Bird Keeper

Bird Keeper

Wales, 1918 - The war to end all wars is over, but no one has escaped untouched, and twenty-two-year-old Deryn Morris realizes that the life she always wanted on her remote island may no longer exist. When Englishman Henry Price arrives as Bardsey Island’s lighthouse keeper, Deryn finds their friendship blossoming into something more. But not all scars are visible, and the war continues for some, threatening everyone's health and happiness.


Historical fiction


PLJ (United States)

November 1918

Deryn tossed the flyer across the table and sighed. BARDSEY BOYS BACK TODAY danced across the page painted by the island children with more enthusiasm than Deryn felt. According to the mantel clock, the ferry would be arriving soon, and the rain against the windows promised a raw and slow trek. Although she had waited four years for this day, she trudged out the door.

British flags lined the main lane, the wind snapping their canvas. The Great War had ended two weeks ago on a day like this one. It would have been nice, after years of muddy trenches, for the men to return home to sun and calm seas. A quick glance at the churning waters of the Sound had Deryn shuddering at the ferry's violent crossing.

Welcome home, indeed.

The boys had left on a mild summer day four years before. Not long after England declared war, the placards arrived; Your King and Country Need You, they read, appealing to every man's sense of duty. Patriotism drove some, a hope of adventure others, but in the end, eleven Bardsey men enlisted.

"They'll be back in time for spring planting," someone had predicted as the boat rowed out of sight.
"We'll rout the Germans by Christmas," said another.

Only Cerys Smith, blind island matriarch had hushed them, sightless eyes staring out to sea as her only grandson went off to war.

They dubbed themselves the Bardsey Boys, registered in a Pal Battalion so they would serve with each other. They did serve side by side, and that's how they died. Fathers, sons, brothers, uncles. All across the United Kingdom. On a trip to the mainland, Deryn had heard of a city in northern England losing 500 men in one day; church bells ringing for two weeks straight in grief. Bardsey Island's sacrifice paled in comparison.

She shook her head, sending her maudlin thoughts scattering with the rain. At the dock, she found her neighbors huddled under cover, waiting to welcome the boys home.

The ferry's arrival time came and went, and Deryn started to wonder if it wasn't coming when someone cried out, and a dozen pair of eyes scanned the horizon. As the small dark dot took shape and grew larger, Deryn swiped at the tears in her eyes, angry. She had sworn off tears four years ago.

In silence, the crowd watched as the ferry maneuvered and docked, bringing the Bardsey Boys ashore.

Gareth Jones was first down the gangway, oversized bandages covering his dark hair. He buried his face into his mother's shoulder, his muffled sobs echoing off the weathered dock. Behind him, the ferrymen struggled to lift Rhys Williams over the side and into his waiting wheelchair held steady by his fiance, Efa. Deryn smiled at their bittersweet reunion, eyeing Rhys's trouser legs pinned at the knees. Owen Smith stepped off, his arm in a sling and grimaced as his grandmother hugged him tight. Deryn's stomach flipped at the wink he gave her. Sian Evans sauntered off and headed to The Crown. Four more disembarked.
And so the war to end all wars ended for Bardsey Island.

Deryn shivered, chilled from the weather and the ghosts of the three missing men. John Finch, killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 next to Lucas Edwards, only sixteen, having lied about his age to enlist. The Edwards buried their son at dawn and left Bardsey behind for good.

And, of course, her father, Petyr Morris. Early war casualty, the Army announced. Bad luck, the old men muttered when word came Petyr had died without seeing action. Tragic, the women whispered. Deryn's eyes filled up again as the ferry faded from sight.

Sighing, she turned and made her way up the path, tucking a wet strand of hair behind her ears. Except for the unusual sound of early morning drinking at The Crown, the village absorbed the recent population surge. The warm, yeasty scent of fresh baked bread wafted from a nearby kitchen, bicycles leaned against cottages, laughter spilled from the schoolyard.

She shut the door of the Bardsey Market and Post and hung up her coat. Gwynffor, the Market's esteemed owner, and Deryn's grandfather crouched over several crates. In the excitement, she had missed the deliveries.

"You all right, bach?" Gwynffor asked.

Without his red knit cap, her grandfather's thick white hair stood in sharp contrast to his patchy black and white eyebrows. Wide, watery-blue eyes gazed at Deryn with kindness and understanding. Accepting a can of peas from his hand, she nodded. He patted her arm.

"Got some mail to sort through. Can you handle the goods?"

"I think the peas and carrots are safe with me," she teased, receiving a warm smile in return. Soon, Deryn lost herself in the monotony of stacking shelves, stopping to make notes in the leather-bound ledger. Can after can, arranged in neat rows, brought order to her scrambled thoughts.

"Well, I'll be damned."

They had been working in silence for close to an hour. The shelves were now replenished, and one glance at the table showed her grandfather had made good on his word to sort the post. Even better, he had set out tea and plate of biscuits. Deryn poured a cup and joined him. He passed a letter with the Trinity House Lighthouse Trust seal, then helped himself to two biscuits for his tea.

"So they plan on staffing Brenin Point again," Deryn stated between chews after glancing at the letter. "It will be nice to have the light back on."

"Keep reading."
He reached for two more biscuits, but Deryn slapped his hand away from the plate without lifting her eyes.

"A Doctor? On Bardsey?" Deryn stirred her now lukewarm tea. "A Doctor and a lighthouse keeper."

"A Major, too." Gwynffor tapped at another sheet lying on the table between them. "Major Doctor Henry Price. He's got an impressive number of references. Not that war experience means much out here. But he's passed all his training, so nothing stopping him from being the most well-educated keeper in Great Britain. And on our little island to boot."

"Why would a doctor want to tend a lighthouse? And one way out here?"

"Oh, there are worse assignments than Bardsey," he said. "Guess we'll find out when he arrives; he'll be here in April. Gives me time to spiff the Point up a bit."

Deryn half choked on her tea. "No one's been out to the Point since they switched the light off three years ago. Might need a wee bit more than spiffing for the doctor and his family."

"No family, just him. Bachelor keeper. I'm sure the village tongues will be a-waggin' about that." He winked at her. "Rain seems to have let up a bit. We could check out the Point and see what our Major Doctor might need."

Deryn smiled in return.

Brenin Point stood on the southerly tip of Bardsey accessible by an gravel road bisecting the peninsula. The red and white square tower was visible from almost anywhere on the island.

Gwynffor pushed hard against the front door of the tower that doubled as the keeper's quarters. Warped by salt and time, it resisted, opening after a swift kick to the bottom jamb.

Stale air and dust blew out. Deryn lit an oil lamp and held it high illuminating the tower's simple kitchen and sitting area. Furniture sat dejected and broken but dry; a blessing on an island buffeted by wind and ocean spray. Something flapped its wings high in the flue stirring up abandoned cobwebs. Gwynffor's boots left a ghostly trail on the floor like footsteps on the beach. He opened the shutters, and dust motes hung in the air, slow to settle. But the lowlight of the afternoon sun softened the room's shabbiness.

Four doors lined the walls. Two opened to small bedrooms, quilts still in place and in dire need of soap. Gwynffor laughed at Deryn's excitement at finding an indoor loo behind the third door.

"Can't have the keeper blown off the cliff at night heading for the privy,"

The last chipped door led to the tower stairs curling above her head like spirals in a nautilus shell. Seventy-seven steps, Gwynffor stated.

Not for the faint of heart, Deryn admitted and wondered aloud how'd a bachelor keeper could manage the lighthouse alone.
"He'll need a housekeeper. I suppose the look of him will determine how many volunteer for the job." He tried to smile, but it didn't reach his eyes.

"Don't worry, Taid. You and I have plenty of time to sort this all out." She squeezed his arm and gave him a confident smile.

Careful to avoid a pair of boots doubling as some rodent's home, she stepped outside to the sunset. The storm had blown west toward the Irish coast hidden in the fading light. The sea was sharp and steely gray, watery razors racing across the horizon. Soon the light would sweep across the water again, the thought made Deryn smile.

Competition: The Pen Factor 2016, Round 1


Read Reviews

Review 1:

Compelling hook?


Strong characters?


Attention to mechanics
  • You demonstrate a professional quality of writing throughout the story.
Narration and dialogue: Balance
  • Your story struck a good balance between narration and authentic dialogue.
Narration and dialogue: Authentic voice
  • Your characters’ voices were convincing and authentic.
  • Your characters were multidimensional. I found them believable and engaging and they genuinely responded to the events of the story.
Main character
  • Your protagonist exhibited a unique voice and had original characteristics. Their actions and dialogue were convincing!
Character conflict
  • Your characters drew me into their world from the very beginning. Their goals, conflicts and purpose were clearly introduced and I wanted to find out more about them.
Plot and pace
  • Maintaining the right pace and sustaining the reader’s interest is a challenging balancing act. The story had a clear and coherent progression with a structured plot.
Suspense and conflict
  • The joy of reading often lies in the element of suspense prompted by internal or external conflicts. Your story makes compelling reading.
Technique and tight writing
  • The writing was tight and economical and each word had purpose. This enabled the plot to unravel clearly. Your writing exhibits technical proficiency.
Point of view
  • The story successfully solicited the reader’s empathy through the clever use of the narrator's point of view. You show great deftness in handling point of view.
Style and originality
  • I loved your fresh approach. Creating a unique writing style while maintaining quality of prose requires both skill and practice.
Atmosphere and description
  • Your story was a feast for the senses. The atmosphere wrapped itself around me and transported me onto the page alongside your characters.
Authentic and vivid setting
  • The setting was realistic and vivid. The characters’ mood and emotions were conveyed successfully through the believable setting.
Opening line and hook
  • Your strong opening and compelling hook was a promise of wonderful things to come!
General comments from your fellow writer 1:
I will open with the only critique I have, since this was a great story overall. The writing is superb. Story flows perfectly. The professional manner of the writing is very high. And you should end knowing this is excellent writing. So, the only critique. She's going out in the rain in what? Reading, I can see her going out in the rain and follow along, I can see where she heads to in perfect detail. But is she wearing rain gear, just in her dress? I loved the way this story begins and keeps you on the edge waiting for something big to happen. Your lead up to the arrival of the boat, as if she is waiting for someone personal to her to come from the boat. There is almost a foreboding and it is like I can feel her emotions as she recalls the names of the three men who did not make it home. Awesome opening. I love how the story flows from point to point. How you lead into each scene. Could not ask for better narrative. And I have yet to see someone pay such close attention to grammar. You also bring in what I believe will be the story itself, with the mention of the doctor's bachelor status. I loved it.