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The Stork submitted his resignation on a Thursday. It was the last day of the last month of fair flying weather. Some might have called it an inauspicious choice.
Late the night before, a nor’easter had blown in, shaking the headquarters of Worldwide Infant Delivery, Ltd., to its very roots. All outbound babies had been delayed by twelve hours at least, some by as much as twenty. In the Stork’s nest alone, three bundles awaited takeoff. Not to mention a pair of twins, each determined to out-squall the other.
Under such circumstances, Reader, it is easy to see why some in the fleet might have put off retirement of a more convenient—if less querulous—occasion. But the Stork was a stubborn old bird, accustomed to flying against the wind. He plugged up his charges with bottles of milk and plugged his own ears with a clean nappy. Then he settled down to write, as calmly if it had been a starlit night, scratching his resolutions with a quill from his own right wing.
The letter read as follows:
Thursday the 31st of ___ — WID, Ltd. — Nest 274-2
My Dear Fleetmates:
I, Phineas T. Lodestone, being of sound mind and a few remaining feathers, do solemnly and regretfully announce my retirement from the office of Senior Delivery Stork. The honor of serving this distinguished company, and its human customers, has been all mine these past 300 years. But I fear that old age has swooped in at last, abetted by inflammation in both wings. I shall perform my services yet seven days hence, at which time I humbly request you appoint one of my worthy junior fellows to assume my route.
May you always fly swiftly and bring joy —
When dawn broke and flights resumed, the Stork posted his note on the message board outside the hangar, whereupon he calmly flew off with the twins. But when he returned, he found the whole place in such a clatter that he had to circle the runaway a good twenty minutes before being given the all-clear to land.
Storks, as you may know, cannot speak as humans, or even as other birds. Instead, they knock their bills about in a kind of clatter that passes for speech. And what a clatter arose as Phineas’s tired old claws finally scraped the runaway!
“A pillar among our ranks, he is!”
“An insurmountable loss to human and waterfowl alike.”
“No other beak so noble has ever sliced through the four winds.”
Phineas, for his part, received the cacophony with unflappable calm. He had long felt this change of life upon him, all the way down to the hollows of his bones. It had weighed as heavily for months as the twins had done these few hours past. But as with all changes, Phineas had known that the timing of this one was everything.
The work of the WID, Ltd., was quite possibly the most important on the continent. One’s final delivery of such precious cargo is not to be taken lightly. Not when so much rides on—and in—one little bundle.
I will wager at this point, Reader, that you had not fancied a bird could be so significant as Phineas regarded himself. But think for a moment, will you? In the annals of your own history, with all its turbulence and triumphs, have you not relied on a great many figures to change the course of events? Princes, for example. Military generals. Champions of justice and goodwill, whose exploits seem to most of us larger than life itself?
Where would we be if these legends had not been born properly to the right parents in the right household, under the exact circumstances of their lives? Indeed, where would you be if you had not been born as you were?
To be born, one must be delivered in the world. And to be delivered, one must always call a stork. Therefore, I submit that even the greatest among us are never half so influential as that common waterfowl.
For the power to deliver a child is the power to change the world.
Phineas, being a bird of contemplative inclination, had mused on these thoughts a thousand times at least during his centuries in the fleet. The legends do not do him justice. No doubt you are thinking of a greeting-card picture you have seen—one of a fluffy white bird, smiling and happy, gliding through sunny skies with a bundle in its beak. If you are to follow this story to its extraordinary conclusion, you must lay aside these fables and believe instead in the cold, hard truth.
The truth is, three hundred years of inclement weather and melancholic rumination had not been so kind to Phineas T. Lodestone. His feathers had been blown off so many times that many had finally refused to grow back again. His eyes were dim and clouded with age. The aviator’s cap he had received upon his appointment was faded now and peppered with mouse-nibbles, all the shine worn off its buttons. Where once he had glided easily through the skies, now he flapped madly with wings both twisted and swollen. Add to this the contrariness of babies and constant threat of inclement weather, and I hope you will grasp the true gravity of the Senior Delivery Stork.
As it happened, Phineas had been assigned for almost his entire career to a certain municipality known as the city of Clutch. This ever-expanding map-dot lay just south of the Mountains of Mishap, on the banks of the River Crank. To humans, Clutch was a pinnacle of achievement. But for magical creatures like Phineas and his fellow Storks, only professional commitment could trump their distaste for such a blight on the landscape.
Clutch, you see, had an incurable itch for expansion. The city had overflowed its walls within the first century of its existence, and would soon have overflowed the Crank, too, had iron and brick not weighed considerably more than water. Once the countryside roundabout had teemed with magical creatures of every variety. But that was before their urban neighbors, being stubborn by nature and human besides, had decided once and for all to create Magic themselves.
Soon the denizens of Clutch had locked themselves away in their workshops, concocting all manner of inventions. Factories sprang up like garden-weeds. Coal smoke quickly choked out the fairy-sparkles. Gas lamps outshone the fire of dragons. Nymphs and gnomes and unicorns alike fled before the roar of this new species that belched engine smoke and pawed up dust with its great iron wheels.
Before a century and passed, the people of Clutch had chased every last bit of real magic out of their district. Only Phineas had remained at his post, ostensibly because the humans had not yet invented a baby delivery machine. (In truth, I suspect it was more stubbornness than duty.)
The migration of magical fauna was not the only bit of history Phineas witnessed, either. For the people of Clutch, more power and greater opportunity brought a host of unpleasant decisions. Families rose and fell on the strength of their inventions. Intellect became the new source of wealth. By force of a peculiar law, the Clutchians decreed that power would not pass from generation to generation, but from one worthy person to the next.
The town’s council would decide if each child’s intellect or skills merited their parents’ income. Futures were made overnight when clever children received more than their parents had been due. Likewise, whole empires crumbled at the birth of a child whose temperament and intellect—or even their looks—failed to meet the prevailing standard.
All these changes had occurred in Phineas’s first term of service. Over the centuries that followed, he noted what one might call a “refinement” in the taste of his clientele. With their children’s fates now dependent on performance, Clutchian parents found every possible reason to be discontent with Phineas’s deliveries. The people of Clutch came to believe in no magic at all, outside their own cleverness, but they certainly found it convenient to blame “The Stork.”
This had irritated Phineas, naturally, for he had always prided himself on the very best of service. Fortunately for our story, however, the Senior Delivery Stork of Clutch knew his own mind as well as he knew his customers’. For years he had acquiesced to their expectations. But with retirement on the horizon, the possibilities was now open to challenge the people of Clutch—if for no other reason than to remind them that, contrary, to their own belief, they had not yet chased every bit of magic out of their world.
Phineas pondered all this the day after his announcement, even as he nibbled on frogs and fish and earthworms at his own farewell dinner. He had had the power to influence the future for centuries. Yet he had never availed himself of it.
Was there still time to shift the fortunes of Clutch?
In his early years, Phineas had asked no questions, delivering the very next babe who appeared in his queue. In later years, he had achieved seniority enough to assist with their selection. But even then, he more often than not reached for the nearest child, preferring to trust fate over his own intentions. On the morrow, he would step up to that queue one final time, to fill his very last bundle. Was it possible that, with this act, he could begin to undo all his magical fellows had suffered at the hands of Clutch? Could he, old and featherless and swollen as he was, return the City of Clutch to a time when parents happily received their bundles, no matter what lay inside?
Six days passed. The seventh dawned gloomy and wet. When Phineas reported for his final shift, he found a single request in his box: a delivery for the Baroness Celine de Gauge and her husband Alexander, of Cygnet Hall. Phineas could hardly believe his luck (if, of course, he had believed in that sort of thing). The Gauges were the kind of couple everyone envied, with the sort of fortune every clever child was told he or she deserved to inherit. None would pass up the chance to seize the Gauge’s substantial power should their child-to-be prove unworthy.
This was his opportunity. Phineas T. Lodestone could feel it in the hollows of his bones. He tucked the request under his wing and walked quietly over to the queue of babies.
The power of the future now hung in the balance.
Soon, it would hang from his beak.
©2015 by Lisa Walker England – All Rights Reserved
The League of Marvelosities is a serialized steampunk novel
that releases one new chapter every other Wednesday.
Learn more about The League of Marvelosities here.
About the Illustration: Phineas and his bundle are composed of needle-turned applique finished in blanket stitch. Materials include vintage baby clothes, scraps from my 2014 Teslacon steampunk costumes, a sun dress, leather scraps, and thrift shop yarn. The background is cotton hand-dyed with Bengala #21.