April 8th – The Festival of the Wind-up Birds

In 1302 the Chenorrian ambassador was due to come to the City of an official visit, one which the ambassador’s staff indicated was extremely important, and would decide the nature of the continuing relationship between the City and that great empire. The ambassador, a man called Xerman Amoller, was a great lover of birds, and always made a special arrangements to view the gablelarks returning to their nests in the City in the evening. There was just one problem this time around; for three weeks nobody had seen a single gablelark.

It’s still not fully understood where the birds went for the five weeks that they disappeared, nor are there any truly compelling theories that offer an explanation. Contemporary sources about the phenomenon offer little but the knowledge that Buentoillitants were equally confused by the disappearance then. The only time that the gablelarks have been absent for any period of time is during the fighting that ushered in the Revolution, when they were scared out of the City by the scale of the noise and violence. Other than these two points in history, gablelarks have been a constant feature of Buentoilliçan life, punctuating each day with their chattering and coiling murmurations as they come back from their hunt on the marshes.

The City’s diplomatic organisation of the time, the Ministry of Inter-Municipal Affairs, was extremely worried that the birds would not come back before the visit, which was planned for the 8th of April. On the 25th of March, after a week of worrying and hoping, they decided to take matters into their own hands; they commissioned four thousand mechanical gablelarks from the Guild of Clock Smiths, ordering every single smith and their apprentice to work night and day on the mammoth task. Some historians have questioned the veracity of the sources in regard to this element of the story; it does not seem possible, they say, to have created so many wind-up birds (a complex design that requires a huge amount of effort) in such a short space of time. Yet, according to all contemporary accounts of that day, they somehow succeeded.

Today, the Guild will reveal their creations for this year’s festival in the same way that they did so many hundreds of years before: they set out to the far side of the marshes in the afternoon, where they will wind up each bird by hand. As the sun begins to set, they will pull a long string out from each bird that sets them going. The strings are tied together in such a way that they can all be pulled at precisely the same moment, ensuring a spectacle for the Buentoillitants and visitors arranged in the City. Since the real gablelarks have returned, the fake birds are set off before the sun as set, so that they do not interfere with their real counterparts.

The fact that the daily return to the City takes place at night made the clock smith’s job somewhat easier, as they did not have to entirely replicate the appearance of the birds so closely, instead focusing on the behavioural patterns that made them move so beautifully. Each bird was made of the very light wood of the cattspine tree, and had a large quantity of feathers attached to the wings and tail to enable more realistic flight. The clockwork heart of the creatures were incredibly complex and each had an individual flight path ‘programmed’ into it, but due to weight constraints were also built from the wood. As such, there is only a single surviving example of the original birds, which is no longer in working condition, kept in the Museum of Traditional Antiquities. The design has, however, been passed down through centuries of guildspeople and those birds manufactured in the last few weeks are almost identical to those originals.

Reports vary about whether the ambassador was fooled by the birds. Some say that they completed their display perfectly, the murmuration being short but very close to the real thing, and for those few moments the ambassador was rapt, his eyes glistening with happiness. Others say that one of the birds didn’t reach its intended destination on the City’s roofs, as it either broke mid-flight or was blown off course by a gust of wind, instead landing at Xerman Amoller’s feet. There are no reports of the birds missing the City entirely because of weather conditions, as there are from subsequent years, so we know that it was not a complete disaster; indeed it seemed that whether he noticed the ruse or not, it had its intended effect, and discussions went well enough that it was decided the event would be commemorated with its own festival.

Perhaps its because they are more visible in the light of the setting sun, or maybe it is because the wind-up birds are shown up shortly after by their feather-and-blood counterparts, but the clockwork birds seem less convincing than they were reported be that day. The gablelarks seem to take a little longer over their murmuration above the City tonight, before they filter down to their nests, perhaps feeling insulted by the apparent need to copy them every year. Most folk will take a little time out of their day to walk up the hills and watch both flocks make their meandering way home, but other than this moment of skyward contemplation the festival has spawned a few other Buentoilliçan idiosyncrasies: a person who copies the work of another is called a ‘wind-up bird’ or ‘wooden bird’, and tomorrow children will have a great deal of fun collecting the birds by knocking them off the City’s roofs with stones. Most will have sustained some damage to their fragile mechanism when they landed, but a few are still set off over the next few days by the children, who often mischievously attempt to aim them into people’s windows.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Cherry Blossom
  • The Festival of Welcoming the Bees
  • Tent Testing Day