feathers and beaks, and their bones and muscles cracked and tore, until all that remained of their prior selves were their human minds and their human voices, though even those were fading. Already, seven had lost their human voices. And four had lost their human minds.
“So we went searching for some way to break the enchantments upon us,” the three voices said. “At last we found one who told us that the only way to break the curse was for someone to show us kindness. If we were to marry, then surely one of our spouses must show us kindness at least once.”
So as they were human, and as they were ten separate people, the first two objections were answered.
One of the three speaking heads craned forward on a long neck that had been folded and hidden beneath the other heads.
Ning stepped back.
This one head now spoke alone.
“You are not married, for we killed your husband before we came to you.”
Ning recoiled with a gasp. She stumbled back and would have fallen if two others had not dared to surge forth and catch her. One of these was Yanchao. His shoulders heaved and his eyes glared at the creature.
The one head drew back. “The last prohibition is answered.”
Then the two other heads rejoined it in speaking. “We will all marry in three days, for that is how long it will take us to find and return with an officiant.”
The creature turned and launched itself away and off toward the setting sun.
After the bird was out of sight, a heart-rending scream tore through Ning’s throat.
And hot heavy tears dripped from her eyes.
In the three days that followed, the youths comforted each other, and most surveyed the cavern and what belongings they held onto when they were carried off, to see what tools or weapons they might have. One of the other youths was a carpenter, who lost the hammer he’d been holding when he was swept away, but was certain he could fashion another from the stones in the cavern, if someone had cloth to space. Ning offered her outer robe, with its hardy cloth. One of them was a blacksmith, who studied the stone and said they might strike stone against stone to sharpen them into rough blades.
And one of them, Caihong, was an apprentice healer. She and Jin had dropped their baskets when the bird seized them. But there was one package that was so precious to her that she had strapped it to her waist. She had with her a small kit of herbs and potions.
“I have some drowse-weed,” Caihong offered. “And killroot.”
“Killroot? I like the sound of that,” Ning said, her eyes still sore from weeping. “But I’ve been here longer than most of you. I have never seen the creature eat or drink anything in our presence. How would we deliver your…medicines?”
There was one among them, a handsome youth who had not given his name, who cowered in a corner, neither offering nor accepting help.
He only watched their efforts to save themselves, and after some hours, he stared ahead and told the rest that their efforts were in vain.
“The marriage will happen,” he said, “and if we are lucky, the heads that have lost their human sense will tear us apart and eat us. But if we are not lucky, we will all be made to lie with the monster and give it monstrous children.”
Some of the other youths lost heart.
“He’s right, isn’t he?” one asked.
“I do not want to lie with a murderer,” said another.
A third said nothing but threw herself to the ground and began to sob quietly, her clawed hand clutching her throat.
Yanchao put his hand on her shoulder and spoke gentle words that none other could hear. Then he turned to the handsome youth with the ugly words.
“We do not need more despair,” Yanchao said. “If despair is all you can offer, then stay silent.”
Ning rose and loomed over the handsome youth. “Ten heads it may have,” she said. “But we have ten heads and ten bodies. When the terrible Shí Xīn Niaͮo returns, we can surge forward as one and attack it, surround it, overpower it, and kill it.”
“Then what?” asked the handsome doubting youth. “How will you escape this cliff with no means of climbing up or down? Even with ropes, you could not do it. The rock face is knife-sharp. The only way to get out is to fly out. Do you have wings?”
Again, the handsome youth’s words lashed at their hope, driving it back, and driving them to despair.
“Maybe we can build wings,” a quiet voice said. All turned to the one who had spoken, Jin, who turned to the carpenter and suggested that they might build wings from the bird’s feathers once it was dead.
The carpenter did not refute Jin’s idea, but only turned his thoughtful eyes to the ground, and tapped his fingertips against his thumb, as if counting or figuring.
“All we need do is be kind to it,” one of other youths said. “That will break the curse.”
“You are trusting that the creature told us the truth,” said another. “There may be no curse. I will take no chances on kindness for a creature who deserves none. It may lying to us. It may be lying about many things.” He turned to look at Ning, and she smiled for the kindness he was showing her in giving her hope that her husband might yet be alive.
In the end, they decided their only chance was to kill the many-headed bird. And to use its carcass to make wings, or a rope of bloody sinew, or a horn built from ten throats and beaks to call for aid.
Their lookout gave warning. The youths prepared themselves.
When the bird landed, they waited. They could not risk it flying away or falling to its death where they could not reach it. They needed for it to come farther into the cavern.
Then someone called out.
“Great one! Watch out. They want to kill you! They have weapons.”
The bird, who had been clutching a trembling old man in one talon, dropped the old man and raised both wings.
It noted now that all the youths were standing. None rested or leaned or cowered. They were standing, and their eyes were upon the bird.
“Peck out their eyes!”
The crier was the handsome youth who had doubted their plan all along. Jin threw himself at the youth, clapping a hand over his treacherous mouth, and bringing him down to the ground behind all the others.
For a moment, none other moved.
Then another voice spoke. “We are only nervous, great one,” Ning said. “For it is our wedding day.”
She signaled the others to hold. Without Jin and the handsome youth, and without the chance to surprise the bird, they had lost some of their advantage. And the bird was still too close to the cavern mouth. They had no room to surround it.
“Officiant,” the bird’s three speaking heads called, “you will begin the ceremony.”
With a wrathful growl, someone rushed toward the bird.
Ning cried out, and reached out. “No, Yan!” But she was too late to stop him.
Yanchao leapt, one arm raised, the other thrown back. He drove the stone-blade dagger into one of the bird’s many necks.
The head attached to the neck squawked and snapped at Yanchao, but he ducked away, pulled out the dagger, and sliced. Blood sprayed across his chest. He sliced again.
The others all watched, their own limbs jellied and trembling.
The bird batted its wings at Yanchao, and knocked him down before the cavern mouth. With one hand, Yanchao grabbed a feather the length of his arm and pulled the wing toward him. He sliced again and again. And the others heard a thud upon the cavern floor. They saw the bird recoil, turning away from Yanchao, its other great wing sweeping around and colliding with him, knocking him off his feet, knocking him back, back toward the cavern mouth. He wheeled his arms.
And then, he fell.
When the bird turned to the other youths, they saw a sight both wondrous and terrifying. Where once there had been a head, a bloody stump oozed and squirted blood.
And so, there were left only nine heads.
And only nine youths.
The other youths hid their weapons behind their backs and quickly passed them farther back and farther back to the one who stood behind all. She gathered them and hid them in a hollow they had fashioned.
Caihong gently pushed aside some of her fellows and stepped forth.
The bird’s wings were still half-extended. It swayed from side to side. Eighteen eyes watched the youths. Three beaks hissed in pain and anger.
“Great one,” Caihong said. “That wound must be treated and bound, or it will catch infection that will spread.”
Three heads squawked and screamed at her.
But one head craned toward her, eyes gleaming sharp as glass. “And why would you help us?”
“Without you, we would be trapped in this cavern,” Caihong said, “and we would die of thirst. We all know this.”
Two eyes blinked. “Then why did he attack us?”
“Because you have treated us ill,” Caihong said. “But perhaps if we treat you well, you will do the same for us?”
She pulled out her healing kit from her waist band, unrolled it on the floor, and stepped back so that the bird could inspect it. And she offered to treat the wound.
The bird inspected the kit for a moment, only the one head swaying over the contents. The head rose and said, “Relieve the pain.”
She began to treat and bind the ragged oozing wound, first using all of the herb that she had to ease the bird’s pain. The nine heads all watched her. And nine sharp beaks took turns drawing near, giving warning, ready to strike if she showed any sign of treachery.
But the creature’s pain was greatly numbed. The bird grew more at ease and spoke of having the officiant perform the ceremony as soon as the wound was bound. But before Caihong had finished binding the wound, the bird grew tired. One by one, and two by two, the heads all dropped into sleep.
Caihong had soaked the bandages with her sleeping potion.
She did not think it would kill the creature, and could not say how long it would remain asleep.
“We must be quick,” Ning said, sparing a moment to clap Caihong on the shoulder for her quick and clever mind, and her courage in putting herself at the bird’s mercy for all their sakes.
With the bird sleeping, they decided that they would use their sharpened stones to cut off all but one head. The dying bird would try to escape. One of them would ride it out of the cavern, kill it once it landed, and get help for the rest of them.
Someone had retrieved their weapons and was already passing them out.
A cry of surprise rang through the cavern.
The youths all froze and watched as they heard a shuffling by the cavern mouth. The lookout was struggling with something.
Ning called out to them. “What is it?”
For it didn’t seem to be danger, but something strange.
Two figures drew closer then. One was the lookout they had posted.
The other was Yanchao.
For the first time, the merry sound of cheering was heard in the cavern.
“How can this be?” Ning asked, surprising the muscular man with a mighty embrace.
Yanchao explained that he had indeed fallen, but as he’d been pushed out, he had tightened his grip on the bird’s feather, hoping to hang upon it and pull himself back. But the feather ripped off. It was one of the pinions, the feathers of flight.
He felt the pinion drag through the air as if it were thick as honey. The feather slowed his fall this way, so that by the time he reached the bottom of the cliff, he was floating. He showed them the feather. Holding it made him lighter, not light enough to rise, but light enough to climb without great injury.
“If I had more than one,” he said, “I think I might have floated up.”
“Then we need not build wings,” said the carpenter. “We only need rip out all of its pinions.”
“And we need not spare any of the heads,” someone said.
“These feathers are magic. What if we need for the bird to be alive?”
“I will stay behind and kill the last head,” Yanchao said. “If the feathers lose their magic, then I will trust that you, my friends, will rescue me.”
They started the work of cutting off the heads. With Yanchao’s return, and with the repenting handsome youth agreeing to the plan, now that he too had hope for its success, they had more than enough hands to do the work quickly. But they found they did not have room to gather around and sever all nine heads at once. Only half could work at a time. But the rest were kept busy, plucking the bird’s pinions. Those who plucked began to rise as they collected more and more feathers. They anchored themselves with stones in their pockets, and collected the feathers in a stone-weighted sack.
The head they would spare until the end was one of the silent ones, the ones who had lost all human sense, and would not fight with cunning if it should wake.
They worked in silence, and were thus startled when someone spoke.
“What are you doing!”
All attention went to the speaker, Jin. Some saw him rip something from the hands of the handsome youth.
And in the next moment, the bird head before them woke and snapped its beak at the two.
“He woke it!” Jin cried, holding up a vial of dark green glass. “Back away!”
Caihong was the only one who understood what the vial in her lover’s hand was. She had taught him what it meant.
It was a reviving tonic.
Either the tonic worked upon the other living heads, or the sleeping potion wore off, for two other heads woke.
One still lolled, asleep.
Five were cut off.
One of the heads squawked. The other two were silent. The youths drew back.
But the bird raised a foot and swiped at them with a sharp talon.
Jin pushed one of the others away.
The talon tore down the length of his leg.
The bird toppled, separating half the youths from the other half. It flapped its wings to right itself.
Caihong ran to her lover. Already Jin was pale and his eyelids drooped.
“Use the pinions! Fly!” Ning cried. Those who stood at the cavern mouth grabbed fistfuls of pinions from the sack. They stepped away from the cavern mouth, and began to rise.
Yanchao held back the three snapping heads as others fled behind him, two of the youths helping along the frightened old officiant.
Caihong went to his side. “Yan, please take Jin out of here.”
“You take him. I’ll finish it.”
She tied a pinion around his belt. “We don’t have enough feathers for everyone to rise. You’re the only one strong enough to carry him and climb. I beg of you.”
She had one of the stone-blade daggers. She swiped it at a head that darted toward Yanchao.
“I beg of you! He’s dying!”
“You can’t kill three heads on your own,” Yanchao said.
Ning drew up beside the two. “I will help her.” She too bore a dagger.
“As will I,” another said, the blacksmith.
Caihong rushed toward the bird. One of the heads was still asleep. The head dangled from its long neck. She grasped the head, threw it over and around one of the waking heads, wrapped her arms around the sleeping head and pulled and squeezed. She was trying to strangle two heads at once.
Ning and the blacksmith surged forth so the other heads could not attack Caihong.
Only then did Yanchao relent, though reluctantly. But when he saw Jin lying in a dark pool of his own blood, pale and still, he lost all hesitation. He gently hoisted Jin, and without a glance back moved swiftly to the cavern mouth and started to climb. There were no feathers left. The others would have to kill the bird. And once he had Jin in the hands of a healer, he would return for them.
One other remained in the cavern.
The handsome treacherous youth now tried to flee. Seeing that there were no feathers left in the sack, he jumped up at the bird, while the others fought it, and tried to pluck a pinion.
One of the heads threw off the blacksmith, knocking him down. He did not rise, and the head was free to attack another. Its wrathful gaze fell upon the handsome youth. The head darted at him quicker than he could retreat, pecking at his face and the arms he threw up. He opened his mouth to cry for help. The bird’s head drew back and shot forth again, clamping his neck in its beak and snapping through flesh and bone.
This head then turned to the others, and it found them waiting, for it was alone now.
All the other heads were dead.
This one had no human voice and no human sense. It squawked in fear, pain, rage, and even grief at the sight of its dead siblings.
Caihong noted that the blacksmith still lay where he had fallen. She wanted to run to him, but she dared not until they killed the last head.
But they dare not kill the last head until they waited long enough for the others to escape. If the feathers should stop working before the others reached safe ground, then all was lost.
So they waited, Ning and Caihong, gripping their weapons, watching the last head as the last head watched them, glancing between them, trying to balance the awkward weight of dangling heads and bear the burning pain of severed stumps.
Caihong felt pity for the last head then.
“Poor creature,” she said, as she readied her weapon, for despite her pity she would kill this last head. She shook her head. “May you have the peace in the next life that you did not have in this one.”
The bird gasped. It eyes went wide, and turned milky. The feathers upon its head glowed and then turned dull and grey.
The head dropped to the ground.
Ning spared a brief glance at Caihong and nodded.
Caihong rushed to the blacksmith’s side, while Ning prodded the last head with her foot.
The blacksmith was hurt, but alive. His breaths and the pulsing of his blood were strong. He moaned and roused.
Ning was gathering feathers as quickly as she could, but each one she plucked turned grey. She had half a dozen in her hands. She should have been rising to the cavern’s ceiling. But her feet remained upon the ground.
“It’s too late for us,” she said. “The magic is gone. But I’m certain the others landed safely. They will get help.”
Caihong searched the ground for her healing kit to find what she might to help the blacksmith. The handsome youth had somehow stolen the whole thing, and had known how to use the reviving tonic.
Caihong rose and looked where Ning was pointing. Something glowed within the open beak of the last head to fall.
As they watched, an orb like a great milky pearl rolled out of the last head’s beak. Something stirred within.
“It’s an egg,” Ning said. She raised her foot to crush it, but Caihong halted her.
“We must destroy it,” Ning said.
Caihong shook her head. “This is no monster.”
Ning lowered her foot. “You are right. I have already killed the creature I meant to kill. But what is this? A child?”
“I don’t yet know,” Caihong said. “But when the others come to rescue us, I will take it.”
Three days later, the three remaining youths were indeed rescued by some of those who had reached safe ground. All the other youths had done so. But Yanchao had not dallied. He had Jin upon his shoulder, and all feared that the wounded youth was already dead. They did not know where Yanchao had gone.
Caihong went to search for her lover. And Ning went home, fearing she would find her husband dead, and hoping she would find him alive.
Caihong followed the path that Yanchao had taken. The pearl-like egg hatched, and a little chick emerged, appearing like a common pheasant. But that the chick’s eyes were golden.
It took her a fortnight to find where her lover had been taken. By that time, the chick had grown. Caihong had treated it well, nurturing the creature with fondness and care, singing it to sleep, stroking the feathers on its little head with one finger. The bird had grown beautiful feathers of red and gold and sky blue, and she had a sweet nature.
When Caihong was at last reunited with Jin, she found that Yanchao was still with him too. He had stayed to watch over Jin, for when Jin woke, though he was near-death, he tried to rise and return for his love. He could not bear to think that he had left her in that terrible cavern. Yanchao would not let him leave. The bigger youth had seen his feather turn gray and heavy as he walked along. It meant that he labored harder under the weight of Jin’s body. And it meant that Caihong had indeed killed the bird.
Caihong told them of the battle with the last head, and of the strange pearl-egg.
“You must have broken the curse,” Jin said, still confined to his bed by order of his healers. “When you spoke those merciful and kind words to the last head. When you did so, the corruption was removed, and something new was born, not from a mating, but from one of the other forces in the world that creates wondrous and beautiful things.” He smiled at the little bird with the golden eyes. She cocked her head and chirped.
Yanchao made Caihong promise she would not let Jin rise from his bed, while he went to stretch his legs and muscles.
And he left the lovers to their sweet reunion. The little bird watched and fluttered about their heads. She landed upon a branch outside the window and chirped to the lovers. She too left them to be alone. She fluttered to another tree and saw Yanchao striding along a path, happily munching on a round bun. She left him to himself as well, and flew higher and farther away. She would return to them in the morning. She landed upon a roof among scattered golden leaves.
She chirped happily with her one head. And beside that head appeared another that warbled warmly for a while, leaned against the first head, and melted away like mist.
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel