The Poison Pie Publishing House presents:
The Ornithological Collection of Uwetsiageyv
(link to main page of novel)
August 1, 2016
A New Object
She had no calendar, besides the length of the days, which were growing incrementally shorter. The solstice must have passed more than a month earlier, though there was little change in the weather. Without the impending start of the school year, Uwetsiageyv held little care for the passing days. The house finches, too, in their island paradise seemed oblivious to the seasonal cycle.
Uwetsiageyv climbed up a chestnut tree and situated herself on a branch, among the other birds. Crouching, she admired the dwarf’s handiwork, for the dress limited her movements not in the least. Still, she reassured the birds lest they be fooled by the fabric, “I am not a snake.”
They sat together awhile, the larger one still, the smaller ones fidgeting. Eventually, Uwetsiageyv declared, “I am not searching for that which everyone else seeks. Nor am I searching for the entrance to the Land of Giants, through which the lowliest dwarf can join the mightiest giant at a shared table. Nor am I searching for nothing.” With a youthful enthusiasm and rebelliousness, she continued, “I resolve to search for something else, something of my own choosing.”
The house finches pressed her for specifics on the object of her new search, but she said nothing at the time, for she had yet to identify it herself. Moreover, she felt no reason to hurry. This choice seemed important to her; she would not rush the decision.
On the following morning, as she bid farewell to the Island of House Finches, she still had not made up her mind, although she entertained several promising possibilities. Perhaps, she thought, coasting easily above the clouds, alone and free of the noise of the dwarf’s flying machine, she might find the peace of mind to guide her.
Chapter 19. Passerina cyanea
August 2, 2016
It had never struck Uwetsiageyv as odd that she and her companions had arrived at a new island always in the early morning, though why that should be the case she did not know. Now that she flew alone above the sea, she wondered whether it was necessary to remain alert for islands even in the dead of night. Despite the abundant starlight, if the moon was not at least half full, it proved difficult for her to distinguish tiny dark spots in the glittering surface of the sea as distant islands. She suspected that she had probably missed several islands in the night. Perhaps, that had been the case when she traveled with the crow and owl, and the dwarf later. Perhaps, they only settled on the first island that they found, not the first they approached and flew over unaware. On this night, the moon had not yet risen and the sea below her was an impenetrable, caliginous expanse.
It was therefore fortunate that a bird, no larger than a sparrow, called out to her in the darkness. “What! What! Where? Where? See it! See it!” Uwetsiageyv knew that song, though typically these birds were identified by their plumage, for this song belonged to an indigo bunting, who possessed feathers as vividly blue as any to be found among their kind. If she had learned that indigo buntings prefer to fly at night, navigating by the stars, she had forgotten this fact. She quickly discovered, however, that this bird knew precisely where it was headed. It made a beeline with only a few, gradual course corrections as the stars wheeled about in their sidereal cycle.
She followed happily, for there is no one who enjoys the company of birds that does not hold the indigo bunting in high esteem. The bird continued its song as it flew, guiding Uwetsiageyv through the darkness. She was unable to detect the presence of the island until she heard the sound of the waves lapping at the shore.
Dawn was yet two hours away when they landed on the beach. The bunting flittered off into the shadows of the tree line, while Uwetsiageyv chose to wait for the sun to rise on the beach. They had approached from the east and landed on the near side of the island. She had but to turn and exercise a little patience, sitting with her arms around her knees and her wings folded behind her. On schedule, the sun climbed above the horizon of the sea to cast its light on a myriad of brilliant, animated specks of blue, greeting the day with a cheerful gusto.
August 3, 2016
A Garden of Eden
As had been the routine with the crow and owl, Uwetsiageyv soon made her way into the interior of the island to find a stream from which to drink. A series of buntings joined her along the way, no individual staying too long before ceding their role to a newcomer. Uwetsiageyv savored their morning song. Even as she knelt at the stream and drank, she was filled with the realization that she might—at this very moment—be experiencing the closest intimation of paradise as allowed to mortals.
The color of the indigo buntings was otherworldly, their song a composition crafted by the evolution of their species over the eons. Uwetsiageyv breathed deeply, inhaling the perfume of unseen flowers and the smell of salt from the sea.
A quartet of indigo buntings, a mother and three recent fledglings, beckoned to her and she followed them. They led her on a meandering path down the slope of the mountain to a cove on the far side. Uwetsiageyv had thought their progress whimsical but when she arrived at the secluded spot, the majesty of the panorama spread out before her made it clear that this had been their intended destination all along. The world was painted in broad strokes—the piercing blue of the sky, the aquamarine of the sea, the black rocks rising to define the reach of the cove, the smooth, pale sand at its center, the swath of verdure behind her.
It occurred to her that perhaps the indigo buntings were making a pitch to her, trying to convince her to remain on their blissful island with them. Uwetsiageyv peered within herself but could find no reasonable objection to the offer other than the persistent fact that she, like the crow, the owl and the dwarf, was engaged in a search. Although the object of her search remained elusive, she sensed that she could not abandon it.
“I am so sorry,” the bird girl said to the quartet of indigo buntings. “You have a lovely island. I have seen none to rival it, but I am only passing through on an errand that I do not fully understand.”
The mother bunting continued her cheerful song, as if intentionally ignoring words she did not wish to hear. The other three birds sang and danced in the manner of children.
Uwetsiageyv bit her lower lip, lest she succumb to the temptation to join them.
August 4, 2016
The Sea Drake
Even as the indigo buntings continued frolicking up the beach, a strange wave arose in the sea, approaching Uwetsiageyv. The crest of the wave did not fall with the other waves as it neared the shoreline. Instead, a tube of water rose parallel to the surface and carried the wave up onto the beach. In an instant, the water was shed, revealing the sea drake, the diameter of its scaled body exceeding the bird girl’s height, its length so great that the bulk of its body remained submerged in the sea behind it. It possessed the yellow eyes of a serpent. These ocular organs had grown to the size of dinner plates to better gather the meager light that sank to the depths in which it often dwelt. The head of the snake came to a slow halt only a matter of feet from where Uwetsiageyv stood. It smelled of the ocean deep and carried a lightless cold with it.
The buntings scattered into the tree cover, leaving the bird girl to face the sea drake alone. She had observed its shadow so many times from above that her fear of the beast was tempered by a sense of familiarity.
“I am very sorry,” she said to the snake. “I don’t need your companionship; I’m doing very fine on my own.”
The snake, if it possessed the power of human speech, chose not to reply. Instead, it opened its gaping maw, the hinge at the jaw allowing it to create a path that Uwetsiageyv could simply walk into with head held high.
Of course, there were many fantasies one could construct of the fate of a child who entered the belly of the beast, not all of them immediately fatal to the bird girl. She might be carried away and vomited upon the shores of Nineveh or some other city of men to proclaim the wisdom that had visited her during her time within the beast.
“I’m no good with that kind of wisdom,” said the girl to the snake, who yet waited with its mouth agape.
The stubborn stance of the snake began to annoy Uwetsiageyv, who stamped her foot on the sand and shouted, “I was enjoying myself on this island! Why did you have to come and ruin it?”
The sea drake blinked, a transparent membrane sliding up and down the lens of its eyes. If it intended this motion as a gesture of compassion, it was not lost on Uwetsiageyv.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated in a tearful voice.
Neither party moved for some time. Bolstered by the bird girl’s courage, the indigo buntings returned with reinforcements and, through a sustained campaign of diving and frantic fluttering of wings, they drove the snake, to all appearances unperturbed, back into the sea.
Uwetsiageyv had not the heart to thank them. The height of joy she had felt at the pleasures of this island only minutes before had swung out of control into thoughts of despondency and even death, for, fables aside, that is all that had awaited her had she accepted the invitation of the sea drake.
August 5, 2016
The sky clouded over. The remainder of Uwetsiageyv’s time on the Island of Indigo Buntings passed in a light rain interspersed with periods of downpour. She retreated to the shelter of the forest canopy where she was able to situate herself in the shadows of large branches and remain relatively dry.
The rain continued for forty days and forty nights, while Uwetsiageyv maintained a statuesque position beneath the tree. We cannot consider this a period of fasting for, following the example of the crow and owl, she had foregone eating as soon as she arrived in the Sea of Birds. Nevertheless this period of extended isolation served the same purpose as a fast, namely that of cleansing the body. She purged from herself the stupefying joy of the paradisiacal island no less than she did the terror of oblivion offered by the sea drake.
Later, she would again experience these emotions, only in muted tones, without the threatening immediacy that she had felt on this island. To no longer experience emotion to its fullest is tantamount to a loss of a portion of one’s humanity. But, as we have accepted at the beginning of this narrative, the genetic makeup of Uwetsiageyv made her an outlier among Homo sapiens, although certainly not a unique one, for there is a hidden history of asceticism in which the practice of self-abnegation is followed on the path to self-realization.
August 8, 2016
The Cloud Field
At last, Uwetsiageyv took her leave of the indigo buntings. They were sorry to see her go; they had become accustomed to her presence. When pressed on why she had to depart, Uwetsiageyv said half-heartedly, “Well, there’s this prophecy...” Her words convinced not even herself.
Nevertheless, on a morning as auspicious as any other, she ascended into the sky. The indigo buntings did not attempt to follow her. She rose quickly, though she saw no sign of the sea drake’s silhouette beneath the waves. Soon, she cleared a layer of low-lying clouds then coasted on currents of air, with the world of men unseen beneath her. She risked missing islands but she had already admitted to herself that her expedition of the Sea of Birds would not be comprehensive.
The bird girl lost herself in the rhythm of flight. She did not lull herself to sleep but settled into a meditative state in which the geography of the cloud field guided her.
Flying soothed Uwetsiageyv. She shuddered to recall her life before wings, bereft of flight. She shook herself to dispel the sensation.
Let us not call this exercise a waste of time, though nothing productive came from it. Not all moments must yield a tangible result. Time spending, in which internal mechanisms engaged in natural processes of relaxation, itself led to a state from which the invitation of the next moment was best extended.
In this frame of mind, Uwetsiageyv cultivated a fearlessness that would prove useful to her before this story is exhausted.
Chapter 20. Pheucticus ludovicianus
August 9, 2016
A Sweetly Whistled Song
On a hunch, Uwetsiageyv descended through the cloud cover and discovered, visible on the horizon, an island. She approached leisurely for she had not yet spent the measure of her strength in flight. As she neared, the island took on a vaguely chevron shape, like a book, folded open, but laid face down, its spine rising in a mountainous ridge. She wondered what recondite knowledge lay in wait on its pages.
The forest that covered the terrain, as on the other islands, contained a mixture of deciduous trees, but Uwetsiageyv noticed a preponderance of what looked to be sweet gum. As she made to land, she noted that no birds appeared to greet her. Intent on the tree line, she alit far down the beach. The surf climbed the sandy slope and lapped over her shoes, soaking them and her white socks.
She laughed off the blunder and moved up the beach, removing her shoes and socks. She laid them out on the sand, which had already started to warm in the mid-morning sun.
Barefoot, Uwetsiageyv moved closer to the tree line. The star-shaped leaves confirmed the presence of sweet gum trees. She found too the spiked orbs of the immature fruit. Yet no bird appeared.
“Hello?” she called aloud.
Her efforts elicited a reply, a rich, sweetly whistled song that immediately brought a smile to her face. She waited for the singer to emerge.
Almost shyly a female rose-breasted grosbeak advanced to a low branch on the edge of the forest. Unlike her male counterpart, not a hint of the vibrant rose was to be found in her plumage, which was, instead, a rather plain affair consisting of a tannish belly and a back the color of dry brown leaves. She sang again, a song of many notes alternately rising and falling, to the delight of Uwetsiageyv.
Emboldened by the success of its partner, the male soon joined them, arriving on a near branch, where his tri-colored garb composed of solid, geometric blocks of black, white and red was on full display. He promptly presented a piece from his own vocal repertoire.
Uwetsiageyv’s good fortune in having just left the indigo buntings to so soon arrive at the song-strewn Island of Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, seemed excessive. She experienced a curious pang of guilt, for she suspected that the supply of good luck in the universe was limited and that somewhere some unfortunate soul was likely suffering as a result of her excess.
August 10, 2016
She followed a footpath up a gentle incline, where she was completely cloaked in the shadow of the canopy. Surrounded by the star-shaped leaves of the sweet gum, her thoughts turned naturally to the stars placed in the sky. Those knowledgeable in such ways divined the future from the placement of stars. Uwetsiageyv casually examined the myriad of constellations formed by the tens of thousands of leaf stars on each tree and suspected that she was receptive to only a minor portion of reality.
The pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks accompanied her to the stream, where she knelt and drank. When her thirst was quenched, she sat and let the cool water run over her feet; she had left her shoes to dry on the beach. Already covered in shells, what worse fate could befall them?
In point of fact, the shoes and accompanying socks served as a marker to another visitor who was already on the island. While circumnavigating the perimeter of the island, she came upon Uwetsiageyv’s shoes. Even if they had not borne such a peculiar appearance, she would have followed the nearby footpath all the same, for in the vast expanse of the Sea of Birds, chance encounters came few and far between.
So it was that Uwetsiageyv heard the footsteps approaching from behind. Before she even pulled her feet from the stream and rose, turning to greet the newcomer, she knew that it was neither the crow nor the owl, who both demonstrated the particular gait of birds. Nor was it the dwarf, whose stride was short and footfalls heavy.
She discovered a young woman entering the clearing. She appeared about the same age as Uwetsiageyv and they examined each other with equal intensity. The stranger’s complexion was much paler than that of Uwetsiageyv and her eyes a cool blue, her hair bright copper curls, in stark contrast to Uwetsiageyv’s dark eyes and straight, black hair. In other respects the girls were similar; they shared a slender build, though the stranger stood at least an inch taller. Perhaps the most striking commonality between the two was their acute interest in each other, for each now sought to pierce the other’s mind as if by silent scrutiny.
Beyond that, the two girls bore matching wings of feathered black. Their dresses too were cut from a common fabric, though it appeared that the newcomer had opted to have her snakeskin dyed in a vivid shade of crimson.
August 11, 2016
Objections to Egg-Sitting
To Uwetsiageyv’s knowledge, there was only a single species of bird that could possibly match the description of the stranger, one with an impossibly bright crimson breast and pitch black wings—the scarlet tanager.
“Are you,” Uwetsiageyv asked, “a scarlet tanager?”
“I am,” replied the girl in a soft but confident voice. “And you are a crow.” She framed her words neither as a question nor as a compliment.
“I am,” Uwetsiageyv replied all the same. She paused, wondering whether she ought to voice the question on her mind. After a few moments, she tossed caution to the wind and declared, “You are a girl.”
The words caught the scarlet tanager by surprise. With a sly expression and a tone that feigned bemusement, she replied, “So I am. How perceptive you are.”
“Yet,” said Uwetsiageyv, completing her thought, “you don the colors of a male scarlet tanager.” Uwetsiageyv knew well that females of the species were a pale yellow, closer in shade to the muted winter plumage of goldfinches than to their vivid summer hue. The yellow of some female scarlet tanagers was marked with hint of green. In this stranger, Uwetsiageyv saw only red and black.
The scarlet tanager absorbed the words and replied in an almost interrogative manner, “Are you one of those who believe that boys should be dressed in blue and girls in pink? That their respective roles for the entirety of their lives should be defined at birth by their chromosomes? Are you, in short, a conventional thinker?”
Uwetsiageyv frowned. She regretted having said anything about the red dress. She tried to make up for her mistake. “I like your dress. It really suits you.” This was true; the deep red of the dress offset her pale skin and blue eyes in a way that was undeniably appealing.
Somewhat ungraciously, the scarlet tanager did not let the issue drop. “Female birds,” she said, “often display less colorful plumage because they are often tasked with incubating the eggs and do not want to draw undue attention to the nest.”
Certainly, this rudimentary information regarding sexual dimorphism in birds was not new to Uwetsiageyv. Still, she said nothing.
Taking a few steps forward, the scarlet tanager maneuvered herself until Uwetsiageyv occupied a small space between her and the brook. She spread her magnificent black wings, enlarging herself, and shouted, “I am not an egg-sitter!”
Numerous possible responses occurred to Uwetsiageyv. Foremost among them, she felt inclined to let the girl’s energy dissipate without any reaction whatsoever. There was a tantalizing allure to simply slipping away from this unpleasant confrontation. The rose-breasted grosbeaks urged her to pursue immediately this alternative.
But this young Uwetsiageyv was not possessed of the wisdom and will of one whom she would yet become. Instead, she succumbed to the provocation. She spread her own black wings, no less magnificent than those of the scarlet tanager. The two girls stood face to face, mirroring each other. Uwetsiageyv, the orphan, smiled icily and declared in a passionless voice, “I am happy for you that you have found your own way. I note only in passing that there is no greater love, throughout the endless passage of time, than that of a child for her mother. It seems foolish to disparage that which you cannot achieve.”
Such was the first conversation between the crow and the scarlet tanager. That it was somewhat atypical of initial greetings reflects only the idiosyncrasies of the pair of voices involved.
August 12, 2016
Strengths and Weaknesses
“You have wings like I do,” said Uwetsiageyv to the scarlet tanager.
“I suppose.” The scarlet tanager reluctantly conceded. The two girls had stepped back and lowered their wings, adopting a stance that allowed for more civil conversation.
Uwetsiageyv’s head was understandably brimming with questions. “Are you like me?”
“What do you mean by that?” said the scarlet tanager, as if trying to decide if she had been insulted.
“Oh, I don’t know...” Uwetsiageyv said. “Do you ever think about walking to the edge of the island and asking the sea to swallow you up?”
The scarlet tanager did not want to admit that she had been caught off guard, but surely she was no less surprised than Uwetsiageyv as to the words that had emerged from her mouth. “I don’t know what you are talking about. Are you crazy?”
“Has a giant sea snake ever crawled up on the beach right in front of you and invited you inside its belly?”
The scarlet tanager looked to the rose-breasted grosbeaks, as if searching for witnesses to confirm that the words she had heard were in fact the same as those that had been spoken. For their part, the pair of grosbeaks failed to signal any sort of meaningful reply, though they did not depart the clearing beside the stream.
Uwetsiageyv continued, “Sometimes, I feel like that.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go around telling people such things, especially when you first meet them,” said the scarlet tanager in a testy voice.
“Why not?” asked the crow.
“It’s poor form; it doesn’t make a good impression.” She examined the crow girl before her and, for a moment, almost admired her disregard for guile and tact. “Besides,” she added, “it’s not good to share your weaknesses with strangers. They might use them to take advantage of you.”
Uwetsiageyv frowned and looked from the grosbeaks to the scarlet tanager. She was confused because, for her, having faced the sea drake provided a source of strength.
August 15, 2016
A Half-Hearted Merging
The two girls spent one day in each other’s company, exchanging very little information with each other. Uwetsiageyv listlessly perused the island in search of whatever it was she was searching for. The scarlet tanager accompanied her at a measured distance never revealing her own intentions nor surrendering to her curiosity regarding those of the crow girl.
At the end of day, the scarlet tanager said, “Whatever you’re looking for, it’s not here. I’ve been on this island a long time. There’s nothing here but rose-breasted grosbeaks.”
To be sure, the grosbeaks in attendance took offense at this casual dismissal. They showed their umbrage by silencing their voices.
“Why did you come to this island?” Uwetsiageyv asked.
At first the scarlet tanager seemed as if she was not going to answer the question, but eventually gave in to the request. “I heard a rumor,” she said, “that the song of the rose-breasted grosbeak was even more mellifluous than that of the scarlet tanager. I came to hear it for myself.”
In the back of her mind, Uwetsiageyv registered the fact that the scarlet tanager appeared to be able to target a specific island as a destination, something she herself could not do. She quietly resolved to learn this trick from the girl. To the immediate point, she asked, “So, are you a singer?”
The scarlet tanager fixed her with a withering look.
Uwetsiageyv fended off a frown. It was not exactly clear to her just how she had offended her companion.
“In any case,” said the scarlet tanager, “it’s time for me to leave this island.”
“I’m off tomorrow morning myself,” said Uwetsiageyv. “Would you like to come with me?”
The scarlet tanager seemed to entertain the offer in a rather off-handed way. “Where are you going?”
“Well, it’s a long story,” Uwetsiageyv said. “See, there’s this prophecy...”
“Oh,” said the scarlet tanager, bringing her hand to her face. “Not that stupid prophecy again!”
Nevertheless, the two girls left the Island of Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks early the following morning in each other’s company.
Chapter 21. Melanerpes carolinus
August 16, 2016
Flying with the scarlet tanager turned out to be a pleasurable affair. Absent the noise of the dwarf, they glided together to the tune of a song composed by the wind flowing about them. Due to their common size and build, the natural pace of the two girls proved a precise match. Uwetsiageyv did not need to occasionally exert herself to catch up, as she had with the crow and owl.
Both girls enjoyed the flight, though neither wanted to be the first to admit it. Fortunately, words proved unnecessary to express their joy in the shared movement. Flourishes and dashes appeared as they lifted from one current to another, which betrayed their delight.
Soon the two bird girls, who had been at odds on land, were laughing merrily as they engaged in a kind of travel composed of equal parts amusement and relaxation.
At one point, Uwetsiageyv wanted to call out to her friend, but she did not know her name. She dared not ask, remembering that the owl had never freely offered his own name to her; she had come by it only through the dwarf.
Nameless to each other, they performed an anonymous aerial performance in which the only audience in attendance was the scattered clouds, the setting sun, and ambiguous shadows on the water far below.
Such an exercise could not extend indefinitely and some days later they arrived at an island, which seemed welcoming in the lush greenery of its interior and the white and pale blue lace that surrounded it like embroidered lace at the hem of a skirt.
The girls heard the drumming of the birds before any calls reached their ears.
“Woodpeckers,” said the scarlet tanager.
“Have you been here before?” Uwetsiageyv asked, looking over.
“No,” she replied. “I make it a point never to visit the same island twice.”
“Me too,” Uwetsiageyv agreed, though she had to privately admit that it was due more to chance than any conscious decision on her part.
They landed on the beach amidst a mixture of drumming and shrill, rolling calls, “Kwirr!”
“Red-bellied woodpeckers,” Uwetsiageyv said to the scarlet tanager. Her observation was confirmed a moment later when an individual appeared at the tree line and hitched itself to the trunk. The striking barred pattern of black and white on its back and the smooth cap of vibrant red removed any doubt.
“Are you an ornithologist?” asked the scarlet tanager.
“No,” Uwetsiageyv admitted, for she had never received in formal training. “I just like birds.”
August 17, 2016
There were many hundreds of red-bellied woodpeckers on the island and, at any given moment, a fair few of them were engaged in responding to each other by drumming against the trunks of trees. The performance of an individual averaged about nineteen beats per second and lasted about a second in duration. The staggered nature of the collective performance resulted in half-beats and many more complicated rhythms arising on the island. There was a stereophonic aspect to the percussion as the volume and clarity of the drumming depended very much on the direction and distance from which it emanated.
It was to this background cadence that Uwetsiageyv decided to introduce herself. “I am Uwetsiageyv,” she said as the two girls sat beside a stream in the shade of the forest interior, almost as if continuing their conversation from the Island of Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks.
“What?” said the scarlet tanager.
The crow girl pronounced her name slowly. “u-WAY-chee-ah-GAY-yun.”
“That’s hard to say,” said the scarlet tanager with furrowed brow. “Why did you pick such a complicated name?”
“I didn’t pick it,” replied Uwetsiageyv. “My mother gave it to me.”
“Don’t tell me that’s your true name!”
The crow girl shrugged. “It is. It’s the only name I have.”
The scarlet tanager frowned. “Don’t you know that you are not supposed to tell anyone your true name?”
Far from being touched by the crow girl’s trusting nature, the scarlet tanager found herself irritated by the breach in decorum. “It gives them power over you.”
“I don’t understand how that works,” Uwetsiageyv admitted.
“Just because you are gentle doesn’t mean others won’t use your stupidity against you.”
It was Uwetsiageyv’s turn to frown. She had introduced herself. She waited patiently, amidst the reverberations of woodpeckers, for her companion to complete the exchange, with whatever name she chose.
The scarlet tanager also understood what was required to break the silence between them. After an uncomfortable minute passed, she eventually snapped, “You can call me Scarlet.”
Uwetsiageyv understood this was not her true name, but seemed not annoyed with the girl’s unwillingness to confide in her. She believed that each person should act in the manner in best accord with their nature. That one should open herself more than another was inevitable, even for two girls as similar in form as this pair.
August 18, 2016
The Nameless Dwarf
They ascended the slope of the island, generally following the path of the stream. When the terrain became too steep near the banks, the two girls wandered off into the woods but were able to keep the music of the flowing water within earshot. Of course, the echoed drumming of the red-bellied woodpeckers dominated the soundscape during the day, diminishing only at night.
As they wound their way through the undergrowth beneath a grove of old black walnut trees, they kept their eyes to the ground. They had to step between the hard, fallen nuts, lest they turn an ankle. During this slow progress, Uwetsiageyv asked of Scarlet, “Did you make that dress yourself?” The question came naturally to her; it was impossible for her to ignore the dress, a persistent splash of crimson in the forest’s panoply of green.
Keeping her attention at her feet, the scarlet tanager replied, “No, it was given to me.”
Uwetsiageyv waited for her to elaborate but no additional information seemed forthcoming, so she asked, “Was it a dwarf?”
The scarlet tanager nodded absently.
“Was his name Mr. R.A. Peach?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Was it Colugo?”
Stopping, Scarlet looked up and fixed Uwetsiageyv with a quizzical gaze. “I don’t remember his name. I don’t think he ever told me.”
For the remainder of the journey to the top of the peak, Uwetsiageyv tried to imagine the sort of relationship that existed in which a gift-giver and the recipient would remain anonymous to each other. It seemed even less pleasant than the admittedly imperfect relationship, which she had maintained with the dwarf.
In any case, despite her efforts, Uwetsiageyv made little progress that day toward better understanding Scarlet’s role, and by extension her own role, in the fulfillment of the prophecy.
August 19, 2016
King of the Mountain
The top of the mountain that formed the Island of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers was the only spot, besides the beach at its perimeter, not covered by forest. Some combination of minerals unfavorable to plant life had been localized in the geological processes that gave rise to the island. As a result, a cleared landing presented itself from which Uwetsiageyv and Scarlet could spin in slow circles, surveying not only the entirety of the island but the seemingly infinite expanse of blue sea beyond.
We should expect that Uwetsiageyv reveled in the magnificent panorama and the abeyance of worldly concerns it prompted. However, for some reason, Uwetsiageyv recalled a game called ‘King of the Mountain’ that had been played at the orphanage. The children would clamber en masse toward the top of a mound of dirt, which had been left from excavations during the construction of a building in the property adjacent to the orphanage. The goal of the game was to reach the top of the mound and to vigorously prevent anyone else from usurping the throne, typically by shoving them back down the slope. It was a game of short-lived reigns. Of course, Uwetsiageyv only watched from a distance, never participating in the game. She feared the other children would likely exercise less restraint in shoving her down than they did with their peers not so utterly ostracized.
She recalled then, almost fondly, the hump missing from her back. Her gaze turned from the horizon to the wings folded upon Scarlet’s back. Uwetsiageyv presumed that she too had experienced an analogous metamorphosis and wondered if, before that time, she had been shunned for her deformity. If only to seek companionship through a shared suffering, Uwetsiageyv thought to ask Scarlet about her history, but something held her back. Perhaps the topic was too private, or the girl’s temper too mercurial, or, perhaps, it was just Uwetsiageyv’s disposition. Atop the mountain with the tanager, privy to the secrets written in the planetary expanses of sea and sky, the crow found her curiosity mixed with indifference.
Uwetsiageyv was shocked to discover that she harbored such a sensation, for she had always considered herself a kind heart, free of the cruelty of children and above the reproach she had privately directed toward the other orphans. However, we should not be so surprised, given her heritage, for we have each likely observed a crow in a high perch, observing the events that transpire beneath it, and never, I suspect, have any of us attributed to the crow a measure of compassion.
August 15, 2016
So Much Trouble over a Simple Truth
“We might as well leave tomorrow,” said Scarlet to Uwetsiageyv. The two girls had spent the day surveying the island, on foot and on wing, and had discovered only that the drumming of the red-bellied woodpeckers had a pleasingly diverse array of sounds when appreciated from different vantage points. The texture of the sounds were modulated by the thickness of the canopy through which they passed as well as the shape and texture of objects against which they echoed. There was scant evidence that either had made much progress on their respective searches.
“What are you looking for anyway?” Uwetsiageyv asked the scarlet tanager, as they sat on the beach, listening to the surf as the sun set.
Scarlet glanced sideways at the crow girl. She said without much bite, “I suppose you are searching for the table where the lamb and the lion dine side by side?”
Uwetsiageyv remembered the prophecy differently—not lamb and lion but dwarf and giant. Certainly, there was little lamblike with the dwarf and she imagined giants even less so. Nevertheless, she replied honestly, “I am not wholly committed to the prophecy.” She was yet unwilling to completely disavow it.
“Oh,” said Scarlet. “I know how you feel.”
“So, what are you looking for?”
“I don’t want to say.”
“You’ll laugh at me.”
“I will not!”
Scarlet frowned in the growing darkness. “You might.”
“Is it funny?”
“Then...” Uwetsiageyv admitted, “I might laugh, a little.”
The two girls sat in darkness. Uwetsiageyv sensed that the scarlet tanager was summoning her will to speak. She waited patiently.
By the time Scarlet spoke, stars were already clear in the sky above and the surf, free of the percussion of woodpeckers, had settled into a soothing, nocturnal rhythm. “I’m searching,” she said, ashamed to admit it, “for the same thing that everyone else seeks.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Uwetsiageyv in exasperation, “You have got to be kidding me!”
Both girls laughed gently beneath the starlight.
Chapter 22. Colaptes auratus
August 23, 2016
A Hidden Singer
The two girls flew again, though they proved not quite as giddy as during their first shared flight. Having no set destination nor chaperone to rein in their spirits, they nevertheless maintained some sense of decorum, as if adhering to a script in which children were cast in the roles of adults and consequently felt an obligation to mime a wisdom beyond their years.
They ascended to such heights that the white crests of the waves on the ocean beneath them were lost in an indistinct mosaic of subtle perturbations of blue—an abstract canvas upon which the incomprehensibility of the world was hinted at only in blurred brush strokes. They flew higher when night fell and let the cold of the starry sky surround them. They fended off the chill with the warmth generated by the regular motion of their wings. Later, when dawn arrived, they coasted to a lower altitude where they moved effortlessly again, wings outstretched, collecting the heat of the rising sun as they rode the air currents.
In the evening of their second day of flight, they spotted an island, small and undistinguished. The two girls briefly discussed skipping the island and looking for something more promising, but Uwetsiageyv convinced her fellow traveler that they should not judge the island by its modest appearance. Perhaps it held a diminutive but precious secret.
They landed on the beach without any greeting at all.
“This island is too small,” Scarlet said to the crow girl. “I don’t think there are any birds here.”
As if in protest, a quite complicated call emerged from the forest within. It began with a series of drawn-out calls, Kyeer! Kyeer! Kyeer! The third call was abruptly followed by a rapidly undulating wick-a, wick-a, wick-a! An instant later, a string of rising laughter, short bursts of ha! increasing in pitch, issued from the same throat, followed just as quickly by the sharp report of drumming against a tree. Through all this, the bird remained out of sight.
“Another woodpecker,” said Scarlet. “Do you know the song?”
“I’m not sure,” answered Uwetsiageyv who felt like she had heard parts of it before. “But it was magnificent!” She smiled broadly at the scarlet tanager, who agreed with a more measured nod.
They waited in silence and were rewarded as the song was repeated, first by the same singer then by another, some distance off. Still, no one came out to welcome them.
“Well,” said Scarlet, “now that we’re here, let’s go say hello.”
Uwetsiageyv agreeably followed her into the forest.
August 24, 2016
Beneath a Butternut Tree
They hadn’t wandered far beneath the forest canopy when they spotted the hidden vocalist. The northern flicker bore an appearance as complex as its song. Just as its performance seemed composed of many disparate elements, so too did the flicker present an orange forehead with bright red cheeks, a solid black bib, black polka dots on a tan breast, and waving black bars on its back. As if such a wealth of decoration was insufficient, when the bird flew, its extended wings suddenly revealed feathers of bright yellow that had been entirely concealed when folded away.
“Well,” said Scarlet in response, “that’s a little over the top, don’t you think?”
Trailing behind her, Uwetsiageyv fixed the song and the appearance in her memory. Northern flickers were relatively rare in the woods surrounding the orphanage; this explained why she had not been able to place the distinctive song sight unseen. Still, she chided herself for what seemed patently obvious in retrospect.
“It’s a unique song,” she answered, “for a unique bird.”
“I suppose,” said the scarlet tanager, moving along.
Beneath a butternut tree, they stopped beside a widening of a small stream, where they knelt and drank. Periodically, an isolated call of the northern flicker resonated through the forest, but the density of sound fell far short of the percussive cacophony on the Island of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers.
Both girls seated themselves on a grassy bank in the cool shade. Scarlet leaned over so that her reflection looked back at her from the pool. From her vantage point, Uwetsiageyv admired the other’s watery image; her pale skin, blue eyes and curling copper locks gave rise to a portrait of unearthly beauty.
Uwetsiageyv took the opportunity to ask the scarlet tanager something that had been on her mind. “When I first met the dwarf,” she said, having settled on the assumption that the two girls had met the same dwarf, “he claimed that I was a faerie.”
“A faerie?” Scarlet looked over at her. As petite as Uwetsiageyv was, Scarlet nevertheless asked, “Aren’t you a little big for that?”
“A faerie,” Uwetsiageyv continued, “escaped from the Land of Giants.”
“A giant faerie?”
“Did you alert him to his error?”
“Of course, but he didn’t believe me. He insisted that I was a faerie. He was simply adamant about it.”
“Well, it just goes to show some people are happier in the security of their own falsehoods.”
Uwetsiageyv considered Scarlet’s words. It was not the moral she would have drawn from the dwarf’s actions. She had no ready response. Instead she asked, “Did the dwarf call you a faerie?”
Scarlet dropped a pebble from a spot on the bank into the water. Her reflection shifted over the rippling water. “No,’ she replied when the water grew still again. “Not a faerie.”
The scarlet tanager nodded.
Uwetsiageyv glanced over and was surprised to see that Scarlet was blushing.
“At first the dwarf told me that I was tempest. When I insisted that I was no such thing, he admitted that he had only called me that because he was afraid that I would storm off if he had identified me by my true nature, which he claimed was...” She tossed another pebble into the water, disturbing her reflection. “...a poorly disguised hobgoblin.”
August 25, 2016
The northern flicker foraged for insects on the forest floor. There was a slight curve to his peak, not enough to prevent him from hammering on tree trunks, just enough to help him scoop up a beetle.
Uwetsiageyv and Scarlet encountered several birds rummaging through the underbrush, but always one at a time. They seemed, by and large, to prefer a solitary life. Uwetsiageyv, for her part, was happy for the company that the scarlet tanager provided. At night, when they slept with their wings folded around them to fend off the chill, Uwetsiageyv heard the muffled breathing of Scarlet beside her and found some comfort in that steady rhythm. When she had shared a room full of bunk beds with many orphans, such a reaction had never occurred to her. This must be, she thought, what it is like to have a friend.
When she thought Scarlet was asleep, Uwetsiageyv whispered, “I don’t think you’re anything like a hobgoblin.” Not much weight could be placed on this statement, since Uwetsiageyv had no specific idea what a hobgoblin was. Still, the intent of her words was clear.
With her wings wrapped around her, the cocooned form of Scarlet made no response. One can imagine many possible reasons for her silence. Perhaps, she was indeed asleep. Alternatively, she might have suffered from a foible common to many us, namely that of being untrained in how to respond gracefully to an unexpected act of kindness. Or, perhaps, the scarlet tanager was lost too deep in thought to respond, navigating a path through the unfamiliar territory that might lead her to friendship. We must also allow a final, less palatable alternative, that she was unwilling to accept the words of the crow girl because she yet sought to disrupt the prophecy and rightly so, for that ancient script had completely ignored the contributions of the hobgoblin.
August 26, 2016
A Difference of Opinions
On the following day, the two girls scoured the Island of Northern Flickers from morning until night. They began by launching into flight and circling overhead, a short task, given the size of the island, that revealed scant information. There were no distinguishing features and little could be discerned through the canopy of leaves.
They remained together during the subsequent ground-based search. For most of the day, one northern flicker or another accompanied them, each maintaining the same diffident attitude while shifting the detritus of leaves on the forest floor in hopes of revealing a grub.
During this day, Uwetsiageyv recounted her arrival in the Sea of Birds. “I awoke on a beach to the sound of a crow and owl talking.”
Scarlet smiled, “Uwe, I think that was a hallucination brought on by exhaustion and dehydration.”
“Very funny,” Uwetsiageyv replied. She did not need anyone casting doubt on the reality of her experience.
Scarlet seemed genuinely confused. When Uwetsiageyv explained further, the tanager grew increasingly skeptical. “Giant talking birds?”
“Do you mean to tell me,” Uwetsiageyv asked, “that when you arrived in these islands you weren’t greeted by a giant bird?”
The expression on the girl’s pale face conveyed her answer clearly enough.
“How many people have you met—who could talk—since you’ve been on these islands?” she asked.
“Just you and the dwarf,” answered the scarlet tanager.
She soon established that Scarlet’s arrival had been quite different from her own. To be deprived of the company of the crow and owl seemed terribly sad to Uwetsiageyv. She mentally recounted the others with whom she had spoken. Discounting the leviathan who had offered to swallow her, there had been the prince. “Did you ever visit the Island of the Rufous-Sided Towhee?”
“I did,” said Scarlet, though she did not see where Uwetsiageyv was going with this question.
“While you were there, did you not speak to the banished prince?”
“I found only a grave,” said Scarlet, “and an old one at that.”
“You didn’t speak to the boy inside the grave?” asked Uwetsiageyv. Even as she said the words, she knew they sounded nonsensical.
“No,” said Scarlet, slowly shaking her head. She felt it unnecessary to add that the dead did not possess the ability to speak. This was Scarlet’s first intimation that there was more wrong with Uwetsiageyv than an uncommon gentleness.
At this time, Uwetsiageyv also began to realize something about herself, but her thoughts were clouded and the nature of the revelation remained obscure.
August 29, 2016
An Optical Illusion
They had agreed to depart for a new island on the following morning. Well into the night, when all the northern flickers were soundly sleeping in the forest, Uwetsiageyv crept out to the beach to listen to the surf pulling away from the shore as the glittering reflections of starlight danced upon it. From a distance, her form seemed only an amorphous shadow, the curve of her wings hiding the contours of her body.
She recalled tenderly the comforting presence of Kònèy, even if he had been terse with her at times. She smiled as she thought of his sardonic expressions when she professed her love for each species of bird they came upon. She imagined the scarlet tanager arriving in these islands and being forced to discover their miracles, one at a time, without such a companion. It seemed a crime too great to allow, but its time had passed and the damage was done.
Uwetsiageyv next imagined that she was a giant crow, in the mold of Kònèy. She could perform his role for Scarlet. Perhaps some of the damage could yet be repaired. Uwetsiageyv silently began to recount the many ways that she could help Scarlet in the manner that the crow had helped her. A resolve steeled in her heart to become such a crow.
A soft voice called out behind her. “Uwetsiageyv?”
She turned and observed Scarlet approaching. When they stood side by side, their bare feet at the edge of the surf, the tanager said, “It’s late. You should get some sleep. We fly tomorrow.”
Uwetsiageyv nodded but did not stir.
Scarlet, who seemed to have just woken, continued sleepily, “It’s the funniest thing, but when I saw someone standing out here on the beach in the starlight, at first I thought it was a giant crow.”
Chapter 23. Icterus spurius
August 30, 2016
The Follies of Youth
They flew with Uwetsiageyv in the lead and she felt as if she was indeed leading them, though she had no fixed destination. “Another island,” she thought. But, of course, there was not just ‘another island’ for they next came upon the Island of Orchard Orioles, where the native men don a black feathered overcoat atop a vest of deep, burnished russet and the dainty women sported gray dress coats over yellow-green blouses. They too liked to sing in small ensembles, numbering several pairs, a song composed of whistles and interspersed with pauses punctuated by clicks. Uwetsiageyv was familiar with them for they were migratory birds who spent the summer nesting in the land she had known.
“Orchard orioles,” said Uwetsiageyv to the scarlet tanager.
The two girls were hiking up the incline of the island, moving through the deep woods. Knowing that these birds favored roosts along riverine trees, she shifted their path to follow the stream, until they arrived at a spot where it slowed and widened in a pool.
The Island of Orchard Orioles was only the third island at which the two bird girls had arrived together, but already the scarlet tanager objected to the repetitive routine, saying, “Is this all there is to life?” She stubbornly stood at the edge of the water and refused to kneel beside Uwetsiageyv and slake her thirst.
Uwetsiageyv wondered if this was a trick question. Certainly, the tone of dissatisfaction in the voice of the tanager was unmistakable. Still, there seemed little reason to criticize perfection, for that is what she saw as the orioles paired up, a larger reddish-chestnut groom beside the lemon-yellow bride. Instead, she stood and stretched her arms above her head and wings upon her back. She examined Scarlet in her crimson snake-skin dress and her jet-black wings, her pale skin and copper hair and lastly her pale blue eyes. She seemed a picture of beauty framed in an island paradise. Uwetsiageyv could find nothing wrong with her. “It must be,” she thought to herself, “the hobgoblin inside her.” She decided at the moment to work to exorcise the hobgoblin from the tanager.
Attentive readers will note that this resolution ran counter to everything we have thus far learned about Uwetsiageyv, for she never considered herself an agent of change, especially with regard to the character of others. On the contrary, she accepted each individual precisely according to their nature. This aberration in her behavior must therefore be attributed to that category of actions, which generally falls under the label, ‘the follies of youth’.
August 31, 2016
The Clear Lake
In the center of the Island of Orchard Orioles, the two girls came upon a high, forested plateau, in the center of which was a small lake where rain that fell on the plateau collected. While the water in the lake was clear, its margins were populated by a variety of trees and reeds and were thus muddied by the activity of plant, insect and amphibian life.
From this marshy border, the girls viewed the lake. It presented to them an idyllic spot, perfect for swimming. However, it is a special trick for winged creatures to swim and many, like the pelican, limit themselves to diving and other brief forays into the water. Even without wings, Uwetsiageyv had never swum. The orphanage, of course, offered no such amenities as a swimming pool. Still, she stared with a hint of longing at the inviting waters.
Beside her the scarlet tanager watched a female orchard oriole poking her head into a flower at the edge of the lake as she gathered nectar. Her mate perched on a reed beside her and, after a brief song of greeting, turned his attention to an adjacent flower. He too stuck his head into the midst of the petal. He emerged with a fine dusting of yellow pollen on his black forehead. Scarlet considered that presumably the female was also coated in pollen but her cap was feathered in yellow and the pollen was not visible. Scarlet’s bird watching was interrupted when Uwetsiageyv spoke.
“Scarlet, do you think the prophecy meant for us to come to this lake?”
“What a thing to say!” replied the tanager in a tone of both reproof and mirth. “I,” she announced grandly as she placed her hand over her heart, “am master of my own destiny. I bow to no prophecy.”
“Yeah,” Uwetsiageyv meekly agreed. “Me too.”
“Ha!” said the tanager. “You can’t just say it. You have to mean it.”
“I want to mean it,” Uwetsiageyv said, though uncertainty remained in her voice.
“But...” Uwetsiageyv paused. How could she explain without upsetting Scarlet her conviction that it was illusory to believe one had control over one’s life? How could she communicate her belief in the magnificent enormity of the world and her own minor role within it, except by admitting that she felt surrounded by a current too powerful to resist and that willingly conceding some measure of her destiny to that power brought her a modicum of comfort?
Apparently she needed to say nothing or words escaped her lips without her being aware of them for the scarlet tanager replied, “I know how you feel. When I get that feeling, I remind myself that the world is a great, unthinking brute with no means nor cause to tend to us.” She smiled grimly at Uwetsiageyv. “That always puts me back on the right track.”
This work is made available to the public, free of charge and on an anonymous basis. However, copyright remains with the author. Reproduction and distribution without the publisher's consent is prohibited. Links to the work should be made to the main page of the novel.