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birdsong.

THE INTRODUCTION

 

You have stumbled upon this book. I know because stumbling upon this obscure book is the only way you’ll find it. There are few translated copies but only one original, hidden away in a secret. Don’t ask me where, I was blindfolded before I was taken to inspect it – so even if you torture me (please, don’t) I still shan’t reveal it to you. Regardless if I did know, I would not expose it – I have dedicated my entire 57-year career at Yale and to a certain extent my entire adult life to this book. It is a rarity, in fact in my opinion it is the rarest of books! And it is so rare because it is an act of vandalism – but unlike almost all acts of vandalism, this one transcends the original.

The original text was a primitive avian encyclopedia originally written in what we have determined to be a West Saxon dialect of Old English. Each entry of the book pertains to a certain species of bird, that is where the similarities to the original encyclopedia end. The many authors, or vandals, of this book have used each species of bird as the seed of their stories. The stories have been translated from 13 languages, both contemporary and ancient, from almost every continent. The fact that it exists is amazing, let alone that over the centuries of its creation its structure and contents has remained cohesive despite its dozen or so anonymous writers. Imagine the Brothers Karamazov being written by strangers on the wall of a public toilet in Moscow – over the course of 400 years! I still think to myself that it is impossible and I would not believe it was genuine if I had not carbon dated the pages myself, and spent agonising hour after hour looking for signs of forgery. But there was nothing awry. It was genuine. Somehow.

I had a promising academic career ahead of myself when I was a young man, until the day I found this. And since that cursed day, I have spent every living moment on the enigma that you hold in your hands. Madness! It has cost me my livelihood, my physical and mental well being, even my marriage. Insanity! My children grew up and became adults in the few briefs glances I tore away from the stories, and I hardly care. Depravity! Throw this book as far as you can and run. Ha! Run far away before it consumes you, as it has me, and so many before and flee!

 

Or continue.

Sir Quincy Archibald

 

Contents

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p<>{color:#000;}. [Introduction
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p<>{color:#000;}. [Untitled #1
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Cuckoo
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Owl
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Puffin
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Sparrow
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Mallard
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Phoenix
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Parrot
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Eagle
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Lyrebird
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Currawong
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Archaeopteryx
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p<>{color:#000;}. [The Turtledove
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p<>{color:#000;}. Untitled #2

[One bird,
Two bird,
Three bird,
Four.]

[Has the nest stirred?
I’ve lost the score.]

[
Could have sworn,
there was one more.]

 

THE CUCKOO

Cuculus canorus

The clock struck noon. What came first the cuckoo or the clock? It may not seem like an intelligent question, but that was exactly what Otto von Bismark asked as he looked to his cuckoo clock – which lacked a cuckoo.

Otto’s story begins earlier on that especially warm spring day. The cuckoo bird was sitting dormant inside the clock, a monument to absolute certainty on most days. On this day, as the clock struck midday instead of a dozen coos, his cuckoo seemingly not bothered with its most taxing task of the day simply took off with its clockwork wings and flew out the open window of their three story apartment. Astonished as he watched it glide out into the metropolis of Berlin, he put it down to hallucination from midday heat. But it continued to infuriate him – despite trying his best to ignore the now abandoned cuckoo clock, whose tiny doors still opened with a slight squeak but no longer welcomed an automaton bird. Otto complained and whined incessantly about the clock because lately the cuckoo’s cry had woken his infant son. Though it was clear that the baby was more disturbed by his father’s rages than birdsong Otto went as far as shouting that he would rip apart the clock and choke that annoying cuckoo. These comments did not go unnoticed by his wife, who forbid him to even touch the antique clock which had been in her family for generations. Neither did Otto’s rages go unnoticed by the cuckoo, who had at last escaped from them.

Now that the cuckoo was missing it annoyed Otto all the more. His wife would go into hysterics once she learned her beloved cuckoo had flown the coop. The crippled mechanism continued to trigger on the hour, causing the moment to replay in his mind like a gear with one especially long tooth that prodded his brain every o’clock. For half the day Otto endured this clockwork nightmare until finally, he decided to venture into the city park, the Großer Tiergarten, in search of the cuckoo. Before leaving Otto announced he was going away for a short holiday over the weekend to relax. He kissed his wife and son goodbye, who were both glad to have him out of the house.

He caught a tram to the park and felt at ease strolling under the pine branches. High above the birds observed him from their perches in the trees, somewhere among them was his cuckoo. It was the beginning of spring, the birds were nesting and wary of intruders. Even distinguished persons, such Otto von Bismarck who was a conservative statesman, were watched with caution – and perhaps more so, it depended entirely on the bird’s political leaning. Despite their stress and screaming offspring, the feathered couples of the Tiergarten held no animosity towards the men and women who passed through their homes. As we will see, our specific cuckoo had no such forgiveness and what can we expect from a creature that wasn’t brought forth from Eden’s earth – but was an idol of man’s imagination.

As Otto passed through the gardens he forgot his mission in the tranquillity around him. Here the gardens had conserved the unmistakable crowded beauty of a germanic forest without the implied threat of bear, wolf, or visigoth. The only barbarians that hid in these woods were begging vagrants who would sooner throw out an empty hat than a spear.

“Where is that blasted bird?” he asked in a sudden anger which typically arrived when Otto found he was enjoying himself. In reply came the familiar call of the cuckoo. There it was, he froze and didn’t dare take another breath. In his dedication he created the wrong type of silence, it was the type of threatening quiet that only occurs just before disaster, death or injury. The cuckoo recognised it at once, and rode the breeze across the lake, dipping close to the flat body of water. Throwing caution to the wind he ran after the small bird to the edge of the small lake. It appeared two cuckoos were flying over the mirrored surface.

Otto mused: Perhaps it finds pleasure in this place, the flat lake which stretches out to the tree line that shoots up at a right angle, almost boxlike. A creature of clockwork could find a home in these forests of impeccable German design. In reality, it was precisely the opposite. The cuckoo hated this park. Spending its entire life on a set track designed by a god who it had never met, caused the cuckoo to despise the creator who had never asked for its opinion before winding it up and setting the cuckoo off down a one track life. That was its singular purpose as it flew out the window that hot spring afternoon – to escape. Hidden among the pine needles the cuckoo spied upon Otto, its cogs turned over a new purpose.

Otto von Bismark crept up to where he had seen the cuckoo flee. There it was! Perched upon a fallen tree. “It’s feathers have grown soft,” Otto observed as he crept closer. But at once he was sure it was his cuckoo, its head rotated like the hand of a clock to look at him. He shot out his hand but the machinery was far quicker than his flesh. It sprung off the branch with a flash of its sparkling jet eyes that faded into the starry night.

“Damn that devil!” he exploded. Otto would have to wait until morning to restart his search. Frustrated, he kicked a nearby tree. Shaken from the force something fell directly on his head with a cracking splatter. He wiped a sticky fluid from his face. It appeared to be a birds egg. Otto flicked off the eggshell horns that ordained his head while muttering to himself of his bad luck he heard a faint whirring like a struggling engine from below. By now the sun had gone down so he fetched his lighter from his pocket and revealed the oily mess at his feet, he gasped at the sight. It was the half-formed embryo of a bird, but like Otto’s target, it was mechanical. It wheezed out of its broken body which spilt more of the oily goo onto his shoes, its writhing body glittered from the orange flame of the lighter. Otto felt ill but couldn’t bring it upon himself to end the pitiful creature’s suffering.

“My bird must have been breeding,” thought Otto who suddenly came to an epiphany: I can repair my clock with this cuckoo. It would be brought up in the clock and never know the outside world, and thus would never desire to fly out the window like its predecessor. Before leaving, he looked up to the canopy to see where the egg had fallen and spotted a raven looked down and cried out in mourning as if the mechanical embryo had been its own hatchling. Disturbed by the entire scene, he didn’t stay too long to contemplate, though he underestimated just how deeply it had disturbed him. He cupped the wretched thing’s writhing body, felt the crunch of its gears in his tight grip, and began the journey home.“I’ve had quite enough of this insanity,” Otto muttered.

Contrary to his opinion, it doesn’t seem so insane when you’re familiar with the cuckoo, who is famous for its clock but is also famous – or rather infamous – for its nesting habits. The cuckoo sneaks its egg into the nest another species of bird, the cuckoo fledgeling hatches quickly, pushes its adopted sister out of the nest and is raised by the host mother. It is strange and sad to see a mother feeding a cuckoo, the murderer of her children who sings a different song and wears a different plumage – a mark of Cain for all to see. This is exactly what the cuckoo had done over the spring, sevenfold. In its hatred of structure and order, it laid its eggs and warped fate in blatant disregard to His design. Like all lives, the cuckoo’s had been written far before it lived them and the cuckoo skittered between those sacred lines, skewing the ink that tied our destinies together. Expertly hopping from one fated thread to another, from which the angels wove their tapestry, it stitched itself where it had no place to be nor its parasitic children.

~~~

Berlin’s workers were heading home for the night. Factory workers and fish mongers mixed with clerks and accountants, all contained in the churning masses intent on entering the trams. Otto joined the sea of people and hopped into one tram that was especially packed, he clasped tighter onto his prized cuckoo. A woman with a pram and a small boy holding onto her dress followed immediately behind him. The woman wedged the pram into the crowd to make space for herself and her boy. The hastily pushed pram jutted into Otto’s protruding gut.

“The lengths mothers will go for their children,” Otto thought with a guffaw. The cupid face boy peeked out from behind his mother’s skirt with a grin that melted his previous annoyance. Otto smiled back as the boy approached slowly curiously eyeing his clasped hands. Perhaps the boy thought he had a sweetie or a toy hidden, the possibilities captured his young imagination. The boy pointed again eager to see what was hidden behind this portly man’s clasped hands. Hesitant at first, Otto relented at last. What harm would showing the boy his fantastical bird do?

Otto opened his hands to reveal the windup cuckoo. The boy’s jaw dropped, but not with delight, his eyes betrayed a sickening disgust which spread to the rest of his face as it drained of blood. The boy wailed and caused his infant sibling to begin crying. Heads turned towards the commotion. Otto looked down to see the mangled corpse of a baby bird in his trembling hands. In desperation, he fondled the featherless wings trying to feel the gears and cogs which he had felt clicking moments earlier. Sickened onlookers had begun to notice and started moving away from him, most with simply too shocked to speak but many shouted abuse. Otto looked up in utter confusion. The mother screamed at him: Ach Gott, ach Gott! Du ungeheures Ungeziefer!

Each syllable rang out in perfect clarity but Otto couldn’t understand a word. The tram had taken on a different appearance and the people too. Now the entire world appeared to him as a mechanical system. All his life he had been staring at an optical illusion and now the veil had been lifted – the inner working could not be unseen. The wailing boy’s eyes blinking with tears appeared to him like a strange puppet show. Gasping for air, he clung to the open window. He saw the trams blindly following their route, eternally attached to their tracks. And the men and women shared this automation eternally attached to their jobs and to this city. The factory worker’s faces are as greased as the assembly line equipment they operate, and the clerks too, they’re ink stained finger extensions are simply extensions of the pen that rules them, they are just another cog in the machine, as vital and as replaceable. The boy’s tears were rolling down his face but this didn’t cause Otto to remember the many times he wept when he was a boy, instead, he witnesses a reaction: the release of a sodium and dihydrogen monoxide from emotionally distressing stimuli. He has completely forgotten the spectacle he has created by parading around a dead bird to children, but the passengers hadn’t. Men crowded around him, grabbing and shoving him towards the exit. Otto was more focused on the sensation of being pushed and spun rather than resisting. He rolled out of the tram to a clamour of further abuse being hurled at him. Face up, lying on the pavement, Otto looked to the stars but saw only cyclical constellations, running in circles pointlessly. While the entire world spun around the sun it was forever chained to, Otto finally felt something. It was a minuscule feeling at first that grew and grew, but he still couldn’t identify it. Everything was silent at once. The stars disappeared.

The feeling pounced, he heard somewhere in the distance the noise of a man sobbing. “Who is crying?” someone asked. No answer came. Just like Otto’s broken cuckoo clock – the universe and all who live in it are part of a system that runs perfectly but when the tiny doors open up they revealed nothing: no purpose, no command from above, just the vague hanging void. Like slipping out of a dream, Otto realised it was he had asked who was weeping, and he had also been the one crying. The moment of madness seemed to be over, he still clung to the bird’s corpse which was now attracting flies. Gathering himself up from the gutter, he walked the short distance to his apartment under the glare of the morning sun.

Otto crawled up the stairs, fumbling with the key that slipped in his blood coated hands. He entered his apartment which was dimly lit. The shadows were stretched thinly across the walls. Déjà vu assailed Otto as if he had walked into the suffocating silence, he felt he had taken these same steps a thousand times before . It was the wrong type of silence, though Otto did not flee from the suspect danger. Instead heard the sound of a struggle, a muffled moan from behind the bedroom door. His mind reeled in all the possibilities, sprinting through vivid images of his wife and child strangled and their soft bodies contorted and mangled. As fast as his mind was, he legs seemed to sink into the the floorboards as if stuck in mud. They slid about, making precious little progress towards the bedroom door where his beloved wife and son lay to the mercy of the world. “How could I have left them!” his hysterical mind screamed. Finally, after an eternity he crawled to the foot of the door and pulled his body up with the door handle. The door handled turned when he placed all his weight on it. Slowly, the door opened and he entered the room.

Otto saw his wife, naked, her back arched back in agony. Her mouth agape in horror. But the corners of her mouth curled upwards into a smile. Her mouth was agape in ecstasy. Her back relaxed and slide back down to the ruffled sheets of the bed, next to her lover. Otto let out a small gasp, the sight of it crushed him. His wife didn’t notice but the lover did, who stared at Otto with jet black eyes. The stranger’s face held no expression, not as if it felt impartial but almost as if it was incapable of producing any expression at all – despite this Otto felt the face was grinning nonetheless.

Otto couldn’t bear to look any further at his adulterous wife and he simply stood motionless his eyes to the ground. A cold breeze blow in, still in shock Otto automatically feared his son would catch a cold. Just in front of the window was the crib, he walked towards it and broke out of his trance, he gazed upon his son’s crib which was all but empty except for an enormous egg. Otto cried out, his throat shuddering with fear. He approached the open window and knew what he would see, yet he still stuck his head out. There, at the bottom of the street lay his crushed baby boy fallen from his nest, lost in a slumber of crimson sunder.

In grief Otto looked to his wife, she lay alone – her lover had disappeared. A cuckoo called in the distance, and Otto let out a mad laugh because he knew at last that everything had been unavoidable. He would follow his sewn fate to the last moment. He grasped the glittering thread before him and stood on the window ledge looking down to his son below, he saw at the end of his thread lay a golden noose weaved by angels with harp string and all. Like the cuckoo, he would escape out the open window on a warm spring day. It was a pity he lacked wings. The clock struck noon.

THE OWL

 

Ninox strenua

 

When I walk through the woods at night, my torch shines through the branches and bushes bringing them to life. The shadows animate with each further step into the wilderness. A dead stump becomes a rabid dog, an overgrown vine becomes a gaunt marching witch. The stars shine brighter here, they gleam through the leaves and sticks as if a thousand unblinking eyes were glaring at me.

An owl hoots in the distance. Suddenly the hellish creatures fall away. Perhaps it was simply the intrusion of reality into my imagined landscape, or perhaps the owl imparted some of her courage to me. For an owl’s courage is only matched by her wit. For an owl, the night is as obvious and harmless as the day is to us. She sees no ghouls in the shadows but will spot the smallest step of a frightened mouse a few miles away. She has no fear of a monster in the shadows – because that is what she is.

The owl’s experience is inversely as unnatural and ruled by imagination in the day, as ours is in the night. As the sun rises from the cold dead earth, the owl looks over her domain coloured in the light. Her eyes are built to see the smallest flicker of movement miles away in the darkest deepest corner of the forest; now in the daylight, she is overstimulated and sees prey everywhere.

The foliage that blankets the forest floor becomes a swarming ocean of scurrying mice. Every dancing leaf becomes a darting green sparrow, even the sun itself becomes a giant egg it can pillage from its blue nest. To slice it open with one stoop, spill its golden yolk down upon the earth. An owl would strike her talons down upon God’s neck if she could fly high enough, such is her courage. And her reaction to this shifting mosaic of quarry is to simply close her eyes and sleep. While out of fear we naively close our eyes from the dark to hide, she does so simply to dream of greater prey than our limited reality can provide – to scout, hunt, and devour in the day as she does in the night.

 

THE PUFFIN

 

Fratercula arctica

Often a strange story begins with a strange awakening. My story begins with a nap. It was a nap that took me half way around the world, not within my dreams, I truly lived this adventure. I doubt that my imagination could even conjure up a dream as otherworldly as my adventures have been. My odyssey will be but a footnote in history, in fine print it will be written just after the death of Christ and before Ragnarok: on this day Leif Erikson fell asleep and changed the world! Aye, changed the world and all it took was a sickening amount of pain. But I regret nothing, it was a pleasant snooze.

I remember the it was warm well, warm for an Icelandic morning anyway. I woke up late and my mother scolded me for not doing my chores on time. The first of these was to kill a chicken for dinner, which I had left too late – the sun was already setting past the middle of the sky. By my villages tradition, we kill livestock in the morning, the idea being we send the animal’s spirit to rise with the early sun.

I approached my mother cautiously while she was washing clothes in a basin.

“Ah, so you did not die in your sleep as I thought.”
“No Mother, I’m alive and well.”
“Alive and well but hungry, you haven’t prepared a chicken.”
“I was thinking…” I said, “Perhaps I can still kill us a chicken.”
She continued washing, “You know the rules…”
“I was thinking I could kill one and then we invite his soul to stay the night, just till tomorrow morning.”
That made her laugh, “You’re a funny boy, Leif.”
“Thank you, you say that often.”
“It’s a shame you’re only funny when you’re trying to get out of work.”
“I’m sorry you say that often.”
She managed to keep a straight face, “Go grab your Father’s fishing rod and be back before dark.”
I gave in.

My father’s shed always felt ill-omened. As a small child, it felt like I was walking into the jaws of an iron monster, sharp and rusted farming tools jutted out of the walls like ruined teeth. At the very back was his harpoon, unused and rusted as the rest of the farming equipment was. He was still at sea at that time, hunting a very different beast to a whale. As I walked past it, I felt somehow ashamed by its disuse. I thought of me and my two brothers playing with our pretend harpoons, one would be the whale spurting water of our mouths while the others chased him down with sticks. None of us are whalers now, least of all me I thought as I plucked my mighty weapon from its scabbard- a crooked fishing rod. Fishermen may lie to their wives about the size of fish they catch, but that is only because they are jealous of the whaling men who can scarcely measure the size of their catch with three arms lengths. If I could travel back to that moment I would have dropped the rod and ran away with the harpoon to find some wayward vessel and live out my dreams…of course instead I did what my mother told me.

“Take the mule,” my mother cried as she hung up clothes on the washing line. I whistled for him and off we went. The mule trotted ahead, he knew the way well. He didn’t have a name, my father didn’t want us to get attached in case we had to eat him when times were bad. He was over thirty years old and he still didn’t have a name. We wandered through weed ridden farmland, that turned into rolling hills, which then became crueller in character until they were craggy mountains – where nothing grows but a healthy respect for mother nature. Up and up we climbed, out of the valley which our house sat in. The mule was fitter than me despite his age and wasn’t slowed by the terrain. Maybe he thought that if we didn’t catch any fish by nightfall that we would eat him. He looked back at me suspiciously as if reading my mind.

“Don’t worry I would never eat a dear a friend,” I reassured him, “Especially not one as old and chewy as you.” With a snort he trotted away. We reached the summit of our climb and I took a rest.

Though I had no idea at the time, those few moments I spent on the mountain top would be a final farewell to my childhood. Looking down to my house, I could just barely see a human figure in our garden – my mother. She was surrounded by radiant white sheets that blew in the wind, they lit up her blonde hair which danced with all the trees and bushes around outshining them all. What a beautiful scene, she could have been Venus herself in that moment.

I reminisced about the clothesline. That was the same clothesline I used to swing back and forth on, I used to love that. I remember many a summer day spent being pushed back and forth by my brothers. Too big and too old for that now. Funny, I guess one day I simply let go of that clothesline and never grabbed hold of it again, and the exact moment of that final farewell is lost in a vague blur. On the contrary, the final farewell with my mother was that very exact moment on the mountain top.

She finished hanging the washing, walked inside, and I would never see her again. I question whether on some level I knew this was goodbye because all the while I wanted to shout and wave like a child – but I resisted and remained silent. I will always be grateful to myself for this, it would have tarnished a comforting memory which I have replayed many times in the ceaseless theatre within my skull. If you were to pry open the red curtains that cover my brain, I doubt you could dissect this memory from me without tearing out the whole stage and all.

 

The mule whinnied to get a move on and with a yawn I passed over onto the other side. The sea came into view, but the climb down was even more precarious. If you were to slip you would be killed before your body came to a rolling stop. If you were killed it’s unlikely your body would be found before it became part of the land. The jagged outbreaks come from the ribs and broken elbows of careless passerby’s, moss-ridden and turned to stone before they can be found by mourning mothers. My older brother Jon is here among the shattered and doomed, I wasn’t even born when he was killed- so please save your sympathy. Save it for my Mother, who out of hunger has to send her youngest over the same precarious terrain which devoured her eldest. I don’t fear his end, my young feet are nimble and neither does the mule, he has risked his life over these rocks so many times that his fate must be written on a forgotten scroll, fallen behind Death’s desk.

The fear was especially easy to subdue in the face of such a beautiful view. A world cut into thirds – land, sky, and sea. And for me, this division was more than just a view. Within the mountains, under mounds of dirt, slept giants that my mother told me stories of before bed. And there the great blue sky, which my father swore was the very same one that Saint Michael descended from to trample Lucifer back into the dirt. I hope that in throwing Lucifer back down into hell that St Michael does not wake a giant – that would bring great trouble for everyone. For a giant rages like no other creature when awakening from his or her slumber. Who would find victory in that battle, would the angels find victory in one cruel swoop as an eagle snatches the life of a field mouse — or would the giants simply feel their spears as mosquito bite and swat the angels like flies. Whoever the victor a clash between those two worlds would sink ours, which brings us to the third part of this great view: the sea. You have heard the stories of the land and sky from my mother and father respectively, but the stories from the sea I reserve for myself.

An ice shelf extended from the shore. It was of the purest white that I struggled to search for the perfect fishing perch without squinting. “Where should I begin?” I asked myself as my stomach rumbled hungrily. Up and down the coast little nooks and crannies looked inviting. But there was one magnificent spot that stood out like a sore toe – in fact it even looked like a sore toe. Here I would fish. I climbed up this outcropping of ice that looked like a giant’s foot that had slipped out from under his warm sod blanket during his sleep. He might appreciate my backside warming his toe, so I took to climbing up it, and no sooner than I had climbed up I started to become drowsy. Something about the coast makes me feel entirely safe to sleep out in the open. Whereas down in the valley when I sleep I imagine the surrounding mountains closing as my eyes do, swallowing me into the ground while I snooze. Out on the coast, I am free and my dreams are also free to wander across the sea. This dream in particular was fuelled by my father’s tales of his adventures the prey of this new modern era: the birdfish called Fuglfiskur in my language or as they were called in England, puffins.

Mostly I dream myself as lowly things. I’ve dreamt I was a worm, I’ve dreamt I was a dog. There are simply and secret comforts to the lives of beasts. But this dream was different, I dreamt I was with my father in search of the puffins which Europe craved. The reason behind the puffin’s sudden popularity and profitability is a result of Pope Urban III decision. He declared the small critter to be a fish which therefore could be eaten during Lent. Millions of Catholics sick of Fish Fridays rejoiced and new puffin ventures popped up naturally. My father explained to me his job as the pilot as we walked the deck. “Leif, I am thrilled you are here at last.” I smiled nervously.

“We’ll show you the ropes my boy, and soon you’ll have your hands on a great juicy puffin.” The crew nodded and I searched among them for the familiar smiles of my brothers but couldn’t find them. I was about to ask when a call was shouted from a lookout posted on the masthead, “There she soars!” My father jumped and dashed through the men like a banshee to take the helm. The crew came alive with him all bouncing and scrambling over each other. A great tangle of ropes was untangled from the middle of the deck and then hoisted up, at the end of them was a queer contraption that looked like a combination between a kite and a lobster cage. Inside the cages were fish heads and guts. These cages were promptly thrown off the side and caught on the breeze. I looked to my father who grinned as he steered masterfully into the wind allowing the kited-cages to float upwards. The ship appeared to be a great Kraken with tentacles waving high above the ship- all in pursuit of a great flock of puffins on the horizon.

What a peculiar sight, even for a dream. These images must have been sourced from my father’s tales which he swore upon his word. And now in this dream, we are upon the puffins who have taken to the skies, safely above the ship away from any spear, net or harpoon, so they might think. Attracted to the fishheads they crawl into the kited-cages but it would be their last meal because they were now unable to escape from the inside, which is coated in birdlime. With glee, these fishermen of the skies pulled the birds from their lofty prisons, squawking and cawing, I felt their terror and pain – ripping their own feathers from bloody plucked skin trying to free themselves. From behind my father cruelly laughed and I woke. My bleary eyes gazed out across the water and I concluded that I was still dreaming. This must be some bizarre waking dream cast on me by a sea witch. Here I sat on the same mound of ice that I fell asleep on, seemingly moments ago, but there stood the shore – at least three hundred yards away across the ocean! How strange. At once I stood up and the ground swayed beneath my weight. “Gods!” said I in fright. Still half awake, my foolish mind jumped to an impossible answer – I was a giant waking after a long sleep. A giant who had dreamt he was a boy named Leif and here under my mammoth feet was Iceland herself, the size of a small room. But this did not explain why I saw the shore across the waves and also didn’t explain why the fallen tree by huge feet looked peculiarly like a fishing rod.

The truth became clear and the playfulness I had to the situation disappeared with a fiery and striking stress – while I slept I had become stranded on an iceberg. A lone boy sitting on a lonely jutt of ice, floating as aimlessly as the clouds across the sky. Now I hear you shout, “Leif, just swim home. Put those broad Nordic shoulders to some use!” But that would have been just as fatal as if I jumped from the frosty tips of one of those moonlit clouds, the water was so cold that I would be dead before I could give a hug goodbye to my faithful, abandoned mule. I heard his fading heehaw as I drifted out to sea, he would surely starve without me. And then I started to consider my own health. I had no food save for the tin of worms I had for bait.

Cold winds picked up and the clouds crowded together for warmth. I watched the sky as there was nothing else to do, I looked hungrily as the clouds devoured the clear sky and bloating up until they covered all the heavens. At this point I was clinging to my knees, accepting the consequences of my untimely nap – I would die slowly on this lonely shard of ice. Further and further the winds blew me. How small my mule seemed from here, as if I could reach out and slip him into my pocket. I became anxious imaging how small I seemed to my donkey. If I tipped over the horizon would I simply disappear entirely? Not just my body but also from the memories of my mother and my father? Just like my brother Jon, I was destined to become broken and eaten by the land. He became the part of the mountains just as I would become a drop in the sea. In despair I began to cry. Tasting my salty tears I began to laugh, “Oh look I am already becoming part of the sea.” My laughter choked through the snot and tears until again it was deadly quiet.

Exhausted and mentally fatigued from endless mental debates, I did what I do best and went to sleep. Crawled up in a ball I slipped into a dreamless sleep, unaware a thick blanketing fog was inhaling me into its fetid maw.

 

~~~

 

When I woke up for the second time on my new floating home, I had no illusions that this was not a dream. I felt the hard reality in my aching stomach. I had exactly five worms in the can, with which I could hopefully catch five small fish – sardine or some juvenile salmon – cut them in half and eat one half while the other half can be used as bait to catch a larger fish. Soon I’ll be catching a marlin or a tuna fish, then I’d set my ambitions on something larger than a shark, hopefully a great white. With a hop, skip and a jump I will have climbed the top of the food chain. “My god, what will I do with all this extra meat,” I said to myself naively as I still looked down at the measly tin of worms – in which I saw a full seafood platter. With food taken care of, I wondered how to return home. I thought of a solution rather easily. If I could catch a shark I could then bait a right-whale, not that I would bait it with meat but I would bait with my story. Once I catch a shark, news will travel far and wide across the little critters. My story would travel from crab to crayfish, from hake to haddock, until eventually from the lisping fat lips of a walrus a whale’s far reaching ears would hear my tale.

By then the tale would have grown (as these things typically happen). I did not slay a trivial shark but a hydra! All while sitting on one hand in the midst of a black night under a new moon. The whale is the biggest rumour mongers of the sea, their songs are beautiful to human ears but are mere gossip to those who understand. And their songs carry far and wide, I am sure whales off the coast of Australia would have heard about Alexander’s victory at Issus long before news arrived in Macedon. And when they arrived in droves to see me with their own eyes I would lash around them my fishing line and rein them in. How mother would laugh when she saw me flying across the ocean, a melting sleigh pulled by whales spouting sea mist and painting fleeting rainbows in my wake. All that success takes is imagination and good planning, I thought with a smile, still looking at my tin of worms – my cup runneth over.

With a grin, I slipped the first worm onto the hook and let it fly over the water. It cut through the thick fog, I could not see where it had landed but determined the moment when it hit the water by the vibrations that swam up the fishing line. Like most games of great patience, fishing was as easy to me as doing nothing – which was all it really took after all.

My patience has been trained, I was not born with it. Whenever my father would leave for the sea – in which he would be away for up to two years – I would hug his knees and beg him, “Please stay Pa, I’ll miss you.”

“Be patient Leif, be patient and it won’t seem like so long.” I didn’t recognise it as he said these words but there was a deep sadness in his eyes. He was lying, it would be a very long time till I saw him again. Even Hel, who has been patiently hiding underground for eternity till she can snatch Baldr’s soul, would feel the strain of this wait. But I took my father’s advice on faith. I started practising being patient being standing and doing nothing for hours. It was a way to spend the hours after playing with toys became boring, and it was better than the small games boys with no fathers play: skipping stones, throwing a ball against a wall, telling stories to yourself, learning how to shave by yourself. I played all these games but the most challenging was the waiting game. I started staring at walls, then my feet and then finally the sky. My mother thought it was strange and wanted to take me to a doctor but when I told her I was trying to be patient so I could bring back Pa quicker she burst into tears.

But all the patience training I had done was wasted, when finally it could have have been used to save my life, for the line began to pull just a minute later after casting it. There was a great commotion behind the fog. Squawks and garbled screeches echoed out of a foam cloud which I pulled closer and closer. What crazed beast had I wretched from the deep? Is that the Kraken’s wicked beak which cries hungrily for my gizzards? I pulled with all my strength as it resisted with a courage that was unusual for a fish. By the time I had it in sight my arms felt limp. Falling to my knees with exhaustion I looked up to see with disbelief it was a woven cage that my hook had pulled in – and sinking further into disbelief I saw that imprisoned within this cage was a Puffin, deep brown eyes stared out from behind the bars where frightened but they neither blinked nor looked away from me. A caged puffin just like the dream I had of my father’s bird trawler. Had the fog plucked it from my leaking dreams to trick me? I hauled onto the iceberg, this was no trick it was physically there and it began to make a confused moaning sound. I nodded in agreement with whatever lonely feeling the trapped bird had expressed. It went silent and all was quiet, we were like a frigid pair at a dance, we both had no idea what to say or do next.

There lay the puffin, a tarred wretched thing, its wings were stuck fast to its cage. This ruined my carefully planned ascension to become the apex predator of the sea. Instead of a huge fish, I had caught another hungry mouth that needed to be fed. I sat for about half an hour, thinking about what to do. Of course, I was tempted to eat the poor thing, and it would have had no choice in the matter. By now your mouth is probably watering at the thought of dining on one of these tasty birds, grab your handkerchief and watch you don’t smudge these words under your dripping mouth. If for some reason you are not salivating then I have one question for you. Do you live under a rock? Crawled out from some jungle cave have ye? Jutted your chest out, strut upright on two legs and put on the stolen spectacles hanging down off your hairy neck to read my solemn words? I’ll explain for the literate cannibal — who is a minority, I am sure — the pleasures of the puffin’s flesh. For the one who has found this message in a bottle on some island would only know the taste of coconuts, fish, and his kinsman’s flesh.

Take this puffin caught in front of me for example, if its line had not broken somehow and it was taken into a port it would immediately be chopped into various fish shapes. Puf-fingers, puffin fillet, Puff-ella for the Spaniards, and beer battered puffin and chips for the Brits. From the gutter to the throne, from the peasantry to the clergy, all of society had convinced themselves a bird was a fish. Everyone played along in this mass conspiracy and every man, woman, and child thought themselves the sole bearer of the truth. All because humankind was sick of Fish Fridays. You would find it impossible to see a wink or hear a giggle shared across the dinner table on a Friday evening, not between a loving family nor even a band of thieves. It would only take one brave and very foolish person to simply whisper: “A puffin is a bird” for the whole charade to come smashing down on the sharp rocks of good reason. Of course, this doesn’t include sea folk who find all this ‘fishy business’ very amusing and very profitable.

That said the puffin is still a very tasty fish, though a fraudulent one. I assure you all of these puffin meals I mentioned, dear savage, taste better than human flesh. Nothing worse for body, mind, or spirit than to steal another’s property, especially the tender cuts off his buttocks and back. Beg forgiveness for what you did to Captain Cook – even as he tempted you with his poorly chosen name. O’brother eat a wing, rather than an arm!

 

On that block of ice, I wasn’t think of eating arms however but I did convince myself that it would be alright to eat the poor puffin, someone had to survive and it may as well be me. I set about freeing it from the cage, no point eating it while it was still stuck fast with tar, it would take forever to get that out of your teeth. I had to near pull half its ruined feathers in the process but finally I had it out. Sensing its freedom immediately, the puffin wriggled out of my grip and waddled like a mad goose to the water’s edge. It took a run up and spread its wings out to take off – I cried in despair, my dinner was about to fly away – but to my joy it fell flat into the water. I sat down and watched it swim away. The stories are true, I thought, it is both fish and bird. But I didn’t enjoy this revelation because it meant that I had just lost my only food. Dark clouds brooding behind my eyes, I felt a tantrum coming on. My mind was just as trapped on this ice as was my body. I had no one to blame, to shout at, or to hit but myself. I stomped around the iceberg but soon that became tiresome and I hit myself. It started with slaps to my face, which stung both my hand and my flushed cheeks, but my energy dissipated, my arms hung by my chest and I could only flick my ears as I cried into my jacket. I tried to sleep but could only cry more as my mind would not rest and continually went over my failure to capture the puffin again and again. You will die in rumination, a creeping and twisted voice whispered to me. But the thoughts did eventually come to an end and I once again had a dreamless and hungry sleep upon the iceberg.

I woke up to something warm snuggling under my arms, it was the puffin. I decided to deal with it in the morning and for now let it share my warmth. All throughout the night it shivered , I wonder how long it had tried to last out in that cold ocean. “Poor little persistent thing at least you will be warm in my belly,” I told it, which its only reply was to look up at me with its beady eyes shaking in its skull like a lost child on the verge of tears. Then it occurred that it would be more compassionate to end its suffering now. I looked down again at the half feathered thing but it was no longer looking at me but at the tin of worms.

“Hmm,” I said, “It wouldn’t hurt to fatten you up a little.” And so I picked up a worm and wafted it in front of the puffin, who didn’t hesitate to snatch it up. I saved the rest of the worms for fishing because I knew this little puffin wouldn’t feed me for long, which turned out to be very incorrect assumption. And so that morning, I slipped out the gutting knife out of my boot with the intention of using it on the Puffin. I whistled and it waddled to me at once, more obedient than that long lost mule. How long ago was it that I sat listening, drenched in melancholy, to his fading heehaws? How hungry I was now. I grabbed the puffin and pressed its small face into the ice with the knife at its throat. I closed my eyes and prepared to paint the ice pink with his insides – but then I had an idea.

I’d like to say I hesitated out of mercy. But the real motivation was survival. As the sinews of my forearms flexed like the bowstring before the fatal release, the puffin felt its mortal life coming to an end and threw up the inside of its belly in fear. A school of small fish scattered out onto the ice, flopping and flapping, still alive. At first, I felt the fool because I had just fed the bird a worm the night before when he was perfectly capable of feeding himself. I felt less of a fool when I realised the potential of the bird’s retch. Vomit worth its weight in gold. I dropped the puffin and picked up the sloppy mess in my hands and breathed in the stink with pleasure. Before I dug into the regurgitated feast, which in my state of starvation I had no disgust for, I thanked the puffin and gave him a fish. I thanked the gods of the sea and threw them back a fish. I tucked the puffin under my arm and I put away the knife. We sat on the ice content for some hours.

The satisfaction faded away (as it always does) and I started to scheme and dream again. How would I repeat that feat? Would the puffin produce another dinner willingly? I decided that the threat of the knife would be enough. The next day I encouraged the puffin into the ocean with a few kind words and off he went hunting. I rested in the sun with no fear that the puffin would find any escape out here. Once it returned I again placed the knife at its throat and received some fish, but this time the serving was smaller. I saw the problem at once. It lay in the eyes of the puffin. His eyes twitched with a hidden confidence and I knew that it saw my threat as the empty bluff it was. The next day I knew that my dinner would be smaller, and the next even smaller, until the day I would be given a mere sardine. I needed another approach and quickly, my pants were falling off my waist now. My reflection off the waves seemed foreign to me, skin, bones and sunken cheeks. One positive was weighing less which was going to become useful now that my wayward iceberg vessel seemed to be destined for warmer seas, and with that – destined to sink and melt away. My destiny and the Puffin’s were yet a mystery, though I wagered that our stakes were held in the same pot. Little did we know that over the horizon our dice were about to be thrown for a final bet – all or nothing.

 

~~~

 

Wildernesses stretch out over the majority of the world, so I think it would be fair to refer to it as just one entire wilderness, as all wildernesses offer the same thing to young men, treasure and death. From all my travelling it has struck me that the wilderness is the world, and everything else – the small towns and cities, are mere oddities compared to the overwhelming stretching wilds. Call it sea, desert, or jungle; it was here before us and will be here after, without hesitation, its vines’ll grow over our roads, ruins, and bones. Men and women who have become stranded in a wilderness know greater peace and horror than civilisation will ever be able to provide.

So it was that I had been in a tranquil daze for much of my remaining days on the iceberg. But now that relief was beginning to fade. The puffin gave out less food, its strength was failing as mine was, I had no solution to this. The waiting and silence ate away at me, just as the warming sea ate away at my iceberg. If only I could float away with it, to evaporate and let my problems disappear into the mist. I wished for something to happen, anything to break the unbearable boredom. A grinning djinn must have floated past just that moment, and granted my wish. My hands shook with fear as I saw the dark clouds congregate on the horizon, they flashed glares at me, planning my demise in deep grumbling thunder. Though my hands shook in fear, inside I was secretly sunny and glad that change was coming at last, even if that change was from this life to the next.

The puffin must have sensed the tension in the water, it returned early from fishing and hid under my arm. We didn’t have time for a last meal – the clouds were already above. A light rain fell, I said a prayer for mercy for my Mother, who would have to live for herself — for myself, who would be judged at the Gates shortly — and for the Puffin, the last friend I would ever make. The rain fell harder and the waves breathed in and out faster. Each one growing twice the size of the last until we were surfing down a mountain of foam. Slipping off the ice, I dug my knife into the surface and with my other hand gripped onto the puffin. My eyes closed involuntarily because of the sheer force of the wind, and raindrops became thrown needles. For hours it seemed we clung on while the world collapsed around us.

In a false moment of peace, I made the mistake of opening my eyes. At that moment, were in the bottom of a trough between the waves. So high were the waves, so deep was this trough; that I saw the seafloor and all the inky black monsters that crawled and slithered in the darkness who looked back at me hungrily. Lower we sank towards the creatures - they’re pale mandibles screaming in ecstasy for our sun-kissed flesh. We rose just as their black tentacles licked the bottom of my feet. All I could see was the pure hatred in their inhuman eyes as they realised they had been betrayed by the Great Above once again. Pulling my eyes away from theirs, I looked up the slope of the mountainous wave that towered over us. Lighting struck behind it, illuminating it like some ghastly celestial lamp. All its contents became visible. Atlantean tragedies and comedies painted on broken murals swirled by, Egyptian chariots raced each other- skeleton hands still gripping the reins, these ancient wonders have only ever been seen by Moses, a puffin, and me. But behind these wonders lay a terror unlike any. Something enormous was moving below. I could feel the vibrations in the water caused by ropes of flesh that began floating upwards. With every flash of lightning, red and bleeding they reached closer to us. Out of the darkness, where the limbs came from, a glowing red disc sizzled as it had just be taken out of a forge. But it floated closer and closer and the water bubbled and then I realised it was a giant eye gazing with fury. When the lighting struck again I saw it in full view, in the centre of the growing wave; I would have thought it a rotting corpse if not for the single eye that stared into mine. Its gaunt arms pulled everything it grabbed into its beak that gnashed with a mouth adorned with pin-like teeth. Every aspect of this terrible thing was stretched and elongated, as it had been flattened under the pressure of the sea. Flat as a page – if it turned to the side it would have disappeared. But it was looking straight at me and snapped its beak at just as the puffin did when I pulled it from its cage. It tendrils broke through the surface of the water to either side of me, they swung in the air as if held by a blind swordsman. Its mouth came closer and steam began to boil as the sulphurous bubbles of its breath exploded around. Staring downs the beast’s gullet, and noticing its avian like beak I pondered my certainty that the puffin is indeed completely a bird. My thoughts were interrupted by lightning that struck again, on the very nose of the beast. Again and again, it struck the beast. I nearly passed out from the putrid gas that rose, the only thing that has come close to that smell is the bursting of a bloated sea-corpse. Coincidentally a sea-corpse is what I believed I would soon become, the towering wave we had been ascending was tipping over. The wave crashed and I shut my eyes. Darkness, only darkness remained.

I’ve read much about the world, in libraries both decrepit and magnificent, since that terrible night and can only piece together one theory. It must have been Zeus striking down a vengeful Titan back into the depths, and it was merely a coincidence that I sat in the midst of their war. I dreamed that I was Zeus in the clouds looking down and striking those who displeased me. Then it occurred to me that this wasn’t a dream, it was death, and the afterlife is mostly comprised of wreaking revenge on all who wronged us, I was a karmic angel with a score to settle. But my wings burnt up in hatred I spat over the world and flames consumed me and I fell like Icarus, my limbs curling up involuntarily like a dying insect.

I fell back down to Earth with a freezing shock and woke up on the iceberg. Or what has left of the iceberg anyway, I was lying half way in the sea, my right hand still death gripped upon the knife embedded in the ice and my left clutched the limp puffin. I would have climbed out of the water had I not felt like half a man, my ribs broken and I could barely flex my fingers. I shook the puffin with my weak hands and it squinted to look at me annoyed that I had woken it from its dream. Maybe it too had been dreaming of wreaking havoc on its puffin enemies, or the shark that had given it that scar above its eye. Or maybe it had been dreaming of punishing me. I questioned why I had kept it alive all this time, just to suffer. I looked around for answers but only a white fog surrounded us. The iceberg was breaking away before my eyes, we must have been blown a great distance south in the storm. Once again my mind turned to killing the puffin, out of mercy this time, not for food. I knew its pain well. The adventures in children’s books never describe the agony the heroes must go through. The prince battles the dragon but the story never speaks of his burns that take months to heals and the nights he wakes up screaming from nightmares.

I could go on and list every reason it was logical to kill that bird, but despite every reason and every obligation – I couldn’t take that birds life, it wasn’t mine to take. I threw the knife into the ocean and decided that Fortuna would be our murderer, I’d not dirty my hands. And just as that knife hit the water’s surface, a rope landed on my shoulder.

 

I gripped it and it went taunt, its end lay hidden in the mist. The rope felt ordinary but I still shouted, “Are you heaven sent?”
“Are you daft?” A voice shouted back. The mist cleared and there stood, not a rope thrown by St Peter, but a ship. Its exterior black and charred though it looked as strong as Samson. The sailors beckoned to me and I tied the rope around my waist and I hugged the puffin to my chest. They pulled me up in silence when they saw my condition, some have said I looked like a corpse and they feared they had pulled a ghoul up onto their ship.

That was the circumstance of how I first planted my feet on the deck of The Great Gnesher, which was then captained by a not so great Captain. My feet didn’t stand planted for long however, I passed out as soon as I felt something solid under my feet but was caught by a fair-haired boy with a little older than me, his laughing eyes seemed amused at the strange thing the sea had spat up before them. The two dozen souls who kept the ship running also found time to nurse me back to health, two dozen souls which the Gnesher had also rescued, who all had stories just as crazed and desperate as mine. The story of the boy who caught me as I fell is especially strange and just as triumphant, it is the story of William Kidd.

That story is for another time though, I am yawning between words and my eyes feel dewy, salivating with a hunger for some sweet dreams. Time for bed, and if you feel like sleeping too I’ll meet you in the land of nod. But before you close your eyes to bliss, please heed this advice; make sure you are not sleeping on an iceberg!

 

THE SPARROW

 

Passer domesticus

When I was a very small boy, I often dreamed that I could fly. Each dream I would have to relearn how to fly. It takes a certain concentration, like the flexing of a nonexistent muscle, you can’t get too excited or the jitters would bring you back to earth – you must be as natural and carefree as a bird. Funny that such a dream probably formed within my pram when I could hardly walk, let alone fly. Out of all the birds, I was oddly inspired most by the meek sparrow, whose swift flight always seemed to bring me feverish excitement despite their tiny size. How fearful I became as I saw one weaving between traffic and disappearing into the impossibly small cracks in the concrete. I feared if his flight were one millimetre off his small body would collide against the bricks, and explode like a firecracker into the same white cotton fluff that filled my teddy bear.

Within the small cracks, the sparrow is king. He may as well be a mouse with wings when exposed to the great outdoors, but while gliding low within the gutter pipes, sewers, and shopping centres he is a lion. More than a lion, he is a heroic griffon, swooping down pouncing on the unnatural invertebrates. He preys on the pests on the land, crashing down on cockroaches, locust, and flies. He is a knight in his humble common brown cloak, his tiny claws are scythes to the insects that plague us. Even we humans, with our sophisticated eyes, observe that the sparrow is especially swift but imagine what a cockroach sees. Its antennas only sense a change of light, if a sparrow was to attack it would only sense a shadow flicker past. Scurrying away through cracks and crevices, up walls onto ceilings, the shadow follows and attacks unceasingly. The sad creature dies in absolute terror and incomprehension. To the pests of the world, the sparrow is not a hero but a demon. I describe this because I share my dreams with the cockroach as well as the sparrow.

In my dream I am flying over my hometown, weaving through the alleys, and laneways where I spent carefree childhood summers laughing and playing, I notice the Sun’s warmth and rise upwards the heat is addictive. I get carried away with this new sensation and lust after the luminescence. I am like the son of Daedalus with wings heldfast by candlewax or a moth heldfast by candlelight. You might predict that my wings are going to melt and I will plummet to Earth just in time for my alarm to blare, waking me up in a cold sweat – that would be a mercy compared to the terror which occurs.

 

In the climax of my greed, the sun suddenly disappears and with it the day and the ground is swallowed into darkness. The cool breeze disappears, I feel that I am swimming in an endless black pool though I have no desire for breath and even if I did I wouldn’t be able to find my way to the surface of this abyss – all orientation has dissolved. Where is up? I do not know. My hand isn’t visible even as I wave it inches from my face. I am left in this void to ponder, boredom sets in – then paranoia – until finally a ripple in the water reaches me. Still, I can’t see anything but the ripples are stronger now. Out of the shadows see a flash of something impossibly quick. Its outline is rusted chrome which blends its darkness. It is as if the universe is bending towards me, some otherworldly being that is stretching through the fabric of space in my direction. My instincts command me to flee. A burnt out forest appears which I rush into and take refuge

But the beast pursues me still it slashing at me as I scurry through the darkness away, again and again it comes. I try to fight and throw punches but like a dream they simply fall off and through the creatures flesh, as if under a dentist’s anaesthetic my arms feel sluggish and numb. It pins me to the floor and claws me apart, I crumple and my limbs curl up, my glistening ebon blood spilling on the cinder and charcoal of a forgotten world, ink spilt on black parchment. Barely conscious I am carried into its belly, strangely the lining of its gut feels as soft as a pillow. Suddenly I am regurgitated.

Up and out of its maw I fall down into the mouths of the monster’s spawn. In hunger, they scream in short bursts: “Beep – Beep – Beep!” And that is when I wake from the nightmare– to my blaring alarm clock, no longer hunted, with a cold sweat on my brow, and a healthy respect of the meek sparrow that I hold close to my heart. For though I am a man about the size of any typical human being, take for example King David, I know with dread that the enormity of Goliath is but relative.

 

THE MALLARD

 

Anas platyrhynchos

 

I’ve never seen the world like this before. Dawn was moments away and only a sliver of light crept up behind my Pa and I. The lake reflected the soft wisps of cloud above as the creatures wake and go about their business, but in a manner I have not witnessed before.

Of course, I’ve seen wild animals and critters in the wood across from the paddock. I grew up on a farm so I lacked the wonder and fascination of nature that most children have. But that morning in the muddy ditch with Pa, I felt the magic that had been dulled in me. Frogs hopped out of the long grass croaking a greeting to a waking swan who lifted her head, with the grace of a white heliotropic flower, and turned to face the sun. The scene swelled before me and I felt a burst of warmth, like a long burning log that finally collapses and sends a swarm of faeric embers up into a dance.

This natural scene was extraordinary because it was free from any of that excited tension that homo sapiens bring to every plain, mountain, and lake. We don’t notice it because this tension is always around us: the quiver of the hare, the fear in every shaking blade of grass that we tread upon, the horror of the earth that screams as we pry open and rape her for metals to build and fuel our machines of industry and war. I would have felt at peace away from all that, if not for our terrible mission – to hunt.

Our prize lay hidden within that labyrinth of reeds and I secretly hoped that it would sleep in this morning. I could no longer focus on the beauty of the marshes, it was warped by fear that now caused my hands flutter. But as soon as my father placed the rifle in my hands they turned to stone. My granite hands gripped the wooden stock and I felt as if I was a golem for my hands moved automatically as if enchanted. Muscle memory commanded my arms. I knew the movements well, load it, cock it, aim and wait for the duck call. My father held the horn to his lips. Stay asleep you dumb bird, keep your bleary eyes closed and rest your head back down, have mercy on yourself. 

I looked up and begged silently, “Father, show me a path away from this.”

A horrible sound blasted in my ear which in my excitement I thought was Gabriel’s horn and not my fathers. The day of judgement belonged not to me but to the mallard. A flurry of wings took off from the reeds, I spotted my quarry, slower than the rest, its wings clawed at the wind and with my sights lined up, I pulled the trigger. The recoil, the release, and blessed relief. 

If just for an instance, a perfect moment, the shot seemed to wound the sky itself, sprouting a burst of bleeding poppies out of the pale blue yonder. The mallard flapped its wings a few times in defiance of Death but succumbed in a tragic fall as the bird paid its final debt to gravity. What right had I to snatch its life? Pa placed his hand on my shoulder and his eyes seemed to say that he understood. I expected to feel terrible but all I had felt was the recoil. My heart was beating vigorously long after I took the shot. And as we rose and went to find the bird the void was slowly filled with that warmth I described previously. Instead of a single log collapsing into the flame I felt like I was within a forest fire, I was an inferno and was unstoppable. Perhaps it was just the adrenaline, but it disturbed me nonetheless. In honesty, I enjoyed the experience, even loved it to a certain extent, though I loved it despite myself. 

Looking back on that spectre of a childhood memory it appears that the random twists and turns of my life has taken were really preordained in some way. 

I must rest, piecing together mangled memories has been tiring. As the captain says, a good rest should be an RAF pilot’s top priority, especially on the eve of his first combat flight. Reaching into young adulthood my mission is still to hunt, but my new quarry is far more cunning than the mallard, and what is more – it loves to kill just as I much as I do. 

 

THE PHOENIX

Ignis renascitur

“Get up,” said the Sergeant quietly. We all jumped out of our bunks with no man hesitating to stretch or yawn, within a few moments the RAF barracks was alive with movement. I smiled to think of how the drill instructors used to shout and scream to get us out of bed. Now our movements were almost mechanical in their efficiency: shirts, pants, and boots flew on with a flurry of movements trained over hundreds of early morning just like this one, though this early morning was special.

“We’re fighting for King and Country today lads, I’ll see you out on the strip,” said Sergeant Brodie with more excitement in his voice than I had ever heard from him.

My arms and legs operated all the necessary movements by themselves, preparing for my first combat flight. I mulled over the idea of king and country while I strapped on my leather helmet.

All I know of the King is his profile that is printed on the six-pence in my pocket, a noble profile but I’ve seen nobler adorned on strangers walking London’s streets. All I know of Country are lines on a map and I have no pride in my lines compared to a foreigner’s lines. I’m sure there must be much more to it than that – what of our culture and tradition you cry out – well, to be honest, all I see when I look at a foreigner is two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. In simpler words; an ordinary person. That’s not to say all foreigners are ordinary, extraordinary people are rare no matter the country.

By coincidence, it happens that the most extraordinary gentlemen that I have crossed fates with happened to be foreign. The story of how I came face to face with him is equally extraordinary.

Sirens blared. We ran to our planes. The sun was shining into our faces, we felt exposed by its blood orange gaze and scurried into our cockpits. I was halfway in my plane when a strong hand came to rest on my shoulder, I spun around to face the Sergeant. “Wrong plane,” he said. And of course he was right. Flustered, I climbed down and made my way to my actual plane, as I walked way I heard him, “Don’t worry son, have faith.” My ground crew were also flustered and struggled with the propeller. A boy struggled with the propeller, he wore a tight grimace over his boyish face, I don’t know why he was upset he wouldn’t be flying over France – it would be me filled with bullets, charred in flames, ripped asunder in a crash. Only God knows why I was smiling. The Sergeant was alongside me in his own plane, I smiled at him and he nodded, though did not return the smile.

My emotions turned suddenly, the engine roared and I felt a deep dread building in me. I drove the plane to the main airstrip and prepared to take off. The pressure built and built as the plane gained speed. The familiar force pushed me back into the seat, it felt like an uncomfortable throne, and I, like a common-born usurper would find only glory or death. The front wheels drifted off the ground and the back and I was free. My nerves levelled out as the ground became more distant as we escaped the chilly morning mist growing off the frosted pastures below. We passed above the clouds before the lingering sun’s kiss had left the horizon’s dew-dripped lips. It was a joy that wouldn’t last, I had yet another terrible mission, another burden to be chained to my tired soul.

You are a little soul carrying about a corpse, as Epictetus said. Then here we are, six corpses flying into battle, what does it matter then if I am shot down over a French forest, I am dead already. How do the dead feel joy as I do now? Perhaps it is a shared joy, the shadow of a joy cast by migratory birds who also sail above these pink trimmed clouds. Cotton candy. The country fair. Shooting tin planes for a prize. My dad lifting me up onto his shoulders. Strange vivid particulars come to me, moments of joy – which like all moments of joy has given way to pain. And the pain has given way to nothingness. And the nothingness gives way to joy again – here we are still above the cotton candy clouds. Here I am still asking, screaming, begging for an answer,
“What does it matter if I am shot down?”

The land grows old under me. As we venture to the front, the pastures grow sickly yellow in sparse patches, bomb craters pocket her skin and trenches wrinkle deeper the closer we get. These wounds will heal eventually but the land will be impossible to farm to decades – Mother Earth forgives but she does not forget. The front itself is horrific, for a moment I think that I must have lost my way in a cloud and accidentally flown to another planet. An otherworldly land sat below in stagnation. Only disease thrived here amongst the mud, death, and screams. Disease of the mind also grew upon the utter boredom for the soldiers down there in the dirt, who sat, and did nothing but bide time by wondering when the call for the great push would come. When would the officer raise that bugle and watch others die? That bugle may as well be Gabriel’s horn to those poor souls.

Up in the air wasn’t that much better. The sky had its own ruined tinge, the clouds were famished, too thin and transparent to hide behind. I managed to stay in formation though my hands fluttered about. There was a slight shudder through the formation, something unseen was watching us. We could see no enemy planes and then the wind changed, a bad omen. A flash of light exploded to my right and a plane went down. Our formation was in disarray, panicked lambs running about an abattoir. The smoking wreck of my ally lay on the ground below. Did he bail in time? No time to think at all, the huns were upon us. I wonder if they cared about their Kaiser anymore than I cared about the King. I wondered if it mattered all. It certainly didn’t matter what I thought of those questions, I simply fought and fought hard because it was a game and some unknown piece of my soul wanted to win.

The sky was filled with packets of hot metal that burst and flew in every direction. My luck was running low, soon I would be plucked from the sky like the mallard I killed, a winged angel would guide a whistling bullet into my skull, a gavel strike for karmic justice. I couldn’t keep this up, every time I had a hun in my sights I would hesitate and pull away. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, I had to kill. A plane pulled in front of me, the pilot unaware that I was behind. Just as his parents were unaware, and his uncles, his aunties, his cousins, his friends, that stranger he met on the streets of Berlin last winter – they sheltered in a cafe while a blizzard raged on outside, they talked by the fire for hours and she made him promise to come see her after the war. It was a promise that I would make him break. I held down the trigger and a stream of bullets sliced through the rudder, up the tail, and splattering blood out the cockpit. My bullets made mince of the pilot, the boy, the man, the son, and now the absent lover. If you’re as cynical as me, you will be asking, “How do you know this about him?” Of course, I am lying. I don’t know anything about the man other than the fact I killed him over Vauz sur Somme. But the point is he could have been all of these things and more — as safe an assumption as the strangers you walk past every day having the same number of problems and joys as you do. Safe to assume that at least one person loved him even if it was just his mother – even if he was the most detestable person on Earth, I took him from her.

All that was left of the plane and pilot went spiralling down into the mud of no man’s land, another monument to man’s ingenuity and its depraved ends. In my last glance of the plane, which I will forever hold sacred and terrible in my soul, I saw an unholy union between, strings of meat fused into the blood-splattered glass and splintered wood. Not even Da Vinci, when he sketched the first flying machines, could have pictured the violently absurd nature of modern warfare. I’m no genius and I certainly don’t live in any sort of renaissance but I predict warfare will become faster and more brutal than it is even now. Battles will last seconds, wars will be won in minutes. Never again will your noble king beckon you once more into the breach, there will only be the furious incoherent roar of engines – a cacophony of motorised screams; begging to fight, yearning to die.

That isn’t to say this warfare is slow. A man’s life can be snatched before you’ve wiped the fog from your goggles – as I am a living testament to. After I shot down my first plane, I took the opportunity to get some distance and see if I could find a friend. There! Close to the ground was the Sergeant, like a daredevil he weaved and dodged anti-air guns with the ease of a swallow. I took my plane lower and kept up with him, and when he also recognised me as an ally he made some sort of a frantic gesture with his hands. I rubbed my goggles clear to get a better look at what he was trying to communicate. As I lifted my fingers from the goggles and it was as if I had erased his plane with the condensation. There was no trace of him but a blinding red flash that passed with such speed and proximity that I hardly recognised it as a plane. Flinching from the cacophonous sound my ally was sent in a fiery descent down to the craggy hillside with the ease of Pharaoh dashing a newborn against the rocks. And I, as helpless as the Sergeant was, somehow survived by inaction and used a gentle breeze to float away as Moses did down the Nile.

I had been fighting for nearly two hours and now had to return, though a vengeance burned in me. The flight home went quickly, so did the debriefing, the dinner went by and then the moment of silence for our fallen brothers. It felt as if I hadn’t blinked since that red flash had made me flinch. The red devil could have only have been one man. The recruits joked and told stories of him to scare it each other, and the veterans, who wore angry frowns but whose eyes were stretched open with fear, discussed him in a hushed serious tone.  I heard them tonight in the mess.

“We fought him today…”
“Who?”
“Who else, The Baron.”
“Ha! You wouldn’t be standing here if you had.”
“I was lucky to crawl out of that scrap.”
“Hmm, but I heard Brodie wasn’t so lucky.”
Both men nodded and went silent.

It fell on me to collect the Flight Sergeant’s belongings from his room. His death was a shock, but the emotional aspect of it had not yet hit. As I picked up family photographs that he kept in precious bundles tied in twine, a small piece of paper fell out. I almost threw it out when I saw that something had been scribbled on it with a blue biro.

It read:

 

[AN AIRMAN’S PRAYER
**]

Almighty and all-present Power,
[_   Short is the prayer I make to Thee:_]
I do not ask in battle-hour
[_   For any shield to cover me._
__]

The vast unalterable way
[_   From which the stars do not depart_]
May not be turned aside to stay
[_   The bullet flying to my heart._
__]

I ask no help to strike my foe,
[_   I seek no petty victory here ; _]
The enemy I hate, I know
[_   To Thee is also dear._
__]

But this I pray, be at my side
[_   When Death is drawing through the sky._]
Almighty God, who also died,
[_   Teach me the way that I should die._]

 

I had always been jealous of officer’s private rooms but now I was grateful of the four walls surrounding me, hiding the quiet tears that I scarcely wanted to acknowledged myself.

Over the next few months, I went on another two dozen flight missions over France. The fear became thrilling and the thrill became pleasure. I no longer asked myself, “What does it matter if I am shot down?” I knew with that it did not matter. Perhaps it was the prayer caused this change in me, it’s impossible to know for sure – the human soul’s run as deep as the endless sky stretches. But the body is finite and so is a man’s time here, as was proven to me one fateful day.

I was placed in a flight mission that scheduled from an hour before dawn. The moon had decided to turn her face away from the violence that was to occur and the night was dark. We fly in a strange serenity, I could see the burst of gun fire in the distance, like a small candle. But I knew that small candle was a pilot light to the furnace we were about to consume ourselves in. Flames that licked our wings, hell-fire sparking and groaning and screaming, we were enveloped in the fighting at once.

A red flash. Beelzebub is that you? Come to take me to your icy lair? No, it must have been a plane, the only other alternative is that long ago vanquished beast painted in red for its never-ending rage – still searching for St George who cleverly had his tomb dug deep underground, hidden from vengeful sky-borne eyes. Forgive the romantics, I am getting sentimental in my old age. It was a red plane, though it may as well have been a dragon, I was petrified. A hot prickling ran down my back, itchy hives crawled across my skin – I was being hunted by the Red Baron. Somewhere in this night sky that glowing red knife of his was floating and hidden but could at any moment plunge down into my throat.

The thrill of the hunt is nothing compared to the thrill of being hunted. If only the upper-class gentlemen were aware of this fact. No doubt, they would employee tie foxes on to their horses, and teach them to ride, shoot and hunt. Their furry snouts at the horn would set off  the gentlemen running with their tailcoats between their legs, the foxes giving chase, and shooting their backsides full of rocksalt.

The Baron wouldn’t be firing rocksalt at my behind, the rush I felt was genuine and moving. To even recount the experience to you is difficult, to speak of the wayward wind, the need to smash my stubborn fingers against the controls as my hands had gone numb with mortal fear, the fear that struck me looking at every suspicious cloud. My pen becomes sluggish and my hand resists me in anticipation of the horrific end to this story – the story of how I killed the Red Baron.

His death was his own fault and not by my skill. I still don’t know to this day whether his mistake was intentional or not. He flew with mastery and fought with honour, disabling many of our planes without killing the pilots. His attacks were as tender and final as a lover carrying a virgin over the threshold. Yes, I too had the same dreadful, feeble, and woman-like feeling that the Baron’s aura produced. My dread became reality and I ended up in a dogfight with the man himself. Some ancestral warrior spirit possessed me, took the controls from my shaking hands and I flew with a courage have never been able to reproduce. But even this miracle was not enough; he ripped my left wing to pieces, I felt the bullets dart past my face, and the plane began to spiral.

I should have bailed but somehow I managed to get the plane to slow and I brought it back level. The next few moments are like a strange dream. I observed my surroundings and saw the Red Baron was flying low, not manoeuvring or dodging or attacking, simply flying straight toward the sun rising in the east. All the other pilots must have felt that they too were in dreaming – no one attacked him, save for myself. My engine sputtered and I had to lean the aircraft at a strange angle, to tack back and forth, in order to fly straight. Slowly but surely, I crept up behind him while he simply observed the rays gleaming through the scattered clouds. A strong hand rested on my shoulder, a peculiarity caused by momentary euphoria is all I can assume of it. The phantasm made me think of Brodie, I shrugged it off, locked in my sights, and fired off a burst. And just like that, his plane dropped without another sound. It glided for a few seconds and then skidded to a halt into a muddy ditch. My plane went down soon afterwards. It was strange being on the ground, I felt like an unwanted stranger. The dead trees leered at me and the ground under my feet felt hollow. Smoke rose in the air from Richthofen’s wreck and after assessing my own plane, I crossed a small brook and stumbled over to it.

There it was. A smoking wreck, small flames licked at it – a dying hearth reduced to coals. I approached and saw that the demigod I had duelled was just a man. His uniform was dripping in blood as red as his infamous plane. He looked at me and when I got close enough to see his eyes, I saw they contained no anger or sadness just the glassy stare of a man who has died long ago.

Richthofen managed only one word.
“Kaputt.”

Finished. He placed his right hand over his heart and died. It was silent except for the small brook that glittered in the dawn light, singing its common song. The gravity of the situation hit me, though it wasn’t till I properly researched the man that I really understood the enormous meaning behind his last word. The fighting above ended with the German’s morale broken by their hero’s death and soon after our soldiers arrived at the crash site. They cheered, put me on their shoulders, and sang songs. I smiled on the outside but I knew internally something was broken within me.

After the war, I looked into his history and his personal statements. He was a man sick of war and wrote it: “I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that the war is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim.”

At a time when 15-20 aircraft kills were considered exceptional, he shot down 105 planes, far more than any other pilot in the war. And here I am, a man who anticipated a great joy in killing the greatest there was, then has realised too late that there is no joy in the destruction of beauty. I have ripped apart a rose, slashed the canvas of a masterpiece. Richthofen’s last word was spoken in relief, the Baron’s burden is placed on me now, and it is lonely at the top, the price of greatness is solitude. The only man I could possibly relate this to is dead by my own hand.

For centuries people will argue about the secret behind his skill as a pilot, and why he stopped fighting and simply flew towards the sun. These two mysteries tortured me until I realised they were intrinsically related. Richthofen fought with nothing to lose, took risks that others would never even conceive – each victory cost him a piece of himself until finally there was nothing left to lose and so he ceased to function. When a train runs off the tracks it’s engine still burns and smoke still pours out of its exhaust stack, and it was the same with Richthofen, his last unconscious desire was simply to rest and feel the satisfaction of warming his face in the sunlight. I think for long periods of time about these events, hiding from my fame in my house on the shore of Lake Ontario. I hide and wait for another war to start. Then I can fight in the skies again to join the Baron and the line of ancient warriors behind him that perhaps stretch back to Achilles. I am an ageing phoenix who is feeling the call of the ashes, as the Baron did. Like him, I will pass my flame to another young hopeful and fade into the blue yonder.

I watch the sunset reflecting off the marshes surrounding Lake Ontario, where I shot down my first bird, and smile as I imagine gliding on a summer breeze though my wings are tired, their clawing at the wind now but I don’t care, it was all just a dream. And I dream to close my eyes. To rest. To be finished.

THE PARROT

Ara tricolor

A good rest was all I needed. Now with my tired old back stretched out, I can tell another tale for you. It’s a tale I’ll need vigour for. Vigour and strength are required because of my obligation to punch anyone who calls me a liar, or questions the true events of this story – doesn’t matter who speaks out, a pirate, a prince, a pauper or a poet – be it man, woman, or child  - I’ll wallop them. Especially the children! They’ll need to hear and learn from the journey of the Great Gnesher – that is if they want a chance at surviving the jaws of this vicious life which we have all been involuntarily thrown into.

The strange adventures of the Great Gnesher and her fearsome crew have been argued about for the past two decades, from sailor inns to princely halls across the globe. I am sure many a fist fight has been fought over the facts and events of her journey, I am sure because many of them I have started myself. Decidedly, I am getting long in the tooth and my fists merely bruise fools rather than break off their jaws. It is time to set down what I saw as a crew member during my time on the Gnesher. Hopefully, when I pass onto the next life there will be room at the Great Feast for a writer – because I fight today with pen and paper rather than sword and axe.

You know how I was found by the Great Gnesher, in few words: a mess. “Iceberg!” someone shouted. A few moments later they yanked me up with ropes,  and like a fish after a fierce battle with the line, I fell limp on the deck. With my remaining strength, I looked up to see a strange scene. Grubby faces gawked at me as if I were a merman. And I must have been a strange sight indeed, a small shivering thing fished from an iceberg who held a puffin. A fair-headed youth approached and poured some water into my mouth. I spluttered unable to keep it down.

A nasal voice cut through the clamour, “Eisenberg! How did that bastard get on board? Eisenberg, you better have my doubloons or else I am going to-…”
I could tell he had authority by the manner he pushed through the crowd.
“Where… who…?” he pointed at me.
The boy who gave me water spoke up, “Iceberg, sir” and pointed starboard.
The thin man looked around to see if anyone dared let out a chuckle about the misunderstanding, no one did. He bent down and looked at me with beady eyes, “Well, what do we have here…”
And with a swift movement, he had stolen the puffin from my weak arms.
“Don’t worry friend, I’ll take care of your bird,” he inspected the bird like a fine piece of jewellery and then looked to the boy, “Kidd! Put him below deck, his own room. I don’t want him infecting anyone if he is sick.”
The boy called Kidd helped me to my feet and I asked him in a rasping whisper, “Is that the captain…?”
He shook his head, but before he could elaborate a booming voice shouted from the cabin, “Why have we-…” there was a deep breath,”…-stopped!?”
I knew instnatly the voice belonged to the Captain, as the thin man’s posture changed from proud to cowardly in an instant, “Oh nothing, nothing sir, just a little event of interest. I have a present for you, you’ll love this.”
I looked to the cabin but could only see the silhouette of the man who had shouted. He was clearly obese, his body and head were egg shaped, and his limbs erected from his torso like protruding bratwurst from a sausage-stuffer. One ear seemed inflated or swelled up which I assumed was because of the bizarre looking parrot that dug its claws into his shoulder and nibbled at his ear with its sharp beak.
“That’s the captain,” Kidd whispered with a touch of fear in his voice. The captain swiped lazily at the bird which was attempting to nip of a chunk of meat from his earlobe, "No more detours-" he took another deep breath, "- or you'll be on the rack, Cohen!"
I saw the thin man scurry to the cabin with the puffin as I was led under the deck.

The next few days passed in a fever. I felt as if I had melted away with the iceberg I arrived on and the hammock I was strung up in was a manger, I was a babe once again. The delusion that I had been reborn or reincarnated wasn’t much of an error, the day I was rescued was the start of a new life for a young Leif Erickson.

Compared to the icy bed I had floated on, this was heaven, an oaken cocoon that oozed comfort. I spent my days here illuminated by soft lantern light, my hammock rocking with the gentle swaying of the ship.

Apart from reading, I entertained myself by writing my thoughts in this old faded encyclopedia that you are reading –  another weapon against boredom were stories told by my carer, the young lad William Kidd. He was barely older than me, on the brink of becoming a man, sprouting a thin blonde moustache that could only be seen in candlelight. Kidd told me stories of the crew and the places they had travelled.

I listened passively, not having the energy to ask many questions.

“Today the Captain came out of his cabin for once, his parrot cawed and screeched at anybody nearby. Everybody ducked their heads thinking they would get the lash… but he had only ventured out to grab a leg of turkey from the kitchen…” Kidd was a natural born storyteller and maybe that made him a natural born leader. He knew exactly who he was, where he came from, and where he was going – and he could inspire the same confidence in others.

“Tahiti was heaven on Earth, the land of milk and honey, no miserable snow and no dreary rain. I mean… no offence to Iceland, Leif…”
“No offence taken, it only snows 10 months of the year anyway.”

Remembering those times make me laugh, but not for long, the memory is tinged with what was to come. Kidd could never stay for long, he had to work up on the high ropes for long hours which made me even more appreciative of his care for my health.

It was a peaceful and comfortable experience in that soft womb. As I wrote in my makeshift diary, I found it wasn’t completely worn away, it appeared to be an encyclopedia or reference book on birds. As I explored its pages, I saw many pages were incomplete but then I began to believe that it may have been intentionally vandalised and not merely damaged by sun, salt, and sea. Be the judge of it yourself.

THE DODO

Raphus cucullatus

The extinction of the Dodo on Mauritius was accomplished by 1690. In addition to direct hunting by man, recently introduced monkeys and hog swarmed over the island and the ground-nesting dodos – or at least their eggs – must have proved vulnerable to the foreign threats that now plagued them.

They have been all wiped out except in the memory of sailors, and in the books (such as this one) that echo their image. But we must still question whether these echoing words are becoming warped or damaged by time – hunted down and disappearing as their flightless possessors did before them – wandering souls, hunted down one by

If by some miracle of science we brought back the Dodos I believe it would be impossible to replicate them perfectly, not only because of the our flawed memories but in our creation I believe like we would pass on an image of ourselves onto the creatures, and with that a malevolence that only a careful few would see in their unblinking avian eyes.

however if any survived, the Dodos might be as common as peacocks, displayed in ornamental gardens the world over! Instead, all that remains are a few written descriptions
curiously inadequate in the information they convey.

as for the saying “as dead as a dodo!”

Nothing could be further from the truth,

the dodo is out there it has

flown to safety.

flown away

Yes

it lives!

THE PARROT (ii)

Ara dicolor

Surfacing from my escapism, I again felt guilty in momentarily forgetting about my mother, my father, and of course the puffin. The puffin was being kept by Cohen, the First Mate. I met him only briefly while recovering, and I knew what sort of man he was – just from seeing the way his spindly fingers reached around my door

“I am taking care of your little birdie, he is too tired to come see you though…” he spoke lazily, letting his bottom lip droop down. He was a lazy liar too, every time he lied he simply pointed his droopy eyes at the wall behind me, unable to make the sheer effort to make eye contact.

“Thanks,” was all I could mutter, feeling greasy having just talked to him.

“And don’t get too comfortable,” he prodded me in the chest with a bony finger that he used to comb back his greased black hair, “You’ll be earning your keep on the high ropes soon enough. I hope you’re not afraid of heights!”

He left laughing with such a lack of enthusiasm that he didn’t seem to even convince himself.  Cohen was the type of man that thinks he’s clever for taking advantage of the sick and helpless, which made me concerned for the puffin. I needed a plan to get back the bird.

However, that wasn’t Cohen’s only sin to speak of, Kidd told me many tales of his singular brand of functional insanity — which I have never witnessed in another man before or since. I won’t be able to retell it as well as Kidd did so I hope you won’t mind me using his words.

Cohen was a supposedly a Jewish pirate turned privateer. Cohen often sailed them into dangerous seas, saying that the profits were more important. Typical of a Jew you might be saying, or more likely my anti-Semitism has you shaking in rage, when really it was Cohen himself who was the anti-Semite. It was obvious to all that met him that he was gentile.

He constantly perpetrated his Jew disguise in an exaggerated tone, always shouting about profit margins and hot new bargains. Yahweh have mercy on you if you ever questioned his supposed heritage.

After a particular racist performance, one poor sailor who actually was Jewish finally took issue with it.

“You have the nose of an Italian,” he muttered under his breath. Anger and a touch of fear sprang from Cohen’s eyes as he swung around.

“This nose! This one planted on my face! I didn’t choose it boy, just as I didn’t choose to wear this. I was chosen!” He ripped his homemade kippah off his head and shoved it in his accuser’s face. Cohen had taken a literal meaning of the term skullcap and had adorned it with a fearsome skull and crossbones (though we weren’t pirates).

“You mean to say that my grandfather and 200,000 of my people were expelled from Spain because they had Italian noses!” “Listen, I know you think it’s important to have some sort of disfigurement, you know Captain Ahab had the peg leg, Hook had the -- you get the idea. I think you need to just rethink your public image a little, we like you for who you arrr-”

His reply was cut short by a fatal, effortless and very economical slit across the boy’s jugular vein. “Schmuck,” he muttered, wiping his bloody dagger on a handkerchief. Cohen was cheap even when it came to killing.

The criticism had struck a nerve obviously. The genuine Jewish sailor was not able to elaborate due to the fountain of blood pouring out of his trachea. Rumours spread afterwards that Cohen chose his false religion due to his lacking manhood, which he saw as comparable to the ‘disfigurement’ that was common among male Jews. Perhaps this was the purpose behind the hasidic hoax Cohen performed, to cover up his small member that was in no way caused by a Rabbi’s blade – who knows? In any case, the man had issues.

Kidd’s stories had me terrified one moment, and then almost laughing myself out of my hammock the next. I tried asking him about the captain and his parrot but he got that look of fear in his eyes and simply told me he didn’t know any, except that the parrot had been onboard the Gnesher far longer than any of them had been.

This ideal existence didn’t last for long. The meals came less often, the plates came less full. I complained to Kidd but he seemed to be losing weight as well. My health began to fail and I lost the progress I made – it was a slippery slope back to the realm of illness and delirium. In another effort of escapism, I began reading the bird encyclopedia again. Though now it was becoming even more confusing whether it was damaged, vandalised, or warped by my delirious mind – words disappeared, swapped, transformed when I blinked. Somehow I managed to write down one entry that stayed static long enough for me to copy down.

THE CUBAN MACAW

Ara holocolor

 

A bright red parrot with cream coloured cheeks and large eyes, covered from head to claw with a mottled crimson kaleidoscopic pattern. Squawks when flushed, has raucous alarm note; ‘klee klee klee’. At dusk, flies out to the water’s edge to feed on spinifex seeds, chenopods. Found widespread across inland Cuba until around midway through the ninetenth century, when it declined due to pastoral settlement, drought, fire, introduced rabbit, fox, cat, as well as the psittacine beak and feather disease.

Psittacine beak and feather disease effects all Old World and New World parrots.

The macaw’s feather follicles and the beak degrade, causing severe

fe ther, claw, and beak malformation and necrosis. In later stages of the disease,

fe  th r shaft constriction occurs, hampering development until eventually there is total

f    t    r growth degeneration.

bare, the bird
plummets
down
toward
the
ground.
Its
last
thoughts

are
of

better

times.

THE PARROT (iii)

Ara medencolor

Eventually, I lost the energy to read. All I could think of was food. My eyes could barely focus on the words while I fell into a half dream state. Puffins and feathers colliding, collecting into a pool fractals which I dived through like a liquid pane of glass. With a blink I was back on land, standing on the mountain that shadowed my home. A shout echoed from behind me, I turned to see my mother pointing behind me. Again I turned and saw the Gnesher in the distance crashing through sandbanks and paddocks - riding a wave of blood, bone and screaming souls - sailing upon the land as swiftly as on the sea. The Gnesher, a beautiful ship corrupted by some unseen evil, rumbled behind me with its bow cracked into a mouth. Its maw was lined by splintered wooden teeth but its insides were flesh. Someone screamed in the distance and I was consumed, sliding down its gullet till I came to rest in a warm pool housed by a cathedral of bone, its arched ribs were slippery and impossible to climb. My skin felt sticky and then gelatinous, dripping off my body like melted butter leaving my glistening muscles naked underneath. I screamed but the only answer was a breathless laughter. An obese man's silhouette stood in the distance, he held a lantern and watched me with glee and a parrot cawed and scratched at his face which the man took with pleasure as he laughed. He was the source of the corruption on this ship, I was certain. He laughed while I screamed till my mouth bubbled away though my jaw bone - which flapped away through the bloody stew of my face. I had no mouth, yet I screamed on- I was nothing at all but pain and human debris, yet the agony continued, red hot pain pouring down my raw nerves which floated like tattered string in the syrup of my remains.

I woke startled and swung my fist at the darkness.

The punch connected with something that groaned and fell down to the floor.
“Who arr ya?” I spurt out, still half asleep.
“God’s blood! It’s Kidd, put down those bloody weapons,” he grabbed my shoulder and from the warmth of his hand, I knew he was not a ghoul. I apologised and then he explained why he was sneaking around during the graveyard shift.
“I brought you some food that I stole from under the quartermaster’s nose.” He handed me several loafs of bread and some foul smelling cheese.
“They’ve got all the stockpile right under their noses, lucky for you I don’t smell as bad as the rest,” he grinned.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said shoving a handful of bread into my mouth.
“Just don’t punch me next time. And don’t worry about it, there’s plenty more where that came from. “
Plenty more? Why are we being starved then?”
The boards above us creaked.
“I’ve got to go, we’ll talk later.”
He disappeared in silence like a shadow diving into an inkwell.

I ate my fill of the bread and that stinking cheese and hid the rest behind some books. With my belly full, I got some well-needed sleep. But it didn't last long, I woke up again to the sound of boards creaking above. The footsteps of a very heavy set man paced up and down the deck while incoherent shouting went on. "WHERE? You bastard--- where the devil----" was all I could pick out of the muffled argument among some curses that are too obscene to repeat.

More shouting echoed down to my cabin and I clung to the hammock. Was it a mutiny? Was it Davy Jones taking his tax; collecting the souls of sinful sailors as they slept? I knew not until I saw the planks directly above me bend under the weight of the beast. The hairs on my neck stood up. The shape froze and began sniffing, softly at first, and then had its nose right on the floor so that I could see its horrid nostrils through the cracks of the floor. The sniffing stopped, beads of sweat rolled down my face and rested on the tip of my nose. Paralysis clung to the air and even the ship seemed to stop swaying, the endless moment ceased with a single word that he grunted through the ceiling, “Food!”

I heard footsteps running down the stairs, and my door burst forth to a more frightening figure than I could have imagined. There stood the silhouette of the man from my dreams. He stepped out of the veil, and then let out the same breathless chuckle I had heard before and pointed one chubby finger at me, [_“Gotcha.” _]He ran as fast as his short legs could carry him. It looked almost comical until he was a few feet away and a delayed thought arrived: this man was going to hurt me. For the first time I got a good look at his parrot, it was disfigured and featherless, a poor tortured thing. We didn’t talk as he looked around the cabin. His bloated face spun around, first pointing toward my hastily hidden food which he found with a single sniff of his pig like nose and then his fearsome gaze pointed at me. I cowered in my hammock but he wrenched up by the front of my shirt. His mouth spread into a toothy smile, it did not put me at ease as his eyes still held their rage and intensity.

“You think I am going to kill you,” the captain said, who shook his head and his eyes went soft suddenly, “No, no, no, I am not even going to hurt you. No sir, no sir, I am not even going to hurt you.” He put me down for a second, “It’s alright, it’s fineee.”

He turned away, and the parrot began to chew on his ear again, but at this distance I could also hear that it was whispering. The captain mumbled, "No, No, I won't," the parrot squawked and I swear I heard a woman's voices, the captain exploded, "- he's just a boy!"

The captain swung his body around to face me and I saw that he was weeping. Not weeping as a man does before a breathtaking view or a great painting, and not weeping as a man grieves – but weeping as a child, tears and mucus dripping off his flushed face.

“Oh, I am sorry… I am so sorry, my boy,” the first punch hit the side of my face and it flipped me out of the hammock.
SORRY!” he screamed and kicked me in the stomach.

The kick winded me, tried to crawl away but my body was involuntarily folded up like a dying insect. He dragged me out of the room by my legs, squealing and spluttering apologies as he kicked me in the head over and over again.

PLEASE GODPLEASE FORGIVE ME!” he screamed as he dragged me up the steps to the deck all while wiping his disgusting nose. I struggled and managed to get my foot free but another kick hit me in the jaw and something hard went skittering across the deck. The pain was so unbearable I felt that I was going to be ill even though I was barely conscious.

I’m sure a lot of you have been in fights (every person has some tilt to violence, though some roll with the tide faster than others) and have received a bruise or two. A scuffle with a sibling or friend is a fine thing. But to be really beaten is something different, to be beaten as life truly beats you is to accept a darkness in yourself as I did then. There is an acceptance of death in that hole dug by blows to the head and body, the world becomes a grave as your vision sinks behind folds of swollen flesh – the body turns from a temple to a labyrinth of pain, and you run and run till you sit down. Yes, eventually you sit down, I don’t care how tough you believe you are, you will give up and accept that this is how you die, to the fists of a large man frothing at the mouth. And if by a strange mercy you survive, then know the beating is never truly over, on top of the nightmares, paranoia, and excessive flinching, you will have to accept that in that desperate moment you welcomed the end and saw it as a blessing. And not everyone can find the strength to turn away their newly acquainted friend, Death and his unnatural pleasures.

By now the crew had stuck their heads out to watch the horror show. It was just a blur of faces to me. It was a strange time to think of it but I realised I had only ever been up on the deck in some sort of dazed or ill state. Perhaps the mind becomes contemplative and relaxed when it accepts that death is certain as I did in that moment.

I contemplated the journey the trees had made to become this ship, tortured, carved and bent under steam till they became this vessel - creaking and groaning as they watched my murder. Then out of the blur of faces came one I knew. He held an oar and I was wondering what type of wood it was made of - when he swung it in an overhead motion and smashed it over the Captain's head, he went down with an enormous crash. Very hard wood, I surmised. The familiar looking man was Kidd, though his face looked older and angrier. A sailor stepped in to apprehend Kidd but the crowd turned upon the loyalist and beat him to the ground, allowing Kidd to deliver a few more blows till the oar was splinters. Once the Captain had been knocked unconscious (he was bleeding as badly as I was), Kidd melted back into the crowd who evidently approved of his actions though they had been too scared to act themselves. I don't know where the parrot had disappeared to during my rescue.

Cohen marched through the crowd as I had seen him do before.

"Who is the chutzpah behind all this- my god! Captain!" he rushed to the Captain's aid. He cradled the enormous man in his arms like a child. “Who is responsible for this?” he said quietly not looking up. No one spoke up and then Cohen looked at me with murderous intent. He took one step towards me and then Kidd reappeared, “It was me, the boy had nothing to do with it.”

Cohen squinted and looked between us. I stood up, about to deny Kidd his heroic sacrifice, when Cohen barked at both of us.

“As the most senior officer I sentence you both to-…”
Everybody on board knew what his next word was going to be, and there was an immediate disturbance that rippled through the crowd. Cohen sensed it immediately and hesitated – he stood on thin ice with the Captain indisposed – mental images of a mutiny flashed before his eyes. "- I sentence you both to be tired on the rack till the Captain recovers."
The crowd let out a collective sigh of relief… the uprising could wait.
The strongest among the sailors dragged the Captain back to the Cabin while Kidd and I were tied to the rack – a metal grille attached to the mast. Somewhere overhead the parrot sang a cheerful note.

~~~

The sun set, and as night rolled in so did a cold blustery wind. All we had was a moth eaten blanket to protect us from the cold and as if our fate were not cruel enough, a thick fog took the ship by surprise. After a day and a night on the rack (though you could hardly tell day from night because of the fog) we still had not seen the Captain.

The crew started to see strange thing in the fog, Kidd seemed to spot them before anyone else did, having nothing to do tied on the rack but stare at apparitions day in, day out. Men began to whisper to themselves. Paranoia set in, men saw indescribable monsters that flicked their tendrils out of the fog, as if beckoning them to become part of the fleshy mass that squeaked, flapped, and squirmed behind the curtain of fog. The lucky ones saw monsters. We were fed even less food that we had been getting before by our jailer, a Turk called Bilal, who spoke of seeing human shaped figures swimming under the ship the night before. He went to the edge to investigate and saw his wife and daughter, swimming a few metres below the surface, staring back at him – they pretended to drown, clutching at their throats and begging him to dive in and save them. When he shook his head the ghouls leered at him and changed form, his wife’s face became encrusted in barnacles, her body pale and bloated. Bilal stood and watched his daughter’s flesh rot before his eyes, her pearl white ribs became the home to eels that slithered in and out of her as they pleased.

It is a story a mad man would tell. But from the clarity with which he spoke and the steady gaze of his eyes, I knew he wasn’t insane – though perhaps he wished it. Still, the question of the Captain’s condition remained. The parrot was the only thing that passed in and out of the cabin. Though we never saw the Captain himself, the parrot acted as his messenger as it sat on Cohen’s shoulder.

“Keep on scrubbing and bring me more food. No grumbling or I’ll give you even less,” the bird said with an almost perfect imitation of the Captain’s voice. Cohen was at the helm most day and the parrot was completely silent except for the Captain’s commands and occasionally whistling as Cohen turned the wheel one way or another.

During the fourth or fifth day on the rack the parrot flew into the cabin at sunrise (as it usually did) and I went to sleep. A few hours later, I woke to the sound of a woman laughing, the madness of the mists had spread to my mind but I saw no spectres or sea-beasts, the only disturbance that night occurred in reality’s domain. I pretended to be asleep and as I was becoming starting to actually go back to sleep the parrot flew out from the cabin and landed, not on Cohen’s shoulder, but on Kidd’s.

It was in the dead of night and only I witnessed it, Kidd was asleep and Cohen was preoccupied with something at the helm. The Parrot preened its wings and then flew on to its familiar roost on Cohen’s shoulder.

Cohen didn’t react to the bird and then he turned around with a blank expression as if in a dream, he shouted at Kidd and me to wake up (I was still pretending to sleep).

“I’ve finally thought of a punishment for you two, that is till we make it to port and you can become acquainted with the gallows.”
Kidd and I glanced briefly at each other and remained silent.
“You’ll be at the helm during the night and on the rack during the day,” Cohen said, but his words did not sound like his, it sounded like he was quoting someone else or playing a part in a pantomime. Without another word, he walked over and promptly freed us. I rubbed my sore wrists and ankles while I was pushed towards the helm.

“I am going below deck to count the gold, don’t take your eyes off that horizon…”

There was groan out in the mists that I swung my head to look at, and when I looked back Cohen had scurried away, just the tail end of his coat could be seen slinking around the doorway to the cabin.

Kidd began attending to several knots attached to the main sail that needed retying, “Leif, I have a terrible feeling about this,” he finished retying the knots and stood at the wheel, “Cohen knows something or he has been warned to get under deck – he’s been touched by some omen, heard a whisper from a raven.”

“Or from a parrot…” I replied.

I couldn’t see that twisted ugly bird anywhere, yet I knew it was watching and listening.
“I’ll take the wheel and you go back to sleep.” A baby’s cry echoed out from the fog which we tried our best to ignore. Kidd talked faster, “Only one of us needs to keep their eyes open and steer, we’ll take turns. I’ll go first then I’ll wake you up for your shift.” I put up my arms to protest but he simply grinned and pointed to the blanket that still lay on the rack.

Kidd never woke me up and never took his eyes off the horizon. He never looked away for a second, Cohen knew that Kidd would never put the crew at risk and so had trapped him to endure the horrors of the fog that inflicted his eyes with unforgettable horrors. Burnt into his retinas, a visual tinnitus – falling into graves within graves, an infinite hell that not even Dante could envisage. Kidd came to know the void and the void came to know him. It knew his disposition for anger and revenge and tempted him not with horror and gore – as all naturally all men hate these – but showed him great beauty. He saw endless green plains, a new Eden which he could build a future upon, stable ground to grow and also an escape from the ever turning and unforgiving ocean. The visions of heaven became so beautiful that they were difficult to look at, but still Kidd never took his eyes off the horizon. The visions became so beautiful they hurt, they were agony, he eyes watered but he still looked on – the beauty seared his eyes until – though only for a moment – it was so beautiful it hurt and he wanted to hurt it back. Damn it all, throw it all in the flames and let it burn, let it bleed; patience, virtue, love, and justice be cinder to me from this moment. It was a thought that lasted less than a second but it had broken him and he knew it, and he knew it with great sorrow. Kidd was changed, and to this day he can give off an unsettling stare when it suits him, unleashing small frightening slice of the insanity he endured at the wheel. The visions ended and he naively thought his trial over when really his life has just begun. The ship sailed on, and it seemed impossible that he hadn’t found land, a ship or even another iceberg. He prayed silently for land, prayed for anything to happen to bring an end to this slow death. And it was only by his sheer mental fortitude and faith that the crew of Gnesher made it out of that labyrinth of constant decay. He could finally see the horizon and it was a blessing, he felt a surge of faith and it healed him. Kidd felt he could love the world once more but not like before, as a child.

Kidd shouted, “Land ho!” and the parrot descended landing on his shoulder, miraculously its feathers had begun growing back. An island lay before us its tropical waters looked fresh and inviting. Cohen emerged smiling with a few of the crew, his smile disappeared when he saw the parrot. He whistled to it, clicked his tongue grotesquely but it remained immobile. Now Kidd walked up to him and Cohen snidely commented, “The little whelp has found us an island, well done bo-” Kidd shot out a fist that caught him on the bottom of the chin, the collision made a sound like the crack of a whip as Cohen’s teeth slammed shut on his tongue. Blood poured out his mouth and Kidd looked to the crew and commanded with a voice of power, “This tyranny is done, though we are far from civilisation we will not become savage barbarians like this one,” he lifted Cohen bloodied head up by a tuft of hair so they could see his work and threw him to their feet, “We will not lose the traditions and principles that our forefathers died for because we are miles from home. The sea may be immense and unknowable but by the integrity of this hull we stay afloat. We choose honour or we choose death, each man decide in his heart what he truly desires.”

It was silent and then I was the first to stand by Kidd’s side, then our jailer, Bilal; and one by one they came – then in a flood, no one wanting to be the last. Cohen crouched alone, though he made one attempt to convince the man closest to him by crawling to him. Cohen looked up at the man wishing for mercy, as many had wished of him, and the man simply lifted his shirt to show his scarred chest. And so it was mutiny. Cohen dropped to the floor, defeated, and Kidd had him chained and led him like a dog on a leash.

“Watch my back,” Kidd said as we walked into the Captain’s cabin. It stunk, of rotten food which lay about the room, on the shelves, even some pieces of ham were stuck to the roof. I held my shirt over my mouth. Kidd marched ahead unheeded by the stench and the parrot flew off ahead of us into the darkness. The cabin seemed impossibly large as we walked down the dark corridor, in cages were birds of every shape and size many of them dead or starving. I kept an eye out for my puffin.

Lantern after lantern illuminated piles of wasted food. Finally we arrived at a putrid throne of meat and mouldy bread, and a figure sat on it who we could hardly see, but his silhouette was unmistakable.

And there was no movement, but the shadow of a parrot.
And the parrot spoke, but the men did not.
“I cannot eat any more, why do I still hunger?”
And Kidd did not reply, but lit a match.
And the Captain was illuminated but his glassy eyes did not react to the light, he was dead.

And he had been dead a long while, his face hung loosely off the skull like a mask, his body was ready to burst. I looked to Cohen who looked equally horrified, blood still dripping out his mouth. Who had been giving the orders this whole while? Kidd already knew the answer, it was an impossible one – but that was a realm Kidd was now well acquainted with.

The parrot was adorned in a passionate red plumage, it squawked and flew to Kidd. He grabbed it by the neck and it screeched in the voice of the Captain, “Let me free, boy!”
Kidd tightened his grip and the parrot let out the screech of a little girl which he cut short with a swift twist of his wrist.

The parrot’s feathers fell out at once. And Kidd spoke to me, not as a friend, but as a Captain, “Clean this up and release all the birds that can fly.” He said all he needed to in that commanding tone, he was claiming the captaincy now and wasn’t about to play favourites with his friends. I didn’t mind, the news pleased me. I rushed about pulling the cages from their shelves out of the disgusting cabin. Their pupils grew massively as they were exposed to sunlight for the first time in months. After an anxious search, I found my puffin who recognised me instantly, its feathers had grown and looked healthier than the majority of the birds. Kidd sailed us closer to the island and gave me the signal. We opened the cages as fast as I could even as my body, still wounded from my beating, begged me to stop. The birds clamoured over each other to freedom.

Not since the rafters of the ark were thrown opened have there been such an assorted clutter of birds reaching into the sky, perhaps that was the rainbow Noah saw as a sign that God would never purge the Earth again. In any case, it was a rare privilege and to date the only truly noble deed I have accomplished in my life. I spotted the puffin who hesitated at the banister – I thought it would glance back at me but it didn’t – and then flew off, I hope it made it back to colder waters. With all of those birds flying home, I thought of my own distant home which seemed like the memory of a different person – I would return one day, I promised myself, but not this day.

What remains left to tell? Kidd becomes Captain William Kidd, the youngest captain of the Great Gnesher and also her most capable. I became First Mate Erikson, and many more great adventures on the Gnesher were had – though I and Kidd we were never as friendly as we had once been. In fact I had my suspicions about his change of character, though I never challenged him on them. The evidence was too small, the sound of a woman talking quietly as I walked past his cabin door, a flash of crimson in his eyes when he looked to the horizon. Enough gossip. He was good friend and a better captain.

THE EAGLE

Haliaeetus peregrinus

Oh, you are still up? I was just getting up for a drink of water, then I am back to bed. While I am here though I should tell you something I just remembered, Cohen’s fate. Kidd had him thrown overboard, a harsh sentence which I tried to convince him to rethink but there was too much bad blood within the crew – he had to die.

On the outset of retelling my story I asserted the truth of these events, this last story I cannot attest to, but I will tell it anyway. It is a dream, a dream in which I saw life through Cohen’s eyes. Though it is a dream I sometimes think that dreams contain more truth than waking life will ever hold. So farewell for now friends, perhaps I’ll see you in the land of Nod, or if you prefer, feel free to pursue that rare dreamless sleep that all men secretly covet.

~~~

The ship’s deck was especially quiet, Cohen watched the night sky. He studied the stars and made a note of their positions. No romantic notions entered his mind as he completed the task mechanically. What is special about them anyway? The stars have always been above, Cohen reasoned, and they always will be. They had guided the Great Gnesher for many winters now, shipping their cargo from one side of the world to the other and for that Cohen was grateful. But, he mused, horoscopes were for fools and star-crossed lovers.

He slept uneasily on the rack. When Cohen woke early the next morning he immediately thought he was still dreaming as those predatory eyes emerged out of the darkness once again. It was Kidd.

“Ah here isth the young Captain barely weaned off his mother’sth tit,” he said through a swollen tongue.

Kidd felt disgusted at his jovial nature – though it became clear from his jitters that it was the product of a complete nervous breakdown. Kidd unchained him and took him to the side of the ship Cohen sniffed back tears and then began to dance as the crew jeered at him. His pathetic jesting stopped when Cohen climbed up on the banister and looked out towards the calm sea.

Unfortunately for Cohen, he had the gravest weakness a sailor can possess: knowing how to swim. Desperately he prayed for a storm, a typhoon or even a shark. Anything to bring a quick death. He prayed to all the gods he had worshipped but the gods were silent – only the gruff voice of a stranger answered with a shout from behind, “Mozel tof, you bastard!”

A kick to his behind sent him flying through the air in a somersault that seemed to last an eternity until he hit the almighty ocean with a splash. Disorientated, Cohen struggled in the inky darkness before rising to the surface. The ship was already moving too fast for him to grab his aged hands onto. It sailed off into the distance. The smaller it grew on the horizon, the smaller his hope became. “Maybe the crew will have a change of heart,” said Cohen to himself but couldn’t help let doubt creep into his voice. He pictured the men in his mind but could only imagine their bloody backs as he whipped them into discipline or the top of their heads as they looked to the ground, not one brave enough to meet his eyes – except for Kidd with his demon eyes that glowed like hot coals and who’s fiery gaze could melt steel. Kidd wouldn’t have a change of heart – even if he managed to float on these gentle waves for an eternity, Cohen knew that with certainty.

“Perhaps a friend on board will let a lifeboat slip or even a crate to rest on,” Cohen said with newfound spirit. But once again, his imagination failed him, Cohen could picture the outline of a man sneaking across the deck to Cohen’s aid but not his face. Just one face Cohen demanded from himself, but he was simply incapable he could not form a single face that would plausibly help him or even one that he enjoyed looking at. Not just on board the ship either, but across the whole world he struggled to remember a single friend. He had pushed all of them away, betrayed them, or simply ignored them in his arrogance – blind to the kindness of strangers which he had rejected as foolishness. And now no one was there help him. Cohen felt the guilt in his heart which he had carried for so long, it’s weight seemed unbearable to him now.

“Let this pain hold me beneath the sea!” he shouted but no merciful smiting was given.

The Great Gnesher was a pale dot on the horizon, barely recognisable. Cohen thrashed in despair, she passed over the horizon leaving only the afterglow of her white sails which faded soon after. It was hopeless. A watery grave waited for him. It would wait for him through all his screaming fits, tantrums, and sobs. Nothing would avail that cold mistress the sea from absorbing his floundering matter. Every trace of his existence would be cast irretrievably across the seven seas: his flesh stripped by the scale and claw – his bones whet to nothing and lost forever in the shifting sands.

A hot prickling sensation rolled down from his neck to the bottom of his spine, the sun was at its meridian and shone down harshly on his balding head. Teeth clenched, he refused to give up. Cohen kept his eyes stuck fast to the exact point on the horizon where the ship had disappeared. Determined to the point of becoming entranced, his focus on maintaining a bearing became a paranoia. He tried to resist it – reassuring himself that he was self-correcting accurately to counteract being swayed by the waves – but the doubt lingered. Cohen was distraught, and he didn’t even know the purpose of keeping the bearing. An illusion of control, he concluded but could not bring himself to forget the idea. It continued to torment him. After all the landscape was entirely identical.

The bare ocean landscape had attracted him the sailing life in the first place. The lifestyle was clean and fresh, the sea air seemed to clean him of all the hate and anger which had grown on him like craggy barnacles. Cohen could become anyone he wanted to. Throughout his life, he had been known as Artemis the Egyptian, Quivver the Frenchman, and lastly Cohen the Jew – though he had been born an Oliver in the port city of Liverpool, England. His mother had raised him alone and had told many a story about his father, he arrived on a ship from a far off land, spotted his mother from the wharf, and fallen in love in that instant – due to his sheer handsomeness she fainted and fell into the water, and she woke up cradled in his arms, he having rescued her… That much was consistent but his name, accent and nationality changed on every telling. Knowing not who he was or from whence he came, little Oliver fell victim to his mother’s tall tales and his identity became as fluid as the ocean he was now stranded in. How he wished he could be taken in his mother’s arms again. He was Cohen now, not Oliver, and he had no mother to yearn for.

“Oh come here Oliver, you silly boy,” his mother’s voice spoke clear as day. Cohen turned wildly but found no one.

“Who said that?” demanded Cohen, “A siren whore? Show yourself you stinking sea witch!”

His rant was a weak attempt to distract him from the real fear that his mind, not a sweet siren, was playing tricks. Cohen realised suddenly his foolishness but it was too late - he had lost his bearing. The marker was gone, as was the mental stability it had brought. Spinning around in circles his eyes scurried from left to right, navigating his maze: a flat plain trapped between the endless bare sea and the eternal blue sky. In any case that couldn't have been Mother, Cohen reasoned, she had never talked to him in such a loving manner before. The voice drew out memories. His childhood had been painted in bruises and blood, by various stepfathers. Their easel* was a belt, their brush an open hand, and the canvas his pale young cheeks and buttocks. His mother watched and simply let her various lovers take out their frustrations after a long day of work, this act hurt Cohen more than the physical attacks ever could. He wept.

Wave crests whisper to him from below him, “Don’t cry, my love. You know the way out.” Cohen looked to the dark depths to see a nymph-like figure swimming below, she turned to face him and it was wife. Naked and twirling in the darkness below. She smiled at him and opened her mouth to speak. “My love…” he whispered in disbelief. Her words came in air bubbles, spluttering and choking though they retained a certain eloquence, as they breached the surface, “Join me. Join me, down here. I miss you so much, it was you who I needed all along.” Cohen’s first instinct was to spit at his wife, or the filthy adulterer as he called her among the other sailors of the Gnesher. The phantasm had yet again taken the image of a woman who had betrayed him. Cohen declined the invitation and shook his head with determination but still she flirtatious danced and caressed herself. “Down here you needn’t cry, you needn’t sob, you needn’t breathe another breath that would only lead you to more suffering. Come.” Still, Cohen declined for a reason unknown to him. A hand reached out from the dark around her waist and pulled her into an embrace with a shadowy figure. It was William Kidd, his vacuousness eyes were unmistakable. His lover beckoned him to rescue her with her soft brown eyes. Wrath and lust waltzed in nether. He told himself it was a sense of honour that kept him from diving below to take the easy way out. But really it was because it would have meant giving up hope that his real wife still loved him. He would never admit this to himself, hidden under layers of his mind it was a hidden rip that bled freely beneath his consciousness. The spectral lovers morphed into a single monstrosity, a beast of two backs which grew scaled fins on its assortment of twisted limbs and disappeared back into the dark depths.

Cohen admitted to himself the siren had been tempting, a pleasurable escape from this hell, the ringed horizon he was stuck in may as well be on Neptune. He looked for any landmark which his gaze could grasp to and rest his attention upon. Instead, his attention wandered haphazardly. The brain is a device for solving problems and if it can’t find any, it will make some. And so Cohen’s boredom forced him to turn inward. Pre-emptively he braced for the emotional gut punches the journey down this path would throw.

So many lost opportunities, his family that he would never see again and who would be happy of the fact. The wife who he would never be able to apologise to for all the pain he caused. The lies he had spun around their relationship had been such a waste of time and eventually they both were strangled by them. His escape to the sea provided Cohen with a clean slate, where he could build himself up again the supreme liar he thought he was, he was not a miser with a failed marriage sailing the Great Gnesher but a Jewish captain of limitless charm and cruelty. But a lowly rat is a rat whether he sleeps with fleas or under silk, Cohen thought. He clutched his chest and felt the admittance tear a great hole in his heart: his greatest fault had always been pretending to be someone greater than he was. His life had been a tumble -crashing down one disastrous step at a time. Here he was sitting sorry at the very bottom of that pit.

The sun began to set. Golden streams of light hit Cohen’s teary eyes and he wondered if it would be the last time he would feel the sun’s tender kiss on his brow. In desperation, he stretched his head as far as he could trying to drink in as much as he could of that last precious sip. Night fell with quiet melancholy. Never had he felt so hopeless and helpless, he could not persuade the sea to part even if he whispered all the clever lies he knew to the white foam caps that floated by. No control could be wrestled from the tides, his life was at its nadir and could not sink any lower.

Cohen went limp, closed his eyes, and let his head descend back into the water. For so long he had been fighting, stealing, lying because he was scared – because he thought it was simply the way to survive. And now it was time to pay his dues and so he finally let go and simply laid on his back. Expecting to sink, Cohen instead found himself supported as if by an unseen hand supporting him, swaying him calmly. His mood began to change.

The benefit of hitting rock bottom is that there is nowhere to go but up. And Cohen felt lifted. There was no reason to pretend anymore, the ship was gone, the world was gone, and all the people with their judging eyes. It didn’t matter if he went by Cohen now, or Oliver as was known before, or any other name, he was just himself in that moment. This pure and fetterless joy was completely alien to him, Cohen felt he was in the presence of something infinitely gentle. The waves caressed him and he let his mind wander with the tides. His eyelids opened of their own accord, a thousand candles lit flickered in the dark.

“Oh, the stars, the stars,” Cohen smiled. They had always been consistent in his shifting world where his surroundings, his companions, and even his identity were in flux. Out here they danced in unobstructed glory, away from the sot fuming fires and smog of ship and city. The waves had subsided and the now flat sea acted as a mirror for the heavens above. The horizon melted away as sky and sea became one. His world was a satin tapestry pierced with glittering diamonds. The stars which had guided his Gnesher for so many years took on a new life. Flying among the constellations he saw his guides by his wing. Cygnus, the swan, her elegant neck stretched across the cosmos; and Corvus, the crow, his watchful eye keeping vigil over the world. Cohen weaved past them. His guide was the king of all, a greater hunter than Orion, more beautiful than Andromeda – his name was Aquila, the eagle. Aquila’s wings were of such enormity and grace that Cohen was drawn under their shadow, spinning and rolling like a tide pulling back out to sea.

Cohen laughed, "Why did I ever fear you? Never did you leave my side, always watching and waiting, I thought you were my hunter- little did I know that it was from love that you stared."

Not only love - but love despite. Despite his lies, his flaws, everything wrong he had committed and all those he was yet to commit. Under the eagle's gaze he was filled with courage- not the type of courage to dive once more into the breach, but the simple act of loving despite. Cohen loved music, loved stories, loved to dance, loved to fuck, but these were all very easy things to love. His challenge, which he met bravely, was to love all those who wronged him.

He found love for his family that had abandoned him, his unfaithful wife, and even for William Kidd. All at once a great burden slipped off his back. A great force gripped his chest, Cohen reasoned that Aquila had found him worthy and swooped down upon him from the heavens. Tucked under the eagle’s cradled wings – Cohen smiled, nestled under a starlight quilt, and slipped into a dreamless sleep.

THE LYREBIRD

Menura novaehollandiae

The lyrebird, of the genus Menura and the family of Menuridae, is most notable for its ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds. To tell the story of the lyrebird, I first have to tell the story of a blind autistic man who is also a musical genius, Derek Paravicini.

He was born 3 months premature and weighed less than this book. His feeble body had to be constantly pumped with oxygen to keep his tiny lungs fluttering. The excess amount of oxygen eventually burned out his retinas and would also retard the development of his brain. His aristocratic father watched his son’s floundering for eight years, and he seemed rather disappointed with his only heir, though he tried so hard to love the boy it was often hard for him. But he would soon change his tune.

Derek was to begin going to a school for the blind. On their first tour through the school, young Derek held his father’s hand as they walked down the hallways.

“Do you think you would like to start school soon, Derek?” the headmaster asked him.
“Start school, yeah, start school Derek,” he replied imitating the headmaster’s upper-class accent. He often repeated speech, part of a behaviour called ‘echolalia’ typical among suffers of autism.

They walked past a music room in which a little girl was playing the piano, Derek charged into the room and knocked the little girl off her perch. She began crying and his father, no longer surprised at his outbursts went to apprehend him as he mindlessly poured his fingers over the keys in a cacophony of sound. With each of his father’s heavy steps Derek played faster and faster, until a tune began to emerge out of the chaos – soft at first but then with courage it became stronger. A melody erupted that paralysed the room. The girl stopped sobbing and Derek’s father didn’t dare take another step.

Derek’s Paravicini’s first song sounded like nothing else that had been played in human history, he had never heard Beethoven, Bach, or Chopin. This creation was entirely original. He had constructed a masterpiece that was entirely exclusive from centuries of music theory.

His father’s eyes welled up with tears. He had never been able to truly relate to his son or even communicate throughout the tumultuous years they had spent together. In fact, he had yet to talk with anything other than repeated speech and grunts. The fact had weighed heavily on the father’s proud heart, especially because of how much love he had to give. But now Derek was talking, and much more than that, he was singing through the ivory keys. The song was a catharsis for both father and son, all the pain and stress that had built a wall between them was melting away.

The song’s inspiration was collected from melodies that only Derek’s heightened hearing could pick up from the tedious everyday events of his life. As a piece of music, it was hard for the father to define, it spoke of splendour and misery despite its creation within a mere child’s mind.

It was remote from human learning and so wild that birds flocked to the window. There were all kinds of birds that came to flock and peeked in with their glazed eyes. The birds watched Derek Paravicini’s own glazed eyes which he carried blindly as his head pecked up and down to the music, they thought he was a very peculiar looking bird. All at once they took a step back from the window, and down the middle of the sea of plumage a mass shuffling of spindly legs created a parting. Out of the avian crowd stepped a bird that was equally gorgeous as it was humble: the lyrebird.

It listened to the tune as it strutted back and forth across the window sill. Its freckled tail perked and wafted in time to Paravicini’s melody. Then it opened its small beak and sang alongside the piano chords. A duet between man and bird commenced, and the lyrebird’s voice was equally as beautiful as the boy’s playing. From out of the seemingly impenetrable darkness, Paravicini heard a voice that spoke his language, and for the first time in his life the universe was in harmony, for the first time in his life he had a friend. A gentleness and femininity rang through the lyrebird’s notes which he had never felt before. It was the closest he would ever come to feeling love and he would have cried if only his shrivelled ducts would have allowed him to weep.

The duet rose to a crescendo. Beak, feather, finger and foot unleashed in an upward slash that cried out in pain. The lyrebird had travelled and collected a requiem of every birdsong in existence but had never heard anything so tortured and confused, and though she was intimidated she held onto her pitch. The agony Derek endured as an infant now fuelled his playing, while he was clinging to a life he had started far too soon, he had found sanctuary in a small corner of his mind. And this was where he had created music composed out of the inhuman bleeps of medical equipment, the murmur of hopeless doctors, and the sizzling oxygen that ravaged his brain in cold agony. It spoke of innocence tortured needlessly, a beautiful nightmare which would echo and spin endlessly among the stars that he would never know. The stars he would never see.

His fingers collapsed in a rest, drained of his anger, he felt that he could not play on. The world returned to him as a dark and confusing misery.

But the lyrebird picked up the melody again. This time she led and he followed. Her melody spoke of all the wonders the lyrebird had heard in her travels: it spoke of a shining hope that existed in quiet grassy plains that surrounded them, but also in the grinding desert sands, in the groaning arctic glaciers, and in the perfect silence you can only find deep below the crashing waves. Paravicini treasured every note, held each one close like a candle in the dark and memorised it all. Likewise, the lyrebird memorised all it had heard from Paravicini – as was its nature. The song came to an end as abruptly as it had begun.

The quiet that consumed the room seemed as thick as molasses. All that remained was a rarely seen smile on Paravicini’s face and a twinkle in the lyrebird’s eye who would be content for the rest of her life. Derek’s weeping father ran forward to take him into an embrace and almost crushed the fragile boy. The birds at the window spooked and flew off in a flurry, the lyrebird disappeared in the cloud of panicked feathers. Derek’s father cried from being overcome with the sheer majesty of the song, but also in grief because he knew that he would never hear the song again. And he was right, he never did hear that song again nor did anyone. Derek went on to take huge developmental steps thanks to his passion for music, he eventually became well known as a savant musician though he could never recreate that first song.

Do not despair reader, the song isn’t entirely lost. As we know the lyrebird performs its own type of echolalia, she whispered it to her young who then whispered it their own young. And if you venture into the depths of the wilds where the lyrebirds reside, far from the guttural groans of civilisation, you might hear singing out from the wooded hills, and echo down through the lush valleys – a human melody shrouded in birdsong.

THE CURRAWONG

 

Strepera gracelina

 

A pair of golden eyes flickered through the undergrowth. She danced from tree to tree, her bright gaze seemed it might spark a bushfire. Her eyes were a surreal yellow that jumped out at you with their sheer contrast. They had depth and if you weren’t careful you could find yourself falling into them. Looking into her smiling eyes, I knew I trusted her. And she trusted me, even though she was a bird and I was a boy. I wished to tame her but it was an impossible wish for she was wild. Wild from her dark velvet feathers to her twisting ebon claws. To tame her I would have to clip her wings but if she couldn’t fly then she would cease to be a bird at all, and I would cease to love her – even though I could only ever love her from afar.

Teasingly, she jumped from branch to branch, higher up the canopy. She too had an impossible wish, she wanted me to cast off my earthly fetters and follow her up. If only I could fly; to sprout wings and feel the sun’s warmth far above the winter clouds. The idea was exciting. I had a hunch that perhaps the opposite appealed to her – that she wished to swap the vessels of our souls.

To pluck hands, fingers, and long blonde hair from her own body – just as she plucks worms from the earth moistened by morning dew. To pluck out all her feathers except one. And with that last feather, she would dip into ink as black as her quill to scrawl a nearly forgotten tale about a bird who was once a boy.

THE ARCHAEOPTERYX

Archaeopteryx siemensii

Sneak past the eternal burning pits of the Karakorum desert, sail across the Caspian Sea, trek deep within the Libyan countryside, and there lies Lake Silene which is shadowed by a nameless mountain. On a high ridge of this mountain is the entrance to the largest discovered subterranean cave network. Coincidentally, the cave is also where the first fossilised Archaeopteryx was found, considered the first evolved bird, a hybrid with both reptile and bird characteristics. The British discovers felt satisfied with their fantastic find, which would be a key piece of evidence in proving the theory of evolution, and decided they would head home the following day. However one of their party lingered in the cave overnight before they left.

Doris Stone was in her late thirties and had been trained as a linguist, she was an expert in the local language that had been spoken by the medieval populous. Though she was fascinated with the Archaeopteryx, it disappointed her that no human remains or artefacts had been found, but now she found a new fascination. For reasons still unknown to her, she was intensely attracted to the caves which she lingered in to simply listen.

In the cavernous depths, echoes ring out with such strength, clarity, and persistence that you can hear everything around you for miles away. This gave a peculiar experience that when the extinguished your lantern that the entire eighty square mile cave system to compress into one single point in space. The cave network effectively became an extension of the ear canal, though an imperfect one. Strange inhuman noises were heard by many, but this did not deter Doris, even as many of her colleagues questioned her attraction to the caves. She had become used to the rude questions of authoritative men since leaving London, from her friends and family, uncles and bosses. At times of self-doubt, she heard their condescending tones whistling through yellow teeth.

A set of downcast eyes said, “You have a perfectly fine life here in Kensington, my dear!”
“What is there is in the Syrian wastes for a lady?” spoke a lazy, drooped lip.
And sometimes the women could be even crueller.
An upturned nose snorted, “You’ll find another husband, you simply can’t keep blaming yourself for the child.”
A jewelled hand, concealing pursed lips, whispered, “You know, she goes whoring among the moslems…”

When Doris first entered those caves, the silence was almost suffocating, but as she travelled down she could hear clearing the perfect echo of her own breathing. It brought her great comfort listening to her own breathing for reasons unknown to herself. She sat down, reflected and felt faint with elation. A gust of wind blew her lantern out, a perfect darkness surrounded her, and her mind ventured back to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in that cramped tuberculosis ward, where she sat by her infant daughter. It seemed like another life now. But the memory would never be erased, the feelings and thoughts she had during those weeks had sculpted her personality irreversibly –  Doris had waited by her child’s bedside, listening to her breathing, and praying for the coughing and wheezing to stop. Her husband had abandoned her on Mary’s third day in the ward, and so Doris sat with herself and the grey walls, the grey sheets, the nurses with their dulled faces who spoke without feeling, the doctors who smiled with his mouth but whose eyes stayed glassy, and her child in the middle of it all, sinking, and slowly taking on the horrible pallor of that forsaken place. She tried to hold onto the few bright moments of joy in her life but she had shared almost all of them with him, the memories tainted; his smile was a lie and his laughter a mockery. Her friends sent letters of condolences after the child passed away, but not one of them had come to visit her in the ward.

Mary crossed her mind when she went to sleep and when she woke, though time had healed those wounds and Doris hadn’t cried for her in some time. This phenomenon of the caves had brought the past to life and made the wound feel fresh – Doris sobbed quietly and the cave sobbed back, in the darkness of the cave she only needed to close her eyes to imagine she was back in the ward. She wept intensely as she reacted to her own echoing sobs, a feedback loop fuelled by sorrow – until an inner strength, which had formed during those dark days, rose triumphantly within her and she ceased weeping. She heard the sobs fade and normal breathing begin again, and she saw her daughter sit up and smile dimples rosy red cheeks. The lantern flame reignited and Doris was back in the cave.

With newfound bravery she decided to venture further down into the cave than had been explored before. The entire cave’ structure looked remarkably like an inverted tree that forked in different directions. It came to no surprise to the linguist, as she studied her map, that a prehistoric bird had been found perched on this creviced stone tree. Waiting for something to happen, Doris reflected that she would have felt that days had passed if she hadn’t had a timepiece. Frustrated and increasingly becoming hopeless she leant absently minded against a stalagmite. Although the formation looks solid – it was hollow within. The tip collapsed under her weight causing the linguist to slip and fall.

It caused her no injury save for a bruised ego, she brushed herself free of debris and assessed her careless damage. Out of the broken tip of the stalagmite came a hissing sound of released pressure. The stalagmite now resembled a colourless trumpet grown out of the damp floor. She looked down into the orifice and felt a slight breeze. Perhaps I’ve opened a new passageway, she thought. The air smelled otherworldly, but that was not the only long trapped remnant now freed. Sounds that had been trapped in a perfect vacuum, resonating for centuries, now echoed out in fast succession into the cavern. The sound of thunder and rain at first and then cracking of stone and rock which must have first cried out millions of years ago. The startled linguist was now scrambling for her notebook and pens.

Streams of words poured out but they were said so rapidly spoken that she couldn’t decipher a word. Steadily the pressure of the untapped chamber let off and recognisable sounds could be deciphered. A clanging of metal on metal, the shouts and yaps of fighting men, the cut short screams of women, the crackling of fire, moans of agony and ecstasy mixed in an intoxicating cacophony that came to a stop with an inhuman screech. And then finally after a moment of silence, as the linguist’s pen shivered in anticipation in her shaking hand, a voice spoke. She recognised the dialect – just barely. The voice was rasping, unnatural in that it was neither female or male, and simultaneously held the sincerity of an old man’s final words and an infant’s first.

~~~

And she wrote down all that she heard.
And she was mocked by her peers.
And this is what was spoken by the long dead voice:

Before you finish your task and are herald as a hero, I must speak.

Please let a villain have his last words…

Your hatred of me is unquestionable, but it is also unjust.

What did taking a spare cow or sheep matter?
“That’s my sheep!’ the shepherd would shout.
You claim ownership over another living being and believe you have this right because it is logical, you are smarter and stronger than simple farm animals.
The beasts stay within their posts and graze the fields.
What you fail to understand is that I am your shepherd, I am smarter and stronger than you. And the posts that mark your field stretch the entire green earth, from pole to pole, which I ruled – until you came along, a knight in shining armour!

You say it was unjust that I ignored the many mothers who screamed at me, “Oh my children will starve!” But my belly is much larger than a little child’s and I have felt the pain of an aching stomach far longer any man.

I do not respect your law, the false law of man. There is no law but the law of nature, your cattle lost their right to live fore they had no claws to fight and your sheep fore they had no wings to flee. And now I face the court of natural law at the end of your sword. Fear not, I will have no qualms, unlike your people who incessantly begged for their lives at my feet and professed the unfairness of it all.

I am content that even as you slay me I will still win this argument. Natural law is king.

I was not beaten because of your pure heart or your noble god, but only because your sword has proven sharper than my tooth and claw.

Ah, I see your hand grips tighter at the sword, does it anger you when I mention your god? Spare me the proclamations of your bravery or dedication to God, those will be heard down the centuries for millions to hear and will echo far longer than the forgotten screams of women and children that met their end in these caves. Another step towards me and I’d think you intend me harm. Ha! Did I take your woman or your child?

Speak not, your eyes answer without a word. The hatred you feel will not be extinguished with my life, your wife and child will not be given new life by the end of mine.

Yes, sit down with me and I’ll teach you my ways: to react rather than to feel, to act rather than consider. If you can’t have love, then settle for power or else you’ll be nothing, immemorial dust on the earth. You and I have been fired from the same clay, we have been cast out – you from paradise and I from heaven, I will never have a place at His feast, but I know a way back to paradise for you. Allow me to render your soul back to its animal origin: stretch your teeth into fangs, cast your hair into a mane, forget love and you will often find yourself a beast with two backs.. Love will finally be exposed to you as the fickle fraud he has always been, join me down here on the solid ground – worship power, it is a solid foundation for a sturdy damnation, and leave Cupid to his tricks. You are weak, let me spread my hate to you – let me destroy you so that you may become strong and destroy others. You will never forgive yourself for it but you will not have any need for forgiveness afterwards

Your eyes give me my answer again. So dedicated to your justice, aren’t you? Don’t cry murder, for when a man kills a man it is murder. I have no kin to commit murder. Please don’t get teary eyed that I am the last of my kind, I am one of a kind.

Though I was born in Eden I barely remember it. I can’t recall what I whispered in Eve’s ear. I do not comprehend sin, nor redemption. I do not seek redemption and I will never change. I do not seek paradise. Split your spear in two fore it will take two strikes to end me, one in across my throat and the other across your own heart – fore it is within the heart of men that the spectres you call good and evil shall always have their final battle. Now lower your visor and raise that spear.

The wretched scream of a dying animal bellowed out and the choir sang:

It made one last desperate attack,
But St. George kill’d the Dragon, and run him thro’ and thro’
And all sang, honi soit qui mal y pense.

THE TURTLEDOVE

 

Streptopelia turtur

 

The turtledove at my window cries and cries and cries. I can still picture when I first saw the bird, it’s doll eyes staring up at me, a baby bird sitting next to its broken sister. It was frozen with fear and wouldn’t leave its dead sibling’s side until I scooped it from the cold ground back into its nest. That was at least five or six years ago. I haven’t forgotten that childhood memory. How could I when it sings for me at my window every morning? It is a dull repetitive song that I have to endure, no good deed goes unpunished as they say. It wakes me up so I never hear the start of the song, and I never hear the end because I throw books at my window to frighten it so I can go back to sleep. Despite my angry outbursts, it comes back faithfully every morning. Perhaps it isn’t singing for me, or singing for a mate – but singing for his sister.

One morning, I wake up to the same grey gruelling tune that leaks out from my window and instead of throwing a book it lulls me into a trance and I begin to think. I begin thinking harder about my own life than I ever have before, with the raw emotions of a painter or poet I cut past the litter and sound that clutters my mind. My thoughts are forming some image but for now all I have is the palette to draw from.

I think about my sister, I think about heaven. I hope she is there and I hope there is a there. I dream about walking the fields golden and green, plains that stretch forever, and rolling hills. Over this hangs the eternal blue sky with brushstroke clouds and the smell of sea salt in the air. This is an image that is hard to hold, so beautiful that it blurs with tears but I can see my sister – as young and innocent as a flower in bloom. The words return to me, which I witnessed a deacon tell my mother after the tragedy; “A flower bud has burst on earth, to bloom in heaven.” My sister is playing with the other children that were taken too soon, they glide over the grass on a summer breeze, flying like a swiftlet, which when it leaves the nest it never again lands. Waving to me, she dances over the meadow. I run to her but I am stopped by a river. It is a raging torrent and I would be swept away but still she waves for me to wade through it. I cannot pass over.

From above an angel said, “Your sister also feared the river of death, but while passing over realised it was only a little brook after all.” It was true for her it was only a little brook so easy for her to glide over with her tiny cherub wings. My heavy body would surely drown me, I look within myself and see my soul is also weighed heavily. My knees in the water, I kneel and beg, “Free me from the fetters –greed, lust, and jealousy – that hang over my neck like iron chains, every day pulling me deeper into the dirt and filth.” I sit on the riverside and cry, my sister wishes she could wash away my sadness, to live like the blessed – over the way, where there is no more suffering for the little flower buds that God plucked too soon. The turtledove’s lonely song ends, breaking my trance. The vision is lost. I look out the window for the turtledove but only see my own weary reflection.

 

Did I really see heaven? I have faith that I did. Of course, I would like to believe that, what is the alternative? Katherine died of leukaemia and now she lies in the dirt, that’s that – she will never smell the flowers we place on her grave, these words will never reach my baby sister and the only company she keeps is worms. All my life, eye sockets full of maggots have haunted me while I slept. But there is no point trying to get back to sleep now, the sun is shining into my room. I get up and write this. Then I regret writing this because unlike the other bird stories in this book this is of my own life. I have left the comfortable and easy heights of fiction and landed on a limed branch to become some creature’s dinner. If you be that hungry creature reading now, I offer up my heart for you – still beating and bleeding on these now stained pages.

 

[I’ve seen many sights,
but not the one I require.
I’ve see many sights:]

[Sparrows stuck upon barbwire,
on the walls of a Qatari villa.]

[Pigeons fed beside Caulfield station,
on the charity of a lonely man.]

[Seagulls starved and fighting,
on the steps of St Paul’s.]

[I’ve met many
but sung to few.
I’ll meet few
and sing to more.]

[The nest has stirred,
the score is one – and one more.
Be free dear bird,
above mountain, sea, or shore.]

[One bird,
Two bird,
Three bird,
Four.]

Conor James Ross
https://deathtofanatics.wordpress.com/

 


birdsong.

The original text was a primitive avian encyclopedia originally written in what we have determined to be a West Saxon dialect of Old English. Each entry of the book pertains to a certain species of bird, that is where the similarities to the original encyclopedia end. The many authors, or vandals, of this book have used each species of bird as the seed of their stories. The stories have been translated from 13 languages, both contemporary and ancient, from almost every continent. The fact that it exists is amazing, let alone that over the centuries of its creation its structure and contents has remained cohesive despite its dozen or so anonymous writers. Imagine the Brothers Karamazov being written by strangers on the wall of a public toilet in Moscow - over the course of 400 years! I still think to myself that it is impossible and I would not believe it was genuine if I had not carbon dated the pages myself, and spent agonising hour after hour looking for signs of forgery. But there was nothing awry. It was genuine. Somehow. I had a promising academic career ahead of myself when I was a young man, until the day I found this. And since that cursed day, I have spent every living moment on the enigma that you hold in your hands. Madness! It has cost me my livelihood, my physical and mental well being, even my marriage. Insanity! My children grew up and became adults in the few briefs glances I tore away from the stories, and I hardly care. Depravity! Throw this book as far as you can and run. Ha! Run far away before it consumes you, as it has me, and so many before and flee! Or continue.

  • Author: C Ross
  • Published: 2017-08-30 09:20:35
  • Words: 29706
birdsong. birdsong.