Leela tromped up Garbage Hill, hunting for rags. The five rags she found yesterday had bought a slice of bread. “Look harder,” Leela told herself.
Hours later, Leela had nothing. Suddenly she spied a blue rag poking from the trash. She pulled it out. The rag was large and smooth. A painted bird spread its wings from edge to edge.
“If I sell this beautiful rag, I will eat for a week,” Leela said. “If I keep it, I will have a bird of my own.”
Leela tucked the bird-rag in her pocket. She tromped down Garbage Hill.
Then she slid a sheet of cardboard from behind a rock pile. She set the cardboard next to Alley Road. Lying on the cardboard, she stared at the darkness till she fell asleep.
That night, Leela dreamed she flew. In the dream, she clung to the bird-rag as it lifted her toward the rising sun.
Leela woke before dawn. Hiding her cardboard behind the rocks, she stepped into Alley Road. She grasped a corner of the bird-rag in each hand. She raised her arms. Her bare feet left the dirt.
Above the shacks she soared, past Garbage Hill, beyond the river, toward the sunrise. The horizon gleamed purple, pink, and orange. Leela's eyes felt soft. Her tongue felt sweet.
Then daylight hit, bright white and hot. Leela closed her eyes. The bird-rag turned her in the sky and flew her back.
Leela stuffed the bird-rag in her pocket. Sliding out her cardboard, she hurried to Wrinkled Man. Wrinkled Man begged daily on Alley Road. Leela handed him the cardboard. “Morning,” she said.
The next day, Leela rose early again. Hoisting her bird-rag, she sailed away. Dawn shimmered purple, pink, and orange. When the sun bounced, the bird-rag landed Leela on Alley Road.
Near the river, Scarf Lady balanced water on her head. Scarf Lady had no toes. Leela brought the jug to Scarf Lady's shack.
On Garbage Hill, Leela found Moku. “This bird-rag,” she said, “flies me to the sunrise every day.”
“Can I try?” asked Moku.
The next morning, Leela and Moku waited in the darkness. “Hold tightly,” said Leela. The bird-rag swooped Moku toward the rising sun. Pastel light swirled around him. When the sun burst, the bird-rag whisked him back to Alley Road.
Leela stuck the bird-rag in her pocket. “Tiny and Beebee need playmates while their mama sews,” she said. Leela and Moku watched the babies all morning. In the afternoon they hunted rags.
Leela found eleven rags. Moku found one—blue, with a painted bird spreading its wings wide.
As night ended, Leela and Moku floated to the sunrise. Afterward they rounded up their friends. “Let's watch all the babies on Alley Road,” said Moku. The friends agreed. They cared for the babies till dusk. Then they scurried to Garbage Hill.
Leela and Moku uncovered a box of gray rags. Their friends each found one rag—blue, with painted birds spreading their wings wide. Leela and Moku sold the box of rags. Everyone ate soup for supper.
Early next day, Leela, Moku, and their friends huddled on Alley Road. They stretched their arms aloft. Their bird-rags swept them skyward to the sunrise. The children breathed the purple, pink, and orange. Then the sun popped, and the bird-rags carried them home.
On Alley Road, Canker Jin hid. He saw the children fly. He heard them plan a playground for the babies.
That night, while everyone slept, Canker Jin prowled. He crept to Leela and slipped the bird-rag from her pocket. He sneaked to Moku and snatched the bird-rag from his fist. Canker Jin stole every bird-rag on Alley Road.
Behind his shack, Canker Jin built a fire, tall as his roof. He flung the bird-rags into the flames.
Morning came. Moku ran to Leela. “My bird-rag’s gone!” he moaned.
Soon their friends appeared. Some yelled. Some sobbed. Some tried to fly without their bird-rags, but they fell.
Leela smelled smoke. They tracked the smell to Canker Jin's.
He prodded the red coals with a stick. He sneered at them. “Lose your flying rags?”
Their faces dropped. “You burned our bird-rags? Why?”
Canker Jin swung his stick. “Get out!”
For three days the children stayed away. Finally they gathered and trooped to Canker Jin's. “We'll tell him he's hateful,” Leela said. “Then we'll leave.”
Canker Jin was not home. Behind his shack sat a bumpy heap of ash.
Leela spotted a blue clump in the ash. “What's that?” Carefully she drew it from the pile. The rag was large and smooth. A painted bird spread its wings from edge to edge.
“Here's another!” hollered Moku. He tugged. From the ash came a second bird-rag.
Leela dug with Canker Jin's stick. Shouts of “There's one!” filled the air. Within minutes, every child had a rag.
Suddenly Canker Jin returned. “Leave my property!” he bellowed. “Your flying rags are gone!”
The children plucked the bird-rags from their pockets. Canker Jin paled. Quivering, he rushed down Alley Road and disappeared.
Early next morning, Leela, Moku, and their friends raised their bird-rags. In the darkened sky, they drifted toward the sunrise. Purple, pink, and orange surrounded them. Their eyes felt soft. Their tongues felt sweet.
Soon dawn melted and the sun sizzled. The bird-rags flew everyone back to Alley Road. Nearby, an animal cried. The children found a lamb stuck in the mud. Gently they tugged him loose.
Then they tromped up Garbage Hill to hunt for rags.
© Suzanne Werkema